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LEAST & MOST FAVORITE of the week...

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Last week I saw five movies, four in the "close, but no cigar" category, one that was much better.  You wouldn't expect Cecil B. DeMille to have a serious discussion of religion versus atheism in The Godless Girl.  And you don't.  But Lina Basquette has genuine charm as the title character, and the movie does become a tolerable prison movie.  One major flaw is why she is attracted to the male protagonist, since instead of having a civil conversation about religion, he caused a riot that put both of them in prison.  Veep was the most disappointing movie of the week.  Although Christian Bale and Amy Adams are very good as the unlovely Cheneys, the movie is too diffuse.  Instead of focusing on one target, it focuses on about ten or so thing Cheney was involved with in his four decades of public life, and doesn't really have any bite on any of them.

Devil in a Blue Dress is a competent mystery, and a case could be made that Denzel Washington is more interesting in movies with black directors.  Having said that, the mystery itself is not especially clever, and the murderer is less interesting than other cinematic criminals of 1995 as Robert DeNiro (Heat). Joe Pesci (Casino). or Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Se7en).  It also doesn't help that the most thoughtful relationship in the movie, Washington's with Don Cheadle's character, isn't the core of the movie, and we have to wait some time to see it.  The Hate U Give is better than Eighth Grade in the 2018 movies about adolescent girls.  But not a lot better.  There is a little too much ostensible balance, such as the white classmate who deserves the heroine's friendship, and the white classmate who doesn't.  Trying to balance condemnation of police violence with condemnation of criminal violence doesn't always work.  (Why is the drug lord trying to shut the heroine up?  All she knows is hearsay, which the police should know anyway, since her uncle's a cop.)  One climax too many and an over-reliance on rap lyrics also undercuts a strong cast, with Amandla Stenberg as the teenage hero, and Regina Hall as her mother.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if L'Avventura were an actual mystery, and that at the halfway point instead of realizing that Michelangelo Antonioni had no interest in solving the mystery that attracted viewers into the theaters, the mystery actually began?  That is basically the idea behind Burning, a Korean movie that about an underemployed, unenthusiastic, insufficiently ambitious young man who would like to be a writer.  The movie opens with him encountering an old acquaintance who is now a much more attractive acquaintance.  She basically invites him on a date, and drags him back to her tiny apartment where they have sex.  After eagerly waiting for her to return from an African vacation, he finds at the airport that a minor emergency forced her into the company of the only other Korean at the Nairobi airport, a distinctly wealthier and more handsome man played by Steven Yeun.  And so our hero finds himself in an awkward situation, until the movie takes a turn it would be criminal to reveal.  Let's just say that the intelligent, thoughtful well acted movie is one of the best of 2018 I've seen so far, and I would be very surprised if any of the Best Picture nominees matched it.

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Last week I saw an unusually large seven movies.  Querelle, Fassbinder's last film, is complex, opaque and has little of the valedictory about it, since Fassbinder didn't know he was going to die of a drug overdose after making it.  It is structured in such a way that suggests that Fassbinder didn't have a surplus of faith in his lead, Brad Davis.  I can't say I paid it my full attention.  But I can say it would definitely bear rewatching more than Bohemian Rhapsody.  Patently superficial, it's the sort of movie that suggests that the surviving members of Queen were kinder, more creative, more forgiving and more sober than you or history would think, without actually doing a lot to keep them distinguished in the viewer's mind.  Muddling Freddy Mercury's sexuality in the interest of audience appeasement, it also muddles the facts to make the Live Aid appearance more climactic than it actually was. 

Here are two movies that are better than they have any right to be.  Salon Mexico is basically Stella Dallas with a sister instead of a child the beneficiary of attention, plus more prostitution.  It is well shot, with fairly good performances.  (It's notable that when the cop with a crush on the heroine challenges her pimp, the results are less than fully successful).  It's even odder that Carnival of Souls is as successful as it is, since it has perhaps the least surprising "surprise ending" in the history of movies.  Yet while in other movies, the underwhelming performances would be a problem, there is something in the surrounding lovelessness and coldness that makes it fit.  While some shots are unsuccessful, others are well done and show genuine menace.  It suggests that the most horrible part of suicide is what precedes it.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter had Alan Arkin getting an oscar nomination playing a deaf person "hearing" other people's problems.  Actually it is about a New York Jew listening to people's problems in 1960s Georgia.  It's not a bad trick, but there were more deserving performances in 1968.  Sondra Locke is pleasant and engaging, if not much more.  Fantastic Voyage is such a brilliant idea and the problems its crew faces are so reasonably and competently presented, and shot and designed so well, that one can ignore its flaws.  Among them, Edmond O'Brien, Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasance give bland variations of performances they've done dozens of time (Pleasance comes off best.)  The protagonist is strikingly uninteresting, and one is startled by how little Raquel Welch does to stand out.  Also, since minaturization clearly involves a reduction of mass, since the voyagers are easily carried to and from the patient, there's no way they can suddenly regain their mass in a hour.  I suppose you shouldn't worry about it too much.

Watching Vox Lux, and seeing Natalie Portman play a rock star who moves from America's Sweetheart to a monster of vanity and selfishness, I thought surely I've seen this before.  And then I remembered.  I saw the exact same movie five days earlier with Bohemian Rhapsody, complete with triumphant concert.  But this time the movie, while hardly successful, was considerably more tough minded

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Last week I saw four movies.  Milford Graves Full Mantis is a documentary about a jazz drummer.  It contains a lot of music, which is neat to listen to.  It also includes of him talking about things, some of which is less interesting if you didn't really know who he was before you saw the movie.  Widows, or "the heist movie that takes the fun out of heist movies" is professionally directed and shot.  Personally I found Michelle Rodriguez more interesting that Elizabeth Debicki, who got all the oscar buzz.  Unfortunately, as critic Glenn Kenny pointed out, "there are plot holes and there are plot canyons."  Here are several fatal ones, so SPOILERS, though I'll try to reveal as little as possible.  (1) The first point isn't so much a spoiler as the basic premise of the movie.  Viola Davis is informed one day that her husband and three other men were killed in a criminal scheme gone wrong.  She is told by the person robbed, who wasn't able to retrieve the money from the bodies, that she must repay $2 million, or else.  Finding a notebook of her husband's that gives details about another job that would pay the amount and leave a nice surplus, she tracks down the three other widows, gets two of them to agree and eventually meets a fourth to round out the quartet.  Here's the problem.  Davis doesn't know these people at all, and female empowerment notwithstanding, has no reason to think they would be remotely qualified for the task she is ordering them to do.  Nor indeed are they very promising.  (2) Eventually the heist does take place, and Davis is assisted by a fortuitous reappearance who conveniently serves as a fall gender neutral noun.  The problem is that this person, far from distracting people away from Davis, is precisely the person who would attract unwelcome attention to her.  (3) Moreover, two other characters die suddenly about fifteen minutes apart.  There are both prominent people and for some reason people take their deaths as a complete coincidence, which even granting that they didn't just watch the movie, makes no sense.  (4) Also, the events I've alluded in 2 and 3, far from solving Davis' basic problem, would make it much, much worse.

The Favourite is a more satisfactory movie.  I didn't like Lanthimos' three previous movies.  This one benefits from superb cinematography, art direction, costume design and classical music scoring  It probably also helps that Lanthimos didn't write the amusing script.  It also helps that the three women give good performances, though I would not only consider Olivia Colman a supporting role, but would consider her character too stupid and pathetic to be a really first rate great acting turn.  Emma Stone is much better, and Rachel Weisz is better still.  The one problem with this otherwise admirable movie is the ending.  It's not giving too much away that since the premise of the movie is about Stone challenging Weisz's position at court, it wouldn't be much of a movie if she didn't eventually succeed.  But whereas Weisz showed herself supremely efficient and competent, conceivably acting for the greater good and even possibly genuinely caring for Queen Anne, Stone is now just selfish, deceitful and self-indulgent with a growing sadistic streak.  This isn't meant to be a result of the shabby treatment she experienced for most of the film.  We're just supposed to believe she's contemptible.  It's not hard to disagree with Glenn Kenny again when he calls this a "misanthropic con."

If Beale Street Could Talk is better still.  Just as beautiful as Moonlight, it is aided by being more nuanced.  Although the suggestion that the protagonist might be conceivably be guilty is not one of those nuances, since it's done more to suggest we're not doubting rape victims rather than cohering with what we see as his character.  Granted you never can tell with rapists...but really he's clearly not guilty.  More convincing is the conduct of the protagonists' parents, who are perfectly willing to cut moral corners for the good of their children,  A confrontation between the families affected, along with the protagonist's rage when the heroine is accosted by a white creep, is also notable.  The movie doesn't really present a coherent picture of economic devastation, segregation and discrimination and a malicious justice system.  (One might object that would be too didactic.  I would reply, first All the President's Men showed that you can portray complex malignancies with cinematic skill.  Second, many Americans are slow learners, many willfully so.)  But overall this is a film that shows considerable craft and artistry, which we see when the protagonists first have sex, or when the heroine works at a perfume counter, or in too many beautifully shot and scored scenes to count.  Regina King may get an oscar as the unjustly imprisoned man's mother, but Kiki Layne is more important, playing an underwhelming character overwhelmed by events.

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Last week I saw four movies.  Green Book has no shortages of problems, starting with Viggo Mortenson playing a simple minded Italian-American stereotype half his age.  The whole premise is regressive in many ways.  There's the basic idea that friendship can heal racial animus, when white Americans since 1965 have been opposing the housing, school and job desegregation that would make interracial friendship likely in the first place.  There's the idea that the best way to achieve equality and basic dignity is to be patently superior to everyone else.  There's the idea that Mortenson's bigotry and Mahershala Ali's stand-offish quality are problems equally deserving of criticism.  It's largely because of Ali's performance that the movie isn't more insufferable than it is.

The Divine Lady is the silent version of the Lady Hamilton/Admiral Nelson romance.  Frank Lloyd got an oscar for directing (there are some nice shots of naval battles for 1929) but as I was watching it, I kept forgetting the name of the actress who got nominated for playing Lady Hamilton.  Night Train to Munich is an early Carol Reed movie.  It shows some of the skills Reed would show later, but the somewhat implausible plot (it involves Rex Harrison basically bluffing his way into the Gestapo) shows that he has a lot to learn.  Certainly future endings would be less optimistic and more successful.

So Shoplifters is the movie of the week.  For a start this movie about a family living in the marginal world between precarious work and shoplifting certainly shows how false The Florida Project was.  Gradually we learn more about the relationships which become deeper as it becomes apparent that there are not what they seem.  The movie takes a subtle anecdotal approach which slowly develops the plot.  One problem is that the ending could perhaps be more succinct, as the basic point is somewhat diffused.

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I saw three movies this week.  South Pacific is one of the most admired of American musicals.  The Hollywood version, not so much.  I wonder how much of the problem comes from the choices Hollywood made, such as stars who pale compared to the original version, so that it's we're seeing an off Broadway version.  Or the way director Joshua Logan uses strange filters which hampers the whole point of taking a musical off the stage and putting it on film.  One wonders how much the problem might be with the original musical, with the stars in the movie taking half an hour to show up.  The plot might be a bigger problem with the heroine quickly getting over the fact the hero killed someone back in France, but goes into a major crisis when she learns the he married a Polynesian woman.  That the miscegenation involved is white male/Polynesian female and not the other way around loses points for courage, as well as the pidgin English the Polynesians use.

The High and the Mighty is basically a more tasteful version of Airport.  As such it is a fairly competent film that works reasonably well.  One thing is that while I noticed Jan Sterling as a faded beauty queen, I paid little attention to the other oscar nominated role, Claire Trevor as an actress past her prime.  Did you Wonder who Fired the Gun? gets its title from a Phil Ochs song.  It's an interesting documentary about an Alabama born documentarian who discusses how his great grandfather murdered a black man in his store.   The operative word is "murdered," according to one of the man's granddaughters (another one, an active secessionist, claims it was justifiable).  We see the great grandfather, who seems to be a real creep, in a couple of home movies, photographs and his grave.  We later learn his victim is buried in an unmarked grave while his family seems to have vanished into thin air.

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Last week I saw four movies, two from last year, two from decades earlier.  The latest A Star is Born starts off with Lady Gaga being surprisingly engaging and charming.  Unfortunately the movie concentrates on Bradley Cooper, who basically spends the entire movie reminding us that he's neither George Cukor nor James Mason.  Indeed, since he spends much of the movie in a drunken stupor it's not even clear why Lady Gaga falls in love with him.  You might ask why should see this movie instead of simply rewatching the 1954 version.  Cold War is another love story whose characters are mostly miserable.  Supposedly this is the result of communism, but this strikes me as a bit facile.  For a start, it's not clear why the man even loves the native folk singer, rather than just looking for a quick fling.  (Nor is it clear why she reciprocates.) There are several other twists in the relationship which are more depressing than logical.  Nor is it clear why they treat other people so shabbily, and why those people let them.  This is a movie that put more thought into the cinematography than the central relationship.  The dancing isn't bad.

King's Row has a rather oppressive and ostentatious Korngold score, and a nice performance for Claude Rains in a sanitized supporting role.  The other cast members are less impressive.  Charles Coburn is not really convincing as a sadistic moralist, and Ronald Reagan is least impressive of all.  He's rather bland, especially his voice which doesn't have the charismatic resonance it had when he was a politician.  There are other underwhelming aspects, such as the last minute romance for Robert Cummings, who supposedly plays the lead.  The Great White Hope at least is better than Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on interracial marriage.  Given the Hays code, it would have been hard to make it earlier, and Jones and Alexander are reasonably competent.  But in retrospect, it's not much more than that.

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The week before was disappointing: but last week the six movies I saw were more pleasing.  First name: Carmen is Godard's version of the Carmen story.  It is an interesting version.  It starts with one of the most desultory bank robberies in film history.  The central relationship is interestingly bitter.  And, somewhat perversely, the music is not by Bizet, but from Beethoven and Tom Waits.  King of Jazz is certainly the first good live action colour film, with many striking sets and ideas.  One weakness is that it's hardly jazz at its most innovative, with the exception of "Rhapsody in Blue" and a version of "Happy Feet."  The movie even has a tribute to the American melting pot where African Americans are noticeable by their absence.

I also saw two late Satyajit Ray films.  The Stranger was Ray's last film, about a prosperous family who learns that a long lost uncle has announced a visit.  Indeed, so long lost is he that they're not sure whether he actually is their uncle.  Much of the movie consists of conversations between the family, the uncle and neighbors subtly probing who the stranger really is.  As the title character, Utpal Dutt gives a good, subtle performance.  The Home and the World can be compared to Charulata.  Both are based on Tagore works, both deal with a young wife living in colonial India living with a relatively liberal husband who encounters a friend of his.  And in both movies that friend is played by Soumitra Chatterjee.  The Home and the World is not as good as Charulata, partly because the novel it's based on is not particularly good.  But it is still a worthy, intelligent movie with Swatilekha Sengupta good playing the wife, and Victor Banerjee as the thoughtful liberal husband.

The contrast between David Cronenberg's Rabid and the next movie of his I saw chronologically Videodrome is striking in terms of the quality of performances, professionalism, cinematography, central conceit and larger significance.  And there are some gaping holes in the movie (two characters' car trip takes considerably longer coming back than arriving, and Marilyn Chambers' final actions are inexplicable).  Yet there is something genuinely creepy about the way Chambers grows a vagina near her armpit, from which a phallic something attacks her victims.  And the movie becomes more tolerable as the plague spreads and the rather cursory presentation of the characters becomes less important.  Finally Claire's Camera asks what would happen if you had Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-Hee in a movie together.  Personally, I prefer the director's previous movie On the Beach Alone at Night.

 

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Last week I saw six movies.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is an early Miyazaki film.  As such it shows considerable beauty and ingenuity is what is basically an ecological Mad Max movie, only this time the heroine spends much of her time arguing with the other characters to calm down and not bash each others' brains in.  And while that is a valuable and underappreciated message, the movie strikes me as sort of a rough draft for Princess Mononoke.  Unlike future films less care has been given into developing the characters, while in Princess the complex ecological battles were even more beautiful and better developed.  Irreversible vaguely resembles Memento in its structure, in a series of scenes that go backwards in time, the centerpiece being the brutal rape and beating of Monica Bellucci.  The movie isn't a puzzle like Memento, it's more an exercise in portraying violence.  And one might wonder if it's truly necessary.

I also saw two movies from 2018.  Everybody Knows was, alas, one of the most disappointing from last year.  Like several other Asghar Farhadi movies this one deal with the aftermath of an alarming act.  Whereas in previous movies, it was a disappearance (About Elly), a violently induced miscarriage (A Separation) or an attempted assault (The Salesman), Everybody Knows deals with a kidnapping.  Unfortunately the secret that is eventually revealed, a secret I suspect Iranian censors probably didn't want him to show because of its sexual nature, is extremely easy to guess if you know anything about Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem.  Moreover, Cruz, who is very lively and effective when the movie begins, is so sad and distraught when her daughter is kidnapped that her performance suffers.  The Image Book is the third of Godard's hermetic meditations on film this decade.  This is a collection of film clips, spliced with Godard's gnomic, recondite and hermetic narration.  Much of it deals with the Arab world, as contemporary crisis and subject of cinema.  The clips are often shown in distorted or oversaturated form.  One of the more simple allusions, for example, is a clip from Young Mr. Lincoln where Henry Fonda finds a law book for the first time and settles down to read it.  Then there are clips from Freaks and Salo.  I liked it.  Parts of it are very beautiful, it is uncompromising in its integrity and it is motivated by genuine and lifelong feeling for film.

Hawaii is an odd film.  One imagines the studio wanted a tempestuous, passionate epic and then after looking more closely at the subject, found that the discovery of Hawaii was followed by the death of most of the original inhabitants and the exploitation and marginalization of the remainder.  And yet the studio persisted.  The arc of the movie has Max von Sydow moving from his evangelical prejudices as a missionary to someone who genuinely tries to help the Hawaiians from their enemies.  Unfortunately for most of the movie von Sydow is the most insufferable and bigoted missionary imaginable, and most viewers could be pardoned in thinking that the main problem Hawaiians faced was from this dogmatic killjoy.  The transformation is too poorly developed and with too little time left for it to remotely work.  Julie Andrews has too little to do as Von Sydow's wife.  And when the Hawaiians themselves speak they spend much of their efforts defending sibling incest.  High School is an early Frederick Wiseman documentary rom 1968 about a very unimaginative Pennsylvania high school whose reactions from the teachers help to explain why Nixon won the presidential election that year.  Later documentaries would be much longer, and much richer.

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Last week I saw four interesting if flawed movies.  Birds of Passage starts off with an ethnographic focus on a community of Columbian Indians in the late sixties as one disadvantaged clan member wants to marry an attractive young woman of a richer one.  So he gets involved in the marijuana business.  The movie then proceeds to being an interestingly shot crime movie with many of the same beats as other crime movies.  It's just that everybody's very taciturn, except for a couple of two stupid loudmouths who bring trouble down on everyone.  On the one  hand, you might think this is an interesting focus on a people in changing circumstances.  On the other hand the point is really obvious (there's no shortage of things that can damage peasant communities--so having them damaged by violent organized crime is hardly surprising) and the effect is like watching Sopranos episodes where they decided not to pay the scriptwriters.  A Slight Case of Murder is a slight, amusing comedy where Edward G. Robinson plays with his reputation.  He plays a bootlegger who goes legit when Prohibition ends, has serious financial problems and then stumbles into the aforementioned slight case of murder.  Perhaps the best joke is when he actually tastes his beer for the first time--he didn't realize people only drank it under Prohibition because they had no choice.

Then there were two science fiction movies.  Lifeforce, known at the time as the Naked Space Vampire Movie, suggests that Tobe Hooper should have kept Steven Spielberg as a producer.  Let's see, there are loud, garish and ultimately ineffective special effects.  There are some striking plot holes in the first thirty minutes, along with gratuitous nudity.  The Lovecraftian vibe is not really achieved, the central relationship has no real emotional weight and Patrick Stewart is wasted as a possessed doctor.  The movie does improve after the first half hour and you get to see Peter Firth play a coldly competent SAS man who, unfortunately for his country, is the only official with basic common sense.  The Endless is an interesting science fiction movie where a man finds that the suicidal UFO death cult that his brother rescued him from a decade ago, are in fact still alive and still around.  So his brother, feeling guilty about not being entirely honest with him, decides to take him back there for a visit.  There wouldn't be much of a movie if the cult were as benign as they appear in the first half hour.  The twist that comes in interesting, works well with a low budget, though probably should have been raising alarm bells among otherwise sensible people earlier.  

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Last week I saw six movies.  The Passionate Friends is sort of a reshuffling of the basic template of Brief Encounter.  Trevor Howard is still Trevor Howard, Ann Todd offers something livelier than Celia Johnson's picture of repressed passion, and Claude Rains offers something more energetic than Cyril Raymond.  The result is...not quite as good.  It turns out that the very concept of Brief Encounter was key to its success.  So deviating from it is a problem, and Todd isn't good enough to fix it.  Rains is quite impressive though.  The Murderer Lives at Number 21 is actually one of the best movies of 1942.  Now if only I could find three more for 1943.  It has a cold, cruel sense of humour, Pierre Fresnay is good as the smooth, clever detective, and Suzy Delair is fun as his high strung girlfriend.  And while the solution isn't perfect, it is ingenious in its own way.

Spiderman:  into the Spidey-Verse is another competent Marvel film, fill of thrills, good jokes, amusing dialogue ("Do animals talk in this dimension?  I don't want to alarm him.") It is also full of telegraphed scenes of people becoming more mature and learning valuable lessons.  Also, there's valuing Gwen Stacy over MJ Watson and, well, nice try.  The Chess Players is the movie of the week, the best of the second half of Satyajit Ray's career.  It is a subtle, thoughtful, intelligent parable. of two Indians aristocrats who play endless games of chess while the British plan to annex their country.  Richard Attenborough plays the lead Englishman, Saeed Jeffrey is good as the aristocrat whose wife is cuckolding him.  And V.S. Naipaul even liked the dialogue, high praise indeed!

No one worked harder to produce imitations of good movies than Bryan Forbes.  I suppose it says something that the movie most people can remember of his is The Stepford Wives.  As such, Forbes deals with issues about extreme circumstances, in this case profiteering and compromise in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. But "deals" is the right verb.  Actually saying something thoughtful and intelligent is another manner.  Segal is roguish, but ultimately not interesting.  And the question of whether he is genuinely friendly to James Fox is really not the most important question you could ask about the situation.  The most dubious thing he does is cook up a dog, which is ultimately an evasion.  Tom Courtenay is allowed to be very priggish, and one sympathizes with him.  Hale County this Morning, this Evening is a documentary.  Well, it resembles a documentary.  This picture about African-American Alabamans doesn't explain a consistent thesis or narrative.  Instead there are short scenes of them at school, at church, there's mention of a catfish plant.  Political issues, not to mention the white people in the area are dealt with very subtly indeed.  We see one woman pregnant, then given birth to a boy and a girl, then the two babies in something like car seats while their family watches television.  Then we learn the boy died of sudden infant death syndrome and we see his funeral. 

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Over the last two weeks, I've seen six movies:  five last week, one the week before.  Ash is Purest White may not have the punch of Jia Zhangke's previous movie A Touch of Sin.  But Zhao Tao does give what is so far the best Actress of 2018 in a thoughtful and intelligent movie about a gangster moll who goes to prison for protecting her man, while in the background of a rapidly changing China.  Also, it's the one place where you can see a woman ecstatically dancing to "YMCA."  Madeline's Madeline also introduces us to new star Helena Howard who provides a rich, charismatic performance playing a young woman dealing with an unhappy mother while working her personal issues by participating in an acting ensemble.  It's not the easiest or most straightforward film, but it is arguably worth your while.

I also saw two films starring William Powell.  Jewel Robbery is the more amusing one, where he plays a delightfully charming jewel thief.  Kay Francis' virtues are less apparent here, or in the other movie One Way Passage, whose sentimental story may have attracted me more if I paid more attention to it.  Maitresse is a story of a boy (who's a thief) and his girl (who works as a dominatrix).  I suspect the idea of graphic S/M may have been more interesting than the actual relationship.  Having recently learned that Indian director Mrinal Sen had died last year, I checked out youtube to see one of his movies.  Chorus, which involves protests, a company concerned about applications and corrupt bureaucracy, takes some interesting formal aspects to its Marxist storyline.  Unfortunately this picture of seventies India is only incompletely and indifferently subtitled, making full appreciation difficult. 

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I saw three movies last week.  Hot Millions got an oscar nomination for screenwriting.  I'm not sure why, since it's rather sluggish and doesn't make the best use of its costars.  Many films have tried to convince viewers with pure Hollywood corn like A Guy Name Joe.  Few have been as successful, with Tracy being more successful than in many of his oscar nominated roles and with Dunne genuinely touching as well.  Leave no Trace is a competent, intelligent film about a former veteran who deals with his demons living in the wood, along with his teenage daughter.  The movie is basically about her realizing they can't keep living like this.  I suppose I'm wondering why I didn't find this more successful.

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Last week I saw five movies.  The Silver Chalice is best known for being Paul Newman's debut movie.  Although one might think the spartan settings just might be an interesting stylistic choice by the director, there's no denying the general blandness of the acting and the story.  No wonder Paul Newman hated his role, as a metal smith asked to touch up the grail at the Last Supper.  (One might wonder why the apostles care.)  King of Kings is a more ambitious version of the Jesus story, with some interesting cinematography and a nice score.  But the Herods are more interesting than the Jews and Jeffrey Hunter is very bland as Jesus. 

Niagara is an interesting colour noir, with Marilyn Monroe both unashamedly sexual and malicious.  It is striking that the ultimate villain turns out to be just really vindictive, and not demonically nasty, nor hyper-competent.  That's a nice touch from future variations of the genre.  Above Suspicion is yet another of my searches for a great 1943 movie.  Aside from not explaining very well why Americans are helping the English spy in 1939 Germany the treasure hunt nature of the plot is excessively complicated for real spies, and would probably confuse viewers if they ever missed a step.  Having said that Fred MacMurray and Joan Crawford make an interesting couple.  Not as good a couple as Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne in last week's 1943 A Guy Named Joe, but interesting nevertheless.

So November is the movie of the week.  Beautifully shot in black and white this Estonian film offers a striking tale of magic, desire and possession.  Starting off with a rake monster/robot that turns out to be possessed, we see ghosts walk the earth for All Souls Day, a possessed swine, a bleeding bible, a sleepwalking young baroness, a talking snowman, and two striking cases of l'amour fou.  It certainly knocks Cold War off its pedestal.

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I saw five movies last week.  Cousin Cousine got an oscar nomination for best actress in 1976 in a year so weak that the Academy nominated two foreign language actresses.  This movie suggests they should have looked harder.  This superficial, sentimental and ultimately dishonest movie about family adultery includes a womanizing husband so loathsome one wonders why any woman would sleep with him.  Marie-Christine Barrault got the nomination, but Marie-France Pisier is more interesting as the woman whose husband she steals.  Passing Fancy was probably the best movie of the week, involving poorish people encountering a woman who needs a home, and the romantic complications that ensue.  It also involves a charming father-son relationship that predate the more famous I was born but...  Only the son's enthusiasm for school suggests the traumas that Japan would soon undergo. 

There were also two movies from 1943.  Raoul Walsh and Errol Flynn made several great movies together.  I suppose it's part of the curse of 1943 that Northern Pursuit is less successful.  Other of their movies gleefully sacrificed historical accuracy.  But it's a bit disconcerting that the movie is quite as ignorant of Canadian geography as it is.  Not to give too much away, but it's sort as if the Nazis had a brilliant plan to bomb London, but first had to go to Istanbul to put it into effect.  The best part of the movie is that the Nazi officer immediately guesses that Flynn is trying to sabotage his plans.  Happy Land boasts an acceptable performance by Don Ameche, but it's otherwise bland propaganda, assuming that most Americans were wealthier than they probably were in 1943.

I am not a Witch is an interesting British/Zambian production.  Based on the real phenomenon in much of sub Saharan Africa of people being accused, with deadly serious consequences of witchcraft, it deals with a young girl who is accused of it.  Starting with an early scene that reminds one of Monty Python and the Holy Grail ("she turned me into a newt...I got better") the movie turns into satire as a local official puts her to work for his own selfish ends.  In its po-faced wit, it kind of resembles Kaurismaki.  Perhaps with a little work the director will be as good as him.

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Last week I saw four movies.  Princess from the Moon is another film version of a classic Japanese folk tale,  I must confess from the start that the same director's The Burmese Harp is one Japanese movie classic that leaves me uninterested.  Although it has many of the same elements of the story which was recently remade much more successfully by Isao Takahata, this version is not very dynamic or charming.  Someone had the idea that the conclusion resemble Close Encounters of the Third Kind as much as possible.  Madame Hyde was more successful.  It stars Isabelle Huppert as a beset science teacher suffering from mocking students in the French equivalent of an inner city school.  One day she suffers from an electrical shock.  Soon she starts showing increased confidence, is managed to inspire a few of her students, and when she goes sleepwalking at night, she can incinerate people.  The apparently ageless Huppert is quite good, and one should note Romain Duris as the smarmy principal.

High Life is Claire Denis' first  English language film.  I must confess Denis is a little "off" for me, so I don't quite warm to her films as much as I could.  But this is still an intelligent science fiction film in which Robert Pattison and his baby daughter find themselves as the only spaceman in a spaceship traveling to a black hole.  It is certainly worth the effort it might put on one's patience.  Bluebeard's Eighth Wife is usually considered minor Lubitsch.  But that's better than most other directors, and there's plenty to enjoy here where Gary Cooper plays an American millionaire who encounters a French woman played by Claudette Colbert while pajama shopping (not the least which are Cooper and Colbert themselves.)

I also rewatched Trafic and The Cloud-Capped Star.  Both improved in the reviewing.

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Last week I saw three movies.  Unstoppable was the least of these.  It shows the typical Hollywood screenwriting kitsch:  Washington and Pine both have family problems, which both have particular strength on this worst of all days for it to happen.  (Washington is a widower with two daughters.  His minor estrangement is mildly complicated by the fact that he barely remembers it's one of their birthdays.  Pine has a more serious restraining order situation with his wife.)  As the movie goes on, there is a certain competence about the runaway train situation, and one may think why one didn't hear more about this, since it's supposedly based on a true story.  Well it's an exaggerated story, as one may guess from the final heroic action Pine performs, which one thinks could have performed much earlier to much less dramatic effect any time in the previous hour and a half.

Three Faces continues Jafar Panahi's series of how to make engaging movies while under house arrest.  In this case, the movie deals with an actress concerned about a young girl from the Iranian sticks who would like to be an actress but faces opposition from her family.  Since this is Iran and not 1934 Nebraska the ingenue faces considerably worse pressure and appear to kill herself.  The actress drags Panahi along with her to try to find out what happened.  It's certainly a worthwhile film.  For once Journey into Fear answers my long standing question "Were there any good movies made in 1943?" with an emphatic yes.  Although not directed by Orson Welles, it shows enough influences from him in the screenwriting, acting and production with its tale of intrigue and the protagonist beset by strange and enigmatic characters that it's a bit like a rough draft for The Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil.  My major problem with it is that it is too short.

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On 5/11/2019 at 11:43 PM, skimpole said:

High Life is Claire Denis' first  English language film.  I must confess Denis is a little "off" for me, so I don't quite warm to her films as much as I could. 

Try Chocolat (1988) if you haven't already. I love movies with colonial settings and this is a good one. One of my fave films ever, actually. I've tried a couple other of her films that came later and have been disappointed.

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I watched six movies over the last two weeks:  four last week, two the week before.  The Nanny is an interesting Hammer Horror film, from the period when studios apparently could think of nothing to do with Bette Davis than have her appear as a sociopath.  Actually the movie is fairly competent, especially the beginning.  Until we learn what happens, it's very effective that Davis appears as the voice of sweet reason for the first half hour while her family appears as hysterical and rude.  Santa Claus Conquers the Martians appeared in the Medved's 50 worst movies of all time, along with Last Year in Marienbad and Zabriskie Point.  It is certainly aggressively ugly in its cheapness and one wonders how a studio could expect theaters to show it.  But there was a genuine forced audience for children's matinees in small towns all over the continent for the next couple of decades at least.

Shadow is another martial arts film from Zhang Yimou, dealing with dynastic intrigue some time in the first millennium.  As such, it has an impressively grey palate as the characters proceed.  But it's not as impressive as some of his earlier films, neither in ingenuity or stylistic flair, and a rather bloody conclusion does not help matters.  Slap Shot originally appeared with little critical enthusiasm, but became a cult film as hockey became much more popular in the eighties.  This strikes me as one film where critics were right the first time.  Paul Newman certainly has charisma, but the movie does have it both ways with hockey violence. And after the smoothness of the previous Hill/Newman collaborations, there's something just a bit false about the acquired seediness of the film.

Monrovia, Indiana is another documentary from Frederick Wiseman.  If it does not have the pleasure of this previous three documentaries, all about places filmgoers are likely to be more sympathetic to, there's must in this portrait of a small and not very prosperous town to pay attention to.  The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is notorious as the film that Terry Gilliam spent three decades trying to make.  Was it worth it?  While one suspects that John Hurt might have made a better Quixote than Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver is very good as the cynical director who finds actors from an old student film he made about Quixote and as he finds himself stuck with Pryce's insane character, gradually recovers a spark of his idealism and creativity 

 

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I saw three movies last week.  Long Day's Journey into Night, which has nothing to do with the O'Neill play, is the best movie I've seen so far from 2018.  It's an incredibly romantic and beautiful film.  One imagines the plot of a Wong Kar-wai film in the world of Jia Zhangke or Wang Bing, as the protagonist searches for a lost love he barely knows or has met, in the ruins of industrial China.  It climaxes with a remarkable 50 minute or so tracking shot, shot in 3-D,(though I only saw it in 2).  A Bridge too Far, or "The Longest Day, but in color, and this time the Germans win!" was considered one of the most disappointing movies of 1977.  It's not as bad as its low reputation suggest, but it clearly would have been better if it just concentrated on the story of Sean Connery's character, and resisted the temptation to stuff the movie with other star actors.  The Old Man & the Gun may not be the best way to end a movie career, but Robert Redford is charming as a charming old man with a compulsion to rob banks.  He's helped by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.  Sissy Spacek is nice as the love interest, Casey Affleck plays the detective who tracks him down.

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Last week I saw six movies.  13 Lakes is an art film, basically consisting of ten thirteen minute shots of different lakes.  Clearly not for everyone, which is not to say I didn't like it.  Small Town Girl is magical whenever Bobby Van or Ann Miller are dancing.  Unfortunately they're not the leads, Farley Granger and Jane Powell are.  It's another Hollywood story about how wonderful life in small towns can be, which comes across as phony.  Certainly they're not the best couple.  The odd thing is that the big number, the one that everyone remembers, with Van hopping up and down like a pogo stick, comes when Powell dumps him.  And while one can see the logic of this scene, since now Powell can be with Granger, and Van can leave the small town and go to Broadway, it's an odd choice for a high point.

I also saw two war movies.  Bataan consists of several soldiers who are trying to delay the inevitable Japanese advance.  Interesting the multi-ethnic cast includes an African-American, since the fact that the groups consists of the remains of several groups gets around the segregated army of the time  Unfortunately, the characters and the cast could be a bit more interesting.  And the ending, which has the sole survivor machine gunning hordes of Japanese soldiers who conveniently run right into gunfire, has a false note.  The Sands of Iwo Jima may be best known as John Wayne's first Best Actor nomination.  He's OK as a tough, reticent, but ultimately thoughtful sergeant.  The inevitable clashes over the marines he is training are hardly original, but the movie does have good combat footage.  (Also the marines have the good sense to duck, or more accurately crawl, when facing enemy fire.)

The two movies of the week are two recent Hollywood blockbusters with all kinds of mixed ideological messages.  Us, the first movie I've seen from this year, does a good job of sustaining its atmosphere of menace as Lupita Nyong'o does a very good job of realizing that something is very wrong on her upper middle class family vacation.  Although I managed to avoid any spoilers, I guessed the climatic reveal in the first few minutes of the movie.  The more thinks about the movie, one wonders about how well it works.  So basic spoilers, the apparent villains, "the Tethered" are dopplegangers of the family.  In one thing most promos don't show, the Tethered are dopplegangers of not just the four protagonists, but all around the region, and conceivably the whole country.  If this is a metaphor for rebellion, it's somewhat mixed because unlike actual subalterns, it's not clear just how human "the Tethered" actually are.  While one Tethered can actually become normal, the others are inarticulate and appear to be stuck copying their "real" selves.  Also, they are attacking people who, with some tiny exceptions, have no idea of and no real responsibility for their plight.  So nobody's perfect. One can imagine that if you were going to make a movie about the next level of virtual reality, it would be made by Steven Spielberg. Ready Player One is that movie with all obvious ideological contradictions one might expect.  It's a movie nervous about the virtual reality world the characters play in, while of course being the next generation of special effects from the man most responsible for their deadening cinematic impulse.  It's a movie about corporate villainy massively promoted by one of the most powerful corporations and influences the world has ever seen.  It also some of the old Spielberg tropes:  somewhat heavy-handed themes of maturity and growing up, two interesting female characters who in the end don't get to do enough, arguably too many chase scenes and, a bit oddly for a movie set roughly a quarter century of now, an obsession with eighties pop culture.  But, somewhat surprisingly, that's OK.  While not profound nor imaginative, the love story is acceptably charming. Much of the movie is actually fun. There is a surfeit of invention and imagery which is actually engaging.  There's something fascinating about the bricolage effect the virtual world has, and how after a world of sequels and comic book movies, we have something relatively original.  Also, this movie may have made sure I can finally remember the difference between "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle"!

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I saw four movies last week.  The Rendezvous of Anna shows Chantal Akerman following the style of Jeanne Dielman is this autobiographical film about a Belgian/Jewish bisexual director constantly traveling as part of her work, meeting lovers and meeting her mother.  Aurore Clement is the stand-in for Akerman.  The long, static shots, which worked given the drudgery of Dielman's routine in the earlier film, does not work so well as the default style.  It's clearly not for everyone.  Though the end, where Clement is miserable and in bed listening to an endless series of voice messages (the movie comes from 1978, when answering machines had just become common), suggests that it shouldn't be dismissed easily.

Two other films came from old masters.  Let's Make Love stars that less than obvious couple Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand.  Actually they work reasonably well, both here and in real life.  George Cukor oversees the events and the movie has a certain charm and humor.  Staircase was directed by Stanley Donen, in his first movie after what should have been the miracle year of 1967, but wasn't.  One of the first mainstream movies to deal with homosexuality, played by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, it was originally marketed as a comedy.  It isn't really one, it's the story of two bitter aging hairdressers/lovers who constantly snipe at each other.  Critics who barely tolerated homosexuals at the time didn't care for it, and homosexuals aren't wild about it now.

A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as an annoyingly chipper Mommy who starts investigating the mysterious disappearance of her new best friend, Blake Lively.  Kendrick and Lively are amusing, and about a third of the way through the movie Kendrick's character shows a more selfish, lustier side.  Part of the energy dissipates three quarters of the way as one learns the solution to the movie, and its resemblance to other recent thrillers becomes clearer.  Not to give too much away, but it resembles one movie in particular, though with less plausibility and drive.  Also, the ending tries to wrap everything up in a neat package, in a way that is neither neat or clever.  Although there are a couple of good jokes at the very end.  I should also add that I rewatched The Iron Giant, whose virtues are more evident on the big screen.

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It's been a slow week, mostly rewatches that I can remember, and two of them are certainly of a different... quality.

(Rewatch) The Great Escape (1963): It's still amazing. All-star cast, thrills and spills, suspense, killer stunts and seeing the different routes everybody takes once they break out is a sight to behold. I don't know what to say about it but it has aged real well and still makes for a fine rewatch.

(Rewatch) 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): Absolute guilty pleasure. It is so dumb, dumb to the point where the plot can be summarized by linking every conversation where someone says breh or bruh but mostly breh, which is why I adore it so much. It's a bit of a black sheep, the only one without Dom in it but it introduces Roman, has a villain that lives and never shows up again, some of the worst dialogue in a series not known for quality dialogue, absolutely hilarious street racing bits and it's pretty cheese in general.

(Rewatch) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006): I could make this a series of drifting gifs and it would be just as accurate an explanation but I'll only use one:

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More of a street chase than a street race but it has street races and might be the last true street racing The Fast and Furious movie because I've never really seen Fast and Furious (Fourth movie). But it's hilariously dumb, from the accent of our "hero" that comes and goes, Lil' Bow Wow, drifting when you don't need to drift, yakuza (But still kinda cool because Yakuza) and in the end, it's a F&F movie so it's no cinematic masterpiece.

The Last Gangster (1937): What can I say? I love Edward G. Robinson. He plays a gangster and I'm immediately sold, which is most of his roles. This one is no different, apart from it being more of a drama than a crime movie, or more of a character study than a crime but that just makes it stand out more. It doesn't detract from it as it's still a pretty engrossing watch and well worth catching.

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Last week I saw five movies.  Pitfall was probably the best, starting as a grim social realist picture of early sixties Japan, and then turning into a strange ghost story.  Ocean's Eleven is based on the assumption that Frank Sinatra is so cool that you will wait for nearly an hour before he actually explains the plot of the movie.  Personally I don't think the gamble quite works, though I understand why others might disagree.  The plot twist that makes sure the thieves don't get away with their ill gotten gains doesn't quite work.  One would think that the characters would have been intelligent to think of that in advance.  Readers of Leonard Maltin's book on Disney's movies will remember that Emil and the Detectives was one of his least favorite Disney movies.  Watching for it for the first time, i can understand why somebody would want to make a movie out of it, since "the detectives" are actually a group of boys who help their fellow child.  My problem is more a matter of tone.  There's something odd in that the children are played by Americans and the adults by Germans.  The updating from the original twenties to the sixties in divided Berlin is also a bit odd.  Also, the children are a bit curt, and actually rude to get each other.  Walter Slezak is OK as the head thief.

The best thing about Myra Breckinridge is that one cannot honestly say it is one of the worst movies every made.  That is not to say it's a good movie.  No, not remotely.  I haven't read the Gore Vidal novel it was based on, but thematically the movie is a bit of a mess.  It isn't remotely sympathetic to what one might call "gender ambiguity," but it's too coarse and crude to appeal to "the silent majority" as it were.  Also it's not very funny, and the director was both rude to this cast and incompetent in his film making.  Support the Girls is more the idea of a good film, rather than an actual good film.  As it happens Regina Hall was in another of last year's movies in the same category (The Hate U Give).  Since it's clear before the halfway mark that everything is just going to go wrong, the movie lacks a certain tension.  Also, little is done to enlighten us why Hall's boss is so mean to her, or why her husband is so dreary, or why the employee for whom Hall sticks her neck out is so obtuse. 

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Last week I saw three movies.  Trial is a sort of compromised message movie.  One is reminded of They Won't Forget, Hollywood's gutless version of the Leo Frank case.  Trial's message is that racism is bad, but Communists exploit it for their own nefarious purposes.  Arthur Kennedy is OK as the devious pro-Communist attorney, and he got an oscar nomination that year.  But he was better in the same year's The Man From Laramie.  I don't know how much the end result is because the movie wanted to show its anti-communist credentials or how much the movie code prevented it from criticizing district attorneys and judges.  But the final climax undermines the whole movie.  For a start, it involves the court allowing the defense's former attorney to denounce the defense's current attorney right during sentencing.  Can that really be legal?  And the emphasis on Communist duplicity is dishonest and hypocritical.  For if (SPOILERS) the Communist plan is to have their innocent Mexican defendant railroaded to the gas chamber, this can only work if the prosecution and the judge allow what is an absurdly feeble case.  If the prosecutor says he thinks the defendant is only "technically guilty" then why is he demanding the death sentence?  And why does the movie suggest he's innocent of racism when there was already an attempt to lynch the defendant and rig the jury?

Woman in the Moon is one of the more ambitious movies of 1929.  And there is a good movie hiding in its 170 minutes.  One problem is that it wastes an hour for the criminal gang to insert themselves into the plan to enter the moon launch.  This could have been handled more concisely.  So the movie is about half over when it actually gets to the launch pad.  Once that is done, things are much more more impressive, with the first movie countdown, the first references to rocket stages and G-Force pressures, and even liquids forming into little balls with weightlessness.  And even if the far side of the moon is absurdly habitable, there is a nice conflict about the return trip which works well.

Mon Oncle Antoine has been named the best Canadian film of all time in several polls.  Whether it will be continued to be so named in the light of a sex scandal involving the late director, Claude Jutra, remains to be seen.  Personally it's not my choice. While a reasonably competent film, about the Christmas coming of age in forties Quebec in a mining town, it's not of the same caliber as the same year's The Last Picture Show, The Murmur of the Heart, or Walkabout.  Nor is it of the same quality as other movies such as Kes, Boy, The Deep End, The Spirit of the Beehive, Lacombe, Lucien or My Little Loves.  It's interesting that when it came out, some critics castigated it for not being political enough.  And when its reputation recovered over time, people found more political and pro-Quebec nationalist elements.  While not an interpretive stretch, since Jutra himself supported an independent Quebec, looking for political elements tends to evade a certain lack of aesthetic imagination.  As an individual the protagonist is ultimately less interesting, his situation less specific, the choices less daring as he deals with the usual tropes of sex, teen employment, flawed adults, and political background.  While Jutra deserves some credit for having him film take place in a distinctly grimmer rural setting than Quebec presented to the world before 1960, one could otherwise call this film A Life Much More Ordinary

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I saw five movies over the last two weeks, three last week and two the week before.  Idiot's Delight is actually an amusing Clark Gable/Norma Shearer production with Gable in charming rogue mode as a traveling performer caught in a Europe about to face the second world war.  One problem is the ending.  It's both more pious and considerably happier and quicker than the way the war that broke out shortly thereafter actually ended.  On the other hand we get to see Gable dance to "Puttin' on the Ritz."  I'm a bit surprised the blonde back-up singers didn't have more of a career.  Booksmart has some good jokes, but is also disturbing in its attitude.  The two protagonists are "progressive" in an overly earnest way that is gently mocked.  But in the diversity on offer, the  one of class is never really brought up.  Everyone, except the protagonists who learn this at the last moment, can both party hard and get to a great school entirely on their own merits.  The recent college admission scandals suggests that would be presumptuous.

The Hitchhiker is an effective noir, where the psychopath of the title is highly competent and ruthless.  But the police have got his measure, and interestingly the Mexican police is portrayed as intelligent and helpful.  The Dead Don't Die is an amusing zombie film, even if it's less effective than Jarmusch's previous films.  Interestingly the two coolest characters (Tom Waits and Tilda Swinton) are among the survivors, along with three kids in a juvenile detention facility who stay together despite authorities who insist on separating them.  One meta touch by Adam Driver will be guessed before he reveals it, but another dry reading by him more than makes up for it. 

Juarez is not an effective film.  The protagonist is first seen glancing at a picture of Lincoln, as if this was something he usually had.  He's also shot from behind, the better for his subordinates to show their awe-struck admiration for him.  This sort of undercuts the picture of Juarez as a heroic democrat.  Also, I suspect most Mexicans don't share the movie's high opinion of the Monroe Doctrine.  (Though it does say something nice about Andrew Johnson, whose reputation has otherwise collapsed.)  Rather striking is the portrayal of the Emperor Maximilian, who in real life, as in the movie, seems to have been genuinely surprised and somewhat indignant that the French and Mexican conservatives were using him for their own selfish interests.  In a movie where Bette Davis does an uninspired mad scene, Claude Rains does a cartoon version of Napoleon III, Gale Sondergaard basically replays her role from Anthony Adverse and Paul Muni is too much the simplistic hero in unimaginative taciturnity, Brian Aherne got as oscar nomination for basically monopolizing all the movie's nuance.

 

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