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LEAST & MOST FAVORITE of the week...


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I saw three movies last week.  It turns out the question behind Postcards from the Edge is not whether Meryl Streep can do comedy as to whether director Mike Nichols can.  It's not that Streep does a bad job, or for that matter Shirley MacLaine as her mother.   But this tale of drug addiction and daughter/mother tension is ultimately too insubstantial and with stakes that are too low.  Fisher's screenplay is competent, although it's kind of odd to see the Reynolds/Fisher relationship played by better actors.  It could also be funnier.  A couple of years ago, Molly's Game came out, a movie about a woman and her financial skullduggery which offered the pleasures of Jessica Chastain's cleavage and an engaging script by Aaron Sorkin.  Well Hustlers also deals with women stealing money, and it offers Jennifer Lopez pole dancing to "Criminal" and a much less interesting script.  Constance Wu, as the nominal lead, is remarkably uninteresting.  Meanwhile the film clumsily telegraphs her outbreaks of conscience, scenes where we're supposed to be wary of Lopez, and offers a vision of sisterhood whether Wu and Lopez's accomplices are basically forgettable.  There is also some facile populist rhetoric, including a clunker of a last line.  So Salaam Bombay is the movie of the week, telling the story of criminality and poverty of 1988 Bombay.  It has some nice touches (a prostitute plays shadow animals with her young daughter, later the daughter happily tells her over the phone about a wind-up toy).  Could this grim story use more genius?  Certainly.   Is it, as one critic, a touch too professional? Certainly again (the western music is certainly unimaginative.)  But it's reasonably good on its own terms, and unlike the other two movies, it also has a real weight.  

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I saw four movies last week.  The first two were fine, rigorous movies focusing on women with unusual depth and insight.  Adoption is a 1975 Hungarian film about a middle aged widow who would like a child with a lover.  Since that lover is already married and already has children, he is, as one might imagine, unenthusiastic.  As that relationship dribbles away, the protagonist encounters a teenager who would like to marry itself.  The movie is interesting for a number of reasons.  It's in black and white, about half a decade when that was no longer the default for much of European cinema.  One can watch the movie and not realize that Hungary had a communist government.  Little effort is made to make the protagonist more engaging and audience friendly.  Vitalina Varela is the first movie from Pedro Costa that I've really appreciated.  It is certainly not an easy film to admire.  Partially a re-enactment of events that happened to the title character, played by herself.  Varela arrives from Cape Verde to Portugal, the former colonial power,   She has come to attend her husband;s funeral, who had abandoned her decades earlier, only to find that he was buried a few days earlier.  Nevertheless she sets herself up in the shack where he lived near other Cape Verdeans.  The camerawork consists of stationary shots, like a really depressed Ozu, but much longer.  Most of the film takes place at night, or in the shadows.  Much of the dialogue is spoken in little more than a whisper.  I found the austerity rather compelling. 

The two more audience friendly films are more disappointing.  The best thing one can say about Stand and Deliver is that Edward James Olmos, who will likely be best remembered as Commander Adama on the second and best Battlestar Galactica portrays his heroic calculus teacher as balding and a bit pudgy.  But the story is basically conventional, and it's not clear why he succeeds where hundreds of other equally driven teachers fail.  (I personally think there were lots of great songs from the eighties.  But the title tune played over the credits is manifestly not one of them.)  Antonia's Line is one of the more irritating movies I've seen recently.  Basically a feminist fantasy, it tells the story of how a Catholic village in the Netherlands after the war becomes a pagan matriarchy.  About half an hour or so it becomes clear that this is a film where the heroine and her (all female) descendants wins in a thoroughly facile way, with an unearned superiority solving all the problems.  Among other problems, politics are evaded, sex is sentimentalized, and the one incident of violence is rigged in a way that is cynical and crass as the most lowbrow of Hollywood films. 

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Last week I saw three movies. I watched A Place for Lovers because it was directed by Vittorio de Sica, and because I remember it getting either a "BOMB" rating from Leonard Maltin, or some other source for bad movies.  Certainly this love story between a dying Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni has nothing special going for it.  But then I'm not the biggest Dunaway fan.  There's something so death haunted in her three most famous roles (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Network) that it hampers this more sentimental part.  The Erl King is a short feature, under fifty minutes, based on the Goethe ballad about a boy magically attacked by an elf king while his father tries to flee with him on horseback.  It's an OK film, although I thought it had a more optimistic ending than the original.  The Three Musketeers is yet another version of the novel, with Gene Kelly, Vincent Price and Lana Turner making an impression, and June Allyson making less of one as Kelly's supposed love interest.  I'm not sure any of the versions have been truly successful and I think the director George Sidney did better with the basic idea a few years later in Scaramouche.

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Yet another three movies this week.  The first two movies are more triumphs over censorship than of the cinematic art.  All my Countrymen is a Czechoslovak film from 1968 that is most remarkable for portraying the Communists who take over a Moravian farming village as nasty and stupid.  One might think the actual communists were both more ruthless and more popular.  One might also suggest that the photography is more pretty than beautiful ("look, we finally have color film!") while the characters could be more engaging.   Rafiki is a recent Kenyan example of the lesbian coming of age film.  Given that homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, the film is somewhat forced to be tasteful.  The characters are more middle class than most Kenyans (the fathers are both politicians and the protagonist goes to college to become a doctor.)  The conclusion is conveniently, and unconvincingly, optimistic.  Suburban Birds is a more interesting film, with young people surveying potholes, and a group of young children wandering around the suburbs of their Chinese city.  This enigmatic movies has touches of Zhangke and Weerasethakul, though one might wish the children were a little more lively and interesting. 

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Last week I saw six movies.  Let's start with the three Hammer Horror movies, The Curse of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein must be Destroyed.  Denounced as excessively violent at the time by the moralists of the day, they now appear as a transition to the more bloody movies like The Exorcist or Carrie.  The sense that they were becoming obsolete in this respect appears most clearly in Destroyed, where a rape scene was inserted to the annoyance of both actors involved and the director, and the act is never referred to again in the movie.  Certainly there is nothing as shocking in Curse as Karloff's killing of a child in the Universal picture.  As movies there is clearly a problem of diminishing returns.  That there were seven of these movies (six with Cushing) is kind of preposterous.  On the one hand, you'd think that scientists would get interested in his experiments.  On the other hand, the fact that his attempts to revive the dead always go wrong become increasingly ripe for parody.  The atmosphere is interesting, and there are odd touches.  (Such as Cushing maturing in Curse in a few years from a teenager to a man in his forties while Robert Urquhart stays the same age.)  The most appealing aspect is Cushing himself, with a combination of ruthlessness and intelligence, which is most appealing in Woman.  Here his superiority to the rest of the cast is most evident and he almost saves the day.  Yet though the series made him a star, it's  not the best use of his talents.

The 1964 The Killers has engaging aspects.  Lee Marvin is good, but there's not enough of him.  Some of the dialogue is good (mostly from Marvin, including his last line).  It's certainly interesting to see Ronald Reagan as a criminal business man, and just before he started his unbelievably successful career.  On the other hand he's arguably a bit stiff.  And the Cassavetes/Dickinson relationship is too superficial and too long winded to support the enigma of the original Hemingway story.  There's also the problem that Reagan has no reason to pimp Dickinson out as he does, and that the intelligent Marvin should have found out the truth about the two of them before the climax.  Oh well, nice try.  Waves is a family drama  set in Florida.  The first half deals with pressure the older teenage son, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.,  faces a number of typical adolescent problems (a cold father, an athletic career derailed by an injury, an unwanted pregnancy) which gets increasingly worse, and then goes dramatically off the rails halfway through the movie making one think whether the fact the family is black  is more important than we'd been led to believe.  It certainly makes one think they desperately need a better lawyer.  Instead of dealing with this, Taylor Russell as the daughter meets cute with Lucas Hedges, eventually has nice sex with him, helps him get a epiphany with his own obnoxious,dying father, while her family deals with the trauma at hand is a way that does not add up.  It's quite pretty.

So that brings us to Tomka and His Friends, as the movie of the week.  This 1977 movie is the first Albanian movie I've ever seen. It's very much an ideological movie, though here it's an odd time capsule of the Popular Front ideology of the wartime resistance it covers, rather than the high Stalinism of the Hoxha regime.  (There is a clumsy scene where the Resistance emphasizes that former Italian soldiers are welcome to join, even though Albania's relationship with 1977 Italy was as bad as it was with almost all of the rest of the planet).   As a genre, the obvious comparison is with other Eastern bloc pictures that have children in the second world war.  Is it as good as Ivan's Childhood or Come and See?  Of course not.  And one imagines that there were plenty of films in the Eastern Bloc that dealt with children resisting the Nazis, and that TCM only showed this one because it was directed by a woman.  And one wonders how this trope worked in Romania and Hungary, where there was no resistance worthy of the name.  But this isn't to deny a certain skill in filming the very mountainous country, as if the homes were carved out of the rocks, and a certain competence as the anecdotes slowly add up to a climax. 

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Last week I saw four movies.  The Best Man is based on a play where Henry Fonda, Lee Tracy and Cliff Robertson play variations on Stevenson, Truman and a pre-presidential Nixon.  Is the movie as good as the other 1964 movie where instead of running for president, Fonda actually got to be president?  No.  Is it as good as the other 1964 political thriller where Burt Lancaster played a dangerous right-wing extremist?  Again, no.  But it is certainly watchable, with some good lines ("Oh well, the world's sure changed since I was politickin'. In those days, we had to pour God over everything like ketchup.")  And using the convention as a backdrop is engaging enough.  The Devil Rides Out is not the most horrifying of horror films.  It's certainly not in the same class as the other 1968 movie about Satanism, Rosemary's Baby.  Basically its pleasures consist of Christopher Lee and Charles Gray playing the hero and villain as Lee tries to stop a cult of devil worshippers.   And on those terms it's acceptable. 

Dos Monjes is an early Mexican movie where two monks recognize each other from the tragic past before they took holy orders.  It's worth watching again, as the director quickly learned a lot from German expressionists.  Richard Jewell is one of Eastwood's better examples of Americana.  With a somewhat less padded plot than Sully, this story of a man unjustly accused works well on its own terms, even if the Olivia Wilde character is probably egregiously inaccurate.  Kathy Bates got a supporting actress nomination, largely for one scene near the end where she begs Bill Clinton to exonerate her son.  But Sam Rockwell does a better job as Jewell's mildly disreputable lawyer.  Paul Walter Hauser is also good as the title character, at times irritatingly schlubbish, at others much more than that (the scene where he makes clear he knows the investigators are condescending to him is a high light.)

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I saw another four movies last week.  The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is, like the other three Volker Schlondorff movies I've seen, based on a prestigious novel (in this case a novel by German nobel laureate Heinrich Boll).  Unlike the other three movies of Schlondorff I've seen, I hadn't actually read the novel in question.  Does that make it a better movie, since I didn't care too much for the previous ones?  Not really.  Angela Winkler plays the victim in a sort of Absence of Malice scenario where she is the victim of deliberate journalistic malice instead of sloppiness, as she is falsely accused of abetting terrorism.  But while the Springer press was international notorious for its right-wing gutter journalism, Winkler is more pretty than engaging .  Mario Adorf is better as the corrupt cop who bullies her. 

Whistling in the Dark is a Red Skelton comedy and part of a series of movies which I watched because I liked the premise.  Skelton's radio star is kidnapped by religious con artist Conrad Veidt and his circle because they want him to think up a perfect murder.  As it happens the "perfect murder" isn't that clever (it's simply an undetectable poison).  Nowadays Veidt would just send a goon to go to the public library and look through murder mystery novels until they found a solution.  Though apparently Skelton does do a trick with a telephone that allows him to contact people which I should have kept in mind in case I'm ever kidnapped.

Shoes is an early silent feature which TCM showed because it was directed by a woman.  Lois Weber filmed this short film about a woman who sleeps with a man in order to get desperately needed new shoes. It's OK, and could have been much more melodramatic.  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood works better than I thought it would.   It's one of Hanks' better performances actually, showing someone disarmingly simple and good, even if the story about a journalist with family issues is somewhat fictional and contrived.  Actually, growing up in small town Canada where I only had two television channels, I only knew Fred Rogers by occasional allusion.  (The one that struck most in my mind was a typically cruel National Lampoon cartoon).  And despite what seems to be a vaguely Oprahish quality of the material, Rogers was actually a Presbyterian minister. 

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Last week I saw three movies.  Primary Colors is a comedy about politicians I don't particularly care for (the Clintons), based on a novel by a journalist I like even less (Joe Klein), and made by a director I consider overrated (Mike Nichols).  The result is as underwhelming as you might expect, with a forgettable POV character played by Adrian Lester, while Emma Thompson is simply wasted playing the Hilary character.  There is a scene where Elaine May gets to show some of her screenwriting chops, where Billy Bob Thornton's James Carville character starts with an ostentatiously folky analogy that the other characters don't get.  But as political satires go, it's fairly bland.  Kathy Bates does get more to do here than in her other two Best Supporting Actress nominee roles.  Synonyms is a more interesting movie.  Tom Mercier is a young Israeli who has moved to Paris and tells the young French couple he meets that he is escaping Israel.  and yet he also works as security at the Israeli mission, and hangs out will one belligerent Israeli who's interested in playing Fight Club with neo-Nazis.  Mercier is good as the confused protagonist, the movie could be better, with a contrived presentation of French secularism undercutting the conclusion. 

So the movie of the week is  Un Carnet du Bal.  This movie about a relatively young widow who tracks down all the men who danced with her one night twenty years earlier  does not have the most profound theme, or the best performance from its lead Marie Bell.  It also ends abruptly, or at least the version TCM showed did.  But the series of stories do have good performances.  Among the standouts are Franoise Rosay, as the mother of one of the dancers, Harry Baur as a dancer who became a priest, Louis Jouvet as a former lawyer/criminal nightclub owner and Raimu as a mayor about to be remarried with a wastrel son. 

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I saw four movies last week.  Pinky basically takes what was most problematic about Gentleman's Agreement and double-downs on it, that is by viewing racial prejudice through the victimizing of someone who is clearly not a member of the group in question.  It's not so much that Jeanne Crain gives a bad performance, but she clearly is not "mixed-race" and does not look remotely like Ethel Waters' granddaughter.  Also it's hard to make a movie about interracial relationships while not striving to break the movie code prohibition against such relationships.  Ethel Barrymore does give a good supporting performance.  The Nightingale is sort of a feminist Australian The Revenant, except that it takes place in Tasmania.  As such it is not as visually audacious as that film.  The take on revenge also does not end up that much morally superior.  The film does show British violence against the soon to be almost extinct aboriginal population in a way that reveals it was truly appalling in its cruelty and casualness. But the key act of violence near the beginning does beg some questions of whether the British treatment of its convicts was in any way comparable. 

Alien from L.A. is a misconceived movie in every respect.  Oddly filmed (it appears to be slightly slower than it should be), it''s also confusingly plotted, such that the crucial plot points are never clear or well developed.  And since the only reason most people would want to see the film is to look at Kathy Ireland, much of it is shot in shadow and the dark.  The Sea Wolves is an odd 1980 film in its ordinariness.  Watching this story about a British raid on the Portuguese colony of Goa to take out a transmitter helping u-boats in the Indian ocean, one wonders how much of it could have been made twenty years earlier.  Most of it could be, and it stars both Gregory Peck and David Niven in a jauntier version of The Guns of Navarone.  There are a few scenes where the British show themselves to be more ruthless than they did in the fifties (so more Dr. No then).  There are a couple of swear words, almost ostentatious because of their rarity.  Roger Moore is allowed a sexual relationship with Barbara Kellerman, taking most of the movie before realizing she's a Nazi agent, but not before she kills Trevor Howard.  But this is actually a movie which puts Gregory Peck to good use, showing his toughness and strength.

Also, just to remind myself, I rewatched L'Eclisse and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. 

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i saw three movies  last week.  The Chapman Report is an early attempt to deal with sexuality before most censorship issues ended.  The movie is not especially thoughtful, but George Cukor does a good job directing a fundamentally middlebrow task.  One thing about having genuine movie actresses like Shelley Winters, Jane Fonda, Claire Bloom and Glynnis Jones in contrast to a bunch of male television actors is that it makes the men in the relationships look even shallower.  It's interesting that the movie ends with the sex psychiatrist saying most American women are sexually normal.  And that's true since there's nothing abnormal about two middle aged women married to dull men interested in adultery, nor in a widow being unenthusiastic about sex after being maltreated by her late husband.  Torch Song is about a brilliant actress and singer who is demanding at the beginning, and increasingly insufferable as the movie goes on.  Naturally she's played by Joan Crawford.  Nevertheless she finds love at the end.  Marjorie Rambeau got a supporting Actress nomination  as Crawford's mother.  Toy Story 4 is much better than I thought it would be.  Pixar has been having a bit of a creative slump, with too many sequels, and this is the best movie they've made since Inside Out.  It's certainly exciting, with lot of tense situations, with Tom Hanks trying to rescue his new child's favorite toy, a spork she made in kindergarten.  Kirsten Schall appears as a toy triceratops.  Annie Potts returns as Bo Peep.  A bit disappointingly the little green men who saved the day in Toy Story 3 don't get much to do.  It does make me curious why, having liked the second and third movies so much, I have shown so little curiosity in rewatching the first movie. 

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