22 thoughts on “Movies 2024

  1. Criterion Channel currently streams several Seijun Suzuki films, but about six of them will be leaving at the end of January, so I wanted to see those before that. Here are a few I recently watched:

    8 Hours of Terror (1957)
    35/100

    The premise is really good–one that would be a good remake candidate. Roughly it’s like Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, plus Wages of Fear/Sorcerer. A train breaks down, but the train company offers a bus for those eager to make it to their destination. The passengers are diverse group, representing different socio-economic backgrounds and occupations, including a police officer taking in a man guilty of killing his wife. Most of the route hugs a mountain, making the trip not without some risk. Making matters worse is that there are two bank robbers on the loose.

    Ultimately, I think the film isn’t very good, because of poor or dated acting, preventing me from really getting into the movie. The thrills suspense are pretty dull as well, and I would guess most modern moviegoers would agree.

    Man With a Shotgun (1961)

    Clearly influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, especially by the Man With No Name films, although here Suzuki’s sets the film in a lush mountain setting, with the protagonist being a hunter-hiker.

    The film involves a corrupt man in a small mountain town. The Man With a Shotgun comes to the town, proving his mettle, but leaving his purpose a mystery.

    A B-movie that pales in comparison to the original.

    Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (1963)
    46/100

    I’m not sure if this is the actual Japanese title, but this may be the best thing about the movie. A private detective goes undercover attempting to infiltrate a yakuza group, All the other details are not that interesting to me. Like the other films, the action is pretty dull. Jo Shishido is a somewhat appealing leading man, in spite of his chipmunk cheeks.

    Zigeunerweisen (1980)
    75/100

    Like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire this film is impossible to grasp on one viewing. But like those two films I found this strangely compelling, although a little less so at times. I think the reason for the latter is Japanese-ness of the film, especially the way it seems tied to Japanese folktales and traditional Japanese theater. The latter is especially foreign to me, so I suspect this made the film not only harder to grasp, but harder to not get bored at times.

    The film, the first in the Suzuk’s Taisho trilogy, follows two academic colleagues–both very different in dress and temperament. One is the stereotypical, straitlaced professor, while the other is a wild vagabond type, looking and acting like Toshiro Mifune character in Seven Samurai. We follow their relationship with a geisha and then their respective wives, as well as the dying sister of one of wives. But the plot is minimal and the narrative is very loose. Still, there is something hypnotic and compelling about the movie.

  2. I saw the second and third films of the Suzuki’s Taisho trilogy–Kagero-za and Yumeji, respectively.

    Kagero-za (1981)
    90/100 (maybe higher)

    After watching this, I felt this was a candidate for an all-time great film–and I say this without fully understanding the movie. (However, with more analysis and understanding my estimation could decline.)

    Let me explain why I feel that way. Many artists who adopt a more post-modern approach–I’m thinking specifically of artists who draw from and attempt to synthesize many different material, including from different cultures or styles–often produce clunky art. The different influences seem slapped together and inorganic. The concept behind the art may be exciting, but the actual results lack refinement.

    There are some exceptions–for example, Bill Frisell, who may be the most successful post-modern artists (although I wonder if others would put him under that label)–and that’s because his music distills the various influences into a seamless and organic whole.

    Kagero-za may not be have fully distilled all of its influences, but I found the results exciting and satisfying, not to mention ambitious. Here, I want to mention some of the components Suzuki seems to be trying to amalgamate: Japanese folk tales, traditional Japanese theater, French New Wave cinema and European art filmmakers like Antonioni, and perhaps more that I’m unaware of.

    The results are dream-like, reminding me of some of David Lynch’s films. (Yumeji, which didn’t affect me as much, made me think of Peter Greenaway.)

    All these three films in the trilogy demand repeat viewings.

  3. I’ve been enjoying Dustin Guy Defa’s films (including shorts), currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. I’m not exactly sure the reason for this. The films either lack a narrative or lack a really strong one. Instead, the films present interesting situations with good acting…although “interesting” may be too strong. The situations, themselves, are not always appealing, but the characters and the acting make these moments humorous, compelling, or even poignant.

    It seems obvious that acting and characters (maybe in that order) is Defa’s wheelhouse–similar to Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes.

    Person to Person (2017)
    75/100

    Person to Person (2014) (short film)
    77/100

    Bene Coppersmith
    (Bene Coopersmith won me over for some reason.)

    I mentioned I had difficulty explaining the reason I enjoyed these films. However, there was a reason I recently started watching some of his films, starting with the feature length film, Person to Person. “A record store owner tracks down a prized album”–that description got me hooked instantly. I think I’ll watch any film featuring a book or record store owner or a film set in a book store or record store, especially independently owned ones.

    But this lead me to watch the short film Person to Person (starring Bene Coppersmith, Deragh Campbell), which inspired the feature-length film. In the short, Benny is the local record store owner (who later appears in the 2017 film). He has a party and the next day he finds an attractive woman sleeping on the floor of his apartment. Right off the bat I liked Benny. He’s really nice to her, bringing her coffee and breakfast. But he soon discovers that she refuses to leave his apartment. In a way, it’s a variation of Melville’s short story, Bartleby the Scrivener. (I liked that story, and I know Mitchell hated it, but I think he has a chance of liking this.)

    In the feature length film, Benny appears again, only this time he’s goes to meet a guy selling a rare jazz album. He also has a good friend who is in trouble for posting nude pictures of his girlfriend. The film is essentially a collection of three or four short stories, with the film flip-flopping between them. In addition to Benny’s episode, there’s a story with about a reporter’s first day on the job, working for a smaller publication, being accompanied by one of the editors (Michael Sera). This story ties in with a guy (Phillip Baker Hall) who repairs watches. Finally, there’s a story about two high school girls cutting out from school and hanging out. (I don’t think these two characters have any connection to the other characters in the film.)

  4. Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
    Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien
    Starring: Tony Leung, Michiko Hada, etc.
    90/100

    Flowers of Shanghai cover

    Barry Lyndon and The Leopard are two films are noteworthy for their cinematography (mostly BL), costumes, and sets, at least for me. Indeed, I would say I appreciate those films primarily for those elements. Now, Flowers of Shanghai joins the list. Indeed, at some point I wondered if wanting to outdo Kubrick and Visconti was the impetus behind this film. Having said that, I found the film satisfying and successful beyond those elements. That is, the film satisfied me overall, more than the other two films.

    In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick seems to want to recreate the look of European painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, or other in that ballpark. Flowers also feels the feel of “moving” paintings, but it’s use of a slice-of-life, character portraits, versus a more traditional narrative in Barry and The Leopard (at least from what I recall), works better, and it’s one of the main reasons this worked worked better for me than the others. (The film also didn’t have actors like Ryan O’Neal to weaken the film; and Tony Leung had the opposite effect.)

    Flowers of Shanghai scene

    One comment about the lighting. The look of the film reminded me of a Tamara de Lempica painting–the bright metallic colors with dark edges. In the film’s lighting makes the silk costumes and colors glimmer and glow like metal, and the restored version brings out the sumptuous details of all of this. It’s just gorgeous. (The filmmakers made silk costumes and actually built houses where the action took place. Interestingly, I can’t remember an exterior shot, and almost every shot take place in either a drawing room/dining space that look very similar.)

  5. Raging Bull (1980)
    Dir. Martin Scorsese
    78/100

    I can’t remember if this is my second or third time, but here are some quick thoughts:

    • We all know about anti-war films. This, to me, is an anti-macho film. Anti-war films are effective because they give more realistic portrayals of war, which entails lots of disturbing, graphic violence. I think the same is true for this film, although modern viewers may not find the violence so graphic. However, I would be surprised if they don’t find the violence disturbing. Certain aspect of the film may not have the same impact–e.g., the snazzy editing–but De Niro’s menacing presence, often stemming from his paranoia and jealousy, still had a lot of umph.
    • Like Taxi Driver, I thought the film ended–or should have ended–earlier, specifically when La Motta is in solitary confinement pounding the wall. On the other hand, that may not have been fair to La Motta. What we perhaps humanizes La Motta more and portrays him as someone making the best of his life, given whatever limitations he may have.
    • The film sequences seem more fake this time around, and that hurt the film a little. I did like the use of music in this, however.
    • I like Joe Pesci in this, as I did the first time I saw this. The performance should have landed him more roles a lot sooner in my opinion.
  6. Xanadu (1980)
    Dir. Robert Greenwald
    Starring: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, etc.
    16/100

    This camera angles, production values, and acting reminded of a TV show from the late 70s (e.g., Buck Rodgers in the 21st Century), or a live action Saturday morning kids show (e.g. Sid and Marty Krofft shows).

    Overall, I would say it’s a bad film, but I enjoyed hearing songs like “Xanadu,” “Suddenly,” and “Magic.” These songs, and experiencing the late 70’s TV look, prevented me from giving the film a lower score.

    One other thing: The film tried to merge a older Hollywood musical style with more contemporary rock and pop music of the late 70s and roller skating(!). But overall it was disappointing, particularly the rather dull choreography.

    Ishtar (1987)
    Dir. Elaine May
    Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Isabella Adjani, etc.
    45/100

    The opening scene excited me, and I thought I might really liked the film. Alas, while the film had some nice moments, it did not live up to my initial hopes. Still, it wasn’t bad. I liked what Hoffman and Beatty tried to do in this (even though Beatty was miscast…or it was a challenge that maybe Beatty wanted to take on). Indeed, I think their performances are part of the reason I could see this being a cult film.

    Why watching this film, I wondered: Did critics hate and audiences hate Spies Like Us as well? Because this is not worse than that film, and I’d say it’s the better of the two.

  7. Altered States (1980)
    Dir. Ken Russell
    Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Charles Haid, etc.
    72/100

    If the first two acts of a film are bad or even mediocre, it’s rare that the last act can turn the film around. And Justice for All is best example of that for me. The turnaround was dramatic, but this film comes close. I’ll describe the reason I didn’t like the film and the way the film redeemed itself, at least somewhat, for me.

    Eddie Jessup (Hurt) is a scientist who attempts to use psychedelic drugs to tap into memories and consciousness of our early ancestors and maybe even the earliest life forms. (That’s essentially the gist of the movie and if you don’t want to know anything else, don’t read on.)

    **
    The idea humans have memories or a consciousness of different evolutionary ancestors contained in us seems far-fetched, but not something I would entirely dismiss, although the notion is odd on several levels. Memories are exclusive to an individual–or at least that’s my assumption. Does each individual have a kind of collective memory–i.e., memories that stem from the collective experience of humanity? (If so, the word “memory” seems inappropriate. Memories are something that can enter our conscious minds, but if we have a collective memory that seems to exist only on a subconscious level.) Then maybe an individual could tap into the collective memory of an evolutionary ancestor?

    But even if these ideas make sense on some level, the film actually goes further. Eventually tapping into these mental states can also lead to physical, “de-evolutionary” transformations. For me, this was too far-fetched, broke my suspension of disbelief

    ***
    What saved the film for me was a more philosophical framing of Eddie’s quest–namely, that Eddie’s efforts stemmed from his desire for Truth, specifically getting back to the origins of life. That is, if Eddie could somehow gain awareness of what happened at the origin of life, he’d tap into the ultimate truth. (I don’t think this is an entirely sound idea, but there is some sense to it.)

    What he learns is that there is no real Truth, no higher Truth. What people see and experience is all we have. Once Eddie realize this, he is drawn back to the people he loves. This doesn’t turn the movie around completely perhaps, but it makes it far more palatable to me.

    Key dialogue:

    Emily: “No Mason! I was never really real to him. Nothing in the human condition was ever really real to him. He’s a truth lover.

    Reality to Eddie is only that which is changeless, immutably constant. What happened to Eddie tonight. That was Eddie’s idea of love. That’s cosummation. He finally got it off with God.He finally embraced the absolute, was finally ravished by truth and it goddammed near destroyed him.

    He never loved me. You knew him as well as I did. We were all bits of transitory matter to him.

    Later:

    Eddie: I can’t tell you have how much you mean to me…how much I need you and the kids. I just wanted to tell you that.

    You saved me. You redeemed me from the pit. I was in it, Emily. I was in the ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It is human life that is real.

    I don’t want to frighten you Emily but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of a terror is a real and living horror that is living and growing in me now and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.

    Emily: Why don’t you come back to us now?

    Eddie: It’s too late. I don’t think I can get out of it anymore. I can’t live with it. The pain is too great.

    Emily: Defy it, Eddie! You made it real. You can make it unreal. If you love me Eddie…if you love me. Defy it Eddie!

  8. The Devils (1971)
    Dir. Ken Russell
    Starring: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, etc.
    67/100

    I was very wary of watching this, given the religious controversy over this film. But Russell strikes me as director with a strong individual voice, with ecstatic images and content, so I was very interested in seeing this.

    The film claims that major acts in the film are historically accurate. It involves a small, fortified town in France during the 17th century. The governor has died and a priest, Grandier (Reed), has taken over temporarily. Cardinal Richelieu wants power, and to do so he must destroy the fortifications of all smaller towns. Grandier (and the King at the time) resists this.

    There is also a subplot with involving a hunchbacked, head abbess, Sister Jeanne (Redgrave), and her nunnery. Jeanne and several of the other nuns are infatuated with Grandier–so much so that Sister Jeanne has vivid romantic/religious dreams involving him.

    ***
    Maybe I’m misreading the film, but it seems essentially political–like a political version of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan D’Arc. It also made me think of Braveheart, in terms of its theme.

    As for the controversial scenes, I saw these primarily as manipulation of the nuns by the Grandier’s political enemies. The nuns, including Sister Jeanne, were victims; some of them may have been mentally ill or unstable as well.

  9. Sleepwalkers (1992)
    Dir. Mick Garris
    Starring: Madchen Amick, etc.
    20/100

    The Criterion Channel streams B-movies, and even when I don’t like them a lot, I don’t question the decision to offer these films–until now. There can be value in watching B-movies or movies that aren’t very good, but I have a hard time making a case for this film (except for Madchen Amick’s beauty, which isn’t a good enough reason).

    Madchen Amick
    (Madchen Amick is beautiful, but her beauty couldn’t save this film.)

    The film is based on a Stephen King story (and I believe King wrote the screenplay for this), involving a mother and son who are ancient shape shifting humanoids that survive by sucking the souls of female virgins. Besides this vulnerability, they are also vulnerable to cats.

    ***
    I thought the film had potential to do something interesting and maybe even novel. In the movie, one of the sleepwalkers, who attends high school, writes a short story about a mother and son who constantly move from town to town–they’re lonely and misunderstood. The target of the sleepwalkers, his beautiful classmates, likes the story, tells the boy that he can relate to the characters. This opens an opportunity to make the sleepwalkers more sympathetic and interesting and it creates conflict between the boy and the girl.

    But the film dismisses all of this in a rather clumsy way, reverting to a standard b-movie horror film.

  10. Infernal Affairs (2002)
    70/100
    Infernal Affairs 2 (2003)
    74/100
    Infernal Affairs 3 (2003)
    49/100
    Dir. Andrew Lau Wai Keung and Alan Mak
    Starring: Andy Lau, (Lau Kin-Ming) Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Chang Wing-lan), Anthong Wong (Superintendent Wong Ching-shi), Eric Tseng (Hon Sam, triad boss), etc. (Note: Tony Leung isn’t in the second film, and Andy Lau appears only briefly.)
    Infernal Affairs

    I’ve had this trilogy on my list for a while now. I was interested in this because I thought that the second and third films were basically the same story with different endings or other changes. But I was mistaken.

    I’ll briefly sum up the films:

    The first film involves the police and triad taking young members of their group and cultivating them to become moles. I thought it was entertaining, but not exceptional.

    The second film is a prequel of sorts. I liked this better–mainly because they fleshed out the relationship and developed the two characters I liked best–Wong and Sam.

    The third film mostly proceeds after the first film, while adding two new major characters–an officer from the intelligence sector (national?) and a mysterious, ex-military figure from mainland China.

    A few general comments:

    Eric Tseng’s triad boss was interesting in that he’s more like avuncular and affable–someone you expect as sad sack and/or bungling character in a comedy. He never really conveyed a lot of menace, but he was still pretty effective in spite of this.

    (According to some of the comments I heard from the filmmakers, they also wanted Tony Leung to be more happy, as opposed to constantly stressed out–thereby avoiding well-worn approach. This didn’t hurt the performance, but I didn’t think it added a lot either–and I say this as someone who really like Tony Leung Chiu-wai.)

    One problem I had: The film has different actors play the younger versions of the two main characters. The younger versions about about 10 years younger or less, and they look really different from Lau and Leung. This wasn’t a major problem, but I would haven’t liked a better solution to this.

  11. Irish Wish (2024)

    Lindsay Lohan, Ed Speleers, Ayesha Curry, Elizabeth Tan, Alexander Vlahos. Written by Kirsten Hansen. Directed by Janeen Damian. Streaming on Netflix.

    Paul Kennedy is an Irish writer of romantic novels. Maddie Kelly is his editor, and she is in love with him, but Paul is marrying Maddie’s best friend Emma. Days before the wedding, a fairy grants Maddie her wish, and now she is about to marry Paul instead. However, she has now (in two separate meet-cutes) met someone a lot more interesting.

    Irish Wish is silly, predictable and mildly entertaining. If you don’t care much for romantic comedies, you’ll probably hate it. If you love romantic comedies, you’ll think it’s not a total waste of 90 minutes.

    Lindsay Lohan is a talented actor still finding her space as a middle-aged leading lady. She channels Drew Barrymore in this role, and although it works, kind of, I’d much rather have seen a grown-up interpretation of Lohan’s Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap characters, with that sensible, down-to-earth likeability, rather than Barrymore’s starry-eyed head in the clouds.

    The movie scores a few points with me for making the Asian Best Friend and Black Best Friend tropes sliiiiiightly less problematic, and for a few small literary references. I don’t have many dealbreakers (at my age, one cannot afford many dealbreakers), but I am a writer, and if I discover my fiancé does not know who my favorite writer is just a few days before our wedding, I am going to have a very serious talk – with myself. Irish Wish respects the importance of such things.

    None of the characters is very well defined, which can make chemistry in a romantic comedy a tough sell. There is only enough convincing chemistry here where it matters most, so when we finally get the kiss, it’s at least believable. This is a rom-com’s minimum qualification, earning the film a 5 out of 10 (51/100) from me – just about average.

  12. Thief (1981)
    Dir. Michael Mann
    Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, James Belushi, Robert Prosky, etc.
    75/100

    Thief

    Macho soap opera is the descriptor I used the first time I saw this. That is, if a male made a soap opera for men Thief would be the type of film one could expect, not just in terms of the depiction of males, but the way they interact with females in a romantic context. Specifically, the film is more of a macho fantasy that a realistic drama.

    I think that description is still fairly apt, except the filmmaking is stylish and not cheap, particularly the filming of vehicles moving through the urban landscape and the Tangerine Dream score. (The latter was one of the more interesting aspects of the film.)

    Those expecting a great action or heist film may be disappointed. I don’t think the film is exceptional in either sense. What I liked was one of the main themes/ideas behind the main character–namely, the way he had to not care about anything to survive. That is, he has to empty himself of any attachment or desire in order to survive in prison and overcome a threat from the mob. The idea echoes a philosophy I’ve encountered with Miyamoto Musashi or books on Bushido.

    Here’s an example of the filmmaking I liked. (This scene and others also reminded me of shots from Blade Runner.)

  13. For my film review column in the staff newsletter (now entering its eighth year) four months ago, I ranked films in the Alexander Payne filmography. Probably my favorite working director. Then today, Paste ranked the same films. Here’s my ranking.

    1.
    Sideways (2004), with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh. One of my 10 favorite films of all time, it’s just a wonderful character study with terrific dialogue and gorgeous cinematography. Payne won an Oscar for its screenplay; Haden Church and Madsen got supporting actor and actress nominations; Giamatti was feloniously snubbed for his acting.

    2.
    Nebraska (2013), with Will Forte, Bruce Dern, and June Squibb. A heartbreaker of a film and the second-funniest on this list at the same time. Dern thinks he has won a sweepstakes, so his son Forte drives him to Nebraska to claim a prize everyone knows isn’t real. It’s tender and sweet and maddening because I wish I wrote this. Nominated for six Oscars.

    3.
    The Descendants (2011), with George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, and Judy Greer, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. We’ve all seen a lot of movies set in Hawai‘i. The Descendants is the one that most looks like the actual Hawai‘i you and I live in. This is some of Clooney’s best comedic and dramatic acting. Nominated for five Oscars.

    4.
    The Holdovers (2023), with Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa. Giamatti is a grouchy teacher at a New England boarding school in the 70s forced to spend winter break watching the students who have nowhere to go for the holidays. It’s a film about unlikely connections and the heartbreaks we each carry with us. Nominated for five Oscars.

    5.
    Election (1999), with Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. A hilariously dark film about high-school politics. As a former high-school teacher, I am appalled by everyone’s behavior and don’t think anyone would actually behave this way, but a tiny part of me is also titillated and thrilled because it wouldn’t take much to set this stuff in motion. It’s a reminder that very often there is just the tiniest balance keeping our better selves from becoming our worst selves. Eek! Nominated for one Oscar, but Broderick and Witherspoon both offer fantastic performances.

    6.
    Citizen Ruth (1996) with Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kelly Preston, and Burt Reynolds. A very funny, very sharp stab at both sides of a certain polarizing social issue. It’s not about the issue itself, but about the fanaticism the issue inspires. It’s Payne’s first major film and I’m amazed and impressed by how audacious it is. Creative, thoughtful, surprising.

    7.
    Downsizing (2017), with Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, and Kristen Wiig. Critics and audiences gave this box-office bomb mixed reviews, but I genuinely like it for its ambition and sensitivity. Science can now shrink people to about five inches in height, and Damon’s $100,000 savings is now worth $3 million if he downsizes and lives in a tiny city under a dome, where money goes a lot further. It doesn’t quite succeed, but I admire the creative ambition. Nominated for one Oscar.

    8.
    About Schmidt (2002), with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. Nominated for two Oscars it didn’t deserve, this is the only film on the list I don’t care for. It has its charms but feels aimless, although it’s still well-directed, and I might be missing something because people seem to love it.

    PASTE:
    1. Election
    2. About Schmidt
    3. Nebraska
    4. Sideways
    5. Citizen Ruth
    6. Downsizing
    7. The Holdovers
    8. The Descendants

    https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/alexander-payne/every-alexander-payne-movie-ranked

    1. The Holdovers sounds like a film you would like, and so your moderate rating cools my interest in it (not that my interest was all that hot).

      In addition to that film, I haven’t seen Downsizing, and Citizen Ruth. I like the premise of the former, so I’ve been mildly interested in that. But the lukewarm reaction to the film suggests that it wasn’t that good. (The again, I was recently re-watching Devil in a Blue Dress which also got a lukewarm reaction when it first screened, and I think that was a terrific film, although I haven’t finished watching it.)

      As for Citizen Ruth, I like Laura Dern, so that’s still on my list.

      1. The only film on the list I don’t care for is About Schmidt. I’m very fond of the rest, including The Holdovers, which I bought on Blu-Ray the day it was released. 🙂

    2. For me the films range from OK to a little more than that–at least in terms of my enthusiasm for them. The one possible exception is Election–which I may not have loved, but stood out as something more interesting, original, and spicy; the other films seem bland in comparison.

  14. The Baker’s Wife (1938)
    Dir. Marcel Pagnol
    Starring: Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Fernand Charpin, Robert Vattier, Robert Bassac (schoolteacher), etc.
    87/100

    The Baker's Wife

    Before watching this film, I read an astonishing claim about one of the actors. According to Orson Welles, either Raimu was the greatest actor of all time or this was one of the greatest performances. Raimu? I never heard of him, nor do I recall seeing him in any films. Of all the discussions and comments about great actors, including French ones, I can’t recall ever hearing his name. Could Welles be right? I was skeptical, and this moderated my expectations, although I was curious to see him perform.

    When Raimu first appears on screen, and for what felt like a considerable amount of time, his performance never challenged my moderate expectations. It was fine, either exceptional or poor–solidly establishing that his character matched his name (Aimable).

    I’ll say more about his performance, but let me say a bit about the movie. A New baker, Aimable (Raimu), arrrives in small French town, replacing a poor one. His beautiful, young wife, Aurelie (LeClerc) accompanies him, and eventually their marriage is tested in some way.

    **
    It’s rare that film from this time period can really resonate or entertain me the way this one did. No doubt my enjoyment of the film stems a little from low expectations, but I don’t think that explains everything. The acting, not just by Raimu, but several of the other actors, and the dialogue were really good. (The film makes me more interested in Marcel Pagnol, whole is a playwright.) My guess is that the film would entertain modern audiences, at least those who could overcome any prejudices against older, black-and-white films with subtitles.

    ***
    So what about the verdict on Raimu? My response: Orson Welles’s claim is not outlandish. Again not having high expectations probably helped. Additionally, Raimu, early on establishes his character’s good-natured, and mild mannered personality, while also not giving into suspicions or jealousy. Later when we see an eruption of anger and pathos, it not only surprised me, but it was also natural and believable–all of which gave greater impact to those moments.

  15. In the past week or so, I saw several Asian-American documentaries playing on the Criterion Collection, and one on PBS. Here are some quick comments of each:

    My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha (1997)
    Dir. Renee Tajima-Pena

    A film that finds Asian Americans in different parts of the country and tells their stories, while also interweaving Tajima-Pena’s personal history. The film does focus quite a bit on one Asian American, the actor Victor Wong. The sense I get is that Tajima-Pena started out with the basic framework I describe above, but Wong’s life and story seemed really interesting–and perhaps he gave a lot more of his time than she expected–that half the film feels like a biography of Wong. The film was interesting, but it’s a bit uneven and not really unified.

    I Was Born But… (2004)
    Dir. Roddy Bogawa

    Part performance film–of Bogawa as a vocalist in an L.A. punk rock band–and part documentary on 80’s L.A. and NYC. There are some nice visuals at times, and the one thing I liked about Bogawa’s vocals is that it sounds like a California Asian, with a quite, breathy style that is completely unlike any other punk vocals I’ve heard.

    Ultimately, I didn’t really care for it, but that’s partly due to being so unfamiliar with the punk groups that Bogawa discusses.

    95 and 6 to Go (2016)
    Dir. Kimi Takesue

    Takaeue hangs out and films her 95 year old grandfather who lives in Hawai’i. Takesue is working on a feature-length film, and she has her grandfather read the script and give her suggestions. It’s a charming idea, and while there are a few interesting moments, for the most part, I would say the idea is better than the actual results. The film’s pacing is a big slow as well. In spite of these deficiencies, by the end, I found the grandpa really likable and charming. I also liked that the film captures a local Japanese old man (in a way that’s different from Mr. Miyagi).

    Twinsters (2015)
    Dir. Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto

    I don’t think I can describe this without giving away details that I think would be better left unknown to viewers, but I’ll just say that it starts with Samantha Futerman, an ethnically Korean adoptee, who is also an aspiring actor. The first third or half of the film kept me really engaged, but the film lost a little steam after that. But it was still mildly entertaining and interesting.

    Halving the Bones (1995)
    Dir. Ruth Ozeki

    Ozeki attends her grandmother’s funeral in Japan and brings back a few bones of her grandmother for her mother, who could not (or would not) attend. But Ozeki doesn’t give the bones to her mother for a while, partly or mainly because she’s a bit estranged from her. The film follows Ozeki as she finally makes the journey to see her mom.

    However, much of the film focuses on her grandmother and grandfather (the parents of Ozeki’s mom). Ozeki shoots a lot of this in old black and white prints, slightly reminiscent of Guy Maddin, while also using old photographs. I really liked these visual elements. To me they were the best part of the film.

    Asian Americans (2017)
    Produced by Renee Tajima-Pena

    A comprehensive series about Asian-Americans is a massive and challenging project. Finding focus and coherence seem like impossible tasks. Tajima-Pena doesn’t really succeed, but the series was satisfying overall.

  16. The Marseille Trilogy
    Marius (1931)
    Dir. Alexander Korda
    Fanny (1932)
    Dir. Marc Allegret
    Cesar (1936
    Starring: Raimu (Cesar Olivier), Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny), Fernand Charpin (Honore Panisse), Alida Rouf (Honorine Cabinis), Paul Dellac/Auguste Mourriès (Escartefigue), Alexandre Mihalesco (Piquoiseau), Robert Vattier (Brun), Édouard Delmont (Dr Félicien Venelleet), etc.

    The Marseille Trilogy

    The Marcel Pagnol films, streaming on the Criterion Channel, have been one of most pleasant surprises this year. For one thing, I don’t expect films from the 30s (or earlier) to entertain me to the same degree as Hollywood movies from subsequent decades. It’s kind of shocking when it happens. The Baker’s Wife and The Marseille Trilogy, which I recently watched shocked me. (I actually almost gave up on the series, primarily because I mistakenly watched the second film first.)

    What I find interesting about these films is the way they made me think of TV shows–specifically family dramas and to a lesser degree family-based sitcoms. The trilogy feels like a precursor to these TV shows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they served as an inspiration to some people like Norman Lear. (Speaking of inspiration, Raimu’s Cesar seems like the model for Jackie Gleeson’s Ralph Cramden.) The films have a similar sensibility, in terms of drama and comedy and would appeal to a similar audience. The recurring support cast also makes this films feel many TV shows that would follow. Finally, visually, particularly the sets, also feels like early TV shows, where the sets and look and feel like a play.

    One last thing. I enjoyed the acting–particularly of Raimu and the larger-than-life character he creates, a character n the vein of Ralph Cramden, but maybe even someone like Archie Bunker (although the characters are very different). Orane Demazis also stood out for me, particularly her crying.

  17. Space is the Place (1972)
    Dir. John Coney
    Starring: Sun Ra, etc.
    67/100

    Space is the place

    I don’t know if this is a good movie or not, but I did interest me, although until recently I would have thought this movie was awful. This is a 70’s B-movie, arguably a blaxploitation film, although a very different (read: thoughtful) one. In some ways the film reminds me of Melvin van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Both films are interesting because they’re so different from most other Hollywood films, and while the craftsmanship, from the acting, writing, cinematography, set pieces, is B-movie quality, both films have a coherent vision and original voice.

    For whatever reason, I passed over Sun Ra and his music, when investigating free jazz. Maybe his odd character (e.g., he claimed he was born on another planet) and the EWF, sci-fi costumes he and his Arkestra donned killed my interest. Whatever the reason, I’ve now discovered that he actually has some interesting ideas behind these odd elements surrounding him. For example, in a discussion with some black youth, Ra explains that black people are myths, they’re not real. If they were real they would be treated with more dignity; they wouldn’t be struggling for basic rights. In ways that I don’t fully understand, Ra seems to link this to myths of the past (e.g., Egyptian), with him serving as a connection to these myths. Ultimately, the goal is to find some liberation for black people–a spiritual “place”–i.e., state of mind/being–where blacks can find dignity and respect that whites experience. Music is one, or the, primary vehicle to achieving this. Hokey? Maybe–but the idea that music, or art, can transport people to a different state or different perspective isn’t so far-fetched to me. (I’m skeptical that the effect could be long-lasting and deep for large numbers of people.)

    Oh one other thing. Ra speaks of another planet where black people can go to, without whites, and find dignity and respect, and this is the link with (outer) space. My guess is that Ra means this in a metaphorical way, and that music is again the best vehicle for arriving at this place.

    I don’t think the film expresses these ideas in an aesthetically successful way, but I think Ra’s ideas are interesting, and the desire for respect and dignity for black people are totally worthy.

  18. Oddly, I recently re-watched Smokey and the Bandit. I say odd because while I enjoyed the movie when it first came out, soon afterward I lost completely interest in it, and remained indifferent. I guess because it appeared on Netflix I was mildy curious if it would appeal to me on any level.

    Here are some general thoughts:

    • The movie is not great, but it has Reynolds’s charisma, and the good chemistry with Fields and with Jerry Reed. (Based on Reed’s performance in this film and Survivors, where he surprisingly plays a menacing villain, I thought Reed should’ve been in more movies.)
    • On Jackie Gleason is meh in this. I don’t recall thinking much of his performance–specifically, I don’t recall finding him funny. The humor fails, and his rants leave me cold. It’s like his an Archie Bunker that evokes zero laughs and zero sympathy.
    • Some explicitly sexist and gauche sexual remarks stood out–specifically, when Bandit explains why he gave Fields’s character the handle, Frog, he mentions something about want to jump her. There’s another time when Reed’s character says, “She’s got a nice ass,” (referring to Fields), clearly loud enough for her to hear.
    • The firebird no longer appeals to me in the same way when I first saw this, but it’s still kinda cool. Or maybe I liked the nostalgia it evoked?
  19. Brats (2024)
    Dir. Andrew McCarthy
    66/100

    Andrew McCarthy interviews some of his fellow brat-packers in this documentary. A film for Gen Xers who liked and/or were strongly affected by the John Hughes-type of films in the 80s.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a great film, but there is a nostalgia factor that made it appealing. McCarthy meeting these actors reminded me of my meeting with some of my former high school classmates. Even if I haven’t them in a long time, there is a good feeling and significant connection that I feel.

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