Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969) movie poster

director John Schlesinger
viewed: 04/27/2016

What movie won Best Picture at the Oscars the year you were born?  This bit of random trivia links John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and I.  And though I had never seen it before, I was well aware of the film, from many points of culture, but notably from issue #134 of Mad Magazine (1970) which featured a parody titled “Midnight Wowboy”.  I wonder how many movies I experience first as a Mad Magazine parody?

The only X-rated film to win Best Picture, it’s an item very much of its changing times, a portrait of America, American dreams, big city blues, somewhat abstract storytelling, and a compelling friendship that may also be a tacit love relationship.  Of course, that latter thing is between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), the tubercular, gimpy greaseball.  As Buck’s story unreels in flashbacks, I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, though the image of sexual exploitation is clear enough.

It deals with homosexuality in a way that was no doubt daring for its time, but also probably very emblematic of it.  I think it’s funny that it was the film’s “homosexual frame of reference” that nabbed it its X-rating.  Typical, quite typical.  Buck and Rizzo’s relationship, and the performances by both Voight and Hoffman, cement the film and have made iconic if somewhat cartoonish figures as ultimately iconic as those roles have been taken.

That Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin'” number nails the vibe at the beginning of the film and then about 15 minutes in starts wearing super thin (before disappearing until the end again).

It’s a well-made film, and entertaining enough.  But I don’t think I totally loved it.  I can say that this is one I can finally check off the lifelong movie bucket list at last.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Woman in the Dunes (1964) movie poster

director  Hiroshi Teshigahara
viewed: 04/26/2016

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes has the quality of a parable to it.  Though it is set in what would have been contemporary Japan of 1964, it is also set in a timeless placeless place, a fantasy nightmarish hell of endless sand and endless time.

A teacher and amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) exploring the seaside dunes for beetles and other insects finds himself stranded when he misses the last bus back to the city.  Seemingly friendly villagers set him up with a place to stay.  Oddly, it’s a house in a hole in the ground where a woman (Kyōko Kishida, our lady of the dunes) lives, digging sand for the villagers and fighting the sand from swallowing her house (it has already claimed her husband and child.)

Like the antlions Okada captures, he too is caught in a sand trap.  Because it is a trap, an unending Sisyphean existence, metaphorical yet oddly vague.  Teshigahara’s camera lingers on the movement of the sand, the grit and shine of each speck as it clings to Kishida’s throat, or as it cascades in sheets tumbling into the hole.  Utterly sensual and sensuous, there is something tender to this trap, but something entirely existential as well.

This was the second of four films that Teshigahara made from the work of Kōbō Abe with Abe’s collaboration.  Of the four the only one I’d seen was the also remarkable The Face of Another (1966).

I have a feeling I’ll be contemplating this film for some time to come.

Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966)

Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966) movie poster

director Larry Buchanan
viewed: 04/25/2016

Some bad movies are just a lot more fun than other bad movies.  For my money, Curse of the Swamp Creature is nigh sublime bad movieness.

It comes from Larry Buchanan, a titan in a cinematic teapot.  Buchanan, a Texan, was hired in the 1960’s to shoot cheap color remakes of American International Pictures originals from the 1950’s.  These included titles like In The Year 2889 (remake of The Day The World Ended), Creature of Destruction (remake of The She Creature), Attack of the Eye Creatures (remake of Invasion of the Saucer Men) and Zontar, the Thing From Venus (remake of It Conquered The World).  Per 1000misspenthours.comCurse of the Swamp Creature is itself a re-make of 1956’s Voodoo Woman.

While the film “stars” John Agar and Francine York, since we’re still working with my money here, I’ll say the real star is Jeff Alexander, who could pass for Hunter S. Thompson’s more svelte younger brother, as Dr. Simond Trent, resident mad scientist, alligator farmer, and amphibio-human enthusiast.  The whole film is shot with post-production sound synching and is a madcap camp comedy at every turn, and yet Dr. Trent is a genuinely interesting screwball scientist and good villain.

And somehow, perhaps due to the color requirements of re-making these B and lower grade pictures, Curse of the Swamp Creature features good-looking and clean photography in full color.  Perhaps best appreciated in the film’s final moments when the creature finally appears in its greenish glory.

Knowing the backstory of Buchanan’s re-making of AIP’s 1950’s fare, it all makes a lot more sense why this looks like an odd color version of a Roger Corman production a decade out of time with no improvements added in at all.  The result is something transcendentally camp, a pure late-night trek into a psychotronic cinema fantasia of badness and weirdness in equal doses.

My other favorite fact I uncovered in reading up on the film is this:

“The movie was filmed in Uncertain, Texas where the Fly-N-Fish Lodge and Airport seen in early scenes still exists.”

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) movie poster

director Christopher B. Landon
viewed: 04/22/2016

An almost completely terrible horror-comedy from director/co-writer Christopher B. Landon.  It looks like something that might have been adapted from a comic book or something but oddly enough, this is an original screenplay/idea.

In its favor are a couple of practical effects that wind up to be rather amusing, in particular the zombie cats and their paws beneath the door.  A strip club called “Lawrence of A-Labia” and…well, maybe that’s it.

What’s most perplexing here is how little “scouting” plays into the survival of these teenagers in their own zombie apocalypse.  Three teen scouts do indeed find themselves in a zombie world, one in which zombies change quickly and run fast otherwise somewhat generic.  Their friendship and survival skills empower them to befriend a stripper, oh sorry, “cocktail waitress” with a heart of gold and a real hand with a shotgun.  But really, the whole scouting thing gets such short shrift as skills (outside of escaping a jail cell via tied together condoms — which patch was that?)

Beyond all that I was thinking to myself how little this film felt beholden to creating anything like “reality”.  The characters, tropes, and scenarios are cliché, could have been recut from any number of bad television shows, but don’t reflect any naturalistic reality to which one could relate.  I kind of doubt it’s worth the effort to try to explain that better or to think about this movie any more than has been necessary.

My kids thought it sucked too.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 04/19/2016

I’m still working my way through Preston Sturges, and thusly I am still working my way to reckoning my overall feelings about him.  The first of his films I saw was the absolutely terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  The next of his films I saw was The Lady Eve (1941) which had some qualities, but I felt it flopped hard on Henry Fonda, who just didn’t feel right in the comic lead.  More recently, I watched The Palm Beach Story (1942), which was a lot of fun and featured Joel McCrea who had also starred in Sullivan’s Travels.

Why say all this before saying a word about Unfaithfully Yours?  I think because Unfaithfully Yours, while having a lot of interesting things in it, actually being really interesting and clever overall, falls flattest when asking star Rex Harrison to be particularly funny in a physical manner.  It’s been several years since watching Fonda in The Lady Eve but that’s my key memory of the film is him just landing hard and flat.  Maybe Sturges is best when he’s got the right actor in place.  Maybe that’s not always Joel McCrea?

Unfaithfully Yours is a dark screwball comedy about a famous musical conductor (Harrison) who comes to suspect his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of cheating on him with his his valet (Kurt Kreuger).  These suspicions are sprung upon him much against his personal belief but eventually take over his mind, which leads him into fantasies of murder and revenge, all set to musical numbers he is conducting at a live concert.

These three fantasies are the film’s most interesting conceit, each coming as the camera zooms into Harrison’s eye as the musical number he is conducting gets underway and then cuts to a scene supposedly post-concert.  The first of these isn’t entirely clearly a fantasy until some ways in as the plot becomes arch and silly, following a convoluted set-up of recording himself with a acetate record machine and then slashing his wife and framing his valet.  The murder itself is kind of shocking and brutal (even if happening out of frame) and this flavors the film with its darkness.

As each sequence starts anew, we come to recognize the fantasy as fantasy, but when the concert ends, Harrison hurries back to his apartment to attempt to live out each of the strange delusions, failing miserably with each and busting up the apartment as he struggles with technology in what could have been funny, but falls, as I’ve said, flat.

It’s weird because Harrison is good in other sequences and scenes, but I the big finale flops for me, lessening the film.  Overall, it’s very interesting, even its dark tenor, which could be ripe for analysis could have worked.

Apparently this was late in Sturges’s career, having switched studios from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox in a deal while not as disastrous as Buster Keaton’s move, was apparently a death knell for Sturges overall.

Like I said, I’m still trying to get my read on Sturges.  More to come.

Blood and Lace (1971)

Blood and Lace (1971) movie poster

director Philip S. Gilbert
viewed: 04/17/2016

It’s the hard knock life for the kids of the Deere Children’s Home, though these kids aren’t little ones, but oddly “kids” beneath the age of 21, for some reason still “underage” wards of the state.  These orphans aren’t bent on musical numbers and flouting Miss Hannigan’s drunken shenanigans.  No, they’ve got bigger fish by whom to fear being fried.

This is a proto-slasher of unusual derivation, falling aesthetically right between the 1960’s and 1970’s, and rated GP (a short-lived predecessor to PG).  It stars Gloria Grahame (still quite attractive in middle-age despite the styles of the time) as the evil Mrs. Deere, proprietress of the orphanage and Vic Tayback as detective Calvin Carruthers, who seems to care perhaps about the kids of the county who wind up there.  Seems that is.  These kids can really pick their adult poisons, whether it’s Tayback or Grahame or even sleazy handyman Len Lesser, getting a hammer to the head or preserved in the deep freeze, many pitfalls abound.

The film opens with a long first-person sequence that is kind of interesting, eventually first-person with hammer (“hammer-vision”?), an innovation that would be appropriated to greater effect in other films.

While the title seems to echo Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace (1964)), there is more an air of Hitchcock than Bava about it, or at least a striving for Hitchcock, most notably Psycho (1960) perhaps.  The ending provides for an “out of left field” surprise, a twisty twist that just adds further layers of weird slime to this odd portrait of America’s at risk orphans of 1971.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) movie poster

director Carl Theodor Dreyer
viewed: 04/16/2016

It’s hard to find a list of the best silent films ever made that doesn’t have Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently placed, most often in the top ten (heck, The Guardian even places it at #1).  Expanded lists not limited to its place in the Silent Era often include the film too, particularly the more scholarly or at least historically aware.

Dreyer’s camera hangs on tight close-ups of the face of his Joan, Renée Jeanne Falconetti in a performance also considered among cinema’s greatest.  Joan had recently been canonized, elevated to iconic status for both the Catholic church and the nation of France, legendary martyr and devout heroine, and Dreyer based the film’s story and dialog on the transcripts of her trial in Rouen in 1431, ending with her death, burned alive before a crowd that immediately reacts in recognition of her sainthood.

I’d long intended to see this film, but never had before Saturday, when I watched it with my kids.  I’d been holding out in hopes of seeing it on the big screen, but I don’t know that is really necessary for this film.  The whole film almost is in close-up, or medium close-up.  The power resonates from Falconetti’s visage, the cruel faces of her tormentors, and some of the film’s other more unusual moving shots.

What more is there to say?  It’s indeed a remarkable film.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) movie poster

director Luis Buñuel
viewed: 04/15/2016

Luis Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire was adapted from Pierre Louys’ 1898 novel La Femme et le Pantin, a novel which had been adapted before by Josef von Sternberg as The Devil Is a Woman (1935) and then by Julien Duviver under its original title.  Though I’ve never seen either of those film versions nor read the novel, it seems clear that That Obscure Object of Desire is an entirely Buñuelian picture, no matter the source material or other interpretations.

It’s the kind of story that on the surface could be entirely problematic pretty easily.  It’s the story of an older well-to-do man (Fernando Rey) falling for a young not-so-well-to-do young beauty (a girl named Conchita who is played alternatively by two actresses Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina at different points).  Conchita is a consummate tease, leading him on, and then abandoning him, at times on moral grounds, at others as an intentional act of torment.

Instead of becoming some reductive power game fantasy, or even being a harsh skewering of the rich and privileged, it’s a nuanced and odd and inscrutable thing.  The story is layered within a retelling through flashbacks, retold for an audience, mixing titillation and comeuppance in contrast with any overt moralizing.  A subtext of random terrorist attacks (interestingly quite a contrast to our present day perceptions of terrorism) adds a layer of further oddity that extends the film further in its obscuring its objects.

Luis Buñuel’s genius is as sharp and provocative and masterful as ever.  Late films for major directors often seem compromised works in one or many ways, but I don’t think that can or should be said at all about That Obscure Object of Desire.  Its complexity and vision are as rich and keen as could be.  I find myself more and more compelled by Buñuel with every picture of his I see.

The Great Silence (1968)

The Great Silence (1968) movie poster

director Sergio Corbucci
viewed: 04/13/2016

Considered one of the finest films in the Spaghetti Western grouping, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is indeed a very substantial work.  Watching it today, it’s easy to see from whence Quentin Tarantino lifted elements of the first part of his recent film The Hateful Eight (2015) in his eclectic way as both homage and appropriation.  It’s also easy to see why this film would be such a touchstone, a favorite of director Alex Cox (a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns) as well.

It stars Jean-Louis Trintingnant as the titular “Great Silence”, a variation on the “Man with No Name” figure of the style and genre.  Here he’s the Man with No Voice, as his vocal cords were cut by ruthless bounty hunters, to silence him in reporting on the murder of his family.  These heroes are usually “strong and silent” types, but he is absolutely muted, one of the first tips that Corbucci is twisting popular tropes in this film, eventually delivering something potentially utterly inverted.

I don’t know if it’s important to not know the ending before seeing the film, but I throw up a spoiler alert warning here if you haven’t seen the film or haven’t already read about its ending.  It’s always fresher to see it if you don’t know where it’s going or how it’s going to turn out.

Because the ending is something that it’s almost impossible to omit in talking about the film.

The villain is the always eerie and villainous Klaus Kinski, the most ruthless of the bounty hunters in the corrupted system in the Utah mountains.  In collaboration with the local banker, Kinski and his kind hunt the impoverished “outlaws” and bring them in dead for money, profiteering in one of the last moments of the Wild West.  And in this film, the West is won by the criminals.

The ending of the film brings the bloody death of “Silence” and the widow Pauline (Vonetta McGee), shot down in the street, irredeemably murdered, justice tossed aside.  It’s this pessimistic finale that cements the picture, a bleak criticism of Capitalism and the free market. (It was also apparently a reaction to the deaths of Che Guevera and Malcolm X for Cobucci.)

There is a lot more to the film, but I’ll leave it at that.  A “must see” for fans of the genre.

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 04/09/2016

It may not be among Billy Wilder’s best films, but I became enamored of The Seven Year Itch and have long counted it among my favorite movies.  Of that hardly complete nor organized list of favorites is the other Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe movie, the superior and wonderful Some Like It Hot (1959), which, unlike The Seven Year Itch, was a favorite since my earliest years.  My first movie star crush was on Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Either her or Julia Adams from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

I got hooked on The Seven Year Itch somewhere along the way in the 1980’s or 1990’s, catching it on AMC back when AMC played actual American movie classics uncut and uninterrupted by commercial.  It was one of those movies that I would stumble upon and wind up watching all the way through.  And I came to enjoy it more and more.

Tom Ewell is a lot of fun as the husband at home in New York City on his lonesome for the summer while his wife and “space cadet” kid are upstate on vacation.  His Walter Mitty-like fantasies run amok, imagining all kinds of affairs, both his and his wife’s, and other whimsies painted out.  But when Marilyn Monroe shows up as the sexy neighbor upstairs, in perhaps her most affable and iconic dumb blonde role, that seven year itch gets going.

Apparently, the film was tamed a good deal by the Hays office, stymieing the the sex into innuendo and declawing the story.  Still, Monroe is such a riveting screen presence, voluptuous and kittenish, a cartoon fantasy still alive in her reality.  I was a bit reminded of Tex Avery in the storytelling and style, like his T.V. of Tomorrow (1953), with the fantasy elements spreading out across the CinemaScope width.  Heck, even the joke in the film about CinemaScope.

One thing that annoyed me was the when the film opens, the version was in CinemaScope, featuring the animated credit sequence by Saul Bass (fantastic!), but then cropped down to a “normal” letterbox format.  Which was oddly bizarre.  Not fullscreen but still rectangular?  And the images were clearly all cropped with some really wonky bits.  Wilder was using the full scope of CinemaScope.  Super annoying in my humble little opinion.

This was a rainy day watch for me and the kids.  An unusual little streak of re-watching a handful of my favorite films and showing them to the kids for the first time.  I spend most of my time watching movies that I haven’t seen.

Still a favorite.