Viewing Diary August 2017

Entries run chronologically from bottom to top.

Night World (1932), directed by Hobart Henley

This sleazy melodrama is tangibly Pre-Code. Its one long night in a speakeasy teems with drunks, showgirls, gangsters, even a gay flirt in the bathroom. Babyfaced Lew Ayres tries to booze away memories of his Orestes-like past. (Dad slain by jealous mom.) Subplots bustle around him. Five people die in the bullet-riddled ending. Though it may break taboos and last a mere hour, this sort of theatrical nihilism can still be wearying to watch.

Final Destination 3 (2006), directed by James Wong

Here’s another daisy chain of dead suburban teens. Pulverized by a rollercoaster, incinerated in a tanning bed, shot to death by a nail gun. Classmates sob at their funerals. Per formula, they’ll all die one right after another. Not even the final girl, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is immune. Yet it’s hardly a sober affair. These movies, though grisly, are also inventive and brisk. They don’t waste time pretending the universe cares about you. This third entry crams sick jokes and split diopter shots into each phase of Winstead’s investigation. It surges forward, pace unyielding, to the next ironic death.

Miami Vice (2006), directed by Michael Mann

The digital photography looks like heartsick surveillance footage. John Murphy’s music is a heartbeat. These two undercover cops (Farrell, Foxx) ply their trade with minimal bravado, cool but never trying to be cool. Their every action movie action elicits a reaction, and each instance of gunplay carries consequences of its own. No real heroism in this 21st century To Have and Have Not; just hard work and star-crossed romance.

What Happened to Monday (2017), directed by Tommy Wirkola

Wrote about this for Film Freak Central.

Cover Girl (1944), directed by Charles Vidor

1940s musicals have this reputation as sterling exemplars of Dream Factory razzle-dazzle. But some of them suck. A case in point is this wisp of wartime fluff from Columbia. Rita Hayworth stars as a showgirl who becomes an overnight superstar, then has to decide between petulant boyfriend Gene Kelly and a boring Broadway impresario. The songs, a few of which hark back to vaudeville, are all second-rate. The gowns, lavish in Technicolor, amount to a dollop of visual pleasure amid a charmless love story. Cover Girl has but one transcendent number, a three-minute dance pitting Kelly against his own reflection on a studio set dressed like a melancholy street. Its self-loathing choreography prefigures a brilliant career.

Daisies (1966), directed by Věra Chytilová

Wrote about this for the Muriels.

Bellissima (1951), directed by Luchino Visconti

Love doesn’t have to be pretty, nor does it have to be kind. It can be noxious and grotesque, like the love of Anna Magnani’s maternal monster for her little girl. After a preliminary audition at Cinecittà, she becomes fixed on making her daughter a star. So she drags the reluctant actress to and fro, diverting her household budget toward dresses and dance lessons. Her lousy husband isn’t thrilled, nor are the studio’s employees, but she overwhelms them all with sheer willpower. She bawls, wheedles, sobs, and despairs. It’s a bruising tragicomedy, much too horrible not to watch.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924), directed by Raoul Walsh

This textbook racist fantasy takes place inside towering and intricately patterned sets. Walls, gates, lattices: every bit of architecture seems sturdy yet impossibly tall. Douglas Fairbanks in earrings and headband frolics nimbly around this gargantuan playground. His thief is a slab of beefcake in flowy pants. Like the princess’s other suitors, he spends the last and best third of the film off on a distant sidequest. Each monster slain gives way to another. Subsequent Arabian Nights adaptations (as well as Return of the Jedi) have drawn from that swashbuckling structure and those caricatured impressions of “the ancient East.”

Reality Bites (1994), directed by Ben Stiller

Emmanuel Lubezki is a year and a half older than Stiller. Both were in their late twenties when they collaborated, the former having spent the past several years in the Mexican film industry, the latter after intermittent work for SNL and MTV. Their work together is startling in its beauty. The photography emphasizes the peach-hued lamplight in this Houston apartment or the late evening sun cascading through its windows. About half an hour in, Stiller’s yuppie trysts in his car’s backseat with the pixie videographer played by Winona Ryder, and it’s staged as a long take, the camera easing toward them for a good three minutes. Half the film later, they fight, and it’s the inverse of that languid date. The camera keeps pace with the couple as they step from an elevator across a lobby then out through a revolving door. Few character-focused comedies (and honestly, few Ben Stiller movies) look this lovely.

The Bye Bye Man (2017), directed by Stacy Title

Mario Bava bathed scenes of terror in orange and purple half a fucking century ago. So why tell a ghost story all in gray or near-gray blues and greens? This whole decades-long saga of four cursed words has one solid sequence, right near the climax, as a man and a woman both endure sinister hallucinations. She sees him as her boyfriend; he sees her as a walking corpse. Shot and reverse shot alternate as she pursues him through the house. “I don’t understand—what are you doing?” she cries as he scrambles away from her, their reality interspersed between two discrete illusions. Then he stabs her with a pair of scissors, the boyfriend finally gets home, etc.

Rings (2017), directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez

A couple of college kids trace Samara’s curse to a small town in rural Washington. They investigate while staying at a B&B. Their sleuthing leads them to some cramped and wet locales subject to jump scares. Vincent D’Onofrio appears as a symbolically blind priest. It’s a long, rainy, dim, dull story. Some people watch the cursed video, by laptop or cell phone or flatscreen TV. Maybe next time somebody can screen a pristine 16mm print.

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