Category Archives: Cinema

M Musing

10 years ago I saw Fritz Lang’s M in an intro class on film history. I recall jotting down some notes about Nazism and early sound. Over the intervening decade I took its greatness for granted. Now, upon revisiting it, the film feels startling and fresh. Its structure remains radical, emphasizing forensic methodology for the first half and a tightening manhunt in the second. (Ostensible star Peter Lorre is onscreen for maybe a quarter of the film.) It’s more about the throng than the individual, with a George Grosz-like attention to urban disarray. How, ask both cops and criminals, do you monitor a populace? Despite its lurid narrative, M bears strong resemblance to Walter Ruttmann’s montage doc Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. It depicts the metropolis from top to bottom, indoors and out.

For a story of child murder, M also displays a sick sense of humor. The famed sequence of shots cutting from Elsie Beckmann’s newly bereaved mother to a stairwell, attic, dinner table, ball, and balloon isn’t exactly a joke, but it is droll, and its drollness is nauseating. Later in the film, Lorre’s Hans Beckert stalks a little girl past a row of shops, ducking into a doorway when her mom shows up. The two of them walking past while he faces away is a punchline familiar from dozens of slasher movies: the near-victim oblivious to her brush with death. More overt gags predominate during a police raid on an underground bar. One fugitive tries to sneak up a secret exit; when he sees a patrolman’s boots blocking it, he sneaks back, hanging up his hat with an air of resignation.

Lorre himself looks boyish with his bowtie and his egglike head. He’s cartoony rather than intimidating, a stranger in an overcoat, until the climactic burlesque of a trial renders him hysterical. This outsider (Außenseiter, says the Mabuse-like kingpin) is the right villain for a film of such supreme moral irony. Most of M digresses from the killings to the citywide panic they incite, revealing a spectacle of violence, hypocrisy, and fear. Yet it’s subtle, each segment snapping into the next, all part of the broader investigation. The film was a trailblazing procedural, and it lays its subject bare. What is police procedure? It’s how people with power get things done.

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2017: Rebirths and Afterlives

Person to Person, Colossal, Lady Bird, The Ornithologist

I adore this time of year. It’s the time when we write out short lists to memorialize the past twelve months. The selections don’t matter, nor does the order; the point is simply to remember. “#10 was the first new movie I saw this year, at the multiplex, with a coworker who’s since moved out of state. I ran to a screening of #2 right after scarfing down some pita and hummus.” Each entry represents a pocket of time I lingered in. The year’s ten best pockets of time.

I enjoyed the following ten movies almost as much as the ones I’ve listed below: Call Me by Your NameColossalGirls TripGood TimeLady BirdLogan LuckyThe OrnithologistPerson to PersonSong to Song, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The new Twin Peaks, on the other hand, I enjoyed even more than the titles below. It may have aired in weekly installments on Showtime, but it’s still essential to any conversation about the state of filmmaking in 2017. May as well call it my real #1! It moved and thrilled and shook me unlike anything else in recent memory.

Here’s a supplementary list of ten performances: Betty Buckley, articulate as a psychotherapist, and the protean James McAvoy playing against her in Split; Harris Dickinson, implosive with self-loathing in Beach Rats; two turns by Michael Fassbender, as the smarmy villains of Song to Song and Alien: Covenant; Milla Jovovich’s valedictory sprint through Resident Evil: The Final Chapter; Barry Keoghan as a teenage sprite barely veiling his hostility in The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Keanu Reeves, put through his paces again in John Wick: Chapter 2; Lady Bird’s callous, precocious, and heartbreaking Saoirse Ronan; newcomer Millicent Simmonds and her silent movie acting in Wonderstruck; octagenarian Lois Smith playing her age as Marjorie of Marjorie Prime; and Adrian Titieni, slouching and gloomy as a bad dad in Graduation.

Now onto the list:

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Viewing Diary December 2017

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A Cincinnati hospital with tall, white walls lends itself to Steadicam shots. A preoccupation with arbitrary rules and numbers recalls Lanthimos’ earlier, funnier work with co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The first half is enigmatic, enticing, with intimations of iniquity. (Who is the doctor to this boy?) The rest of it dispenses with intimation. Debasement’s not intrinsically amusing or profound, even when it strikes a bourgeois family. A dismal hand job, a bite to the arm? These funny games are glib and gross and only mildly clever.

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2017

Heaven’s Gate

I love making these lists. They’re tokens from the past year of moviegoing. I can skim the titles below and remember all these occasions of realizing, “Oh, this movie’s good.” I can recall the power of performances by Toni Collette and Johnny Depp, Christine Lahti and little Stephen Dorff, Anna Magnani and José Mojica Marins, Sylvia Sidney and Keanu Reeves, Googie Withers and Dean Stockwell. As a fun addition this year, I’ve bolded a loose top ten—the cream of an already creamy crop.

About Elly (2009) · Antonia’s Line (1995) · Ariel (1988) · Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) · Bellissima (1951) · By the Law (1926) · Canon City (1948) · Compulsion (1959) · Contact (1997) · Cry-Baby (1990) · The Exiles (1961) · Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) · The Gate (1987) · Gates of Heaven (1978) · Giants and Toys (1958) · Girl with Green Eyes (1964) · Heaven’s Gate (1980) · Housekeeping (1987) · John Wick (2014) · The Keep (1983) · Lake Mungo (2008) · Limite (1931) · Lives of Performers (1972) · The Man I Love (1947) · The Marquise of O (1976) · Married to the Mob (1988) · Miami Vice (2006) · Miss Lulu Bett (1921) · Model Shop (1969) · Mr. Thank You (1936) · Muriel’s Wedding (1994) · Paranoid Park (2007) · Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) · A Portrait of Ga (1952) · Reign of Terror (1949) · Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) · Salem’s Lot (1979) · Saturday Night at the Baths (1975) · Shooting Stars (1928) · Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) · Speed Racer (2008) · Ten (2002) · There It Is (1928) · This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) · Trouble Every Day (2001) · Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) · The White Reindeer (1952) · The Thief of Bagdad (1924) · Working Girl (1988) · You and Me (1938)

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Viewing Diary November 2017

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Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), directed by Vincente Minnelli

Edward G. Robinson plays an expat directing an unpromising movie at Cinecittà. Kirk Douglas is his long-time leading man, summoned from rehab to be his proxy in the dubbing studio. Dysfunctional is too mild a word for their relationship, which resembles that of brothers or lovers or a father and son. Lurid is too mild a word for this showbiz melodrama, sour as a basket of lemons, corrosively misogynistic, grotesque in its plush reds and greens. It’s an acknowledgment that Minnelli’s generation was in decline, a new one ascendant. (Fellini, Antonioni, Godard—the latter an admirer of the film.) It’s an autocritique overgrown with style and perversely ahead of its time.

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Viewing Diary October 2017

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WNUF Halloween Special (2013), directed by Chris LaMartina et al

From beginning to end, this larkish pastiche simulates the texture of local TV news recorded to VHS. The “Halloween Special” of the title is an on-air séance that follows a studio preamble. A reporter leads a priest and a couple mediums deep into a haunted house. (Obviously, the scheme goes haywire.) Sprinkled throughout the program are commercial breaks, advertising a carpet warehouse, demolition derby, video store, strip club, etc. A few anti-drug PSAs, too, all of it meticulously chintzy. LaMartina and the other directors mix stock footage with material that’s newly shot. Most of it’s at least plausibly from the ’80s, though the excessive shoddiness can dip into full-on irony. The pacing, more than anything, approximates what it’s like to watch a real broadcast. Its delayed gratification is dead-on.

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Viewing Diary September 2017

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Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), directed by Robert Hamer

This gaslit noir intertwines the stories of a druggist’s family and a barkeep’s wife. They live in a world of shadows and top hats constructed on the Ealing lot. Starring as the wife is actress Googie Withers, whose delicate face is a world of its own. She’s cagey with sharp eyes and pursed lips that nonetheless betray her longing for love. Her beauty aches as she plots her husband’s murder, her womanhood a burden in a society run by men. It’s understated work that tilts the film’s ethical balance in her favor.

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