This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: Waiting for the Barbarians & The Book of Vision and the Abbas Kiarostami Feature Films: Certified Copy, Close Up, and The Wind Will Carry Us.
An intensely emotional two-hander about the dissolution of a marriage. Shot almost entirely with extreme close-ups, Bergman puts a couple’s years-long emotional odyssey under a microscope, taking intimacy between viewer and character to new heights.
Each installment recontextualizes what came before it in such devastating ways. In “Innocence and Panic”, Johan and Marianne’s interview with a magazine about their seemingly idyllic relationship feels merely like a foundation for the story to come. Later, we learn that not only has Johan been unfaithful, but also that Marianne is the last in their social circle to know, revealing that Marianne unwittingly humiliated herself by participating the interview. It’s thrown in new light again when it surfaces that Marianne was also unfaithful, albeit earlier in their marriage, which further complicates our understanding of who she is.
Also in episode one, Marianne has an abortion after accidentally getting pregnant. It’s much later that we learn their two kids were also the result of accidental pregnancies, which establishes the abortion as a sort of inciting event for the unwinding of their relationship. It’s their first act of resistance against expectations in years, made with themselves in mind, not others, and it leads them to contemplate what other decisions they’ve made for the sake of appearances and satisfying others.
Episode 4 – “The Vale of Tears” – is when the essence of the story crystallized for me. As Marianne shares entries from her diary with Johan, there’s a montage of photographs of Johan and Marianne throughout their lives. It’s one of the film’s most jarring visual transitions, and it suggests that the problems that infected Johan and Marianne’s relationship might be rooted in traits they acquired long before they ever met. Societal pressure to put others first, avoid conflict, repress desire and anger, and keep routine made them unprepared for the emotional turbulence that characterizes their relationship.
Anouk Aimée’s eponymous character Lola like the film is graceful, gorgeous, and effortless. Aspects equally shared in the choreography of the camera. The depth of field present in nearly every shot from Cinematographer Raoul Coutard adds detail to the life of the city and the interiors. This coupled with Demy’s unique blend of visual and narrative romanticism steeped in harsh circumstance is something you can practically taste.
Quick cuts, lingering moments, shadow cast walls, expert mirroring, nearly every window used as a source of light. It’s hard not to fall in love with Lola, just as easily as Marc Michel’s Roland does. Demy’s first feature length film follows two separated lovers Lola and Roland as they reconnect after a chance bump along an outdoor hall of businesses that like nearly every other scene in the film looks absolutely stunning.
Lola sprawls around the city and interiority of the characters without a lag, never getting sidetracked, or interrupted by communicating something pointless to the viewer verbally. Demy even early on understood well that showing instead of telling in filmmaking would serve his stories. Though it’s a debut, you can see all the early workings of a master, playing with the image, the narrative, the characters, and most of all the viewers expectations. As the first stepping stone of a career Lola soars to heights that many directors don’t achieve in their careers.
The final installment in Rohmer’s Moral Tales is the only one where the tempted male protagonist is actually married, and not only that, but rather happily so. Frederic is, however, a daydreamer. After commuting into Paris from the suburbs everyday and busying himself with work in the mornings, his mind tends to drift in the afternoon, the throngs of attractive women he passes on the street stirring in him a longing for first love again, even though he is maritally content. One of the film’s greatest sequences is of Frederic, as he sits in a cafe, imagining himself actually courting a series of women on the street, each of them played by key actresses from the previous Moral Tales.
He wants both, the newness and excitement he imagines feeling were he to take up with someone else, and the rhythm and comforts of loving familiarity with his wife. Rohmer’s suggestion that those desires exist in parallel, grating up against each other, drive a tension that’s only further magnified by the reemergence of Chloe, a woman out of Frederic’s past that he begins flirtatiously spending his afternoons with. Just like he reads different books at once to satisfy the desire for different forms of escape, he tries to do the same with Chloe and his wife, but it’s really just torture he’s inflicting upon himself, the temptation to sleep with Chloe felt every time they meet, but him never actually succumbing to the urge.
Relative to the other Moral Tales, here Rohmer strikes me as more sympathetic to his male lead. While in no way excusing Frederic’s flirting with Chloe behind his wife’s back (I spent a good deal of the movie feeling sad for her), he recognizes the conflicting, concurrent desires of married people, and reveals an optimism about happy marriages withstanding temptation. Rohmer does risk looking like he’s patting Frederic on the back in the end for not cheating on his wife, which bothers me, but the hopefulness and romance of the conclusion is moving nonetheless.
Fallen Angels originally existed as a third story to director Wong Kar-wai’s movie Chungking Express before he made the story its own movie; as such, it is practically impossible to separate the two upon watching. Chungking Express, divided neatly into halves, follows two cops in their charming quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Fallen Angels follows seedier characters in their desperate quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Its multiple stories weave and intertwine with each other throughout, as opposed to Chungking Express’ clean division, and the film feels more fragmented, though not in a bad way.
In both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a man named He Zhiwu: a cop in the formerand a mute delinquent in the latter; in both, his characters have a strong connection to cans of pineapple and expiration dates. (In Chungking Express, he tries to buy every can of pineapple that expires on May 1 in a desperate bid to connect to his ex-girlfriend; in Fallen Angels, he claims that eating an expired can of pineapple as a child made him mute.) The Midnight Express food stand and women in blonde wigs pop up in both films, parts of disparate storylines which only partially overlap, like ships in the night. And, of course, both films look gorgeous, full of the vigor and vibrancy Wong has such a knack for. Still, Fallen Angels stands well on its own.
It’s hard to properly describe the plot of Fallen Angels. There’s a hitman (Leon Lai) and his agent (Michelle Reis), who carefully makes the bed for her employee every day; there’s He Zhiwu, who goes around mutely bullying others into giving him money; there’s Blondie (Karen Mok), the woman with hair reminiscent of Brigitte Lin’s in Chungking Express, and her apparent friend Charlie (Charlie Yeung), though the two women never share screen time. They all drift through Hong Kong, affecting the other characters but never realizing it. These characters long for human connection, trying to hold onto precious memories and prevent them from slipping through their fingers, a running theme in Wong’s films and especially poignant here when He Zhiwu sits to watch tapes he made of his deceased father, or when Reis’ character combs through the hitman’s trash just to feel closer to him.
Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle—who shot the second half of Chungking Express along with several other Wong films—breathe a very different life into Hong Kong than shown in their earlier film. Still vibrant, still gorgeous, this Hong Kong has a sharper edge to it than its predecessor, which was more innocently romantic. Wong rarely lets his camera rest, instead opting for a more chaotic rhythm with his editing, reflecting the hectic lives of his characters and giving more heft to the moments when he decides to let the camera linger. He showcases his actors in a wide lens, slightly warping their faces; their features become the only thing we see, and Wong manages to make Hong Kong and the people in it near microscopic, giving us intimate access to the city’s beating heart.
Fallen Angels finds Wong further experimenting with time and space in his films—where Chungking Express was clearly bifurcated and its two stories only briefly overlapped, Fallen Angels jumps between its stories with little or no warning. Yet even with this irregular narrative, it is a testament to Wong’s abilities as a filmmaker that the film feels cohesive, for—as with Chungking Express—the main character isn’t the hitman, his agent, or He Zhiwu: it’s Hong Kong. Ironically, in focusing on only slivers of the city, Wong lets us know the whole better. We feel its inhabitants’ loneliness amidst a sea of people.
Where Chungking Express had an optimism to it with hints of sadness, Fallen Angels feels far darker, though never nihilistic. One of its main characters murders people for money, after all, but a movie whose final line is “But at that moment, I felt such warmth” is hard to classify as strictly a downer. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor or later Wong venture In the Mood for Love, because frankly, what movie could? But watching Fallen Angels, I felt such warmth.
After raising five kids over five decades of marriage, elderly Lucy and Barkley Cooper are separating. Not because they want to though. No, it’s that with Barkley out of work, he can’t keep up with the mortgage payments on their house anymore, and none of their grown kids have the wherewithal—or much of a desire—to take in both of their aging parents. The Cooper children aren’t intentionally being cruel, they’re just too preoccupied with their own lives and relationships now to put much thought into how they might keep their parents under the same roof. So Barkley goes to live with one of their daughters, Lucy goes with one of their sons, and since they’re still, after many many years, deeply in love, Lucy and Barkley’s hearts ache for each other.
The cold, snowy winter setting, which I loved, fits with the sadness at the film’s emotional core. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondie play Barkley and Lucy, and they’re both heartbreakers; their missing each other and disappointment with the situation they find themselves is profoundly poignant. McCarey’s direction is delicate and his rhythm unhurried as he cuts back and forth between husband and wife in their respective new homes, and his camera watches with a compassionate eye as Barkley and Lucy gradually come to the crushing realization that living together again might not be possible. But they do get one last night with each other before the physical distance between them becomes even greater, a romantic night out on the town where they relive their honeymoon with a little help from some generous strangers. It’s a beautiful ending to a beautiful movie.
Just as people flock to movies to escape the fearful thoughts of our current virus lockdown, moviegoers of the 1950s were flocking to movies to escape fearful thoughts of Cold War anxieties. Monster and alien films were especially popular, with the decade providing a slew of wondrous and crazy cinematic creatures attacking familiar, real world sights. One such creature was very simple but went a long way, just like the movie it stars in.
For those familiar with the notion of the 1950’s sci-fi monster movie plot, “The Blob” easily identifies with that. Suspense builds as a meteor falls to Earth and releases the creature into a small-town community. It’s as classic as it gets, while also doing some things different compared to what came before. The story is very fun, both in its execution and how it lives up to what we consider the standard blueprint of the genre. It’s an innocent and non-taxing plot to be enjoyed.
There are also some lively characters. Steve McQueen leads the pack in his breakthrough role, demonstrating even in this simple role how charming and talented he is. He’s a likable and well-meaning guy to track a monster with. Everyone else does a great job too, having well-defined personalities and organically developed skills. Aneta Corsaut deserves special mention for breaking the mold of stereotypical horror damsels and for being an active help to the plot.
What’s probably most remembered is the special effects. They are crude even for the time, but there is still craft and creativity on display. The actual Blob looks good in motion, with its dark red appearance and all the variety of ways the director portrays it. There are also creative uses of drawn animation, which aren’t too shabby either. Visually it remains unique and the charm of it rubs off in an appealing way. Fake for sure, but never without heart or intent.
Rounding it out is the overall mood itself. Most of that stems from its low budget production design, which wears its 1950’s setting with a badge of honor in hindsight. From the costumes to the cars, it does give a peek into how the world of small-town America went about life. Not to mention some funny dialog among the characters. A classic monster score over it all seals the deal, most especially the theme song that’s strangely swings for such a serious movie. Thanks, Burt Bacharach!
“The Blob” is the poster child for the 50′ alien monster movie. Whenever someone compares modern creature cinema or recalls a film of the era, they most likely are going to think of this one. It doesn’t have the budget or name recognition of its peers, but that doesn’t matter when all in all, it’s so darn fun. It’s entertaining all the way through. If you want something more modern, Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake is also excellent.
On Episode 74 of the Podcast Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of: You Should Have Left & Lovecraft Country. Followed by the Feature Films: Shirley, The King of Staten Island, and Young Ahmed in their lead up to the Top 10 of the year so far Episode.
The King of Staten Island is currently available to rent from multiple sources.
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In a long take, a not-yet-named US soldier peeks over the crest of a hill to ensure the coast is clear before clambering over, hands bound behind his back, the bodies of compatriots on either side of him as he wriggles forward toward the camera. Cut to a shot of bare feet coming towards him. Hearing the footsteps, the soldier plays dead, hoping the luck that’s made him the sole surviving member of his unit will last just a little bit longer.
So begins this gritty, hard-hitting Korean War movie by low-budget genre maestro Sam Fuller, who directs with economy and an unblinking eye towards the tough realities of war. The aforementioned troop is the gruff and hardened Sgt. Zack, who is relieved when he realizes those footsteps belonged to a South Korean boy. His own family having been killed, the boy, who Zack nicknames “Short Round”, wants to come along with Zack, who reluctantly agrees. Shortly thereafter, they join up with a motley crew of weary US troops – an eclectic bunch that Fuller efficiently distinguishes from one another – and eventually they all hole up in a Buddhist temple that they mistake as enemy-free.
Fuller stages combat in a realistic fashion, but not without regard for the expressiveness of his settings. In the temple, action is staged around staircases and Buddhist statues, which the camera occasionally pauses to consider on their own, and earlier in the film, a gunfight with enemy snipers plays out in jungle that’s dense with mist. More than the action though, it’s Fuller’s characterization of hard-bitten soldiers and race-related tension between them that leaves an impression. “Dead man’s nothin’ but a corpse. No one cares what he is now.” It’s not just what Zack says that conveys his callousness; it’s that he’s messily chomping on a watermelon when he says these lines, clearly so much more interested in the fruit than the loss he’s referring to.
–Michael Clawson originally published this review on Letterboxd 01/16/20