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A Madeleine 2.5

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As long as I’m on the subject of The Untouchables

My sophomore year at KU I was a desk assistant at Oliver Hall, where I lived, and in addition to working a few three-hour desk shifts each week, I worked one or two half-shifts a week sorting the morning mail, working alongside whoever was manning the front desk.

There was one girl — let’s call her Angie — whom I found especially grating to work with, particularly in the morning when I’m more people-averse to begin with. She was flighty and chatty and prone to insipid conversation, and I usually tried to power through the mail as quickly as possible so I could be done with her and get on with my day.

One spring morning the hall’s daily mail arrived — two or three big canvas drawstring bags that we’d dive into and separate before filing it in the residents’ mail slots. I happened to first open a bag full of magazines and catalogs, near the top of which was the May issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly, as it was still commonly referred to back then.

costner gq

“Hey, Kevin’s on the cover of GQ!” I exclaimed.

I have always been an avid follower of the movies, even when I didn’t yet live in an industry town, but Angie didn’t know that. And while it was certainly not unlike me to say such things, I was immediately struck by how overly familiar I must have sounded to her, so I just ran with it.

“I know him!”

Kevin Costner had appeared in a dozen movies in five years — and had semi-famously not appeared in one — but to date the only role in which he had made a strong impression was as the high-spirited gunslinger Jake in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. If that had been his breakout role, then The Untouchables, coming in June of that year, would be the film that made him a star.

Angie was into hair bands and would ramble ad nauseam about Jon Bon Jovi and David Coverdale and David Lee Roth and whose ass looked best in spandex, so I was sure she wouldn’t know any of this, and I decided to have some fun with her ignorance and gullibility.

On the fly I spun a magnificent tale about a friend in L.A. whose father was an entertainment lawyer. I had visited a few summers back, and while I was there we had hung around a party his parents had thrown at their house in the Hollywood Hills. Mingling among assorted industry types, I had met Kevin — really nice, engaging, down-to-earth guy — and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that he’d found out the day before that his entire role in a movie he had wrapped was going to end up on the cutting-room floor. This was Kasdan’s The Big Chill — Costner would have appeared in flashbacks as Alex, whose funeral had brought his college friends back together — which surely Angie was familiar with, if only for the popularity of its soundtrack album.

“Worked out OK for him, though. Kasdan felt bad and cast him in Silverado. Now look at him,” I said, referring back to the magazine cover.

I marveled at my own audacity but knew that I’d soon run out of plausible details to keep the lie going. I was trying to think ahead and wondering about cutting bait and confessing, when Angie interjected.

“Hey, wait a minute,” she drawled, her suspicion evident in the way her words hung there in the air. “You’ve never been to L.A.”

Of all the details for her to get hung up on …

But then: “No, wait, that’s right — you told me one other time about a trip to California. Was it this one?”

At which point any compunction I had about lying to Angie evaporated. “Possibly. I mean, I’ve been out there to visit more than once.”

I have no idea what became of Angie after KU, but maybe once or twice over the last 32 years the subject of Kevin Costner has come up among friends, at which point she may have said, “Hey, did I ever tell you? I went to school with a guy who met him before he was famous.”

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Written by Shepcat

July 14, 2019 at 2:29 pm

A Madeleine — #2 in a Series

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My friend Colleen traveled to Chicago this week, and Thursday she posted a picture of the façade of Union Station on Facebook. Which took me back in time.

In the summer of 1987 or ’88, my best friend, Andre, and I made our second weekend trip to Chicago together (our first having occurred in the summer of ’86, after our freshman year at KU). This time we crashed on the floor of a friend’s family home in Wilmette or Winnetka — one of the W’s, very confusing, as they’re both northern suburbs, right next to each other along the same rail line — and took the commuter train into the city each day.

Our first day, after we hopped off the train, we made the short walk to Union Station, which recently had figured prominently in The Untouchables — most notably in the shootout in which director Brian De Palma shamelessly but masterfully cribs from Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

I am virtually certain Andre and I entered on the Canal Street side, at the entrance nearest Jackson Boulevard, and once inside we might have walked around a bit surveying the other entrances as we tried to single out the actual staircase on which the shootout took place.

We found it. Or thought we did, anyway. Certainly the layout looked correct, even if all the contemporary touches like advertising and modern signage clashed with spare, elegant period setting of the movie playing back in our heads.

U Master

So I went into director mode, and began blocking the scene.

“Costner’s standing here …” after he clunkily drags the baby stroller up the steps one-handed, refusing to relinquish his hold on the shotgun under his trench coat, spotting the bookkeeper and several Capone henchmen as they enter the station.

U Three-shot

“He recognizes the henchman at the entrance, pushes the mother out of the way as he raises his shotgun to fire. He lets go of the stroller …”

U Costner

I went down the steps, tracing the stroller’s downward trajectory as bystanders fall amid the crossfire. Costner follows it down, having first thrown down his shotgun and drawn his sidearm, which he quickly empties.

U Mid-Stairs

I’m at the foot of the staircase now. “Enter Garcia. He crosses into frame, tosses Costner his spare pistol, and slides in right here to catch the stroller before it pitches off the bottom step …” (For the record, I did not slide, notwithstanding my enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm.) “… and he trains his gun on the henchman holding the bookkeeper …”

U Garcia

I aim my finger gun upward and to the right before crossing back up the steps to the third point of the triangle.

Here. … Garcia shoots.”

U Accountant

And this is the point in the story when I cross my heart and hope to die. Because as I looked at the wall there under the balustrade, that’s when it caught my eye.

Blood spatter.

Not much. Nothing like what you see in the photo above. So little, in fact, that you’d miss it altogether if you weren’t on that staircase at that time for that very purpose. But spots of pinkish red, many no bigger than the head of a pin, that could plausibly — in my mind, could only — be squib blood that didn’t get completely cleaned off the wall after filming. Filming that the Internet Movie Database informs me took place in August 1986 — not long after our first Chicago trip, as it happens — meaning that spatter had persisted a year, maybe two (again, my memory) waiting for us to discover it there.

Coincidence, you say. Some kid could have knocked his cherry Slurpee off the top of the balustrade the day before, you say.

Suspension of disbelief, I say. The magic of motion pictures.

You could never convince me otherwise.

Here endeth the lesson.

Written by Shepcat

July 13, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Movies

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My Year in Film 2018

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My prolific filmgoing and -viewing in 2018 resulted from a perfect storm of factors and influences, chief among them my subscriptions to MoviePass and FilmStruck (and, by extension, to Fandor and the Criterion Channel, respectively) and an abundance of spare time due to my continued unemployment. For a relative pittance, the world of cinema unfurled before me as it never had, and I took full advantage of its offerings.

I have a Letterboxd profile, but I haven’t updated it since I saw the Key and Peele action comedy Keanu on May 5, 2016, as its regular emails remind me. Perhaps someday, in a fit of administrative pique, I’ll make a project of entering all these films, on my way toward being a more faithful updater of my timeline there.

In many ways, though, this feels like a more interesting accounting of my viewing, because it looks more like a roadmap or a journey in film. I can track larger trends, like my reconsideration of Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre or an urgent desire to gaze upon Juliette Binoche for hours upon end, or pick out the smaller, subtler moves, like how I went straight home after Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour to watch his Atonement for a Dunkirk doubleheader (and then saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk later that month), or how a screening of the Argentine crime film Nine Queens led to my pushing its American remake, Criminal, up in my queue to screen 11 days later.

Presented here are only the feature films that I saw in theaters, on DVD or Blu-ray, or on subscription streaming services (the aforementioned, as well as Netflix, Hulu and the public-library affiliate Kanopy); any film I saw on broadcast or cable television, edited (or even — gasp! — reformatted), with commercial interruptions — like, say, NBC’s presentation of Jurassic Park or Lifetime’s airing of Secretariat — is excluded from this listing.

* theatrical exhibition
+ repeat viewing this calendar year

January (49)

1 Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
1 All the Money in the World (Scott, 2017) *
2 The Way of the Gun (McQuarrie, 2000)
4 Darkest Hour (Wright, 2017) *
4 Atonement (Wright, 2007)
5 Molly’s Game (Sorkin, 2017) *
5 The Paper (Howard, 1994)
5 Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005)
7 Good Night, and Good Luck commentary (Clooney, Heslov)
7 Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
8 The Shape of Water (Del Toro, 2017) *
8 Enemy at the Gates (Annaud, 2001)
9 North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
10 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Morris, 2003)
11 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) *
11 Odd Man Out (Reed, 1947)
12 I, Tonya (Gillespie, 2017) *
12 Seabiscuit commentary (Ross, Soderbergh)
13 The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014)
14 Dave (Reitman, 1993)
14 The Commuter (Collet-Serra, 2018) *
15 The Negotiator (Gray, 1998)

 
When I subscribed to MoviePass, back before the rush, when it still appeared to be a somewhat viable business model, I purchased it through Costco, which bundled with it a subscription to the streaming service Fandor, whose biggest draw for me was its comprehensive trove of early Hal Hartley features and short films. The shorts are not listed here, but all told Fandor streams about 20 works by Hartley.

15 My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears, 1985)
16 I Am Not Your Negro (Peck, 2016)
16 The Unbelievable Truth (Hartley, 1989)
17 Trust (Hartley, 1990)
18 Surviving Desire (Hartley, 1992)
19 The Fallen Idol (Reed, 1948)
20 Phantom Thread (Anderson, 2017) *
20 Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940)
21 Streets of Fire (Hill, 1984)
21 Must Love Dogs (Goldberg, 2005)
22 Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937)
23 Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017) *
23 Mudbound (Rees, 2017)
24 Proud Mary (Najafi, 2018) *
26 I Confess (Hitchcock, 1953)
26 Hostiles (Cooper, 2017) *
26 Office Christmas Party (Gordon/Speck, 2016)
26 Becoming Cary Grant (Kidel, 2017)
27 The Game (Fincher, 1997)
28 Secret in Their Eyes (Ray, 2015)
28 The Florida Project (Baker, 2017) *
28 Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) *
28 The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) *
30 Dunkirk (Nolan, 2017) *
30 Mood Indigo (Gondry, 2013)
30 Farewell, My Lovely (Richards, 1975)
31 The Disaster Artist (Franco, 2017) *

 
February (23)

1 The Wrong Man (Hitchcock, 1956)
2 The Post (Spielberg, 2017) *
2 All the President’s Men (Pakula, 1976)
3 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh, 2017) *
3 Stage Fright (Hitchcock, 1950)
3 Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002)
4 The Cloverfield Paradox (Onah, 2018)
5 Moonstruck (Jewison, 1987)
6 Coco (Unkrich, 2017) *
6 Super 8 (Abrams, 2011)
6 The Illusionist (Burger, 2006)
8 The Shape of Water (Del Toro, 2017) * +
9 War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)

 
This gap of six days between movies was precipitated by the first week of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, after which I recalibrated toward a more equitable balance of my dual nature as sports fan and movie junkie. This will be a recurring theme in the months to come.

15 Simple Men (Hartley, 1992)
16 Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
17 Sudden Manhattan (Shelly, 1996)
17 Micmacs (Jeunet, 2009)
18 My Family (Nava, 1995)
21 The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) *
23 Game Night (Daley/Goldstein, 2018) *
24 Grand Illusion (Renoir, 1937)
25 Annihilation (Garland, 2018) *
27 The Master (Anderson, 2012)

 
March (18)
The even lighter month of March can of course be explained by college basketball. My Kansas Jayhawks are perennially in the thick of March Madness, but during this month every year I love even the lowliest midmajors and surprise qualifiers and cheer every upset-in-the-making. Christmas is overrated; March Madness is truly the most wonderful time of the year, even if it means I don’t make it to the movies that often.

2 Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) * +
7 Red Sparrow (Lawrence, 2018) *
9 Gringo (Edgerton, 2018) *
9 Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)
12 Magnolia (Anderson, 1997)
16 Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951)
19 Tomb Raider (Uthaug, 2018) *
19 Hard Eight (Anderson, 1996)
20 Love, Simon (Berlanti, 2018) *
20 Creature from the Black Lagoon (Arnold, 1954)
22 Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller, 2008)
23 Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975)
26 The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971)
27 Network (Lumet, 1976)
28 Unsane (Soderbergh, 2018) *
28 There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)
29 42 (Helgeland, 2013)
31 Dog Day Afternoon commentary (Lumet)

 
April (21)
As college-hoops season winds down, a new Major League Baseball season is just underway, which would explain why I experienced only a very slight uptick in movie viewing this month. I was unusually (though admirably, I think) devoted to my Kansas City Royals on their way to 104 losses and would watch all but a few of their 162 games this season.

3 Ready Player One (Spielberg, 2018) *
6 Isle of Dogs (Anderson, 2018) *
7 A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) *
8 Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)
8 My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936)
11 The Big Heat (Lang, 1953)
13 Isle of Dogs (Anderson, 2018) * +
13 The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
14 Chappaquiddick (Curran, 2017) *
17 In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950)
18 Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)
19 Crossfire (Dmytryk, 1947)
21 The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941) +
22 The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973)
23 Super Troopers 2 (Chandrasekhar, 2018) *
25 Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (McGuigan, 2017)
27 Avengers: Infinity War (Russo/Russo, 2018) *

 
I have no good explanation for why I waited as long as I did to subscribe to FilmStruck, and now that it’s gone I’m kicking myself over all that lost time. Any affinity I have for stringing together double features or theme nights or retrospectives had now been super-sized by such FilmStruck features as the director and star of the week. In a quirk of exquisite timing, the first two directors featured after I subscribed, one right after the next, were David Lean and Billy Wilder. My first order of business, however, was to screen all six Thin Man movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, during my first week.

29 Mister Roberts (Ford/LeRoy, 1955)
29 The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934)
29 After the Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1936)
30 Another Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1939)

 
May (42)

1 Shadow of the Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1941)
2 Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988)
2 The Thin Man Goes Home (Thorpe, 1945)
4 Song of the Thin Man (Buzzell, 1947)
6 Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock, 1940)
6 In Which We Serve (Coward/Lean, 1942)
7 Westworld (Crichton, 1973)
8 The Passionate Friends (Lean, 1949)
9 Tully (Reitman, 2018) *
9 Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
10 The Equalizer (Fuqua, 2014)
11 Blithe Spirit (Lean, 1945)
11 Unstoppable (Scott, 2010)
12 The Sound Barrier (Lean, 1952)
14 Crimson Tide (Scott, 1995)
15 Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)
15 Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017)
16 Madeleine (Lean, 1950)
16 Iron Man 3 commentary (Black/Pearce)
17 Summertime (Lean, 1955)
17 Nostromo: David Lean’s Impossible Dream (Bermúdez, 2017)
17 Tequila Sunrise (Towne, 1988)
18 Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018) *
18 A Passage to India (Lean, 1984)
19 Joe Versus the Volcano (Shanley, 1990)
20 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Nichols, 2003)
21 Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Dunne, 2017)
22 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Dean, 2017)
22 The Spirit of St. Louis (Wilder, 1957)
23 Band of Outsiders (Godard, 1964)
23 Angels in America: Perestroika (Nichols, 2003)
24 To Have and Have Not (Hawks, 1944)
25 Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018) *
25 Dark Passage (Daves, 1947)
25 Key Largo (Huston, 1948)
26 The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946)
27 Eight Men Out (Sayles, 1988)
27 Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
29 The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941)
30 A Night at the Opera (Wood, 1935)
30 Harper (Smight, 1966)
31 Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Conran, 2004)

 
June (38)

1 Let the Sunshine In (Denis, 2017) *
2 Dollars (Brooks, 1971)
2 Ocean’s Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001)
3 Inside Man (Lee, 2006)
5 The Late Show (Benton, 1977)
6 Small Town Crime (Nelms/Nelms, 2017)
7 The Brothers Bloom (Johnson, 2008)
8 Ocean’s Eight (Ross, 2018) *
8 Haywire (Soderbergh, 2012)
9 Atomic Blonde (Leitch, 2017)
9 Anon (Niccol, 2018)
11 Hotel Artemis (Pearce, 2018) *
11 The Asphalt Jungle (Huston, 1950)
13 Nine Queens (Bielinsky, 2000)
15 Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018) *
15 The Incredibles (Bird, 2004)
15 Atomic Blonde (Leitch, 2017) +
17 Ninotchka (Lubitsch, 1939)
17 Always (Spielberg, 1989)
18 A Farewell to Arms (Borzage, 1932)
19 History Is Made at Night (Borzage, 1937)
19 Body Heat (Kasdan, 1981)
20 Tag (Tomsic, 2018) *
20 Words and Pictures (Schepisi, 2013)
21 The Wolfman (Johnston, 2010)
21 Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, 2014)

 
Of course, June 22 is Mr. Wilder’s birthday, which this year FilmStruck permitted me to celebrate with a full daylong program, whereas in other years I typically screen either Some Like It Hot or The Apartment in the evening. I.A.L. Diamond’s birthday is a mere five days later, so I usually alternate those or opt for The Fortune Cookie, among the films I own on DVD.

22 Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950)
22 Ace in the Hole (Wilder, 1951)
22 Stalag 17 (Wilder, 1953)
22 Witness for the Prosecution (Wilder, 1957)
22 Love in the Afternoon (Wilder, 1957)
23 Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)
24 Summer Hours (Assayas, 2008)
24 Criminal (Jacobs, 2004)
25 L’attesa (Messina, 2015)
26 Blackhat (Mann, 2015)
28 The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)
29 Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)

 
July (43)

2 Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick, 1957)
2 Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1949)
3 His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1939)
4 Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
4 The Missing Person (Buschel, 2010)
5 Double Indemnity commentary (Dobbs/Redman)
5 Swordfish (Sena, 2001)
6 Ball of Fire (Hawks, 1941)
7 Juliet of the Spirits (Fellini, 1965)
8 Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer, 1964)
8 Thieves’ Highway (Dassin, 1949)
10 Captain Phillips (Greengrass, 2013)
11 A Few Days in September (Amigorena, 2006)
11 Chocolat (Hallstrom, 2000)
12 Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018) *
13 Sorry to Bother You (Riley, 2018) *
13 The Big Easy (McBride, 1986)
13 Surviving Desire (Hartley, 1992) +
14 Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman, 1985)
14 Shock and Awe (Reiner, 2018) *
14 Sully (Eastwood, 2016)
14 The Silent Partner (Duke, 1978)
15 Cloud Atlas (Tykwer/Wachowski/Wachowski, 2012)
16 The Women (Cukor, 1939)
17 Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sollima, 2018) *
18 Skyscraper (Thurber, 2018) *
19 Traffic (Soderbergh, 2000)
20 Leave No Trace (Granik, 2018) *
20 Midnight Run (Brest, 1988)
21 JFK (Director’s Cut) (Stone, 1991)
22 The Equalizer 2 (Fuqua, 2018) *
22 Choose Me (Rudolph, 1984)
22 Love at Large (Rudolph, 1990)
23 Laggies (Shelton, 2014)
24 The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
25 Gaslight (Cukor, 1944)
26 Mission: Impossible – Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018) *
27 Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty, 2016)
28 Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
28 Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones, 2015)
29 Wonderstruck (Haynes, 2017)
30 His Kind of Woman (Farrow, 1951)
31 The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

 
August (33)

1 Stop Making Sense (Demme, 1984)
2 Libeled Lady (Conway, 1936)
4 American Made (Liman, 2017)
5 Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962) +
7 Thoroughbreds (Finley, 2017)
8 Eighth Grade (Burnham, 2018) *
9 Arsenic and Old Lace (Capra, 1944)
10 Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
11 Paddington (King, 2014)
11 Paddington 2 (King, 2017)
11 All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979)
12 2010 (Hyams, 1984)
15 Outland (Hyams, 1981)
17 The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)
18 Inception (Nolan, 2010)
19 The Party (Potter, 2017)
20 The Great Race (Edwards, 1965)
21 The Prestige (Nolan, 2006)
21 The In-Laws (Hiller, 1979)
23 Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Cimino, 1974)
24 Gunga Din (Stevens, 1939)
25 The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Reis, 1947)
26 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Potter, 1948)
26 The Goodbye Girl (Ross, 1977)
26 The Sunshine Boys (Ross, 1975)
27 Eraser (Russell, 1996)
27 Narrow Margin (Hyams, 1998)
28 Persona (Bergman, 1966)
29 Mile 22 (Berg, 2018) *
29 RBG (Cohen/West, 2018)
30 Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
30 The Two Jakes (Nicholson, 1990)
31 Operation Finale (Weitz, 2018) *

 
September (26)

3 BlacKkKlansman (Lee, 2018) *
3 First Reformed (Schrader, 2017)
3 Moneyball (Miller, 2011)
4 First Reformed commentary (Schrader)
5 Adam’s Rib (Cukor, 1949)
7 Brick (Johnson, 2005)
8 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958 – 70mm) *

 
Lawrence of Arabia is my favorite movie of all time, but 2018 might actually mark the first time I’ve ever watched it as many as three times in a calendar year — in this case once on FilmStruck; once on DVD (on my birthday, when I went out for a steak dinner then came home to drink whiskey on the balcony during the overture, before the feature attraction); and now on the big screen at Cinerama’s annual 70mm Festival, the way God and Sir David Lean intended it to be seen.

9 Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962 – 70mm) * +
10 Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts, 2017)
11 The Misfits (Huston, 1961)
12 Juliet, Naked (Peretz, 2018) *
12 The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
14 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) +
15 The Man Between (Reed, 1953)
16 My Favorite Wife (Kanin, 1940)
18 A Simple Favor (Feig, 2018) *
18 Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Neville, 2018)
21 The Cheyenne Social Club (Kelly, 1970)
22 Wyatt Earp (Kasdan, 1994)
22 Shotgun Stories (Nichols, 2007)
22 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright, 2010)
23 Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, 1951)
25 The Thing from Another World (Nyby, 1951)
26 20th Century Women (Mills, 2016)
30 Police Story (Chan/Chen, 1985)
30 Helvetica (Hustwit, 2007)

 
October (35)

1 What’s Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich, 1972)
2 Mud (Nichols, 2012)
2 Police Story 2 (Chan, 1988)
6 The Death of Stalin (Iannucci, 2017)
6 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Almodóvar, 1990)
8 A Star Is Born (Cooper, 2018) *
9 Christine (Carpenter, 1983)
10 Dark Star (Carpenter, 1974)
12 Sabotage (Hitchcock, 1936)
13 King Kong (Cooper, 1933)
13 Three Colors: Blue (Kieslowski, 1993)
14 Three Colors: White (Kieslowski, 1994)
17 First Man (Chazelle, 2018) *
18 Supercop (Tong, 1992)
19 Three Colors: Red (Kieslowski, 1994)
19 Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968)
19 I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur, 1943)
20 Raising Arizona (Coen, 1987)
20 Dial M for Murder (Hitchcock, 1954)
20 Fahrenheit 451 (Bahrani, 2018)
22 Crossing Delancey (Silver, 1988)
22 The Americanization of Emily (Hiller, 1964)
26 Tampopo (Itami, 1985)
26 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Wilder, 1970)
27 Raising Arizona (Coen, 1987) +
27 Blood Simple (Coen, 1984)
28 A Serious Man (Coen, 2009)
29 Our Brand Is Crisis (Green, 2015)
29 Burn After Reading (Coen, 2008)
30 Five Corners (Bill, 1987)
30 Drunken Angel (Kurosawa, 1948)
31 The Body Snatcher (Wise, 1945)
31 Diabolique (Clouzot, 1955)
31 Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)
31 Kuroneko (Shindo, 1968)

 
November (37)

2 Yojimbo (Kurosawa. 1961)
2 Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987)
2 The Thin Blue Line (Morris, 1988)
3 The Lure (Smoczynska, 2015)
3 Fargo (Coen, 1996)
3 Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Zellner, 2014)
6 The Candidate (Ritchie, 1972)
6 Destination Wedding (Levin, 2018)
7 Scarecrow (Schatzberg, 1973)
9 The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Peckinpah, 1970)
10 Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen, 2013)
10 Breaker Morant (Beresford, 1980)
11 Destination Wedding (Levin, 2018) +
12 Heathers (Lehmann, 1988)
12 The Lake House (Agresti, 2006)
13 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Peckinpah, 1973)
14 Miller’s Crossing (Coen, 1990)
16 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen, 2018)
20 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill, 1969)
23 Catch-22 (Nichols, 1970)
24 The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)
24 Hopscotch (Neame, 1980)
26 The Last Emperor (Bertolucci, 1987)
26 Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen, 2013) +
27 The Lower Depths (Renoir, 1936)
28 The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa, 1960)
28 La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1938)
28 Pépé le Moko (Duvivier, 1937)
28 The Getaway (Peckinpah, 1972)

 
I’m grateful for the opportunity FilmStruck presented me to revisit old favorites, to catch up on Kurosawa, to discover Borzage, to finally get around to Wenders’ Wings of Desire and to fall madly in love with Itami’s Tampopo in the first 15 minutes.

Oddly, though, when it was first announced that FilmStruck’s last day would be November 29, I didn’t clear my schedule and dive headfirst into my watchlist, which at that time comprised about 75 films, give or take. Instead, as time ebbed away from me, I found myself just as often paring my watchlist down to account for movies I’d have access to on other platforms or media.

By FilmStruck’s last week I had made a run at Sam Peckinpah, whom it added as one of its last directors of the week, and watched a few films starring my favorite Frenchman, Jean Gabin. By the final day my list was down to about 15 films, seven of which I managed to watch during my daylong vigil, five of which I had never seen before.

I chose a repeat viewing of Certified Copy as my last film of the day because — and I believe Count Almásy would back me up on this — Juliette Binoche’s face tops the short list of Last Things to See As the Lights Go Out. But either FilmStruck interpreted “midnight” very loosely or they meant midnight in either the Alaska or Hawaii time zone; in any event, I was able to watch to the end.

29 The Hidden Fortress (Kurosawa, 1958)
29 Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)
29 Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947)
29 Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, 1943)
29 The Front Page (Milestone, 1931)
29 The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 1948)
29 Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010)
30 Bel Canto (Weitz, 2018)

 
December (25)

2 Marwencol (Malmberg, 2010)
3 The Song of Lunch (MacCormick, 2010)
3 Hail, Caesar! (Coen, 2016)
4 Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, 2018)
5 De Palma (Baumbach/Paltrow, 2015)
6 Roma (Cuarón, 2018) *
7 Hearts Beat Loud (Haley, 2018)
10 O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen, 2000)
10 Love & Mercy (Pohlad, 2014)
11 Barton Fink (Coen, 1991)
11 Zero Effect (Kasdan, 1998)
12 Isle of Dogs (Anderson, 2018) +

 
I shouldn’t complain about MoviePass, because in the final accounting my subscription enabled me to see 46 films in theaters at a cost of roughly $1.95 per screening. But by the time I MoviePassed my last movie of the year — a 9:55 a.m. screening of Steve McQueen’s Widows, nearly two full months after I MoviePassed Damien Chazelle’s First Man — the service had become infuriating in its inability to offer even a single eligible screening on any given day. (On one occasion, a film vanished from the app in the 15 minutes it took me to drive to the theater.)

Clearly, as the year waned, MoviePass was reduced to shilling its platform and mailing list to any advertising partner who could prop it up and pay down its debts while providing ever-diminishing returns to its paid subscribers. And truth be told, I hadn’t minded any of the individual restrictions it began to place on subscribers earlier in the year when it became clear it was hemorrhaging money, but it’s staggering that the powers that be possessed so little vision as to think they could offer subscribers virtually unlimited moviegoing without enacting some of those reasonable restrictions from the get-go.

Having flown too close to the sun, MoviePass ultimately alienated a subscriber base that now has no incentive to renew unless its updated subscription tiers offer a more viable model at those price points. Otherwise, it was nice while it lasted.

14 Widows (McQueen, 2018) *
14 Gravity (Cuarón, 2013)
14 Roma (Cuarón, 2018) +
15 The Book of Life (Hartley, 1998)
15 The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen, 2001)
16 Carol (Haynes, 2015)
17 A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2001)
25 Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) +
26 Instant Family (Anders, 2018) *
27 Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk, 1944)
30 The Tall Target (Mann, 1951)
31 Choke (Gregg, 2008)
31 Another Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1939) +

 
And then we came to the end.

I traveled home for the holidays, so my viewing mostly trailed off in the final two weeks, except for movies on TV (interrupted by an onslaught of commercial breaks in both number and volume that posed the most compelling case yet for my never again subscribing to cable).

All told, I watched 390 films in 2018 — 16 of which were repeat viewings this year; six of which were commentary tracks (which I’m not counting as repeat viewings for this list); 205 for the first time; 65 in theaters. Just over a film a day but just shy of that elusive 400 that would have felt like a first-ballot invitation to Cooperstown. It will be embarrassing to witness how short of that number I fall in 2019, but it won’t be for a lack of trying or a dearth of love for cinema.

Written by Shepcat

December 31, 2018 at 8:09 pm

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

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In late November, when the celebrated Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci died the same week the streaming service FilmStruck shut down, I seized that brief window to sneak in a screening of Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor. It has long been on my short list of the most beautiful films ever photographed, with its brilliant color palette and the striking, grandiose cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.

In the few short weeks since that viewing, I have added another film to that short list — a film with no color palette at all.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma — with its immaculate composition and pristine monochrome shot in 65mm — is breathtaking to behold.

The semiautobiographical story, centering on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the nanny of a well-to-do Mexico City family in 1970, begins slowly, quietly, unremarkably, giving the audience more time up front to appreciate the austere beauty of Cuarón’s visual style.

Serving as his own D.P. here with a toolbox of wide and anamorphic lenses, Cuarón shoots almost entirely in masters, favoring slow, sweeping pans and long tracking dollies, using coverage sparingly. He’s not just letting you into the life of this family; he’s placing them at the center of the spaces they inhabit — the seeming security of their home, the daily rhythms of their community, the teeming chaos of Mexico City. He wants you to linger on their surroundings and the intimate details, to take in all their conversations and conspiracies. It’s less voyeurism than a God’s-eye view of their lives being lived among other lives.

Meanwhile, as Cuarón lulls us with the painterly beauty of his washed-out daytime exteriors and the Ozuesque framing of his long static shots, he’s boiling the audience like a frog, turning up the dramatic heat so gradually that we’re slow to realize we’re beset on all sides by interpersonal turmoil, family upheaval, betrayals, tragedies, political strife, and even cataclysmic acts of God. We have been gently tugged into the midst of this personal drama, only to find we’ve been watching an epic the entire time.

If this epic has a central theme, it’s the strength and resilience of women, particularly in the wake of mistreatment by men. Cleo and her employer, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), respond to their respective indignities in the only ways they can — first by leaning on each other, then by moving forward with the knowledge that they alone can bear the weight of their destinies and, ultimately, that they are stronger than the men who betrayed them. That they, with the assistance of the abuelita Sra. Teresa (Verónica García), manage this with love and patience and humor and without cynicism is the film’s testament.

Roma exudes naturalism, and being an American, I wouldn’t know going in whether any of these people were actors. In fact, only a handful of the principal cast had ever acted in film or on TV before — making all the more remarkable Aparicio’s luminous debut performance as Cleo. She carries Roma with a soft-spoken, lived-in and, finally, heroic grace that can’t be faked.

Even if you’re not as fortunate as I was to see Roma in a theater, don’t hesitate to find it on Netflix and watch it on the largest screen and with the best sound system or headphones available to you. Regardless of venue or medium, it is a jewel cut and polished by a master craftsman at the apex of his form and the most magnificent and life-affirming cinematic experience of 2018.

Written by Shepcat

December 16, 2018 at 2:08 pm

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Anatomy of a Murderess: Vertigo

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Warning: The following post spoils virtually everything worth spoiling. Before reading, please watch this 60-year-old movie that you should already have seen by now.
 
 
 
I saw Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects the Friday night it opened in Kansas City in September 1995. I was completely sucked in by Christopher McQuarrie’s intricately constructed plot. Up until the last three minutes, I was locked in to my personal theory that the cop, Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), was Keyser Söze.

I went again with friends the very next night and watched the entire film making mental notes about Verbal’s story and what we’re shown onscreen: That’s real. … That’s bullshit. … That’s real. … Bullshit. Real. Bullshit. Bullshit. In only two viewings in a span of about 24 hours, I had mostly taken apart the puzzle of the film, which over the years remains a taut, effective crime drama, even when you know the twist going in.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, on the other hand, is a film that continues to reveal itself to me a couple dozen viewings later. In its totality the film’s machinery can obscure its various moving parts. Or maybe I’m just slow on the uptake.

Some years ago, in fact, it was only while watching a Hitchcock documentary in which the final scene was isolated that the film’s last shot — of Ferguson (James Stewart) walking out onto the ledge of the mission bell tower — finally landed with me; only then did I realize that he is cured in the end. It’s even mentioned early in the film that it would take a shock or trauma similar to the one that incited his vertigo to jolt him back out of it, and maybe not even then. But I had for some reason repeatedly failed to pick up on the most obvious subtext or even things explicitly spelled out.

I suppose I have been so invested in Ferguson’s point of view for so long that I’ve had a blind spot for other characters and certain plot points — not unlike Ferguson himself. Which is why now, a quarter century or more since I saw Vertigo for the first time, I’m finally coming around to a critical element of the story:

Judy Barton is a sociopath who gets exactly what’s coming to her.

Because Judy (Kim Novak) is a pawn in Gavin Elster’s game and because she dies in the end, one’s impulse is to think of her charitably as a victim. She loves Ferguson — both as Madeleine and as Judy — and we’re persuaded that her feelings for him are genuine. So our own feelings for her are clouded in the end. But she spells it all out for us in her voiceover of the letter she writes but never gives Ferguson:

I was the tool, and you were the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I looked like her; he dressed me up like her.

 
During the film’s climax, Judy’s confirmations sputter out under duress and panic, but movies have trained us to believe the entirety of the information we’re being given, however incomplete, so Stewart’s raw, wrenching “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy up the steps of the bell tower becomes the official story of the setup and the crime:

Elster (Tom Helmore) begins an affair with Judy — who falls in love with him, perhaps, or at least attaches herself to him for her own reasons — after which he persuades her to masquerade as his wife, promising that they can run away together after he kills Madeleine.

Elster’s means are definite and his motive only a little less so, but what is the timing of his opportunity? Does Elster discover Judy before or after Ferguson’s accident? At their first meeting, Elster tells Ferguson he’s been back in San Francisco “almost a year.” At the time of the murder, Judy has been in San Francisco for two years at most. But how long has Elster been planning to kill his wife? Did he hate Madeleine, or did he only want her money? How long has he been grooming Judy? Has Judy ever met or seen Madeleine, or does she know her only by hearsay? Does Judy personally have any motive to want Madeleine dead besides love or money? Is Judy truly a doppelgänger for Madeleine, or can she merely pass well enough for neighbors who don’t see Madeleine often because, as we’re told, “she lived in the country and rarely came to town”? Have the neighbors ever seen Madeleine, or is Judy the only Madeleine they’ve ever known? Could the neighbors tell the difference if Madeleine’s photo appeared in the newspaper? Could Ferguson?1

Elster escapes to Europe and leaves Judy behind, secure in the knowledge that she could never turn him in without implicating herself, even if he could be extradited. So we safely assume he was never in love with her, was using her only to facilitate Madeleine’s murder and make Ferguson a witness to an apparently inevitable suicide. Did it never occur to Judy to wonder why Elster would continue making love to a woman in whose face he’d constantly see the face of the wife he murdered? In a movie that hinges on sexual obsession, what does it say about these characters’ depravities that they don’t more cautiously observe the depravity in each other.

In any event — whether she’s cold-blooded or merely slow-witted — Judy must commit herself fully to the deception, lest she be revealed, arrested, tried and convicted as Elster’s accomplice.

So it isn’t just that Judy knows from the start that Ferguson is following her — notwithstanding that he runs the worst, most obvious tails of any cop ever.2 It’s that she’s acting every step of the way, every minute of the day — including when she jumps into the bay, when Ferguson dives in to save her, when he drives her back to his apartment, when he undresses her while she is presumably unconscious.

This post-rescue sequence at Ferguson’s apartment is exquisitely discomfiting, because as we put 2 and 2 together, we’re coming to grips with the idea of James Stewart — in our eyes the most basically decent and upright of all Hollywood stars — as a lascivious creep.3 (In case we thought Stewart’s voyeurism in Rear Window seemed relatively harmless, Vertigo is Hitchcock saying, “Hold my beer.”) We don’t think about Judy in his bed feigning unconsciousness; we think about his eyes and hands on Madeleine’s defenseless body as he removes her wet clothes, his motive and opportunity as he changes out of his own, and the way his eyes continue to undress her after she wakes.

It is at this point that we are most likely blind to the deception — either momentarily or altogether — because we’re both mortified and titillated by the thought of James Stewart, of all people, defiling Madeleine, the mentally unbalanced wife of his friend, in her sleep.

And yet it’s Judy who is in control of this sequence all along.

One wonders, then: Is this the moment she falls in love with Ferguson? Or the following day, when they kiss for the first time next to the crashing waves? And if neither, then when exactly?

Because fall in love with him she does, even as she continues to deceive him, as she also describes in her letter:

I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you, and I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve, I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again, as I am for myself … and so forget the other and forget the past. But I don’t know whether I have the nerve to try …

 
We know even Judy doesn’t believe this last line. It’s the point at which she stops writing and tears up the letter. Because if a young woman has the nerve to surrender her body to two different middle-aged men in order to help the first facilitate a murder, how much nerve does it take to continue loving the second man under a different set of false pretenses?

Also: How long has she been waiting for him to find her?

It’s been at least a year since the murder, since the inquest, since Ferguson’s crack-up, his hospitalization and recovery. Yet after Ferguson first sees Judy on the street and follows her to the Empire Hotel, she doesn’t act shocked to see him. She is completely deadpan when she opens the door, and she quickly falls into the routine of treating him as a stranger, as though all along she has been waiting for her cue to continue the ruse.

There are two quick cuts here — beginning on Judy, reverse to Ferguson over her shoulder, then back to Judy — that preclude the viewer from an unbroken look at her expression. We’re briefly denied Ferguson’s POV, so we don’t see whether her expression breaks at all. Certainly both we and Ferguson are meant to believe that Judy is a complete stranger (although her game is given away to us only minutes later). It seems odd, though, that the surprise of a year doesn’t register on her face even briefly when she opens the door to find him there.

If she had been waiting for him passively, never knowing when or if he might appear, there would at least be some flare of recognition in her eyes. If this is a deliberate choice in Novak’s acting or Hitchcock’s direction, it suggests that she had been at least keeping tabs on him, if not surveilling him outright.

And why wouldn’t she? Otherwise, why stay?

Lots of places aren’t Salina, Kansas, and leaving San Francisco to start over yet again would have been incredibly easy for Judy to do with whatever money Elster may have given her. If she goes even 100 miles in any direction, odds are Ferguson never sees her again. If she goes to any other major city, she can lose herself all over again and become whoever she wants to be.

“The necklace, Madeleine. That was the slip. I remembered the necklace. … Carlotta’s necklace. There was where you made your mistake, Judy. You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been— You shouldn’t have been that sentimental. … I loved you so, Madeleine.”

 
Ferguson’s talking about two different things here. True, Judy shouldn’t have kept a souvenir.4 But he is the thing she shouldn’t have been sentimental about, just as he also indicts himself for being so sentimental about Madeleine. He is both the reason Judy stayed and the reason she shouldn’t have.

We are conditioned by the film to feel sympathy for Judy as a tragic figure, in all her guises and situations. She fell in love with or at least placed her trust in the wrong man, a cruel, devious man. As Madeleine, we knew her as a woman tormented by a dark connection to the past, with only one apparent means of escape. She then fell in love with a broken, vulnerable man who could never love her for who she actually was. She submitted herself to that love and eventually got too close to him, close enough for this man, a detective, to uncover her identity and complicity. She fell to her death — a perfect mirror of Madeleine’s fall — so consumed by her own guilt in those final instants that she believed she was being haunted by a spectral manifestation of judgment and damnation.

Judy’s a young woman who got mixed up in something too big for her and paid a high price for her bad decisions.

Judy’s a manipulative temptress who was a willing accomplice to murder, who knew what she was doing all along and believed she could carry on the deception indefinitely.

And once again Professor Carothers’ directive holds true: In Hollywood, women can sin any way they want, as long as they die in the end.
 
 
 
 
 
1 Though Judy tells us, “He planned it so well; he made no mistakes,” still more questions exist about just how perfectly Elster timed and executed his plan. For example: How long before the bell tower does Elster kill Madeleine? Is there any window of opportunity before the actual murder during which Judy could tell Ferguson in time to prevent it? Is it only when she’s running up the stairs that she becomes conflicted about her role?
 
Although Ferguson “witnessed” her leap from the tower and the postmortem examination could confirm a broken neck as the cause of death, wouldn’t the lividity in Madeleine’s body raise questions to the coroner about the time of death? Wouldn’t a toxicology screen also be conducted that would show whether she had consumed alcohol, taken medication, or been drugged? Where in the country did Madeleine live — how close to Mission San Juan Bautista? Did Elster act out a scene with the real, living Madeleine to take her there, similar to the scene Judy was acting out with Ferguson, so he could time the snapping of Madeleine’s neck as closely to their arrival as possible?

 
2 Side note: You’ll never persuade me that the proprietress of the McKittrick Hotel (Ellen Corby) hasn’t been paid to tell Ferguson that Madeleine hasn’t been in that day, though it would likely come as a shock to her later to learn that she had played a small part in a murder.
 
3 To wit, an Easter egg of sorts for modern-day viewers: In my most recent screening of the movie, I noticed for the very first time that a copy of Swank magazine — at that time a “men’s lifestyle and pin-up magazine,” though it was reinvented as a pornographic title a couple of decades later — is prominently displayed on Ferguson’s coffee table.
 
4 Two, in fact. Ferguson doesn’t know that she also kept Madeleine’s gray suit.

Written by Shepcat

September 14, 2018 at 3:38 pm

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Briefly: Vertigo in 70mm

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Saturday night I attended a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, part of Cinerama’s annual 70mm Festival here in Seattle.

I still remember the thrill of seeing the 1996 restoration of Vertigo in its initial release — pristine, vivid and electric. The sound mix was so clean and crisp that Bernard Herrmann’s cue when Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay made me literally jump in my seat.

The print screened Saturday wasn’t in great shape, as one so often hopes of such exhibitions — the first two reels in particular were pretty scratchy, there were bad splices throughout, and the projectionist appeared to miss the fifth-reel changeover, which actually was kind of charming. For whatever faults were on display, one feels immediate, if unexpected, nostalgia for film as a physical, mechanical medium in this age when digital production and projection have become the norm.

In any event, the attraction of the evening turned out to be the communal experience of watching Vertigo, which, it occurred to me in the moment, I hadn’t done in years — not as far back as that 1996 release but certainly not since the early to mid-aughts when I lived in L.A. I have watched the film a dozen or more times on video in the intervening years, and much of its midcentury sexual politics and groanworthy dialogue are by now internalized in my viewing experience, so to hear the raucous laughter of a nearly packed house at moments that I’ve come to take for granted was oddly refreshing.

There’s poor, pathetic Midge, pining for a man who just lets himself into her apartment at any time of the day or night without knocking but who will never love her, particularly now that he’s consumed by his obsession.

There’s Ferguson’s savage dressing-down by the coroner at Madeleine’s inquest, his every pointed barb followed by an instruction to the jury not to take it into account when considering their verdict.

There’s Ferguson dragging his reluctant new love interest through an intensive makeover, dictating the specifics of her new wardrobe and makeup, pleading with her to turn herself into a platinum blonde, “Please, Judy. It can’t matter to you.”

But God, the last five minutes of this film.

No star of the golden age is more affable, more approachable, or projects more basic decency than James Stewart. But he is arguably never better than when he portrays a man losing his grip on the end of a rapidly fraying rope. His “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy to the top of the mission bell tower is so raw that it guts me every time I watch this movie.

Whatever its faults as a film — whether in the narrative-storytelling sense or the physical-strips-of-celluloid sense — Vertigo always wins me over in the end.

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September 9, 2018 at 1:04 pm

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Rewind: Magnolia

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I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
 
 
 
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

 
 
 
 
 
1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.

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March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

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