Returning to Manderley 2017

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As promised, here are the answers to the “first lines” challenge I posted last week. Click here if you’d like to try to guess some of the books before reading the answers below.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

—The opening of Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier


1. It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.
—Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

2. At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.
—Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story (2007)

3. This is my story of what happened.
—Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (2017)

4. On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.
—M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans (2012) [Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist]

5. In the early 1850s, few pedestrians strolling past the house on H Street in Washington, near the White House, realized that the ancient widow seated by the window, knitting and arranging flowers, was the last surviving link to the glory days of the early republic.
—Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004) [George Washington Book Prize]

6. The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
—Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016) [Man Booker longlist, National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize]

7. When the train stopped I stumbled out, nudging and kicking the kitbag before me.
—J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980) [Man Booker shortlist]

8. Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep.
—Hillary Jordan, Mudbound (2008) [PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction]

9. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake.
—Sebastian Barry, Days Without End (2016) [Man Booker longlist, Costa Book of the Year]

10. On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before.
—Emma Flint, Little Deaths (2017) [Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist]

11. The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.
—Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (2016)

12. Each night, our city dreamed of danger, crying out for help I could not give.
—Fran Wilde, Horizon (2017)

Baker’s Dozen Holiday Travel Bonus: Isma was going to miss her flight.
—Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (2017) [Man Booker longlist]

Fourteen opening lines so glorious they could practically be a sonnet to the woman in question:

Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile. Coloring and features were indistinct, hazy in memory. The eyes, surely, were blue—but they could have been green or grey. And the hair, knotted in the Grecian fashion piled high on top of the head in curls, might have been chestnut or light brown. The nose was anything but Grecian—that was a certainty, for it pointed to heaven; and the actual shape of the mouth had never seemed important—not at the time, or now.

The essence of what had been lay in the smile. It began at the left corner of the mouth and hovered momentarily, mocking without discrimination those she loved most—including her own family—and those she despised. And, while they waited uneasily, expecting a blast of sarcasm or the snub direct, the smile spread to the eyes, transfiguring the whole face, lighting it to gaiety. Reprieved, they basked in the warmth and shared the folly, and there was no intellectual pose in the laugh that followed, ribald, riotous, cockney, straight from the belly.

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.
—Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne (1954)

Rugby World Cup 15-Man Bonus Round: So there were kookaburras here.
—Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (2016)

Congrats to Teresa who guessed three of these correctly (and two before any hints)!

Which one(s) are you kicking yourself over?

Look for reviews and comments on these selections and more in my traditional year-end round-up post at the end of December.

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A Perfect Fifth: The First Lines Challenge

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As I have done for the past four Thanksgiving weekends, I hereby present the “first lines” challenge, stolen from James over at Following Pulitzer.

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

The most important rule of this game is to rely on your own memory and brain and not to cheat by using Google or another resource, print or online. This includes looking up my recent reading at Goodreads.

I’ll say it again, DO NOT use any other resources other than your own brain and/or the brains of those around you.

So, what’s the game, you say?

Below I’ve posted a list of first lines from books I’ve read (or am reading) this year—your job is to guess the author and title of the work I’ve quoted from.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

—The opening of Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen

Some truths:
• Some of these should be quite easy; others are fairly difficult.
• I’ve used discretion as to what counts as the first line.
• The line may be in translation, my own or another’s work.
• The authors or books are generally well known, have won or been nominated for prizes, have been adapted for the silver screen, or have been otherwise much discussed recently.
• The selections can be from any time period or genre, fiction or non-fiction—what ties them together is that I have read (or am reading) them this year.

If you own a copy of the work, it’s fine to check it before you post it as a guess. Any other reference work or tool, print or online, is strictly forbidden. If it’s driving you crazy and you end up googling the answers, that is certainly understandable, but don’t share your findings with the rest of us, that is unforgivable!

Anybody is welcome to comment and guess and I encourage you to do so since even an incorrect guess may trigger something in someone else’s memory. I may also offer hints in my responses so be sure to subscribe to the comments. Whatever is not guessed outright or crowd-sourced through the comments will be posted on November 30.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

—The opening of Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy

 1. It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

 2. At dawn in an outlying district of Warsaw, sunlight swarmed around the trunks of blooming linden trees and crept up the white walls of a 1930s stucco and glass villa where the zoo director and his wife slept in a bed crafted from white birch, a pale wood used in canoes, tongue depressors, and Windsor chairs.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

 3. This is my story of what happened.

[Hint: Seriously, people, come on!]

 4. On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.

[Hint: This was made into a stunningly gorgeous movie in 2016.]

 5. In the early 1850s, few pedestrians strolling past the house on H Street in Washington, near the White House, realized that the ancient widow seated by the window, knitting and arranging flowers, was the last surviving link to the glory days of the early republic.

[Hint: Do not throw away your shot to get this one.]

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

 6. The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

 7. When the train stopped I stumbled out, nudging and kicking the kitbag before me.

[Hint: The second line of this Booker Prize nominee is “Back down the platform someone was calling despairingly, ‘Oxgodby… Oxgodby.'”]

 8. Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep.

[Hint: Another book I read due a movie adaptation.]

 9. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake. 

[Hint: Another much talked about recent prizewinner.]

10. On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before. 

[Hint: Sorry, you are probably out of luck on this one.]

11. The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

[Hint: A book which everyone seemed to be reading recently yet was not awarded any major prizes.]

12. Each night, our city dreamed of danger, crying out for help I could not give.

[Hint: This book is the third in a trilogy.]

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

***

Baker’s Dozen Holiday Travel Bonus: Isma was going to miss her flight.

[ETA: This book has been guessed correctly in the comments below.]

Fourteen opening lines so glorious they could practically be a sonnet to the woman in question:

Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile. Coloring and features were indistinct, hazy in memory. The eyes, surely, were blue—but they could have been green or grey. And the hair, knotted in the Grecian fashion piled high on top of the head in curls, might have been chestnut or light brown. The nose was anything but Grecian—that was a certainty, for it pointed to heaven; and the actual shape of the mouth had never seemed important—not at the time, or now.

The essence of what had been lay in the smile. It began at the left corner of the mouth and hovered momentarily, mocking without discrimination those she loved most—including her own family—and those she despised. And, while they waited uneasily, expecting a blast of sarcasm or the snub direct, the smile spread to the eyes, transfiguring the whole face, lighting it to gaiety. Reprieved, they basked in the warmth and shared the folly, and there was no intellectual pose in the laugh that followed, ribald, riotous, cockney, straight from the belly.

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

[Hint: It is unlikely anyone has read this, but it is likely that you have read another novel about an unforgettable woman by this same author (or at least seen the movie).]

Rugby World Cup 15-Man Bonus Round: So there were kookaburras here.

[Hint: Eerily relevant for our times, but the times they seem to be a-changin’.]

***

Please post any guesses below, not on Facebook or Twitter. That way, everyone will be contributing to the challenge in the same place. If you want time to think and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the comments below and remember to check back on November 30 for a new post with the answers.

Good luck!

Noirvember 1: Out of the Past

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Even though I hadn’t quite finished with The Great Unseen, when I found November—or more specifically, #Noirvember—approaching, I thought it might finally be time to do a series on film noir, perhaps my favorite genre after screwball comedies. Noirvember is a concept created by @oldfilmsflicker in November 2010 in order to catch up on her film noir viewing (sound familiar?) and has since grown into a month-long online celebration of all things noir.

As is often the case, I began this project by making a few lists to sort out what I had seen and not seen, what I wanted to rewatch, and what I wanted to make sure and watch for the first time. While I have seen most of the major titles at least once, and a few of them many times, there were some I didn’t remember very well. There are also a few well-known titles that I haven’t seen, mostly because they are harder to find.

I watched most of these films on DVDs borrowed from the library because, for the most part, they are not available on basic streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Although this project did push me to finally sign up for MUBI, which I’ve been meaning to do for some time, I would be even happier if I could access FilmStruck on either my Smart TV or Sony Blu-Ray player.

Because I started off the month with a few critic screenings, Noirvember didn’t really get underway for me until late in the first week, but I caught up by watching a number of double features, usually pairing one well-loved classic with a new-to-me film. [Side note: If you are looking for a great film to watch at your local theater this month or next, check out Mudbound, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.]

I also began re-listening to one of my favorite podcasts from back in the day: Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, hosted by Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards, which aired monthly from mid-2005 to mid-2008. Each episode is dedicated to a particular film or pair of films, and while I don’t always agree with their assessments, most of the episodes provide thoughtful commentary on the film(s) in question.

If you’ve ever looked at any serious writing on film noir, you have likely encountered the “cycle” vs. “genre” vs. “style” argument. Some people are willing to argue ad nauseam about where they come down on this. I am not one of those people. Merriam-Webster defines “genre” as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content” and frankly that suits me just fine. Like pornography, you can recognize it when you see it. In these posts, I will mostly be focusing on the classic period of noir (from the early 1940s to the late 1950s), but will likely watch a few neo-noirs as a point of comparison, especially since Taxi Driver, part of The Great Unseen, if often given that label.

Finally, a note on the term “film noir” itself. This term was coined by French critics, mostly because of the genre’s relation to the hardboiled detective books published under Gallimard’s Série Noire imprint. However, much like the term “western” (which some people see fit to capitalize), I use this label as a generic English term, sometimes shortened to just “noir” on its own. In either case, the plural adds an “s” only to “noir”: noirs or film noirs. For the love of god, if you insist on also adding an “s” to “film” because “that’s how the French do it” (les films noirs), please do not pronounce said “s” (because that is most certainly not how the French do it). Sorry for the digression, but this drives me batsh*t on the above podcast and whenever I hear it—not as much as people who refer to Simone de Beauvoir as De Beauvoir, but still.

With that said, let’s take in some doubleplusgood double features, shall we?

Double Date: Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur) and Angel Face (1952, Otto Preminger)

Though I generally like to start any series or project by looking at things chronologically, to me, Out of the Past seemed a natural beginning point for a film noir retrospective. First, because it was the namesake (and subject of the first episode) of the Out of the Past podcast. Second, because it contains a number of the tropes and techniques (flashback structure, low-key lighting, skewed composition) that define film noir as well as some notable performances by Robert Mitchum, femme fatale extraordinaire Jane Greer, and a steely Kirk Douglas. At the same time, it contains some very un-noir-like elements, notably its beginning in the idyllic countryside. Out of the Past is one of the great film noirs, but I also have to admit that I like for its use of the geography of California, moving from the eastern side of the Sierras, up to Lake Tahoe, over to San Francisco, and then back again.

I chose to pair Angel Face with Out of the Past because it turned up as a suggestion when I was googling similar films. The obvious link is that they both star Robert Mitchum; the less obvious link is the two femme fatales, who enter (or re-enter) Mitchum’s life when he is already dating and happy with another woman. Both seem to think they can bully Mitchum into sharing their life, much to the dismay of everyone involved. In Angel Face, Jean Simmon’s plays the oddest character in the oddest way. I can’t decide if I like her interpretation or not, but she is really quite chilling. I know I liked the character of Mary, played by Mona Freeman; it was nice to see an independent, practical woman for once. Note: This film has perhaps the most shocking ending of any film noir I’ve seen.

Double Agent: Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder) and Pitfall (1948, Andre de Toth)

Double Indemnity is one of the few film noirs I own, which is odd since it is not one of my favorites. Why do I own this and not Laura? or Gilda? Perhaps because it is one of the best, even though I think it is a little too in love with its clever dialogue. It has one of the best femme fatales in Barbara Stanwyck (who plays a young housewife all too eager to get rid of her wealthy husband), a fantastic score by Miklós Rózsa, and sets the standard for noir in its clever use of both the flashback as narrative frame and the urban landscape of Los Angeles. The one trope it avoids is the private detective, choosing instead the intrepid insurance investigator.

And so we get to why I paired Double Indemnity with Pitfall, a Los Angeles noir that doesn’t really fit the traditional noir mold. In Pitfall, Dick Powell plays a regular guy who feels trapped by his “man in the gray flannel suit” insurance agent existence. As he puts it to his wife, played by Jane Wyatt, “sometimes I get to feeling like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.” And so, when in the course of an insurance investigation, Powell meets a lovely model played by Lizabeth Scott, he gets in over his head. This femme isn’t particularly fatale, and in fact calls off their affair as soon as she learns Powell has a wife and kid at home, but it’s too late—her involvement with a minor crook and a crooked investigator/stalker played by Raymond Burr, seals their fate.

Double-Dealing: The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston) and Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk)

The Maltese Falcon was probably one of the first noir films I ever watched and remains a favorite. Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, it is a classic hard-boiled detective story, with Humphrey Bogart playing the role of detective Sam Spade, Mary Astor playing an unrepentant femme fatale, and Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr. playing their usual versions of shady ne’er-do-wells along with Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. The cinematography by Arthur Edeson is superb and the plot is slightly less convoluted than some others (I’m looking at you, The Big Sleep) and so it makes a good first step into noir. I have a real fondness for Effie, the secretary, played by Lee Patrick.

Murder, My Sweet was adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and stars Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Claire Trevor as Helen Grayle, Anne Shirley as Ann Grayle, Helen’s stepdaughter, and Mike Muzurki as Moose Malloy. This film was one of the reasons I wanted to participate in Noirvember this year as it is one of those noirs I knew was very good but I just hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. While Dick Powell as Marlowe doesn’t quite work for me, I was delighted to discover Anne Shirley here. So I was sad to learn that she retired from acting after this picture—at the ripe old age of 26—which I guess makes sense when you know she was a child actress. Remember those crazy plots I was talking about? This is one of those. It doesn’t quite make sense, but I don’t care. It really is one of the lovelier, sweeter noirs.

Double Occupancy: The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

These two films form a natural pairing as they both open with someone picking up a hitchhiker. And, because I was sure I had seen one and not the other, I thought the pairing also worked for my one seen–one unseen plan. However, the odd thing is, I was convinced I had seen The Hitch-Hiker (but now I’m pretty sure I hadn’t) and not Kiss Me Deadly (but now I’m pretty sure I had).

In any case, The Hitch-Hiker is a taut thriller based on a true story. We jump right into the action, seeing the feet of an unknown man catching a ride with an unsuspecting couple and then killing them, all behind the initial credits. And then our story truly begins, with an escaped convict getting into the car of two men who have told their wives they are going on a fishing trip. It falls down somewhat at the end, but is otherwise completely gripping. As the only film noir from the classic period directed by a woman, it is hard to view it today and not think that it is some kind of statement about sexual harassment. I’m not sure a man could have made this movie about the emasculation of two victims by an incredibly creepy William Talman. The vulnerable performance Lupino elicits from Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien as the victims is truly extraordinary.

Kiss Me Deadly also revolves around masculinity, in this case, the hyper-masculine detective Mike Hammer (settle down, people, I’m sure that name is just a coincidence), created by Mickey Spillane and played by Ralph Meeker. But women, including a young Cloris Leachman who sets the plot in motion by flagging down Mr. Hammer late at night, are less the focus of our cast of characters than the mysterious glowing box that has echoed throughout pop culture, most notably in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. An exceedingly dark portrayal of Los Angeles, this film somehow feels incredibly modern, even if it is mostly an ode to the long-since-vanished neighborhood of Bunker Hill.

Double Your Money: The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) and Kansas City Confidential (1952, Phil Karlson)

I love a good heist film and The Asphalt Jungle is one of the best. What I didn’t know is that Kansas City Confidential is even better. No really, I’m serious. While it doesn’t have the polish of The Asphalt Jungle, the heist and, more importantly, the fallout from the heist and the revenge twist, is just so much cleverer than I anticipated. It really made The Asphalt Jungle seem slow and staid in comparison. I wasn’t surprised to learn it served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, although the film plots really don’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about projects like this—I’m sure I never would have sought this film out if I wasn’t trying to actively seek out new noir films. But really, if you like a good caper, you can’t go wrong with either of these.

But no dames… Understand? No dames.

Tune in next time when I take on such classics as The Big Sleep and Laura, as well as new-to-me selections like The Big Heat and Fallen Angel. In the meantime, if you have a lesser-known classic film noir that you would like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.

Filmography
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Out of the Past (1947)
Pitfall (1948)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Kansas City Confidential (1952)
Angel Face (1953)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2017, Issue 3

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So what is right and what is wrong? Gimme a sign. What is love?

I know that this quarterly report is somewhat delayed, but, hey, with over forty films viewed in July, August, and September, there was a lot of ground to cover. On the upside, between a hectic work schedule and a birthday road trip, I’ve only seen six movies since then. So, never fear, I’m making up for my packed third quarter with aggressively lazy viewing habits now. In any case, as I was contemplating the beginning of #Noirvember and whether I should do a noir series, I thought perhaps I should put in a little effort and start to tie up other loose ends.

The good news is I’ve seen an incredible number of great films, both in and out of the theater. For that reason, I’ve decided to list twenty 2017 titles below, rather than the usual ten. Note: The ranking below is more of a gut call than anything, it’s more than likely to change at the end of the year as I revisit and rethink some of these.

2017 Top Twenty (to Date) Ranked
Blade Runner 2049
Get Out
Bacalaureat (Graduation)
Wind River
Ingrid Goes West
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Logan Lucky
Dunkirk
Good Time
Their Finest
The Big Sick
War for the Planet of the Apes
Columbus
Baby Driver
Lady Macbeth
Moka
The Zookeeper’s Wife
I, Tonya
Atomic Blonde
Novitiate

As per usual, I will focus below on the 2017 movies I watched this past quarter. For my thoughts on previous quarters, you can read Vol. 2017, Issue 1 and Vol. 2017, Issue 2.

If there was one thread that ran through most of the films I’ve watched in theaters since June, it was love. And not just the usual questions and forms of familial and erotic love that we see on screen, but a variety of expressions of this emotion, and a real questioning of what love is and what it means.

I look for pleasure in the details.

Best Film Seen in a Theater: Blade Runner 2049. I had my doubts about the idea of a sequel to Blade Runner, but I should have known that Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins wouldn’t let me down. I loved how this script chose to expand the Blade Runner universe and how the writers managed to keep to very simple themes while simultaneously giving you lots of information to unpack. Normally I would complain about the length of any film running two hours and forty-five minutes, but, honestly, I can’t imagine where I would cut this film. And, needless to say, with Roger Deakins at the camera’s helm, there were plenty of stunning visuals. My only real complaint was the score. It mostly served to remind me how much I hated the sound and score of Dunkirk. Go away, Hans Zimmer.

Best Theater Experience: Logan Lucky. Why did no one see this film? It was so much fun. And, frankly, I liked the heist here better than in Ocean’s 11. It’s a lot looser, and the film just has more heart in it. And, hey, I actually liked Adam Driver, which is almost a miracle in and of itself. I loved Daniel Craig and it was nice to see him playing someone other than a dour James Bond. Yes, Seth McFarlane was ridiculous, but his role was minor enough that I could live with it. Finally, unlike most people (apparently), I liked where it ended up and would eagerly get in line for any planned sequel. Definitely catch this Steven Soderbergh gem on video or streaming when you get a chance.

Best Elizabeth Olsen Performance (tie): Wind River and Ingrid Goes West. I kid. Sort of. Olsen is fantastic in both of these films, playing two very different roles in two very different films—one a dark comedy and the other a neo-western thriller—but she is not the only one who shines; her co-stars are equally good. Aubrey Plaza gives emotional poignancy to the troubled character of Ingrid and O’Shea Jackson Jr. is adorable as Ingrid’s landlord/friend. At times funny, at times uncomfortable, and at times uncomfortably funny, Ingrid Goes West will not be for everyone, but it serves as an excellent showcase for these actresses and as a warning about the dangers of social media obsession. Wind River is on the opposite end of the social media extreme, focusing on a remote, forbidding landscape and a people that seem left behind by (or left out of) the globalized economy. Here, Olsen stars opposite a quietly powerful Jeremy Renner, in perhaps his best role since The Hurt Locker (and maybe even better than that). The film exposes the best and worst of humanity but ultimately believes in justice and the heroic nature of man (or, in this case, woman). If you like thrillers, and especially if you liked Sicario or Hell or High Water, both written by first-time director Taylor Sheridan, I highly encourage you to catch Wind River when it is released on DVD this coming month.

Best Visuals: Atomic Blonde. Sure, this film is far heavier on style than substance, but, what style. From song choice to outfits, this homage to 1980s Cold War spy fantasy is pitch perfect, right down to the convoluted plot that makes no real sense whatsoever. But who cares? See above, re style. Like John Wick, David Leitch’s first directorial outing (with Chad Stahelski), Atomic Blonde is packed with incredible, and incredibly realistic, fight scenes. The fighting is visceral, the bruises seem real, and it all seems exhausting—as I’m sure this type of hand-to-hand combat would be. One thing I loved about having a female lead in a movie like this is that Charlize Theron’s character has to make use of her environment to defeat her adversaries, since she can’t rely on brute strength. It just forces a creativity that sets a film like this apart. And again, like John Wick, the film has some incredibly stunning camera angles and framing choices. Does this mean I have to see Deadpool 2?

I don’t know—what can I do? What else can I say? It’s up to you.

Best Opening Scene: Dunkirk. And, once again, a film that many people adored but only got a meh from me had the best opening. The cold open of soldiers running through the streets of the town to try to get to the beach was Dunkirk at its most visceral to me. Unfortunately the rest of the film didn’t live up to this opening. Despite the claims of people that “you must see it in 70mm IMAX,” I really wish I hadn’t. Beyond the “air” sequences, I didn’t think the square framing served the movie very well and wish I had seen it in standard widescreen. And don’t even get me started on the sound, my god, the sound. And, no, I don’t only mean you couldn’t understand the dialogue (although you couldn’t), it was also just too damn loud. I’ve heard people say that the film didn’t need dialogue, and I agree, but if you are going to have it, it should be intelligible. And the writing in the “sea” section was clunky at best. I don’t know, I guess Dunkirk was mostly frustrating because I wanted to love it, and the basic plot and three timelines really worked for me, it’s just that I didn’t think the execution lived up to the concept.

Best Closing Scene: Wind River. Oh, am I mentioning Wind River again already? Well, there you go, this one has really stuck with me. There is a lot to love about this film, but it’s worth it if only for the final scene between Jeremy Renner and an excellent Gil Birmingham—which itself is simply icing on the cake of the two excellent resolutions that come just before.

Best Sequel to a Prequel: War for the Planet of the Apes. In another quarter, this film might be much higher on my list, because it is a very good close to a well-conceived trilogy, all wrapped up in a lovely Michael Giacchino musical bow. Like Blade Runner 2049, it questions humanity, but delves deeper than that film does into the questions of oppression and exploitation, and the cycles of violence that come along with that. The appreciation for and mastery of classical Hollywood storytelling is in evidence throughout the film [elevator pitch: a war film meets a prison escape film meets a western, but with apes], although a bit too on the nose at times. We get it, Mr. Reeves, you love Apocalypse Now.

Most Out of Left Field: Good Time. I went into this film with no expectations, except knowing it had something to do with a heist. It is not actually a heist film at all, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. This is one of those solid but gritty indy films that likely would never get made by a studio because the basic premise is just so off the wall. The film is anchored by an Oscar-worthy performance by Robert Pattinson with some excellent supporting work by one of the film’s directors as his brother. [Side note: I had no idea there were so many Robert Pattinson fan accounts on Twitter.]

Most Problematic: Lady Macbeth. I left this film not quite knowing what to make of it. And perhaps I still don’t. On the one hand, it is utterly gorgeous filmmaking with some brilliant performances, especially Florence Pugh as Katherine Lester, but it is brutal to watch and implicates the viewer in such a way that I just can’t love it. In fact, this film had me reconsidering my whole ranking method. (Yes, there is a method to the madness. And a spreadsheet. Duh.) However, the fact that this is a debut film is simply incredible, and I look forward to seeing whatever William Oldroyd may do next.

I know we’re one, just me and you. I can’t go on… What is love?

Best Movie by a Female Director: Novitiate. I saw this movie described as “Whiplash with nuns” on Twitter and, while that’s not completely accurate, it is sort of apt in that Novitiate is both about how much sacrifice goes into joining the clergy and also the smugness that often becomes wrapped up in the rules and rituals of Catholicism (or really any patriarchal, hierarchical order). What happens when you are no longer “special”? Like many films I’ve seen recently, it is also about how love motivates and drives us but can also be the seeds of our undoing. I didn’t love all the choices that writer-director Maggie Betts made with her script, but this is an overall solid first directorial effort.

Most overrated: Logan. I had heard Logan was ridiculously violent and, since my tolerance for slicing and dicing is far less than that of gunshots or other violence. I figured this was one best watched at home. I was right. There was much to like about this film (the young actress playing Laura was amazing), but it is no “contemporary western” as I have heard it called. In fact, while seemingly modeling itself on Shane, it betrays everything that Shane was about and, in so doing, becomes what I hate about many recent superhero movies, the complete disinterest in how the hero impacts those he brings into his world. And the fact that this betrayal is one that involves a black family? Well, that meant it had already lost me by the time it got to an admittedly great final act.

Most Underrated: Kidnap. Kidnap is not a good movie, but it was utterly enjoyable as a low-budget action-hostage adventure. Halle Berry as Liam Neeson in a minivan. Who knew?

And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter. Since almost all of my home viewing this quarter was related to The Great Unseen project, I won’t dwell on too many older films here, but here are some highlights and lowlights:

Best Classic Rewatch: Sherlock, Jr. (1924). This is a classic silent gem that everyone should watch. With Buster Keaton’s character entering the film he is projecting and the incredible special effects on display as he does so, this film feels incredibly modern.

Best New-to-Me Classic (tie): Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Rio Bravo (1959). The classics are classics for a reason—I adored both of these “Great Unseen” films. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either of these to anyone.

Best Math Greek Selection: Unbreakable (2000). The Math Greek was very surprised when he learned I hadn’t seen this, and, given that I’ve actually liked other early Shyamalan films that many people hate (Signs, The Village), I can’t really say I blame him. While I will likely always regard The Sixth Sense as his masterwork, I think this may technically be a “better” film.

Most Oddly Relevant for Today: The Little Foxes (1941) and High Noon (1952).

Most Romantic: Paterson (2016). As I stated above, love was a dominant theme in many of the movies I watched this quarter. However, not many of them were what I would call romantic. But Paterson is, in multiple senses of the word. I wish I had seen this earlier, it might have made my 2016 top ten. Also, Adam Driver is once again excellent here; maybe I like him more than I realize. He’s still awful as Kylo Ren though.

I want no other, no other lover. This is our life, our time.

Best Sitcom Disguised as a Movie: Home Again (2017). Home Again is not the best picture by any definition, but it is also one of those women’s films that gets slammed harder than it needs to be by critics, partly because of the subject matter, but also because of the perceived nepotism here: The director, Hallie Meyers-Shyer is Nancy Meyers’s daughter and Nancy Meyers acted as producer. The plot has wacky sitcom written all over it, but the film has a lovely sweetness to it and is a nice take on the “What makes a family?” question.

Worst Geography: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). Much like in the original, I found myself saying “Wait, how far did they go?” on more than one occasion.

Most Honest: Columbus (2017). A quiet movie about a man, a woman, and modern architecture. I’m sorry, what was that last bit again? Oddly enough, for a movie about a topic I see as decidedly cold and sterile, this beautiful film is all about human connection.

Best Line Delivery: Wind River (2017)

Six miles, bare foot. That’s a warrior. That’s a warrior.

Best Line Delivery (runner-up): Atomic Blonde (2017)

Am I a bitch now?

Bechdel-Wallace “Themyscira” award: Novitiate (2017)

Marvel “Can’t Live Up to the Hype” award: The Driver (1978)

Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Moka (2017)

Best Use of Batman: Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Best Use of a Bat: I, Tonya (2017)

And, finally…

Pam Grier award for Best Distribution of Vigilante Justice: Jeremy Renner in Wind River (2017). I guess it’s true what they say: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Ice cold.

What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What have I missed that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

We are together. I need you forever. Is it love?… What is love?

For Vol. 2017, Issue 1, click here.

For Vol. 2017, Issue 2, click here.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2017: Atomic Blonde; Blade Runner 2049; Columbus; Detroit; Dunkirk; Get Out; Good Time; Home Again; I, Tonya; Ingrid Goes West; Kidnap; Lady Macbeth; Logan; Logan Lucky; Moka; NovitiateTheir Finest; War for the Planet of the Apes; Wind River

2016: Moana, Paterson

Released prior to 2016: The African Queen, Banshun (Late Spring), Бронено́сец «Потёмкин» (Battleship Potemkin), Casting By, The DriverDuck Soup, The General, The Gold Rush, High Noon, The Kid, The Little Foxes, A Matter of Life and Death, Model Shop, A Night at the Opera, A Night to Remember, Pretty in Pink, Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism), Rio Bravo, Safety Last!, The Scarlet Empress, Sherlock Jr., Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips), Sweet Revenge, Swing Time, Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story), Unbreakable

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

The Great Unseen 2: Dinner and a Movie

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Mansplaining at its finest. Bette Davis is not having it in The Little Foxes.

So now we get into the meat of the thing. This second of three planned posts on “The Great Unseen” focuses on the sound era of classic Hollywood—the 1930s, 40s, and 50s—even if some of these films are made far from the Hollywood system and break from the classical visual style.

Of course, I had hoped to be wrapping up this series by now, but I once again got distracted by other unseen classics. Still, this quarter, I managed to get to a total of thirteen films on my list: four silents (The Consequences of Feminism, Safety Last!, Battleship Potemkin, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), eight from the classic period (Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, The Little Foxes, A Matter of Life and Death, Late Spring, The African Queen, High Noon, Rio Bravo), and one modern one (Pretty in Pink) that I watched because it was expiring on Hulu. This is not nearly the twenty-five I’d hoped for, but really isn’t too shabby. Plus, I watched seven other new-to-me classics as a result of this project (Les Vampires, The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Scarlett Empress, Swing Time, Tokyo Story, A Night to Remember), which has to count for something.

As with my first post in this series—Matinée Idle—the old adage of “classics are classics for a reason” has proved true. Not that I loved every film I watched, but I appreciate that they are mostly deserving of their place in the canon.

Hello I Must Be Going

Duck Soup (1933) by Leo McCarey
A Night at the Opera (1935) by Sam Wood

While I’ve seen bits and pieces of various Marx Brothers films over the years, I had never watched an entire movie until now. In fact, of all the films on this list, these were the two that I had most consciously avoided. Though certain broad comedies work for me, I’m not a huge fan of slapstick, and I guess I wrongly placed the Marx Brothers in that category. While these movies do rely on pratfalls and obvious gags (and I have to say that I didn’t LOVE them for that reason), they definitely have more layers to them than I expected.

It is perhaps not surprising to long-time readers that I liked A Night at the Opera much more than Duck Soup. Not only is it more like a screwball comedy, but there are opera references galore. Plus, the narrative hangs together much better than Duck Soup—though you’d never guess that by watching only its rather abrupt beginning, which, according to Leonard Maltin (good lord, why?!?) on the commentary track, is the result of later cutting all references to Italy for showings during World War II. In any case, once you realize they aren’t starting in New York, it makes much more sense. That said, some of the individual scenes in Duck Soup—such as the mirror scene and the war-scene costume changes—are well worth watching at least once.

And to Groucho Marx, I give my cravat
To Harpo goes my shiny silk hat
And to heaven, I give a vow
To adore you, I’m starting now

Never Gonna Dance

Swing Time (1936) by George Stevens

For some reason, the Marx Brothers got me thinking about the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and how I’ve seen so many scenes of them dancing over the years and yet have no idea how many of their films I’ve actually watched all the way through. So I chose one at random—only to realize I hadn’t seen any of it at all, not even the big dance numbers. That film was Swing Time, which surprisingly includes some of my favorite standards including “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight” as well as “Never Gonna Dance”—which, as seen above, happens to specifically cite the Marx Brothers. The world is small, people. Swing Time also includes an incredible number where Astaire dances with multiple shadows of himself. Unfortunately, said number is marred by the fact that Astaire appears in blackface throughout. Also unfortunate is the ridiculous plot of this film, although the initial sequences of Astaire and Rogers meeting are delightful.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I was first exposed to the work of The Archers (aka Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) in the college film class I mentioned in the previous post in this series. Three films I watched in that class—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948)—would easily make it onto any all-time favorites list of mine, just as they appear on Edgar Wright 1000 Favorites list. Of course, I would also add I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), a film that is very much in the spirit of my beloved Regency romances. And all four of those films are in the Sight & Sound Top 250. However, above them all on the Sight & Sound list is A Matter of Life and Death. So, needless to say, I thought this one was a sure winner. Reader, it was not.

Not that I didn’t like it: this story of a man (David Niven) who pleads his case to stay on earth after his conductor to the great beyond misses his appointment had interesting technical and visual aspects (notably the stair sequences), but the underlying themes and basic plot were far less interesting than other films I have seen by The Archers. To my mind, this film is rather a pale imitation of its “life and death” forerunner, Colonel Blimp. I’d love to hear from people who have seen both of them as to what would put this one on top. Also, not for nothing, but what was up with that naked shepherd boy playing the flute at the beach? I get the Pan imagery, but whatever is it for?

As always, I’m happy I saw it, but it definitely would fall at the bottom of any Powell and Pressburger ranking I might make.

Unapologetic Bitch(es)

The Scarlett Empress (1934) by Josef von Sternberg

The Scarlett Empress, one of the last films Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich, is another film I’ve always meant to see, but didn’t put on my official list for whatever reason. However, once Charlottesville happened, I realized I had zero interest in watching Nazis in Triumph of the Will (1935). Plus, I thought The Scarlett Empress might make an interesting companion piece to Battleship Potemkin, which I suppose it did, although it’s neither the condemnation nor the glorification of the life of Catherine the Great that I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it is not really the life of Catherine the Great at all, but rather how Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst became Catherine the Great. That is, it purports to tell the story of her childhood and how she came to be in the royal Russian household and eventually stage a coup. It is extremely inaccurate historically speaking, but is worthwhile as a supreme exercise in style, with innovative lighting, elaborate sets, and gorgeous costumes. It is also one of the most obvious examples of how different movies might have been had the Hays Code never been put in place: The opening torture scenes had me immediately rushing to check the production date.

Husband getting you down? Marlene Dietrich is not having it in The Scarlet Empress.

The Little Foxes (1941) by William Wyler

William Wyler is the most nominated director in Oscar history and the director of one of my favorite adaptations ever, The Heiress (1949) starring Olivia de Havilland. Yet I’ve never felt I had a handle on him as a director. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew that The Little Foxes was by William Wyler or I might have taken this one on earlier, since in many ways it perfectly complements his Jezebel (1938), also a “southern” story with Bette Davis, and one that I’ve watched and enjoyed numerous times. Of course, enjoy is not quite the word I’d use for this all-too-relevant story about the corrosive effects of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.

Yes, they got mighty well-off cheating the poor. Well, there’s people that eats up the whole Earth and all the people on it. Like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there’s people that stand around and watch them do it. Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.

—Addie speaking her truth to Birdie and the audience, in The Little Foxes

Like a number of films on my Great Unseen list, I wasn’t too sure of this one when it started, but as it went along I became more and more impressed and interested. While Bette Davis gives an incredible performance as Regina Giddens, I was more than a little surprised to realize this was the debut of Teresa Wright, who would get an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role as Alexandra, Regina’s daughter, and go on to be nominated twice in the next year, for a supporting role in Mrs. Miniver (1942), also by Wyler, and as best actress in Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees (1942). And, of course, the year after that she would play young Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1942). Quite a run.

The other participant who really impresses here is the one behind the camera. This is the first film that Gregg Toland would shoot after his groundbreaking work on Citizen Kane (1941), and I might argue that his deep-focus work here is even more extraordinary than on that film. At least, it is more crucial in bringing life to this stage play. Of all the films on this list, it is perhaps the most stunning visually. Though, admittedly, the films of Yasujirō Ozu come pretty close.

Big in Japan

Banshun (Late Spring) (1949) by Yasujirō Ozu
Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953) by Yasujirō Ozu

I hadn’t wanted to put any Japanese films on my Great Unseen list because I’ve always thought I would do a complete series on them (a project I started some time ago with Rashōmon (1950) but had to abandon). However, since that plan sprung from not having seen any of the “great” ones, and because I needed one more 1940s film for my list, Banshun (Late Spring) made it on here. And then, oddly enough, before even reaching Late Spring on my list, I found myself taking in Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) on the big screen at the Aero in Santa Monica. Unlike my last time at that theater, I was not sitting next to Christoph Waltz, but it was a packed house, which was rather inspiring. [Side note: Tokyo Story is the #3 movie on the most recent Sight & Sound Top 250 poll; Late Spring is #15 on that same list.]

Tokyo Story is one of those movies I was simultaneously bored and enchanted by. Or maybe I was just really tired from hiking up to the Hollywood sign that morning. In any case, the film is visually stunning (which is incredible since the camera basically never moves), but the narrative moves at a glacial pace. Still, it managed to seep into me somehow and I find myself going back to it rather often in my mind. I’m sure there were many cultural nuances and references that went over my head, but its universal story of family dynamics and responsibilities is something I imagine would resonate with many viewers, no matter what their nationality or background. Perhaps Late Spring—as the story of a young woman resisting society’s expectations—should have resonated with me more, but that film felt too scattered to me. Somehow I had a far better handle on the characters of Tokyo Story than I did Late Spring. However, both films are well-made, powerful explorations of marriage and family. Plus, they introduced me to the concept of the “pillow shot” (a term I had never heard of before).

Guns and Ships

The African Queen (1951) by John Huston

I went into this project unsure of whether I had actually seen this one. Well, I definitely hadn’t seen it, but I’m not sure that was any real loss. Sorry, Bogie/Hepburn lovers, I just didn’t buy this one. I liked the basic story, but the couple didn’t work for me and the obvious green screen in many of the river sequences was painful to watch. I imagine that watching this in the 1950s in the theater was likely fairly exciting, but today it falls flat. And, while I wanted to root for the feminist awakening depicted, the classism, colonialism, and nationalism on display were just too distracting for me to fully get behind Rose as a character.

Why is the gin gone? Katharine Hepburn is not having it in The African Queen.

A Night to Remember (1958) by Roy Ward Baker

If you know me at all, you know I am slightly obsessed with stories of the Titanic sinking. Yet, for some reason, I had never seen this famous depiction from the 1950s. And so, even though it was not initially on my list, I added it here. If you have read any of the first-hand accounts, you know that, aside from the “splitting in two” issue, A Night to Remember mostly gets the story right, though it is lacking the incredible special effects of the James Cameron version released forty years later. Having seen Titanic (1997) so many times, it was particularly interesting to watch this and realize just how many iconic shots Cameron took directly from this film. I like both movies, but admit that the sweeping epic romance that Cameron tells has a slight edge for me. Still, two things that A Night to Remember does very well are the depiction of social class and the workings of the crew behind the scenes as the ship went down. One moment in particular stood out for me: the look on Honor Blackman’s face as she realizes what her husband really means when he says they should listen to what the captain says.

(Don’t) Take Your Guns to Town

High Noon (1952) by Fred Zinnemann
Rio Bravo (1959) by Howard Hawks

Lastly, we come to one of my favorite film genres, the western. There are very few classic westerns I haven’t seen, but I thought I had rightly identified these two as holdouts. However, I’m now pretty sure I have in fact seen High Noon before, albeit long time ago. Regardless, I was certainly happy to see it again. And, unfortunately, this is another classic that turned out to be far too relevant for today’s world. Despite that depressing glimmer of recognition, this pairing was actually rather fortuitous, as Howard Hawks apparently made Rio Bravo in part as a reaction to High Noon, with Hawks thinking that a “real” hero wouldn’t have gone running around asking for help nor would he need to be saved by a woman in the end (which is sort of hilarious given the help that John Wayne seems to need in Rio Bravo, but I digress).

You carry a badge and a gun, Marshal. You had no call to do that.

No matter what the inspiration, I absolutely loved Rio Bravo. John Wayne is here, being very John Wayne, and Dean Martin was practically unrecognizable to me (in a good way). Angie Dickinson as “Feathers” could certainly go toe-to-toe with any of my favorite Hawks leading ladies and Walter Brennan as “Stumpy” is a delight. The only weak link in the cast for me was Ricky Nelson, but that is a minor quibble. Despite a running time of 140 minutes, the movie never seemed to lag, and I especially liked the music. I happily watched this one twice.

What if some of Julia Roberts’s best characters were based on “Feathers”? In any case, Angie Dickinson is not having it in Rio Bravo.

Tune in next time when I take on unseen classics from the 1960s on. In the meantime, if you are undertaking my Great Unseen challenge, let me know what you’ve watched so far in the comments below.

Filmography

The Great (Formerly) Unseen
Duck Soup (1933)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Banshun (Late Spring) (1949)
The African Queen (1951)
High Noon (1952)
Rio Bravo (1959)

Other Classics
The Scarlett Empress (1934)
Swing Time (1936)
Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953)
A Night to Remember (1958)