The Public Enemy (1931)

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William Wellman’s The Public Enemy is to my mind the best of the early pre-Code gangster films (not to take anything away from Scarface or Little Caesar). James Cagney is basically perfect as the Irish gangster who rises from nothing into becoming an important gangster, only to be brought down by the same violence that led to his rise. The story takes Cagney and his good friend Edward Woods from their start as little thugs in 1909 to their first big action in 1915 to their real rise in bootlegging during Prohibition. Cagney is restless, hungry for action. He has a girl but she’s no good moll. He’s sick of her and then he runs into Jean Harlow who isn’t really given much to do except be a moll with a long sexual history (“The men I’ve known–and I’ve known dozens of them) who is Cagney’s match in every way, although I definitely would not call Harlow a good actor. Woods marries Joan Blondell who is as open-faced and welcoming as always, though not much of a mobster’s wife.

These early sound gangster films are so full of life, so energetic. I love the camerawork here, with Cagney walking almost straight into the camera as a threat, a shot we see a lot in these days and that largely disappeared by the mid-30s. He’s a tough man and a threat to the audience as well as all good and decent people out there.

I do find the title interesting because Cagney really isn’t the big Public Enemy No. 1. He doesn’t even lead the gang. He’s really a good soldier and nothing more. His ambition is simply not the same as Scarface or Little Caesar, nor does he use the same ruthless tactics. He’s a thug does his job well. He settles scores and he offs his enemies, but that’s rather par for the course. And when he is killed, it isn’t a blaze of glory by the righteous cops but rather it’s just another hit from another gang.

10/10

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Somewhere (2010)

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Sofia Coppola tells stories about what she knows–bored and aimless Hollywood elites. That’s OK, it’s the world she grew up in. Even Marie Antoinette is basically this story placed in a different time and place. At best the films can be really great, like Lost in Translation. But generally, it’s hard to make this type of story compelling. Somewhere is a totally decent film, but it’s also a bit tough to care. Stephen Dorff plays the gigantic Hollywood star. But of course he’s not too happy. He drinks, he has sex with hot women, he travels around, he drives his Ferrari on the L.A. roads, but really what does that add up to?

He does have a good relationship with his 11 year old daughter (Elle Fanning), but more as a playmate. He’s far away. She lives with her mother who is evidently a mess for unclear reasons. So when the mother drops her off with Dorff to spend some time before she goes to camp because Mom “needs some time,” he’s not real sure what to do. So of course they fly first class to Milan and stay in ultra-luxurious accommodations because he’s making some appearances there. And it’s harder for him to sleep with so many hot women since he’s at least a little bit concerned about what she thinks. And they mostly have a good time. But Dorff still isn’t happy because he sees the emptiness of his own life.

So it’s OK. A reasonably well-made film about characters very difficult to care about too much. Not that I need to like a character or even sympathize with a character. But I need a bit more than this.

6/10

Free and Easy (1930)

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As happened to so many silent film stars, the sound era was not kind to Buster Keaton. Edward Sedgwick directed Keaton’s first silent film, Free and Easy. Keaton is shepherding small-town beauty queen Anita Page and her loud domineering mother Trixie Friganza to Hollywood to make Page a big star. Of course, Keaton is a bumbling fool. There they run into screen idol Robert Montgomery who takes a liking to Page, maybe too much of a liking. Keaton loves her too of course but he’s old and bumbling and has no chance.

So the plot is rudimentary. Eventually, Keaton himself becomes the big star because he can fall and get beat up and look funny. So OK. But there’s not much too this film. Keaton doesn’t have nearly enough to do and this thing is bloated with at least 15 minutes of totally pointless song and dance numbers that go on forever and aren’t funny. And the sad clown makeup on Keaton, I mean really? Wow, thanks for assuming the audience is made up of morons who can’t read Keaton’s own facial expressions. It’s not like he didn’t become a gigantic star based in large part on those expressions. It’s an interesting early film about how in love Hollywood already was with itself and this is full of referencing various stars, etc. But it’s a lame film. Also turns out Keaton has one flat midwestern accent.

4/10

Soldier Blue (1970)

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Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue is a strange hippie western. Theoretically, it’s about the lead up to the Sand Creek Massacre, when the Colorado militia massacred a village of Cheyenne and Arapahoes in 1864. It’s one of the most brutal and horrifying events in American history. Nelson wants to show this horror in detail. And he does. The rapes, the mutilations, the cutting off of women’s breasts, etc. That stuff did happen at Sand Creek, but Nelson didn’t earn the right to tell that story here. The movie itself is mostly garbage. Candace Bergen is a young foul-mouthed woman who has been redeemed from the Cheyenne and is begin taken back to her army officer finance. She’s clearly the hippie stuck back in the 1860s–the sexually open, angry, flower child horrified at the world’s injustice. As they are going back, the Cheyenne attack an army caravan. The only survivors are her and Peter Strauss. He’s a prude but they fall in love. They try to get back to the army base. Doesn’t quite work out.

It’s mostly a bad film. The “Indians” speak the same “Indian-speak” as they did in the racist films this is supposedly critiquing. The acting is bad. The blood makes Spaghetti Western blood look real. Of course, for a film that’s supposed to be pro-Indian, all the major characters are white and it’s about two white people on an adventure. And then there’s one of the most brutal scenes in American film. Unfortunately, it feels more like exploitation than a honest indictment of American conquest. The Army colonel is the scumbag you’d expect, but it’s hard to care. You just want the film to end. I guess it gets a little credit for trying to take this on and I suppose I’m glad I’ve seen it so I can talk about it, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

During the 1970s, the East Germans were making anti-American propaganda westerns. I don’t know why. They could have just shown the anti-American conquest westerns made in the United States during the same years.

1/10

Stories We Tell (2012)

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Sarah Polley’s engrossing documentary follows her attempt to understand her mother and tell the story of how she found out that her father was not her biological father. Filmmakers turning the camera can be pretty boring (her sister’s response at the beginning of “who fucking cares about our family” at least shows the consciousness of trying to avoid this), but Polley has a clear vision of what she wants here. She is gentle but tough with her family, asking them the questions they don’t want to answer about their mother, a high-energy artistic type (with perhaps not that much talent) who was divorced at lost her 3 kids in custody (evidently the first such case in Canada) and then married an actor (Michael Polley, still active today) with whom she had 2 more children in a fairly loveless marriage. Or did she have 2 children in that marriage? Sarah doesn’t look like her siblings. At all, except somewhat with one sister. She’s much lighter-skinned and fairer in complexion. They joked about her having a different father for years. Turns out they were right. Her mom had gone to do a play in Montreal for a couple of months where she rediscovered herself, bloomed, and had one (or more) affairs. She died of cancer when Sarah was 11, something the film does not dwell upon.

What Polley presents is the complexity of truth and storytelling, the difficulties of putting together a narrative that tells what “actually happened.” There stories we tell aren’t the stories others tell about the same thing. There is anything particularly new about that revelation, but what I think Polley is really doing is exploring a question that also dominates her fantastic film “Take This Waltz,” that of women, perhaps indecisive, discovering themselves and their sexuality through an affair. I see the two films as variations on this theme and both approach it with great skill. Polley’s an outstanding director and I hope she has the artistic vision and gets the funding to pursue more work.

8/10

Balseros (2002)

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Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech are Spanish documentarians who followed a group of balseros in their flight from Cuba in 1994. During the Special Period, after Soviet economic aid disappeared when that country collapsed in 1991, Cuba was in horrible shape. Thousands sought to leave for the U.S. But only a few thousand a year can get visas. So thousands of others put together makeshift rafts and sought to float to Florida. This was incredibly dangerous. Many died of thirst, drowning, sharks, not to mention the rafts were largely not really seaworthy. The filmmakers interview several people ready to make the trip. Some couples, some people leaving families behind, theoretically maybe to bring them later.

This is a story worth telling of course, but it’s also a story we know. Poverty at home, dangerous trip, hope for freedom. The rafters are picked up by the Coast Guard after Clinton put a stop to the migration. They are sent to Guantanamo. Eventually, they are admitted to the U.S. This is where the documentary gets more compelling. They are scattered to the winds. Some stay in Miami, others end up in New York City or Nebraska. U.S. government policy has been to not have refugees concentrate in a few cities for some time. They were working with the Catholic Church to find the people support. They are mostly excited to be in their new homes with hope for the future.

5 years later, the filmmakers revisited everyone. And their stories are basically the story of the American working class, which is what they now are. Some are doing pretty well for themselves, if working at Home Depot is doing well. Some have American friends, some are in Cuban communities. Some are employed, others are struggling. One guy got in with gangs in the Bronx and totally abandoned his family in Cuba, not contacting them for years. One was hit by a car and has a lame leg. He converted to a pretty extreme-looking Pentecostal or similar evangelical church (speaking in tongues and such) and left his uncle in Miami for a church in San Antonio without telling anyone, leading to a story on Univision to find him.

Some of the couples are still together, others are not. One couple moved to Connecticut. He worked all the time and she was at home not working. She fell in love with another Cuban refugee. They divorced. He stayed in Connecticut where he fell in with some good ol’boys (New England variety) and seems pretty happy. She’s a mess. They moved to Phoenix and worked in a slaughterhouse for awhile before bailing on that and moving to Albuquerque where she ended up selling drugs. The film closes with her sister getting an actual visa to move to the U.S. She goes to Albuquerque to be with her sister (once she finds out she is even there, which took time). And you can see her horror at what the drug-dealing sister has become. Powerful stuff.

8/10

The Big Gundown (1966)

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Outside of the Sergio Leone films, most spaghetti westerns fall somewhere between terrible at worst and reasonably good and pretty entertaining but not great at the very best. Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown though is probably the best spaghetti western outside of the Leone films. And I think you could make it an argument that it’s as good as A Fistful of Dollars and better than Duck You Sucker. Sollima tells a fairly familiar story–an American expert bounty hunter (Lee Van Cleef) chases a crafty Mexican bandit (Tomas Milan) wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl. They go through a series of confrontations and the story gets more complicated. Did Milan actually do it? Or does it have something to do with ambitious American railroad builder (Walter Barnes) who wants to run a railroad through Texas into Mexico and is promising popular bounty hunter Van Cleef a seat in the Senate if he will support it.

Why this works is that it avoids most of the half-baked scenes of most spaghetti westerns. The script (written by Sergio Donati and Sollima) actually makes sense. There are comedic scenes, good action scenes, few massive plot holes. When you take that and add the high level of entertainment even a mediocre spaghetti western provides and you have a really fun movie. There’s also the outstanding Ennio Morricone soundtrack, among his very best work. Good stuff.

8/10

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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I seem to be the only person who doesn’t much care for John Stahl’s 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven. Often seen as a classic of melodrama and obsession, I can respect while seeing a lot of problems with the film as well. Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde meet on a train. She’s engaged to Vincent Price but that seems to be going under. She’s going out to New Mexico with her adopted sister (Jeanne Crain) and mother to scatter the ashes of her recently deceased father. He’s going out to write. They stay on the same ranch and sort of fall in live. Gene Tierney is very intense and beautiful after all. She breaks off her engagement and they immediately marry. But her mental illness and insane jealousy kills everything around her, including Wilde’s love. Wilde’s brother is in Warm Springs going through rehabilitation after contracting polio. When they all go back to his cabin in Maine, Tierney kills him by letting him drown. She gets pregnant and throws herself down stairs to kill the baby. Anything that keeps her away from a man she doesn’t know how to love must be destroyed. When Wilde dedicates his next book to Crain, Tierney kills herself but sets up Crain for the murder. Wilde only tells the truth on the stand–that Tierney confessed before dying to killing his brother and baby–after Crain admits her love.

So this is a pretty entertaining character study of someone who is really diabolical. It’s film noir thrown into the Technicolor daylight of America’s great outdoors. But there are some problems I can’t get past. First, the acting by Wilde’s polio-stricken brother (Darryl Hickman) is horrible. I know that child acting was pretty commonly terrible during these years, but Hickman was a teenager and a big production like this could have found someone capable. Second, Tierney’s mental illness isn’t really explained at all. There are references to her love eating her father alive before it was turned on Wilde, but we know nothing about what that looked like or why. Not saying I need a deep psychological study here, but I feel the film undersold the importance of making this reasonably clear. Third, the courtroom scene that makes up the last 20 minutes of the movie is terrible. Vincent Price, who is the local DA, tries the case. Wait, so the ex-finance of the dead woman is going to try the case. I don’t need precise legal verisimilitude but c’mon man. That’s way over the top. Plus it seems that in this case, Price can just badger people with ridiculous questions for minute upon minute with no objections. In fact, the defense lawyer, who is the ranch owner where they met, does absolutely nothing except maybe some crossword puzzles. And the verdict, where Wilde himself is sentenced to prison for not telling the police that Tierney killed his brother and baby, isn’t believable either.¬†

So as a whole, we have a film that lots of people love but that has bruises I can’t see beyond.

6/10

Women Without Men (2009)

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Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men follows four women during the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and their struggles to be fully realized women in the oppressive gender and political atmosphere. The film looks great, with many outstanding shots and a great use of color. The cinematography (shot by Martin Gschlacht) is also the best thing the film has going for it. Adapted from a novel by¬†Shahrnush Parsipur, the film struggles to flesh out the plot enough to keep interest. Of the four women, one is a woman about 30 who refused to get married and wants to be involved in politics (Shabnam Tolouei), a conservative friend of about the same age who wants to marry her friend’s older fundamentalist brother (Pegah Ferydoni), an older woman who is unhappily married to one of the Shah’s generals (Arita Shahrzad), and a prostitute who wants a different life (Orsi Toth). The political woman kills herself early in the film but is revived as her brother gets married (magical realism after all) and becomes a possibly living being working in the communist anti-Shah underground. The rest of the women end up at a villa outside of Teheran where they find freedom and peace. The prostitute never actually speaks and feels so vile from her work that she slowly dies. This means that she basically is there for obvious allegory. To be fair, the scene where she scrubs the filth off her at the bathhouse is the most memorable of the film, both because of her ferocity and because of Orsi Toth’s emaciated body makes one uncomfortable. The story of the woman married to the general is especially weak, yet it seems to be her villa that everyone ends up at.

This film is very much a western film. Neshat immigrated to the United States as a young woman and there’s no way this could be shown in Iran, not only for its open embrace of women’s rights, but also for its nudity. In fact, Neshat is banned from entering Iran for her political work, which is to her credit.

Ultimately this is fairly interesting for what it stands for but just doesn’t hold together well.

5/10

Climate of Change (2010)

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I suppose I’m supposed to laud documentaries that do social good, especially on issues as important as climate change. But a film is a film and has to be judged on its merits and not on its politics. Although we can evaluate its politics too. Brian Hill’s Climate of Change comes up short on both measures. Hill takes us around the world to focus on people making positive changes to fight climate change. There are a group of children in India fighting plastic bag usage, a man in Togo educating people on the need for trees, anti-mountaintop removal activists in West Virginia, a British woman working on recycling and green capitalism, and a few others. But this film fails to speak truth to power. It comes close at times, particularly in the West Virginia and Togo stories, as well as a brief interlude in New Guinea about the rapacity of the timber industry.

But the heavy focus on the British recycling woman undermines the effort. What she’s doing is fine, but the film works very hard to make environmentalism something isn’t about the hippies and to convince us that we can make huge changes by ourselves through simple acts like recycling. The problem with the latter is that this just isn’t true. Environmentalism often gets tainted with being too dark and apocalyptic and I’m sure Hill was trying to fight that stereotype, but what you are left with is a film that presumes to make you feel good about what you can do without giving viewers any understanding of the powers that have prevented us as a society from doing anything about climate change. So it just feels empty. Even the kids in India speak as if they’ve been trained in spouting cliches. It’s disappointing.

Tilda Swinton provides the narration. In rhyme. That’s very Tilda Swinton and at first it is entertaining but it also distracts from the film. Plus the text very much tracks in romantic Mother Earth language that isn’t particularly helpful, nor is does it connect with the type of stories Hill tells in the film.

4/10