December 27, 2016

TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Dan Duryea, Lizabeth Scott, 1949

As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.

The below list is in alphabetical order


Any Which Way You Can (1980), directed by Buddy Van Horn

Raucously entertaining Clint Eastwood-orangutan buddy comedy in which a bare knuckle brawl tears down Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sequel to Every Which Way But Loose (1978), this one shunts tough guy Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) into a mob-backed big money fight against infamous fighter Jack Wilson (William Smith). Most of the run time is spent on the road, as Eastwood pals around with his yokel brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) on a trip to Wyoming. Ruth Gordon is on hand as their combative battle ax mother, tougher than both her kids combined. The real star, of course, is Clyde the orangutan, an expressive primate who loves Philo and despises the cops who try to break up their fun. The chaos builds into a full-on brawling blowout that tears up the Jackson Hole countryside. All that plus a killer title song sung by Ray Charles and Clint himself.


Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich

In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.


Her Man (1930), directed by Tay Garnett

Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies,” while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees,” which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation (I viewed the restoration at MoMA earlier this year). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett winds his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.


The Heroic Trio (1993), directed by Johnnie To

A deliriously entertaining Hong Kong superhero movie starring the unbeatable trio of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I went to see a battered but beautiful print at the Metrograph in NYC, and was whisked away by the elegant wirework fight scenes and breathless plot mechanics that mashes up kung fu/comic book/horror tropes. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no relation), intent on breaking the nefarious baby stealing underworld demon king known only as Evil Master. She is reluctantly joined by fast talking mercenary Chat (aka Thief Catcher – Maggie Cheung) and Ching (Michelle Yeoh), who has access to an invisibility robe (it’s a long story). The three actresses slice through the film with grace and aplomb, but Cheung is the acid-tongued standout – introduced flying over the police’s heads on a motorcycle, and then riding a dynamited barrel into a hostage situation. It’s a well-carpentered, ever surprising entertainment that I’d take over any of the Marvel movies thus far.


In Vanda’s Room (2001)

The second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, three remarkable features that depict the everyday life of a slum in Lisbon. Vanda Duarte, who portrayed one of the maids in Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. Available to view on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.


Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Paul Brickman took seven years to make his follow-up to Risky Business, and Men Don’t Leave is a finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief. But it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.


My Little Loves (1974), directed by Jean Eustache

Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahierdu Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast.

PLACIDO, Spanish poster art, 1961

Placido (1961), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga

Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [1944]). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.


A Summer’s Tale (1996), directed by Eric Rohmer

Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.


Too Late For Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin

After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.


November 22, 2016


“I squandered a really good career. What can I say?” – Paul Brickman to Salon

After the phenomenal success of Risky Business (1983), writer-director Paul Brickman was offered hundreds of screenplays to adapt. Brickman rejected them all, including future hits Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Frustrated with the Geffen Film Company’s imposed happy ending on Risky Business, he instead bided his time until Men Don’t Leave (1990) crossed his desk seven years later. A finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief – it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.

The project originated with the obscure French tearjerker La Vie Continue (1981), which screenwriter Barbara Benedek (The Big Chill) adapted into an English-language screenplay. Brickman told Randy Lofficier at the WGA that, “I don’t believe Men Don’t Leave was truly a remake. It evolved into something far removed from the original. Initially I was presented with a script by Barbara Benedek. While I could have had access to the original material, I chose to avoid it, so as not to be influenced by it. I wanted to stay true to Barbara’s voice. I did not see the original film until well after the script was completed.” The finished script, credited to both Brickman and Benedek, is an anatomy of repressed melancholy.


The Macauley family suffers a traumatic blow when father John (Tom Mason) dies in a tragic construction accident. Drowning in debt from their unfinished kitchen remodel, mother Beth (Jessica Lange) forces her kids Chris (Chris O’Donnell) and Matt (Charlie Korsmo) to move from the suburbs and into Baltimore, so she can take on a string of demeaning service jobs. Each family member avoids the mourning process in their own way. The teenaged Chris becomes infatuated with a nurse (Joan Cusack) in their building, while the tween Matt spends his afternoons robbing VCRs and selling them to a bootleg porn dubber (Kevin Corrigan). Beth has no time to grieve, and cultivates her hopes of happiness around Charles Simon (Arliss Howard), an experimental musician who flirts his way into her life.

The early sequences establish the Macauleys’ easy rapport but also Beth’s inadvertent isolation. John is a construction foreman idolized by his sons. John soaks up this love so unthinkingly that he often cuts Beth out of the loop. On a random weekday he takes the kids to a worksite, but without telling Beth he takes them to a movie after. Brickman and his editor Richard Chew (returning from Risky Business) cuts from the clamor and excitement of John’s job, with Matt playing in an excavator, to an image of Beth alone leaning on the kitchen island, waiting for dinner to finish. There is no sound except for some ambient crickets. It is an image that passes quickly but one that lingers – even in this supposed domestic bliss Beth is being sidelined, taken for granted.

As in Risky Business, Brickman makes use of expressive POV shots, though instead of dreamlike fantasies, they are haunting memories that Beth cannot shake. In the unreal aftermath of John’s death (which is not shown), Beth has to navigate a labyrinthine hospital, taking a wrong turn and ending up in the kitchen, where the staff is slicing up fish. This image will return to Beth throughout the film, an uncanny moment of estrangement from the world that Beth takes the entire movie to recover from. Discussing his work on Risky Business with the Editors Guild, Richard Chew paraphrases Buñuel : “Fantasy and reality are equally personal and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance.” The use of the hospital sequence in Men Don’t Leave serves a similar purpose as those in Risky Business, that is, to enter more deeply into the protagonists’ headspace.

From this point on, Beth battles depression, and fully succumbs after she loses her job at a gourmet food store managed by a short-haired Kathy Bates. The world seems to have collapsed around her, so she refuses to leave her bed for weeks, the apartment getting buried in filth. Chris spends most of his time with the nurse – a fascinating character deftly played by Joan Cusack. She is an eccentric loner who at first seems to be exploiting Chris’ youth, getting a thrill out of a younger guy, but she reveals complicating facets as the film unspools – including a boundless sympathy for Beth’s debilitating depression.


Meanwhile Matt has been hanging with his suburban buddy ripping off middle-class homes of their home entertainment gear, and is welcomed as another son into his friend’s family. This subplot is highlighted by a pudgy, preposterously young Kevin Corrigan as a sleazy porn dubber and fence, his bedroom festooned with a bank of CRT TVs. The Macauley family unit is fracturing and about to splinter entirely. As Dave Kehr, one of Brickman’s most eloquent supporters, put it in his Chicago Tribune review of Men Don’t Leave, it is a “subtly subversive film, suggesting that America’s most sacred and apparently solid institution, the nuclear family, is in reality as fragile as a spider’s web, collapsing into confusion with the slightest brush of fate.”


Eventually, Matt can no longer repress his emotions and runs away from home, back to the playhouse in his old backyard, the one his dad built for him. When Beth and Chris finally find him, they all mutually, and silently, accept their need to grieve. It is a powerfully moving sequence that reduced this new dad to a blubbering mess. Jessica Lange, who invested Beth with mutating contradictions – she is an optimistic depressive, a fragile ditz with indomitable determination – can put on a good face no longer. It is a scene of immense sadness in which they accept the void of their loss.

Men Don’t Leave was also funded by the Geffen Film Company, and like Risky Business, ends on an optimistic note. I am curious to know if Brickman wanted the film to end in the playhouse, or carry on to the literally sunny conclusion, which re-unites the Macauley friends and family in a blissful summer frolic. Whatever the truth of the production history, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s accomplishment. It is a brutal, cathartic and brilliantly acted melodrama that more than proves that Risky Business was no fluke. But this is not a story of failure, but one of admirable integrity – and of two remarkable films. I’ll end with words from Brickman’s editor Richard Chew: “I’m still friends with Paul. I wish he would have made more films, but at the end of the day, he wasn’t comfortable with the compromises necessary in Hollywood. He’s his own man. That’s why I love him.”