OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2020, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the 17 previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.

[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]


SING, YOU SINNERS (59) (Wesley Ruggles, 1938): An odd inversion: singing and dancing as the chore instead of the dream (or perhaps the redemption, per the title?). The central trio don't especially want to sing, they just do it for the money - their mom has to guilt-trip them into it, esp. oldest brother Fred MacMurray who frets that it isn't "manly" - giving the film a certain diffident quality, the opposite of show-must-go-on showbiz brassiness. Not really a musical, in any case, rather haphazardly plotted and climaxing in an extended brawl that's played for slapstick but not very amusing in context (the brothers' opponents are ruthless gangsters who've already beaten up the winsome kid brother); the middle brother's fecklessness isn't too amusing either, even with Bing Crosby trying to make it look like languid charm - there's a slight sour note amid the sweetness, the frustration of people doing toxic things and having to put up with them because they're family; "We all know each other too well," sighs Mom - but his honeyed voice is undeniable.

SAINT JACK (82) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979): A mood piece, but very close to perfect. Jack is a film-noir hero, a weary observer and un-saintly jester who'll take people as they are and stand in the doorway, saying nothing - understanding all, but saying nothing - when the boyish soldier, haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, beats up the unfortunate hooker. He has no condescension, unlike the rowdy British expats who treat the East like a public-school playground, asking after "a chum of mine in the Honkers and Shankers" (= Hong Kong) - yet are granted their own lovely moment, belting out 'Jerusalem' at the tops of their voices at the funeral of one of their own. He's fearless in a sad way, as though he's lost any good reason to be afraid - nothing really touches him; he fears nothing, he cares for nothing - yet he hasn't turned against people, surveying the species with good-humoured tolerance, amused and touched by the decent accountant type who becomes his friend. The two girls' awkward strip-show to 'Goldfinger' (they drop things, and get in each other's way), and the men's faces softening with desire - or pity, which is often muddled up with desire - as they watch. Bogdanovich's skill in creating a very coherent, geographically lucid screen space for Jack's entrapment of the senator, Robby Muller's soft nocturnal images, crickets buzzing in the trees; the director is relaxed in general, maybe a little irreverent, as regally amused as Jack himself (he even plays a supporting role, with Muller in a cameo); five years earlier he was king of the world, now he's making films for Roger Corman. Very much in my wheelhouse, anticipating the foreign-correspondent expat movies of the 80s (SALVADOR, YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, etc); Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack, old Singapore before the skyscrapers. Irresistible.

SOFT FICTION (70) (Chick Strand, 1979): Soft textures, not just wet sand and kitten-fur and the oozing liquid yolk on a fried egg but the way those scenes are shot, handheld camera so close and intimate that the image is constantly changing, ethereal. It's a very sensual style - and never entirely disappears, even as the stories being told (are they fiction? dunno) grow increasingly horrific, as if to say the softness of desire is a fact (and a snare?), just as unignorable as the documentary 'truth' of the women relating what happened. "Control" is mentioned more than once, an elusive goal - a hardness, a hard unequivocal word - my one quibble being perhaps that the stories don't really escalate as intended; the first ones are actually more vivid, bringing in Nazis at the end feels like a cliche. Still the very rare experimental film (mea culpa!) that actually ended before I expected it to, as opposed to outstaying its welcome.

Two early-80s hits, both third viewings (both downgraded from previous viewing >20 years ago):

THE VIKINGS (69) (Richard Fleischer, 1958): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Very beautiful, not just 'handsome' in the sense of production values, or even just pictorially beautiful - Viking ships in the fog are beautiful, of course, but e.g. the soft lighting when Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are talking on deck is also beautiful; Jack Cardiff is on fine form - but slightly lacking in connective tissue; "You again!" cries Kirk Douglas when Curtis the slave's hawk kills his own, but in fact that's their first scene together (Curtis' arrival with a ship later on, to help the princess escape, also feels rather random; what kind of slave is so resourceful?). Fleischer privileges intensity and spectacle over narrative per se, which of course is absolutely right - see e.g. the glowering close-ups when the Viking chief begs Curtis to let him die sword-in-hand - and makes no effort to tame Douglas' virile, irresistible energy, even though he's supposed to be the villain. One of the wildest, most thrilling Hollywood historicals; only the lengthy taking-the-castle action sequence (which of course was the big set-piece at the time) seems a bit conventional.

BED AND SOFA (76) (Abram Room, 1927): A bad marriage, though not a terrible one: the husband is bumptious and full of beans, an athletic type prone to working out every morning, boundlessly energetic, emotionally oblivious; the wife is a sensual creature, too good for scrubbing floors. Enter the other man - he's innately exciting, equated with trains and planes - though the result is at least 34 years ahead of its time (or 35, depending on whether you count JULES AND JIM as 1961 or '62), more if we're talking America and its Puritan values. Room's style is strikingly modern - the intruder simply appears, like a dream, his presence explained only later - Lyudmila Semyonova a striking presence (maybe not much of an actress; she never had much of a career after Silents); also fascinating as a reflection of the progressive Soviet state, the husband acting literally as a bridge between Stalin and the people - he looks up at the former, whose photo adorns the calendar on his bedroom wall, and down at the latter from his vantage point on the roof of the under-construction Bolshoi - though apparently it's intended more as a critique of bourgeois libertinism and abortion-on-demand. Speaking of which, possible best shot: our final glimpse of the abortion clinic, a stark uncanny space hemmed in by high chairs and door-frames, extras sitting theatrically immobile, then an elegant woman getting up, taking a languid puff on her cigarette, then fixing her hair and sashaying in to see the doctor.

FEBRUARY 1, 2020

LES DISPARUS DE ST. AGIL (71) (Christian-Jaque, 1938): Second viewing, liked it even more this time. War on the doorstep, xenophobia already evident, Erich von Stroheim as a sinister teacher - a German in a French boarding school - with hat slung low and scarf around his neck as if to hide scars (he even wears two pairs of glasses!). The last half-hour hurts it somewhat, turning into an ordinary kids' adventure, but the touch is light (I like that e.g. the ostensible villains just kind of get away at the end, not having to face justice as they might in an Anglo-Saxon movie) - and even the kids'-adventure aspects are charming in the early scenes, our three heroes sneaking out of bed for a nocturnal meeting of their Secret Society complete with secret nyah-nyah greeting to 'Martin the skeleton'. America beckons, as in THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE, the kids dreaming of going West, meanwhile munching on chewing gum; "Eating rubber, it's ridiculous!" scoffs the lugubrious school janitor, who also suspects something supernatural in the titular disappearances. Best bit: a kid disappears round the corner, a swell of music rumbles ominously, and the camera belatedly follows to find... nothing.

NASHVILLE (80) (Robert Altman, 1975): Second viewing, first since childhood; all I really remembered was Henry Gibson's hilariously saccharine 'For the Sake of the Children' song. Forgot how many songs there are in general, actually, you can't accuse Altman (though some Nashvillians did, at the time) of short-changing the music - but in fact it's more than that, everyone in Nashville has a song in them, even Gibson's otherwise dull-seeming son. The music speaks of love and American ideals - "My Idaho home", etc - even as love gets compromised and America itself bickers and festers on the eve of its Bicentennial, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, the film being valuable today as a record of another troubled time (faced, in the end, with more irrational optimism than in 2020, even allowing for the irony in the final 'It Don't Worry Me'). The fragmented approach favours comedy, and Altman's fabled generosity: it's lovely when Lily Tomlin mentions in passing that her young (deaf) son "has the most incredible personality" and 15 minutes later the film makes time for the boy, pausing the plot so he can illustrate exactly that - but there's also room for cruelty and ill-feeling, those at the bottom of the ladder (the dissed chauffeur, the bad singer) forced to take their lumps, non-whites either forced to assimilate (Tommy Brown, "the whitest nigger in town") or shunted to the margins like the Asian girl having to sing (inaudibly) at a Speedway event with cars zooming by. A deep and miraculous musical comedy - though technical question on the weirdly choppy final shot; feels like they're zooming out one setting at a time or something.

JANUARY 1, 2020