I don’t have much to write about at the moment (though a new book announcement should be coming soon) so here are yet more small reviews of films I’ve enjoyed lately. Sam was home again for a week or so, unexpectedly, so it’s been pretty much a movie per night here, the usual mix of old favourites and random stuff we spotted on streaming services.
Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023)
I liked this a lot. We split it over two nights (don’t tell Thelma Schoonmaker) but I could have happily watched it in a single three hour sitting, it was very immersive. What it immerses you in is a strange 1920s world about which I knew nothing, of oil-rich Osage and the white settlers who prey on them for their new-found wealth. It’s rich and rambling and finely textured and very dark.Lily Gladstone is great, I hope we see more of her. Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert de Niro both seem a bit old for the parts they play, but they’re fine performances and I guess Scorsese wanted to work with them so his house, his rules.
The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock 1938)
I haven’t seen this since I was a child, and I’d completely forgotten the lengthy, slightly laborious preamble in the hotel, where the various travellers are introduced. Once they board the train and the titular lady titularly vanishes it all gets very tense and bounds along at a great pace. It’s a comedy thriller which pokes a lot of affectionate fun at the habits of Brits abroad. It pokes fun at foreigners too, but since the foreigners in question come from Fascist Italy and a very thinly veiled Nazi Germany I think that’s allowable. Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave are good, Naunton Wayne and Basil Rashford are excellent as Charters and Caldecott, who seem like tweedy buffoons at first, interested only in getting home to England in time for the test match, but turn out to be full of good old British pluck when the chips are down. Basil Radford has a very visible scar on his cheek - a souvenir of the previous war in a film haunted by the next one.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet
We picked this on the strength of its cast - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei. It’s a heist-gone-wrong story about two brothers botching a half-baked scheme to rob their parents’ jewellery store. Very well acted, as you’d expect, but not a bundle of laughs. ‘It’s not a bundle of anything,’ said Sam, ‘you just get to watch two idiots ruin everyone’s lives for two hours’. It’s got something of the ironic chill that comes off Coen Brothers movies - like Fargo, it portrays its criminals as really dumb - But without the Coen’s undercurrents of dark humour.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
I assume everyone has seen this? If they haven’t, they should, it’s pretty much perfect. Love story, resistance thriller, comedy, musical numbers - there’s something for everyone and it’s all great. The dialogue is endlessly quotable - anyone seeing it for the first time will spend most of the film going, ‘so THAT’S where that comes from.’ Bogart and Bergman are perfect as the star-crossed lovers, though these days my favourite character is Claude Rains’s sly Captain Renaud.
I do wonder if it would benefit now from one of those advisory messages screening services sometimes plonk on the start of older movies - not to tell us it that reflects the attitudes of a different era, but to fill in younger viewers on how that era worked. So much of the story hangs on Casablanca’s precarious status as a colony of France post-1940, and the newsreel-style narration at the start just assumes the audience knows what that status is. Renaud dumping a bottle of Vichy water in a waste paper basket was a big symbolic moment in 1942, but I’m not sure it will mean as much to the yoof o’ today.
Godland (Hlynur Palmáson 2022)
I shouldn’t watch Scandinavian films. I’m quite a depressive person, and they reflect my own world view back at me a bit too accurately. This one, about a priest travelling to set up a new church in a remote part of Iceland in the 19th Century, was no exception. Sarah and Sam liked it more than I did. The striking, almost square aspect ratio worked very for close ups, but cramped the landscapes a bit - deliberately, I suppose. The landscapes themselves are wonderful - this is where The Lord of the Rings should have been shot.
First Reformed (Paul Schrader 2017)
Godland reminded me of another depressing priest movie I’ve been meaning to watch for ages, so we had this the very next night, it is all fun at our house. More Ethan Hawke, astonishingly good in an astonishingly powerful film. He plays Reverend Toller, the troubled pastor of a beautiful old Lutheran church in Illinois. The church has a long and noble history - it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves - but is now little more than a museum with a tiny congregation, and run as a sort of tourist attraction by the thriving local mega church (which looks more like a high-end conference centre). Asked to counsel a young man who has been involved in eco-protests and doesn’t think it’s right for his wife to bring a baby into the climate-doomed world, he starts to unravel, and the film heads for very dark places indeed. But it’s also tremendously beautiful - wintry exteriors and bare interiors, strange, spare compositions like Alex Colville paintings. And as an image of the state of contemporary Christianity it felt to me (a culturally Christian unbeliever) tremendously clear-eyed - the churches turning either into museums or businesses, while fervent young people yearning for belief turn to the new religion in town: one of the most spiritual moments is a funeral where the ashes are scattered in a polluted industrial zone while a choir belts out an eco protest song.
In its final act the tension ratchets up to a remarkable pitch, but the big ideas are somewhat left behind as we follow Toller’s descent into - I’m not sure what, exactly. Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, and seems to be deliberately referring to it sometimes here: God’s Lonely Man indeed. The ending is a strange step sideways - a fantasy? An epiphany? It’s hard to be sure, and the final cut to black was so abrupt it had me thinking the telly had conked out. So I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing - I’ll have to watch it again. But it’s still a staggering film.
The Peanut Butter Falcon (Tyler Nelson & Michael Schwartz, 2019)
I’d vaguely been thinking we could round off our Priests Having A Horrible Time season with Scorsese’s Silence, but we were a bit shell shocked after First Reformed and went looking for something lighter. The Peanut Butter Falcon fits the bill - a good-natured aquatic road movie about a young Downs Syndrome man (Zack Gottsagen) who escapes from the care home where he lives and sets off on a journey through the rivers and swamps of South Carolina with an amiable loser played by Shia LeBoeuf. It’s sweet and funny, and distinctly southern - it reminded me of Jeff Nichols’s films, that combination of entertaining story with a more arthouse exploration of a very specific landscape and society. John Bernthal plays someone’s dead brother in flashback, just as he does in The Bear - he’s the go-to guy for dead brothers. Like a lot of indie-type films it slightly fumbles the ending and throws in a bit of fantasy which doesn’t quite fit what’s gone before. But it’s a pleasant evening’s viewing.
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
I saw this for the first time in my twenties and thought it bafflingly long and dull. Now it’s one of my all time favourites and I watch it at least once a year. Sam has better taste than me and liked it straight away. I love everything about it - the stately pace, the elaborate cadences of the dialogue and Michael Hordern’s narration, the glorious photography and costumes. Most historical films are as much about the era they were made in as the one where they’re set, but there’s nothing of the 1970s in Barry Lyndon, it’s like a window into the 18th Century. It’s interesting to see that, despite his reputation for perfectionism, Kubrick either didn’t care too much about the light changing between shots - or maybe even he was defeated by the Irish weather. Also that, despite his reputation as a tyrant, he was able to get great performances out of children. It’s a magnificent film, and, like all Kubrick, funnier than you expect it to be - Leonard Rossiter’s ridiculous Captain Quinn, the ever so polite highway robbery, the posh gay officers, etc. Don’t let the three hour runtime put you off - it’s in two distinct parts, with a handy Intermission at the half way mark, and while I prefer it in one sitting it works very well split over two nights.