The Earrings of Madame de… is the English-language title for Madame de…, as it was released in France, which heralds the heart-shaped diamond jewelry — not its owner — as the star of the film. The earrings do indeed play a major role, significantly altering the lives of those who possess them, seemingly propelled by their own willpower from one owner to another and back again. With a pinch more malice this would be The Lord of the (Ear)rings, a fantasy tale about tempting jewelry that instills a deadly pride in those who dare purport to wield such power. But the passionately humanist Max Ophüls ensures that this is always really the story of Madame de…, not simply of her diamonds, and the themes of pride and ownership don’t necessarily involve the earrings at all.
That sleight-of-hand is one of the many reasons Madame de… stands as the most highly-praised work by Ophüls, whose career as a filmmaker was constantly capsized by the onset of World War II. A German-born Jew, Ophüls fled and became a French citizen in 1938, only to have to flee further to the U.S. There he failed to break into Hollywood until an admirer of his work recommended him to Howard Hughes; it helped that the admirer was none other than Preston Sturges. Ophüls directed five Hollywood productions before returning to Europe in 1950, where a new stage of his filmmaking career blossomed. Each of his final films — La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… and Lola Montes (1955) — is a masterful achievement in its own right, championed thereafter by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Rather than a standard film review, we’ve been compiling a visual glossary of likely inspirations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master. Huge props go to Fandor, A Bittersweet Life and various others for compiling similar versions of this over the years. We’ll periodically update this article with new additions as we find them, so hit the comments at the bottom if you think you’ve spotted another visual cue.
The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
One of the most intriguing films of the past year is Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s violent, hardboiled yarn about two misogynistic and racist cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) taking the law into their own hands. The film plays as a far-right (or even alt-right) fantasy, the two white leads lamenting “political correctness” while they harass witnesses and suspects who are exclusively non-white. Even the casting of Gibson and Vaughn is loaded. But Concrete hinges on the question of whether Zahler actually agrees with the mentality of his own film, whether he’s playing a larger game in giving us these exact characters at a time when everything else out of Hollywood is either liberal-minded or four-quadrant neutral. Short of an answer, the question alone makes Concrete into one of 2019’s most provocative films.
Part of me thinks In the Company of Men is the Dragged Across Concrete of the ‘90s. Playwright Neil LaBute adapted his own 1992 play about two white company men — one a sworn and highly vocal misogynist (Aaron Eckhart) and the other an angry and impressionable wimp (Matt Malloy) — into an award-winning commentary on vitriolic corporate culture and the weak men who historically dominate that culture. Rarely has a film about workplace gender wars been this explicit, this horrifying, this willing to jump right into battle rather than dwell on why the fight began in the first place. And rarely has this war seemed so woefully one-sided.
Political turmoil always breeds strange artistic phenomena, and the movies are no exception. As the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reclines in the West Wing, bone spurs resting beside the crumpled Wendy’s bag upon the Resolute Desk, one such phenomenon we’ve witnessed recently is that of Art as Response. In this scenario a filmmaker — like, say, Steven Spielberg — will work quickly to produce a movie — say The Post — as an active comment on whatever’s happening (or not happening) in the Oval Office. A second phenomenon involves us, the filmgoers and cinemalovers, and the way we inexorably view almost any new movie in the context of today’s political climate. A given film — like, say, Joker — might not actually hold inherent wisdom about that climate, but it’d be impossible for us to read it any other way.
Yet a third consequence of that intermingling of art and politics is even more inevitable than the second, despite it not concerning new art at all: a film — like, say, All the President’s Men or The Candidate or Charlie Wilson’s War or V for Vendetta or Dave or Idiocracy — reaches out from the past and seemingly connects with today in a way that defies explanation. It’s an experience somewhat related to the prescience of the sci-fi genre, and certain practitioners like George Orwell or Michael Crichton definitely had a penchant for it. I’d never considered Stephen King among that crowd of writers whose works could achieve time travel, politically speaking, but that was before I encountered The Dead Zone.
It ain’t always fun, the movies. Amongst this year’s least-fun pictures we probably have the likes of Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix and Gemini Man, all of which share in common a clear prioritization of special effects over storytelling. They’re also united in the fact that production was rocky in every instance, be it years of limbo or last-minute hackjobs in the editing bay, though that’s not necessarily synonymous with a bad film. Production on one of this year’s best, The Lighthouse, was described by its own director as “tense” and “cold”. No fun to be had in making that movie. Only in watching it.
In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime.
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.