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Classic Cinema: Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place

Sometimes I’m at odds with what other critics have to say about a film. Just because, let’s say, the late Roger Ebert loved a film doesn’t mean that once I see it I’ll view it the same way. A curious thing has happened with Nicholas Ray’s 1950 movie overnight viagra pills writing a paper for publication in a journal what do i write my essay on follow viagra cialis ili levitra see url help with essay writing toronto vigara master card payment herbal viagra the best dissertation questionnaire cover letter availability of viagra in mumbai nombre comercial de cialis watch viagra cialis pharmacy benefit of regular exercise essay viagra in india for men viagra and geodon lasix san diego get link clomid identical twins dissertation outline sample how can i find my ip address on my pc windows 7 click here In a Lonely Place. Back then critics praised it, yes, but recently a whole new crop of critics have begun to not just see it as a good movie of its era, but as one of the most essential films one should watch and one of the best film noirs ever made.

When I saw it just a little under a week ago I knew next to nothing about it (as usual when I rent a movie). The fact that it had Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, two noir stalwarts, seemed to solidify the need to see it. However, the moment that the movie began, I kept waiting for something. True, the first scene in which Bogart’s Dix Steele gets interrupted by a fluttery and flirtatious Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart, not to be confused with the “It’s a good thing Martha Stewart who not just gave us useless household tips but also did a little inside trading for kicks) has its moments. I kept referring to the comedic levity that Lee Patrick brought onto her appearances in The Maltese Falcon. However, once Stewart exits the stage, she somehow takes the entire film with her. That says something.

It turns out, Mildred Atkinson has been murdered on her way home and no one knows who did it. Because she has been seen exiting Dix Steele’s apartment, suspicion falls on him. Lucky for him, a neighbor, budding actress Laurel Grey (Grahame) makes her statement proclaiming Steele’s innocence. That should do it, right? Case closed, right?

Murdered girl Mildred Atkinson played by Martha Stewart attempts to share a juicy novel she just read, but Dix Steel is not having it.

Well… no. If that were the case we wouldn’t have a movie. The investigation, plus Steele’s own rather glib testimony of what happened, exacerbated by his own violent temper — Steele has been known to engage in fights and act erratically — officers seem to have an eye on Steele. That doesn’t stop Steele from getting chummy with Laurel, so chummy that they both fall in love and are super close to getting married. While that’s all fine with me… there is next to no mystery. And while a married couple friends of Steele start to show doubts that he was Mildred’s killer, and investigators press Laurel into doubting her own self and testimony, it all gets played out rather plain, even with weird comedic overtones.

The addition of a sequence in which Laurel gets a back massage by the very butch and Evelyn Harperesque Ruth Gillette seems to belong in another movie completely. Gillette and Grahame have a conversation pregnant with innuendo that suggests perhaps a past “friendship”, or a situation where Grahame (as Laurel) had some sort of intimacy and now that Laurel is seeing Steel Gillette has been sidelined. It seems like a move to grant Laurel some ambiguity as well as to throw some quasi-lesbian vibes. Frankly, it took me out of the muddled mess and had me wondering where was the thrill

So as you see, I’m obviously in the minority, or in a group of people who upon viewing Ray’s movie didn’t get a sense that it was all that it was pumped up to be. In no way am I saying that In a Lonely Place is a bad movie — it’s not; it is good — but it’s terribly flawed and most certainly not noir. A late scene in which several people interrupt what was supposed to be a romantic night out (watch for Alix Talton of The Praying Mantis fame in a comedic turn) just collapses into cheap melodrama before turning the final corner into the climactic sequence.

Trailer for In a Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray

Upon later reading about In a Lonely Place, based on the Dorothy B Hughes’ novel of the same name, I realized that despite concerns, the movie should have never deviated from the book that much. However, in 1947 movies did not focus on a character that was essentially a raging psychopath. In the book Steele is something of a Tom Ripley, being the bad guy and also the architect of a murder. Would it that Ray had followed in Hitchcock’s steps and brought this! I would have loved to see a movie driven by a reprehensible person who had enough sympathy to make us root for him. That would have been challenging, and today, it is the norm. If you want to see a solid French movie that makes us hate and root for our antihero, do check out Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart (La prochaine fois Je visceral le Coeur) by Cédric Anger from 2014.

Also hurting the movie is its pacing. Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man follows a similar path minus the comedic moments. With slightly different circumstances — in this movie, a man who happens to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time — gets implicated in a murder he did not commit. Proving his innocence, however, comes at a terrible toll for himself and his wife. While In a Lonely Place does have a bleak ending — that mirrored more closely the end of Ray’s marriage to Grahame for reasons disputed (Ray caught her in bed with his 13-year-old son, whom she would marry several years later, preceding Mary Kay Letourneau), it’s just not that good. Both Grahame and Bogart are more known for excellent performances both prior to this one and would go on to score Oscar wins in the near future — he for his performance in The African Queen in 1951 and she for her tiny yet unforgettable performance in The Bad and the Beautiful only a year later.

Essential Cinema: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past

If ever there was a genre that drew the blueprint on what would become the flawed antihero doomed to swim in the mire of his own mistakes, surrounded by sharks posing as men or women in need, Film Noir would be it. It seems every director with a pulse had a try in the genre from the moment crime and shady people became what the public wanted to see during the 40s and 50s. Jacques Tourneur, fresh out of directing I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People, was brought in to direct what was then considered an A-picture by RKO, and to be honest, I don’t think the movie would be half as good without Tourneur alongside cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca at the helm. While the plotting is multilayered (and you thought you couldn’t follow half of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep; try this one for a change), it is the look of it that matters.

So much of this movie depends on its mood and lighting. The opening sequence shows an idyllic, sleepy town that will be the place where weary-eyed Robert Mitchum will get approached by a shady figure from his past with an offer Mitchum won’t be able to refuse. But before we get there, through a flashback sequence Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey reveals to his saccarine sweet girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston in one of her many “good girl” roles) that his real name is Jeff Markham, and that he was hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to retrieve Sterling’s girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, who could have used an Oscar boot to acknowledge her icy, lethal turn) who has disappeared with something of his. That something happens to be 40,000 dollars (about 400,000 in today’s money). Sterling isn’t up for losing that amount of money, but perhaps its his pride at having been done one good by a female that has him on the pursuit.

So far the movie is rather straight forward, even sunny. It’s when the story moves to a Mexican resort that we get a hint of what’s to come. As Jeff downs a drink in a bar, in walks Kathie, a vision in white momentarily blurred by a pool of shadows. Had Jeff been paying close attention and be a little less deluded by Kathie’s beauty (Ann, while safe, can’t hold a candle against Kathie), he would have walked away and fast and claimed he missed her. However, Jeff falls for her without knowing it. They both initiate a verbal dance that has to be heard to be appreciated in its complete form. It’s not what they are saying on the surface, but what they are really meaning that again, mirrors Bogie and Bacall riffing off each other in To Have and Have Not and of course, The Big Sleep.

To go into more detail would be to spoil it (and while I do know that Out of the Past has been out for nearly 75 years, it packs a wallop of plotting). Suffice it to say, the movie gets darker and moodier by the minute, which mirrors Jeff’s morality sinking into a deep, black hole. In the center of that black hole is Kathie, playing not just Jeff but half the men in the cast, coldly amused. Her villainous turn might only be eclipsed by Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity. It is, without a doubt, fascinating to watch her, baby-faced, with those large, expressive eyes and fragile body language, completely dominate not just Mitchum but a lion such as Douglas. While Douglas, back in the present, briefly gets the upper hand, you realize its only time before she makes one last, brutal move.

The reason Out of the Past is essential viewing is because this is quite simply, one of the greatest is not the greatest noir movie there ever was. How Tourneur was able to convey so much mood, so much energy, negative lighting, characters constantly framed by darkness or turned into silhouettes against some background lighting, is incredible. No other noir has this kind of effect. Any movie that can have two acting powerhouses like Mitchum and Douglas sizing each other up constantly, reflecting so much anticipation of barely concealed violence brought upon a need to out-man the other is a sight to see. Interestingly enough, their characters are completely blind to the machinations of Kathie, and Greer plays her as though she had been born to do so.

Two Films by Dan Sallitt: The Unspeakable Act and fourteen

Imager from Amazon

The Unspeakable Act

Taboo relations often get depicted as salacious and macabre on film, so for Dan Sallitt to come out and do a low-key drama about a young woman (Talli Medel) having an unrequited and unresolved crush/fixation on her brother definitely caught my attention. I always like a more detached, intellectual approach to subject matter that might be a bit sordid because it allows the characters on display to behave rather unpredictably and not according to what one would want from them. In Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, we get introduced to an extremely laid-back family where it seems arguments and confrontations do not exist. The only drama that exists is the one binding the two siblings at the center, Jackie (Medel) and Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) and even that involves them only as it’s mostly an abstract concept narrated by Jackie in voice-over.

It turns out, Jackie has harbored an unusual and borderline unhealthy fixation towards Matthew. It also becomes clear that he is aware of it because he sets clear boundaries between himself and Jackie. When he brings home a girlfriend she is so inwardly upset (while acting completely against how she feels) that she becomes unable to eat until Matthew breaks up with her. Hope sets in and Jackie conspires to have her feelings met, but it’s clear this is not an option. Somewhat resigned, Jackie then goes see a therapist and persists in being rather passively hostile, almost as a defense mechanism in which she both hurls words as sharp as knives towards the therapist, which is in reality, Jackie attempting to equal parts diminish her unhealthy attraction and perhaps self-punish herself for feeling this way.

Sallitt never ratches up the tension in Jackie’s family and the most one will see is both siblings meeting for what may seem one last time before diverging, and Matthew informing that she has finally crossed that unspoken line, This is the type of movie I love; it may not be perfect — both the mother and the other sister were underwritten and sometimes Jackie’s narration can go into too much exposition (as if Medel’s performance, equal parts alienating and intriguing were to get lost in translation somehow), Sallitt dedicates his work to French director Eric Rohmer and I can definitely see some influence without it taking away from Sallitt’s own style. Too many directors who have been influenced by other more established directors tend to emulate their style in a way that seems imitation. Sallitt, on the other hand, drops references but never steals. That, in essence, is what a narrator wants — he can wear all the influences he ha on his sleeve but they shouldn’t scream imitation or worse, reenactment down to scene selections.

And with that, I was ready to see his latest film Fourteen.

Image from Cine-Vue. Talli Medel (left) and Norma Kuhling (right in Fourteen


Some bonds are stronger than family. You meet that person and they become linked to you for better or worse. In Dan Sallitt’s fourth feature film Fourteen, he presents two young women who may as well be sisters from another mother. Mara (Talli Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) couldn’t be any more different if they tried… but that is precisely the unseen glue that has held them together since they were fourteen. The incident that sparked their friendship was when Jo intervened in a situation where Mara was being bullied at school. From then on, they’ve been inseparable, even linked through the other’s absence.

The problem is that childhood friends grow up and with that, they grow apart. That they may not acknowledge it is contingent on how aware they are, and it seems that now the roles have progressively reversed. Mara has gotten her life together as a teacher’s aid who aspires to be a writer and is dating a great, stable guy. Jo, on the other hand, seems to have her own life in shambles… and it’s about to go from bad to worse.

Sallitt never indicates a precise timeframe to tell his story. We get no subtitles or title cards announcing a transition but infer, from the friend’s reunions, how much time has transpired. After the first scene in which both Mara and Jo and their respective boyfriends hang out and make small talk, we move to a progressive separation. Mara is married; Jo is not, and has started to become dependent on drugs to survive. A frantic call leads Mara to rush to Jo’s aid only to be cooly rebuffed by Jo’s enabler boyfriend. Jo later calls Mara in the middle of the night (after having canceled a dinner event) and shows up, ostensibly to vent out her multitude of problems. That Mara allows Joe to essentially ruin her marriage is toxic in itself, but speaks volumes for those who have been caught in that kind of friendship devoid of boundaries when one friend clearly has mental and emotional disturbances.

I kept thinking of another film in which two women — sisters, this time — sustained a friendship in which one of them slid into depravity while the other attempted to help and eventually got her own life in order: Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Now, hear me out: this is not that movie for obvious reasons. Goodbar was a movie in which two women diverged in life and the more tragic one spun into butter, essentially getting murdered viciously in the end. Take away the violence and focus the movie on a more restrained approach and you have a different rendition. Fourteen presents both women as equal, although this time Medel carries the less showy part and lets Kuhling move from false poise to defeat in 90 minutes. Kuhling’s performance is on-target for anyone with a Borderline Personality Disorder, and it is truly a wonder to see how much tragedy she conveys while on screen. The shame is that while she implicitly seems to be crying for help, a person like Jo would never truly accept it and only return to the festering wound that is killing her slowly.

Fourteen is, to put it bluntly, Sallitt’s best work and as close to a masterpiece in presenting two fully formed women interlocked in a codependent relationship. It is so far one of the best that I have seen this year in transit — rent it, and experience its universe. It is available to stream on and you should see it.

German Cinema: Fassbinder and herzog

Kurt Raab in Why Does Heer R. Run Amok? (Image by MUBI)

Courtesy of MUBI and Criterion Channel, here are two German movies you can stream from the comfort of your own home:

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

It’s safe to say that Fassbinder will never be a walk in the park when sitting down to watch his work. It’s been a while since I saw any of his work and almost 15 years since I last saw Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which was directed by François Ozon, based on a play written by Fassbinder. I can’t say that the viewing was comfortable, but again, I don’t always go to the movies to see an easy film and in that respect, Fassbinder is the master of difficult cinema. His 1970 movie Why Does Herr FR. Run Amok? could be interpreted today as the Angry White Man’s Rage. During its slim run — the movie proper is only 84 minutes long from start to finish, we become privy to the unremarkable (and ultimately tragic) life of a man only known as Herr R. (Kurt Raab). Raab works as a draughtsman for a design firm. Nothing in Raab’s life points at anything wrong per se — he is married to a lovely wife (Lilith Ungerer) and has a young son. He seems to live in an up and coming neighborhood. His wife, however, pushes Raab to ask for a promotion. Adding to that, Raab’s parents stop by for a visit and his mother proceeds to, later on, criticize Raab’s wife when their boy plays hide and seek and freaks the parents out. Friends, ex-classmates, and Raab’s demanding boss add to a pressure cooker of frustration that seems to be boiling inside the otherwise calm and unassuming Raab until he is pushed to the very limit. When the floodgates open, they do so in a matter of fact style that is chilling. Fassbinder films it dead on, unflinching, no music nothing. It brings to mind when men of all ages have gone on killing sprees — it often has signaled a cumulus of frustrations and petty disappointments that build up throughout a lifetime and I won’t even get into toxic masculinity and its poisonous fruit. The resulting fury bursts forwards from an inability to fulfill all the requirements that is an ideal husband/employee signifies. Fassbinder’s film, then, represents an inversion of the family nucleus and had it been an American movie, a perversion to the extreme of the American Family.

Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (image from Criterion Channel)

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Greed has been the great corruptor of mankind. For every legend of a treasure, there has always been a sucker born every minute. And who doesn’t want to arrive at a mythical place, conquer it, and reap its rewards? A hard life is only for those who don’t have ambition, tenacity, and a certain mad streak capable of taking them and everyone else within their party down the dangerous path of deception. Werner Herzog tackles the theme of greed and megalomania in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a historical adventure based on the exploits of Lope de Aguirre (1510 – 1561), a Spanish conquistador most notable for his pursuit of the elusive city of El Dorado.

From the film’s opening shot of a caravan, as it seems to head down into a hellish jungle, we are in for a surreal ride as the expedition to El Dorado starts with a rather portentous foot but promptly loses its way not just to Aguirre’s megalomaniac ambitions but to hubris and disorder within the group. Aguirre must have been a raging, malignant narcissist who cared for no one but himself (and the resulting glory), because right from the get-go he offs his superior, declares himself the king of all things (hence the title “the Wrath of God”), and drives his party right into the ground, taking everyone with him until no one but himself stands alone, blabbering in tongues to an unforgiving sky in the middle of nowhere while monkeys overtake his cargo and feast at the spoils.

Herzog’s film is a fever dream, never completely grounded in reality but drowning in denial and indulgence that the white man could tame the jungle and reap its rewards. In a way, it seems that through Klaus Kinski’s committed, near-insane performance, he is pointing the finger at many a power-hungry explorer/businessman attempting to rape an existing culture of its riches without understanding its essence. Meanwhile, at every turn, it seems as though the jungle itself was laughing at the poor men who are simply obeying orders from a man who has no logic. Herzog’s is a merciless film that spares no one — not the taciturn former African slave who was once a prince — can’t react at the attack of the indigenous people and die almost in bliss, or the two women in the caravan, Ines de Atienza (Mexican actress Helena Rojo) and Flores de Aguirre (Cecilia de Rivera in her only acting role), who surrender themselves to the unforgiving country.

The sad part of this is that despite the manner that Aguirre’s expedition ended, he has not been the last one seeking a mythical pot of gold. Greed and madness was the center of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lost City of Z, Embrace of the Serpent, and influenced even Apocalypse Now. In the end, the craving for the high life showered by a bevy of honors and a harem have been the sirens’ song for many an adventurer seeking thrills without measuring the consequences. Herzog simply melts into the background and lets the movie speak for itself and mankind’s folly.

Review: The Hunt

Betty Gilpin, lethal badass, in The Hunt. [Image from the movie’s Facebook page]

If Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is the movie people in 2020 need to see to capture the social horror of what a pandemic can do when a virus gets unleashed unto society, Craig Zobel’s The Hunt is the American counterpart of Brazil’s explosively entertaining Bacurau. Coming out right at the start of Covid-19’s US invasion, Zobel and writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse don’t waste any time getting you into the thick of things, and boy, do they get messy, fast.

Imagine you wake up without any knowledge of where you are and you’re at the mercy, it seems, of some elitist pricks who guzzle expensive champagne while they escort you to some undisclosed destination. You’re bound and basically unable to defend yourself, but somehow make it to first-class asking what the fuck is going on. The response to that? A shot to the eye, and a descent into death while another passenger, also clearly kidnapped, lies unconscious on the ground.

That passenger winds up to be Emma Roberts who emerges with 12 other people in a forest and before you can say “What” you’re under fire from all directions, racing to some kind of cover holding nothing but a weapon and the hope you may survive. The bloodshed is cartoonish, and arrives like a stampede of bulls in Pamplona, decimating pretty much all of the captives. In another part of the forest, another woman, Crystal (Betty Gilpin) makes her way to a gas station. An elderly couple (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney) hold shop… and prove Crystal’s fears — she’s a part of someone’s deadly game of cat and mouse. However… Crystal isn’t going down without a fight, and she is here to kick some serious [censored] ass.

The Hunt is inappropriate for all the right reasons. It calls out practically everyone while gleefully wreaking havoc on everything around its perimeter that has a pulse. It might be perhaps a bit broad in positing its contempt for both the alt-right and the liberal left, but it manages to sneak in some sly commentary on how a chat thread, once viral, might get blown up much farther than its intent and may decimate a person’s career. [In a way it is a warning to anyone dependent on social media and chat groups; you never can tell where that joke or meme you sent might land, so a word of caution, and chat away, safely.]

References to The Purge, Bacurau, and Kill Bill are all over the place but don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of this popcorn movie. I especially enjoyed an extended sequence involving Gilpin and none other than Hilary Swank (clearly on board and on the joke) as they perform balletic fight scenes in what has to be the most gorgeous kitchen ever. Seriously, I wanted them to take it outside, and please not ruin the cutlery or the fireplace. Their exhausted conversation is probably the best part of the film, delivered with deadpan humor in all the right places.

In short, The Hunt might not be a serious movie with a powerful message, but with all the madness around you, it’s almost daring you to get offended and then go on social media to rant and rave. See it for what it is — a star-making vehicle for Betty Gilpin –, and forget about it later.

Paying her dues: Margot Robbie in I. C. U.

Yes, that’s Margot Robbie.

Margot Robbie has evolved from starlet in About Time and TWA to Oscar-nominated in I, Tonya, and Bombshell in under ten years. If that isn’t career perseverance I don’t know what is. In those years she’s secured a spot as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses. She’s been mainly associated with big-budget pictures but occasionally dabs into independent cinema with movies like Z for Zachariah. I say, good for her, she’s a damned good actress and her future is laid out for her to pick and choose from.

Now, before all this, she was in Neighbours, the Australian soap that has made a career of the likes of Kylie Minogue and Nicole Kidman. So far, so good, soaps can’t be bad and if at all they serve for an actor to hone their chops. Prior to Neighbours still, she took part in a co-starring role in ICU, a horror movie derivative of the found-footage genre but mashing it up with peeping tom thrillers like Rear Window. I came across this movie perusing through horror movies and this one was suggested to me. When the name popped out at me like a flashing bulb I figured, “Must be great–let’s give it a look-see.”

I know; actors have to start somewhere. Robbie is not the first and won’t be the last who walk into a no-budget film that won’t do anything but be a sore in their resume should they make it big in the movie industry. However, when you see a movie like this, in which bored teens spying on their neighbors become witness to a murder and a target for the murderer’s rage, you expect the cheap, predictable deliveries and rising tension leading to a final girl showdown that might at least get some comparison to Halloween, to name one movie in which bored teens hang out, basically waiting to be turned into brisket by a deranged killer.

Nothing like that happens in this terrible excuse for a movie. I’m not sure what director Aash Aaron was thinking when he made this, but introducing your movie with a montage of circuit television images while heavy metal plays on doesn’t really telegraph the horrors to come. Even worse — the movie flips back and forth to a trio of siblings (Margot Robbie is one of them and she sports black hair, which doesn’t suit her) staying with their police officer father in a high-rise. They talk and talk, and talk some more. Once the father is out for his night shift, the teens, bored shitless, decide to spy on their neighbors, none of whom have curtains in the high rise across the street.

On and on and on it goes. Peppered at least every ten minutes we cut to grainy video scenes of someone bound and gagged, about to be tortured by an unseen figure holding different kinds of power tools. The heavy metal track blasts into your ears like a torpedo of sound, and then we’re back to the main locale. Anyone with a pulse knows where this is headed but I will spare the details: at the 50-minute mark, the teens witness a murder, and then magically deduce through video footage that there are other victims as well. What follows is probably one of the worst executions of teens in danger ever committed on film, and an error in continuity so severe the movie collapses into a puddle of mud before the two ridiculous plot twists even rear their heads.

I can’t believe I’ve written so much about this. I can’t believe I had the nerve to place this in the league of Rear Window. [Sorry, Hitch]. Anyway. Just don’t see this. If you want to see Margot Robbie’s early work check About Time. Z for Zachariah has a compelling but flawed execution but is light years ahead of this. And don’t believe the reviews that mysteriously hail Aash Aaron as some kind of Australian genius on, because frankly, that he is not.

The Invisible Killer: the merciless virus of Contagion, and its foretelling of Covid-19

Marion Cotillard in Contagion, a movie that has become all-too relevant in 2020.

No one could anticipate how prescient Steven Soderbergh’s un-pretentious, low-key yet harrowing thriller Contagion would ten years later affect the global population. Yes, we had had several outbreaks before, and shortly after his movie came out. However, nothing came even close to the scope of the sudden birth of the novel virus Covid-19 that has already cut a sieve through the global populace and is still set for a very unwanted resurgence rather soon.

True, the events depicted in Contagion don’t mirror what has actually transpired — there has, thankfully, been no societal breakdown typical of pandemics in which people decide to go “fuck it” and loot the hell out of stores, rob homes, and revert to near primitive behavior. However, we have seen panic sweep throughout the country as toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, alcohol, bleach, and peroxide have all but disappeared from the markets and pharmacies, returning only sporadically. We have seen a food crisis, but nothing as close as to what happens in the movie. Rioting over the refusal to wear masks doesn’t get shown in the movie but the anarchy that ensues, does, which is just as chilling, Even so, Contagion serves as a mirror for us to view ourselves in as we stay indoors and quarantine, practice social distancing, and lay low while the storm rages.

At the heart of the story, we have Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), and Dr. Ally Wextall (Jennifer Ehle). Each has their own narratives, although Wextall’s transpires in a net of safety as she becomes the first scientist to discover an antidote to the pandemic. In the meantime, Mitch sees his life shatter into a thousand pieces as the disease takes the life of his wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) and son (Griffin Kane) in rapid succession. Mitch himself gets a slight form of it, but after a period of quarantine, is considered safe. Dr. Erin Mears, a DHS Epidemic Intelligence Officer, gets tasked to find who Beth was in touch with during the days leading to her getting infected and attempts to raise funds to create resources for a public health response. Wextall, a CDC scientist, races against time to find an antivirus to combat the virus. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) traces Beth’s movements caught on video which led to her infection. Meanwhile, global concerns that the virus may have been a bioweapon surface, chaos starts to shatter communities, and conspiracy theorist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) starts to rack up views when he posits that forsythia may be an herbal treatment against the virus.

Perhaps in 2011, this would have been treated as a thriller plain and simple but for those of us who have lived through the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for anyone working in hospitals, this movie may be their reality, every day. Soderbergh has crafted a powerful piece of fiction that resonates today and will leave you shaken to the core. His opening and closing scenes tell you everything you need to know about how a pandemic starts and how fast it can move when set loose on an unsuspecting society. I don’t think there will be a scarier picture to watch this year as Contagion, now widely available on DVD and streaming,

Seeking into the past and finding no answers in Ms. Slavic 7

Image from BFI. Deragh Campbell stars as Audrey in Ms. Slavic 7

As someone who has a heritage that goes back to the Caribbean, and, if I pursue it even deeper, all the way to Spain and China, I understand what it is to peruse through the past in order to find a narrative that may represent a rosary of sorts into my present. Of course, I am not defined solely upon who my parents, and their parents were, but some of that always manages to come through in the details.

Watching Sofia Bohdanowicz’s and Deragh Campbell’s joint feature film Ms. Slavic 7, I felt a bit of kinship with the lead character Audrey (also played by Deragh Campbell) who has been appointed as the literary executor of her deceased great-grandmother, the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa’s book of letters to Nobel-prize winning author Josef Wittlin. The title of the movie refers to the file Audrey accesses at the library that houses them under mega-strict orders to adhere to their usage of the material they keep.

It is during Audrey’s exploration of Zofia’s letters that she starts to build a narrative largely based on language and tone. While this may not seem cinematic enough — who cares, really, what the author meant when using a word a specific way? Bohdanowicz, however, builds an entire scene around it between Audrey and a fellow friend who explains that a specific word, “mint”, which could be interpreted in various ways, simply meant a term of affection in Polish. It’s an interesting development to watch; I just wished that it had come with a bit of motion so as to keep the action going even if the bulk of it was strictly in the intellectual.

Because no movie would be complete without some level of antagonism at its most basic, here the opposition comes in the guise of an Aunt Ania (Elisabeth Rucker, her face frozen in a perpetual rictus of anger). At a family gathering, the first conversation between Audrey and Ania is amicable but not warm. You get that these aren’t two relatives who are on intimate terms and only see each other at family gatherings. From the word go there is a sense of entitlement in Ania, a thing that starts to morph later on the deeper Audrey delves into her great-grandmother’s letters and wonders what to do with them.

Ms. Slavic 7 is the type of “little movie: that will appeal to anyone seeking new narratives that blend genres. This could very well fall under docu-fiction, being that it involves a story that actually took place ages ago and still lives on through the existence of letters. Intimate in scale, Bohdanowicz develops her compact story with elegance and economy, never yielding to rage and confrontations but conversations fraught with the need to know, and the need to resolve, even when perhaps we may never truly know the truth behind the pen.

Seven by France: Olla, Milla, Deux Moi, On a Magical Night, Fort Buchanan, Playtime, and Gabrielle

Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie Playtime

I’ve tried to keep the pandemic off my site. While the brunt of it is over at least for a while (while spikes are blooming elsewhere like malignant flowers), this is really not the place to discuss it unless the topic is movies that have dealt with pandemics, and yes, I did finally see Contagion over the past month and boy, does it resonate ten years later. [A review of that will follow this posting.] Now, on a more positive note, and thanks to the pandemic, virtual cinema has basically taken over the space left by physical movie theaters and wouldn’t you know which arena has had a massive surge in rentals and home viewing but independent/arthouse cinema. Thanks to movie distributors banding together with movie theaters to release movies that were either supposed to get their proper release back in March or are showing up for the first time now, it’s been a cornucopia of binging through selections far and wide. In this post, I’m going to review five French movies that if you have MUBI, or Prime, or Distrib Films (among others I fail to recall right now), you can enjoy from the comfort of your home, or maybe do a group view with a discussion later.

On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)

Pay no attention to the way this clever little comedy is being promoted (as reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life) because it does the movie no justice. From the hands of Christoph Honoré, the director who also brought Sorry, Angel in 2018 (a New York Film Festival main slate), comes his follow up, On a Magical Night (original title in French Chambre 212). Chiara Mastroianni, who won the Un Certain Regard award for Best Actress at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, stars as Marie Mortemart, an unhappily married woman who, upon entering into what seems yet another argument with her husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay), decides she’s done with marriage and marches out to the hotel across the street. Once there, the younger Richard (Vincent Lacoste) makes his appearance, much to her mixed annoyance, and a night full of witty repartee and magical appearances including Richard’s teacher Irene (Camille Cottin) with whom he had had an affair with whilst in high school, who asserts she can reclaim the older Richard. As the night grows more unbelievably by the minute, with Marie reigniting her love for the younger Richard while Charles Aznavour and others drop in as her conscience, Irene and the older Richard get reacquainted and the love child they never had comes alive. Comparisons with “A Christmas Carol” and several of Woody Allen’s own movies from his late 70s / 80s period (Annie Hall, Alice, Another Woman come to mind immediately) will be all over the more cinematically acute. However, On a Magical Night is its own late-night sex-capade complete with a roster of former boyfriends and a cool, sophisticated scene in which Irene herself also resolves her unrequited emotions courtesy of a cameo by the cool Carole Bouquet. Watch it as pure escapism, although once the dream is over, you’ll wonder what the fuss was all about and forget it soon later.


Here we have a 30 minute short that would have fallen through the cracks since shorts rarely get shown on this side of the pond unless there is a film festival involved. Ariane Labed is a name you may recognize from her participation with Yorgos Lanthimos in Attenberg, Alps, and The Lobster. Labed takes her turn behind the camera to explore alienation and feminism with her short Olla, starring Ukrainian actress Romanna Lobach as the title character. When the story starts we see a domestic situation. Olla, a mail-order Russian bride, meets her husband Pierre (George Tachnakian), a plain-looking Frenchman who also has a senile mother who needs constant care. At first, Pierre seems rather meek and not one to assert his power, so he allows Olla to perform house chores and take care of his mother while he is out. Olla and Pierre’s mother wordlessly bond over her care and go-go dancing (which pretty much tell you where the character comes from), and when Olla gives Pierre’s mother a make-over, Pierre suddenly strikes Olla, and then in an awkward moment manages to consummate their union. The scene is rather uncomfortable and is a tipping point that leaves Olla with only one of two options: to stay and submit to future abuse or leave. Olla, as perfumed by Lobach, isn’t in France to be or play a victim of circumstance. Early scenes in which a recurring group of men cat-call at her — making Olla react with defiant disdain — a point at her tough as nails character. A later scene, when she decides to hell with it, she may as well use her looks to attract some desired attention and sexual release through dominance. Labed’s short speaks to the many women who have found themselves lost in a culture that is not theirs and who must use all that they have — or that they own — to survive. Olla, her lead, is such a woman, and her “fuck-you” attitude, represented with her sexy outfits and fire-engine red hair, point to someone who will not succumb easily towards toxic masculinity. This is quite a surprise that is available through MUBI.

Someone, Somewhere (Deux moi)

Almost 25 years ago I was introduced to Krysztoff Kieszlowski’s Three Colors trilogy. While not all of them are perfect — and like many trilogies, it is always the second one that seems to arrive with a sense of incompleteness — the triptych as a whole is masterful in presenting permutations in human behavior and circumstances. In Blue, Julie (Juliette Binoche) sits placidly in a park bench while an older lady attempts to throw a bottle into a large garbage bin. Julie never helps the lady, but this is less out of spite or anger as a sense that she is free from attachments, if at all for this one moment. In White, Karol (Zbigniew) Zamachowski) leers on a similar older person, while in Red, Valentine (Irene Jacob), appropriately named, reaches out and for a moment, connects with that older person.

It is Three Colors: Red that kept lingering on as I saw Cedric Klapisch’s Someone, Somewhere (Deux Moi), a film about two people who haven’t yet met and who live within close proximities. While nothing visual points at Kieszlowski’s palette — as a matter of fact, the entire movie seems a bit gray and muted, perhaps signaling that we are in the emotionally starved and muted world of a young man and a woman who exist as separate islands within Paris — the entire movie, from the first to the last, seems almost like a retread of events that conspire to both keep our leads apart and tentatively connect them until (and this may be a spoiler) the final scene. Throughout the film, we see Rémy (François Civil) and Melanie (Ana Girardot) navigate a world in which every event seems random and parallel. He’s seeing a therapist; so is she. He has had unresolved familial issues; so has she. Both shop at the same supermarket, sometimes at the same time. He gets a cat that eventually lands in Mélanie’s hands. Both try dating with disastrous results. They both witness a street incident, standing right next to each other, and while we hope that one may make even a slight, offhand comment that may segue into a conversation, that never happens. This mirrored parallelism gets pushed even further when we realize that both therapists (played by Camille Cottin and François Berléand) also know each other.

If anything may hurt Someone, Somewhere it is that at times it feels a bit static, and it does run about 15, 20 minutes too long. Nevertheless, the film does manage to engage the viewer into being an observer into the naturalness of two people completing an arc in which their characters move from being singular entities with no chance of ever meeting, to a potential couple.


Valerie Massadian’s touching movie Milla will fall through the cracks unless someone truly interested in intimate stories like these manages to stumble across is the way I did, through MUBI. This isn’t even a larger, more grandiose French production, nor does it have any marquee stars, young or old. It is because of this that Milla radiates its own inner beauty and must be seen. It is delicate, tender, and drenched in compassion for its central character, a young woman, barely of age, caught in circumstances that accelerate her maturity. If you can’t identify with the struggles that she faces, then you probably don’t have much empathy for the plight of the little people barely standing on their own two feet,

Two teenagers in love, Milla (Severine Jonckere) and Leo (Luc Chessel) wander through desolation and abandoned homes, scraping a living in the way of scavengers, with nothing but their immature love holding them together. When we first see them it is through a haze, and in fact, that very haze seems to be what both shelters them and isolates them from the larger world. [It turns out they are sleeping in a car in the middle of nowhere, which is also a motif Massadian explores here,] We know nothing more about them. Perhaps, Massadian infers, we don’t need to. These are two lost souls, with nothing but the present, building a nest together with love, cheap wine, and the occasional spat.

Some unknown time later, Leo departs for a fishing job and leave Milla behind. It isn’t long before Milla is alone, see adrift on her own. Massadian delivers this with an extremely detached eye and no dialogue: Milla, opening the door to receive Leo’s knapsack; later, her sad, empty gaze as she stares at nothing in particular while patting her belly in a revealing moment of fragility, and finally, an empty nest, made even more so by the sudden, silent crash of reality.

A cut now moves to another present as Milla works at a hotel in an unknown location and makes a tentative female friend who slowly, wordlessly, warms up to her. Life drifts by, Milla gives birth to a baby boy, and now we see her love for Leo blossom into a mother’s love. More snapshot scenes point at Milla, slowly climbing the professional ladder, now living alone in a modest apartment as her little boy starts to acquire his own personality. Milla’s boyfriend returns, but has he, really? A telling, blip-or-miss conversation between Milla and her baby boy reveals that Leo has gone “up into the sky.” The scene is devoid of any sentimentality and works wonderfully. We don’t need to see her an emotional shambles, at some unconscious level I felt as though while some part of Milla does miss Leo, she has a life to live and a little person to raise.

Milla recalls the cinema of The Dardenne Brothers in which we witness an everyday person from the bottom of the social ladder navigate their way in a world that somehow either they have walked away from or that has left them behind. It offers no sentimentality, no promises, but a continuous present, and in every shot, it is clear Massadian is the first to want her tougher than she looks heroine to succeed even when the odds have been planted against her. I loved this film for its simplicity, its filtered emotion, and even its tangential incursions into surrealism.

Milla is available on MUBI, which you can access either directly or via Prime.

Fort Buchanan

Benjamin Crotty’s 2014 movie is a bit of a curio. Just barely long enough to qualify as a feature-length film, it’s 60-minute run manages to scrape the surface of sexual dynamics taking place in a compound somewhere in France. The narrative seems to focus mostly on Roger (Andy Gillet), who is married to Frank (David Baïot), a soldier on the Djiboutian front, and who hopes to make himself attractive for the moment they are reunited. Meanwhile, Roger’s daughter Roxy (Iliana Zabeth, recently seen in Alberto Serra’s Liberté) isn’t keen on having been admitted to a prestigious college, and after she punches Roger in the face, the incident never gets mentioned again. Rather, the focus shifts towards the other wives in the fort. All unnamed, they discover all of a sudden that Roxy has become quite the young woman. They spend time making sexual advances on Roxy who seems not to care (while Roger simply watches or ignores). On the sidelines, another army wife played by Mati Diop (who directed 2019’s Atlantiques, available on Netflix) has a sexually charged moment with a muscular fitness instructor named Guillaume.

Fort Buchanan is all rather silly and inconsequential. It seems to be navigating in its own weird fever dream, disconnected from reality, perhaps as a commentary on sexual politics in which now the women, and Roger (who is mostly shown as a stereotypical gay male), starved for any kind of affection, try to make their presences known without much success. It will be only interesting for anyone seeking movies that are well out of the ordinary and almost never go past the festival circuit rounds. As a narrative, it has an intent, but that gets lost in how shiftless it becomes. At least it has a happy ending, and that’s okay with me.


Isabelle Huppert in Gabrielle (2006). Image by MintyBlonde

I’ve no idea what would become of French cinema without the presence of actresses such as Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert. Of course, the moment I typed this I realized that those who know me would counter, “Well! What about Catherine Deneuve?” I’d have to shake my head and reply, “For a woman who has coasted her entire career under the aegis of her truly remarkable “Gallic” beauty, it’s that precise look — the slightly vacant eyes, the perpetual blonde hair (Deneuve is a brunette) — that has somewhat rendered her career long, but unremarkable.” [Sorry, haters.] Denueve is too detached and has always played it safer than many of her peers. On the other hand, look at Binoche’s career choices. Look at Huppert’s as well. You will find that both of these actresses may have begun playing the starlet role but soon evolved into complicated, compelling, even flatly repulsive characters. If an actor can make me hate them on screen, they’ve delivered a superb performance.

Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle, an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad story, is a movie that I missed on its first run in New York in 2006. Now I’ve had the chance to view it through MUBI right before it departed from its library and boy, am I glad I did. I stayed away from all reviews, articles either on Film Comment or the New York Times because I have been hearing constant praise from anyone who’s seen it. From its opening scene in which commuters depart from a train, we listen to its narrator, Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), who makes his way through the crowd as he arrives home. He informs us details about himself, his life, and his married life to a woman he does not love. That woman, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert, coldly suffering), and we don’t see her enter the frame proper until we’ve read a note she’s left for Jean. The simplicity of the message is so savage that Jean injures his hand before he can take in the depths of what is about to happen.

You see, Gabrielle has decided to leave him for another man. You would think, however, that in a marriage of convenience, this sort of thing would be throwaway. However, this is the Europe of the Belle Epoque and while divorce was a concept, it was still not seen as the way out. Couples made the point to somehow work things out, keep up appearances, preserve the status quo. However, Gabrielle, in one of her increasingly lacerating encounters with Jean, affirms her decision, and sticks the dagger in deeper when she reveals who her lover is. Jean however barrels forth, his grayish blond hair occasionally falling over his left eye whenever emotions threaten to get the better of him. His demeanor shifts between entitled arrogance, embittered narcissism, and lastly, a slobbering idiot who will do what it takes to preserve this woman who he considers his property.

On the flip side, we see Gabrielle open herself to her servants. At first it seems as though she doesn’t even care to notice they are there, attending to her every need, but eventually, she starts to listen to one of them, Yvonne (Claudia Coli). It’s as if years of living in a gilded cage, separated from the real world, has rendered Gabrielle a closed book that has had enough of being closed and could use a non-judgmental ear.

Her encounters with Jean become increasingly hostile, and it’s mainly his narcissistic rage of her attempting to leave him (How dare she!) that instigates it. Gabrielle herself seems perpetually awash in a resigned state of anguish, tears marking her face almost constantly. Chéreau stages each meet with the anticipation of two sworn enemies who have had enough of each other, but can’t seem to stay away from each other. Chéreau renders Gabrielle with a mounting sense of doom and claustrophobia punctuated with lines and words lifted directly from Joseph Conrad’s text, . One would think light and love had never filtered in. One scene in which Yvonne carries a lamp shines a cold blue light that while bold, does not extinguish the looming shadows. One would justify anyone wanting to leave Hervey’s side. This is a man who, like Charles Foster Kane of Citizen Kane, collects. Chéreau’s camera lingers over the many statues and works of art, the bustle of servants, and of course, the prize herself, Gabrielle. If anyone has a responsibility to own up to his own marital failure, it is he, not Gabrielle, although her actions aren’t going to make her wife of the year in her social circles.

If you’re in the mood for some truly ferocious acting by Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert this is the movie to watch. It is not available on MUBI at the time of this article but Netflix has it on DVD, although given its reputation, it is almost always at a wait. I would say keep it on top of your queue: you’ll be glad you did.


Whenever I think of Jacques Tati, even if I were in a lousy mood, a smile starts to creep into my face and I start to happily ruminate about Monsieur Hulot, his redoubtable alter-ego who bumbles his way through this comedy called life. I honestly wish my life were played out this way. Sometimes I fantasize about what would it be to be a non-judgmental observer of my Other as he went through scenario after scenario as though he were an Impressionist, experiencing everything through a pure lens, always filled with the wonderment of it all, and resurfacing intact at the end (although none the wiser). If you’ve seen Tati’s magical movies you know where I’m getting at. What a wonder, to be Monsieur Hulot! I met him first in Mon Oncle way back in 2005 as he paid a visit to his family and found himself challenged by how the simple world has changed through “new technology”. Through TCM not a year later I was privileged to see him go on vacation on his first misadventure, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (Les Vacances de M. Hulot), a film that was made several years prior to Mon Oncle (and in gorgeous black and white). Only a few years ago, TCM also featured a restored version of Traffic, the last one to feature M. Hulot, again balancing a tightrope over urban chaos with grace.

I’m sure there will be critics and cinephiles alike that will disagree with me and that’s okay, but Tati’s 1967 feature film Playtime is the one out of the six that he made that essentially defines not just M. Hulot, but Tati’s amusement about humanity and its peccadilloes as it hurdles along through social settings in service to urban living. To achieve such a specific, detailed view, Tati constructed an enormous set to replicate not just Orly Airport and the equivalent of a Jacob Javitz Center but an entire swatch of ultra-modern living. To see M. Hulot weaving in and out of the frame throughout these sets that accurately announce how we occupy office space today with cubicles and ultra-modern decor that is sparse and metallic almost to a fault is to see a man who seemed to have a prescient eye. I couldn’t at times but keep comparing Hulot to Chaplin in Modern Times, but especially Mr. Magoo — less near-sighted, but at a loss at times how to sit on a Knoll chair without it making some strange noise. And what a sound-filled movie this is! People get announced by the sound of their shoes, buttons make strange noises, and an air-vent blows so much air into a sweltering bar that its model airplane, soft and buttery, now regain its form and almost takes off.

It is a pity that this movie never reached the heights that it should have — Tati, for one, practically went bankrupt as his set cost millions. To add insult to injury, Playtime was filmed in 70mm and only played in theaters still showing films in 70mm. Overseas it was released in 1973, and it seems, went largely unnoticed except by fans of Tati. Today, Playtime stands as one of the finest films ever made, and it’s one that anyone interested in pure cinema devoid of the artifice of dialog and the ever-present M. Hulot, this time complimented by Barbara Dennek in her only film role, should watch at least twice. It is beautiful, visually witty, and gentle all at the same time. In essence, it is Jacques Tati, a man who knew cinema at its core.

HER SMELL is Elizabeth Moss’ Primal Scream as she spins into butter.


Here is a movie that will assault you with so much bad behavior from its anti-heroine that you will just sit back, if at all to watch this train come to a screeching halt and implode before exploding, scorching everything that might be within striking distance. She may not have been considered for an Academy Award last year (Her Smell was released to US audiences following its 56th New York Film Festival premiere in October of 2018), but Elizabeth Moss delivers what has to be one of the most electrifying, riveting performances committed on film. It is right up there with the brutality that Gena Rowlands exhibited in A Woman Under the Influence or Jessica Lange’s Frances. This I find interesting because all three movies focus on women who live on the fringes of reality, their minds expanding and imploding, their gestures unpredictable, their moods wild and unpredictable.

Moss stars as Becky Something, the lead performer of the punk/alternative band Something She. The movie proper opens in happier times when the band had achieved its first breakthrough success. In the present, things are different. Becky has basically lost the plot and is dangerously spiraling out of control, a tornado in a full demonic rage that has become dependent on yes-men posing as shamans who are leeching her dry while promising spiritual guidance. That she doesn’t choke on her own puke when she passes out in the first long take is a miracle, but the worst is still to come. Attempting to reclaim what little fame the band has left, Something She’s manager (played by Eric Stoltz) arranges that the band record with another rising band called the Akergirls. Becky, completely unhinged, lashes out at anyone who might even try to help her gain some control. Soon, one by one, her bandmates (played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), decide that they have had enough and walk out. On opening night with the Akergirls, Becky takes her rage a step too far, grinding her mother (Virginia Madsen) who has stood by her into a pulp before she blacks out.

Her Smell fast forwards a bit into the future and we get to see the fallout of Becky’s whirlwind unprofessional behavior. Lawsuit after lawsuit has landed at her front door and she’s basically lost everything. Here, Moss moves from the unbearable frenzy of her previous scenes into a much more subdued self, and lets us see a side of Becky that we weren’t privy to. While director Alex Ross Perry doesn’t seem to be judging or letting Becky off the hook that easily, he seems to be gleaning a deeper layer to his heroine. Free from the hell that was her fame, she can now collect the shambles that has come to her own horrifying behavior and dig her way out. Hearing Moss, her voice hushed but a bit off-key, sing Bryan Adams’ Heaven to her young daughter, is on its own, the most emotionally disarming scene in the entire film. Nothing will prepare you for this one moment, seeing a woman who’s self-destructed, lost it all, and still has the ability to love.

I honestly wish Perry would have ended his movie here but he has a larger coda in mind, and I get it. The journey Becky has taken has been difficult and she’s left a trail of debris and destruction. However, it seems that Perry chose to attach a coda to the end as if affirming that Becky will indeed come through and not revert back. It’s probably not the kind of ending that I would have expected — seeing her sing to her daughter was more than enough and I would have walked out happy — but of course, sometimes there are artistic choices that must be made in order to tie up loose ends. I personally loved this movie — I’m something of a fan of Perry’s singular style and work — and I highly recommend it only for Moss, who is clearly shaping herself to be a power-actress and deliver deep, dangerous performances that will both make you admire her in awe and also fear her.