Sunday, August 25, 2019

This Week in Tickets: 12 August 2019 - 18 August 2019

The next time someone talks about superhero movie fatigue, remind them that the Brattle was able to program a whole series of films noirs celebrating their 75th anniversary this summer, and I don't know how many people were talking about "murder drama fatigue" in 1944.

This Week in Tickets

Granted, there was a war on and people didn't recognize "film noir" as a genre yet, so there were probably other things to talk about. Still, it's been making for a fun way to revisit some nifty movies, with Tuesday's pair being Robert Siodmak's nifty Phantom Lady and Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear. Both of them, in addition to being solid little mysteries, are compact 90-minute movies.

The weekend started with Friday's Red Sox game, which was, thankfully, the sort of game you should be expecting them to have against the Orioles - the Red Sox score a lot of, the Orioles don't, and the whole thing never gets bogged down but still lasts long enough that you don't feel ripped off. This has not happened often enough this year.

Saturday was a cross-river double feature of Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy & The Nightingale. I liked the former a bit and the latter a lot, enough that I'm kind of surprised that it's really passed through the Boston area quickly, going from two screens to one small one and then gone at the Kendall and starting in the screening room and quickly reduced to sharing the Goldscreen at the Coolidge. It feels like it should be a hit, but isn't. I wonder if everybody (including myself) talking about how it's so violent and intense scared people off.

Sunday was another day split between two theaters, with a "Silents, Please" screening of The Woman Disputed at the Somerville and then Olivia at the Brattle. Both were interesting but not really my thing. Combine all that with the noir playing the next Monday night, though, and that's seven Academy-ratio movies in seven days, which is especially funny since the TV I've been watching is 2.35:1.

Falling behind on my Letterboxd page. Sorry about that.

Phantom Lady

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

I find that Phantom Lady makes a terrific second impression, in that while it seems kind of all over the place and silly the first time around, it's very easy to discount those weird bits or find them charming later, and every viewing after that will have a viewer anticipating the good moments and letting the rest pass by.

The bulk of those good moments come from Elsa Raines as one of film's pluckiest amateur sleuths, a secretary obviously in love with the boss who has been framed for murder but not mooning over him, and able to both amusingly and believably capture how this is a thrill for her but also terrifying when she knows that she's in the middle of danger. She's a fun alternative to the usual clipped professionals or dour pessimists that lead this sort of thriller, with Franchot Tone gleefully diving into the sort of insane villain that has (happily) been kind of discredited by now.

It rolls, though. A lot of mysteries just seem artificial the second time through, badly-paced when you know what's going to happen, but this one is just more comfortable. It's the sort of thing where I'm torn between buying a disc or hoping it comes around on 35mm on a regular basis.

eFilmCritic review from 2015

Ministry of Fear

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (Noirversary, 35mm)

One of the fun things about how I've been keeping this blog is that, even if I haven't actually found time to write up Ministry of Fear before, I can search the "Next Week in Tickets" entries and see that this shows up in Boston fairly often - indeed, this screening was behind schedule, as I have records of it playing 2012 (twice), 2014, and 2016. There are a lot of reasons to revisit it, and maybe the print is more available than some other things.

It plays as an odd little mystery that's got a bit of everything, from the Blitz to supernatural quackery to a dark secret that's not quite so dark as all that. I'm curious how some of it played when it showed up back in 1944; I tend to associate the bit with the medium with earlier periods of history, and the awkward bits of spycraft toward the start seem maybe a bit more surreal than they should - would someone who hasn't been in a mental hospital for a couple of years accept any of it? It's especially strange because the more realistic outlandishness of the air raids and hiding him away as a fugitive aren't quite the right contrast.

You've still got Fritz Lang behind the camera, though, and even if the script is said to lose a lot of the feel of Graham Greene's novel, you can't easily squander that amount of sheer talent. Lang has always done spy stuff well, and captures the sinister nature of what it's like to find oneself in the middle of this very well. I'm kind of curious about the odd lack of xenophobia shown in the movie - I don't know Lang's personal experience as a refugee at the time, but it's kind of curious that nobody seems to suspect the siblings with Austrian accents as being anything but what they say.

The Woman Disputed

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 August 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

Thinking back on The Woman Disputed the better part of a week later, what it's trying to do is a little clearer - keep putting Norma Talmadge's Mary Ann Wagner into situations where people are able to think the best or the worst of her, such that even the man who loves her and stood up for her before is reluctant to believe her - and it's not entirely the film's fault that, 91 years on, its often less-than-feminist attitudes are just as eyebrow-raising as the decision to frame the Austrians as victims of Russian invaders in World War I (to be fair, WWI was a mess).

Even taking the whole product-of-its-time thing into account, though, the pacing is weird. It takes a while to get started, spins its wheels for a while, and then pushes the thing that feels like it should be the main engine of the film - will Mary Ann betray her fiancé to protect refugees and maybe help a spy get vital information out of the city? - is pushed toward the end with almost no time to deal with the fallout. It really exacerbates how even the people who say they love Mary Ann treat her terribly, and the end where Paul basically needs a man to publicly tell him that Mary Ann is a hero seems kind of egregious even for 1928.

The good news is that it's pretty easy to project Talmadge as recognizing that this is garbage along with the shame meant to be closer to the fore; she's got a scrappy charm that offsets the melodramatic woe nicely.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 August 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

The kind of distracting thing about Olivia is that star Marie-Claire Olivia looks right on the border of "too old to play a teenager", although given that it's a mid-century French film, it might just be filmmakers fetishizing and sexualizing innocence. That it's the rare film from that time and place directed by a woman doesn't really change that much, because it's queer as heck.

Indeed, Olivia (character and namesake actress) seems kind of peripheral to the really interesting story of two older women who are clearly each other's true loves but who had a rift develop sometime in the past that they've never been able to close. Mademoiselle Julie probably did, once upon a time, look at the young women in her charge a little too closely, especially the ones like Olivia who clearly like girls; another member of the staff has used this as a wedge to ingratiate herself with Mademoiselle Cara. It's the slow-motion fallout of an inciting event that itself doesn't matter. The students' devotion to one or the other of the pair feels like it could be a good way to represent this schism, but director Jacqueline Audry and the writers (adaptation of Colette Audry, dialogue by Pierre Laroche) don't make much of it.

It's still charming and often upbeat, enough to understand why the narration is sentimental despite a rather melancholy end. And given how unique a film it is for its time and place, a little imperfection or not connecting to people like me who are not its main audience is not something to worry about too much.

Phantom Lady & Ministry of Fear
Red Sox 9, Orioles 1
Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy
The Nightingale
The Woman Disputed

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