Title: Lola rennt
Release Date: 20 August 1998
Director: Tom Tykwer
Production Company: X-Filme Creative Pool | WDR | Arte
In the summer of 1999, everyone was agog over The Blair Witch Project. So one night I met up with some friends at the cinema, waited in a long line, and when we got to the front learned that all showings of The Blair Witch Project were sold out. So we ended up seeing a German art film, Run Lola Run, instead. Run Lola Run quickly became one of my all time favorite movies, while I still haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project.
Set in Berlin (and incorporating the city as a character), the movie stars Franka Potente as Lola, a young woman who must find 100,000 Deutschmarks in 20 minutes. Her doofy boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a bagman for a mob boss and lost the bag of money he was supposed to deliver and will meet certain execution if the money is not replaced. As the title implies, Lola runs through the streets of Berlin trying to find the money, primarily from her estranged father who is a banker (Herbert Knaup).
What makes the movie unique is that the story is told three times with Lola’s split-second decisions affecting the outcome of her story and of the people she comes in contact with. It’s basically the hip version of Sliding Doors which came out the same year. People have compared it to a video game where one can start over after dying and keep trying to get it right. The movie features a lot of innovative camera techniques for the time it was released, although they may seem clichéd after a few decades of overuse. In addition to the great visuals the film is expertly scored to a techno soundtrack on which Potente provides many of the vocals.
The movie is an exercise in efficiency getting across the basic plot points swiftly but still bearing emotional heft. I’d completely forgotten that the movie also intercuts animation with the live action sequences that makes it a fun touch. There are probably some deep philosophical issues that can be discussed in regard to this movie. But I like it just for the pure energy it brings to telling a story about love and fate.
Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Release Date: October 31, 1962
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Seven Arts Productions
Got to see this on the big screen thanks to a 60th anniversary re-release last week.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were known for playing … um … confrontational characters (and were even more confrontational in real life). So it makes sense to channel their antipathy for one another into this psychological thriller about a lifelong rivalry between two sisters. In 1917, we see that Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a popular child performer on the vaudeville circuit while her sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings. By 1935, their roles are reversed as Blanche (Crawford) is now a Hollywood star who insists that the less talented Jane (Davis) get film parts as part of her contract.
But the story really begins in the present day when the aging sisters now share a decaying house on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Blanche is unable to walk due to a car crash that broke her spine and Jane reluctantly cares for her. A revival of Blanche’s old movies on tv seems to be the last straw for Jane who essentially imprisons her sister while she goes about trying to revive her childhood singing career. There’s nothing quite as unsettling as Bette Davis with caked on makeup, greasy hair curls, and a babydoll dress singing songs about “Daddy.” But Blanche has her dark secrets as well.
David Lynch was only a teenager when this movie was released but it is nevertheless a very Lynchian film in nature. Davis is great in her monstrous performance and Crawford has a more subtle role where she seems to wallow in her suffering. It’s also brilliantly meta that this movie deals with the theme of women in entertainment being disposable once they reach a certain age and stars two women whose Hollywood careers seemed to be in the past. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? actually revived their careers which seems like a just reward.
Title: Top Secret!
Release Date: June 22, 1984
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
The team of Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker followed up their hit Airplane! with this comedy that turned out to be a flop. It’s a bit unfortunate because I feel that in some ways it is better than Airplane! While the previous movie was a straightforward disaster movie spoof, Top Secret! is a more esoteric parody of Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley musicals that evolves into a strange pastiche of World War II resistance movies.
Val Kilmer makes his film debut as American rock star Nick Rivers who is invited to perform at a cultural festival in East Germany. He ends up caught up in the attempts of resistance member Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge, who appears to mostly work in British theatre and tv) to escape the authorities. Hijinks ensue. There are a lot of great gags, but among them the opening song “Skeet Surfin'” and the Swedish bookstore scene are absolute classics of the genre. At the more lowbrow end, there are a lot of jokes about breasts and penises.
This was not the type of movie Kilmer wanted to make, but nevertheless puts his all into the role making him the perfect straight man for all the nonsense. Veteran actors Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough all appear in small but memorable roles. And the rock and roll parody songs are all pretty hilarious. Plus there’s always something going on in the background that’s worth watching.
I put Top Secret! on my 250 favorite movies list earlier this year. If I revised the list now, it might not make the cut, but it’s wouldn’t be too far off.
Release Date: March 14, 1946
Director: Charles Vidor
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
An itinerant gambler from America, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), arrives in Argentina where he meets the proprietor of an illegal casino, Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Farrell gains Mundson’s trust and gets hired as a casino manager. A while later, Mundson returns from his travels with a newlywed wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), a woman from Farrell’s past. Farrell finds himself in the position of having to watch over Gilda’s scandalous behaviors, and the love/hate feelings between Gilda and himself. Meanwhile, German mobsters are on Mundson’s tail in regards to a tungsten cartel.
Like a lot of film noir, Gilda doesn’t make a lot of sense plotwise, and it’s particularly hard to figure out the characters’ motivations. But this is a movie that’s all about the vibes. And the vibiest of all is the electric performance by Hayworth at Gilda. She even does a couple of hot musical numbers although Anita Ellis dubs her singing voice.
I’m sure that people could write an entire book of essays about questions raised by this film (Does Farrell have a same sex attraction for Mundson? What exactly was the nature of Farrell and Gilda’s past?) Mostly I just enjoyed chilling in the balcony of the Brattle Theater while soaking up the excess of Classic Hollywood.
Release Date: 5 October 2018
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Production Company: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures | Matchbox Pictures
Andhadhun starts as a rom-com in which a blind pianist, Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana), begins a romance with Sophie (Radhika Apte) after a meet cute where she literally crashes into him with her scooter. She gets him a gig playing piano at her father’s cafe where he meets the aging actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan). Sinha hires Akash to play a private concert as a surprise for his young second wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary. But when Akash arrives to perform he witnesses Simi and her lover Manohar (Manav Vij) hiding Sinha’s dead body.
You see (pun intended), Akash actually is only pretending to be blind because he thinks it improves his piano playing. Now he’s caught in a quandary due to witnessing a crime he shouldn’t be able to see. If all of this sounds spoilery, it’s really just the set-up for an overly long comic thriller with a new twist every few minutes. I tend to not like the style of writing that relies too heavily on unexpected twists, so I found this movie to be more and more of a drag after a promising premise. But if that’s your thing, you may enjoy this movie more than I did.
Title: Pierrot Le Fou
Release Date: 5 November 1965
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Films Georges de Beauregard
I struggle with these French New Wave films, especially Godard’s, so I’m a bit relieved that this is that last one on my list. Although I think I may have been more receptive to Pierrot Le Fou had I been more in the mood for a weird, experimental film. The movie is about a man named Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, who just recently passed away) who leaves his wife and family and boring middle-class life in Paris to run away with his old girlfriend Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina).
She insists on calling him Pierrot, which he hates. They go on a crime spree across France and are chased by both the police and gangsters from a right-wing paramilitary organization opposed to Algerian independence. Pierrot le Fou was clearly an influence on Bonnie and Clyde. The movie is more of a montage than a linear plot, linking various vignettes together. Some are comedy, some are eccentric, some are violent, and a couple are even musicals.
There’s a lot of overlapping narration from Ferdinand and Marianne, and references to philosophy and literature. I’m probably missing layers of significance but it all feels very pretentious.
Title: Grosse Pointe Blank
Release Date: April 11, 1997
Director: George Armitage
Production Company: Hollywood Pictures | Caravan Pictures | Roger Birnbaum Productions | New Crime Productions
This is one of those movies I’ve always wanted to watch but for some reason never got around to. I like John Cusack in just about anything which was is the primary draw. Turns out that this movie is full of actors I like in just about anything: Minnie Driver! Dan Aykroyd! Joan Cusack! and Alan Arkin! It also has a killer soundtrack with music provided by Joe Strummer of The Clash and includes songs by The Clash, Violent Femmes, English Beat, The Specials, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pixies, Motörhead, and more! Never has a movie made me more want to get up and dance.
But what about the actual movie? Well, John Cusack stars as professional assassin Martin Blank who is sent to carry out a hit in Detroit at the same time as his high school’s tenth reunion in the nearby suburb of Grosse Pointe. His assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack, god I love her) insists that he attend the reunion. Blank admits to his therapist Dr. Oatman (Arkin) that he’s never gotten over his high school sweetheart, Debi Newberry (Driver). It turns out that he never showed up on their prom night disappearing to begin the path he’s taken to hired assassin.
Blank is at a crossroads in his life and attends the reunion wondering is he is still suited for killing and if he should have a different future. In a running gag, he tells everyone who asks him what he’s been doing for 10 years the honest truth and they all think he’s joking. To complicate matters, several men are eager to carry a hit out on him, including Grocer (Aykroyd), a fellow hitman who wants Blank to join his union of hired killers and doesn’t take no for an answer. This leads to a comical intermingling of Blank’s personal and professional lives as he tries to reconcile with Debi.
I don’t want to give too much away but this is a smart and entertaining film. It does a good job of mixing and playing with conventions both action films and rom-coms. It also feels very original in a way that you don’t often see in Hollywood comedies. I’m glad I finally watched it.
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Production Company: Marvel Studios
WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read
This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe. Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.
Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents. They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors). As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.
Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places. The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition. I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.
MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS
Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission. Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.
I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months. I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film. In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long. It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.
I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film. I’ll have to watch some more of his films.
Release Date: July 9, 1953
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Producciones Tepeyac
Él (Spanish for “Him,” but also released as This Strange Passion in the United States) is a Mexican film directed by the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel. I’m familiar with Buñuel as a figure in the Surrealist art movement and particularly as the director of the bizarre silent movie classic Un Chien Andalou. Except for a few sequences near the conclusion, Él is not a surreal movie. In fact, it feels a lot like a classic Hollywood film.
Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a prosperous middle-age man who spots a younger woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés), at church an aggressively pursues her. Gloria appears resistant to his advances but after a flash forward in time, we learn that Gloria marries Francisco. The better part of the film then features Gloria narrating to her friend and former fiance Raul (Luis Beristáin) about how starting with their honeymoon, Francisco has tormented her with an irrational and paranoid jealousy. If you have any experience with domestic violence, be warned that this is not an easy movie to watch.
The movie reminds me somewhat of Gaslight in the way the charming older man swiftly turns into tormentor of his younger newlywed wife. But unlike Gaslight, there is no underlying mystery to Francisco’s jealousy, he’s simply mentally ill. There are parts of the movie that also remind me of the dangerous obsession of Vertigo, particularly a scene in a bell tower, although I have no idea if Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Él. The direction and the action in the film is good, but ultimately there is not much to this movie beyond a startling presentation of paranoia.