The Life of Emile Zola (Dieterle, 1937)

emilezolaI am working my way through the winners for Best Picture (as awarded by the Academy of Motion Pictures).  Yesterday’s film was The Life of Emile Zola, and I was lightly mocked (and the film much maligned as boring) by my viewing companions.

I will admit that the film has the sort of schmaltzy feel (aided by the over the top score) of its era.  It was released in 1937, so some of the acting is what we’d describe as overwrought today.  The inital life of Zola is less interesting than his transformation at midlife to successful writer from starving artist.  The film really hits stride when Zola (played by Paul Muni) finds himself confronted with the choice between righting an injustice or resting in his comfortable status as a man of letters. Continue reading “The Life of Emile Zola (Dieterle, 1937)”

Les Miserables (Bernard, 1934)

Bernard’s film looks and feels contemporary, even 70 years after its making.

Every now and then when teaching film, you get to introduce a budding cinephile to Citizen Kane for the first time. It is not uncommon in my experience for their initial response to it to be one of slight confusion. The techniques don’t seem particularly new and innovative to them. That, I suggest, is exactly the point. They are comparing the film to all the films they’ve seen since Welles’s masterpiece, not to films that were made at or around the same time.

You could have told me that Raymond Bernard’s three part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel was filmed in 1994 and I would have believed it. It was, however, filmed in 1934. Continue reading “Les Miserables (Bernard, 1934)”

Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, 1972)

Favorite Rohmer film? Whichever one I saw last.

My favorite of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales is probably whichever one I’ve seen most recently, so at one point or another my list of favorite discoveries of 2008 probably had five Rohmer films on it.

I wrote some notes about Love in the Afternoon last March, comparing some of its themes to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Pauline Kael once famously compared screening a Rohmer film to watching paint dry. Yeah, paint on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, maybe. Continue reading “Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, 1972)”

Taxi to the Dark Side (Gibney, 2007)

Would you torture this man to death if someone told you he was a terrorist?

A well deserved Academy Award (for best documentary) went to Gibney’s investigation into the policies and practices that created the Abu Ghraib scandal. Eschewing sensationalistic tactics and avoiding an over-reliance on the photos themselves (which appear but aren’t the final word), Taxi builds persuasive force until the viewers amazement reaches a level of disbelief.

Take a good look at the photo to the right, because this man died of homicide while in the custody of the American government. That is not my opinion, or Gibney’s. It is what it says on the death certificate given to his family by the representatives of the government whose agents killed him.

Julius Caesar (Houseman, 1954)

Sure he’s a great actor, but can he play Shakespeare?

By the time I was old enough to get into “R” movies, The Godfather was over a decade in the rear view mirror, meaning I knew Marlon Brando primarily through The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Freshman.

Question: What do the following actors have in common?: Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Keanu Reeves, Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, Alicia Silverstone.

Answer: They were all exposed trying to do Shakespeare.

Brando was in a Shakespeare film with James Mason and John Geilgud and was still able to command the screen.

Peter Saccio once said that Julius Caeasar is the Shakespeare play we think we all know, since it is introduced to students so early in their academic journey. As a result, we don’t tend to see productions of it. Houseman’s film is an unqualified success–as an acting showcase, as a transfer of Shakespeare to film, and as an entertaining film.

Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie, 2007)


“To be kind neither hurts nor compromises.”–George MacDonald. “God’s Family.” Hope of the Gospel.

The above quote has been in my commonplace book for many years. There are days when I think is true. There are days when I think it, like the more often quoted “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” is not just wrong but 180 degrees wrong. As I grow older, the former days begin to outnumber the latter. I tend, more and more, to think of kindness less in terms of the painful putting to death of the old, fallen self, less as the thing that has been tried and found wanting, and more as the thing that has been found hard and not tried.


Lars and the Real Girl is a sweet film that gets a lot of emotional mileage out of showing people being kind. It is a film in which people are loving for no other reason than they can be and where they choose to be compassionate rather than cruel because doing the former seldom costs more than the latter. Continue reading “Lars and the Real Girl (Gillespie, 2007)”

Lust, Caution (Lee, 2007)

lustcaution1Admittedly not for all tastes, this deliberately paced meditation on what, if anything, distinguishes love from desire requires the sort of work from the viewer that many modern viewers are uninterested or unable to practice–patience during a screening and thought after it.

Lust, Caution‘s plot centers around the task of a young woman (Joan Chen) to seduce a powerful and dangerous political figure (Tony Leung) in Shanghai during World War II.

Continue reading “Lust, Caution (Lee, 2007)”

Beau Travail (Denis, 2000)

beautravail1There is no way this film should be this good. A retelling of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” set in the French Foreign Legion, directed by a woman born in France, and culminating with an electric break dance by the Claggart character (Denis Lavant as Galoup)? Are you kidding me? Nor should the film be this beautiful to look at. It’s set in the desert, for crying out loud.

But if you doubt that film is a visual medium, check out this film, where little is said but most everything is understood. I suppose it is inevitable, given the source material, that some people might or have dismissed this as strictly a gay film. That strikes me a little bit like saying that And The Band Played On is a medical mystery. I’ve always thought that the Melville novella was as much a meditation on chance and circumstances and the way they contextualize moral decisions as it was about repressed sexual orientation, but what do I know?