Spike Lee presents me with a conventional obstacle: his most characteristic films often contain his most regrettable material, while on first glance the hack work like Inside Man doesn’t honor him. But the first decade’s work remains astonishing. If anything, Do the Right Thing isn’t “prescient” — it’s fucking NOW, nothing has changed, and on the evidence it’s not gonna. No matter how didactic and obvious Jungle Fever becomes, Lee’s editing rhythms and shaping of acting beats are his own. Hence, the supremacy of Malcolm X on my list. Remember when Smart People in 1992 actually remarked that Norman Jewison could have directed it? That’s how Lee terrified Hollywood in the Poppy Bush Interzone: they told each other these bedtime stories.
The surprise after a first-in-twenty-six-years second look was She’s Gotta Have It; I appreciate his male curiosity about women talking to each other about guys and sex. Speaking of guys and sex, Lee will never admit it, but the way Ernest Dickerson lights Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues you’d think they want to stick their fingers under his undershirts.
I wish I’d written a thousand words on Chi-raq.
Summer of Sam
Get on the Bus
Red Hook Summer
He Got Game
Mo’ Better Blues
Good to Great
Do the Right Thing
She’s Gotta Have It
The Jury’s Out
Miracle at St. Anna
She Hate Me
A director whose films emphasize the necessity of discretion mediating poise, Ernst Lubitsch could turn winks at the audience into fan dances. The Berliner who like thousands of Europeans emigrated to America because of war found a home in Hollywood as the helmsman behind some of cinema’s most sophisticated comedies. So assuredly did he establish himself that the phrase “the Lubitsch touch” became a marketing term in the thirties. For once the marketing was a bulls eye. Blessedly unconnected to anything resembling “reality,” Lubitsch’s films, according to biographer Scott Eyman, are set in “a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom.” Indeed, the Restoration comedies of William Congreve and the nineteenth century fin de siècle plays of Oscar Wilde are the closest equivalents to Design for Living, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Cluny Brown. Continue reading
Skeptical about Dark Waters and Wonderstruck (2017), I’m struck by how more assured a filmmaker Todd Haynes has become. Fluency he always had. Facility too. Some of the items below play like experiments in moviemaking instead of registering as movies. Still, each offers a shot to linger on, an actor’s gesture to savor: Carol‘s Cate Blanchett wrapping smoke fingers of desire around Rooney Mara over creamed spinach, poached eggs, and martinis; the perfect umber of the autumn leaves in Far From Heaven; the “I Want You” sequence in I’m Not There.
The cinematic chronicler of chic urban angst has improved since Kicking and Screaming (1995), refining his approach as he collaborated with Wes Anderson and Greta Gerwig. There isn’t a single film unmarred by an insularity that’s like eavesdropping on uninteresting chatterboxes, but I appreciate him as an American filmmaker who’s not infatuated by his characters, a tendency that has made, say, films like Greenberg worth revisiting.
1. Frances Ha
2. The Squid and the Whale
3. Marriage Story
4. Mistress America
6. While We’re Young
7. Mr. Jealousy
8. The Meyerowitz Stories
9. Margot at the Wedding
10. Kicking and Screaming
To think that audiences and newspaper critics awaited his films like we do Uber Eats deliveries! Kids, you have no idea how Oliver Stone upset people. For a ten-year period startng in 1986 he wrote and directed Big Important Pictures whose pulpish structures flattered the limits of an audience’s attention span. A naïf who classified his ideological deflowering as more momentous than his sexual one, Stone approaches subjects with the golly-gee enthusiasm of an autodidact unable to renounce the attitudes of a professional mountebank and an amateur cad; in his movies, the women adorn the existential crises of men. When Ron Kovic’s mother rebukes her son, “Don’t say PENIS in this house!” and Ron shouts back, “PENIS! PENIS!” you’re getting the Oliver Stone Experience on a 5 x 7 card, much like the addled queer fascism of David Ferrie and Willie O’Keefe in JFK culminates with Tommy Lee Jones, smothered in gold body paint, getting poppers stuffed up his nose. Continue reading
“‘Bout as subtle as a cockroach crawlin’ ‘cross a white rug.”
“All this badinage can be so easily misunderstood.”
“You got the right ta-ta but the wrong ho-ho.”
“Oswald did badly on the test, he says. ‘He only had two more Russian words right than wrong.’ Ha! That’s like me saying Touchdown here …(points to the dog)… is not very intelligent because I beat him three games out of five the last time we played chess.”
“How’s your mousse.”
After his initial success at the height of le nouvelle vague, the French lost interest in Louis Malle when he turned to English-language subjects that surpassed his achievements in his homeland (his documentary achievements require their own thread). Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films, as tense as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows and The Red Circle but more chilling in its implications (its look and approach presages what Varda would accomplish in Vagabond). He made a sweet depiction of mommy love in Murmur of the Heart. Directing a wowzer of a John Guare script, he turned Atlantic City into a roundelay for beautiful losers Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, both on the make and pitiless. Then he came home and scored a popular success with another memory piece with the wan Au Revoir, Les Enfants, which, according to my last viewing, looked suspiciously like one of Francois Truffaut’s latter-day lumpen entries in the Cinema of Quality category (The Last Metro, The Woman Next Door). Remember when Damage was a thing because Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche sexed and Rupert Graves caught them? Continue reading