My daughter celebrated her eighth year of life this week. That seems an incredibly long time and yet it seems like just yesterday we were at the hospital ready for her to be born. There are other cliches I could spout, but instead I’ll just say I’m so very happy she’s in my life. The in-laws are in town for the celebrations, which always messes with my ability to consume pop-culture items, but I still managed to squeeze some cool stuff in.
Cleo from 5 to 7
I hang my head in shame as an amateur film critic and cinephile over the fact that I had never seen an Agnes Varda film until this week. I knew of her work, and several of her films are on my list, but I’d never gotten around to her until now. With so many mourning her recent passing and the new Criterion Channel dedicating some space to her, I figured now was my time to finally watch one of her films.
My God, why have I waited so long? Cleo from 5 to 7 is magnificent. A beautiful, creative, wonderful film. The plot is in some ways a trifle. Cleo is an up-and-coming pop star. She has some songs on the radio but is not yet so popular that people notice her in a cafe (where she wanders in and plays her song on the juke box). She is waiting on the results of some tests in which she believes she’ll be told she has cancer.
She shops for hats with her maid. She chats absentmindedly with her lover. She sings a new song with her songwriter. She wanders the streets of Paris. The film is filled with little moments, snapshots of life that don’t amount to much. She seems like a shallow person. A beautiful person who has found some fame and wants nothing more. Yet cancer hangs over the film and Corinne Marchand‘s performance. It isn’t heavy, it doesn’t cloud the film with darkness but it is there just the same.
Varda who was a member of the French New Wave fills the film with fascinating moments. When Cleo is shopping, the frame is filled with mirrors and reflections in windows. When she sings a sad song, her face is framed with a black backdrop, giving the scene a classic movie feeling yet when it is over, the camera moves back revealing the backdrop was just a curtain. Every few minutes, text appears giving us a character name and the time the next scene takes place. When the name is not Cleo, the camera perspective shifts to the other character.
Over and over again, Varda fills the movie with imaginative choices that don’t distract but enhance what is ultimately a small story. It is truly fantastic.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, member of the New German Cinema movement, remade Douglas Sirk’s classic All That Heaven Allows by cutting out most of the melodrama and inserting lots of commentary on the racism he saw in 1970s Germany. It's about an elderly German woman finding love with a much younger Moroccan man. They are two lonely people who find solace in each other but constantly face racism for their relationship in both subtle and overt ways.
Fassbinder uses his camera to show their isolation and fear in incredibly interesting ways. He positions the characters in a manner that boxes them into their spaces as if they cannot leave their station in life. He shows them sitting alone while others stand far away staring. The performances are understated but powerful. It is a surprisingly simple film with an enormous emotional impact.
As you might be able to tell, I’ve really been diving into my Criterion Channel this past week. That will change next week as I’ve got a big stack of review material to get through, but for now, I’ve really been enjoying the service. There is still a lot of improvement to be had, especially in the app's interface (it is nearly impossible to just browse their entire selection) but the films I do find I’m loving.
While the other two films in this list are much more in line with Criterion’s usual stuff (art-house, foreign), Pushover is straight up film noir. It stars Fred MacMurray as a cop chasing down a gangster. He goes undercover to get closer to the gangster's moll (Kim Novak in her first credited film roll). Naturally, he falls in love with her. Naturally, a plan is hatched for him to kill the gangster, steal his money, and run away with the girl. Naturally. things go awry.
The plot does go in some interesting directions, not always following the standard noir model. The acting is quite good, with Novak proving straight away why she became such a huge star. Direction from Richard Quine is serviceable but not nearly moody enough. It plays out almost entirely in one apartment building inside two separate rooms and just outside in the street which doesn’t lend itself to exotic photography. But he fails to create any really interesting images and the lighting is pretty basic. Still, it is always fun to find a new noir and this one is pretty good.
Santa Clarita Diet
I wrote about this Netflix show about a year ago. I had only watched a few episodes then but already I was loving it. The third season recently dropped and I devoured it. I had been a little worried as this is the sort of show that is going to have difficulties staying interesting the longer it's on. With a premise about a suburban mom (a fantastic Drew Barrymore) trying to juggle work life and family life, while also being an undead zombie who eats people, there is a balance it has to strike between its outrageous comedy and developing some kind of dramatic stakes. My fear is that it will go the Weeds route and continue upping the stakes to the point of ridiculousness.
Thankfully, it still managed them quite well in this third season. There was real tension and some interesting family drama while maintaining its pitch perfect comedy. It has become one of my favorite shows on TV and I’m already anxiously waiting for season four.
The Strange Door
A loose adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Door is about a rich aristocrat (Charles Laughton) who imprisons an alcoholic cad in order for him to marry his niece and destroy her family. Yeah, the story makes very little sense, but Laughton is terrific and the set design is quite wonderful. You can read my full review soon.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Because the daughter’s birthday actually fell during the week, we are having her big party on Saturday. The theme is Alice in Wonderland. My wife has been going a little crazy making Cheshire Cat cakes, flamingo croquet sticks, and fancy party hats. For the last few weeks, we’ve been listening to the audiobook at bedtime and naturally we watched the animated Disney movie. Both are quite delightful. I’d forgotten just how nonsensical the story is. It is basically all sorts of ridiculous things happening to a little girl, but it is such wonderful nonsense nobody will ever care. My daughter adored it and we are all quite excited for her party now.