Rendezvous, William K. Howard (1935)

Delightful vehicle for the always-enjoyable William Powell and a feisty newcomer by the name of Rosalind Russell. Pretty lively for a spy picture of this vintage, featuring lots of good humor as well as some cleverly thought-through espionage bits. Russell isn’t great yet, but it’s fun to watch her knowing that in a scant five years she’ll be Hildy Johnson, one of the greatest comic roles ever played.

Diana & Nikon, Janet Malcolm (1997)

A collection of previously published exquisitely perceptive essays on photography and photographers from one of my favorite writers. Really helped me contextualize the pas de deux of photography and painting from the 19th century through the 1980’s, and also brought a number of the great photographers to life for me. Criticism of the highest order in that it both fully engages its subjects and ramifies beyond them, all in prose to die for. Thanks!

Brothers, Jim Sheridan (2009)

Bad news: After fifteen minutes, my clip-on cliche monitor badge was already white-hot, so I had to turn this off and send it back to Netflix unwatched.

Good news: If I can just get up the gumption to write the heimkehrer I’m planning, it can’t possibly be this bad.

Let’s take a moment here to lament the tanking of Jim Sheridan, whose first picture, My Left Foot, was so terrific, but whose subsequent outings have gotten progressively worse.

Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood (2008)

A mismatched-buddy picture ala Beverly Hills Cop, a crusty-mentor picture ala Finding Forrester, an urban revenge fantasy ala Taxi Driver, a man-damaged-by-war-learns-to-be-human-again picture like so many of the movies I’ve been watching lately, a can’t-we-all-just-get-along overcoming-racism-through-food picture I can’t think of another example of right now . . . In short, a lot of things, but no one thing in particular. Oh, I forgot the nagging priest making a case for Catholicism. An awkward and manic-depressive movie, now ebullient and now morose. Oh, I forgot how terrible the writing is. (Eastwood to mirror: “I have more in common with these gooks than with my own family.” As if the movie hadn’t already pounded us over the head with that information a hundred times in a hundred ways already.) Politically speaking, I can’t make heads or tails of it. For starters, Eastwood’s character is supposed to be this huge racist, but in one strange scene he makes pretty clear that all his slurs are just “how men talk to each other,” that the racism is just an act. OK, he might not be racist, but the movie sure is, even — especially — at the moments when it thinks its being most enlightened, as in the portrayal of the Hmong protagonists as helpless and naive. The only Hispanics and African Americans on offer in the picture are gangbangers. It’s like Eastwood threw all these ingredients into the pot and hoped they’d make a meal, but really it’s just an inedible mess.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

Melville’s chilly formalism has turned me off in the past, but it works quite brilliantly in this account of a French resistance cell’s wartime activities. There are scenes of great drama, action, daring, cunning, etc., but they’re all conveyed with stony austerity, so the effect isn’t one of excitement but of grim duty and honor. I should have thought of this before, but Melville’s style recalls not so much that of the American noir directors with whom he’s said to have been obsessed, but rather the Japanese pictorialists like Ozu or Mizoguchi, who like Melville are always conscious of the relationships between every figure in the frame.

A particularly tragic, and I imagine sadly accurate aspect of the story is how focused the resistance fighters must need be on the potential for one of their own to betray them. An early scene where a miserable, terrified turncoat must be executed speaks elegantly to the deadly and ironic pathos of the resistance fighter who finds himself having to harm one of his own in order to strike at his enemy.

On Dangerous Ground, Nicholas Ray (1952)

A formulaic, even hackneyed noir in terms of its plot and script, but the mise-en-scène, even in this muddy crap copy on TCM, is exquisite. In the gritty city, space is terrifyingly claustrophobic and dark; in the wintry countryside, space is terrifyingly desolate and blinding. As complex and pure as a glass of water or a Freudian case study. Ida Lupino!