What I Watched in May 2021
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
You won’t see many films in my list from May, partly due to a family emergency and partly due to a vacation. It was a month of contrasts, featuring several rewatches, new-to-me film noir titles, and both the shortest and longest movies I watched this year. Let’s get started:
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) Tim Burton (Amazon Prime) Rewatch, 2x
I unapologetically love this movie, but never more so than now. My sister-in-law passed away near the end of April, and this was the first movie I watched with my two nieces. I wasn't sure how they would like it, but they laughed and laughed. I'll always be thankful for those 91 minutes that took their thoughts away from the painful realities our family experienced.
The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (aka The Paris Express, 1952) Harold French (Amazon Prime)
This is an odd little film with a European cast based on a non-Inspector Maigret novel by Georges Simenon. It’s often referred to as a film noir, but the hardboiled elements are subdued, primarily by eschewing black-and-white cinematography for Technicolor. Claude Rains plays Kees Popinga, a meek bookkeeper for the De Koster shipping company, run by Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom). Kees soon learns that his boss is not only embezzling the company’s money, but also Kee’s own savings, which are tied up with the company. De Koster concocts a plan including instructions for Kees. I don’t want to tell you too much about the plan, but a French detective named Lucas (Marius Goring) is wise to the embezzlement and keeps a close watch on Kees. Meanwhile, Kees - on the run from Lucas - seeks the protection and solace of de Koster’s former lover Michele (Märta Torén), who probably understood more about the world as a child than Kees does as a middle-aged man. The audience is constantly wondering if Kees is simple, ultra-sheltered, out of his element, or all three. Added to this, we’re also never quite sure where the story is going. Although not completely satisfying, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is definitely worth your time. Classic Flix released the film on Blu-ray and DVD in 2018, alas, with no supplements whatsoever.
The Sandlot (1993) David M. Evans (Amazon Prime) Rewatch, 2x
I actually saw The Sandlot for the first time last year during the lockdown. This sweet, lovable baseball movie was even more special during this rewatch, experiencing it with my nieces. It’s one of their favorite movies, so naturally it’s one of mine.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Irvin Kershner (TBS) Rewatch, 7x (at least)
What’s there to say about this film after more than 40 years that hasn’t already been said? A lot, I guess, since the physical and digital pages devoted to it (and all things Star Wars) apparently have no end in sight. Easily my favorite film of all the of the Star Wars properties, and the nieces liked it too.
Stranger on the Prowl (aka Imbarco a mezzanotte, 1952) Joseph Losey (Olive Films Blu-ray)
The translation of the Italian title Imbarco a mezzanotte is Boarding at Midnight, which is more accurate, at least initially. Paul Muni plays a man called “the stranger with a gun,” a criminal who’s not really hardened, but rather down on his luck and on the lam, trying to find a boat to take him away from the Italian seaport town where he’s wanted. After accidentally killing a shopkeeper, the stranger runs into a young boy named Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta), who steals a bottle of milk for his poverty-stricken family. It’s almost impossible not to compare this film to Bicycle Thieves (1948), but such comparisons are unfair, although the neorealism is unmistakable. The film often moves rather aimlessly, making its 85-minute running time feel more like two hours. While not a great film, anything directed by Joseph Losey is worth seeking out.
If you're considering a purchase of the Olive Films Blu-ray of this movie, my advice is to buy it on sale. The video badly needs a restoration, but the audio is even worse. With the sound quality this sub par, Olive at least could've added subtitles, but they chose not to do so. Rent it if you can.
We Are the Best! (2013) Lukas Moodysson (Kanopy)
A delightful film about three girls in Stockholm trying to form a punk band. I watched the film in preparation for our Great Movies virtual discussion with special guests Cole Roulain and Ericca Long from The Magic Lantern podcast.
The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960) Terence Fisher (Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection Blu-ray box set, Mill Creek)
I explored this film in my ongoing journey through the Hammer Films box set from Mill Creek
The Man Who Died Twice (1958) Joseph Kane (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
After learning of her husband’s death, nightclub singer Lynn Brennon (Vera Ralston) returns home to find three men fighting on her apartment balcony. One falls to his death, one is shot, and another escapes. It’s a wild opening to a movie that can’t possibly sustain such action throughout its running time, but it doesn’t have to. The mystery of what really happened to nightclub owner T.J. Brennon is compelling, especially when Brennon’s estranged brother Bill (Rod Cameron) comes to investigate his brother’s death. This is a solid noir that should be better known. Thanks to Kino, you can now discover it.
The Music Room (1958) Satyajit Ray (Criterion Channel)
I’ve only seen a handful of them, but I suspect that this will always be my favorite Satyajit Ray film. Chhabi Biswas plays Biswambhar Roy, an Indian landowner, once powerful and influential who is now forced to realize that his fortune is slowly deteriorating. Disgruntled at his neighbor who puts on lavish parties, Roy decides to play a game of one-upmanship by throwing an event in his beloved music room. A powerful film with a stunning soundtrack.
Rope of Sand (1949) William Dieterle (Olive Films Blu-ray)
A South American diamond mine provides the backdrop for this tale of greed, revenge, murder… all the things that make for a good film noir. Burt Lancaster plays Mike Davis, a hunting guide hired by a client who ignores Davis’s advice and trespasses into land owned by a diamond company, a property ruthlessly patrolled by the sadistic man in charge of the company’s police unit, Paul Vogel (Paul Henreid, in possibly my favorite Henreid role). Yet after being away for two years, Davis returns for… revenge? More beatings from Vogel? But there’s more: The shifty manager of the company Fred Martingale (Claude Rains) gets seduced (or does he?) by an opportunistic nightclub dancer (Corinne Calvet) while Davis is approached by the sleazy Toady (Peter Lorre), who hopes Davis will cut him in on anything Davis is able to shake out of (or steal from) Vogel. We’re also treated to appearances from Sam Jaffe, Hayden Rorke, and the always-welcome Mike Mazurki. I’m not sure why, but Lancaster supposedly hated this film. Rope of Sand is a noir that isn’t often talked about, but it’s terrific.
I, Jane Doe (1948) John H. Auer (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Standing trial for the murder of a fighter pilot named Stephen Curtis (John Carroll), a French woman (Vera Ralston) refuses to give her name. Calling her “Jane Doe,” the judge sentences the woman to the electric chair, yet the woman collapses along the way, and soon winds up in the prison hospital, where we learn her story. Amazingly, Curtis’s widow, attorney Eve Curtis (Ruth Hussey), decides to defend Jane Doe. This very interesting courtroom drama is another film that had mostly fallen off the film noir radar, but thanks to Kino, we can enjoy I, Jane Doe. Pair this one with The Man Who Died Twice for a nifty Vera Ralston double feature.
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) Michael Rianda (Netflix)
This sweet cautionary animated tale is actually quite entertaining, fun, and heartfelt. Against her wishes, Katie Mitchell (the voice of Abbi Jacobson) is taken on a road trip with her family (including the family dog) to begin her first year of film school, where there are actually people who will understand her, unlike her parents. Yet along the way, all the world’s personal electronic devices revolt and take over the universe. Can the Mitchells prevent this disaster? This is far better than I was expecting, and even the nearly two-hour running time didn’t present a problem for me or my nieces, who watched it with me.
My Cousin Vinny (1992) Jonathan Lynn (TBS) Rewatch, 2x
One of several movies I watched this month at my brother-in-law Dave’s, My Cousin Vinny is a much-beloved comedy that’s really hard not to like. When teenagers Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are falsely accused of a crime in small-town Alabama, Bill calls his New York City lawyer cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) - who’s never actually tried a case - to represent him. Vinny also brings along his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito, played by Marisa Tomei, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role. (For more on that story, read on.) Apparently lawyers love this film and frequently cite it for its courtroom and legal accuracy. Seriously? One thing’s for sure: My Cousin Vinny wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the casting of Fred Gwynne (in his final film) as Judge Haller.
The Black Sleep (1956) Reginald Le Borg (Amazon Prime)
If nothing else, The Black Sleep has a tremendous cast, providing enough reason to watch it (if not own it). It opens in 19th century England as brain surgeon Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone) rescues his former student Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) from being executed for a murder he didn’t commit. Escaping far into the countryside, Cadman asks Ramsay to assist him in his experiments in mapping the pathways and functions of the human brain, primarily by giving his patients a drug called the black sleep. As you might have guessed, Ramsay isn’t totally on board with all this, and enlists the help of a woman named Laurie (Patricia Blair), whose father (Lon Chaney Jr.) is a living (sort of) reminder of Cadman’s whacked-out experiments. The film takes its time, but the mayhem is worth the wait, especially considering that you’re going to also see Akim Tamiroff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and everyone’s favorite, Tor Johnson.
Day of Anger (aka Gunlaw, aka The Days of Wrath, 1967) Tonino Valerii (Arrow Blu-ray)
A young street sweeper named Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is the butt of everyone’s jokes in the town of Clifton, Arizona in the Old West. When a famous gunfighter named Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) rides into town, Scott immediately implores Talby to teach him how to become a gunfighter and earn the town’s respect. The first half of the film is total entertainment filled with suspense and enjoyable (albeit sometimes unrealistic) gunfights. Scott’s character undergoes quite a personal transformation, which becomes darker than some of the film’s earlier comedic moments might indicate. But then again, Italian Westerns (very popular during this time) sometimes play by a different set of rules. The Arrow Blu-ray I own contains both the 114-minute and 86-minute cuts. I watched the former.
Las Marthas: A Curious Tale of Coming of Age in Laredo, Texas (doc. 2013) Christina Ibarra (Kanopy)
I’m currently watching several films on Kanopy, seeking one to select for a virtual program celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 - October 15). Las Marthas is an interesting PBS documentary directed by Cristina Ibarra which chronicles an event I’m willing to bet most of us have never heard of. Each year the Society of Martha Washington hosts a debutante ball with young women wearing lavish and breathtakingly beautiful Colonial style gowns as they portray historical figures from America’s beginnings. A large part of what makes the event fascinating is its location, drawing participants from two nearby border towns: Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The film primarily follows Laurita Garza Hovel, a young woman from a prominent Laredo family, and Rosario Reyes, a young woman from Nuevo Laredo. I was fascinated by the way that people from each town seem to have no barriers between them as together they both celebrate this shared heritage. At only 69 minutes, I wish the film had spent more time exploring the bigger picture of the event and its broader significance, but the documentary is frequently fascinating.
A Day in the Country (1936) Jean Renoir (Criterion Channel)
This will probably come across as sacrilege, but A Day in the Country is (so far) my favorite Jean Renoir film (and I’ve seen several). Although the film’s running time is only 41 minutes*, the director does more in those 41 minutes than many other directors could do in two hours. The story seems simple enough: Needing a break from city life, a family of Parisians decide to spend the day in the country. The young daughter (Sylvia Bataille) instantly attracts the attention of two local men, but if you think you know what’s going to happen, you may be surprised. I’m going to pick up the Criterion Blu-ray of the film, especially since it includes a documentary on the film that’s over twice as long as the feature itself.
I should also point out that I watched A Day in the Country primarily as preparation for the next film:
La Flor (2018) Mariano Llinás (Criterion Channel)
At 14 hours, La Flor is the longest film I’ve ever seen as well as the longest film in the history of Argentine cinema. The film consists of six different episodes all starring the same four actresses in various roles (from L to R in the photo above): Elisa Carricajo, Laura Paredes, Valeria Correa, and Pilar Gamboa. The episodes fall loosely into the following genres: a B-movie horror tale, a drama/musical (sort of), a spy story, a comedic meta narrative about the making of the film (including the actresses turning against the director), a silent black-and-white remake of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), and a historical story from the 19th century. Yet the film is far more complex than that, yet never completely out of reach for the viewer. This film certainly requires a much longer review, which I plan to post sometime in June. Unfortunately, as I post this, the film will be leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of May (as I write this on May 31), but I’m hoping for an eventual North American box set release. (The film has been released on a four-disc French set without English subtitles, and a three-disc German set with English subtitles.)
UPDATE: That longer review, which I mentioned above, is now posted.
Chinese Take-Away (2011) Sebastián Borensztein (Kanopy)
Most of the advertisements for Chinese Take-Away will lead you to believe it’s a comedy. It’s not, although it contains several comedic moments. Ricardo Darín (my favorite non-English-speaking actor working today) stars as Roberto, a gruff, solitary shop hardware store owner in Buenos Aires who witnesses a man being thrown out of a taxi near his shop. Roberto reluctantly decides to help the young Chinese man (Ignacio Huang), but the man can’t speak Spanish and Roberto can’t speak Mandarin. Instead of a comedic farce, director Borensztein gives us a film that delivers multi-layered characters and a gut punch of the best kind. Again, understand that you’re not watching a comedy, and check this one out.
After the Storm (2016) Hirokazu Kore-eda (Kanopy)
This is the first Audience Choice film that kicks off our summer 2021 series of virtual movie discussions at the library, and it’s terrific. Thanks to my friend Jeff D. for recommending it, nominating it, and hopefully leading the discussion on Friday, June 4. (You can sign up for that discussion here.) Hiroshi Abe plays Ryota, a once promising novelist who now works as a private detective. Working on his own, Ryota follows his ex-wife (Yoko Maki) and her new boyfriend while trying to borrow money from his sister and mother (Kirin Kiki, who steals the show). Ryota wants to spend more time on with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), but there’s usually not much money left after Ryota’s bad luck at gambling. After the Storm is a wonderful look at a man trying to escape his past, yet refuses to play manipulative games the way most films of this nature would. A wonderful discovery. Many thanks, Jeff!
That’s what my May looked like. Please let me know what you enjoyed.