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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: The French Had a Name For It...

Screen Grabs: The French Had a Name For It …

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Narcissister Organ Grinder, Burning, El Angel, Optronica2: Dark Synth, and more in cinemas this week.

SCREEN GRABS Importation of foreign language films has reportedly been on the decline for many years because US audiences are growing more resistant to reading subtitles. That doesn’t appear to be the case at the Roxie, however, where this week brings the fifth edition of The French Had a Name for It, Midcentury Productions’ popular series of vintage Gallic noirs, melodramas and miscellany. 

This time the focus is on the 1950s, when much of French cinema was approaching a state of artistic stagnation that would require the Nouvelle Vague to refresh—though as is usually the case with such things, the New Wave’s auteurs exaggerated the mustiness of the epoch they were replacing. Plenty of worthy work was made in that decade, just as it was in Hollywood, despite the admittedly increasing stolidity of the major studios. 

Particularly highlighted in these six days’ 20 films—none reprised from prior series, as far as we can tell—is the career of Henri Vidal, a strapping actor whose stardom was still ascending at the start of the 1950s. It would be over, along with his life, at its end: Heroin addiction and overwork (no less than five features were released in his final year) contributed to a fatal heart attack at age 40 in 1959. He’d first attracted public notice as the winner of a Parisian physique contest in 1939, and as a protege of singer Edith Piaf. But those good looks doomed him to leading-man parts and genre films that evidently frustrated his desire to be taken more seriously as a talent. 

He is, nonetheless, very good in the genre-oriented films on tap here. They include 1950’s The Strollers aka Quai de Grenelle (1950), an engrossing (if improbable) cautionary tale where a rough-mannered but law-abiding man is mistaken for a bank robber, forcing him to flee to Paris where no end of predatory creeps seal his doom. In the next year’s The Passersby aka La Passante, he’s a simple bargeman who reluctantly takes on a “complicated” woman fleeing criminal peril. His rapidly deteriorating (but still magnetic) looks proved apt for the less sympathetic role of a homicidal thug in Rene Clair’s 1957 The Gates of Paris aka Porte des Lilas

Other highlights in the current series include a double bill of early vehicles for the recently departed Jeanne Moreau; two with the ravishing Marina Vlady, including one (Double Agents aka La Nuit des Espions) co-starring and directed by her then-husband Robert Hossien, by now a Roxie favorite; and Julien Duvivier’s 1952 Holiday for Henriette, a genre-spanning film-within-film construct so pomo it would take the Nouvelle Vague over a decade to catch up with its structural inventiveness. 

One of the finds of the program, a European classic that should be much better known here, is Andre Cayette’s 1949 The Lovers of Verona. This Romeo & Juliet update has brawny peasant glass-blower Serge Reggiani and flower of the wilted aristocracy Anouk Aimee (who was just 16 at the time, nearly two decades before A Man and a Woman) employed as stand-ins for the vain stars of a new silver-screen Shakespeare adaptation. But of course the old tragedy pursues them in modern life, with class conflict and elite greed replacing clan feuds. It’s a marvelously complex screenplay and a beautifully atmospheric, ambitious film. 

There’s a great deal more to be found in this latest “French Had a Name For It,” which runs Thurs/15-Tues/20 at the Roxie. More info here.

Also opening in theaters this week is Steve McQueen’s Widows, with Viola Davis as one of several women reluctantly dragged into the Chicago crime world after their husbands die in a botched big-league robbery attempt. Based on an British TV series from the 1980s, it’s a labored pulp fiction that seems a strange choice for the director of 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger. Not exactly up my alley either was Narcissister Organ Player (at the Roxie), a documentary showcase for the titular masked Brooklyn performance artist whose work plays with issues of gender and race. As identity-politics experimentation, it’s interesting stuff, but watching 90 minutes of it requires a big tolerance for a particular kind of p-art that I got my fill of in the 1980s. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday at area theaters unless otherwise noted):

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers’ last movie Hail, Caesar! was a very mixed-bag tribute to “golden age” Hollywood whose single best element was a singing cowboy played by Alden Ehrenreich. History repeats itself with their latest, another homage in which the titular character is another singing cowpoke. He’s also, as portrayed by the inimitable Tim Blake Nelson, a thing of pure joy—a white-hatted, trigger-happy yodeling nutcase who starts this western omnibus off with a priceless fifteen minutes or so of cheerfully faux-folky black comedy that is pure Coen gold. Not so shabby either is the next segment, with James Franco as an outlaw whose botched bank robbery is merely the start of a very, very bad luck streak. 

These opening miniatures are such an inspired mix of genre cliche, irony, humor and gore that you might reasonably expect the remaining half-dozen stories to suffer a bit by comparison. Still, you don’t expect them to sag quite so much. Taken on their own, later tales involving Tom Waits as a grizzled gold prospector, two traveling frontier buskers (Liam Neeson, Harry Melling), a young woman (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train, and a stagecoach full of squabbling passengers, do offer certain, more leisurely rewards. But after the energetic two-fold knockout at the start, they seem slow and pedestrian. 

Even that might be intentional—the Coens appear to be paying homage here not so much to classic big-screen westerns as to their later TV knockoffs like Death Valley Days, a never-ending omnibus series that recycled well-worn actors and storylines alike. But it doesn’t prevent the very long (133 minutes) film from becoming a bit of a slog. Made for Netflix, this handsome but minor indulgence for two major filmmakers might best be seen at home, where you can watch each “episode” in isolation rather than swallowing them all in one increasingly onerous gulp. 

El Angel
The blondly pretty, androgynous child of a staid middle-class Buenos Aires home, Carlos Robledo Puch (played here by Lorenzo Ferro) became an Argentinian legend for the same reason his guilt went unsuspected before his capture—no one could quite believe this “angelic” teen capable of bold armed robberies, let alone numerous brutal killings, all executed without a qualm in the early 1970s. 

Luis Ortega’s somewhat fictionalized recap has an inevitable true-crime fascination. But while the portrayal of “Carlitos’” bland sociopathic immorality seems apt, the film ought to eke considerably more suspense and horror out of his acts—which included taking 11 lives. It’s also questionable why Ortega omits certain elements of the case, including rapes committed by “El Angel’s” accomplices (here turned into a composite figure played by Chino Darin), and some of the more abhorrent murders.

Optronica2: Dark Synth
Please excuse our anticipatory orgasmic screams at the very thought of Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet ensemble and celluloid mixologist Brutello wreaking musical mashup mayhem on two of our all-time-favorite exploitation maestros: Doris Wishman and Jack Hill. Wishman is the legendary female grindhouse auteur whose unique primitivist style made something unique of such no-budget gentlemen’s joints (ahem) as Nude on the Moon, Keyholes Are For Peeping, Bad Girls Go to Hell, and so forth. Jack Hill is the (marginally) more mainstream talent who lent particular verve and humor to drive-in classics like Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown, The Big Doll House and Spider Baby. One can only imagine their commingled and excerpted filmographies will make for one special evening. Also on the Other Cinema bill is Buchia synthesizer music by area electronicist Thomas DiMuzio, plus films by Lori Varga, Tommy Becker and more. Sat/17, Artists Television Access. More info here.

South Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s first feature in eight years, since the highly acclaimed Poetry (and Secret Sunshine before it) is another long, leisurely drama, although one that this time heads in a vaguely thriller-like direction. Just vaguely, though. 

Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, it stars Ah-In You as a shy young aspiring writer living in Seoul, though forced to temporarily tend his jailed father’s farm outside the city. A chance encounter reunites him with an erstwhile neighbor and schoolmate (Jong-seo Jeon), but the romance he hopes for with her is complicated by her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), whom our literary-minded hero calls a “Gatsby”—someone attractive, charming, rich, and mysterious. Turns out Ben isn’t the only side to this triangle that has secrets, either.

Some are calling this ambiguous puzzle, with its subtly backgrounded social and political critiques, a masterpiece. Others are bound to find its cryptic, slowly paced narrative ultimately hollow and exasperating. Either way, it’s worth investigating as one of the year’s more accomplished if divisive arthouse objets d’art. Embarcadero, Alamo Drafthouse, Shattuck Cinemas. 

In the Presence of a Clown
Ingmar Bergman famously stopped directing for the big screen after 1982’s uncharacteristically warm (and autobiographical) Fanny and Alexander, which itself was originally a five-part miniseries. But he continued writing and directing for the stage as well as television for many years, close to his death in 2007. Some of his TV movies were given limited release abroad, some not. One of the least-known is this 1997 telefilm adapted from a Bergman play premiered three years prior. 

Its bizarre storyline has two Swedish mental patients in the late 1920s creating a “living talkie,” a movie performed live called “The Joy of the Joyous Girl.” Add sex with hallucinated coneheaded hermaphrodite clown, a formal philosophy of farting, irrational obsession with composer Franz Schubert, plus the usual musings about existence and death—and you’ve got what is definitely one of the more eccentric works in the Bergman canon. It plays twice this weekend as part of the PFA’s “Bergman 100: Late Works” series. Fri/16 & Sun/18, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

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