The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, January 27-February 2

120-jane-birkin-theredlist Kung Fu Master! (1988)
Directed by Agnès Varda
In 1986, Varda and the British actress and singer Jane Birkin (who has spent much of her life and career in France) began working together on the film Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988), an impressionistic portrait of a woman turning forty years old whose collage-like assemblage of scenes and skits was made from conversations between the two women. At one point during its realization, Birkin revealed a vision that she had had of romancing a young boy, inspiring Varda to make a stand-alone feature-length dramatization of it with her during a break in Jane B. par Agnès V.’s shooting. Birkin requested and was granted Varda’s young son Mathieu Demy to play her paramour; in exchange, Varda cast Birkin’s teenage daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg (who was then already an established screen performer), much younger daughter Lou Doillon, and cheerful English parents as versions of themselves. The natural chemistry that emerges between everyone onscreen helps keep the proceedings light and sweet, as Birkin’s divorced Mary-Jane pursues Demy’s fourteen year-old Julien to fill the absence she feels both of son and of husband, with the hope that he will rescue her from daily life like the action hero rescues the girl in the titular video game he plays. As with all fantasies, hers unfolds simultaneously across two realms. In one, it cannot last for long, and in another, it will last forever. Aaron Cutler (January 31, 9pm; February 5, 4:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Jane and Charlotte Forever”; January 31 screening introduced by Jane Birkin)

koyaanisqatsiKoyaanisqatsi (1983)
Directed by Godfrey Reggio
This wordless essay film converts handwringing social commentary into poetry, combing sights from around the world to celebrate the dizzying complexity of the planet and how we fit into its jigsaw design. Though future variations on the same theme would fatally expose the limits of its moral judgment of pure nature and debased technological growth, the original remains a kaleidoscopic marvel. The images are resplendent and epically scaled, but the film gains its true power from Philip Glass’s score. Akin to a gradually dying music box, the soundtrack warps and distends all the way through the haunting, protracted final shot of humanity’s Icarian ascent cut brutally, explosively short. Jake Cole (January 29, 7pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “See It Big! Documentary”)

Jane-RussellGentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Directed by Howard Hawks
It serves as a testament to Hawks’s pliancy that the film which exhibits the least of his auteurist signatures is also one of his greatest. In this glorious paean to female desire, Hawks sticks with tight compositions and consistent two-shots, dispensing his trademark hang-out quality in favor of showcasing the three standout tools at Hawks’s disposal: Jack Cole’s choreography, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s comedic chops, and Technicolor. Gags fly out at a rate comparable to His Girl Friday and many carry a Tashlin-esque relation between sound and variegated image, setting a precedent for his brand of temerity. The two leads are of course dichotomous, Monroe’s materialism serving as a cover for her affected air of distinction—the lush Technicolor lends as much vibrancy to her sparkling diamonds as it does her luminous hair—contrary to Russell’s frank lust. No matter, as the beauty of both stars is revered equally and unequivocally; the camera glues itself as closely as possible to the ecstatic bodies performing Cole’s electrifying theatrics in truly gender subversive manner—defined by the sublime number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love.” Eric Barroso (January 27, February 1, 7pm at MoMA’s Jack Cole retrospective; January 27 screening introduced by choreographer and filmmaker Rob Marshall)

the-vampire-lovers-197020The Vampire Lovers (1970)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Baker directed a hundred hours of TV, directed Marilyn Monroe in her first lead role, and worked with two of the best regarded English cult studios, and still he isn’t on the shortlist of great English filmmakers. Maybe because so many of his best films were trashy pulp stories. Crafting decadent queer horror movies Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde and The Vampire Lovers won’t net you any extra prestige, but who cares when there’s so much fun to be had? Vampire Lovers, the first of Hammer Studios’ lesbian vampire movies, is a giddy, robust celebration of the death of censorship. One of the earliest spins on J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, it tells the story of voluptuous Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) who has come for everyone’s daughters in 1790s Austria. The old-school use of space in Baker’s compositions is the perfect container for this feast of doffed nightgowns, spoiled jugulars and bared fangs. His images at first don’t seem capable of reckoning with the changes taking place in cinema and the tension between his craft and his content is as engrossing as its tale of stolen innocence. Just as the vampire’s gambit is discovered, modernity seeps into Baker’s mise-en-scène like a fever. Scout Tafoya (January 28, 7pm; February 1, 6, 9pm at Anthology Film Archives’s AIP series)

scary time-clarkeA Scary Time (1960)
Directed by Shirley Clarke
While the first four films in MAD’s program of Shirley Clarke’s short films focus on whimsical dance routines and musical documentary, the closing film stands in stark contrast as it takes a turn to the dark side. Commissioned by UNICEF, the film opens with a group of children dressing up to go trick-or-treating, raising money for the organization. “Halloween’s a scary time,” one of the children proclaims, “but it’s a time for children to have fun.” With narration throughout by children, sometimes reciting poems of goblins and witches, these kids do seem to be having mischievous fun, while the imagery—roaring fires and flashing skeleton masks shot on very dark, gritty film—is rather menacing. The film takes an unexpected turn when images of gaunt sick children from around the world begin to trickle into the picture, while innocent narration continues, one child finally asking, “What’s it like to be dead?” These are indeed scary times. UNICEF did not use the film. Samuel T. Adams (January 29, 7pm as part of a shorts program within the Museum of Arts and Design’s Shirley and Wendy Clarke retrospective)

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac3Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Like most Coen Brothers movies, the under-appreciated Inside Llewyn Davis is at once cool, funny, and sobering, as well as bracingly clear in its concerns without ever defaulting to stilted exposition. Employing a flock of fine actors and an improbably resilient cat, the Coens use the brutal winter of 1961 to evoke both the cruelty and the refuge of an epochal Greenwich Village, and to probe the varied sources (the Beats, jazz, country) of folk’s steep arc alongside rock ‘n’ roll’s as a cultural force. They also noodle on the compulsions and heartaches of artistic endeavor. As Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac captures the bemused sourness and haplessness of the driven artist-for-art’s-sake who’s not getting the love and still sometimes deserves to get his ass kicked. The film presents a darker view of the legendary 60s folk-music scene than some might have preferred, but in doing so it shows that as much as a few iconic stars, legions of tactlessly persevering hangers-on with indomitable egos drive and sustain culture. Jonathan Stevenson (January 31, 5:20pm at Film Forum’s Coens series)

vera-chytilova-panelstory-5Panelstory (1979)
Directed by Věra Chytilová
Made during Czechoslovakia’s “Normalization” period—one in which a Communist regime governed the country—and banned shortly after its release, Chytilová’s fractured film examines a Tati-esque human ecology among the residents of a semi-built high-rise estate. Although the formal play is not quite as unbridled as Chytilová’s most famous work, Daises (1966), Panelstory uses rhythmic, kaleidoscopic montage, intercutting between high-rise denizens and the drab slabs of pre-fabricated cement blocks suspended in the air by cranes. In this homogenous environment, Chytilová focuses on an assortment of bickering caricatures: a toothless and partially blind elderly man trying to get someone, anyone to check on a motionless old woman he spots through her window; a pregnant university student questioning her future as a potential housewife, something she observes in a grief-stricken friend; a narcissistic middle-aged actor who can’t quite get his yellow Saab to start; and a heathen boy running amok through the muck of the estate’s upturned, unpaved streets. Keep yourself to yourself seems to be the motto of these most un-neighborly neighbors. Tanner Tafelski (January 31, 7:30pm at the Spectacle)

2006_the_science_of_sleep_022The Science of Sleep (2006)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Stephane, a graphic-designer-meets-young-boy (trapped in the body of Gael García Bernal), has just arrived in Paris after the death of his father in order to live with his henpecking mother. Across the hall lives Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, wistful as ever), a dexterous collage artist, who, gasp, not only uses her hands for her occupation too––but has a name off by one letter. If only love were so straightforward in this unhinged, papier-mâché fantasyscape Gondry created, but it isn’t, and though they have a few idiosyncratic dates, the chemistry between Stephane and Stephanie only exists in the dreamworld of a troubled man. The story exists here in the lack thereof; the narrative is both sideways and forward––it parallels and then contradicts itself––just like the puerile fascinations of its protagonist. Though Gondry’s ephemeral, charismatic sets, ingenious gadgets, and playful undertones are present, when Stephane wakes up and the film concludes, his dreams eventually obliterate, and he’s left with the harsh realities of existence. Samantha Vacca (February 2, 6:30pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Jane and Charlotte Forever”)

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