The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, February 10-16

Jean Marais and Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Friday, February 12– Thursday, February 18.
Courtesy Film Forum.

Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Directed by Jean Cocteau
The enjoyable paradox at the center of Cocteau’s cinema is the sense that his films are both defiantly otherworldly yet utterly handmade, most evident in his most famous work. The opening confirms Cocteau’s awareness of the dichotomy, as he begs the audience to conjure the lost childhood innocence with which they can properly be induced into the fairy tale, all while the credits are written out in idiosyncratic chalk script. Despite working from an established story, Cocteau mixes the theatrical, operatic and the folkloric to create a cinematic mise-en-scène that lends itself to moments that are every bit as surreal as his previous credo, The Blood of a Poet, if inherently more recognizable. Characters speak in a poetic, witty cadence while framed in striking compositions (visual and musical) that serve to both celebrate and undermine the spectacle in this, perhaps the most accomplished postwar French film to precede and influence the New Wave. Indeed, the late Jacques Rivette inherited Cocteau’s sense of playfulness and tragic irony, as well as some of the more primal elements of his aesthetics, if not his budgets or visual splendor. Eric Barroso (February 12-18 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)

5-Los-tallos-amargos copyThe Bitter Stems (1956)
Directed by Fernando Ayala
A wave of noir films emerged in Argentina following the Second World War whose studies of human weakness were made parallel to their American peers. These films realized around the time of Juan Perón’s first Presidential term were often based on American and European source materials, such as Cornell Woolrich and Richard Wright’s writings and Fritz Lang’s film M. The Bitter Stems, by contrast, was based upon Argentine journalist-turned-crime writer Adolfo Jasca’s 1955 novel. Its protagonist is Alfredo Gaspar (played by sweaty, paranoia-imbued Carlos Cores), a thirty-two year-old Buenos Aires-based journalist whose tormented mind rushes backwards and forwards as he rides a train with his business partner Paar Liudas (disquietingly charming Vassili Lambrinos). Shadow-soaked flashbacks present the unsettled Argentine and the Hungarian expat banding together to found a journalism correspondence school with the intention of swindling its students; Paar speaks of his desire to bring his family over from shattered Europe, and Alfredo comes to wonder if his new associate is swindling him as well. Chilean cinematographer Ricardo Younis moves his camera as though illuminating corners of the weak-willed Alfredo’s head, including the nightmares and hallucinations that propel him and Paar towards a shared dark fate. Aaron Cutler (February 11, 4pm; February 14, 4:45pm at MoMA’s “Death is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina”; February 11 screening of new 35mm restoration introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir foundation and Argentinian cinema historian Fernando Martín Peña)

FitzWernerBurden of Dreams (1982)
Dirrected by Les Blank
“I’m just glad I’m a documentary filmmaker,” Blank writes in his production notes. “I wouldn’t survive Werner’s pressures and problems.” But for Herzog, the Werner in question, dreams are worth the struggle; remember, this is a man who willfully walked from Munich to Paris and extinguished an ablaze cast member with his body, among several lifetimes worth of epic—and occasionally heroic—tomfoolery. His films (especially the later documentaries) were no small tasks; the metaphorical boat-dragging of Fitzcarraldo, the production that Burden chronicles, compounds an already sticky fix: disgruntled Peruvian natives, mucky conditions, and an overbearing chill of death. Blank, a filmmaker with great joy of life, simply conflates the hardships with beauty; as Herzog harps on the misery and obscenity of nature, Blank simply accepts what is. Tired as I about hearing how, gee, The Revenant was really hard to make? Then a leisurely document of nightmarish filmmaking is for you. Max Kyburz (February 14, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “See It Big! Documentary”)

les bichesLes Biches (1968)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
A refined and seductive look at bisexuality in the 1960s. Chabrol brings to life absent-minded characters in a power struggle amidst a mise-en-scène of muted colors and culpability. This power, an indicator for happiness, is desired by two women— Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) and Why (Jacqueline Sassard)—who embark on a sexual relationship symbolic of their own socioeconomic reality. The two women vacation in Saint Tropez, and it’s there they meet an architect (the august, statuesque Jean Louis Trintignant) and each embark on a separate affair with the man—Why being heterosexually deflowered; Frédérique going tête-à-tête in a willful seduction. Like in Persona two years before, the characters begin to adapt each other’s personalities, and soon Why emerges from her battered cocoon as mad and vengeful in the denouement. Samantha Vacca (February 14, 7:30pm; February 22, 10pm at the Spectacle’s “Anti-Valentines”)

let-the-right-one-in-swedish-horror-movies-best-top-ten-movie-reviewsLet the Right One In (2008)
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Alfredson’s chilly, surgical mise en scène perfectly fits his take on an age-old story. His vampire romance is all about withholding, slightly twisting its conventions, reserving its inevitabilities, searching for the cause of a genre’s fallen stature among moviegoers like a tumor. He plays the long game, keeping us so invested in a story of a boy’s first crush (Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson are stupendous as the young lovers) that we lose track of the vengeful amateur detective drunkenly stumbling towards a truth of which he can’t sense. The audience drifts through cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s compositions as if on an ice floe into a foggy morning. When Alfredson decides to break the stillness with the most heart-breaking POV shot in modern cinema, the film’s cold core melts like a blood-soaked Bresson and a sort of transcendence takes place. Scout Tafoya (February 15, 5pm, 9:45pm at Syndicated)

Evelyn Preer in Oscar Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES (1919). Courtesy Film Forum, via Kino Lorber. Playing Monday, February 15.
Courtesy Film Forum, via Kino Lorber.

Within Our Gates (1919)
Directed by Oscar Micheaux
The earliest known surviving feature directed by an African-American was probably a response to the racist Birth of a Nation. Pointed contrasts between South and North (the first intertitle places the characters in the North, “where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist—though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro”) and cuts back and forth between often harrowing scenes that make genteel schoolteacher Sylvia Landry (identified in the credits as “the renowned Negro artist Evelyn Preer”) a symbol of her people’s suffering, as her story encompasses lynching, the rape of black women by white men, and the abject kowtowing to powerful whites and casual betrayal of their own people of figures like a gossipy servant and a hypocritical preacher. Elise Nakhnikian (February 15, 7pm at Film Forum’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”; preceded by 1916 short Two Knights of Vaudeville and introduction by author and critic Brandon Harris)

collateral-wolfCollateral (2004)
Directed by Michael Mann
After two relatively straightforward prestige dramas in The Insider and Ali, Mann returned to inflating genre pictures with his own existential concerns with this thriller—which, though it may be shorter than his 1995 masterpiece Heat, is no less weighty thematically. But if the two protagonists of the earlier film expressed their all-work, no-attachments ideology mostly through their actions and often-troubled interpersonal relationships, in Collateral—written not by Mann himself, but by Stuart Beattie—obsessively focused hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) is chatty as all get-out, openly expressing his Nietzschean views on man’s grand insignificance to his makeshift chauffeur, average cabbie-with-a-pipe-dream Max (Jamie Foxx). Dramatically speaking, the film mostly revolves around these two characters’ verbal tête-à-têtes, a battle of wills between terrifying nihilism and skittish humanism. In this heightened context, Max’s climactic actions are more than just acts of heroism, but a resounding philosophical repudiation and a personal actualization. Mann would explore this divide between steely professionalism and hidden emotion more subtly and devastatingly in his subsequent Miami Vice, but at least Collateral consistently thrills with its tense action/suspense set pieces and sensuous nocturnal digital-video imagery. Kenji Fujishima (February 16, 4:30pm, 7pm, 9:30pm at BAM’s Mann series)

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