The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, February 8-14

repertory cinema-make way for tomorrow Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Tokyo Story (1953)
Directed by Yosujro Ozu

It was the Great Depression, and Leo McCarey was in mourning. He was still recovering from an illness when his father died. He then spent a year crafting Make Way for Tomorrow, a reminder to respect one’s elders that didn’t reach audiences at time of release. McCarey isn’t subtle about his message; an early image of a sunny sky, the kind you’d expect a godly voice to emerge from, boasts an epigraph: “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” That’s as much sermonizing as the film allots; McCarey spends the next ninety minutes observing aged parents Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi adjust to life with their adult children and grandchildren, who project little effort to fit them into their busy lives (hence the title). The truism persists: when you get old, the world forgets you.

With prior collaborators such as Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers, McCarey’s films hadn’t been so sober. But in transitioning to more personal work, he maintains an emphasis on improvisation. Despite the film’s short length, the gradually fragmented family (which includes one member we never see) is given space and time for simmering frustration and resentment. Within several scenes, all stages of grief are endured, even if we don’t notice at first, providing needed nuance. The camera’s placed at the eyelines of these folks, who will undoubtedly remind many of their own families. We may find ourselves at odds with their behavior, and that’s fine. By the end, we find that strangers are the kindest to the elderly couple, and the audience, being strangers too, find room in their hearts for Moore and Bondi. When they are about to kiss, Bondi catches us watching. That’s the playful McCarey recognizing our involvement. It’s an earned moment. Despite the film’s heartbreaking end, where we wonder whether these two lovebirds will ever meet again, the lesson of appreciating moments as they are carries us.

repertory cinema-tokyo story

Four years before Make Way, McCarey directed Duck Soup, the Marx Bros. farce that anticipated World War II. Along that warpath was the bombing of Tokyo by the US Air Force, killing over a hundred thousand. It’s a city that, with or sans tragedy, faces the inevitability of change. Yasujiro Ozu, via his tranquil form, accepts change as normal as the ocean calm, laundry on wires, or trains just passing through. Loosely adapted from Make Way, Tokyo Story is a shominigeki that’s a product of Western influence: English is practiced by children, and the families of soldiers still mourn the fallen. Like Tokyo (which only composes a small part of the film), appearances merely cover the damage. Something Ozu expands from McCarey: the tendency to wear a painted smile, whether concealing aggression or sadness, whether you’re a blood relative or a widow. In both films, the emotion cuts deepest when it’s in disguise.

But just as Make Way isn’t wholly spiritual, ditto for Tokyo Story being political. Family first—a mother and father (bit of a gender role switch here—Victor Moore’s roundness is inherited by Chieko Higashiyama, wife to Chishu Ryu, who receives the most focus) find their children distant, emotionally and physically. They’re burdensome for the whole family, save Setusko Hara, their son’s widow. True to Ozu’s low-level tatami-eye, we’re there with them at every turn. You participate—save rare instances of sentimental music, Ozu leaves you to behold what’s said and unsaid without relying upon dramatic shots. Instead, he shoots everything square and symmetrical—life is messy but that’s how it fits. Young or old, turbulence helps comprise life’s geometry. That’s okay. If McCarey’s film was an anomaly for his career, Tokyo Story distills all of the nutrients apparent in Ozu’s films until this point. It’s rare to see one film so at peace with life’s disappointments, let alone two—this pairing of original and remake displays not what is improved upon across borders and boundaries, but what is shared and felt. Max Kyburz (Make Way for Tomorrow February 10, 12, 2pm, February 11, 5pm; Tokyo Story February 10, 5:15pm, February 11, 2pm, February 12, 4:15pm at BAM)

repertory cinema-promised land-wajda

The Promised Land (1975)
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Years before PT Anderson pulverized Upton Sinclair into There Will Be Blood‘s dramatic filet mignon, Wajda tried his hand at a muckraking top-down look at industrial corruption. The similarly outré The Promised Land is his least-known, best-made work, an almost unbearably cruel anti-epic hiding pox under a frock coat and top hat. When three young men decide to get into the textile business, they learn that success comes with a steep price. Workers are ground under their feet as the upper class take whatever they feel they deserve. Wajda gives into stylistic excess this one time because he needs it to illustrate the true depths one sinks to when the world is a playground for the wealthy and callous. The world needs to look florid and flawless so that when the muddy streets below run red with the blood of the oppressed, the counterpoint is so striking it makes you sick. Scout Tafoya (February 10, 6pm; February 16, 3pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Wajda series)

repertory cinema-modern romance-albert brooks

Modern Romance (1981)
Directed by Albert Brooks
In taking a full measure of the subtle depths of Brooks’s comic masterpiece, let us put aside the “romance” for now and focus on main character Robert Cole’s (Brooks) day job as a film editor. Having seen Robert’s clingy, narcissistic tendencies elsewhere, one might expect him to be similarly domineering in the editing room as he and Jay (Bruno Kirby) work on a sci-fi cheapie starring George Kennedy for director David (James L. Brooks). Turns out, though, that Robert mostly bends to the insecure director’s wishes, in service to his boss’s cinematic vision, unwilling to risk conflict professionally even as he continually courts romantically. Such contradictions mark Modern Romance as a whole, which is, above all, a character study of a deeply complicated individual. One may have reactions ranging from discomfiting amusement to flat-out horror at Robert’s behavior even as one can, on some level, understand the idealistic desire for an all-consuming love that underpins it. Brooks supports this unblinking gaze with an aesthetic that prizes long takes, wide and medium shots, and utmost realism, keeping us close to this character even as it refuses to indicate to us how we should feel about him. Robert Cole may be a neurotic monster in some ways, but one of Brooks’s great achievements in Modern Romance is to make him feel all-too-human in his failings. Kenji Fujishima (February 10, 9:15pm; February 12, 4:15pm; February 14, 6:45pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Valentine’s Day Massacre 2017”)

repertory cinema-I-Know-What-You-Did-Last-Summer

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Directed by Jim Gillespie
The teen slasher takes its iconic title and basic premise from Lois Duncan’s 1973 young-adult thriller, but the similarities end there. Her twist ending would be impossible to adapt well to a visual medium, so 90s It Writer Kevin Williamson riffs instead on the urban legend of The Hook—in which promiscuous teens are targeted by a Barrie-esque murderer. His script doesn’t quite contain his usual complex genre-metacommentary, familiar from Scream, the first season of Dawson’s Creek or even Cursed, but it does have its moments. Jennifer Love Hewitt, checking off every now-outdated fashion from the decade, takes the role of the Williamsonian cultural critic, calling out misogyny in contemporary teen movies and foundational American folktales—but always with a smile, so it lands more easily (or, you know, can be easily ignored by the people it’s meant for).

She’s one of a quartet of popular, good-looking high-school seniors (also including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Ryan Phillippe, 90s Royalty All) unaware of their privilege when they accidentally run over a guy on a twisty, deserted road and cover it up. (“The cops will never believe us!” Uh, ok. Gellar just won the town beauty pageant!) A year later, they’re tormented by a hook-for-a-hand killer in their North Carolina town, who reveals knowledge of their sworn-secret with terse notes from which the titles derives. Williamson half-heartedly passes this off as the sort of plausible story on which legends like The Hook are based. More so, he delivers a teen-idol- and set-piece-driven mystery that also acknowledges the melancholy running through so many post-high school experiences: the friends unkept, dreams unrealized, hope surrendered.

Director Gillespie’s central contribution seems to be one of scale: I Know What You Did evokes a recent past that now seems impossible, when horror movies were expensive studio affairs with crane and helicopter shots and original full-orchestra scores; the lengthy finale is a complexly choreographed, absurdly expensive swashbuckling battle on a fishing boat (again evoking Peter Pan). These were the Clinton Years, when everyone had money to toss around, even Hollywood—when the Internet had made everyone rich, hurting no one but the major record labels. Two years later, The Blair Witch Project would reveal a low-investment, high-return alternative; its example would be enthusiastically embraced later, in the leaner, late-Bush years, reducing movies such as this one to a gawkable time capsule. Henry Stewart (February 10, 11, midnight at the Nitehawk)

repertory cinema-pasolini decameron

The Decameron (1971)
Directed by Pier Paulo Pasolini
Communist poet and filmmaker Pasolini’s Decameron retells Boccaccio’s classic moral tales with burlesque humor and colorful imagery. Among of these antics include a young gardener who pretends to be deaf-mute to tempt a convent of sinful nuns; a gullible young man who has been terribly wronged before he gets involved with a couple of grave robbers; and a corrupt merchant who lies his way to sainthood. Like any good Italian Catholic communist, Pasolini finds pleasure in toying with religious/bourgeois ehypocrisies and even greater pleasure in all the Catholic Church’s fetishized symbolism.

Along with The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, Il Decameron is the first of Pasolini’s so-called Trilogy of Life. Like both other films, Il Decameron is also based on canonical literature. This follows Pasolini’s well-known fascination with reworking old texts like the New Testament and The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage. Pasolini recreates his very own picturesque version of the fourteenth century with help from production designer Dante Ferretti and legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who both soon become Hollywood icons. Alejandro Veciana (February 10, 11, midnight at the Nitehawk)

repertory cinema-Paraguayan-Hammock

Paraguayan Hammock (2006)
Directed by Paz Encina
“Slow Cinema” is a label that’s been used in the past few years to catalogue certain cinema that takes its time with its shots and narrative (if there even is a narrative), but that isn’t necessarily experimental in the way it treats form. Usually the films in this category are very long and not from Latin America, but along comes Paz Encina and her feature debut, which follows an old couple from sunrise to sunset in 78 slow-moving minutes, with dialogue in Guarani, an indigene language from Paraguay and adjacent countries, a tongue that’s dying as its native speakers get older. Consisting of fewer than ten static shots, this period piece features the old couple bickering over the never-coming rain, the dog their son has left under their care and finally that son himself son, who has gone to the war with Bolivia. The weight of the conversations slowly transcend the constant fighting, offering a telling, political consideration of the scars of war, and the static imagery makes you pay attention to the musical nature of the language, and what it’s actually saying about the final destiny of their son and their culture. Jaime Grijalba (February 11, 12, 5pm at MoMA’s Encina retrospective; Saturday screening introduced by Paz Encina)

repertory cinema-stray cat rock sex hunter-meiko kaji

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970)
Directed by Yasuharu Hasebe
The third entry in a five-film series, Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter makes hash out of sub-plots involving a girl gang falling in with an all-male one that goes by the name of the Eagles and is lead by an impotent boss named Barron; a blink-and-you-miss-it plan to expel mixed-race people from the region; an outsider coming to town to find his estranged sister; and a romance with a half-black man that the Eagles nix.

What really matters in Sex Hunter is Meiko Kaji, striking in a wide-brim black hat and matching black vest and pants. Stylishly dressed, Kaji leads the girl gang. She’s stoic, fierce, and, when in a knife fight, lethally nimble. Hasebe captures Kaji and her gang in bold and cartoonish shots that are illuminated with psychedelic purples, greens, and yellows. Sex Hunter is like a Roger Corman AIP film from the late 1960s. Tanner Tafelski (February 11, 7pm at Japan Society’s Meiko Kaji weekend)

repertory cinema-OneWayorAnother.FanniesFilm

Killing Time (1979) and Fannie’s Film (1979)
Directed by Fronza Woods
Quiet blasts from a late-heard past, Woods’s short films swell with knowing generosity and subtext, looking like two films from an alternative reality that cinema and history are still not fully opened up to. It’s a backwards, split world where Richard Brody can call Killing Timevery simply, one of the best short films that I’ve ever seen” and its black female filmmaking pioneer does not have a Wikipedia entry, let alone much of any web presence. Wryly layering its 30-something character’s outward desire to commit suicide over her shifting, inner voice (full of song and mundane musings) and her external concerns of how she and her death should look, Killing Time is an offbeat and still sage recognition of what can keep us going. A short documentary, Fannie’s Film (subtitled “Invisible Women: Part 1”) similarly divides the voice from the body, this time that of a 65-year-old black woman who cleans up at a gym in New York City. Her recollections and desires hover over shots of her work and of the gym’s all-white clientele working out, with Fannie very much present and unseen, but more than anything unheard. Letting her speak, Woods modestly, radically puts Fannie’s voice forward, and we see a woman who tells us what she is—happy, whole, and self-possessed. Jeremy Polacek (February 13, 7pm at BAM’s “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema 1970-1991”)

repertory cinema-lady eve

The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed by Preston Sturges
A romantically-hopeless ophiologist returning from a year in the Amazon falls right into the trap of a cunning temptress, though what the adroit beauty doesn’t expect, is that she’ll fall for him just as hard. Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, dashing and gangling), heir to Pike’s Pale––the ALE that won for YALE––is human putty in the delicate, frisky hands of Jean Harrington (the magnificent, card-sharp Barbara Stanwyck) and he remains that way until he discovers her true desire––to marry him for his money. The pair experience bliss on a boat before a cool and vindictive farewell, leaving Jean scorned. Though she openly expresses it’s because she wants revenge, we know her unsuspecting sin is a coverup for yearning desire.

With the help of a family friend, Jean disguises herself as the mysteriously British “Lady Eve,” a noblewoman who seduces poor Charles for a second time. He cannot believe that Eve is the same woman as Anne––it would be far too obvious a ploy, or so he imagines. Stanwyck is flawless as she deludes a blundering, awestruck Fonda through the gunshot wedding, inevitable unmasking, and squawking honeymoon sequence.

Amongst boyish shyness and impeccable comic timing, Sturges created the quintessential screwball comedy: a genuine love story about a couple who not only seduce each other, but themselves, and who deserve the results of their desires. Samantha Vacca (February 14, 4:30pm, 6:30pm, 8:30pm; February 15, 5:15pm, 7:15pm, 9:15pm at the Metrograph)

repertory cinema-heart of spain

Heart of Spain (1937)
Directed by Frontier Films
The Spanish Civil War began as a national fight between a democratically elected government and an insurgent force seeking to topple it, then soon turned into an international fight between the Left and Fascism. The war resulted in the taking of power by Francisco Franco’s Nationalist party and, with it, an enabling of other forms of Fascism around the world. Yet the struggle waged in favor of the Second Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939 by the International Brigades—a group of more than 30,000 fighters and activists organized from various countries by the Communist International—still continues to inspire many today through its lessons of how a united global front against tyranny might still be possible.

Light Industry will show two anti-Fascist films made during the Spanish Civil War by non-Spanish filmmakers. One of them, 1937’s The Spanish Earth, is a well-known documentary about civilian resistance and endurance shot compassionately by Joris Ivens and narrated forcefully by Ernest Hemingway. The same year’s lesser-known, remarkable Heart of Spain was made by a leftist group known as Frontier Films, with the American Herbert Kline and the Hungarian Geza Karpathi co-documenting and the tremendous team of Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand co-editing. The film begins in a bombed-out Madrid and eventually moves from showing a variety of people who have lost blood into a hospital where others await to donate it. From images of children keeping watch over their neighbors through gentle bedside gatherings of strangers devoted to saving each other’s lives, the film finds ways to evoke a hopeful spirit through depictions of solidarity found in acts of simple human kindness. The film’s title comes from a line spoken by its narrator (John O’Shaughnessy): “From the heart of Spain bleeds blood to renew life.” Aaron Cutler (February 14, 7:30pm at Light Industry with Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth)

repertory cinema-audition

Audition (1999)
Directed by Takashi Miike
A truly trickster move would be to take an unassuming date to Audition, which keeps up its façade as a potential romantic drama for an unusually long time (like, a feature film’s length worth of time). But it gives you the icky hints along the way, starting with the very audition in question, conducted by a widower pretending to cast an actress for his non-existent movie as a cover-up to find a new wife. He finds the perfect candidate—or so he thinks—in the beautiful, mysterious ex-ballerina Asami, but the extreme tonal shift about an hour in robs a man of his fantasy and replaces it with his worst nightmare. What’s worse than the sadistic atrocity you’ll see on the screen may be the sound—the cacophonous harmony of wire cutting through flesh and bone—and Asami’s playful “kiri kiri kiri” chant as she punctures her victim’s body. A tip: Get your food order in at Alamo super early. A warning: You may not get a follow-up date. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim (February 14, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)

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