Black Narcissus,
and a few more films

#236  [archive]
DEC. 13, 2023
Black Narcissus (1947)
Streaming free 

This is a movie I've heard of all my life, and with such a turgid title I'd always thought it would be a sweaty thing about romance and betrayal or some such, but — there be nuns here. It's a nun movie.

Mother Superior sends Sister Superior to establish a new convent 8,000 feet up in a remote Himalayan semi-castle. A local white guy, the ridiculously handsome David Farrar, is Christian too, but a bit rough about the edges. He drinks, laughs, and seems generally well-balanced, unlike any of the film's other characters.

There's a crazy local white woman who talks to birds, and a a local prince who's clearly gay to my 2023 eyes but just 'sweet' in 1947. There are way too many hymns and too much Jesus and faith, too much fuckin' wholesomeness, but one of the nuns (Jean Simmons) is chaffing at the overly-structured life in their nunnery, which gives a rational mind someone to identify with.  

Indians — the people of India, where this film is set — play little part in the drama, and the most prominent Indian character is clearly a white woman in greasepaint.

The missionary nuns are there to convert the natives, teach them, so it's stark how little any of these whites respect the locals.

Most of that's the backdrop, though, while at the movie's forefront there's a dynamite story about the nuns and the other white people. It builds to a frightful horror story of humans repressing their humanity, and the consequences, and it's seriously swell moviemaking.

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also co-directed The Red Shoes.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Cyclops (1956)

Gloria Talbott (I Married a Monster from Outer Space) is convinced that her fiancé is still alive, despite his being missing for three years since a plane wreck in Mexico. So she's rented a plane herself, along with Boris Karloff and two other dudes, to go looking for him in the mountains.

Schlockmeister Bert I Gordon (The Amazing Colossal Man) wrote and directed this, and he was a rather one-trick moviemaker, so watch out for amazing colossal lizards and 747-size hawks and such.

This is a bad movie, but enjoyably so, and eventually as promised there's a cyclops, who's also enjoyably bad.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Hugo (2011)

I've never seen a film by Martin Scorsese that I disliked more strongly than this monument to Martin Scorsese. 

In about three minutes I was weary of the fake camerawork, with impossible shots soaring over, under, and through a crowd, into the air, back to the floor, out a window, through a door, etc. It's supposed to be magical, but it's like the director is elbowing your kidney and whispering in your ear, "Did you see that? Did you see that?"

I saw that, Martin. 

The story is set in Paris, which certainly is not a beautiful city until Scorsese gussies it up like a rhinestone neon glitter-sprayed game of The Sims under klieg lights, and adds fake snow falling.

Even the shots that aren't CGI look fake and flat and wrong, because the movie was filmed in 3D, a format unavailable when you're watching at home. It renders everything just 'off' enough to be noticeably off.

Another insurmountable problem is the boy playing Hugo. His name is Asa Butterfield, and saying this is probably problematic, but — I was a white kid who grew up around white kids and I know white kids, and no matter what emotion he's trying to convey, Asa Butterfield's white kid face says 'spoiled brat'. The movie is asking you to root for the most obnoxious kid in 5th grade.

Early moviemaker Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon) is crucial to the plot, and with no spoilers from me, I'll say only that how he's involved was certainly not a surprise.

This is supposed to be a kids' movie, but there aren't a hundred kids in the 21st century who give a damn about Georges Méliès, especially as he's portrayed here.

Christopher Lee finally doesn't play the bad guy, and he's excellent, so he gets about three minutes of screen time. Chloë Grace Moretz is good as Hugo's friend, doing an English accent that sounded right to me, and — very unlike the lead actor — reacting to things the way a kid might react.

Other than that, I can't come up with a kind word for anything here. Hugo offers the worst performance I've ever seen by Ben Kingsley, and embarrassingly one-note standing-around by Sacha Baron Cohen and Emily Mortimer.

Wikipedia wants me to believe that the film is faithful to Méliès' life and career, but if so, it only makes the movie more an abomination — it's borderline blasphemous to re-create some of cinema's earliest moments in three-dimensional SuperDooperColor cinematography with computer-generated imagery and a budget of $150M, all accompanied by a score of relentlessly cheerful calliope and accordion music that's simply agog with happiness and joy and wonder.

Watching Hugo is like chipping your tooth on a stale candy cane. And then, as a lovely parting shot of pretentiousness, the closing credits roll under a song sung in French. 

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Jokers (1966)

Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed star in a Brit comedy about a pair of pampered doofs who decide to steal the Crown Jewels just for fun. The movie is mildly amusing, with a nifty mid-60s jazz score, but Crawford and Reed are both 10 years too old for such juvenile hijinks, and I'm even older.

Verdict: MAYBE.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Lawyer (1970)
Not of This Earth (1957)
The Saint in New York (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The Shooting (1966)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Winter Soldier (1972)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. Hugo is not only Scorsese's worst film, it's one of the worst films of this century. Thinking about it now makes me vomit in my throat. At least when Coppola goes for broke, it's interesting and spectacular (Rumble Fish, One From the Heart, Twixt) - Scorsese's so desperate for the Oscar he's in a pose of perpetual ankle-grabbing genuflection, give it to me, Academy Voters, give it to me! The little dwarf can do better!

    1. At least One From the Heart has Tom Waits singing - and you'd never know it to look at it, but it also has a ghastly expensive set design. Fuck that, but I can listen to Tom Waits singing for just under two hours and look at Teri Garr all night long.


    2. No argument about Hugo, eh? I'd heard it was good, and it truly surprised me by being last month's bacon left out on a shelf.

      I had to google it to even remember One from the Heart. Definitely saw it, just plain nothing comes to mind from it. Wiki says it's a musical with music by Tom Waits — was he the only one who sang?

      I like Mr Waits singing, but two hours of it might be a bit much and I'd expect all the songs to be depressing. Teri Garr, though, yeah, I'd see anything with her in it. She's probably what sold me the ticket in 1982.


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