Every month, Establishing Shot brings you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Ishtar (1987)
When I heard that Elaine May’s Ishtar is currently on Tubi, I immediately queued it up and did not stop giggling for the next hour and 47 minutes. Infamously derided for years as one of the worst movies ever made until its recent re-evaluation as a comedy classic (it’s almost like the film industry and critics in the ’80s didn’t want to see a woman director have commercial success… hmmm, so weird), Ishtar is May’s version of Hope and Crosby’s “Road to” movies as we follow Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty’s aspiring singer-songwriters to Morocco, where they hope to break through with their act but instead wind up embroiled in spy games.
Wildly clueless, delightfully goofy, and charmingly earnest, the teaming of Hoffman and Beatty was more of a joy than I could’ve imagined, and they’re beautifully supported by Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Carol Kane (much too briefly!), and the terrifically terrible songs of Paul Williams. There is a lot about Ishtar that I fell in love with — Grodin’s fantastically dry line readings; the gags that happen in the background throughout; Beatty’s blind camel; the headbands — but I have to say that seeing these two dummies support one another and strive for a seemingly impossible dream was the sweetest and best aspect for me. (When Adjani watches them perform in the final scene and sighs, “I think they’re wonderful!” I legitimately teared up alongside her.)
Ishtar is not perfect, but it is also far from the disaster history would have you believe.
Jack Miller, contributor | Ludwig (1973)
Though it was butchered on its initial release and reduced to a runtime of 177 minutes, Luchino Visconti’s epic 1973 film about the “mad” Bavarian king Ludwig II remains, in the full, restored glory of its 238-minute cut, an absolute masterpiece. Perhaps the most truly lavish film ever made — a seemingly endless labyrinth of suffocating textures; opulent, prison-like corridors; and subterranean chambers — Ludwig is, like earlier Visconti classics Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963), both deeply sensual as well as quite cold and morbid in its obsessively detailed and highly personal recreation of the past.
The beautiful Helmut Berger, Visconti’s muse, plays the king, moving through the film’s elaborate, homoerotic spaces defined by a complex interplay of artworks, bodies, and fabric. The film ultimately reveals Visconti’s commitment to Marxist politics in its emphasis on the illusionary quality of an entire aristocratic order; it also restores the aesthetics of silent cinema in its emphasis on visual storytelling techniques and overpowering spatial environments. As Peter von Bagh wrote in 1981, “This is total cinema, very original and at the same time a dignified and inspired continuation of a great tradition.” The film was reviled by critics on first release (perhaps because of the insensitive cuts, but also likely due to its layered, homoerotic subtext), but pay them no mind: this is essential viewing.
The longer cut of Ludwig is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of its Romy Schneider series.
Note: the following trailer is in Italian without subtitles.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
It’s fitting that Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) begins with the image of a speeding train, because that’s how fast this film moves. It’s a mean, lean piece of work that manages to give the viewer both the thrills of a genre piece and the social commentary of a drama. The fact that it manages to do all of that, and in only 81 minutes, makes it a film that is very much worth watching.
Bad Day at Black Rock begins with a mysterious one-armed man named John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arriving in the small town of Black Rock, California. He starts inquiring after a Japanese-American man named Komoko, which makes locals such as the sadistic Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and the polite yet racist Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) nervous. As Macreedy starts to question people like the town’s veterinarian/undertaker Doc Veile (Walter Brennan) and the hotel clerk Pete Wirth (John Ericson), he comes to realize that the town has a dark secret involving what happened to Komoko.
This film tells its dark story with a pulpy style that’s very entertaining. It has excellent action sequences which range from a tense car chase to a brilliantly choreographed fight scene where Macreedy uses one-armed karate chops to get the upper hand over Trimble. Director John Sturges (who would go on to make The Magnificent Seven  and The Great Escape ) builds everything to a final duel between Macreedy and Smith that still packs a punch.
But while it’s an entertaining thriller, Bad Day at Black Rock is also unafraid to confront serious issues. It was one of the first major American films to confront racism against Japanese-Americans in America during World War II. Sometimes its social commentary can feel incomplete because it does not feature any Japanese-American characters who would be able to talk about their experiences in their own words. But at the same time, it functions very well as a portrait of a white community being forced to reckon with its racist past. This aspect of the film is embodied well in Brennan’s performance as Veile, whose soul seems to wake up as he becomes friendly with Macreedy and confronts what his neighbors did to Komoko.
Bad Day at Black Rock is an excellent social thriller. There are action sequences which would make modern directors envious as well as a thematic exploration of how an entire community can be complicit in an act of hatred which still feels relevant. This film remains just as worth watching today as it did when it first came out in 1955.
Noni Ford, contributor | Men, Women & Children (2014)
I’m not going to lie and say that Men, Women & Children is a hidden gem. There’s a lot of things that don’t work with the film and some very bizarre twists, but at its heart I think it has good intentions. Back in 2014 when it came out, it was amongst ample company with Disconnect (2012), Cyberbully (2011), and The Bling Ring (2013) all forming a specific genre of movies about social media and its effects on the teens and adults of the 2010s. While some chose to go darker — Disconnect — and some more comedic — Bling Ring — Men, Women & Children really teeters between drama and comedy. Each set of characters has their own story, some that intersect with each other more than others. A commonality within each story is the way that technology and interactions with it negatively impact the relationships people hold. As opposed to making technology the primary enemy, though, Patricia Beltmayer (Jennifer Garner) is a somewhat antagonistic character to nearly every person she comes across. And other characters who through neglect or youthful selfishness harm our primary leads aren’t let off just because of the technological stressors in everyone’s life. The message in the movie isn’t just that technology is bad; it does go farther than that to discuss how the control of it shapes us and makes us see layers of ourselves we’d rather not be aware of. The narration, provided by the always brilliant Emma Thompson, leads the comedic beats more so than any of the characters since they are often too caught up in their own painful stories of growing up and wanting more for their lives.
The chief problem I have with this film is that there are so few resolutions sans for one storyline. Each story conclusion deals with an emotional breakthrough where people break the hold technology has over them or their relationships. I guess it seems like those that free themselves from it end up being able to move forward with their lives, and those that stay tied up in it don’t have such a lucky fate. While some of the platforms in the film seem dated now (Ashley Madison, Tumblr), I think the problems the film addresses are very much real. The internet is accessible to teens and adults alike, but it opens up a lot of desires and validation on a level that people have never faced. There’s temptation, addiction, and obsession that become engendered on the internet, and those compulsions can drive us away from more authentic interactions between each other. I wish the film went farther than just that, though; it seems like the happy ending it gives us shows us that cutting technology out more and having less self-reliance on it will make us happier.
But technology is developing all around us at such a fast pace, and it’s not as easy anymore to just opt out since it’s so integral to daily functions in modern society. I guess the social media panic was definitely real and alive in this era of films, but so often there was no solution for the problems created, just more of a commentary. There was too much hope in this film to show the bleakness of a digital consumption that never dulled, and alternatively too much darkness to show a satisfactory ending for everyone. It feels like this film came out at the right time and it communicated the dangers and fears about technology well, but its ending left something to be desired. One thing I did enjoy, however, as the credits rolled, was thinking about how the film would be rewritten for today given the state of social media now.
Laura Ivins, contributor | Leviathan (2012)
Like/dislike is not exactly the right scale for this documentary about the commercial fishing industry in the North Atlantic. The filmmakers, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, utilize direct cinema techniques to capture life on an industrial fishing boat. There’s no narration, scant explanatory titles; Leviathan just presents us with the sights and sounds captured through waterproof Go-Pro cameras.
The film was created as a project of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, and true to its intentions, Leviathan creates a dense sensory experience. One feels the dampness, the slick viscera of the captured fish, the weight of the metal implements hauling in today’s catch. The soundtrack is crowded with machine, men, ocean, and animal. The film is best watched undistracted, and I hope one day I’ll get chance to see this in a theater. It seems like it would benefit from the absorbing largeness of a good cinema screen.