Then Playing — Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser; Somewhere; Ladies in Retirement

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988). This documentary was released during that strange stretch when Clint Eastwood admirably leveraged his considerable influence with Warner Bros. to get the studio to make movies about jazz. Eastwood serves as producer of Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, a compendium of archival footage of the trailblazing bebop pianist occasionally interrupted by talking-head interviews with jazz scholars and others. The clear mandate is elevating Monk’s stature at the point when he was starting to slip down to the footnotes as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane were given most of the pages all to themselves in the history of jazz. Charlotte Zwerin, a noted collaborator of the Maysles brothers, knows how to assemble long, observational shots of casual interactions, allowing personalities to emerge rather than be explained by the filmmaker. Without resolute patience, Zwerin gives the film over to Monk interacting in the studio and while on tour. More crucially, she just leans back and marvels while he plays, fingers smashing down on piano keys in a manner that appears to be impulse as much as art.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010). Played by Stephen Dorff, Johnny Marco is a movie star who’s riding high with a new blockbuster release to promote, international film organizations flying him in to receive awards, and random women excited to slip their tops off if he so much as makes eye contact. He’s also clearly at a nadir, living a desolate life in a hotel and generally moving from point to point in obvious misery. He’s mildly enlivened when it’s time for visitation with his tween daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, Somewhere is defiantly slow and understated, valuing experience over plot. It also tamps down the emotions, in part, perhaps, because Dorff’s range basically tops out at wounded weariness. It suits the character and leave the film without a discernible destination. Fanning brings more to her performance, even as the staid somberness proves limiting to her, too. Coppola’s attempts at attentive verisimilitude are sometimes daring and sometimes indulgent, the latter exemplified by two different scenes that depict nearly full-song performances of robotically cheery exotic dancers who make house calls to Johnny’s room, spinning on portable poles.

Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor, 1941). The twisty thriller is set in the English countryside in the late eighteen-hundreds. Ellen Creed (Ida Lupino) is the live-in help and companion to Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom). When Ellen’s two sisters (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett) are rousted from their city flat for erratic behavior, she imposes on Leonora to let them move in. When Leonora grows irritated with the sisters’ presence and demands they leave, Ellen resorts to desperate measures required for a desperate time. Charles Vidor directs the film with a enjoyable emphasis on gloom, filling the frame with shadows, fog, and bare trees that gnarl like arthritic fingers. As Ellen’s fear over getting caught waltzes with the partner of her guilt, Ladies in Retirement adopts the welling tension of classic Edgar Allan Poe works (the film’s actual source is a stage play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy, the former also pitching in on the screenplay adaptation). It’s fascinating to see a film from this era where woman are almost entirely driving the narrative, with the few men who saunter in — even the main antagonist, played with oily self-regard by Louis Hayward — coming across as afterthoughts. The performances are strong across the cast, with Lupino putting her usual firm intensity to especially good use. George Barnes works dark wonders with the the black-and-white cinematography.

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