Older films seen in 2006, continued from the 2003, 2004 and 2005 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.
All films, both from this year and the three previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (72) (Bob Clark, 1974): Wish I could figure out the subtext, i.e. why such a big deal is made of the heroines being strong women and wanting control over their lives - one wants control over her body (abortion) and insists on career over marriage, others pointedly refuse to be the middle-aged dad's idea of nice girls, drinking and swearing - since the killer doesn't appear to be a misogynist, but maybe the fact that he 'collects' them is a kind of veiled patriarchal ownership. Also not sure it deserves to be called the First Slasher Movie or whatever, though it does pioneer the killer-cam effect and "coming from inside the house" line - much of it is ordinary thriller, with the cops playing a significant role. Still extremely tense, and builds the tension superbly - using humour, showing as little as possible and contriving it (unlike most slasher movies) so most of the victims aren't missed and prospective victims aren't aware of the enormity of the situation; madness remains repressed, lurking on the fringes (hence more disturbing), isn't defused by being openly acknowledged. Early on there's a scene where a woman stands in front of a bathroom mirror with those little mirror-panels, and of course I expected to see the killer suddenly reflected in the mirror behind her when she closed the panel, because we've become so used to those empty meaningless boo! moments - but it doesn't happen, because it's not a mindless scare-machine (like the disposable remake); it's a real movie. In other news, Bob Clark was right to have a thing for rocking-chairs (see also DEATHDREAM). They're pretty creepy.
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (73) (Elia Kazan, 1961): Dated? Modern audiences may giggle and give up when heroine's mom insists on the need to be a Nice Girl - or when the actor playing heroine's dad does a risibly fake snoring routine followed by a risibly fake hey-what's-the-matter-I-was-sound-asleep routine - but of course the film itself was looking back (it's set in the 20s) and much of the material with the parents is played for laughs (Mother, shaking her head contemplatively at the breakfast table: "Neither of my children gets any real nourishment...") as befits a film that plunges so empathetically into adolescent experience. That seems to have been Kazan's strategy, not just waterfalls and crashing chords to evoke sexual frustration/hysteria but an often deliberately truncated style, as if too impatient to linger on dull exposition - e.g. when we go straight from Natalie Wood approaching the river to her already neck-deep, wallowing luxuriously (there's a cut away, but too brief to cover the action), or the mysterious scene showing (i.e. suggesting) what happens to Warren Beatty's domineering father. Both actors are superb, he convincingly inarticulate, she incandescent with yearning, and each has a scene - with a doctor, in both cases - showing how hungry they are for attention, advice, understanding; Society doesn't oppress them so much as let them down, lacking not so much compassion as imagination (or just the memory of its own "glory in the flower"). Intensely passionate first half, properly devolved and desultory second half - but what's Pauline Kael talking about "girls getting pawed on their twitching little schoolgirl behinds"? I never saw that and yes, I was looking.
EL VAMPIRO (66) (Fernando Mendez, 1957): I think I prefer this to Hammer's DRACULA in the late-50s vampire-movie stakes (get it? vampire, stakes, get it?), mostly for a succession of superb Gothic images; mist, of course, moonlight, a tall forbidding woman (she's a vampire, natch) stalking across a courtyard with her long black veil billowing behind her in the wind, her deranged-looking sister prowling corridors with her hair in disarray and her face like a skull with the skin stretched tight - but also hacienda-like spaces (making it feel more like a Western), and use of archways through which a carriage may be seen rolling away, and the Mexican actors are naturally more fiery-looking than pale English people (most effective trick: a sudden cut to extreme close-up of the vampire's eyes as he watches the heroine's bedroom). Both more humorous than expected - in our hero, a rather buffoonish doctor who spends most of the film oblivious to what's going on - and more scary, in scenes like the vampire swooping after a random young boy and devouring his blood (there's even a shot of the boy's rag-doll body by the side of the road after the deed is done) - but the plotting gets increasingly silly, and tall thin German Robles, though he has the bearing of Christopher Lee, doesn't have the presence (he's blond, and rather confused-looking). Shame about the rubber bats, also.
DECEMBER 1, 2006
TERRA EM TRANSE (47) (Glauber Rocha, 1967): Maybe it's wrong to prefer Glauber Rocha's more exotic rural films (i.e. ANTONIO DAS MORTES, the only other one I've seen), but his style is too overwrought for mature political discussion and this one is derivative besides, above all of Bertolucci - the intellectual's conflict between politics and poetry, the burning desire to do good vs. the nagging reminder that "Life is bigger than the time we live in" - though also Antonioni in its picture of the self-loathing middle class (our hero hates the System for forcing him to be cruel to "the people", and finds refuge in armed revolution). Trying to gauge the Artist's true role in a revolutionary society is obviously heartfelt (it's the kind of discussion more people should be having nowadays), but the material needed a chillier sensibility than Rocha's operatic fire-and-brimstone, the crowd scenes feel endless and the portrait of tormented intellectuals founders on dialogue like the following: "Sunsets do not make me feel the pain of adolescence. I give back to the landscape the vomit of Experience". Why would I make it up?
[NB. Also saw KINGS OF THE ROAD (1976) and BYE BYE BRAZIL (1979) in Thessaloniki, but I didn't take notes and don't have the time/energy to dredge my memory for anything useful. In a nutshell, KINGS is self-consciously simple - Cinema = shadows on a screen, as affirmed by its possible best scene - a film of spaces, borders and not many highlights; I admire it, but barely remember it. BYE BYE BRAZIL is a very different road movie, a rollicking tale of carnival-players roaming the Brazilian hinterland, with a larger-than-life lead performance, an affectionately tawdry show-must-go-on ambience and a glancing political subtext (see also the title) in the transition from innocent magic in remote dusty villages to glitzy showbiz in the age of TV. I laughed, I cried...]
BYE BYE BRAVERMAN (71) (Sidney Lumet, 1968): For what I need to see this picture? New York Jewish intellectuals acting meshuggenah? I'm old, I'm tired, I don't need this aggravation. Getting the nostalgia angle out the way first, New Yorkers - or perhaps New Yorkers of a certain age - should revel in the vibe and locations, but it's also double-distilled nostalgia because the characters are themselves nostalgic, and acutely conscious of growing older, thinking back to the comics, films and shows of their youth (it's rare to see people talking pop-culture trivia in older movies, it makes us nostalgic to see the things they were nostalgic for; did folks really value Hitchcock's English movies more than, say, THE BIRDS in 1968? will folks always assume that the "old ones" are the good ones?). Nostalgia aside, very funny in a garrulous polysyllabic kind of way, but shot through with intimations of mortality - though the morbid hero's fantasies are actually quite feeble - and the sense of lives being wasted; it's funny when the heroes turn out to have sat through the wrong funeral (some complete stranger's instead of their late friend Braverman's), but also kind of sad that they listened to the rabbi's lengthy eulogy without realising their mistake (even though Braverman, so we're repeatedly told, was "an original"); in the end, one life can be summarised as well as another, and only the obnoxious older friend - a misanthrope, a failure - has a sense of History. Scrappy-but-soulful Jewish vaudeville, capped by a brilliantly abrupt ending.
RED PSALM (51) (Miklos Jancso, 1972): Actually great for what it is (despite the rating), esp. in the context of a Jancso triple-bill. Looks like his peak years were a quest for progressively greater flow, a stylistic refinement so smooth it bypasses the thorny narratives raised by characters - or indeed narrative - expressing itself in colour, music and movement of the frame (i.e. the camera) and within the frame; it's not just the choreographed long takes - it's also e.g. the way he has men on horseback constantly riding to and fro in the background, rhyming with the to-and-fro pans (most of the moves double back on themselves, partly I guess because laying tracks for such complicated shots was a real bitch pre-Steadicam) and creating a ripple effect, so the whole image seems to be throbbing. Earlier Jancsos built on a tension between cruel, cynical content and elegant, unruffled style but here the style is all, and Jancso's aim in refining it must've been partly to create a universal style, a 'people's' style based on elements anyone can appreciate (analogous to Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov's faith in montage) - and it's no surprise the content is correspondingly dogmatic, no longer subverting the propaganda as in RED AND THE WHITE; it's a socialist paean, and that's all it is (the ending combines romantic defeat with Stakhanovite optimism; even a failed revolution can inspire future generations - "When an old man plants a walnut tree, he doesn't expect to see it grow"!). Fans of Paradjanov - or e.g. Suzuki in PRINCESS RACCOON mode - are unlikely to care, and if nothing else it embedded "Charlie Is My Darling" in my brain for a whole day after watching it. It's still there, actually.
THE ROUND-UP (68) (Miklos Jancso, 1965): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. A knobbly, awkward film, quite poorly structured - no surprise that Jancso veered away from character development - though its abortive protagonist is no doubt deliberate, and quite unusual (at least PSYCHO did the deed halfway through). Visuals suggest both a Western and a PoW-camp movie - this and THE HILL would've made an awesome double-bill back in '65 - the cruelties constantly (and ironically) undercut with soundtrack birdsong, and the theme is more interesting than RED AND THE WHITE's wartime nihilism, namely the way oppressed men try to ingratiate themselves with Authority as a kind of desperate defence mechanism, incidentally making their oppressors' task (even) easier. Should've been more fragmented; still pretty haunting.
THE RED AND THE WHITE (63) (Miklos Jancso, 1967): There's sadistic mind-games, as in THE ROUND-UP - a colonel gives a group of prisoners 15 minutes to flee, knowing they have nowhere to run; another prisoner, faced with execution, is told he can choose the man who'll shoot him - but mostly it's the ebb and flow of war, and it's no surprise that life is cheap in wartime; despite some carefully contrived images - like the women waltzing in the forest - it's distinguished mostly by the implication that one side is as bad as the other (the Reds come off better than the Whites, as may be expected from an Eastern Bloc movie, but the equable rhythm and constant power-reversals draw a clear equivalence between the two sides), as well as the way Jancso's wide-angle vistas swallow up (dehumanise) the combatants. The underlying cynicism makes an effective anti-War statement but also turns the film itself into a zero-sum game, leaving only meticulous formalism to admire, though its view of wartime atrocities as casually callous - two bands of nasty-minded boys playing soldier - is convincing; when I think of stuff like the Katyn Forest Massacre I'll think of this kind of offhand, desultory slaughter.
NOVEMBER 1, 2006
THE WICKER MAN (54) (Robin Hardy, 1973): Another of those is-that-all-there-is? British cult movies (see also GET CARTER and WITCHFINDER GENERAL) and I've no idea what "Halliwell's Film Guide" means by calling it a "remarkably well made scare story with effective shock moments" since the thing is almost tension-free. Prudes vs. longhairs and of course Christianity vs. paganism - the Director's Cut mostly adds lots of early scenes underlining the hero's religiosity, which is helpful in making sense of what comes later but still rather obvious - both ultimately seen to be living a successful lie though the way the film is pitched discourages any link between the two cultures (Danny Peary's right that our hero is presented as a Christ figure, a stranger in a strange land). The island is quaint rather than creepy, the rhythm toddles along without much variation and the cop's investigating style is blunt to the point of obtuseness (telling people exactly what he knows and what he plans to do, etc). I'm afraid to watch FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH now.
POSSESSION (60) (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981): Surprisingly tedious for something so demented, though maybe watching it on video isn't the way to go - the dialogue is so wilfully cryptic/incoherent I kept rewinding to try and work it out, wrecking the rhythm, whereas in the theatre I assume you just give up after a while and let Zulawski's verve and unruly sensibility wash over you (and no, I've no idea what it's 'about' though that speech about Faith and Chance may hold part of the key; obviously something to do with doubles - set in Berlin, a divided city - curdled relationships and perhaps female pleasure/empowerment in the grisly way of AUDITION). Seemed very showy, everything done for effect - Isabelle Adjani's big breakdown scene comes off as a stunt, 'brave' only in the sense that it's a major star freaking out so outrageously for a proper movie, as opposed to someone freaking out while their friend holds a video camera for a stoopid clip they plan to post on YouTube - but it does succeed in being unique, teeming with barely-suppressed hysteria; many cite Cronenberg, but the icy temperament in e.g. THE BROOD is very different in my opinion. Also includes a shot worth 85 pts. in the final exam at Focus-Puller School, should you ever want to try out for that.
RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (64) (Monte Hellman, 1965): A normal Western - unlike THE SHOOTING [see below], a cryptic inner journey that might as well take place on the surface of the Moon - but watching these together makes it clear we're talking, essentially, about comedies, and this one may be understood as a comedy of Western manners (note all the "Thank you"s and "Obliged"s) with a farcical twist - structured, like any good farce, round a case of mistaken identity. It's a series of awkward social encounters, at its best in the extended scene where the two groups try to be polite despite their mutual suspicion, speaking in euphemism ("fell on his knife"), strained smiles and gracious offers of beans 'n biscuits; when the posse arrives and the shooting starts there's an air of embarrassment, like a party spoiled by a terrible misunderstanding. The second half veers into more conventional territory (and the noble ending is a mistake) but it keeps the social-interaction theme - the outlaws trying to ease the tension by unconsciously pretending they're guests, playing checkers and politely telling their 'hostess' to go ahead and do what she always does - and still bears the hallmark of these early Hellmans, the contrast between people's shaded, ambiguous interactions in the foreground - relationships, power-games, lies, intrigues - and the stark Western landscape in the background. Also some fine individual shots, like when the three riders come across the hanged man. THE SHOOTING is admittedly better, though.
THE SHOOTING (72) (Monte Hellman, 1967): Stasis progressively unravelled - and undermined - by the addition of ever more irrational people, a simpleton, a willful unreasonable girl and an out-and-out psycho. Warren Oates is the stasis, but his Western reticence hides a flawed, troubled side (incl. strong suggestions of misogyny), and it's no surprise that the film turns out to be - literally, given the ending - a journey to his own inner demons (and capacity for violence). The landscape too grows increasingly violent, rock and desert bearing down on the characters, and the film turns increasingly abstract - though the script is excellent, with lots of droll human byplay and e.g. the early scene where Coley recounts what happened rescued from drabness by his unusual phrasing (the way he seems to act out the story) as well as Hellman's choice of shots and music. Second viewing, first in >10 years, up from somewhere in the high 40s - which just goes to show one shouldn't watch quirky formalist movies in pan-and-scan TV screenings.
SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (66) (Steven Soderbergh, 1989): Not a lot to say, except I used to dislike this and now I like it (third viewing, first in >10 years), though I still think Soderbergh is too-often conventional - the early scenes especially often end with a high-angle wide-shot, as if encapsulating the scene before moving on, the dualities (honest/dishonest) are a little obvious, and when someone said (of Peter Gallagher's character) "Always the lawyer" it came about 10 seconds after I thought 'OK, he's talking like that because he's supposed to be a lawyer'. In a way, the sex-talk is effective because it's so startling that such a sensible, well-rounded movie should be talking about sex - but it does give a potent sense of sexual alienation (anticipating most 90s arthouse), closer to Egoyan than Woody Allen, emotional shadings are finely-crafted and for some reason this was the first viewing where I realised Laura San Giacomo is hilarious as well as super-hot (I know, I know...). The ending pulls its punches, which is unsurprising.
THE CRANES ARE FLYING (59) (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957): Looks like it's about to get complex for a while, when the heroine refuses to believe her lover has been killed in the War but you sense that perhaps she secretly wishes he was, so as to make her betrayal bearable (the fact that we stand outside her doubts, already knowing the truth, only makes her dilemma more poignant). Alas, there is no real dilemma - her love is unambiguous, and the film stacks the deck even more by making the husband an out-and-out villain (he lied to get an exemption); its strongest idea is the suggestion that Love can be too much, that what begins as exuberant can eventually turn toxic if you don't know where to stop, but even that's diluted by the ending, where heroine learns the purest love is a good comrade's love for the People. Looks like Kalatozov's strategy was to go along with whatever was required, Party-wise, saving his energy for remarkable visuals; the opening shot is so thrilling - the limitless feel of young love, evoked in a few onscreen seconds - I wondered if they could possibly keep it up, and the answer is they can, but mostly in the big scenes - a dying man's dream, a seduction in a thunderstorm, a bombed-out apartment with the street below showing in a corner of the frame. Otherwise kind of novelettish and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO-ish, which is not my thing at all.
21 DAYS (52) (Basil Dean, 1940): One of the few films written by Graham Greene - who regretted the experience and it's easy to see why, though it's also Exhibit A in proving the truism that writing books is a very different art to writing screenplays. Greene's favourite themes - most obviously Catholic guilt - are all over it, from the hero's crisis precipitated by pawning a religious icon to the innocent man (a disgraced ex-priest) who's arrested for the murder and refuses to plead for his life because "I deserve to suffer", baffling a courtroom with his insistence on moral over legal guilt. Also quite Greene-like in its flavour, like the sleazy blackmailer ("I think a man should pay for his pleasure...") and the cynical self-interest of the barrister thinking only of his career, but the plot is under-developed because the film tries to express an internal decision - our hero making a deal with his conscience, giving himself 21 days of love before turning himself in - without the reams of explanation it could've got in a book (or the original story), so his reactions often seem arbitrary and inexplicable. The ending is notably wrong-headed, going for what works in movies - an action scene, a race against Time - and totally ignoring the moral dilemma in the story, viz. hero having to live with his conscience for having killed a man (what happens to the 'wrong man' is actually irrelevant, but movies need a narrative scapegoat). Not much there, and both stars - Laurence Olivier and esp. Vivien Leigh - give quite bland performances, but still kind of fascinatingly ineffective.
OCTOBER 1, 2006
BARAN: MONSTER FROM THE EAST (42) (Ishiro Honda, 1958): Early-ish Japanese monster movie (in b&w), before they became seriously camp - though of course rubber monsters and model tanks when the Army attacks (which is often) are in evidence. Very much in the KING KONG template, with city folk coming to a village where they learn about the Legend of Baran, but it turns into a war movie (like Honda's THE MYSTERIANS from the year before, apparently), something of an outlet for post-war defeated Japan's repressed militarism. All a bit tedious, and lacking in flavour - though check out the crashing Wagnerian riff the first time the monster appears.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2006
UNDER FIRE (62) (Roger Spottiswoode, 1983): Second viewing, second in a war-correspondent double-bill (from the 80s flowering that also included SALVADOR and YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY); the comparison does it no favours, since CIRCLE OF DECEIT [see below] is almost painfully earnest while this is glossy - albeit subversively glossy - wrapping its righteous rage over the US supporting a "fascist government" into a swoony love triangle in exotic locations. Main points get repeated in the bludgeoning big-studio manner, sides are taken simplistically - nasty Somoza, safely dead by the time the film was made, vs. plucky peasant Sandinistas (we never dwell on the awkward fact that both sides end up using our hero, though I guess it's different when the rebels do it since he knows he's being used) - and even the love triangle suffers, never given space to develop; the mad attraction between Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy (fairly inadequate in the pivotal role) has to be taken on trust, since they only get a couple of scenes together. Best bit is perhaps when Jean-Louis Trintignant says the Sandinistas are as bad as Somoza but no matter, "in 20 years we will know who is right" - because it's 23 years later, and we still have no idea. Some good moments for genre fans, and one of Jerry Goldsmith's most memorable 'ethnic' scores.
CIRCLE OF DECEIT (72) (Volker Schlondorff, 1981): "What should I write about? The unchanging facts, or my own fear? The sudden certainty of imminent death or, at the same time, the feeling of being invulnerable?". Lots of V.O. soul-searching as war correspondent Bruno Ganz wonders whether he can witness all these horrors and remain unaffected (he can't), but the war-zone ambience is superbly caught - no surprise, since it was shot in the real war-torn Beirut - and the film has a calm exactitude that makes it even more chilling; Schlondorff builds to apocalyptic imagery but it's the details that ring true, e.g. the journalists travelling to Lebanon in an almost completely empty passenger plane (well of course, if you think about it) or capitalism stepping in to fill the vacuum, birthing black-markets in everything from massacre photos to orphaned babies. Also of course nostalgia for the pre-Information Age, when sending a story (laboriously written on a typewriter) back to the paper was a huge hassle and journalists were pretty much left to their own devices once inside the war-zone, also I'm a sucker for foreign-correspondent stories and Beirut's a place I have a great sentimental attachment to (since I used to live there as a child). Sue me.
MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (69) (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988): Miyazaki's most explicitly religious film - the girl actually prays to Totoro - though of course his religion remains a kind of eco-friendly animism; also a film that treats everyday life as if it were magical, whereas most of his films treat the magical as if it were everyday - a subtle change of emphasis, but there nonetheless. This way should be even more affecting, but in fact it seemed a little draggy (perhaps because the everyday lives are those of children, lacking something in dramatic resonance); still, the implicit rhyming of the kids' helplessness in the face of something impossibly big - unable to reach their mom at the hospital - and our own generalised helplessness in the face of the vast invisible forces running our lives (and of course Totoro/God intercedes, and of course going to the hospital wouldn't be a problem in the first place for a more 'advanced' being, e.g. an adult) speaks of a wise, humble philosophy. In other news, the balls-of-soot with eyes that so delighted me in SPIRITED AWAY make an earlier appearance here, turning out to be as much a part of Miyazaki lore as flying leviathans and tomboy heroines.
ALEXANDRIA ... WHY? (70) (Youssef Chahine, 1978): Not exactly 'good' but fascinatingly bad - a great slapdash burst of energy, recalling Fellini (most obviously) in its I-remember structure and flights of fancy, but also e.g. Sam Fuller in its jagged pace and sense of the passionate primitive. Music roars in out of nowhere - jazz, snatches of "Vltava", a full orchestra when our hero dances briefly with his sister in the living-room - there are sudden zooms and freeze-frames, bursts of stock footage, stories bash against each other often with a touch of madness (the effete Egyptian aristocrat who likes to snatch drunken British soldiers, take them home for sex then kill them to prove his patriotism); production values are minimal, e.g. when the aristo visits a soldier's grave in a mass WW2 cemetery it's painfully obvious the filmmakers did a mock-up of a gravestone and plonked it between two real-life gravestones (it's not even the same shade of white), and some of it is just very sloppy - the woman at the US Embassy is clearly a British actress with a posh British accent; the film is set in 1943 but our hero goes to the movies to watch the "Stairway to Paradise" number from AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) - but it only reinforces the sense of a story bursting to be told, no matter what (an opening caption warns the film is a "personal history", not a strictly factual one, and the autobiographical angle is obvious when Chahine's credit appears over our first glimpse of the teenage hero). Also valuable for historical reasons, esp. in showing Egypt at the end of the War, the British about to withdraw and various political movements scheming on the fringes; when the Islamists appear - just one group among many, trying to get recruits from the Communists and other secular freedom-fighters - the shadow of Sayyid Qutb, spiritual godfather to al-Qaeda, is inescapable.
THE BROOD (56) (David Cronenberg, 1979): Looks like I agree with Dave Kehr for once: the concept is classic Cronenberg - the Flesh literally revolting -but "the execution is disappointingly blocky and tepid". I guess Cronenberg welcomed the subversion of filming such extreme material (with at least one gross-out moment) in a mainstream style with his first-ever 'name' cast, but the style is indeed pretty mainstream - only wrinkle I noticed being a penchant for low-angle shots, as befits its child's-eye view - missing the stark denuded B-movie visuals of SHIVERS (or the baroque stylings of DON'T LOOK NOW, to quote another evil-dwarf movie). The climax is also conventional - a race against time - but this time ingenious and nail-biting, taking suspense conventions to the psychological drama; shouldn't they have switched roles, so the shrink tries to calm the woman down while the husband (who isn't a target of her rage) rescues the child, however?
STRAIGHT TIME (68) (Ulu Grosbard, 1978): First half great, second not so great. It's infuriating how many of these 70s American classics - see also ALFREDO GARCIA, not to mention TAXI DRIVER - start off in thrilling observational mode only to collapse into machismo and blood-letting, the crime-movie aspects even shakier, in this case, because Dustin Hoffman can't be truly dangerous - he looks neurotic (as opposed to psychotic) even when he's supposed to be a badass; nothing in the second half matches the scene with Gary Busey and his family round the dinner-table, or the sad bureaucratic shabbiness of the arrested men going through the rigmarole of emptying pockets, facing the wall, etc etc. On the other hand, our hero does come into focus psychologically as the film goes on, his biggest Issue seeming to be a childlike fear of abandonment - that's (perhaps) why he can't let go, whether it's handing in a test-paper or fleeing the scene of the crime with the cops closing in, why he reacts so violently when people let him down, and why the ending - when he lets the girl go for her own good, because he loves her - is so poignant (the final shot suggests his problems go way back, presumably to some sort of abandonment in childhood). Speaking of the girl, let it be known 20-year-old Theresa Russell, flitting from wise concern to a smile that makes her face light up, is among the most beguiling movie women of the 70s; shame the part is so underwritten.
SWAMP WATER (45) (Jean Renoir, 1941): The beginnings of some interesting things here - small-town atmosphere, a quirky silly subtext where our hero gets visually associated with his dog and the heroine with a cat, good emotional tension as ramrod-straight Walter Huston's happy marriage collapses when he loses trust in his devoted wife (tying in with our hero having to be trusted by the renegade hiding in the swamp), and of course every wild-swamp movie needs its morally ambivalent wild man; WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES had Burl Ives, this has Walter Brennan, who's immune to snakebites and believes in the transmogrification of souls. Alas, almost everything fizzles out - the Huston strand is tamely resolved by him finding out the identity of the mystery man who made a pass at his wife, whereas his real, more intractable problem was always her refusal to tell him - and Dana Andrews (as usual) is inadequate in a role that demanded Gary Cooper. Nice locations, unusual stuff on the fringes; you can tell it wasn't made by a hack, but only just.
ONIBABA (69) (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): Trashy plot, exceptionally striking visuals - emphasis on shimmering waters and moonlit fields of tall swaying reeds - full-blooded performances and a sense of a warring world that's descended into the unnatural. Two Emperors instead of one, talk of a black sun rising and a horse giving birth to a calf, savagery so complete it makes a nonsense of there being any beauty in the world, as when the samurai-demon talks mockingly of his "beautiful face"; that's why there's beauty in the visuals, offering the only glimpse of hope - and implicitly chastising the characters for having forgotten beauty, just as they've forgotten morality. One can probably tease out symbols - what's the significance of the ending?, etc - or just enjoy the (copious) sex and violence; great fun, either way.
THE ACTRESS (67) (George Cukor, 1953): An ode from a famous daughter (Ruth Gordon, who wrote the original play without even bothering to change the names) to her father, whom she obviously never understood at the time - she makes her own teenage self flighty and impulsive, though she can't look too foolish when she's being played by Jean Simmons - but now admires, when it's (probably) too late. The film also lets him grow in stature, gradually unfolding his colourful past and proving to be more than a gruff old coot in the excellent scene where he talks about his horrible childhood (some of the earlier slapstick, on the other hand, is unworthy of Ms. Gordon's fine dialogue). By the end, its very simplicity is touching - it's one of those films where people turn out to be nicer than you think - and though Cukor's staging is, um, stagy he shows exquisite sensitivity, using the poky interiors to make it as intimate as possible; the cast-list includes names whose scenes were presumably deleted, in the interests of keeping the focus on the silly starstruck girl and her parents. Even Teresa Wright as the mother is (for once) bearable, forever furnishing root-beer and warning her daughter about New York, where young girls are apt to be offered "poisoned candy" and snatched off to live in Rio as white-slave concubines.
LE AMICHE (83) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1955): What it comes down to, I guess, is that Antonioni's rhythm (at least in the 50s and early 60s) is perfectly attuned to my own inner rhythm (at least circa 2006); the scenes move as I'd like them to move, the camera turns to look at the things I want to look at, and the dialogue is light enough to keep me sweet, witty/meaningful enough to make an impression. Strange in a way, since the rhythm here isn't typical of the director, more brisk and flowing than the usual pensive Antonioni (possibly because he's collaborating with uber-scribe Suso Cecchi D'Amico), the characters unfolding in different permutations just like each "girlfriend" represents a different facet of Woman - wife, sex-pot, needy victim, careerist (little girls and nuns make cameo appearances). There's some melodrama in the final stretch but the theme seems to be our need for people, love or just friendship - "No-one's self-sufficient" - despite our inability to deal with them; not once but twice the whole group of characters go on an outing only to end in conflict and unhappiness - people together self-destruct, too many questions and cross-currents, yet the self (in itself) is intolerable, like the brittle girl trying to destroy all pictures and photos (all representations of herself) before committing suicide; in the end emotion, the impulse to feel for others, both undoes and defines us. The cynical rich stand apart, unable to feel it (the poor young man is our heroine's only hope for salvation), making this a kind of "L'Avventura: The Prequel", how that crowd might have lived before they became terminally alienated - but moralism doesn't take over, the scenes flow like water, the talk is lively and the characters interact in graceful glancing ways. Most poignant scene: heroine visits her old neighbourhood, playing a game of what-if with the handsome man she can never have. Best non sequitur: the random guy who walks up to the counter in a restaurant saying "What is this food? I can't eat this!" - then, when the clerk says "Why not?", replies "Why can't I eat it? Fine then, I will!", turns round and disappears from the movie.
STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (73) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950): Moody debut, already sporting many of the Antonioni trademarks: desolate urban locations, elegant rich woman (not yet Monica Vitti) with a bad case of alienation, group scenes with overlapping sound, above all the mystery premise that folds in on itself, the investigator in search of Truth (who seems at first like he might be the protagonist) turning out to be not just a minor character but in fact irrelevant. Truth itself turns out to be not just unknowable but in fact a bad joke, the illicit couple who never actually do anything wrong - Fate keeps lending a hand - but have murder in their hearts; film-noir mechanics assail the lovers like the frequent sound of machines, trains outside their hotel room, factory noise, elevators (they have something of a bad history with elevators) - but the only truth worth knowing is that she has money and he does not, making the title ("Money is everything in love too," she admits) somewhat ironic. Antonioni crafts careful detail (like the barking dog in the background after the accident, recalling the stray dog that presaged it) but also trusts his actors to play their big scene in a single take. Genre subversion, and more.
THE CRIMSON PIRATE (79) (Robert Siodmak, 1952): Most exuberant pirate movie ever - though not really a pirate movie, more a combination pirate movie, spoof, slapstick comedy and kids' adventure (is it true you can breathe underwater in an upside-down boat, Daddy?). The "brawl with the king's men" is pure knockabout, and when mute Nick Cravat is trying to sign "Love is blind" and "She's getting under your skin" to partner-in-crime Burt Lancaster it's like Harpo and Chico all over again. Some will say the hot-air balloon climax is silly, but please note our heroes play the whole scene dressed as fair damsels (Lancaster's toothy grin makes him look like a deranged air-hostess); some will say the raucous shipboard climax is a climax too many - and maybe it is - but there's always the reprise of the stirring main theme to look forward to. "Come along, my fopsy-wopsy-wopsies..."
TREASURE ISLAND (66) (Victor Fleming, 1934): Impossible to watch this without thinking of Robert Crumb's poor deranged brother, and his fixation with 13-year-old Jackie Cooper in this movie - esp. since Cooper (as Jim Hawkins) is hilariously wooden. The early scenes at the Admiral Benbow, with Cooper's parade of "Bless my soul!"s and pouty sticking-out of his lower lip matched by Lionel Barrymore's hammy bluster as the Captain, make it seem like it's going to be a long voyage - but it gets better, turning initially into campy fun when Wallace Beery turns up as a rollicking Long John Silver then more than that, a rousing boys' adventure (once the ship sails) as well as a tale of unworthy hero-worship, like the other Cooper-Beerys of the 30s; Hawkins is wisely used as comic relief, forever confused by the goings-on, but his distress at Long John's betrayal is quite touching, ditto the ending (changed from the book's, if I'm not mistaken) when he breaks the law, i.e. turns pirate, to help him escape. Plotting mostly faithful to the book, which doesn't mean it's perfect (did Stevenson have a better explanation for why Jim goes ashore with the pirates in the first place - except that if he didn't the good guys could just sail away and there wouldn't be any third act?), and the action scenes are vividly handled, but I must admit - unusually for me - that the rating includes a few points for camp value, a poncey pirate admiring Jim's new shoes or Cooper puffing out his cheeks en route to another "Bless my soul!". I guess you had to have been there.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (56) (Ingmar Bergman, 1960): Up there with THE SEVENTH SEAL as Bergman's most explicit embrace of (a kind of) pagan animism over Christianity - the contrast laid out in the opening minutes, between the servant-girl invoking Odin and the household locked in Christian doctrine. Nature's everywhere in the movie - sights, sounds, even the metaphors in people's conversations - except in the house, which is silent and oppressive; once the truth comes out, however, the good Christians revert to primeval passions and eye-for-an-eye justice - then ask God to forgive them, seen by Bergman as a meaningless plea, just as it's meaningless at the end for Von Sydow to vow he'll build a church on the site where his daughter was killed; Nature takes care of it much more simply and effectively - and miraculously - with the titular spring. The theme seems to be the inadequacy - not necessarily evil, just inadequacy - of contorted self-flagellating doctrine in a world that runs on animal passions, and the film remains interesting even though the staging is pretty uninventive and the characters pretty thin, lacking the usual Bergman complexity (no surprise, since it's based on a folktale); a minor film from a great director, but some of the images - like the dead girl pawed by rapacious black tree-branches, falling diagonally across the frame - are at least memorable.
CASQUE D'OR (62) (Jacques Becker, 1952): Boisterous-yet-lyrical drama, hampered by the rather obvious problem that Simone Signoret is wa-a-y too much woman for shifty, moustachioed Serge Reggiani (he's supposed to be an ice-cool punk, but comes off more like one of those dazed, fusty little men played by John Qualen in John Ford movies). The mismatch is partly deliberate, since his love isn't worthy of hers, but the film doesn't seem to realise how poignant it is when she asks "Do you love me?" - right in the middle of their rural idyll - and he doesn't answer; Love generally takes second place to some rather dandyish, unconvincing gangsters acting tough-but-honourable, though the period atmosphere is pungent with the various crooks, whores, toffs, hags and cops (and the rural idyll is lovely, if much too short). Incidental best shot: the bride and groom at the village wedding espied by our heroes, the bride looking fleshy, plain and somewhat poleaxed, like village people do in 19th-century photos.
DODES'KA-DEN (36) (Akira Kurosawa, 1970): A grand design (life in a shanty-town, with a half-dozen separate stories) ends up nothing more than a series of static duologues between dreary characters who start off stalled and stay stalled; every time we come back to a strand (the stories never link up, beyond the common setting) it seems the father and son are still thinking of their dream house (cue cheesy fantasy inserts), or the drunkard husbands are still getting drunk, or the kind old man is still pottering around trying to help people. Stories develop in different ways - some are open-ended, one escalates into horror fantasy - but don't really enrich each other, and Kurosawa's staging is too rigid (and dull) to create much sense of community; even the much-hyped colour is gaudily used. A 'film maudit' whose failure (so they say) contributed to his suicide attempt a year later - which is sad, but it really is a failure.
I MARRIED A WITCH (66) (René Clair, 1942): The fun is mild, esp. in the wake of "Bewitched", but it grew on me (often the case with these oldie comedies) maybe because it doesn't try too hard. Clair's genius isn't in full flow but his flair for comical dehumanisation still shows through, the kind of sensibility that also guides his 'heartless' roundelays like AND THEN THERE WERE NONE or GRANDES MANOEUVRES; many of the gags involve human qualities attributed to dead objects (bottles and puffs of smoke, both inhabited by the spirits of the witch and her father) or pre-human creatures, as when everyone supports our hero (it's witchcraft!) and the cry of "We want Wallace Wooley!" is even taken up by a parrot and a roomful of newborn babies. Probably connects with the movement - is it Modernism? or something more specific? - that seems to have flourished in the 20s and early 30s when Clair was starting out, consciously blurring the lines between Man and Machine - as in the factory scenes of Clair's own A NOUS LA LIBERTE, stuff like BALLET MECANIQUE, even the mathematical bent of Soviet montage - possibly explaining why it was this generation that embraced mass-movements of the Right and Left, as well as the ultimate dehumanisation of War. As usual, Clair's humour works best in throwaways (a 17th-century witch-burning interrupted by an intermission, with a vendor selling "popmaize"), suggesting a wackier plot beneath the nominal one; the big wedding scene, with comic emphasis on a rotund soprano, bursts with incipient anarchy. Veronica Lake is luscious as the titular lady - this may be her best performance - even as the plot truncates her halfway through from scheming witch to lovelorn 'little woman'.
THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (57) (Sam Peckinpah, 1970): Leave it to Peckinpah, fresh off his WILD BUNCH notoriety, to make his most relaxed and humorous (and sexy) film - as well as a film about a rascal and nonconformist (though he's surprisingly conservative about things like flying the American flag and not messing with another man's wife) who makes good late in life, becomes a success on his own terms, falls in love and settles a debt of honour. Obviously a project with personal resonance, though it still has the slapstick lapses that also diminished JUNIOR BONNER (even some fast-motion running) and the plot pretty much disintegrates in the second half. At least two laugh-out-loud gags, one of them turning the classic sexist-60s wheeze - a zoom-in to a woman's boobs - into a totemic presence so infused with avid desperation it's almost touching. Impressive-looking lizard in the opening shot, too.
THE GREEN MAN (64) (Robert Day, 1956): Comes across as black comedy but it's actually farce, with little bits of satire (the horrors of provincial hotels, the awkward details of a dirty weekend) in the second half. There are exits and entrances, a dead body has to be ferried from house to house, people don't hear other people come in and assume they're intruders, then take them to where the dead body was and of course find nothing, etc etc. It's a shame that Alastair Sim - the nominal star - is so under-used, ending up as the villain of the piece when he starts off as a kind of Dennis Price figure from KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, a connoisseur of killing - but the film is so breezy it entertains anyway and the details are delightful, notably the live music at the aforementioned hotel which consists of three ladies of a certain age playing Gypsy airs somewhat over-enthusiastically ("I've never heard a trio play with such ... brio," says Sim, trying to look on the bright side). Third-billed Terry-Thomas only appears for a couple of scenes in the last 20 minutes - "I'd just about given up on you," says the proprietress aptly - the billing being presumably a case of PRIVATE'S PROGRESS having made him a star just before the film was released.
APARAJITO (71) (Satyajit Ray, 1956): Sometimes Ray's tender naturalism seems on the point of being terminally boring, but then he raises his game for the big moments - the sudden flight of birds as the father expires, the mother emerging into light very slowly, like a wraith, after the argument with her son - and also complicates the characters so e.g. Apu becomes quite a selfish little prick as he grows older and more educated (whereas as a boy he's delighted to share each new bit of knowledge with his mom). In the end, a worthy bridge between the folksy (if unsentimental) PATHER PANCHALI and the more sophisticated WORLD OF APU - as well as a wholly unexpected entry in the annals of mother-son tearjerkers.
THE BURMESE HARP (68) (Kon Ichikawa, 1956): Bogs down, just on the basic plot level (esp. in the third quarter, after the soldier-turned-monk shows himself to his former comrades), but mostly beguiling and surprising esp. given its plot (Japan says sorry) and rep as a humanistic anti-War movie. Actually quite eccentric, not least in being told so much through song - the Japanese platoon loves to sing and play the harp, and there's ethereal moments like the opposing armies joining across the battle-lines in Japanese and English versions of "There's No Place Like Home" (the war's over, which is why the English don't attack, but we don't find out till later; the scene is absurd and magical, as though WW2 had suddenly been scored by Rodgers and Hammerstein) - and even at the end it's eccentric, when the narrator is revealed to be an extremely minor character and Ichikawa uses the roll of a ship to alternately bathe a parrot (!) in light and shadow. The visuals are astonishing, UGETSU-ish in the glimmers of calm water (like the lake beside which our hero has his spiritual awakening) and muscular landscapes; the score is superb. Watched it on a so-so VHS with French subtitles; look for the rating to rise if it ever gets Criterion'd.
BIGGER THAN LIFE (61) (Nicholas Ray, 1956): Second viewing, much the same rating. Guess it's one of my blind spots - my main problem being that it doesn't seem to be saying anything beyond the monster-in-the-family premise. The family's collapse isn't an extension of previously-existing fault-lines (if anything, it's quite a nice family). The father's sickness isn't a reflection of 50s values, at least not consistently - there's an irony in that he becomes more aggressive, i.e. more of a patriarch (i.e. more in line with the decade's mainstream values), but his babble is coded as abnormal and insane except to extremists like the guy on the sidelines at the PTA meeting, and he rejects as many 50s values (e.g. organised religion) as he embodies. Also, of course, there's no good reason why he should start talking like a fascist in the first place - if anything, his megalomania should work on what's already there, taking his fairly permissive outlook (e.g. his kindness to the boy in the opening scene) to psychotic extremes. I can see how it's awesome that it starts as social drama and ends as sci-fi horror - the premise has affinities with both INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and writer Cyril Hume worked on it between two Robby the Robot pictures - but genre-mixing only gets you so far. Indisputable Best Line: "God was wrong!".
GREEN FOR DANGER (75) (Sidney Gilliat, 1946): Second viewing, slightly lower rating - but still hugely enjoyable. Locked-room mystery with a wonderfully playful touch, loping Alastair Sim (as Inspector Cockrill) not just an omniscient narrator letting us know when someone's about to die but also a blithe, flaky cop, chuckling merrily as he tells the suspects "Four of you are in mortal danger from the fifth" (they're discomfited, to put it mildly). His apparent nonchalance in the face of violent death may be a wartime hangover, and indeed the film's suspense finds an equivalent in the texture of precarious home-front life, buzz-bombs forever hanging over the action like a Damocles' sword (the real danger comes when the buzzing stops, and everyone stiffens in the moment's silence before the explosion); Danny Peary's grumble that it's too "sombre" and Cockrill should've been more like Clouseau is ludicrous - his knowing gallows-humour is the point, a defence mechanism like that of every Englishman during WW2. Seen with a receptive audience, it must be exhilarating.
LES GRANDES MANOEUVRES (79) (René Clair, 1955): Yet another reason to be grateful for DVD: the excellent R2 disc includes an Alternative Ending, shot but apparently not used by Clair - and though it wouldn't quite have been perfect (it's a little sudden) it perfectly illustrates what Clair was going for, a heartless elegance and sense of Love as a bitter joke, loaded down with irony so the laughter chokes in your throat. He goes very consciously for a 30s style, not the lush gravitas of an Ophuls or Sirk (though the colours are eye-popping) but short scenes, often ending with a whip-pan transition as if zipping off to something else - a light punchy style, jazzy and carefree like in LE MILLION, undercutting the romanticism just as love, True Love, never gains a foothold in this brittle world, with its artificial sets and songs mocking the very words "always" and "forever". Instead it's outdone by external factors, intrigues and 'grand manoeuvres', worrying about other people; it's all very gay (as they used to say), loaded with laughter and high spirits, Love emerging unbidden, much to the lovers' surprise; at first the rhythm seems wrong, then you work out what it's trying to do and it's even more touching - albeit on a rarefied level, and those of a dull disposition may think it conventional. Add 5 points to the rating if that Alternative Ending ever becomes the default version.
CRIA CUERVOS (76) (Carlos Saura, 1976): Obviously recalls SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE - the watchful presence of young Ana Torrent is central to both - and the theme is similar, a kind of dreamlike paralysis (also representing Spain's paralysis in the Franco years) mirrored in some private grief, in this case a morbid little girl unable/unwilling to let go the memory of her mother. This one's even richer, filled with a child's sense of things dreamed-up and half-understood as well as a disturbing unmediated quality, a kind of sensual pleasure in experience - listening to records and playing dress-up with one's sisters, but also talking to ghosts and watching one's mother as she writhes on her deathbed. Also a tale of the powerless - the little girl, the Spanish people - seeking control over their lives, and it's startling when e.g. she makes up memories for her half-senile grandma and wills the old lady into believing them (the film is a series of power-games, the ultimate battle being against painful reality); in the end it's not exactly Truth that breaks the spell but the realisation of having been lied to, and Franco was already in the past when this film (unlike BEEHIVE) was made. No idea what that catchy Spanish song is, but it plays almost as often as "California Dreamin" in CHUNGKING EXPRESS - and just as hypnotically.
THE PROFESSIONALS (74) (Richard Brooks, 1966): Second viewing, still pretty kickass despite Brooks' attempts to Write the Hell Out of It, with idealistic speeches and some over-slick rejoinders ("I'll be damned"; "Most of us are"). Rousing music, striking exteriors - swirling dust a speciality - and a great tough-guy duo in Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster, growling and grinning respectively. Final exchange tries too hard, but obv. sends you home happy: "You bastard!"; "Yes sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, sir ... you're a self-made man!". Horse rides away, cue the music...
AUGUST 1, 2006
THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS (80) (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966): Surreal wacky humour and fast-motion running and jumping, like in Richard Lester. Free-floating structure plus political concerns, like in Godard (a quote from Mao comes within five minutes of an ersatz musical number, like the Madison in BAND OF OUTSIDERS). The monks are out of Rossellini, but the off-centre compositions and strikingly barren landscapes give it a decided 60s edge. A hair's-breadth away from intolerable whimsy - it's definitely not for everyone - but laugh-out-loud hilarious as well as meaningful, a disillusioned swipe at left-wing ideologies as may be gauged by its place in Pasolini's oeuvre (after this came irony, and increasing decadence); the Party is equated with religion (in the footage of the dead leader's funeral) and implied as being equally useless - intellectuals fit only for talking and talking, like the talking crow in the movie, unable to sway the Common People, just like no religion can stop the hawks and sparrows from killing each other. A delight, right from the sung (!) opening credits, and you haven't lived till you've seen doleful Toto (talking to the hawks) open his mouth to emit a lugubrious squawk.
THE INNOCENT (64) (Luchino Visconti, 1976): Builds to a terrifying final act, but it takes its time getting there, and the opening distractingly sets up our hero between two women - wife and mistress - which is misleading since only one is going to be important (the other all but disappears). Giancarlo Giannini is superb as the hero, a suave aristocrat who fatally misjudges the power of the heart in his self-absorbed arrogance - first when he imagines he can be 'sophisticated' and everything's going to be okay, telling his wife about the mistress and almost casually asking her to put up with it, later when he blindly underestimates her love for his rival (and the rival's offspring), presuming that since he's gone back to loving her, she must have gone back to loving him. It could just as well have been called "The Narcissist", but I guess the current title is kinder.
THE TENANT (64) (Roman Polanski, 1976): The iffier the structure, the clearer the sensibility. Unmistakably a Polanski film, dealing not only (or even primarily) in paranoia but in fact claustrophobia, a recurring theme - physical claustrophobia in the boat in KNIFE IN THE WATER or the apartment in REPULSION, emotional claustrophobia in the conspiracy in CHINATOWN where everything turned out to be connected (closer than it seems, or than is healthy), sexualised by the revelation of incest - though the theme isn't really supported by the movie; at some point you realise our hero's snapped, and doing hilariously off-the-wall things like dressing up in drag and slapping random toddlers in the park, but none of it really seems justified by what came before (presumably it's the accumulation of small repressions, and living with neighbours - or indeed other people - is the worst kind of claustrophobia). Highlights include a couple of spine-chilling shots of statue-like forms staring eerily from across a courtyard (curtain-framed, with bile-yellow light), and a strange drunken speech on slippery Identity that deserves to be quoted in full: "At what precise moment does an individual stop being who he thinks he is? Cut off my arm, I say 'me and my arm'. Cut off my other arm, I say 'me and my two arms'. Take out my stomach, my kidneys - assuming that were possible - I say 'me and my intestines' ... And now - if you cut off my head, what do I say? 'Me and my head'? Or 'me and my body'?"...
MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH (57) (Renee Daalder, 1976): Over-age high-schoolers are stiff as waxworks, and even for a B-movie the style is uninteresting (except the deaths, which are mildly effective), but the awkwardness adds to the stylised feel - typified in showing no adults at all until the last 10 minutes - and the sense of a political morality play unfolding within a genre framework. That's the point, the seeds of self-destruction in any revolution (they may have been thinking of the USSR in '76, with the oppression coded as class oppression and intellectuals among the leaders, but the French Revolution would do just as well), and the way throwing off an elite only creates a vacuum that gets filled by another elite. Not much more to it besides the audacious genre-mash, but it is pretty audacious; best enjoyed with low (i.e. B-movie) expectations.
'ROUND MIDNIGHT (62) (Bertrand Tavernier, 1986): "There's not enough kindness in the world," says the ageing jazz great (played by ageing jazz great Dexter Gordon), but there may be too much kindness in this edge-free valentine to jazz, friendship and Paris in the 50s. It's a bittersweet tale, but BIRD was much sharper on the self-destructive Artist - too many scenes here feature Gordon pulling out yet another glorious saxophone solo (despite his drinking problems, money problems, etc.) before an adoring crowd, and most of the rest feature him and his friends jamming, philosophising and drinking vin rouge. An American director might've made more of the racism they were escaping back home, but the fact that French director Tavernier thinks it unimportant tells its own story - or maybe he just didn't want to bring everybody down (his style is laid-back to the point of being lackadaisical, though he does get a magic moment with the golden-rain effect early on). Gordon is the main attraction, his mannerisms quite reminiscent of Brando in full self-indulgence - unaccountably long pauses in the middle of sentences, much obscure talking-with-his-hands - except of course he's not trying to Act, which makes everything all right. Second viewing, first since it came out (when I didn't know any of the music, and I still don't); down from 68.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (74) (Woody Allen, 1986): Second viewing, first in maybe 19 years; definitely liked it more this time - in fact, I was quite moved - though the opening scene (family dinner, à la FANNY AND ALEXANDER) is so shaky I nearly turned the tape off right there; chunks of exposition, unconvincing detail, static images, erratic rhythm (how come Allen is closest to a professional musician out of any major filmmaker, yet his films are so clunky?). Moves into CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS mode, Woody casting himself as comic relief and placing his chips on the 'main' story, but the dovetailing is even more poignant here - one character's desperate search for spiritual meaning juxtaposed with another's desperate falling-in-love; both are unhappy while in the grip of desperation, both find solace in security and family, but the happy ending is tinged with unspoken sadness because happiness is tinged with denial. Woody's fundamentally a safe filmmaker - safest of all is the way he pairs everyone off in the end, even the apparent free spirits - but the film is somehow bigger and looser, as though he started writing without much inspiration (hence that opening scene) and lucked into something true and deep, the yearning to lose oneself in God/Love/etc only to be pulled back by the stubborn, simple logic of self-consciousness (both men end up cutting a deal with themselves - and call it happiness, or at least real life); the film itself pulls back from what it uncovers, but can't erase the memory of soft fuzzy visuals as the lovers slow-dance on a quiet afternoon. Michael Caine understates, and gives perhaps the best-ever performance in a film de Woody.
THE COLOR OF MONEY (72) (Martin Scorsese, 1986): Second viewing, first in 10 years - though I may have been drunk the first time since my notes call it "among [Scorsese's] most perverse and interesting [films], bizarrely structured so the big narrative payoff (the transformation of pool-player Cruise from naive hotshot to steely-eyed hustler) actually occurs offscreen", which is true as far as it goes but (a) it's hardly a surprise that he's changed when we see him (the film finesses the process of actually showing him change, but the arc is so obvious it hardly counts as a shock), and (b) the "big narrative payoff" clearly has nothing to do with Tom Cruise's character and everything to do with Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, and the reason why the film abandons Cruise is simply to make it clear who its protagonist is. More conventional than I recalled, esp. when we get to the tournament itself (I'd forgotten all the lessons Newman has to learn), but still notable as the Scorsese film where form most perfectly matches content; two ideas are posited - playing pool for money, and playing for love of the game - and Scorsese's showy, exuberant style (pointless but dramatic craning into faces, extreme high-angles and low-angles, a pumped-up soundtrack) clearly equates with the second idea, which is also the one being pushed by the movie (unlike his gangster films, where the glamorous style is so obviously 'wrong' it creates its own tension). Highly enjoyable, and Forest Whitaker ought to join "Film Comment"'s list of One-Scene Masterpieces alongside Agnes Moorehead in KANE and the cop in PSYCHO ("Tell me honestly ... You think I need to lose some weight?"...), though I still can't decide if my 1996 self was right or wrong on this point: "Eddie's joyless percentage-playing is not turpitude but (as reflected in Newman's elegaic [sic] performance) the sad maturity of a man who knows the ways of the world; and, though he makes an idealistic comeback, we never see him win an important game - never know whether he's deluding himself. The ending - 'I'm back!' followed by a heroic freeze-frame - is actually far more ambivalent, and more unsettling, than its description would suggest."
BABY DOLL (63) (Elia Kazan, 1956): Shallow, enjoyable Southern-fried sex comedy, with Mississippi locals adding local colour and the sassy talk occasionally collapsing into slapstick - though without any actual sex, in the 50s manner. Karl Malden is broad and funny, with a touch of Oliver Hardy when he yells up at his wife from the car while chuckling pleasantly and acting like nothing's wrong for the benefit of amused witnesses (he does everything but twiddle his necktie); Carroll Baker is wildly sexy, though perhaps too sympathetic - Baby Doll seems sharp from the outset (at least as sharp as Archie) when she should be just a slatternly nymphet. Exteriors help, bathed in a sweet sticky light - the South as a happily absurd place, free of Faulknerian cruelties; "Ain't you goin' to help him?" one black retainer asks another as Malden huffs and puffs, and the answer comes back: "Ah'm retired!".
THE SACRIFICE (57) (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986): Trouble with Tarkovsky (for me) is that what he says is either comically obvious, spelled out with excruciating literalness right on the surface (like the father's speech in the forest, beginning [I paraphrase] "We are lost - and mankind too is lost, having taken a wrong path...") or else inscrutable, buried at the bottom of grand, mystical images. This one at least is moving in its personal resonance - made when he knew he was dying (or at least seriously ill), eliciting a connection between the man in the film trying to hold back the end of the world with a single act of atonement and the man behind the camera trying to hold back Death with a single final act of Cinema. It affirms the individual's potential ability to change the world, esp. by System or ritual (the tale of the monk who faithfully watered a withered tree for years till it suddenly bloomed, or our hero musing that if you did something with strict rigour, even something unimportant in itself - pouring a glass of water from the sink into the toilet every day at precisely 7 a.m., say - the ritual would create its own transformative energy), yet Tarkovsky's own faith in his ritualistic cinema can backfire in its portentousness; the climax, featuring a variant on the burning house out of MIRROR, is awe-inspiring, one of the most ambitious plans-sequence ever, but also unintentionally funny, with the men in white coats turning up to chase our hero into the ambulance (shouldn't they be holding a butterfly net?). Incidental Note: One of the film's most famous shots - the little boy leading a white horse through the forest, with people sitting on the grass in the foreground - didn't seem to be on the DVD I watched; did I miss it, or is the Kino print somehow incomplete (or was the shot cut from the final movie)? Help me out, faithful readers.
WRITTEN ON THE WIND (70) (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
SHOESHINE (60) (Vittorio de Sica, 1946): Actually seems better, for a while, than PAISA or GERMANY YEAR ZERO, because De Sica's more commercial, not too proud to deal in melodrama - we get to know the boys in conventionally cute ways (they're pint-sized businessmen, wheeling and dealing; they dream of buying a horse, so they can ride him around), so when they're arrested and pulled into the maw of the System it's upsetting in a way Rossellini's documentary honesty isn't. Trouble is, the film locks itself in certain dramatic modes (and expectations), so e.g. when it strays from the two boys (a mistake BICYCLE THIEVES didn't make) it feels diluted, and the plot seems to ramble after the point when they're tricked into betraying each other. The trial is the perfect example, because it works as a damning indictment of juvenile trials in post-war Italy - De Sica's presumed socio-political aim - but doesn't work in terms of the drama (Giuseppe doesn't actually betray his friend in court; both boys are sentenced, so there's no dramatic contrast; it's set up as a climax, but offers no closure), which distracts from the larger point, ultimately falling between two stools. The kids' unaffected performances, which made such an impression 60 years ago, remain miraculous, but it's a more commonplace miracle these days.
ARTHUR (47) (Steve Gordon, 1981): Second viewing, first in 24 years; didn't much like it then, don't much like it now, so good job, juvenile me. The one-liners mostly fall flat, trading heavily on the Surprise Swear-Word Factor (if you ever wanted to hear John Gielgud say "Fuck" in his plummy British voice...), Liza Minnelli is annoying and - above all - the suggestion that being rich makes Arthur more likeable per se is vaguely offensive. Shameless ending - talk about having it all ways - but it's certainly a crowd-pleaser, and some of the lines made me smile (often, I admit, the sillier ones, e.g. Arthur's Fiancée: "A real woman could stop you from drinking"; Arthur: "It would have to be a real big woman"), though it's probably at its best in the first two seconds, when "Best That You Can Do" strikes up under the Orion logo. Wonder why the music of our childhood tends to survive better than the movies...
SID AND NANCY (65) (Alex Cox, 1986): Mordant fantasia, not just the True Romance in the Midst of Squalor I'd expected (one reason why I've been avoiding it all these years); Sid and Nancy are in love, but it's almost unconscious - at first they're a mutual oasis in all the madness, two kids having fun together, with junkie jokes to keep things at a distance ("What about the farewell drugs?" she wails as he storms out after an argument), then the drugs take over - the sex all but stops - and the relationship turns into a different thing, deeper but also more desperate, like two people on a desert island or perhaps a sinking ship - and Cox turns the whole world askew, adding surreal detail on the fringes (trash raining down as they kiss in an alley, the Vietnam-vet preaching "healthy anarchy" at the methadone clinic, the dwarf who may be a boy roaming the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel). It's a smarter film than its IMDb critics, who hate it for being "inaccurate" and making Vicious look bad; in fact he's childlike, convinced that Nancy's hypocritical (and terrified) family are "lovely people" even while wondering "Why did they throw us out?" - a holy-profane fool standing for the foolishness of punk as a whole, its blank-slate adoption by people looking for a scapegoat to act out their rage and take the punishment. Sid's success contains the seeds of his failure, which is why the three little punk-girls take such joy in telling him "You suck!" - because that's what he's there for, to make failure glamorous; the more he fucks up the more people cheer, like the well-heeled audience applauding his cacophonous "My Way" or the record exec who makes his pitch even more enthusiastically when Sid throws up all over him. It's a sharp, thoughtful film on a subject that doesn't really interest me (another reason why I've been avoiding it all these years), required viewing for the mythologizing musos at "Uncut" or "Rolling Stone" - though they'll probably applaud its pathetic excess as 'rock'n roll'. Note: watched on bad VHS with needlessly large Greek subtitles taking up half the frame; hope to re-watch if I find the DVD someday.
SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (76) (Budd Boetticher, 1956): No real flaws to speak of, except a few silly minor twists towards the end (I know it's wrong to be so exercised about (im)plausibility, but I can't help it); an exemplary minor Western, taking a stark scenario - revenge drama, four main characters - and adding elements, parcelling out information a bit at a time: Indians on the warpath, stolen money, hero's mixed motives (he blames himself as much as the "seven men"), sexual tension, hero's mixed emotions in protecting the damsel while remaining true to his wife's memory. Randolph Scott still had a chance at getting the girl at this point (this was the first Scott-Boetticher), despite his ramrod air of rectitude - the way he kind of snaps to attention when he learns the lady is someone's wife, his hand going automatically to the brim of his hat (his manners are as impeccable as William S. Hart's; when he takes his leave, he says "I've been obliged to know you") - and the ending, keeping him honest while resolving the incipient romance, is superbly managed. Also among the most iconic final shoot-outs, Lee Marvin (a great villain) all but exposing the genre's architecture in self-consciously initiating the confrontation. The whole film is alternately austere and melodramatic, clean dry surface masking messy emotions - and the landscape reflects that, set in a West that's alternately bone-dry and rainy/muddy (the opening scene rivals RASHOMON's for pounding wetness); both strains come together in scenes like the tense conversation in the wagon (when Marvin tells the story of the pretty woman whose husband was "short on spine"), dry dialogue played off faces on the brink of explosion, or the image of Scott riding behind the wagon, framed between the husband and wife through the open curtain of the canvas back-flap - as lonely yet aestheticised as Wayne in the last shot of THE SEARCHERS.
CAROUSEL (62) (Henry King, 1956): Second viewing, first in about 12 years - and a shock, because I was 80+ when I first saw it. Still a tear-jerker at the finale, perhaps because the ghost does so little - all he can do is whisper his love from the spirit-world as the congregation launches into "You'll Never Walk Alone" - and the whole thing has a tone I often respond to (see e.g. THE HUMAN COMEDY), expressing concepts best described as transcendent - notably the sense of being "specks of nothing" in an unforgiving universe - in a style best described as folksy or homespun. "This was a real nice clambake / We're mighty glad we came / The vittles we et / Were good, you bet / The company was the same" sing the townspeople, and it doesn't take much to link the delinquent, alienated hero's outsider status in this cosy community with his (literal) distance from those he loves when he's a ghost looking back on his life - or indeed his (emotional) distance from the love he can't express while alive, covering his feelings with violence and unpleasantness. Not like many other musicals I can think of - maybe OKLAHOMA! in the awkward marriage of show tunes and dark psychology - but it too often seems pretentious and King's style isn't sprightly enough to tease out the meanings; also too much ballet (the "June is Bustin' Out All Over" number seems endless) and a bit too much female masochism for my taste - but then every time it sinks into tedium it does something touching or surprising. Might be underrating it, actually...
MIKEY AND NICKY (72) (Elaine May, 1976): This has to be the greatest John Cassavetes performance (though I haven't seen HUSBANDS), the one that best explains his legend: he's visibly dangerous, in a narrowed-eyes, mean-drunk kind of way, wilful, anarchic, irresponsible, "crazy" and "a prick", set on destroying relationships with those he loves - he smashes Peter Falk's prized watch for no reason at all, then, as Falk tries to pick up the pieces crying "My father gave me this watch!", obviously distraught, Cassavetes apologises and in the next breath says "Hey you got the time?" and laughs like an infant, unable to stop himself - yet intermittently charming, because he's so undeniably his crazy-prick self. Falk, as the more domesticated Mikey, also excels - because he's long-suffering but small-time, and also his own worst enemy as we see in his brief scene with the boss (who finds him annoying); these two self-destructive people spend a night of aimless wandering, the film's fuzzy visuals corresponding to its shaggy plot (watching it on crummy VHS surely added to its charm), and the best moments are casual and irrational as when Nicky is berating some old lady on the bus and Mikey, apropos of nothing, remarks "You got big hands ... You could've been a piano player with those hands". Watching two Elaine May films in succession [see below] seems to reveal an interest in desperate men, men obsessed, infantile and/or in extremis, and also the exercise of power by men - this too is a power-game, as in HEARTBREAK KID, and part of the joke in A NEW LEAF was that May's character frustrated the power-player by being too naive to play the game; Mikey in the end (like the hero in KID) plays his trump card to win this particular game, but also destroys something inside him. Bits to recall: Ned Beatty as a querulous hitman; Nicky picking a fight at the black club ("Just because we're black doesn't mean we're dumb!" "So how come you're black?"), asking for ice-cream and checking out the comics in the all-night candy store.
THE HEARTBREAK KID (82) (Elaine May, 1972): Second viewing, first in about 15 years - and I'm finally old enough to appreciate this subtle, brilliantly-modulated comedy. First act is a great joke, Grodin's increasing horror at the thought of "30 or 40 years" with the same woman standing for all men's fear of commitment - his gaze turns her into a grotesque, notably in the shot where she tosses and turns in her sleep, flapping about like a beached whale, while he sits on a chair in the background just ... looking on in horror. Turns into farce (Grodin's ever-more-outlandish tales of army buddies and gruesome road accidents), takes a leap halfway through and turns into something more - a tale of the American go-getter, trading up and learning to assimilate (socially and of course racially, joining the world of the WASP) when he might've been happier sticking with his own kind; like THE CANDIDATE, made in the same year, it's a case of winning the world and losing your soul. It's a shock, especially in our maudlin age of Victims and Oppressors, that the film isn't interested in punishing its hero, knowing he'll eventually punish himself (and maybe that's why May cast her daughter in the role of the wronged woman, to forestall accusations of sadism; we know the film must be well-disposed, even though it treats her so cruelly). I'd forgotten how it ends, and the final shot - or more accurately the appearance of the final credits - had me literally cheering in my own living-room.
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (58) (Neil Jordan, 1984): Second viewing, first in 20 years. Over-academic, which is also the joke - studded with Freudian symbols and visual puns for temptation (incl. a moth that looks, for a moment, like it might get too close to the flame). The thrust is pro-sexuality - the ending a case of embracing the Other - and implicitly feminist, urging women to become independent = get in touch with their bodies; "Poor child, alone in the forest with no-one to save her," says roly-poly grandma Angela Lansbury after the wolves get our heroine's older sister - but the heroine asks, "Why couldn't she save herself?". One of Jordan's most interesting films, tying in both with his Irishman's love of tall tales and fables (IN DREAMS, HIGH SPIRITS) and his interest in child psycho(patho)logy, but it doesn't really work - 80s FX and tacky production values don't help - till the Little Red Riding Hood climax, which is surprisingly tense and well-acted. Can't believe that girl was 12 years old, though; she looks at least 16...
JULY 1, 2006
MONA LISA (63) (Neil Jordan, 1986): Second viewing, first since I was a teenager; loved it at the time, but I've never been a Jordan fan in the years since - and my doubts proved well-founded, mainly because (as usual) he can't build a narrative. Second half goes flat, esp. once the main dynamic - the relationship between Bob Hoskins and "tall thin black tart" Cathy Tyson - fades into the background, and the resolution feels a little irrelevant; as in THE CRYING GAME, Jordan seems to find the revelation of homoeroticism more earth-shaking than it really is (maybe it's a case of the actors - esp. Hoskins - being too strong for the material; his feelings seem too complex to be reduced like this). Notable also for glimpses of seedy mid-80s London (scored to Genesis' "In Too Deep") and another Jordan trademark, the fairytale touches - having characters say "I promise" as if they were children, adding Robbie Coltrane's bizarre inventions, plus of course the babes-in-the-underworld aspect of e.g. pubescent hooker Sammi Davis asking for an ice-cream sundae when she sits down with Hoskins. That said, the actress who plays his actual daughter (and in fact the character she plays) is quite dreadful.
THE RAG MAN (57) (Edward F. Cline, 1925): "Personally supervised by Jack Coogan Sr." - who famously cheated little Jackie out of thousands of dollars, (*) so it's no surprise that this is the most money-minded of kid-centric heartwarmers; even the tear-jerking climax revolves around the return of money owed, and much of the bonding has to do with what a fine businessman little Jackie becomes, using his winsome charm to get goods at a discount. All quite appropriate, given the setting - the Lower East Side in the days of hungry immigrants and desperate go-getters - providing most of the period flavour, with overtones that veer close to racism (the film's nudge-wink hilarity that an Irish kid and an old Jew end up becoming business partners, speaking of a time when the gangs of New York ruled a demarcated ghetto). Not especially charming or well-plotted, but you kind of goggle at how mercenary it all is. Jackie Coogan, All-American Hustler (age 11)...
(*) Got this wrong, actually. Jackie Coogan was indeed cheated of his child-star earnings, but it was his mother and stepfather who did the cheating, his father having passed away. Apologies to the memory of Jack Coogan Sr. Everything else still valid, obviously.
JUNE 1, 2006
THE BLACK CAT (75) (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (63) (Richard Fleischer, 1949): Made in the same year as WHITE HEAT, and another tale of cops' methodical (read: 'scientific') search for a psycho killer - except in this case the cops use "imagination" more than logic, raising the uncomfortable thought that the only way to defeat a madman is to think like one (see also the what-the-fuck moment - did I dream it? - when the dummy used by the cops seems to come alive, as though the killer's insanity were infecting the investigation). Low budget obviously gave the freedom to be bolder, pulpier - e.g. the lurid photos of the killer's dead victims - and more frank about sex, though B-movie plotting keeps it from transcending its humble origins; still ahead of its time in being a serial-killer movie - anticipating BOSTON STRANGLER and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE in the Fleischer oeuvre - using archetypal devices (didn't the killer's fixation with rainy nights turn up in MEMORIES OF MURDER 54 years later?) and adding a layer of hard-boiled noir cynicism - Jeff Corey as the sardonic Sarge, asked what the killer's motivation might be: "I knew an old man once, used to cut the tails off cats ... Guess he didn't like cats."
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (76) (Frank Capra, 1944): Second viewing, first in 20 years - and first on the big screen. Too much of a good thing, to be honest (at some point, hilarity shades into exhaustion), but seeing it with an audience is still special because those who find it funny find it really funny, breaking into more and more helpless giggles as the farce takes wing. Big screen (and a new print) also reveals how silky the images are, though of course the play's the thing - and most of the 'improvements' (i.e. the first 10 minutes) add nothing, only taking off when we get into the Brewster house and the various eccentrics appear (one exception: Capra's decision to stage the exteriors on a very windy night, giving old-dark-house personality to the linking bits). Performances are mostly perfect, except for occasional bits where you spot the actors mugging; Cary Grant's double-takes are excessive, but so's the material. I had a blast, basically...
HARVEST: 3000 YEARS (52) (Haile Gerima, 1975): The only Ethiopian film I've seen, and likely to remain that way; certainly, I doubt they're making too many two-and-a-half-hour, unabashedly Marxist portraits of village life in Africa nowadays. There's a landowner who sits in the shade ordering the workers around, and a firebrand who tells the truth about their exploitation so the villagers all call him crazy (the ironies are mostly on that level), with even a bit of feminism creeping in when the doomed girl makes a plea for women's rights. Reminds me of (what I've seen of) Glauber Rocha, only more drab and turgid; wasn't sure I'd make it to the end, but it grew on me, the mix of village-fair humour - like a Punch and Judy show - African music and sere b&w landscapes exerting a certain fascination; a worthy-but-dull artefact of Third World cinema, from the days when textbook radicalism provided a way-in for aspiring auteurs.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (72) (John Cassavetes, 1976): Note on versions: Didn't watch the whole of the longer ("original") version, but it seems clear the 109-minute cut is more flashy - that much is clear from the first 2 minutes - more artful, more jagged and exciting, and re-edited to be more of a crime thriller, which is odd since the film is wildly unconvincing as a crime thriller. That's a problem, not because it isn't clear what Cassavetes is doing - playing against the material to point up his characters' humanity - but because what he's doing seems self-indulgent, building a house just to burn it down. Still looks tremendous - the middle section is one of the great city-by-night passages - and it's touching that the small-time nightclub owner (and killer of a Chinese bookie) is finally revealed as an Artist surrounded by Artists, his strippers and seedy performers valuing their work and worrying about their integrity, just like the director himself (very like his hero, another impresario bullied by the big boys). Neurotic view of people is toned down (fortunately), since the characters aren't being placed in a naturalistic setting - though Timothy Carey remains too stupendously great to be very plausible as a human being.
LES BRONZES (65) (Patrice Leconte, 1978): Sample joke: holiday-camp studs discuss conquests at breakfast in the dining-room: "Who was that girl you hooked up with last night?" "No idea, but I'll tell you one thing: She sure loves cock!" - laugh uproariously and smile apologetically at a middle-aged couple they're sharing the table with, and the couple smile back as if to say 'it's ok, we're all adults here' - then "Oh look, there she is now!" cry the studs, and a girl appears, getting a little pat on the ass as she walks over to the now-poleaxed couple and kisses them with filial devotion: "Bonjour, maman. Bonjour, papa...". A French CARRY ON film, more saucy than crude, or perhaps an adult MEATBALLS, and it's often hilarious even if it doesn't entirely quash the theory that the French have no sense of humour: many of the jokes are thrown away, opportunities left untaken - the clown's previous life as insurance clerk is a non sequitur, the uptight snobbish woman soon becomes indistinguishable from the other characters, and when e.g. Michel Blanc as the resident klutzy schlemiel turns out to be an accomplished musician - playing soulful tunes on his harmonica - it should've been an epiphany but it's just wasted (it's funny that the girl still ignores him, but the music should've been his trump card, not just another incident). Rambles and never comes together, but it's kind of appropriate for a film about a holiday camp - the absence of through-lines becomes quite relaxing - though the latent grimness of such places (everyone forced to have an institutional Good Time) is only intermittently caught, e.g. in the live entertainment with all the guests obliged to join in with the compere's catchphrases. Roll-call of rising French comedians (plus Eduardo Serra as camera assistant) includes Blanc, Josiane Balasko and Christian Clavier, wearing the skimpiest male swimsuit in movie history; 70s Nostalgia Factor is high, with Polaroid jokes and Serge Gainsbourg singing "Sun, Sex and Sea" over the opening credits.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (83) (David Lean, 1946): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. The first half-hour - Pip's childhood, from the churchyard to Miss Havisham - is so magical, all the rest of it needs to do is not ruin it, and it mostly doesn't except for a couple of scenes in the middle when we're stuck with the bland romantic couple (no way could Jean Simmons grow into prim Valerie Hobson!) and even the visuals seem to go a little flat. I can also see audiences tittering at lines like "You're a gay one!" and details like Pip's enormous bow-tie when he first comes to the city, but I was too in awe to titter: dynamic visual storytelling, splendid dialogue, fulsome Dickensian actors, perfect pacing. How perfect? I watched it late at night and knew I had to stop in the middle and go to bed, since the next day was going to be murder - but I couldn't stop, watched to the end, woke up on 4 hours sleep and had a crap day walking around like a zombie and unable to concentrate. I can offer no higher compliment.
DOWN AND DIRTY (69) (Ettore Scola, 1976): "Family ties are like shoes," grumbles the monstrous paterfamilias stuck inside a shack in a shanty-town with a fat wife, 10 kids and assorted hangers-on; "The tighter they are, the more they hurt". Unrelentingly gross view of Humanity - sex and money the only possible motives - and the only consolation (such as it is) is that these revolting people seem to be indestructible: we end on one of the daughters still fetching water like she does every morning only now she's pregnant, another life to come in that fetid hole - except the shot is also set at dawn, and soft music plays and it's really rather lovely. Scola has a knack for the little relief moments - like the shanty-town kids staring out from the cage where they're locked every day (in lieu of school), standing in for their whole trapped existence - and of course the film is also a comedy, often hilarious in the broad Italian way: wives casually get butt-fucked by their brothers-in-law while washing their hair at the sink, the one-eyed patriarch constantly accuses everyone of stealing his money, and cackling senile Grandma seems to be played by a man in drag (shades of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, another classic of grotesque black comedy). No real political slant, surprisingly - the family live in a slum but Society isn't really to blame, and far from being salt-of-the-earth they're petit-bourgeois in many ways, dreaming of consumer goods and dreading scandal ("We'll be the talk of the slum!"); it's just that they're stripped bare, without the camouflage of civilisation, and the film is haunting if rather one-note - though my faded VHS didn't help, with subtitles dating from 1990 (!). NoShame, get this out on DVD pronto.
LE DOULOS (67) (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961): This must be what the Coens were thinking with the hat motif/fetish in MILLER'S CROSSING; one shot lingers lovingly on Jean-Paul Belmondo's fedora as it's passed to a hat-check girl, and the ending [spoiler!] has him adjusting the hat in a mirror - a final gesture of ineffable cool - seconds before dropping dead. Style is important, incl. the film-noir visuals of a knocked-over lamp rearranging shadows as it swings back and forth, or a knock on the door answered to reveal a man standing on the doorstep with his face wreathed in shadow; film-noir turns to police procedural, then thieves-fall-out gangster drama, and there's probably a couple of twists too many in the rather baggy structure - but also a foggy street and the insides of nightclubs, jail cells and police stations, and a devious cynical worldview where if people act friendly it can only be to mask fear (Michel Piccoli in a great scene, doing his best to be smooth and reasonable while visibly aware he may be killed at any moment) or incipient violence (Belmondo being charming just before punching the girl unconscious and tying her up in sadistic detail). Nothing's as it seems, and the coda - or what should've been the coda - reveals a sanguine flipside to that truism, a softer, happier reality, and Melville stages it in a bar set to dreamy, sentimental jazz piano as if to say 'This is not the real world'; a wonderful ending, but he can't resist undermining it with fashionable pessimism. Also with Philippe Nahon of I STAND ALONE fame, though I can't say I recognised him.
THE FORTUNE (58) (Mike Nichols, 1975): Gives indications of script-to-screen chopping and changing - certainly there seems no reason why a well-known character actor like Richard B. Shull should've signed on for what amounts to a wordless cameo as the police chief - and maybe something else was initially intended; the halfway shift to black comedy feels arbitrary, and not where the material was heading, though it does give Nichols an opportunity for deadpan comic stretches, two men and a trunk - like Polanski's two men and a wardrobe - observed in long-shot as they trudge around on a dark night getting ever more confused. There's a tone there, a sardonic gallows-humour, but the jokes aren't up to it and neither are performances: Warren Beatty is impatient and cheaply dapper - he seems to have based his performance on Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello - while Jack Nicholson is funny and inventive but all wrong, fascinatingly wrong - he's meant to be playing a Stan Laurel-like dimwit but he's too cunning, too Jack-the-lad (e.g. when he slyly invites Stockard Channing to come sit on his lap); maybe he's incapable of playing stupid, except for a director who thoroughly wrong-foots and disorients him as Huston apparently did on PRIZZI'S HONOR. Channing out-acts them both, seeing through their plans with a crisp "Apple sauce!", but her role is limited; great stuff on the fringes - "mouse-beds", "begrimed", "a mean man and a man of means", the whole Hollywood-rooming-house atmosphere with weary proprietress and DAY OF THE LOCUST vibe - but I can see why it flopped.
MAY 1, 2006
FAHRENHEIT 451 (56) (Francois Truffaut, 1966): Is it really Truffaut - Man of Images, scourge of over-literary 50s cinema - making a film about the importance of books, limning a world where images are everywhere but the written word is rare and precious (even the opening credits are spoken)? No surprise that it seems a bit half-hearted, though major props for anticipating the vapid TV society of today - a society that's lost its memory, literally so when our hero asks his wife to recall how they first met - and for a certain chilling mundanity in its commuter-suburb future (nice monorail). Minor but effective till almost the end, but the whimsical final section - hero finding refuge with the Book People in a land where people have 'become' books, each man and woman having memorised a tome and introducing themselves by its title - is too twee to live (nadir: the twins called "Pride" and "Prejudice", being respectively Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of Austen's novel). Revealing Truffaut quote (from this great interview): "If I had done the film in French, I would have had complete control of the language; in English, I never quite knew if a line was right."
TOKYO DRIFTER (63) (Seijun Suzuki, 1966): Seen with French subtitles, making the convoluted who-did-what Yakuza talk (even more) incomprehensible. That stuff's irrelevant anyway, at least compared to the shocking-yellow sets, neon-sign montages, stylised action and of course the Western overtones - most obviously the bar-brawl but also exterior vistas, the title-ballad recurring through the action and the Tokyo Drifter moving on at the end because his "code" won't let him settle down with the girl. Clearly a gorgeous lark, though e.g. hero's associate unable to carry out the hit on him - turning aside with a sigh as hero walks away, not even realising he could've been killed - is quite affecting, in its rugged way.
DAISIES (64) (Vera Chytilova, 1966): Two bad girls giggle like munchkins, cause trouble in a nightclub, sip their own bathwater, cut up sausages with pairs of scissors, answer the phone with "Die! Die! Die!", improvise a pie-fight and a fashion show, jump around a lot and look for the proof - or just the point - of Existence, all while the visuals throw in psychedelic inserts and the soundtrack adds equally surreal effects like creaks and squeaks timed in sync with the girls' every movement (as if they were machines - but they're not, that's the point). They may be doing it as a protest - because "the world's gone bad" - as a salvo in the class-war (their only semi-friend seems to be a proletarian cleaning-lady) or of course the gender-war or even the generation-gap, like their 60s counterparts in Godard and Richard Lester (their victims seem to be mostly older men, though they're not above ignoring besotted younger ones). They're hedonistic but curiously casual - or bored - about sex (Maria II wears a flower tiara because "it makes me look like a virgin", and of course it's a joke but she wears it anyway), more concerned with food and lounging around half-clothed in each other's company; they're anarchists, feminists, anything that comes to mind, and the film has no big surprise beyond its array of small scene-by-scene ones. Fiercely inventive, though a little tedious even at 74 minutes.
FOR ME AND MY GAL (51) (Busby Berkeley, 1942): Kind of amazing that Gene Kelly had a screen career as a romantic lead; in the 40s films especially, he's the epitome of the glib showbiz hustler - brash, slick, pure ego - and in fact this film admits as much: "He's an opportunist," our heroine (Judy Garland, luminous) is told, but of course she loves him anyway. The film deals in the same kind of values, the win-at-all-costs desperation of the showbiz musical - the way everyone's angling for the big time, and if an act 'kills' they come off the stage gloating and crowing at the unfortunate act that has to follow them - but what's unusual is the way that gets subsumed into patriotic flag-waving in the final third: Kelly purposely slams his hand in a wooden trunk to avoid enlisting for WW1 - actually just to delay it, because he's about to play "the Palace" - and everyone calls him a draft-dodger and coward (seems like it takes more guts to mangle your hand in a wooden trunk than show up for enlistment, but whatever) and Judy never wants to see him again, so he must redeem himself in wartime, FOUR FEATHERS-style. Clearly the message is for America to put its hustling competitive ways aside - isn't the backstage musical among the most American of genres? - and come together for the War effort, rather like the all-star revues of the time where Hollywood stars put aside showbiz airs and graces and pretended to be regular folks. Hard to take nowadays, but the halfway switch in values is quite 'interesting'.
THE MIRACLE WORKER (76) (Arthur Penn, 1962): Starts like a horror movie, the mother screaming at the sight of the blind-deaf - deformed! - baby in its crib, followed by an eerie credits shot of the silhouetted child fumbling on the stairs like a monster in the shadows; it's a story, like THE WILD CHILD, of becoming human, and though the style is (much) more florid than Truffaut's the result is equally potent because it knows there's pain involved - learning about betrayal and punishment in that film, losing love to gain understanding in this one. "I don't love her" which is why I can help her, says the inspirational teacher, and the long-drawn-out power struggles between Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke (both superb, both too old for their roles) also contrast in their real-time immediacy - Cassavetes would be proud - with self-conscious theatrical effects like the extreme WS of the table at Helen's party (looking like it's onstage) or the supporting-cast histrionics; Penn finds a synthesis in cinematic effects, esp. dissolves and double-exposures to suggest a bond between the women, and you have to wonder if Bergman ever saw this while thinking about PERSONA. Totally compelling, esp. the emphasis on lengthy process - everything a slog, and even when a breakthrough's achieved it's all too easy to slip back into bad habits. Gives disability dramas a good name.
NIGHTFALL (68) (Jacques Tourneur, 1956): Climax lets it down pretty badly, all unmotivated behaviour - esp. the bust-up between the two killers - with the figure of the insurance investigator, carefully built up throughout, turning out to have no real payoff. Very much a B-movie, but distinguished by the visual opposition between two milieus, the city at night where the usual noir business takes place (shady characters, hard-boiled banter with strange women in bars) and a bright snowy field which should stand for greater lucidity, a space to find oneself - as e.g. a similar opposition did in ON DANGEROUS GROUND - but is actually more perverse and oppressive (dunno if it's all the Siegels I was watching, esp. THE LINEUP, but there seems to be a 50s pattern in this division between standard crime-drama violence and something more psychotic; maybe an after-effect of the War, and a growing realisation of just how unimaginable its atrocities were). Aldo Ray may be the schlubbiest noir protagonist ever, though only because Ernest Borgnine never dabbled in the genre.
ROAD TO UTOPIA (53) (Hal Walker, 1946): Haven't watched a ROAD movie in ages (at least a decade) but the vaudeville seemed a bit uninspired in this one, typified by the way narrator Robert Benchley's fourth-wall-breaking starts off subversive in the HELLZAPOPPIN style - e.g. when he stops the show to inform us we're watching a cinematic technique known as "the flashback" - but becomes less incisive, till by the end he's just poking snarky fun at Hope and Crosby's jokes. The pre-post-modern touches are the most fun, also including the talking fish, the talking bear who complains they let the fish talk but wouldn't give him any lines, the gent in evening dress who saunters by "taking a short-cut to Stage 10", and when Hope launches into "Why, you dirty -" and the sound suddenly cuts out ("See?" observes Crosby. "I told you they wouldn't let you say that"). Otherwise the usual easy banter - "Am I dead?"; "I can't tell, you always look like that" - enjoyable if never quite uproarious; also spent way too much time noticing the dull mise-en-scene, which is obviously absurd in this kind of film. I think I'm watching too many festival movies.
THE WAR LORD (68) (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1965): Much of the second half is given over to an extended sequence of a medieval castle under siege, and if you ever need a castle-under-siege sequence, this is the one - it's got everything: siege-towers, battering-ram, hail of arrows, molten oil poured on the invaders. Turns into terrific action, but it's still a slight disappointment after the first half, which feels more like a Hammer horror or Corman Poe movie, with repressed Norman warrior Charlton Heston - fierce monastic haircut, tendency to glower, lack of compassion for the peasantry - finding himself in a land touched by "heresy" and the "unholy", incl. pagan rituals with animal masks à la WICKER MAN; Love, when it appears, is laced with torment and potential witchcraft, Heston and the girl brought together by extreme pain rather than tenderness (she holds him down while a wound is being cauterised) - then becomes a real amour fou, unconstrained by rite or ritual. Alas, the girl - like the potential witchcraft - is marginalised in the second half, ambivalence turning instead to the figure of the traitorous brother, Gothic romance gives way to action movie and baroque touches - like the little blond boy carried on a leash by an evil midget - give way to more straightforward period detail. Still hugely underrated, with stunning images and an incongruously lilting, almost romantic score that does much to emphasise the strangeness and delicacy of the early scenes; any director who could make this and THE BEST MAN back-to-back must be ripe for at least a little reappraisal.
PAISA (79) (Roberto Rossellini, 1946): A neo-realist epic with a cast of hundreds, a film about the richness and variety of Italy, a natural double-bill with THE BIG RED ONE, and a poignant reminder of American liberators from the vantage-point of a more problematic 'liberation'. Actually one of those films where Historical Interest is part of the appeal - one reason why it's sometimes silly to rate old(er) movies - from the documentary footage of streets and crowds to the charmingly stiff non-professionals (esp. the three chaplains in the monks' episode, incidentally looking forward to FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS just as the urchins in the streets of Naples look forward to GERMANY YEAR ZERO); each episode is different - II sharply comic, III a bittersweet love story, IV an action movie - but they share a sense of liberators and liberated straining in mutual incomprehension, more than once falling prey to crossed signals and missed connections, changing so rapidly in the post-war chaos they fail even to recognise each other. Sense of flux is very strong (obviously incl. the shape-shifting structure), making for a singularly rich experience; you wonder how they'll possibly end it, but the brusque, almost dismissive ending - tossing aside the War like yesterday's paper - is magnificent.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (77) (Don Siegel, 1956): Second viewing, no change in rating. A cerebral horror, its monster not a thing but a state of mind, shot in shadowy film-noir style - and quietly chilling because it stresses the humanity (the central relationship is tender, and surprisingly frank when hero talks about his "bedside manner"), leaving us to imagine its absence, the fear of nothingness. Best shot: running down the hillside in the climactic chase, the frame evenly split between moonlight and darkness - skittering on the border between something and nothing. Studio-imposed happy ending is unfortunate (the Philip Kaufman remake has the advantage here) - but Siegel makes it work, mostly by making it clear as "The End" appears that Kevin McCarthy isn't thinking of the people he's saved, but the one person he loved and lost.
APRIL 1, 2006
CACCIA TRAGICA (57) (Giuseppe de Santis, 1947): Mostly historical interest (based on a true story), which in this case is considerable - the chaos of rural Italy just after the war, starving people agitating for "bread and work", speculators and black-marketeers trying to exploit the situation, everyone marked by the war whether literally (concentration-camp numbers on their arms) or metaphorically, past lives simmering and occasionally bubbling to the surface - one woman used to be a Nazi spy, one man led the group that once exposed her. De Santis uses sound creatively - the background din of landmines being blown up, church bells mingling with the potent strains of "Lili Marleen" - and the plot revolves round the good-bad man, a camp survivor forced into banditry; it's the neo-realist stamp, the conviction that within every bad man lies a good, or at least vulnerable one (and of course - see BICYCLE THIEVES - within every good one lies a potentially bad one), part of the same socialistic tendency that has the whole community going after the bandits, albeit mostly out of self-interest. Alas, it sinks into melodrama and a too-shrill villain (the Nazi-spy woman), not to mention speeches - but at least the speeches are sincere. Best scene: the bombed-out family home, with the wall turning out to be a curtain and the kids decked out, creepily, in carnival masks.
THE LINEUP (66) (Don Siegel, 1958): Possibly the most clear-cut example of what seems to be an abiding theme in Siegel, viz. the division or disjunction between 'acceptable' violence and psychotic or insane violence - also in HELL IS FOR HEROES and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 [see below], among others - because the film itself exhibits the disjunction. Starts as a sober police-procedural in "Dragnet" vein (it's actually based on another TV series, "San Francisco Beat"), only to be hijacked halfway-through by Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as professional killers, or more accurately a psycho killer and his weird effeminate manager-cum-Boswell, who schools him on the use of the subjunctive and asks for his victims' last words which he jots down in a notebook. Increasingly strange, and also increasingly modern, with striking location work - like the aquarium with attached skating-rink - and a climactic car-chase that surely anticipates BULLITT (and also introduces the unfinished-freeway cliché, finally exploded in SPEED where the car actually sails over the chasm). Really just a dry-run for Siegel's (superior) THE KILLERS, but it certainly moves well.
THE BEGUILED (63) (Don Siegel, 1971): Second viewing, no change in rating. It's funny watching this as part of a Siegel triple-bill, because it seems so clearly the film of a frustrated art-hound who's been wanting to make it for ages, jumping at the chance to subvert genre instead of just smuggling in bits and pieces. Hothouse melodrama with all stops pulled out, both in terms of tricks - zooms, double-exposures, tilted camera - and narrative shape-shifting; the early scenes flirt with camp, innuendo and sex-starved women all over the place not to mention nuggets of Tennessee Williams, then it seems to turn into a horror movie, then full-on weirdness with lesbo dream sequence, then black comedy (you know it's a joke when even the little girl throws a jealous hissy-fit), then a bit of suspense in the final act. Probably too much of a good thing, and I don't think it's 'about' very much beyond men being bastards and Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. The wartime setting seems incidental.
RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (72) (Don Siegel, 1954): Hard-hitting 'realism' in the service of an Issue (prison reform), unimpeachably liberal in the 30s Warners manner. Starts a little stiff and dated, and it's hard not to protest the more implausible behaviour (why admit to the inmates that their fellow prisoner is dead? that's just stupid), but the characters are vividly-drawn, the lines are punchy, and by the end it's a powerhouse. Emphasis is placed on (some of) the prisoners' psychosis, and it draws a distinction between righteous violence (as in taking over the jail to fight a noble cause) and insane violence, just as it draws a line between punishment and needless sadism - a familiar Siegel tension, just like the tension between the meat-and-potatoes genre specialist and the expressive artist; again and again, his films seem to oscillate between down-to-earth and flamboyant. The shocking climactic shot with a phone ringing in the foreground backed by an immense, cavernous corridor stretching far into the frame, with a swarm of prisoners hurtling towards the camera, getting bigger and bigger - will they reach the phone before it stops ringing? - may be a case of the responsible 'realist' finally giving way to the secret stylist.
STALKER (61) (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979): Taking themes to Tarkovsky is like judging the beauty of a forest by its number of trees, but this did deflate (for me) a little as it became clear "The Zone" was a rather explicit symbol for faith, esp. banned-in-the-USSR religious faith - an irrational construct where the long way can be shortest and weakness is strength (pliancy, as in a tree, is a sign of growth, says the Stalker), echoing the one about the meek inheriting the Earth; a place that might grant you every wish - if you believe - or might not even exist, a place Science wants to demolish and Art can't make sense of, a place best navigated by the humble, sad and desperate. Seems a bit prosaic, given both the running-time and the film's relentless building of tension and mystery, though at least it's equally about the impossibility of faith (we can triumph, "only that's not enough", goes the poem they recite; the human spirit craves dissatisfaction) as its possibility; SOLARIS remains my least favourite Tarkovsky, though it does have the most luscious visuals - the images here are grimy and dank, exteriors shot in the same clammy colour as in MIRROR. The last shot is remarkable, and makes up for a lot.
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD (73) (John Berry, 1946): More of a 30s Depression movie - it's set in 1946 but flashbacks to the previous decade, presumably to contrast with the fine new world to come now the war's been won - with everyone out of work and scraping to feed their family, plus at least one surprisingly harsh scene of the Little Man and Woman caught in the tendrils of an uncomprehending justice system (you can so tell it's made by a Commie). Close to a kind of American neo-realism though James Agee, writing at the time, thought it guilty of "miscarriage of sincerity", pointing out bits which "supplant the unrealism of most movies with a slick kind of pseudo-realism, rather special to New York" - and I guess he's also thinking of scenes like the sister's family in their noisy tenement, kids playing in the street outside, feckless brother-in-law Harry Morgan turning up in his undershirt, mothers yelling and neighbours complaining - but it's all part of the film's teeming affection for working-class life, and besides Italian neo-realism also worked with sentimentality (BICYCLE THIEVES is full of it). Agee also complains about Joan Fontaine - as does David Shipman: "Can you ever imagine her as a factory wife?" - but in fact the character works in a bookshop and is pointedly contrasted with her more robust sister, not to mention that she and baby-faced Mark Stevens (as the husband) are clearly intended as the eye of the storm, softer and more sympathetic than the harsh lives around them. The staging is artful - husband pawns his toolbox to buy the wife a bracelet for their anniversary, drops it as he puts it round her wrist, bump heads and laugh as they bend to pick it up then the phone rings, he's finally got a job, but now they have to scramble for money to redeem the toolbox - and yes, a little slick, but every scene seems to bring some memorable detail: the bookshop's middle-aged boss whose wedding present is a book - "a good book: 'The History of Coffee'" (he lives alone, and was very attached to his mother; he's a perv, of course); all the ex-soldiers leaping up instinctively at a loud bang, then relaxing when they realise it's only thunder; the neighbourhood kids swarming over the lawyer's flashy car, the grumpy guy at the orange-juice stand muttering "Big spender" as the couple walk off; views of a bridge in the Bronx and a street at rush-hour; reminders of a time when the landlady walked up to call you downstairs when you had a phone call, and when you just (apparently) handed your baby to the woman sitting next to you if you were at the movies and needed to pop out for a minute.
FORBIDDEN PLANET (49) (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956): The IVAN THE TERRIBLE of 50s sci-fi - conspicuously 'designed', cerebral and entirely wooden, not to say dead. Probably the campiest too (if camp's your thing), with its garish colours, "electronic tonalities", Anne Francis in the shortest of short skirts and he-man soldiers led by Leslie Nielsen (!) intoning jargon-laden lines about material that "renews its molecular structure every micro-second" and thrilling to the Wonders of Science like, um, seat belts (that's why the 50s feel dated, because they're the beginnings of modernity; earlier decades were a different world, so there's no comparison to ours). Special effects are cartoony - literally: much of it is animation, like the rays from the blaster-guns - the comic relief is a joke (Robby the Robot, meet "Cooky" the drunken cook) and the famous "monsters from the Id" angle turns out to be more a clever final twist than an ongoing theme. Nice eye-candy, but still pretty leaden - and unintentionally funny. If the opening voice-over doesn't do it for you ("In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocketships landed on the Moon. By 2200, they had reached the other planets in our Solar System"), check out the crew after they've just been beamed up, rubbing their temples ruefully like they've woken up with a killer hangover.
TUNES OF GLORY (66) (Ronald Neame, 1960): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. The big nervous breakdown at the end still ruins it - too 'actorly' - and the first half seems a bit familiar, with echoes of THE CAINE MUTINY though its martinet becomes more sympathetic as the film develops and the traitor in that case (being 50s America) was the intellectual, whereas here (being early-60s Britain) it's the upper-class snob. Watching these Neame-Guinness movies together [see below] also confirms the futility of ratings, because THE HORSE'S MOUTH is clearly more original when it works (which isn't often) whereas this aims at an easier target and hits it much more solidly; should ambition get points over actual achievement? (Discuss, etc.) Still very much worth seeing, if only for the wintry visuals - and it wasn't even the Criterion DVD - and Duncan Macrae as the canny chief piper.
THE HORSE'S MOUTH (62) (Ronald Neame, 1958): Full of zany non sequiturs - "Is that you, Gully?"; "No, I'm Mr. Foster from Gloucester" - and unexpected notes, like the sour hard-bitten landlady opining that "a good bash gets you what you want out of life" and she never could believe in a God who'd give a woman such an ugly face as hers (prompting the rotund sea-captain type across the windswept bar to enunciate clearly: "I'm a Primitive meself but I'm not one of the strict ones. Now, my missus, she's a Peculiar - she is strict"). Alas, I don't remember much except the croaky voice Alec Guinness adopts - he also wrote the script - tangled Fauvist paintings (of feet, mostly) and ancient Ernest Thesiger asking him to stop telephoning because it scares the servants; plot is picaresque, our hero the Artist as Creative Madman, and the rather arch tomfoolery leaves little behind. Also: I happened to check the IMDb before watching and was inevitably distracted by Mike Morgan, who plays Guinness' youthful sidekick but apparently died of meningitis, aged 30, towards the end of filming; it's unnerving watching someone play 'the kid' when you know you're actually watching them in the last few days of their life.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS (58) (Michael Ritchie, 1976): Second viewing, no change in rating. Everything about this works both ways: It stays almost entirely on the ball-field (we see nothing of the kids' parents), which is great in the sense of Aristotelian Unities but also means there's way too much baseball (maybe if I knew or played the game...). It's not cleanly written or directed - Ritchie has a shaggy style, stronger on detail than momentum like a clumsier version of 70s Demme, and the climax has no Defining Event that prompts Walter Matthau to change his ways (partly it's the other coach hitting his son, but Matthau's reaction is muted and besides it's clear he was softening his stance even before that) - which is great because it's not slick in the usual triumph-of-the-misfits way, but also means it kind of chuffs along without much point. Above all, it's sentimental from the outset yet never quite loses its sense of anarchy - the very last scene, with the Bears telling their good-sport opponents to shove their apology up their collective ass, is great, and would never happen today (unless it's been repeated verbatim in the Linklater remake) - so every time you write it off as family-fodder it shows surprising edge, and vice versa. A minor pleasure.
THE CANDIDATE (67) (Michael Ritchie, 1972): Second viewing, no change in rating. A film about political forces "that overwhelm the individual", and if it seems dated 34 years later it's because those forces are taken for granted now, esp. in the West - the notion of an individual (an eco-minded lawyer, say) making it in politics under his own steam seems a bit quaint. Film might actually work better if its hero (played by Robert Redford) were more individual - he shows little charisma, and is obv. begging to be chewed up by the Machine; he lacks passion, for a purported idealist, and when he talks he sounds dull and stuffy (the suggestion that he only becomes popular in the first place because he's good-looking is nicely cynical, but comes too late). Feels like a set-up, but still valuable for glimpses of 70s life (white politicians stroll through Watts, etc) and political comparisons - as ever, the Republican opponent is able to wrap himself unabashedly in God and Country but our hero's own positions (e.g. being pro-choice) must be diluted for public consumption. Final act turns briefly into farce - The Candidate cracking up in a TV studio, or spouting gibberish in the back of the limo - which is brave and unexpected in a film so righteous.
36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (67) (Lau Kar-Leung, 1978): Starts as handsome, well-paced, slightly old-fashioned adventure, bursts into potent initiation-myth with a touch of the Twelve Tasks of Hercules (or maybe superhero origin-myths, learning to harness one's powers), ends as straightforward chop-socky. Moral questions are dodged, esp. the ones about kung-fu being used for revenge and whether it's right for a monk to kill - in the end he stands by piously while someone else delivers the killer-blow, which just seems hypocritical - but the middle section is glorious ur-adventure, evoking ancient rituals and tribal tests of manhood, though it might've worked (even) better had there been only, say, 5 or 6 Chambers of Shaolin, with more time spent on mastering each one. It's funny watching hero zoom from chamber to chamber (35, 34, 33...), esp. when it turns out he took five years to conquer them all; feels more like half an hour.
IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS (78) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978): Fassbinder's emphasis on victims always verges on the tedious, but this goes way beyond simplistic victimhood. The transsexual hero(ine) isn't really victimised (most people treat him/her kindly, esp. the nun at the orphanage and the wife and child from "Elvira"'s past life as "Erwin"), but feels tormented about his/her identity and the fear that the operation may have been a mistake, making the film a tale of alienation - the worst kind, alienation from oneself - and the feeling of Life pressing down unbearably. "My great fear is that someday I'll find words to express my emotions," says someone grimly, and several stories are told as if to make sense of the world, though none of them has a clear moral - incl. the fairytale of the boy and girl who get turned into a mushroom and a snail by an evil witch and the boy lets his little sister eat him to relieve her hunger, a mordant metaphor for the way Love bleeds into pain and masochism; meanwhile the visuals press down, Elvira trapped in doorways and frames-within-the-frame, crammed into the corners of wide-shots, and the film uses stagy devices (incl. long takes) to detach itself, echoing the lines of a man about to kill himself, that he's doing it so things won't be so real anymore. The mise-en-scene is flashy and brilliant - the grisly scene with a slaughterhouse backdrop (echoing Elvira's sense of being a "piece of meat", oppressed by Life and her feelings), the interlude in a video arcade heavy with urban anomie, the constant soundtrack of song and TV snippets - and when the confrontation with the cynical ex-lover turns into a Jerry Lewis dance number (intercut with Jerry himself on TV) the rather strident class-conflicts of FOX AND HIS FRIENDS seem worlds away (this is actually the chronologically-latest Fassbinder I've seen and maybe I just need to see more of his late-70s/early-80s work, when he seems to have become more abstract and flamboyant). Apparently a film about Fassbinder's own ex-lover who killed himself, which may explain both the theatrical devices - deflecting painful emotion - and more complex tone; RWF himself appears briefly (I'm almost sure) in the TV clips when Elvira's friend channel-hops, and may also be there in a snippet of interview dialogue we hear in the background: "Why do you make so many films?"; "It's a form of madness..."
MARCH 1, 2006
DEAR HEART (63) (Delbert Mann, 1964): This would obviously be a TV movie nowadays - and I don't watch TV movies, so where do I get off recommending it? It's a puzzle, yet the film is (mostly) delightful, esp. Geraldine Page as a dotty middle-aged woman using eccentricity as a thin disguise for abject loneliness - she's everyone's friend, acts as den-mother to colleagues, knows every bellhop and elevator-boy in the hotel where most of the action takes place, likes to guess the names of total strangers ("You sound like your name must be Virginia"), yet is reduced to sending herself 'Welcome' messages signed "Bimbo Jones" (the name of her dream-man in childhood) and asking the hotel staff to page her so she can hear her name being called. The script uses obvious devices like giving minor characters a catch-phrase - hero's teenage stepson always refers to his new car as "that car I bought", which is both a gag and a comment on his insecure pride at having bought a car - but everyone seems sharp and vividly delineated, or maybe it's just refreshing to see a film that consciously tries for characterisation (nowadays the 'cinematic' thing is to reveal such things through action, not dialogue). Bright and funny, yet it has no rep at all so I waited for it to jump the shark - and it kind of does in the final act as the hero starts acting like a dunce (Glenn Ford does middle-aged befuddlement really well, but the character's supposed to be a smooth man-of-the-world) and the plot becomes a waiting-game for True Love to out. Still surprisingly memorable (and quite frank, for 1964), with a sideways glance at 60s mores - e.g. the "masher" who tries to take advantage of our heroine - and the days when New York was a byword for rude waitresses and people in a hurry. Moral of the story? The current chasm between movies and TV does nobody any good in my opinion.
THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (56) (Jacques Tourneur, 1950): Visually the opposite of its exuberant follow-up THE CRIMSON PIRATE, which was all daylight, blue seas and open spaces; this one has a palette of dun-browns and ambers, lots of night scenes and such murky visuals I assumed it was a bad print - especially since e.g. Maltin calls it "colorful" and other sources emphasise the Technicolor - but the darkness must be deliberate since our hero actually uses darkness as a weapon in the climactic duel. The plot is ROBIN HOOD with a touch of CASABLANCA, hero Burt Lancaster learning to move beyond his initial philosophy that "I'm not out to right anybody's wrongs but my own", though Waldo Salt's script gets distracted by the muddled character of the disaffected nobleman who joins Lancaster's ranks only to finally side with the Prince John figure in a display of class solidarity - there's a lot of left-wing subtext in general, with the 'Never trust an aristo' message and central theme of the individual learning to sacrifice his will for the good of the community - weakening the final confrontation with the main villain, though he does get his comeuppance in a neat move evoking both William Tell and Andy Garcia in THE UNTOUCHABLES. Lancaster's acrobatics make it fun (and when someone throws a spear across the room, missing him by inches, that's obviously a real javelin travelling at speed as it zings into the wall beside his head), ditto silent partner Nick Cravat's Harpo Marx stylings, but the look cramps both their styles. Best insult: "That jaundiced excretion from a devious toad's eye!".
THE EASY LIFE (81) (Dino Risi, 1962): No exposition or back-story - plunges straight into road-movie that rollicks along, ever more extravagant, punctuated by Italian pop music and the national cinema's gregarious passion for people (see also: De Sica), flowing from vignette to vignette - two German girls, an elderly hitch-hiker, a broken toilet, a desultory meeting with a girl in a train station - which is also the style of the extrovert Life Force played by Vittorio Gassman. He mentors a shy young man (the film is like ZORBA done right) but he's kind of a mixed blessing - full of life but not a nice person, given to casual cruelty, lacking compassion, flitting across moods and relationships, firmly in denial about his own weakness; he can charm with his arrogance, but those who know him well treat him with contempt. The road-movie is so marvellous it seems a shame when it settles down in the final act - but that too is memorable, a day at the beach with callous rich people (Antonioni and L'ECLISSE get name-dropped in the first half-hour). Often dismissed as superficial, but its freewheeling tone hides a sharp portrait of the modern opportunist, always looking to score points (the Italian title, IL SORPASSO, refers to his obsession with overtaking the car in front) - yet he's also ebullient and hilarious, and the film is freewheeling and free-spirited. For better or worse, exactly my kind of movie.
THE BROWNING VERSION (71) (Anthony Asquith, 1951): Strangely enough (given the rating), all I can find are criticisms: the climax is hokey, Michael Redgrave's performance - however legendary - is so introverted it's hard to see why the kid should like him so much ("I feel sorry for him," he explains more than once, but is feeling sorry such a powerful force in a teenage boy's psyche?), and the whole thing comes close to homoerotic fantasy, a man destroyed - Agamemnon-like - by his wife (virtually the only woman in the film, and its least sympathetic character), specifically her jibes at his manhood and her cravings for sex which he can't supply, only to be revived by the pure love of another, (much) younger man. All true, I guess, yet the shot of the dead-inside schoolmaster weeping uncontrollably at the boy's pathetic little gift of the Browning Version - seen from behind, his body racked by sobs but the camera refusing to intrude on his private epiphany - left me in much the same state as the character, and the whole thing is solidly-done, the wife's sexual frustration never reduced to hysteria (if anything, Redgrave seems naive for imagining his chaste kind of love could stand in for the 'other' kind); maybe it's just of its time, which is why I never really went for the Mike Figgis remake. Everyone's very well-spoken - even the boys - but it's par for the course in a tale of words concealing what they can't express, finally siding with the coded majesty of Art over plain-spoken Science (the wife's lover, played by bluff Nigel Patrick); deduct at least 5 points if you find GOODBYE MR. CHIPS-type school stories cloying and insufferable, as opposed to shamefully irresistible.
ROBERTA (56) (William A. Seiter, 1935): Allegedly the great unknown (or at least underrated) Astaire-Rogers, but it's odd - and disturbing - to see them play second-banana to stolid Randolph Scott and top-billed Irene Dunne, whose operetta-style trilling is doubtless very accomplished but leaks all the rueful self-awareness out of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (the score is packed with standards, also including "I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me" and "Lovely to Look At", though the latter loses some of its charm when Dunne is singing it to Scott). Fred and Ginger dance, of course, but the first couple of times it's laced with comedy - pratfalls, etc - neutering the secret potency at the heart of Astaire's persona, that he acts like a goofball but put him on a dance floor and he becomes a machine. It gets better, dance-wise, but the plot is tedious and people keep exchanging 'sparkling' dialogue like "Every day you act worse, but today you're acting like tomorrow". Watching it straight after SWING TIME didn't help, presumably.
SWING TIME (77) (George Stevens, 1936): Second viewing, no real change in rating. What happened was I watched a couple of scenes and felt I'd overrated it, but in fact you need to watch the whole thing because the point is the way it unfolds, esp. the deferred anticipation of seeing Fred and Ginger dance - at first he pretends he can't dance, only showing off his mad skillz at the right moment, then their big appearance at the nightclub keeps getting delayed (it takes half the film before they really let loose on a dancefloor); it's the first of their 'mature' vehicles, when their star attraction was a given - a known asset - and could be held in reserve like a trump card (the other advantage is the music serves a narrative function, resolving the tension in the plot; it's exhilarating when Fred finally shows he can dance, or Ginger's hostility melts before "The Way You Look Tonight"). Some of it is also very funny - esp. Fred's visit to the girl he's just left at the altar, with not just the girl and her father but also the family dog and cat, and even a painting on the wall, all glaring at him - though the ending falls flat and Victor Moore isn't as fizzy a comic sidekick as Edward Everett Horton. Stevens' style is to keep the camera slightly aloof in the dance numbers, which probably works better on the big screen though it does allow for swooping crane-shots down to the performers; "Bojangles of Harlem" should be filed alongside future Fred experiments in special effects like "Stepping Out With my Baby" in EASTER PARADE (with which it shares an identical set-up, Fred in foreground with a swaying crowd behind him) and of course the ceiling-dance in ROYAL WEDDING.
MIRROR (72) (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975): Second viewing, rating up 20 points, though in fact Tarkovsky's work is so mysterious each new screening is sui generis, dependent on one's mood at the time (though SOLARIS has put me to sleep twice now). Usual concerns here, Modern Man divorced from his "inner nature" - and indeed from Nature - as the doctor puts it early on, just like the boy in the pre-credits (found-footage) sequence, his stammer the visible sign of his inner turmoil. The present opens into past and future, a young woman faced by an old one in the mirror, a dying man assailed by flashbacks; the film's free-associative editing vaults Time leaving only what matters, the resilient aftertaste of Memory, a burning house in a haunted forest, seen from a distance in a half-recalled childhood. Dreamlike, explicitly tinged with déjà vu and an animist, peculiarly Russian longing for austere (yet Romantic) sublimation, boiling things down to their spiritual essence: "In replying as to the effect the arts and sciences have on our mores, Rousseau replied: 'A negative one'."
LES MISERABLES (72) (Richard Boleslawski, 1935): Act 3 suffers from sappy young lovers, and though I've never read the book (too long) I always thought Javert devoted himself to hunting Valjean down, instead of their lives accidentally intertwining as happens here (I'm obv. wrong, since the film is apparently quite faithful, but I still prefer the version in my mind); seriously impressive nonetheless, both for visuals (DP Gregg Toland) and performances. Fredric March takes his close-ups like a champ, smoulders with unexpected energy - he obviously calcified in later life - shows his range in a broad-comedy interlude but also (unlike many Jean Valjeans) brings out Valjean's dark side, his rage, his jealousy. Charles Laughton with a crew-cut looks a bit like Graham Moffatt, the petulant 'fat boy' in Will Hay's 30s comedies, his Javert a tetchy paranoiac with a sour expression, insecurity seeping through his tight-lipped power-trip like an embarrassing damp patch. Toland does fancy things with light and shade - the priest's goodness symbolised by the moon coming out from behind the clouds, Javert stepping into shadow as the first suspicions of Valjean infect his mind - but in fact every composition is tight and superbly balanced; then there's a coach-chase and the film goes mad, cutting all over the place like a proto-Michael Bay. Ending makes it seem like Javert's death is in response to our hero's prayer rather than the last despairing act of a broken man, but I guess they liked their punitive Gods in the 30s.
UHF (58) (Jay Levey, 1989): People have been urging me to see this for years - and I wasn't disappointed, though full enjoyment will depend on your patience (not much, in my case) with the antics of Kramer-in-"Seinfeld" as Stanley the janitor, playing a cross between Jerry Lewis and Mickey's friend Goofy. First half is the wilder, with not so much of Kramer-in-"Seinfeld" and uproarious spoofs dropped into the plot with no warning, allegedly part of the schedules on Weird Al's TV station - trailers for "Gandhi II" (featuring the dhoti-wearing sage as an ass-kicking tough guy) and "Conan the Librarian", an ad for Spatula City, home of the spatula (advertising jingle: "We sell spatulas ... and that's all!"), etc etc. Family-movie plot gets in the way, and there's a few too many groaners aimed at the kid audience, of the "I can't kill you, you still owe me five bucks" variety; maybe not 'ironic' enough for today's market, and in fact - unlike other 80s/90s cult comedies, e.g. FREAKED - I can see it being a bit dated for 00s teens. ZAZ-type jokes are fine, e.g. the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK boulder following our hero not just inside the cave but across fields and down a city street, but I predict furrowed brows among the Xbox crowd at the "Beverly Hillbillies" song or GONE WITH THE WIND ending, not to mention: "Badgers? ... WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' BADGERS!!!"
FEBRUARY 1, 2006
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (66) (Woody Allen, 1984): Second viewing, first in about 18 years; down from 8 out of 10, though it's clear Woody's working at the peak of his comedic powers - the one-liners don't creak like they do in his recent work, don't feel exposed or set up but emerge from the dialogue, as if spontaneously (many are afterthoughts or parentheses: "my Uncle Maurice ... the famous diabetic from Brooklyn"; or, when Mia tells him they should try to overpower the guard because "there's two of us and only one of him", "y'know he's got an axe - there's two of us, there could be four of us..."). Doesn't totally work, though, and I'm not sure why; maybe the plot peters out, maybe it's the odd emphasis on big spaces in a tale that cries out for intimacy - the big Mafia party, the warehouse with the floats, the New Jersey "flatlands" (a strange locale for urbanite Woody), even the cavernous corridor where the crooner tells Danny he's getting a new manager. Danny's shocked reaction may be one of Allen's best acting moments, fleshing out what's really an extended caricature of the showbiz schmoozer with his blather and circumlocutions ("May I interject one concept at this juncture?"). Still very funny, but somehow minor; maybe I just need to see it with an audience. "Allen's big mistake is to have the final scene with Allen and Farrow be in longshot," claims Danny Peary in "Guide for the Film Fanatic", and he's wrong, wrong, wrong.
DEEP THROAT (50) (Gerard Damiano, 1972): The warm flesh-tones are the biggest revelation, so much nicer-looking (and more sensual) than the metallic video drabness of modern porn. The un-enhanced body parts are the second-biggest, with their reassuring sags and marks (is it a paradox that it's more arousing to fantasise about ordinary people than fantasy figures?). And the comedy tone is the third-biggest, raising the startling notion that porn might actually be fun as opposed to furtive, grim-faced masturbation fodder. All that said, a pretty flimsy movie with cringe-inducing dialogue and not even all-that-memorable sex, though that Linda Lovelace sure is a handful. Mouthful. Whatever...
JANUARY 1, 2006