OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2009, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 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 six 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.

[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]


THE WEDDING NIGHT (56) (King Vidor, 1935): Gary Cooper musters all his sensitivity - always odd to see such a feminine delicacy in his burly, macho figure - for the final gazing-out-the-window speech, but Anna Sten makes an unworthy object of desire (too lightweight), their scenes are a little dreary and in any case I looked forward to a final Lubitsch-style risqué joke on the Wedding Night once the groom drinks himself into oblivion, Cooper sneaking in for a last hurrah and the Other Man (Ralph Bellamy, natch) unable to protest without losing face. What happens is instead much more sombre, maybe because it was 1935 (not 1932), maybe because Vidor has a more serious agenda, complicating the city/country dynamic - revealing the 'authentic' country folk as tyrants and the brittle, silly socialite wife as equally "dutiful", in her more casual way. Speaking of which, Helen Vinson would've been a cert for Skandie points in 1935, though of course Elsa Lanchester owned Supporting Actress.

DELIVERANCE (78) (John Boorman, 1972): Third viewing, first in >15 years. Wasn't going to write any comment - the film is famous enough without my two cents - but I feel the need to counter the accepted reading, unquestioningly adopted even by David Thomson who writes (in his entry on Boorman): "The visual account of the journey and the irrational hostility of the hill people are stunning. But the idea of the movie - that modern man is already so far from the wilderness that he is unsuited to its rigours - is so clear as to seem shallow as the film progresses". This is off the mark, in my opinion. The film isn't about hostile hillbillies (the only relevant word in that sentence is "irrational"), it's about Doubt. The point isn't that Nature shows these cocky city boys to be sissies "unsuited to its rigours", it's that it takes these settled men - good husbands, good fathers, "well thought of" in their professions - and makes them unsettled. Mixed messages abound from the start - that the landscape can be beautiful, yet hide such misery; that Drew and the banjo boy seem to have bonded through music (the 'universal language') yet the banjo boy doesn't even acknowledge him the next time he sees him - then the Ethical Dilemma raises new questions about the right thing to do, then, in the second half, doubt extends also to the narrative, even to the style. Was Drew shot, or did he fall? Is there a killer watching from the mountains? Finally, most crucially, who exactly is the dead mountain man? (The rednecks may seem grotesque, but their weirdness is part of the schema: in the end, the men's trouble stems from the fact that they - literally - can't tell one toothless mountain man from another.) Boorman makes the film teem with Doubt, both dramatic and (implicitly) existential, in the hazy visuals and slippery rapids, in the way he shoots - e.g. the cliff-top showdown, confusingly filmed so it looks for a moment like the man's been struck by another arrow altogether - and the way he structures (so e.g. they initially tie Drew's body to the boat - with the idea of finding out if his wound is a bullet-wound - then the idea is simply dropped, the bit where they (presumably) say 'This is impractical' simply elided), carries Doubt into the odd, shuffling coda - full of suggestive things-half-said - then makes it explicit in the ending, which is grim and haunting and surely inspired De Palma in CARRIE. Inbred rednecks? Takes more than that to create one of the best American films of the early 70s.       

MR. DENNING DRIVES NORTH (58) (Anthony Kimmins, 1952): Rating significantly lower for much of the first half - sub-Hitchcock (or indeed Lang - respectable man in trouble, as in WOMAN IN THE WINDOW) with sloppy touch and rushed storytelling - but the noose tightens, the near-misses pile up (flavoured with a mordant sense of humour, plus satirical digs at foolish magistrates and self-important mortuary attendants), and the result is a very civilised entertainment. Stolid John Mills - "What a disgustingly sloppy scene!" he stiff-upper-lips when he spots wife and daughter hugging - not ideal casting as the creative Mr. Denning, though aircraft design seems to have been quite the glamorous profession in Britain circa 1952, what with this and THE SOUND BARRIER.

DECEMBER 1, 2009

TWEET'S LADIES OF PASADENA (72) (Timothy Carey, 1970): Indescribable - esp. since it only survives in work-print form, making it even more anarchic and fragmentary than (presumably) intended - but imagine W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER mode, playing a folksy benign protagonist (dressed in overalls, with a feather in his hat) in a Saturday-morning kids' TV show, meeting assorted friends and sidekicks while stoned on some sinister happy-drugs. Titular (old) ladies giggle and crochet, Tweet's slatternly cockney wife - a John Waters character - stuffs her face and yells from the bedroom, a hunchback appears and leaves ("Sorry, wrong house"), there are stilted line-readings by obvious non-actors ("I love this weather"; "Yeah, let's go swimming"), people talking in unison, two random seconds of birds flying, shots of real people on the streets of Pasadena reacting angrily as Tweet and his ladies block traffic, etc. At the centre is Timothy Carey, a merrily lunatic master-of-ceremonies, clowning and cooing and falling over, tickling himself and going "Toodle-oo!" - and hoping, incredibly, to interest TV networks in turning this surreal chaos into a weekly event. Little bit monotonous, even at 71 mins., but it hardly matters. It's one of a kind.  

SEX AND FURY (69) (Norifumi Suzuki, 1973): Seen as prep for the Jasper Sharp-curated pinky retro in Thessaloniki - but I needn't have bothered, because this lavish, sensual film isn't much like those rough-edged B-movies (*). Narratively shaky - most bewildering when it places heroine in a complex dramatic dilemma after she discovers the identity of "Butterfly", then simply lets her off the hook - but a work of Art, superbly designed in vivid colours (it's a film that illustrates Godard's dictum about blood being simply "red") and strong compositions: the 'naked battle' is striking not just because Reiko Ike is nude but because her nude body moves in a graceful arc through the frame, with men falling away at various angles on either side of her. All this, and sultry baby-faced Christina Lindberg too.  

(*): I walked out of one - SECRET HOT SPRING RESORT: STARFISH AT NIGHT (1970), because it was being shown on awful projected video - and watched two more, WOODS ARE WET (1973) and SECRET CHRONICLE: SHE BEAST MARKET (1974), but neither made much of an impression. WOODS (52) has a candle-lit ambience, some garden-variety sadism, and comically huge black boxes (apparently intended to mock the censors) covering up most of the action. MARKET (43) veers towards social comment, set in a sleazy neighbourhood where mother-and-daughter hookers ply their trade, but lost me before the end. Part of the problem in both seemed to be that sex was the only point - yet the sex itself was stymied by the Japanese prohibition on pubes, ending up mostly as a case of women getting manhandled and taken from behind. Yeah I know, I say that like it's a bad thing.

EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (75) (Werner Herzog, 1970): Rebellious dwarfs in a barren institution where everyone's a midget but the fixtures and buildings are normal-sized. They smash and burn, giggle endlessly, play children's games (they look, at first glance, like children, which is partly why it's all so disquieting); one little person shows her friend a scab on her leg then bends down, picks at a bit of dead skin and brings it to her mouth - "Let me try it too!" says the friend - another (the irrepressible Helmut Doring) stands around repeating random words and cackling like a proto-Beavis/Butthead - "Yeah! Police! Huh-huh!" - then takes part in a lengthy vaudeville as he tries (and fails) to climb into bed where his intended is waiting coquettishly. Easy to call it either freakshow or 60s-style larking-about, but Herzog not only captures the taste for anarchy inside every outsider but also, by placing human behaviour (scenes of the dwarfs hanging out, interacting, inspecting someone's bug collection) in an unfamiliar context - making it strange, in effect - brings to it an alarming clarity, even more alarming given the film's underlying sense of cruelty: the midget in charge oppresses the inmate midgets, they in turn tease and torment the blind midgets and all of them engage in cruelty to animals, kill a pig and crucify a monkey. Meanwhile hens peck at the ground, a van goes round in circles and a Spanish singer with a voice like a car-alarm screeches to the strains of a strummed guitar. Unforgettable, probably.

HOBSON'S CHOICE (59) (David Lean, 1954): All the martinet patriarchs / In David Lean films don't you know / Their tunnel-vision (oh whey oh) / Is their trump card yet it lays them low (The Bangles, "Think Like an Auteurist", 1986). Good idea (re-)watching this so soon after SOUND BARRIER - though here it's more a case of two strong-willed obsessives butting heads - really must get round to re-watching KWAI and LAWRENCE someday. In itself, well-mounted but outstays its welcome, and Charles Laughton ends up limiting himself by playing Hobson as a big baby.     

MACARIO (67) (Roberto Gavaldon, 1960): Pungent, morbid Mexican fairytale, powerfully strange in the set-up (on the Day of the Dead), slightly tedious as the tale plays itself out - though it's notable how Macario doesn't get corrupted by sudden wealth, as would be the probable narrative in an American (i.e. capitalist) variation, remaining not just honest and decent but also quite passive despite his newfound powers, hounded by the Church then finally learning a lesson about the inevitability/necessity of accepting Death. Recognisably grounded in a pious, superstitious, vestigially feudal culture, hence its special charge; though admittedly the writer of the original story (the elusive B. Traven) was probably born in Chicago.

NOVEMBER 1, 2009

THE SOUND BARRIER (73) (David Lean, 1952): Second viewing, first in >15 years. Slow to take off, even slightly annoying - till you realise Lean and (especially) Terence Rattigan also hate these driven, phlegmatic men who've set out to break the sound barrier because "it's just got to be done", Ralph Richardson's aviation magnate played as a madman (witness his alarming chuckle when offering our hero a job as test pilot), Nigel Patrick's hero Blimpish and repressed with his "Piece of cake"s and "Jolly good"s and "I shall think most awfully hard"s. "I love you so very much," he tells the heroine, stiff upper lip never wavering - and her puzzled pain, caught between these two macho obsessives, undermines the derring-do compellingly (though it needed a stronger actress than Ann Todd), incidentally acting as a dry run for Col. Nicholson in KWAI. Really an incredibly perverse film, even the 'miracle of air travel' sequence - London to Cairo in five hours - tinged with a question mark (the shot of the Parthenon with the plane flying overhead) echoing Todd's question about the point of it all - though there's also, on the other hand, a vague sexist suggestion that she brings disaster on herself with her nagging and questioning (cf. the other wife, who refuses to worry). Works as a sign of the times, strongly implying that wartime (or Imperial) virtues like pluck and never-say-die must give way to intelligence and imagination in the post-war world of science and technology, also works as twisted drama with slick tricks and big narrative risks. Ending is unfortunately soft, bolstering those who see it (wrongly, imho) as a case of heroic Britishness.       

OCTOBER 1, 2009

LANDSCAPE SUICIDE (74) (James Benning, 1986): Starts off with three-minutes-plus of a tennis player practising her serve, again and again, followed by a reverse-shot of the other side of the court, dotted with tennis balls - anticipating the question at the heart of the film, whether violent actions (viz. the serves) leave a mark on the landscapes around them, though also raising doubts insofar as the distribution of balls looks suspiciously neat and regular, making you wonder if it's really a shot of the after-effects or just a posed facsimile. Beware of neat conclusions - and beware also of forging any links between the two murders depicted (via tense, lengthy interviews with the murderers) and the environs where the murders were committed; the landscapes are unremarkable, snow-shrouded, rain-sodden - Benning's eye isn't so much for the striking image, more in conveying the settledness and solidity of things - and perhaps infected by what happened around them, or perhaps that's only our projection; the interviews (based on actual transcripts) are surprisingly gripping, proof that Benning can direct (non-)actors as effectively as skies and lakes. Doubtless a minor work for hardcore fans, but perfect - with its character detail and air of a courtroom drama - for visiting plot-whores; the nostalgic aspects - big 80s hair and the like - aren't strictly speaking relevant, but it's worth noting (now that both murder cases are equally part of History) that it had some added resonance in '86 by juxtaposing two ends of the spectrum, an infamous, repellent 30-year-old case and a sad, almost poignant, then-recent one. 

SEPTEMBER 1, 2009

THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (48) (Enzo G. Castellari, 1978): Haven't seen QT at time of writing but it's clearly going to be a case of Deconstruct or Die, because this is a noisy, samey, moderately cool WW2 action flick that wouldn't really hold the attention as a straight remake. Has a certain purity, insofar as it's very much like kids playing war - run around, shoot, fall down, ad infinitum - but the characters go nowhere much (esp. the most interesting character, the sympathetic Nazi), apparent sub-plots (the brewing racial conflict, the young soldier's cowardice under fire) simply disappear, only Fred Williamson has real charisma - and he's sadly underused in the climax - and making a bigot your romantic hero isn't the best guarantee of a happy ending. Action scenes okay, slightly rudimentary - run around, shoot, fall down - and those Germans seem to go down awfully easily. 

BUTCH AND SUNDANCE: THE EARLY DAYS (49) (Richard Lester, 1979): A prequel to a hit movie is never a great idea, a prequel to a hit that coasted mostly on charm - an elusive quality - even less so. Lester seems to be trying for an epic-picaresque view of the West, from snowscape to desert with a few incidentals like a quick glimpse of Chinese coolies building the railroad, but the tone is uncertain, either too slapstick or too serious in the scenes where Butch and Sundance save each other's life (albeit needed to cement their bond, etc); stirring climax makes up for a lot, but before that the pair are exchanging feeble banter - "I've been thinking"; "That could be dangerous" - and Lester's doing desperate things like a shoot-out reflected in a mirror. The scene where Sundance gets his name is notably weak but it does contain a line that resonates, in a way entirely unintended 30 years ago: "You ever been to Telluride?".

THE PEARL OF DEATH (57) (Roy William Neill, 1944): First exposure to the Sherlock Holmes series of the 40s, and apparently it's based on Conan Doyle but it plays like a monster movie (freaky-looking Rondo Hatton as "The Creeper", who kills his victims by snapping their spines) with occasional comic knockabout involving Dr. Watson. Surprisingly enjoyable, with the major caveat that the plotting wouldn't pass muster in an episode of "Murder She Wrote", being either too obvious or implausible (question, for the 0.001% who've seen the movie: Why do the villains bother disguising their fiendish plan with mounds of broken china, when they could just take the Napoleon busts away and smash them at their convenience?); Holmes is a man of action more than deduction, which may be what the wartime audience wanted - and it's also (I suspect) a wartime wrinkle that the villain is marked out as a sadist, a man who likes "cruelty for its own sake", duly berated by the Baker Street moralist: "I don't like the smell of you. An underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay..." 

LAUGHTER IN PARADISE (57) (Mario Zampi, 1951): Like much high-concept farce, promising in the set-up and increasingly tedious - because schematic - in execution, nor does it help that only one of the four stories is especially funny; since that one involves Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell, however - a mild-mannered writer and his fiancée "Fluffy", described as "an officer and a lady" - the film clearly isn't a complete loss. Zampi does the occasional visual joke - not to mention an audio joke, when Sim gets introduced via his unmistakable voice droning on in the background while we look at something else - and nothing really beats pompous middle-aged Brits being crusty: "The bank is no place for music-hall repartee, Mr. Russell!".

THE RECKLESS MOMENT (70) (Max Ophuls, 1949): A sleek, sinuous movie, smuggling a tale of Redemption in the folds of a film noir - which is not to say the thriller plot becomes irrelevant (though e.g. the role of the cops is almost insignificant; this is not a tale of a respectable person feeling the noose of the Law slowly tightening, like THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW), just that emphasis shifts to James Mason as the well-spoken blackmailer, and the way he sees in Joan Bennett an idealized mother like the one he once betrayed (though of course it's also a twisted love story). She is indeed a mother - it defines her - practical, matter-of-fact, unshakeable, disposing of a body in the same brisk manner in which she gives instructions to the maid or tells her teenage son to put some clothes on, treating the rupture in her world like a leak in the kitchen; amusingly, her control-freakery is matched by Ophuls' (the camera moves are obvious, but note e.g. the elaborate background choreography during Dad's first phone call), which is why the film isn't necessarily about repression - Mason says her family's a prison but in fact she seems in her element, except perhaps at the end (probably the one time she accepts someone else's help) when the chance for escape floats away and she senses for the first time what he meant to her. Curiously light and supple, a film of fears and intimations over actual suspense techniques. 

CRISS CROSS (76) (Robert Siodmak, 1949): Noir turns to heist movie then becomes strangely abbreviated, not necessarily by choice - looks like rushed/shoddy plotting - yet developing a dreamlike power. Turning-point is the heist itself, collapsing into near-unintelligible - people in masks shooting each other in a fog of tear-gas, with explosions all around and a siren sounding in the background - though in fact the turning-point is the bizarre tilted God's-eye travelling shot with which Siodmak introduces it, as if to say 'From here on, anything can happen'. His film is illogical, doom-laden, teeming with sex, and he (or the writer, or the casting director) has a knack for the striking detail and memorable bit-player: the alkie mastermind, the combustible henchman forever going "That's the ticket!", the mild-mannered bartender with a fear of "checkers" - and the starkness of the bar, so narrow his customers seem about to be crushed against the back wall - the deceptively friendly Mr. Nelson (though admittedly no match for Joe Chrest in THE UNDERNEATH). Not to mention the "rhumba" number introducing Yvonne de Carlo, almost as fevered and unexpected as the drum solo in PHANTOM LADY. 

THE SMALL BACK ROOM (64) (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949): Slightly dull for P&P, though well within their trademark ('very English') combination of passion and reserve; even at the climax, with our hero on the brink of epiphany - or death - his plight is filtered through an extra layer, the mediation of a random girl relaying his state of mind to her superiors. He's an insecure, boozy, non-confrontational scientist, only getting somewhere with the help of a good woman - and the help of the great English countryside (Salisbury Plain, a village in North Wales, a climactic landscape of sea and sky), standing in vivid contrast to the claustrophobic room of the title. Film's antipathy to Whitehall, just a few years after the war, is interesting - didn't those fat-cat civil servants just beat the Nazis? - but the nightmare sequence halfway through (assailed by huge clocks, etc) illustrates that 'interesting' isn't quite a match for 'dementedly awesome'.

ULZANA'S RAID (75) (Robert Aldrich, 1972): Second viewing, first since my teens when I dismissed it as a "dull Western ... once or twice stylish, mainly ineffective". Obv. insane, since "effective" is exactly what it is - a gripping action thriller, the only caveat being in the Message it pushes so effectively, dangerously close to the one in BLACK HAWK DOWN (viz. it's no good fighting savages with the rules of civilised warfare; you have to become as savage as they are). That said, the Apaches are complex creations, and the interplay of white men's responses often subtle; when the fresh-faced young lieutenant, having tried and tried - but failed - to 'understand', starts showing signs of becoming a racist, the shock is palpable. 

ROOM FOR ONE MORE (53) (Norman Taurog, 1952): Only watched this to see how Cary Grant would come off as the paterfamilias in a treacly family sitcom; 'Pretty bizarre' seems to be the answer, esp. when his goofy distracted banter and man-about-town demeanour turns out to be just the thing for embittered crippled kids and "disturbed adolescents". Blame his then-wife Betsy Drake, and indeed the film almost grinds to a halt in the first minute when Grant's V.O. says it's a film about his wife, "the one with a gleam in her eye", and we get a shot of Ms. Drake looking wooden and anything but gleaming. Still some cute moments, and the treacle isn't too outrageous compared to modern mawk-fests; married man or not, you won't catch Cary Grant being sloppy-sentimental.

THE PARADINE CASE (65) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1947): Everything they say is true: Hitchcock's stodgiest, wordiest movie, full of dull laborious talk, also hurt by miscasting; Gregory Peck isn't the actor to portray mad obsession - MOBY DICK notwithstanding - and Alida Valli is too chilly as the object of said obsession (maybe it needed Vivien Leigh). What it's trying for, however, is rather beautiful, exposing the System (invoked in the constant underlying emphasis on class and snobbery; even Peck is an interloper, having neglected to "dress" properly the first time he came courting for his wife) as merely the sum of flawed human impulses; Law vs. Emotion is an oft-mentioned theme, but in fact the judge - who claims to abhor emotion - may be handling the trial as he does because defence counsel's wife once rejected his advances, defence counsel is in love with the defendant yet also ranged against her because he wants to hold on to his wife (which is why he doesn't accede to her wishes, yet desperately wants to win the case), the defendant resents his tactics for her own emotional reasons, etc; it all builds to the totally unexpected scene towards the end when poor abused Ethel Barrymore (whom we barely even know) questions the need for any System at all: "Doesn't Life punish us enough?". Hard to say how much Hitchcock himself consciously focused on that, too much the snob perhaps (he mostly dwells on the class angle in his Truffaut interview, viewing the story as "the degradation of a gentleman"); but it's there.

WILD ROVERS (71) (Blake Edwards, 1971): Terrific balance of quirky and lyrical, then it starts to veer more wildly in the second half, going from BUTCH CASSIDY-isms (the horse-breaking scene, with dissolves and jaunty music) to WILD BUNCH-isms. No firm tone, no surprise that it failed to impress Metacritic 1971 (when it must've seemed like re-heated leftovers from recent hits) but it's very assured, Edwards always does something slightly unpredictable - we spend two hours ducking the inevitable buddy-buddy speech, then it turns out to be a eulogy - and he also lays it out (ever the writer) with an early scene where our heroes talk about the constant uncertainty of Life and ask each other if they're scared to die. Glorious photography, William Holden pitch-perfect, and this young-dumb-full-of-cum Ryan O'Neal is wildly preferable to the later restrained Ryan O'Neal; double-bill with BAD COMPANY as mildly revisionist early-70s Westerns that skew light-hearted but turn out to have sharp little teeth.     

STRANGER ON THE RUN (65) (Don Siegel, 1967): Too many twists, couple of weird eye-line mismatches, and Anne Baxter lets the side down (Siegel was never much of a women's director) - but the mark of a master is how all the characters are complicated (even Sal Mineo's non-role is complicated - through being played by Sal Mineo, raising suggestions of a homosexual relationship with another henchman), the play of motivations and the staging in tight diagrammed shots, culminating in the final interplay of Henry Fonda running foreground-to-background - catching up with the widow to close out their relationship and prompt the happy ending - and the train steaming in background-to-foreground (like it did in the opening scene) to close out the narrative line. One recalls Dan Duryea in eye-glasses (the ageing gunfighter), a quick shot of the shack where the mystery woman is hiding - a single light burning in a slate-grey twilight - and especially Michael Parks as the tight-lipped killer, semi-hiding his sensitivity behind macho gruffness as when he recalls the night his father was carried home dead: "Sold his watch and had a good supper". Also frequent fades-to-black for commercial breaks; hard to believe it's a made-for-TV movie.

SAVE THE TIGER (69) (John G. Avildsen, 1973): "Harry, they're shooting horse in the toilets in the high-school!". Also making jockstraps out of the American flag, hitching rides to nowhere in particular, propositioning middle-aged strangers and (above all) forgetting the great names of the past, Art Tatum and Glenn Miller and Jimmy Durante. It's the age of Vietnam, viewed through the tired, uncomprehending lens of the WW2 Generation - and the film is such a cry of pain and self-loathing it impresses despite itself (plus this kind of double-distilled nostalgia is always fun, see also BYE BYE BRAVERMAN), though it's immeasurably sharper when revealing the shady practices of Business America - punctuated with much charmingly-dated smoking and drinking - than pumping up its tragic hero with wordy speeches. Jack Lemmon suffers, though not as abjectly as he did in AVANTI! the year before (there, he seemed stifled; here, he seems to be enjoying it); Jack Gilford is a moral anchor, and steals the movie. Second viewing, first in >20 years. 

AUGUST 1, 2009

BAD TIMING (63) (third viewing: 55) (Nicolas Roeg, 1980): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Initially leaves itself open to one kind of feminist objection, viz. a tale of out-of-control female sexuality needing to be punished - the framing device underlines that this voluptuous free spirit must come to a bad end, esp. when sex is being cross-cut with surgery - finally leaves itself open to another kind of feminist objection, viz. that the woman gets forgotten, reduced to a concept while dramatic emphasis shifts to Art Garfunkel and his Dostoyevskian battle of wits with (increasingly bizarre) cop Harvey Keitel. In between is a clever instance of a gradually-shifting dynamic, what looks at first like a case of Woman being flighty and hysterical while psychology professor Art tries to understand her (the setting is Vienna; Freud is conspicuously present; Art calls himself an "observer") turning out to be a case of Woman trying to Be Herself while Art becomes obsessed with controlling her (literally so in the "ravishment" climax), a metaphor both for the prejudice inherent in the male gaze and the therapy process itself. More absorbing than exciting, but it's solidly done; Roeg tones down the fragmentary style, though he still likes to end scenes by going out-of-focus while zooming into table lamps or fire extinguishers. [Third viewing, July 2015: Don't know why I keep coming back to this movie, I'm obvs. never going to love it - but what really stood out this time is how hard it pushes the theme of Who People Are, even before The Who turn up to sing "Who are you?". Art tries to pin Theresa down, to define who she is instead of loving her, and indeed there's even a political angle (he's NATO, she's Eastern Europe); all quite intriguing, but Roeg's choppy style no longer exhilarates - if it ever did - it just gets in the way.]  

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (77) (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933): "LeRoy" and "auteur" aren't words one normally associates, but comparing this to the other two Busby Berkeley musicals from 1933 (the ones directed by Lloyd Bacon) shows a notably harsher edge of social comment, as might be expected from the director of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. Unlike FOOTLIGHT PARADE, which saves all its Berkeley numbers for the climax - ending in a rapturous burst of theatrical fantasy, implicitly washing away the characters' problems - this not only spreads them out but also ends on "My Forgotten Man", not an escapist bauble but an angry Depression song, performed by Joan Blondell in a bitter recitative that takes much of the theatricality out of it. PARADE is admittedly more satisfying (and funnier), this one bogged down slightly by the mistaken-identity plot in the second half - but even that is valuable in weeding out cutesiness, stretching our heroines' mercenary ways from mischievous larks (the business with the hats) to out-and-out deceit and extortion; in many ways, it goes right to the brink, staring into the abyss of Depression heartlessness (Aline MacMahon in particular comes close to being unsympathetic), pulled back only slightly by the happy ending. Which is not to say it isn't also blithe, silly fun; because it is.

IT LIVES AGAIN (51) (Larry Cohen, 1978): Turns out the jagged Cohen style looks suspiciously close to ineptitude when, as here, he's not fully invested in a project (possibly because it's a sequel) - or maybe he was fully invested and trying for something that didn't quite come off, but either way the rhythm feels wrong, action broken up by too-short inserts, actors directed negligently if at all - Frederic Forrest seems to have decided to play his character as an inveterate jerk, and some of his line-readings (like the comic throwaway when the obstetrician decides to bill them for delivering the baby) are inexplicable - and there are tangents like a totally pointless scene at a kids' birthday party. Still more interesting than it might be in other hands - Cohen pays more than lip-service to the theme that a killer baby is still a baby (to quote Robin Wood, this "is surely the first horror film in which the suspense derives as much from attempts to protect the monster as from the menace it represents"), and also wonders e.g. how conceiving a monster might affect the couple's subsequent sex life - but just for completists really.   

CLASH BY NIGHT (73) (Fritz Lang, 1952): "You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair, but he doesn't know which." It's a fine line between gloriously cryptic noir dialogue and the florid theatrical hand of Clifford Odets (who wrote the original play), and this does threaten to tip over into camp occasionally - e.g. when beefy palooka Paul Douglas as the childlike, cheated husband marches off yelling "Animals! Animals!" - but most of it is brilliantly twisted, tough cookie Barbara Stanwyck trying to resist raging misogynist/misanthrope Robert Ryan (you're like me, he snarls: "You're born, and you'd like to be un-born") in a fishing town where everything gets processed, both fish and people's lives. Violence simmers throughout - even the 'healthy' love between tomboyish, unaffected Marilyn Monroe (probably her most natural performance) and her hunky beau teems with playful violence - ditto the self-destructive impulse of craving oblivion. "I need a drink. What do you need, Miss D'Amato?" "Well, let's say a drink..." 

DINER (78) (Barry Levinson, 1982): Second complete viewing, first in 26 years. No way this warm, perfectly-proportioned comedy could ever stop being awesome, though I did notice this time that Timothy Daly's character - 'Billy', the friend who comes back - is something of a dead spot at the centre of the action (also noticed more of a soft edge, though that may just be knowledge of Levinson's later career). Then again, I also noticed lots more incidental period detail, like the soldier (is it a soldier?) asleep in the bus station, the middle-aged customer in the strip-joint or the coloured maid not even acknowledged by Billy - though he surely knows her - as she vacuums away in a corner of the living-room (the camera lingers on the maid to make the point). Also, I now know SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS well enough to notice how autistic Milton makes a small mistake when reciting the dialogue, adding inadvertent homoerotic undertones (he says "this guy is taking that guy around" instead of "this one / that one") - and why do I suspect it's not a mistake, and Levinson knows exactly what he's doing?

JULES AND JIM (62) (Francois Truffaut, 1962): Second viewing, first in 18 years, rating definitely higher though it's still kind of an unpleasant viewing experience (not the modish opening act, which is actually over quite quickly, but the combination of heartless people and frustrated emotions, albeit with a soupcon of crushed romanticism). Guess I was too immature in '91 to appreciate the bittersweet beauty of its romantic push-and-pull (though it's actually explained in voice-over even before the opening credits), but it does seem to veer into misogyny in the final section, when Catherine becomes a destructive force as implied revenge for Jim telling her off, exposing her for what she really is. Earlier, Jules quotes Baudelaire - "Woman is natural, therefore abominable" - which is obviously a joke. Or is it.

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (47) (Leo McCarey, 1945): Pretends to be slicker than GOING MY WAY, setting up conflict in the opening scenes - the nuns (we're informed) drove Father O'Malley's predecessor to distraction; he had to be carried away in a wheelchair - totally belied by the film itself, which is leisurely at best, Crosby and Bergman too wholesome to actually spar. McCarey is a lot like O'Malley, refusing to flunk anyone (he'd rather lower standards than break a child's heart by not passing them, says the padre), but the tender-eyed auteur's fabled generosity comes close to senility when he stops the plot to show 4-year-olds acting out an entire Christmas pageant in real time. Pretends to be harsher than GOING MY WAY, setting up a brave (if unconvincing) downbeat ending - and I won't spoil the details, but don't get your hopes up.

GOING MY WAY (54) (Leo McCarey, 1944): Remarkably subtle in the big moments, remarkably laboured in the little ones. Tests the patience with all kinds of sentimental blarney, but then it comes up with a delicately-spun sequence like the older priest realising the younger one isn't his assistant but in fact his superior, or a grace-note like Barry Fitzgerald's flawless underplaying at the very end (or a blindsiding "Ave Maria" coming out of nowhere). Bing Crosby might've been (even) more amiable if he were less condescending about teenagers, 'modern' music and atheists ("You even throw like an atheist!"), but the fact that his singing croon is so unlike his speaking voice - that he sounds normal then suddenly these uncannily smooth, honeyed tones emanate from his lips - is unconsciously a very good analogue for his character, the priest who looks and acts like an ordinary joe but is secretly imbued with the Grace of God. Often touching, which is quite a neat trick for a movie that's at least 50% tedious.

STROSZEK (65) (Werner Herzog, 1977): Second viewing, first in 6 years, down from 70. Maybe it's because I watched it on a double-bill with KASPAR HAUSER, which is clearly a more substantial film, or maybe it's that (a) Bruno S. isn't very interesting here, funny at first but increasingly playing straight-man to others (it's really just a straight Loser role, and his shrewd face isn't ideal for this kind of buffeted character; he was better-used dancing to his own secret music in KASPAR); and (b) there's a whole part of the story that hasn't been fully-imagined, viz. what kind of life Bruno and Eva live in Wisconsin (we just get quirky tangents, a tractor at the bottom of a frozen lake and experiments in "animal magnetism") and how/why it all goes wrong for them. It's a fine line, but it felt (on this viewing) like Herzog wasn't so much creating an absurdist universe as padding out the running-time with random flamboyant details: a dancing chicken, an auctioneer, a doctor cradling a premature baby - the last-named a scene so remarkable someone should clip it out and post it on YouTube. Oh wait, they already have

THE MYSTERY OF KASPAR HAUSER (65) (Werner Herzog, 1974): Second viewing, first in >20 years, no change in rating. Limited mostly by Herzog's conception of Kaspar as a prelapsarian Nature Boy, "a true child of Nature" as opposed to Logic (the professor), Religion (the priests), Art (the pretentious Count) or Science (the doctors at the end, who think they've found an "explanation" for who he was) - also of course aligning with the director's favourite theme, which is Man's doomed attempts to impose dominion over Nature (the characters here can't even impose themselves on an apple; "Clever little apple!" laughs Kaspar). "Herzog gives the sense of a director without ambivalence," writes Manny Farber, which is exactly right though not necessarily the compliment Farber intended; he's "fantastically concentrated on building his movie piece by piece" - and that sense of intense concentration is the film's redeeming feature, above all in the astonishing dreamlike spirals into near-mystical: wind-twisted fields, a misty mountain (with Death lurking at the top) and a final, baffling desert-vision out of FATA MORGANA.

THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND (62) (Budd Boetticher, 1960): Boetticher's strength may be in the lucid, methodical way he sets up his narratives - whether the stand-off in DECISION AT SUNDOWN or the psychological dynamic in THE TALL T - and the first half of this is quite riveting, Diamond's "rise" as he carefully plans his ascent step-by-step (he's more of a con-man than a gangster, playing people like chess pieces). Movement is important - 'Legs' is a dancer who finds prison unbearably claustrophobic; he needs to keep moving, step to step and person to person - which may be why it grows mechanical and increasingly disjointed in the second half as our anti-hero becomes a big-shot and settles into the high life, the plot descending into all-out war, but his coldness is still rather jaw-dropping - no punches pulled, a totally selfish man who uses everyone and makes no bones about it. Ray Danton is Laurence Harvey-like (but more graceful), a young Warren Oates and Dyan Cannon (looking like a feral sex-kitten) support, while Karen Steele doesn't quite avoid some clumsy fakery in Mrs. D.'s descent into alcoholism; "My dear, I think you're developing something of a liquor problem. As a matter of fact, you're a lush".

JULY 1, 2009

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (56) (Don Siegel, 1979): Clearly going for the pure, stripped-down style of A MAN ESCAPED (and of course it's a true story), yet it's also quite fake and theatrical, in details like the guard's "Welcome to Alcatraz" punctuated by a flash of lightning from the thunderstorm outside, or in characters with nicknames like Litmus and English (the former has a pet rat; the latter is a Magic Negro) talking in the measured tough-guy way of old prison movies (as so often in Siegel, machismo isn't far from insanity, briefly exploding when Doc loses his "painting privileges"). Not clear if Siegel is aware of the clash, if it's an interesting duality or just confusion. Titular escape is also confused - and un-exciting - though visuals presumably wouldn't seem so murky on a big screen. 

THE SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE (44) (Guy Debord, 1973): Didn't take notes, making it hard to talk about something so dense - and it's prescient on e.g. celebrity culture and globalization, uncontroversially right on little things (e.g. the dead hand of "urbanism"), but mostly it's a case of listening to the voice-over (it's all voice-over, taken from Debord's eponymous book) and wondering how someone can miss the point so completely. The main thesis, viz. the separation of spectacle from reality - modern "abstract" life vs. some notion of the "lived life" - totally misunderstands the complexity of how people process images, the way they function as an alternate reality intertwined with (not separated from) the real world and giving it resonance - in effect, how they function as Art - and e.g. taking images to task for only offering fragments of reality seems perverse, given how our daily experience of life is forever fragmented. You wonder what kind of person would cross-cut between an image of a naked girl and an image of Castro giving a speech (both being allegedly part of the Spectacle), not realising that we process them in wildly different ways, just as you wonder what kind of person would make a black-and-white film and choose to show lengthy excerpts from JOHNNY GUITAR, one of the most eye-popping colour films ever. You also wonder - as in the other Debord I've seen - what kind of person rants about images being evil yet dwells lovingly on clips from old movies - or indeed makes a film in the first place, despite Debord's sometimes-amusing insistence on self-sabotage and Anti-Cinema: "Some cinematic merit may yet be ascribed to the film if this rhythm is maintained. It will not be maintained."

THE ODD COUPLE (66) (Gene Saks, 1968): Thought about giving this points for not doing the usual picaresque series of details to show the Odd Couple's disintegrating relationship (watching different shows on TV, leaving the toilet-seat up, all the usual clichés most recently employed in BABY MAMA) - instead eliding all that, picking up the duo when things have already reached critical mass - but then I remembered it's a play (by Neil Simon), which is why this faithful movie version ends up being half-a-dozen long comic sequences (the opening poker game can only be described as archetypal). Only part written specially for the movie is presumably the prologue, which is superb - with Jack Lemmon trying to kill himself (but only succeeding in putting his back out) then straying into a strip-joint where he shuffles unhappily, like a snake trying to shed its own skin (it's incredible how tormented his American Everyman character became in the late 60s and early 70s) - and seems to presage a more cutting, ambitious film. Instead it just becomes the play, but Simon mostly belies his reputation for bland middlebrow, not just spouting one-liners but trying for New York comedy of manners (that the two English girls upstairs are called Cecily and Gwendolyn - as per Oscar Wilde - suggests he's aware of this), rescuing banalities (e.g. both parties becoming Better People at the end) with a light touch - the joke about the Couple being like a married couple is over-milked, however - and meanwhile Lemmon and Walter Matthau hit quite daring heights of theatrical hysteria, faces distorted in hatred and etc. "You leave me little notes on my pillow!!! 'We're all out of cornflakes. F.U.'. Took me three hours to figure out 'F.U.' was 'Felix Ungar'!" 

ADVENTURES OF A DENTIST (45) (Elem Klimov, 1965): Boy meets girl in a dance hall, goes to speak to her and suddenly the background starts to change - initially grows hazy, like a muslin curtain has been dropped across the frame, then morphs into other rooms, street scenes, etc - and meanwhile the boy and girl are walking, she says she can imitate anything whether animate or inanimate so she does imitations of a marabou and a railway crossing - then he turns to her, the music swells (drowning out their dialogue) and a scroll in massive letters appears behind them, beginning "So he told her of his troubles..." - then the scroll disappears, her father appears and she says: "Father, I'm getting married". The whole scene takes about two minutes, and it's great; the rest is a slipshod satirical allegory - of how the gifted and imaginative are mistrusted and destroyed by Soviet society - muddily plotted and finally tedious. Gratuitous songs help, slightly.

VIVA LA MUERTE (65) (Fernando Arrabal, 1971): Fascinated by humanity's capacity for cruelty - boys cutting beetles in half for sport, or playing games whose only point is the painful forfeit - the paradox of pleasure in pain co-opted by religion (best bit: a mob grabs a collaborator priest, cuts off his balls and stuffs them in his mouth; "My balls - they're so tasty!" he cries out; "Thank you, Lord, for this divine dish!") and eddying within a mother-son relationship that veers between Oresteian (anger at Mother for killing beloved Father) and Oedipal (lust for Mother, now that Father's out of the picture). Alternates between violent, darkly funny coming-of-age and lurid tinted flashbacks into atrocity; turns into a random series of gross images and striking juxtapositions long before the end, but that opening-credits song - and indeed those opening credits, Bosch-like visions of carnage and torture-machines - is going to be hard to dislodge.

A TALE OF THE WIND (70) (Joris Ivens, 1988): A quest for the "invisible wind" - the Life Force, literally so (Ivens, we're informed, is asthmatic, and literally searches for "wind" every time he takes a breath) - ineffable grace whether in Nature or the supple movements of an old kung-fu master. He's mastered breathing, so he says, and Ivens too is out not just to find the Wind but also to master it - like his Dutch countrymen tamed the sea - using his camera and art, making the film an old man's testament to his lifelong quest for Truth and the cinematic art that's sustained him. Cinematic trickery 'animates' terracotta statues just as the wind animates placid rural landscapes, the Old Man and his boom-mike capture the voices of the Wind on a mountain-top, and it's finally "magic" - like the magic of Méliès, or the fantasy interlude shuffling Chinese myths and Maoist musicals - that succeeds in invoking the divine breeze, Ivens laughing happily, his mad-scientist mane of snowy hair blown into a halo; a fitting summation to a life so remarkable. Beautiful to look at and listen to - wind instruments, natch - though Ivens' sensibility may be slightly too Calvinist for me; why tame the Wind, when you can just succumb to it?

THE PICKWICK PAPERS (72) (Noel Langley, 1952): Two hours of rotund Victorians playing variations on "Sir, this is an outrage!" - not so much Dickens as Margaret Dumont, or Beachcomber's Captain Foulenough (Nigel Patrick as the absolute bounder with a curiously clipped way of speaking: "Wild horses wouldn't drag. Lips sealed."), but no less hilarious for that. Dickensian in the barbs at Victorian life (the Law, especially, turning out to be an ass) and the edge of cruelty throughout, people behaving with perfect callousness, bursting into oddly poignant life in the final act in the debtors' prison - the skull beneath the jocular skin - and Pickwick's compassionate response. Busy rather than elegant, as befits its zany, scurrying view of humanity, but still very worthwhile; this, not IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, is the 1952 movie from a classic 19th-century comedy of manners that Criterion should've picked for its Collection.

CATTLE DRIVE (46) (Kurt Neumann, 1951): CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS as a Western, notable mainly for how little is at stake - the spoiled kid becomes sympathetic in no time, and even when he does something sneaky and despicable there's no punishment, no ostracism, just a case of Lesson Learned and Joel McCrea (in the Spencer Tracy role) saying "Forget it, son". Seems to take its cue from McCrea - or perhaps STARS IN THE CROWN, the previous year's McCrea/Dean Stockwell movie - who's laid-back and thoroughly benign, but of course it lacks the quiet spiritual fervour of STARS. The result is likeable, and thoroughly disposable.

DEAD RECKONING (64) (John Cromwell, 1947): Fatally Bacall-less, though admittedly it's just a straight femme fatale role ("Maybe she was all right. And maybe Christmas comes in July"). "I take it you've 'been around', as the saying is," purrs the villain, and Bogart has indeed 'been around' - specifically in the War, prominently featured in the plot, giving the film a startling morbid streak (Bogie cheerfully riffling through the corpses in the morgue and even talking someone else through their own death, calmly telling them to imagine they're a paratrooper jumping out of a plane), some topical detail about soaring post-war house prices and even a bit of location shooting (not as studio-bound as most 40s noirs), as if trying to partake of that trendy post-war realism. Elsewhere, random sadism (a Mr. Blond-like torturer who likes to work to music), warmed-over MALTESE FALCON-isms, some sloppiness - Lizabeth Scott is clearly miming, and badly, in her nightclub routine - Bogie incongruously calling everyone "darling" and "sweetheart" (he's supposed to be a cabbie from St. Louis), plus the usual elaborate dialogue (villain hoping he can have "the aesthetic pleasure of seeing Miss Chandler dance", etc). Very ordinary example of a genre I happen to find irresistible. 

7 WOMEN (72) (John Ford, 1966): Ford goes back to the 1930s - the plot has affinities with THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, Anne Bancroft a sub-Stanwyck sister with her dangling cigarette and sassy attitude - and seems invigorated, dropping some of the pieties that often mark his work; the Cause is a sham, female sexuality a blessing (not a threat), the savage is totally savage (not a complex noble Injun), and God comes off second-best in the tussle with (medical) Science though I guess the head of the mission - who admits that "God isn't enough" to fill her life - isn't truly devout in this scenario, being a closeted lesbian and incipient nutcase who gets ethereal little trills accompanying her dialogue in Elmer Bernstein's score. Hothouse atmosphere gives way to shocking brutality, general hysteria ("Ooooh, they'll kill each other! They're all naked and ... yellow!") and fatalistic, magnificently tossed-off ending, the only real regret being that Eddie Albert stops being a giggly Tennessee Williams eunuch about halfway through and turns into a he-man (guess there was only so much perversity Ford could take). Hugely better than I've been led to believe all my life.   

JOUR DE FETE (66) (Jacques Tati, 1949): Only explicitly dreamlike in the blue-tinted night sequence (first viewing of the colour version, though I watched the film before in b&w about 20 years ago), but actually a lot of it feels like a dream, Tati sharing the W.C. Fields gift of absent-minded comedy. Things seem to happen without being prompted, the film devolving into a series of recurring motifs (the buzzing fly!), sidelong gags and deceptively dead time, though admittedly the main thrust - "American" emphasis on speed vs. rustic pace of life - is pretty cutesy. Wish Tati had made more use of his high-pitched, querulous voice in later movies (instead of retreating into silence as Hulot), also wish I knew how he pulled off the gag where the postman crashes into the entrance of a two-storey house on his bike then almost immediately appears, looking dazed, in the upper-storey window. Strategically-placed trampoline? 

JUNE 1, 2009

THAT SINKING FEELING (56) (Bill Forsyth, 1980): If this were slick it might be insufferable, a shameless quirk-fest in grimy environs (Glasgow at its greyest) like so many faux-grungy indies about mopey eccentrics; instead it feels completely amateurish, hence very likeable - and Forsyth isn't actually 'quirky' so much as zany, referencing Laurel and Hardy and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Typical gag (choosing one at random): our adolescent heroes sit on a park bench discussing their plan (stealing a warehouse-load of kitchen sinks) then self-consciously clam up and look innocent, as crooks always do when they spot a cop - and wait in silence for an oblivious toddler to toddle past. Goofiness reigns, though some bits are downright outlandish - the gang includes a science whiz whose magic potion sends people (and cats) into years of Rip Van Winkle slumber - anticipating the mermaid in LOCAL HERO three years later; on this evidence (and despite the serene profundity of HERO, HOUSEKEEPING or BEING HUMAN), Forsyth's true metier might've been in some Eastern European backwater, writing surreal kids' movies about talking seahorses.   

AVANTI! (69) (Billy Wilder, 1972): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. Seems a little laboured at this length, though in fact the running-time is necessary - what makes it touching is finally how little its heroes are allowed (just a few minutes of bliss, before real life intervenes) and how long it takes to achieve that, reflecting all the years of circumscribed feelings (not-so-incidentally redeeming the Italian stereotypes and avoiding the cliché of repressed Anglos flowering in the Mediterranean sun; this flowering is so brief and bittersweet it seems thoroughly earned). Slightly bored for a long time, then surprised myself by bursting into tears in the final act; Lemmon may be even more tormented (and bravely obnoxious) here than in SAVE THE TIGER. 

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (80) (Joseph Sargent, 1974): "This guy I'm talkin' to, got a heavy English accent. Could be a fruitcake." Second viewing, first in >10 years, even more splenetic, belligerent and insanely entertaining than I remembered. What with this and JUGGERNAUT, '74 was clearly the year of the expertly comedic heist movie.

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (65) (Billy Wilder, 1970): Not sure what happened here. Much-beloved old favourite inexplicably comes up short - second complete viewing, >15 (probably closer to 20) years since the first one - and I still admire the way Wilder approximates the tone of the originals (both macabre and ineffably civilised) but the pace is flabby, Holmes doesn't do enough deduction, and though the ending - leaning heavily on Miklos Rozsa's score - strikes a lovely note of romantic longing, that isn't really justified by the rest of the movie (we don't see enough of Sherlock with the lady in question). Also, can't believe I've only just noticed that Colin Blakely (as Dr. Watson) is totally doing Jack Lemmon. 

THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (54) (Fritz Lang, 1940): Frank James goes looking for revenge against that dirty little coward Robert Ford - who, in this version, totally refashions the infamous assassination when he acts it out onstage, to make himself look like a hero - finds compassion instead, just as the film itself starts off like a red-blooded Western but ends in a comical courtroom climax modelled on the one in JUDGE PRIEST, with Civil War nostalgia (indignant Southern colonels, etc) taking over the proceedings. Might've worked better if Lang had made more of the near-constant tension between individual Will to Power - Henry Fonda as the taciturn man who's gotta do what a man's gotta do - and external forces affecting his narrative, whether a Governor's arbitrary pardon, a jury swayed by irrelevant arguments, or indeed the power of newspapers, telegrams (even Bob Ford's stage play), unreliable versions of the truth complicating the pure Western revenge-culture. Instead it stays half-baked, and all the peripheral interest just ends up weakening the main story; still entirely watchable.    

THE DRIVER (72) (Walter Hill, 1978): Second viewing, first in >15 years, much-upgraded rating. A symphony in brown, black and grey, soundtracked with tough-guy dialogue and car-chases boiled down (hypnotically) to roaring engines, squealing tyres and implacable silence. In itself, a tale of laconic professionals clashing for machismo and love of the game; maybe not the best Walter Hill movie, but - given the special parameters of his talent - certainly the most Walter Hill-like.     

RED LINE 7000 (48) (Howard Hawks, 1965): Shockingly dull, considering how many unexpected (and potentially awesome) things it tries - a song-and-dance number (wherein the singer makes something joyful out of her personal tragedy, just as the drivers are artists making entertainment out of danger and destruction), a bedroom conversation with a couple talking in the unresolved, open-ended way couples do, an ensemble narrative wafting seemingly at will from character to character, a mise-en-scene of magisterial matter-of-factness (scenes like the - admittedly short - funeral early on are just dead space, but clearly Hawks felt there was no need to finesse them or try to jazz them up), and a blithely irresponsible view of motor-racing where the sometimes-fatal thrills and spills are in fact the main attraction (the coda is kind of jaw-dropping). Alas, it's mostly soap-opera, and the actors mostly show why they've remained unknowns; special mention to Gail Hire, whose voice - distractingly, hilariously - manages to be both deep and adenoidal.   

THE LOVE GODDESSES (60) (Saul J. Turell, 1965): Nowadays this would be a dvd extra on some TCM collection, but of course the clips remain beguiling and it's notable (a) for how (literally) nakedly it's a study of sex - not love - in the movies, despite the title, (b) for including Shirley Temple and pubescent Hayley Mills among its "love goddesses" (all quite innocent, but not the kind of thing you'd see today), (c) for including Heather Sears in ROOM AT THE TOP (?!) as an example of the modern Love Goddess, and (d) for how sensible, almost scholarly the narration is - rising almost to poetry in the Marilyn Monroe featurette - as opposed to the fatuous V.O. in e.g. THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY. Or indeed the wide-eyed fawning of a dvd extra on some TCM collection. 

YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (66) (William A. Seiter, 1942): In which - buoyed, perhaps, by the presence of a comedy director - Fred Astaire doesn't just do his elegant shuffling but dances up a storm, leaping onto desks and tapping people's heads with his cane (even wiggles his bum at the camera). In which Rita Hayworth proves herself a game and skilful hoofer, matching Fred every step of the way, and so vibrantly beautiful she seems almost unreal (if she seemed more real, we might wonder what she saw in him). In which Adolphe Menjou is hilariously crusty, barks at everyone and even disparages Fred's dancing. Probably the best - certainly the funniest - of the Great Man's non-Ginger, non-BAND WAGON musicals. (*)

(*) Forgot about EASTER PARADE. Sorry, EASTER PARADE.

CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS (64) (Jiri Menzel, 1966): Second viewing, first in 16 years, third Menzel movie I've watched this year (*), and I guess he's a classic case of a director whose sensibility I love even while finding his films sometimes tedious. Sex and Death are the main protagonists here - his most claustrophobic film of the ones I've seen, sadder than e.g. CAPRICIOUS SUMMER or CUTTING IT SHORT (the WW2 setting is part of it, and of course Nazi collaborators aren't a million miles from Communist apparatchiks), longer on frustration and shorter on hedonism and rural idyll. I'm guessing fame-and-fortune or the Prague Spring - or both - helped thaw out his melancholy spirit.

(*) Mostly because he visited Cyprus in early February, and I did a brief interview for the "Cyprus Mail"; here's my first draft, it was changed slightly for the paper but the finished version isn't on their website.   

A WOMAN IS A WOMAN (72) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961): Godard at his larkiest, citing Lubitsch but apparently in direct competition with SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER - and uncomplicatedly in love with Anna Karina, the camera explicitly set up as a fellow voyeur. A film of gags and snippets, a jukebox or magic-box like the one at the strip-club, performing its 'magic' through the power of editing - just like the film as a whole is in love with Cinema's power to juggle, manipulate and suspend Time (sample joke: Anna, frying eggs in the kitchen, flips the egg she's frying, walks to the living-room, answers the phone, talks for a while, says "Excuse me" - then rushes back to the kitchen to catch the egg as it's coming down). Funniest Godard I've seen, manic, inventive and exhilarating - though his misogyny isn't hard to discern, down to the final pun ("une femme" = "infame"), and the cinema vérité footage of Common People on the street only confirms what became (even) more apparent later: he's always been in his bubble, whether academic or ideological.  

FATHER WAS A FULLBACK (68) (John M. Stahl, 1949): Ahead of its time, you might say, insofar as it could be a 50s sitcom or 60s Disney movie - neither of which sounds promising but in fact it's played as farce, with lots of comings and goings (the doorbell or phone seems to ring every couple of minutes) and a minimum of family-values sugar (just one scene, which admittedly is one scene too many). Not sure if Stahl does anything too distinctive but he keeps it moving, keeps his sense of humour, slips in the occasional visual joke (like the half-glimpsed "State-Tulane" headline) and turns everyone - precocious younger daughter, over-dramatic teenage daughter, no-nonsense maid, Rudy Vallee as twitchy college big-shot - into bright comic screwballs. Maybe helps if you don't give a damn about (American) football, which seems to be the problem many have with it at the IMDb; otherwise splendid, obviously cute but hugely entertaining, with bonus points for surprising ending. Noel likes it too, incidentally.  

THE BLUE EYES OF YONTA (55) (Flora Gomes, 1992): Starts off like the bad kind of African movie - the kind where a bunch of kids rolling tyres down the street turns out to be a symbol for the history of post-independence Guinea-Bissau - turns into a better kind of African movie, the kind that flavours politics with a (recognisably urban) taste of life in a city of power-cuts, middle-aged men playing checkers, young men idling around looking for jobs, young girls by the waterfront, cars negotiating puddles on the streets of the capital, expensive department stores showing the only (few) white faces, housewives going to the fortune-teller's and beautiful Yonta spending Saturday night at the Tropicana Disco, where revellers dance in a conga-line. Also quite a skilful kind of African movie, more professional than its opening credits (which misspell "Hubert Balls Fund"), though plotting peters out slightly. Useful Fact: if you're chatting up girls on the street in Guinea-Bissau, the accepted chat-up line to employ is: "Miss! What's the time?".

MAY 1, 2009

THE KILLERS (76) (Don Siegel, 1964): Second viewing, first in >15 years; still pretty great - despite some dodgy matte work and a couple of rushed plot twists - though I should probably watch the 1946 version again just to check how much is stolen wholesale, esp. the hard-boiled dialogue (why do you like me? asks Johnny; "You're a winner," replies Angie Dickinson; "I don't like losers, I've been around them all my life - little men who cry a lot. I like you, do I have to write a book?"). Film noir gets commingled with 60s gearhead action - "she" referring both to a car and a woman, often in the same sentence - the psycho-and-friend double-act from THE LINEUP and a still-shocking emphasis on nihilism, corruption and violence (after Angie gets slugged, she plays the rest of the scene with an angry red bruise on her cheek). Ronald Reagan sneers, John Cassavetes smoulders, and everything the killers do - grimly resigned Lee Marvin and antic, childlike, deranged, clean-living Clu Gulager - deserves to be anthologized.   

THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (52) (Norman Z. McLeod, 1946): Danny Kaye rather miscast as a sensible Harold Lloyd type (it's a remake of THE MILKY WAY), neither Milquetoast Danny nor Zany Entertainer Danny though the latter turns up in the final act, doing a Russian-dancer comic number that's a bit too close to his Russian baritone in the previous year's WONDER MAN. Main plot is dull, incidentals are all over the place, from bizarrely misjudged (Danny all but assaulting strait-laced Fay Bainter in an impromptu dance lesson) to shamefully irresistible (the Goldwyn Girls in hip-hugging short-shorts) to just plain hilarious, viz. most of the stuff with Walter Abel as the fast-talking manager. It may be lifted word-for-word from the original (for all I know), but the scene where he gets Danny to imagine 999 cranky babies crying for their milk is one for the clip-party.

QUEEN CHRISTINA (54) (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933): Second viewing, still not a fan: A film of two close-ups, Garbo's rapturous visage when she's "memorizing the room" where she slept with her lover, and of course the famously extended final image. The rest is stodgy, and gender-bending detail counts for little when it's clear she's just been waiting for a good man to come along and Make a Woman of her. Garbo's terrific, of course.

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (58) (Anatole Litvak, 1939): Excellent time-capsule - Nazis in America, just before WW2 - torn-from-the-headlines propaganda aimed at a country that was still in two minds about the threat from across the water. In itself, pulpy but occasionally chilling as a snapshot of a totalitarian mindset ("The Party doesn't want criticism. Only obedience"), but the pounding, staccato style lacks complexity and there's too much plot, even if it is All True. George Sanders with a crew-cut, Edward G. Robinson doing a dry run for soft-spoken Keyes in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Dorothy Tree - as the true-believer Nazi moll - now officially the stuff of my strict nurse/librarian fantasies.

THE HOWLING (51) (Joe Dante, 1981): Awesome approach-work, kicking off like a serial-killer movie set amid the fleshpots of LA's red-light district - mention is made of America's "culture of violence" - the better to reveal its true identity as WOLF MAN-inspired hokum (Dante bringing wit to the beast-within shenanigans, like he blended real and celluloid 50s monster-menace in MATINEE). The writing goes slack when we get to "The Colony" - its denizens alternately rednecks and New Agers - and the rest is a not-very-good horror flick with werewolves behaving like vampires and prosthetic FX trumping script, cutesy touches like brief glimpse of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" notwithstanding. Kudos for appreciating the creepy properties of the smiley face, however. 

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (67) (Robert Hamer, 1947): Same year as ODD MAN OUT, same basic scenario, totally different approach - a community portrait for Attlee's newly-socialist Britain with the escaped convict as the fly in the ointment, played as working-class soap (haddock for breakfast, Sunday-morning baths in the kitchen) meets seedy East End Jewish ambience. Very much an Ealing movie - or like Pinky from BRIGHTON ROCK (also from the same year) set down in an Ealing movie - and their cosy communities can be charming when engaged in eccentric quests (à la PASSPORT TO PIMLICO), but they come off a bit oppressive when engaged in rooting out an intruder in their midst. The action climax is incongruous, but also - with its railway tracks, rain-puddles and billowing steam - extremely gorgeous.  

BEACH RED (73) (Cornel Wilde, 1967): WW2 with extra blood and inner monologues, often unsubtle - "You'll be a better lawyer for having lived through this," the CO reassures a young officer (who was studying Law back home) then thinks to himself: "Why did I say that? Is anybody better for having lived through this? I suppose some are ... I don't know..." and buries his head in his hands - but it's all part of its brutal, relentless honesty, done in a fevered, tormented style with touches of poetry. In the landing-craft, a soldier is haunted by the cockroach he squashed an hour earlier (Death so fast, so arbitrary). One young man is the son of a small-town minister - part of idealised America - but his backwoods friend hasn't seen his folks since he was 4 years old, "and that sits just fine with me". The first lad has nightmares of being bayoneted, the thing he (irrationally) fears above all else (it's the contact, the "hand-to-hand fighting" that spooks him; he's also a virgin); the second is desperate for a woman, and thinks back to the freakishly tall girl he slept with just before shipping out. Wilde uses sudden cuts to JETEE-like montages of photos (of families, dead buddies, memories) to suggest seething inner life below the surface, building something singular and haunting (it appears to have influenced both THIN RED LINE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). The wife back home seems very 60s - i.e. not at all mid-40s - but it's strange how it all melds together into Distant Past nowadays.   

SHALL WE DANCE (62) (Mark Sandrich, 1937): Harriet Hoctor's grotesque contortionist routine in the finale is actually appropriate, given how bodies are toyed-with throughout this movie. Fred Astaire pushes himself to the limit in his dancing (even tries a classical-ballet move) - his style was more languid in TOP HAT, which I (re-)watched immediately afterwards - but also dances to a record-player with a stuck needle, causing his body to twitch spasmodically, later undulates to make it look like the ship is swaying and make his friend seasick (bodies lie!), just as Ginger Rogers' body is implicitly taken over by a mannequin doppelganger that's used to compromise her (bodies lie!) and her face taken over by the dancers wearing Ginger masks in the final number. Lots of fun, but maybe it tries a bit too hard - lots of plot, more comedy than usual, not that much dancing, esp. Fred-and-Ginger dancing. Also, though of course we cherish Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, they work more as inspired schtick-merchants than delivering actual comedy routines - even if Blore's increasingly frenzied phone-call-from-jail is pretty hilarious. 

A CANTERBURY TALE (66) (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944): "Come on Archie, tell your tale," a minor character is enjoined - and the film is structured as a framework of discursive 'tales', ranging from entire strands (the GI's Tale) to moments in the spotlight (the Blacksmith's Tale, the Village Idiot's Tale) or just random details, like the inn with the bed that's so big "two six-foot men couldn't shake hands across that bed". "Why would they want to?" asks the bemused GI, this being a parable of Anglo-American co-operation (despite the language barrier) as well as a Jennings-like celebration of wartime Britain - as if to apologise for having irked Churchill with COLONEL BLIMP the year before - though of course P&P's antic sensibility never stoops to mere propaganda. A hawk transforms into an airplane, ghostly pilgrims' voices are heard on the old Road to Canterbury, while a benevolent hand is extended to all, explicitly - perhaps too explicitly - in the final "blessings" but also to the nominal villain, the misguided squire taking pedagogical zeal a bit too far, the only awkward issue being the squire's objection to movie-watching. Powell shares his love for England's countryside and culture - the green and pleasant land dotted with dotty eccentrics - but he also knows what the organ-playing hero makes explicit: a cinema may not be a church (and the Cinema may not be a Church), but it's close enough.       

MOGAMBO (48) (John Ford, 1953): Ava Gardner tries for Jean Harlow ("Now look, buster! Don't you get over-stimulated with me!"), but she's not that kind of sassy showgirl - it's unconvincing when they have her stumbling over big words - and meanwhile this RED DUST remake veers into African safari travelogue, torn between trying to work a proper love triangle (heavy going, with Clark Gable so middle-aged and Grace Kelly so prim and married) and just filling the screen with bespangled tribesmen and cute baby elephants. Ford evinces his interest in tribal rites, albeit African as opposed to Irish-American - including a surprising reference to female circumcision - but everyone seems a little bored, the show goes on too long, and it's an unusually restrained modern audience that won't snicker when the travellers ooh and aah at grainy interpolated footage of impalas, hippos, etc, or indeed when Ms. Gardner introduces herself: "The name's Kelly. Eloise Kelly. Better known in the gay capitals of the earth as 'Honeybear' Kelly."  

THE MUMMY (64) (Karl Freund, 1932): Boris Karloff is dignified and forbiddingly courteous - like the world's most evil butler - in the title role, saucer-eyed Zita Johann is a great, exotic horror-movie heroine, but it must be said the Mummy isn't very scary, doesn't even mean that much harm (he's just a fool for love) and is disproportionately hard to kill, having no wooden-stake/silver-bullet type weak spots (the film's Van Helsings know the score almost from the start, but can do almost nothing against his occult powers). Visuals help tremendously, Freund's money-shot being the Mummy's eyes glowing in close-up - but just the velvet blackness of the blacks in the spooky prologue would make it worth seeing.

THE RAID (78) (Hugo Fregonese, 1954): Remarkably tense and well-paced, in the way of heist movies (or WENT THE DAY WELL?) where we wait helplessly for things to go wrong, but the tension is almost irrelevant - esp. since it's a famous true story, which many audiences would surely have known in advance. It's also about the grace-notes (the dying man and the dog; the letter marked "Personal", and how its contents are allowed to remain undivulged) and the way Fregonese understates, avoids the trap of small-town sentimentality, suggests violent emotions beneath Van Heflin's tightly-controlled surface and even - most daringly - suggests something valid and acceptable about those emotions, a true sense of war as opposed to the town's genteel hypocrisy (meanwhile the script employs Lee Marvin for one of those violence vs. psychosis dichotomies Don Siegel also liked so much). All in all, pretty terrific, both gripping and emotionally subtle. Only the climactic plotting of the "human blockade" (which seems pointless, since it barely delays the pursuers) doesn't work.

APRIL 1, 2009

WALKABOUT (55) (Nicolas Roeg, 1971): Second viewing, down from the mid-60s. Good ideas clumsily done - the bold but frankly unconvincing set-up, the too-rushed coda - and hackneyed ideas (notably 'natural' sexuality vs. its repressed civilised antipode) flashily done, maybe even dazzlingly though Roeg's fragmentary style is now sadly dated. Jenny Agutter swims nude, animals are graphically slaughtered - intercut with a butcher slicing meat, lest we miss the point - and clotted sexual thoughts are located in the crook of a tree-branch. "A pretty piece of middlebrow anthropology," sneers David Thomson, and he's harsh but it is pretty thin. 

FLAMINGO ROAD (48) (Michael Curtiz, 1949): A pair of hammy antagonists, both past their prime. 40-something Joan Crawford dances with the rest of the girls in the hoochie-coochie show, never admits for a nanosecond that she's 20 years too old for the role ("You're such a pretty girl," says our hero) then hangs out with a waitress half her age who wants to be pals and go on double-dates, and warns Joan that men will try to pinch her when she works in the diner. 70-year-old Sydney Greenstreet - in his penultimate film - is the villainous sheriff, slurping down pitchers of milk and growling at the coloured help, though in fact he looks so pasty and unwell he can barely emit his trademark harrumph. The plot is standard bestseller stuff, though the book may have dug a little deeper on the most interesting character, Zachary Scott as the weak-willed lover turned hopeless alcoholic; 10 years later the small-town atmosphere might've translated into clean PEYTON PLACE visuals, but in the late 40s everything was noir, taking its cue from the (political) corruption in the story. At least the shadows, motes-of-dust-in-shafts-of-light, etc help disguise Ms. Crawford's maturity.

CORNERED (73) (Edward Dmytryk, 1945): Dick Powell as the bull-in-a-china-shop hero, seeking revenge for the wartime murder of his wife, confronted with swarthy, shifty types who practise indirection and circumlocution only to be batted away by his awesome pissed-off brusqueness ("I'll tell you what," he informs an ingratiating slimeball who tries to warn him off the scent; "I've thought it over and decided not to pay any attention to you"). Anticipates THE STRANGER in its tale of Nazi war-criminals abroad, though of course it's Philip Marlowe in disguise, made (by the same writer, director and star) in the shadow of MURDER, MY SWEET - and it's staggering how literate and funny the dialogue is, how expressive the shadowy visuals are, how vividly the characters are sketched and how smoothly and organically the plot moves, in what's really just a second-division little noir. MMS and MIRAGE are also very entertaining, CROSSFIRE is more than that, I've seen parts of TILL THE END OF TIME and been impressed, WARLOCK is reputedly quite good and even THE CAINE MUTINY works, in a red-meat, square-cut kind of way. Maybe it's time to rescue Dmytryk from Boring Journeyman hell.

THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (58) (H.C. Potter, 1938): Notable for how unruffled and sophisticated everyone is about the love triangle - no surprise the source is a play from the 1920s - and indeed how the love triangle mutates into something else altogether, a kind of patriotic self-sacrifice incidentally (albeit innocently) blurring the line between mother and lover. Doesn't quite work, maybe because James Stewart is set up as the identification figure then sidelined into something else, the Holy Bumpkin - or maybe because no SHOP AROUND THE CORNER fan can accept a film with Stewart and Margaret Sullavan that's not actually about Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Her spoiled showbiz sass is the best of it, cut with melancholy musings on War and Death; the result is bittersweet and watchable, and this is pretty true I suspect: "Dying's like being in love. You can't quite imagine it till it's right up on top of you."

LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (74) (Henry Hathaway, 1935): Surprise! One of my least favourite genres - the colonial adventure yarns of the 30s, see also GUNGA DIN and THE FOUR FEATHERS - comes up with a marvellous movie (just a few creaky bits here and there), maybe because it's not just a case of cheerful horseplay in between killing fuzzy-wuzzies but actually and explicitly questions the military mind, obsessive devotion to the Service at the expense of compassion and humanity. "There's no room for sentimentality in the Army," declares the ramrod-rigid CO - refusing to bond with his estranged son, despite the boy's obvious distress - causing near-disaster and anticipating the likes of FORT APACHE (though the outline of the plot recalls the much-inferior RIO GRANDE; Ford didn't always heed that line about "sentimentality in the Army"); Gary Cooper is roguish - and, intriguingly, not too bright - in the John Wayne role, Franchot Tone even better in a role Ford would never have countenanced, the wise-guy subaltern finally (and touchingly) giving the sole convincing defence of soldierly sacrifice, crisply reciting a poem about "England, my England" in a dark Islamist dungeon.

THE BIG COMBO (80) (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955): Second viewing, even better than I remembered; still just a B-movie, but a beautiful and suggestive one. Crypto-gay henchmen, the famous hearing-aid murder, BIG HEAT plot (and violence) matched and superseded - the villain is more fascinating here - and even things that seem cheesy in retrospect (e.g. Lewis disguising an exposition-heavy scene by having his hero walk around, make a cup of coffee and even start to shave his chin) work in context. How fitting is it that the villain should literally be undone by Light, given how the film subsists in John Alton's hypnotic shadows? Very fitting.    

JACK'S WIFE (74) (George A. Romero, 1972): Cryptic, atonal weirdie, mixing Romero's low-rent trappings - the locations are porn-movie drab; the opening credits thank benefactors like "Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Forest" - with aggressively flashy style, fantasy interludes, a home-invasion scene almost as excitingly shot as the one in MARTIN and tricks like filming a conversation with totally non-matching eye-lines (the effect is bizarre) to suggest disconnection. Lots of Cassavetes (esp. FACES) in the scene where the arrogant young man tries to loosen up the suburban housewives, Updike-like observation (and satire) in the bridge games, gossip sessions and bored women looking for the next "kicky" thing - and of course witchcraft, keeping it ambiguous (as in MARTIN) whether the housewife-witch is indeed casting spells or just liberated by her new obsession into doing the things she never dared (but always wanted); "I'm a witch" becomes a feminist mantra, craving power in a world where the powerful are male, or young, or both. Sober psychodrama played as metaphorical horror with dirge-y Donovan theme-song; the bravest - or possibly silliest - film of Romero's career.     

THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS (71) (John Dexter, 1969): Third viewing, first in >15 years. All the faults are obvious to me now - slickness and contrivance in the staging (minor characters defined by a single quirk, etc), gay and (briefly) Indian stereotypes, dated detail like the prudish compositions covering up nudity in the soldiers' showers, maybe even the ambitious final-act leap from farce to war movie - but it's still vivid, well-observed and very funny, though I guess having done two years' National Service (oh the trauma) makes it even funnier. The Regimental dance sequence is a classic, though all it really shows is that British filmmakers in the late 60s had indeed imbibed Milos Forman and IL POSTO. 

THE LAST WALTZ (61) (Martin Scorsese, 1978): The rare concert movie that does amount to more than a collection of songs, The Band's procession of guest stars, tales of life on the road and communal performance style - the way they take turns on the vocals and generally act as a coherent whole, all five members complementing each other - adding up to a generous vision of Music as a kind of happy family or pure monastic order, rock'n roll imparting its blessing to all initiates equally. Trouble is, this isn't my music, I didn't grow up with it, and though I know most of the songs, only a couple - maybe "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released" - mean enough to me that I'd turn up the volume if I happened to hear them on the radio. Makes a difference, especially when Scorsese's take is almost as hagiographic here as in SHINE A LIGHT; he really shouldn't do rock'n roll documentaries.

PERSONAL BEST (57) (Robert Towne, 1982): Terrific concept in this tale of a (same-sex) romance between Olympic athletes. Athletes live by their bodies, the film dwelling on bodies - the opening shot is of droplets of sweat dripping off a runner's face - and their sculpted, fetishized purity (even their impurities have a certain integrity; athletes understand this, unembarrassed by burping and farting); the problem is the mind, interfering in physical purity, deforming the relationship with its jealousy and paranoia - and the film is compelling as long as it hinges on this tension, but then it abandons the relationship, brings in less interesting characters (notably the goofy water-polo player who makes a woman of our heroine) and doesn't make the inevitable sports climax sufficiently meaningful (shouldn't there at least be a sacrifice?). Fine opening hour then it kind of dissipates, and when it comes to our lovebird ladies cavorting on the beach in slo-mo - to the strains of Billy Joel on the soundtrack - the less said the better. 

CATCH-22 (63) (Mike Nichols, 1970): Not the book (how could it be?), but it also tries - perhaps unwisely - to tame the book, toning down the verbal pyrotechnics (it begins, significantly, with at least five minutes of no talk at all), reining in the constant digressions - using Snowden's death as a narrative glue - and emphasising war-movie aspects over the vaudeville. More serious than people probably expected (it wasn't a hit, made during a glut of much wackier anti-war comedies like MASH and HOW I WON THE WAR), but its gravitas actually makes it quite haunting. Alan Arkin a soulful Yossarian - again, more grave than in the book - Charles Grodin anticipating MASH's Maj. Winchester with his pipe and patrician airs; too bad they couldn't find a way to work it in that "Major Major" is in fact "Major Major Major Major". 

MARGIE (72) (Henry King, 1946): Second viewing, first in about 10 years, up from 63. Not sure why it charmed me more this time (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, which it obviously resembles, also became a fave in the past decade, so maybe I've just become more susceptible), but it's a fragile charm in any case - Jeanne Crain's gawky charm as she tries to sound grown-up ("When a person meets another person..."), the high-school-movie charm of proms and schoolgirl crushes ("20 years from now you'll look at Johnny Green and wonder what you ever saw in him," says Wise Old Grandma consolingly; "20 years from now I'll be an old woman and it won't matter what I think," replies Margie, sobbing into her pillow), and the wistful charm of double-distilled nostalgia, incidentally making you muse that the world certainly changed more radically in the 18 years from 1928 to 1946 than it did, say, between 1991 and 2009 (Internet excepted). Bonus hindsight-related chuckle: grown-up Margie's daughter asks if teenage girls screamed at Rudy Vallee in the 20s the way they do at Frank Sinatra in the 40s; "No, darling," smiles Margie, "that's something that belongs exclusively to your generation". Little did she know.

MARCH 1, 2009

YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW (67) (Francis Ford Coppola, 1966): Young man's slow Initiation, the painful process of learning to name the world - wondering what to call one's father now one's come of age (Daddy? Pop? "I.H."?), thinking up names to go with the faces of random people on the street, inventing possibilities for every acronym (how 'bout W.C.? "Warring Countries"? "Welcome, Communists"?) - though also of course his Emasculation, coddled by a jealous, monstrous mother who sends locks of her hair in her letters (creepily, actor Peter Kastner was a real-life survivor of mother-son incest), a prurient landlady - "Miss Thing"! - lost in memories of her late brother Gus and his big cock (sorry, rooster), and a bipolar actress who tyrannizes, teases and torments him. Standard mid-60s larkiness, albeit slightly different tonally to the Brit likes of GEORGY GIRL and THE KNACK - those being basically triumphalist, using the larkiness to signal the emergence of a new generation, whereas this is basically frustrated and hysterical, like "Portnoy's Complaint". Still funny, though the panoply of tricks and non-stop freewheeling energy - flying kites in Central Park, etc - can seem affected, and structural dazzle turns out to be a red herring. Possible best bit: machine run-amuck spews out endless volumes of milk (a little boy's drink) while Big Boy manically struggles to line up glasses.

ZABRISKIE POINT (59) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970): The ending is extraordinary - a kind of explosive variation on the one in L'ECLISSE - the first hour another of Antonioni's expert essays in screen space; his America is hemmed-in, almost all the frames broken up and obstructed, especially by signage (billboards, 7 Up ads, an "Official Smog Inspection Station"), while an infomercial for suburban paradise "Sunny Dunes" is so fragmented with constant panning and zooming it begins to seem hellish; even the counter-culture is oppressive, turning the space into a labyrinth of arguing and bickering. Trouble is, when the film erupts from this unbearable America to the 'real' (or ideal) America of wide-open spaces, there's still an hour to go, more than ample time to become fed up with the two protagonists (he's dull and inarticulate, she goes in for fanciful thoughts: What if "so anyway" was the name of a river?, etc) - and even when we get to the famous shot of young couples making love all across the rocky expanse of Zabriskie Point, there's still half an hour to go. May improve on second viewing (Antonioni's movies always tend to bog down in the third quarter) but it needed more quirky - dare we say humorous - scenes like heroine's visit to a small desert town: feral kids playing among upside-down car wrecks, an old man claiming to have been middleweight champion of the world, and a sign on the wall in a bar reading "In case of fire, raise this flap" - then, when you raise it, another flap reading: "Not now, stupid! 'In case of fire'."     

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (62) (Ossie Davis, 1970): Not quite blaxploitation, more a clever juggling-act, out to make a serious point while remaining thoroughly amiable (and showing off Judy Pace's ass, for which much thanks). "What would a bale of cotton be doing in Harlem?" is the refrain, but in fact the legacy of slavery persists - our heroes also get humiliated by a truckful of watermelons - because blacks are still being exploited by their fellow blacks, viz. the fake preacher whose Back to Africa drive is a big swindle; the search for Identity continues ("Was that black enough for you?"), even amid wisecracking cops, car chases, petty crime played as vivid local colour and even Lou Jacobi as a Jewish junkman, part of the older Harlem still co-existing with the Black community. "Black capitalism" is a threat used to scare a white Mafioso, but of course the Mafioso still runs the 'hood. At least for now.

RIO GRANDE (44) (John Ford, 1950): Cavalry Trilogy ends with a whimper, touching most of the bases from the other films - songs both Irish and Injun, Sgt. Quincannon clowning on the sidelines, the Army "a life of suffering and hardship [and] uncompromising devotion" to the sacred Oath - only with B-movie dialogue, perfunctory characters and a general sense of contractual obligation. Even the Civil War comes across as a cheap excuse, relieving Ford from having to explain e.g. whether that "nice young man" should indeed be convicted of manslaughter; only Bert Glennon brings his 'A' game.

SIXTEEN CANDLES (61) (John Hughes, 1984): Thought I should finally watch this all the way through, lest I be exposed as a fraud and kicked out of Generation X. Mostly cartoonish, but surprisingly tender and surprisingly sane about all sorts of things, from not fetishizing weddings - cf. most 00s rom-coms - to fleshing out the parents and sibs (Paul Dooley as Dad recalls BREAKING AWAY) and generally treating teenage angst light-heartedly, refusing to pander to the target audience's delusions of grandeur. Rating could be 10 points higher, given the nostalgia factor and 80s hits on the soundtrack, but objectively it's pretty flimsy; Chinese exchange student not a racist touch per se - any more than Joan Cusack in a neck brace trying and failing to drink from a water fountain makes fun of the disabled - but still about as funny as Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. 

HOUSE OF STRANGERS (72) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949): "You mustn't threaten an Italian. It doesn't mix well in our blood." Opera, vendettas, massive bowls of spaghetti and Edward G. Robinson with looka-me accent as a tyrannical patriarch who's like Scrooge mixed with Don Corleone. Could've been cheesy but it's utterly gripping, a case of feuding grasping unhappy families like in THE LITTLE FOXES (only Italian), the only weak link being Susan Hayward - she does her best, but it needed a more regal actress - as the strong-minded socialite trading loaded banter with our hero: "Nothing hurts me. It's one of my complications."

SCUM (68) (Alan Clarke, 1979): Trash with pretensions to social comment, but profanely entertaining and done with brio - a genre (oppressive institutions) that's as English as Jane Austen, whether nasty boarding schools (IF...) or military prisons (THE HILL) or in this case Borstal, the English juvie. Not as surreal or symbolic as IF..., nor as complex in its view of the institution - really just a series of violent acts, interspersed with people shouting - and the Malcolm McDowell figure is an implausible hippy existentialist with a yen for Dostoyevsky, but the violence does abate so he can share a long, thoughtful conversation with a warden about two-thirds of the way through, making you wonder if Steve McQueen had this at the back of his mind (it's a cult movie in Britain) while planning HUNGER. Elsewhere, Clarke emphasises stifling ritual - set phrases, fixed patterns, the wardens' rhythmic "In!"/"Out!" at the end of the day - allows a wide-shot to be thrillingly torn apart by the final explosion of violence, and makes what he can of the script's patchwork structure, Ray Winstone falling by the wayside after he becomes "the daddy". Winstone still looks boyish - though he'd also starred in the TV original two years previously - but the future hard-man is already there, not just working over a black fellow prisoner but growling out a grim parting-shot: "Get some coal-dust rubbed in those marks, you fuckin'. Black. Baahstard."

PRIDE OF THE MARINES (75) (Delmer Daves, 1945): Scripted by a member of the "Hollywood 10" - star John Garfield was also a famous 'sympathizer' - which is why it's touching even at its corniest, the Message-y (but obviously sincere) scene where soldiers at a military hospital - one of them blind, another crippled, another with a plate in his head - talk at length and forthrightly about what they expect from Society at war's end, and the fair, egalitarian, progressive new America they hope will emerge from the ashes. Before that, gruelling WW2 action - a single 10-minute foxhole scene, effectively nightmarish - preceded by a marvellous pre-war section full of sweet, quotidian working-class detail (neo-realism had a brief equivalent in Hollywood, what with this and FROM THIS DAY FORWARD) and a beautiful courtship between Garfield and Eleanor Parker: he's gruff, belligerent, unable to express his feelings - "You've been fun," he tells the girl lightly, preparing to go off to war - and his deep unblinking rage carries the film through its potentially mushy second hour, as he learns to deal with disability (a jaw-dropping dream scene, done as photographic negative, also helps). A great performance in a half-forgotten classic, its only flaw being aggressive anti-Jap racism: "One big bowling alley!" marvels our hero as he mows down advancing Japanese with his machine-gun, calling up memories of Gulf War pilots talking "turkey shoot". Unsurprising in 1945, but strange in a film so humane.   

BURN! (63) (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969): Another case - see also Col. Mathieu in BATTLE OF ALGIERS - of Third World revolutionaries being less interesting than the Europeans (in this case Marlon Brando as an English agent provocateur, cynical and foppishly amused) whose job it is to harness, manipulate and finally destroy their revolutions; a significant wrinkle, seeing as Pontecorvo was himself a European who made his name dissecting Third World revolution - and the general effect, as in ALGIERS, is of a very smart, pointed study that's ultimately more interested in itself than the object of its study. Visually striking, in this case, but haphazardly plotted (at least in the English-language cut), making it a lesser achievement than ALGIERS; the point about the various loci of colonialism - not just colonials and victimised natives, but e.g. corporate/financial interests often at odds with the imperialist government - is well-taken, though.

SILENT RUNNING (67) (Douglas Trumbull, 1972): WALL-E's a loveable robot - but Huey and Dewey came first (Louie "got careless" and drifted off into outer space), squat little 'droids galumphing round a spaceship and looking like TVs with legs in this influential eco-fable (John Dykstra surely used the experience on the not-dissimilar space vistas of STAR WARS; not sure what the writerly Odd Couple of Michael Cimino and Steven Bochco got out of it). Message is of course even timelier nowadays, Nature-loving astronaut Bruce Dern standing for organic (his beloved "forest") against GM - though also, he explains, for "beauty" and against the synthetic, the uniform, the machine-tooled. The film is almost a one-man show, giving free rein to Dern's talent for eccentric line-readings, also unfortunately giving free rein to then-trendy Flower Power trappings - unsurprising, given the Message - and a couple of Joan Baez songs that nearly wreck the atmosphere of deadpan, hi-tech introversion (as in 2001, the machines provide most of the humanity); looks like it's going to spiral into out-and-out psychosis halfway through when Dern quietly snaps and takes off on his own, instead it spirals into something quite poignant, perceptive - turns out he misses people - and occasionally cutesy: namely Huey, Louie and Dewey.

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (56) (Waris Hussein, 1972): Just like comedies of embarrassment, here's a horror movie of embarrassment: Joel Delaney - nice "Uncle Joel", beloved brother with more than a hint of repressed incestuous desire - starts behaving inappropriately, talks about sex, must be prevented from reciting a dirty limerick in front of the children, finally rants in Spanish and tries to slaughter the entire family. All because he's been hanging out with those Puerto Ricans in the East Village (and become possessed by the spirit of a serial-killer), though the film implies he needed to escape his rich, suffocating sister - and of course its thrust is political, said sister forced to associate with said Puerto Ricans and having her privileged bourgeois eyes opened to the other New York - a "supernatural city" - on her doorstep. Shirley MacLaine radiates assurance in the role - even the sight of a decapitated body with the head hanging beside it doesn't make her scream - while Hussein goes for the well-heeled sinister tone of ROSEMARY'S BABY, but it doesn't have a lot of ideas and ends up wallowing in ethnic exotica like a Puerto Rican séance; the climax is wacked-out, absurd, and will make you say "only in the 70s".

BULLET IN THE HEAD (75) (John Woo, 1990): THE DEER HUNTER definitely in there, also TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and corrupting influence of gold, but above all it's a grand adventure with each set-piece topping the one before it (and getting progressively darker and more deranged) - the shoot-out in the nightclub, the Vietcong tortures, finally the madness of the "bullet in the head" - done with Woo's propulsive energy. There's Elvis, a kite, assorted street-fighting, glimpses of all three main characters and the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" - and that's just the opening credits. Maybe it's time to revisit THE KILLER and HARD-BOILED, which I always thought were way overrated; turns out I was kind of an idiot in the early 90s.

RED-HEADED WOMAN (71) (Jack Conway, 1932): "Can you see through this?" asks newly red-headed Jean Harlow, trying on a dress in a store. "I'm afraid you can, miss," replies the saleslady. Jean smiles faux-demurely: "I'll wear it..." Despite that auspicious beginning, a very unusual pre-Code movie - doubtless due to being made at MGM rather than Warners - constantly perched on the edge of moralism; Harlow is a vamp and a home-wrecker, her gold-digging ways treated partly with the usual early-30s blitheness, but also partly with the heavy wagging finger of pernicious-sexuality movies like THE BLUE ANGEL or A FOOL THERE WAS. Also anticipates the likes of THE LAST SEDUCTION, in Harlow's delight at her own manoeuvrings and the wry assumption that men are uniformly weak creatures she can wrap around her little finger; "He's a man, isn't he?" shrugs Jean whenever her roommate warns that her wiles are unlikely to work on this or that solid citizen. She also makes it clear that she refuses to stay on the wrong side of the tracks, prompting the roommate to quip, "Well, I hope you don't get hit by a train while you're crossing over" - and the question of how and whether "Red" will get her comeuppance is a constant source of tension, early-30s decadence fighting good old-fashioned Puritanism every step of the way. Slyly enjoyable, though it's not quite a comedy - except insofar as men look hilarious when bedazzled by sex.  

THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (65) (Roger Corman, 1967): Irresistible portentous cartoon, featuring an omniscient V.O. introducing each of the dozen-plus main characters with a short potted history setting out their date and place of birth, alias (if any), and what the future holds for them - "He will be murdered on April 7, 1951!" - while Corman flaunts his bigger-than-usual budget with pointless establishing shots of 1920s cars driving along the studio sets and Jason Robards flies into rages, juts out his jaw to look simian and bellows wildly in Italian as Al Capone. Full-blooded macho gangster stuff, kept at intriguing arm's-length by the po-faced, detaching March of Time effect, leading up to the Massacre itself and glimpses of the victims getting up, getting ready to go to work, etc as the V.O. intones: "At 7.28 a.m. on the last morning of his life, [Mr. X] prepared to go to work..." Ensemble cast keeps things moving, though a few are wasted (Bruce Dern barely makes an impact as one of the smaller cogs); George Segal - of all people - does well as a nasty sardonic little hood, even if a drag-down fight with his ex-showgirl moll is unwisely played for slapstick.

CROCODILE DUNDEE (53) (Peter Faiman, 1986): So edge-free (and virtually plot-free) it builds up a certain integrity - at least there's no slickness, no Hollywood set-ups and payoffs - a certain imperturbable emptiness matching the Outback Zen exuded by its hero (who doesn't even try to win the girl, just "goes walkabout" after his rival appears to have clinched the deal). He's reactionary, but by no means aggressive in his views - he just literally can't comprehend how someone could be a cross-dresser, or want to take drugs (beyond a cold beer); you could say he's the perfect Reaganite hero, matching the other seemingly naive, laid-back, unpretentious populist in the White House. The ultimate 'film that touched a nerve', leaving future generations to figure out why - second viewing for me, first since the 80s; I wouldn't have bothered, if Dale didn't like it so much - and it alternates between bland and shoddy (even the famous subway finale is shoddily-done, with some too-broad mugging in the cameo roles) but it does have something, if only in trying so little. Genuinely relaxed, which Hollywood once was and simply isn't anymore.      

THE HARDER THEY COME (62) (Perry Henzell, 1972): Plotting gets flaky in the second half, esp. when our hero becomes a folk-hero like Antonio das Mortes (the film prefers to equate him with a spaghetti-Western cowboy he sees in a movie, but this and Glauber Rocha are giving Western archetypes the same Third World tweak imho); atmosphere is everything, with the added rider that it wouldn't work half as well - for English speakers - in another language since the colourful pidgin English is part of the charm, though one does sometimes feel like an ethnic tourist (esp. given Jamaica's real-life problems; I smiled at one gangster saying that a rival "is goin' to be dead an' dead", but of course the island's been riven by organised gang warfare since the mid-70s). Still a strange beguiling world, not least in the things it doesn't make a big deal of, e.g. cops being complicit in the ganja trade (it keeps the peace, shrugs the movie); and of course there's the music.  

HE WHO MUST DIE (57) (Jules Dassin, 1957): Dramatic and didactic, full of handsomely-staged confrontations, wide-angle-lensed visual brio and a Sunday School message (though organised religion is among the main villains). Also manages to be both socialist and nationalist, an unusual combination - the poor aren't only virtuous because they're poor, also because they stand up to the Turks (the setting is rural Greece), unlike the "bad priest" who prefers to make deals with the local Aga - and not a very comfortable one. Still basically works in the crowd scenes and village atmosphere, trips up when Kazantzakis' schematic plot - actors in a Passion Play start to resemble their characters - has people saying things like "you fake Jesus!".

THE DRILLER KILLER (74) (Abel Ferrara, 1979): Not what I expected, not a 'video nasty' but a vivid glimpse of the New York Punk moment - music, squalor, raw power (Iggy Pop gets a quick mention), a gratuitous lesbian shower scene, portraits of the destitute and homeless on New York's seedy streets and, yes, ultra-violence, though not so much sadistic as despairing and pointless (and mostly perfunctory). Best watched drunk or on VHS or both (I did the second one), swimming in the grimy ambience and often hallucinatory images (haunting bit: childish Baybi Day's light-washed face against the darkness when she whines "I don't have any friends..."); Ferrara may have been young and nasty - he looks feral in the title-role, and makes eating pizza an act of violence - but you only have to look at the opening scene, camera swaying behind our silhouetted hero as he hesitantly enters a dark church, warily approaching the altar where a Jesus bathed in blood-red light dominates the shot like a gaping wound, to know he had something special.

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (68) (Rudolph Maté, 1951): "Read all about it! End of the world just around the corner!" shout the newsboys bathetically, and it's hard to maintain much tension when heroes and heroine decamp to a nightclub for a fun night out immediately after learning the Earth will be destroyed by a rogue star in eight months' time. That said, MVP is scripter Sydney Boehm, bringing a ferocious post-WW2 cynicism about human nature that far outdoes the maudlin likes of DEEP IMPACT and trumps the bad science and obviously dated FX (the tidal wave hitting New York is impressive, though); the opening caption - implying that the whole thing is divine retribution for a hopelessly corrupt world - is unsubstantiated by anything that happens in the movie, yet oddly appropriate. Hypnotically watchable as a weird mix of elements, sober scientists in suit and tie - plus a very 50s faith in technology - bumping up against harsher noir-ish things like the terrifying wheelchair-bound tycoon talking of the "law of the jungle", not to mention the shocking enormity of the concept itself bumping up against the limitations of 50s sci-fi visuals and often bizarre Bad Movie plotting (the sloppy selection of the Chosen Few who'll survive to lead Humanity into a new world - basically whoever happens to be around, plus the chief scientist, his daughter, her boyfriend, some random kid and his dog - is especially hilarious); the final scene doesn't really work, yet it stands as a triumph of imaginative licence over CGI hyper-reality.

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (65) (Leo McCarey, 1937): Sentimental, wish-fulfilment final stretch is too 'big' - it wrecks the proportions, esp. because the rest of it isn't melodramatic (guess the finale might've worked if the old couple's children had been Dickensian monsters making them sleep in a rat-infested attic - though of course it would've been a much lesser movie) but oppressively and deliberately dreary, petty people smothering compassion in their petty little lives. Both unusual for 30s Hollywood, not least in the non-stylized playing - Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi never allowing a roguish twinkle or cutesy mannerism in their senior citizens - and very much a Time-capsule, the emphasis on the rhythm and minutiae of ordinary lives adding its own fascination. Seems there was a time when you could buy a new scarf for the price of a long-distance phone call.

LOVE AND DEATH (78) (Woody Allen, 1975): Finally, an "early funny" Woody that remains funny as well as early. Third complete viewing, still as great as ever, his most (Groucho) Marxist film and a huge step forward from BANANAS (and probably SLEEPER, but I haven't since that in decades); also more recognisably Woody, even little things like the opening credits - now very close to his patented white-on-black format - or working with an arthouse, non-American DP (the misty exteriors are surprisingly pretty, the battle scenes surprisingly lavish); evidently, finding a kindred spirit - and comic equal - in Diane Keaton was the missing link in discovering his voice. Only the slapstick doesn't work.

LARKS ON A STRING (63) (Jiri Menzel, 1990 [filmed 1969]): More gentle hedonism [see below], albeit with a pointed political edge that got it banned (bad timing - right after the Soviet invasion - more than anything). "Food, drink, sleep, bathing and love-making are the noblest acts that exist," says someone, Menzel once again muddling the line between high-flown and earthy, but there's also people 'disappearing' - carried away in a big black car - if they complain, and the setting is a re-education facility for bourgeois professions (incl. a saxophonist, because "we've abolished saxophones"). Resolves into Iosseliani-like meandering, often very sweet - the newlywed husband showing his bride around their new apartment, dialogue-free for maximum wondrousness (then they get frisky, chase each other playfully, he switches off the light, she switches it back on, cut to wide-shot of the building with a light flashing on and off in one of the windows) - paying equal attention to prisoners and wardens (the latter aren't to blame; it's the System). Line to savour: "Would you like to hear my poem 'How a Miner's Daughter Forgot Her Proletarian Origin and Succumbed to the Temptations of Eros'?".

CAPRICIOUS SUMMER (56) (Jiri Menzel, 1968): Playful and melancholy, the abiding theme being fading lives - expressed through fading virility, three middle-aged friends going after a hot young girl and proving inadequate - but Menzel believes in the power of hedonism, sensual pleasures like soaking in a lake while puffing on a big cigar, or sitting in the sunshine admiring the curve of a woman's behind (sexual politics are admittedly dodgy by modern standards) - and he also believes in magic, co-starring as the conjuror who beguiles the little town by plucking cards seemingly out of the darkness. Plot peters out, and the summer remains capricious - it rains all the time (summer being implicitly a time of youth) though the rain has its own charm, running in rivulets down the town's muddy streets. Pleasing, but mostly insubstantial.

BANANAS (65) (Woody Allen, 1971): Approximately fourth complete viewing, but in fact I used to watch it all the time as a teenager - result being I can pretty much recite all the good bits, and first adult viewing merely pointed up the lame and unsuccessful gags. Still enough gems to make me cherish it, though it only got one actual laugh this time round (Fielding's parents making him take over the operation: "Oh okay, I'll just do this one..."). Also noteworthy: 2 Jesuses 1 parking space; Howard Cosell's duck-walk as he makes his way through the crowd; "I am reminded tonight of the farmer who had an incestuous relationship with both his daughters simultaneously"; "Pith ... Yeth..."

FEBRUARY 1, 2009

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (54) (Woody Allen, 1972): Second viewing, first in ages. Still a case of two brilliant sketches out of seven (Nos. 5 and 7), but I'd forgotten how much dead space there is in between. The medieval episode especially left me stone-faced, and even the sheep is slightly tedious once you already know the concept. Good-looking sheep, though...

IM GIRUM IMUS NOCTE ET CONSUMIMUR IGNI (52) (Guy Debord, 1978): Partly (I hope) a hilarious joke with Debord taking on the role of arrogant genius, making an anti-movie that "disdains the image-scraps of which it is composed" and asserting that anyone who doesn't understand his methods should blame their own "sterility and lack of education". Personally I plead generational divide, since what he relates - rather self-indulgently - seems to be the 60s revolution, a time when a small band of rebels/progressives/idiots/whatever realised that "Nothing is true; everything is permitted", except the spirit then faded in almost everyone except a few stubborn keepers of the flame like (yes!) Guy Debord. Mucho points for audacity, but (a) given all the pleasure I get out of movies, it'd be hypocritical to join with the film's attack on Cinema (even as it underlies its rant with vintage film clips) or share its scorn for the image-addicted Society of the Spectacle, and (b) having heard accounts of how my parents and grandparents used to live 50 years ago, I'm actually quite grateful to be living as a "slave" in today's "commodified society". Best bit: 80 minutes in, the screen suddenly goes dark, Debord supplying only this caption: "HERE THE SPECTATORS, DEPRIVED OF EVERYTHING, WILL ALSO BE DEPRIVED OF IMAGES".

SECRET CEREMONY (70) (Joseph Losey, 1968): Mia Farrow's avid, hungry quality, giving a clue to her eerie effectiveness in ROSEMARY'S BABY - she's not just a victim; she looks disturbed - a psycho streak she hasn't always favoured in her screen career (I can't think of many films that showcase this mad obsessive Mia, as opposed to the frail gentle Mia; maybe DEATH ON THE NILE). Not that she's a villain in this nutty slice of big-house baroque, Losey stilling the camp value with his stiff, cryptic style and arch way with narrative, never laughing at the strange damaged people so we go beyond camp, even beyond BABY JANE-ish pathos to something diligent and quite cerebral, positing madness as another kind of alienation. No-one's really a villain, not even Robert Mitchum as the stepfather with designs on Mia; "The first time I saw you, you were 11 years old. You came sliding down the banister in blue jeans ... I thought 'That's for me'." Oh my.

JANUARY 1, 2009