Older films seen in 2011, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 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 eight 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...]
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (55) (Mitchell Leisen, 1934): "Isn't this the strangest night? There's something miraculous in the air - like an old story you can't quite believe." Or an old movie you can't quite take seriously, when everyone's making florid speeches and playing princes and princesses, Fredric March adding monocle and all-purpose foreign accent as Death in human form. Every shot is elegant, and Death in non-human form - an inky cloak of shadow - is surprisingly effective, but the cast is muted and the talk grinds you down before the end - though at least he's not called Joe Black, and at least it's not three hours long, and at least it doesn't shirk from the obvious conclusion (albeit disguised as Romantic Love), the terrifying lure of oblivion and little Grazia with her winsome death-wish, possibly reflecting the planet's collective death-wish a few years later: "Let's go fast enough to reach the illimitable!".
BITTER VICTORY (68) (Nicholas Ray, 1957): Faced with WW2 action, Ray withdraws into introversion: soldiers wander (first the streets, then the desert) in lengthy scenes without coherent geography or even dialogue, History - the spectre of Roman ruins and lost civilisations - hangs like a millstone, underlining the transience of everything, unhealthy morbidity sets in early and never gets shaken (high/low point: wounded German brings out pre-war photos of the frau and kinder, begging for his life, then our hero shoots him anyway); fittingly, we open and close on the training dummies in the barracks gym, echoing hero's dismissal of his craven superior - and romantic rival - as not a man, just an empty uniform (their dynamic recalls Aldrich's ATTACK! from the year before, well-connected coward vs. wild-but-noble underling). The tension is terrific, but the existential angst - once it's all over, and the film has slogged to its bitter conclusion - does feel a bit unmotivated.
VIRGINIA CITY (53) (Michael Curtiz, 1940): Footnote-worthy as the only teaming of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart (except playing themselves in THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS), but also a Civil War Western with severe audience-sympathy problems since the Southerners are very much the underdogs - destitute, all but defeated, having to skulk and hide as they hatch their daring plan - but Flynn is the Union man trying to hunt them down, so ways must be found to make him sympathetic - hence e.g. Bogie as a half-caste bandit with pencil moustache and south-of-the-border accent ("beezness"). A year later he'd be Sam Spade, loftily above such demeaning piffle - and the ending would've been wildly different, a call to arms as opposed to Abe Lincoln announcing the end of hostilities and hoping everyone can live in peace. Also, Miriam Hopkins as a saloon gal? Questionable.
DECEMBER 1, 2011
PLEASURES OF THE FLESH (62) (Nagisa Oshima, 1965): Only my second 60s Oshima (Japanese New Wave is a major gap), and what's most apparent is the way he seems to place obstacles to easy viewing, distressing the image with close-ups of bits of people's faces, wide-shots (e.g. in the yakuza scene) where everyone is bunched together in a corner of the frame, dream scenes not coded as such, etc - a visual correlative to the film's dramatic arc, in which hero longs to lose himself in the titular pleasures only to find constant obstacles, unencumbered sex proving impossible whether because money (his main weapon) is a false god or because he's secretly torn with longing for his first love. There's an almost farcical undertow to his mounting problems - one girl turns out to have a husband who obsequiously begs our hero to let her go, turning up to see him with their toddlers in tow; another agrees to give him a month's trial period, only to fall sick and spend almost all of it in bed - when all he wants to do is get laid, but the ghost of the lost love (visualised in the repeated shot where she seems to glide, wraith-like, in her wedding gown) has a Resnais-like persistence. Still a bit dry and tentative, but appetite whetted.
WEST OF ZANZIBAR (71) (Tod Browning, 1928): Lon Chaney, or The Lost Art of Holding a Close-Up. He has two incarnations here, Phroso the magician in love - mouth unfolded in a big, heart-shaped grin - switching to stunned disbelief when she runs away, then Phroso the magician plotting sadistic vengeance - jaw clenched, mouth set in a sneer, eyes burning - in both cases selling the melodrama by sheer force of presence. Most of the time we're in Africa, where well-oiled warriors greet the white bwana with a kind of elaborate curtsey, hard-boiled dames recline in "the lowest dive in Zanzibar", Warner Baxter does a gay little dance and the plot swings from revenge drama to male weepie, albeit not as weirdly masochistic as in THE UNKNOWN. At the very least, enough to make you weep (a) that Chaney died so soon, and (b) that Browning never tried his hand at a Tarzan movie.
DEUX FOIS (48) (Jackie Raynal, 1968): (*) Interesting - though I've only read the quote out of context - that Serge Daney compared this to "the murderous, painful madness of Fritz Lang's great films, in which all the fiction is reduced to sketchy outlines, arabesques, leaving almost no trace" - because I can see what he's getting at, but Lang (or e.g. David Lynch) uses that truncated emptiness for dramatic ends whereas this seldom gets beyond preening and a late-60s, making-faces-in-the-bathroom-mirror kind of larkiness. Worth seeing for striking bits more than the overall concept, esp. a silhouetted dancing couple - presumably some kind of animation, wrought from the pixels of an electronic billboard - that briefly approaches the hypnotic, some shots of Paris crowds and a pharmacy scene illustrating modern paralysis. Starts with Raynal having a good meal (in real time) then explaining in detail (but inaccurately) what her film will comprise, segues through a scene where she tells us various "stories" - "Story 5: There is no Story 5" - ends with a lengthy close-up of a man on the verge of falling asleep. Is someone taking the piss?
(*) One of the so-called "Zanzibar films", but it's just coincidence that I watched it right before WEST OF ZANZIBAR. I'm ingenious, but not that ingenious.
XTRO (63) (Harry Bromley Davenport, 1983): Bromley Davenport (who?) composes his own - irresistible - synth score à la John Carpenter, starts with a nod to the bone-into-spaceship cut in 2001 (though in this case it's a stick, and the spaceship just a blinding flash of light) and ends with a gratuitous CARRIE coda. Clearly the work of an eager proto-fanboy but it's not just derivative schlock (Andrew Mollo, of WINSTANLEY fame, is Art Director), unexpected cohorts including an evil-midget circus clown, a toy soldier (who grows to life-size to bump off the mean landlady) and a black panther - and it also works, in between the strangeness, as evocatively drab domestic drama of abandoned mother trying to suppress her husband's memory (especially in the mind of her still-adoring young son) and move on with her life; the fact that he's actually there (in the form of Philip Sayer, who sounds a lot like Clive Owen, though really in the form of an alien) is almost irrelevant. Did I mention the scene where a rape victim painfully gives birth to a full-grown man? Because I should've.
PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (73) (Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930): Time-capsule value is off the charts, but footage of merry Germans splashing about in lakes only gets you so far. What makes it magical is firstly, on a theoretical level, its touchingly naive, almost religious faith in the power of the camera - illustrated in the brief interlude with the beach photographer - to capture the essence of a person (a non-ideological, equally fervent equivalent to Dziga Vertov's "life as it is") and secondly, on a more tangible level, the beautiful expressiveness of the central quartet, esp. the two girls. There's a moment when the blonde Brigitte Borchert rests her head on the gigolo's arm, post-seduction, and the casual, tender way in which she does it has a naturalness that vaults the years (that it's being fetishized/celebrated as naturalness only makes it more touching) - though of course we know he's going to let her down eventually, the fleeting nature of their liaison rhyming with the fleeting nature of youth, and beauty, and Sundays by the lake and indeed Life Itself (given the nature of the exercise, it's not wrong that external factors - e.g. that the brunette later died in a plane crash, aged 48, while the blonde lived to be 100 and died just a couple of months ago - add to its power). Then there's the time-capsule stuff, lacking the hypnotic rhythms of Walter Ruttmann but full of stray detail. Is that a dwarf, or perhaps a hunchback, rushing to board a train just before we cut away in an early scene?
NOVEMBER 1, 2011
THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (62) (Hubert Cornfield, 1968): Marlon Brando as a sandy-blond hipster in a black turtleneck ("Listen to me, man," he cautions a colleague who's overly fond of the rough stuff: "If you wanna get freaky, don't do it with her"), Rita Moreno as a junkie - this must be the earliest film I've seen to show actual coke-sniffing - plus a moody seaside setting that could double for the one in THE GHOST WRITER. Second half ought to seethe with tension, but instead gets hamstrung by a ransom-delivery plan so needlessly complicated it verges on the ridiculous (they'd seriously have been better off leaving the money in the trunk of a hollow tree); still intriguing as an American stab at the late-60s Euro-thriller - dingy small-town France, the café with its blood-red banquettes - and an artefact of that volatile time in general. "Everybody's a little nuts these days".
LA VISITA (75) (Antonio Pietrangeli, 1963): Co-written by Ettore Scola, and the set-up has affinities with A SPECIAL DAY - but spikier and of course more comical, more about its duo acknowledging differences than finding similarities. Main dramatic motor is simple - will our heroine realise that her swain (the titular visitor) is unworthy, and what will she do about it? - but the question is finessed, kept in abeyance and finally (quite movingly) placed in a deeper understanding that people's behaviour doesn't always rhyme with what they know, and they might be thankful for small pleasures even as they feel the big picture slipping away. Leans a bit too hard on the drunkenness, and the antics of the village idiot; otherwise exquisite, with an eye for memorable detail (the early bookshop flashback is 'made' by the priest who's forgotten his umbrella), perfectly poised between satirical detail and wry humanity.
OCTOBER 1, 2011
SISTERS OF THE GION (71) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936): Surprisingly brittle and busy, our heroine a designing little madam who's just begging for a rise-and-fall dramatic arc (turns out it's not that kind of movie, but there is a moment - when she's kidnapped and driven away by the vengeful ex-suitor - when she seems about to 'get what's coming to her'). Early dolly-shots give way to groups and couples observed from a distance (hardly any close-ups), making for a potent sense of a human marketplace where relationships have been reduced to business deals (the men might as well be the same man and indeed they look alike, thin, middle-aged and bespectacled); feminist message throbs rather than roars, building to the final cry of torment. Possible key detail: heroine persuades merchant to pay 100 yen so her sister's "patron" can be bribed away (and he can take over), then approaches him the next day while he's selling a scroll to a customer - and he, spotting her, quickly adds another 100 yen to the price of the scroll, seeing not the girl but his investment. Funny 'cause it's true.
LUST FOR LIFE (65) (Vincente Minnelli, 1956): First impressions matter, and kicking off with Vincent Van Gogh as a do-gooder - an aspiring preacher living with the poor and downtrodden, censured by his hypocritical, un-Christian bosses - looks suspiciously like an attempt to reassure the folks in Peoria that this crazy painter is worthy of their high moral standards. Fortunately gets a lot more complex (the title is reductive, to put it mildly), Vincent's tragedy being that he burns with desire to give - "to be of use, to work, to bring something to the world" - but ends up repelling potential friends and lovers with his crude approach, and the film seems entirely aware that this fiercely narrow-minded sentimentalist would be quite a maudlin, tiresome fellow, if it weren't for the genius. The scenes with worldly, cynical, equally fucked-up Gauguin come close to greatness (both performances are terrific) yet the overall effect is patchy, despite careful use of colour aiming to approximate the man's work. Maybe it's a touch too familiar.
THE EASIEST WAY (68) (Jack Conway, 1931): Worth preserving just for its opening scene - and its opening shot, a shaky but startling dolly-shot through three crowded rooms of a New York tenement where a large, noisy family wake up to a new day; Dad shaving in the kitchen, younger kids sent out to buy bread and butter (no fridge, obviously), boy walking in on sister dressing, etc. Source is a well-known 'shocking' play which perhaps explains the gritty realism and (relative) visual ambition, though it often looks like Conway's being flashy for its own sake (one scene plays out with the camera watching the actors' reflections in a shop window for no reason at all); brilliant Time-capsule stuff threatens to become banal as our heroine heads down the primrose path to easy living - "You've tasted luxury, my dear," notes preternaturally smooth sugar-daddy Adolphe Menjou; "And that's worse than drugs" - but rallies with strong conclusion and wry philosophical shrug: "Men are like that. Girls are like that. It's nobody's fault". Though there's also Marjorie Rambeau, as an older frumpier call-girl with a more pessimistic take: "This life isn't a romance for girls like us. It's a game, with the men holding all the trumps..."
RUN FOR COVER (58) (Nicholas Ray, 1955): First half-hour is spent wondering what attracted Ray to such a conventional Western, a question emphatically answered when James Cagney towers over his surrogate son - who's writhing on the floor with a bum leg - and orders him to "Get up!" and be a man, all too obviously a dry run for the cruel-to-be-kind monster-father in next year's BIGGER THAN LIFE. Fathers are a constant theme, Cagney forever disappointed but refusing to accept that the boy's no good, caught between the benign-but-implacable old-fashioned patriarchy of the heroine's father (who refers to himself as "the father") and his own progressive ideas as town sheriff, another kind of fatherhood. Thin but likeable, like the beguilingly simple Western town that provides the setting - a broad dirt road and a cluster of houses, in the shadow of high mountains - at least till the script falls apart in the final act; the crucial revelation (i.e. why it gets revealed) makes no sense at all.
UNDER CAPRICORN (52) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949): All due respect to the revisionists, but consensus was right about this one. File alongside PARADINE CASE as a film about class, and class resentment - not a big Hitchcock theme before or after the late 40s, so maybe he just felt sufficiently removed to bitch about British snobbery after a decade in the New World - also a film with a talky script which in this case wrecks it, despite the long takes and Ingrid Bergman alternately looking incandescently fragile (e.g. when she hesitantly tries to assert herself with the servants, and instinctively puts up a protective hand when she orders one to "say 'Yes milady'") and just incandescent. Strangely muted, like it's all taking place in slow motion, making for some interesting moments - e.g. when the Mrs. Danvers figure is exposed and our heroine, far from being triumphal, seems about to engage her in an earnest conversation about her motives - but very little in the way of pleasure. MVP: the shrunken head.
MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (66) (John Cassavetes, 1971): It's like the two different sides of Cassavetes, Moskowitz carrying the jazzy energy from SHADOWS, Minnie the maudlin existential angst expressed in rambling self-indulgent speeches; the film exhilarates when it follows his jagged encounters with random strangers - Timothy Carey giving a mad recital in a diner, a mother on a plane trying to get her daughter to eat, Moskowitz's own mother complaining about "gigantic flowers", a cheerful girl talking of her roommate who hates the smell of eggs - then curls up and dies when it shifts to Minnie rambling about how lonely she is (Gena Rowlands is unusually annoying in this picture), how "sometimes it's an effort to breathe", how movies are just a big conspiracy because they set you up to believe in romance, etc etc. M&M get together and it's wildly unconvincing - the actual drama is threadbare, e.g. when she doesn't introduce him to her friends - but does evoke something of impossible love, and the way it gets more hysterical as it gets more impossible, then again Cassavetes has always enjoyed hysterical people just as he indulges pushy people (he's Greek the way the family in MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING were Greek, "big and loud and in each other's lives"). Ultimately works because it's a comedy, and because the two sides coalesce occasionally - like e.g. the amazing dinner with belligerent Val Avery (as "Zelmo Swift") who pours out his heart to our heroine, striving to express his personal tragedy in ever more absurd/desperate terms: "I've got hair all down my back! And on my chest! But my legs are smooth!..."
SINGAPORE SLING (62) (Nikos Nikolaidis, 1990): From slapstick to splatter, with significant stopovers at film noir (LAURA, mostly) and gross-out (puke, mostly); a hybrid, "a cocktail", just like (yes) a Singapore Sling. Not sure there's much beyond unmotivated weirdness - getting slightly bogged down in the third quarter - but the absent (or obscure) motivation is part of the charm; photography is lustrous, orifices messed-up in general (things tend to come out of the end where they should be going in, and vice versa), identities muddled and the ladies' performances collectors' items. Surely influential on the Weird Greek Wave crowd, and surely no coincidence that another pair of bad girls played twisted games in ATTENBERG, while Michele Valley - who, hilariously, speaks her lines first in French then immediately in English, spoofing the bad-movie shorthand (INCENDIES is the latest offender) for exotic foreigners - also played the mother in DOGTOOTH. Whatever happened to Meredyth Herold, though?
TENDER MERCIES (76) (Bruce Beresford, 1983): Second viewing, first since the 80s - and it's interesting to read Pauline Kael's negative review, seeing only the banal self-importance we routinely invoke to dismiss middlebrow dramas ("TENDER MERCIES is proof that a movie doesn't have to be long to be ponderous"), except this now seems hugely more alert and accomplished - and arthouse-friendly - than any recent Oscar-bait; have standards really slipped or does Time lend a rosy glow, or does every era simply tend to undervalue its masterpieces unless they come with aggressive markers of social relevance and/or stylistic innovation? Nothing aggressive here, though Beresford often cuts abruptly (see e.g. the first long conversation between man and boy) and uses space, both the endless Texas vistas vs. the cosy, stubborn, oasis-like space of the motel (seen from afar in a repeated shot, its neon sign glowing in the night) and space as an extension of character, like the awkward but effective early shot of Robert Duvall sitting on the porch with his back turned to woman and boy (personal space is vitally important in this movie, the space between people earmarked and identified by rules of courtesy, all the "sir"s and "ma'am"s and "pleased to know you"s); scenes are short, grounded in detail - the Good Woman refusing to sing with Duvall, even though she can (because then she'd be like his ex-wife, of whom she's secretly jealous despite being a Good Woman), or the boy's childish babbling defusing the potentially maudlin scene after our hero gets baptised - allowing music to fill the distance, one of the Lord's "tender mercies". The ending is weak (albeit earned), and occasional bits feel fake (like the kid's interactions with other kids) but that's only because the rest is so perfect. Also p.s. I'm retrospectively downgrading CRAZY HEART, it's pretty good but this is the real thing. Or will HEART also seem like a masterpiece in 28 years?
THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (65) (Peter Weir, 1982): Third viewing, first in >20 years. Not insane that I used to love this, because its volatile 60s Jakarta is full of atmosphere - and it may be self-consciously exotic Atmosphere but Russell Boyd (whose work I coincidentally also watched the next day in TENDER MERCIES, see above) has a knack for creating intimate, self-enclosed ecosystems, helped in this case by the early-80s film stock that lends skin tones a warm orange tinge. The big problem is Billy Kwan, the wise dwarf played by (Oscar-winning) Linda Hunt who listens to opera, gets florid voice-over - "I shuffle like cards the lives I deal with" - and acts as the film's moral conscience, ending on an anguished "What then must we do?"; Weir's decision to place such a tragic-melodramatic arc in the middle of an otherwise quite realistic movie is bold, but it doesn't make the character any less insufferable (his identification with Sukarno, the dictator puppetmaster, is also half-baked, nor is it clear why he feels betrayed when his own efforts fail). Mel Gibson has an avid hungry quality, and it may be that Weir (who knew him from GALLIPOLI) tailored the character to fit his star - like Mel, he's a Capricorn and a half-and-half, "not quite certain [he's] Australian" - and Sigourney Weaver glows, even as her character goes nowhere; and yes, this is classic, but I suspect it'd still be classic whatever the visuals.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
LE MILLION (74) (René Clair, 1931): Second viewing, no change in rating. Not really frenetic, despite the plot - the quest for a lost lottery ticket - and frequent scurrying movement, just very poised in a studied, deadpan way that constantly holds the promise of things breaking down at any moment; most typical bit may be the tiny detail where the likeable gangster (having just said goodbye to our heroine) suddenly whistles, and a nondescript corridor is transformed into elegant pandemonium as black-clad henchmen emerge from every door. Artifice has a lot to do with it - the opening shot, panning across the roofs of a model Paris, is very beautiful - bolstered by the song and recitative, fostering a sense of anything-can-happen, and it's worth noting that the Popular Front air of community hides some prickly contradictions (our hero's best friend is also his enemy; the folks who dance and celebrate with him in the first scene are also his angry creditors in the second). Opera climax has since been outdone by the Marxes, but remains funny because opera is funny, sorry opera fans ("I laugh at your violence!" trills a brick-wall-like soprano; "She laughs at his violence!" sings the chorus; "Hahahahaha!" "Hahahahaha!"; etc); Annabella's charms, on the other hand, can never fade.
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (68) (William A. Wellman, 1933): First thought: everything here is quite fake. Second thought: it's done with tremendous care, good judgment and sensitivity (not to mention the Time-capsule factor). Prone to theatricality, down to little details like e.g. our hero getting caught in a lie - when he tells his crippled friend about some kid who was singing the praises of artificial limbs, and the friend asks "What's the kid's name?" - and Frankie Darro acting out the stages of momentary panic, quick thinking, desperate bluff, etc; then again, Darro (not exactly a Great Actor) gets the equally theatrical climactic speech and knocks it out of the park, all in one take, Wellman having obviously imbued his young actors with the urgency of the situation (he brings out the teenage softness in their faces, even while remaining ostensibly unsentimental). First thought: tame and whitewashed, esp. in making clear the "wild boys" are really nice middle-class boys. Second thought: doesn't pull its punches, in the pitched battles between kids and cops or the railroad man who rapes a young girl. It's that kind of movie.
WAY OUT WEST (69) (James Horne, 1937): What does it mean that I watched Stan & Ollie's soft-shoe shuffle more than once as a teen but I'm only now noticing (in the sense of being distracted by) the very obvious back-projection? Has my eye just become more discerning, or is disbelief harder to suspend in the Age of CGI? (See also: the middle-age makeup in BACK TO THE FUTURE.) Then again, this was also the first time I noticed that the poster outside the saloon reads "Lola Marcel, Serio-Comic Entertainer", so I guess there may be advantages to a sharper gaze. Awesome then, still awesome now: Stan's hysterical laughing fit; Ollie's chat-up lines ("A lot of weather we've been having lately") and soulful looks to camera; "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine". After OUR RELATIONS - which I'm sure I must be overrating, just because its rep is so minor - L&H's best feature.
KITTY FOYLE (56) (Sam Wood, 1940): Deeply confused women's picture with pretensions to explicating that newcomer to American society, "the white-collar girl", passing off its thoroughly unsatisfying Message as a sign of women's newfound maturity (what do they want? "it's not just men anymore" - though in fact the quest for independence of working girls and suffragettes is the opposite of what the movie stands for). Might've helped if Kitty's two suitors were more charismatic, but Ginger Rogers does well as the "sassy Mick" determined to stand on her own two feet - the scene where she tells off the high-society nobs probably won her the Oscar all by itself - and there's a few unexpected stylistic touches (the pantomime prologue, Kitty being lectured by her reflection in the mirror) plus a glimpse of the new urban breed circa 1940, "living in a one-bedroom apartment with a pull-down bed, eating in drugstores, going to the movies once a week". Unexpected Goosebumps Dept.: Kitty saying that her baby son will be "only 65 in the year 2000", a sudden reminder of our own universe relative to the movie's; it's like watching an actor step out of character and address you directly.
10 RILLINGTON PLACE (67) (Richard Fleischer, 1971): Perversely structured, treating John Christie's career as a serial killer (the whole 'women in the wall' business) almost as an afterthought, so the last 20 minutes are anti-climactic; also not particularly tense, and Richard Attenborough's prosthetic bald dome is rather noticeable - yet it grips, because John Hurt gives the kind of deeply-felt, richly expressive performance that gives Good Acting a good name. Excellent scenes where his abject character is being manipulated by the quiet, ruthless Christie - almost a cartoon, with his Mr. Pooter style and endless cups of tea - give way to low-key courtroom action (based on original transcripts) with good detail like Christie being allowed to give his testimony sitting down after complaining to the judge about his bad back. Plot details (e.g. the builders) are inserted because they really happened, not because they have any bearing on the plot, which is at first confusing but ultimately admirable; visuals are mostly bland, beyond the drab 40s Britain in browns and greys. Did all houses have that sickening greenish-grey floral wallpaper, or is it just a collective bad memory?
THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (74) (Raul Ruiz, 1983): I don't pretend to know what's going on here (being a Lacanian might help, so I'm told), but it's nothing as banal as the 'magic of storytelling'; the storyteller/sailor lives in a magical realm, but his shipmates are poor, sad ghosts and the stories lead nowhere, except to one another and perhaps to Art for its own sake - the "femme fatale" who's become her own artwork but turns out to have "only one orifice" (her mouth, which is great for telling stories but not much else) - and it's worth noting what the sailor dreams about when he gets some money, viz. settling down with the improvised family he's created (a son from Singapore, a father from Dakar) to replace the one he lost. Storytelling, like the great romantic dream of the wandering sailor, is a lonely metier, a kind of death within life, yet the film teems with furious comic invention, esp. in the first hour - sailors smuggle bags of salt in their mattresses and bottles of sea water in their lockers; the captain loves Beethoven, constantly sings "Ode to Joy" and forbids anyone else to sing it; a prostitute with low self-esteem lives in a room full of dolls with glowing eyes, while outside children's voices recite "the 365 names of the masculine organ"; a travelling salesman leads the way down a passage where gravity is inverted, so they walk on the ceiling - and baroque visuals with Wellesian depth-of-field. Slightly overlong, but the mix of fecund and melancholy is like few other movies.
THE QUIET AMERICAN (63) (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1958): "For my part I dislike happy endings of the type you find in old American films," Mankiewicz has someone say, which is cheeky since he's just contrived such an ending, maybe not happy per se but morally (and politically) 'acceptable' - and indeed "old American films" might've been more honest, before the 50s and their rabid anti-Communism. The last half-hour works hard to ruin what came before, but there's still a powerful portrait of the foreign correspondent as empty shell (Michael Redgrave, with inevitable echoes of THE BROWNING VERSION), fleeing England - "the scene of my failure" - and latching on to a younger woman, a lonely man with no faith and no politics. Mankiewicz leans hard on the former, fully mindful of Graham Greene's Catholicism - the "eye of God always on you" in the local temple, etc - but doesn't seem to understand the latter; the Quiet American himself is full of politics, spouting off about the "Third Force" of self-determination - and of course Americans are still spouting this rhetoric today, even as they gently help Iraqis or Libyans to achieve such self-determination - his belief in ideology contrasted with Redgrave's insistence on life as a simple struggle for survival, making it doubly silly when ideology is removed by the new ending (Greene protested, with good reason). Listening to the characters talk about these things in Mankiewicz's wondrously intelligent, unabashedly literate dialogue - Audie Murphy saying "repository" and "ostentatious", and calling for people to be free while Redgrave snipes impatiently about "this sudden importance of the individual and his freedom" - and of course knowing they're really talking about the woman they both love, and Age vs. Youth and Old World vs. New, remains deeply pleasurable, despite the flaws in overall conception. Almost great, though also reprehensible.
THREE GUYS NAMED MIKE (54) (Charles Walters, 1951): Almost upgraded this right at the end, when it looked like our heroine was about to reject all three suitors named Mike and fly off into the sunset (she's an air stewardess) - completing a strong-woman subtext that begins with her father's wrong advice and runs through the line about a "smug male" and the other (ironic) line about it being "nice to have a man around" - but in fact it doesn't happen, building instead on the more dubious message that a stewardess's job is to feed and nurture her passengers (heroine's biggest faux pas is forgetting the food) in our "home in the air". The three Mikes need her, open their hearts to her - left to themselves, they're surly and suspicious - and it's an endearing idea that one woman can somehow be a catalyst in three different ways for three different men, but since she's played by Jane Wyman it's more a case of freshly-scrubbed enthusiasm than miracle-working. In a word, anodyne.
EXTREME PRIVATE EROS: LOVE SONG 1974 (67) (Kazuo Hara, 1974): Despite the title, everything happens in public in this jagged documentary - and, though at least one scene is 'extreme' (see below), the real question is why Hara's bizarre ex-girlfriend agreed to be filmed so candidly, almost exploitatively; someone at the IMDb thinks she does it for money (I don't recall any hint of that), but it's more probably because she likes being "adored" by Hara and his camera - which gives her a screen-filling extreme close-up, lying on her side staring at us dreamily - and perhaps because she likes being cornered: "I never understood freedom. I prefer the feeling of fear". Her profession of extreme individualism is a kind of performance, complicated by Hara's own posturing, most obviously in the live-birth scene which is staggering, not so much for its content - Brakhage did it first, afaik - as the obvious irresponsibility of everyone involved, making no attempt to comfort either the woman or the obviously confused toddler watching the spectacle, instead shoving microphones in her face and a camera almost up her crotch (and can we really believe Hara's claim that he forgot to check the camera and didn't realise the shot was out-of-focus? or was it done on purpose, perhaps to make the shot more 'artistic'?). Bit too slapdash, even beyond the intentional amateurish quality - most of the dialogue is out of sync - but the undercurrents are fascinating.
THE DEVIL TO PAY! (61) (George Fitzmaurice, 1930): Amazingly fluid camerawork for 1930, and young Loretta Young is a slim-waisted vision, but free-floating debonair lightness ends up overwhelming (maybe even smothering) any actual comedy. A very polished, slightly too easy piece - yet the biggest laugh may be the (presumably) inadvertent one in the opening credits, which include a credit for "Technical Advisers: Lady Maureen Stanley and Lt. Col. G.L. McDonell". Did these posh people actually exist? And, if so, what "technical" matters could they possibly have advised on, except perhaps arcane points of etiquette in upper-crust London homes? 'Dammit, man, no self-respecting gentleman wears spats with a frock-coat!' 'I'm afraid the Colonel's right, my dear Fitzmaurice. It's simply not done in our circles'. Ah, 30s Hollywood...
L'ARMATA BRANCALEONE (74) (Mario Monicelli, 1966): Opening credits suggest a medieval Punch and Judy show, opening battle offers startling ultra-violence, all the more startling since the gushing blood and lopped-off limbs are played for laughs (mention this next time some Hollywood-centric person starts to rave about the game-changing nature of BONNIE AND CLYDE or THE WILD BUNCH). Then the plot gets underway and it's MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only with knockabout slapstick - set to the rousing, football-chant theme song, plus a couple of Wagnerian riffs anticipating EXCALIBUR - dabs of primary colour, a yellow horse, a handsome period setting (esp. the interlude at the castle, with Barbara Steele as whip-wielding Auntie) and - above all - a bracingly cynical mistrust of authority, religion and honour; Branca and the gang get no last-minute reprieve from terminal idiocy, and the only glimmer of hope in this perpetually disappointing world comes in wishful mention of the afterlife (and of course Monicelli committed suicide, albeit as a cancer-stricken nonagenarian). A few of the gags fall flat - the joust scene is weak, and the bear gag is half-assed though of course it's hilarious that a missing character turns out to have been living with a bear all this time - but there's really only one major gripe: not enough Catherine Spaak. I mean come on.
AUGUST 1, 2011
YOU'RE IN THE ARMY NOW (62) (Lewis Seiler, 1941): Forget the boring title, think Jimmy Durante and Phil Silvers - and forget the boring jokes about drill sergeants and turning left when the rest of the troop turns right, think the shambolic nuttiness that seems to have flourished in the early 40s, jokes about dressing up in drag and pompous Generals with a speech impediment that makes them pucker up their lips when they talk. Still too much slapstick but it's mostly large-scale outdoor slapstick (like the climax of THE BANK DICK, another early-40s madhouse), and much of the fun is hard to explain in any case, stuff like Silvers smiling broadly and announcing "A happy 12!" when asked for his shoe size, or Donald MacBride (a great comic foil) muttering "You bring to mind a vague but revolting episode", or Durante's lurching speech rhythms ("Hey you, turn that wheelbarrow round!"; "Eve-ry time I do dat, dey put rocks in it!") or even the pause for a USO show with specialty dance act and the "Navy Blues Sextette". Hubba hubba.
KEY LARGO (65) (John Huston, 1948): Second viewing, first in >20 years, lower rating (down from 70); guess it may be time - after several downgraded classics in the past couple of years - to admit that the contrived theatricality which I once viewed as part of the style (and charm) of Old Hollywood now makes me restless. Lauren Bacall can still take a close-up, Edward G. Robinson is lots of fun, but my favourite performance this time was perhaps Harry Lewis as the torture-happy 'Toots', with his giggles and sardonic comments. "What is this, a robbery?"; "Yeah, Pop, we're gonna steal all your towels."
L'ETRANGE MONSIEUR VICTOR (70) (Jean Grémillon, 1938): Starts with Raimu in garrulous Marseillais mode (though the setting is Toulon, wedged between mountains and sea), then casts a shadow across his comical, loveably irascible persona, the expansive hot-bloodedness curdled into nastiness by secret guilt - a sly subversion of the whole Pagnolian universe (though the film remains full of flavour, with games of pétanque and hookers coming out to gawp at a street-fight over a woman: "You called me out for this?"; "How was I to know he was going to chicken out?"). Final act is even more eccentric, turning almost into ménage-a-trois comedy - Victor undertakes to find the fugitive some nice clothes, to match his blue eyes! - which is slightly frustrating for narrative whores (like me) who find the plotting turning slightly arbitrary. Water recurs as a motif, in the city viewed from the sea and the flooded puddles through which the Ghost From the Past returns on a rainy night, even in the toy boat that reappears (given first as a gift, then as a bribe), leading indirectly first to crime, then punishment - and water's a pretty good correlative for the film itself: fluid, elusive, deceptively deep.
THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (56) (Garson Kanin, 1940): By far the lesser of the two 1940 films about misunderstandings involving pen-pals - mostly because shop assistants in a bittersweet Budapest are much easier to accept than Charles Laughton as a middle-aged Italian grape farmer going "Look-a me!" and "Some-a things no good!". The way the film treats him is close to offensive, a childlike emasculated ethnic type, radiating happy forbearance like a beast of burden (or Jesus figure) - his party trick is to bend over, uncomplaining, while a pyramid of revellers piles high on his broad shoulders - and though he ostensibly gets the girl he's never allowed to touch her, the weird ending leaving him alone on the farm while she's taken away from him (just "for a few months"; for her own good, and his). Carole Lombard plays her superbly, suggesting a lifetime of abuse in the briskness and waspishness - e.g. when she lashes out at the country doctor - and the film is unexpectedly intense and grown-up (it ditches its Idiot Plot at the first opportunity) - but it's not really a triangle when one side is seemingly pre-sexual, and you also have to put up with a florid padre hymning happy marriages and telling the couple they should be encouraged, celebrated: "You should be watered, like roses..."
WOMAN OF TOKYO (66) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933): Questions arise. Did Ozu really mean to show almost the entire set-up of the Charles Laughton episode in IF I HAD A MILLION (his characters watch it in a movie theatre), the newly-anointed millionaire passing through assorted offices en route to his boss's inner sanctum, without also showing the cathartic punchline where he blows the boss a raspberry? (Maybe, since it leaves an intriguing feeling of incompleteness - yet it also feels abrupt, like there's footage missing; 47 minutes is unusually short, even for a Silent.) Is it a mistake when Ozu crosses the eyeline, or does he do it on purpose to create discomfiture - he does it twice at traumatic moments, when Kinuyo Tanaka's brother first reveals the ugly rumour and when Tanaka has to break the bad news at the climax - or was crossing the eyeline just not a big deal in early-30s Japanese cinema? What's the meaning of the effect when Ozu focuses on objects in the foreground, allowing people to go out-of-focus in the background? (Is there meaning? Or just an effect?) Above all, perhaps, was the film initially intended as a screed against the pernicious role of the yellow press - a theme that appears in a half-assed way towards the end - before Ozu decided to focus on the characters? Their emotions are honest, very well-played in the director's low-angle shots and tear-stained close-ups, and the Woman-as-Victim strand is superbly exploded when Yoshido Okada, far from taking her punishment and turning over a new leaf, trembles with rage at the finale ("Damn weakling!"). All in all, a very fine movie; I just wish I didn't have those questions.
JULY 1, 2011
THE MISSOURI BREAKS (49) (Arthur Penn, 1976): Giving post-LAST TANGO Brando an Irish accent is like giving a can of lighter fluid to a pyromaniac - but there are hints of a fascinating Western before it gets derailed by his hamminess (plus an over-reliance on komedy kapers), e.g. in the gloriously desultory, semi-botched opening hanging followed by the town boss railing against a literate litany of Western reprobates ("wolfers and woodcutters, dishonest apprentices...") before asking his daughter to pass him that copy of "Tristram Shandy". (I also liked the cowboy talking of "my careless, devil-may-care gunplay ... life on the frontier being what it is.") Alas, the plot turns out to be staggeringly boring, Brando a killer, Jack Nicholson (wasted) a charming rogue, the heroine a conspicuously modern girl with nothing to do, and the sense of Less Than Meets the Eye hangs heavy, even without Brando's smugness. "Do you believe your life is like a mountain railroad, Mr. La Frambois?..."
10.30 P.M. SUMMER (61) (Jules Dassin, 1966): Not a good movie, but it has compensations - even if it's just the silly, effective POV shot when Melina Mercouri watches Romy Schneider getting ready for bed from behind her (Melina's) hand, holding it close to her face, so the hand moves with Romy as she reclines, seeming to block her out (since she is, after all, her husband's mistress) but also trying to cup her in its palm, as if to make sense of her. Maybe it's part of a hand motif, since we also get Romy's hands in CU and hands clapping in harsh staccato bursts under the opening credits - after which we turn to a handsome killer, scattering dogs and children as he heads towards his victims (he slays his wife in a crime of passion, unlike Melina who passively accepts her husband's infidelity), later becoming a kind of symbol to the central trio as they drink and bicker their way across rural Spain. There's a touch of "Under the Volcano" in the slumming inebriates, and a gorgeous fullness to the photography - the light from the windows of a packed, men-only cantina (they fall silent when our heroine walks in and the bartender calls for bald, sleazy Emilio, who can speak English) amid the empty moonlit streets of the village, shots of Madrid at magic-hour, flame-haired Mercouri in red-filtered light watching the illicit couple kiss on a rain-drenched balcony, and meanwhile (in the same shot) the killer scurrying on the rooftops like a spidery black shadow. The kind of film where every line seems to end in an ellipsis - read: pretentious - but there's something rich and ripe in its abandoned 60s artiness.
I DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS I AM LIKE (67) (Bill Viola, 1986): Seen on a program with various Bill Viola shorts and medium-length works, almost all of which I liked; he's a highly accessible avant-gardist, a slight thematic on-the-nose-ness balanced by some breathtaking images. THE REFLECTING POOL (1979) is a very clever 7-minute exercise in transferred energy, playing with audience expectations (viz. our expectation of a loud, violent splash), and I'd like to have a personal print - videotape, whatever - of HATSU YUME (1981) just to wallow in the shot of the silhouetted boat gliding by slowly - in dream-time - on a night sea washed by the light of Chinese lanterns. IDNKWIIIAL is more straightforward, a simple, attractive idea - the filmmaker, trying to resolve the titular problem, looks closely at Nature and natural forms to find himself (literally) reflected in them - illustrated cleanly and playfully, though of course whether Viola is onto something or just deluding himself - since he is, after all, a rapacious human being, demolishing in minutes the dead fish which in Nature would take days to decay - remains (literally) the elephant in the room. Very watchable, and indeed I watched it hold the attention of a non-avant-garde audience for an hour and a half (no walkouts), though the lengthy purification ceremony in the final section veers into exotica. Also, I'm in love with 'fuzzy beauty'. How will I survive in the Age of Blu-Ray?
RUTHLESS (58) (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1948): "I hate your insides!" says someone, which is possibly how people in the 40s used to say "I hate your guts" (I can see why they changed that, to be honest). The object of his hatred is ruthless businessman Zachary Scott, which isn't necessarily ideal casting; "He's fun! He's alive!" cries Sydney Greenstreet's young wife, explaining why she's walking out on old, pasty Sydney - then shoves him in front of the mirror so he can gaze on his decrepitude, a painful scene since the actor himself looks unhealthy - but in fact beaky Scott with his turned-down mouth seems irritable more than ruthless, like an un-smiley face on a stick. An odd film, because connective tissue seems to be missing - Scott's showdown with the family who raised him (when he "makes a clean break," as he says later), his actual seduction of Mrs. Greenstreet, how exactly he gets the better of Sydney; none of that is there - yet many scenes are remarkably powerful, Ulmer honing in on power relationships with lucid staging and literate dialogue. Final epitaph - "He wasn't a man; he was a way of life" - isn't exactly TOUCH OF EVIL (and Diana Lynn isn't exactly Marlene Dietrich), but it's something.
THE SHEPHERDS OF CALAMITY (65) (Nicos Papatakis, 1967): Rich village girl must choose between shepherd and soldier, also standing for outward- and inward-looking visions of Greece (the shepherd once lived in Germany, and dreams of going to Australia; the soldier evokes the Colonels' coup, heard in a radio broadcast near the end). Initially rural melodrama, alternating between hot daylight on scrubby landscapes and night scenes with sepulchral lighting, then increasingly mad and counter-cultural, class war in the sticks like in Glauber Rocha, the whole village turning up (like - yes - a Greek chorus) to sing songs and fly a kite emblazoned with "Despina, You Whore", the lovers turning into 60s types, he with bandanna, she in a miniskirt. Lively enough to be un-ironically enjoyable (teenage Olga Karlatos glows as the girl), then the Revolution is just gravy.
OUR LADY OF THE TURKS (53) (Carmelo Bene, 1968): Very different to SALOME (my epiphany), nowhere near as frenzied in its editing. Almost a one-man show for Bene, which makes sense since it's partly about Performance and partly - like SALOME - about the egocentric man's guilt-ridden relationship with God (Bene comes off like a Catholic Orson Welles at times, his outsize ego rubbing up against his conscience). The performer plays God, making everything else a projection of himself - in one scene, he literally seems to conjure up the girl by holding up a mirror (in which she's reflected) every time she speaks her lines - and feels chastened by the sacrifice of Our Lady, or the devout, humble ancestors who preferred to be slaughtered by the Turks than change their religion. Yet religion too is a kind of Performance, the "idiots who've seen the Madonna" (as opposed to the idiots who haven't) viewing God as an extension of themselves; they show Him to others in order to find themselves, quips the voice-over, whereas the irreligious (like Bene) show themselves to others in order to find God. I'm making it sound full of themes, yet in fact it's a (frankly overlong) two-hour vaudeville which may in fact mean nothing, just stunts, soliloquies and the occasional hypnotic scene (like the swirling crescendo where the Lady says "I forgive you", again and again and again) amid self-indulgence. Still a big Bene fan, but this is heavy going.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (68) (Cedric Gibbons, 1934): By far the sexiest Tarzan movie (very much including the Bo Derek one) and by far the best. Tarzan's still a savage, not the jungle version of the MGM paterfamilias he later became, and of course his animal magnetism is a challenge both to Jane's world and Hollywood's - but he's also a lover, and this may be the only pre-Code movie I've seen (a genre more concerned with predatory showgirls) about a married couple whose relationship is intimate, physical and clearly sexual. Jane swan-dives from treetops into Tarzan's arms, he fights various beasts for her sake - a rhino, a lion, a croc that's more like a Kraken - but also wakes her up every morning by blowing gently on her face; in its goofy way, it's one of the great movie romances (*). Headed for 70+ territory, but the climax - though by far the best and most lavish climax in a Tarzan movie - bored me slightly, with its faithful chimps and elephants and lions; I'm not that big on animal adventures. 'So why watch a Tarzan movie in the first place?' you ask. I have no answer.
(*): Not to mention that the 'TV version' I saw didn't even have the nude swimming scene, though I've now checked it out (and I bet one of the brains behind PIRANHA 3D did too).
THE SYSTEM [a.k.a. THE GIRL-GETTERS] (63) (Michael Winner, 1964): Props to Dale Thomajan, seemingly the only (other) fan of this intermittently irresistible movie (though he files it under 1966), on the cusp between the new 60s Attitude - the opening scene finds a snarky youth getting all John Lennon with the train conductor, like in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT three months earlier - and the old Free Cinema fascination with the British at play, in this case documentary footage of a tacky seaside resort where our heartbreaker heroes ply their wares. Second half plays a familiar tune - Lothario meets his match, and gets his own heart broken by a girl even colder than he is - incidentally making Oliver Reed seem weak and a little conventional; the first half is better, and Reed oozes star quality as the slightly-older photographer leading a gang of teenage gigolos, implicitly using "the System" to shore up his own sad life. Worth seeing just for his manic high spirits (he likes to do funny accents), his slack ruffian's grin when mischief beckons, his cold serpent's eyes as he spots his quarry or his brief exasperated sigh as he shuts the door on a romantic young thing; also the title song, making it feel like a beach movie.
FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE (74) (Sam Taylor, 1926): Unlike (say) in Chaplin's "Easy Street", thuggish slum villains are entirely redeemable in Harold Lloyd's sunnier vision, bonding with his carefree millionaire - and in fact the climax depends on Harold trying to protect the drunken roughnecks, which may be why it feels like there isn't enough at stake (they're not exactly damsels in distress). Still a freewheeling 58 minutes, minimally plotted with gratuitous gags - like the five-minute sidebar involving perfume, cakes and a makeup swab - and two major set-pieces, the climax preceded by a (brilliant) celebration of anarchy as Harold goes down the street deliberately assaulting people so they'll chase him back to the mission. The set-ups are meticulous, the humour often verbal, Lloyd himself a comic hero more than a clown. On this evidence, his career could've gone on forever.
THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (59) (Arnold Fanck, 1926): "Scenes from Nature by Dr. Arnold Fanck," say the opening credits, hence the stunning Alpine peaks though also Leni Riefenstahl in the prologue - a Force of Nature in her way, with her wild hair and overly-avid expression - silhouetted against the shimmering sea and/or dancing on the rocks in slo-mo with the waves crashing violently below her. The mountains, so we're told, are rock and water, and Leni is water - gushing, bubbling, endlessly moving - while Luis Trenker is rock, at one with the "grave, serious character of the mountain", scaling peaks to Find Himself as a man (then he sees Leni with another, and mountains literally collapse in his mind as if they've been dynamited). The wisp of plot gets lost amid the landscapes and extensive skiing scenes - and there's definitely a proto-Nazi tang to Dr. F., not just the moralistic ending and obsession with the great outdoors but also in the gigantism, shots of climbers looking tiny on the mountain and of course the massive ice palace at the end; Nature isn't Gaia-like and motherly here, but a monolithic deity requiring - and inspiring - courage and discipline. Sorry Dr. Fanck Dept.: I was actually looking for the Jodorowsky, but put on the wrong VHS.
LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR (61) (Jean Renoir, 1932): Strange to see a car-chase (with the camera strapped to the hood of the pursuing car) or a cop sampling a stash of cocaine in an early-30s movie - but this is Renoir doing Simenon, somewhat ineptly in thriller terms, and even in movie terms (all his early sound films that I've seen tend to be choppily edited; is it fair to call him the Pantheon director who relied least on editing?), but atmospherically. A wet, misty road flanked by trees, a country crossroads with three houses - comprising, as someone points out, a microcosmic class system - a femme fatale to beguile middle-aged Maigret and a cast of the talkative and querulous, so that even when we cut back to the station for the most basic of scenes - so a cop can acknowledge Maigret's request for reinforcements - he still takes a moment to put down the phone and yell at someone in the background to keep it down back there. Come for the mystery, stay for the messy humanity.
RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO (70) (Alan Clarke, 1986): Seen immediately after THE ARBOR - council-estate miserablism with a dodgy gimmick but also, more importantly, a film about Andrea Dunbar, who wrote this one - which is clearly the best way to see it, rescuing the amateurish air (since it was - originally - written by an amateur) and adding a sad undertow to the artless sex farce, the spectre of council-estate life and a council-estate survivor who attempted (artlessly) to turn her grim existence into sex farce (the estate itself appears in a couple of scenes, similarly transmuted into harmless comedy, drunken Dad tottering about like a slapstick wino). There's a vivid sense of the tackiness of 80s Britain, played up - surely deliberately - by Clarke in the ghastly MOR-funk title song ("What do we do / with Rita and Sue / and Boooooooob too?") and blocky staging, see e.g. the airless feel of the scene where Black Lace (of "Agadoo" infamy) perform a song called "Gang Bang" for gyrating extras on the dance-floor, a coarsened version of the old music-hall ditties. Often funny but mostly fascinating, in its crudeness (characters - e.g. Bob's wife - simply spell out what's on their minds, with no attempt at subtlety) and Time-capsule value and its cringe-making Carry On prurience, though it's not exploitative (Bob gets nudity, the girls don't); notable, however, that the Pakistani boyfriend who's often sweet - if admittedly also violent - ends up humiliated, running from the cops like a frightened rabbit, whereas cheating husband and randy pig Bob gets a semi-happy ending. Is that just the spirit of the 80s - or the council estate again?
PICCOLO MONDO ANTICO (64) (Mario Soldati, 1941): Takes its cue from the severe beauty of young Alida Valli and the limpid, rather introverted beauty of the landscapes around Lake Como. Also from our hero, who refuses to do anything dishonourable even if it means losing the money stolen by his monstrous grandma, his noble restraint rhyming with the film's aversion to all kinds of melodrama (all the more so because its constant sub-plot is the Risorgimento, the Italian War of Independence, that's about to erupt and sweep away the "little old world" and all its niceties). Comes close to being a masterpiece when e.g. the couple find their love being worn down by circumstances - "We're different," she says sadly - the quiet elegance maybe even preferable to Visconti's more emotive take in SENSO (an obvious successor), but the final act lets it down, the grandma plot hurriedly resolved and taken over by a maudlin (and melodramatic) event, not to mention militarist propaganda - the glory of War, etc - rearing its head. 1941 or not, soldiers sailing away to fight their necessary war - Valli watching blankly from the sidelines with the other little women - is a bathetic way to usher in "FINE".
SALOME (80) (Carmelo Bene, 1972): Obviously not for everyone, and this guy, for instance, who claims to specialise in the "extreme, twisted, surreal or bizarre" (and seems to know his stuff, at least in terms of having watched a bunch of movies), calls it "a useless headache" - but I was transfixed, maybe because its operatic (not to mention campy) elements are balanced by its constantly-shifting camera and restless editing, like a fusion of Fellini, Ken Russell and Soviet montage (also a touch of Zhang Yimou in flamboyant use of colour, and if people can appreciate HERO just for the visuals they should be able to appreciate this). Every single image is striking, most of them are beautiful, the director-star gets some real tension from the rhythm of counterpoint and repetition (esp. when Herod realises what Salome actually wants from him), there's humour in the decadence, inspired madness in the Bacchanalian frenzy including (but not limited to) young men biting the legs of live sheep, naked girls being spanked with large feathered fronds and a watermelon beheaded like (yes) John the Baptist - and then, just when you think it's all eye-candy, there's a theme as well, the godless hubristic, hedonistic rich man (who dares to "look" at heavenly bodies, not to mention his own stepdaughter) confronted with his frailty by alien, androgynous Salome and recalling perhaps that the film kicked off with a cartoon camel passing through the eye of a needle: "I begin to be afraid".
JUNE 1, 2011
KING & COUNTRY (72) (Joseph Losey, 1964): Why would Losey and Dirk Bogarde make a creaky, based-on-a-play anti-war drama after THE SERVANT, when they could've made anything? Might be excessive to say (as Darragh O'Donoghue does at the IMDb) that the play itself is being exposed as inadequate - for one thing, the speeches and cross-examinations of the court-martial scenes remain gripping - but it's certainly being used in unusual ways; most courtroom dramas - incl. the very similar PATHS OF GLORY - are about the deliberate exercise of power (and its intersections with Justice) but this is more about the opposite, the very British process of 'muddling through'. Courtroom clichés provide the illusion of decisiveness but in fact the defendant is a blank slate - whether shell-shocked or simple-minded - the lawyer's behaviour contradictory (dismissing the whole thing as futile then launching an eloquent defence, then again insisting he was just doing his duty), the verdict a fudge, the execution a botch, the letter home a cover-up - and meanwhile War remains as the only unequivocal reality, constantly present in the physical detail (mud, rats, etc) and soundtrack (constant background rattle of gunfire), just as the opening scene cuts from a leisurely pan across a war monument straight to a bomb exploding. Dramatic devices variable - reaching a nadir when the soldiers organise a mock-trial of a rat, cross-cut with the trial their comrade is enduring at the hands of the officer class - but the overall effect is complex and haunting. Stagy material getting in the way of auteurist love, I suspect.
CADDYSHACK (50) (Harold Ramis, 1980): Suffered by being viewed on a double bill with CLUNY BROWN [see below], another comedy about class that seems to be pitched not just to a different age-group but a different, more advanced species. Might've worked if it had some real teeth, but in fact it's not anti-money - über-capitalist Rodney Dangerfield is a sympathetic character - or against the golfer/caddy System, merely against one old man who happens to be a snob, a stuffed shirt, a bully and a bigot. The actual jokes are a mixed bag, ranging from teen-movie dire to secondhand-but-funny - Dangerfield's sub-Groucho-isms: "Last time I saw a mouth like that, it had a hook in it!" - to occasionally inspired: Bill Murray's dubious tale of caddying for the Dalai Lama, who stiffed him on the tip but promised he'd receive "total consciousness" on his deathbed. "Which is nice..."
CLUNY BROWN (65) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946): Maker of sublime frou-frou drops the fabled 'Touch' - it appears only in the coda (the couple's happy ending finessed through pantomime and significant book titles), making apparent what's been missing in the rest of the movie - deals instead in thoughtful comedy with explicitly worked-out themes; public consternation is inevitable. A wise, underrated comment on rootedness vs. fluidity, with more than a nod to the chaotic post-war world (our hero is a refugee from Hitler), purposely melding the concepts of 'knowing one's place' and 'having a place' (i.e. a home) to express the attraction of the class system (there's no class war here; the lower classes - cook and butler - are far nastier to our heroine than her upper-class employers), the cosy old social plumbing that accommodates both respectable petits-bourgeois and horsey girls who "sit a horse well" but not orphans and free spirits like our heroine, with her passion for the other kind of plumbing (though it's part of the film's quiet wisdom to imply that she may be less admirable than e.g. the cook, who gets a gratuitous aside to the effect that she's always been happy living this life, and was naturally drawn to it). The style's a bit stiff for this director, and the jokes a bit laboured, but the content suggests he might've ended up doing profound social dramas, had he lived for another 20 years. Instead of dying immediately after.
THE MUMMY'S HAND (63) (Christy Cabanne, 1940): Bow down before George Zucco, a respected professor at the Cairo Museum who secretly moonlights as the High Priest of the dreaded Mummy-worshipping cult and at one point, having fobbed off our archaeologist heroes with barefaced lies, waits for them to leave his office then reaches inside his shirt and brings out his large High Priest medallion for no reason at all - just to caress it! Later he skulks around their dusty dig-site, shady but immaculate in his suit, tie and fez as he hides behind the rocks with his trusty beggar sidekick, and later still - spoiler! - having been shot at point-blank range and tumbled dramatically down two flights of stairs, he still manages to raise his head and gasp "Mighty Isis ... forgive me!" before expiring. Mostly bad-movie camp value (we also hear the "children of the night", borrowed from Dracula) but far from incompetent, crisply paced with lots of comic patter and amusing business involving an Irish prestidigitator. Horror fans (if any) who rely on Leslie Halliwell's claim that "the last half hour is among the most scary in horror film history" may be underwhelmed, however.
MAY 1, 2011
THE COCOANUTS (60) (Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929): All the familiar routines, not quite in embryonic form but certainly lacking something in polish (and let down by dull songs and non-existent filmmaking). Margaret Dumont simply disapproves of Groucho, instead of the funnier later dynamic where she's alternately charmed and shocked by his blandishments, and his wooing doesn't seem so full of zingers though he gets in a good one when he says he'll meet her tonight "under the moon. I can see you now, you and the moon ... You wear a necktie, so I'll know you". He also puns on "eyes water" and "idle roomer", while Harpo munches on a phone (and later mouths a word silently, a betrayal of his pre-verbal persona), Chico famously asks "Vy a duck?" and - in the best out-of-nowhere gag - the burly hotel detective, having had the shirt literally stolen off his back by the Brothers, sings about his loss ("I want my shirt, I want my shirt / I won't be happy without my shirt") to the tune of 'L'amour est un oiseau rebelle'. Advanced Pop-Culture Studies Dept.: I knew "You're my friend, I kill you for nothing" was old, but I had no idea it was this old.
HARAKIRI (85) (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962): I love Apichatpong as much as anyone, but arthouse cinema really needs to re-learn how to make films like this (no, Miike's 3D remake doesn't count), or slide ever further into irrelevance. Precise, portentous tracking-shots recall Kubrick, and the film (like PATHS OF GLORY) is a tale of power relationships, the System perpetuating itself - and hiding its mistakes - through rituals and conventions (in this case bushido, the code of the samurai). Riveting first hour, threatens to get banal in the second hour - even as it finds startling power in a simple, sudden pan to a sleeping baby in the next room - triumphantly doesn't ("The world does not bend to sentimental tales"), erupts in stylised but ferocious violence, then a steely coda. Impeccable.
THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME (72) (Kira Muratova, 1990)
STILL LIFE (65) (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974): A shambling old man and a stumbling old woman. She labours at a loom making rugs, he spends his days lowering and raising the barrier at a muddy railroad crossing in the middle of nowhere. They seem to live mostly on bread, rice and sugared tea, which - like everyone else in the movie - they pour meticulously from cup to saucer before every sip. He sleeps on a narrow bed, she sleeps on a pallet on the floor (why? that's just the way it is). He smokes, though it gives him terrible coughing fits. Saless concentrates on daily minutiae and uses the one-room house like a stage, placing the characters foreground/background or else often at right angles to each other, a geometric style which - along with the use of train tracks to anchor compositions and the film's division into three acts of exactly equal length - adds a hidden rigour and makes the minimalist story oddly gripping. Actually set in the past (the early 60s) but looking forward to the future, the opaque master-shot style that's taken over festivals (especially when it comes to 'Third World' movies) in the past decade-plus. Final shot - old man, evicted from the house, looking at himself for the first time in a piece of mirror hanging on the wall then taking down the mirror to reveal just peeling paint, and the emptiness of the life to come - more poignant than expected.
SLEEP, MY LOVE (70) (Douglas Sirk, 1948): GASLIGHT made complicated, the husband also a victim, in thrall to a femme-fatale Amazon who at one point literally towers over him - even when he does something heinous, drinking the drugged hot chocolate to 'prove' to his wife that it's safe, the emphasis is on his own desperate struggle to get to his room and collapse on the bed before the butler realises something's wrong - and also made distinctive through a parade of memorable detail: the senile old man watching the lovers dance, the butler and maid leaving the house in lockstep (talking about what a "satisfactory employer" their boss is) then going their separate ways, the flashing lights (seeming to presage a head-on collision) in the opening train sequence, and of course the Chinese wedding, a reminder - with the lingering presence of the newlywed couple - of the poisoned marriage at the heart of the story. Consistently richer than it might've been, which I guess is the mark of a great director.
ALIAS NICK BEAL (57) (John Farrow, 1949): Playing "Faust" as a noir-inflected thriller slips into Idiot Plot, our hero refusing to accept the obvious truth about Mr. Beal even though he keeps appearing out of nowhere and gets nervous in the same room as an open Bible - but it's interesting how the Devil is equated with an absence of free will (he knows what you're going to say before you say it), a very post-war reading tying in with mentions of Hitler and Mussolini even though neither of those gents seems a very good analogy for a decent man tempted into moral relativism. Thin and schematic, but Franz Waxman's score may be the only time I've heard (human, non-diegetic, non-tuneful) whistling on a soundtrack outside of spaghetti Westerns, and the thick shroud of fog around Beal's waterfront hangout - a visual expression of his cloudy "shades of grey" - is unforgettable.
POLICE STORY (56) (Jackie Chan, 1985): A disappointment after the lunatic exuberance of OPERATION CONDOR - maybe because the cop-movie genre isn't whimsical enough for Chan's fleet personality, or maybe because he doesn't give himself enough extravagant action (just the early chase where he hangs on to the side of a speeding bus, and a very impressive stunt - possibly invoking Douglas Fairbanks sliding down the sail in THE BLACK PIRATE - during the shopping-mall climax); or maybe the hint of vigilantism, Jackie going solo after being betrayed by a justice system that favours the perp, is too angry for his goofy light-heartedness. Or maybe I should've watched all these 80s films in the actual 80s - when I didn't even know who Jackie Chan was - instead of nitpicking now in my grumpy middle-age.
APRIL 1, 2011
GOOD SAM (62) (Leo McCarey, 1948): Sitcom meets religious homily, the maladroit but loveable paterfamilias - first seen (or heard) falling over in an o.s. crash while taking the collection in church, as his wife looks embarrassed and the kids giggle over Daddy's latest disaster - being also a compulsive Good Samaritan, a living embodiment of the sermon on Charity that opens the movie. In its way a variation on those family biopics of the 40s and 50s (SO GOES MY LOVE, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN) where Dad's an eccentric inventor - but also, for the first hour, a very underrated film, bringing the snappy, zany love of people of 30s Capra (the splenetic bus driver who becomes even more splenetic when it's revealed that his name is Melvin Z. Wurtzberger; the pontificating car mechanic talking of his horse-faced missus) to the bourgeois post-war world where everyone dreams of being a homeowner, just as it treats its didactic premise with a light farcical touch and relaxed performances: Gary Cooper dithers like Stan Laurel, Ann Sheridan plays an entire scene laughing hysterically, but it's also made clear that she puts up with him because she thinks he's sex on a stick, which is rare for 40s Hollywood. Second hour gets sloppy, taking its eye off the main joke, and McCarey may be too soft-hearted for dramatic tension: he can't let the family suffer, instead plays a deus ex machina - making clear that everything's going to be all right - and pads out the climax with a friendly barkeep singing 'No Place Like Home'. Can't believe there was malice intended in the scene where Sheridan coaches two small kids and a coloured maid in a song-and-dance to welcome Daddy home - no implication that a black woman is roughly equivalent to a 5-year-old - but it still plays inevitably dodgy.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI (78) (George Lucas, 1973): First complete viewing (I'd seen all but the last 15 minutes when my VHS tape ran out back in the day) - and maybe it's time to lift the STAR WARS millstone, forgive/forget Lucas' asshole behaviour of the past few decades and acknowledge this finely-judged teenpic (and DAZED AND CONFUSED prototype) as the rock-solid achievement that it is. Not just nostalgia (why should I be nostalgic for the early 60s?), a seamless blend of subtle emotional shadings - and I'm willing to accept that it's only seamless because Lucas anal-retentively marshalled everything with his geeky little mind, and I'm willing to assume Katz & Huyck are responsible for the script's snap and crackle, but (for instance) what about the beautiful cut while Ron Howard and Cindy Williams are dancing to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"? They dance in front of the whole school (being ex-school president and head cheerleader, or whatever) meanwhile bickering about their relationship, and he's trying to be tough and aloof but she harries him, finally pins him down when she talks about the picnic where he first kissed her, asks don't you remember how you practically threw yourself at me and he croaks, defeated, "I remember" - and we instantly cut to a wider shot from the POV of the watching crowd, his admission having turned them back into the perfect couple on the dancefloor. How can a man engineer a cut like that, then end up doing spaceship battles four years later? Guess he stopped listening to Marcia.
MR. HULOT'S HOLIDAY (66) (Jacques Tati, 1953): Second viewing, first since my teens when I'm not sure I got Tati's method - esp. the penchant for jokes without punchlines (like the recurring boinnng of the dining-room door) used to create the unforced, open-ended rhythm of a seaside holiday. A certain distance is part of the deal, indeed much of the film's humour seems predicated on the fact that groups of people are funny in themselves if observed from afar (see e.g. the guests greeting each other en masse, or the mourners shaking hands at the funeral) - though some jokes are also superbly-timed, like the lapping waves gently pulling and pushing the paint-pot just as oblivious Hulot dips his brush into it. Does create a small oasis of quiet contentment, which admittedly isn't quite the same as being gut-bustingly hilarious.
LONDON (56) (Patrick Keiller, 1994): A film that preserved life in London circa 1994 would still be valuable, but a film that explicitly defines itself in opposition to life in London circa 1994 is inevitably dated, now that everything - not just the Tories but e.g. the "failure" of Canary Wharf, the threat of commercial development on the South Bank and the "modern miseries" of English life including bad food and sexual repression - has moved on, in most cases making the film's litany of disaffection seem whiny. More general, historical, whimsical disaffection - fixation on post-Revolution French poets, dreaming of the London that might've been if the 19th century had never happened - remains interesting, though the film seems only half-aware of the peculiarly Lefty mix of demotic and elitist in its heroes' craving for open, Continental city life and café society: Robinson loves to sit among The People in malls and markets, but only to read Walter Benjamin or write in his notebook. Visuals are deceptively simple, full of prickly tensions, mostly unsullied by mere humans.
N-ZONE (66) (Arthur Lipsett, 1970): Themes of freedom and circumscription - a mouse chasing its tail in a glass dish, mention of a game where only one move is possible - and images of play (young people hanging out, middle-aged men bouncing on space hoppers) vs. regulation and domestication (esp. of animals). Or just a cool collage of random images paired with random sounds. Given Lipsett's singular personality, analysis is probably futile.
PYAASA (76) (Guru Dutt, 1957): Don't know what to do with this movie, but I think I love it. 146 minutes of pathos, albeit leavened by some well-judged broad comedy, our hero being a poet (played by Dutt himself) adrift in a cruel world - the opening shots find him gazing at Nature, marvelling at flowers and bees, at least till a bee gets squashed by a careless passer-by - always alone and unappreciated, ending on a version of the suicidal teen's 'They'll be sorry when I'm gone'. Dutt is stubbled, weary, sensitive, the women in his life have both sold their love - though one is a streetwalker and the other 'married well' - his brothers look down on his Art; the redeeming factor is the luminous look, an ethereal excess of artificiality (if THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR [below] felt like an Indian cousin to Mizoguchi, the reference-point here might be Von Sternberg, minus the decadence) making for one swoon-worthy scene after another, not least "Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par", the poet's lament for India. Watch it here for guidance - w/o subtitles, but it's really just Dutt listing various sad situations with the refrain "Where are those who claim to be proud of this land?" - because, if it does absolutely nothing for you, you're unlikely to love the movie. Also check your pulse, etc.
THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR (64) (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960): First exposure to Ghatak, quite surprised by how limpid and melancholy this is (I'd expected it fiery and turbulent, like his real-life reputation), though the soundtrack in particular has abrupt and sometimes weird cues, e.g. when we turn to the suitor who's compromised - got a job and married the shrewish sister - and hear the sudden whistle of a whip cracking. Picked up a Mizoguchi vibe, even in the first few minutes (there's even a tree prominently placed in the opening shot, like the opening shot of SANSHO), and later in the clash between the individual and convention, Art and Mammon - and Ghatak uses foreground/background action as well as the occasional striking shot (woman walking slowly from MS to CU, as to a proscenium) though the rough edges, esp. in the editing, make you wonder if, for instance, having heroine slightly out-of-focus in one of those foreground/background shots is a bold choice or just a mistake left in because it was expressive. Heroine might as well be out-of-focus (which is why she's intriguing), a martyr to her family, a puzzle to all - "I don't know you," admits her mother - but allowing intimations of something childlike beneath the drudgery (maybe that's why she sacrifices herself for the indolent brother, a girlish excitement at his singing ambitions); other characters fall between two stools, neither archetypal nor really surprising enough. Missed the socio-political angle - human effects of Partition, sez the Internet - which I guess was inevitable.
MARCH 1, 2011
LOUISIANA STORY (50) (Robert Flaherty, 1948): Quite revealing, watching this back-to-back with TABU [see below], because the early scenes especially contain some of the most ravishing b&w images I've ever seen - but TABU conjured up a whole world of light and shadow whereas here every gorgeous image is separate, set-up, obviously contrived for maximum gorgeousness. (Maybe it's just the difference between a filmmaker and a photographer.) Better to class it with KOYAANISQATSI, falling into much the same trap of treating everything (Nature and technology) with the same photographer's eye: blasts of dynamite initially scare a flock of birds, the builders' speedboat disrupts the boy's fishing - but the resulting oil derrick is admired unreservedly, Flaherty (and Leacock) dwelling on the gleaming lines of its pipes and pistons rather than what they represent. The boy's bag of salt (warding off the bayou's evil spirits) blesses the union, confirming the happy co-existence of Nature and Big Petroleum with bonus consumer goods for the happy Cajun family, a tough sell for today's post-BP-oil-spill Louisiana. Then again, Nature itself is declawed here: (Spoiler) they don't even kill the raccoon.
TABU (77) (F.W. Murnau, 1931): Life by the sea: canoes setting out from a white sandy beach to greet an arriving ship; islanders clambering across the ropes and rigging; a ship (that same ship, then a different one) gliding majestically into frame, first in between spindly palm trees then before a silhouetted audience of young boys on a jetty. People of the sea: the girl's expression - vacant, pure, accepting - right after she's been 'chosen'; the diagonal lines of a couple in repose in a pool of light; the old man's stark, weather-beaten visage; dancing feet - most of them bare - circling and entwining. A sombre, beautiful movie, equal parts portent and abandon, also an epistolary Silent that plays its doleful punchline - or would, if there was any sound - off the muffled crunch of a knife cutting rope. Shame about the rubber shark, though.
SWEENEY TODD (42) (George King, 1936): Sondheim-less, of course, but also bowdlerised, so Sweeney doesn't cut his customers' throats while shaving them (instead their chair tilts back and they fall through a trapdoor to the basement below, presumably "polished off" while unconscious) and the part about the bodies ending up as meat pies in the shop next door isn't mentioned at all, just implied in increasingly broad hints (sidekick musing "What do you think he does with them?" while munching on a meat pie, etc). Also absurdly plotted, with a quota quickie's disdain for plausibility - suffice to say that nothing in the second half makes sense, from hero dressing up as a farmer so he can sit in Sweeney's chair again (what's the point?) to heroine dressing up as a boy so she can infiltrate the shop as an apprentice (Sweeney doesn't realise this well-developed urchin is the woman he loves, even when they're grappling); halfway through we leave London altogether and go to Africa, where the natives are attacking a trading outpost. The kind of oldie that was never intended to survive for 75 years (more like a week at the local fleapit) - but you do get Tod Slaughter, who looks like a middle-aged grocer but cackles and roars like the hammiest of hams.
QUICK (57) (Robert Siodmak, 1932): Great peripherals - scenes in "Magic Mountain"-like sanatorium and backstage at a vaudeville theatre - but the main plot is weak, with a touch of Idiot Plot (still not sure why our hero prefers not to reveal that he's also Quick, the famous clown). Siodmak favours rollicking energy over sly elegance - to be fair, Lillian Harvey films (that I've seen) tend to the farcical - with lots of time spent on silly Dicky, the Other Man who's permanently famished and writes romantic poetry: "Yellow moon, you pass so quietly / Partly by day, and partly by night / tiri tiri tra-la-la".
THE TUTTLES OF TAHITI (60) (Charles Vidor, 1942): The Tuttles are "the most wasteful, lackadaisical, improvident lot" in Tahiti, reckless and fun-loving, and so populous it takes 10 minutes just to introduce them all. Charles Laughton (in brown-face, with white walrus moustache) is Mr. Tuttle, carefree and Micawber-like - though Laughton is interesting casting, because he can do the booming laughs and simpering twinkles but melancholy is never far from his temperament (even if it's just a melancholy at wasting his talent in such RKO programmers). Hedonistic, even sensual - love the tight sarongs - and non-judgmental, with Curt Bois memorably slimy as a high-pitched little capitalist who fleeces the clan in the name of "business"; Vidor crowds his frames with people, playing the hearty party atmosphere against wry, often solitary supporting characters who shake their heads at the Tuttles but join the fun anyway. Simple, but very satisfying.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (65) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942): Second viewing, first since the early 90s. Glad to see Pauline Kael has my back on this slightly overrated comedy, though she reckons Lubitsch "starts off on the wrong foot and never gets his balance" whereas I find he picks himself up nicely after the first half-hour - which is clodhopping and mediocre, overplaying its jokes ("What you are I wouldn't eat," is funny; "How dare you call me a ham!" is unnecessary) and seemingly terrified of being thought flippant. The rest is mostly worthy of its reputation, structured with frequent ellipses between scenes so we're constantly having to figure out what's going on - though it only really takes off when Sig Rumann turns up as a cartoon Nazi and proceedings spiral into farce, all a bit ironic given the censure it provoked in 1942 for daring to be funny (admittedly, there was a war on). A lesson for aspiring moralists: Desperately Important things fade; comedy is timeless.
THE LAST TYCOON (45) (Elia Kazan, 1976): Maybe Kazan, searching for the book's elusive tone, saw a moon-faced laziness in Ingrid Boulting and hoped he could turn it into mystery - the ideal unconsciously pursued by Monroe Stahr, the Thalberg figure who sits in the dark watching pictures and wants movie girls to be "perfect" - but it doesn't happen, she's wildly inadequate and leaves a gaping hole in the fabric, esp. since the film only half-works (if it works at all) in the dreamlike tenderness of the relationship, an undefined love affair (the girl stands for twilight, and laments the fact that day turns to night so quickly in California) as befits an unfinished novel. Robert De Niro tries hard, albeit in recessive mode, and it's worth it just to see his one scene with Jack Nicholson (never even knew they'd appeared in a film together); the movie clips look nothing at all like 30s Hollywood, so blatantly wrong that it may be deliberate - or maybe people's memories just weren't so precise in the pre-video era.
BURNT BY THE SUN (74) (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994): Second viewing, first in 15 years; all the usual criticisms are valid. It's too long and self-indulgent - but the rambling, playful narrative builds an abstract sense of Time standing still, making the insidious advance of Stalinist terror all the more chilling. Mikhalkov the actor preens outrageously - but the character's vanity also keeps sentimentality at bay, e.g. when he says his farewells (keeping it light since he's certain, in his mind, that he's only going away for a couple of days). The little girl is cute (or cutesy) - yet it's hard to think of a more heartfelt, unabashed record of a father's love for his daughter (the film makes a fine double-bill with ANNA 6-18, the same year's documentary featuring NM's other daughter). Mikhalkov's real-life politics may be rancid, but his patriotic love of Russia - and the great Russian landscape - is touching here. Above all, the characters' behaviour is mysterious and often eccentric (their flourishes, exaggerated reactions, flights of fancy), which is why it can't be reduced to simple Bad Stalin message. Days Before Photoshop Dept.: note hilariously fake-looking photo of Kotov side-by-side with Uncle Joe on the mantelpiece.
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (69) (Boris Ingster, 1940): Caught between Expressionism and nascent film noir, the former in a baroque dream sequence and details like Peter Lorre's hand creeping snake-like into frame, the latter not just in Nicholas Musuraca's chiaroscuro but also the jaundiced view of humanity, cynical hacks and disagreeable lodgers, a juror asleep on the job and a pushy woman yelling at our heroine for saving a seat in a diner. Hero's thoughts delivered in voice-over is a terribly artificial device - it feels like "The Tell-Tale Heart" or something - and the film threatens to become silly, but rallies as Lorre starts to justify his top billing: soft childlike mien, alarming psycho walk halfway between a leap and a lope, tendency not just to cut people's throats but cut them so violently - we're told - that the head is almost severed from the body. Classic.
GO WEST YOUNG MAN (38) (Henry Hathaway, 1936): Two things to be grateful for: (1) notorious movie star (Mae West as herself, or herself before the Production Code got to her) ends up stranded in the heartland but isn't transformed by these simple, decent people - instead she has them sashaying, reciting "Hamlet" and dreaming of Hollywood - and (2) Isabel Jewell as Mae's dizziest fan, esp. her Marlene Dietrich impression. The rest is tedious, awfully slapdash by Old Hollywood standards and almost devoid of good lines ("What large sinewy muscles!" says Mae at her first glimpse of Randolph Scott, but would surely have come up with something more (ahem) poetic before the Production Code got to her); her creaky cartoon vulgarity doesn't really translate outside her particular world of beaus and feathered boas - or at least a fantasy world, like the West in MY LITTLE CHICKADEE - and already, 40 years before SEXTETTE, she seems too old.
SAPS AT SEA (50) (Gordon Douglas, 1940): The last not-awful Laurel & Hardy comedy starts in MODERN TIMES style with the boys as horn-testers in a horn factory, Ollie driven mad by the racket ("Silence While Men Are Working" reads a superfluous sign on the wall), ends in GOLD RUSH style as they make a synthetic meal using string for spaghetti and red paint for tomato sauce. In between, the slapstick is erratic, and the various surreal asides - a banana being peeled to reveal another banana - never seem to fit with L&H's deep-down domesticity; I can see how themes might be teased out, but not how it might end up on a famous critic's favourites.
TAWNY PIPIT (64) (Bernard Miles & Charles Saunders, 1944): The charms of rural England: rambling, bird-watching, a pint of ale in the village pub - but especially bird-watching, this being the proto-Ealing tale of a village mobilising to protect a pair of rare feathered visitors. All part of the British tradition of fair play, says a retired Colonel, plus the British tradition of sheltering foreigners - "a lot of them are jolly decent people, and anyway they can't help being foreigners" - one of many veiled and not-so-veiled nods to wartime propaganda. The (irrelevant) scene where the village honours a Russian woman sniper who delivers a sentimental speech about Russian cornfields - three cheers for our Stalinist allies! - is obviously a Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm, but the balance between the war and what it's being fought for is mostly harmonious, and it even manages an exciting climax as rogue ornithologists try to steal the birds' eggs. Mostly rather lovely, though also a reminder of how Powell & Pressburger covered similar territory more idiosyncratically; a maniac pouring glue into women's hair would really have livened things up here.
FEBRUARY 1, 2011
JANUARY 1, 2011