A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)

A little whimsy goes a long way, but too much is a bad thing if it turns terminally twee. The unique sensibility of Wes Anderson has kept it going for 20 years now, culminating in the best picture and best director nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2012). Though Bottle Rocket was a box office flop, it was an auspicious debut for Anderson, as well as for its then-unknown stars, Luke and Owen Wilson. (The latter also co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson.) Bottle Rocket inevitably became a cult film, building on what seems like a sly parody of Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) mixed with a bit of Coen brothers tongue-in-cheekery. All that it lacks is Bill Murray -- it's the only Anderson film in which he doesn't appear -- but his special above-it-all manner is aptly supplied in Bottle Rocket by James Caan. Anyone coming to this movie in search of characters with fully fleshed-out backstories -- like, why was Anthony (Luke Wilson) suffering from the "exhaustion" that led him to commit himself to the posh, low-security mental institution from which he "escapes" at the movie's beginning? -- is going to be sadly disappointed. The effect is more shaggy-dog than Reservoir Dogs. It's a film that features among other things, a heist on that least likely of targets, a book store, and probably the most thoroughly planned and ineptly executed robbery ever put on film. It's also one of those movies that are perhaps even funnier when you try to remember them afterward and figure out what the hell you just watched.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

Translating a play from its theatrical mode into a cinematic one is never easy, but Justin Kurzel and his screenwriters, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso, do several smart things in their adaptation of Macbeth. They open the film with a scene not in Shakespeare's play, the funeral of a small child presumably born to Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard), an extrapolation from Lady Macbeth's later claim that she has "given suck" to an infant. It establishes the sense of unsettling loss and grave disorientation that feeds the Macbeths' ambition. The film also scraps the witches' cauldron scene, its "double, double, toil and trouble" and "eye of newt" incantations, which can become ludicrous even in a well-done modern production, turning the witches into Halloween hags instead of the eerie prophets Shakespeare portrayed. In their place, the witches become three peasant women, one of whom has a baby in her arms, accompanied by another child. They seem indigenous, gifted with the air of prophecy attributed to those close to the land. Another problematic element of the play, the movement of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, which can look silly on stage, with soldiers carrying branches in their hands, is resolved into something terrifying: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in the form of ashes and sparks, after the forest is set fire to by the troops of Macduff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor). This also creates a hellish landscape for the final duel of Macbeth and Macduff. There are some other touches that, though cinematic, don't work quite so well. Lady Macbeth's line, "screw your courage to the sticking place," is turned into a kind of dirty joke: an encouragement for Macbeth to penetrate her sexually. The banquet scene and the appearance of Banquo's ghost (Paddy Considine) is awkwardly staged. The lady's sleepwalking scene is shorn of its witnesses, and despite Cotillard's fine performance, it becomes a disjointed monologue in which she returns to the scene of the original crime, the murder of Duncan (David Thewlis). And worst of all, I think, the fear that speaking Shakespeare's verse aloud could become "stagey," leads Kurzel to reduce much of the dialogue and soliloquies to murmurs and whispers. The "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech is barely coherent when Macbeth mutters it as he hauls Lady Macbeth from her deathbed. Fassbender and Cotillard are formidable actors, but they have been done a severe disservice by not allowing them to use their voices to full effect.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948)

Welles may have taken the old theatrical superstition of referring to the play not by its title but as "the Scottish play" a little too seriously. The decision to have actors deliver Shakespeare's lines with a Scottish accent was met with derision by critics, and Republic Pictures, the poverty-row studio that released the film, eventually had it redubbed without the accents after the initial release flopped. The original soundtrack has been restored, however, and it's hard to see what set the critics' teeth on edge: For the most part, the occasional flavoring of the dialogue with Scottish vowel sounds and diphthongs is unobtrusive. The one exception, to my ear, is Roddy McDowall as Malcolm, who carries the accent a bit too far -- though that may be because McDowall's conception of the character is something of a callow noodge, especially in the scene in which he's trying to persuade Macduff (Dan O'Herlihy) to cease grieving for his murdered family and take action. I must have seen the old redubbed and cut version at one point, because I remember the film as rather glum and murky, when in fact, although it's not wholly successful, it's filled with Wellesian visual touches and some very solid performances. Welles makes remarkable use of the celtic cross as a visual motif, for example, having the troops advancing on Dunsinane carry impossibly long staffs surmounted with the cross, a touch that dazzles the eye. His own performance is somewhat uneven -- Welles was seldom the strongest actor in his productions -- and he fails to provide Macbeth with the character arc that makes the character a tragic figure, moving from mere ambition to blind bloodthirstiness. Jeanette Nolan is a good Lady Macbeth and O'Herlihy a suitably strong adversary for Macbeth. As usual, Welles drew many performers from his Mercury Theater company, including Erskine Sanford as a dignified Duncan, something of an about-face from his broadly comic performance as the flustered newspaper editor Herbert Carter, huffing and puffing when he's ousted by the paper's new owner, Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). The low budget for the film shows, especially in the sets -- Dunsinane seems to be more cave than castle, its walls made out of Plasticine -- cobbled together on the Republic soundstage by art director Fred A. Ritter. And although Welles's keen eye served him well, as Alfred Hitchcock's would later when he shot Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), John L. Russell was never a distinguished cinematographer. Still, this is a fairly distinguished effort at putting Shakespeare on film.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

It's at least half an hour too long, and the sex scenes inevitably have something exploitative about them, but Blue Is the Warmest Color remains exceptional in large part because it's one of the most intimate portraits of a human relationship on film. The jury at Cannes was right in citing not only the director but also the two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, when it gave the film the Palme D'Or. Exarchopoulos in particular demonstrates a rare courage, not for exposing her body but for allowing the rawness of her emotions to show forth. There are moments when her character, Adèle (Kechiche changed the character's name from "Clémentine" when he cast her), becomes almost pitiable in her helpless infatuation with Seydoux's Emma, Exarchapoulos's fresh beauty becoming disfigured in her portrayal of Adèle's suffering at the inability to make the kind of fusion she desires with Emma. It's a fable about the limitations of love that transcends sexual orientation. The film's NC-17 rating once again demonstrates the wrong-headedness of the American ratings board's approach to sexuality, as opposed to its blithe acceptance of any extreme of violence in film.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

It has always struck me as odd that Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) won the 1931-32 best picture Oscar, when Dinner at Eight, a similarly constructed all-star affair, was shut out of the nominations for the 1932-33 awards. Dinner at Eight is much the better picture, with a tighter, wittier script (by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart) and a cast that includes three of the Grand Hotel stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Jean Hersholt. Granted, it doesn't have Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, but it has Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler at their best, and a director who knows how to keep things perking. (Cukor was, at least, nominated for Little Women instead.) It also has one of the great concluding scenes in movies, when everyone goes in to dinner and Kitty (Harlow) tells Carlotta (Dressler) that she's been reading a book, bringing the formidable bulk of Dressler to a lurching halt. (You've seen it a dozen times in clip shows of great movie moments. If not, go watch the movie.) Granted, too, that Dinner at Eight is not quite sure whether it's a comic melodrama or a melodramatic comedy, dealing as it does with the effects of the Depression on the rich and famous, with marital infidelity and suicide (both of them in ways that the Productions Code would soon preclude -- as it would Harlow's barely there Adrian gowns). And there's some over-the-top hamming from both Barrymores. In fact, the performances in general are pitched a little too high, a sign that Cukor hadn't quite yet left his career as a stage director behind and discovered that a little less can be a lot more in movies. Nevertheless, it's a more-than-tolerable movie, and a damn sight better than the year's best picture winner, the almost unwatchable Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)

Fassbinder's inspiration was the Hollywood "woman's picture," which made stars of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis in the 1930s and '40s, but more specifically the 1950s version directed by his fellow German, Douglas Sirk (born Hans Detlef Sierck). Sirk brought a distinct style, including vivid Technicolor and high fashion, to his tales of women struggling to assert themselves in a decade usually known for its backlash against liberated women. They were vehicles for actresses like Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession, 1954, and All That Heaven Allows, 1955), Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind, 1956), and Lana Turner (Imitation of Life, 1959). Hanna Schygulla evokes all of them and more in a bravura performance in The Marriage of Maria Braun, in which she gets to suffer through World War II and its aftermath, and to triumph in the postwar German Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and '60s. It's a sardonic story about a woman who claims to be faithful in her fashion to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), the soldier she married during an air raid in 1943, despite her affairs with a black American soldier (George Eagles) and a French industrialist (Karl Oswald). In Fassbinder's hands, the story of Maria Braun becomes overlaid with the history of Germany after the war, including scenes in which the dialogue is often partly obscured by radio speeches by German politicians like Konrad Adenauer, the architect of German recovery. "I prefer making miracles rather than waiting for them," Maria proclaims at one point. Fassbinder's portrait of Maria is occasionally elliptical: We don't know, for example, whether she aborted the child she conceived with the American soldier or lost it in childbirth, partly because she seems indifferent to the fact, and Fassbinder leaves it up to us to decide whether the explosion in which she dies at the end is an accident or suicide. The screenplay by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer was based on an idea by Fassbinder, who also contributed to the dialogue. The cinematography is by Michael Ballhaus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951) revisited

Claude Laydu and Jean Danet in Diary of a Country Priest
I chose the still above deliberately, because it's an image uncharacteristic of Bresson's film: the young priest accepting a ride on the back of a motorcycle from Olivier, cousin of Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), who, along with the rest of her family, has caused him so much stress. Olivier is a soldier in the Foreign Legion, a character and pursuit about as far from the priest's tormented spiritual life as possible. It's a brief, liberated scene, one that suggests a world of potentiality other than that of the kind of suffering, spiritually and physically, that the priest has known in his assignment to the bleak and hostile parish of Ambricourt. Of course, the priest returns to his suffering after his motorcycle ride: He learns that he has terminal stomach cancer and dies in a slovenly apartment watched over by a former fellow seminarian, Fabregars (Léon Arvel), who is living with his mistress. As ascetic as the young priest has striven to be, he has to come to terms with a world that seems irrevocably fallen, even to the point of taking the last, absolving blessing from the lapsed Fabregars. Diary of a Country Priest remains for me one of film's great puzzles: What are we to make of the young priest's intellectualized faith? Is it a film for believers or for agnostics? In the end, its enigmas and ambiguities are integral to its greatness.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

It's rare to see a film whose title character is the villain -- unless you count monster movies like the many versions of Dracula -- but Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) is decidedly that, the slave-driving administrator of a medieval Japanese manor. (It's as if Uncle Tom's Cabin had been called Simon Legree.) But in fact, Sansho serves as a catalyst for the story that centers on an aristocratic family. The father displeases his feudal lord by being too merciful to the people he governs, so he's banished to a distant province while his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and their children, Zushio and Anju, remain behind with her brother until the children are old enough to make the dangerous cross-country journey. But when they set out, they are betrayed and sold into slavery. Tamaki is forced into prostitution and separated from the children, who grow up as slaves on the estate administered by Sansho. One day, Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) hears a new slave, brought from the island of Sado, singing a song about a woman who mourns the loss of her children named Zushio and Anju, and learns that her mother is still alive. Meanwhile, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has decided that the best way to survive in slavery is to go along with Sansho's demands, which include punishing an elderly slave by branding him on the forehead. Anju is appalled by what her brother has become, because he has turned against the principles of mercy and human equality that their father taught them, but when the opportunity to escape presents itself, she persuades him to do so. Staying behind, and facing the wrath of Sansho, she drowns herself. Eventually, Zushio wreaks revenge on Sansho and liberates the slaves, then goes in search of his mother. This reworking of an ancient fable is one of the most miraculous of films, an exquisitely photographed (by Kazuo Miyagawa), designed (by Hisakazu Tsuji), and acted work, radiating Mizoguchi's deep human sympathy. Tanaka, who starred in Ugetsu (1953) and The Life of Oharu (1952), the other two films usually ranked alongside Sansho the Bailiff as Mizoguchi's greatest works, has a smaller role than in the others, but her final scene in this film is one of the most heart-breaking performances in all movies.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Go West (Buster Keaton, 1925)

TCM ran this Keaton feature with a two-reeler from 1917, Coney Island, directed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in which Keaton plays a secondary role to Arbuckle. The remarkable thing about the earlier film is that Keaton hasn't found his stone-faced persona yet: He smiles and mugs in ways that we don't expect from him. Adapting the deadpan became, along with the porkpie hat, Keaton's trademark as a film comedian, and it's even alluded to in a scene in which Keaton's character, known only as Friendless, plays poker with a guy who cheats. When Friendless calls him on drawing from the bottom of the deck, the guy pulls out the familiar line from The Virginian: "Smile when you say that." Incapable of smiling, Friendless attempts the expression by poking up the corners of his mouth with two fingers. It all goes to show that when it came to expressiveness, Keaton was a master of body language, able to communicate love or diffidence or fear with the very angle of his stance. No one ever did a pratfall better than Keaton, once he discovered that the trick is to keep your legs stiff when you land on your butt. Go West is one of the lesser Keaton features, not quite in the league of The Navigator (1924) or Seven Chances (1925) or the sublime The General (1926). The gags are plentiful but they're not set up quite as well as in those pictures, or as elaborate as the ones in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman (1928). When the focus goes away from Keaton, as it does in the scenes in which he leads a cattle drive through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, causing much havoc, the film gets a little scattered. Keaton is at his best when he sets up a simple gag, as when he repeatedly arrives late for dinner with the other ranchhands, who get up and leave the table once he sits down, so that eventually he rushes in, sits down first, gobbles his dinner, and then gets up and leave the moment they sit down. This is the one in which Friendless finally finds a friend: a cow named Brown Eyes -- an outcast like himself because she refuses to give milk. Rescued from the slaughterhouse, Brown Eyes climbs into an automobile with Friendless and, seated beside him, rides away. Arbuckle, incidentally, has a bit part in drag in Go West, as a woman in the department store invaded by the cattle.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

I will never come closer to understanding Wall Street than I do after watching this film -- but that's about as close as I am to understanding particle physics. It's a remarkable portrayal of what the kind of manipulations that led to the crash of 2008 can do to people, and in this cast to the people who helped bring it about. I have seen what that crash -- and the manipulations -- can do to ordinary folk: I live in a condo that's part of a series of small duplexes, each unit of which is only a little over a thousand square feet. A few years before the crash, the unit that adjoined mine was bought by a Mexican-American man who worked as a gardener at Stanford. It was, he explained, a starter home for him and his wife and five (!) daughters. It was soon evident that he was having trouble making the payments on the mortgage -- at one point, the family moved out and rented it to someone else for a while. Eventually, the bank foreclosed. I wondered at the time how he had managed to secure a mortgage in the first place. After the crash, I found out why -- a process that is at the heart of what takes place in The Big Short. There are no heroes or villains in this movie: Even the protagonists with whom we are asked to identify, such as Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), are out to milk a system they know is corrupt. And when they fail, they still manage to make a billion dollars, mostly by using other people's money. But the characters are so shrewdly drawn, first by Michael Lewis in his book and then by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph in their Oscar-winning screenplay, and so deftly acted that we can't help feeling for them. Some of them, like Burry and Baum and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt in one of his best performances), seem to have a touch of Asperger's. Movies like Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) have given us portrayals of America's financial system as dominated by flamboyant greed-heads like Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, but The Big Short shows us something even more disturbing: the moral corruption of exceptionally intelligent men whose lives could have been put to something more useful than playing with money as if it were a board game with no real consequences to other people.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)

Julius Caesar is the starchiest of Shakespeare's major plays, the one with the least sex, which is why many of us first encounter it in a high school English class. It's a play about soldiers and politicians, professions from which women were (unless they were Queen Elizabeth) excluded in Shakespeare's time, so there are only two female roles: Brutus's wife, Portia, and Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and both of them are almost walk-ons. (My high school drama teacher wanted to stage Julius Caesar as our class play until he realized that three times as many girls as boys wanted to try out for parts.) So the remarkable thing about MGM's all-star production is that it turned out so well: It's one of the best Hollywood productions of Shakespeare. (Calpurnia and Portia are lavishly cast with Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr, respectively, in the small roles.) That said, it's a shame that not quite enough was done to take the starch out of the play. The casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony was a start, but although it's a very good performance, it tends to throw the film out of whack. When it was released, Brando had been stereotyped as a "Method mumbler," for his celebrated performance on stage and screen as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). Could he rise to the demands of speaking Shakespearean diction? critics burbled. Of course he could, with a little bit of coaching from his distinguished co-star John Gielgud, who plays Cassius, and who was so impressed that he wanted Brando to go to London where he would direct him in Hamlet. That, of course, never took place, more's the pity. But the attention directed at Brando does tend to shift the focus away from the real central character of the play, Brutus, played with exceptional distinction by James Mason. Gielgud is also very good, although it seems to me that in the first part of the film he is a bit too stagy. Mason gives a kind of colloquial spin to his lines -- a sense that he's speaking what Brutus thinks and feels, and not reciting Shakespearean verse. Later in the film, when Brutus and Cassius go to war against Antony, Gielgud has loosened up more. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the play is solid, and he does smart things with camera placement -- putting the camera in the middle of the crowd, for example, when Brutus and Antony give their great speeches after Caesar's (Louis Calhern) assassination. But there is a kind of Hollywood Rome quality to the film -- not surprising, since it was made after the lavish MGM spectacle Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and uses some of the same sets -- that tends toward the stodgy. That's more surprising when you realize that the producer of the film was John Houseman, who had also been a producer of Orson Welles's celebrated 1937 modern-dress Mercury Theatre production of the play, which created a sensation with its evocation of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Considering that we spend half our waking lives at work, it's surprising that there are so few good films about what we do there. The problem may be that many, if not most, of the jobs we do lack the essential narrative shape: beginning, middle, and end. They're a routine repeating itself until death or retirement provides the closure. The exceptions would seem to be cops and doctors, who deal with life and death, and sometimes lawyers, if their jobs lead to the courtroom and aren't just an eternal drawing up of documents. But surprisingly, given the low esteem in which they're held by the general public, there are also some classic films about journalists at work; His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) and All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) come immediately to mind. (I omit Orson Welles's magnum opus because it seems to me less about journalism than about obsession.) I will have to add Spotlight to the list, though despite its best picture Oscar (or maybe because of it) I think it's too soon to call it a great film. What makes it work for me is that it's a convincing portrait of what I know about journalists: that the good ones love what they do. Take Mike Rezendes, for example, whom I got to know a bit at the Mercury News. He's a few inches shorter and quite a few pounds lighter than Mark Ruffalo, who plays him in the movie, but what Ruffalo gets right about Rezendes is his absolute delight in doing the job right, flinging himself body and soul into his work. I would also single out here the performance of Liev Schreiber, one of our best and most underappreciated actors, whose Marty Baron is a spot-on portrait of the journalist who has found himself promoted upstairs to where his commitment to the profession is regarded with suspicion, even though his heart is in the right place. Michael Keaton's Walter Robinson is one of those who suspect Baron, and I wish there had been more scenes in which the growing confidence each has in the other was dramatized. John Slattery's Ben Bradlee Jr. is a keen portrayal of the journalist whose edges have been worn down to the point where he's always in danger of playing it too safe. Now, this judgment of the film is being made by someone who knows the territory, but considering how many cop movies seem ludicrous to cops, and how doctors tend to despise medical dramas, I think it speaks well of writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer that they manage to capture the essence of the journalism game (at least as it was in 2001-03, before the demise of newspapers) so extraordinarily well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2014)

Coming Home is a story of post-traumatic stress, in which the PTSD is not just manifest in particular people but in a whole society. The immense trauma of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s was shared by an entire people, though it's embodied in Zhang Yimou's film in a single family: Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and their daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Like many intellectuals, Lu, a professor, is sent during the Cultural Revolution to the countryside to work as a laborer, but he escapes and returns to his family, which has been warned by the authorities to turn him in. When he shows up at their home, Feng wants to hide him, but Dandan, an ambitious young ballet student, betrays him on the promise that she will get the lead role in a production of The Red Detachment of Women. When Lu is finally released and returns home, he finds that Dandan has given up her ballet career -- the promised lead role is denied her anyway -- and is estranged from her mother, who has never forgiven her. But Feng has suffered another trauma, which affects her memory: Not only does she forget mundane daily tasks, she also fails to recognize Lu when he appears. Because she has been told that he will be returning on the fifth of the month, she goes to the train station once every month to wait for him, returning in disappointment. Lu tries everything he can to restore his wife's memory: He pretends to be a piano tuner so he can play a song they once shared, and when a cache of letters he wrote to her on scraps of paper while in prison shows up, he reads them to her, becoming a familiar figure in her life and engineering a rapprochement between her and Dandan, but never quite breaking through the bloc in her memory. It's a somewhat conventional and sentimental story, but Zhang makes it work, with the special help of three exceptional actors. Gong Li gives one of her finest performances as the deeply damaged Feng Wanyu, her face revealing the exact moment when her flickering hopes of reunion with her husband are extinguished by doubt or disappointment or fear. Chen Daoming makes Lu's patient, dogged attempts to cope with his wife's disorder credible, even when the script by Zou Jingzhi sags occasionally into predictability. And Zhang Huiwen, discovered by Zhang Yimou at the Beijing Dance Academy, is both a fine dancer and an actress capable of evoking Dandan's adolescent petulance. The cinematography is by Xiaoding Zhao and the music by Qigong Chen.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955)

A commercial disaster when it was released, Ophuls's opulent and expensive last film was heavily cut in a effort to salvage it, and after the director's death a little more than a year after its premiere it suffered from neglect. But it had hugely influential admirers among the Cahiers du cinéma set, French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut, and American auteur theorists like Andrew Sarris. The persistence of the cult of Lola Montès has resulted in a restoration of the film to something like what audiences once saw (and rejected): a giddy, dreamlike tale of the rise and fall of a fabulous 19th-century courtesan, mistress to Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), among perhaps many others. Martine Carol is Lola, and her story is told by the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) of a circus in which she is the principal attraction. Ophuls pulled out all the stops, including rather garish Eastmancolor and an unusually restless use of CinemaScope. The camera, supervised by cinematographer Christian Matras, rarely stands still, meandering among the many layers of the sets designed by Jean d'Eaubonne -- every building, from the humblest inn to the most baroque castle, seems to have endless flights of stairs connecting its many stories. There is a kind of feverish fun to the whole thing, as long as you're not interested in the real Lola Montez, who didn't wind up in a cage as a long queue of circus-going men waited to kiss her. You can say it's a kind of meditation on the nature of celebrity or on the double standard that judges women's sexuality in a different way than men's. You can see Lola as a precursor of Marilyn Monroe -- the goddess of the era in which the movie was made. Or you can just sit back and experience the astonishing flow of images that Ophuls directs past us. Is it a great film? I'd be content with just calling it unique, which in an artistic medium like the movies, so dependent on the tried and true, is perhaps greatness enough.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)

You can tell this is an early French New Wave film because there's plenty of sending up the old way of doing things in movies -- in particular the American crime thriller -- without attempting anything terribly new. For example, at one point the protagonist is sitting up in bed with the woman he has just slept with and tells her to "do it the way they do in the movies," whereupon she covers her exposed breasts by tucking the sheet under her arms. The shifts in tone are astonishing, from slapstick to real violence and back again, which is what we expect of a New Wave classic. But there is nothing truly groundbreaking in Truffaut's storytelling here, the way there was in the feature that immediately preceded Shoot the Piano Player, The 400 Blows (1959), or would be in his next, Jules and Jim (1962). Still, we have a wonderfully engaging performance by Charles Aznavour as the titular pianist, Charlie Kohler aka Edouard Saroyan. We also have a perfectly fitted score by Georges Delerue and cinematography by Raoul Coutard that often betrays Truffaut's love of Alfred Hitchcock. Watching Shoot the Piano Player, it's easy to see why Truffaut was the first person approached to direct Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), with its similar oscillations in tone.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

A successful film needs the correct balance of story and style, and when the story is as straightforward as Ida's, there's a great risk of overwhelming it with stylistic tricks. A novice called Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows to become a nun when she learns that she has an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who wants to meet her. It is the 1960s, and Wanda is a judge in the courts of the communist government with a reputation for having for having presided brutally over the show trials of the 1950s that solidified communist power. She tells Anna, who was raised in an orphanage, that she was born to Jewish parents, one of whom was Wanda's sister, and that her birth name was Ida Lebenstein. Anna goes with Wanda in search of the graves of her parents and the son whom Wanda left with them when she joined the resistance during the war. Along the way, the tough, hard-drinking, sexually liberated Wanda, determined to provoke Anna out of her ascetic, devout ways, picks up a handsome young hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a jazz saxophonist on his way to a gig. The story that director Pawel Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz develop from this situation is told in an austerely beautiful manner. Two cinematographers are credited: Lukasz Zal took over as director of photography after Ryszard Lenczewski became ill during filming; both were deservedly nominated for cinematography Oscars. Pawlikowski chose to film in black-and-white to evoke the Polish films of the 1960s, the era of the young Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Wajda, although it's more accurate to refer to the cinematography as monochrome because the use of the many shades of gray and the emphasis on the textures of walls and skies and landscapes is extraordinary. The images are also strikingly framed: Characters rarely appear in the direct center of the screen, but are shifted toward the bottom or the corner of images. (Remarkably, the film also sometimes moves the subtitles from the bottom to the top of the frame to accommodate this placement.) Such manipulations could be seen as mannered, but I think it works to suggest that the lives of the characters themselves have been placed somewhere slightly off-center.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

Lifeboat has two things going for it: Alfred Hitchcock and Tallulah Bankhead. Otherwise, it could easily have turned into either a routine survival melodrama or, worse, a didactic allegory about the human condition. As it is, elements of both remain. The situation -- a small group of survivors of a merchant marine vessel torpedoed by a German U-boat confront the elements, their own frailties, and the U-boat captain they unwittingly help rescue -- was dreamed up by Hitchcock and was assigned to John Steinbeck to come up with a story. It was then turned into a screenplay by Jo Swerling, with the uncredited help of a number of other hands, including Ben Hecht and Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. Steinbeck is said to have hated it, partly because the screenplay was purged of his leftist point of view, but anyone familiar with his fiction can see how the script's avoidance of his tendency to preach strengthened the film. And the casting of Bankhead, in what is virtually her only good screen role, adds a note of sophisticated sass that the melodrama desperately needs. Steinbeck also objected that the character of Joe (Canada Lee), the ship's steward and the only black survivor, had been turned into a "stock comedy Negro," which is hardly fair: Although there are unpleasant taints of Hollywood racism in the characterization -- Bankhead's character refers to him as "Charcoal" a couple of times -- Joe is generally treated with respect. At one point, when the occupants of the lifeboat decide to put something to a vote, Joe asks, with more than a touch of sad experience behind the question, "Do I get to vote, too?" And when the survivors finally turn in a frenzy on the treacherous German (Walter Slezak), clubbing him to death and drowning him, Joe is the only one who seems to recognize that what they're doing is essentially a lynching; he tries to dissuade Alice (Mary Anderson), the U.S. Army nurse, from joining the assault. (Of course, it's also possible that the studio feared that having a black man assault a white man would outrage Southern audiences.) While it's not prime Hitchcock, Lifeboat is engaging and entertaining, and a cut above most wartime melodramas, partly because it dares to present the enemy, the German captain, as dangerous, cleverly outwitting and manipulating the Americans and Brits in the boat -- which naturally outraged some of the flag-waving critics.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Tokyo Story has everything we love about great short stories: a profoundly human situation, a delicate narrative restraint, and -- in the place of literature's powerfully evocative prose -- powerfully evocative images. It also has what literature can't give us: the joy of watching actors bring to life the characters they play. It is certainly one of my favorite films of all time, and while I've listed it at No. 1 on my Great Movies page, I think any horse-race competition to validate greatness does a film of such quiet power a disservice. How can you rank movies of such variety of tone as this subtle family drama, the violent picture of a disintegrating society in the first two Godfather films, the delicious intrigue of Notorious, and the epic portrait of medieval Russian life in Andrei Rublev, all of which currently constitute my so-called top five? I think Tokyo Story earns its place by establishing that there are universal constants in family life, things that transcend particular cultures: the gulf that widens between generations, the inability to face even those to whom one is closest without dissimulation, the tension between what one is obliged to say and do and what one actually feels at a moment of loss, and so on. Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda do a masterly job of gathering these and other themes and placing them in due order. This is one of those Ozu films where his technique of placing the camera almost at floor level seems like more than just a mannerism: It emphasizes that what we are seeing is rooted and basic, while at the same time we have the feeling of contact with the performers that we usually get only in the theater. Yuharu Atsuta's camera rarely moves, causing us to feel enveloped by Tatsuo Hamada's sets almost like participants in the lives of the Hirayama family, even though they are strangers to us, and their secrets and the flash points in their relationships -- such as the past drinking problem of the patriarch, Shukichi (the magnificent Chishu Ryu), or the deep loneliness of Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widowed daughter-in-law -- gradually become known to us. This is a film that trusts its audience to stay and learn, something that has become lost in contemporary movies, which have to nudge audiences into awareness.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Min and Bill (George W. Hill, 1930)

Remembered today chiefly because it was the film that won Marie Dressler the best actress Oscar (for what was by no means her best screen performance), Min and Bill is a good example of the struggle Hollywood movie-makers went through in adapting to sound. Dressler and co-star Wallace Beery had both been stars in silent films, and screenwriter Frances Marion was one of the most successful writers of that era. Unfortunately, Marion and co-screenwriter Marion Jackson don't seem to have mastered writing the dialogue a sound film needs for exposition and continuity, so it often sounds as if  Dressler and Beery are ad-libbing just to keep the soundtrack alive. And director George W. Hill, a former cinematographer who had turned director before sound came in, doesn't quite know how to keep the pace from sagging. The result is a rather choppy movie with a few good scenes, most notably a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Dressler's Min and Beery's Bill.  At the beginning of the film, Min seems to be destined to be one of Dressler's slapstick comic creations: There's an extended chase sequence in which Min and Nancy are at the controls of a runaway speedboat that culminates with Min being thrown overboard and hauled out of the water with repeated dunkings. But the main plot is sentimental drivel: Min runs a waterfront speakeasy/barbershop and has raised a girl, Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), left her as an infant by the now-aging prostitute Bella (Marjorie Rambeau). Now that Nancy is of marriageable age and is being wooed by the wealthy Dick Cameron (Don Dillaway), Bella has shown up again to try to claim the maternal privileges that she fears Min is going to assert. The trouble with this twist to the plot is that we never see Min being particularly loving and maternal toward Nancy, so that the denouement, in which Min tries to keep the girl out of Bella's clutches, doesn't make a lot of emotional sense. Still, the public loved it, and Dressler was for a time MGM's biggest star.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

At one point in 8 1/2 an actress playing a film critic turns to the camera and brays (in English), "He has nothing to say!", referring to Guido Anselmi, the director Marcello Mastroianni plays and, by extension, to Fellini himself. And that's quite true: Fellini has nothing to say because reducing 8 1/2 to a message would miss the film's point. Guido finds himself creatively blocked because he's trying to say something, except he doesn't know what it is. He has even enlisted a film critic, played by Jean Roguel, to aid him in clarifying his ideas, but the critic only muddles things by his constant monologue about Guido's failure. Add to this the fact that after a breakdown Guido has retreated to a spa to try to relax and focus, only to be pursued there by a gaggle of producers and crew members and actors, not to mention his mistress (Sandra Milo) and his wife (Anouk Aimée). Guido's consciousness becomes a welter of dreams and memories and fantasies, overlapping with the quotidian demands of making a movie and tending to a failed marriage. He is also pursued by a vision of purity that he embodies in the actress Claudia Cardinale, but when they finally meet he realizes how impossible it is to integrate this vision with the mess of his life. Only at the end, when he abandons the project and confronts the fact that he really does have nothing to say, can he realize that the mess is the message, that his art has to be a way of establishing a pattern out of his own life, embodied by those who have populated it dancing in a circle to Nino Rota's music in the ruins of the colossal set of his abandoned movie. The first time I saw this film it was dubbed into German, which I could understand only if it was spoken slowly and patiently, which it wasn't. Even so, I had no trouble following the story (such as it is) because Fellini is primarily a visual artist. Besides, the movie starred Mastroianni, who would have made a great silent film star, communicating as he did with face and body as much as with voice. It is, I think, one of the great performances of a great career. 8 1/2 is also one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies ever made, thanks to the superb cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo and the brilliant production design and costumes of Piero Gherardi.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Life As a Dog (Lasse Hallström, 1985)

The American success of Hallström's off-beat but lightweight film netted him two Oscar nominations: best director and -- with co-screenwriters Reidar Jönsson, Brasse Brännström, and Per Berglund -- best adapted screenplay. (The film was based on the middle volume of a trio of novels by Jönnson.) It also brought him to Hollywood, where he has directed more off-beat but lightweight films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Chocolat (2000), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). His most successful film after coming to the States has probably been The Cider House Rules (1999), for which he received another Oscar nomination for directing; it was the perfect teaming with a similarly off-beat and lightweight novelist, John Irving. Mind you, I have nothing against either the off-beat or the lightweight: My Life As a Dog is a perfectly charming and often touching movie that showcases a wonderful performance by young Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar, who gets tossed around from relative to relative as they try to cope with the boy. There are also excellent performances by Anki Lidén as Ingemar's mother, Tomas van Brömmsen as Uncle Gunnar, and Melinda Kinnaman (half-sister of the actor Joel Kinnaman) as the pubescent Sagar, who is distressed that her emerging femininity means an end to playing soccer and boxing with the boys. Jörgen Persson's cinematography is another plus. The trouble comes only when one tries to take My Life As a Dog too seriously as a coming-of-age tale, a genre much worked-over by the movies. The lightweightness of My Life as a Dog shows in comparisons with such classics of the genre as Satyajit Ray's Aparajito (1956), François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), and even so recent an entry as Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014), all of which more successfully integrate the coming-of-age tale with a specific time and place. By contrast, Ingemar's life seems to be taking place in a kind of whimsical neverland that just happens to look like rural Sweden. It's an often heartfelt and certainly entertaining movie that could have been much more.

Monday, July 4, 2016

L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)

L'Atalante is one of those near-universally acclaimed film masterpieces that failed theatrically on their first release and were rediscovered and re-evaluated more than a decade later. But it's also one of those films that young contemporary movie lovers may not "get" on first viewing today. I remember my own reaction to films like The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) and L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), movies that didn't fit what I expected from being raised on energetic, plot-driven, star-centered American movies. Melancholy and irony are not widely praised American values, although lord knows we have plenty of it in the best American literature. They surfaced for a time in the best American films of the 1970s, but have been driven back into the underground by the blockbuster mentality. There was a time, even after the great cinematic awakening of the '70s when I found myself resenting film critics for their inability to appreciate popular movies I enjoyed: "Critics see too many movies to enjoy them," I sniffed. But the truth is, the more movies you see, the more you're able to appreciate those that don't walk the line, that don't instantly gratify the hunger for plot resolution, for spectacle, for something that sends you out of the theater blissfully untroubled by thought. L'Atalante confused and bored its contemporary viewers, but today those of us who love it do so because it seems to us alternately tender and brutal, simultaneously comic and touching, and, taken as a whole, one of the few movies that successfully transport us to a time and place and a company of human beings we have never found ourselves in the middle of before. It is also, despite years of mishandling and cutting and botched attempts at restoration, one of the most technically dazzling films ever made. The performances -- by Michel Simon as the rather gross Père Jules, Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté as the young couple trying to start married life on a cramped river barge, and Gilles Margaritis as the madcap peddler who almost wrecks their marriage -- are extraordinary. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman overcame the severe limitations of filming scenes in the cramped quarters below-decks as well as open-air scenes for which the weather refused to cooperate. Vigo and Kaufman stage visual compositions that have a freshness that never seems arty. And who can ever forget Simon's Père Jules clambering aboard the barge with a kitten on his shoulders? Every corner of L'Atalante is filled with life.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Masahiko Shimazu and Koji Shitara in Good Morning
Good Morning is, maybe, lesser Ozu, but that's because the director himself set the standard so high -- and perhaps because in some ways it's a reworking of I Was Born, But... (1932) without the depth and clarity of the silent film's themes. We are deep into postwar Japan here, with modernization and the youth culture threatening some of the values and traditions of the country. The families in Good Morning live in a new suburb, but are struggling with problems that still afflict the middle class: unemployment, saving for retirement, keeping up with the Joneses, and so on. The two young sons of Keitaro (Chishu Ryu) and Tamiko Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake), Minoru (Koji Shitara) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) have been sneaking out to watch TV at their neighbors, an unconventional young couple who are scorned by others in the community because "they wear pajamas in the middle of the day" and the woman is said to be a singer in a nightclub. When the parents forbid them from going there, the boys demand that Keitaro buy them a TV set, and throw a tantrum when he refuses. He tells them they talk too much, and Minoru, the older son, retorts that it's adults who talk too much, wasting their breath on meaningless exchanges like "good morning" and "good night" and on small talk. Banished to their room Minoru and Isamu take a vow that they won't speak to adults anymore -- even to their parents and teachers. The vow backfires on them when they're unable to relay the message that they're supposed to bring their lunch money to school, but it also causes trouble when the boys' failure to exchange greetings like "good morning" is interpreted as a reflection of their parents' attitude toward the neighbors. Ozu and co-scenarist Kogo Noda develop this premise into what is essentially a situation comedy, but one that illuminates both the essentials of small talk as a social lubricant and its limitations when it comes to deeper relationships: A shy young man and woman are obviously drawn to each other, but they can't find a way to verbalize their mutual attraction, and at the film's end are shown standing on the platform waiting for a train, both unable to get past talking about the weather. That Ozu manages to introduce layers of meaning into a comedy full of juvenile fart jokes is a tribute to his genius.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

I Was Born, But.... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

Hideo Sugawara, Seiichi Kato, and Tomio Aoki in I Was Born, But....
The family was source and inspiration for many of Ozu's greatest films, but he often focused on the problems caused by the elders in a family, as in Tokyo Story (1953) and The End of Summer (1961). The family is supposedly the basic element in society, but Ozu's films often show how society itself strains familial relationships: In those films and others by Ozu, elders who have outgrown their usefulness can become obstacles to a family's ongoing concerns about fitting into and making a way in the larger society. I Was Born, But.... turns things around by focusing on children, whose self-centeredness can be as troublesome to the family dynamic as that of the very old. Ozu's films are about expectations that can never be quite fulfilled, and in no part of life are expectations more important than childhood. That makes the film sound more grimly serious than it is, for on the surface I Was Born looks an awful lot like American-style comic films about kids -- the Our Gang and Little Rascals comedies, for example. It focuses on Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and his younger brother, Keiji (Tomio Aoki), who have just moved to the suburbs with their father, Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito), and mother, Haha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). The boys are unhappy with the move, partly because the local kids bully them as newcomers, but also because Ryoichi in particular resents Yoshi's expectations that he'll get high marks in school. Eventually, after playing hooky and being scolded, they begin to adjust, and Ozu's picture of boyhood becomes lighter and more amusing. We see them adapting to their new corner of society: They overcome the bullies and make friends with Taro (Seiichi Kato), who just happens to be the son of Yoshi's boss. But then Taro lets them come over to his house on an evening when his father is showing home movies to Yoshi and some other employees, and Ryoichi and Keiji are embarrassed when some of the films show their father making funny faces and clowning for the boss and co-workers. It's an eye-opener for Ryoichi especially, who becomes aware of his father's place in the corporate hierarchy. Back home, he demands to know why his father isn't a corporate executive instead of a middle manager, and Yoshi is hard-pressed to explain this particular fact of life. The boys pitch a tantrum -- Keiji always following his older brother's lead -- and Yoshi spanks Ryoichi, only making matters worse. By the film's end, the boys and their parents have reconciled, but one senses that everyone has learned one of those lessons that only life can teach. I Was Born, But.... is one of Ozu's late silent films, and it's masterly in provoking serious thought about a near-universal experience while being engagingly entertaining. It's also very much of its pre-World War II time. Perhaps only in hindsight do audiences notice the hints of Japanese militarism in the story: the military-style drills that the small boys undergo at school, and the fact that when Yoshi asks his sons what they want to do when they grow up, they want to be generals. The performances of the young actors are extraordinary, as is the cinematography of Hideo Shigehara.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)

Given the sexism and vulgarity that underlies the teaming of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell -- two women best known at the time for their bodies, not for their talents as actresses or singers -- it's gratifying that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes turned out to be a landmark film in both their careers. Some of it has to do with the director, Howard Hawks, who despite his reputation for womanizing created some of the most memorable roles for such actresses as Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, and many others. Certainly neither Russell nor Monroe ever showed more wit and liveliness than they do here, even though Monroe is playing the gold-digging ditz part that she came to resent, especially after having to play it again the same year in How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco), and Russell is stuck with the wise-cracking sidekick role. Both stars are paired with lackluster leading men, Elliott Reid and Tommy Noonan, but while it might have been fun to see someone like Cary Grant in Reid's part, that kind of casting would probably have thrown the film off-balance. Better that we have Charles Coburn's bedazzled old lech, young George Winslow's precocious appreciation of Monroe's "animal magnetism," and Marcel Dalio's judge overwhelmed by Russell's hilarious impersonation of Monroe's Lorelei Lee. The production numbers, choreographed by Jack Cole, costumed by Travilla, and filmed by Harry J. Wild in a candy-store Technicolor that we'll not see the like of again, are exceptional showcases for Russell and Monroe: The former's baritonish growl blends perfectly with the latter's sweet and wispy soprano (though some of Monroe's high notes were provided by Marni Nixon).

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

Cary Grant was a great listener, which is what made him a great movie actor. Just watch how alert he is when someone else is talking (which is almost all the time in The Philadelphia Story), registering his responses with a slight smile, a tilt of the head, a lifted eyebrow. This was the mark of his career for more than 30 years, working with some of the greatest directors in Hollywood history, from Josef von Sternberg in Blonde Venus (1932) to Stanley Donen in Charade (1963), taking in multiple turns with Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock along the way. Is there an actor with a better filmography? And yet, he was nominated for the best actor Oscar only twice, for the weepies Penny Serenade (George Stevens, 1941) and None But the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets, 1944), movies that only a Cary Grant fanatic need bother checking out. He wasn't nominated for The Philadelphia Story, either, even though his C.K. Dexter Haven is one of his deftest performances. The Oscar went to his co-star James Stewart, for playing Macaulay Connor in the same movie, an award that even Stewart thought was a consolation prize for not winning the previous year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra). The great virtue of The Philadelphia Story is the way director George Cukor keeps a large and skillful cast buoyantly aloft, giving Katharine Hepburn her comeback role as Tracy Lord after being labeled "box-office poison" for a series of flops in the 1930s. Hepburn was nominated, too, but lost, rather absurdly, to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle (Sam Wood). The other acting nominee was Ruth Hussey for her delightfully sly Liz Imbrie, a role that should have boosted her career but for some reason didn't. The other Oscar for the film went to Donald Ogden Stewart for his adaptation of the Philip Barry play. Stewart got uncredited help from writer Waldo Salt, which leads to a bitter irony: Both men were blacklisted for their leftist views in the 1950s, even though The Philadelphia Story seems to demonstrate that the very rich sometimes have better values than the working-class Macaulay Connor and Tracy's fiancé, the former coal-miner George Kittredge (John Howard). There isn't a weak link in the cast, which includes the peerless Roland Young as droll and lecherous Uncle Willy, and Virginia Weidler, one of the few child actors one doesn't want to stifle, as Tracy's kid sister, Dinah.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

I love Turner Classic Movies -- obviously, because it's where I see so many of the films I comment on here. But I don't always love the introductory segments they do for some of their films. It can be a real irritant when they bring on a celebrity as a "guest programmer." Some of them are excellent: Sally Field displays real knowledge and insight about the films she introduces. But The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was introduced by Candice Bergen, who is normally a witty and charming person, but seemed to have no idea about the movie she was showcasing. She admitted to interviewer Robert Osborne that she hadn't seen it for 35 years, and that she recalled it as this "little" movie that she surmised had been filmed on a small budget in locations maybe 20 minutes from the studio. To Osborne's discredit, he made no attempt to correct her: Warner Bros. gave it what was a generous budget for the time of $3 million, and it was mostly filmed on location -- a rarity for the time -- in the state of Durango and the town of Tampico, Mexico. (Some scenes had to be shot in the studio, of course, and it's easy to spot the artificial lighting and hear the sound stage echoes in these, which don't match up to the ones Ted McCord filmed on location.) It's hardly a "little" movie, either: It has a generosity of characterization in both the screenplay by Huston from B. Traven's novel and in the performances of Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt. It's always shocking to realize that Bogart failed to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the bitter, paranoid Fred C. Dobbs. I mean, who today remembers some of the performances that were nominated instead: Lew Ayres in Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco)? Dan Dailey in When My Baby Smiles at Me (Walter Lang)? Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty (Lang)? To the Academy's credit, Huston won as both director and screenwriter, and his father, Walter, won the supporting actor Oscar -- the first instance of someone directing his own father to an Academy Award for acting, which Walter Huston's smartly delineated old coot certainly deserved. But let's also put in a word for Tim Holt, who had one of the odder careers of a potential Hollywood star: He gave good performances in some of the best movies to come out of the studios in the 1940s, including The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) and My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), and was a handsome and capable presence in them. But even after working for Welles, Ford, and Huston, after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre he went back to performing in B-movie Westerns, which had been the stock in trade of his father, Jack Holt (who has a small part as a flophouse bum in this film). His heart seemed not to be in the movie business, and he retired to his ranch, making only a few appearances after 1952.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)

Daisy Kenyon is an underrated romantic drama from an often underrated director. Otto Preminger, with the aid of a screenplay by David Hertz based on a novel by Elizabeth Janeway, gives us an unexpectedly sophisticated look -- given the Production Code's strictures about adultery -- at the relationship of an unmarried woman, Daisy (Joan Crawford), to two men, one of whom, Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews), is married, the other a widowed veteran, Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda), who is suffering from PTSD -- not only from his wartime experience but also from the death of his wife. It's a "woman's picture" par excellence, but without the melodrama and directorial condescension that the label suggests: Each of the three principals is made into a credible, complex character, not only by the script and director but also by the performances of the stars. Crawford is on the cusp of her transformation into the hard-faced harridan of her later career: She had just won her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), and was beginning to show her age, which was 42, a time when Hollywood glamour becomes hard to maintain. But her Daisy Kenyon has moments of softness and humor that restore some of the glamour even when the edges start to show. Andrews, never a star of the magnitude of either Crawford or Fonda, skillfully plays the charming lawyer O'Mara, trapped into a marriage to a woman (Ruth Warrick) who takes her marital frustrations out on their two daughters. Although he is something of a soulless egoist, he finds a conscience when he takes on an unpopular civil rights case involving a Japanese-American -- and loses. Set beside his two best-known performances, in Preminger's Laura (1944) and in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), his work here demonstrates that he was an actor of considerable range and charisma. Fonda is today probably the most admired of the three stars, but he had always had a distant relationship with Hollywood: He suspended his career for three years to enlist in the Navy during World War II, and after making Daisy Kenyon to work out the remainder of his contract with 20th Century-Fox  he made a handful of films before turning his attention to Broadway, where he stayed for eight years, until he was called on to re-create the title role in the film version of Mister Roberts (John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, 1955). Of the three performances in Daisy Kenyon, Fonda's seems the least committed, but his instincts as an actor kept him on track.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935)

One of the problems with adapting Tolstoy's novel to another medium is that while everyone knows the story of the title character, who throws herself under a train at the end, at least half of the book is not about her. It's about Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, the burly intellectual who is preoccupied with the problems of a changing Russia. Though Levin's is also a love story -- he falls for Anna's sister-in-law, Kitty, who initially spurns him because she's in love with Count Vronsky, the man for whom Anna leaves her husband -- he's Tolstoy's surrogate in the novel, just as Pierre Bezukhov is in War and Peace. Downplaying Levin's role in any adaptation of Anna Karenina is as gross a distortion of the novel as omitting Pierre from an adaptation of War and Peace. But it has been done, and often, given that the melodrama of a doomed love is far easier to sell to an audience than the problems of a reformist landowner. In this MGM version of Anna Karenina, Levin virtually disappears: He's played by a tall, bland English actor named Gyles Isham, whose film career was brief and undistinguished. Kitty is at least played by a star, Maureen O'Sullivan, although her presence in the film is largely designed to introduce the character of Vronsky (Fredric March) and to suffer disappointment when he throws her over for Anna (Greta Garbo). This was Garbo's second turn at playing Anna: She had filmed a silent version, titled Love (Edmund Goulding, 1927), with John Gilbert as Vronsky. (The earlier version omitted not only Levin but also Kitty, and was filmed with two endings: In the one aimed at the American market, Anna doesn't commit suicide but is reunited with Vronsky after Karenin's death.) Garbo is the best reason for seeing the 1935 version, although MGM, with David O. Selznick producing, gave it a lavish setting, with cinematography by Garbo's favorite photographer, William H. Daniels. It opens with a spectacularly filmed sequence in which Vronsky and his fellow officers attend a banquet, with the camera performing a long tracking shot down a seemingly endless table laden with food. Unfortunately, March is miscast as Vronsky, turning the dashing young officer into a rather somber middle-aged man; he and Garbo are sorely lacking in chemistry together. The screenplay by Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel, and S.N. Behrman does what it can to pull together the pieces carved out of Tolstoy, but the ending, even Anna's suicide, feels flat and perfunctory. In the novel, Anna's disintegration, aided by isolation from society, by illnesses both mental and physical, and by her addiction to opiates, is dealt with at some harrowing length, but trimming much of that background means that she appears to be driven to her ghastly end by losing her young son, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew), and by the cruelty of Karenin (Basil Rathbone). Tolstoy, of course, gives us deep background on Karenin that, while it doesn't absolve him completely makes him far more credible than a mere Rathbone villain.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Two by Jacques Feyder

Jacques Feyder
Belgian-born director Jacques Feyder established his career in France during the silent era, and went to work for MGM in Hollywood in 1929 to direct Greta Garbo in her last silent movie, The Kiss. But Hollywood was more interested in having him direct foreign-language versions of movies after talkies came in: Before dubbing became a common practice, films were often made in two versions, one in English for the American and British markets, others in various languages for overseas audiences. So Feyder was tasked with making a German-language version of Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie (1931), though he also made two movies starring Ramon Novarro, Daybreak (1931) and Son of India (1931). Disillusionment with Hollywood sent him back to France, where he made his most famous film, Carnival in Flanders, in 1935. The rise of the Nazis, who banned that film after they invaded France in 1940, caused Feyder and his wife, Françoise Rosay, who starred in many of his movies, to move to Switzerland, where his career stalled and he died, only 62, in 1948. After the New Wave filmmakers began to dominate French film, Feyder's reputation began to wane: François Truffaut said of Carnival in Flanders that it represented a tendency to make everything "pleasant and perfect," As a result, David Thomson has said, "Feyder may be unfairly neglected today just as once he was injudiciously acclaimed."

Gribiche (Jacques Feyder, 1926)

The young actor Jean Forest had been discovered by Feyder and his wife, Françoise Rosay, and he starred in three films for the director, of which this was the last. It's a peculiar fable about charity. Forest plays Antoine Belot, nicknamed "Gribiche," who sees a rich woman, Edith Maranet (Rosay), drop her purse in a department store and returns it to her, spurning a reward. Edith is a do-gooder full of theories about "social hygiene." Impressed by the boy's honesty, Edith goes to his home, a small flat above some shops, where he lives with his widowed mother, Anna (Cécile Guyon), and proposes that she adopt Gribiche and educate him. Anna is reluctant to give up the boy, but Gribiche, knowing that Anna is being courted by Phillippe Gavary (Rolla Norman), and believing that he stands in the way of their marriage, agrees to the deal. When her rich friends ask about how she found Gribiche, Edith tells increasingly sentimental and self-serving stories -- dramatized by Feyder -- about the poverty in which she found him and his mother. But the boy is unhappy with the cold, sterile environment of Edith's mansion and the regimented approach to his education, and on Bastille Day, when the common folk of Paris are celebrating in what Edith regards as "unhygienic" ways, he finds his way back to his mother's home. Edith is furious, but eventually is persuaded to see reality and agrees to let him live with Anna and Phillippe, who have married, while she pays for his education. The whole thing is implausible, but the performances of Forest and Rosay, and especially the production design by Lazare Meerson, make it watchable and occasionally quite charming.

Carnival in Flanders (Jacques Feyder, 1935)
Feyder's best-known film is something of a feminist fable, a kind of inversion of Lysistrata, in which the women of Boom, a village in 17th century Flanders that is occupied by the Spanish save the town from the pillage and plunder that the men of the village expect. Françoise Rosay plays the wife of the burgomaster (André Alerme), who holes up in his house, pretending to have died. The other officials of the town likewise sequester themselves. But the merry wives of Boom decide to wine, dine, and otherwise entertain the occupying Spaniards. It's all quite saucily entertaining, though undercut by a tiresome subplot (suspiciously reminiscent of that in Shakespeare's own play about merry wives) involving the burgomaster's daughter (Micheline Chierel) and her love for the young painter Julien Brueghel (Bernard Lancret), of whom the burgomaster disapproves. Again, Rosay's performance is a standout, as is Lazare Meerson's design: The village, with its evocation of the paintings of the Flemish masters, was created in a Paris suburb, with meticulous attention to detail, including the men's unflattering period costumes, designed by Georges K. Benda. The cinematography is by the American Harry Stradling Sr., who built his reputation in Europe before returning to Hollywood.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

As the truism has it, the movies taught us to see. But the great achievement of Man With a Movie Camera, the thing that causes critics to repeatedly put it on lists of the greatest films of all time, is that it helps us understand what the movies are making us see. In its tour of a city in the Soviet Union -- actually a composite of four cities: Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow, and Odessa -- the film works by montage, by swift cutting from one scene to another, juxtaposing birth and death, marriage and divorce, humanity and the machine, and any number of other supposed opposites, giving us a sense of the interwoven texture of life itself. But at the same time, it exposes us to its own tricks: It shows a carload of people, then it shows us the cameraman precariously perched in another automobile, filming the group. It could even have pulled back to show us the camera filming the car with the cameraman who is filming the original carload, but by that time we've gotten the idea: Movies, like any attempt to construct reality, which we do in every waking moment, are a trick of perception. "Dziga Vertov." which translates from the Ukrainian as something like "spinning top," was the pseudonym of a director also known as Denis Kaufman, whose brother, Boris Kaufman, won an Oscar as the cinematographer for On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). Unlike Boris, Denis remained in the Soviet Union until his death in 1954, a loyal Marxist who was considered a major director and film theorist well into the 1930s, though his later career was stymied by the ideological changes that took place under Stalin. His wife, Elizaveta Svilova, worked as his editor, and the actual "man with a movie camera" seen in the film was his other brother, Mikhail Kaufman. Man With a Movie Camera is one of the essential films, even today, when almost everyone is a person with a movie camera in the shape of a smartphone in their pocket. It's also one of the most available films ever, readily accessible online. The version on Amazon and YouTube is enhanced by a hypnotic Philip Glass-like score by contemporary film composer Michael Nyman, although other musical accompaniments exist.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)

I could never countenance plagiarism, but as they say, if you're going to steal, steal from the best. Even if you're Howard Hawks stealing from Howard Hawks, which happens almost shamelessly in Rio Bravo. No one who loves Hawks's Red River (1948) as much as I do could fail to miss how much of Rio Bravo is, let us say, borrowed from that film. There's the byplay between Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), which echoes that of Dunson (Wayne) and Groot (Brennan) in Red River. Ricky Nelson's young gun Colorado Ryan is a reworking of Montgomery Clift's Matthew Garth. And Angie Dickinson's Feathers could almost be a parody of Joanne Dru's motormouth Tess Millay. But the Hawksian borrowings don't stop with Red River. When Feathers kisses Chance for the first time and then goes in for a second kiss in which he participates more enthusiastically, she comments, "It's better when two people do it," which is a direct steal from a similar scene in To Have and Have Not (Hawks, 1944) when "Slim" (Lauren Bacall) tells "Steve" (Humphrey Bogart), "It's even better when you help." The two movies share not only a director but also a screenwriter, Jules Furthman, who is joined in Rio Bravo by Leigh Brackett, who earlier worked together on another Bogart-Bacall-Hawks movie, The Big Sleep (1946). Even the composer of the score for Rio Bravo, Dimitri Tiomkin, gets into the borrowing game, taking a theme from his score for Red River and handing it over to lyricist Paul Francis Webster for the song, "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me," sung by Dean Martin's Dude and Nelson's Colorado. Rio Bravo isn't as great a movie as Red River by a long shot, and it probably signals some creative exhaustion on Hawks's part that he not only borrowed so heavily from his earlier work but also felt it necessary to remake Rio Bravo in two thinly disguised versions also starring Wayne, as El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970). But is there a more entertaining self-plagiarism, and a surer demonstration of what made Hawks one of the great filmmakers?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

Many years ago in Rome I went with a group of other tourists to the top of the dome of St. Peter's where, stepping out onto the narrow observation platform, I experienced a moment of real terror. Stretching out below me, beyond a barrier that seemed to be only knee-high but was probably at least waist-high, were the ridges of the dome, extending downward like railway tracks into the abyss. They were dotted with metal disks that, the guide told us, mountaineers would place candles on to illuminate the dome at Christmastime. As I shrunk back as far from the guard rail as possible, I realized something about my fear of heights: I'm not afraid of falling so much as jumping. I realized that a momentary psychotic break could easily cause me to hurdle the barrier and plunge to my death. Maybe it was the perspective of the receding ridges that awoke this in me, but I had never experienced anything like it before, and even at the rim of the Grand Canyon I have never experienced it quite the same again. I have it under control. But I'm glad I didn't see The Walk in 3D in theaters, where I've heard that audience members fainted or fled as Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) took his walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Even watching it in 2D on a TV screen brought back that experience on the dome. And not so much during the walk on the wire as during the preparations, when Petit clambers around on the verge of the building to set up his equipment: There's something about being in the proximity of the crisis moment that knots me up. During the walk itself, the self-possession of Gordon-Levitt's Petit is somehow oddly calming. All of this is to say that The Walk is an oddly unique film in its success at portraying the narrowness of the line between heroism and foolishness. For Petít's walk was singularly foolish, and Gordon-Levitt does a wonderful job of presenting him as an engaging personality with an eccentric obsession that most of us can only marvel at and reluctantly admire. Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay with Christopher Browne, deserves credit for blending characterization with state-of-the-art film technology that for once isn't used to fling things at the audience but to draw them into a precarious state. It felt like a return to the engaging Zemeckis of the Back to the Future films (1985, 1989, 1990) after the overblown Forrest Gump (1994). Contact (1997), and Cast Away (2000). Remarkably, the film gets away without sentimentalizing the calamitous fate of the twin towers and their inhabitants, although seeing them re-created with cinematic technology does create a subtext for Petit's performance. Only at the very end, when the image of the towers fades into a sunlit "11," do we get a subtle evocation of that date in September 2001.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

After their success with Sunset Blvd. (1950), Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett went their separate ways. They had been one of the most successful teams in Hollywood history since 1938, when they began collaborating as screenwriters, and then as a producer (Brackett), director (Wilder), and co-writer team starting with Five Graves to Cairo in 1943. But Wilder decided that he wanted to be a triple-threat: producer, director, and writer. His first effort in this line, Ace in the Hole (1951), was, however, a commercial flop. so he seems to have decided to go for the sure thing: film versions of plays that had been Broadway hits and therefore had a built-in attraction to audiences. His next three movies, Stalag 17, Sabrina (1954), and The Seven Year Itch (1955), all fell into this category. But what Wilder really needed was a steady writing collaborator, which he didn't find until 1957, when he teamed up with I.A.L. Diamond for the first time on Love in the Afternoon. The collaboration hit pay dirt in 1959 with Some Like It Hot, and won Wilder his triple-threat Oscar with The Apartment (1960). Which is all to suggest that Stalag 17 appeared while Wilder was in a kind of holding pattern in his career. It's not a particularly representative work, given its origins on stage which bring certain expectations from those who saw it there and also from those who want to see a reasonable facsimile of the stage version. The play, set in a German P.O.W. camp in 1944, was written by two former inmates of the titular prison camp, Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski. In revising it, Wilder built up the character of the cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden), partly to satisfy Holden, who had walked out of the first act of the play on Broadway. Sefton is in many ways a redraft of Holden's Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., worldly wise and completely lacking in sentimentality, a character type that Holden would be plugged into for the rest of his career, and it won him the Oscar that he probably should have won for that film. But it's easy to see why Holden wanted the role beefed up, because Stalag 17 is the kind of play and movie that it's easy to get lost in: an ensemble with a large all-male cast, each one eager to make his mark. Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, as the broad comedy Shapiro and "Animal," steal most of the scenes -- Strauss got a supporting actor nomination for the film -- and Otto Preminger as the camp commandant and Sig Ruman as the German Sgt. Schulz carry off many of the rest. The cast even includes one of the playwrights, Edmund Trczinski, as "Triz," the prisoner who gets a letter from his wife, who claims that he "won't believe it," but an infant was left on her doorstep and it looks just like her. Triz's "I believe it," which he obviously doesn't, becomes a motif through the film. Bowdlerized by the Production Code, Stalag 17 hasn't worn well, despite Holden's fine performance, and it's easy to blame it for creating the prison-camp service comedy genre, which reached its nadir in the obvious rip-off Hogan's Heroes, which ran on TV for six seasons, from 1965 to 1971.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

Ace in the Hole has a reputation as one of Billy Wilder's most bitter and cynical films. But today, when media manipulation is such a commonplace topic of discourse, it seems a little shy of the mark: After all, the manipulation in the movie seems to be the work of one man, Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who milks the story of a man trapped in a cave-in to rehabilitate his own career. Other media types, including the editor and publisher (Porter Hall) of the small Albuquerque paper Tatum uses to springboard back into the big time, seem more conscientious about telling the truth. As we've seen time and again, it's the audience (the ratings, the ad dollars) that drives the news, with the journalists often reluctantly following. Wilder's screenplay, written with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, certainly blames them (or us) for the magnitude of Tatum's manipulation, but the focus on one unscrupulous reporter makes the media the primary evil. Maybe it's just because I've been following the Trump campaign this summer, and just watched the stunning eight-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson on ESPN, O.J.: Made in America, that I'm inclined to blame the great imbalance in what gets covered as news on the audience at least as much as on the reporters and editors who cater to their tastes. That said, Ace in the Hole is pretty effective movie-making -- so much so that it's surprising to learn that it was one of Wilder's biggest flops. It has some terrific lines, like the one from Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the trampy wife of the cave-in victim: When told by Tatum that she should go to church to keep up the appearance that she's still in love with her husband, she retorts, "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons." Hall, one of Hollywood's great character actors, is wonderfully wry as the editor forced by Tatum into hiring him, and Robert Arthur, one of Hollywood's perennial juveniles, does good work as Herbie, the young reporter corrupted by Tatum's ambition. Sterling spent her long career typecast as a floozy, but that's probably because she did such a good job of it. Douglas is, as usual, intense, which has always made me feel a little ambivalent about him as an actor; I wish he would unclench occasionally, but I admire his willingness to take on such an unlikable role and make the character ... well, unlikable. He's the right actor for Wilder, who seems to be on the verge of trying to give Tatum a measure of redemption, but can't quite let himself do it.