A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 30, 2016

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

At the beginning of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, we see a beautiful woman on the screen and the narrator (Jean-Luc Godard) whispers to us some things that he knows about her: that she is the actress Marina Vlady and that she is looking to the right. And yes, she is Marina Vlady, but in a moment the narrator is whispering again that she is Juliette Jeanson, which is the role Vlady is playing in the film. And yes, she is looking to the right, except that it's our right; she is looking to her left. So immediately Godard has launched us into some conundrums involving actor and role as well as subject and object. Godard will insistently whisper his comments on these and other epistemological questions throughout the film, as we watch Marina/Juliette move through a day in which Juliette takes her daughter to a very strange day care center, has her car washed, buys a dress, meets a friend, and turns a few tricks. We also watch the work at construction sites and contemplate the swirling foam on the surface of a cup of coffee. And throughout we are not only whispered to by Godard, but also hear Juliette's thoughts and the conversation of other characters on the nature and limitations of language and art and philosophy, as well as the psychic disturbance and political significance of the Vietnam War. For some, all this will constitute an hour and a half of pretentious and boring fiddle-faddle, the cinematic equivalent of the philosophical bull sessions we had in our college dorms. But let me hasten to defend the philosophical bull session: It stretched our minds at the right time in our lives, when we had the patience for ideas. Too few of us have the patience for ideas anymore, and that may be an incalculable loss. It's easy to mock films like 2 or 3 Things, to ignore their essential playfulness, their overturning of the complacent expectation that a movie should tell a story or excite or entertain us. But pause to gnaw on some of the some of the things that are said in the film, such as "To say that the limits of language, of my language, are those of the world, of my world, and that in speaking, I limit the world, I end it." Or contemplate the fact that the surface of a stirred cup of coffee looks like the spiraling of a galaxy. Or engage your eyes with cinematographer Raoul Coutard's widescreen compositions. Or question the film's obsession with commercialism, which echoes Andy Warhol's exaltation of soup cans and Brillo boxes into art. Or do anything else that the film prods you to do, including wonder why Juliette leads the life she does, and you've got at the heart of what makes Godard such a radically important filmmaker.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

I am the same age as Ringo Starr and was born only a little over a week before John Lennon, so I watch A Hard Day's Night with more than ordinary nostalgia, the kind that might make me say with Wordsworth, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" except that I'd be lying. Still, if there was bliss to be had in that post-Kennedy-assassination, Goldwater-haunted, Cold War summer of '64, it was to be found in watching John, Paul, George, and Ringo larking about at the movies. It was a breath of optimism, a statement that youth could conquer the world. It didn't quite turn out that way, but it didn't for Wordsworth either: He was talking about the French Revolution, which proved not to be so heavenly. This is, of course, one of the great film musicals, packed with engaging songs. They may be more lightweight than the Beatles' later oeuvre, lifting the heart rather than stirring the imagination, but they're impossible to resist. It also slyly, cheekily makes its point about the generation the Beatles are trying to leave behind: the ineptly bullying managers (Norman Rossington and John Junkin), the fussy TV director (Victor Spinetti), the marketing executive (Kenneth Haigh) sure that he has a handle on What the Kids Want, the Blimpish man on the train (Richard Vernon) who tells Ringo, "I fought the war for your sort." Ringo's reply: "I bet you're sorry you won." Celebrity is closing in on them, epitomized by the wonderfully elliptical dialogue in John's encounter with a woman (Anna Quayle) who is sure that she recognizes him but then puts on her glasses and proclaims, "You don't look like him at all." John mutters, "She looks more like him than I do." Alun Owen's screenplay, written after hanging out with the Beatles, absorbing and borrowing their own jokes, was one of the two Oscar nominations the film received, along with George Martin's scoring. None of the songs, of course, were nominated. Neither were Richard Lester's direction, Gilbert Taylor's cinematography, or John Jympson's editing, all of which kept the film buoyant and fleet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, 2014)

Theeb (the name, we learn, means "wolf") is a young Bedouin boy whose older brother, Hussein, is called on to help an Englishman find his way to a well in the desert. The Englishman, a soldier, carries with him a wooden box that arouses Theeb's curiosity, though the Englishman angrily shoos him away every time Theeb tries to inspect it. It is 1916, and we recognize the box as a detonator and, especially if we've seen Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), realize that the soldier is delivering it to the Arabs rebelling against the Ottoman Empire. When Hussein leaves with the soldier, Theeb sneaks away to follow them; when he catches up with them, the soldier insists that they don't have time to return him to the tribe's camp but must continue to the well, where he is scheduled to meet up with his contacts. At this point, the conventional desert adventure movie might play off the relationship between the angry soldier and the curious boy, perhaps developing a friendship between them as they carry out the soldier's mission. But this isn't a conventional film. It's British-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar's first feature film, and even though he describes it as a "Bedouin Western," it's grounded in actuality more than in Hollywood genre films. All of the actors except Jack Fox, who plays the soldier, are non-professionals.  Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour spent a year living with and researching the Bedouins in Jordan, and choosing their cast, including the pre-adolescent Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, who plays Theeb in an engagingly natural performance. The film takes place at the same time and in the same place as Lawrence of Arabia, and the cinematography of Wolfgang Thaler shows the influence of Freddie Young's work on that film. But Theeb stands Lean's celebrated film on its head by making the soldier a dispensable secondary character. The adventure is Theeb's, as he finds himself first alone in the desert and then with a companion he has good reason to hate. The result is a smart, unsentimental look at a place and way of life filled with hardships and perils. It received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

Heaven's Gate, for all its history as a calamitous flop, is not so much a bad movie as an inchoate one. You can see it go awry from the very beginning, when it tries to pass off the ornate architecture of Oxford University, where the scenes were filmed, for the spare red brick and granite of Harvard Yard. The film opens with a frenzied commencement for the Harvard class of 1870, which devolves into a swirling dance to the "Blue Danube" waltz. It's potentially an exhilarating opening, but it goes on and on and on, and serves almost no purpose in the rest of the film, except to introduce us to James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and his friend William C. Irvine (John Hurt), members of the graduating class. Then the film jumps 20 years, to Wyoming, where Averill is marshal of Johnson County. We never learn why Averill, who is a wealthy man, winds up in this hard and thankless job, living in near-squalor and hooked up with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the madam of a brothel. As for Irvine, with whom Averill reunites during a stopover in Casper on his way back to Johnson County, he has somehow become involved with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of cattlemen led by the sinister Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) who are trying to keep immigrants from settling on the land they want to graze. It's clear that director-screenwriter Michael Cimino at some point wanted Irvine, who is presented as an effete intellectual, to serve as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action, and as a foil to the more robust Averill, but Irvine keeps getting lost in the turns of the narrative and the excesses of Cimino's ideas. (The shooting took so long that Hurt was able to film David Lynch's The Elephant Man during his down time from Heaven's Gate.) In Casper we also meet Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who works as a kind of hit man for the cattlemen. But Champion is also a friend of Averill's and a rival of his for the attentions of Ella. There is the core of a more conventional Western in the relationships among these characters, but Cimino isn't interested in being conventional. What he is interested in are the elaborate set pieces like the waltz scene, a later scene with dozens of couples on roller skates, enormous throngs of extras milling through the streets of Casper, crowds of immigrants making their way to Johnson County, and battle scenes in which the citizens of the Johnson County settlement retaliate against the troops led by Canton that are determined to exterminate them. There are pauses in the hullabaloo for quieter scenes designed to work out the triangle formed by Averill, Champion, and Ella, but their characters are so lightly sketched in that we don't have much sense of the motives behind their sometimes enigmatic actions. And yet, it's a somehow maddeningly watchable film, thanks in large part to the often breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, a committed performance by Huppert, the Oscar-nominated sets of Tambi Larsen and James L. Berkey, and yes, the sheer extravagance of what Cimino throws onto the screen. Without a plausible screenplay it could never have been a good film, but occasionally you can see how it might have been a great one.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Sicario is a suspenseful, well-directed, superbly acted, and finely photographed film whose chief flaw is that it can't decide between what it needs to be, an action thriller, and what it wants to be, a biting commentary on the international social and political consequences of the War on Drugs. As the latter, Sicario could almost be a postscript to Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), to the point that it casts Benicio Del Toro, who won an Oscar for the earlier film, in the key role of Alejandro, a CIA operative with a personal agenda. Emily Blunt, an actress who seems to be able to do anything (she's been cast as Mary Poppins in a forthcoming sequel), plays Kate, a young FBI agent whom we first see leading a SWAT raid on a house in Chandler, Ariz., that is suspected of being a link to a Mexican drug cartel. Not only is the house full of dozens of corpses, an outlying building explodes when agents try to open a locked trap door, killing two of them. Because of her work on the raid, Kate is offered an assignment on a special team to capture Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino), the man responsible for the bombing. The operation is headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a jokey, casual, swaggering type whom Kate's partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), mistrusts immediately. Kate herself gets stonewalled when she tries to get more details about their mission, and even what part of the government Graver and his mysterious, taciturn partner, Alejandro, work for. It's the CIA, of course, and Kate's presence on the mission is largely to provide an excuse for the presence of the agency on this side of the border, where it's not supposed to operate unless it's working with domestic law enforcement. Their first mission, in fact, is across the border, to Juárez, where they are to pick up an associate of Diaz's who has been captured and is being extradited. Much of this trip is seen from the air: We watch the line of SUV's, looking from above like large black beetles, that carry the members of the task force across the border, smoothly gliding around the traffic backed up at the checkpoint and into the city. It's on the return trip that they encounter a bottleneck: a staged traffic accident strands the convoy in traffic, where they are ambushed by cartel operatives trying to prevent the captured man from testifying. Having survived this encounter, Kate is naturally more determined than ever to get some answers to her questions about the real nature of the mission and the exact roles being played by Graver and Alejandro in it, but she will find that the more she knows, the more danger she is in. Intercut with Kate's story are vignettes of the life of a Juárez cop (Maximiliano Hernández) and his wife and young son. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the significance of these scenes from us until they finally merge with the principal plotline toward the end of the film. It does not end well, of course. Kate has a disillusioning revelation about the purpose of the mission that has put her in harm's way several times, and although the downer ending of the film has an impact of its own when it comes to social and political commentary, it clashes oddly with the generic thriller medium in which it's set. But Villeneuve's direction serves both elements of the film well, Roger Deakins's cinematography received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and Joe Walker's film editing probably deserved one.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

I have been watching Deadwood on HBO GO, and now realize how much that series owes to what may be Robert Altman's best film, which is also the greatest of all "stoner Westerns." McCabe & Mrs. Miller is very much of the era in which it was made, with its fatalistic view of its loner protagonist, doomed by his naive willingness to go up against the big corporate mining interests who want to buy him out. Hippies against the Establishment, if you will. But as shows like Deadwood demonstrate, that agon has continued to play itself out in popular culture, long after the counterculture supposedly met its demise. It's also very much at the heart of the mythos of the American Western, which always centered on the loner against overwhelming odds. McCabe & Mrs. Miller came along at a time when the Western was in eclipse, with most of its great exponents, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, in retirement, and some of its defining actors, like John Wayne, having gone over to the side of the Establishment. So when iconoclasts like Altman and Warren Beatty, coming off of their respective breakthrough hits M*A*S*H (1970) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), took an interest in filming Edmund Naughton's novel, it was clear that we were going to get something revisionist, a Western with a grubby setting and an antiheroic protagonist. The remarkable thing is that McCabe & Mrs. Miller, perhaps more than either M*A*S*H or Bonnie and Clyde, has transcended its revisionism and formed its own tradition. For once, Altman's mannerisms -- overlapping dialogue, restless camerawork, reliance on a stock company of actors like Michael Murphy, John Schuck, and Shelley Duvall, and a generally loosey-goosey mise-en-scène -- don't overwhelm the story. Some of this is probably owing to Beatty's own firmly entrenched ego, which was often at odds with Altman's. His performance gives the film a center and grounding that many of Altman's other films lack, especially since he works so well in tandem with Julie Christie's performance as Mrs. Miller, the only thing about the film that the Academy deigned worthy of an Oscar nomination. How the Academy could have overlooked the contribution of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond remains a mystery, except that at this point the cinematographers branch was dominated by old-school directors of photography who had been brought up in the studio system, which was to flood the set with light -- one reason why Gordon Willis's magisterial chiaroscuro in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) failed to get a nomination the following year. Altman also made a brilliant directoral decision to film in sequence, so that the town of Presbyterian Church, the work of production designer Leon Erickson and art directors Al Locatelli and Philip Thomas, takes shape around the action.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952)

Pleasure, as the poets never tire of telling us, is inextricable from pain.  Le Plaisir is an anthology film dramatizing three stories by Guy de Maupassant that center on what has been called the pleasure-pain perplex. An elderly man nearly dances himself to death in an attempt to recapture his youth. The patrons of a brothel quarrel and even come to blows when they discover that it is closed. An artist marries his mistress to atone for his cruelty to her. Max Ophuls brings all of his elegant technique to the stories, including his characteristic restless camera, which prowls around the wonderful sets by Jean d'Eaubonne, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for art direction. It's also, like Ophuls's La Ronde (1950), an all-star production -- if your stars are French. Claude Dauphin plays the doctor who treats the youth-seeking dancer; Madeleine Renaud is the madame of the brothel, Danielle Darrieux is one of her "girls," and Jean Gabin plays the madame's brother, who invites her to bring the girls to the country for his daughter's first communion, hence the temporary closure of the brothel; Daniel Gélin is the artist, Simone Simon his model/mistress, and Jean Servais his friend who also narrates the final section. Of the three segments of the film, the middle one is the longest and I think the most successful, moving from the raucous opening scene in which the men of the small Normandy town discover the brothel closed into a comic train ride to the country, which is as fetchingly pastoral a setting as you could wish. The sequence climaxes with the filles de joie dissolving in tears at the first communion -- the little church in which it takes place is one of d'Eaubonne's most inspired sets -- then returning to town and a joyous welcome. Intriguingly, Ophuls never lets us inside the brothel: We see it only as voyeurs, through the windows. Nothing of this segment is "realistic" in the least, making the melancholy first and last segments more important in establishing the film's theme and tone. The first segment does its part to set up the course of the film as a whole, beginning with a riotous opening as tout Paris flocks to the opening of a dance hall, a pleasure palace, followed by scenes of lively dancing, then the collapse of the elderly patron, who is wearing a frozen and rather creepy mask of youth, and concluding with the bleakness of his normal existence, tended by his aging wife, who is fittingly played by Gaby Morlay, once a silent film gamine. The final segment is the bleakest of all, as the film concludes with the artist pushing his wheelchair-bound wife along the seashore, penance for having provoked her suicide attempt. The film leaves me with something like the feeling I get from the song "Plaisir D'Amour."


Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment. 
Chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie. 

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment. The pain of love lasts a lifetime.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Shane (George Stevens, 1953)

I had forgotten how important the sexual tension between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) is to the texture and motivation of the film. It's obvious from the moment when she watches him, shirtless and glistening with sweat, help her rather dull (and fully clad) husband, Joe (Van Helflin), uproot a tree stump, and it plays like a low bass note throughout the film, until it becomes the main reason why Shane feels he has to move on at the end. After all, he has just humiliated Joe by knocking him unconscious and taking on the role Joe assumes is his rightful duty, thereby reducing him in the eyes of his wife and son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). It also doesn't escape the notice of the bad guys, one of whom taunts Shane with the fact that Joe has a pretty wife. (The filters used on some of Arthur's closeups are a giveaway: She was 50 when she made Shane, her last film, but she's plausible as a character 10 or 15 years younger.) It's to George Stevens's credit that he plays all of this as low-key as he does. It would have been much too easy to move the eternal triangle to the center of the film's structure. Shane is an intelligent film, though to my mind it gets a little heavy-handed with the introduction of the black-hatted Wilson (Jack Palance) as the potential nemesis to the knight errant Shane. As fine as Palance's performance is, I wish his character had been given a more complex backstory than just "hired gun out of Cheyenne." Otherwise, the screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr. does a fair job of not making its villains too deep-dyed: The chief tormenter of the sodbusters, the cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), is given a speech justifying himself as having gotten there first and settled the land -- we haven't yet reached the point in historical consciousness where the claims of the Native Americans are taken seriously. And Shane's first opponent, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), eventually has a change of heart -- not an entirely convincing one to my mind, considering Calloway's behavior in his first encounter with Shane -- and warns Shane that Joe's appointment with Ryker is a trap. Stevens uses Jackson Hole, Wyoming, almost as effectively as John Ford used Monument Valley, and Loyal Griggs won a well-deserved Oscar for his cinematography, even if Paramount's decision to trim the original images at top and bottom to make the film appear to have been shot in a widescreen process resulted in some oddly cropped compositions. Shane is undeniably a classic, but I think it takes itself a little too seriously: The great Western directors, like Ford and Howard Hawks, knew the value of a little comic relief, but in Shane even Edgar Buchanan plays it straight.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)

I admit that I am quite a few years beyond the target audience for this film, and yes, this is something of a change of pace from Accattone and Touki Bouki, but this blog is nothing if not eclectic. Anyway, I have to indulge my crush on Tina Fey with something other than binge-watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I also realize I'm 12 years late to the party on this film, which is probably what it was called at the time: the best teen comedy since Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995). That film had Jane Austen as an underpinning, where all Mean Girls has is Fey's wry take on that crucible of growing up, high school. Fey's screenplay is the chief distinction of Mean Girls, which follows the usual trajectory of teen comedies: innocence, fall from grace, suffering, redemption, reward. (The reward is, of course, the girl getting the boy she thought was lost to her forever.) What Fey does is to load the conventional plot with lovely non sequiturs: For example, in the "redemption" scene in which students get up to confess their mean acts, Fey sends in a ringer, a girl who proclaims, "I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy." Whereupon she's unmasked as not even a student at the school -- "I just have a lot of feelings," she whimpers -- and dismissed. With touches like that, Fey manages to parody the teen comedy genre without losing its essential feel-good effect. Mean Girls also features some exceptional young actresses whose careers went in opposite directions: Lindsay Lohan, who descended into tabloid notoriety, and Rachel McAdams, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for her performance in Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015). I also relished Lizzy Caplan's turn as the arty girl named Janis Ian. (The real Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" is heard on the soundtrack.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973)

Djibril Diop Mambéty once reinterpreted the old cliché about the relationship between movies and dreams by saying, "Cinema is magic in the service of dreams." Touki Bouki is certainly dreamlike, with its jump cuts and flashbacks, its almost hallucinatory saturated colors -- the recently restored version makes the most of Georges Bracher's cinematography -- and its scenes that challenge us to decide whether they represent reality or the characters' fantasies. It was made "the way I dream," Mambéty said. It begins with a nightmare shock: We see a herd of long-horned cattle, filmed with a long lens, approaching us, being guided by a young boy -- a literally bucolic moment. But suddenly the film cuts to a scene of a cow being forced to enter a slaughterhouse, and soon we are inside the abattoir, watching as cattle are being killed, our eyes assaulted by the vivid red of the spurting blood and the filthy, blood-soaked killing floor. It's a horrifying moment, but a real one, and the film, I think, never quite recovers from it. Then we meet the protagonist, a young man called Mory (Magaye Niang). who rides a motorbike with a cow's skull affixed to its handlebars. Mory and his girlfriend, Anta (Mareme Niang), have dreams of escaping their life in the slums on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal, and starting a new one in Paris. On the soundtrack we hear Josephine Baker's song "Paris, Paris, Paris," which becomes a motif in the film, just as later the French soprano Mado Robin's recording of a song about lost love, "Plaisir d'Amour," also recurs. The film then follows Mory and Anta as they explore various ways of getting the money for their trip, some of which are more fantastic than others. When they finally board the ship, however, Mory has a change of heart and runs away, leaving Anta to make the journey on her own. The basic narrative, then, is about the postcolonial dissonance of cultures, and the film is loaded with symbolic motifs like the slaughtered cattle and the skull on Mory's motorbike -- he finds the skull shattered and the bike ruined at the end. But Mambéty's use of the dreamlike elements of montage and camerawork lifts the film above any simplistic symbolic or allegorical treatment of the theme. There are moments in the film that defy literal-minded interpretation: The movie becomes a dream about dreamers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)

There are times in Pasolini's first feature when he seems to be trying out things that he will accomplish with greater finesse in his later films. For example, there are several walk-and-talk tracking shots in which Accattone (Franco Citti) and another person walk down a street toward a receding camera. This technique was used with greater force and wit in Pasolini's next film, Mamma Roma (1962), in which Anna Magnani strides down a nighttime street, talking about her life, as various people emerge from the darkness to deliver comments on what she is telling us. We've seen this sort of thing done many times since the development of the Steadicam -- it has become a kind of cliché in films and TV shows written by Aaron Sorkin -- but even though the shadow of the retreating camera rig occasionally creeps into the frame in Accattone, Pasolini and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli execute it with considerable skill. Skill is not always in evidence in Accattone, which has its rough, raw edges. It's not always easy to follow Pasolini's screenplay, drawn in part from his early novels, when it comes to the relationships between the various characters: I'm not clear, for example, who the young woman with several small children is who shares a room with Maddalena (Silvana Corsini) and later Stella (Franca Pasut). Pasolini had worked with Federico Fellini on Nights of Cabiria (1957) and it's instructive to compare the two films: Fellini's has greater technical finish, but it's also less harsh and more sentimental, which may be why Fellini, who originally planned to produce Pasolini's film, withdrew his support. But the rawness of Accattone is entirely appropriate for a film that evokes the spontaneity and actuality of early Italian Neo-Realism with its non-professional actors and ungroomed settings. And it has at its center a charismatic performance by Citti, an untrained actor who went on to a long career on-screen that included an appearance as Calo, one of Michael Corleone's Sicilian bodyguards in The Godfather (Frances Ford Coppola, 1972).  "Accattone" is a nickname that means "beggar" or "ne'er-do-well" or "layabout" -- the character's given name is Vittorio Cataldi -- and is entirely appropriate for a character who begins as a pimp and, after hitting the skids and even trying work (at which he shudders), winds up as a thief -- a dead thief. Citti's voice was dubbed in the film, but most of the work is done by his extraordinarily expressive face and by a physical commitment to the role. There is, for example, a terrific fight scene between Accattone and the men of his ex-wife's family, which ends with Accattone and his opponent locked together in a struggle in the dirt, neither willing to relinquish hold. Pasolini also emphasizes the dissonance between a world that produces an Accattone and the religious background from which it springs by using excerpts from Bach's St. Matthew Passion on the soundtrack.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick told us that the world would end not with a whimper but a "Yeehaaa!" And given the bullying and posturing jingoism currently on display in the American presidential campaign, he may have been right. A lot of Dr. Strangelove has dated: There is no Soviet Union anymore, and the arms race has gone underground (where it may be more dangerous than ever). Some of the gags in the script by Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern have gone stale, such as the jokey character names: Jack D. Ripper, "Bat" Guano, Merkin Muffley. (Although to fault Dr. Strangelove for that is as pointless as faulting Ben Jonson for naming characters in The Alchemist Sir Epicure Mammon and Doll Common. Satire loves its labels.) Where Dr. Strangelove has not dated, however, is in its attitude toward power and those who love and seek it to the point where it becomes an end in itself. Those in Kubrick's film who are capable of seeing the larger picture are ineffectual, like President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and Group Capt. Mandrake (Sellers). They are invariably steamrollered by those in pursuit of the immediate goal, like Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) defending his precious bodily fluids, or Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) devoting himself to getting the upper hand on the Russkies, even to the extent of getting our hair mussed a little, or Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) himself, enraptured by the wonders of military technology. But the film really works by Kubrick's mastery of his medium: We find ourselves, against our better judgment, rooting for the bomber crew to reach its target, thanks to the way Kubrick, with the help of film editor Anthony Harvey, manipulates our love of war movie clichés. The film is full of classic over-the-top performances, especially from Hayden and Scott, and of course Sellers's Strangelove is a touchstone mad scientist character, anticipating Edward Teller's selling Ronald Reagan on "star wars" by a couple of decades. In fact, if the film seems to us have dated, it may be that reality has outstripped satire. Who could have invented Donald Trump?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950)

Les Enfants Terribles was released in the United States as The Strange Ones, which has the effect of reducing monstrosity to mere nonconformity. For the siblings Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) and Paul (Édouard Dermithe) are monsters, even if they are perhaps more destructive to each other than they are to other people. Not that Jean Cocteau, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, had anything against monsters: He created the most memorable non-animated version of Beauty and the Beast (1946), after all. Les Enfants Terribles was an uneasy collaboration between Cocteau and director Jean-Pierre Melville; being no slouch as a director himself, Cocteau was capable of imposing his ideas on Melville, who was almost 30 years younger. But somehow they prevailed and produced a film that is either a "masterpiece," as David Thomson calls it, or "pretentious poppycock," as Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, called it. I trust Thomson's judgments far more than those of Crowther, a notorious fuddy-duddy, but I prefer to think of the film as not "either/or" but instead "both/and." It's certainly not poppycock in any case, especially in its depiction of adolescence as a kind of fever dream, and the way incest flickers around the relationship of Paul and Elisabeth like heat lightning. But there is certainly a whiff of pretentiousness in the voiceover narration (by Cocteau himself) that hammers home the folie à deux of the siblings, which is apparent without any comment. If it's a masterpiece, which I'm not entirely confident in calling it, it becomes one from Melville's staging, in collaboration with production designer Emile Mathys, Henri Decaë's cinematography, and especially the performance of Stéphane, whose invocation of Lady Macbeth in one scene makes me wish she had played the part on film. Melville didn't want to cast Dermithe, Cocteau's lover, in the role of Paul, and I think he was right. At 25, Dermithe was too old and too sturdy to play the neurasthenic 16-year-old who is felled by a snowball. But Renée Cosima is impressive in the dual role of Dargelos, the schoolboy who throws the snowball, and Agathe, who falls into Elisabeth's clutches as a weapon with which to torment her brother.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937)

The identical cousin is a genetic anomaly known only to Anthony Hope and the creators of The Patty Duke Show, but both got a great deal of mileage out it. Hope's novel about a man who finds himself posing as a Ruritanian king to fend off a threat to the throne was such a hit that it was immediately adapted for the stage, turned into a film in 1913, and even became a Sigmund Romberg operetta. But leave it to David O. Selznick to produce perhaps the best of all adaptations. It was once said of Selnick -- I forget by whom, but it sounds a lot like something Ben Hecht would say -- that to judge from his movies, he had read nothing past the age of 12. Among the novels he made into movies are David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935), A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (John Cromwell, 1936), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Norman Taurog, 1938). But it has to be said that each of these adaptations remains probably the best screen version of its source. The 1937 Prisoner of Zenda is so good that when MGM decided to remake it in Technicolor in 1952, producer Pandro S. Berman and director Richard Thorpe not only used the 1937 screenplay by John Balderston and Noel Langley, with Donald Ogden Stewart's punched-up dialogue, but also the score by Alfred Newman, following the earlier version almost shot for shot. The chief virtue of Selznick's production lies in its casting: Ronald Colman is suave and dashing as Rudolf Rassendyll and his royal double, Madeleine Carroll makes a radiant Princess Flavia, and Raymond Massey is a saturnine Black Michael. Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, and David Niven steal scenes right and left. Best of all, though, is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert von Hentzau, a grinning scamp of a villain. Fairbanks is so good in the role that we cheer when he escapes at the end. How Selznick got this one past the Production Code, which usually insisted on punishing wrongdoers. is a bit of a mystery, but he may have told the censors that he was planning to film Hope's sequel, Rupert of Hentzau, in which Rupert gets what's coming to him. He never got around to the sequel, of course, being distracted by Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939).

Friday, September 16, 2016

Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

The enormity of some crimes against humanity so swamps the imagination that it's often more effective to try to comprehend their analogs: crimes against art. The viciousness of ISIS, for example, made itself manifest in the threat to the archaeological treasures of Palmyra. The Taliban received perhaps as much international condemnation for its destruction of the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan as for any of its murderous repression of human beings. And Hitler's threat to destroy the city of Paris rather than let it fall into the hands of the liberating Allies stands as a kind of symbol of the deep-rooted evil that manifested itself in the Holocaust. It inspired the 1966 film Is Paris Burning? (René Clement), which had an all-star international cast, but Volker Schlöndorff's Diplomacy tells the same story more compactly and effectively. It also does it without relying on star-power: Few Americans will be familiar with the work of the two French actors, André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup, who face off in the film. Arestrup plays General von Choltitz, the commander of German troops in Paris who was tasked with carrying out Hitler's orders to obliterate such monuments as Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower, and to blow up the bridges on the Seine, damming the river and flooding the crowded low-lying areas of the city. The film opens with Choltitz and his officers reviewing the plans for the city's destruction in his suite at the Hotel Meurice. After the officers leave, there is a blackout caused by the shelling of the power plants by the approaching Allies, and when the lights come up again, Choltitz discovers that he is not alone: The Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Dussollier) has somehow appeared in his room. Nordling, it turns out, has used a secret passage into the hotel that was built for Napoleon III to make clandestine visits to his mistress. He has also witnessed the plans for the obliteration of a city he loves, and has come to persuade Choltitz to defy the Führer. The touch of melodrama in this "theatrical" entrance betrays Diplomacy's origins in a play by Cyril Gely, who collaborated with Schlöndorff on the screenplay. What ensues is a dialogue-heavy debate, somewhat "opened up" with scenes of German soldiers preparing the explosives and battling with the French resistance. The end is, of course, a foregone conclusion: We know Paris survives. But Schlöndorff and his two lead actors manage to create suspense through the give-and-take of their debate, during which we learn that Choltitz's family is under threat of death if he refuses Hitler's orders. Diplomacy suffers only a little from its touches of staginess, thanks to intelligent dialogue and performances.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rio Lobo (Howard Hawks, 1970)

Not much of the opening sequence of Rio Lobo, an exciting and ingenious train robbery, was probably directed by Howard Hawks. He was injured during the filming, and much of it was accomplished by his second-unit directors, Yakima Canutt and Mike Moder, who are generously given screen credits -- just as Hawks gave a co-director credit to Arthur Rosson for the cattle drive scenes in Red River (1948). The sequence is also the best thing in the film. What follows feels for the most part tired, derivative, and poorly cast, which is a shame, since it was Hawks's last film. We'd all like our favorite directors to go out on a high note, but it seldom happens: There aren't many who regard Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976), Billy Wilder's Buddy Buddy (1981), or John Ford's 7 Women (1966) as sufficiently valedictory achievements, either. Still, Rio Bravo has its moments, most of them supplied by old pros like John Wayne and Jack Elam. It has cinematography by the masterly William H. Clothier and a score by Jerry Goldsmith. What it doesn't have is a competent supporting cast, particularly in the key roles played by Jorge Ribero and Jennifer O'Neill. Ribero's success in Mexican films, combined with his good looks, led Hollywood to give him a try, but he's out of his depth as a foil for Wayne and is obviously uncomfortable in his second language. O'Neill, a former model, is the last in the line of "Hawksian women" whose ability to stand up to men gave a certain bright tension to his films, and who were previously embodied by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Lauren Bacall. But when O'Neill flubs an attempt to match Wayne at Hawks's characteristic overlapping repartee, it's clear that the game is over. O'Neill's character virtually disappears from the later part of the film, and  the climactic scene is given to another character played by Sherry Lansing, who at least recognized her limitations as an actress and gave it up to become a film studio executive. Rio Lobo, a more or less acknowledged semi-remake of Rio Bravo (1959) and its remake, El Dorado (1966), is not without its rewards for those who relish old-style Westerns, but coming from an era when Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were reinventing the genre it feels like a sad anachronism.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

Ten deals with a kind of mobile claustrophobia. We've all experienced it, I think: the feeling that the automobile, which represented freedom when we were teenagers, has become a kind of cage, trapping us into the routines of commuting, carpooling, ferrying the kids to and from soccer practice and play dates, and so on. The feeling becomes more acute when we have a passenger whose conversation we can't escape: There's no place to run. In Abbas Kiarostami's movie, the unnamed driver is an Iranian woman (Mania Akbari), for whom the car at least provides an element of freedom denied to women less mobile, but also traps her into conversations that often reflect upon the status of women -- and not just women in Iran. We don't even see her in the first and longest of the ten segments of the film: The camera is trained on her pre-teen son. Amin (Amin Maher, Akbari's real-life son), as he berates her for divorcing his father and remarrying, and generally for nagging and correcting him. She responds in kind -- each accuses the other of shouting -- and bitterly explains that the reason she lied and said his father used drugs was that it was the only way she would be allowed to divorce him in their repressive society. We then see her behind the wheel in subsequent episodes. She drives her sister on a shopping trip and talks about their respective marriages. She picks up an elderly woman who is on her way to pray at a mosque, and learns that goes to pray three times a day -- a devotion that seems to inspire in the driver her own brief attempt at dealing with her problems in prayer. In the car one day, a friend removes her headscarf -- an act forbidden in public and even in the movies -- to reveal that she has shaved her head, thereby negating the proscription against removing her scarf. One night, she gives a ride to a prostitute who mistook her for a male driver and has a conversation with her about sex. The prostitute insists that what she does is no different from what the driver does when she sleeps with her husband for support and gifts: "You are wholesalers," she says. "We are retailers." Kiarostami filmed the driver and her passengers with digital dashboard cameras, so that we see only the one or the other at any given time. The only external shots are what we can see in the background as she drives -- sometimes including the stares of other drivers or pedestrians -- with one exception: Though we never see the prostitute's face, we watch her get into another car after the driver drops her off. The film, edited down from many hours of footage, was mostly unscripted: Kiarostami provided the concept of each sequence and relied on the actors to improvise. Akbari, who has gone on to write and direct her own films, gives a remarkable performance, as does her son. I have seen only three of Kiarostami's films, including Close-up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997), but it's clear to me that he was one of the major filmmakers of our time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name* may be the movies' most famous picaro, the roguish hero who wanders through an often hostile landscape, surviving by his wits -- and in this case, his skill as a gunman. The picaro's heart is generally in the right place even if he doesn't mind breaking a few laws to get his way. In the first two films of Sergio Leone's "Dollars Trilogy," A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), he is a loner, but in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly he has picked up an unlikely (and untrustworthy) sidekick in Tuco (Eli Wallach), with whom he is working a scam: Tuco has a price on his head, which our hero collects by bringing Tuco in to justice, and then splits with Tuco after rescuing him from a hanging. Tuco is a more vicious Sancho Panza to No Name's more capable Don Quixote. I think it's interesting that The Good.... was filmed in Spain, where the picaresque tradition began with Lazarillo de Tormes in 1557 and produced its most influential analog in Don Quixote. Okay, I'm getting a little pretentious with the literary history here -- though Leone himself once admitted his debt to the picaresque tradition. But who, in the mid-1960s, when Leone was making movies derided as "spaghetti Westerns," would have anticipated such analysis or the veneration those films receive today? Half a century ago, when Leone's trilogy was being released, critics were raving about films like A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966), Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, 1965), and Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964): "prestige" movies on high-toned subjects that have dated badly, while Leone's movies still get enthusiastic viewings. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly currently has an 8.9 rating on IMDb and a 97 percent favorable on Rotten Tomatoes -- the only two negative reviews cited on the latter are the ones from Time and Variety at the time of the film's release. My own view is that The Good.... is overlong, especially in its latest restoration, which runs for 177 minutes, and that there's some confusion in integrating the Civil War's New Mexico Campaign scenes with the story of the titular triad. But there are few scenes in movies more dazzling than Tuco's dash through the cemetery and the subsequent three-way standoff. Lee Van Cleef is a suitably scary Bad guy; Eastwood demonstrates the growth as an actor that would continue as his career soared; Wallach gives one of his best performances: and the contribution of Ennio Morricone is breathtaking. Raw and unpolished as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at times is, it remains memorable filmmaking, while the films more celebrated in its day are mostly forgettable.

*Actually, he picks up a name in each of Leone's "Dollars Trilogy" films: In Fistful of Dollars he is called "Joe," which is a generic name for an americano. In For a Few Dollars More he is known as Monco, the Italian word for "one-armed," in reference to his tendency to use his left hand while keeping his gun hand under his poncho. And in the third film he is dubbed "Blondie" by Tuco. (The color of Eastwood's hair seems to me like a minor characteristic, but I guess "Tall Guy Who Squints and Smokes Cheroots" would have been a mouthful.)  

Monday, September 12, 2016

Casque d'or (Jacques Becker, 1952)


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival
A gangster movie/love story set in the underworld of Paris at the start of the 20th century, Casque d'or feels slight, but its images have a way of tantalizing you. Perhaps that's because it evokes paintings like Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Dance at Bougival and Luncheon of the Boating Party. Jacques Becker began his career as an assistant to Pierre-Auguste's son, Jean Renoir, so it's easy to guess that there's an element of hommage in Becker's film. (Jean Renoir's wife, Marguerite, also worked as Becker's film editor.) The film's title, which translates as "golden helmet," is a reference to the blond hair of Marie (Simone Signoret), whom we first see as part of a boating party that lands at a riverside dance hall. Marie is the mistress of the gangster Roland (William Sabatier), but they're clearly not getting along. So when a stranger, Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani), joins the company at the dance hall, Marie begins to flirt with him. Meanwhile, the head of the criminal syndicate of which Roland is a part, Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin), is also making a play for Marie. Georges is an ex-con, trying to go straight as a carpenter, but he is drawn into a fatal involvement with Marie. The performances of Signoret, Reggiani, and Dauphin, as well as a colorful supporting cast, carry the rather thin story a long way, greatly helped by Becker's finesse as a director. There is a real chemistry between Signoret and Reggiani, which Becker had noticed in their previous teaming as the prostitute and the soldier who set the sexual carousel turning in La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950). In their first dance together, which is reprised in a haunting flashback at the film's end, Georges holds Marie with one hand on her waist and the other arm hanging free at his side -- a suggestion of their innate intimacy. Later, when Georges sees her again at a café, Marie is dancing with Roland, but she keeps her gaze focused on Georges: Becker and cinematographer Robert Lefebvre execute a dizzying tour de force in following the spinning couple around the dance floor, as Marie turns to look at Georges after every spin. The evocation of the seamy side of the Belle Époque is greatly aided by the production design by Jean d'Eaubonne and the costumes by Mayo (né Antoine Malliarakis).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ballad of a Soldier (Grigoriy Chukhray, 1959)

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union there used to be jokes about how Russians claimed to have invented everything from the light bulb to baseball. During a thaw in the Cold War that led to an exchange of films between the Soviets and the Americans, American audiences learned that the Russians had at least improved on a familiar Hollywood genre: the glossy, sentimental wartime romance. Even Hollywood was impressed, giving director Grigoriy Chukhray and his co-screenwriter Valentin Ezhov an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Ballad of a Soldier was a substantial hit, thanks in large part to its appealing leads, Vladimir Ivashov and Zhanna Prokhorenko. Ivashov plays Alyosha, a private serving at the Front who single-handedly cripples two German tanks and is rewarded with a leave to return home and see his mother. But it's not easy making it cross-country in Russia during wartime, and he is forced to bribe his way onto a freight car carrying bales of hay. At a stop, he is joined by another stowaway, a young girl named Shura (Prokhorenko). She initially takes fright at discovering she has a traveling companion, but they eventually begin to fall in love, only to face an inevitable separation. The two young leads -- they were both untried actors still in their teens when they were cast -- are touchingly fresh and innocent, making the contrast with the harshness that surrounds them more poignant. It's a road movie as well as a love story, with some fine character bits by people they meet along the way, especially Evgeniy Urbanskiy as a soldier embittered by the loss of a leg and fearful of how he will be received by his wife. Although the core of the film focuses on Alyosha and Shura, their story is framed by some spectacularly filmed battle scenes at the beginning and Alyosha's painfully brief return home at the end, sequences that surround the love story with scenes of urgency. Chukray has a real gift for pacing and rhythm, aided by his editor, Mariya Timofeeva, though he sometimes allows his cinematographers, Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savalyeva, to indulge in camera tricks: At one point when Alyosha is being pursued by a tank, the camera does a head-over-heels rollover shot that ends with Alyosha and the tank upside-down on the screen, a giddy, gratuitous bit of fancy photography. Ballad of a Soldier certainly didn't break any new ground, but it managed to make its genre clichés feel fresh.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012)

Thomas Vinterberg and his co-screenwriter, Tobias Lindblom, load so much misery on the protagonist of The Hunt that they find themselves in a bind: How do you resolve a plot that inflicts so much suffering on an innocent man without resorting to either a saccharine happy ending or a depressingly cataclysmic one? When Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a man in his 40s who teaches in the kindergarten of a small Danish village, is accused by one of the children of exposing himself to her, his life goes to hell. He loses his job and his friends, including his girlfriend, and ruins his chances of a more favorable custody agreement with his ex-wife. And even after the authorities find that there is no evidence to substantiate the little girl's charge, he is still harassed by his neighbors and even denied service at the local grocery store. It's a superb part for Mikkelsen, whose death's-head cheekbones naturally made him the right choice as the most recent incarnation of Hannibal Lecter on TV's Hannibal, but who proves in this film that he can play a sympathetic victim as well as a psychotic villain. But the film depends equally on the performances of Susse Wold as Grethe, the principal of the kindergarten; Thomas Bo Larsen as Theo, the father of the little girl; Lasse Fogelstrøm as Lucas's teenage son, Marcus; and especially the very young Annika Wedderkopp as Klara, Lucas's accuser. The suspicions directed at Lucas gain credibility from the fact that he's an anomaly in the somewhat macho culture of the village: Well into middle age, he is the only male teacher in the kindergarten -- it was apparently the only available teaching job after the school he once taught at closed. Klara is drawn to him as a kind of father figure: Her parents spend much time fighting with each other. Somewhat withdrawn, she has a childish ritual of never stepping on the lines in the sidewalk, and she gets lost because she looks at her feet and not where she's going. Lucas finds her one day and gets her home safely, and promises her that she can come to his house and play with his dog, Fanny. But Klara develops a kind of crush on Lucas, and when she gives him a present and tries to kiss him on the lips, he is forced to establish some limits. Hurt by the rejection, Klara tells the principal that she doesn't like Lucas because he's a man and has a penis. The principal unfortunately takes her remark too seriously and pursues the matter, whereupon Klara remembers a pornographic image that her older brother had shown her on his phone and describes it as if it were Lucas's penis. The principal's amateurish investigation feeds parental hysteria which ultimately results in other children coming forward to accuse Lucas. The film recalls the widespread incidents of sexual abuse accusations that took place particularly in the 1980s, as in the notorious McMartin preschool case in Los Angeles. Fortunately, Vinterberg and Lindblom keep the larger issues in the background as they concentrate on its effect on Lucas, his family, and his friends. The end of the film is, however, something of a muddle: Lucas's life has returned to normal, as far as we can see, as he celebrates Marcus's coming of age by letting the boy join a deer hunt. Only in the concluding sequence do we get a suggestion that the incident will never be fully resolved.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Before the Rain (Milcho Manchevski, 1994)

Before the Rain wears its fractured and inconsistent narrative proudly, as if daring us to make sense not only of the film's plot but also of the centuries-old tradition of violent revenge that had recently manifested itself in the states of the former Yugoslavia. It seems to be three stories that, by the time the film ends, have merged -- or like the snake eating its tail, begun to swallow up one another. The first story, "Words," set in the Republic of Macedonia, is about a young monk (Grégoire Colin) who shelters a girl (Labina Mitevska) from a pursuing mob. The second, "Faces," which takes place in London, centers on a photo editor, Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), and her relationships with a prize-winning photojournalist, Aleksander (Rade Serbedzija), as well as her husband, Nick (Jay Villiers). The third, "Pictures," returns with Aleksander to his home village in Macedonia, where, weary of and disillusioned by his career, he plans to settle. Each segment of the film ends violently, suggesting that the murderous impulse is immanent not only in the world's hot spots but in the heart of civilization itself. As director and screenwriter, Manchevski attempts to explore the dark side of human nature and society without suggesting that he has an explanation, much less a solution, for it. He intentionally undercuts the coherence of the film by introducing inconsistencies between the three sections, such as photographs in one section of events that have not yet happened if the three stories are to be rearranged as a linear progression. The effect is to unsettle the viewer, to heighten the emotional impact of events by denying the intellectual response to them. I think Manchevski largely succeeds, although the London section strikes me as the most weakly conceived, and its climax rather too cinematically staged, especially in comparison with the more subtly terrifying scenes in Macedonia.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011)

Like Zvyagintsev's 2014 Oscar-nominated Leviathan, Elena is a scathing portrait of contemporary Russian society. But where Leviathan was rough and boisterous, Elena is quiet, austere, and slow. Perhaps too slow for some tastes: The film begins with a long take of the balcony of an apartment house seen through the branches of a tree. For a long time, nothing happens. We hear only the bark of a dog and some street noises. Then we gradually become aware that we are watching the sun rise, reflected in the windows of an apartment. It's the sleek, modern home of the wealthy retired businessman Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and his wife, Elena (Nadezhda Markina). A couple in late middle age, they have been married for ten years, having met when he was hospitalized for peritonitis and she was his nurse. It's the second marriage for both, and each has a child from the previous marriage: he a daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), she a son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). But Elena resents the fact that Vladimir dotes on the spoiled playgirl Katya, complaining that she gets in touch with her father only when she wants money. And Vladimir disapproves when Elena gives the money from her own pension to support the unemployed Sergey, his wife, and their two children, 17-year-old Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) and an infant, who live in a cramped Soviet-era apartment house with a view of the cooling towers of a nuclear plant. Elena wants Sasha to go to university -- otherwise, he'll be drafted into the army -- and appeals to Vladimir for financial help. He refuses: Sergey should get a job and support his own family, besides, the army will be good for Sasha. Then Vladimir suffers a heart attack, and while recovering decides that he should make a will, leaving his estate to Katya and an annuity to support Elena. Before he can see a lawyer, however, Elena slips a couple of Viagra -- knowing that they are contraindicated for heart attack patients -- in with his other meds. After the funeral, the lawyer tells Elena and Katya that the estate will have to be divided between them. The story, by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, moves with the inexorable melancholy of the excerpts from Philip Glass's Symphony No. 3 that sometimes accompany it on the soundtrack. Zvyagintsev's refusal to urge along the story and instead to concentrate on the measured pace of Elena's life, gives the film a grounding in actuality, reinforced by Markina's subtle underplaying of her role. It's a chilly film in many ways, but in its depiction of a society defined by the extremes of new rich and old underclass, it has a decided impact.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an unstable mix of a film, playing on, among other things, themes of sexual repression, homoerotic attraction, colonialism, and the curious draw of geological anomalies: Hanging Rock is to the characters in the film as Devil's Tower is to Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) or Sedona is to contemporary New Agers. We never learn how two schoolgirls and a teacher disappeared on their visit to the volcanic outcropping, but it doesn't much matter. What's clear is that the characters are misfits in both place and time, Australia in 1900. As one of the disappeared girls, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert), says, "Everything begins and ends in the right time and place." Like the hoopskirted women and top-hatted men in the wilds of New Zealand in Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), these schoolgirls are uncomfortably muffled against the reality of an Australian summer, to the point that, when they set out for the picnic, they are prevented from even removing their gloves until they have left the village of Woodend, their outpost of civilization. So the three girls who set out on their rebellious adventure shock a fourth, the whining, conventional Edith (Christine Schuler), when they dare to remove their shoes and stockings and proceed barefoot. Edith, who decides to leave the group, will later report that when she met Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), who followed the girls' path, the teacher was not wearing a skirt. And when one of the girls, Irma (Karen Robson), is found alive but with no memory of what happened, she has mysteriously lost her corset. Several other stories, including the persecution by the headmistress (Rachel Roberts) of the misfit student Sara (Margaret Nelson), are interwoven with the principal incident. But for all its inconclusive narrative and sometimes clashing themes, the movie works by creating a complex symbolic texture. Peter Weir and screenwriter Cliff Green, adapting Joan Lindsay's novel (which was initially thought to be non-fiction), craft a story that tantalizes without frustrating. (Lindsay drafted but didn't publish a chapter with a sci-fi solution involving time warps; her editor was smart to excise it, and Weir and Green were wise to ignore it.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950)

Love supposedly makes the world go around, but in La Ronde it's sex that provides the spin. Ophuls and his fellow screenwriter, Jacques Natanson, put us in the hands of a narrator (Anton Walbrook) who facilitates the couplings of the various characters, beginning with a prostitute and a soldier, followed by the soldier's liaison with a chambermaid, her fling with the young man for whom she works, his with a married woman, and so on, until the merry-go-round (a literal presence on the screen) brings us back again to the prostitute. It's an ingenious business, first devised for the stage by the Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler in 1897 -- one reason why the film takes place in Vienna in 1900. At its best, La Ronde is a showcase for some lovely performances, including Walbrook's, but also those of Simone Signoret as the prostitute, Simone Simon as the chambermaid, Danielle Darrieux as the married woman, and, later in the circle dance, Jean-Louis Barrault as a pretentious poet. There are some witty moments: When one of the characters experiences erectile dysfunction, the merry-go-round breaks down and the narrator-facilitator is forced to repair it. In 1950, the movie taught American audiences who got a chance to see it what they were missing because of the hidebound Production Code. The Academy, whose members often chafed against the Code, honored it with two Oscar nominations: Ophuls and Natanson for their screenplay and Jean d'Eaubonne for art direction. Ophuls has a little fun with the censors, too, when one very close encounter is interrupted by the narrator seizing the film and cutting a section from it. Our age, haunted by various STD's, might take a darker view of the film's blithe copulation, which is why, I think, Ophuls's film seems a little hollow: too much style, not enough substance. Even in its day, La Ronde was little more than a charming anachronism, a fantasia about a world that never was, and if it had been, would have been swept away by two World Wars.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)

There are few scenes in movies that I cherish more than the encounter of Gerry (Claudette Colbert) and the Wienie King (Robert Dudley). Then again, The Palm Beach Story is filled with things I cherish: The wonderfully enigmatic opening credits, which must have had people sitting through the film twice to comprehend. The way William Demarest drawls out "bangbaang" when he's pretending to shoot targets on the train -- before the rest of the Ale and Quail Club arrives with loaded shotguns to blow the hell out of the club car. J.D. Hackensacker III's (Rudy Vallee) inexhaustible supply of pince-nez. The fetching outfit Gerry fashions from a pair of men's pajamas and a bath towel, using the pajama shirt as a blouse, the pants as a kind of snood, and the towel as a wraparound skirt -- as she remains blithely unconscious that the word "Pullman" is emblazoned on the backside. The way Sig Arno as Toto steals every scene he's in, even if he's only standing in the background. Mary Astor's giddy, horny Princess Centimillia. The sly fun poked at Vallee's past as a crooner. The way Sturges finds something funny for even bit players, like the cops on the street, to do or say. Joel McCrea and Colbert are of course peerless at this sort of comedy. I do have to admit that I'm a little distracted every time I watch Colbert on screen, tracking the way she always manages to get on the right side in every scene, the better to show off the preferred left side of her face. I wonder, though, if Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner didn't pull a trick on Colbert in the scene in which Gerry is sitting at a dressing table: Though she's on the right side of the screen, the only view we get of her face is a reflection in the mirror of her supposedly inferior right profile. The Palm Beach Story is not as sexy as The Lady Eve (1941) or as satiric as Sullivan's Travels (1941), but it remains for me an inexhaustible delight.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) invites the unmarried Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), one of her daughter's teachers, to spend a three-day weekend with her, her husband, and two other couples and their children, at a villa overlooking the Caspian Sea. Also joining the group is the recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who is taking a vacation from his job in Germany. Because of the Islamic Republic's prohibitions against unmarried men and women traveling together, Sepideh persuades the group to pretend that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds, a lie that begins to backfire when the managers of the seaside property want to celebrate the young couple's marriage. Embarrassed by the attention, Elly decides to leave after the first night, which Sepideh, set on her matchmaking, tries to prevent. Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, sets all of this up carefully, so that the story could easily turn toward comedy. It doesn't. When the young son of Shoreh (Merila Zare'i) and Peyman (Peyman Moaadi) almost drowns, Elly disappears during the chaos of his rescue and resuscitation. Has she drowned trying to rescue the boy, or has she made good on her determination to return to Tehran? Sepideh is particularly frantic when Elly's disappearance is noted, plunging into the sea to try to find her. It's then that we begin to discover that Sepideh knows a great deal more about Elly than she has told the others, and a great snarl of complications develops, especially when the group begins to create more stories to tell the police, the property managers, and Elly's family. The performances of the cast -- some of whom, like Moaadi, Zare'i, and Hosseini, will be familiar from Farhadi's 2011 Oscar-winning A Separation --  are uniformly brilliant, and Farhadi's script and direction result in a film that is both suspenseful and morally complex. It has been suggested that the film has a subtext of criticism directed at the Iranian government, under which people routinely dissemble in order not to bring censure upon themselves -- especially the young professionals like the ones in the film. Is it significant that the last scene of the movie shows the group trying to free a red BMW from the sand in which it has bogged down?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Beggar's Opera (Peter Brook, 1953)

The Beggar's Opera, Act V, by William Hogarth, c. 1728
I watch TV with the closed captions on, partly from age-related hearing loss, but also because it helps me savor dialogue better. Sometimes, however, I find that the caption writers go hilariously astray, especially if they're transcribing what they think they hear instead of following a script. In this case, I was amused to find that references to Newgate, the old London prison that is the scene of much of The Beggar's Opera, were being recorded as "Nougat." John Gay's 1728 ballad opera is said to have been inspired by a suggestion of Jonathan Swift that someone should compose "a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there." Peter Brook's film, his first as a movie director, isn't exactly a "nougat pastoral," but it's a pleasant enough confection, with Technicolor cinematography by Guy Green and production design and handsome costuming by Georges Wakhévitch that give the film a Hogarthian ambiance. Best of all, it has Laurence Olivier, Hugh Griffith, Dorothy Tutin, Stanley Holloway, and Athene Seyler in the cast. Gay's songs, originally set to familiar folk song tunes, have been remusicalized by Arthur Bliss, with some additional lyrics by Christopher Fry, who also wrote the screenplay with Denis Cannan. Most of the singing was dubbed, with the exceptions of Olivier and Holloway: The latter nicely displays a basso buffo style and Olivier has a pleasant if sometimes slightly stressed baritone. The film was a flop, unfortunately, and isn't much seen today, but it's worth checking out when it comes around again to TCM.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Sandwiched between two epic versions of the life of Jesus released in the 1960s -- King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) -- Pasolini's version looks like the most successful today. It is raw and unfiltered through Technicolor and wide-screen processes, unencumbered with movie stars. Its Jesus is not blue-eyed like Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow, but a darkly handsome Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui, who had never acted before. (His voice is dubbed by Enrico Maria Salerno, a professional actor who also dubbed Clint Eastwood's voice in the Italian releases of Sergio Leone's Westerns.) The film takes no liberties with the story as presented in the New Testament Gospel of St. Matthew, following it virtually to the letter. The dialogue in Pasolini's screenplay relies for the most part only on the words actually spoken in the gospel. In fact, those unfamiliar with the narrative presented there may sometimes find the film's story hard to follow. No elaborate sets were constructed: Pasolini filmed on locations in Calabria and Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, enlisting the locals as cast members and extras. Like Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), it is a film of faces, and seldom handsome ones -- with the exception of the delicately beautiful Margherita Caruso, who plays the young Mary. (The older Mary is played by Pasolini's mother, Susanna.) Irazoqui, with his unibrow, looks strikingly like a figure out of a Byzantine mosaic or a Russian icon. The cumulative effect of the film is of having sat through something plausibly much closer to the actual events than the more conventional dramatizations of them like the Hollywood epics. Pasolini was, of course, an unbeliever, a gay Marxist, and the effect of the film is more intellectual than spiritual. The Jesus of the film preaches love, but he can also be harsh and enigmatic, proclaiming that he comes to bring not peace but a sword and, in one of the oddest moments in the gospel, smiting a fig tree for some unspecified offense. There are moments when, by following the biblical narrative so closely, the film falls apart, as in the interpolation of the story of Salome (Paola Tedesco) and John the Baptist (Mario Socrate), and it's clear that, as he later admitted, Pasolini's heart is not in the depiction of such miracles as the loaves and fishes and Jesus's walking on water. The choice of music to accompany scenes is curiously eclectic, ranging from the obvious, Bach and Mozart, to the derivative, a bit of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky score, to the startling, African-American spirituals. But even when Pasolini's film goes awry, it remains a fascinatingly personal response to the source material.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)

With 12 Oscar nominations and three wins for directing, William Wyler holds a firm place in the history of American movies. But not without some grumbling on the part of auteur critics like Andrew Sarris, who observed, "Wyler's career is a cipher as far as personal direction is concerned." His movies were invariably polished and professionally made, but if what you're looking for is some hint of personality behind the camera, the kind that Hitchcock or Hawks or Ford displayed no matter what the subject matter of the film, then Wyler is an enigma. His most personal film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), grew out of his wartime experiences, but they are subsumed in the stories he has to tell and not revealed with any assertively personal point of view on them. And anyone who can trace a Wylerian personality latent in movies as varied as Mrs. Miniver (1942), Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968) has a subtler analytical mind than mine. What they have in common is that they are well made, the work of a fine craftsman if not an artist. The other thing they have in common is that they won Oscars for their stars: Greer Garson, Audrey Hepburn, Charlton Heston, and Barbra Streisand, respectively. The Heiress, too, won an Oscar for its star, Olivia de Havilland, suggesting that in Wyler we have a director whose virtue lay not in his personal vision but in his skill at packaging, at arranging a showcase not just for performers -- he also directed Oscar-winning performances by Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938) and by Fredric March and Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives -- but also for production designers, costume designers, composers, and cinematographers: Oscars for The Heiress went to John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri for art direction and set decoration, to Edith Head and Gile Steele for costumes, and to Aaron Copland for the score, and Leo Tover was nominated for his cinematography. Wyler lost the directing Oscar to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives, but is there any doubt that The Heiress would have been a lesser film than it is without Wyler's guidance? All of this is a long-winded way to say that although I honor, and in many ways prefer, the personal vision that shines through in the works of directors like Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, et al., there is room in my pantheon for the skilled if impersonal professional. As for The Heiress itself, it's a satisfying film with two great performances (de Havilland's Catherine and Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper), one hugely entertaining one (Miriam Hopkins's Lavinia Penniman), and one sad miscasting: Montgomery Clift's Morris Townsend. It's a hard role to put across: Morris has to be plausible enough to persuade not only Catherine but also the somewhat more worldly Lavinia that he is genuinely in love with Catherine and not just her money, but he also needs to give the audience a whiff of the cad. Clift's Morris is too callow, too grinningly eager. There is no ambiguity in the performance. If we like Morris too much, we risk seeing Dr. Sloper more as an over-stern paterfamilias and less as the cruelly self-absorbed man he is. Richardson's fine performance goes a long way to righting this imbalance, but he's fighting Clift's sex appeal all the way.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

In the catalog of vampire movies, Vampyr is probably the second scariest after Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922). Which is odd, because its narrative, based by Dreyer and co-writer Christian Jul on a story be Sheridan Le Fanu, is fractured and almost incoherent and its characterization scattered. But you get the feeling that Dreyer himself really believed in the malevolent creatures he put on film, not surprising since most of Dreyer's films were in one way or another about faith. One story has it that the look of the film came about accidentally: Cinematographer Rudolph Maté shot an early sequence slightly out of focus, and when he apologetically showed it to Dreyer, the director insisted that was exactly how he wanted the film to look. Maté consequently shot many sequences through gauze. Accident also dictated some of the story: Dreyer insisted on location shooting, and in scouting for places to shoot, discovered the flour mill, giving him the idea for the scene in which the doctor meets his rather gruesome end. The lead character, Allen Grey, was played by a non-professional, Nicolas de Gunzburg, under the pseudonym Julian West -- Gunzburg was also the principal financial backer of the film. Most of the rest of the cast were non-professionals as well, and the sense that Vampyr is the result of serendipitous filmmaking has given the film a certain cachet over the years, especially with filmmakers and critics struggling with the restrictions that the corporate bottom line places on their art. To my mind, Vampyr is a collection of fascinating, disturbing images -- the man with the scythe crossing the river, the play of eerie shadows, the unusually successful double exposure that gives us Allen Grey's out-of-body experience, the sequence in which Grey sees himself in a coffin, and so on. But it seems to me to be brilliant parts in search of a satisfying whole.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

It had never occurred to me until I started reading essays about Brief Encounter that the movie is a period film: It's set in 1938, which explains why there is no visual evidence of or reference to World War II, which was still going on when it was made. This also helps explain some of the film's jitteriness or reticence about sex. Why, given the facility with which Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) lies about her relationship with Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), don't they just go ahead and have sex? The film is a portrait of pre-war middle-class morality, something the war helped break down, especially with the arrival of American troops, proverbially "oversexed and over here," in Britain. When it gained great popularity after the war ended, it was possible to debate whether Brief Encounter was a validation or an indictment of this morality. Is it really healthy for Laura to spend the rest of her life with her pleasantly stuffy husband (Cyril Raymond), dreaming of what might have been? Is it necessary for Alec to uproot his family and emigrate to South Africa just because of sexual frustration? The resolution to their dilemma seems easier to us: We wish Laura and Alec could unbend, the way the working class characters, Albert (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle (Joyce Carey) seem to do. (For all her pretense at refinement, it's easy to see that Myrtle has a healthy off-duty sex life.) But then we get glimpses of the social milieu in which Laura and Alec move: He has to contend with the catty nudge-nudge-wink-wink of Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall), the friend whose apartment almost becomes a venue for the consummation of their passion; she is surrounded by friends whose only pleasure in life seems to be to talk. There is a real brilliance in the way which Lean, greatly aided by Robert Krasker's noir-expressionist black-and-white cinematography, suggests the entrapment of the lovers in a world they are afraid to break out of. Johnson is magnificent, of course, and it was a stroke of genius to cast Howard opposite her. For all his kindness and attentiveness, there is something faintly menacing about him, a hint of danger and possibility that can only attract but also subtly frighten a woman whose life consists of helping her husband with the crossword and spending Thursdays in town returning her library book and shopping for an ugly desk tchotchke for his birthday. Everything in this movie is so well judged and efficiently presented that it only makes me regret that it was Lean's valedictory to intimate filmmaking before launching on his epic phase.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)

Frances Ha succeeds at what I think it sets out to be: an affectionately amusing look at what an earlier generation called Yuppies -- except that Yuppies seemed to have a much easier time of integrating themselves into adulthood than the Gen Y or Millennial characters in this film. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach, is charmingly awkward as Frances -- whose last name doesn't come from the frequently ironic interjection of "ha ha" in her conversations but from the truncation of her full surname, Halladay, that's revealed at the film's end. Frances is a would-be modern dancer trying to make it in New York even though her talent is, well, marginal. As a result, she's dependent on a collection of friends, including her fellow Vassar alum, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). But when Mickey and others in her life start finding their way in the world, clumsy, agreeable Frances starts to fall behind. If some of this reminds you of the HBO series Girls, and not because both the film and the series feature Adam Driver in a key role, it's not surprising. It's the same set: young middle-class white people in downward mobility when compared with their parents. We meet Frances's parents -- played by Greta Gerwig's own parents, Christine and Gordon Gerwig-- when she goes home to Sacramento for Christmas, a sequence probably designed to remind us why Frances prefers to struggle in New York than to settle for security in a less competitive milieu. Too much of this sort of generational comedy can wear out its welcome, but Frances Ha is so unpretentious -- except perhaps for Baumbach's decision to film it in black and white as an hommage to Woody Allen's Manhattan -- and Gerwig so skillful at creating Frances, that you can't help liking it.