A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Scar (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1976)

Franciszek Pieczka in The Scar
Stefan Bednarz: Franciszek Pieczka
The Chairman: Mariusz Dmochowski
Bednarz's Assistant: Jerzy Stuhr
TV Editor: Michal Tarkowski
Minister: Stanislaw Igar
Eva: Joanna Orzeszkowska
Bednarz's Wife: Halina Winiarska
Bednarz's Secretary: Agnieszka Holland

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Romuald Karas
Based on a novel by Romuald Karas
Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak

The Scar was Krzysztof Kieslowski's first non-documentary theatrical feature -- he had previously made a fiction film for television -- and it's a quite accomplished one. He draws heavily on his work as a documentary maker to tell the story of the frustrating experiences of Stefan Bednarz, a member of the Polish Communist Party, who is picked to build and run a factory making chemical fertilizer in Olechów, a town where he and his wife had previously lived. His wife, however, has no interest in returning to Olechów -- she has unpleasant memories of the place and its people, some of whom Bednarz will be forced to work with -- so she stays behind in Warsaw, as does their grown daughter, Eva, whose liberated lifestyle vexes Bednarz. From the outset, Bednarz is faced with conflict from the residents of the town, who resent having the forest felled and some of the older houses torn down to make way for the construction. Throughout his stay in Olechów, Bednarz will struggle with townspeople, old resentments, management bureaucracy, government bureaucracy, discontented workers, and the media. Seen today, The Scar resonates with both Polish history and worldwide environmental concerns -- there's a heartbreaking scene of a deer, displaced from the forest, begging food from humans, who feed it cigarettes -- but even then it was a striking demonstration of Kieslowski's ability to work with actors, including many non-professionals, and to craft a narrative.

Filmstruck Criterion Collection

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years
Kate Mercer: Charlotte Rampling
Geoff Mercer: Tom Courtenay
Lena: Geraldine James
Sally: Dolly Wells
George: David Sibley

Director: Andrew Haigh
Screenplay: Andrew Haigh
Based on a story by David Constantine
Cinematography: Lol Crawley

Even in the longest marriages, couples still have something they can never share: those years before they met. Old failures, old loves, old sorrows are locked in the minds of each partner. This is the stuff of which stories are made, perhaps most brilliantly in James Joyce's story "The Dead." Fiction has ways of dealing with the emotional tension imposed on the present by a past that movies can't quite evoke except, conventionally, by flashbacks. Fortunately, Andrew Haigh doesn't do anything so conventional in 45 Years, his adaptation of the story "In Another Country" by David Constantine. Instead, he trusts his actors to carry the burden, revealing in the cinematic present the effects of the unshown past. Kate and Geoff are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a big party they had originally planned, we learn, for their 40th anniversary. It had to be postponed when Geoff went in the hospital for a coronary bypass. As they sit at the kitchen table a few days before the party, discussing the music they want played -- Geoff thinks it would be "kind of naff," i.e., corny, to play the Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which they danced to at their wedding -- he opens a letter he has received from Switzerland. The body of a woman he traveled with, more than 50 years ago, has been found preserved in glacial ice. He's intrigued and disturbed by the discovery, including the fact that she would still look the way she did in her 20s, whereas he is old and gray. Geoff has never told Kate much about Katya and her death, so as the days go by and he continues to be obsessed by the news, she begins to pry information out of him and eventually makes her own discovery: that when she fell to her death Katya was pregnant. Haigh's determined restraint as a storyteller shines here. We never hear the truth spoken by any of the characters -- Kate doesn't confront Geoff with what she learns -- but only witness Kate as, looking through Geoff's things in the attic, she finds a cache of old slides. As she projects them on a sheet, we see what she sees: Katya with a contented look as she places her hand on her protruding belly. Because we know that Kate and Geoff are childless, this revelation has an even greater emotional impact. The tension between husband and wife grows, born of Kate's inquisitiveness and Geoff's reluctance to open himself up, but voices are scarcely raised. Fortunately, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are more than equal to the task of showing how this half-century-old secret affects their lives. That we remember the catlike young Rampling, with her ice-blue eyes and wide sensuous mouth, and the weedy, angry young man that Courtenay often played also helps us contemplate the passage of time as we project those images onto the aging actors on the screen. Haigh ends on a masterstroke: Although Kate and Geoff have seemingly come to terms with the past, and he gives a speech at the party proclaiming his love for her, she has overruled his criticism and chosen "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" for their lead-off dance. And as the Jerome Kern-Otto Harbach song ends, we realize along with Kate, left alone on the dance floor, that she has chosen a song about lost love to celebrate their anniversary.

Showtime

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

No Blood Relation (Mikio Naruse, 1932)

Yoshiko Okada in No Blood Relation
Tamae Kiyooka: Yoshiko Okada
Masako Atsumi: Yukiko Tsukuba
Shigeko: Toshiko Kojima
Shunsaku Atsumi: Shin'yo Nara
Kishiyo Atsumi: Fumiko Katsuragi
Masaya Kusakabe: Joji Oka
Keiji Makino: Ichiro Yuki
Gen the Pelican: Shozaburo Abe
Neighbor Boy: Tomio Aoki

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Kogo Noda
Based on a novel by Shunyo Yanagawa
Cinematography: Eijiro Fujita, Suketaro Inokai, Masao Saito

Before it settles down to become an intense domestic drama, No Blood Relation begins with a sequence of comic action: Gen, a goofy-looking purse-snatcher, is being chased through the streets until he collides with a man who holds him until the crowd catches up. Forced to strip, Gen reveals that he doesn't have the purse on him, and the cops send him away with his pants falling down around his ankles. But the man who caught him is actually an accomplice, Keiji, who hid the purse on himself when they collided. Keiji is the brother of a big Hollywood movie star, Tamae, who is returning that day to Japan for the first time in years, and Keiji and Gen see their chance for the big time as flunkies for Tamae. Her reason for returning home is to reclaim her daughter, Shigeko, whom she abandoned shortly after her birth. Her husband, Shunsaku, remarried, and his new wife, Masako, has proved to be a devoted mother to the little girl. Unfortunately, Shunsaku's business is about to go under, owing to his bad management and some shady deals that get him sent to prison. His mother, Kishiyo, is bitter about not only his business failure but also because this means they'll have to move out of their big house into a poor neighborhood. So when Tamae comes in search of her child, Kishiyo takes her side against Masako, leading to an intense battle between the birth mother and the one who is ... well, that's the point of the title. Masako fortunately has a defender, Masaya Kusakabe, whose relationship to the family is enigmatic: He's just returned from Manchuria, and since he's played by the handsome Joji Oka -- a sharp contrast to the plain and dour Shunsaku -- we begin to suspect that there's more to his relationship with Masako than meets the eye, though that part of the plot never pans out. No Blood Relation is a very effective tearjerker, with Naruse's characteristically hyperactive camera panning and dollying and zooming in to provide emphasis at key moments, and it shows Naruse's mastery of silent filmmaking, carrying the story without an overabundance of intertitles.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tiger Shark (Howard Hawks, 1932)

Richard Arlen, Edward G. Robinson, and Zita Johann in Tiger Shark
Mike Mascarenhas: Edward G. Robinson
Pipes Boley: Richard Arlen
Quita Silva: Zita Johann
Tony: J. Carrol Naish
Fishbone: Vince Barnett
Manuel Silva: William Ricciardi
Muggsey: Leila Bennett

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Wells Root
Based on a story by Houston Branch
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film editor: Thomas Pratt
Assistant director: Richard Rosson

Howard Hawks made a classic in 1932, but it wasn't Tiger Shark, it was Scarface. Which is not to say that Tiger Shark isn't a very good film. It has a hugely energetic performance from Edward G. Robinson and some terrific second-unit footage (supervised by Richard Rosson) of actual deep-sea tuna fishing, beautifully edited into the story. It also has Hawks's efficient zip-through-the-slow-parts direction. The slow parts are provided by the film's too-familiar love triangle plot: Quita marries Mike, the homely older man, out of a sense of duty, but falls in love with Mike's first mate, Pipes, with a predictable outcome. Hawks later admitted that he stole the plot from Sidney Howard's 1924 Broadway play, They Knew What They Wanted, which was filmed in 1940 by Garson Kanin and which Frank Loesser turned into the musical The Most Happy Fella in 1956. The film really belongs to Robinson, who seems to be having great fun upstaging everyone, which isn't very hard with a second-string supporting cast. Arlen is stolid, and although Johann has a sultry exotic presence, it was put to better use in her other 1932 film, Karl Freund's The Mummy, in which she plays the woman stalked by Boris Karloff's Imhotep because of her resemblance to his long-dead love.

Turner Classic Movies

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)

Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler in Kings of the Road
Bruno Winter: Rüdiger Vogler
Robert Lander: Hanns Zischler
Pauline: Lisa Kreutzer
Robert's Father: Rudolf Schündler
Man Whose Wife Killed Herself: Marquard Bohm
Paul: Hans Dieter Trayer
Theater Owner: Franziska Stömmer

Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders
Cinematography: Robby Müller, Martin Schäfer
Film editing: Peter Przygodda

Three hours is a considerable chunk of time to invest in a film whose plot and characters are going nowhere, but Wim Wenders somehow pulls it off in Kings of the Road -- a title that seems inevitable for a film that ends with Roger Miller's song, "King of the Road," but whose German title is a little more descriptive: Im Lauf der Zeit, "in the course of time." For time is what the central character, Bruno Winter, has plenty of. All he has to do is drive from one small German town to another, servicing the projectors in movie houses. These are towns set aside from the Wirtschaftswunder that Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for example, satirizes in his films: They are in decline, and the sparseness of the population Winter encounters is striking. They are also along the border between West and East Germany, a split that's taking a psychic toll on their residents. Though he's very much a loner, indeed wallowing in his loneliness, Winter takes in a companion, Robert Lander, whom he encounters one day trying to kill himself by driving his speeding VW bug into the Elbe. The car refuses to sink until Lander finally climbs out through the sunroof and wades ashore with his suitcase. In the course of time, Winter and Lander become friends, and Kings of the Road becomes a very German version of the buddy movie. They're not Butch and Sundance, but simply two malcontents who find themselves cast together by circumstance. Much of Kings of the Road was improvised, with Wenders confessing that he would lose sleep at night worrying about what he might shoot the next day. It becomes a portrait of a generation, the one born at the end of World War II, in search of itself, as well as a portrait of a country trying to recover from that war's lingering traumas. Inevitably, both Winter and Lander confront the past: Lander in a visit to his father, from whom he has been estranged for several years, and Winter by a visit to the abandoned house on an island in the Rhine where he spent his childhood. Though its length and plotlessness inevitably result in some slackness, the film feels to me oddly more resonant than some of Wenders's more tightly constructed ones.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream
Sara Goldfarb: Ellen Burstyn
Harry Goldfarb: Jared Leto
Marion Silver: Jennifer Connelly
Tyrone C. Love: Marlon Wayans
Tappy Tibbons: Christopher McDonald
Ada: Louise Lasser

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Hubert Selby Jr., Darren Aronofsky
Based on a novel by Hubert Selby Jr.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Production design: James Chinlund
Music: Clint Mansell
Film editing: Jay Rabinowitz

Our president recently addressed the opioid crisis by suggesting a familiar cure: Just tell children "Don't do drugs. Drugs are bad." But if that doesn't work, you might show them Requiem for a Dream, which should shock anybody straight. I have a feeling that Darren Aronofsky's film is not regarded quite so highly today as it was when it was released and critics used words like "compelling" and "visionary" about it and its director. Certainly it has a cast giving it their considerable all, and it scores some direct hits not only on the drug culture but also on the manic popular media embodied in the infomercial/game show Sara watches constantly. But before its notorious apocalyptic ending, in which all the major characters are raked through the mire, it often seems to be a vehicle for directorial self-indulgence. The split-screen effect early in the film, when Harry shuts Sara out of the room while he's "borrowing" her TV set, feels more like a show-off technical stunt than like an effective way to heighten the storytelling. And the laid-on effects throughout the film -- off-kilter camera angles, slow-motion and speeded-up scenes, busy montage, color tricks -- don't always advance the story or enhance our understanding of the characters. That said, Requiem for a Dream hasn't lost its power to grab viewers and rub their noses in the messes people make of their lives.

Watched on The Movie Channel

Friday, August 11, 2017

Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952)

Kyoko Kagawa in Mother
Masako Fukuhara: Kinuyo Tanaka
Toshiko Fukuhara: Kyoko Kagawa
Shinjiro: Eiji Okada
Ryousuke Fukuhara: Masao Mishima
Susumo Fukuhara: Akihiko Katayama
Hisako Fukuhara: Keiko Enami
Uncle Kimura: Daisuke Kato
Tetsuo: Takashi Ito
Aunt Noriko: Chieko Nakakita

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Yoko Mizuki
Cinematography: Hiroshi Suzuki
Music: Ichiro Saito

Mutatis mutandis, Mikio Naruse's Mother could almost have been a 1950s Hollywood family drama starring Irene Dunne or Myrna Loy in the title role: a woman struggling to help her family survive difficult times. Of course, the necessary change would be that of setting: Mother is very much a portrait of lower middle class Japan in the immediate postwar years. Masako Fukuhara is not just trying to feed her family but also struggling with the effects of the war, including disease -- the death of her only son from tuberculosis -- and crippling loss -- she and her husband, Ryosuke, take in her sister Noriko's little boy, Tetsuo, after Noriko returns from Manchuria, where her husband was killed. Masako's struggle gets worse after Ryosuke works himself to death reestablishing the family's laundry business. Fortunately, there is Uncle Kimura, who had been a prisoner of war in Russia, to help out in the laundry, but Masako still has to raise her teenage daughter, Toshiko, as well as her younger daughter, Hisako, called Chako. What links Mother to the Hollywood films is some sentimental melodrama, a characteristic not usually ascribed to Naruse's work, and some rather conventional comic relief, such as the scene in which Toshiko's boyfriend, Shinjiro, sees her dressed as a bride and thinks she's marrying someone else, when in fact she's modeling for Noriko, who is trying to make it as a hair stylist. Fortunately, Naruse knows how to work against sentimentality and convention with some distancing tricks. In mid-film we are suddenly presented with a title card that says "The End" in Japanese -- a moment that actually made me reach for the remote control to see if the screening service had somehow skipped to the end. It turns out to be the end title for a movie that Toshiko and her friends have gone to see -- a weepie that has left them in the tears guaranteed by its advertising. It also helps that Mother has the extraordinary Kinuyo Tanaka and Kyoko Kagawa playing mother and daughter -- a relationship they would repeat in Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954). It's also fun to see Eiji Okada as Shinjiro, one of his early performances, before he achieved international fame in Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) and Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964).

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)

Lisa Yang and Chen Chang in A Brighter Summer Day
Xiao Si'r: Chen Chang
Ming: Lisa Yang
Father: Kuo-Chu Chang
Mother: Elaine Jin
Eldest Sister: Chuan Wang
Older Brother (Lao Er): Han Chang
Middle Sister: Hsiu-Chiung Chiang
Youngest Sister: Stephanie Lai
Cat: Chi-tsan Wang
Honey: Hung-Ming Lin

Director: Edward Yang
Screenplay: Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Edward Yang
Cinematography: Hui Kung Chang, Longyu Zhang
Production design: Wei-Yen Yu
Film editing: Po-Wen Chen

Any four-hour film is going to be immersive, but for me, A Brighter Summer Day was a bit like being taught to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. There are so many characters and the political, social, and cultural milieu of Taiwan in 1960 is so foreign to me, that it took at least the first hour to get my bearings. I think it's no accident that Tolstoy's War and Peace, another vastly immersive experience, is referred to twice, the first time surprisingly by the fugitive gang leader known as Honey, who was attracted to its portrait of conflict and especially by Pierre's fixation on assassinating Napoleon. A Brighter Summer Day is perhaps the closest that a film can get to the complexity of a great novel -- which doesn't necessarily make it a great film, although I think it gets pretty close to that, too. It will take another viewing, which means another four-hour block of time, for me to make that decision -- and even for me to have something concise and coherent to say about it.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies and on Filmstruck Criterion Channel (after my recording of the TCM showing fell short)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)

Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend
Tom Ripley: Dennis Hopper
Jonathan Zimmermann: Bruno Ganz
Marianne Zimmermann: Lisa Kreuzer
Raoul Minot: Gérard Blain
Derwatt: Nicholas Ray
The American: Samuel Fuller
Marcangelo: Peter Lilienthal
Ingraham: Daniel Schmidt
Rodolphe: Lou Castel

Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Wim Wenders
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Music: Jürgen Knieper
Film editing: Peter Przygodda

When I called Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) "stoner noir" yesterday, I thought I had pretty much exhausted the genre with the exception of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). But then I watched The American Friend and realized my error. Actually, the plot and milieu of The American Friend, loosely adapted from Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, is material more for a thriller than for film noir's brooding exploration of the lower depths of criminality. Here we are in what might be called the upper depths: art fraud and murder for hire. But mostly The American Friend is an exercise in watching the phenomenon that was Dennis Hopper, who came to the set fresh from the horrors, the horrors of working on Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). It is, as most of Hopper's performances were, an exercise in self-destruction. And perfectly cast against him, in what was his first important film, is Bruno Ganz, struggling to keep his head. Ganz and Hopper eventually came to blows off-set, and then spent a night drinking their way into a fast friendship and an entertaining tandem performance. There is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it character to the film's set-up exposition about why mild-mannered picture framer Jonathan Zimmermann gets caught up in the manipulations of Tom Ripley and Raul Minot, but it doesn't matter much. Zimmermann's first job for Minot is beautifully staged, with just enough eccentric touches -- Zimmermann colliding with a dumpster and a stranger (Jean Eustache, one of the director cronies Wenders cast in his film) offering him a Band-Aid -- to make it more than routine thriller stalking. And the sequence on the train is a classic of cutting between on-location and studio set filming, culminating in Zimmerman's exhilarated scream from the view port on the engine. To my taste, The American Film is a little too loosey-goosey in exposition and a little too self-indulgent in its director cameos, making it catnip for cinéastes but maybe not solid enough for mainstream viewers. The thriller bones show through, making me want to see the material done a little more slickly and conventionally. But as personal filmmaking goes, it's fascinating.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin in Point Blank
Walker: Lee Marvin
Chris: Angie Dickinson
Mal Reese: John Vernon
Lynne: Sharon Acker
Yost: Keenan Wynn
Brewster: Carroll O'Connor
Frederick Carter: Lloyd Bochner
Stegman: Michael Strong
Hit Man: James Sikking

Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse
Based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake (as Richard Stark)
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Art direction: Albert Brenner, George W. Davis
Music: Johnny Mandel
Film editing: Henry Berman

Stoner noir. With its non-linear storytelling and audaciously post-realist tricks of style, Point Blank clearly shows the influence of the great French and Italian filmmakers of the 1960s, but even though its director was a Brit whose only previous non-documentary film was Having a Wild Weekend (1965), an attempt to do for the Dave Clark Five what A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1963) did for the Beatles, it's unquestionably an American movie. Its loner antihero, Walker, is straight out of American Westerns, and the two cities it shifts between, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are the American final frontier. That any studio, let alone MGM, would allow John Boorman and Lee Marvin to make Point Blank what it is -- an eccentric spin on a familiar genre -- shows how the Hollywood studio system had imploded. It's a film full of outrageous moments: Walker bursting into Lynne's apartment and emptying his revolver into an unoccupied bed. Walker fastening his seat belt -- in the days before shoulder belts and mandated buckling up -- and embarking on a one-car demolition derby with Stegman in the passenger seat. Walker dumping a naked Reese from a penthouse balcony. Chris pummeling an immovable Walker with her purse and her fists before collapsing in exhaustion. It has showoffy tricks: The pock pock pock pock of Walker's heels as he strides down an airport corridor, a sound that's carried over even after he's left the hallway. The often psychedelic color effects, like Chris's day-glo wardrobe or the closeup of the multicolored perfumes in the bottles that have shattered in the bathtub after Walker swept them from the shelves. Its plot stretches credibility to the breaking point: How did Walker survive being shot at, yes, point blank range and then get away from Alcatraz? This alone has served as the focus of countless attempts at interpretation: Is Walker a ghost? Or is what happens after he's shot the revenge fantasy of a dying man? In short, Point Blank is a glorious mess, made into an enduring work of fascination and puzzlement by wonderful performances, particularly by Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. Is it a great film or just an enduring cult movie? I tend to the latter view, but it's bloody fun in either case.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, August 7, 2017

Late Chrysanthemums (Mikio Naruse, 1954)

Haruko Sugimura in Late Chrysanthemums
Kin: Haruko Sugimura
Tomi: Yuko Mochizuki
Tamae: Chikako Hosokawa
Nobu: Sadako Sawamura
Kiyoshi: Hiroshi Koizuma
Sachkiko: Ineko Arima
Tabe: Ken Uehara
Seki: Bontaro Miake

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Sumie Tanaka, Toshiro Ide
Based on stories by Fumiko Hayashi
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Music: Ichiro Saito

In 1993, writer-director Nora Ephron satirized a prevailing male attitude toward "women's pictures" in Sleepless in Seattle. When the character played by Rita Wilson tears up while recounting the plot of An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey 1957), Tom Hanks's character dismisses the film as "a chick's movie," and he and Victor Garber's character mock her by bursting into tears while recalling the thoroughly macho ending of The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1957). Although Ephron's film had the downside of reinvigorating the old put-down phrase "chick flick," it also sent video sales and rentals of An Affair to Remember through the roof. The male-female audience split, and the willingness of filmmakers to cash in on it, dates from the days when there were movie theaters within walking distance of almost every neighborhood, and women who worked at home could take a break to watch a movie while the kids were in school. So the "matinee weepie" became a standard product of Hollywood studios, usually focusing on the problems women had with their families and their husbands -- or their lack of families and husbands. In Japan, however, women's problems were compounded by history and rapid social change: The institutions women had learned to adapt to before and during the war were being revolutionized. The constitution drafted during the occupation of Japan in 1946 went perhaps even further to establish the political and social equality of women with men than was common in the United States. The Japanese version of a "woman's picture," Mikio Naruse's Late Chrysanthemums, demonstrates both how liberating and how traumatizing this newfound equality could be for older women by focusing on four former geisha, now in late middle age, past the time when the one skill they had been trained in, pleasing men, could support them. One of the women, Nobu, has found stability by running a small restaurant. Another, Kin, had socked away the money she had earned and, never married, now lends money and invests in real estate. But Tomi and Tamae, each of whom now has a grown child but no husband, have had harder times. They share a house, but Tomi is addicted to gambling and Tamae is in poor health, which keeps her from earning what she could as a housekeeper in a hotel. Tomi is also upset that her daughter, Sachiko, who dresses in modern Western clothes, is marrying an older man, while Tamae frets first about the fact that her son, Kiyoshi, has a mistress and later that he has decided to move to Hokkaido. There's no real plot to Late Chrysanthemums, but instead a concentrated focus on characters and their reactions to a changing world. Kin, for example, is drawn back into the wartime past by the return of two men: Seki, with whom she was once so in love that they attempted a double suicide, and Tabe, an ex-soldier who was her patron. She spurns Seki, now a derelict ex-con, but eagerly receives the handsome Tabe, only to be disillusioned when it turns out that he only wants to borrow money and gets sloppily drunk. Haruko Sugimura, who was usually cast in rather vinegary roles, like a Japanese Agnes Moorehead, gives a performance of depth and understanding as Kin, but all of the film's performances are richly accomplished.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)

Walter Matthau and Audrey Hepburn in Charade
Peter Joshua: Cary Grant
Regina Lampert: Audrey Hepburn
Hamilton Bartholomew: Walter Matthau
Tex Panthollow: James Coburn
Herman Scobie: George Kennedy
Leopold W. Gideon: Ned Glass
Sylvie Gaudet: Dominique Minot
Inspector Grandpierre; Jacques Marin

Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Peter Stone, Marc Behm
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art direction: Jean d'Eaubonne
Music: Henry Mancini

Charade was dismissed in its day as a pleasant but derivative entertainment, with touches of Hitchcock and a bit of James Bond in the mix, a film that would be nothing without its star teaming of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. It would also inspire other star-teamed romantic adventures with one-word titles, like Warren Beatty and Susannah York in Kaleidoscope (Jack Smight, 1966) and Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in Gambit (Ronald Neame, 1966), and Charade's director, Stanley Donen, would even repeat the formula with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque (1966). But Charade has survived today as a classic when the others have mostly been forgotten. The star teaming has a lot to do with it, of course: Who doesn't want to see the two most charming people in the world together? Owing to Grant's genetic gift for looking much younger than he was, even the 25-year age difference between Grant and Hepburn only slightly tests the limits of what one can accept in a romantic pairing.* But the film also makes sly references to the difference in their ages, and wisely makes Hepburn's character into the more active one in initiating a relationship. Charade also has an exceptionally witty screenplay, with Peter Stone largely responsible for the final script from the story he and Mark Behm had been unable to sell to the studios until they turned it into a novel that was serialized in Redbook magazine. And it has a near-perfect supporting cast, including three actors at turning points in their careers: Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. All of them would move out of television and into the movies after Charade, and all three would win Oscars for their work. And in Stanley Donen it had a director whose lightness of touch had been honed in MGM musicals, including the greatest of them all, Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Watched on Showtime

*Compare, for example, the similar age gap between James Stewart and Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958). After that film, Stewart gave up playing romantic leads. Grant made much the same choice: Charade was his antepenultimate film: Although he would make one more, Father Goose (Ralph Nelson, 1964), that paired him with a younger actress, Leslie Caron, in his final film, Walk, Don't Run (Charles Walters, 1966), he was the older man who serves as matchmaker to young lovers -- a role that was based on the part played by Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (Chantal Akerman, 1978)


Anna Silver: Aurore Clément
Heinrich Schneider: Helmut Griem
Ida: Magali Noël
Hans: Hanns Zischler
Anna's mother: Lea Massari
Daniel: Jean-Pierre Cassel

Director: Chantal Akerman
Screenplay: Chantal Akerman
Cinematography: Jean Penzer

Storytelling is all about information -- what's disclosed and what's concealed, what's shared and what's withheld. It's a kind of tease: How much can you let an audience know and how can you keep them guessing? Usually, but not always, the first bit of information a storyteller gives the audience is a title -- what the story is about. Les Rendez-vous d'Anna is about as straightforward as a title gets: Chantal Akerman is about to tell us a story about someone named Anna and her meetings. Beyond that, it's a matter of waiting for more information. The film starts with a long take, carefully framed as Akerman's shots usually are, almost symmetrical, rigidly squared off: a railroad platform with an opening for stairs leading down to an Ausgang, an exit. There are train lines to the left and the right, and beyond the opening for the stairs there is a telephone booth in the center of the frame, though the placement of the telephone booth doesn't draw special attention to it -- we barely recognize it for what it is until it's in use. The platform is open, so that we can see a bit of the urban distance, but there are no people in sight. We wait, and wait, until finally we hear a train approaching. It pulls to a stop on our right, and soon people appear, apparently having descended from the train somewhere behind the camera, and begin to enter the stairwell. One person, a woman, detaches herself from the crowd and walks beyond the opening to the telephone booth where we see her, from a distance, make a call. The train leaves and soon she emerges from the booth and comes toward us, then turns and descends the stairs. And that's all the information you get in the first two or three minutes of the film. We don't even know where we are yet; we assume that it's a city in Germany, but it could also be Austria or Switzerland.

Akerman's films have sometimes been unfairly likened to "watching paint dry," mostly because she seems to feel no urgency to tell us the story. She leaves it to us to glean whatever we can from her long takes, not zooming in or cutting to closeups to give us a sense of what may be important in a scene. Eventually we will learn that the train station is in Cologne, Germany, and that the woman is Anna Silver, a filmmaker who has come there for the premiere of one of her films. We don't know whom she has called, but it's a good guess that it was to arrange one of her meetings, the first of which is with a German who goes back to her hotel with her after the screening. They make love, but Anna tells him she doesn't want to make the relationship more permanent. The next day, he says, is his daughter's birthday, and he wants Anna to visit his home, which he shares with his mother and his daughter. During the visit, he tells her about his life, about wartime hardships, about his wife's running away "with a Turk," and much else. (A good deal of the film's subtext concerns Europe in the recession-haunted late 1970s.) At the end of their meeting, we realize we know more about him than we do about Anna herself.

Aurore Clément plays Anna as an enigmatically dispassionate woman, someone whom people confide in almost as if they're filling the silence that surrounds her. Over the course of the film she spends almost as much time silently looking out of windows as she does in actual encounters with other people. She has four more "meetings" -- with one of her mother's friends, with a stranger she encounters on a train, with her own mother, and with a lover in Paris. By the end of the film we have learned only snippets of information about Anna, including the fact that she has had a relationship with a woman in Italy, whom she tries to call several times during the days she spends in Cologne and Brussels before her return to Paris, where she currently lives. Her life is a rootless one: In the last scene, she listens to the messages on her answering machine, one of which tells her that she has more meetings the following week in several cities in Switzerland.

The title is accurate: This is a film about meetings, none of them especially conclusive, and none resolving into anything of permanence. Les Rendez-vous d'Anna is, like Akerman's Je Tu Il Elle (1974) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), a test of a viewer's patience, of one's willingness to sort through the information presented and to assemble it into something that coheres. But also like them, it's a film that rewards the effort, by sharply reordering one's expectations of what a film can be, how it can illuminate the nature of ordinary exchanges with other people, how it draws attention to the mysteries of the self, and how it can linger in the memory more durably than less demanding ones.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Friday, August 4, 2017

La Promesse (Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1996)

Jérémie Renier in La Promesse
Igor: Jérémie Renier
Roger: Olivier Gourmet
Assita: Assita Ouedraogo
Hamidu: Rasmane Ouedraogo
The Garage Boss: Frédéric Bodson

Director: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenplay: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Cinematography: Alain Marcoen

La Promesse is one of those films in which you can see from the very beginning that things are not going to turn out well for any of its characters. But what keeps you going is the complete commitment and skill of its performers, especially 15-year-old Jérémie Renier, and the careful articulation of its moral conundrums by the Dardenne brothers. Renier plays Igor, who has left school to work as an apprentice garage mechanic, but is often in conflict with his boss because he keeps getting called away to assist his father, Roger, who is involved in the underground traffic in undocumented immigrants. Roger exploits the immigrants, many of whom come from Eastern Europe or from Africa, seeking work in the industrial towns of Belgium like Seraing, the Dardennes' home town. Roger provides slum housing and forged documents for the immigrants, and employs them illegally as construction workers on a house he's renovating. In addition to charging them exorbitantly for substandard lodging, he sometimes makes a little money by turning them in to corrupt immigration officials out to fill their quota. Igor doesn't have second thoughts about what his father does, and even seems to be something of a chip off the old block: He filches a wallet off the seat of a car he has just serviced and assures its owner that she must have lost it somewhere, then buries it in a vacant lot after cleaning out the cash. But one day he is called away from the garage -- the boss tells him not to come back after so many absences -- because Roger has just been warned that inspectors are coming to his illegal construction site. He speeds there on his motorbike to warn the workers, who include Hamidu, a man from Burkina Faso who has just been joined in Seraing by his wife and infant son. During the attempt to flee the site, Hamidu falls from the scaffold on which he has been working -- we don't see the fall but instead we see Igor discover the unconscious Hamidu lying beneath the scaffolding. When he sees that Hamidu is bleeding from his leg, Igor tries to make a tourniquet from his belt, but Roger arrives on the scene and snatches the belt away: Hamidu is too far gone, and taking him to the hospital would only expose Roger's illegal practices to the authorities. When Roger goes to find a place to hide the dying man, Hamidu wakes long enough to elicit from Igor a promise to look after his wife, Assita, and their child. With Igor's reluctant help, Roger buries Hamidu in cement on the construction site. But the promise he has made awakens Igor's conscience, and the film takes its course from there, as Igor tries to help Assita escape from the situation into which Hamidu's death, and Roger's attempts to cover it up, place her. The Dardennes build real suspense as the story progresses, but there is no deus ex machina to provide an unlikely happy ending. Only a kind of moment of clarity for Igor gives his and Assita's dilemma, with its disturbingly contemporary resonances, a faint glimmer of hope.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir, 1936)

Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet in The Lower Depths
Pépel: Jean Gabin
The Baron: Louis Jouvet
Vassilissa: Suzy Prim
Natasha: Junie Astor
Kostylev: Vladimir Sokoloff
Louka: René Génin
Nastia: Jany Holt
The Actor: Robert Le Vigan
The Police Inspector: André Gabriello
Felix: Léon Larive
Anna: Nathalie Alexeeff

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
Based on the play by Maxim Gorky
Cinematography: Fédote Bourgasoff

Jean Renoir's encompassing humanism might have seemed the right sensibility to apply to Maxim Gorky's play about society's castoffs, who live in a crowded flophouse. But Renoir can't avoid "opening up" the play, which takes place entirely in the dingy living quarters and presents the continual conflicts and squabbles among the inhabitants and their greedy landlord. He chooses to begin with the backstory of one of the inhabitants, a baron so addicted to gambling that he has lost his entire fortune. Pépel, a thief who pays his rent at the flophouse by letting the landlord serve as fence for the stolen goods, one night decides to rob the baron's house, unaware that the baron is bankrupt and the authorities are in the process of repossessing everything he owns. When the baron discovers Pépel robbing him, he just laughs and invites Pépel to sit down to supper. The two make friends over the misery of their lives, and the baron moves into the flophouse too. It's a scene of sophisticated comedy that starts the film far away from the madness of the play. Renoir also provides a kind of happy ending, in which Pépel, after serving time in prison for killing the landlord, hits the road with Natasha, the late landlord's sister-in-law -- a sharp contrast to the play's ending, an ironic moment in which news of the death of one of the inhabitants interrupts a raucous song. Renoir maintained that Gorky had approved of the screenplay, but the film was not released until December 1936 and Gorky died in June of that year, so his opinion of the completed film can't be known. The film is really a reinterpretation of the play in the light of the political turmoil of the mid-1930s in France and the struggle of the Popular Front against the fascists. If it's more Renoir than Gorky, it's still satisfying in large part because of the performances of Louis Jouvet as the baron and Jean Gabin as Pépel, an odd couple whose scenes together are the heart of the film. The ensemble is mostly terrific except for Junie Astor, whose limited range of expressions never brings Natasha to life, and whose pencil-line eyebrows seem out of place on the face of a character who has been bullied into being a scrubwoman in a flophouse. Inevitably, Renoir's The Lower Depths has been compared to Akira Kurosawa's 1957 version, which sticks much more closely to the play. Renoir himself thought Kurosawa's film "more important" than his, and I find it hard to argue otherwise, but it's nice to have two versions by two master filmmakers.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Collection 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Conflagration (Kon Ichikawa, 1958)

Tatsuya Nakadai and Raizo Ichikawa in Conflagration 
Goichi Mizoguchi: Raizo Ichikawa
Tokari: Tatsuya Nakadai
Tayama Dosen: Ganjiro Nakamura
Tsurukawa: Yoichi Funaki
Goichi's Mother: Tanie Kitabayashi
Goichi's Father: Jun Hamamura

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Kon Ichikawa, Notto Wada
Based on a novel by Yukio Mishima
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi

I haven't read the Yukio Mishima novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, on which Conflagration is based, but the film has the earmarks of an adaptation from a novel, including incidents, such as Goichi's vandalizing the sword of a naval cadet who mocked him, and such secondary characters as Tsurukawa, the fellow acolyte who befriends him, whose treatment feels truncated, as if their narrative and symbolic weight was greater in the book than Kon Ichikawa was able to give them in the film. But the fine performances of Raizo Ichikawa, Ganjiro Nakamura, and Tatsuya Nakadai help Conflagration succeed on its own. Ichikawa plays a young Buddhist acolyte, Goichi, whose stammer has made him an outcast, and whose troubled childhood only worsens his sense of alienation. Nakamura plays the head priest at a temple, who studied with Goichi's father and takes the young man in out of a sense of duty, eventually paying his way to the university. There, Goichi meets another outcast, Tokari, whose deformed leg has caused him to become bitter and cynical. Although Goichi retains his shyness and naïveté, the two bond as outcasts, with Tokari's darkly rebellious philosophy eventually infecting the young acolyte, provoking him to the destructive act that gives the film its title. Nakadai's intensity in the role gives the sometimes plodding narrative, with its flashbacks within flashbacks, a needed jolt.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)

Malgorzata Zabkowska and Jerzy Stuhr in Camera Buff
Filip Mosz: Jerzy Stuhr
Irka Mosz: Malgorzata Zabkowska
Anna Wlodarczyk: Ewa Pokas
The Director: Stefan Czyzewski
Osuch: Jerzy Nowak
Witek: Tadeusz Bradecki
Piotr: Marek Litewka
Warwzyniec: Tadeusz Rzepka

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Screenplay: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jerzy Stuhr
Cinematography: Jacek Petrycki
Music: Krzysztof Knittel

Film, said Jean-Luc Godard, is "truth 24 times a second." But as Oscar Wilde put it, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple," which is the problem amateur filmmaker Filip Mosz runs into when he begins to devote his life to making movies. Filip, a purchasing agent for a state-run factory in the Polish town of Wielice, buys a Russian-made 8mm camera when his first child is born. His wife, Irka, is not entirely thrilled by the purchase, which cost him two months' salary, and she grows even more disenchanted when he devotes more and more time to his new hobby. Filming his new daughter takes up less and less of his time after the director of the factory says he will buy film for Filip if he will make a documentary about an anniversary celebration of the factory's founding, at which numerous Communist Party higher-ups will be present. Filip throws himself whole-heartedly into the project, going to movies more often and reading film books to pick up tips about filmmaking technique. When the director sees the film he makes some suggestions for cuts: Don't show the bigwigs slipping out of the meeting to go to the bathroom, for example, and what's with all the insert shots of pigeons? And then Anna, a pretty representative of the state film commission, shows up to suggest that Filip enter his movie in a festival celebrating industrial filmmaking. This only adds fuel to Irka's jealousy of Filip's avocation. Filip takes third prize at the festival -- after a judge proclaims that none of the films entered deserved a first prize -- and attracts the notice of a TV station in Krakow, which is interested in news footage from Wielice. As Filip's filmmaking career snowballs, however, so do his troubles: The neglected Irka leaves him, and the director informs him that the footage he has sent to the TV station, revealing that renovation funds for the town have been misused, has caused some projects, like a nursery school, to be canceled, and that he has had to fire some of Filip's fellow workers. Camera Buff is clearly a fable, about the compulsiveness that drives and sometimes destroys artists, as well as a rather oblique satire on the dreariness of Polish life under communist rule. At the end of the film, Filip is reduced to filming perhaps the only thing he can be sure of: himself.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Monday, July 31, 2017

Odd Obsession (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

Tatsuya Nakadai in Odd Obsession 
Ikuko Kenmochi: Machiko Kyo
Kenji Kenmochi: Ganjiro Nakamura
Toshiko Kenmochi: Junko Kano
Kimura: Tatsuya Nakadai
Hana: Tanie Kitabayashi
Masseur: Ichiro Sugai
Dr. Kodama: Mantaro Ushio
Dr. Soma: Jun Hamamura

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Kon Ichikawa, Notto Wada
Based on a novel by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Yasushi Akutagawa

As with so many foreign-language films, the English title Odd Obsession seems to miss the mark a little, but the Japanese title, Kagi, which means "The Key," also seems a little off-target, even though it was taken from the novel on which the film was based. If I were retitling it, I'd call the film something like "The Jealousy Cure," which is not only in keeping with the plot but is also supported by the way the film opens, as if presenting a case study: We see a man in a physician's white coat standing before an anatomy chart, speaking directly at the camera. He describes the various effects of aging on the body before turning away to enter the action of the scene. We learn that he is Kimura, an intern in the clinic of Dr. Soma, who is treating a post-middle-aged man, Kenji Kenmochi, for sexual dysfunction. The doctor advises Kenji that the injections he has been giving him are probably ineffective, and that he should try to find other ways of dealing with the problem. Kimura has also been dating Kenji's daughter, Toshiko, and he has let slip to her that her father is seeing Dr. Soma. She passes the information along to her mother, Ikuko, whom we then see visiting Dr. Soma to find out if there is something she can do for her husband. It's an awkward encounter: Ikuko is rather embarrassed by the subject of their sex life, but she resolves to do what she can to help. Kenji then discovers that his libido is stirred by the thought of anyone having sex with his much younger wife, and when Kimura comes to dinner, Kenji begins to plot ways of bringing his wife and the young and handsome intern together. As Kimura and Ikuko begin an affair -- the key from the Japanese title is the one she gives Kimura to the back gate -- Kenji's sex drive reawakens, with the added consequence of dangerously elevating his blood pressure. Odd Obsession is not so much a case study, however, as an ironic dark comedy, one in which the follies of the various characters lead to what might be a tragic conclusion if viewed from another angle than the one Ichikawa chooses. It's also a showcase for the versatility of Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiko Kyo, who reteamed seven years later for the more serious The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966). I think Ichikawa is a little too interested in "trying things out," such as the opening segue from breaking the fourth wall into starting the action of the film, or the freeze frames that interrupt the action in the opening section, tricks that don't feel consistent with the rest of Odd Obsession.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir, 1936)

René Lefèvre in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange
Amédée Lange: René Lefèvre
Valentine: Florelle
Batala: Jules Berry
The Concierge: Marcel Lévesque
The Concierge's Wife: Odette Talazac
Meunier's Son: Henri Guisol
Charles: Maurice Baquet
Edith: Sylvia Bataille
Estelle: Nadia Sibirskaia

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Castanier, Jacques Prévert, Jean Renoir
Cinematography: Jean Bachelet

M. Lange's crime is murder, and he gets away with it. This droll dark comedy is a vehicle for Jean Renoir's anti-fascist politics, and to enjoy it to the fullest you probably have to have been there -- "there" being Europe in 1936. But it still resonates 80-plus years later with its story of a little guy exploited by a venal fat cat. Lange, who writes adventure stories about "Arizona Jim" in the wild West, works for a greedy, corrupt publisher named Batala, who not only stiffs him on a contract to publish the stories, but also inserts advertising plugs into the story itself, making Arizona Jim pause to pop one of the sponsor's pills before launching into action. Batala is also a shameless womanizer who impregnates Estelle, the girlfriend of Charles, the bicycle messenger who works for him. (In a rather cold-hearted twist you probably won't see in movies today, everyone rejoices when the baby dies.) Fleeing from his creditors, Batala reportedly dies in a train wreck, and to salvage their jobs, his employees, encouraged by Meunier, the son of Batala's chief creditor, form a cooperative to run the publishing company. It's a huge success, with Lange's stories becoming incredibly popular -- so much so that a film company wants to buy the rights to make an Arizona Jim movie. Unfortunately, Lange doesn't own the rights, as Batala reveals when he turns up very much alive, disguised as a priest who happened to be standing by him during the crash. When Batala begins demonstrating his old ways, including making a play for all the available women in the company as well as asserting his rights to Arizona Jim and the profits it has made, Lange shoots him, then flees with his girlfriend Valentine. Aided by Meunier, they reach an inn near the border -- which one isn't specified -- where, while Lange rests up, Valentine tells his story and leaves it up to the people at the inn whether they will turn him in. There's some famously show-offy camerawork from cinematographer Jean Bachelet, but the real energy of the film comes from Renoir's company of vivid, talkative characters, whose chatter and whose relationships unfold so rapidly that you may want to see the film twice to appreciate them. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is second-tier Renoir but, with its genuine affection for human beings, it's better than most directors' top-tier work.

Watched on Filmstruck

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Romeo + Juliet
Romeo: Leonardo DiCaprio
Juliet: Claire Danes
Tybalt: John Leguizamo
Mercutio: Harold Perrineau
Father Laurence: Pete Postlethwaite
Fulgencio Capulet: Paul Sorvino
Ted Montague: Brian Dennehy
Dave Paris: Paul Rudd
Capt. Prince: Vondie Curtis-Hall
The Nurse: Miriam Margolyes
Apothecary: M. Emmet Walsh
Gloria Capulet: Diane Venora
Caroline Montague: Christina Pickles

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann
Based on a play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Production design: Catherine Martin
Costume design: Kym Barrett

Roger Ebert hated it: "I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that this new punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes of Shakespeare's tragedy." But I kind of love it, and something tells me that Shakespeare would. After all, he wrote for a very mixed audience, ranging from people who admired lyric poetry to people who just wanted a little action, a little bawdry, and perhaps a good cry. Baz Luhrmann's version is Shakespeare for the multiplex. But Ebert makes a good point when he says "the movie lacks the nerve to cut entirely adrift from its literary roots." The problem with Romeo + Juliet (no, I don't know why the plus sign rather than "and" or ampersand) is Shakespeare: The text and the theatricality keep getting in the way of Luhrmann's cinematic impulses. He constantly has to work around the demands of Shakespeare's dialogue. Sometimes the workarounds are witty: I like the replacement of the prologue with a TV newscast, the change of the peacekeeping Prince Escalus to a cop called Capt. Prince, even the placement of Paris on the cover of Time as "Bachelor of the Year" -- though why wasn't he on People's cover as the "Sexiest Man Alive"? Even the change in weaponry is nicely handled: Obviously, contemporary gangbangers have to carry guns, and not the weapons specified in Shakespeare's dialogue, so instead of Colt and Glock, their guns have brand names like Sword, Dagger, and Rapier. There is also some wit in the performances: I particularly like the reimagining of Juliet's mother, whom Diane Venora plays as an aging trophy wife, not above doing a little flirting with Paris, her intended son-in-law. Harold Perrineau's portrayal of Mercutio as a drag queen also makes a good deal of sense, given the flamboyance of the character in the play. On the other hand, I don't know why we first see Father (not Friar) Laurence shirtless, delivering a botany lecture to some choir boys. Priestly pederasty was beginning to make headlines when the film was made, but a hint at Father Laurence's predilections doesn't seem relevant to his function in the story. On the whole, the film is best when it's full of action, drawing on the kind of energy that Luhrmann is known for, and it tends to sag in the love scenes. So maybe Romeo + Juliet is a mess, but it's an entertaining one -- and haven't we seen enough productions of the play that weren't?

Watched on Starz Encore Classics

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)

Barbara Sukowa in Lola
Lola: Barbara Sukowa
Von Bohm: Armin Mueller-Stahl
Schuckert: Mario Adorf
Esslin: Matthias Fuchs
Fräulein Hettich: Helga Feddersen
Lola's Mother: Karin Baal
Frau Schuckert: Rosel Zech

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Pea Fröhlich, Peter Märtesheimer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Production design: Raúl Gimenez, Rolf Zehetbauer
Costume design: Barbara Baum, Egon Strasser

A key part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's trilogy of films satirizing the manners, morals, and excesses of the Wirtschaftswunder, Lola is a conscious updating of Josef von Sternberg's 1930 classic The Blue Angel, in which a cabaret singer (read: prostitute) leads a schoolteacher into self-destruction. But in this case, Lola leads a conscientious public official, the new building commissioner in a West German town, into compromising his principles, its own kind of self-destruction. Filmed in retina-traumatizing color, with sets and costumes that plunge into the very heart of kitsch, Lola almost makes the Sirkian melodrama of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and the camp excesses of Veronika Voss (1982), the other films in the trilogy, look tame. It is, perhaps, too obviously a political and social fable about corrupt times -- the late 1950s, anything-goes period in the German economy -- to the extent that neither of its supposed principals, Lola and Von Bohm, seem fully realized characters: Their motives shift with the exigencies of the plot. The one really well-drawn character in the film is the scheming, amoral Schuckert, who exploits everyone, especially Lola, for his own advantage. But to ask for anything so inhibiting as consistency from Fassbinder is to diminish his unmatched ability to amaze.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Lovers (Louis Malle, 1958)

Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Marc Bory in The Lovers
Jeanne Tournier: Jeanne Moreau
Bernard Dubois-Lambert: Jean-Marc Bory
Henri Tournier: Alain Cuny
Maggy Thiebaud-Leroy: Judith Magre
Raoul Florès: José Luis de Villalonga
Coudray: Gaston Modot

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louise de Vilmorin
Based on a novel by Dominique Vivant
Cinematography: Henri Decaë

Anna Karenina without the train. That's one way of looking at Louis Malle's once-scandalous but now somewhat tepid The Lovers. That seems to be the way the German censors saw it: a story about a woman who abandons not only her husband but also her child, and seemingly gets away with it. In the German release, the scenes involving Jeanne Tournier's daughter were cut, as if the idea of a mother leaving so adorable a child was too horrible for audiences to contemplate. In the United States, of course, it was the depiction of sex -- not "cutting away to the window" as Malle once described the traditional approach to sex scenes -- that caused the censors to draw their knives. The result was the Supreme Court decision that The Lovers didn't fit Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." He didn't, and it isn't: What we see in the scene are a briefly flashed nipple and the look on Jeanne's face as Bernard brings her to orgasm. Even the fact that she is being pleasured orally by him is only implied by his absence in the frame. The Lovers is more satiric than erotic, its targets the stale marriages and pro forma affairs of an haute bourgeoisie obsessed with hairstyles and polo games. Malle attempts to contrast the sterile dalliances of the idle rich with the more spontaneous relationship between Jeanne and Bernard, a casually dressed archaeologist who drives a clunky tin-can Citroën, but the film gets a little too formulaic, especially in the lushly romantic moonlight stroll and boat ride that serves as foreplay to the consummation of their affair. He switches back to irony at the end: Jeanne and Bernard escape together under the astonished gaze of her husband and her other lover, but we sense their uncertainty about whether it will work, anticipating the way Mike Nichols tempered romance with reality by holding the camera just a little bit too long on Benjamin and Elaine after they escape from the church in The Graduate (1967). Maybe we don't see the train but we hear it approaching.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949)

Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead
Howard Roark: Gary Cooper
Dominique Francon: Patricia Neal
Gail Wynand: Raymond Massey
Ellsworth M. Toohey: Robert Douglas
Peter Keating: Kent Smith
Henry Cameron: Henry Hull
Roger Enright: Ray Collins

Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Ayn Rand
Based on a novel by Ayn Rand
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Max Steiner

Ayn Rand, proponent of a "philosophy" beloved of 20-year-old frat-boy business majors, is still very much with us, as the would-be Randian Übermensch currently inhabiting the White House too well demonstrates. So it's probably worth brushing up on the ideas that seem to captivate perpetual adolescents and sociopaths. Fortunately, you don't have to slog through her doorstop novels to get the gist: All you have to do is watch The Fountainhead, for which she wrote the screenplay. Its sociopath hero, Howard Roark, would be intolerable if he weren't played by Gary Cooper, taking on a role that is a curious inversion of the "common man" he played for Frank Capra in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) or the pawn of the Establishment in Meet John Doe (1941). Cooper's occasional eye twinkles or wry smiles help keep us from believing that he's really the kind of arrogant shit who says things like "I don't give or ask for help" or "The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing." As Dominique Francon, Patricia Neal does a lot of seething and surging about; it's not a good performance by a long shot, but it's watchable. But Raymond Massey manages to give an almost good performance, even when forced to deliver lines like: "What I want to find in our marriage will remain my own concern. I exact no promises and impose no obligations. Incidentally, since it is of no importance to you, I love you." Was ever woman in this humor wooed? The real saving grace of The Fountainhead, however, is its director, King Vidor, whose career began and flourished in the silent era, with classics like The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928), which honed his visual sense before he had to work with dialogue. If The Fountainhead had been a silent movie, not cluttered with Rand's dialogue and sermonizing, it might have been a classic itself, especially since it had a first-rate cinematographer in Robert Burks and a clever set designer in Edward Carrere. Max Steiner's overbearing score also helps distract us from the clanking and clattering of Rand's screenplay. The Fountainhead, in short, is a hoot, but a perversely fascinating one.

Watched on Filmstruck

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963)

Maurice Ronet in The Fire Within
Alain Leroy: Maurice Ronet
Lydia: Léna Skerla
Dubourg: Bernard Noël
Eva: Jeanne Moreau
Solange: Alexandra Stewart

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle
Based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
Cinematography: Ghislain Cloquet
Production design: Bernard Evein
Film editing: Suzanne Baron

The Fire Within seems an ironic title for a film about a man whose internal fire has become so low that he plans to, well, snuff it. The French title is Le Feu Follet, which means "will o' the wisp," proverbially "something just out of reach." The thing out of reach for Alain Leroy, a recovering alcoholic whose stay in a clinic has been so effective that his doctor thinks he should go home, is any reason to go on living. Estranged from his wife, who now lives in the United States, he searches for the elusive raison d'être in sex, work, family life, drugs, politics, society, and a return to alcohol, but the quest ends in failure. It's the midlife crisis writ large, but what saves Louis Malle's film from slumping into yet another ennuyant portrait of ennui is the keenly internalized performance of Maurice Ronet as Alain as well as the perverse vitality of the world he is seeking to leave: i.e., Paris in the early 1960s. Malle's vision, in tandem with Ghislain Cloquet's rich black-and-white cinematography, gives us a milieu that presents almost too many reasons to stay alive, so that the problem -- Camus's familiar "one really serious philosophical problem" of suicide -- remains centered in Alain himself. The film crackles with the tension between the world as Alain sees it and the world we see through Malle's eyes.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016)

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna in Rogue One
Jyn Erso: Felicity Jones
Cassian Andor: Diego Luna
Galen Erso: Mads Mikkelsen
Saw Gerrera: Forest Whitaker
Bodhi Rook: Riz Ahmed
K-2SO: Alan Tudyk (voice)
Chirrut Îmwe: Donnie Yen
Baze Malbus: Wen Jiang
Orson Krennic: Ben Mendelsohn
Governor Tarkin: Guy Henry
Bail Organa: Jimmy Smits

Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy, John Knoll, Gary Whitta
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Production design: Doug Chiang, Neil Lamont
Music: Michael Giacchino

It takes a lot of work (and money) to sustain a myth. Rogue One, the first of the standalone (i.e., not an official Star Wars episode) films based on George Lucas's corpus of myth about a galaxy far away and a long time ago, doesn't really stand alone. It's there to plug a hole in the larger Star Wars narrative: How could the Empire have been so careless as to leave a critical vulnerability in the Death Star, so that Luke Skywalker could take advantage of it as easily as he used to bullseye womp rats in his T-16? It was, of course, an inside job, a bit of sabotage by an engineer named Galen Erso. So what we have in Rogue One is essentially Star Wars: Episode 3.5. I've got no problem with that, except that it hardly seems worth two hours and 13 minutes or $200 million to fill a plot gap. It also feels like a waste of a splendidly capable cast to create vivid and heroic characters only to kill them all off by the end of the movie. Or to reanimate (literally) an actor who died in 1994 to give the illusion of continuity between films: If we can accept that James Bond can be played by many actors, or that the entire crew of the Starship Enterprise can be "rebooted" for a new series of Star Trek films, why shouldn't we accept that someone other than Peter Cushing could play Grand Moff (here he's just a general) Tarkin? There's something macabre about superimposing a dead man's face on a live actor's, and I hope Guy Henry got paid well for playing Tarkin from the neck down. These objections aside, Rogue One is a well-played war movie, with just enough resemblance to real wars to make it somewhat unsettling: The scenes in the capital of Jedha have an eerie similarity to recent news footage coming out of cities in Syria and Iraq, and the combat in tropical Scarif evokes any number of war movies set in Vietnam or in the South Pacific during World War II. In fact, Rogue One may be the most visceral and depressing film in the Star Wars canon.

Watched on Netflix

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)

John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich
Craig Schwartz: John Cusack
John Horatio Malkovich: John Malkovich
Lotte Schwartz: Cameron Diaz
Maxine Lund: Catherine Keener
Dr. Lester: Orson Bean
Floris: Mary Kay Place
Charlie: Charlie Sheen

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Production design: K.K. Barrett
Music: Carter Burwell

I find it interesting that David Fincher has a cameo -- as the critic Christopher Bing in the documentary about Malkovich's puppeteering career -- in Being John Malkovich, because Fincher and Spike Jonze seem to me to represent two distinct career paths in contemporary filmmaking. Both came out of the heyday of music videos, with their quirky and extravagant special effects and camera tricks, but Fincher has followed a more "commercial" direction with adaptations of bestselling novels like Gone Girl (2014) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). His films are fine ones, with professional polish and careful attention to storytelling. He seems to me a major director who subsumes himself into the material, the way such classic studio-era directors as William Wyler and George Cukor did. Jonze, however, has steered a steady course into the offbeat and personal through his four features. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and Her (2013) are all marked by an irrepressibly eccentric imagination, an ability to think things not often thought, to imagine the impossible and make it plausible. The collaboration with the similar sensibility of Charlie Kaufman on the first two films suggested that the writer had the imagination and the director the skill to visualize it, but Jonze's later films show him to be a great assimilator, able to merge the ideas of his writers and the interpretations of his actors into a special and unique whole. Being John Malkovich plays with its themes of power and sexuality brilliantly. Jonze and Kaufman affirm the value of a hungry imagination with their special insights into the way we are all striving to transcend the limitations imposed by consciousness confined in a body. We probably wouldn't choose to be John Malkovich, but the possibility of escaping into someone else, even for only 15 minutes, tantalizes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995)

Leon Lai and Karen Mok in Fallen Angels
Wong Chi-ming / Killer: Leon Lai
The Killer's Agent: Michelle Reis
Ho Chi-mo / He Zhiwu: Takeshi Kaneshiro
Charlie / Cherry: Charlie Yeung
Punkie / Blondie / Baby: Karen Mok
Ho Chi-mo's Father: Chan Man-lei

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Production design: William Chang

Feverish, fascinating, and violently funny, Fallen Angels is a kind of companion piece to Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994), sharing some of the same setting and, in a very different role, the actor Takeshi Kaneshiro. I'm not steeped enough in Asian pop culture to appreciate it as fully as some, but I found its frantic camera tricks and frequently over-the-top acting somewhere between tiring and tonic. I'm glad I saw it, but I'm more glad that Wong showed us that he could move on from the frenzied youth culture of these early films to the mature brilliance of In the Mood for Love (2000).

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2001)

Katherine Borowitz in The Man Who Wasn't There
Ed Crane: Billy Bob Thornton
Doris Crane: Frances McDormand
Frank: Michael Badalucco
Big Dave Brewster: James Gandolfini
Ann Nirdlinger Brewster: Katherine Borowitz
Creighton Tolliver: Jon Polito
Freddy Riedenschneider: Tony Shalhoub
Birdy Abundas: Scarlett Johansson
Walter Abundas: Richard Jenkins

Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Production design: Dennis Gassner
Music: Carter Burwell

The Man Who Wasn't There is a bit like a Twilight Zone episode written by James M. Cain. A barber works in a shop owned by his wife's brother. She has been unfaithful to him with her boss, so when a get-rich scheme is proposed to him, the barber tries to blackmail his wife's lover. Nothing goes quite right, however, and after calamity succeeds calamity, the barber is presented with what appears to be a solution to his problems. It comes, however, from a UFO that hovers overhead, and he rejects it. Perhaps only Joel and Ethan Coen could have accomplished this fusion of film noir and sci-fi with quite the success they achieve, thanks largely to a superb cast, the extraordinary black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins, and a score by Carter Burwell that blends unobtrusively with some melancholy-meditative excerpts from Beethoven's piano sonatas.

Watched on Starz Encore