A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Marketa Lazarová (Frantisek Vlácil, 1967)

Magda Vásáryová in Marketa Lasarová 
Kozlik: Josef Kemr
Marketa Lazarová: Magda Vásáryová
Mikolás: Frantisek Velecký
Adam: Ivan Palúch
Alexandra: Pavla Polásková
Lazar: Michal Kozuch
Old Count Kristián: Harry Studt
Young Count Kristián: Vlastimil Harapes
Captain "Beer": Zdenek Kryzánek
Bernard: Vladimir Mensik
Sovicka: Zdenek Rehor

Director: Frantisek Vlácil
Screenplay: Frantisek Pavlícek, Frantisek Vlácil
Based on a novel by Vladislav Vancura
Cinematography: Bedrich Batka
Art direction: Oldrich Okác
Film editing: Miroslav Hájek
Music: Zdenek Liska

I am grateful to Tom Gunning's Criterion Collection essay on Marketa Lazarová not only for the many insights into the film, including a concise summary of the story it tells, but also for citing another film scholar's comparison of it to Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966). My viewing of Frantisek Vlácil's film was very much like my first viewing of Tarkovsky's: It left me with a feeling that I had seen something extraordinary that I didn't quite understand. I've seen Andre Rublev again, and while I can't say I understand it, I recognize it as the extraordinary cinema masterpiece that it is. It's entirely possible that another viewing of Marketa Lazarová might leave me with a similar impression. Both films are immersive experiences, throwing the viewers into an era strange to them and giving them only a few guideposts to help them sort out even such matters as who's doing what to whom and why. Marketa Lazarová has been voted the greatest Czech film by Czech critics and filmmakers, and I have no doubt that it deserves the accolade. But it will take me another viewing simply to get my bearings on it. It's beautifully filmed, and it does some daring things with sound -- the voices were dubbed later, sometimes with actors other than the ones we see on screen. Every film in a language foreign to me is a cultural challenge, though one I welcome, so much kudos to TCM for programming Marketa Lazarová.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)

Lillian Gish in The Wind
Letty: Lillian Gish
Lige: Lars Hanson
Roddy: Montagu Love
Cora: Dorothy Cumming
Beverly: Edward Earle
Sourdough: William Orlamond

Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Frances Marion
Based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough
Cinematography: John Arnold
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Withers
Film editing: Conrad A. Nervig

In the introduction to the 1983 video release of The Wind, produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, Lillian Gish says that she and director Victor Sjöström (credited as "Seastrom" in his Hollywood years) argued for a downer ending to the film in which Letty, driven mad by the wind after she shoots Roddy, who has raped her, walks out into the whirling sandstorm to die. But Irving Thalberg, MGM's production head, insisted on the extant "happy ending," worried that their ending would hurt the film at the box office, with audiences already rejecting silent movies after the arrival of sound. It makes a good story, a fable about art vs. commerce. But as a friend of mine discovered when he interviewed Gish extensively about her work with D.W. Griffith, she was not always a terribly reliable source, given to telling stories long on color but short on accuracy. And I have to think that Thalberg was right about the ending of The Wind, not just because of its commercial value, but also because the concluding reconciliation of Letty and Lige feels consistent with the melodramatic story. As I've said before, drama should make you think, melodrama should make you feel. And in the absence of any real ideas to think about in The Wind, feeling bummed about the bleakness of the ending Gish and Sjöström proposed hardly makes for a satisfactory melodrama. The Wind has been hailed as a masterpiece, which I think it falls just short of being, largely because it becomes a one-woman show for Gish. She is superb, of course, but she's virtually the only character in the film with any dimensions: Roddy is a mustached rotter; Lige is a rural goof with a cornpone sidekick named Sourdough; Cora is a shrew and Beverly is a wimp. So we spend the film's 79 minutes watching Gish suffer brilliantly, responding in wholly affecting ways to the hopelessness of her life with a man she doesn't love, the bleakness of the landscape, and the constant torment of the wind. It's Gish as a grownup version of the waif she so often played for Griffith. But the film needs another substantial character: Lars Hanson is good so far as his role goes, but the screenplay stints on giving Lige a convincing character arc, from goof to spurned husband and finally to romantic hero. It's Letty who does all the heroic stuff, including shooting Roddy and trying to bury his corpse, so the reconciliation at the end, with both of them facing the wind, feels awfully one-sided. We may celebrate this as a tribute to the strong woman, but on the other hand it also feels like the wife submitting to duty to her husband.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

Al Pacino in Scarface
Tony Montana: Al Pacino
Manny Ribera: Steven Bauer
Elvira Hancock: Michelle Pfeiffer
Gina Montana: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Frank Lopez: Robert Loggia
Mama Montana: Miriam Colon
Omar Suarez: F. Murray Abraham
Alejandro Sosa: Paul Shenar
Mel Bernstein: Harris Yulin

Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Oliver Stone
Based on a screenplay by Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett adapted from a novel by Armitage Trail
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Art direction: Edward Richardson
Film editing: Gerald B. Greenberg, David Ray
Music: Giorgio Moroder

Brian De Palma's Scarface ends with a dedication of the film to Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht, the director of and the author of the story for the 1932 Scarface. As well it might, for De Palma's film and Oliver Stone's screenplay follow the outlined action and many of the characters of the earlier film far more closely than many remakes do. Most of the major characters have counterparts in the 1932 film: the Italian Tony Camonte becomes the Cuban Tony Montana; the first Tony's best friend, Guino Rinaldo, becomes Manny Ribera; Tony's sister, Cesca, becomes Gina; his boss Johnny Lovo's mistress, Poppy, becomes Tony Montana's boss Frank Lopez's mistress, Elvira. Both Mama Camonte and Mama Montana are sternly disapproving presences, and the appropriate characters are bumped off in more or less the same sequence and circumstances as in the earlier film. Because of the relaxation of censorship, there's a little heightening of some subtext from the first film: Gina taunts Tony Montana with having incestuous feelings for her more explicitly than Cesca ever dares with Tony Camonte. And although the earlier film was thought to be excessively violent, the remake goes boldly where it didn't dare, starting with a chainsaw murder and ending with a veritable orgy of gunfire, including that of Tony's "little friend," a grenade launcher. The violence of De Palma's film first earned it an X rating, which was bargained down to an R after some suggested cuts -- although De Palma has claimed that he actually released the film without the cuts, and no one noticed. The remake's violence also turned off many of the critics, although it received a strong thumbs up from Roger Ebert. Since then, of course, the movie has become a cult classic, and more people have seen the remake than have ever seen the original. Which is a shame, because the original, despite some occasional slack pacing and the inevitable antique feeling that lingers in even pre-Production Code movies, is a genuine classic, while De Palma's version feels like a rather studied attempt to go over the top. Screenwriter Stone was never noted for subtlety, and while Al Pacino is one of the great movie actors, De Palma lets him venture into self-caricature, especially with what might be called his Cubanoid accent. On the other hand, Steven Bauer -- who was born in Cuba and sounds nothing like Pacino's Tony -- is a more appealing sidekick than George Raft was, and Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of her first major film roles, makes a good deal more of Elvira than Karen Morley did of Poppy, even though Pfeiffer is asked to do little more than look beautifully sullen and bored throughout the film. Scarface is at best a trash classic, a movie whose impact is stronger than one wants it to be. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

Hugo Cabret: Asa Butterfield
Georges Méliès: Ben Kingsley
Isabelle: Chloë Grace Moretz
Station Inspector: Sacha Baron Cohen
Mama Jeanne: Helen McCrory
Rene Tabard: Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Claude: Ray Winstone
Lisette: Emily Mortimer
Monsieur Labisse: Christopher Lee
Madame Emilie: Frances de la Tour
Monsieur Frick: Richard Griffiths
Hugo's Father: Jude Law

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: John Logan
Based on a novel by Brian Selznick
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Production design: Dante Ferretti
Film editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Costume design: Sandy Powell
Music: Howard Shore

Martin Scorsese's fantastical tribute to pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès begins with a spectacular traveling shot, a combination of CGI and live action, sweeping across Paris and into the Gare Montparnasse until it finishes on a shot of young Hugo Cabret in the clock tower. Normally, I feel that too much CGI robs a movie of its grounding in reality, drawing attention to itself at the expense of characters and story. But on the other hand, who can really doubt that if computer graphics had been available to Georges Méliès, he wouldn't have done something similarly amazing with them, the way he relied on papier-mâché, cardboard, flash powder, and whatever camera tricks he could muster? One of the great delights of Hugo is its re-creations of parts of Méliès's movies, particularly from the behind-the-scenes angle. It's a charming film, perhaps a little overloaded with effects, but Scorsese has a light touch with the story and he has a cast equal to the task of standing up to the computer trickery. A few critics demurred, finding the special effects oppressive, especially in the 3-D version, but on the whole the reviews were raves. It also won Oscars not only for the effects but also for cinematography, art direction, and sound mixing and editing, and was nominated for best picture, director, screenplay, film editing, costumes, and musical score. It seems to me a much better film than the year's best picture winner, The Artist (Michel Haznavicius), coincidentally a movie set in a significant moment in film history. Yet it was a major box-office flop, which may have shadowed its chances at the awards.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Annotated Pauline Kael¹: Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy
Annie Laurie Starr: Peggy Cummins
Barton Tare: John Dall
Packett: Berry Kroeger
Judge Willoughby: Morris Carnovsky
Ruby Tare Flagler: Anabel Shaw
Clyde Boston: Harry Lewis
Dave Allister: Nedrick Young
Bart Tare (age 14): Russ Tamblyn
Bluey-Bluey: Stanley Prager
Miss Wynn: Virginia Farmer
Miss Augustine Sifert: Anne O'Neal

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Dalton Trumbo (credited to Millard Kaufman)
Based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Production design: Gordon Wiles
Film editing: Harry W. Gerstad
Music: Victor Young

Gun Crazy   Originally called Deadly Is the Female. (1949)² -- Peggy Cummins and John Dall in a tawdry³ version of the Bonnie and Clyde⁴ story. Cummins is a really mean broad,⁵ whose partner is her desperately eager victim.⁶ In its B-picture way, it has a fascinating crumminess.⁷ With Morris Carnovsky, Berry Kroeger, Annabelle Shaw, and Don Beddoe.⁸ Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, from a screenplay based on MacKinlay Kantor's SatEvePost story, and credited to Kantor and Millard Kaufman. Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted at the time, later revealed that he wrote the script and persuaded Kaufman to let his name be used. Produced by Frank and Maurice King; released by United Artists. b & w 
-- from 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1982
¹From time to time, maybe, I thought it might be fun to break format and reprint some of Pauline Kael's reviews as a basis for my own reactions to specific movies I've just watched. Why Kael? Because she's still synonymous with film criticism from her heyday as the New Yorker's chief film critic in the 1970s and '80s. Some of her critiques no longer seem on point -- I don't value Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975) or Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) nearly as highly as she does, and I think more highly of "art-house" directors like Michelangelo Antonioni than she does -- but they are always provocative even when dated.

²It was made in the spring of 1949 but not released until January 1950.

³I wouldn't call Gun Crazy "tawdry" in any sense of the word. Its production values are solid: Russell Harlan was a first-rate cinematographer, with six Oscar nominations (though no wins); film editor Harry W. Gerstad won his first Oscar in 1950 for Champion (Mark Robson, 1949) and another for High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952); and composer Victor Young was nominated 19 times and won (posthumously) for Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson, 1956). Even when it ventures into sleazy locations like the carnival where Bart meets Laurie, the sleaze is kept to a minimum.

⁴An obvious comparison after the 1967 Arthur Penn film, though there's not much evidence that anyone connected with that movie had seen Gun Crazy, which fell into obscurity until auteurist critics discovered it.

⁵Granted, she's a killer, which Bart isn't, but as "mean broads" go, Laurie is really something of a softie: She stands by her man even after their initial decision to go their separate ways after the meat-packing plant robbery, and she could have ditched Bart at any time.

⁶Yes, this description of Bart works, even though I don't think John Dall and the screenwriters put together a wholly convincing character. Would any guy who had gone through reform school and the army really be so naïve as to fall so hard for a carnival dame, no matter if she looks like Peggy Cummins? The problem lies mainly in the simplistic psychology of Bart's gun craziness: He loves them but doesn't realize what they're really for other than shooting at bottles and tin cans. You'd think he'd be smart enough to realize that armed robbery is going to to lead to someone's getting hurt.

⁷Kael was never impressed with film technique as such, which is what so many of us find fascinating about Gun Crazy. It makes brilliant use of locations like the Armour meat-packing plant (actually in Los Angeles, not Albuquerque), and the long take, shot from the back seat of the car, in which Laurie distracts a cop while Bart commits a robbery, is breathtaking. It's also notable for the actual driving scenes -- most B-pictures would resort to process screens to show what's outside the car. There's nothing "crummy" about these sequences. I think the B-picture label occurs to Kael mainly because the producers, the King brothers, specialized in cheapies, and this is the only film by director Joseph H. Lewis that still gets much respect from anyone other than hardcore cinéastes. Still, it was tapped for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1998 on the strength of its later reputation.

⁸Don Beddoe? A familiar character actor but he just has an uncredited bit as "Man from Chicago" in the film. More interesting is the appearance of Russ Tamblyn as the young Bart Tare. Tamblyn is one of the few child stars who survived adolescence for a later career: He's best known for his athletic dancing in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954) and West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961) and later for playing Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series. The problem is that because we know the grownup Tamblyn, it's clear that the kid couldn't grow up to look like John Dall. But nobody knew that at the time, just as nobody knew that Mickey Rooney wouldn't grow up to look like Clark Gable when he played the younger version of Blackie Gallagher in Manhattan Melodrama (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934).

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)

Vince Barnett, Paul Muni, and Karen Morley in Scarface
Tony Camonte: Paul Muni
Cesca Camonte: Ann Dvorak
Poppy: Karen Morley
Guino Rinaldo: George Raft
Angelo: Vince Barnett
Johnny Lovo: Osgood Perkins
Tom Gaffney: Boris Karloff
Inspector Guarino: C. Henry Gordon
Mama Camonte: Inez Palange

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett
Based on a novel by Armitage Trail
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, L. William O'Connell
Set designer: Harry Oliver
Film editing: Edward Curtiss

Like so many early talkies, Scarface feels a little off in its pacing at times, especially in scenes with dialogue, as if the director was uncertain how much of the exposition was getting across to the audience. Which is surprising, considering the director is Howard Hawks, the master of fast-paced repartee. But the real Hawks shows up eventually, especially in the action scenes, and in some brilliant bits, such as the murder of Boris Karloff's Tom Gaffney in the bowling alley. We see Gaffney start to fall after the shot, but the camera follows the track of the ball he has just bowled: It's a strike, but one pin wobbles uncertainly for a second before toppling. François Truffaut commented on the scene, "This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema." For many, Hawks's Scarface has been overshadowed by Brian De Palma's 1983 version, and its rough contemporaries Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) and The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931), the gangster films that set Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney on their road to fame, shadowed the Hawks film at the time, delaying its release as Hawks and producer Howard Hughes wrangled with the Hays Office censors, who were edgy about the plethora of gangster films. In response to their objections, the film has no fewer than three screens full of text before the movie actually starts, proclaiming that it's "an indictment of gang rule in America and the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace," and exhorting the audience to demand that the government do something about it. Later there are clearly interpolated scenes that suggest some of the things the government can do include gun control and immigration reform or even the imposition of martial law. The film was even released with a subtitle, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation. This heavy-handedness suggests that Hughes had less clout with the Hays Office than did Warner Bros., which didn't jump through quite so many hoops in releasing Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Nevertheless, Scarface was a box office success, largely because it's a hugely entertaining film, showcasing what may be Paul Muni's best screen performance -- the only other contender would be I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932). Muni has a leering, gleeful quality as Tony Camonte; he's almost sexy, which is something that would never be said of the actor after he began to take himself seriously in William Dieterle's stodgy biopic celebrations of Great Men like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Because Scarface was made before the Production Code clampdown on sex, it's pretty clear what's going on between Tony and Karen Morley's Poppy, but also that Tony's relationship with his sister, Cesca, has a touch of the perverse about it. The film is full of delicious asides, too, like a minor character, a reporter known as "MacArthur from the Journal," a tip of the hat to screenwriter Ben Hecht's former colleague in Chicago journalism, Charles MacArthur, who was also his co-writer on the play The Front Page. The character is played by Hecht and MacArthur's friend John Lee Mahin, one of the screenwriters on Scarface

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Norton in Fight Club
The Narrator: Edward Norton
Tyler Durden: Brad Pitt
Marla Singer: Helena Bonham Carter
Bob Paulson: Meat Loaf
Richard Chesler: Zach Grenier
The Mechanic: Holt McCallany
Angel Face: Jared Leto

Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Jim Uhls
Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production design: Alex McDowell
Film editing: James Haygood
Music: Dust Brothers

What if Dr. Jekyll didn't know he was turning into Mr. Hyde? Fight Club is essentially an exploration of that premise, turning Robert Louis Stevenson's sci-fi into psy-fi, a fiction based on a fantastical psychological premise. But Chuck Palahniuk's novel, and the adaptation of it by screenwriter Jim Uhls and director David Fincher, is more than that: It's also a satire on corporate commercialism and the grip it has on the soul -- particularly the male soul. The Narrator is a nebbishy corporate everyman, stuck in a job he hates, doing work that morally revolts him -- he calculates whether an auto manufacturer can get away with dangerously defective parts, whether a recall will be more expensive than paying off accident victims. He's insomniac, and finds that he can sleep only when he goes to support groups for people worse off than he is, sufferers from serious illnesses. At one session he meets Marla Singer, beautiful and frazzled, who also goes to these support groups because she wants to feel something that she can't find in her own routine life. Then on a business trip, during which the venality of his job becomes particularly clear to him, he meets a devil-may-care type named Tyler Durden, handsome, clever, and completely amoral. Returning from the trip he arrives to find that his apartment, the only thing he feels some pride in, has been blown up in what seems to be an accidental explosion. He has no place to go, so when he finds Durden's card, he moves in with him in a dreadful rundown old house on the edge of nowhere, and becomes drawn into Durden's life, including the formation of the titular club, in which men of various professions gather to beat one another silly. It's the ultimate catharsis for meaningless corporate drudgery. He also introduces Durden to Marla, and lies in his bed listening to the two of them having raucously noisy sex. Eventually, the sex and violence escalate, and when they reach the pinnacle of rebelliousness against establishment values, the Narrator has a revelation: He's Tyler Durden. Fincher beautifully finesses any literal-minded explanations, relying instead on Edward Norton's ordinariness and Brad Pitt's good looks, as well as some careful staging and cutting, to keep from turning this into a tale about dissociative identity disorder. Instead, it's a fable about the ordinary male's repressed desire to become a Brad Pitt, or as Durden puts it, "All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not." The first viewers of Fight Club were often distracted by the violence and failed to respond to the ideas the film is working with. Since then, it has grown in esteem, perhaps because its violence has become more routine in movies, but also because its apocalyptic ending irrupted into real life on Sept. 11, 2001. The film's power to provoke, to appall, and to stimulate argument makes it some kind of minor classic.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Alien 3 (David Fincher, 1992)

Charles Dance and Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3
Ripley: Sigourney Weaver
Dillon: Charles S. Dutton
Clemens: Charles Dance
Andrews: Brian Glover
Golic: Paul McGann
Aaron: Ralph Brown
Morse: Danny Webb
Bishop/Bishop II: Lance Henriksen
Junior: Hoyt McCallany
David: Pete Postlethwaite

Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Vincent Ward, David Giler, Walter Hill, Larry Ferguson
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Production design: Norman Reynolds
Film editing: Terry Rawlings
Music: Elliot Goldenthal

Alien 3 may be the sourest sequel ever made, completely negating in its opening scenes what made Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) so exciting: Ripley's heroic efforts to save the lives of Newt and Hicks (as well as retrieve what remained of Bishop). When Alien 3 begins, Newt and Hicks have died, making Ripley's efforts meaningless. And as if to rub salt in her wounds, she is forced to watch an autopsy of the little girl, just to make sure the alien isn't incubating in her. Not that what follows is much more enjoyable. As I said in my comments on Aliens, what made that film and its predecessor, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), so entertaining was the interplay among its well-drawn characters. But there are hardly any characters besides Ripley in Alien 3. Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance are fine actors, but Dance feels miscast as the brief potential romantic interest for Ripley, and Dutton is given little to do but deliver a homily at the cremation of Newt and Hicks and afterward to run and shout a lot as everyone fights the alien. Dutton's character, Dillon, is supposed to be the spiritual leader of a group of YY-chromosome inmates on the prison planet Ripley's escape pod crashes onto. The religious subplot feels superfluous -- it's apparently left over from an earlier version of the screenplay in which the prison was instead a monastery -- since the prisoners don't seem particularly devout; they mostly growl and leer at Ripley, the only woman on the planet, and a group of them try to rape her. This was the debut feature for David Fincher, who has since proved himself to be one of the more skilled and distinctive American directors, but making it was not a pleasant experience for him -- there were too many misfired attempts to get a workable screenplay, and the director who preceded him, Vincent Ward, was fired. It's mostly held together by Sigourney Weaver's performance and a few exciting action scenes -- though even these are marred by some confusing editing, especially the extended chase sequence through the corridors of the prison at the end. And Ripley's sacrifice -- which should have put an end to the series but didn't -- only adds to the general depression that permeates the movie.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Hideko Takamine and Daisuke Kato in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
Keiko Yashiro: Hideko Takamine 
Kenichi Komatsu: Tatsuya Nakadai 
Junko Inchihashi: Reiko Dan 
Nobuhiko Fujisaki: Masayuki Mori 
Matsukichi Sekine: Daisuke Kato 
Yuri: Keiko Awaji 
Goda: Ganjiro Nakamura 
Minobe: Eitaro Ozawa 
Tomoko: Chieko Nakakita 

Director: Mikio Naruse 
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima 
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Production design: Satoru Chuko 
Film editing: Eiji Ooi 
Music : Toshiro Mayuzumi 

If I ran a revival house like the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto or the Castro in San Francisco, I'd like to program a series of double features of American and Japanese "women's pictures." It would give us a chance to compare not only directors like Douglas Sirk and Mikio Naruse but also the actresses most associated with the genre: Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, and Lana Turner on the one hand; Kyoko Kagawa, Setsuko Hara, and Hideko Takamine on the other. Takamine is the woman who ascends the stairs in Naruse's film, only to hit something like a glass ceiling. She plays Keiko (at first a little confusingly, at least to Western audiences, called "Mama"), a Ginza bar hostess whose job it is to bring in paying customers, especially rich ones,who will while away their after-office hours flirting with her and the fleet of bar girls. She doesn't sleep with the customers -- even the younger women aren't expected to, but sometimes do -- and though she drinks with them, she doesn't particularly like alcohol. But Keiko is on the brink of turning 30, and when the bar starts losing customers to a younger hostess named Yuri, who has left Keiko's establishment to start her own, she begins to see what a dead-end she faces. She doesn't own the bar where she works, and the woman who does is beginning to blame her for losing customers and for not wearing flashier kimonos. She supports her mother and somewhat feckless brother, who has a son who needs an operation to correct a defect left by polio.She begins to hate climbing the stairs to the bar every night and the stress brings on a peptic ulcer, but she can see only three options for her life: Marry, become the mistress of a wealthy patron, or buy her own bar. Each of these opportunities presents itself during the course of the film, only to end in disappointment, and at the end she is climbing the stairs again. Takamine is marvelous, so expressive that we hardly need her voiceover narration to know what she's feeling and thinking, and she's well-supported by Reiko Dan as the younger, more carefree bar girl; Tatsuya Nakadai as the bar's handsome young business manager, who's in love with Keiko; Daisuke Kato as the chubby customer who proposes a marriage to Keiko that she accepts before learning that he's already married and a constant philanderer;and Masayuki Mori as the potential wealthy patron with whom, in a moment of drunken abandonment, she sleeps, only to learn the next morning that he's moving to Osaka.When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a beautifully made account of problems specific to a time, a place, and a gender, yet universal in its depiction of the frustrations of the working life.    

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)

Hisashi Igawa in Pitfall
The Miner/Otsuka: Hisashi Igawa
The Shopkeeper: Sumie Sasaki
The Miner's Son: Kazuo Miyahara
The Man in the White Suit: Kunie Tanaka
Toyama: Sen Yano
Reporter: Kei Sato

Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Screenplay: Kobo Abe
Based on a teleplay by Kobo Abe
Cinematography: Hiroshi Segawa
Production design: Kiyoshi Awazu
Film editing: Fusako Shuzui
Music: Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi, Toru Takemitsu

Hiroshi Teshigahara's first feature film, and the first in his trilogy of collaborations with writer Kobo Abe that also includes Woman in the Dunes (1964) and The Face of Another (1966), is a fascinating blend of documentary realism and fantasy, a murder mystery and a ghost story. Set in the coal-mining region of Kyushu, the southernmost of the Japanese islands, it follows a miner who travels around looking for work, accompanied by his young son. He is surprised one day to be offered a job by a company he had never worked for before, hired on the basis of a photograph he didn't know had been taken of him. When he reports to the location he finds only a deserted village, whose sole resident appears to be a woman who runs a candy shop. She explains that the mine shut down after a cave-in, and that she's owed some money and is waiting there for word from a man she knows. When he sets out to look for whoever summoned him there, he is followed by a man wearing a white suit and carrying a briefcase. Unnerved by this silent follower, he begins to run, but the man at first keeps pace with him and then draws a knife from his briefcase and stabs the miner to death, then tosses the knife into the nearby marshes. Returning to the village, the man gives the shopkeeper a large amount of money and gives her detailed instructions on what to tell the police when they arrive, including a precise description of the murderer. And then the fantasy begins: The miner's ghost arises from his corpse and discovers he can't communicate with the living. Moreover, when the police and reporters arrive to the crime scene, they identify the victim as Otsuka, the head of a miners' union working nearby. Otsuka is a doppelgänger for the murdered miner. And so the complications mount, as we learn that Otsuka's union is at odds with a rival union headed by Toyama. More deaths take place and other ghosts appear, some, like the miner, filled with frustration that they can't help reveal the truth about their murders. Finally, the only living person who knows what really took place is the miner's young son, who has witnessed the various murders. But the film ends with the orphaned boy setting out on a road that extends off to the horizon, carrying his secrets into an unknown future. Hiroshi Segawa's eloquent black-and-white cinematography and the minimalist, percussive score composed by Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi, and Toru Takemitsu -- the last-named, a frequent collaborator with Teshigahara, is credited as "sound director" -- give the film its fine, nervous edge. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)

Brenda Blethyn and Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennet: Keira Knightley
Mr. Darcy: Matthew Macfadyen
Mrs. Bennet: Brenda Blethyn
Mr. Bennet: Donald Sutherland
Jane Bennet: Rosamund Pike
Charles Bingley: Simon Woods
Lydia Bennet: Jena Malone
Mr. Wickham: Rupert Friend
Mr. Collins: Tom Hollander
Kitty Bennet: Carey Mulligan
Lady Catherine de Bourgh: Judi Dench
Caroline Bingley: Kelly Reilly
Mary Bennet: Talulah Riley
Charlotte Lucas: Claudie Blakley
Georgiana Darcy: Tamzin Merchant
Mr. Gardiner: Peter Wight
Mrs. Gardiner: Penelope Wilton

Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Deborah Moggach
Based on a novel by Jane Austen
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Production design: Sarah Greenwood
Film editing: Paul Tothill
Costume design: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Dario Marianelli

Joe Wright's lush, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (the ampersand belongs to the film) irked many Janeites. But people who love Austen's books are fated to be irked: There is no easy way to translate to film the narrative ironies that readers seize on with delight. Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach (with uncredited help from Emma Thompson) have crafted a Pride & Prejudice that takes place in a universe parallel to Austen's. They push back the time of the novel from the early 19th century to the late 18th. Tinkering with time is not unique to films of the novel: The 1940 version starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier and directed by Robert Z. Leonard moved the action up to the Victorian period, maybe to take advantage of MGM's wardrobe full of crinolines and hoop skirts. Wright's earlier time period allows  for a looser, more earthy setting, more Henry Fielding than Jane Austen. There are clotheslines and farm animals to be seen, and the first of the two balls that take place in the film is rougher, sweatier, more countrified than the elegant formal dances usually seen in period films. Elizabeth Bennet arrives at Netherfield with her hair about her ears, not neatly pinned under her bonnet. Later, she spins barefoot on a rope swing hung at the entrance to the barnyard, and at one point an enormously ungelded hog walks through the action. Even the formal dress is different: With her upswept hairdo, Judi Dench's Lady Catherine looks like she has just stepped out of a Joshua Reynolds portrait. The real strength of Wright's version is not in its fidelity to the novel, but in its creation of a satisfyingly consistent world in which it might have taken place, mutatis mutandis. There is some elegant staging: Visiting Pemberley, Elizabeth finds herself in a sculpture hall, where the nude statuary adds a frisson to her awakening attraction to Darcy. The ballroom scenes are beautifully filmed with long traveling takes among the various characters. And Dario Marianelli's score, with its suggestions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, isn't overstated. Keira Knightley's fetching underbite  suggests Elizabeth's stubbornness and pride, and she's well-matched with Matthew Macfadyen, who has the thankless task of following in the footsteps of Olivier and Colin Firth, who became a sex symbol with his Darcy in the 1995 television series. Macfadyen is not conventionally handsome -- he's a little potato-nosed -- but that serves the character well: Darcy should not be an instant heartthrob like, for example, Mr. Wickham. There will never be a perfect film version of the novel -- for that matter, of any novel -- but Wright's Pride & Prejudice satisfies for what it is, a lesser work derived from a great source.   

Monday, February 5, 2018

Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

John Garfield in Force of Evil
Joe Morse: John Garfield
Leo Morse: Thomas Gomez
Doris Lowry: Beatrice Pearson
Freddie Bauer: Howland Chamberlain
Ben Tucker: Roy Roberts
Edna Tucker: Marie Windsor
Bill Ficco: Paul Fix
Detective Egan: Barry Kelley
Hobe Wheelock: Paul McVeigh
Wally: Stanley Prager

Director: Abraham Polonsky
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert
Based on a novel by Ira Wolfert
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art direction: Richard Day
Film editing: Art Seid
Music: David Raksin

John Garfield was one of the few movie stars who could play leading man to Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, and then turn around and appear in a gritty drama like Force of Evil without letting his star power outshine the supporting cast of character actors and unknowns. In Abraham Polonsky's film, he's a lawyer connected to the big players in the numbers racket, an illegal lottery that flourished before the legal ones took over. Joe Morse is torn in two directions: his work for the gangster Ben Tucker, who wants to take over the numbers game from the smaller "banks" that work in New York City neighborhoods, and his ties to his brother, Leo, who runs one of those banks. The numbers, posted in the daily newspapers, are based on the amount of bets placed on a day's horse races. Theoretically, the trio of numbers -- the last digits in the amount -- should be completely random. But Tucker has discovered a way to rig the numbers so that they'll come up 776 on Independence Day -- a day when a lot of bettors choose that number -- thereby causing a lot of the banks to go bust. When Joe learns of the scheme, he tries to tip off Leo, but his brother is having none of it. Joe also becomes involved with one of Leo's employees, Doris Lowry, who is grateful to Leo for having given her a job when she first came to New York, but now wishes to quit the shady business. Beatrice Pearson, who made her debut in the film but gave up movies for the stage, is a fresh and engaging presence, making the "love interest" feel less obligatory than it might. Garfield, of course, is terrific in one of his best roles, striking the right note of moral corruption while still retaining an essential attractiveness. George Barnes's cinematography is superb, whether he's working with Richard Day's sets or New York City locations. There's a haunting shot of Joe Morse in a deserted Wall Street, and the film's emotional climax is Joe's descent to the river beneath the George Washington Bridge to find where his brother's body has been dumped. Force of Evil is a downer, but a surprising one, and it makes one feel all the more bitter about the damage that the blacklist did to Polonsky and to Garfield, whose persecution by the commie-hunters may have contributed to his early death.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

All These Women (Ingmar Bergman, 1964)

Jarl Kulle in All These Women
Cornelius: Jarl Kulle
Humlan (Bumblebee): Bibi Andersson
Isolde: Harriet Andersson
Adelaide: Eva Dahlbeck
Madame Tussaud: Karin Kavli
Traviata: Gertrud Fridh
Cecilia: Mona Malm
Beatrica: Barbro Hiort af Ornäs
Jillker: Allan Edwall
Tristan: Georg Funkquist
The Young Man: Carl Billquist

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Erland Josephson, Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production design: P.A. Lundgren
Film editing: Ulla Ryghe

Roger Ebert called Ingmar Bergman's All These Women "the worst film he has ever made," and I don't think it's because the butt of so many of the jokes in the movie was a critic. It's an arch, highly stylized comedy, supposedly inspired by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), though apart from the zings at critics and the gathering together of the various women in an artist's life, there's not much that Bergman's film has in common with Fellini's. Bergman's artist, a cellist named Felix, has just died, and the film opens at his funeral through which a number of his "widows" parade to view the corpse. The funeral is presided over by Cornelius, Felix's supposed biographer, actually a music critic who was trying to persuade Felix to perform one of his compositions: "A Fish's Dream, Abstraction #4." The film flashes back to the days before Felix's death when Cornelius arrived at the cellist's estate and encountered his wife, Adelaide; his mistress, called "Bumblebee"; and several other women who had various connections, presumably sexual, to Felix. What follows is much running about, some slapstick, some misfired attempts by Cornelius to bed Bumblebee while trying to gather information about Felix's private life, and much tiresome and unfunny ado set to music cues ranging from Bach to "Yes, We Have No Bananas." All These Women was Bergman's first film in color, but the print shown on Turner Classic Movies is sadly faded, with captions that are hard to read. I also sampled the print on the Criterion Channel; it's better, but still rather washed-out looking. The cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, is a celebrated master, so the color flaws may be that of the aging Eastmancolor negative. Only the fact that the film is a lesser work of the director who gave us The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and Fanny and Alexander (1982) really argues for restoring it, however.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Legend (Brian Helgeland, 2015)

Tom Hardy in Legend
Reggie Kray / Ronnie Kray: Tom Hardy
Frances Shea: Emily Browning
"Nipper" Read: Christopher Eccleston
Leslie Payne: David Thewlis
Mad Teddy Smith: Taron Edgerton
Angelo Bruno: Chazz Palminteri
Charlie Richardson: Paul Bettany
Frank Shea: Colin Morgan
Mrs. Shea: Tara Fitzgerald
Albert Donoghue: Paul Anderson
Jack MacVitie: Sam Spruell
Violet Kray: Jane Wood

Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Based on a book by John Pearson
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Production design: Tom Conroy
Music: Carter Burwell

Perhaps if Brian Helgeland's screenplay and direction had been stronger, Tom Hardy's performance as the Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie, might have made more impact. Hardy is an always watchable actor, and he makes a sharp delineation between the two brothers, one psychotic and the other more charmingly deadly. But Helgeland has missed an opportunity to put the Krays in the context of their era: the "swinging London" of the 1960s. There are some superficial name-dropping attempts: Reggie's girlfriend, Frances Shea, spots Joan Collins in a nightclub, and there are some other pop notables on the scene. But the script is too preoccupied with Reggie's affair with and marriage to Frances to give the Krays' kind of gangsterism any larger significance, the way Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films (1972, 1974, 1980) integrated the relationship of Michael and Kay Corleone into the greater social and political context. Helgeland also makes a serious misstep with a voiceover narration -- often a sign of weakness in screenplays, a suggestion that the writer hasn't worked out a way to provide exposition dramatically. That the narrator is Frances, who dies three-quarters of the way into the film, only compounds the error: Narrative by a dead person rarely works, except in fantasy films or in the sardonic context of Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). The device loses its point after Frances's death: Her function in the screenplay is first to humanize Reggie Kray -- the film lays on Carter Burwell's score a little too thickly in their love scenes -- and then to suggest that he has suddenly somehow lost his soul when he rapes and beats her. Ronnie is a one-note character throughout, with his retinue of lethal boyfriends, including a standout Taron Edgerton as the giggling "Mad Teddy" Smith. Hardy fills him with silent menace, but he's a good enough actor to make the decision to give him a false nose and to stuff his cheeks like Marlon Brando's in The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) all the more regrettable.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Laila (George Schnéevoigt, 1929)

Harald Schwenzen, Alice O'Fredericks, Mona Mårtenson, and Peter Malberg in Laila
Laila: Mona Mårtenson
Jåmpa: Tryggve Larssen
Anders: Harald Schwenzen
Aslag Laagje: Peter Malberg
Aslag's wife: Cally Monrad
Mellet: Henry Gleditsch
The merchant Lind: Finn Bernhoff
Lind's wife: Lily Larson-Lund
Inger: Alice O'Fredericks
Anders and Inger's father: Rasmus Christiansen
Magga: Inge Brekke

Director: George Schnéevoigt
Screenplay: George Schnéevoigt
Based on a novel by Jens Andreas Friis
Cinematography: Waldemar Christensen, Allan Lynge

Exciting but overlong, Laila is a landmark film in Norway, but its cultural conflicts are universal. The story takes place in an unspecified past, when tensions between the Norwegians and the Sami (we usually call them Lapps, as do the intertitles, but that seems to have become a pejorative) have reached a kind of uneasy truce. The Norwegians want to settle down and build towns, while the Sami remain nomadic, moving their reindeer herds about freely in search of feeding grounds. At the film's beginning, the Norwegian merchant Lind and his wife set out to have their infant daughter baptized, but as they're traveling in their reindeer-drawn sleds across the winter landscape, they're attacked by wolves. The nursemaid Magga, who is carrying the baby, is separated from the others and her sled overturns; she loses her grip on the child, who is tossed into some bushes, but before she can cut the rope that tethers the sled to the reindeer, she is towed away. Night is falling, and the little company must wait until morning until they can search for the baby. They find only the empty basket in which the child was swaddled. Director George Schnéevoigt makes the most of this sequence, as he does with several other action scenes, including a hair's-breadth rescue when a boat traverses some rapids and goes over a waterfall later in the film. Fortunately, one of the Sami, Jåmpa, who works for the wealthy herder Aslag Laagje, comes upon the baby and takes it to be raised by the childless Aslag and his wife, who name the girl Laila. A year goes by before Aslag discovers that Laila is actually the Linds' lost child, and he reluctantly gives her up to them. But then the land is struck by an outbreak of plague which kills both of the Linds, and the elderly couple who are looking after Laila allow Aslag to take her home with him. She grows up with no knowledge of her birth parentage, traveling with the Sami as one of their own. Mona Mårtenson gives a boisterous, athletic performance as the grownup Laila, reminding me a bit of  Mary Pickford's inexhaustible energy in films like The Love Light (Frances Marion, 1921). She softens when she falls in love with Anders Lind, who runs a trading post the Sami visit during an annual market. But neither she nor Anders knows that they're really cousins -- his father and hers were brothers. Meanwhile, Aslag and his wife have been planning a marriage between Laila and Mellet, a foundling who had been taken in by the Laagjes even before Laila arrived. The rest of the film is a typical melodramatic stew of jealousy and prejudice: Norwegians, known to the Sami as "daro," don't marry Sami girls, Laila is told. There's a big Dramatic Moment when Laila is supposed to meet Anders at midnight by a cross-topped cairn, and when he fails to show (his father is dying and he can't leave the deathbed), she flings her arms out in a crucified pose. And there's a last-minute chase to reach the church after Laila agrees to marry Mellet: Jåmpa, who has always adored Laila, reveals to Anders her true parentage, and together they rush to tell her, only to be set upon by yet another wolf pack. Apparently, consanguinity is of less significance than intermarriage between Sami and daro, because Anders arrives in time to snatch his cousin Laila away from Mellet, who disappears in the general rejoicing. Even the conventional melodramatics, however, can't detract from the splendid documentary-like footage of life in the far northern mountains, the real reason to watch Laila.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Wife (Mikio Naruse, 1953)

Yatsuko Tan'ami and Ken Uehara in Wife
Mihoko Nakagawa: Mieko Takamine
Toichi Nakagawa: Ken Uehara
Fusako Sawara: Yatsuko Tan'ami
Tadashi Tanimura: Rentaro Mikuni
Yoshimi Niemura: Michiyo Aratama
Setsuko Sakarai: Sanae Takasugi
Eiko Matsuyama: Chieko Nakakita
Hirohiso Matsuyama: Hajime Izu
Taeko Niemura: Yoshiko Tsubouchi

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Toshiro Ide
Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Production design: Satoru Chuko
Music: Ichiro Saito

I was well into Mikio Naruse's Wife when I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu: I felt like I had seen this film before. It struck me when Nakagawa goes to a cafe with Sawara, a typist who works in his office, and she identifies the music playing in the background as a violin concerto by Édouard Lalo. I thought I had seen the cafe setting before: It's distinctively divided into two levels, with some ornamental ironwork separating the upper from the lower level where Nakagawa and Sawara are sitting. Later in the film, when Tanimura, the painter and art student who rents a room from the Nakagawas, appears, and still later when Nakagawa's wife, Mihoko, rents another room to a young woman who's the mistress of an older man, I knew I'd seen Wife before. At my age, any memory lapse like this can be disturbing, but I also thought it told me something about the kind of film Wife is. For the main story of the film, about the stagnant marriage of Toichi and Mihoko Nakagawa, is so low-key that it's hard to latch onto anything specific about it. We've seen troubled marriages and illicit affairs before, but the Nakagawas hold their emotions in such tight check that they never explode into memorable scenes. The parts of Wife that the memory holds onto are the unique ones -- a classical melody, a distinctive set (as contrasted with the Nakagawas' typically boxlike home), or colorful characters. Even the title, Wife, has a generic quality to it -- like some of Yasujiro Ozu's titles, it doesn't give the mind much to hold onto. This is not meant to be a knock on Naruse's film, however. The pain experienced by Mihoko when she learns of her husband's affair, and that felt by Toichi and Sawara when they're forced to part, is very real and quite delicately observed. And there's something particularly devastating about the lack of resolution at the film's end, when, having achieved a kind of stalemate, the Nakagawas return to routine. He goes off to work and she stays home, both condemned to trying to work things out. In a way, I'm glad I had forgotten that I'd seen Wife before: It gave me a chance to rediscover a work whose subtlety and finesse outweigh its lack of flashy memory hooks.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007)

Rinat Matatov, Shlomi Avraham, and Saleh Bakri in The Band's Visit
Tawfiq Zacharya: Sasson Gabal
Dina: Ronit Elkabetz
Haled: Saleh Bakri
Simon: Khalifa Natour
Avrum: Uri Gavriel
Papi: Shlomi Avraham
Yula: Rinat Matatov
Iris: Hilla Sarjon
Lea: Ahuva Keren
Ars: Tomer Josef

Director: Eran Kolirin
Screenplay: Eran Kolirin
Cinematography: Shai Goldman
Film editing: Arik Leibovitch
Music: Habib Shadah

The Band's Visit is a cats-and-dogs movie: a meeting of two supposedly antagonistic cultures, in which each side learns something from the confrontation. But it avoids formula by fresh performances and a wry directorial distancing. Eight members of a police force orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, find themselves stranded in the Israeli desert because of a misunderstanding about the name of their destination. They are supposed to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Israel, but they get off the bus by the side of the highway, across from a small cafe. The owner of the cafe, Dina, scoffs at the notion that they are there to play at a cultural center: "Here there is no Arab culture. Also, no Israeli culture. Here there is no culture at all." The bleak little town is mostly modern high-rise apartments and the "park" has neither grass nor trees. She discovers the source of the error -- they were supposed to go to a town whose name sounded similar -- and tells them that there's not another bus until the next morning. The stubborn, autocratic leader of the band, Tawfiq, decides to set out on foot, and the other seven band members, dressed in light blue uniforms, follow until Haled, a handsome young violinist, complains that they haven't eaten all day. Tawfiq blows his top and puts Haled on report, but when the other band members confess their hunger, relents and returns to the cafe, where Dina feeds them and suggests that she and some of the men who hang around the cafe can put them up for the night. And so the film tracks the experiences of these strangers in a strange land through the night. We learn, for example, why Tawfiq is such a sourpuss and why the clarinetist, Simon, is blocked in his attempts to compose a concerto. The most charming and funny scene involves Haled, who has already been established as something of a ladies' man, who goes out as a fifth wheel with Ars and Papi on their double date. Papi is upset because he has been stuck with Yula, whom he regards as depressing. But then Papi is a virgin with no experience of women, and Haled takes it on himself to show Papi the ropes. At a small roller disco, Papi and Haled, who don't know how to skate, are sidelined. Yula tries to get Papi out on the floor, but he rebuffs her. As closing time draws near, an attendant starts packing up the plastic chairs, and Yula, who is in tears, is forced to sit on a bench with Papi and Haled, who takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and hands it to Papi, who hands it to Yula. Then Haled takes a small airline liquor bottle out of his pocket, hands it to Papi, prompting him to offer Yula a drink. She accepts and Papi returns the bottle to Haled after both have drunk from it. Then Haled places his hand on Papi's knee as a suggestion that he follow suit with Yula. Then he begins to caress Papi's knee as another suggestion. Finally, when Yula puts her hand on Papi's, Papi puts his hand on Haled's. Haled removes it: lesson over. This long single take is characteristic of director Eran Kolirin's sly style throughout the film, which was a huge hit in Israel and would have been that country's Oscar nominee for best foreign language film except that it was ruled ineligible because half of the dialogue is in English -- the language the Egyptians and Israelis use to communicate with one another. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)

Gary Cooper and Joan Leslie in Sergeant York
Alvin C. York: Gary Cooper
Pastor Rosier Pile: Walter Brennan
Gracie Williams: Joan Leslie
Mother York: Margaret Wycherly
"Pusher" Ross: George Tobias
Major Buxton: Stanley Ridges
Ike Botkin: Ward Bond
Buck Lipscomb: Noah Beery Jr.
Rosie York: June Lockhart
George York: Dickie Moore
Zeke: Clem Bevans
Lem: Howard Da Silva

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, John Huston
Based on a diary by Alvin C. York edited by Tom Skeyhill
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art direction: John Hughes
Film editing: William Holmes
Music: Max Steiner

Sheer Hollywood biopic hokum made watchable by Howard Hawks and Gary Cooper, along with a colorful supporting cast. Sergeant York earned Hawks his one and only Oscar nomination for directing -- not Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Only Angels Have Wings (1939) or His Girl Friday (1940) or To Have and Have Not (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946) or Red River (1948) or Rio Bravo (1959), more than two decades of the most entertaining movies anyone ever made. It was in fact Hawks's lack of the kind of high seriousness so often rewarded with Oscars that makes Sergeant York still entertaining today, which is why he lost to John Ford for How Green Was My Valley, a directing Oscar that by rights should have gone to Orson Welles for Citizen Kane. It's fairly clear that Hawks doesn't take Sergeant York entirely seriously, with its exteriors built on the soundstage, its well-scrubbed hillbillies, its cornpone hijinks and caricature religiosity, not to mention dialogue that sounds straight out of Al Capp's "Li'l Abner." But it also takes a Gary Cooper to deliver speeches like "I believe in the bible and I'm a-believin' that this here life we're a-livin' is something the good lord done give us and we got to be a-livin' it the best we can, and I'm a-figurin' that killing other folks ain't no part of what he was intendin' for us to be a-doin' here." Granted, Cooper had just turned 40 and was a good deal too old to play Alvin C. York, but his characteristic sly, shy self-effacement is essential to the role. The old story that York himself said that he wouldn't allow himself to be played on film by anyone else but Cooper sounds like the work of a Warner Bros. publicist, and one biographer has suggested that it was a hoax cooked up by producer Jesse L. Lasky to persuade Cooper to take the part, but se non è vero, è ben trovato -- if it's not true, it ought to be. Sergeant York cleaned up at the box office, especially when it got a second run after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and raked in 11 Oscar nominations, winning for Cooper and for film editing. Other nominees include Margaret Wycherly as Mother York -- a far cry from her killer mama in Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949) -- and Walter Brennan, with his false teeth in and his eyebrows darkened, as Pastor Pile, along with the screenwriters, cinematographer Sol Polito, the art direction, the sound, and Max Steiner's patriotic tune-quoting score. It can't be taken seriously today, but it can be enjoyed.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Cathy O'Donnell in The Best Years of Our Lives
Al Stephenson: Fredric March
Milly Stephenson: Myrna Loy
Peggy Stephenson: Teresa Wright
Fred Derry: Dana Andrews
Marie Derry: Virginia Mayo
Homer Parrish: Harold Russell
Wilma Cameron: Cathy O'Donnell
Butch Engle: Hoagy Carmichael
Hortense Derry: Gladys George
Pat Derry: Roman Bohnen
Mr. MiltonI: Ray Collins
Cliff: Steve Cochran

Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood
Based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Film editing: Daniel Mandell
Music: Hugo Friedhofer

The Best Years of Our Lives is a very good movie, rich in characters and provocative incidents. It's not a great movie, but it's such a satisfying work of popular moviemaking that I'm surprised in this age of sequels and reboots, especially after the recent enthusiasm for the "Greatest Generation," no one has attempted a follow-up on the lives of its characters, taking them into the era of the Korean War, the nuclear buildup of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, McCarthyism, the civil rights struggle, and so on. Because there is something unfinished about the stories of Al, Fred, and Homer, not to mention Milly, Peggy, Marie, and Wilma, that perhaps director William Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood couldn't possibly have foreseen in 1946. On the other hand, that's what makes The Best Years of Our Lives such a fascinating and useful document of its times. It's anything but an antiwar film -- although Homer Parrish has been mutilated, Fred Derry suffers PTSD nightmares, and Al Stephenson is well on his way to alcoholism, the film makes no effort to suggest that the war that inflicted these injuries on them was anything but just. The one naysayer, the "America Firster" who tangles with Homer and Fred in the drugstore, gets his just deserts, even if it costs Fred his job. What wins us over most is the performances: Fredric March overacts just a touch, but it won him the best actor Oscar. Harold Russell, the non-actor who received both a supporting actor Oscar and a special award, is engagingly real. And Dana Andrews proves once again that he was one of the best of the forgotten stars of the 1950s, carrying the film through from the beginning in which he seeks a ride home to the end in which he pays a nostalgic visit to the kind of plane from which he used to drop bombs. Neither Andrews nor Myrna Loy ever received an Oscar nomination, but their work in the film exhibits the kind of acting depth that makes showier award-winners look a little silly. Loy makes the most of her part as the wryly patient spouse, Teresa Wright manages to make a role somewhat handicapped by Production Code squeamishness about extramarital affairs convincing, and Virginia Mayo once again demonstrates her skill in "bad-girl" roles.  Wyler was a director much celebrated by the industry, with a record-setting total of 12 nominations, including three wins: for this film, Mrs. Miniver (1942), and Ben-Hur (1959). He's not so much admired by those of us who cling to the idea that a director should provide a central consciousness in his films, being regarded as an impersonal technician. But Best Years is a deeply personal film for Wyler, who had just spent the war serving in the army air force, flying dangerous missions over Germany to make documentary films, during which he suffered serious hearing loss that threatened his postwar directing career. His experiences inform the film, especially the character of Fred Derry. In addition to the best picture Oscar and the ones for Wyler, March, and Russell, Best Years also won for Sherwood's screenplay, Daniel Mandell's film editing, and for Hugo Friedhofer's score. The last, I think, is questionable: Friedhofer seems determined to make sure we don't miss the emotional content of any scene, almost "mickey-mousing" the feelings of the characters with his music. It feels intrusive in some of the film's best moments, such as the beautifully staged reunion of Al and Milly, or the scene in which Homer, fearful that the hooks that replace his hands have destroyed his engagement to Wilma, invites her up to his room to help him get ready for bed, demonstrating the harness that holds his prostheses in place. It's a moment with an oddly erotic tension that doesn't need Friedhofer's strings to tell us what the characters are feeling.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis
Mary Todd Lincoln: Sally Field
William Seward: David Strathairn
Robert Lincoln: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
W.N. Bilbo: James Spader
Preston Blair: Hal Holbrook
Thaddeus Stevens: Tommy Lee Jones
Robert Latham: John Hawkes
Alexander Stephens: Jackie Earle Haley
Edwin Stanton: Bruce McGill
Richard Schell: Tim Blake Nelson
John Hay: Joseph Cross
Ulysses S. Grant: Jared Harris
Fernando Wood: Lee Pace
George Pendleton: Peter McRobbie
Elizabeth Keckley: Gloria Reuben
George Yeaman: Michael Stuhlbarg
Clay Hoggins: Walton Goggins
Corporal Ira Clark: David Oyelowo
First White Soldier: Lukas Haas
Second White Soldier: Dane DeHaan
Samuel Beckwith: Adam Driver
Lydia Smith: S. Epatha Merkerson

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner
Based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Production design: Rick Carter
Film editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams

The all-star patriotic historical pageant celebrating American democracy had long been a featured genre of Hollywood films until the disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate put it pretty much out of favor. But during the brief resurgence of liberal optimism after the election of Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg decided to bring it out of mothballs with a film about Abraham Lincoln's struggles to pass the 13th amendment, banning slavery in the United States. He initially planned to star Liam Neeson in the title role, but when Neeson decided he was too old for the part, the choice fell on Daniel Day-Lewis, the most chameleonic of actors. Lincoln has been played on screen by actors as varied as Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, and Raymond Massey, but Day-Lewis covered himself with glory and encumbered himself with a third Oscar in the role. It is in fact a superb performance, emphasizing the humanity of the man with depictions of his marital problems, his earthy sense of humor (no previous movie Lincoln was ever heard to utter the word "shit"), and above all his willingness to play down-and-dirty politics. The bulk of the drama is in the maneuverings to get a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives to ratify the amendment, which has substantial opposition even within the president's own party, the Republicans. This means maneuvering some of the holdouts with promises of government jobs and patronage, a task that falls to a team of lobbyists led by W.N. Bilbo, played beautifully by James Spader. It also involves persuading the most volatile of abolitionists, Thaddeus Stevens, to utter compromising language on the floor of the House, in which he asserts that all men are equal before the law, but not necessarily equal "in all things," creating a fiery, funny scene for Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens. Lincoln is also forced to conceal that he is engaged in peace negotiations with the Confederates, fearing that this would lead to postponement of the vote on the amendment. Tony Kushner's screenplay is more cerebral than most, focusing on points of law and political maneuverings, which is why some reviewers and audiences were not fully enthusiastic about it. Though it was nominated for 12 Oscars, it won only two, for Day-Lewis and for production design, losing best picture to Argo (Ben Affleck) and best director to Ang Lee for Life of Pi. Both losses, I think, are inexcusable, as was Sally Field's loss as the fragile Mary Todd Lincoln to Anne Hathaway's lachrymose Fantine in Les Misérables (Tom Hooper). I suspect Lincoln will grow in esteem over the years, thanks to its many finely detailed performances, the superb re-creation of a period in its sets and costumes, and a general lack of cinematic clichés: John Williams even manages to compose a score without quoting from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Star-Spangled Banner," or any number of other sure-fire, heart-tugging patriotic melodies.