A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness
By Charles Matthews

Friday, April 29, 2016

Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)

Body and Soul is a well-made boxing picture, but it has a historical significance as the nexus of some major careers damaged by the anti-communist hysteria that gripped the United States in the years that followed its release. After its director, Robert Rossen, pleaded the fifth amendment at his hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, he was blacklisted in Hollywood. The same fate befell screenwriter Abraham Polonsky after his refusal to testify before HUAC. The star, John Garfield, testified that he knew nothing about communist activity in Hollywood, but studios refused to hire him; he made his last film in 1951 and died of a heart attack the following year, only 39. Cast members Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough, Canada Lee, and Art Smith were also victims of the blacklist. The film stands as an example of the folly of HUAC witch-hunting: With all the reds and pinkos involved in its production, you might expect it to be pure propaganda, but the only leftist message it communicates is about the danger of greed. Today the only viewers who may find Body and Soul subversively anti-capitalist are those who subscribe to the "greed is good" credo enunciated by Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987). Garfield plays an ambitious young boxer named Charley* Davis who falls prey to racketeers who manipulate his career, despite the warnings of his mother (Revere), his best friend, Shorty (Joseph Pevney), and his girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer). The fight sequences, shot by James Wong Howe and edited by Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish, were groundbreaking in their realistic violence, winning Oscars for Lyon and Parrish. Howe, who is said to have worn rollerskates and used a hand-held camera to film the fights, was curiously unnominated, but nominations also went to Garfield and Polonsky. Palmer, unable to conceal her German accent or to eliminate traces of the sophisticated roles she usually played, is miscast as Charley's artist girlfriend. The script makes a half-hearted attempt to explain away the accent but mostly ignores it. One thing of note: The black boxer played by Lee calls Garfield's character by his first name, Charley, in their scenes together. The usual racial protocol was for African-American characters to call white ones "Mr." -- "Mr. Charley" or "Mr. Davis" -- the way Dooley Wilson's Sam always refers to Bogart's character as "Mr. Rick" in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943). It's the earliest example of an assumed equality that I can recall in a Hollywood movie.

*A nitpicky note: The filmmakers never decided whether it was spelled "Charley" or "Charlie." It appears both ways on the posters advertising his fights, but it's "Charlie" in the inscription on a gift he gives Peg and in her letter addressed to him. I'm going with the way IMDb lists it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

This was the fourth and last of the films that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together, but the movie was stolen by Claire Trevor, who won a supporting actress Oscar, and by Bogart's old partner in Warner Bros. gangster movies, Edward G. Robinson. It's a little too talky and stagy, partly because it was based on a 1939 Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, a once-admired playwright whose specialty was blank-verse dramas. Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks took great liberties with the play, changing the characters and the ending, and updating the action to the postwar era, but occasionally you can hear a bit of Anderson's iambic pentameter in the dialogue. Bogart's Frank McCloud was originally called King McCloud and was a deserter from the Spanish Civil War; in the movie he's a World War II veteran, something of a hero, who comes to Key Largo to visit the father (Lionel Barrymore) and the widow (Bacall) of an army buddy who was killed in Italy. He finds them being held in the hotel they own by a group of gangsters, headed by Johnny Rocco, a Prohibition-era mobster who is trying to sneak back into the States after being deported. As so often -- cf. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) and To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944) -- the Bogart character is called on to make a choice between taking the kind of action he has renounced and remaining neutral. Bacall's role is somewhat underwritten, and what few sparks she and Bogart strike seem to be the residue of their previous films together, especially To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946). Having to play opposite that scene-stealing old ham Barrymore doesn't help much, either. But Trevor fully deserved her award as Rocco's moll, an alcoholic club singer known as Gaye Dawn. She has a big moment when she's forced by Rocco to sing "Moanin' Low" on the promise that he'll let her have a drink -- which he then sadistically refuses her. As usual, Robinson is terrific, and also as usual, he failed to receive the Oscar nomination he deserved and was never granted. Karl Freund's cinematography helps overcome the studio's decision not to film on location.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

I haven't read the Thomas Pynchon novel on which Anderson's film is based, but I've read enough Pynchon to know that his work is founded on a kind of literary playfulness for which there's no cinematic equivalent or even substitute. What Anderson gives us is a kind of loosey-goosey spoof of the private eye genre that works as well as it does because of brilliant casting. Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Doc Sportello, the perpetually stoned P.I. who is trying to figure out what's going on with his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) while butting heads with a police detective, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). The time is the 1970s, with Nixon as president and Reagan as California governor, and Anderson milks the period paranoia about drugs and law and order for all it's worth. The plot is as murky as a Raymond Chandler novel, which links the movie with two distinguished predecessors, The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) and The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), which really were based on Chandler novels. Inherent Vice isn't as good as either of those films: It's a little too long and a little too caught up in the cleverness of its spoofery. But there's always something or someone -- the cast includes Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short, among others -- to watch. Brolin is a hoot as Bigfoot: With his crew cut and perpetually clenched jaw he looks for all the world like Dick Tracy -- or maybe Al Capp's parody of Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Peppermint Frappé (Carlos Saura, 1967)

Peppermint Frappé sounds like it should be a teen beach party movie, at least until you see that it's directed by Carlos Saura and dedicated to Luis Buñuel. Then you know it's going to be a somewhat kinky story with darkly comic overtones. It opens with a middle-aged man cutting pictures of fashion models out of magazines. He's Julián (José Luis López Vázquez), a physician who runs a radiology clinic with the help of his nurse, Ana (Geraldine Chaplin), who is as quiet and conservative as he is. Then he's reunited with a boyhood friend, Pablo (Alfredo Mayo), whose life is virtually the antithesis of Julián's: Pablo has been living an adventurous life in Africa, he drives a Corvette, and he has just married the smashingly pretty and vivacious Elena, who is also played by Chaplin in a tour de force performance. Eventually, Julián's jealousy of Pablo and desire for Elena will take an increasingly predictable course, as his obsession leads to an attempt to remake Ana into Elena. Not that Saura's film is ever really predictable: As a director he has too many tricks up his sleeve, so that things always stay a little off-balance, especially when Julián invites Pablo and Elena to his weekend retreat in the country, which is next to an abandoned spa where Pablo and Julián used to play as children. Saura's use of setting is masterly in this sequence. The title refers to Pablo's favorite cocktail, a crème de menthe-based concoction served over crushed ice; it's a particularly venomous shade of green not found in nature. And yes, it plays a part in the denouement. López Vázquez and especially Chaplin give terrific performances, but the movie doesn't add up to much more than a showcase for them and Saura's skewed way of telling a story.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955)

Often cited as a landmark in Spanish cinema, Death of a Cyclist is notable for the way director Bardem (uncle of the actor Javier Bardem) manages to slip a satiric look at the Spanish upper classes past Franco's censors by tucking it into a suspense thriller. He often does this by startling jump cuts: The protagonist, Juan (Alberto Closas), looks down into the courtyard of a slum, but what we see are people attending a society wedding. The gossip Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) angrily throws a bottle, but the window that breaks is miles away at the university where a student protest is taking place. The film is full of linkages like this, including the fact that Juan bears a striking resemblance to the man he is cuckolding, Miguel (Otello Toso). Sometimes, of course, Bardem and his co-scenarist Luis Fernando de Igoa make their satire more explicit, as when a society woman says she's supporting a charity "for poor children, or maybe for stupid children." Her distance from the objects of her charity is a comic twist on the distance that allows María (Lucia Bosé) to persuade Juan that they should leave the scene after they run down a cyclist on a lonely road at night: They are having an affair, and she doesn't want to get caught. Bardem doesn't show the actual accident or even the body of the cyclist (who is still alive after they leave the scene), leaving us to judge the couple as their guilt begins to mount -- even though they are never in any danger of being accused of the hit-and-run crime. The film continues to unfold as a saga of crime and self-punishment, made richer by Bardem's careful manipulation of point of view.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)

Beatrice and Benedick. Rosalind and Orlando. Viola and Orsino. "Slim" and "Steve"? Is it just the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death that made me think of To Have and Have Not in terms of Shakespearean romance? Or is it that this most enjoyable of movies has a lot in common with those grand predecessors? Actually, it's all Howard Hawks's doing, with a little bit of help from screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner. Hawks had done this sort of romance before, in his comic masterpieces Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), but leave it to Hawks to see World War II (and Ernest Hemingway's "grace under pressure" fiction) through the lens of screwball comedy. And to do it with the movies' most famous tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, and an unknown 19-year-old actress who had her name changed from Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall. And to treat it all as a semi-musical, with Hoagy Carmichael at the piano. Blood is shed and causes are espoused, but nobody takes it terribly seriously. Instead, Bogart and Bacall surf through the film on some of the best dialogue ever written, working out their fine romance as deftly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did on the dance floor. Walter Brennan adds another memorable figure to his impressive gallery of old coots, and Marcel Dalio brings the kind of charm that might threaten to upstage lesser performers than these stars. It's certainly not a perfect film: Dolores Moran (clambering from shore to ship in heels) and Walter Szurovy are rather tediously noble as the de Bursacs. (Watch the bit when Mme. de Bursac faints and spills the chloroform and Bacall's Slim, sensing a rival for her Steve's affections, casts a stinkeye on the fallen form and intentionally fans some of the fumes in her direction.) As the Vichy police captain, Dan Seymour seems to be trying to do a Sydney Greenstreet impersonation with the worst of all French accents. And does anybody really believe that the odd company that sails off at the end to rescue a Resistance fighter from Devil's Island is going to succeed? But no matter. It's all the stuff of which legends are made.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

A year later, with the Production Code in full enforcement, this would have been a very different movie, though probably not a better one. It certainly wouldn't have shown Christina (Greta Garbo) and Antonio (John Gilbert) sharing a room, not to mention a bed, in an inn. It probably wouldn't have suggested so strongly that before Antonio became her lover, Christina had a thing going with Countess Ebba (Elizabeth Young), and almost certainly wouldn't have had Christina kiss Ebba on the mouth. Unfortunately, those little touches of mild naughtiness are pretty much all Queen Christina has going for it, especially if you're looking for some faint resemblance to historical fact. But maybe Garbo is enough. She certainly gives this pseudo-historical melodrama more commitment than it deserves. It was her fourth film with Gilbert, their only talkie, and their last. At least it dispels the myth that Gilbert failed to make the move into sound films because of his voice, which is perfectly fine -- the real reason was alcoholism, which made him unemployable and destroyed his health. The screenplay was by Salka Viertel and H.M. Harwood, but the number of uncredited hands that worked on it, including Ben Hecht, Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, and director Rouben Mamoulian, suggests that it became a problem no one ever quite solved. Today, it is mostly remembered for the final shot of Garbo alone at the prow of a ship that is taking her away from Sweden. The story has it that Mamoulian directed her to empty her mind and think of nothing during the long closeup, to allow audiences to project their own emotions on her character. William H. Daniels was the cinematographer.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)

There may be sensibilities more different from each other than those of an exiled Midwestern bon vivant and a consumptive Middle European Jew, but they rarely come together in a work of art the way they did in Orson Welles's version of Franz Kafka's The Trial. It was made in that fertile middle period of Welles's career that also saw the creation of Touch of Evil (1958) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), and it holds its own against those two landmarks in the Welles oeuvre. In the end, of course, the Wellesian sensibility dominates, the American tendency to affirmation overcoming (barely) Kafka's pessimism: Welles's Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is rather more assertive than Kafka's protagonist. He doesn't succumb "Like a dog!" to his assailants but defies them. That said, Perkins, now carrying the indelible stamp of Norman Bates into all his roles, is superlative casting: We can believe that he's guilty -- even if we never find out what his supposed crime is -- while at the same time we sympathize with his plight. The real triumph of the film is in finding the settings in which to stage K.'s ordeal, ranging from K.'s stark, low-ceilinged apartment to bleak modern high-rise apartment and office buildings, to ornate beaux arts exteriors, to the labyrinthine courts of the law. The film was shot in the former Yugoslavia, in Italy, and in the abandoned Gare d'Orsay in Paris. Welles chose a novice, Edmond Richard, who had never shot a feature film, as his cinematographer. Richard went on to shoot Chimes at Midnight, too, as well as some of Luis Buñuel's best films, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). The cast includes Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, and Akim Tamiroff, with Welles himself playing the role of Hastler, K.'s attorney, after failing to persuade Jackie Gleason or Charles Laughton to take the part. The Trial is probably longer and slower than it needs to be, and there is some inconsistency of style: The scenes involving Hastler, his mistress (Schneider), and K. are shot with more extreme closeups than the rest of the film, where the sets tend to overwhelm the human figures. And the ending, with its explosion followed by a rather wispy mushroom cloud, is a little too obviously an attempt to bring a story written during World War I into the atomic era. Some think it's a masterpiece, but I would just rank it as essential Welles -- which may or may not be the same thing.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)

The Alice of Wenders's movie, played by 9-year-old Yetta Rottländer, is not the plucky Victorian girl of Lewis Carroll's books, but I think they might recognize one another. Both find themselves cast adrift in a strange world in which what little guidance they have is decidedly eccentric. In Wenders's film, Alice has come to America with her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), who is caught up in a relationship that's not working out. Having decided to return to Germany, Alice and Lisa find themselves at a ticket counter with a German writer, Philip (Rüdiger Vogler), who is also going home after flubbing an assignment to tour the States and write about his experiences. Flights to Germany have been canceled by an air traffic controllers' strike, but Philip helps Lisa book tickets on the same flight he's taking to Amsterdam, where they hope to make it home by ground transportation. Because Lisa speaks no English, he also helps her book a hotel room that he ends up sharing with them. And then Lisa decides to make one last effort to connect with her boyfriend, and leaves Alice with Philip, saying that she'll meet them in Amsterdam. Which she doesn't do. Philip, a cranky egotistical loner, now has a 9-year-old girl on his hands. Moreover, she hasn't lived in Germany for several years and remembers only that she has a grandmother whose name she doesn't know but who she thinks might live in Wuppertal. And off this unlikely pair goes on an oddball odyssey. What makes the film work is Wenders's lack of sentimentality, Rüdiger's depiction of Philip's gradually eroding self-centeredness, and Rottländer's entirely natural portrayal of a child in search of roots that she has never been taught she should have. It's shot in a documentary style by Robby Müller, who captures Philip's experience in an America where every place -- gas stations, fast-food joints, cheap motels -- tries to look like every other place, as well as Philip and Alice's journey through a Europe that's beginning to develop the same syndrome. Like Wenders, Philip takes photographs of urban desolation, but in the end his essential humanism prevails.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)

Angels are usually a tiresome element in movies. I loathe the stickiness of the way they're conceived in movies like It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), and even actors of the caliber of Cary Grant and Denzel Washington can't do much with playing them in films like The Bishop's Wife (Henry Koster, 1947) and its remake, The Preacher's Wife (Penny Marshall, 1996). Maybe it's because I subscribe to Rilke's dictum, Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich -- every angel is terrible. Only a filmmaker of genius like Wim Wenders can transcend the essential cheesiness of their presence in a plot -- a cheesiness that lingers in the American remake of Wings of Desire, City of Angels (Brad Silberberg, 1988). The idea that there are angels watching over our lives, reading our thoughts, but unseen except by other angels and sometimes by children, is not a very original one. But what distinguishes the working out of this idea by Wenders and scenarists Peter Handke and Richard Reitlinger is the empathetic approach to them as beings who have been around since Creation, watching the course of humankind and unable to alter it, and occasionally so moved by what they see that they choose to give up immortality and become human. And that these angels have a specific territory to cover, in this case the city of Berlin, a nexus of human cruelty and human suffering. Even so, the concept could easily slip into banality without the blend of humor and melancholy that Wenders brings to it, without performers of the caliber of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander as the angels Damiel and Cassiel, and without the poetic cinematography of Henri Alekan. It was also an inspired choice to cast Peter Falk as himself, an actor shooting a movie set in the Nazi era who is often stopped on the Berlin streets by people who know him as Columbo, the detective he played on television. It's also a witty touch to have Falk turn out to be an ex-angel, able to sense but not see the presence of Damiel and Cassiel. In many ways, however, the real star of the film is the city of Berlin itself -- although Wenders was prevented from shooting in the eastern sector of the city, he uses the Wall as a kind of correlative to the division between angels and humans. Almost everything works in the film, including the shifts from monochrome (the angels' point of view) to color (the humans'), the shabby little bankrupt circus whose star (Solveig Dommartin) Damiel literally falls for, and the score by Jürgen Knieper. I'm not hip enough to appreciate Nick Cave's songs, but their melancholy eccentricity is an essential part of the texture of the film.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

There are movies you can watch over and over, either to savor something you hadn't particularly noticed before or in delighted anticipation of favorite parts. And then there are movies that you wish you could watch the way you did the first time you saw them, with surprise and exhilaration. I first saw E.T. in the summer of its initial release, with my wife and 8-year-old daughter in a theater in Chestnut Hill, Mass. It was an unspoiled delight, not layered over with the years' accretions of commentary and critique. I can never again see the movie that we saw that afternoon in Chestnut Hill. Watching it last night for the first time in years, I found that the best thing about it is that it brought back faint memories of the initial experience. It hasn't grown in my estimation, but on the other hand it also hasn't diminished very much. Spielberg is one of the great cinematic storytellers, particularly in his ability to narrate without words -- a gift that began to vanish from filmmaking with the arrival of sound almost 90 years ago. The opening of the film, with the scurrying, botanizing aliens and the clumsy, sinister humans who want to spy on them, is a near perfect example of showing instead of telling, and Spielberg's use of that technique is threaded throughout the movie. He also knows how to direct people, even precocious actors like Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, and Robert MacNaughton, who are utterly convincing in the way that movie kids rarely were before E.T. and seldom have been since. Yes, there are sequences that don't quite work, like the liberation of the frogs in the science class, and the special effects, such as the kids on the flying bicycles, look antiquated. The appearance of the resuscitated E.T., shrouded in a sheet and with a glowing heart, evoking Christian iconography, is a serious misstep. There are times when the John Williams score verges on overkill. And it undeniably helped set the film industry off in the wrong direction away from making movies for adults and toward crowd-pleasers. But all of that is part of the accretion of time. There is a timeless core to E.T. that helps it secure its place among the great movies.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

The main reason to see Ant-Man is Paul Rudd, once again proving that casting is the chief thing Marvel has going for it in its efforts to capture the comic-book movie world. Like Robert Downey Jr. in the various Iron Man and Avengers movies, or Chris Pratt in his leap to superstardom in Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014), Rudd has precisely the right tongue-in-cheekiness to bring off a preposterous role, one that the end credits assure us he will be playing again. Rudd, whose quick wit is known from his talk show appearances, also had a hand in the screenplay, which was begun by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish and revised and finished by Rudd and Adam McKay. For once, a comic book film is better before the CGI flash-and-dazzle take over -- the concluding portion of the film is a bit of a muddle, considering that most of the performers in the action sequences are ants. Indeed, the most impressive special effects in the movie are not the action sequences but the "youthening" of Michael Douglas, who is first seen as the much younger Hank Pym in 1989, looking much as he did in The War of the Roses (Danny DeVito, 1989), one of the films used by the special effects artists as reference. On the other hand, it has to be said here that Rudd doesn't look much older than he did 21 years ago in Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995).

Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)

The success of Rififi had a lasting effect on the "caper" or "heist" genre, which is still with us in one form or another, including the Mission: Impossible movies. Dassin's 30-minute sequence depicting the break-in and safe-cracking was hailed as a tour de force. I can't help wondering if Robert Bresson saw Rififi before he made his great 1956 film A Man Escaped, which takes a similar wordless and music-free approach to showing the preparations for Fontaine's prison break. Other than that, of course, nothing could be further from Fontaine's noble efforts to find freedom than the larcenous thuggery of Dassin's jewel thieves. Dassin knows, of course, that audiences respond positively to cleverness and skill, which is virtually all that his quartet of thieves have going for them. Tony (Jean Servais) is a brutal ex-con who beats his former mistress (Marie Sabouret) with a belt; Jo (Carl Möhner) is a swaggering, handsome guy for whom Tony took the rap for an earlier heist because Jo has a wife and child; Mario (Robert Manuel) is an easy-going ne'er-do-well; and César (Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) is a professional safe-cracker. Dassin manipulates us into thinking of these guys as heroes, if only because the gang led by Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), who wants to muscle in on their ill-gotten gains, is even worse. In the end, both sides are wiped out, but not before Jo's little boy (Dominique Maurin) is kidnapped and held for ransom. The final sequence of the film is particularly harrowing, especially to contemporary viewers used to mandated seatbelts and conscientious childproofing: A dying Tony drives the 5-year-old boy across Paris in an open convertible as the delighted kid stands on and even clambers over the seats of the speeding car. For all its unpleasantness, Rififi is as memorable as it was influential. It led to countless imitations, usually more light-hearted, including Dassin's own Topkapi (1964). It also revived Dassin's career, which had been at a standstill after he was blacklisted in Hollywood; Rififi's international success was a defiant nose-thumbing directed at HUAC's witch hunts.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Artist (Michel Haznavicius, 2011)

There are two classic movies about the effect of the arrival of sound on films and the people who were silent-movie stars, Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950). Neither of them won the Academy Award for best picture. Coming half a century later, Michel Haznavicius's The Artist, which did, looks oddly like an anachronism. It is certainly a tour de force: a mostly silent film with a few witty irruptions of sound in the middle when the protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), having learned that his career as a film star is ending, suddenly begins to hear sounds, even though he seems incapable of producing them himself. (At the end of the film, Valentin speaks one line, "With pleasure," revealing his French accent.) The project grew out of Haznavicius's admiration of silent films and their directors, and it fulfilled his own desire to make one himself. The title and the central predicament of George Valentin are an acknowledgement of the fact that silent film is a distinct art form, one lost with the advent of sound. At the expense of his career, Valentin insists on preserving the art -- much as Charles Chaplin did by refusing to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) into talkies, long after sound had taken hold. But Valentin is no Chaplin, and his effort, an adventure story in the mode of the films that had made him famous, is a flop, coincidentally opening on the day in 1929 when the stock market crashed. Meanwhile, a younger fan and something of a protégée of his, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), becomes a huge star in talkies. From this point on, the script almost writes itself, especially if you've seen any of the versions of A Star Is Born, which is why some of us wonder how this undeniably entertaining film became such a hit and a multiple award-winner. It was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won half of them: picture, actor, director, costume design (Mark Bridges), and original score (Ludovic Bource). To my mind, Haznavicius's screenplay is at fault for not making Valentin's supine reaction to sound entirely credible: Is it actor's ego? A fear of the new? Embarrassment at his accent? And the decision to play Valentin's suicide attempt as comedy feels like a failure of tone on the part of the writer-director. That said, the performances by Dujardin, Bejo, and the always invaluable John Goodman as the studio boss keep the movie alive. I just don't think it belongs in the company of Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Blvd.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

The portrait of old age in Wild Strawberries was created by a writer-director who was 39, which is about the right time for someone to become obsessed with the past and with the portents of dreams. In the film, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöstrom) is 78, and by that time -- speaking as one who is nearing that age -- most of us have come to terms with the past and made sense of (or perhaps just accepted as a given) the memories and dreams that persist in haunting us. But although Bergman's film, one of the handful of breakthrough films he made in the mid-1950s, may not ring entirely true psychologically, it holds up thematically. Isak Borg is about to be commemorated with an honorary degree, one that stamps him as over the hill, and it's not surprising that it forces him to reflections about the course of his life. He is not about to go gentle into a night that he thinks of as neither good nor bad, but the journey he takes during the film -- this is an Ingmar Bergman "road movie," after all -- helps him decide to accept his life, mistakes and all. The brilliantly crabby performance by Sjöstrom holds it all together, even though the movie occasionally misfires: The squabbling young hitchhikers Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Björn Bjelfenstam), who come to blows over religious faith, could almost be a self-parody of Bergman's own obsession, which would play itself out rather tiresomely in his "trilogy of faith," Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963). And the dream sequence in which Borg sees his late wife (Gertrud Fridh) and her lover (Åke Fridell) adds little to our understanding of the character. It's also possible to find the reconciliation of Borg's son (Gunnar Björnstrand) and daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) a little too easily achieved, as if thrown in as a correlative to Borg's own affirmation. The radiant performance of Bibi Andersson in the double role of Borg's cousin Sara and the young hitchhiker who shares her name, however, almost brings the film into convincing focus. I don't think Wild Strawberries is a masterpiece, but it's certainly one of the essential films in the Bergman oeuvre. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

42nd Street is only mildly naughty, bawdy, or sporty, as the lyrics of Al Dubin and Harry Warren's title song would have it, but once Busby Berkeley takes over to stage the three production numbers at the movie's end, it is certainly gaudy. What naughtiness and bawdiness it contains would not have been there at all once the Production Code went into effect a year or so later. It's doubtful that Ginger Rogers's character would have been called "Anytime Annie" once the censors clamped down, or that anyone would say of her, "She only said 'no' once and then she didn't hear the question." Or that it would be so clear that Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is the mistress of foofy old moneybags Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee). Or that there would be so many crotch shots of the chorus girls, including the famous tracking shot between their legs in Berkeley's "Young and Healthy" number. Although it's often remembered as a Busby Berkeley musical, it's mostly a Lloyd Bacon movie, and while Bacon is not a name to conjure with these days, he does a splendid job of keeping the non-musical part of the film moving along satisfactorily. It helps that he has a strong lead in Warner Baxter as the tough, self-destructive stage director Julian Marsh, balanced by such skillful wisecrackers as Rogers, Una Merkel, and Ned Sparks. But it's a blessing that this archetypal backstage musical became a prime showcase for Berkeley's talents. Dick Powell's sappy tenor has long been out of fashion, and Ruby Keeler keeps anxiously glancing at her feet while she's dancing, but Berkeley's sleight-of-hand keeps our attention away from their faults. Nor does anyone really care that his famous overhead shots that turn dancers into kaleidoscope patterns would not be visible to an audience in a real theater. In the "42nd Street" number, Berkeley also introduces his characteristic dark side: Amid all the song and dance celebrating the street, we witness a near-rape and a murder. It's a dramatic twist that Berkeley would repeat with even greater effect in his masterpiece, the "Lullaby of Broadway" number from Gold Diggers of 1935. Berkeley's serious side, along with the somewhat downbeat ending showing an exhausted Julian Marsh, alone and ignored amid the hoopla, help remind us that the studio that made 42nd Street, Warner Bros., was also known for social problem movies like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) and the gangster classics of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice
I have nothing against slowness in movies if it leads to a satisfactorily immersive experience, but Death in Venice is just languorous, taking its own weary way toward the conclusion promised in the film's title. Watching it patiently has some rewards: Dirk Bogarde's fine performance as Gustave von Aschenbach; the sometimes opulent, sometimes melancholy views of Venice provided by Pasqualino De Santis's cinematography; the handsome sets by Ferdinandino Scarfiotti and costumes by Piero Tosi; loving glimpses of Silvana Mangano as Tadzio's mother; and great gulps of Mahler's third and fifth symphonies on the soundtrack. But the screenplay by Visconti and Nicola Badalucco carries no intellectual or emotional weight. Thomas Mann's novella is meant to be savored and reflected upon, but film inevitably carries us along with our expectations of action, and there is little enough of it going on anywhere but in Aschenbach's head to provide Visconti with something to shoot. He resorts to flashbacks: to the illness that causes Aschenbach to take his fatal trip, to the happy days of Aschenbach's marriage (Marisa Berenson plays his wife) and the devastating death of their child, to a visit to a prostitute who plays Beethoven's Für Elise on the piano, to the storm of cheers and boos at the performance of Aschenbach's composition (actually an excerpt from the Mahler third symphony) and an argument with a friend (Mark Burns) about his music. Tadzio (Björn Andrésen) clearly represents something that has been lost from (or never present in) Aschenbach's life, But Visconti never makes Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio either psychologically or thematically convincing. In the end we're left with little more than Aschenbach as the aging gay man doomed to a lonely death -- a too-familiar trope.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

The Virgin Spring was probably the first Bergman film I ever saw, and it made a powerful impression that stuck with me for 50-some years. I think that's one reason why I have mixed feelings about it today. In outline, it's a simple tale based on a 13th-century Swedish ballad, in which a young girl on her way to church is raped and murdered, but from the ground where the crime took place, a spring of fresh water erupts miraculously. But watching it today I see a more complex story, full of moral ambiguities. The girl, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is not such a paragon as I remembered: She is spoiled and prideful, trying to sleep late and avoid the task of taking the candles to the church. She may not even be as innocent as she is thought to be: The servant, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who accompanies her says the reason she wants to sleep late is that she was out the previous night flirting with a boy. Karin's mother, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), is on the one hand a religious fanatic given to self-torture, and on the other an indulgent parent unwilling to discipline her daughter. Karin's father, Töre (Max von Sydow), is divided between the Christian faith he has adopted and a furious desire to wreak revenge on the rapist-murderers. After he has killed the two men and the boy who accompanied them, he expresses remorse but also blames God for his daughter's fate. He vows to build a church on the site, and the spring gushes forth, but as a miracle it seems like a somewhat anticlimactic response to the horror that has gone before. (It's not like the site, where running water is copious, even needs another spring.) Bergman for once is working from a screenplay he didn't write: It's by Ulla Isaksson, which may be why the film is poised so ambiguously between Christian affirmation and Bergman's usual bleak alienation. It is, however, one of Bergman's most beautifully accomplished films, joining him with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, with whom he had worked only once before (seven years earlier on Sawdust and Tinsel), and with whom he would form one of the great working partnerships in film history. In its evocation of medieval narrative and meticulous re-creation of a milieu (the production designer is P.A. Lundgren), it's superb. But as a film from one of the great modern directors it seems oddly anachronistic and insincere.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

There comes a time in the history of any art when the pressure to do something new is exceeded by the difficulty of finding that newness. I think Persona is a good example of that problem. By the mid-1960s we had seen the great innovations in filmmaking of Buñuel, Antonioni, Resnais, and Godard, among many others. So when Ingmar Bergman chooses to open Persona with a montage of apparently random images, or chooses to dwell on images of self-immolating Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war or children being rounded up by the Gestapo, or to repeat an entire scene, or to resort to a kind of Verfremdungseffekt by showing the director and his crew filming the scenes we're watching, we can mutter to ourselves, "Seen that one before." The remarkable thing is that none of this apparently derivative film and narrative technique seriously weakens the movie, which is one of Bergman's best. Even though we can dismiss the killing of the sheep in the opening montage as a kind of homage to (or borrowing from) Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929), or point at the opening of Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) as another example of such a montage, or cite Godard's political engagement as a precursor of Bergman's use of Vietnam and the Holocaust in his film, none of that really matters. Persona stands firm on its own, largely because of the phenomenal performances of Bibi Andersson as Alma and Liv Ullmann as Elisabet, and the extraordinary art of Sven Nykvist's black-and-white cinematography. The only other film in Bergman's opus that seriously challenges it for primacy, I think, is Cries and Whispers (1972), and that largely because Bergman had by that time realized that innovation could be a dead end and that concentrating on story and character without cinematic tricks was all that was needed to make a successful film. The core of Persona lies in the fascinating, ever-shifting relationship between the mute Elisabet and the garrulous Alma, and we don't even need the sequence in which the images of the two actresses merge into one to get the point. It's sometimes said that the film works because Andersson and Ullmann look so much alike, but they really don't. Andersson has a kind of conventional prettiness: As I noted in my entry on The Devil's Eye (Bergman, 1960), she could almost pass as the heroine of a 1960s American sitcom like Donna Reed or Elizabeth Montgomery. Ullmann has a stronger face: a more determined gaze, powerful cheekbones, a fuller, more sensuous mouth. The two women could not have exchanged roles in the film without a serious disruption in their relationship: Even though she's three years younger than Andersson, Ullman has to play the mature, successful actress, and Andersson the eager young nurse. What gives their relationship in the film its marvelous tension is the sense that Alma is imbibing, in an almost vampiric way, the strength that Elisabet possessed before her onstage breakdown. Part of me wishes that Bergman had had the conviction to tell the two women's stories without the narrative gimmicks, but another part tells me that Persona has to be judged for what it is, and that it's one of the great films.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

Academy voters had essentially two choices for best picture of 2014, not that there weren't six other nominees, two of them, The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) and Whiplash (Damien Chazelle), quite worthy of the honor. But Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and Boyhood were the front-runners, in large part because they took great risks. In addition to an often surreal approach to its subject matter, Birdman was filmed to give the illusion that most of it was one continuous take -- even though the narrative was not necessarily continuous. And Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years, as its protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), went from the age of 6 to 18 years old. Faced with two such groundbreaking but inimitable films, the Academy chose poorly: It went for the flashy technique of Birdman instead of the profoundly revealing story of the pressures a child faces in the process of growing up. But it's not just Mason's story, it's also that of his mother (Patricia Arquette), his sister (Lorelei Linklater), and his father (Ethan Hawke). Arquette deservedly won a supporting actress Oscar, but Hawke (who was nominated) also demonstrated the remarkable ability to adapt his persona over the extended filming time. The divorced parents face pressures, too: the mother the more immediate one of becoming a single parent and then making disastrously wrong choices as she remarries, the father the long-term one of remaining a presence in the lives of his children. He seems to have it easier than his ex-wife does, but every time Hawke re-appears in the film, he beautifully communicates the sense of having lost something precious. Like his son, he grows, shedding his fecklessness and irresponsibility, just as Mason learns to sift through the continuous barrage of advice from adults and find the wisdom to become his own person. I don't know of any film that so tenderly presents what the quotidian is like, without resorting to melodramatic crisis at its turning points. The only other films I can even compare it to are François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Satyajit Ray's Aparajito (1956), which take place in much harsher milieus than the Texas towns and cities in which Linklater sets Boyhood. But even though that world is milder and more familiar than the places in France and India where Truffaut and Ray set their films, Boyhood reveals how the world shapes us -- or as Linklater puts it at the end of his film, "the moment seizes us" -- as well as those films do. I think it's a treasure that belongs in their august company.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is beginning to show its age, as any 41-year-old movie must. It no longer exhibits the freshness that won it acclaim as a masterpiece and raked in the five "major" Academy Awards: picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay -- only the second picture in history to do that: The first was It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), and only one other picture, The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), has subsequently accomplished that feat. Today, however, One Flew has the look of a skillfully directed but somewhat predictable melodrama; its tragic edge has been blunted by familiarity. In treating the material, director Forman goes for straightforward storytelling, without showing us something new or personal as an auteur. And as time has passed, some of the elements of the source, Ken Kesey's novel, that screenwriters Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman took pains to mitigate -- namely the countercultural glibness and antifeminism -- have begun to show through. It's harder today to wholeheartedly cheer on the raw, anarchic antiauthoritarianism of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) or to accept as a given the unmitigated villainy of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). We want our protagonists and antagonists to be a little more complicated than the film allows them to be. There are still many who think it a great film, but if it is, I think it's largely because it's the perfect showcase for a great talent -- Nicholson's -- supported by an extraordinary ensemble that includes a shockingly young-looking Danny DeVito, Scatman Crothers, Sidney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, and a touchingly vulnerable Brad Dourif.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Watching Pulp Fiction again -- I don't know how many times I've seen it but it feels like a lot -- I'm struck by how much the film is about language. In a way that's appropriate, given that it was nominated for seven Oscars but won only for the screenplay by Tarantino and Roger Avary. And certainly language comes to the fore in the way the film tramples on taboos like the f-word and the n-word, which are repeated so often that you're numbed to the expected shock. And then there's the great biblical tirade by Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), extrapolated from a passage in Ezekiel and repeated three times to make sure we get the point that Jules is some kind of prophet. And of course there's the familiar pronouncement by Vincent (John Travolta) that the French call a quarter-pounder with cheese a Royale with cheese. But throughout the film characters encounter semantic problems, as when Jules asks Brett (Frank Whaley) what country he's from. The puzzled Brett asks, "What?" thereby provoking Jules's response, "'What' ain't no country I've ever heard of. They speak English in What?" Or when Esmeralda (Angela Jones) asks Butch (Bruce Willis) what his name means, and Butch replies, "I'm American, honey. Our names don't mean shit." Or when Pumpkin (Tim Roth) calls out, "Garçon! Coffee!" and the waitress (Laura Lovelace) corrects him: "'Garçon' means boy." Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have even decided to give up robbing liquor stores because they're owned by "too many foreigners [who] don't speak fucking English."  For Pulp Fiction's characters language is a means of establishing dominance, as when Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) refuses Vincent's request to say "please" when he's giving orders. It's also a way of establishing intimacy: When Vincent brings Mia (Uma Thurman) home after she has overdosed, she finally tells him the silly joke -- a pun on catch up/ketchup -- that she refused to tell him earlier. So maybe Pulp Fiction isn't exactly about language -- it's also about violence and God and a lot of other things -- but I don't know of many other recent films that are so memorable because of it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926)

The Civil War had been over for 60 years when The General was made, and from the tone of it you might think the South had won. That was, however, the usual attitude in Hollywood, and would remain so for perhaps another 40 years. The reason usually given for Hollywood's avoidance of treating the Southern states as what they really were -- i.e., racist traitors -- is a fear of losing the considerable market that the former states of the Confederacy constituted. So The General seems biased toward treating the Confederacy as a genteel homeland full of honorable, self-sacrificing heroes. There's no shying away from waving the Confederate battle flag as there would be today, and the strains of "Dixie" are used to stirring effect even in the score composed for the restored version seen on TCM -- as they would have been in any theatrical showing in the year of its release. If all this sounds like a curious quibble about one of the great silent comedies, now regarded as Buster Keaton's masterpiece (or at least one of them), so be it. But I was born a Southerner and raised to take such sentimentality about the region's past as a matter of course, in large part because Hollywood encouraged it. Now that I know better, I don't think it hurts to quibble about such things, especially when the political air is currently filled with legislated tolerance of discrimination, much (but not all) of it emanating from the states of the Old South. But let's lighten up: The General is a great film despite its wrongheaded view of history, and Keaton is one of the masters of the medium. Every time I watch it I see something new: This time, for example, I was taken with the sequence near the start of the film when Johnnie Gray (Keaton) arrives home with the first of his two loves (his engine, the General) and goes to see the other love, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). He is trailed to her house by two small boys, following in single file, and unknown to them Annabelle joins the little procession. Arriving at her door, he knocks, only to notice with a double-take that she's right behind him. They enter her living room, with the two boys following and seating themselves on the couch to observe. Johnnie sees them, pretends that he's leaving, goes to the door, ushers them out first, and then closes the door behind them. It's a simple gag routine of no importance to the plot (we never see the boys again), but it's executed with such straight-faced precision, as if it were being performed to a metronomic beat, that it becomes a small delight. Henri Bergson's theory of comedy is as unreadable as most theories of comedy are, but he makes a point that some things are funny because they show human beings behaving mechanically. Human beings are elastic and unpredictable, and when they turn inelastic and predictable, they can become funny. Almost everything in The General is done with this straight-faced precision, so that we laugh even when Keaton departs from it. Marion Mack proves herself a game performer here, subjected to all sorts of torments from being caught in a bear trap to being tied in a sack and flung into a boxcar to being drenched with water. Throughout it all she remains a ditz, and we often want to throttle her because of it. So when Keaton gives in to the exasperation we are all feeling with her, he does start to throttle her -- and then, endearingly, changes his mind and kisses her.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

So, on a repeat viewing, does Birdman hold up as the triumph of style, technique, and performance that won it a best picture Oscar, or is it seriously undermined by pretentiousness and banality? That it is undermined I can't deny, just as I can't deny that the style of Kevin Thompson's production design and Antonio Sanchez's drum score are fresh and powerful, that the technical wizardry of Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography and the film editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione provide a seamless flow that appears to be one long tracking shot through most of the film, and that Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone give career-landmark performances. But I also have to say that I don't think the movie adds up to enough. As Richard Brody observed in his New Yorker review, Iñárritu even courts comparison to Jean-Luc Godard in the opening titles of his film -- a disastrous comparison to my mind, because whatever his faults, Godard was always going against the grain of conservative politics and social attitudes. Iñárritu is attempting a satire on the power of popular culture and celebrity to foul up even the best-intentioned attempts at doing something different. The problem is that his protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Keaton), is doing little more than trying to change his public image. He's known as a pop-culture hero from his hit Birdman movies, but like every clown who wants to play Hamlet, he's trying to make a Broadway debut in a deadly serious play he has crafted from a Raymond Carver short story. Naturally, he is plagued with insecurity, and nothing that his family, his crew, his fellow actors, or the busily buzzing entertainment media can break him free of it. There is a good human story here, but Iñárritu and his fellow screenwriters, Nicolás Giacabone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo, can't be content to just tell it. Instead, it has to be tarted up with touches of magic realism (the first time we see Riggan he is in his underpants, levitating in his dressing room), and by the unstated fact that Iñárritu has cast as the former Birdman a former Batman. We are in the realm of that tiresome trope, the relationship between illusion and reality, and the screenwriters can't help hammering on the point. Riggan has a sign on his dressing room mirror that says, "A thing is a thing, not what is said about that thing." And Mike insists that he has to drink real gin during the rehearsals because Raymond Carver was a drunk and everything else on the set is fake. He even tells Riggan's daughter (Stone) that the only time he is real is when he's onstage. The satire tends toward banality when the film takes as its target the omnipotent critic for the New York Times, who is determined, even before she sees the play, to destroy it because she resents a movie star like Riggan invading the sacred temple of the theater. So does the technical finesse of the film make up for these flaws? Only if you're willing to shut off some key parts of your intellect, which is something Godard would never ask you to do.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)

Woody Allen's warmest and maybe most irresistible film has none of the neurotic obsession gags or existentialist angst shtick that are so often associated with his work. It's a simple piece about the nostalgia that old songs evoke in us -- in Allen's case, reminiscences of the days when radio was the dominant, almost ubiquitous medium in people's lives, before television held people captive in their living rooms or the internet addicted them to the little screens of their cell phones or tablets. Specifically, it's Allen's childhood as seen through the eyes of young Joe (Seth Green) and his parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker) and extended family. It's also, secondarily, a tribute to many of the actors who have enlivened Allen's films, with smaller roles and cameos filled by Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, Diane Keaton, and many others. Production designer Santo Loquasto deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his re-creation of Queens and Manhattan in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but honors should go to the luminous cinematography of Carlo Di Palma, too. The soundtrack, supervised by Dick Hyman, ranges from such true classics as Kurt Weill's "September Song" and Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train" to novelty pop of the period like "Mairzy Doats" and "Pistol Packin' Mama." As one born B.T. (Before Television), I can really dig it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

High and Low begins surprisingly, considering that Kurosawa is known as a master director of action, with a long static sequence that takes place in one set: the living room of the home of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), an executive with a company called National Shoe. The sequence, almost like a filmed play, depicts Gondo's meeting with the other executives of the company, who are trying to take it over, believing that the "Old Man" who runs it is out of touch with the shoe market. Gondo, however, thinks the company should focus on well-made, stylish shoes rather than the flimsy but fashionable ones the others are promoting. After the others have gone, we see that Gondo has his own plan to take over the company with a leveraged buyout -- he has mortgaged everything he has, included the opulent modern house in which the scene takes place. But suddenly he receives word that his son has been kidnapped and the ransom will take every cent that he has. Naturally, he plans to give in to the kidnappers' demands -- until he learns that they have mistakenly kidnapped the wrong child: the son of his chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada). Should he go through with his plans to ransom the boy, even though it will wipe him out? Enter the police, under the leadership of Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), and the scene becomes a complicated moral dilemma. Thus far, Kurosawa has kept things stagey, posing the group of detectives, Gondo, his wife (Kyoko Kagawa), his secretary (Tatsuya Mihashi), and the chauffeur in various permutations and combinations on the Tohoscope widescreen. But once a decision is reached -- to pay the ransom and pursue the kidnappers -- Kurosawa breaks free from the confinement of Gondo's house and gives us a thrilling manhunt, the more thrilling because of the claustrophobic opening segment. The original title in Japanese can mean "heaven and hell" as well as "high and low," and once we move away from Gondo's living room we see that his house sits high on a hill overlooking the slums where the kidnapper (Tsutomo Yamazaki) lives, and from which he can peer into Gondo's house through binoculars. We return to the police procedural world of Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949), where sweaty detectives track the kidnapper through busy nightclubs and the haunts of drug addicts, and Kurosawa's cameras -- under the direction of Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito -- give us every sordid glimpse. It's a skillful thriller, based on one of Evan Hunter's novels written under the "Ed McBain" pseudonym, done with a masterly hand. And while it's not one of Kurosawa's greater films, it has unexpected moral depth, enhanced by fine performances, including a restrained one by Mifune -- this time, the freakout scene goes to Yamazaki's kidnapper.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, who starred in Seven Samurai, appeared together five years earlier in this noir detective story. In a crowded bus on a sweltering day, Murakami (Mifune), a rookie homicide detective, has his gun stolen by a pickpocket. He gives chase but loses the thief, and shamefacedly has to report it to headquarters. To make matters worse, he soon discovers that the gun has been used in a robbery, wounding the victim. He begins a dogged search for the gun. In an extended sequence Kurosawa's depiction of police work takes us into the lower depths of post-war Tokyo as Murakami follows a lead that suggests the gun may have been sold on the underground gun market. Murakami's guilt becomes more intense after ballistics work reveals that his gun had been used in a robbery homicide and he witnesses the grief of the victim's husband. But he's teamed up with a veteran detective, Sato (Shimura), who persuades Murakami not to quit the force and accompanies him in an effort to retrieve the weapon. It's not only a well-made thriller but also a complex portrait of the lingering effects of the war on the Japanese populace, peering into sleazy nightclubs and cobbled-together hovels. Mifune and Shimura are a fine team, with the former far more restrained than he was in Seven Samurai and the latter adding a deeper note of warmth to the quiet integrity he demonstrated as the leader of the samurai band. Keiko Awaji plays the nightclub dancer who knows the hangouts of the gunman (Isao Kimura, who played the naive young samurai Katsushiro in the later film) but is reluctant to give him up. A vivid supporting cast and Asakazu Nakai's atmospheric cinematography make this more than just a skillful reworking of an American genre movie.    

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa,1954)

It's a truism -- one that I've often echoed -- that silent movies and talkies constitute two distinct artistic media, and to judge the one by the standards of the other is an error. But it's almost impossible to watch films made by older directors, especially those who came of age when silent films were being made, without noticing the efforts they make to tell their stories without speech. It's true of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, even though they, especially Hawks, became masters of dialogue in their films. And it's true of Kurosawa, who although he didn't begin his career in films until 1936 and directed his first one in 1943, was born in 1910 and grew up with silent movies. I think it helped him learn the universals of storytelling that are independent of language, so that he became the most popular of all Japanese filmmakers. Others rank the work of Ozu or Mizoguchi more highly, but Kurosawa's films manage to transcend the limitations of subtitles more easily. Of none of his films is this more true than Seven Samurai, which is also generally regarded, even by those with reservations about Kurosawa's work, as his masterpiece. That's not a word I use lightly, but having sat enthralled through the uncut version, three hours and 27 minutes long, last night, I'm willing to endorse it. It's an exhilarating film, with none of the longueurs that epics -- I'm thinking of Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) and Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) -- so easily fall into. I don't know of any action film with as many vividly drawn characters, and that's largely because Kurosawa takes the time to delineate each one. It's also a film about its milieu, 16th-century Japan, although as its American imitation, The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), shows, there's a universality about the antagonism between fighters and farmers. Kurosawa captures this particularly well in the character of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the would-be samurai who reveals in mid-film that he was raised as a farmer and carried both a kind of self-hate for his class along with a hatred for the arrogant treatment of farmers by samurai. Mifune's show-off performance is terrific, but the film really belongs to Takashi Shimura, who radiates stillness and wisdom as Kambei Shimada, the leader of the seven. There are clichés to be found, such as the fated romance of the young samurai trainee Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and the farmer's daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), but like the best clichés, they ring true. Seven Samurai earned two Oscar nominations, for So Matsuyama's art direction and Kohei Ezaki's costumes, but won neither. Overlooking Kurosawa's direction, Shimura's performance, and Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is unforgivable, if exactly what one expects from the Academy.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)

Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth
No Regrets for Our Youth seems like an ironic title for a film made in a country that in 1946 had much to regret. It is, in fact, a kind of apologia for the students and intellectuals who resisted the rise of militaristic fascism in Japan, a fictionalized treatment of the "Takigawa incident" of 1933 -- an event that perhaps few in the West, except students of Japanese history, know about today. After a professor at the law school of Kyoto University was removed by the Japanese Ministry of Education for statements that the education minister regarded as "Marxist," other faculty members resigned and students went on strike. Kurosawa's film focuses on a professor (Denjiro Okochi), his daughter Yukie (Setsuko Hara), and two of his students, Itokawa (Akitake Kono) and Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita), and spans the years from the incident at the university to the end of the war. It's unusual among Kurosawa's films in that the protagonist is a woman, Yukie, whose relationships with her scholarly father, the accommodating Itokawa, and the rebellious Noge are examined in detail. She chooses to join Noge in his revolt against the Japanese government, which leads to their imprisonment and his death, after which she seeks out his parents, peasants in a remote village. They have been shunned by the other villagers as "spies" and "traitors," but she defies them and helps Noge's parents survive, doing the backbreaking work of clearing land and planting rice. Setsuko Hara, who did some of her most memorable work for Yasujiro Ozu but also appeared in Kurosawa's 1951 film Hakuchi, based on Dostoevsky's The Idiot, is nothing short of phenomenal as Yukie, ranging from the young and flirtatious girl to the worn but determined survivor. Kurosawa, as usual, is a skilled storyteller -- he edited as well as directed the film. The cinematography is by Asakazu Nakai.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957)

Is there anything better than Astaire singing Gershwin? And in Funny Face he sings five Gershwin songs with his impeccable phrasing and musicianship, which in itself would be enough to make this one of the great film musicals. Okay, maybe it's not up there with the best of the Astaire-Rogers films or The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953), but it's close enough. And he dances, too, with the same grace and vitality at the age of 58 as when he was much, much younger, especially in his great solo performance of "Let's Kiss and Make Up" and his duet with Kay Thompson on "Clap Yo' Hands." So Audrey Hepburn isn't in the same league as Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse as a dance partner, but she had studied ballet when she was much younger and her solo number parodying modern dance moves is one of the film's highlights. As a singer, she's a good actress, by which I mean that her big solo number, "How Long Has This Been Going On?", is memorable because of the way she sells the concept of innocence awakening to ecstasy, greatly aided by a big yellow hat and Ray June's gorgeous color cinematography. It's clear that she had a small, untrained singing voice, which is why Marni Nixon had to be called in to dub her in My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964), a role that makes demands she probably couldn't have met vocally. There are those who are bothered by the nearly 30-year age discrepancy between Astaire and Hepburn, but she spent much of her career playing opposite much older men like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant -- in her prime in the 1950s and early '60s, there were very few leading men her age who could match her star power. Some critics also object to the film's mockery of French intellectuals -- Pauline Kael calls the lecherous philosopher played by Michel Auclair "a sour idea" -- but that's probably asking too much of the conventions of romantic comedy. The screenplay is by Leonard Gershe, but the real heroes of the film are Astaire, Hepburn, Thompson, June, Roger Edens in his dual role as producer and composer, costume designers Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy, photographer Richard Avedon as "visual consultant," and most of all Stanley Donen, who not only directed but shared choreography duties with Astaire and Eugene Loring.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)

I Confess is generally recognized as lesser Hitchcock, even though it has a powerhouse cast: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden. It also has the extraordinary black-and-white cinematography of Robert Burks, making the most of its location filming in Québec. Add to that a provocative setup -- a priest learns the identity of a murderer in confession but is unable to reveal it even when he is put on trial for the murder -- and it's surprising that anything went wrong. I think part of the reason for the film's weakness may go back to the director's often-quoted remark that actors are cattle. This is not the place to discuss whether Hitchcock actually said that, which has been done elsewhere, but the phrase has so often been associated with him that it reveals something about his relationship with actors. It's clear from Hitchcock's recasting of certain actors -- Cary Grant, James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman -- that he was most comfortable directing those he could trust. And Clift's stiffness and Baxter's mannered overacting suggest that Hitchcock felt no particular rapport with them. But I Confess also played directly into the hands of the censors: The Production Code was administered by Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic layman, and routinely forbade any material that reflected badly on the clergy. In the play by Paul Anthelme and the first version of the screenplay by George Tabori, the priest (Clift) and Ruth Grandfort (Baxter) have had a child together, and the murdered man (Ovila Légaré) is blackmailing them. Moreover, because he is prohibited from revealing what was told him in the confessional and naming the real murderer (O.E. Hasse), the priest is convicted and executed. Warner Bros., knowing how the Breen office would react, insisted that the screenplay be changed, and when Tabori refused, it was rewritten by William Archibald. The result is something of a muddle. Why, for example, is the murderer so scrupulous about confessing to the priest when he later has no hesitation perjuring himself in court and then attempting to kill the priest? No Hitchcock film is unwatchable, but this one shows no one, except Burks, at their best.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Scenes From a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)

Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann in Scenes From a Marriage
It's said that when the six-episode miniseries aired on Swedish television, it was followed by a doubling of the divorce rate in Sweden. But that way lies the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In the United States, it's best known for the 167-minute version that Bergman edited for theatrical release, which is the way it's usually seen today, and which I watched last night. I remember being bowled over by it when I saw it the first time, sometime in 1975, and compared it favorably to A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974), which I found shrill and overwrought. The two films have different aims, of course: Bergman's is focused on what appears at the beginning to be a happy, equally partnered relationship, whereas Cassavetes is preoccupied with mental disorder. That the relationship of Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) eventually succumbs to its latent instability exposes the dynamic of every long-term commitment. Modern marriage, more easily dissolved than the ones our grandparents or great-grandparents experienced, is subjected to the searing glare of the five-times-married Bergman and found wanting. At the film's beginning, we are presented with the contrast of the relationship of Marianne and Johan with the viciously dysfunctional one of Katarina (Bibi Andersson) and Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and lulled into the expectation that the former couple have the strength to overcome the stresses that are evident: the placatory nature of Marianne, herself a divorce lawyer, and the egoism of Johan, an ambitious scientist. But the point of Scenes of a Marriage is that we have to beware of the most evident strains of our characters. Often harrowing, sometimes sexily comic, and superlatively acted, the film may be talky but it always makes me want to carve out the time to binge-watch the entire series.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

For a forthcoming review, I recently read the third volume of Simon Callow's projected four-volume biography of Orson Welles, in which Callow says, "murky though the world it discloses may be, every frame of Touch of Evil celebrates the art of film." I think that's exactly right, and it may be why so many of us love it -- and why it leaves many others cold. Touch of Evil is as mannerist as a Caravaggio painting, a dazzling demonstration of style and technique that takes precedence over character, over narrative, even over the performers on screen. The movie is, again in Callow's words, "mercurial, fluid, inventive, constantly morphing stylistically in dream-like fashion." Who else but Welles could have made so much of Charlton Heston in brown-face as a Mexican cop? Who else would have scattered so many familiar faces, from Akim Tamiroff to Zsa Zsa Gabor, throughout a film without turning it into a gallery of cameos? Who else would have encouraged Dennis Weaver to give such a hilariously jittery over-the-top performance? And is there a better curtain line than the one spoken by Marlene Dietrich as the bloated corpse of Hank Quinlan (Welles) lies wallowing in the canal: "He was some kind of a man.... What does it matter what you say about people?" It's a film populated by grotesques -- even the "normal" people like Vargas (Heston) and his wife (Janet Leigh) have something askew about them. The only authentic human emotion on display in the movie is that of Menzies (Joseph Calleia), whose love for Quinlan comes to such a bad end. What we see today is a restoration, made in 1998 in a laudable act of corporate responsibility by Universal, which had botched the release of the movie 40 years earlier. It follows the suggestions made by Welles himself in a 58-page memo after Universal hacked up the original release version. Among other things, the restoration removed the credits that had been superimposed over the celebrated three-minute, 20-second tracking shot that begins the film. The restoration also allows us to see Russell Metty's cinematography in pristine condition.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Amid the nearly universal acclaim for Schindler's List, two major criticisms are often heard. One is that Spielberg tends toward the sentimental, especially at the end of the film: He lets Schindler's remorse at having not been able to save more Jews from the Holocaust go on too long, and the appearance of the surviving Schindlerjuden with the actors who played them is an unnecessary extension of the film's already clear moral statement, blurring the distinction between documentary and fictionalized narrative. The other objection is that the appearance of the girl in the red coat during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto is a too-showy use of film technique in what should be a gripping, realistic scene. The former objection is a highly subjective one: For many, the film needs something to soften the harshness of the story's catharsis. For others, the answer is simply, "Let Spielberg be Spielberg," a gifted but traditional storyteller whose vision of the material he chooses is invariably personal. It's the second objection that gets to the heart of what film criticism is all about. I think David Thomson, in his brief essay on Schindler's List in Have You Seen ... ?,  puts the objection most provocatively when he observes, "With that one arty nudge Spielberg assigned his sense of his own past to the collected memories of all the films he had seen. All of a sudden, the drab Krakow vista became a set, with assistant directors urging the extras into line.... It was an organization of art and craft designed to re-create a terrible reality done nearly to perfection. But in that one small tarting up ..., there lay exposed the comprehensive vulgarity of the venture." I can't be as harsh as Thomson, for one thing because when I saw the film in the theater shortly after its release in 1993, I didn't notice the red coat -- the one note of color in the middle of the black-and-white film -- because I am mildly red-green colorblind. (It's difficult to explain to the non-colorblind, but those of us with the color deficiency usually see the color in question, but it's not quite the same color that the normally sighted see.) I did, however, notice the little girl: The framing by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski puts her in the center of the action and makes her search for a hiding place evident even in a long shot. What I did miss that time was the reappearance of the girl's body in a stack of corpses later in the film, something that would be evident to anyone who had earlier seen the red of the coat. Later, when I saw the film on video, after having read about the controversy over the red highlight, I was able to perceive the color -- not so intense for me as perhaps for you, but once brought to my attention inescapable -- and to be shocked by its reappearance in the later scene. But only when I watched the film again last night did I realize the function of the "arty nudge": When we first see the girl in the red coat, we see her from the point of view of Schindler (Liam Neeson) himself, on a hillside above the ghetto. And when we see her body, we are seeing it again from the point of view of Schindler, visiting the cremation site where Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) has been ordered to burn the bodies of those killed in the liquidation of the ghetto. It is a subtle but effective move because it coincides with (or perhaps precipitates) Schindler's decision to try to save as many of his Jewish workers as he can. Is it "arty" or "tarting up" or "vulgar"? Perhaps it is, but it's also effective filmmaking. And only the fact that the Holocaust remains so large and sacrosanct an event in the moral history of the West raises the question of whether "effective filmmaking" is inappropriate to such a subject.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956) revisited

François Leterrier in A Man Escaped 
"I don't laugh," Fontaine (François Leterrier) says. No, he doesn't. In fact, throughout A Man Escaped, Leterrier's expression rarely changes. But we always know the determination, the doubt, the calculation, the suspicion that's going through his head, thanks to Leterrier's use of his eyes. But as Eisenstein taught us so long ago, montage is responsible for so much of what we feel and witness in movies, and we have to credit Raymond Lamy's editing as well as Léonce-Henri Burel's cinematography and of course Robert Bresson's direction for making A Man Escaped one of the most powerful excursions into a man's soul ever put on film. The word "minimalism" was not so much in use when A Man Escaped was made as it is today, but if ever a film was minimalist in its sparing of conventional movie tricks like background music or flashy camerawork, it's this one. When I first blogged about this film, I was watching it in the context of other films by Bresson and was struck by how the director avoided all the clichés we associate with prison-break movies. This time, seeing it on its own, I can only think of how well Bresson's restraint as a filmmaker serves to keep us in Fontaine's head, blotting out all but his grim determination to escape. One sequence that especially grabbed me on this viewing was Fontaine's murder of the prison guard. We don't see it. We barely even hear it. We are watching a blank wall when it happens. But we hold our breaths while it does.

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

Although Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) is by far the more celebrated film, I think as satire The Manchurian Candidate is a more subtle and sophisticated response to the Cold War. It may have fallen out of favor too soon because its subject, political assassination, became so sensitive just a month after its release, when John F. Kennedy was shot. For reasons that remain unclear, including Frank Sinatra's purchase of the distribution rights, it fell out of release for a long time, and only resurfaced occasionally on television until 1987, when, after a screening at the New York Film Festival, it became available on video. It's a loopy, scary, often hilarious, sometimes puzzling, and -- especially in any election year -- absolutely essential American film. Frankenheimer, who was one of the pioneers of American television drama in the age of shows like Playhouse 90, never developed a distinctive style in his movie work, but he knew how to tell a story, even when the story is as convoluted as this one. With George Axelrod, he adapted the 1959 thriller by Richard Condon, sometimes lifting dialogue direct from the novel. The results are occasionally enigmatic, as in the meeting of Marco (Sinatra) with Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) on the train, where the dialogue shifts into the surreal and seems to be laden with code. In terms of plot, the encounter -- probably the oddest meeting on a train since Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint's characters met in North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) -- goes nowhere: Leigh's character serves no further discernible role in the narrative. But it serves nicely to keep the viewer off guard as things grow increasingly bizarre. The weakest performance in the film is probably that of Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw. Harvey can't seem to be bothered to keep up an American accent, but somehow even that fits the ambiguity of his character. Angela Lansbury, as Raymond's mother (this is the point where it's usual to mention that she was only three years older than Harvey), is absolutely terrifying as one of the movies' greatest female villains. It earned her an Oscar nomination, but she lost to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn). James Gregory, as her Joe McCarthy-like husband, would not be out of place in the current presidential campaign.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

Back in the day we would discuss for hours the significance of Thomas (David Hemmings) fetching an invisible tennis ball after having photographed an invisible murder. Then later we scrutinized the thematic relationship of Blow-Up to Antonioni's great trilogy of L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'Eclisse (1962). More recently, Blow-Up has figured large in discussions of the "male gaze." But lately it has become a historical artifact from a time and place half a century ago, the "swinging London" of the mid-1960s. And there I think it best belongs. What perhaps needs to be discussed is the tone of the film: Is it a document, or a celebration, or an exposé, or a satire? I think it is a bit of all of these, but mostly the tone is satiric. Thomas's aesthetic detachment, not to say voyeurism, makes him the perfect vehicle for an exploration of the era, from the grim flophouse he spends a night photographing to the drug-addled home of the wealthy, by way of a fashion shoot, a glimpse of what seems to be adulterous affair but may be a murder, a mini-orgy with some teenyboppers, a peek at two of his friends making love, and a performance in a rock club. All of it viewed with the impassive gaze of Thomas, Antonioni, and Carlo Di Palma's movie camera. Is it meant to be funny? Yes, sometimes, as when Thomas encounters the model Verushka at the party and says, "I thought you were supposed to be in Paris," and she replies, "I am in Paris." Or when we see the audience watching the performance of the Yardbirds in the club, showing no signs of enjoyment, but then going crazy when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and flings it into the audience. Thomas escapes from the club with a piece of it, eludes the pursuing crowd, but throws it away when he realizes it's worthless. (A passerby picks it up, looks it it, and tosses it away.) It's a portrait of a cynical era in which people, as Oscar Wilde put it, know "the price of everything and the value of nothing." Hemmings, with his debauched choirboy* face, is the perfect protagonist, and Vanessa Redgrave, at the start of her career, is beautifully, magnificently enigmatic as the woman who may or may not have been involved in murder. I'm not sure it's a great film -- certainly not in comparison to Antonioni's trilogy -- but it will always be a fascinating one.

*Almost literally: Hemmings started as a boy soprano who was cast by Benjamin Britten in several works, most notably as Miles in the 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw. He can be heard on the recording made that year with Britten conducting.