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

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Eternal Rainbow (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Yoshiko Kuga and Yusuke Kawazu in The Eternal Rainbow 
Osamu Sagara: Teiji Takahashi
Chie Obita: Yoshiko Kuga
Shiro Machimura: Takahiro Tamura
Kikuo Suda: Yusuke Kawazu
Fumi Kageyama: Kinuyo Tanaka
Naoji Kageyama: Chishu Ryu
Minoru Kageyama: Kazuya Kosaka
Kyoichiro Obita: Minoru Oki
Hiroko Sonobe: Hizuru Takachiho

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

An unstable mixture of documentary and domestic melodrama, The Eternal Rainbow begins with shots of the Yawata steel mill complex and a voiceover narration telling us how steel is made and then stretching out into the surrounding industrial community, where the company has built recreation and cultural facilities for the workers as well as what the narrator calls "beautiful apartment buildings." (They're rather bleakly landscaped multistory boxes with stairwells open to the elements.) We're also told that the smoke that rises above the mill appears in five distinct colors, although I couldn't discern much beyond various shades of gray and yellow. Despite the idyllic tone of the documentary, the lives of the workers don't seem particularly blissful: There's some resentment and discrimination between the factory workers and the office workers, which extends to the romantic entanglements that form the plot of the "fictional" side of  Keisuke Kinsoshita's film. The hazards of factory work are not overlooked, either. Twice we learn of accidents that send the steelworkers to the company hospital, though Kinoshita doesn't show either accident taking place. The second accident involves one of the principal characters, Suda, a handsome young worker whose job it is to ride on the front of the engine through the factory's railyards and leap off to run ahead and pull the switch. Suda rents a room from the Kageyamas, who have a son who never made the grade in strength or ability to work in the mill, and continually searches for a job. Naoji Kageyama is nearing retirement, and he and his wife will be forced to move out of the apartment they rent from the company. Suda also gets involved in pleading the case for his older friend Sagara, who is in love with the pretty Chie, who's not sure she wants to marry a steelworker; her parents want her to marry the engineer Machimura, who has just accepted a job with the company's Brazilian branch. These rather paltry domestic matters are not enough to carry the film by themselves, which may be why Kinoshita chose to insert them into the documentary. What interest the film has lies mainly in some impressive scenes inside the mill and in its environs, but it gets bogged down in scenes of the "Water Carnival" staged for the entertainment of the workers, consisting mainly of young women dancing to pop and light classical music in front of a band shell in the middle of a pond. There are too many characters to sort out for the fictional story to have much impact. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

Ethan Hawke and Gore Vidal in Gattaca
Vincent Freeman: Ethan Hawke
Irene Cassini: Uma Thurman
Jerome Morrow: Jude Law
Director Josef: Gore Vidal
Detective Hugo: Alan Arkin
Anton Freeman: Loren Dean
Dr. Lamar: Xander Berkeley
German: Tony Shalhoub
Caesar: Ernest Borgnine
Marie Freeman: Jayne Brook
Antonio Freeman: Elias Koteas

Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Cinematography: Slawomir Idziak
Production design: Jan Roelfs
Film editing: Lisa Zeno Churgin
Music: Michael Nyman

It's refreshing these days to see a science fiction movie not dependent on special effects to make its point, which is why the 21-year-old Gattaca feels retro, even dated in so many ways. The focus remains on ideas about genetic manipulation as its protagonist, Vincent, tries to elude detection as an "in-valid" -- one who was conceived in the messy old random way rather than the "valid" one of pre-screened fertilization that produced his brother, Anton. Vincent wants to go to space, and by working with a shady organization that provides in-valids with the identities of certified valids, he gets his chance, taking on the identity of Jerome Morrow, an athlete who was so depressed at coming in second that he walked in front of a moving car and is crippled for life. The film strains a bit to persuade us that people will accept Vincent's new identity, since Ethan Hawke's Vincent doesn't look a lot like Jude Law's Jerome, except in an ID photo that tries to strike some kind of plausible middle between the two. And later in the film we'll be forced to believe that Vincent and his brother, Anton, don't immediately recognize each other as the grownup versions of the siblings who used to compete with each other in swimming races. But suspension of disbelief aside, Gattaca manages to be a fairly witty and intelligent film. I particularly like the scene in which Vincent/Jerome and the other astronauts board the spaceship to Titan, wearing business suits, not the usual Mylar spacesuits we associate with space travel. It reminds me a bit of the men who board the rocket ship in Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902), wearing top hats.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Claire's Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970)

Aurora Cornu and Jean-Claude Brialy in Claire's Knee
Jerome: Jean-Claude Brialy
Aurora: Aurora Cornu
Laura: Béatrice Romand
Claire: Laurence de Monaghan
Mme. Walter: Michèle Montel
Gilles: Gérard Falconetti
Vincent: Fabrice Luchini

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Film editing: Cécile Decugis

Call me naïve, but I never realized before how much Claire's Knee is a kinder, gentler version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Éric Rohmer's characters exist to talk, not to act, so that physical seduction recedes in the face of verbal dalliance. The novelist Aurora in Claire's Knee is not, like the Marquise de Merteuil of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's novel and its many adaptations, out to deflower the innocent, using Jerome, her equivalent of Valmont, as her instrument. For her, the dalliance of older man and teenager is an intellectual exercise, one that might result in a novel for her and only incidentally in pleasure for him. So it's also of importance that of the two jeunes filles en fleurs of the film, it's the more intellectual Laura who truly attracts Jerome, while the strikingly pretty but vapid Claire may be dismissed along with the brief erotic thrill he gets from caressing her titular joint. But has a film ever been sexier without actual nudity and copulation? Add to that the taboos about underage sex, and we get a film taut with suspense yet essentially light-hearted and full of wisdom about the complexities of love.

Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924)

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel
George Bryan "Beau" Brummel: John Barrymore
Lady Margery Alvanley: Mary Astor
The Prince of Wales: Willard Louis
Lady Hester Stanhope: Carmel Myers
Duchess of York: Irene Rich
Mortimer: Alec B. Francis
Lord Alvanley: William Humphrey
Lord Stanhope: Richard Tucker
Lord Byron: George Beranger

Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Dorothy Farnum
Based on a play by Clyde Fitch
Cinematography: David Abel
Film editing: Howard Bretherton

The slow, stagy, and occasionally cheesy-looking costume drama was the film that lured John Barrymore away from Broadway to Hollywood. It's about the rise and fall of George Bryan Brummel (usually spelled with two l's) in the court of the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and then George IV. Barrymore gets to load on the old age makeup -- which makes him look startlingly like his brother, Lionel -- as the film goes on. The supporting cast plays a gaggle of semihistorical figures who are mostly there for atmosphere; I was surprised, for example, to discover that the rather ordinary fellow limping around in the background was supposed to be Lord Byron. None of the film's history can be trusted, of course, so there's really not much to be said about it other than that Barrymore chews the scenery with aplomb and that the 18-year-old Mary Astor is pleasant to look at.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Rock and Doris (and Tony)

Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, 1961)
Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall in Lover Come Back 
Jerry Webster: Rock Hudson
Carol Templeton: Doris Day
Peter Ramsey: Tony Randall
Rebel Davis: Edie Adams
J. Paxton Miller: Jack Oakie
Linus Tyler: Jack Kruschen
Millie: Ann B. Davis

Director: Delbert Mann
Screenplay: Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling
Art direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Film editing: Marjorie Fowler
Music: Frank De Vol

Send Me No Flowers (Norman Jewison, 1964)
Tony Randall, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Clint Walker in Send Me No Flowers
George: Rock Hudson
Judy: Doris Day
Arnold: Tony Randall
Mr. Akins: Paul Lynde
Winston Burr: Hal March
Dr. Morrissey: Edward Andrews
Bert: Clint Walker

Director: Norman Jewison
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein
Based on a play by Norman Barasch, Carroll Moore
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Frank De Vol

The gag "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin" has been attributed to various wags, including Groucho Marx and Oscar Levant, but in fact the canard that the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies were all about Day defending her virginity stems mainly from the second of the three films, Lover Come Back. In the first, Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959), Day's character seems perfectly willing to go off for a weekend with Hudson's, and in the third, Send Me No Flowers, they're already married. Still, these are sex comedies, and Day's characters are, if not virgins, at least naïve. Pillow Talk remains the best of the trio, if only because its initial teaming of the perky Day with the handsome Hudson feels inspired -- as if its makers had been watching the great screwball comedies of the past and had looked around for contemporary equivalents to Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard on the one hand, and Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Joel McCrea on the other. If Day and Hudson don't seem quite as distinguished as that company, I think that's because the movie industry had changed so much in the interim, with stars no longer seen as members of a studio's repertory troupe. To my mind, Day and Hudson hold their own nicely. What had also changed was a certain coarsening of the treatment of sex as the Production Code began to crumble -- there's a sense that writers and directors in the heyday of screwball comedy were content to finesse the limitations of the Code while those of the early 1960s were thumbing their noses at it. Certainly there's nothing so crass in the great comedies of the 1930s and '40s as the scene in Lover Come Back in which Day's Carol Templeton orders a designer to remodel the container of a potential client's product, saying that whoever gets the contract will have "the most attractive can." Cut to a closeup of the bunny-tail-adorned bottom of Edie Adams as the nightclub dancer Rebel Davis. There's also a lot of humor in these movies that feels sadly dated in ways that the classic '30s and '40s comedies don't, especially the play on symbols of the Confederacy when Hudson's Jerry is trying to woo a Southern client: Rebel exposes an array of Confederate battle flags across her chest as the band plays "Dixie." Send Me No Flowers feels a little less crass than either Pillow Talk or Lover Come Back, partly because we have moved from sex comedy to domestic comedy of the sort more familiar from TV sitcoms: Hudson's George is a hypochondriac who mistakenly thinks he's dying and wants to provide for Day's somewhat ditzy and impractical Judy. If the toned and brawny Hudson seems like a misfit in this part, we have to accept it as a given -- just as we have to accept the goofiness of Cary Grant as a paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). Perhaps one reason the producers cast the impossibly tall and bulked-up Clint Walker as Judy's old boyfriend was to make Hudson look comparatively normal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise
Lily: Miriam Hopkins
Mariette Colet: Kay Francis
Gaston Monescu: Herbert Marshall
The Major: Charles Ruggles
François Filiba: Edward Everett Horton
Adolph J. Giron: C. Aubrey Smith
Jacques: Robert Greig

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Grover Jones
Based on a play by Aladar Laszlo
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art direction: Hans Dreier
Costume design: Travis Banton
Music: W. Franke Harling

It's a measure of the stupidity of American censorship that this gemlike sophisticated comedy could not have been made in Hollywood two years later, after the Production Code was implemented, but was also withheld from re-release for years afterward, all because it dared to indicate that its adult characters were having sex with one another without benefit of clergy and because the blithely larcenous Lily and Gaston were allowed to get off without apparent punishment -- indeed, with considerable reward -- for their crimes. It's essential for anyone who wants to know why Ernst Lubitsch and his so-called "touch" were so highly prized for so long.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Snow Flurry (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

Yusuke Kawazu and Keiko Kishi in The Snow Flurry
Haruko: Keiko Kishi
Sakura: Yoshiko Kuga
Suteo: Yusuke Kawazu
Sachiko: Ineko Arima
Tomi: Chieko Hagashiyama
Nagura: Yasushi Nagata
Hideo: Masanao Kawakane

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Like so many of Keisuke Kinoshita's films, The Snow Flurry tells a conventional, melodramatic story while using innovative, even audacious film techniques. It's a family drama spanning about 18 years, from 1940 to the year the film was made. At the beginning we are watching a wedding procession in one of the long shots that are characteristic of the film, which seems to want to isolate its figures in its mountainous landscape. Suddenly, a young man breaks away from the onlookers and runs away, pursued by a woman. We will learn that they are Suteo and his mother, Haruko, and that the bride is Suteo's cousin, Sakura, but Kinoshita leaves it to us to piece together this information, first by flashing back to 1940, when Haruko, pregnant with Suteo, survived an attempted double suicide with her lover, Hideo. Hideo's father, patriarch of the Nagura family, reluctantly takes Haruko into the household, but on a decidedly subordinate status: Once the child is born, the tyrannical old man, a wealthy landowner, goes behind Haruko's back and officially registers the boy's name as Suteo, which means "outcast" or "abandoned." Mother and child live in an outbuilding, take their meals in a separate room from the rest of the family, and are expected to do menial chores. As a boy, Suteo is teased and bullied by other children, but he grows close to his cousin, Sakura, who is the only member of the "legitimate" Nagura clan who shows him kindness. When we return to the scene that opened the film, we understand why he is so distraught at her marriage, and why Haruko runs after him, afraid that he may do himself harm. What distinguishes this rather thin story is Kinoshita's almost experimental technique in telling it, relying on frequent jump cuts back and forth in time that are initially confusing but have a certain payoff in keeping the story from bogging down in sentimentality, Kinoshita's usual failing. It also helps that there are some fine performances, especially by the great character actress Chieko Hagashiyama as the matriarch, who survives the death of her cruel, apoplectic husband to rule the family with an iron will. She has a great scene in which, learning of Sakura's engagement, she breaks down in a mixture of laughter and tears -- joy that the family lineage will continue, sorrow that it has taken so long to ensure and that it will continue through the female line and not the male. Only 78 minutes long, it's not a great film but an impressive display of filmmaking skill.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Jinpachi Nezu and Mieko Harada in Ran
Lord Hidetora Ichimonji: Tatsuya Nakadai
Taro Takatora Ichimonji: Akira Terao
Jiro Masatora Ichimonji: Jinpachi Nezu
Saburo Naotora Ichimonji: Daisuke Ryo
Lady Kaede: Mieko Harada
Lady Sué: Yoshiko Miyazaki
Shuri Kurogane: Hisashi Igawa
Kyoami: Pîtâ
Tango Hirayama: Masayuki Yui

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Based on a play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Production design: Shinobu Muraki, Yoshiro Muraki
Film editing: Akira Kurosawa
Music: Toru Takemitsu
Costume design: Emi Wada

Lavish in color and pattern, Ran may be Akira Kurosawa's most pictorial film, to the point that the images and costumes and sets sometimes threaten to overwhelm the human drama at its core. To the extent that this is Kurosawa's second effort at translating a Shakespeare play into medieval Japanese terms, I have to say that I prefer his adaptation of Macbeth, the 1957 Throne of Blood, to this reworking of King Lear. It seems to me that in Ran, Kurosawa stumbles over the analogous figures from Shakespeare in ways that he doesn't in his earlier film. Turning Lear's daughters into Hidetora's sons robs much of the delicacy and painful sadness of the Shakespeare play, especially in the final reunion of Lear and Cordelia. And King Lear is a more complex play than Macbeth, with its intricate subplot involving Gloucester and his sons, and the multiple intrigues of the households of Goneril and Regan. Kurosawa has pared down and fused some of these secondary stories, but he still loses sight at times of his central figure, the Lear analog, Lord Hidetora. Tatsuya Nakadai is unquestionably one of the world's great film actors, but he's too sturdy a figure for the enfeebled Hidetora, and the stylized old-age makeup often hides his features -- except for the great, glaring eyes. There are grand things, however, in the film, including a wonderfully villainous performance by Mieko Harada as the Lady Kaede, and a curiously effective Fool, performed by the androgynous actor-dancer known as Pîtâ.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in lady Bird
Lady Bird McPherson: Saoirse Ronan
Marion McPherson: Laurie Metcalf
Larry McPherson: Tracy Letts
Danny O'Neill: Lucas Hedges
Kyle Scheible: Timothée Chalamet
Beanie Feldstein: Julie Stefans
Sister Sarah Joan: Lois Smith
Father Leviatch: Stephen Henderson
Jenna Walton: Odeya Rush
Miguel McPherson: Jordan Rodrigues
Shelly Yuhan: Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig
Cinematography: Sam Levy
Production design: Chris Jones
Film editing: Nick Houy
Music: Jon Brion

Maybe it's not the "female 400 Blows" that Greta Gerwig reportedly wanted to make, but it'll do until that comes along. We could only hope that Gerwig has something like François Truffaut's "Antoine Doinel cycle" in the works. It doesn't have to be the "Lady Bird McPherson" cycle, either, but just more sensitive, intelligent films about family and environment, capturing the essence that she caught of growing up in Sacramento. And I hope that if she does, she'll find more roles for the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, whose nuanced performance as Lady Bird's hard-working, hard-bitten mother, skeptical of anything that smacks of overreaching one's station in life, to my mind easily outshadows the performance that beat it for the supporting actress Oscar. Not that Allison Janney wasn't terrific in I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie), but her role was one-note when compared with the subtleties that the part of Marion McPherson demanded -- and Metcalf supplied. I also found myself thinking about a movie that stars Gerwig but which she didn't write or direct, Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan (2015), and realizing how movie formulas can either sustain or cripple a film that tries to reach beyond them. In Maggie's Plan, Miller tries to make a conventional domestic comedy rise above its conventions, to infuse its sometimes over-familiar comic situations with a bit of poignant realism. She fails because she's not willing to let her characters transcend the situations, to surprise us. Lady Bird is equally formulaic: It's essentially a coming-of-age teen comedy, something we've seen before. But Gerwig and her performers flesh out the characters into something more plausibly real than the genre demands.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Maggie's Plan (Rebecca Miller, 2015)

Travis Fimmel and Greta Gerwig in Maggie's Plan
Maggie: Greta Gerwig
John: Ethan Hawke
Georgette: Julianne Moore
Tony: Bill Hader
Felicia: Maya Rudolph
Guy: Travis Fimmel

Director: Rebecca Miller
Screenplay: Rebecca Miller
Based on a story by Karen Rinaldi
Cinematography: Sam Levy
Production design: Alexandra Schaller
Film editing: Sabine Hoffman
Music: Michael Rohatyn

Director-screenwriter Rebecca Miller keeps the comedy in Maggie's Plan in check, so that scenes that might have been hilarious wind up amusing, and scenes that might have been amusing take on an edge of melancholy. In the end, the film feels a bit overburdened by the necessity of working out the titular plan: a career woman who, in midlife crisis, decides to have a child with a sperm donor. That's the contemporary equivalent of the kind of formulaic dilemma that used to spin the plots of Doris Day's movies. As Maggie is going through her plan to inseminate herself with sperm donated by the agreeable, if somewhat oddball Guy, she manages to fall for a married man, John, who is at odds with his wife, Georgette. This leads to a comic scene that I don't think I've ever encountered in another film: Having just inseminated herself, Maggie hears the doorbell and crabwalks her way to answer it, only to have a rather messy accident when she stands up. It's John, of course, there to proclaim his love for her and to sleep with her. We jump ahead three years: John and Maggie are married and have a little girl. But as their marriage goes sour, and we realize that John and Georgette were really meant for each other after all, another plan is introduced: Georgette and Maggie plot to undo what has been done. Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore are marvelous performers, of course. But there's something off about Miller's touch, so that the humor is lost in the mechanisms of the plot. The ending kicker, however, in which Maggie realizes that Guy, and not John, is the actual father of the child, is nicely done.

Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017)

Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo in Thor: Ragnarok
Thor: Chris Hemsworth
Loki: Tom Hiddleston
Hela: Cate Blanchett
Heimdall: Idris Elba
Grandmaster: Jeff Goldblum
Valkyrie: Tessa Thompson
Skurge: Karl Urban
Bruce Banner / Hulk: Mark Ruffalo
Odin: Anthony Hopkins
Doctor Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch
Korg (voice): Taika Waititi
Topaz: Rachel House
Actor Thor: Luke Hemsworth
Actor Odin: Sam Neill
Actor Loki: Matt Damon

Director: Taika Waititi
Screenplay: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production design: Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent
Film editing: Zene Baker, Joel Negron
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh

Much fun, thanks to director Taika Waititi's irreverence toward the material he was given to bring to the screen: yet another superhero comic book adventure. But the Marvel people have learned a lot about their audience, something it seems the DC people haven't fully apprised, given the failure of some of their Superman and Batman movies to capture audiences. (The blissful exception, of course, is Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman, which vies with Thor: Ragnarok as 2017's best comic book movie.) The trick is to take nothing too seriously and to load your films with the best performers you can find. From the start, Chris Hemsworth was an ideal Thor: a gorgeous god, to be sure, but also a bit of a goof, easily outwitted by his clever brother Loki but able to survive in the end through sheer affability. If there's a flaw to Thor: Ragnarok it's that the stakes don't really seem that high: Asgard is a nice place, but none of us is ever going to visit there, so its destruction doesn't feel so much like a threat as the ones to Earth in the other Marvel adventures. The compensation is that unlike a lot of films with prestigious actors of the caliber of Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston -- people who could be off doing Shakespeare somewhere -- nobody involved seems to be going through the paces just for the paycheck. Everyone seems to be having fun, thanks to Waititi and other cutups like Hemsworth and Jeff Goldblum. It's not Hamlet, to be sure, although there's a play within a play with Chris's brother Luke, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon spoofing the "real" Thor, Odin, and Loki. Marvel has gone the jokey road before with the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies (James Gunn, 2014 and 2017), but those were exposition-heavy and overburdened with effects in comparison to Waititi's lighter, larkier approach.

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-young, 1960)

Kim Jin Kyu and Lee Eun-shim in The Housemaid
Kim Dong-sik: Kim Jin Kyu
Mrs. Kim: Ju Jeung-nyeo
Myung-sook: Lee Eun-shim
Cho Kyung-hee: Eom Aeng-ran
Kwak Seon-young: Ko Seon-ae
Kim Chang-soon: Ahn Sung-ki
Kim Ae-soon: Lee Yoo-ri

Director: Kim Ki-young
Screenplay: Kim Ki-young
Cinematography: Kim Deok-jin
Art direction: Park Seok-in
Film editing: Oh Young-Keun
Music: Han Sang-gi

Extraordinarily creepy. This landmark Korean film about sexual obsession and social class, made during the dark days of military dictatorship, pulls out all the stops: moody expressionistic lighting, oddly grotesque sets, performances sometimes on the edge of hysteria, and a nerve-jangling modern score. And then, at the end, it backs off and distances itself from the story with a moralizing segment addressed to the camera. The Housemaid teeters from naïveté to sophistication, but this makes it all the more fascinating to watch, even though sometimes the action seems to be taking place underwater: Two reels of the film negative were missing and in the restoration they were supplemented by prints that had hand-drawn English subtitles. Removing these overlarge subtitles was a laborious process and it left a kind of rippling effect on the images. Still, it's a remarkable foreshadowing of what Korean cinema would become in the age of directors like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, who have skewed visions of the world that feel a lot like they were influenced by Kim Ki-young.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Three Strangers (Jean Negulesco, 1946)

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Sydney Greenstreet in Three Strangers
Jerome K. Arbutny: Sydney Greenstreet
Crystal Shackleford: Geraldine Fitzgerald
Johnny West: Peter Lorre
Icey Crane: Joan Lorring
Bertram Fallon: Robert Shayne
Janet Elliott: Marjorie Riordan
Prosecutor: Arthur Shields
Lady Rhea Belladon: Rosalind Ivan
Junior Clerk: John Alvin
Gabby: Peter Whitney
David Shackleford: Alan Napier

Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: John Huston, Howard Koch
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art direction: Ted Smith
Film editing: George Amy
Music: Adolph Deutsch

This is the movie in which Peter Lorre gets the girl, though not the leading lady played by Geraldine Fitzgerald. Instead, Lorre's Johnny West winds up with Icey, the woman who adores him and even perjures herself to save him from being hanged. It's all the result of a rather charmingly tangled and entirely improbable plot cooked up by John Huston with the aid of Howard Koch and kicked around Warner Bros. for years until it finally settled in the hands of director Jean Negulesco. Like The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941) it teams Lorre with Sydney Greenstreet and features a mysterious artifact as something of a MacGuffin. Instead of a priceless black bird, the artifact in Three Strangers is a statue of the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin. Legend has it that if three people, strangers to one another, make a wish on the statue at the lunar New Year, the wish will come true. So Fitzgerald's character, Crystal Shackleford, lures the solicitor Jerome K. Arbutny and the down-on-his-luck Johnny to her flat, and the three agree that the only thing that will solve their problems -- she wants to win the love of her husband from whom she's separated, Arbutny wants to become a barrister, and Johnny just wants to own a bar -- is money. so they place their bets on a sweepstakes ticket. Sure enough, despite the skepticism of Arbutny and the comparative indifference of Johnny, Kwan Yin comes through. And equally sure enough, nothing goes right for the trio, with the possible exception of Johnny, who does, as we said, get the girl. Alfred Hitchcock had once expressed interest in the screenplay, and we might have gotten something great if he had settled on it, but Negulesco doesn't put much of an interesting spin on the material. But Lorre and Greenstreet, together or apart, are always fun to watch.

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015)

Emil Belton and Zoe Zandvliet in Land of Mine
Sgt. Carl Rasmussen: Roland Møller
Sebastian Schumann: Louis Hofmann
Helmut Morbach: Joel Basman
Lt. Ebbe Jensen: Mikkel Boe Følsgaard
Peter: Mads Riisom
Ludwig Haffke: Oskar Bökelmann
Ernst Lessner: Emil Belton
Werner Lessner: Oskar Belton
Karin: Laura Bro
Elisabeth: Zoe Zandvliet

Director: Martin Zandvliet
Screenplay: Martin Zandvliet
Cinematography: Camilla Hjelm
Production design: Gitta Malling
Film editing: Per Sandholt, Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Music: Sune Martin

The English title, Land of Mine, is an unfortunate but perhaps irresistible pun. The original Danish title was Under Sandet -- "Under the Sand" -- which lacks resonance with its central theme: the cruelty inflicted by victors on the vanquished. Land of Mine at least picks up on that theme, the patriotic urge to revenge one's country on those who attacked it, as well as indicating the action of the film, the defusing and disposal of land mines planted by the Germans along the Danish coast during World War II. It focuses on the Danish Sgt. Carl Rasmussen, tasked with training and supervising a company of German prisoners of war who are the ones who do the terrifying work of locating unexploded mines along the seashore. When we meet Rasmussen, he is brutally beating a German soldier who has had the audacity to pick up a Danish flag as a souvenir, so the officers in charge of the land mine detail are fairly certain that he will be no softy when it comes to handing the POWs. It turns out that the prisoners are very young -- barely out of their teens, late conscripts into the German army in the waning days of the war. Rasmussen and the POWs are billeted on a woman who has a small farm near the shore, and who shares his hatred for the Germans, stinting on the food she is supposed to provide the young men. She also has a young daughter, who in her innocence bears no grudge against the men and happily plays with one of them until her mother sends him away. It's a situation full of suspense, of course, but writer-director Martin Zandvliet can't seem to stay away from the obvious plotting clichés. We know that there will be some sort of rapprochement between Rasmussen and his fresh-faced charges. When we see that two of the young men are twins, who have dreams of returning to Germany and using their bricklaying skills to help rebuild their country, we're pretty sure that one or both of them will have to die. The hard-bitten sergeant shows no affection to anyone except his dog, so we're certain that the dog's a goner. We're not surprised when the little girl wanders off into the minefield and has to be rescued by the Germans, causing a change of heart in the girl's mother. And so on to the end of the film, which is supposed to be heartwarming but really feels like a foregone conclusion, a working-out of the movie's moral vision. Forgiveness is a fine and necessary thing, but Land of Mine too often sacrifices the drama for the sermon, just as the intrinsic facetiousness of the titular pun undercuts the seriousness of the film's intent.


The Disaster Artist (James Franco, 2017)

Dave Franco and James Franco in The Disaster Artist
Greg Sestero: Dave Franco
Tommy Wiseau: James Franco
Sandy: Seth Rogen
Juliette: Ari Graynor
Amber: Alison Brie
Carolyn: Jacki Weaver
Raphael: Paul Scheer
Dan / Chris-R: Zac Efron
Philip / Denny: Josh Hutcherson
Robin: June Diane Raphael
Mrs. Sestero: Megan Mullally
Iris Burton: Sharon Stone
Jean Shelton: Melanie Griffith

Director: James Franco
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Based on a book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
Cinematography: Brandon Trost
Production design: Chris L. Spellman
Film editing: Stacey Schroeder
Music: Dave Porter

The title, The Disaster Artist, doesn't refer directly to James Franco, but it sometimes seems as if it should. In a year full of men stepping on their own genitalia, Franco's misstep was particularly painful. Just as the raves were coming in not only for his directing and acting in The Disaster Artist but also for his work in a dual role on HBO's The Deuce, there came a series of allegations of sexual misconduct dating back to 2014. Franco had been thought to be a strong contender for Oscar nominations for both directing and acting, but was shut out of those categories: The Disaster Artist received only one nomination, for the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. We're not at the point yet where recent filmmakers' work can be judged independently of their personal lives -- the way, say, we appreciate the work of past artists without referring to the less admirable sides of their lives. To the extent that I can shut out Franco's alleged misconduct from any consideration of his movie, I have to say that it's a delight, a witty, observant portrait of a grandly mysterious eccentric whose age, country of origin, and source of income have still never been fully documented. It's also a film about the movies, about the joy and pain of making them, exhilarating even when the product, Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003), is widely derided as one of the worst movies ever made. Franco's performance is a great gallery of mannerisms into which the actor himself fully disappears -- although there are some who would say that Franco's own reputation for ego-tripping is an essential jumping-off point for the character. But the film is also a directorial showcase, in which Franco shows skill that his other work hadn't previously manifested. The Disaster Artist is full of tasty bits, such as Melanie Griffith's cameo as an acting teacher and Sharon Stone's as an agent. As Greg Sestero, Dave Franco serves to keep the wacked-out narrative on course, and it's fun to watch the brothers play off of each other.

I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie, 2017)

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya
Tonya Harding: Margot Robbie
Jeff Gillooly: Sebastian Stan
LaVona Harding: Allison Janney
Diane Rawlinson: Julianne Nicholson
Shawn: Paul Walter Hauser
Martin Maddox: Bobby Cannavale
Dody Teachman: Bojana Novakovic
Nancy Kerrigan: Caitlin Carver

Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Steven Rogers
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production design: Jade Healy
Film editing: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: Peter Nashel

The girly-girl character of women's figure skating has always been something of the sport's mainstay, attracting little girls with dreams of becoming ice princesses into what can be a brutal business. I think that one of the failings of I, Tonya is that it doesn't deal sharply enough with this aspect of the sport: the training and marketing. Sure, it glances at it severely, but because the film is made from the point of view of Tonya Harding, the blue-collar interloper into a mostly affluent suburban world, we don't get enough of the Nancy Kerrigan side of it: the girl shoved through adolescence into womanhood by the Big Sports machine. On the other hand, that would be another film entirely, and one that still needs to be made. So we should be grateful for what we get: an often witty and entertaining movie with some star performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.

Farewell to Spring (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

Yusuke Kawazu and Mashiko Tsugawa in Farewell to Spring
Eitaro Makita: Keiji Sada
Midori: Ineko Arima
Yasuo Makita: Masahiko Tsugawa
Kozo Teshirogi: Akira Ishihama
Akira Masugi: Toyozo Yamamoto
Takya Minimura: Kazuya Kosaka
Naoji Iwagaki: Yusuke Kawazu
Yoko Momozawa: Yukiko Toake

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The homoerotic edge of Farewell to Spring is obvious from the outset as five old friends reunite to discover the ways in which life has changed them: The young men seem more touch-feely than is usual in movies, especially Japanese ones. But director-writer Keisuke Kinoshita, who was himself as openly gay as possible in the Japan of his day, doesn't develop or exploit this bit of queerness. Instead, he's intent on exploring moral questions and social relationships: arranged marriages, the weight of Japanese history, political and economic change, and the choice whether to rat upon an old friend when it turns out that the friend has gone bad. Like many of Kinoshita's films, it ladles on emotion in the form of music -- some of it composed by his brother, Chuji -- rather than letting the story carry the emotional freight.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express
Shanghai Lily: Marlene Dietrich
Capt. Donald Harvey: Clive Brook
Hui Fei: Anna May Wong
Henry Chang: Warner Oland
Sam Salt: Eugene Pallette
Carmichael: Lawrence Grant
Mrs. Haggerty: Louise Closser Hale
Eric Baum: Gustav von Seyffertitz
Maj. Lenard: Emile Chautard

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman
Based on a story by Harry Hervey
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Art direction: Hans Dreier
Film editing: Frank Sullivan
Music: W. Franke Harling

There's something claustrophobic about Shanghai Express: Its characters are always enclosed -- in train cabins, in interrogation rooms, even in crowds of other people. Even the titular train gets itself into a tight spot, navigating the narrow passage through the streets of what the film calls "Peking." Which makes it all the better for Lee Garmes's camera, tasked as it is with making the most of Marlene Dietrich's face. Garmes (with director Josef von Sternberg looking over his shoulder) always finds ways to frame that face with veils and feathers and furs, with the actress's own hands, with misted windows, and when nothing else will do, a simple shaft of light caressing those eyelids, cheekbones, and lips. Fortunately, the movie is more than glamorous poses: There's a good deal of snappy dialogue and some wily character acting from the likes of Eugene Pallette, Louise Closser Hale, and -- in a role that seems to have been a kind of audition for his most famous one, Charlie Chan -- Warner Oland. I only wish that a leading man more attractive, or less plummily British, than Clive Brook had been provided for Dietrich. The story is nonsense, of course, and it verges dangerously on colonialist poppycock in its treatment of the Chinese, though even there it pulls back somewhat by turning Anna May Wong's Hui Fei from a stereotypical dragon lady into a genuinely heroic figure. It must also be said that Shanghai Express was made at the right time: A couple of years later, the sexual adventurism of its women would have been taboo under the Production Code and Hui Fei would have been made to pay for murdering her rapist.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Thus Another Day (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1959)

Yoshiko Kuga and Teiji Takahashi in Thus Another Day
Yasuko Sato: Yoshiko Kuga
Shoichi Sato: Teiji Takahashi
Tetsuo Mori: Takahiro Tamura
Goro: Kazuya Kosaka
Kazuo Sato: Kanzaburo Nakamura
Kenzo Akada: Rentaro Mikuni

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Production design: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The hyperprolific Keisuke Kinoshita released two other films in 1959, and though Thus Another Day feels like it's crammed with ideas, they were given short shrift when it comes to working them out. It's a short feature, only 74 minutes, but it has enough plots and subplots for at least two movies. The central figures in the narrative are a married couple struggling to make ends meet. Shoichi works in Tokyo while Yasuko stays home with their young son, Kazuo. They have bought a house in the still semirural outskirts of the city, and Shoichi makes a mad dash for the bus every morning. Yasuko scrimps and saves, but receives scant praise for it from either Shoichi or their rather bratty child. Watching his mother do the wash by hand, Kazuo asks why they don't have a washing machine, and when she tells him they're saving up for it, he says he'd rather have a television set instead. Yasujiro Ozu treated the same kind of bullying juvenile materialism in a film made the same year, Good Morning, and Kazuo's blaming his father for not making more money is reminiscent of the children in an earlier Ozu film, I Was Born, But... (1932). Then Shoichi suggests that they rent out their house for the summer to a manager in his company who is looking for an escape from the city heat. It would not only help them pay the mortgage but would also curry favor with the higher-ups in the company. So Yasuko somewhat reluctantly agrees to take Kazuo and spend the summer with her family, who live in a resort area, while Shoichi bunks with a fellow employee in the city. At that point, the film begins to spin off into subplots and loses focus. Tension between Yasuko and Shoichi grows when he spends most of his occasional brief visits paying attention to his boss's wife, who is summering in the area. Yasuko befriends an older man who has a very young daughter to whom he is devoted, but when the little girl dies, he's sunk in a crippling, suicidal depression. The man's wife works at the resort, where some gangsters are hiding out and young thugs are bullying the locals, including a shy young man with a fine singing voice who is courting a local girl. Though all of these characters are interconnected in some way, Kinoshita never quite brings all of the relationships into focus, so when there's a murder disguised as an accident and an inevitable tragic denouement, these events don't have the impact they should. What does work in the film is Kinoshita's manipulation of atmosphere, from the sweltering city offices to the lush resort area, but this isn't enough to make the film more than a tantalizing sketch.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975)

Tamino: Josef Köstlinger
Pamina: Irma Urrila
Papageno: Håkan Hagegård
Sarastro: Ulrik Cold
The Queen of the Night: Birgit Nordin
Monastatos: Ragnar Ulfung
First Lady: Britt-Marie Aruhn
Second Lady: Kirsten Vaupel
Third Lady: Birgitta Smiding
The Speaker: Erik Sædén

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Based on an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder translated by Alf Henrikson
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production design: Henny Noremark
Film editing: Siv Lundgren
Costume design: Karin Erskine, Henny Noremark

For me, Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute is a kind of linguistic palimpsest, with the English subtitles* superimposed on the Swedish translation of the German original. Not that I know Swedish,  but I've picked up enough of the sound of the language from watching movies that I can recognize a word or two. And I do know the German libretto fairly well from following along on recordings, so that when a singer begins a familiar aria, I hear the German in my mind's ear along with the Swedish being sung and then refracted through the words on screen. You'd think this would be distracting, but it isn't -- in fact, it only helps me appreciate the care Bergman took in making the film. Opera is not designed for the movies: It has moments of tightly choreographed action after which people stand still to sing, and you want more out of a movie than starts and stops. But what Bergman does so brilliantly is to supply close-ups and cuts that give the film an energy, often following the rhythms of Mozart's music. We don't get close-ups in the opera house -- thank god, because singing opera does unfortunate things to the singers' faces -- but Bergman has wisely chosen good-looking singers and had them speak-sing along with a previously recorded version, so there's little facial distortion. The Magic Flute is a problematic opera: Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto is a mess that never quite resolves the relationship between Sarastro, the Queen of the Night, and Pamina. Bergman solves this by creating one: In his version, Pamina is the daughter of Sarastro and the Queen, and he has abducted the girl because he doesn't trust his ex to raise her right. There's no justification for this in Schikaneder's text, and even Bergman hasn't quite resolved the problem of why Sarastro lets Pamina be guarded by Monastatos, whose chief aim seems to be to sleep with the young woman. Nor has Bergman solved the misogyny and racism of Schikaneder's libretto. Women come in for a good deal of disapproval in the opera, and Bergman hasn't eliminated that. Monastatos is tormented by the fact that he's black -- a Moor -- although he is given a kind of Shylockian moment of self-justification, and even Papageno, who is the pragmatic, commonsense type, reflects that there are black birds, so why not black people. (I'm not entirely sure that line of Papageno's even makes it into the Bergman film.) Most productions today gloss over these antique prejudices as best they can, however, turning The Magic Flute into a kind of fairy tale for the kids, with colorful sets and cute forest animals dancing to Tamino's flute. Bergman is no exception in this regard: The film is set in the theater, and he opens with a close-up of a lovely young girl** with a kind of Mona Lisa smile, and follows her eye line as she gazes at the images painted on the curtain, then scans the other faces in the audience, old and young and of various ethnicities. The film, which like his other childhood-centered classic, Fanny and Alexander (1982), was made originally for television,  is certainly one of Bergman's warmest.

*I don't know who did the English version, but it's a very good singing translation, not just a literal prose version of the original.
**She has been identified as Helene Friberg, who had bit parts in other Bergman films.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford in The Big Heat
Dave Bannion: Glenn Ford
Debby Marsh: Gloria Grahame
Kate Bannion: Jocelyn Brando
Mike Lagana: Alexander Scourby
Vince Stone: Lee Marvin
Bertha Duncan: Jeanette Nolan
Larry Gordon: Adam Williams
Tierney: Peter Whitney
Lt. Ted Wilks: Willis Bouchey
Commissioner Higgins: Howard Wendell
George Rose: Chris Alcaide
Lucy Chapman: Dorothy Green
Atkins: Dan Seymour
Selma Parker: Edith Evanson

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm
Based on a novel by William P. McGivern
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art direction: Robert Peterson
Film editing: Charles Nelson
Music: Henry Vars

So many of the roles in Glenn Ford's career established him as a figure of middle-American blandness that it comes as a surprise to see the cold-eyed intensity of which he was capable in the role of the vengeful Dave Bannion in The Big Heat. He's still the good guy, fighting crime bosses and corrupt cops, but with the film noir twist that he's willing to resort to some pretty bad means to achieve his ends. He's also a solid foil for Gloria Grahame at her sultriest and a tough foe for Lee Marvin at his thuggiest. We get a glimpse of the more familiar Ford in the scenes with Bannion and his wife and daughter that verge a bit on stickiness, though the more to emphasize Bannion's quest for vengeance after his wife is killed and his daughter threatened by Alexander Scourby's suave mobster, Mike Lagana. (Is it just my prurient imagination, or does the scene in which Lagana is wakened for a phone call by George, his bodyguard, wearing a bathrobe, suggest that George may be doing more to Lagana's body than just guarding it?) The Big Heat is a classic, one of the highlights of Fritz Lang's American career, and it still has the power not only to startle and shock but also to amuse, thanks to a solid screenplay -- Grahame in particular is given some delicious lines to speak, including Debby's classic riposte to Bertha Duncan, "We're sisters under the mink."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Paul Muni in the final scene of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
James Allen: Paul Muni
Marie Woods: Glenda Farrell
Helen: Helen Vinson
Pete: Preston Foster
Barney Sykes: Allen Jenkins
The Judge: Berton Churchill
Bomber Wells: Edward Ellis
The Warden: David Landau
Robert Allen: Hale Hamilton
Mother Allen: Louise Carter
Linda: Noel Francis

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes
Based on a book by Robert Elliott Burns
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art direction: Jack Okey
Film editing: William Holmes
Music: Bernhard Kaun

With the exception of the rather stilted early scene in which World War I veteran James Allen returns home to his stereotypical sweet, gray-haired mother and his oleaginous preacher brother, who urge him to give up his dreams and go back to his old job in the factory, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang mostly feels fresh and urgent. Its final scene gives up nothing in the way of a happy ending, as Allen backs away from his girlfriend into the darkness and chokes out the words "I steal," in response to her question about how he lives. It's above all a critique of American justice, particularly the concept of "states' rights," a shibboleth that was used for a long time as a defense of slavery and then of segregation and Jim Crow. The book on which the film was based was titled I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang, pointing the finger at the state at fault, and while Warner Bros. gave in to the government of Georgia, partly in deference to the Southern box office, and trimmed the title, everyone knew that this particular exploitation of convicts was primarily Southern in nature. And even the use of maps in the montages that show the course of Allen's travels makes it pretty clear where the chain gang is located. If American movies had remained as candid as this one is about social problems, they might have had a real impact. But two forces exerted pressure to tame the movies: the box office and the censors. I Am a Fugitive was made just before the Production Code went into effect, after which some of the brutal realism of the film would be forbidden -- along with the sexual frankness surrounding the character of Marie Woods. This was also Paul Muni's finest hour on film, along with his performance in Howard Hawks's Scarface the same year, before his energies as an actor were tamed by roles in William Dieterle's biopics The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) or hidden behind yellowface makeup in The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937).

Friday, May 25, 2018

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)


Henry Travers, Aubrey Mather, Oskar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey, Gary Cooper, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Barbara Stanwyck, and Richard Haydn in Ball of Fire
Prof. Bertram Potts: Gary Cooper
Sugarpuss O'Shea: Barbara Stanwyck
Prof. Oddly: Richard Haydn
Prof. Gurkakoff: Oskar Homolka
Prof. Jerome: Henry Travers
Prof. Magenbruch: S.Z. Sakall
Prof. Robinson: Tully Marshall
Prof. Quintana: Leonid Kinskey
Prof. Peagram: Aubrey Mather
Joe Lilac: Dana Andrews
Garbage Man: Allen Jenkins
Duke Pastrami: Dan Duryea
Asthma Anderson: Ralph Peters
Miss Bragg: Kathleen Howard
Miss Totten: Mary Field
Larsen: Charles Lane
Waiter: Elisha Cook Jr.

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Thomas Monroe
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art direction: Perry Ferguson
Film editing: Daniel Mandell
Music: Alfred Newman

If this intersection of the talents of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks doesn't feel much like a typical film from either, lacking some of Wilder's acerbity and Hawks's ebullience, it's perhaps because it was made under the watchful eye of producer Samuel Goldwyn. In fact, it's surprising to find Hawks working for Goldwyn at all after the brouhaha over Come and Get It (1936) that led to Hawks's being fired and replaced with William Wyler. But Goldwyn wanted the writing team of Wilder and Charles Brackett to work for him, and Wilder wanted to work with Hawks. Like everyone else in Hollywood, Wilder wanted to direct, and he wound up shadowing Hawks on the set of Ball of Fire, learning from the best. Wilder later called the picture "silly," and so it is -- not that there's anything wrong with that: Some of the greatest pictures both Wilder and Hawks made were silly, viz. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959) and Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938). Ball of Fire never quite reaches the heights of either of those movies, partly because it's encumbered by plot and cast. The "seven dwarfs"  of Ball of Fire are all marvelous character actors, but there are too many of them so the film sometimes feels overbusy. The gangster plot feels cooked-up, which it is. The musical numbers featuring Gene Krupa and his orchestra bring the movie to a standstill -- a pleasant one, but it saps some of the momentum of the comedy. Still, Barbara Stanwyck is dazzling as Sugarpuss O'Shea, performing a comic twofer in 1941 with her appearance in Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve, in which she enthralls Henry Fonda's character as efficiently as she does Gary Cooper's in Ball of Fire. There are those who think Cooper is miscast, but I think he's brilliant -- he knows the role is nonsense but he gives it his all.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Come and Get It (Howard Hawks, William Wyler, 1936)

Frances Farmer and Walter Brennan in Come and Get It
Barney Glasgow: Edward Arnold
Lotta Morgan / Lotta Bostrom: Frances Farmer
Swan Bostrom: Walter Brennan
Richard Glasgow: Joel McCrea
Karie: Mady Christians
Emma Louise Glasgow: Mary Nash
Evvie Glasgow: Andrea Leeds
Tony Schwerke: Frank Shields
Josie: Cecil Cunningham

Director: Howard Hawks, William Wyler
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, Jules Furthman
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté, Gregg Toland
Art direction: Richard Day
Film editing: Edward Curtiss
Music: Alfred Newman

William Wyler had just finished Dodsworth (1936) when the producer to whom he was under contract, Samuel Goldwyn, called on him to finish Come and Get It, which had been started under the direction of Howard Hawks. Goldwyn was unhappy with the way Hawks had treated Edna Ferber's novel Come and Get It, so he fired him. Goldwyn, a man of little education, was impressed with writers of big reputations, and liked to think of his movies as prestige items. Ferber was a big bestselling author of the day, best-known for multigenerational historical novels with colorful settings like the Mississippi riverboats of Show Boat and the Oklahoma land rush of Cimarron. The former had become a celebrated musical that had been filmed twice, first as a part-talkie by Harry A. Pollard in 1929 and then by James Whale in 1935, though it was not released until 1936. Cimarron had been made into a best-picture Oscar winner by Wesley Ruggles in 1931, so Goldwyn had been eager to cash in on the novelist's celebrity. He hired Hawks as director because the raucous frontier section of Ferber's novel reminded him of the director's Barbary Coast (1935), but when Goldwyn was sidelined by illness, Hawks jettisoned much of Jane Murfin's Ferber-approved screenplay and brought in one of his frequent collaborators, Jules Furthman, to rewrite and to build up the part of Walter Brennan's Swan Bostrom. Hawks shifted the focus away from Ferber's novel, much of which was about the exploitation of the land by timber interests, and built up the relationship between Bostrom and the protagonist, the ambitious lumberman Barney Glasgow. He also replaced Goldwyn's original choice for Lotta, Miriam Hopkins, with an actress he had discovered, Frances Farmer. Wyler was reluctant to take over from Hawks, and not only resisted Goldwyn's plan to give him sole billing as director but also insisted that Hawks receive top billing as co-director. In any case, Come and Get It turned into a rather curious mess, not least because Hawks was a notoriously freewheeling director with an intensely personal style whereas Wyler was a consummate perfectionist who seldom let his personality show through his work. Although there's some Hawksian energy to the film, it feels like it has been held in check. Moreover, the central character, Barney Glasgow, has been miscast. Goldwyn wanted Spencer Tracy for the part, knowing that Tracy could play both the romantic lead and the driven businessman that the part called for. But when Tracy couldn't get out of his contract with MGM, Goldwyn settled for one of his own contract players, Edward Arnold, a rather squat, rotund character actor with none of Tracy's sex appeal. The best thing about the film is that it gives us a chance to see Farmer before her career was derailed by mental illness. She sharply delineates the two Lottas, mother and daughter, playing the former with a kind of masculine toughness and the latter with a defensive sweetness. As the mother, she growls out the song "Aura Lee" in a Marlene Dietrich baritone, but later as the daughter she sings it in a light soprano. She also sometimes looks strikingly like the actress who played her in the biopic Frances (Graeme Clifford, 1982), Jessica Lange. The other impressive moments in the film are provided by the logging sequences directed by Richard Rosson and filmed by Rudolph Maté. Brennan won the first of his three Oscars for his "yumpin' Yiminy" Swedish-accented character.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

Sam Bottoms, Eileen Brennan, and Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show
Sonny Crawford: Timothy Bottoms
Duane Jackson: Jeff Bridges
Jacy Farrow: Cybill Shepherd
Sam the Lion: Ben Johnson
Ruth Popper: Cloris Leachman
Lois Farrow: Ellen Burstyn
Genevieve: Eileen Brennan
Abilene: Clu Gulager
Billy: Sam Bottoms
Charlene Duggs: Sharon Ullrick
Lester Marlow: Randy Quaid
Sheriff: Joe Heathcock
Coach Popper: Bill Thurman
Joe Bob Blanton: Barc Doyle

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay: Larry McMurtry, Peter Bogdanovich
Based on a novel by Larry McMurtry
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Production design: Polly Platt
Film editing: Donn Cambern

Not having seen The Last Picture Show for a long time, I was startled to realize that the protagonist of the film is Sonny Crawford, played by Timothy Bottoms. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars for the film, Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn were nominees, and Cybill Shepherd and even Randy Quaid went on to more prominent careers than Bottoms did, but his quiet, shyly withdrawn character is the one that carries the movie from beginning to end. The role could have been played by Bridges, but I think director Peter Bogdanovich made the right decision: Bridges is too up-front an actor for the role of Sonny. Bottoms's ability to fade handsomely into the background makes him a perfect actor for a character who needs to be quietly passive. He shouldn't outshine the rest of the ensemble, but instead bring home the film's message about the damage that can be done in a dying community like Anarene, Texas -- an antithesis to the sentimentalized small towns that for so long dominated American movies. What emerges from the starved lives of the citizens of Anarene is not a sense of community, a willingness to love and help one's neighbor, but a kind of deep meanness, a self-righteous self-centeredness. For me, the scene that best captures this emotional and moral stuntedness is the one in which the town goes out in hysterical pursuit of Joe Bob Blanton, the preacher's sun whom we see being bullied and mocked throughout the movie. In our times, I suspect, Joe Bob's revenge would have involved shooting up the local high school, but instead he picks up a little girl and drives off into the country with her, setting off a frenzy. But when he's found and carted off to jail, everyone seems to forget about the little girl: We see her tagging along, virtually unnoticed, after the mob that's rejoicing in its victory. We remember how surprised and disgusted people were when Sam the Lion left Joe Bob a thousand dollars in his will -- probably to tell the boy to get the hell out of Anarene before it's too late. Unfortunately, it seems to be too late for everyone else. Duane goes off to Korea, but he promises to return if he doesn't get shot. Jacy, we hear, is in Dallas, but she'll maintain the carapace of vanity and manipulativeness she evolved in Anarene wherever she goes. At the end, we're left with Sonny and Ruth, reunited in lonely hopelessness.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

John Wayne in Stagecoach
Ringo Kid: John Wayne
Dallas: Claire Trevor
Doc Boone: Thomas Mitchell
Hatfield: John Carradine
Curley: George Bancroft
Buck: Andy Devine
Lucy Mallory: Louise Platt
Samuel Peacock: Donald Meek
Gatewood: Berton Churchill
Lt. Blanchard: Tim Holt
Luke Plummer: Tom Tyler

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Based on a story by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art direction: Alexander Toluboff
Film editing: Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Music: Gerard Carbonara

Stagecoach breaks a lot of rules: The celebrated sequence in which the Apaches chase the stagecoach is filmed from various angles instead of adhering to the practice of keeping the action moving in one direction across the screen. Some of its climactic moments, such as the final showdown between Ringo and the Plummer brothers, occur offscreen. And the whole film is a bewilderment of locations, with John Ford's beloved Monument Valley showing up whenever Ford wants to use it, and not when it matches the location of the previous shots. The great example of this last is the introduction of the Ringo Kid himself, a flourish of camerawork that zooms in on Ringo with a Monument Valley butte in the background, no matter that neither lighting nor lenses nor the ordinary scrubby landscape of the scenes that frame this moment match up. Clearly, Ford wanted to give the moment a special magic, establishing the character as the film's hero -- even though John Wayne, a veteran of B-movies, was forced to take second billing to the better-known Claire Trevor. The magic worked, to be sure: Wayne became a central figure in the American mythology. If Stagecoach had been a flop, American movies would have been quite different. John Ford would have been known as a director of solid "prestige" films like The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941), three of the record-setting four pictures for which won the best director Oscar.* and not as the man who turned the Western into the essential American genre. John Wayne might have stayed in B-movies, at least until the outbreak of World War II made him a good catch for war pictures. But Stagecoach would never have been a flop: It's too cannily written, directed, and cast not to succeed. It is essential entertainment, cliché-ridden and sometimes clumsy, too obvious by half, but it draws you in irresistibly with its revenge plotting, its damsels in distress, and its social commentary -- the blustering crooked banker Gatewood is far more of a lefty caricature than Wayne or even Ford would have wanted to be associated with later in their careers, and probably owes more to Dudley Nichols's political leanings than to Ford's.

*The fourth, of course, was The Quiet Man (1952), which like the other three was not a Western, even though it starred John Wayne. That Ford never won for a Western is one of the many anomalies of the Academy Awards.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959)

Rock Hudson and Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk
Brad Allen: Rock Hudson
Jan Morrow: Doris Day
Jonathan Forbes: Tony Randall
Alma: Thelma Ritter
Tony Walters: Nick Adams
Marie: Julia Meade
Harry: Allen Jenkins
Pierot: Marcel Dalio
Mrs. Walters: Lee Patrick
Nurse Resnick: Mary McCarty
Dr. A.C. Maxwell: Alex Gerry

Director: Michael Gordon
Screenplay: Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling
Art direction: Richard H. Riedel
Film editing: Milton Carruth
Music: Frank De Vol

The Production Code censors wanted to change the name from Pillow Talk to something less redolent of sex, which is one of the more ludicrous of their demands. Because if Pillow Talk is about anything, it's about sex -- more particularly sexual anxiety and, to some extent, sexual identity. The date of the film's release, 1959, is just before the great revolution started by The Pill, and viewing it in that context only highlights how odd some of its dilemmas seem today -- as forgotten, let's say, as the telephone party lines on which much of the movie's plot depends. Doris Day's Jan Morrow, the career woman outwardly convinced that she likes being single but inwardly doubtful, is as problematic a figure as Rock Hudson's Brad Allen, the swinging bachelor who has a pad with switches that turn it into a rape trap. That so much fun can be had from these somewhat reprehensible characters is one of the things we can't quite share in naively today, just as Thelma Ritter's perpetually hungover Alma would be in reality a figure more in need of help than of laughter. Of course, the film knows that these are flawed people, and it sets out to help them in the only way possible in 1959: by marrying them off. (Even Alma finds her mate in Harry, the elevator operator.) Marriage was never really the cure-all for personal dysfunction, but the film was made in an era when we still liked to pretend that it was. The other rich subtext of Pillow Talk is sexual identity, most evident when Hudson, in real life a gay man, plays a straight guy who wants the woman he's trying to bed to think he might be gay, the better to pounce. Here the joke extends beyond the screen into the actor's private life, and it's to Hudson's everlasting credit that, though he's in on the joke, he can play it as if he isn't. The filmmakers take the game one step further by having Hudson's character blunder into an obstetrician's office and wind up  suspected of being a pregnant man -- a twist in the farce that provides the movie's kicker. All of this is meat and potatoes for queer theorists and other miners of cinematic subtext, and one reason why Pillow Talk remains a minor classic when other romantic comedies of the period just seem dated.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975)

Yuiy Solomin and Maksim Munzuk in Dersu Uzala
Capt. Vladimir Arseniev: Yuriy Solomin
Dersu Uzala: Maksim Munzuk
Anna Arsenievna: Svetlana Danilchenko
Vova Arseniev: Dmitriy Korshikov
Turtygin: Vladimir Kremena
Olenev: Aleksandr Pyatkov

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Yuriy Nagibin
Based on a book by Vladimir Arseniev
Cinematography: Fyodor Dobronravov, Yuriy Gantman, Asakazu Nakai
Production design: Yuriy Raksha
Film editing: Valentina Stepanova
Music: Isaac Schwarts

Dersu Uzala is at its best when it sticks to being an adventure story about the exploration of what was in 1902 an uncharted region of Russia: the extreme Far East bordering China on one side and the Sea of Japan on the other. Capt. Arseniev heads a company of soldier-engineers trying to establish the topography of the taiga, the forests of the region, when he encounters a permanent resident, a solitary hunter named Dersu Uzala, one of the people now known as the Nanai, but in the film called the Goldi. Dersu leads the surveyors through the taiga and uses his deep knowledge of the region to help them survive the changing seasons. Dersu saves Arseniev's life when the two of them are stranded on the shores of a frozen lake; with night coming on, Dersu has the captain join him in cutting tall grasses which they make into a kind of burrow that allows them to survive the fierce winds. Dersu and the captain reunite five years later when Arseniev returns to the region, and Dersu again saves the captain's life by shoving him from a raft that threatens to be swept away into river rapids. This time, the company of soldiers help Dersu, who clings to a branch in mid-river, make his way to shore. These two great action set pieces are the film's highlights, along with the engaging performance by Maksim Munzuk as the resourceful Dersu. Eventually, the story becomes a little mushy as Dersu begins to lose his sight, endangering his ability to survive alone in the forest. Arseniev persuades Dersu to come home with him to the city of Khabarovsk; Arseniev's wife and son welcome the old man, but the arbitrary demands of civilization are oppressive: Dersu rages, for example, against the fact that people pay for such things as water and firewood that he's used to helping himself to in the forest. This attempt at a critique of civilization feels obligatory and more than a little like a movie formula. But Kurosawa's mastery of blending action with personal drama helps the film over its boggy moments.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)

Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn in La Strada 
Zampanò: Anthony Quinn
Gelsomina: Giulietta Masina
The Fool: Richard Basehart
Giraffa: Aldo Silvani
Widow: Marcella Rovere
Nun: Livia Venturini

Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Production design: Mario Ravasco
Film editing: Leo Catozzo
Music: Nino Rota

Sad clowns have gone out of style, so to many of us today Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina seems more than a little cloying. But when La Strada was released, she was hailed as a master of comic pathos, as if she were the unacknowledged daughter of Charles Chaplin and Lillian Gish. Similarly, Federico Fellini's film now feels like an uneasy attempt to blend neorealistic grime and misery with a kind of moral allegory: Zampanó as Body, Gelsomina as Soul, and The Fool as Mind. So when Body kills Mind, Soul pines away, leaving Body in anguish. But La Strada has retained generations of admirers who are willing to overlook the sentimentality and latter-day mythologizing. It does remain a tremendously accomplished film, made under some difficulties, including constant battles by Fellini with his formidable producers, Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. If it sometimes feels like a throwback to the era of silent movies, it was virtually filmed as one, with its American stars, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart, speaking their lines in English and the rest of the cast speaking Italian, and everyone later dubbed in the studio -- which leads to that slightly disembodied quality the dialogue of many early postwar films possesses.