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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Sachiko Hidari in The Insect Woman
Tome Matsuki: Sachiko Hidari
Nobuko: Jitsuko Yoshimura
Karasawa: Seizaburo Kawazu
Chuji: Kazuo Kitamura
En: Sumie Sasaki
Midori: Masumi Harukawa
Madam: Tanie Kitabayashi

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Shohei Imamura
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Film editing: Mutsuo Tanji
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi

The Insect Woman sounds like a horror movie, and in a sense it is: It's the horror of 20th century Japanese history as seen through the eyes of a woman, Tome Matsuki. She is explicitly, and perhaps a little heavy-handedly, likened to an insect by the way Shohei Imamura opens and closes his film. It starts with a close-up of a beetle, scurrying across the ground and then trying to climb a crumbling mound of dirt. It ends with Tome struggling to climb a hill, carrying a satchel on her back and wearing flimsy wooden geta, which eventually fall apart and leave her walking through the mud in her socks. She is, like the beetle, a portrait of blind determination. And that determination, a survival instinct as strong as the beetle's, is what gets her through everything that befalls her in the film. Born in a squalid farming village to a woman known for her promiscuity, she is raised mainly by Chuji, her somewhat mentally challenged stepfather -- who also becomes her lover. She calls him "Papa," as she will later call her lover "Father." When war comes, she goes to work in a factory but is called home by the villagers, claiming that her father is dying, a lie to bring her back so she can become the mistress of their landlord. He abandons her and leaves her pregnant, and when the child is born her mother insists that since it's a girl it should be killed. But Tome keeps her and names her Nobuko. Eventually, Nobuko will also share Chuji's bed as well as that of Tome's lover, Karasawa, both with Tome's approval. Tome meets Karasawa in Tokyo, where she becomes a union organizer, a maid, a prostitute, and eventually the manager of her own staff of call girls. All of this is told in the most matter-of-fact way possible: Imamura never sanitizes or glamorizes or sentimentalizes Tome's behavior. It is what it is, he suggests: a way of getting through life. Even a setback like going to jail doesn't deter Tome. The film is held together by Sachiko Hidari's astonishing performance, in which she ages from teenager to a woman in her waning middle ages without obvious makeup tricks. Imamura's insistence on location shooting gives the film a documentary quality as well as a sense of life closing in on his characters: There is, for example, a horrifying scene that takes place in the home of Midori, one of Tome's friends, in which Tome, in the foreground, is distracted by the sound of Midori and a man making love, while in the background Midori's small daughter by an American serviceman climbs up on a chair by the stove on which the stew Tome is making is simmering. Although the focus is on Tome, we can clearly see the child as she imitates Tome's cooking and then knocks the pot from the stove. Although the little girl is scalded to death, everyone including Midori takes it in stride. Imamura's title in Japanese translates to Entomological Chronicle of Japan, which expresses perfectly the director's detached treatment of his characters: bugs viewed through a magnifying glass.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Coward (Satyajit Ray, 1965)

Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Haradhan Bannerjee in The Coward
Amitabha Roy: Soumitra Chatterjee
Karuna Gupta: Madhabi Mukherjee
Bimal Gupta: Haradhan Bannerjee

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a story by Premendra Mitra
Cinematography: Soumendu Roy
Film editing: Dulal Dutta
Music: Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray's romantic drama The Coward owes something, I think, to that greatest of romantic dramas, David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945). Both are drenched in what might have been, and both have directors who know how to create tensions that are never resolved. There's no resort in either film to the feel-good ending. The characters in both films are trapped in custom and convention. But this is explicitly a Satyajit Ray film -- a minor one, perhaps, but a gem nevertheless. The still above is an almost perfect encapsulation of the essence of the characters and their relationships: Karuna masked by sunglasses and giving the coldest of shoulders to Amitabha, whose desire and cowardice are written on Soumitra Chatterjee's expressive face, while Bimal lies passed out in the background, oblivious to what's going on between the other two. Or is he? It's one of the delicious ambiguities of Ray's screenplay and Haradhan Bannerjee's performance that we're never entirely certain that Bimal doesn't know that Amitabha and Karuna knew each other at university and were once in love, and that Amitabha hopes to renew that love in her. Bimal is a man enjoying his power and wealth, and he's not above employing it to abuse not only his wife but also the other man. He taunts the teetotaling Amitabha into drinking alcohol, first a glass of sherry and later a swig of whiskey from his flask, enjoying the coughing fit that the latter brings on in his victim. Ray beautifully builds tension in the scene above by occasional cuts to the cigarette between the supine Bimal's fingers as it burns down and eventually wakes him up. Meanwhile, Amitabha is making typically tentative moves toward Karuna, attempting to remedy his past mistake: When they were students, she tried and failed to persuade him to elope with her after her wealthy family objected to her relationship with a poor student. Even now, the best the dithering Amitabha can do is leave her to make the decision once again: He scribbles a note to her, asking that she leave Bimal and meet her at the train station. Once a coward, always a coward, it seems. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Eddie Shaw, Peter Falk, and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
Mabel Longhetti: Gena Rowlands
Nick Longhetti: Peter Falk
Martha Mortensen: Lady Rowlands
George Mortensen: Fred Draper
Margaret Longhetti: Katherine Cassavetes
Angelo Longhetti: Matthew Labyorteaux
Tony Longhetti: Matthew Cassel
Maria Longhetti: Christina Grisanti
Garson Cross: George Dunn
Harold Jensen: Mario Gallo
Dr. Zepp: Eddie Shaw

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Mitch Breit, Al Rubin
Film editing: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear

John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence was one of the first films I reviewed during my brief career as a professional film critic. I didn't like it much, and I compared it unfavorably to another film that had recently been released, the theatrical version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage (1973). I have changed somewhat over the years, and while I still greatly prefer the Bergman film, I have developed an appreciation for what Cassavetes was trying to do. Presenting raw, unfiltered life in a fiction film is no mean task, and it helps greatly that, in Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, Cassavetes had actors who were more than capable of giving their all to the task. The problem for me is that the film comes off as an acting showcase rather than a convincing depiction of a real situation. Cassavetes takes his players and puts them in real surroundings: a construction site, a wintry beach, a rather louche bar, and most of all a cramped house. It's somewhat like the reverse of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads": In A Woman Under the Influence the gardens are real, if rather weedy and untended, but the toads -- Mabel and Nick Longhetti and their children and in-laws and friends -- are imaginary, i.e., actors acting up a storm. The title is a little misleading, too. Mabel is not "a woman," in the sense of a stand-in for all womankind, but a specific person of peculiar habits, and she is not "under the influence" in the sense that we use it in the phrase abbreviated as DUI. Her problem is not drugs or alcohol, although she certainly gets loaded on the latter and there are hints that she has been taking pills (probably prescribed by the odious Dr. Zepp). Her problem is the influence of other people, especially her husband, who give mixed signals about how she should behave: Sometimes she's told "just be yourself," but when Mabel is most Mabel -- giddy and affectionate and generous -- she can't help crossing the invisible boundaries others set for her. And of course her husband, Nick, is as crazy as she is, except in a different way, and he has outlets -- his job and his buddies -- that allow him to blow off much of his steam. Mabel's only outlet is her children, who adore her, and that proves threatening to people like her mother-in-law (in an extraordinary performance by the director's mother, Katherine Cassavetes), who have their own fixed and unalterable ideas about child-raising. Ironically, Mabel's encouraging the kids to dance and play dress-up are much healthier than Nick's bullying them at the beach and letting them drink beer while riding in the back of a truck. I still don't think A Woman Under the Influence is a great film, as critics like Roger Ebert and Kent Jones do. I'm not sure it's even a good one. But it's an important and even fascinating one and I'll let it go at that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog, 1987)

Klaus Kinski in Cobra Verde
Francisco Manoel da Silva: Klaus Kinski
Taparica: King Ampaw
Don Octavio Coutinho: José Lewgoy
Captain Fraternidade: Salvatore Basile
Bernabé: Peter Berling
Euclides: Guillermo Coronel
Bossa Ahadee: Nana Agyefi Kwame II

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Based on a novel by Bruce Chatwin
Cinematography: Viktor Ruzicka
Music: Popol Vuh

With Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde constitutes the third element in a trilogy about the insanity of colonialism written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. It's the weakest of the three films, though it's the only one based on a previously published work, Bruce Chatwin's 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Its weakness may even stem from having a source: With an existing narrative to work from, Herzog may have been constrained to follow its outline, instead of giving free rein to his usual improvisatory imagination. The film really begins about a third of the way in, after Herzog has loosely established his protagonist's background as a failed rancher, Francisco Manoel da Silva, who has turned outlaw, the "Cobra Verde" of the title. Eventually his charismatic lawlessness leads him to a job as overseer on a Brazilian plantation where, after having impregnated the owner's three daughters, he gets sent on an errand to buy slaves in West Africa -- a task that his employers figure is a win-win situation: either they get rid of a troublesome person or they profit from his success as a slaver. The problem with the first third of the film is that it is told in rather enigmatic sequences, one including a conversation with a philosophical dwarf who owns a bar -- a scene long on talk and short on significance. But the African scenes are often powerful and colorful; Herzog doesn't yield to the impulse to preach about the slave trade, but we see its evil infect everyone, not only da Silva but also the Africans who have been corrupted by participating in it. Some of the big scenes don't quite fit: da Silva spends a long time training an army of women to depose the local chieftain, but his efforts end anticlimactically when the ruler, seated in a courtyard decorated with the skulls of his enemies, folds without a fight. In the end, da Silva is defeated by the decision of the Portuguese to end the slave trade, leaving him penniless and without purpose in a hostile land. In the powerful last scene, da Silva desperately tries to haul a boat, single-handedly, into the crashing surf, only to wind up rolling in the waves. The only witness to his futile efforts is a cruelly deformed man, whose lower body has been so weakened by what we can assume must have been polio, that he walks on all fours, mostly using his hands. It's a horrifying image that tacitly makes its thematic point about the consequences of imperialism.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Éric Rohmer's First Two "Moral Tales"

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
Barbet Schroeder and Claudine Soubrier in The Bakery Girl of Monceau
Young Man: Barbet Schroeder
Jacqueline: Claudine Soubrier
Sylvie: Michèle Girardon
Voice of Young Man: Bernard Tavernier

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Bruno Barbey, Jean-Michel Meurice

Suzanne's Career (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
Philippe Beuzen and Catherine Sée in Suzanne's Career
Suzanne: Catherine Sée
Bertrand: Philippe Beuzen
Guillaume: Christian Charrière
Sophie: Diane Wilkinson

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Daniel Lacambre

One-third of Éric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales series, the first two films, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career, together take up about an hour and a half of screen time and were shot on the cheap, using 16 mm film and available locations. But their greatest virtue is economy of storytelling. By "moral," of course, Rohmer meant anything but didactic; instead, his films are about the way people behave, especially in matters of sexual attraction. He leaves any judgment of what his characters do up to the audience, though sometimes his characters deliver their own verdicts about what has been done and said. Especially "said," because Rohmer's films are typically more about talk than action. Both films are also about the young in Paris in the early 1960s, a period and place on the brink of a revolution not only in politics but also in morals, manners, and style. This was a time just before the young of Paris reinvented themselves as what Jean-Luc Godard would call, in Masculin Féminin (1966), "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola." The students in these films still wear suits and neckties, not bluejeans, to class, and even among themselves maintain a kind of politesse. The protagonist-narrators of both films are shy guys, dithering on the edges of their infatuations and needing help from more outgoing friends to make the first move at the young women they have fallen for. The young man played by future director Barbet Schroeder in The Bakery Girl is a bit more outgoing than Bertrand in Suzanne's Career, but both blunder their way into romance. In fact, the former has a touch of the caddishness of Guillaume in the latter film, hitting on Jacqueline, the lower class bakery girl, while trying to catch a glimpse of the more sophisticated Sylvie, a member of his own social class. Even when the tables are turned, and he learns that Sylvie, laid up with a broken ankle, has been spying on him while he is toying with Jacqueline, he still throws over the bakery girl for her. We don't see Jacqueline's reaction to being dumped -- that might have tilted the moral tale toward didacticism. And Sylvie seems to feel no remorse about either her voyeurism or his touches of caddishness: She marries him anyway. Suzanne's Career is more complex, with money (or the lack of it) playing a key role in the amatory games being played by its quartet of characters. As in The Bakery Girl, it's the woman who apparently wins out in the end: Suzanne, after her on-again, off-again relationship with Guillaume, winds up happily married -- at least if we can judge from Bertrand's assessment of the situation. As always in Rohmer's films, the talk is what matters.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Don Lope de Aguirre: Klaus Kinski
Inez: Helena Rojo
Brother Gaspar de Carvajal: Del Negro
Don Pedro de Ursua: Ruy Guerra
Don Fernando de Guzman: Peter Berling
Flores: Cecilia Rivera
Perucho: Daniel Ades
Okello: Edward Roland

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Music: Popol Vuh

In the breathtaking opening scene of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a long line of conquistadors and their Indian slaves descend the trail carved into the almost vertical face of a mountain. It's a scene that we'll never see the likes of again because no one today would have the audacity to film it the way Werner Herzog did: with real people really descending a real trail down a real mountain. It would be done today with computers supplying either the mountainside or the people or both, and something would be lost in the process. Which is not to say that I think that Herzog's defiant insistence on working his cast and crew to the point of exhaustion and madness is a virtue. We can watch a film filled with similar perils, such as Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953), and know that the dangers are artfully simulated and that cast and crew are not in real danger, but still be thrilled by the simulation. But there is something about the raw, passionate obsessiveness of Herzog's work that remains essential. A film like Clouzot's, for example, is tightly scripted with well-drawn characters. Herzog's feels improvised, and the characters are simply figures in a hostile landscape. The central figure, Aguirre, is played by an actor who was, by all accounts, only a bit this side of the kind of madness that infects the character. Aguirre, the Wrath of God almost feels like a documentary, a genre in which Herzog was a master. That it's also a historical fable about colonialism, about the thinness of civilization's veneer, about the horrors wrought by religious fanaticism, and perhaps an allegory of recent German history only adds to one's uneasy sense that art sometimes emerges from cruelty and obsession.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Life Is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990)

Alison Steadman and Timothy Spall in Life Is Sweet
Wendy: Alison Steadman
Andy: Jim Broadbent
Natalie: Claire Skinner
Nicola: Jane Horrocks
Patsy: Stephen Rea
Aubrey: Timothy Spall
Nicola's Lover: David Thewlis
Paula: Moya Brady

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Production design: Alison Chitty
Music: Rachel Portman

In Life Is Sweet Mike Leigh switches his focus from the angry working class and soulless yuppies of High Hopes (1988) to the muddling-through lower middle class, coping with a world they never made but doggedly trying to make the best of it. Andy hates his work as a chef in an institutional kitchen, but he keeps on at it. Wendy, his wife, holds a couple of part-time jobs, one as a children's dancercise teacher, the other as a salesclerk in a children's clothing store. Her cheerful laugh hides disappointment and pain, some of it generated by their twin daughters. Natalie has short hair and works as a plumber, and we sense that there has been some concern from the parents about her lifestyle, though everyone maintains a façade of contentment. But Nicola has unkempt long hair and does nothing but lie about the house, snarling and smoking and mouthing left-wing slogans, and having slightly kinky sex with her boyfriend. Nicola is also bulimic, a disorder she hides from her parents, though her twin hears the vomiting through the thin row-house wall that separates their bedrooms, and Nicola has been hospitalized before. Despite this, the film is decidedly comic, partly because Andy and Wendy have friends who aren't always as helpful as they could be. Patsy persuades Andy to buy a rundown trailer that has been converted into a hamburger stand, with the idea that Andy can make enough money on weekends to eventually quit his job. Aubrey is trying to open a French restaurant with an Edith Piaf theme, the Regret Rien, and when his waitress decamps just before the opening he persuades Wendy to take her place. Disasters ensue, leaving the characters teetering on the line between hilarity and tragedy, as life in Leigh's film so often does. The "sweetness" in the film lies in the fact that Andy and Wendy are genuinely nice people who suffer fools gladly, even if they're their own daughters and friends (or each other). Leigh is never content to stick to formula, however, no matter how much the conventional logic of film comedy seems to demand it, so every moment of Life Is Sweet is likely to hold a surprise: The characters do and say things we wouldn't necessarily expect of them. The performances are uniformly brilliant, as we might expect of this particular roster of British actors, and Rachel Portman's lovely, almost subliminal score backs them up well.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)

Clemens Scheitz and Bruno S. in Stroszek
Bruno Stroszek: Bruno S.
Eva: Eva Mattes
Scheitz: Clemens Scheitz
Pimp: Wilhelm von Homburg
Pimp: Burkhard Driest
Mechanic: Clayton Szalpinski
Indian: Ely Rodriguez
Warden: Alfred Edel
Scott: Scott McKain
Auctioneer: Ralph Wade
Doctor: Vaclav Volta

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Music: Chet Atkins, Sonny Terry

Stroszek is Franz Kafka meets Mark Twain. Or maybe it's Alice in Wonderland if Alice had been a middle-aged ex-con with a history of institutionalization for mental illness. Or it's The Wizard of Oz with Stroszek/Dorothy accompanied by a prostitute and an elderly man instead of a scarecrow and a tin man. Or Stroszek is Don Quixote, or any other wandering naïf of myth and literature. Those analogues give the adventures of Bruno Stroszek the resonance they need to rise above the gritty absurdity of what happens in Werner Herzog's film. In any case, it's a film that's more than what some would reduce it to: a satire on the American dream. To be sure, Stroszek and Eva and Scheitz set out for Wisconsin certain that America will offer something better than the bleakness of lower-class Berlin. Scheitz has a nephew there who owns a garage and can offer a job to Stroszek while Eva can leave her abusive pimps -- who also torment Stroszek and Scheitz -- and get a job as a waitress. And for a while all is well, except for the language barrier and Stroszek's companions' belief that they can get a mobile home and a color TV on credit without making payments. As a consequence, Scheitz goes to jail and Eva, resuming her old life, this time as a truck-stop hooker, goes to Vancouver. Stroszek ends up literally going in circles, the tow truck he has stolen madly chasing its tail in a parking lot until it explodes while Stroszek rides a ski lift around and around, up and down the hillside, and a dancing chicken in a "roadside attraction" continues its mindless scratching. Herzog's real forte is documentary, and his precise and even witty choice of locations, plus his ability to employ real people instead of actors -- and to make them remain real instead of just amateurs reading lines -- gives Stroszek its grounding, even as the film's narrative goes wildly loopy. It's a film of richly strange and strangely rich details. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963)

Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels
Jacqueline ("Jackie") Demaistre: Jeanne Moreau
Jean Fournier: Claude Mann
Caron: Paul Guers
M. Fournier: Henri Nassiet
Hotel Clerk: Conchita Parodi

Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Music: Michel Legrand

A platinum blond Jeanne Moreau, dressed in white, evokes Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), though Moreau's Jackie Demaistre is not so lethal as Turner's Cora Smith. Jackie is modeling herself on both Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, but without Monroe's fragility or the American Jackie's poise. In short, the Jackie Demaistre crafted by Moreau and Jacques Demy is her own woman, and one of film's most memorable. She is a compulsive gambler, whose habit has estranged her from her husband and her small son, but she carries on nevertheless, winning big and losing big, yet somehow surviving even when she bets away her train ticket home -- or more likely, to the next casino. Into her circuit wanders a young bank clerk on his vacation, Jean Fournier, who has been introduced to the gambling life by a co-worker. Jean thinks gambling is immoral, yet once he gets a taste for it, and more to the point, once he meets Jackie, he flings himself headlong into the life. Unfortunately, Jean is played by an actor making his first film, Claude Mann, who although he has a handsome presence is not able to make the character into a coherent figure. Sometimes broody, sometimes violent, sometimes philosophical, sometimes just a callow young man with no aim in life, Jean is mostly obsessed with Jackie, who is obsessed with gambling. She returns his affection in her way, which means that if he stands between her and the roulette wheel, he'd better watch out. She takes up with him because she thinks he brings her luck, and their relationship frays when he doesn't. If Moreau had had someone more compelling than Mann to play against -- one of the hyphenated Jeans, Belmondo or Trintignant, for example -- Bay of Angels might have blown me away. As it is, it's just one of those quintessential French films of the 1960s -- a bit wispy as it comes to plot but full of atmosphere, much of it provided by the casinos of the Riviera and Michel Legrand's score. It has many enthusiastic admirers, but I have a feeling most of the enthusiasm was generated by Moreau, who could always blind one to the defects of her movies.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald: Klaus Kinski
Molly: Claudia Cardinale
Don Aqulino: José Lewgoy
Cholo: Miguel Ángel Fuentes
Captain: Paul Hittscher
Huerequeque: Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez
Station Master: Grande Otelo
Opera Manager: Peter Berling
Chief of Campa Indians: David Pérez Espinosa
Man at Opera House: Milton Nascimento
Enrico Caruso: Costante Moret
Sarah Bernhardt: Jean-Claude Dreyfus

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Production design: Ulrich Bergfelder, Henning von Gierke
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus

Why does Werner Herzog's infamously extravagant Fitzcarraldo begin with Fitzgerald/Fitzcarraldo and his brothel-owner mistress Molly attending a performance of Verdi's Ernani that stars not only Enrico Caruso but also, in the role of Elvira, Sarah Bernhardt (played by a man in drag), who mimes while a soprano sings from the pit? Probably to add several more layers of myth to the story, since there is some doubt that Caruso ever sang at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus and he almost certainly never appeared in a production of Ernani with a lip-synching Bernhardt. If Fitzcarraldo is about anything, it's about obsessions, the more extravagant and, yes, operatic the better. Which is why Herzog's own obsession with actually hauling a steamship over a hill through the jungle, instead of using special effects, models, and montage, is so ironic. If we can believe that Klaus Kinski is an Irishman, we can believe almost anything. Why resort to reality?  Fitzcarraldo is also about the power of illusions, of misguided and conflicting belief systems. Fitzgerald believes, against all evidence to the contrary, in himself. The Indians who labor for him do so because they believe he is some kind of god. So it's entirely appropriate that the central metaphor for a film about extravagantly obsessive belief in illusions should be opera, that most extravagant and illusion-filled of artistic media. (If, that is, you exclude movies.) Is Fitzcarraldo a great film? As fascinating as Kinski's eye-popping is to watch, he never transcends his persona as an actor to create a credible character. And I don't understand what Fitzgerald hopes to achieve by hauling the ship across the isthmus to the rubber plantation. Wouldn't he have to haul it back over again, this time with cargo, to benefit? But such considerations tend to fall by the wayside when viewers encounter the audacity of what's on the screen, and even more so when they learn the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the film. Fitzcarraldo falls into that category of cinematic overreaching occupied by movies like Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980). If it isn't a great movie, it's certainly a unique one. And maybe we should be thankful for that.

Monday, December 4, 2017

High Hopes (Mike Leigh, 1988)

Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis in High Hopes
Cyril: Phil Davis
Shirley: Ruth Sheen
Mrs. Bender: Edna Doré
Valerie: Heather Tobias
Martin: Philip Jackson
Laetitia: Lesley Manville
Rupert: David Bamber
Wayne: Jason Watkins

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Production design: Diana Charnley
Music: Andrew Dickson

Mike Leigh's excoriating satire of Thatcherite Britain, High Hopes, ranges from shrill to droll, from gratingly silly to quietly touching. A film like it from any other director might have been said to be out of control, but as usual Leigh knows exactly what he's doing, and he does it brilliantly if annoyingly. Annoyance is, in fact, part of the process: If we object that his characters are unreal, over the top, his response would have to be yes, but you know who they are, don't you? And we do, from the shabby socialists, Cyril and Shirley, to the working-class strivers who can't rise above their bad taste, Valerie and Martin, to the parvenu Tories, Laetitia and Rupert. We've all seen their likes, even in the United States -- perhaps they're even more noticeable in today's Trumpian America. Fortunately, Leigh knows to ground his satire in people we can sympathize with, namely, Cyril and Shirley. They are menial cogs in the capitalist machine, he's a motorcycle courier, she works for a landscape gardener, and they rage against the system, especially Cyril, who drags Shirley to Highgate Cemetery to worship at the grave of Karl Marx. She's more interested in the foliage -- "That ivy could use a pruning," she notes -- than in the moribund class struggle, but she loves her man, even if he doesn't want to have children because he doesn't want to bring anyone else into an overpopulated world in which socialism has failed. Poor as they are, they have good hearts, taking in the mentally challenged stray Wayne for a night and putting him up in their "spare room," which is a large closet with a mattress and sleeping bag. But they have to contend with family: Cyril's aging mum, who precipitates a crisis by locking herself out of her house, and his giddy sister, Valerie, whose husband runs a used-car lot and is a thorough cad. The crisis introduces us to mum's gentrifying next-door neighbors, Laetitia and Rupert, who have bought one of the row houses in a council estate and are renovating it to the height of yuppie chic. Rupert proclaims his mantra: "What made this country great was a place for everyone and everyone in his place." Then he adds, "And this is my place." The scenes from the lives of Laetitia and Rupert and from those of Valerie and Martin are hysterically funny, but Leigh knows that a little of them goes a long way -- a little of Valerie's manic giggle goes a very long way indeed -- so he wisely turns back to the more identifiably human (and humane) Cyril and Shirley to put things into perspective. The film concludes with Cyril and Shirley taking his mum up to the roof of the building in which they live to admire the rather drab view of the St. Pancras railway yards and the gasworks, with just a peek at St. Paul's. For once in the film, mum, who is usually sunk in senile confusion and depression, brightens a little: "This is the top of the world," she says. God help us, but it probably is.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Camille (Ray C. Smallwood, 1921)

Alla Nazimova in Camille
Marguerite Gautier: Alla Nazimova
Armand Duval: Rudolph Valentino
Gaston Rieux: Rex Cherryman
Count de Varville: Arthur Hoyt
Prudence: Zeffie Tilbury
Nichette: Patsy Ruth Miller
Nanine: Elinor Oliver
Armand's Father: William Orlamond
Olympe: Consuelo Flowerton

Director: Ray C. Smallwood
Screenplay: June Mathis
Based on the novel and play by Alexandre Dumas fils
Cinematography: Rudolph J. Bergquist
Art direction: Natacha Rambova
Costume design: Natacha Rambova

It's hard to judge from her performance in this silent version of Camille why Alla Nazimova (billed in the film, which she produced, as just "Nazimova") was so celebrated an actress, especially if you've seen Greta Garbo's performance in George Cukor's 1936 version of the Dumas fils story. To us, Nazimova's Marguerite Gautier is camp: a series of pouts and poses, with lots of swooning backbends, and an unfortunate hairdo that looks like a cross between an afro and an explosion in a wig factory. But it's very much Nazimova's movie: Her Armand is Rudolph Valentino, but she constantly upstages him, even to the extent of cutting the usual ending of Camille, in which Marguerite and Armand are reunited for her great resurgence of life just before she expires. In this Camille Marguerite dies unreconciled, with just the faithful Nanine and the just-married Gaston and Nichette as witnesses to her last swoon. It's as if she foresaw Garbo's grand demise and knew she couldn't compete. What the film mostly has going for it are the set and costume designs of Natacha Rambova (who may have been Nazimova's lover and who did marry Valentino). At some point, a decision was made to update the story from the 1840s to the 1920s, so Rambova's designs for Marguerite's Paris haunts are a fascinating version of Art Deco with touches of Art Nouveau and some hints of Aubrey Beardsley's drawings. Marguerite breathes her last in a round bed under a rounded arch in her Paris bedroom, which has a round window outside of which snow is falling. But Rambova seems less interested in Marguerite and Armand's country idyll, and the cottage is a rather drab affair, very obviously a three-walled stage set, and one that the director, Ray C. Smallwood, unimaginatively treats as such. As for Valentino, he's his usual handsome and dashing presence, but deprived of his final scene he makes less impact on the film than usual. In short, this Camille is a briefly tantalizing glimpse at some legendary figures, but not much of a drama.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Soft Skin (François Truffaut, 1964)

Françoise Dorléac and Jean Desailly in The Soft Skin
Pierre Lachenay: Jean Desailly
Nicole: Françoise Dorléac
Franca Lachenay: Nelly Benedetti
Clément: Daniel Ceccaldi
Ingrid: Laurence Badie
Theater Manager: Philippe Dumat
Sabine Lachenay: Sabine Haudepin

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Film editing: Claudine Bouché
Music: Georges Delerue

Some film titles almost seem to invite critical snark: I'm sure I'm not the first to be tempted to say that The Soft Skin is "only skin deep." But that sums up my reaction to François Truffaut's film: Its characters aren't developed enough. According to Truffaut, the inspiration for the film was seeing a couple kissing in a taxicab and wondering if they were cheating on their respective spouses, which led to meditations on the topic of adultery. Truffaut was working on his book about Alfred Hitchcock at the time, and perhaps Hitchcock's own explorations in voyeurism turned Truffaut into a voyeur as well. The protagonist, Pierre Lachenay, is a celebrated intellectual, a writer and editor whose lectures draw admiring crowds and even bring news photographers out to greet his arrival and ask him to pose with the pretty flight attendant he has encountered on the plane. The flight attendant is Nicole, although the appropriate word for her job would have to be "stewardess," for the film takes place in a time when flight attendants were exclusively young and female, almost airborne geishas, whose job was to please the mostly male business travelers. Their supposed sexual availability was of course an illusion, but one exploited in gag lines like "Coffee, tea, or me?" and in soft- and hard-core porn films. It's also a subtext to the character played by Françoise Dorléac, who captures Lachenay's roving eye on a flight to and from Lisbon, where he gives a talk on Balzac. The development of their affair begins to take on the character of farce, especially when they try to get away from Lachenay's wife for a few days under the cover of an introduction he is giving to a film about André Gide at a theater in Reims. Trying to hide their relationship is harder than they expect: Lachenay keeps encountering obstacles like unexpected dinner engagements and awkward hotel arrangements, and more especially an officious manager of the event who even winds up inviting himself on a ride to Paris with Lachenay, who has tried to cover up the fact that he's at another hotel with Nicole by saying that he has to return to the city that same evening. These scenes are mutedly funny: Their farcical character is tempered by Truffaut's skillful development of tension. Of course, the affair is doomed, but not before Mme. Lachenay learns of it, which leads to a ending marked by melodramatic violence. The whole film is an exhibition of Truffaut's skill; he plays with stretching and foreshortening time, with building suspense, with scenes that echo one another, and with subtle eroticism, all of it heightened by Raoul Coutard's exquisite black-and-white cinematography and Georges Delerue's score. But in Lachenay he hasn't given us a character who draws our sympathy, and his directing Jean Desailly to maintain an inexpressive face allows us to wonder what, exactly, this beautiful young woman sees in this ordinary-looking middle-aged man. It's an often provocative film, but one that depends more on film technique than on engaging characters and effective storytelling, so it left me cold.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

Natalie Portman and Billy Crudup in Jackie
Jackie Kennedy: Natalie Portman
Bobby Kennedy: Peter Sarsgaard
Nancy Tuckerman: Greta Gerwig
The Journalist: Billy Crudup
The Priest: John Hurt
Bill Walton: Richard E. Grant
John F. Kennedy: Caspar Phillipson
Lyndon B. Johnson: John Carroll Lynch
Lady Bird Johnson: Beth Grant
Jack Valenti: Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín
Screenplay: Noah Oppenheim
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Production design: Jean Rabasse
Costume design: Madeline Fontaine
Music: Mica Levi

I will give the benefit of the doubt to director Pablo Larraín (born in Chile in 1976) and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (born in 1978) and assume that they didn't know what a thudding sentimental cliché ending Jackie with a reprise of the title song from Lerner and Loewe's musical Camelot would seem to those of us who actually lived through the Kennedy years and experienced the assassination and extended period of mourning that followed. Back then, you couldn't avoid Camelot allusions, even when we were fully aware of the shortcomings of JFK and the Cold War mentality, especially that of his "best and brightest" who were about to lead us into the Vietnam quagmire. Even as early as June 1964, reporter Tom Wicker was trying to evoke a less sentimental vision in his Esquire piece titled "Kennedy Without Tears." This absence of real historical context is a blemish on a well-meaning and sometimes very good film. The very good part is the heroic effort of Natalie Portman to bring together a coherent portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, a woman undone by grief but struggling to keep a family and a legacy together. The best scenes in the film are those in which Jackie, briefly obsessed with the history of American political assassination, waffles between giving JFK a funeral that would rival Abraham Lincoln's and her fears that her husband's assassination might be part of a larger plot. She chooses a grand procession in which she, members of the administration, and foreign dignitaries would walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the church. Then, when Lee Harvey Oswald is gunned down, she calls the procession off and rages at her brother-in-law Bobby for having kept the news of Oswald's murder from her while she and her two small children were making a vulnerable public appearance.  But then she changes her mind again, after LBJ's assistant, Jack Valenti, has already informed the foreign dignitaries, including the very difficult Charles De Gaulle, that there will be a motorcade instead of a walk. "I will march with Jack, alone if necessary," she tells Valenti. If the rest of Jackie were as good as these scenes, it would be a major achievement. Unfortunately, it's blurred by an unnecessary frame story in which she is interviewed by a journalist and exercises an iron-willed control over what he will print, even as she spills the most intimate details of her experiences to him -- a way of launching flashbacks. There are too many lugubrious moments, scenes of Jackie wandering alone through the White House. There's also a rather sententious conversation with a priest in which he and Jackie flirt with existentialist concepts of the meaning of life and death -- even John Hurt, in one of his last film appearances, can't quite bring this one off. There's some miscasting, especially Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, whom he neither looks nor acts like. But throughout it all, Portman skillfully evokes Jackie Kennedy in voice and manner without mimicry. I have to credit the producers for making a film with a powerful lead role for a woman, but Jackie Kennedy was a more interesting person than this segment of her life suggests. I'd like to see a fuller biopic, perhaps a TV miniseries, that takes in her reaction to her husband's well-known infidelities and carries her through the controversial marriage to Aristotle Onassis and the rest of the Kennedy tragedies. I'll bet Portman could play the hell out of the rest of Jackie Kennedy's life.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Dragnet Girl (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Kinuyo Tanaka in Dragnet Girl
Tokiko: Kinuyo Tanaka
Joji: Joji Oka
Kazuko: Sumiko Mizukubo
Hiroshi: Koji Mitsui
Misako: Yumeko Aizome
Senko: Yoshio Takayama
Misawa: Koji Kaga
Okazaki: Yasuo Nanjo

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda
Based on a story by Yasujiro Ozu (as James Maki)
Cinematography: Hideo Shigehara
Art direction: Yonekazu Wakita

Yasujiro Ozu clung to silent film for a long time, but who needs sound when you and your cinematographer, Hideo Shigehara, can use the camera as eloquently as they do in Dragnet Girl? Early in the film, the camera explores an office setting, panning over rows of young women at typewriters, clocks slowly ticking away the workday, and rows of men's hats hanging in a hallway. In the last take, one of the hats drops from its hook, as if impatient for quitting time. One of the typists, Tokiko, is summoned from her machine to the office of the president, where she finds his son, Okazaki, who has been putting the moves on her by giving her jewelry, this time a ruby ring. She shrugs off his advances but accepts the ring -- she's living with a gangster, an ex-boxer named Joji, and it's his world that she prefers. This is one of Ozu's forays into the underworld made familiar to us by Hollywood, and it's permeated with echoes of Warner Bros. movies of the 1930s. American culture creeps in everywhere: Even the rules of conduct in a pool hall are written in English on the wall, and in the boxing gym that Joji frequents a sign proclaims the virtues of "The Manly Art of Self-Defense." When an eager young kid named Hiroshi shows up in the gym wanting to become a champion fighter, Joji takes an interest in him, and through him meets his sister, Kazuko, who works in a record store that prominently features the RCA Victor mascot, Nipper. Tokiko gets jealous of Joji's interest in Kazuko, but when she decides to emulate her rival by taking up knitting and other domestic pursuits, she and Joji quarrel. She storms out, but later returns to persuade Joji that it might be a good thing to go straight. Things get complicated, however, when Hiroshi, Joji's protégé, steals money from the cash register at his sister's store. Joji persuades Tokiko that they should pull off one last heist, robbing from the office where Tokiko works to get cash so Hiroshi can pay back what he stole. Ah, but crime does not pay. All of this melodramatic business is elevated not only by Ozu's sure-footed direction and attention to visual detail but also by the performances, especially that of  Kinuyo Tanaka, who once again shows why she should be honored as one of the great film actresses. She has Bette Davis's toughness combined with Lillian Gish's gift for pathos.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Jeff Spicoli: Sean Penn
Stacy Hamilton: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Brad Hamilton: Judge Reinhold
Mike Damone: Robert Romanus
Mark "Rat" Ratner: Brian Backer
Linda Barrett: Phoebe Cates
Mr. Hand: Ray Walston
Mr. Vargas: Vincent Schiavelli
Charles Jefferson: Forest Whitaker

Director: Amy Heckerling
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Based on a book by Cameron Crowe
Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Art director: Daniel A. Lomino

Of the few standouts in the teen comedy genre, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the one most beloved of that pig in the python, the Baby Boomers. It's not as nostalgic as the granddaddy of the genre, American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), or as smart as Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993), or as savagely witty as Tina Fey's Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). It's not even as cleverly conceived as director Amy Heckerling's other major outing in the genre, Clueless (1995). But it is the one most frank about teenage sexuality, especially in the relationship between Jennifer Jason Leigh's Stacy and Phoebe Cates's Linda, in which the supposedly "experienced" Linda serves as the virginal Stacy's mentor. The film also admirably confronts the question of abortion straightforwardly: Stacy has one and suffers no lasting trauma. Instead the condemnation lands on the guy, Mike Damone, whose callous treatment of Stacy is devastatingly portrayed. Otherwise, Fast Times is best seen as a landmark in the careers of future Oscar winners Sean Penn, Forest Whittaker, and Nicolas Cage (who has a small part billed as "Brad's Bud" under the name Nicolas Coppola), and as a demonstration of the skill of someone who has always deserved the Oscar she hasn't won, namely Jennifer Jason Leigh. The cast also features future big names like Eric Stolz and Anthony Edwards in small roles, and gave a brief boost to the career of Judge Reinhold that flared in the mid-1980s and then fizzled. But while Fast Times at Ridgemont High is never quite the "scuz-pit" that Roger Ebert, on an off night, saw it as, it hasn't worn very well. The acting is sometimes just this side of amateurish and the blend of the seriousness of Stacy's scenes with the more familiar classroom comedy involving Spicoli and Mr. Hand lacks finesse. While the movie has a slight feminist edge in its treatment of sex, it also involves some gratuitous breast-baring on the part of Leigh and Cates.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Dry Summer (Metin Erksan, 1964)

Ulvi Dogan and Erol Tas in Dry Summer
Osman: Erol Tas
Bahar: Hülya Koçygit
Hasan: Ulvi Dogan
Veli Sari: Hakki Haktan

Director: Metin Erksan
Screenplay: Metin Erksan, Kemal Inci, Ismet Soydan
Based on a novel by Necati Cumali
Cinematography: Ali Ugur
Music: Manos Hatzidakis

"Other cultures, other customs." That's the liberal mantra when it comes to things other countries do that we disapprove of, though we usually work on persuading them toward our views, especially when those things seem exceptionally cruel, like footbinding or female genital mutilation. Sometimes, though, we have to swallow hard and accept. This blog is a record of movies that I've seen, and I don't expect (and don't often get) drop-ins looking for recommendations. But I welcome them, and if you're one of those, I feel obliged to issue a warning: Metin Erksan's Dry Summer, a much-praised Turkish film, contains two instances of animal cruelty that may be more than you can take. The first is a close-up of a chicken having its head cut off. We've grown so far from our rural roots that a scene like this can be shocking, but we should be obliged to realize that it's a routine occurrence on farms around the world -- and that thousands of chickens are slaughtered in supposedly more humane ways every day so they can arrive in supermarkets neatly wrapped in plastic. The other scene is much harder to take: A dog is shot and yelps in pain before it dies. I see no way that director Metin Erksan has faked this animal's suffering and death -- we later see its carcass being hauled away, head lolling -- and I can't bring myself to countenance its raw inclusion in Dry Summer, even though the killing plays a role in establishing the mood and intensity of the film. Otherwise, Dry Summer, which was chosen for inclusion in Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project and released in the Criterion Collection, is a savage melodrama about a war between a landowner and the other farmers who depend on the spring on his property to water their crops. As characters in the film repeatedly say, "Water is the earth's blood." When Osman decides to dam up the water near the source on his property, he naturally inspires animosity: The dog that's shot is Osman's. But there is a war in Osman's household as well, when his younger brother, Hasan, takes a pretty young wife, Bahar. Osman is a widower, and he spies through a crack in the wall at Hasan and Bahar making love. As the war between the water-deprived farmers and the brothers intensifies, with the dam -- little more than a sluice gate -- continually under attack, Osman finally sheds blood, killing Veli Sari, the leader of the rebelling farmers, during a nighttime assault on the gate. But he persuades Hasan to take the rap: Osman claims that he's more mature and experienced and so the better choice to keep the farm going while Hasan goes to prison. Naturally, Hasan's absence also gives Osman an opening to seduce his brother's wife, which he finally succeeds in doing when a newspaper report says that a man named Hasan has died in prison. Osman has been intercepting Hasan's letters to Bahar, so ít's easy for him to tell her that her husband is now dead. Erksan stages Osman's obsessive pursuit of Bahar well, including a scene in which he's milking a cow as she watches, so he begins fingering and even mouthing the teats suggestively. In another scene, Bahar is bitten by a snake, and Osman relishes the opportunity to suck the poison from the wound in her leg. Eventually, of course, Hasan turns up alive, after being released from prison in a general pardon, and takes his revenge on his brother, resulting in a strong closing scene in which Osman's corpse floats down the watercourses after the dam is broken. Some very sophisticated camerawork adds to the impact of the story, and Erol Tas makes Osman into a memorable villain. Which is why I regret that the killing of the dog mars my reception of the film.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Crowd Roars (Howard Hawks, 1932)

James Cagney in The Crowd Roars
Joe Greer: James Cagney
Lee Merrick: Ann Dvorak
Anne Scott: Joan Blondell
Eddie Greer: Eric Linden
Spud Connors: Frank McHugh
Pop Greer: Guy Kibbee

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: John Bright, Niven Busch, Kubec Glasmon
Based on a story by Howard Hawks and Seton I. Miller
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox, John Stumar
Film editing: Thomas Pratt

The "Hawksian woman," able to crack wise and exhibit grace under pressure as well as any man, is one of the glories of Hollywood movies. Actresses as various as Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, Joanne Dru, and Angie Dickinson held their own with domineering males like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne, among others. So when I saw that TCM had scheduled a Howard Hawks film I hadn't seen starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell, I thought I knew what I was in for. If anyone could take down a peg the Cagney who became famous for abusing Mae Clarke with half a grapefruit in The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931) it would be Blondell, Warners' likable tough girl. Blondell never got the chance in The Public Enemy, in which she's linked up with Edward Woods instead of Cagney. Well, here's another missed opportunity: Though Blondell gets top billing with Cagney, he's paired off with Ann Dvorak; Blondell gets the forgettable (and forgotten) juvenile Eric Linden instead. And Dvorak's character is no Hawksian woman: Instead of toughing it out with a wisecrack when Cagney's character dumps her, she goes into hysterics. So instead of the witty battle of the sexes we have come to expect from Hawks, in The Crowd Roars we get a passable and sometimes exciting action movie about race car drivers, with a little romantic entanglement thrown in to bridge the well-shot and well-staged racing scenes. Cagney's Joe Greer is a champion race car driver -- he's won at Indianapolis three times -- who goes home to find that his kid brother, Eddie, wants to follow in his footsteps. So Joe takes Eddie back to L.A. with him, where he's been living without benefit of wedlock -- this is a pre-Code film -- with Lee Merrick. Initially he tries to hide his relationship with Lee to protect the younger man's morals -- to "keep him off of booze and women," as he puts it -- but truth will out. When he decides to break up with Lee, she enlists her friend Anne in a revenge plot: Anne will frustrate Joe's puritanical scheme by seducing Eddie. This doesn't work out: Anne and Eddie fall in love. Meanwhile, Joe and Eddie compete in a race in which Joe's sidekick Spud is killed in a flaming crash -- there's a remarkable series of scenes in which drivers, including Joe, drop out of the race because they're nauseated by having to repeatedly pass the crash site with its smell of burning flesh. Eddie wins the race and goes on to become the star driver that Joe was, while Joe hits the bottle and the skids. Redemption and reconciliation of course ensue. None of this is new and all of it is predictable, but Hawks knows how to pump up the action when everything gets soppy. As for the Hawksian woman, she will have to wait until 1934 and Twentieth Century for Carole Lombard to give her the first satisfactory outing.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Walk Cheerfully (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)

Minoru Takada and Hisao Yoshitani in Walk Cheerfully
Kenji Koyama: Minoru Takada
Yasue Sugimoto: Hiroko Kawasaki
Senko: Hisao Yoshitani
Chieko: Satoko Date
Ono: Takeshi Sakamoto
Gunpei: Teruo Mori
Yasue's Sister: Nobuko Matsuzono
Mother: Utako Suzuki

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda
Based on a story by Hiroshi Shimizu
Cinematography: Hideo Shigehara
Set decoration: Hiroshi Mizutani

The English titles of Yasujiro Ozu's films are typically oblique, ranging from the atmospheric but uninformative -- Late Spring (1949),  Early Summer (1951) -- to the proverbial or epigrammatic (but only in Japanese) -- The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), A Hen in the Wind (1958) -- to the simply mistranslated -- Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947). The title of Walk Cheerfully would seem to be similarly somewhat aside of the mark for what started as a gangster movie, but at least the phrase appears in an intertitle in the film as the parting advice given by Yasue to Kenji as he's being taken away by the police -- she seems to mean it somewhat in the spirit of "take care." The film itself is a curious blend of gangster film and romance. In fact, the work it reminded me of sometimes was Frank Loesser's musical Guys and Dolls, which has a similar theme of a shady guy being redeemed by a good girl. The analogy leaped to mind when some of Ozu's gangsters did synchronized routines and gag soft-shoe dances in the pool hall where they meet. For these are not hard-core American gangsters or even murderous yakuza; they're small-time pickpockets and thieves. We meet our hero, Kenji, while he's still a thug known as "Ken the Knife" for the tattoo on his left forearm. The movie begins with a chase: Kenji's sidekick, Senko, being pursued by a mob who think he has stolen a man's wallet. When the mob catches up with Senko, Kenji appears out of the crowd and suggests that they search him for the wallet. Nothing turns up, so Senko goes free, but later we see them meet up and discover that they're in cahoots: Kenji has picked the wallet from Senko as the mob was roughing him up. Eventually, however, both Kenji and Senko try to go straight when Kenji meets and falls in love with Yasue. When they first see her, they think Yasue is a rich woman: She arrives at a jewelry store in a large car and goes in to buy a diamond ring. But it turns out that she's running an errand for her boss, the head of the Ono Trading Co., who puts the moves on her when she brings it to him. Eventually, after Kenji and Yasue meet up again and he learns the truth, that she's just an office worker, he will have an opportunity to beat up Ono for sexually harassing Yasue. This is very minor Ozu, but he handles it well, demonstrating not only his skill at telling a story but also the way American movies influenced him: On the wall at Ono Trading Co. there's a poster for Joan Crawford's Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928). Movies, big cars, and pop music -- Senko has written the English lyrics to the 1928 song "The Gay Caballero" on the wall of the room he shares with Kenji and is trying to learn them -- figure large with these very modern Japanese gangsters.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top
Joe Lampton: Laurence Harvey
Alice Aisgill: Simone Signoret
Susan Brown: Heather Sears
Mr. Brown: Donald Wolfit
Charles Soames: Donald Houston
Elspeth: Hermione Baddeley
George Aisgill: Allan Cuthbertson
Mr. Hoylake: Raymond Huntley
Jack Wales: John Westbrook
Mrs. Brown: Ambrosine Phillpotts

Director: Jack Clayton
Screenplay: Neil Paterson
Based on a novel by John Braine
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Art direction: Ralph W. Brinton
Music: Mario Nascimbene

Laurence Harvey's narrow eyes and sharpish features (and a long brush cut that makes him look a little like Clint Eastwood) provide the right wolfish look for Joe Lampton, a young man from the provinces on the make. Heir to such classic challengers to the class system as Stendhal's Julien Sorel, Balzac's Lucien de Rubempré, and Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths, Lampton is determined to break down the British barriers to upward movement. He arrives in the Yorkshire city of Warnley to take on a government job and walks right into a hormonal stew, the eager young men and women of his office casting eyes on one another, but especially on the newcomer. But Lampton knows what he wants when he sees her: a rich young woman named Susan Brown, whose father is a local factory owner. Learning that Susan is a member of an amateur theatrical group, Lampton joins up, only to find himself edged aside by the well-to-do Jack Wales, who is paying court to Susan. Every move Lampton makes to ingratiate himself with Susan, who is inclined to return his attentions, is thwarted by her parents, especially her formidably snobbish mother. We sense Mrs. Brown's backstory: She has married rich herself, to a working-class self-made man, and is determined to keep climbing higher -- no lower-class Lamptons allowed. Determined as he is to win Susan, whose parents send her away on an extended vacation on the Riviera,  Lampton comforts himself with another member of the theater company, Alice Aisgill, an older woman with a bullying, unfaithful husband. When Susan returns, Lampton resumes his pursuit of her, but finds that he has fallen in love with Alice, whose maturity offers something that makes Susan's girlishness seem cloying. When he manages to seduce Susan, he's bored and annoyed by her reaction to losing her virginity: She doesn't feel different, she simpers and keeps asking him if she looks different. But Susan gets pregnant, forcing the Browns into an accommodation with him: marriage and a lucrative job -- everything he wanted. The crisis with Alice this precipitates is predictable, but the film makes a sharp turn into melodrama before the ending. Room at the Top was a hit, winning Simone Signoret a best actress Oscar and Harvey a nomination (along with a nomination for Hermione Baddeley in the very small role of the friend who lends Alice her flat for the trysts with Lampton). It's a little slow in the middle section, as the affair with Alice progresses, and Harvey was an actor of limited range, so the shift from the predatory Lampton of the first part of the film to the man infatuated with Alice doesn't quite come off. But it's a perfect example of the Angry Young Men films, plays, and novels that revolutionized British culture in the austere postwar 1950s.

Friday, November 24, 2017

An Innocent Witch (Heinosuke Gosho, 1965)

Jitsuko Yoshimura in An Innocent Witch
Ayako Oshima: Jitsuko Yoshimura
Kikuno: Kin Sugai
Kansuke Yamamura: Taiji Tonoyama
Kanjiro Toda: Minoru Terada
Kanichi Yamamura: Keizo Kawasaki
Father: Yoshio Yoshida
Shaman: Eijiro Tono
Narrator: Takayuki Akutagawa

Director: Heinosuke Gosho
Screenplay: Hideo Horie
Based on a novel by Hajime Ogawa
Cinematography: Sozaburo Shinomura
Art direction: Totetsu Hirakawa
Film editing: Sadako Ikeda
Music: Sei Ikeno

An Innocent Witch begins like a documentary, with a voiceover narration describing the pilgrimages to Mount Osore, where the faithful gather to ask blind seers to facilitate communication with their dead loved ones. One of the pilgrims is Kikuno, who wants to speak with her daughter, Ayako. As the seer goes into her trance, the film switches abruptly to a conventional narrative in which we learn that Ayako was sold -- willingly, it seems -- into prostitution by her mother because Ayako's father is too ill to continue supporting the family as a fisherman and gatherer of seaweed. (The father is never told about Ayako's work as a prostitute; he thinks only that she has gone to the city to earn more money.) In the brothel, Ayako loses her virginity to her first customer, a wealthy lumber wholesaler named Kansuke. Pleased with the young woman, Kansuke becomes Ayako's regular customer. Then one evening a shy young man named Kanjiro arrives with his fellow military cadets and Ayako relieves him of his virginity. They begin to fall in love, but just before he is called up for service, Kanjiro realizes that his own father, Kansuke, has been one of Ayako's customers. Kansuke, it turns out, has been aware that Kanjiro has also been seeing Ayako, and doesn't really mind sharing her with his son. But Ayako has promised Kanjiro that she won't see his father again, and when Kansuke insists on having sex with her anyway, he dies of an apparent heart attack. Soon word arrives that Kanjiro has also died at the front. The coincidence of the deaths of a father and son causes Ayako to be labeled a "femme fatale." But while visiting Kanjiro's grave, Ayako meets his older brother, Kanichi, and her involvement with this ill-fated family deepens into further tragedy. The film climaxes with Ayako seeking a kind of exorcism that will purify her of guilt, but that, too, has fatal consequences. The core story of An Innocent Witch is very well handled by screenwriter Hideo Horie and director Heinosuke Gosho, but the framing of it in the context of a documentary about the search for communication with the afterlife feels awkward, as if Horie and Gosho were trying to impose a larger statement about the consequences of superstition on the material. Ayako's story speaks for itself without extra help.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

Keith David, Richard Dysart, T.K. Carter, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and Kurt Russell in The Thing
MacReady: Kurt Russell
Dr. Blair: Wilford Brimley
Nauls: T.K. Carter
Palmer: David Clennon
Childs: Keith David
Dr. Copper: Richard Dysart
Vance Norris: Charles Hallahan
George Bennings: Peter Maloney
Clark: Richard Masur
Garry: Donald Moffat
Fuchs: Joel Polis
Windows: Thomas G. Waites

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Bill Lancaster
Based on a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Production design: John J. Lloyd
Creature design: Rob Bottin
Music: Ennio Morricone

John Carpenter's The Thing is one of those movies that have undergone radical re-evaluation over the years since it was released to mediocre box office and mostly scathing reviews. In the New York Times, for example, Vincent Canby panned it as "foolish, depressing, overproduced" and "instant junk." Today, however, it's regarded as a classic of the horror sci-fi genre and has an 83% "fresh" ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, with a whopping 92% audience score. My own evaluation would fall somewhere in between: The Thing does what it sets out to, i.e. scare us, with efficiency, but unlike the films to which it is often compared -- the Howard Hawks-produced The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), which was based on the same short story, and the more recent predecessor in the genre, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) -- it lacks heart. The Thing doesn't give us characters to root for. When successive members of its all-male cast are gobbled up by the monster, we don't feel any sense of loss -- except perhaps for the dogs, there's no one we feel a connection with. Kurt Russell is a very good action hero, but Bill Lancaster's script gives him no wit, no memorable lines other than shouting, "Yeah, fuck you, too!" at the monster when it roars at him. The real star of the film is Rob Bottin's creature, all gooshy innards, tentacles, and crablike legs. But once the monster gets going, there's no let-up. In Alien, for example, Ridley Scott very smartly created pauses in the action to lull us into complacency before pulling another shocker. Carpenter, however, gives us no time to breathe, and the piling-on of attacks becomes tiresome. Ennio Morricone's score is skillfully laid on, but unless you're in the mood for a freakout, The Thing offers few other lasting rewards.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Koji Tsuruta and Shin Saburi in The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
Mokichi Satake: Shin Saburi
Taeko Satake: Michiyo Kogure
Noboru Okada: Koji Tsuruta
Setsuko Yamauchi: Keiko Tsushima
Aya Amamiya: Chikage Awashima
Sadao Hirayama: Chishu Ryu
Chizu Yamauchi: Kuniko Miyake
Naosuke Yamauchi: Eijiro Yanagi
Toichiro Amamiya: Hisao Toake

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Art direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Ichiro Saito

Yasujiro Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice begins like a 1950s American TV sitcom in which Lucy and Ethel try to pull a fast one over Ricky. In this case, Lucy is Taeko Satake, who wants to get away for a day with Ethel, or Aya Amamiya, at a resort spa without letting Ricky, or Mokichi Satake, know what she's up to. So Taeko decides to tell Mokichi that her niece has fallen ill at a class reunion and she needs to go tend to her. But just as she's about to depart, the niece, Setsuko, drops by the Satake home, so Taeko has to swiftly come up with a Plan B. What we are in for, obviously, is a comedy of marital errors. The Satakes have no children and their marriage has grown stale, which provides an object lesson for Setsuko, whose parents are pressuring her into an arranged marriage and have set up a meeting with the potential groom. Seeing that not only do Taeko and Mokichi have no passion in their lives but Aya is also insouciant about the extramarital affairs of her husband, Toichiro, Setsuko is determined not to fall into their trap. Where Ozu excels is in the presentation of the texture of his characters' lives -- Taeko with her gossipy friends, Mokichi with his daily office grind followed by visits to bars and pachinko parlors, sometimes with his young friend Noboru, whom Mokichi is helping get a start in life after Noboru graduates from college. (There's a wonderful little moment when a slightly inebriated Noboru sings "Gaudeamus Igitur.") At one pachinko parlor, Mokichi discovers that the owner is an old army buddy, Sadao, played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, whose chief role in the film is to provide a note of nostalgia for the more adventurous days during the war. Escaping from the meeting with her prospective groom, Setsuko joins Mokichi at the parlor, where she also meets Noboru, and we see a potential relationship spark between the two young people. But when Taeko learns that Mokichi has met with Setsuko when she should have been at the matchmaking session, she's furious and refuses to speak to her husband. Eventually, the crisis is resolved in a lovely scene in which Taeko and Mokichi begin to resolve their marital problems while raiding the larder after the maid has gone to bed, though the film ends with Setsuko and Noboru having what looks like their first fight. Ozu's bittersweet little comedy is sometimes dismissed as a minor work by a master director, but the mastery is very much in evidence.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)

Dan Fogler, Eddie Redmayne, and Katherine Waterston in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Newt Scamander: Eddie Redmayne
Tina Goldstein: Katherine Waterston
Jacob Kowalski: Dan Fogler
Queenie Goldstein: Alison Sudol
Credence Barebone: Ezra Miller
Mary Lou Barebone: Samantha Morton
Henry Shaw Sr.: Jon Voight
Seraphina Picquery: Carmen Ejogo
Gnarlack: Ron Perlman
Percival Graves: Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J.K. Rowling
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Production design: Stuart Craig
Costume design: Colleen Atwood
Music: James Newton Howard

I think I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than I did any of the Harry Potter movies, but mainly because I wasn't distracted by thinking about what had been left out between the novel and the film. That's because Fantastic Beasts is J.K. Rowling's first original screenplay. She has a way to go yet as a screenwriter: There are too many events and incidents to keep track of, and the story gets swamped by the special effects. But we are clearly in the same realm as the Potter books, even if this movie is set in the 1920s and in New York City, where Muggles are called Non-Majes. (Which even an explanation didn't keep me from hearing "non-Madges" and thinking, "people who don't like Madonna.") And even though there's a lot of noisy CGI work going on, Rowling and her cast have given us some engaging new characters in Newt Scamander, Tina and Queenie Goldstein, and Jacob Kowalski, all of whom seem to be set for a long run of sequels. Eddie Redmayne is terrific as usual, and Colin Farrell makes a fine villain until the ending reveals him to be Johnny Depp in disguise. It was a box office hit, of course, and most of the critics seemed to like it -- the pans seemed to be colored by a weary recognition that here was what seemed to be the launch of yet another blockbuster franchise. I agree that we could do without that, but it's better than yet another Transformers movie. And there's something agreeable about even a Potter-adjacent work.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pleasures of the Flesh (Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Mariko Kaga in Pleasures of the Flesh
Atsushi Wakazaka: Katsuo Nakamura
Shoko: Mariko Kaga
Hitomi: Yumiko Nagawa
Shizuko: Masako Yagi
Mari: Toshiko Higuchi
Keiko: Hiroko Shimizu
Hayami: Shoichi Ozawa
Police Inspector: Kei Sato
Sakurai: Rokko Toura
Gang Member: Fumio Watanabe
Egi: Hosei Kamatsu
Mari's Pimp: Akiji Kobayashi

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima
Based on a novel by Futaro Yamada
Cinematography: Akira Takada
Art direction: Yasutaro Kon
Music: Joji Yuasa

With a burst of bluesy music, Pleasures of the Flesh starts out like a film noir, and the plot setup follows suit. The young tutor to a pretty teenager kills a man who has molested her, but the act has been witnessed by a man who has embezzled funds from his place of work. In an attempt to blackmail the tutor, the embezzler says he won't tell the police if the young man will hide 30 million yen of the loot. The embezzler expects to be arrested, he says, but he'll return for the money after serving his prison sentence. If the tutor has spent any of it, he'll tell the police about the murder. The tutor reluctantly agrees, but then the plot not unexpectedly begins to tangle. The tutor, Atsushi, is in love with the teenager, Shoko, but too poor to win her parents' approval. He's so devastated when she marries that he begins to lose his mind. The embezzler has in fact gone to prison, and Atsushi decides to live it up on the 30 million yen, then kill himself when the embezzler has served his term. And so begins a series of flings with four women, each of whom he pays to live with him. There's a showgirl with a gangster boyfriend, a married woman whose husband is desperately in debt, a doctor who insists on remaining a virgin, and a mute prostitute with a thuggish pimp. None of these attempts to wallow in the titular pleasures of the flesh ends well, and then, just as Atsushi spends the last of the money, he learns that the embezzler has died in prison. As if that outcome weren't ironic enough, the embezzler also told a fellow inmate about the 30 million yen he had stashed with Atsushi and when he's released he comes in search of the money. It's a moral tale straight out of Boccaccio or Chaucer, but writer-director Nagisa Oshima is faced with modernizing it and doesn't quite succeed. There's a bit too much fancy camerawork as Oshima interpolates Atsushi's obsessive visions of Shoko and paranoid ones of the embezzler into the narrative. The moral tale still feels heavyhanded. But Pleasures of the Flesh is the work of a major filmmaker at the outset of his career, and as such rewards watching.