A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Even 40 years later, In the Realm of the Senses still has the power to shock, and not just because of the full nudity and unsimulated copulation -- we've all seen pornography in some form. It's that we've never seen them used in service of story, characterization, and theme as well as they are in this film. It's based on an actual incident that took place in Japan in 1936: Sada Abe killed her lover, Kichizo Ishida, during an experiment in erotic asphyxiation, then cut off his genitals and carried them with her for three days until she was arrested. Fascinated by this story, and by producer Anatole Dauman's suggestion that they should make a pornographic film, Oshima wrote the screenplay and set about putting together a cast and crew. The lead actors, Tatsuya Fuji as Kichizo and Eiko Matsuda as Sada, are extraordinary, transcending the mere shock value of their physical encounters with their commitment to illuminating the motives and the inner life of the couple. They give as complete a portrait of sexual obsession as we're ever likely to encounter in a movie. Oshima doesn't skimp on portraying the excesses of their passion: Sada persuades Kichizo to have sex with the 68-year-old geisha who comes to serenade them -- he is somewhat disgusted, but she is aroused when he does. The maids who tend to their room complain that it smells -- "We like it that way," Sada replies -- and the older man with whom Sada has been having sex to get money to support the lovers ends their relationship by saying she smells somewhat like a dead rat. But Oshima also portrays them as symbolic rebels against the militarism of 1930s Japan -- making love not war, if you will -- in a scene in which Kichizo, returning to Sada, passes marching troops being cheered by flag-waving schoolchildren. The real Sada was tried for his murder and mutilation, but served only five years in prison and became something of a folk legend in Japan, living on until the 1970s. A French and Japanese co-production, In the Realm of the Senses was filmed in Japan, but the footage had to be developed in France to avoid prosecution, and it has never been released in Japan without cuts or strategic blurring of its sex scenes. The movie is often quite beautiful, with cinematography by Hideo Ito and sets by Shigemasa Todo, but it's certainly not a film for all viewers.

Monday, October 24, 2016

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936)

I don't know if director Gregory La Cava and screenwriters Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch intentionally set out to subvert the paradigm of the romantic screwball comedy in My Man Godfrey, but they did. It has all the familiar elements of the genre: the "meet-cute," the fallings-in and fallings-out, and the eventual happily-ever-after ending. And it is certainly one of the funniest members of the genre. William Powell is his usual suave and sophisticated self, and nobody except Lucille Ball ever played the beautiful nitwit better than Carole Lombard. But are Godfrey (Powell) and Irene (Lombard) really made for each other? Isn't there something really amiss at the ending, when Irene all but railroads Godfrey into marriage? Knowing that marriage is an inevitability in the genre, I kept wanting Godfrey to pair off with Molly (Jean Dixon), the wisecracking housemaid who conceals her love for him. And even Cornelia (Gail Patrick), the shrew Godfrey has tamed, seems like a better fit in the long run than Irene, with her fake faints and tears. The film gives us no hint that Irene has grown up enough to deserve Godfrey. Or is that asking too much of a film obviously derived from the formula? Perhaps it's just better to take it for what it is, and to enjoy the wonderful performances by Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, Alan Mowbray, and Mischa Auer, and the always-welcome Franklin Pangborn doing his usual fussy, exasperated bit. A lot could be written, and probably has been, about how the film reflects the slow emergence from the Depression, with its scavenger-hunting socialites looking for a "forgotten man." a figure that only three years earlier, in Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy), had been treated with something like reverence in the production number "Remember My Forgotten Man." Had sensibilities been so hardened over time that the victims of the Depression could be treated so lightly? In any case, My Man Godfrey was a big hit, and was the first movie to have Oscar nominations -- for Powell, Lombard, Auer, and Brady -- in all four acting categories. It was also nominated for director and screenplay, though not for best picture.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

In the climactic moments of Kagemusha director Akira Kurosawa does something I don't recall seeing in any other war movie: He shows the general, Katsuyori (Ken'ichi Hagiwara) sending wave after wave of troops, first cavalry, then infantry, against the enemy, whose soldiers are concealed behind a wooden palisade, from which they can safely fire upon Katsuyori's troops. It's a suicidal attack, reminiscent of the charge of the Light Brigade, but Kurosawa chooses not to show the troops falling before the gunfire. Instead, he waits until after the battle is over and Katsuyori has lost, then pans across the fields of death to show the devastation, including some of the fallen horses struggling to get up. It's an enormously effective moment, suggestive of the dire cost of war. The film's title has been variously interpreted as "shadow warrior," "double," or decoy." In this case, he's a thief who bears a remarkable resemblance to the formidable warlord Takeda Shingen and is saved from being executed when he agrees to pretend to be Shingen. (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both roles.) This masquerade is designed to convince Shingen's enemies that he is still alive, even though Shingen dies soon after the kagemusha agrees to the ruse. The impostor proves to be surprisingly effective in the part, fooling Shingen's mistresses and winning the love of his grandson, and eventually presiding over the defeat of his enemies. But he gains the enmity of Shingen's son, Katsuyori, who not only resents seeing a thief playing his father but also holds a grudge against Shingen for having disinherited him in favor of the grandson. So when the kagemusha is exposed as a fake to the household, he is expelled from it, and Katsuyori's arrogance leads to the defeat in the Battle of Nagashino -- a historical event that took place in 1575. The poignancy of the fall of Shingen's house is reinforced at the film's end, when his kagemusha reappears in rags on the bloody battlefield, then makes a one-man charge at the palisade and is gunned down. The narrative is often a little slow but the film is pictorially superb: Yoshiro Muraki was nominated for an Oscar for art direction, although many of his designs are based on Kurosawa's own drawings and paintings, made while he was trying to arrange funding for the film. Two American admirers, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, finally came through with the financial support Kurosawa needed -- they're listed as executive producers of the international version of the film, having persuaded 20th Century Fox to handle the international distribution.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)

At the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee recently premiered his new movie, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which he shot in 3D with 4k resolution at 140 frames per second -- the usual frame rate for movies is 24 frames per second. The result is said to be "hyperreal," but almost all the critics who saw it said the technology was a distraction, involving the audiences much more in the visuals than in the story. One critic commented that "the distracting unpleasantness of [Lee's] movie's highly attuned visual clarity makes for an undiscerning and artificial experience the eye just won't follow." Watching the hundred-year-old Intolerance last night, I wondered if viewers of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 2116 might find such criticisms of its technological innovations as shortsighted as we now do those of audiences who objected to D.W. Griffith's narrative innovations in Intolerance. Griffith told four stories in his film, each set in a different era, and constantly cut between each of them. We're used to that way of finding a unity in multiple stories, having seen it in films as various as Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999), to name a couple of more recent examples, but audiences in 1916 were unready for Griffith's attempt at it, and the hugely ambitious and expensive film was a calamitous flop that the director paid for throughout the rest of his life. To some extent I sympathize with those original audiences: The constant cutting from story to story is often frustrating and annoying, but not so much because of the cutting as because half of the stories are not well-told. The scenes from the life of Jesus are too familiar and too scattershot to develop any dramatic tension, and the part that deals with the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre is muddled by a lack of involvement with the characters. (Each sequence, incidentally, features a performer who would last well into the sound era: Bessie Love, wearing an improbable pointed headdress, plays the bride of Cana, and a surprisingly slim Eugene Pallette plays Prosper, who meets his fate on St. Bartholomew's Day.) The Babylonian sequence and the "modern" story are the two that work the best. The former succeeds because of its wild spectacle, centering on probably the most famous set ever built for a movie. It was perhaps inevitable that the sequence should turn into a series of tableaus, with a cast of thousands striking what seem to us affected poses, but were really based on 19th-century historical genre paintings. (See below.)  Constance Talmadge overdoes the striding about that's meant to suggest the Mountain Girl is a liberated woman, the equal of any man, but she's fun to watch. The modern sequence is the only one with developed and interesting characters, even if some of the acting takes time to get used to. Mae Marsh jumps around goofily to suggest the Dear One's joie de vivre, but when she settles down and starts suffering, she becomes quite touching as the woman whose husband (Robert Harron) is wrongly imprisoned and who loses her baby to well-meaning but puritanical do-gooders. And Miriam Cooper gives the film's best performance -- that is to say, the one that looks most natural to contemporary eyes -- as the Friendless One. Still, the star of the show is Griffith himself, demonstrating his mastery at building suspense with the intertwined conclusions of the French, Babylonian, and modern sequences. We can laugh at the final scene of the heavenly host bringing peace to a war-torn world, but it must have had a different effect on audiences in the midst of World War I.
The Belshazzar's Feast set for Intolerance
Edwin Long, The Babylonian Marriage Market, 1875.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman, 2016)

Jane Austen's greatest novels -- by which I mean Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion -- do tend to run to formula. The heroines are all marriageable young women who for one reason or another are having trouble finding a mate. They are usually put in jeopardy of marrying scoundrels -- Emma to Frank Churchill, Elizabeth Bennet to Mr. Wickham, Fanny Price to Henry Crawford -- or fools -- Emma to Mr. Elton, Elizabeth to Mr. Collins -- or in Anne Elliot's case not at all, a calamitous fate in the world of the novels. Eventually, however, they find their Mr. Knightley or Darcy or Edmund or Capt. Wentworth and live happily ever after. The pattern is so familiar that it persists to this day in romance novels, but it's not why we read Jane Austen. We read her for the wit, the moral observations, the deft interplay of personalities, which is why even the best movies made from her books are slightly unsatisfying: Film can't do justice to what's on the page. And that's why I think Love & Friendship may be the best Jane Austen movie ever: What's on the page in its source, Lady Susan, the epistolary novella she never submitted to a publisher, departs radically from the formula. The titular heroine (played brilliantly in the film by Kate Beckinsale) is herself the scoundrel, more in the mold of Henry Crawford's sister, Mary, in Mansfield Park than any of Austen's more familiar heroines. And she winds up marrying the fool, the wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), whom she originally planned as a husband for her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), after having courted Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who winds up marrying Frederica. Whit Stillman's screenplay is a brilliant transformation of what's on the pages of the source, where the point of view is limited to that of the letter writers. The freedom to manipulate point of view in the film allows him to play with inverting the formula: In the film, Reginald takes on the role usually played by Austen's heroines, i.e., almost marrying the scoundrel. With Bennett's considerable help, Stillman makes Sir James Martin into one of the funniest fools ever, so blithely out of it that he is astonished to learn that Frederica reads "both verse and poetry" and thinks that Moses delivered 12 commandments -- after being told that there are only ten, he tries to decide which two he should discard. He also winds up after his marriage to Lady Susan in a ménage à trois that includes Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin), but he remains apparently unaware that Manwaring is her real lover and the father of the child she is carrying. That last could never have found its way into print in Austen's day, of course, but Stillman succeeds in integrating it into a convincingly Austenian context. The performers, which also include Chloë Sevigny, Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet, and in a cameo role, Stephen Fry, are uniformly fine. If there is a flaw to the film, it may be that it's "rather too light, and bright, and sparkling," which is the criticism that Austen made of Pride and Prejudice. But if it sometimes feels like a parody of a Jane Austen novel, it's a masterly one.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944)

What sort of nerve must it have taken to make a film that pokes fun at patriotism, mother love, small towns, political campaigns, and the Marines in the middle of World War II? Preston Sturges's film begins in a small nightclub, where a singer (Julie Gibson) and her backup group of singing waiters launch into a stickily sentimental song, "Home to the Arms of Mother" (music and lyrics by Sturges), whereupon John F. Seitz's camera begins a traveling shot from the group and down a long bar at the end of which we see Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) drowning his sorrows. When a group of six Marines on leave after having fought at Guadalcanal enters the bar, Woodrow buys a round for them, and is prodded into telling them his sad story: He joined the Marines, trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Marine who died in World War I, but was discharged because of chronic hay fever. But instead of returning home to the arms of mother, he went to work in a shipyard and arranged for a friend to send his letters to her from overseas, disguising the fact that he was no longer a Marine. One of the men, Sgt. Heppelfinger (William Demarest), learns that Woodrow's father was his old buddy who fought with him at Belleau Wood, while another, Bugsy (Freddie Steele), is appalled that Woodrow hasn't been home to see his mother since the start of the war. So the Marines collude to take an extremely reluctant Woodrow back to his hometown and pretend that he's a war hero who has just been discharged. Naturally, the plan backfires spectacularly when the whole town joins in the celebration and even railroads Woodrow into running against the corrupt mayor (Raymond Walburn). Speed is of the essence in a farce like this, because if anyone ever gave Woodrow a moment to talk, the whole thing would collapse like a soufflé. On the other hand, too much fast talk can be wearying, so Sturges introduces a romantic subplot: Feeling that he can never return home, Woodrow has written his girlfriend, Libby (Ella Raines), that he has met someone else, so Libby has gone and got herself engaged to Forrest Noble (Bill Edwards), the son of the town's corrupt mayor. To slow the pace down, Sturges introduces a long walk-and-talk tracking scene in which Libby, confused by her revived feelings for Woodrow, tries to sort things out with Forrest, but to no avail. It's a funny, beautifully written scene, but it doesn't quite work because neither Raines nor Edwards is up to the acting demands it puts on them -- I kept thinking how much better Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck would have played it. Bracken, however, is wonderful, as are Demarest, Steele, Walburn, and other members of Sturges's usual crew of brilliant character actors, including Franklin Pangborn as the harried planner of the celebration and Jimmy Conlin as the town judge. This was, sadly, the last film Sturges made under his Paramount contract, which he ended because of studio interference during the making of the movie. It objected, perhaps rightly, to Ella Raines's lack of star power, but also took the film out of Sturges's hands and edited it. After a couple of disastrous previews of the studio version, however, Sturges was called back in for rewrites and some new scenes. The revised Sturges version was a hit, and earned him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)

Belle de Jour is a famously enigmatic film, venturing into (and often blurring) the space between reality and fantasy, between waking life and dreams. It has led a lot of people astray, into questions like: What's buzzing in the Asian client's box that so frightens the other prostitutes in the brothel, but so satisfies Séverine (Catherine Deneuve)? Why does Séverine so often hear cats meowing? What is the Duke (Georges Marchal) doing that so shakes the coffin in which he has posed Séverine and causes her to flee into the rain? Why is Pierre (Jean Sorel) so fascinated by the wheelchair that foreshadows his fate? How much of any of this is meant to be reality? Critics have been more or less preoccupied by these and other matters of speculation and interpretation for almost 50 years. But I, for one, am content to invoke Keats's "negative capability," which he defined as the ability of an artist to be "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Of course, it would be abrogating the critics' responsibility if they failed to pursue the aesthetic and moral effects of the enigmas introduced into the film by Luis Buñuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. I'm arguing that their effect is collective and cumulative, that pursuing any one of these details in search of a definitive answer is like concentrating on the threads at the expense of seeing the tapestry. Belle de Jour is subject to all forms of analysis -- Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian, Marxist, feminist, you name it -- but without exhausting its possibilities to tantalize. I think Buñuel's major achievement in the film is in sticking to his roots in surrealism without resorting to surrealist clichés: Every scene, even the obvious fantasies like the one in which Séverine is pelted with muck by Pierre and Husson (Michel Piccoli), is grounded in actuality, down to the specific address and the mundane Parisian location given to the brothel run by Madame Anaïs (Geneviève Page). It's only in reflecting on the film that we begin to question which scenes are "real" and which aren't. Belle de Jour is one of those inexhaustible films that you revisit with the certain knowledge that it will look slightly different to you every time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Madame de... (Max Ophuls, 1953)

The word "tone" is much bandied about by critics, myself included. We speak of a film as being "inconsistent in tone" or its "melancholy,  despairing tone" or its "shifts in tone." But ask us -- or, anyway, me -- what we mean by the term, and you may get a lot of stammering and hesitation. Even my old copy of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics falls back on calling it "an intangible quality ... like a mood in a human being." So when I say that Madame de... is a masterwork in its manipulation of tone, you have to take that observation as a kind of awestruck, slightly inarticulate response to a film that begins in farce and ends in tragedy. The American title of the film was The Earrings of Madame de..., but to my mind that puts the emphasis on what is, in effect, merely a MacGuffin. The earrings were given to Countess Louise de... (Danielle Darrieux) by her husband, General André de... (Charles Boyer), on their wedding day. (Their full surname is coyly hidden throughout the film: A sound blots out the latter part of the name when it is spoken, and it is hidden by a flower when it appears on a place card at a banquet. The effect is rather like a newspaper gossip column trying to avoid a libel suit when reporting a scandal among the aristocracy.) The scandal is set in motion when Louise, a flirtatious woman with many admirers, decides to sell the earrings to pay off the debts she wants to hide from André. Their marriage has obviously come to a pause: Though they remain affectionate with each other, they have separate bedrooms and at night they talk to each other through doors that open on a connecting room. Louise takes the earrings to the jeweler (Jean Debucourt) from whom André originally purchased them. But when she tries to persuade André that she lost them at the opera and the "theft" is reported in the newspapers, the jeweler tries to sell them back to the general. To put an end to the business, André pays for them, then presents them to his mistress, Lola (Lia Di Leo), as a parting gift: Their affair over, she is leaving for Constantinople. There, Lola gambles them away, but they are bought by an Italian diplomat, Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who is on his way to a posting in Paris. And of course Donati meets Louise, they fall in love, and he presents the earrings to her as a gift. Recognizing them, she has no recourse but to hide them, but they will resurface with fatal results. How Max Ophuls gradually shades this plot from a situation suited to a Feydeau farce into a poignant conclusion is a part of the film's magic. It depends to a great extent on the superb performances of Darrieux, Boyer, and De Sica, but also on Ophuls's typically restless camera, handled -- as in Ophuls's La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), and Lola Montès (1955) -- by cinematographer Christian Matras, as it explores Jean d'Eaubonne's elegant fin de siècle sets. Much depends, too, on the film editor, Borys Lewin, who helps Ophuls accomplish one of the movies' great tours de force, following Louise and Donati as they dance what appears to be an extended waltz but gradually shows itself to be several waltzes taking place over the period of time in which they fall in love. It's a cinematic showpiece, but it's fully integrated into what has to be one of the great movies.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Dukhtar (Afia Nathaniel, 2014)

Dukhtar takes place where tourists fear to tread: the mountainous parts of northern Pakistan. But it's not a film about inter-religious strife or terrorism, except for the kind of emotional terrorism that results from the conflict between ancient tribalism and the modern world. The "daughter" of the film's title -- in the opening credits the Urdu word "dukhtar" morphs into the English equivalent -- is Zainab (Saleha Aref), a bright girl on the verge of puberty, whom we see in a charming scene early in the film trying to teach her mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), some of the English that she has learned at school. But Zainab's education is about to be threatened: Her father, the tribal chief Daulat Khan (Asif Khan), is trying to put an end to the longstanding blood feud with a rival tribe led by Tor Gul (Abdullah Jan). They come to a deal: The feud will end if Daulat Khan will give his daughter in marriage to the elderly Tor Gul. But Allah Rakhi, who as a girl was married to Daulat Khan in a similar arrangement, doesn't want to see her daughter condemned to the same kind of life. She takes Zainab and flees. Along the way she persuades a young truck driver, Sohail (Mohib Mirza), to give them a lift. Initially reluctant, especially because the followers of both Daulat Khan and Tor Gul are in pursuit of the mother and daughter, Sohail finally gives in, and takes them, after several narrow escapes, to his home in the mountains and finally to crowded and busy Lahore, where Allah Rakhi is to meet with her mother, whom she hasn't seen since her marriage. Director Afia Nathaniel's screenplay is a bit on the formulaic side: We've seen many versions of this flight-and-pursuit road movie, and her film contains all of the usual close calls and missed connections we've come to expect. The movie gets its life and an appearance of freshness from the performances. Saleha Aref invests Zainab with the awkwardness and rebellion that you'd expect from a girl her age, Samiya Mumtaz is convincingly both fierce and tender, and the chemistry that develops between her character and Mohib Mirza's is convincing. Even better, the cinematography by Armughan Hassan is superb, from the sweeping spectacle of the mountain background to the rich use of color. The film departs from the conventions of its genre with an ambiguous ending, which points up the difficulty of trying to force real-life concerns like tribalism and the status of women into a movie formula: Neither a traditional happy ending nor a bleak triumph of the status quo would have felt right. Dukhtar is Nathaniel's first feature, and it shows more than just promise.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)

Easy Living is one of my favorite screwball comedies, but I once had a nightmare that took place in the set designed by Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté for the film. It was the luxury suite in the Hotel Louis, with its amazingly improbable bathtub/fountain, and I dreamed that we had just bought a place that looked like it and were moving in. I don't remember much else, other than that I was terribly anxious about how we were going to pay for it. Most of my dreams are anxiety dreams, I think, which may be why I love screwball comedies so much: They take our anxieties about money and love and work, like Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) worrying about how she's going to pay the rent and even eat now that she's lost her job, and transform them into dilemmas with comic resolutions. Too bad life isn't like that, we say, but with maybe a kind of glimmer of hope that it will turn out that way after all. Easy Living, with its screenplay by Preston Sturges, is one of the funniest screwball comedies, but it's also, under Mitchell Leisen's direction, one of the most hilarious slapstick comedies. How can you not love a film in which a Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) falls downstairs? Or the celebrated scene in which the little doors in the Automat go haywire, producing food-fight chaos that builds and builds? The fall of the fat cat and the rush on the Automat reveal that Easy Living was a product of the Depression, anxiety made pervasive and world-wide, when we needed hope in the form of comic nonsense to keep us going. This is also an essential film for those of us who love Preston Sturges's movies, for although he didn't direct it, his hand is evident throughout, not only in the dialogue but also in the casting, with character actors who would later form part of Sturges's stock company, Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest, and Robert Greig among them. Ray Milland displays a Cary Grant-like glint of amusement at what's going on, Luis Alberni spouts Sturges's wonderful malapropisms as the hotel owner Louis Louis, and Mary Nash brings the right amount of indignation and humor to her role as Arnold's wife. I only wonder why Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin weren't credited for their title song, which is heard (though without its lyrics), as background music throughout the film.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fugitive Pieces (Jeremy Podeswa, 2007)

I dislike the phrase "Holocaust film," which often gets used with a hint of condescension, suggesting that there is a genre of film that plays on our established feelings of grief and indignation about a terrible passage in history. It seems to imply that filmmakers who tell stories about the Holocaust and its effects are working with a subject that disarms criticism: that if it's about the Holocaust, a film doesn't have to worry about winning over an audience. That attitude ignores, for example, the controversy that surrounded Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), which was both celebrated and condemned. The enormity of the Holocaust tends to overwhelm conventional cinematic narrative, so that the best films in which it forms the background are those that focus on the experiences of actual people like Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), or thinly fictionalized accounts drawn from personal experience, like Louis Malle's in Au Revoir les Enfants (1987). Jeremy Podeswa's Fugitive Pieces, adapted by the director from a novel by Anne Michaels, is one of those films that are almost swamped by the historical actuality of the Holocaust; it takes as its subject the experience of "survivor guilt." Its fictional protagonist, Jakob Beer (played as a child by Robbie Kay and as a man by Stephen Dillane), escapes from the Nazis but loses his family. He is rescued by Athos Roussos (Rade Serbedzija), a Greek archaeologist who was working in Poland on a dig and discovered Jakob hiding in the woods. Somehow -- the film is unclear on exactly how -- Athos smuggles Jakob out of Poland to his home in Greece, and after the war the two emigrate to Canada, where Athos has been invited to teach. Jakob grows up haunted by his childhood trauma, and his first marriage, to a woman named Alex (Rosamund Pike), ends when she reads his journals and discovers what a barrier Jakob's experiences have created between them. Jakob is particularly tormented by the loss of his sister, Bella (Nina Dobrev), a talented musician, who often appears in his dreams. Even after publishing a book about his life, Jakob doesn't fully overcome the past until after the death of Athos, whose wisdom he comes to appreciate with the help of another woman, Michaela (Ayelet Zurer). There is a subplot involving the Jewish couple across the hall from Athos and Jakob in Canada, whose son, Ben (Ed Stoppard), grows up hating his father, a Holocaust survivor, for his harshness: The father, for example, berates Ben for not finishing the apple he has been eating, reminding him how grateful people in the camps would have been for the food. Despite excellent performances from everyone, the film sinks too often into sentimentality and stereotypes: Serbedzija's performance is a standout, but he can't overcome the fact that Athos, though a university professor, is presented as too much the wise and kindly peasant-sage, preaching the value of ties to the earth. There are some major gaps in the narrative, like the journey from Poland to Greece, and some overall shapelessness, and the ending is much too pat.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

Funny, campy, occasionally scary, and featuring over-the-top performances by Ernest Thesiger, Dwight Frye, and Una O'Connor, Bride of Frankenstein may also be the saddest of all horror movies. Much has been made of a perceived subtext of the film, based in part on the knowledge that its director, James Whale, and Thesiger were openly gay, and it's possible to see the plight of the monster (Boris Karloff) as analogous to that of the gays of their time, subject to ridicule and repression from a hostile society. In this reading, Whale and Thesiger adopt camp attitudes as a way of thumbing their noses at a hostile, uncomprehending society. But that's an unnecessarily reductive interpretation. The monster is the ultimate outsider, an anomalous and inarticulate being, whatever his sexuality. He briefly finds companionship in the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who begins to teach him to speak -- including the word "friend" -- but their relationship is doomed by the intrusion of the world of ordinary humans, a world he can never be part of. In the end, when the mate (Elsa Lanchester) who has been created for him rejects him, his only recourse is self-destruction. "We belong dead!" the monster proclaims. To see Bride of Frankenstein as some sort of parable about gays in society would then be an endorsement of suicide as the only option. Subtexts often reside only in the mind of the beholder, and Whale was too much of an artist to turn his film into any kind of message, however latent in the fantastic tale he is telling. Better instead to relish Karloff's ability to give a subtle performance that shows through pounds of makeup. Or Lanchester's remarkable control and timing in bringing the bride to life, including the squawks and hisses that she claimed to have developed by watching swans in the park. Or John J. Mescall's classic black-and-white cinematography, Charles D. Hall's set designs, and Franz Waxman's score. Yes, Colin Clive and Valerie Hobson are a most improbable couple as the Frankensteins. Clive was far gone into alcoholism and looks it, but nobody could have delivered the line "She's alive! Alive!" more memorably.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Au Revoir les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987)

Raphael Fejtö and Gaspard Manesse in Au Revoir les Enfants
Père Jacques was honored at Yad Vashem in 1985 as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for his efforts to hide Jewish boys from the Nazis by enrolling them under pseudonyms at the Petit-Collège d'Avon, the school of which he was headmaster. Ordinarily, his heroism would make him the central figure of a film, the way Oskar Schindler became the subject of Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). But Louis Malle was a pupil at Père Jacques's school in 1944 when the Gestapo arrested the priest and the boys he was hiding, so he tells the story from the point of view of Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a student at Malle's fictionalized version of the school. Père Jacques has been renamed Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) and moved to the periphery of the film's action, although his work in saving the boys remains, and he has one great moment at the heart of the film when, before an assembly that include the well-to-do parents of his students, he preaches a sermon excoriating the rich for their complacency and indifference. One man walks out indignantly. The film centers on Julien's sometimes rocky friendship with Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), whose real name is Kippelstein, as Julien discovers, snooping in the boy's locker. Julien makes a highly effective protagonist for Malle, who draws from his own experiences -- his pre-adolescent naïveté, his occasional sneakiness, perhaps even his bed-wetting -- to introduce a note of actuality that undercuts the sentimentality into which a story that primarily focused on the priest's heroism could descend. It enables us to see Bonnet, as he adapts to being the new boy, the outsider in more ways than one, at the school less as a victim than as a human being. Malle even humanizes film's potential villain, the kitchen boy, Joseph (François Négret), who, after he is fired for stealing from the larder and selling the goods on the black market, turns in Père Jean and the Jewish boys he is hiding. Lame and therefore limited in his survival opportunities, Joseph sees aiding the Nazis as his only out. "C'est la guerre," he tells Julien when they encounter each other, "There's a war going on, kid!" Julien, who has been aiding Joseph by passing along some of the food his mother sends him, recognizes his own complicity. Malle's steadfast insistence on portraying complex human beings gives the film a strength that a more simplistic treatment of the events would lack.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)

This story about an Irish girl's coming of age has the strong whiff of traditional movie storytelling about it. And that's what makes it so entirely satisfying: It fulfills the need we often feel to be reassured about the stability of familiar things. But it also serves to support its theme, which is that nostalgia can be a trap, or to put it in a phrase that has become a cliché: You can't go home again. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) feels stifled in her small Irish town, overshadowed by her pretty and accomplished sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and bullied by her vicious, hypocritical employer, Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), so she decides to go to America. Helped by her church, she gets a room in a Brooklyn boarding house and a job in a department store, gradually loses her shyness and reserve, and falls in love with a sweet-natured young Italian American, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). But when Rose dies suddenly, Eilis returns to Enniscorthy to see her mother and stays long enough to be courted by a young man, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and to begin to see the town in a very different light. The time approaches when she is scheduled to return to America, and she finds herself torn between not just Tony and Jim, but also the small but familiar comforts of the town and a promising but uncertain future in America. She also has a secret that she hasn't shared with anyone, but which the vicious Miss Kelly learns through the Irish-American grapevine. That this dilemma should play itself out with such freshness is a tribute to John Crowley's direction and Nick Hornby's adaptation of Colm Tóibín's novel, but also in very large part to a brilliant performance by Ronan. It's the kind of understated acting that sometimes gets overlooked among performances that chew the scenery with more fervor, but it earned Ronan a well-deserved Oscar nomination. It has to be said that she is supported by splendid performances by Cohen and Gleeson, with Ronan demonstrating a different kind of rapport with each actor. A quiet triumph, but a triumph nevertheless.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Anyone who wants to shake up an established film genre gets my support, even when what they do doesn't quite work. So I'm okay with what Joe Wright tries to do to the historical costume drama and the adaptation of a famous novel in his version of Anna Karenina. Which isn't to say that I think it works. What does work is the attempt by Wright and his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, to redress the imbalance I've noted in my entries on two previous film adaptations of Tolstoy's novel, the ones directed by Clarence Brown in 1935 and Julien Duvivier in 1948: the neglect of the half of the novel that deals with Konstantin Levin. Domhnall Gleeson, the Levin of Wright's film, is hardly the Levin Tolstoy describes as "strongly built, broad-shouldered," but Gleeson seems to know what the character is about. And he's beautifully matched with Alicia Vikander, who gives another knockout performance as Kitty. Wright and Stoppard use their story as an effective foil for the obsessive, careless love of Anna (Keira Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). That it's only part of Levin's function in Tolstoy's novel, which gives us a view of Russian reform politics and social structure through Levin's eyes, just goes to show that you can't have everything when you're trying to adapt literature to a medium it isn't quite suited for. Wright has also cast brilliantly. As Karenin, Jude Law elicits sympathy for a character that can easily be reduced to a stock villain, as when Basil Rathbone played him in 1935. I also liked Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna's womanizing brother, and it's fun to see Macfadyen and Knightley together in completely different roles from Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, whom they played in Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. As Anna, Knightley sometimes looks a bit too much like a gaunt fashion model in the Oscar-winning costumes by Jacqueline Durran, and Taylor-Johnson lays on the preening a bit too much in his bedroom-eyed Vronsky, but they have real chemistry together. Seamus McGarvey's Oscar-nominated cinematography makes the most of Sarah Greenwood's production design. But the decision to film the story partly as as if it were being staged in some impossible, dreamlike theater, but also partly realistically, goes astray. It begins as if it were a comedy, with the philandering Oblonsky sneaking around from his wife both onstage and backstage. And throughout the film, reversions from realistic settings to the theater keep jarring the overall tone. There are occasionally some spectacular uses of the set, as when the horses in Vronsky's race run across a proscenium stage, and in his accident, horse and rider plunge off the stage. Here and elsewhere, Greenwood's design is extraordinarily ingenious. But the theater trope -- all the world's a stage? -- never resolves itself into anything thematically satisfying.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Anna Karenina (Julien Duvivier, 1948)

If Greta Garbo is the best reason for seeing Clarence Brown's 1935 version of Anna Karenina, then Ralph Richardson is the best argument for watching this one. As Karenin, Richardson demonstrates an understanding of the character that Basil Rathbone failed to display in the earlier version. In a performance barely distinguished from his usual haughty villain roles, Rathbone played Karenin as a cuckold with a cold heart. Richardson wants us to see what Tolstoy found in Karenin: the wounded pride, the inability to stoop to tenderness that has been bred in him by long contact with Russian society and political status-seeking. Unfortunately, Richardson's role exists in a rather dull adaptation of the novel, directed by Julien Duvivier from a screenplay he wrote with Jean Anouilh and Guy Morgan. Although Vivien Leigh was certainly a tantalizing choice for the title role, she makes a fragile Anna -- no surprise, as she was recovering from tuberculosis, a miscarriage, and a bout with depression that seems to have begun her descent into bipolar disorder. At times, especially in the 19th-century gowns designed by Cecil Beaton, she evokes a little of the wit and backbone of Scarlett O'Hara, but she has no chemistry with her Vronsky, the otherwise unremembered Irish actor Kieron Moore. It's not surprising that producer Alexander Korda gave Moore third billing, promoting Richardson above him. The production, too, is rather drab, especially when compared to the opulence that MGM could provide in its 1935 heyday. There's a toy train early in the film that the special effects people try to pass off as full-size by hiding it behind an obviously artificial snowstorm. As usual, this Anna Karenina is all about building up to Anna's famous demise, this time by taking us into her foreboding nightmare about a railroad worker she saw at the beginning of her affair with Vronsky. And also as usual, the half of the novel dealing with Levin, Tolstoy's stand-in character, is scuttled. In this version, Levin (Niall MacGinnis) is a balding middle-aged man whose only function is to be rejected by Kitty (Sally Ann Howes), who is then thrown over for Anna by Vronsky. There's a perfunctory scene that gives a happy ending to the Levin-Kitty story, but it adds nothing but length to the film. Some of the scenes featuring the supporting cast, especially those with Martita Hunt as Princess Betsy, bring the film to flickering life, but there aren't enough of them to overcome the general dullness.    

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

I'm not boasting when I say that horror movies don't scare me. Sometimes I wish they did -- I'm missing out on the fun. It's just that since I learned to watch films analytically, studying performance and camerawork and storytelling, I usually see through the formulas of genre films. I know, for example, how to anticipate the surprises when you think that everything's okay and suddenly it isn't anymore -- e.g., the shocker moments in Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) or Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976). The best I can hope for from a scary movie is to feel unsettled, which is what Rosemary's Baby does to me. I've seen it often enough to know where it's going, but when it arrives -- especially in the conception scene and in the final reveal -- I invariably suspend my analysis long enough to be drawn in. As director and screenwriter, Roman Polanski is a master, providing lovely, creepy bits like the figures that tiptoe across the background in the scene in which Rosemary (Mia Farrow) thinks she's alone in the apartment. But to my mind the film succeeds mostly because of Farrow's performance: She brings just the right amount of vulnerability to the role -- she doesn't even need the makeup-induced pallor to convince us that she is prey to something terrible. It always strikes me as odd that she has never earned an Oscar nomination. But all the performances in Rosemary's Baby are top-notch, starting with the one that did win an Oscar, Ruth Gordon's deliciously vulgar Minnie Castevet, who pronounces "pregnant" as if it had three syllables. John Cassavetes succeeds in the difficult role of Guy, Rosemary's husband; he has to be plausible as the sympathetic, loving spouse at the start -- giving in to Rosemary's desire for the fatal apartment -- but just abrasive enough with his wisecracks to suggest the cynicism and careerism that leads him to sell his soul to the devil-worshipers. Ralph Bellamy also has to be plausibly caring as Dr. Sapirstein to convince Rosemary and the audience that he's on the right side, while also preparing us for later revelations. Bellamy had a long and interesting career, from the schnook who gets the girl taken away from him by Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) and His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1941), to the distinguished, gentlemanly, but sometimes sinister character in films like Trading Places (John Landis, 1983) and Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990). It's also good to see other veteran actors -- Sidney Blackmer, Elisha Cook Jr., and even that well-cured ham Maurice Evans -- doing fine ensemble work. Richard Sylbert's production design makes the most of the spooky gothic apartment house -- the exteriors are of the Dakota, but the interiors are sets. And Krzysztof Komeda, who had worked with Polanski in Poland, provides a score that's atmospheric without being overstated -- until it needs to be.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948)

The presidential campaign has put lying at the center of conversation this year, so The Fallen Idol fits right in: It's all about lying and its consequences. The film is usually categorized as a thriller, and it's undeniably suspenseful, but if you try to pigeonhole it as a thriller you have to deal with an ending that doesn't have the punch that we expect from the genre. I prefer to think of it as something less sexy, and probably much less enticing to those who haven't seen it: a moral fable. Revising his story "The Basement Room" into a screenplay, Graham Greene ensnares everyone in the film in their own lies, so that the audience, which knows the truth, is kept in suspense. Philippe (Bobby Henrey) is the young son of an ambassador, living in the embassy in London's Belgrave Square. His mother has been recuperating from a long illness in their home country, and when his father goes to see her, Philippe is left in the care of the butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), and his wife, the housekeeper (Sonia Dresdel). Philippe idolizes Baines, who entertains him with made-up stories about his adventures in Africa -- in fact, he has never been out of England. Mrs. Baines, on the other hand, is strict and fussy, so he has learned to be sneaky about things like the pet snake he is hiding from her. When Mrs. Baines punishes him one day by sending him to his room, Philippe sneaks down the fire escape and follows Baines to a cafe, where Baines is meeting with Julie (Michèle Morgan), a woman who used to work at the embassy. Baines and Julie are in love, but she has found their relationship hopeless and has decided to break it off. When Philippe surprises them, Baines pretends that Julie is his niece; before the boy, they continue to talk about their relationship as if it were that of some other couple. After Julie leaves, Baines persuades Philippe not to talk about her around Mrs. Baines, telling him that she dislikes Julie. Back at the embassy, Baines tries to persuade his wife that their marriage is at an end, but she is having none of it. Learning that he's seeing another woman, she also lies, telling him that she's going away for a few days, then secretly stays behind to spy on him. All of this deception comes to a head with an accidental death that looks a lot like murder, with Philippe as a key witness. But Philippe has been so confused by the lies he's been told and the ones he's been asked to tell, that when the police question him he is in danger of leading them into a serious error of justice. Director Carol Reed brilliantly manages to hold most of the film to Philippe's point of view, giving the audience the double vision of what is actually happening and what Philippe thinks is happening. Nine-year-old Henrey, who had no significant film career afterward, is splendidly natural in the role, and Richardson brings a necessary ambiguity to the part of Baines. The film is also enlivened by Greene's secondary characters, including a chorus of housemaids who comment on the action, a clock-winder (Hay Petrie) who breaks the tension of an interrogation scene, and a scene at the police station where the cops and a prostitute (Dora Bryan) try to figure out what to do with Philippe, who has run away after the accident, barefoot and in pajamas, and refuses to tell them where he lives.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné, 1938)

I had seen Arletty in a movie only once before, as the fascinating, enigmatic Garance in Marcel Carné's great Children of Paradise (1945), so I was completely unprepared for her performance as the raucous streetwalker Raymonde in Hôtel du Nord. Raymonde shares a room in the hotel with Edmond (Louis Jouvet), a photographer who is hiding out from his old cronies in the Parisian underworld. The film begins with a traveling shot along the canal that flanks the hotel, where we first see a young pair of lovers, Pierre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Renée (Annabella), walking arm in arm. Inside the hotel, the residents are celebrating the first communion of the daughter of Maltaverne (René Bergeron), a policeman who lives at the hotel. (It's a diverse household.) Pierre and Renée enter and request a room for the night, but instead of making love, they have decided on a suicide pact: He will shoot her, then kill himself. He holds up the first part of the bargain, but then chickens out. Edmond, who has been in his darkroom, hears the shot and breaks down the door, finding Renée apparently dead and Pierre cowering indecisively. Taking the gun from Pierre, Edmond urges him to flee. (The gun becomes a Chekhov's gun when Edmond first tosses it away and then recovers it and stashes it in a drawer.) Renée recovers from the gunshot, and Pierre, torn with guilt, turns himself into the police as an attempted murderer and is sent to prison. After she recuperates, Renée returns to the hotel to collect her things, and is offered a job there by Madame Lecouvreur (Jane Marken), the wife of the proprietor (André Brunot). And so the story of the suicidal lovers begins to intertwine with that of Edmond and Raymonde. It's all neatly done, with a great deal of atmosphere (a word that Raymonde will give a particular spin to), much of it created by Alexandre Trauner's set, a re-creation of the actual hotel and the Canal St. Martin in the studios at Billancourt. The film's melodrama is alleviated by the ensemble work and the performances of Jouvet, who can switch from menacing to vulnerable in an instant, and Arletty, who makes the tough, worldly wise Raymonde often very funny. The film concludes with Carné's skillful staging of an elaborate Bastille Day sequence that anticipates the crowd scenes in Children of Paradise.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

So much has been written about the mishandling and mutilation of Orson Welles's second feature film that it's hard to see the Magnificent Ambersons that we have without pining for the one we lost. What we have is a fine family melodrama with a truncated and sentimental happy ending and an undeveloped and poorly integrated commentary on the effects of industrialization on turn-of-the-20th-century America. We also have some of the best examples of Welles's genius at integrating performances, production design, and cinematography -- all of which Welles supervised to the point of micromanagement. The interior of the Amberson mansion is one of the great sets in Hollywood film: It earned an Oscar nomination for Albert S. D'Agostino, A. Roland Fields, and Darrell Silvera, though the credited set designer, Mark-Lee Kirk, should have been included. Welles used the set as a grand stage, exploiting the three levels of the central staircase memorably with the help of Stanley Cortez's deep-focus camerawork. Welles later told Peter Bogdanovich that Frank Lloyd Wright, who was Anne Baxter's grandfather, visited the set and hated it: It was precisely the kind of domestic architecture that he had spent his career trying to eliminate, which, as Welles said, was "the whole point" of the design. As for the performances, Agnes Moorehead received a supporting actress nomination, the first of four in her career, for playing the spinster aunt, Fanny Minafer. She's superb, especially in the "kitchen scene," a single long take in which her nephew, George (Tim Holt), scarfs down strawberry shortcake as she worms out of him the information that Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) has renewed his courting of George's widowed mother, Isabel (Dolores Costello), which is especially painful for Fanny, who had hopes of attracting Eugene herself. Holt, an underrated actor, holds his own here and elsewhere -- he is, after all, the central character, the spoiled child whose selfishness ruins the chances for happiness of so many of the film's characters. We can mourn the loss of Welles's cinematic flourishes that were apparently cut from the film, but to my mind the chief loss is the effective integration of the theme initiated when Eugene, who has made his fortune developing the automobile, admits that the industrial progress it represents "may be a step backward in civilization" and that automobiles are "going to alter war and they're going to alter peace." Welles was speaking from his own life, as Patrick McGilligan observes in his book Young Orson. Welles's father, Dick Welles, had been involved in developing automobile headlights -- the very thing in which Fanny invests and loses her inheritance -- and was the proud driver of the first automobile on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Welles's home town. The Magnificent Ambersons would have been much richer if Welles had been able to make the statement about the automobile that he later told Bogdanovich was central to his concept of the film.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)

In Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater does -- albeit on a smaller scale -- something like what Francis Ford Coppola did for the gangster film in The Godfather (1972) or Sam Peckinpah did for the Western in The Wild Bunch (1969): They took a familiar movie genre, in Linklater's case the teen comedy, and perfected it. Linklater doesn't parody it the way Tina Fey did in Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) or sentimentalize it the way George Lucas did in American Graffiti (1973), though the latter film, with its oldies soundtrack, comes closer to what Linklater accomplishes. But Linklater explicitly rejected the nostalgia of American Graffiti. His attitude is summed up by the character Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), the quarterback who resists signing a no alcohol, no drugs pledge so he can stay on the team: "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." Linklater has said that he wanted to avoid the melodramatic excesses of teen films -- the car crashes and pregnancies -- and to reflect the reality of just "riding around and trying to look for something to do with the music cranked up." Roger Ebert and others have called Linklater an anthropologist. It's easy to see this in his best work, such as the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood (2014) and the Céline-and-Jesse trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), in which Linklater takes the time to get to know his characters and the way their experiences have shaped them at specific moments in their lives. But in Dazed and Confused we are offered only a few hours with a host of characters, on the last day of school in 1976 -- the summer that Linklater turned 16 -- and into the evening that follows. There is beer and pot and vandalism -- which gets the vandals shot at -- and some rather frustrated sexuality, but it never turns into anything worse than the seniors hazing the freshmen by paddling them, and the most sadistic of the seniors getting a bucket of paint dumped on his head in retribution. There is no plot as such, but who needs plot when you have a cast of formidable but then-unknown young actors, including two future Oscar winners, to create the characters? Ben Affleck evokes the sadism of O'Bannion, whose obsession with paddling freshmen begins to frighten even his fellow hazers. Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson, the twentysomething slacker who still hangs out with high school kids, is the very embodiment of the Peter Pan complex. He insists "You just gotta keep livin', man," but reveals the unacknowledged sadness within by saying, "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." Linklater's genius is demonstrated in his ability to tell so much about so many in his huge cast of characters, from the completely baked Slater (Rory Cochrane) to the class nerds (Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp, and Adam Goldberg), in such a short time.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Red Dust (Victor Fleming, 1932)

Victor Fleming is the credited director on two of the most beloved films in Hollywood history: Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). I say "credited director" because it's widely known that many other directorial hands were involved in both movies. Fleming took over the former only after George Cukor had been fired from it (reportedly on the insistence of Clark Gable). Some of Cukor's scenes remain in the film, and others were reportedly directed by Sam Wood and King Vidor, but GWTW is mostly the product of its obsessive, micromanaging producer, David O. Selznick. The Wizard, too, was primarily the work of its producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed; once again a director, Richard Thorpe, was fired from the film before Fleming was brought on, LeRoy directed some of the scenes, as did Cukor and Norman Taurog, and the Kansas scenes are well-known as having been directed by Vidor after Fleming went to work on GWTW.  So was Fleming more than just a replacement director or a fixer of movies gone astray? The best evidence that Fleming was a pretty good director on his own is Red Dust, a funny, sexy adventure romance that established Gable, especially when he was teamed with Jean Harlow, as a top box-office draw. Fleming demonstrates a sure hand with the material, keeping it from bogging down in melodramatic mush in the scenes between Gable and Mary Astor. The action is set in Hollywood's idea of a rubber plantation in French Indochina -- what Vietnam was called back when Americans were pronouncing Saigon as "SAY-gone," if the movie is to be trusted. Dennis Carson (Gable) manages the plantation when he is not being distracted by the arrival first of Vantine (Harlow), a shady lady, and then of Barbara Willis (Astor) and her husband, Gary (Gene Raymond), an engineer who has been sent to survey an expansion of the plantation. Carson and Vantine have been spending several weeks of unwedded bliss before the Willises arrive, but pretty soon he is making a play for Mrs. Willis, using the old trick of sending the husband off to survey the swamps while she remains behind. All of this is handled with delicious innuendo, possible only because the Production Code had not yet gone into effect: for example, the scene in which Vantine rinses off in a rain barrel while Carson looks on (and in), or the fact that Carson and Mrs. Willis's adultery goes unpunished except for a flesh wound. Both Harlow and Astor sashay around in improbable barely-there finery by Adrian. Fleming went on to make another pre-Code delight with Harlow, the screwball comedy Bombshell (1933), which alludes to the Hays Office's concerns about Red Dust. John Lee Mahin was screenwriter on both films, though some of the better lines in Red Dust were contributed by the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart. The movie is marred only for today's viewers by some period racism: the colonialist attitude toward the native laborers as "lazy" and the giggling Chinese houseboy played by Willie Fung.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012)

A Royal Affair features a Swedish actress, Alicia Vikander, and a Danish actor, Mads Mikkelsen, who are already well known in America, but they almost get the film stolen out from under them by Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, a young Danish actor unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The film, as its title suggests, is a romantic historical drama. It's based on the story of the arranged marriage of Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (a sister of George III) to King Christian VII of Denmark, and her affair with the king's adviser, the German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee, a story that, as the film is careful to point out, is an analog to the story of Guinevere, Lancelot, and Arthur. It's a rough analog, because unlike Arthur, Christian (Følsgaard), was quite mad. And except for cuckolding the king, Struensee (Mikkelsen) is really more Merlin than Lancelot to him -- a physician who tries to temper Christian's madness but also a political adviser determined to bring the ideas of Locke and Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers to feudal, priest-ridden Denmark. Director Nikolaj Arcel and co-screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg naturally gravitate more toward the romance than the politics, using as their primary source a novel by Bodil Steensen-Leth that tells the story from the point of view of Caroline (Vikander), who is as disgusted with her mad husband as he is indifferent to her. Vikander is splendid in the role as she goes from naive enthusiasm at the idea of marrying a king, even though she's never seen him before they're wed, to icy disillusionment and from indifference to Struensee to passion. Mikkelsen is a little stolid in his role: He communicates Struensee's passion for Enlightenment ideas better than he does his passion for Caroline. But Følsgaard has a grand time playing the mercurial Christian, who is sometimes plausibly sane and even likable, but mostly acts like a four-year-old in a grown man's body, with the additional danger of having the royal prerogative to do what he wants. Arcel does a good job of rising above the clichés of the genre, and cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk and production designer Niels Sejer do justice to the handsome settings, most of them in and around Prague.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1960)

Suddenly, Last Summer is a film with a rare distinction: Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received Oscar nominations as best actress for their performances in it. Only two other movies have that distinction: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated as best actress for All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine for The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977). That none of the six won may suggest that they split the votes: In the case of Hepburn and Taylor, the winner was Simone Signoret for Room at the Top (Jack Clayton). Pardon this excursion into Oscar trivia, but I think it says something about the film that these two performances are the most memorable thing about it -- and not always for the right reasons. The only other nomination it received was for the art direction and set decoration of Oliver Messel, William Kellner, and Scott Slimon. There were none for Joseph L. Mankiewicz's direction or for the screenplay credited to Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. In fact, Williams had nothing to do with the film, and according to John Lahr's fine biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, he later called it "an abortion." It was Vidal, then, who accomplished the task of expanding Williams's one-act play into a two-hour film. What Vidal and Mankiewicz actually accomplish is a kind of parody of Williams's style at its most florid. They take the film beyond the play's single setting in the jungle-like hothouse and dilute and dissipate the intensity of the play's great scenes for Catherine and Mrs. Venable (Hepburn). Vidal himself regretted the decision to film the attack on Sebastian, which in the play is only described by Catherine, but it's likely that producer Sam Spiegel insisted on showing Taylor in her revealing white bathing suit.  Hepburn at this point in her career couldn't help being a collection of familiar mannerisms -- the haughty head-tilt, the reedy vocal production -- but she holds the screen like no other actress. Taylor, however, fails to evoke Catherine's vulnerability and she begins her great final narrative on too high a pitch, then has to sustain it to the point of shrillness. Montgomery Clift, as the doctor who tries to resist Mrs. Venable's attempt to eradicate Catherine's memories with a lobotomy, is clearly a damaged man, suffering the effects of alcohol and drugs after his near-fatal car crash in 1956, but Taylor was insistent on casting him, over Mankiewicz's objections, which continued well into filming. Taylor and Hepburn both mothered him, and they resented Mankiewicz's sometimes harsh treatment, to the point that, according to several accounts, when Hepburn finished her final scene she spat at the director. For a glimpse at what Suddenly, Last Summer can be in other hands, check out the 1993 BBC version of the play with Maggie Smith (an actress with her own distinct mannerisms who knows how to use them in service of the character) and an astonishing performance by Natasha Richardson.

Friday, September 30, 2016

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

At the beginning of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, we see a beautiful woman on the screen and the narrator (Jean-Luc Godard) whispers to us some things that he knows about her: that she is the actress Marina Vlady and that she is looking to the right. And yes, she is Marina Vlady, but in a moment the narrator is whispering again that she is Juliette Jeanson, which is the role Vlady is playing in the film. And yes, she is looking to the right, except that it's our right; she is looking to her left. So immediately Godard has launched us into some conundrums involving actor and role as well as subject and object. Godard will insistently whisper his comments on these and other epistemological questions throughout the film, as we watch Marina/Juliette move through a day in which Juliette takes her daughter to a very strange day care center, has her car washed, buys a dress, meets a friend, and turns a few tricks. We also watch the work at construction sites and contemplate the swirling foam on the surface of a cup of coffee. And throughout we are not only whispered to by Godard, but also hear Juliette's thoughts and the conversation of other characters on the nature and limitations of language and art and philosophy, as well as the psychic disturbance and political significance of the Vietnam War. For some, all this will constitute an hour and a half of pretentious and boring fiddle-faddle, the cinematic equivalent of the philosophical bull sessions we had in our college dorms. But let me hasten to defend the philosophical bull session: It stretched our minds at the right time in our lives, when we had the patience for ideas. Too few of us have the patience for ideas anymore, and that may be an incalculable loss. It's easy to mock films like 2 or 3 Things, to ignore their essential playfulness, their overturning of the complacent expectation that a movie should tell a story or excite or entertain us. But pause to gnaw on some of the some of the things that are said in the film, such as "To say that the limits of language, of my language, are those of the world, of my world, and that in speaking, I limit the world, I end it." Or contemplate the fact that the surface of a stirred cup of coffee looks like the spiraling of a galaxy. Or engage your eyes with cinematographer Raoul Coutard's widescreen compositions. Or question the film's obsession with commercialism, which echoes Andy Warhol's exaltation of soup cans and Brillo boxes into art. Or do anything else that the film prods you to do, including wonder why Juliette leads the life she does, and you've got at the heart of what makes Godard such a radically important filmmaker.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

I am the same age as Ringo Starr and was born only a little over a week before John Lennon, so I watch A Hard Day's Night with more than ordinary nostalgia, the kind that might make me say with Wordsworth, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" except that I'd be lying. Still, if there was bliss to be had in that post-Kennedy-assassination, Goldwater-haunted, Cold War summer of '64, it was to be found in watching John, Paul, George, and Ringo larking about at the movies. It was a breath of optimism, a statement that youth could conquer the world. It didn't quite turn out that way, but it didn't for Wordsworth either: He was talking about the French Revolution, which proved not to be so heavenly. This is, of course, one of the great film musicals, packed with engaging songs. They may be more lightweight than the Beatles' later oeuvre, lifting the heart rather than stirring the imagination, but they're impossible to resist. It also slyly, cheekily makes its point about the generation the Beatles are trying to leave behind: the ineptly bullying managers (Norman Rossington and John Junkin), the fussy TV director (Victor Spinetti), the marketing executive (Kenneth Haigh) sure that he has a handle on What the Kids Want, the Blimpish man on the train (Richard Vernon) who tells Ringo, "I fought the war for your sort." Ringo's reply: "I bet you're sorry you won." Celebrity is closing in on them, epitomized by the wonderfully elliptical dialogue in John's encounter with a woman (Anna Quayle) who is sure that she recognizes him but then puts on her glasses and proclaims, "You don't look like him at all." John mutters, "She looks more like him than I do." Alun Owen's screenplay, written after hanging out with the Beatles, absorbing and borrowing their own jokes, was one of the two Oscar nominations the film received, along with George Martin's scoring. None of the songs, of course, were nominated. Neither were Richard Lester's direction, Gilbert Taylor's cinematography, or John Jympson's editing, all of which kept the film buoyant and fleet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, 2014)

Theeb (the name, we learn, means "wolf") is a young Bedouin boy whose older brother, Hussein, is called on to help an Englishman find his way to a well in the desert. The Englishman, a soldier, carries with him a wooden box that arouses Theeb's curiosity, though the Englishman angrily shoos him away every time Theeb tries to inspect it. It is 1916, and we recognize the box as a detonator and, especially if we've seen Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), realize that the soldier is delivering it to the Arabs rebelling against the Ottoman Empire. When Hussein leaves with the soldier, Theeb sneaks away to follow them; when he catches up with them, the soldier insists that they don't have time to return him to the tribe's camp but must continue to the well, where he is scheduled to meet up with his contacts. At this point, the conventional desert adventure movie might play off the relationship between the angry soldier and the curious boy, perhaps developing a friendship between them as they carry out the soldier's mission. But this isn't a conventional film. It's British-Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar's first feature film, and even though he describes it as a "Bedouin Western," it's grounded in actuality more than in Hollywood genre films. All of the actors except Jack Fox, who plays the soldier, are non-professionals.  Abu Nowar and co-screenwriter Bassel Ghandour spent a year living with and researching the Bedouins in Jordan, and choosing their cast, including the pre-adolescent Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, who plays Theeb in an engagingly natural performance. The film takes place at the same time and in the same place as Lawrence of Arabia, and the cinematography of Wolfgang Thaler shows the influence of Freddie Young's work on that film. But Theeb stands Lean's celebrated film on its head by making the soldier a dispensable secondary character. The adventure is Theeb's, as he finds himself first alone in the desert and then with a companion he has good reason to hate. The result is a smart, unsentimental look at a place and way of life filled with hardships and perils. It received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

Heaven's Gate, for all its history as a calamitous flop, is not so much a bad movie as an inchoate one. You can see it go awry from the very beginning, when it tries to pass off the ornate architecture of Oxford University, where the scenes were filmed, for the spare red brick and granite of Harvard Yard. The film opens with a frenzied commencement for the Harvard class of 1870, which devolves into a swirling dance to the "Blue Danube" waltz. It's potentially an exhilarating opening, but it goes on and on and on, and serves almost no purpose in the rest of the film, except to introduce us to James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and his friend William C. Irvine (John Hurt), members of the graduating class. Then the film jumps 20 years, to Wyoming, where Averill is marshal of Johnson County. We never learn why Averill, who is a wealthy man, winds up in this hard and thankless job, living in near-squalor and hooked up with Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), the madam of a brothel. As for Irvine, with whom Averill reunites during a stopover in Casper on his way back to Johnson County, he has somehow become involved with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a group of cattlemen led by the sinister Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) who are trying to keep immigrants from settling on the land they want to graze. It's clear that director-screenwriter Michael Cimino at some point wanted Irvine, who is presented as an effete intellectual, to serve as a kind of chorus, commenting on the action, and as a foil to the more robust Averill, but Irvine keeps getting lost in the turns of the narrative and the excesses of Cimino's ideas. (The shooting took so long that Hurt was able to film David Lynch's The Elephant Man during his down time from Heaven's Gate.) In Casper we also meet Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), who works as a kind of hit man for the cattlemen. But Champion is also a friend of Averill's and a rival of his for the attentions of Ella. There is the core of a more conventional Western in the relationships among these characters, but Cimino isn't interested in being conventional. What he is interested in are the elaborate set pieces like the waltz scene, a later scene with dozens of couples on roller skates, enormous throngs of extras milling through the streets of Casper, crowds of immigrants making their way to Johnson County, and battle scenes in which the citizens of the Johnson County settlement retaliate against the troops led by Canton that are determined to exterminate them. There are pauses in the hullabaloo for quieter scenes designed to work out the triangle formed by Averill, Champion, and Ella, but their characters are so lightly sketched in that we don't have much sense of the motives behind their sometimes enigmatic actions. And yet, it's a somehow maddeningly watchable film, thanks in large part to the often breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, a committed performance by Huppert, the Oscar-nominated sets of Tambi Larsen and James L. Berkey, and yes, the sheer extravagance of what Cimino throws onto the screen. Without a plausible screenplay it could never have been a good film, but occasionally you can see how it might have been a great one.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Sicario is a suspenseful, well-directed, superbly acted, and finely photographed film whose chief flaw is that it can't decide between what it needs to be, an action thriller, and what it wants to be, a biting commentary on the international social and political consequences of the War on Drugs. As the latter, Sicario could almost be a postscript to Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), to the point that it casts Benicio Del Toro, who won an Oscar for the earlier film, in the key role of Alejandro, a CIA operative with a personal agenda. Emily Blunt, an actress who seems to be able to do anything (she's been cast as Mary Poppins in a forthcoming sequel), plays Kate, a young FBI agent whom we first see leading a SWAT raid on a house in Chandler, Ariz., that is suspected of being a link to a Mexican drug cartel. Not only is the house full of dozens of corpses, an outlying building explodes when agents try to open a locked trap door, killing two of them. Because of her work on the raid, Kate is offered an assignment on a special team to capture Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino), the man responsible for the bombing. The operation is headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a jokey, casual, swaggering type whom Kate's partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), mistrusts immediately. Kate herself gets stonewalled when she tries to get more details about their mission, and even what part of the government Graver and his mysterious, taciturn partner, Alejandro, work for. It's the CIA, of course, and Kate's presence on the mission is largely to provide an excuse for the presence of the agency on this side of the border, where it's not supposed to operate unless it's working with domestic law enforcement. Their first mission, in fact, is across the border, to Juárez, where they are to pick up an associate of Diaz's who has been captured and is being extradited. Much of this trip is seen from the air: We watch the line of SUV's, looking from above like large black beetles, that carry the members of the task force across the border, smoothly gliding around the traffic backed up at the checkpoint and into the city. It's on the return trip that they encounter a bottleneck: a staged traffic accident strands the convoy in traffic, where they are ambushed by cartel operatives trying to prevent the captured man from testifying. Having survived this encounter, Kate is naturally more determined than ever to get some answers to her questions about the real nature of the mission and the exact roles being played by Graver and Alejandro in it, but she will find that the more she knows, the more danger she is in. Intercut with Kate's story are vignettes of the life of a Juárez cop (Maximiliano Hernández) and his wife and young son. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the significance of these scenes from us until they finally merge with the principal plotline toward the end of the film. It does not end well, of course. Kate has a disillusioning revelation about the purpose of the mission that has put her in harm's way several times, and although the downer ending of the film has an impact of its own when it comes to social and political commentary, it clashes oddly with the generic thriller medium in which it's set. But Villeneuve's direction serves both elements of the film well, Roger Deakins's cinematography received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and Joe Walker's film editing probably deserved one.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)

I have been watching Deadwood on HBO GO, and now realize how much that series owes to what may be Robert Altman's best film, which is also the greatest of all "stoner Westerns." McCabe & Mrs. Miller is very much of the era in which it was made, with its fatalistic view of its loner protagonist, doomed by his naive willingness to go up against the big corporate mining interests who want to buy him out. Hippies against the Establishment, if you will. But as shows like Deadwood demonstrate, that agon has continued to play itself out in popular culture, long after the counterculture supposedly met its demise. It's also very much at the heart of the mythos of the American Western, which always centered on the loner against overwhelming odds. McCabe & Mrs. Miller came along at a time when the Western was in eclipse, with most of its great exponents, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, in retirement, and some of its defining actors, like John Wayne, having gone over to the side of the Establishment. So when iconoclasts like Altman and Warren Beatty, coming off of their respective breakthrough hits M*A*S*H (1970) and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), took an interest in filming Edmund Naughton's novel, it was clear that we were going to get something revisionist, a Western with a grubby setting and an antiheroic protagonist. The remarkable thing is that McCabe & Mrs. Miller, perhaps more than either M*A*S*H or Bonnie and Clyde, has transcended its revisionism and formed its own tradition. For once, Altman's mannerisms -- overlapping dialogue, restless camerawork, reliance on a stock company of actors like Michael Murphy, John Schuck, and Shelley Duvall, and a generally loosey-goosey mise-en-scène -- don't overwhelm the story. Some of this is probably owing to Beatty's own firmly entrenched ego, which was often at odds with Altman's. His performance gives the film a center and grounding that many of Altman's other films lack, especially since he works so well in tandem with Julie Christie's performance as Mrs. Miller, the only thing about the film that the Academy deigned worthy of an Oscar nomination. How the Academy could have overlooked the contribution of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond remains a mystery, except that at this point the cinematographers branch was dominated by old-school directors of photography who had been brought up in the studio system, which was to flood the set with light -- one reason why Gordon Willis's magisterial chiaroscuro in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) failed to get a nomination the following year. Altman also made a brilliant directoral decision to film in sequence, so that the town of Presbyterian Church, the work of production designer Leon Erickson and art directors Al Locatelli and Philip Thomas, takes shape around the action.