A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Last Métro (François Truffaut, 1980)

Watching The Last Métro only a day after The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls, 1969) was instructive, if a little bit unfair to François Truffaut's romantic backstage drama. The two films deal with the same milieu, France during World War II, but with such differing approaches that the stark devotion to ferreting out the truth in Ophüls's film makes Truffaut's dramatization of the plight of a Jewish theater owner and his company feel more glossy and sentimental than it perhaps really is. Truffaut, who was born in 1932, was only a boy during the war, so he can't be expected to have the kind of first-hand awareness of events that the adults pictured in his film possess. Consequently, his own preoccupation, the world of actors and directors, takes precedence in the film over the suffering people endured under the Nazis. He has admitted in interviews that The Last Métro is a kind of companion film to Day for Night (1973), his behind-the-camera account of making a movie. What he does recall is the theater -- in his case the movie theater rather than the legitimate stage -- was a kind of refuge from hardship, the hunger and cold brought about by wartime rationing. People gathered in theaters for communal warmth. The story is principally about an actress, Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), who is trying to keep the theater that was run before the war by her husband, Lucas (Heinz Bennent), open. Lucas, who is Jewish, is rumored to have fled to America, but in fact he is hiding in the cellar of the theater while Marion, with the help of the rest of the regular company, stages a play. The director, Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret), is working from the notes Lucas made on the play before his disappearance. Cottins has his own dangerous secret: He's gay. A new leading man, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), joins the company, and inevitably a tension develops between him and Marion. Meanwhile, Lucas has figured out ways to listen in on rehearsals and make suggestions to Marion that she passes along to Cottins, who is unaware of Lucas's hiding place. Marion also has the difficulty of dealing with the authorities, who could close the theater at any moment, especially when the influential critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), a collaborator with the Nazis, takes an interest in her and the play. What takes place on stage, namely the sexual tension between the characters played by Marion and Bernard, often mirrors what's happening backstage. The Last Métro is a well-crafted movie -- Truffaut wrote the screenplay with Suzanne Schiffman -- that was France's entry for the best foreign-film Oscar and won a raft of the French César Awards, including one for cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, 1969)

Christian de la Mazière, one of those interviewed in The Sorrow and the Pity
An adverse political situation typically elicits three responses: collaboration, resistance, and patient endurance. The problem with the third is that it's hard to sustain under pressure from the other two. Such is the lesson of The Sorrow and the Pity, the great documentary by Marcel Ophüls about France during the German occupation. It can't be said that Ophüls is even-handed and impartial in his treatment of the survivors of that era who testify in his film. That kind of disinterestedness is not only impossible but immoral, considering the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. But it's the kind of film that makes you understand what people endured, and question how you yourself would have behaved in the same (or a similar) situation. That's also why I think the film is essential viewing, especially this week, with the inauguration of a man whose thoughts and actions seem so abhorrent to many people and so attractive to others.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

A perennial on "best films in history" lists, Battleship Potemkin is certainly one of the best-crafted movies ever. No matter how hokey and manipulative it seemed, I sat enthralled through my most recent viewing as the pounding, throbbing endless crescendo of music and editing surged toward the political victory of the Potemkin over the Czar's fleet. (The music on this version was Edmund Meisel's, which was performed at the Berlin premiere in 1926.) Because of the celebrated "Odessa Steps" sequence, which is cited in every textbook on editing and montage and in every tribute to Sergei Eisenstein or documentary about propaganda, I had forgotten that the real climax of the film is its final sequence. I had also forgotten how truly epic the film feels, with the great massing of crowds before the massacre on the steps. But is it a great film? Not if you're judging a film by any standard other than the way it gets blood pumping. It lacks insight into any human emotion other than resentment and the herd instinct. It's a masterpiece of propaganda. As with other such masterpieces, such as Leni Riefensthal's Triumph of the Will (1935), it lies to us. Which is all right, as long as we know it's lying and can keep our eye on the truth.

Joy (David O. Russell, 2015)

A thoroughly conventional movie with an exceptional cast that features what seems to be the core of writer-director David O. Russell's stock company, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Joy is the kind of feel-good underdog-against-the-odds movie with screwball touches that could have been made at almost any time in Hollywood history. I can easily imagine it in the 1940s with Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray, for example. Joy Mangano (Lawrence) was a brilliant student in high school, but she didn't go on to college, and now struggles to make ends meet, while dabbling with ideas for inventions. A divorcee, she lives in an unusual household: In addition to her two children and her grandmother (Diane Ladd), the ménage also includes Joy's mother (Virginia Madsen), who spends her days in bed watching soap operas, and Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), who lives in the basement. Joy's father (Robert De Niro) also joins the household after splitting from his latest wife, but he soon takes up with Trudy, a wealthy widow (Isabella Rossellini). When Joy comes up with the idea for a self-wringing mop, Trudy agrees to help finance it. Joy has to contract the manufacture of some of the mop's parts, and she struggles to market it until the idea comes to sell it on TV. She approaches the QVC shopping channel, where an executive, Neil Walker (Cooper), takes an interest in the product. It becomes a big seller, but then the company Joy contracted to make the parts claims ownership of the design. Facing bankruptcy, Joy fights the claim, wins, and becomes a huge success, marketing other household products. There's a real-life Joy Mangano on whose story the film is based, with the usual disregard for accuracy. Lawrence got an Oscar nomination for her performance, which is, as always, wonderful. She gives the film more than it deserves, and the supporting cast measures up to her. But there are few surprises in the story or in Russell's treatment of it, unlike his previous films with Lawrence and Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013).

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Antoine Doinel Cycle

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
One of the unquestioned great movies, and one of the greatest feature-film directing debuts, The 400 Blows would still resonate with film-lovers even if François Truffaut hadn't gone on to create four sequels tracking the life and loves of his protagonist, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). There are, in fact, those who think that the last we should have seen of Antoine was the haunting freeze-frame at the end of the film. But Antoine continued to grow up on screen, and perhaps more remarkably, so did Léaud, carving out his own career after his debut as a 13-year-old. (It's hard to think of any American child actors who were able to maintain a film career into adulthood as well as Léaud did. Mickey Rooney? Dean Stockwell? Who else?) Having Truffaut as a mentor certainly helped, but Léaud had an unmistakable gift. He is on screen for virtually all of the 99-minute run time, and provides a gallery of memorable moments: Antoine in the amusement-park centrifuge, Antoine in the police lockup, Antoine on the run -- in cinematographer Henri Decaë's brilliant long tracking shot. And my personal favorite moment: when the psychologist asks Antoine if he's ever had sex. Léaud responds with a beautiful mixture of surprise, amusement, and embarrassment. It's so genuine a response that I have to think it was improvised, that Truffaut surprised Léaud with the question. But even so, Léaud never drops character in his response. This praise of Léaud is not to undervalue the magnificent supporting cast, or the haunting score by Jean Constantin. It's a film in which everything works.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Marie-France Pisier in Antoine and Colette
Antoine and Colette (François Truffaut, 1962)
Four years after he made The 400 Blows, Truffaut was asked to contribute to an anthology of short films by directors from various countries to be called Love at Twenty. As he had with the first film, Truffaut drew on his own experience, an infatuation with a girl he had met at the Cinémathèque Française. And since Léaud was available -- he had worked with Julien Duvivier on Boulevard (1960) after completing The 400 Blows -- it made sense for him to play Antoine Doinel again. A narrator tells us that Antoine had been sent to another reform school after escaping from the first, and that this time he had responded well to a psychologist: After leaving school, he has found a job working for the Phillips record company and is living on his own. Then he sees a pretty young woman (Marie-France Pisier) at a concert of music by Berlioz and falls for her. Colette is not much interested in him, but she is evidently flattered by his advances. Her parents like Antoine and encourage him so much that he rents a room across the street from them. (Truffaut had done the same thing during his crush.) But one evening when he comes to dinner at their apartment, a man named Albert (Jean-François Adam) calls on Colette and she leaves Antoine watching TV with her parents. It's a droll little film, scarcely more than an anecdote, and the stable, lovestruck Antoine doesn't seem much like either the rebellious Antoine of the first film or the more scattered Antoine of the later ones in the cycle.

Stolen Kisses (François Truffaut, 1968)
The Antoine of Stolen Kisses is in his 20s, but has reverted to the more haphazard ways of his adolescence: He has been kicked out of the army, and now relies on a series of odd jobs to get by. But he has also renewed acquaintance with a young woman he met before going into the army, Christine Darbon (Claude Jade). Like Colette's parents, hers are quite taken with Antoine, and they help him get a job as a night clerk in a hotel. He gets fired from that job after helping a private detective who is spying on an adulterous couple, but the detective helps Antoine get a job with his agency. While working for the detective agency, he has to pose as a clerk in a shoe store, and winds up in a liaison with the store owner's wife (Delphine Seyrig). When that ends badly, he becomes a TV repairman, which brings him back to Christine, with whom he winds up in bed after trying to fix her TV. At the film's end, a strange man who has been following Christine comes up to her and Antoine in the park and declares his love for her. She says he must be crazy, and Antoine, who perhaps recognizes his earlier infatuation with Colette in the man's obsession, murmurs, "He must be." Stolen Kisses is the loosest, funniest entry in the cycle, though it was made at a time when Truffaut was politically preoccupied: The film opens with a shot of the shuttered gates of the Cinémathèque Française, which was shut down in a conflict between its director, Henri Langlois, and culture minister André Malraux. This caused an uproar involving many of the directors of the French New Wave. Some of Antoine's anarchic approach to life may have been inspired by the rebelliousness toward the establishment prevalent in the film community. But it's clear that the idea of a cycle of Antoine Doinel films has been brewing in Truffaut's mind: There is a cameo appearance by Marie-France Pisier as Colette, now married to Albert and the mother of an infant.

Bed and Board (François Truffaut, 1970)
Antoine and Christine have married, and they have settled down in a small apartment. (There's some indication that it's paid for by her parents.) She gives violin lessons and he sells flowers -- carnations, which he dyes, using some environmentally questionable potions. But settling down isn't in Antoine's nature, and when Christine gets pregnant he looks for more lucrative work. He finds a curious sinecure in a company run by an American: Antoine maneuvers model ships by remote control through a mockup of a harbor. ("It gives me time to think," he says.) One day, a Japanese businessman comes to see the demonstration, accompanied by a pretty translator named Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer), and Antoine is soon involved in an affair with her. Naturally, this precipitates a breakup, though by film's end they have seemingly reconciled. Still, it's obvious that the marriage is not destined to be permanent. They can't even agree on a name for their son: She wants him to be called Ghislain, and he wants to call him Alphonse. Antoine wins out by a trick: He's the one who goes to the registry office to legalize the boy's name. Antoine also spends time writing a novel about his boyhood, to which Christine objects: "I don't like this business of writing about your childhood, dragging your parents through the mud. I don't know much but I do know one thing: If you use art to settle accounts, it's no longer art." Truffaut had his own regrets about the portrait of his parents in The 400 Blows. Less farcical than Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board still has a strong vein of comedy tinged with melancholy.

Love on the Run (François Truffaut, 1979)
Truffaut admitted that he wasn't happy with the final film in the cycle. It's a bit too heavily reliant on flashback clips from the four earlier films, and if it's intended to show that Antoine has finally stabilized now that he's in his 30s and divorced from Christine, it doesn't quite make the case. He has a new girlfriend, Sabine (Dorothée, who was best-known as the hostess on a popular French children's TV show), his novel has been published several years earlier, and he works as a proofreader for a printing house. He's on friendly terms with Christine, and agrees to take their son, Alphonse, to the train station when the boy leaves for a summer music camp. At the station, he runs into Colette, now a defense lawyer, who is on her way to confer with a client -- a man who has murdered his 3-year-old boy. Perhaps a little too coincidentally, Colette is involved with Sabine's brother, Xavier (Daniel Mesguich), and having encountered Antoine before, she has bought a copy of his novel to read on the train. Antoine impulsively boards the train, and sets up a meeting with Colette in the dining car, after which she invites him back to her compartment. All of this sets up a series of revelations: Colette's marriage to Albert broke up after their small daughter was killed by a car. She claims that she supplements her small income as a lawyer by prostituting herself with men she meets on trains. Antoine finally made peace with his mother after her death when he met her old lover, M. Lucien (Julien Bertheau), who persuaded him to visit his mother's grave. (There is a flashback to the scene in The 400 Blows when Antoine, playing hooky, sees his mother kissing a strange man on the street.) Antoine became infatuated with Sabine after hearing a man in a phone booth arguing with a woman on the other end of the line and then tearing up her photograph. Antoine picked up the pieces from the floor, put them together, and after some sleuthing, discovered the woman was Sabine. His marriage to Christine finally broke up after he slept with her friend Liliane (Dani), who he previously had thought was having a lesbian relationship with Christine. And so on. The result of all the flashbacks and revelations is not to round out the Antoine Doinel saga, but to make Love on the Run feel over-contrived. Marie-France Pisier, incidentally, contributed to the screenplay, which is mostly by Truffaut. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Blood Simple (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1984)

So many of the Coen brothers' best films, like Miller's Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), and No Country for Old Men (2007), are about plans that backfire, that it's no surprise their first feature, Blood Simple, has a plot that hinges on just that. When Texas bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) discovers that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand), is having an affair with one of his bartenders, Ray (John Getz), he hires a private detective, Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), who discovered the affair, to kill them. But Visser has other ideas: He finds Ray and Abby asleep in Ray's bed, takes a picture of them, and steals Abby's gun. Then he doctors the photograph to make it look like he has shot them to death, collects the reward from Marty, and then shoots Marty with Abby's gun to frame her for his murder. But wait, there's more! It involves the fact that Marty is not (yet) dead, that he kept a copy of the doctored photo in his safe when he paid off Visser, and that Visser accidentally left his cigarette lighter behind in Marty's office. And so on, as almost everyone gets what's coming to them. Blood Simple may be just a tad over-plotted, and there are a few things that seem too contrived -- Visser's carelessness with the lighter, for one. But on the whole, it's good nasty fun, with some solid performances. McDormand, in her first film role, is strikingly pretty, and manages a remarkable character transition from naïveté to resourcefulness. Walsh and Hedaya, two reliable character actors, make the most of their juicy roles. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and composer Carter Burwell, both making their feature film debuts, help craft the film's very effective noir atmosphere.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Ear (Karel Kachyna, 1970)

Radoslav Brzobohaty and Jirina Bohdolová in The Ear
When an older movie I've never heard of by a director I've only vaguely heard of (and whose work I've never seen) turns up on Turner Classic Movies, I feel obliged to check it out. So it was with The Ear, which turns out to be not only a fascinating bit of political history but also unnervingly relevant to our own current political situation. It's not that I expect the United States in 2017 to turn into Czechoslovakia in 1970, but these are anxious times when a film about political paranoia can't help but touch nerves. Karel Kachyna was part of the Czech New Wave, filmmakers like Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jiri Menzel who took advantage of a looser attitude toward dissent on the part of the Communist Party in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, The Ear was made toward the end of that period of relative tolerance, and it was suppressed by the government under pressure from the Soviet Union. It wasn't released until 1989, after the collapse of European communism. It turns out to be a remarkable portrait of a marriage stretched to the breaking point by political tension. Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty) is a mid-level official in the Communist Party bureaucracy. He and his wife, Anna (Jirina Bohdolová) come home from a Party function one evening to discover an unlocked gate and other signs that someone has entered their house while they were away. When they also find that the phone doesn't work and the power is off, they suspect the worst: The Party has been snooping. They know the consequences well: exile or imprisonment at the least. They already suspect that their home has been bugged -- they call it "The Ear" -- all along, but figure that it was confined to their bedroom. Ludvik recalls events at the party they have attended and begins to put the worst interpretation possible on them, signs that he's about to be purged. To make matters worse, they haven't been getting along. Anna is an alcoholic and has had an affair. So as Ludvik begins trying to destroy papers that the Party might find incriminating -- burning them and flushing them down the toilet, to the point that he sets the toilet seat on fire -- Anna keeps up a steady stream of resentful accusations. Eventually, they discover that "ears" are everywhere: listening devices tucked in every nook and cranny of the house. Their rancor turns to mutual support and even affection. It turns out that Ludvik is not being purged after all: He's being promoted. But that only causes them to realize that their plight has worsened: If they were under surveillance before, how much more will they be subjected to now? The relationship of Anna and Ludvik has been compared to that of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but with the added political tension, and Brzobohaty and Bohdolová play it brilliantly. The screenplay is by Kachyna and his frequent collaborator Jan Procházka. Cinematographer Josef Illik shoots many scenes as if lit by the candelabra Anna and Ludvik are carrying around the darkened house, creating a visual correlative for the uncertainty that surrounds the couple.

Friday, January 13, 2017

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

What we call "reality" is, as we all know now, a construct, the product of the limitations of our senses. But what if we, too, are part of the construct, put here by some other entity and blinded to the reality that lies beyond the senses? That way lies religion -- "Now we see through a glass darkly...." -- and metaphysics -- now largely dismissed as "asking unanswerable questions" -- but also science fiction. Witness the popularity of a film like The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999) and its sequels. In fact, Rainer Werner Fassbinder got there more than two decades before the Wachowskis. In 1973 he created a two-part television series, World on a Wire, that aired in Germany, and then became a kind of cult hit via file-sharing on the internet before being restored in 2010 and screened at the Berlin Film Festival. In it, a German research institute has created a simulated world in its supercomputer. The inhabitants of this world have been given consciousness, but only one of them has knowledge of the world outside the computer. He serves as a contact between the programmers and the simulated beings. But then the sudden death of the head of the program puts his second-in-command, Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), in charge of investigating not only the death of his predecessor but also the suicide of one of the simulated beings. Stranger and stranger things begin to happen, until Stiller learns that he is also a simulation in his own simulated world. He also learns that the institute's simulated world is being used for commercial purposes, something that violates its agreement with the government funding it. As he comes to terms with this knowledge, his increasingly erratic behavior makes him a target for assassins, and his one hope is to find the contact with the level above that's simulating him. Got that? The head-spinning premise of the film comes from a novel, Simulacron-3, by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye, adapted by Fassbinder and Fritz Müller-Scherz. Fassbinder gives it a good deal of his characteristic style in the adaptation: The women in Stiller's world, for example, always wear cocktail dresses, even at work, and rooms are filled with mirrors to suggest the layers of reflected reality in the three levels. The costume designer is Gabriele Pillon and the production design is by Horst Giese, Walter Koch, and Kurt Raab. It was filmed in 16 mm for television, which means there's some graininess and focus problems in some parts of the restored film, but the cinematography is by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Michael Ballhaus, along with Ulrich Prinz. Löwitsch is very good as Stiller, taking on kind of James Bondian role, and the paranoid atmosphere prevails even when the plot gets a bit snarled in its own premise.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two With Marcello Mastroianni

A Slightly Pregnant Man (Jacques Demy, 1973

A Special Day (Ettore Scola, 1977)
The great charm of Marcello Mastroianni lies, I think, in the fact that he always seems to be the odd man out. Despite his good looks and sex appeal, there is always the sense that the characters he plays, even though they attract women on the order of Catherine Deneuve and Sophia Loren, are never quite in charge of the world they inhabit. Certainly this is true of his most famous roles, Marcello in La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) and Guido in 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963). And directors Jacques Demy and Ettore Scola exploit this otherness in Mastroianni in very different ways: Demy in the satiric A Slightly Pregnant Man and Scola in the earnest A Special Day. In the former film, whose French title was the lengthy L'Événement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la Lune (The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon), Mastroianni plays Marco, a driving-school instructor who feels out of sorts and goes to see a doctor who decides that he must be pregnant. When a well-known specialist confirms the diagnosis and presents his findings to other scientists, the press goes wild and the advertising department for a maternity-wear company launches a campaign for male maternity clothes. Marco winds up on posters everywhere, and he and his fiancée, Irène (Deneuve), begin to make big plans for the money the company pays him. Eventually, the diagnosis proves to be false, however, and the film concludes with an anticlimactic thud. Demy, whose best-known work is probably the cotton-candy musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), seems to have launched into his screenplay with no sense of how to end it satisfactorily. Until that point, however, Mastroianni and Deneuve have fun with their roles. Forgoing her usual sophisticated chic, she plays a somewhat blowsy beauty-shop owner. A Special Day earned Mastroianni one of his three Oscar nominations, partly because there's nothing the Academy likes better than a straight actor daring to play gay. He is Gabriele, a radio announcer who has lost his job because the Fascists have begun purging the work force of "undesirables." The day is May 8, 1938, when Hitler visits Mussolini in Rome to solidify their alliance. He lives in a large apartment complex with windows facing an open courtyard. Across the way lives Antonietta (Loren), a woman with an abusive husband (John Vernon) and six children. On this day, she has stayed home to clean house after sending her family off to the parades and speeches, but when the family's pet mynah bird escapes and flies out into the courtyard, she asks Gabriele's help in retrieving him. They are virtually the only people left in the complex other than the nosy, gossipy concierge (Françoise Berd), whose radio is blaring the news of the day -- Fascist anthems, speeches, the cheers of the crowd, and a running patriotic commentary -- which serves as the sometimes ironic counterpoint to the growing intimacy of the mismatched couple. A severely deglamourized Loren gives a fine performance, as does Mastroianni: Gabriele is aware that at any moment he may be taken away to a concentration camp, and he vacillates between suicide and a carpe diem fatalism. The film is a little too predictable, and although the screenplay by Scola and Ruggero Maccari is original, it feels somewhat like an adaptation of a two-character stage play. Pasqualino De Santis's cinematography, using long takes and tracking shots through the apartment complex (which we never leave except in the archival newsreel footage at the film's beginning), helps open it up.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges,1940)

Poster with the British title for The Great McGinty
The attitude of Hollywood in the studio era toward screenwriters is usually summed up by the epithet "schmucks with typewriters," which has been attributed to various studio heads, or the sexist joke about the ambitious starlet who was "so dumb she slept with the writer." No one was more aware of the attitude than Preston Sturges, who had been a Hollywood screenwriter for a decade. He had seen several of his scripts mangled in the hands of other directors, so he is said to have made a deal with Paramount: He would sell them the script for what became The Great McGinty for $10 if they would let him direct it. They agreed, grudgingly, and the film was a hit, launching Sturges a career as one of the great writer-directors and winning him his only Oscar -- for the screenplay. There are glimpses in the movie of what Sturges would become: a great, irreverent satirist with a gift for screwball comedy. But on the whole, it's a more serious movie than we're accustomed to from him. It's told in flashback: McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is a bartender in a south-of-the-border saloon, who recounts his fall from grace -- ironically because "he never did anything honest in his whole life, except for one crazy minute." As a tramp, he was offered a bribe for his vote in a big-city election, and he discovered that the more he voted in that election the more money he could make. This got the attention of the city's political boss (Akim Tamiroff), who remade McGinty into a successful candidate for alderman, then for mayor. In order to get elected, he needed a wife, so his secretary, Catherine (Muriel Angelus), agreed to an in-name-only marriage. Eventually, however, they fell in love, and Catherine made him change his ways. He was elected governor, and tried to go straight, but this led the boss to fire a gun at McGinty, and they both wound up in jail. At the end, we see that the boss is now the owner of the bar McGinty tends. The somewhat low-wattage cast was forced on Sturges. Angelus is a rather pallid heroine, and Donlevy's performance shows why he never became a major star. But as his later films demonstrate, Sturges knew something about the texture that a colorful supporting cast could bring to a film, so we get standout work from Tamiroff, and William Demarest, who appeared in eight films Sturges directed and two more that he wrote, plays another politico. Another future key member of Sturges's stock company, Jimmy Conlin, has a bit part.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Two by Jean Renoir

Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)
A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
"Épater la bourgeoisie!" went the rallying cry of France's 19th-century poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who styled themselves as "Decadents." But ever since Molière's M. Jourdain, the social-climbing bourgeois gentilhomme, was delighted to discover that he was speaking prose, French artists of whatever medium have delighted themselves in satirizing the manners and morals of the middle class, sometimes affectionately and sometimes savagely. On my living room wall I have two prints of cartoons done by Honoré Daumier in a series he called "Pastorales." Both show very solidly middle-class and middle-aged couples, presumably Parisians taking a day in the country. In one, the husband carries his large, copiously clad wife on his back as he fords a small stream that barely comes to his ankles. They have evidently been caught in a summer storm, for he is chiding her that such things are to be expected, even on the sunniest day. Meanwhile, she is urging him, "Ah, Jules, don't let the torrent sweep us away!" In the other, a similarly clad woman sits on the bank of a pond in which her husband, wearing his glasses and with his head swathed in a handkerchief, has been taking a dip. "The water is delicious, Virginie," he says. "I assure you, you're making a mistake by not joining me." I was reminded of these prints while watching Jean Renoir's great short film -- it's only 40 minutes long, but every minute is golden -- A Day in the Country. In it, the Dufour family -- husband, wife, daughter, future son-in-law, and comically deaf grandmother -- find a country inn in a beautiful setting on their day away from the city. The mother and daughter immediately become targets for two young men, who manage to set off with them in their skiffs on the river, after diverting the other men by lending them fishing poles. The daughter, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) goes with Henri (Georges D'Arnoux). When a storm comes up, they take shelter in the woods, where she yields to his advances. Years later, she returns to the same spot with her husband, Anatole (Paul Temps), an unromantic drip, and while he naps, she encounters Henri and recalls their brief encounter. The film is an exquisite mix of comedy and melancholy, the kind of subtle blending of tones Renoir is known for from his greatest films, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). A Day in the Country was in fact never finished -- weather interrupted the shooting and Renoir had to move on to another commitment -- but the existing footage was assembled ten years later under the supervision of the producer, Pierre Braunberger, with two explanatory intertitles, and it stands on its own as a masterwork. In sharp contrast to the affectionately amused treatment of the bourgeoisie in A Day in the Country, Boudu Saved From Drowning is a raucous free-for-all centered on the great eccentric Michel Simon in the title role. Boudu is a tramp, a shaggy monster, who after his dog runs away decides to drown himself in the Seine. But he is rescued by Édouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), a bookseller, who takes him into his home. Boudu proceeds to trash the place and seduce both Mme. Lestingois (Marcelle Hainia) and the housemaid (Sévérine Lerczinska), who is also Lestingois' mistress. Simon's performance pulls out all the stops in one of the greatest comic tours de force in film history. If you want to see what épater la bourgeoisie really means, just watch Boudu.   

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934)

The first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he remade in 1956, was Alfred Hitchcock's breakthrough film, a critical and popular success that also established Peter Lorre as in international star. It was Lorre's first English-language film; in 1933 he had left Germany, where he had made his reputation in M (Fritz Lang, 1931), because of the rise of the Nazis. He is said to have learned his role in Hitchcock's film phonetically. His performance is perhaps the most memorable thing about The Man Who Knew Too Much, which sometimes feels slack and disjointed, as if Hitchcock hadn't yet mastered the technique of seeing the film as a whole. Hitchcock told François Truffaut, "The first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." Lorre plays Abbott, the mastermind of a group of radicals who are plotting the assassination of the leader of a European country -- the politics are the film's MacGuffin, a vague motive that spurs the action. When Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) accidentally learns of the plot, his daughter (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped to prevent him from going to the police, but his wife (Edna Best) manages to foil the assassination by screaming when she spots the killer at the point in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall when a cymbal crash is supposed to cover the sound of the gun. Even so, there's a lot of action left as Lawrence frantically tries to rescue his daughter while the police shoot it out with the bad guys. Banks and Best are a rather pallid couple -- he's given to "stiff upper lip, old girl" exhortations, and although she's a champion sharpshooter who fires the shot that kills the assassin, she has little to do the rest of the time but dither and emit that crucial scream -- so it's no wonder that Lorre steals the film.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodóvar, 1988)

Pedro Almodóvar's brightly colored farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown put him on the map as an auteur to be reckoned with. It's a grand stew of a film that takes the premise of Jean Cocteau's serious play La Voix Humaine and turns it into a nod to classic Hollywood screwball comedy touched with feminism and the brand of liberated hedonism peculiar to post-Franco Spain. It's also a superb product of the gay sensibility, to the point that it's easy to imagine the roles of Pepa (Carmen Maura), Candela (Maria Barranco), Marisa (Rossy de Palma), and Lucia (Julieta Serrano) played by drag queens. But although it verges on camp -- Pepa, a soap opera actress, dubs Joan Crawford's voice in a Spanish release of Nicholas Ray's perhaps unintentionally camp Western Johnny Guitar (1954) -- it has at its core Almodóvar's genuine affection for his characters. The gloriously sunny decor of the film is the product of set decorators José Salcedo and Félix Murcia, and the costumes are by José María de Cossío. The cinematographer is Almodóvar's frequent collaborator José Luis Alcaine.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Sound and the Fury (James Franco, 2014)

James Franco gets mocked for overreaching -- writing fiction, directing avant-garde films and multimedia art, taking graduate level courses at a variety of universities simultaneously -- and for what many see as an eccentric persona. So I don't want to come off as a mocker in my criticism of his film version of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It's a failure for a variety of reasons, not least the extreme difficulty of translating into visual terms a novel that succeeds in the way its author uses language to convey the inner states of his characters. Franco makes the serious mistake of casting himself as the most interior and inarticulate of Faulkner's characters, the mentally handicapped Benjy Compson. Distractingly outfitted with oversize front teeth, Franco struggles to portray Benjy's torment at the loss of his beloved sister Caddy (Ahna O'Reilly), amid the declining fortunes of the Compson family. He can't dim the intelligence in his own eyes enough to suggest the blind struggle of memory and desire and frustration within the character. The screenplay by Matt Rager, who has also adapted Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (2013) and John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle (2016) for Franco to direct, does a fairly good job of sticking to the narrative line of the novel: Benjy's loss, the suicide of his older brother Quentin (Jacob Loeb), the marriage that Caddy enters into because she is impregnated by Dalton Ames (Logan Marshall-Green), Caddy's sending her daughter, also named Quentin (Joey King), to live with the Compsons, and the rage of the youngest brother, Jason (Scott Haze), when the teenage Quentin runs away from home with the money he has hoarded after stealing it from the funds Caddy has sent for Quentin's support. Rager also draws heavily on the sententious speeches of the Compson children's ineffectual alcoholic father (Tim Blake Nelson), taken directly from the novel. The screenplay skimps on the key role played in the novel by the black servants, particularly that of Dilsey (Loretta Devine). Most of the performances are quite good, with the exception of Janet Jones Gretzky as the mother; she looks far too healthy, and never strikes the note of decayed gentility that the role demands. There are also some unnecessarily distracting cameos by Seth Rogen as a telegraph clerk and Danny McBride as the sheriff, bit parts that didn't need to be cast so prominently. As a whole, the film feels like the work of an amateur filmmaker with exceptional film industry connections, and that, I guess, is the very definition of overreaching.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)

I have to imagine some naive young person whose idea of outrageous filmmaking extends no further than the work of David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino, and who knows Helen Mirren only as the Oscar winner for The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) and as a dame of the British Empire, coming across The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It's a full-fledged assault on conventional movies, so provocative that it feels like it was made a decade or so earlier, when filmmakers were testing the limits, and not in the comparatively timid 1980s. The title itself sounds like the setup for a dirty joke, but writer-director Peter Greenaway delivers much more than that. The Cook (Richard Bohringer) runs the kitchen at a fancy restaurant that has been taken over by the Thief (Michael Gambon) and his retinue of thugs, who make a mess of things every night. Meanwhile, the Thief's Wife (Mirren) is carrying on an affair with her bookstore-owner Lover (Alan Howard) in every nook and cranny of the restaurant they can find. When the Thief finds out, the lovers hide from him at the book depository, but the Thief finds and murders him by stuffing pages from books down his throat. Eventually, the Wife, with the culinary assistance of the Cook, takes revenge in a most unappetizing way. The whole thing is played in the most over-the-top fashion imaginable, but the skill and daring of the actors makes it compelling. Gambon makes the Thief so colossally vulgar that we laugh almost as much as we cringe. Mirren and Howard are naked for great stretches of the film, but the effect is less erotic than you might think; instead, it emphasizes their vulnerability. Add to that the extraordinary production design of Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, the sometimes kinky costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the cinematography of Sacha Vierny, and the musical score by Michael Nyman, and what you have is undeniably a work of art -- perverse and sometimes extremely unpleasant, but decidedly unforgettable.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

It's hard to be droll for an hour and a half, and The Royal Tenenbaums, which runs about 20 minutes longer than that, shows the strain. Still, I don't have the feeling with it that I sometimes have with Wes Anderson's  first two films, Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), of not being completely in on the joke. This time it's the wacky family joke, familiar from Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You and numerous sitcoms. It works in large part because the cast plays it with such beautifully straight faces. And especially because it's such a magnificent cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson), Bill Murray, and Danny Glover. It's also beautifully designed by David Wasco and filmed by Robert D. Yeoman, with Anderson's characteristically meticulous, almost theatrical framing. Hackman, as the paterfamilias in absentia Royal Tenenbaum, is the cast standout, in large part because he gets to play loose when everyone else maintains a morose deadpan, but also because he's an actor who has always been cast as the loose cannon. Even in films in which he's supposed to be reserved and repressed, such as The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), he keeps you waiting for the inevitable moment when he snaps. Here he's loose from the beginning, but he doesn't tire you out with his volatility because he knows how much of it to keep in check at any given moment.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016)

Perhaps the greatest contribution of science to science fiction in recent years has been the theory of multiple universes, or that the universe is actually a multiverse. It enables sci-fi writers, especially those who create comic books, television shows, and movies that feature superheroes, to get away with almost anything. Marvel has created its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, which teems with superpeople out to solve the world's problems and as a consequence sometimes screwing things up even more. The Marvel world has even recognized the screwups caused by the plethora of mutants, aliens, and wealthy scientists both good and bad, to the point that after the damage caused in Sokovia -- as seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) -- the United Nations has put together the Sokovia Accords, designed to regulate the activities of superheroes. Unfortunately, this doesn't sit well with Captain America (Chris Evans), who is a bit of a Libertarian, especially when enforcing the accords threatens his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), aka the Winter Soldier -- see Captain America: The Winter Solder (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2014). So Cap's attempt to defend Barnes puts him at odds with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, who thinks the Avengers need to display good faith with the accords. And so it goes, with various superheroes taking sides and doing battle for the cause they choose. The problem with Captain America: Civil War is essentially that of Avengers: Age of Ultron: Unless you're a Marvel Comics geek, you need a playbill in hand to figure out who's who and what their superpower is. Or you can, like me, just sit back and enjoy the ride. The Russo brothers have a skillful hand at keeping all of the mayhem going, and the screenplay by Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely provides enough quieter moments between the CGI-enhanced action sequences to stave off a headache. But the movie really does feel overpopulated at times: In addition to the combatants mentioned, there are also Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, Anthony Mackie's Falcon, Don Cheadle's War Machine, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, and a few newcomers like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the latest incarnation of Spider-Man (Tom Holland -- the previous actors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, having outgrown the role). There's some good quippy fun among the various members of the cast when they're not showing off their superpowers.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Topper (Norman Z. McLeod, 1937)

In a golden age for character actors, Roland Young stood out because he put the emphasis on "actor" as much as on "character." If you wanted a character type, such as a prissy fussbudget or an irascible fat man, you went to Franklin Pangborn or Eugene Pallette, but if you wanted depth and versatility, you went to Young, whose range extended from the fawning, vicious Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935) to the slyly lecherous Uncle Willy in The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940). The role for which he's most remembered, and the one that earned him his only Oscar nomination, was that of the repressed, henpecked husband Cosmo Topper in Topper. It was followed by two sequels, Topper Takes a Trip (Norman Z. McLeod, 1938), and Topper Returns (Roy Del Ruth, 1941). The first film, also directed by McLeod, is the best, partly because it's the only one with Cary Grant as the ghostly George Kerby, who with his (also ghostly) wife, Marion (Constance Bennett), haunts Topper out of his stuffy funk. The Kerbys, a wealthy, fun-loving couple, have died in an automobile accident and, finding themselves in a kind of limbo, decide that they must redeem themselves with a good deed. They hit upon the idea of cheering up the morose Topper, president of the bank on whose board George serves. The characters come from a pair of novels by Thorne Smith, a now mostly forgotten author of comic novels that in their day, the 1920s and early '30s, were thought to be quite risqué. As a kid, after seeing the Topper movies and the 1950s TV series based on them, I went to the library in search of the books and was told quite firmly that they were not suitable for young people. Whatever bawdiness may have been in the source has been edited out by the Production Code, although there are some glimpses of it still in the scenes in which Topper, at odds with his wife, Clara (Billie Burke), retreats to a hotel and is spied upon by the hotel detective (Pallette in his element), who thinks Topper has a woman in his room after overhearing Marion Kerby talking to him. There is also a bit involving Clara's discovery of a woman's undergarment -- Marion's -- in her husband's possession. Topper is a lightweight farce, but an engaging one, thanks to its cast, which also includes Alan Mowbray as the Toppers' butler. Young stands out not only for his portrayal of the put-upon husband but also for his skill at physical comedy. He gets drunk and hilariously demonstrates his dancing skills to Marion, and then, having passed out, is carried down the hall by the invisible Kerbys -- a brilliant bit in which Young has to walk on tiptoes with arms lifted to suggest their support. Young is his own special effect in a film full of clever ones.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)

The Netflix series Sense8 is about eight people born at the same moment in widely dispersed parts of the world. Each possesses the psychic gift to communicate with the others, sometimes to rescue one of the eight from danger. (They also occasionally participate in rather impressive group sex. Perhaps as a team-building exercise.) Sense8 takes the ancient idea that everyone has a Doppelgänger -- a physical and sometimes psychic twin -- and cubes it, eliminating the physical identity while boosting the psychic one. Krzystof Kieslowski sticks to the more traditional idea of the Doppelgänger in The Double Life of Véronique, in which Irène Jacob plays both a Polish woman named Weronika and a French woman named Véronique. Neither is fully aware of the other's existence, although Weronika once tells her father that she doesn't feel alone in the world, and Véronique tells hers that she has a feeling she has lost someone, as indeed she has: Weronika has died. Their paths crossed only once, when Véronique visited Kraków as a tourist, but although Weronika saw her double on a tour bus, Véronique learns of her existence only later, when she examines a photograph she took that includes Weronika. Kieslowski's film, from a screenplay he wrote with Krzysztof Piesewicz, deals with the parallel lives of the two women and with their emotional and symbolic intersections. It's all remarkably done, with a superb performance by Jacob that equals and sometimes surpasses her work in Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red (1994), and extraordinarily expressive cinematography by Slawomir Idziak that manipulates colors with haunting effect. As with Red, however, I feel a bit let down by Kieslowski's tendency to go for sentiment: I'm left with a feeling that there's something hollow at the film's core, a lack of substance underlying the impressive acting and technique. Still, a lesser director than Kieslowski might have gone all the way, to a Hollywood-style romantic ending instead of the somewhat ambiguous one he gives us.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Two From Hawks

The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952)

Oddly, the most "Hawksian" of these two early 1950s Howard Hawks movies is the one for which he is credited as producer and not as director. The fact that The Thing From Another World displays Hawks's typical fast-paced, overlapping dialogue and has a heroine who can hold her own around men has led many to suggest that Hawks really directed it. The rumor is that Hawks gave Christian Nyby the director's credit so that Nyby could join the Directors Guild. It was the first directing credit for Nyby, who had worked as film editor for Hawks on several films, including Red River (Hawks, 1948), for which Nyby received an Oscar nomination. He went on to a long career as director, mostly on TV series like Bonanza and Mayberry R.F.D., but the controversy over whether he or Hawks directed The Thing has never really quieted down. In any case, The Thing is a landmark sci-fi/horror film, with plenty of wit and some engaging performances, particularly by Margaret Sheridan as the no-nonsense Nikki, secretary to a scientist at a research outpost near the North Pole where a flying saucer has crashed with a mysterious inhabitant. Nikki's old flame, Capt. Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), arrives with an Air Force crew to investigate, and Sheridan and Tobey have a little of the bantering chemistry of earlier Hawksían couples like Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) or Montgomery Clift and Joanne Dru in Red River. Though it's a low-budget cast, everyone performs with wit and conviction. The film has dated less than other invaders-from-outer-space movies of the '50s, partly because of its lightness of touch and a few genuine scares, though its concluding admonition, "Watch the skies," is pure Cold War paranoia at its peak. The screenplay is by Charles Lederer, with some uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht, both of them frequent collaborators with Hawks. Both of them also worked on Monkey Business, a very different kind of movie. It evokes Hawks's great Bringing Up Baby (1938) by featuring Cary Grant as a rather addled scientist, Dr. Barnaby Fulton, who becomes  involved in some comic mishaps brought about by an animal -- a leopard in the earlier film, a chimpanzee in this one. But the giddiness of Bringing Up Baby never quite emerges, partly because of a lack of chemistry between Grant and Ginger Rogers, who plays his wife, Edwina. The script involves Fulton's work on a rejuvenating drug that the chimpanzee manages to empty into a water cooler, thereby turning anyone who drinks it into an irresponsible 20-year-old. Grant is an old master at this kind of nonsense, but Rogers looks stiff and starchy and ill-at-ease trying to match him -- except, of course, when she is called on to dance, which she still did splendidly. Fortunately, there's some engaging support from Charles Coburn as Fulton's boss, who has a "secretary" played by Marilyn Monroe. ("Find someone to type this," he tells her.) Her role is the air-headed blonde stereotype that she found so difficult to escape -- "Mr. Oxley's been complaining about my punctuation, so I'm careful to get here before nine," she tells Fulton -- but no one has ever been better at playing it. Where The Thing From Another World succeeds despite a less-than-stellar cast, Monkey Business depends heavily on star power, for it gives off a feeling that its genre, screwball comedy, had played out by the time it was made.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

As someone who knows what it's like to care for a disabled spouse, I commend writer-director Michael Haneke for getting so much right in Amour. Not that accuracy is of the essence in the film: Amour is not a documentary, it's a fiction, and as such needs a shape that lies beyond the depiction of the mundane pains and frustrations of the characters. And that way lie the pitfalls of sentimentality and melodrama, which Haneke mostly avoids, thanks in very large part to the brilliance of his actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert. Are there American actors, or even British ones, who could have performed these roles with commensurate skill, drawn from the depths of experience? Trintignant and Riva are Georges and Anne, retired piano teachers whom we first see at the triumphant performance by one of her former pupils, Alexandre (the real pianist Alexandre Tharaud). Shortly afterward, Anne suffers a mild stroke and submits to surgery to eliminate an arterial blockage, but the surgery leaves her paralyzed on the right side. Georges is able to cope with his caregiving duties, though Anne is increasingly distressed by her disability and by the burden it places on her husband. At one point she tells him that she wants to die. Another stroke then leaves her mostly speechless and virtually helpless, forcing Georges to hire part-time nursing help. Their daughter, Eva (Huppert), has her own life to live, and urges Georges to put Anne in institutional care, which he resists because of Anne's previously expressed wish to die in their home, not in a hospital. Unfortunately, despite inspired performances and mostly sensitive direction, the climax and the conclusion of Amour ring a little false, perhaps because the fictional construct demands a somewhat artificial closure to a film that has felt genuine up to that point. Amour received Oscar nominations for best picture, for Riva's performance, and for Haneke's direction and screenplay, and it won the best foreign-language film award.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

Son of Saul begins with an out-of-focus figure walking across a field toward the camera until he finally comes into focus. This is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Sonderkommando -- a Jewish prisoner tasked with clean-up duties in a Nazi death camp. In a bravura sequence, the camera (the cinematographer is Mátyás Erdély) stays focused on Saul in near-closeup as it tracks what he is doing: helping herd naked people into the "showers" where they are gassed, rifling through their belongings that they have neatly hung up in an anteroom (they were, in a particularly sadistic stroke, told to remember the numbers of the hooks on which they hung their clothes and to hurry their showers because the promised soup is getting cold), then helping take the bodies (referred to by the Nazis as "die Stücke," or "pieces") to the crematorium, and scrubbing the floors in the gas chamber. It's a sequence made more horrifying by the fact that all of these events take place in the slightly out-of-focus background as the camera concentrates on Saul. But something out of the ordinary happens: A boy is found still alive in the gas chamber, and Saul recognizes him. He will later tell others that the boy is his son, from a liaison with a woman not his wife, which explains the unusual interest he takes in this particular victim: When the boy is sent to the doctors, he is smothered to death by an SS officer who then orders an autopsy to try to explain why he survived the gas. Saul, who witnesses this murder, persuades a sympathetic doctor to hold off on the autopsy and keep the body from being cremated. Saul's efforts to hide the body and to find a rabbi who can perform a ritual burial form the rest of the film's narrative. He is aided in his efforts but sometimes also resisted by other prisoners, who are plotting a rebellion against the guards. It's an extraordinarily harrowing film that won the foreign language film Oscar and numerous critics society awards. Remarkably, it's also writer-director László Nemes's first feature film, and Röhrig, on whom the camera is focused for virtually the entire time, had only a Hungarian TV miniseries made in 1989 as an acting credit. Like many films about the Holocaust it runs the risk of turning its subject into melodrama or of desensitizing the audience to the depicted horrors. It doesn't quite avoid the risk -- there are times when Saul's implacable determination tests our credulity, and there is always the awareness that these are "just actors" portraying things that happened to real people -- but it's an honorable contribution to a difficult genre.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)

The American title, Chungking Express, may echo Josef von Sternberg's 1932 Marlene Dietrich classic Shanghai Express, but it resembles that film only in the presence in both of a blond femme fatale -- and in Wong Kar-Wai's film the blond is one only by virtue of a wig. The translated title -- the original meant something like "Chungking Forest" or "Jungle" -- fuses the film's two major settings: the Chungking Mansions, a low-rent building in Hong Kong, and the Midnight Express, a sandwich shop that provides the linkage between the film's two segments. The first part deals with the infatuation of a young police detective, He Qiwu, aka Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), with the woman in the blond wig (Brigitte Lin), who is mixed up in a drug-smuggling scheme that goes awry. The second part tells the story of Cop 663 (Tony Leung), and his involvement with Faye (Faye Wong), a young woman who works the counter at the sandwich shop. You might say that Chungking Express begins in the world of film noir and ends in that of romantic (and slightly screwball) comedy, but Wong's film transcends the simplicity of genres. As in his masterly In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong is dealing with characters on the brink of an uncertain future, but with a much lighter touch than the later film. The performances are uniformly fine. Faye Wong, a Hong Kong pop star, brings the quirky character of the young Shirley MacLaine to her role, but with a much greater fragility. Like MacLaine, she has been unfairly labeled with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. The extraordinary cinematography is by Christopher Doyle and Wai-Keung Lau.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)

Each day, Europe seems to become more frazzled, and consequently Michael Haneke's almost 17-year-old film seems more and more prophetic. It's celebrated for its opening sequence: a nine-minute traveling shot that introduces the key figures in its narrative. The actress Anne Laurent (Juliette Binoche) finds Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the younger brother of her lover, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), at her door in Paris. He's hungry, having run away from the farm where he lives with his father (Josef Bierbichler), so she buys him a pastry and gives him the key to her apartment so she can go to an appointment. When he finishes the pastry, Jean, who is a bit of a lout, tosses the empty paper bag into the lap of a homeless panhandler, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a Romanian immigrant. Seeing this, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), the son of a cab driver from Mali, orders Jean to apologize. When he refuses, the two get in a fight that's broken up by the police, who then arrest Amadou and Maria, but let the provocateur of the incident, Jean, go. The film then follows the stories of Anne, Jean, Maria, and Amadou, but in a fragmented way: long, disconnected takes that suddenly black out, leaving the viewer to piece together the narrative. It is, in short, a brilliantly maddening film. If I have reservations about it, they have to do with whether such a display of exceptional cinematic technique does service to writer-director Haneke's apparent concern about the disjunctions of European life in an age of immigration and economic globalization. We get to know more about each of the characters, but the effect is aesthetic rather than political, which would seem to be at the heart of Haneke's choice of subject. The performances are uniformly fine, especially by Binoche, who ranges from raw emotion to crisp wit in the film, which depicts both Anne's real life and her work as an actress. We see her acting on the one hand a harrowing scene set in a prison, and on the other an audition for the role of Maria in Twelfth Night, and we long to see Anne/Binoche in both roles.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)

Of all forms of animation, stop-motion has for me the greatest creep factor, which Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay, and Duke Johnson, who supervised the animation, deliberately play on in Anomalisa. Traditional cel animation works with the charm of seeing hand-drawn pictures come to life, and computer animation has overcome the gee-whiz element of technological innovation to bring about a simulacrum of real life. But to my mind, only Nick Park and the geniuses at Aardman have managed to overcome the flickery stiffness of stop-motion, and that mainly by telling genuinely funny stories. Anomalisa succeeds too, but it isn't funny -- except in parts. It begins with Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an expert in the manipulative field of "customer service," arriving in Cincinnati to deliver an address to a convention. Soon we begin to notice something odd: All of the people he meets, male and female, sound the same. They all speak with the voice of Tom Noonan, with only a few variations of accent and pitch to distinguish them from one another. So it's a shock when we -- and Stone -- hear a female voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh's) outside his hotel room. Stone immediately pursues the voice and finds its owner, Lisa Hesselman, who is bowled over to be meeting the Michael Stone, famous in customer-service circles for his book on the topic. Stone invites Lisa and her roommate for a drink, then rather rudely throws over the roommate and asks Lisa back to his room. Kaufman's creation of shy, awkward Lisa, who is deeply self-conscious because of a facial scar that she hides with her hair and who talks constantly and nervously, is a masterstroke. (Anomalisa was originally a play in which Thewlis and Leigh sat on opposite sides of the stage with Noonan in the middle.) Stone calls Lisa an anomaly, a word that he morphs into "anomalisa," and after persuading her to sing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," they have sex. (The film is rated R and there is full-frontal male puppet nudity.) But the next morning, after a beautifully staged nightmare sequence that plays on Stone's guilt and paranoia, he finds his infatuation with Lisa beginning to fade: When she speaks, he begins to hear Noonan's voice echoing everything she says. He has a breakdown during his speech, and returns home to his family, now uncertain about his sanity. It's a devastating tale, based in part on a neuropsychological phenomenon known as the Fregoli delusion -- the hotel Stone stays in is called the Fregoli -- but more largely on the universal conundrum of personal identity. It gets into your head and stays there like an unsettling dream.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1949)

Fidel Castro, who died this year, came to power in 1959, ten years after We Were Strangers, which deals with an earlier Cuban revolution, was made. Castro's own revolution is probably why this film, despite its major director and stars, is so little known. It was never revived after its initial showing, and didn't become available on video until 2005 despite the reputation of its director, John Huston. It's a fairly scathing look at the failure of the United States to support the overthrow of the Machado dictatorship in 1933. John Garfield plays Tony Fenner, a Cuban-born American who works with the underground revolutionaries to overthrow Machado. He comes up with a rather complicated plot to tunnel into the Colón Cemetery and plant a bomb that will kill the regime's leaders. He enlists a group who have no previous ties with one another, including China Valdés (Jennifer Jones), a bank clerk whose brother was killed by the Havana police chief, Armando Aréte (Pedro Armendáriz), and who lives in a house across the street from the cemetery. The plan is to assassinate a high-ranking member of the regime and detonate the bomb when the dignitaries gather for his funeral. But Fenner's plan is just a little too complicated, and things go awry. It's a curious film to be made just as the red scare was heating up in Washington and Hollywood, for the script by Peter Viertel and director John Huston has no scruples about portraying the violent revolutionaries as heroic. The revolutionaries even countenance the collateral damage of killing innocent people at the funeral, although one of their company has serious reservations about it and, worn down by the hard work of tunneling, goes mad. Garfield, who would soon be threatened with blacklisting as a leftist, gives a typically intense performance, and Jones, though miscast, does a passable imitation of a determined Cuban revolutionary. Armendáriz, whom Hollywood often relegated to Latino sidekick roles, is a fine, sinister villain. Gilbert Roland, as a singing, wisecracking member of the revolutionary team, provides what levity the film possesses, and Ramon Novarro has a cameo as the chief who authorizes Fenner's plan. There's some obvious use of rear projection in which the actors are superimposed against scenes actually filmed in Havana, but Russell Metty's cinematography is mostly quite effective.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)

Would the friendship of the Jew, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), the African, Hubert (Hubert Koundé), and the Arab, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) be possible in the Parisian banlieus today? For that matter, was it in fact possible when writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz made La Haine in 1995? Or was it a symbolic construct to emphasize solidarity against the Establishment and the corrupt police force, somewhat like the ethnic stews of Italian-, Irish-, and Jewish-Americans (but never, sadly, African-Americans) that Hollywood filmmakers put on bomber crews and destroyers during World War II as a way of promoting solidarity against the enemy powers? The question is rhetorical, of course, and not designed to undermine the importance and brilliance of Kassovitz's terrific (and terrifying) film, made in response to outbreaks of violent protest in the poorer suburbs of Paris. It has the quality of some of the best neo-realist Italian films of the postwar years, with the additional sense of something about to erupt that pervades the film and has not dissipated in the 21 years since it was made. If anything, it has spread into the rest of the world, especially in the post-9/11 era. The trio of actors on whom the film mainly focuses is extraordinary, both individually and as an ensemble.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931; Victor Fleming, 1941)

MGM's 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a virtual remake of Paramount's 1931 version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novella: John Lee Mahin's screenplay is clearly based on the earlier one by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. The similarities are so obvious that MGM, having bought the rights to Paramount's version, tried to buy up all prints of it.* Seeing the two versions back-to-back is a pretty good lesson in how things changed in Hollywood over ten years: For one thing, the Production Code went into effect, which means that the "bad girl" Ivy (Miriam Hopkins in 1931, Ingrid Bergman in 1941) ceased to be a prostitute and became a barmaid. Hopkins shows a good deal more skin than does Bergman, and in the 1931 we see the scars on her back, inflicted by Hyde's whip, whereas in 1941 we see only the shocked reaction of those who witness them. As for Jekyll/Hyde (Fredric March in 1931, Spencer Tracy in 1941), the earlier version gives us a lustier Jekyll -- we sense that he's so eager to marry the virtuous Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) because he wants to go to bed with her. Tracy's Jekyll indulges in a little more PDA with his fiancée, Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner), than her Victorian paterfamilias (Donald Crisp) would like, but there's no sense of urgency in his attraction to her. It's widely known that the original casting had Turner playing Ivy and Bergman as Beatrix, but that Bergman wanted to play the bad girl for a change -- it's clearly the better part -- and persuaded director Victor Fleming to make the switch. March's Hyde is a fearsome, simian creature with a gorilla's skull and great uneven teeth; Tracy's is just a man with a lecherous gaze, unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, and what looks like an unfortunately oversize set of false teeth. March's Jekyll -- pronounced to rhyme with "treacle" -- is a troubled intellectual, whereas Tracy's -- pronounced to rhyme with "heckle" -- is a genial Harley Street physician who genuinely wants to find a cure for bad behavior. March won an Oscar for his performance, and he does lose his sometimes rather starchy manner in the role. Tracy, I think, was just miscast, though in real life he had his own Jekyll/Hyde problems: The everyman persona hid a mean drunk.

*MGM did the same thing to Thorold Dickinson's 1940 film of Gaslight when it made its own version, directed by George Cukor, in 1944, but didn't succeed in either case.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)

Fuddy-duddy that I am, I can't quite bring myself to approve of Disney's remaking the films it made with traditional cel animation, this time with a combination of live action and CGI. The new version of Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991) is scheduled for next year, and I understand that a live-action remake of Mulan (Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, 1998) is to follow. But some of my reservations were canceled by this version of The Jungle Book, a worthy remake of the 1967 cel-animated film directed by Wolfgang Reitherman -- one of the celebrated Nine Old Men at Disney -- which was also the last film Walt Disney supervised before his death. That version isn't generally regarded as in the first rank of Disney films anyway; it's mostly remembered for the peppy vocal performances of the songs "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" by Phil Harris and Louis Prima respectively. The new version dazzles with its creation of a credible CGI jungle filled with realistic CGI animals, and with some fine voiceover work by Bill Murray as the bear Baloo, Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa, and especially Idris Elba as the villain, the tiger Shere Khan. It's remarkable to me that Elba, one of the handsomest and most charismatic of actors, has lately done work in which he's heard but not seen: He's also unseen in Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016). But then the same thing is true of the beautiful Lupita Nyong'o, whose voice is heard in The Jungle Book as the mother wolf Raksha, just as it was heard as the gnomelike Maz Kanata in Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015). Neel Sethi, this version's Mowgli, is the only live-action actor we see, and he displays a remarkable talent in a performance that took place mostly before a green screen -- puppets stood in for the animals before CGI replaced them. The screenplay by Justin Marks is darker than the 1967 film, and it successfully generates plausible actions for its realistic animal characters. But I think it was a mistake to carry over the songs from the original film, partly because Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (as King Louie, the Gigantopithecus ruler of the apes) are not the equal of Harris and Prima as singers, but also because the animals for which they provide voices are made to move rhythmically -- as a substitute for dancing -- in ways that don't quite suit realistic animals. Director Jon Favreau has also slipped in an allusion to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) in his introduction of King Louie, lurking in the shadows of a ruined jungle temple like Marlon Brando's Kurtz.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

Like most of Orson Welles's Hollywood work, The Lady From Shanghai is the product of clashing wills: Welles's and the studio's -- in this case, Columbia under its infamous boss Harry Cohn. And as usual, the clash shows, sometimes in Welles's brilliance, such as the celebrated shootout in a hall of mirrors at the film's end, and sometimes in his indifference to the material: Is there any real excuse for the farcical courtroom scene that so violates any sense of consistency in the film's tone? Welles miscast himself as the protagonist, Michael O'Hara, a two-fisted Irish seaman, complete with an accent that he must have picked up in his youthful days in the Dublin theater. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Rita Hayworth, was forced upon him by Cohn, whom he angered by having her cut her hair and dye it blond. Her Elsa Bannister is the epitome of the treacherous film noir femme fatale, but it's hard to say whether the screenplay -- mostly by Welles -- or Hayworth's limited acting ability prevents the character from coming into focus. The real casting coup of the film is Everett Sloane as as Elsa's crippled husband, Arthur, and Glenn Anders as his partner, George Grisby. I use the word "partner" intentionally, because the film dodges around the Production Code in its hints that Bannister and Grisby are more than just law-firm partners, evoking the stereotypical catty and mutually destructive gay couple. Welles insisted on filming on location, which means we get some fascinating glimpses of late-1940s Acapulco and San Francisco, shot by Charles Lawton Jr. and the uncredited Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. In short, the movie is a mess, but sometimes a glorious mess.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

Colin Farrell has had an odd career, never quite making it to major stardom, but continuing to work in sometimes offbeat films like the wonderful In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). And when it comes to offbeat, there are few films that march to a more eccentric drummer than The Lobster, in which Farrell has tamped down his typically assertive persona and bloated his trim figure with an unhealthy-looking paunch. It's not quite the transformative performance that often wins Oscars for actors, though it has earned Farrell quite a few nominations from critics groups as well as one for a Golden Globe. Farrell plays David, whose recent breakup with his wife has caused him to be sent to a hotel whose residents are given 45 days to find another partner. If they fail to do so, they are turned into animals -- David tells the hotel manager (Olivia Colman) that he wants to be turned into a lobster. He is accompanied to the hotel by his brother, who has already been turned into a dog. But ... oh, there's no point in going on with a summary. It's a film of multiple turns and revelations, each of which has to be discovered by viewers with their own fresh insights into the quite unusual vision of its director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and his co-screenwriter, Efthymis Filippou. It's part dystopian fantasy, part tragicomedy, part satire, part fable. Farrell is quite good, as are Colman, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, and Ben Whishaw as the present and former residents of the hotel, some of whom have escaped into the woods to avoid being transformed and are now in a kind of guerrilla war with the residents. Comparisons to Kafka's stories have inevitably been made, and while it's not quite of that exalted original order, The Lobster is one of the few recent films that feel fresh and daring.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016)

Good nasty fun, and a fine example of having your cake and eating it too. By which I mean that, thanks to director Tim Miller, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and star Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool succeeds not only in sending up the destructive violence of comic-book superhero movies, but also in providing its own entertainingly destructive violence. Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a former special forces op who, learning that he has cancer, submits to an experimental treatment that leaves him disfigured but invulnerable. And so it goes, as Wilson crafts a superhero costume to hide his disfigurement and calls himself Deadpool. (He takes his name from the "dead pool" run by his friend Weasel (T.J. Miller), who runs a bar whose regulars frequently get themselves into mortal scrapes and place bets on who'll get killed next.) No truth, justice, and the American way for Deadpool, whose chief aim is to get even with Ajax (Ed Skrein), who caused his disfigurement and claims to have a way of reversing it. The whole thing is an excuse for cynical wisecracks and the kind of destruction that in the usual superhero films is brought about by the fight against evil. In this case, Deadpool is only on the side of right by default: Ajax and his minions are so much worse. The film made a lot of money, surprising only those who thought that giving it an R rating -- for sex and naughty language as well as the usually more-tolerated violence -- would eliminate, or at least severely reduce, the supposed "core audience" for comic-book superhero movies: teenage boys. Deadpool does nothing to advance the art of film, but it still serves to expose the less idealistic side of superheroism.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954)

Striking miners in Salt of the Earth
Although it holds one's interest and is a largely successful American attempt to imitate the neo-realism of postwar Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Salt of the Earth is not, I think, a great movie. The acting is amateurish -- necessarily so, because most of the actors are in fact amateurs -- and the plotting is tendentious, with "bad guys" who are given no depth of characterization. But I think it is, perhaps more now than ever, an essential movie. It tells the story of a miners' strike in New Mexico that's based on an actual 1951 strike by the workers of the Empire Zinc Company. The point of view is mostly that of a Mexican-American married couple, the miner Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón) and his wife, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas). When the miners go on strike for better working conditions, especially to put Latino workers on a par with the Anglos, the company invokes the Taft-Hartley Act, enjoining the striking workers from picketing. But the miners' wives take up the cause, in part because they want to improve the standards of the company-owned housing they live in. The film develops a tension not only between workers and management but also between Juan, who clings to a traditional machismo, and Esperanza, who is pregnant but insists on joining the other women on the picket line, where they are subjected to harassment and threats of violence, and are briefly thrown in jail. The story has a happy ending, with the miners and their wives triumphing, but the film itself was denounced as communist propaganda, and its director, Herbert J. Biberman, was one of the Hollywood Ten who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Biberman went to jail for six months. The film's screenwriter, Michael Wilson, was blacklisted, though he continued to work on films sub rosa: His work on the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) won an Oscar, though only Pierre Boulle, who neither spoke nor wrote English, was credited. In 1984, the Academy posthumously restored Wilson's credit on the film and his Oscar, as it later also restored his credits on the Oscar-nominated screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) and Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956). Salt of the Earth itself got a kind of belated recognition in 1992 when the Library of Congress chose it for inclusion in the National Film Registry. And the story of the treatment of its filmmakers could serve as an object lesson in an era when resurgent racism and anti-feminism threaten to turn the clock back to the era in which the film was made.