Wednesday, January 18, 2017
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.
|Christian de la Mazière, one of those interviewed in The Sorrow and the Pity|
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Monday, January 16, 2017
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|
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.
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.
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
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
|Radoslav Brzobohaty and Jirina Bohdolová in The Ear|
Friday, January 13, 2017
Thursday, January 12, 2017
|A Slightly Pregnant Man (Jacques Demy, 1973|
|A Special Day (Ettore Scola, 1977)|
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
|Poster with the British title for The Great McGinty|
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
|Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)|
|A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)|
Monday, January 9, 2017
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
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Friday, January 6, 2017
Thursday, January 5, 2017
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
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
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
Sunday, January 1, 2017
The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952)
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
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Monday, December 26, 2016
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
Friday, December 23, 2016
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
*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
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
Friday, December 16, 2016
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
|Striking miners in Salt of the Earth|