A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

No, I never saw it before. When it first came out, I was busy becoming a father and trying to be a proper assistant professor of English. And there was never a time after that when I felt I could impose a viewing of the video on my household. Now, in the privacy of my own little room, I can indulge myself. Not much of an indulgence, as it turns out: Though it's brilliant in its own way, it's also one of the most unpleasant movies I've ever forced myself to watch. I'm surprised, nonetheless, that Tobe Hooper turned out to be pretty much a one-hit wonder -- that is, if you believe the rumors that Poltergeist (1982) was mostly directed by Steven Spielberg. And even the stunning (almost literally) effect of Chain Saw on the course of the horror movie depends in large measure on the cinematography of Daniel Pearl, the editing of Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson, and especially the art direction of Robert A. Burns, which has been the source of creepy old house settings ever since, from The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) to the first season of True Detective (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2014). Chain Saw is full of tremendously effective and even hilarious moments -- I still find the hen in the bird cage one of the movie's most inspired bizarre devices, and Hooper perfectly stages the scene in which Sally (Marilyn Burns) thinks she has escaped from Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and found refuge at the gas station. As she waits for the proprietor (Jim Siedow) to take her to safety, we concentrate on the open door, fully expecting Leatherface to burst through it at any moment, and we share her relief when the proprietor's truck appears outside, only to realize that the worst is yet to come. The film is surprisingly bloodless by contemporary standards, but we don't really need to see heads and limbs lopped off for it to make its effects. I'm just glad I never have to watch it again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

I haven't read the novel by Kobo Abe on which the film is based, but I suspect that adherence to the source (Abe also wrote the screenplay) weakens the film, which dwells heavily on ideas about identity and morality that are more efficiently explored in literature than in cinema. The central narrative deals with Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) who, having been disfigured in an industrial accident, sees a psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira) who devises an experimental mask that gives Okuyama an entirely new identity. Wearing the mask, Okuyama seduces his own wife (Machiko Kyo), who tells him that she knew who he was all along and assumed that he was trying to revive their marriage, which had been troubled since his accident. She is enraged when she learns that he was in fact testing her fidelity. But there is a secondary narrative about a beautiful young woman (Miki Irie) who bears scars along one side of her face that, it is suggested, are the result of exposure to radiation from the Nagasaki atomic bomb. In the novel, this story comes from a film seen by the characters in the main story, but Teshigahara withholds this explanation for its inclusion in the film without apparent connection to Okuyama's story. I'm not troubled by the disjunction this creates in the film, because Teshigahara and production designer Masao Yamazaki have developed a coherent symbolic style that creates an appropriate air of mystery throughout The Face of Another. The weakness lies, I think, in the dialogue, especially in the too didactic exchanges between Okuyama and the psychiatrist about the limits and potential of a mutating identity. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating, flawed film, more disturbing than most outright "horror" movies.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

All these years later, Lee's movie is still fresh and true, whereas the best picture Oscar winner for that year, Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989), has grown stale and false. It's not as though what happens in the movie can't happen anymore. Just today, it was reported that the execrable George Zimmerman had tweeted a photograph of the body of his victim, Trayvon Martin. And the bleating and yapping of the Republican presidential candidates can be heard stirring up animosity toward Muslims, gays, immigrants, food stamp recipients, Planned Parenthood, and anyone else they want to portray as the enemy. At least the Academy is going to give an honorary Oscar to Lee, after slighting him for this film and for the magnificent Malcolm X (1992). Lee was nominated for the screenplay for Do the Right Thing, losing to Tom Schulman for the maudlin Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989), and Danny Aiello received a supporting actor nod -- he lost to Denzel Washington for Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989). But where are the nominations for Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, or Giancarlo Esposito? Or for Ernest Dickerson's wonderful cinematography, Wynn Thomas's production design, or Barry Alexander Brown's editing? In fairness, Oscars aren't everything: Do the Right Thing has taken its rightful place in the National Film Registry; Driving Miss Daisy hasn't.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)

Traffic hasn't held up as well as it might have over the past 15 years, and one reason for that is a bit ironic: The movie was based on a British miniseries, and since the film's debut its central theme, the paralysis of politicians and police in trying to stop the drug trade, and its multiple-track storytelling have been handled more brilliantly by an American miniseries, The Wire (2002-08). It's even possible that the film demonstrates the limits faced by movies as opposed to long-form television in handling stories of complexity and sweep. (Imagine, for example, Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad stuffed into the confines of a two-or-three-hour movie.) Traffic still holds your interest, of course, thanks to some brilliant performances, especially the Oscar-winning one by Benicio Del Toro, as well as the ones by Don Cheadle and Catherine Zeta-Jones. (It's also fun to spot Viola Davis making a solid impression in a tiny part as a social worker.) And Soderbergh's direction deservedly won the Oscar, along with Steven Gaghan's screenplay and Stephen Mirrione's film editing. I would, however, fault Gaghan for the sentimental and melodramatic resolution to the story centering on Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield, the newly appointed czar of the War on Drugs: It stretches credulity to have Wakefield break down in the middle of his acceptance speech and abandon his post, and the scene in which Wakefield and his wife (Amy Irving) beamingly support their drug-addicted daughter (Erika Christensen) at a twelve-step-program meeting is pure schmaltz. The film also pulls its punches a bit where the wasteful War on Drugs crusade is concerned, even to the point of featuring cameos by real-life politicians William Weld (a Reagan-administration appointee who supervised the Drug Enforcement Administration) and Senators Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, and a surprisingly young-looking Harry Reid as themselves.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014)

My favorite movie musicals tend to be the ones like Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) and Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) that were created for the movies, not adapted from stage hits like My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964) or West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961). But Rob Marshall did such a good job transforming Chicago (2002) into a cinematic experience that I had hopes for Into the Woods. But the James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim book and lyrics are so droll and cerebral that they tend to get swamped by the special effects and big stars in the movie. Instead of being caught up in the story, I kept wondering "how are they going to top that?" The book is structured to be anticlimactic, with the wedding of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and the prince (Chris Pine) as the usual happy ending followed by the dark not-so-happily-ever-after sequel. This works in the theatrical version, when you know that there's another act coming, but in the film version it has the effect of making you look at your watch. Still, there's a lot to like about the movie, especially seeing Meryl Streep ham it up as the witch. The other cast members are also effective, but the real star among them for me is Emily Blunt as the baker's wife, demonstrating good comic timing as well as a solid understanding of the character.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

Cat People is so fraught with subtext about the fear of female sexuality that it's amazing that critics once treated it as a mere "horror movie," while admitting that it was an effective one. Starting with the image drawn by Irena (Simone Simon) of a panther impaled on a sword, which is a version of the even more phallocentric statue in her apartment, it's clear that Tourneur, screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, and producer Val Lewton have more on their minds (or subsconsciousnesses) than just spooking the audience. But then subtext was about the only way filmmakers could get away with sex under the Production Code, even when the point is that Irena and her husband (Kent Smith) are not having sex because she's afraid she'll rip him to shreds if they so much as kiss. I'm not a big fan of the horror films produced by Lewton, one of the few producer-auteurs, partly because they're more fun to talk about than to watch. The casting of such vapid actors as Kent Smith doesn't help.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

The Thin Red Line had been much anticipated because it was Malick's first film as director in 20 years, following the much-praised features Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). But it had the misfortune to come out only a few months after Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, whose portrayal of the actuality of combat on D-Day and after was hailed as landmark filmmaking. There are those who think more highly of Malick's film: Spielberg's movie, they argue, is weakened by his desire to celebrate the courage of those who fought in World War II, resulting in the gratuitous frame-story about the aging Ryan's return to the graveyard in Normandy, as well as in some conventional war-movie plotting. Malick's movie is anything but conventional: the well-shot (by John Toll) and -edited (by Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, and Billy Weber) combat scenes are accompanied by a meditative, metaphysics-heavy commentary supposedly voiced by the combatants themselves. To my mind, this mixture of war-movie action and reflective voiceover doesn't work. For one thing, much of what's said in the commentary sounds like the kind of poetry I used to write in college. Malick certainly makes his point about the existential absurdity of war, but he makes it over and over and over, to the expense of developing human characters. Sean Penn, who gets top billing, seems to have been designed to be the movie's central consciousness, but much of that function in the story got lost in the editing: The original cut of the film was five hours long, so it had to be reduced to its current three-hour run time, along with much of the substance of Nick Nolte's blustering colonel, whose motivations are simply alluded to in the voiceover and some of his dialogue. The editing also eliminated the performances of such major film actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, and Mickey Rourke, while for some reason retaining the rather pointless cameos by George Clooney and John Travolta. The movie was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, but received none. It may, however, have siphoned away some votes from Saving Private Ryan, allowing Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1989) to emerge as the surprise and still very controversial best picture winner.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979)

I've never read Günter Grass's novel, in part because satiric grotesquerie isn't to my taste. (I'm one of the few people I know who hated A Confederacy of Dunces.)  But I gave the film version a second look (I watched it once while writing my Oscar book) because it came around on TCM and I thought maybe my indifference to it on the first viewing might have changed. It did, after all, win not only the Cannes Palme d'Or but also the foreign film Oscar. It's still true that 11-year-old David Bennent gives an astonishing performance as Oskar, who has consciously chosen to remain a 3-year-old for the rest of his life. I still find some of the scenes in which Oskar makes love to Maria (Katharina Thalbach) are queasy-making, with Bennent and 24-year-old Thalbach going through the required, if discreetly filmed, motions. And I still find the acting in the film overstated and the thematic coherence of the story wobbly. This time I was able to appreciate some of the comic sequences more fully, such as the one in which Oskar sabotages a Nazi rally by playing a waltz rhythm on his drum, confusing the brass band and making the participants dance with one another. But as a fable about German history, which Grass's novel is said to be, the movie lacks focus.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta, 2014)

This is a movie that will please no one who has first-hand acquaintance with any of the people supposedly portrayed in it, but the real problem with Kill the Messenger is that it has three great stories to tell and fails to tell any of them well. The first story is the one Gary Webb thought he had broken: the CIA connection to the crack cocaine epidemic. Given the complexity and range of that story, which will probably never be fully and accurately told, it's not surprising that the movie fails to do it justice. The second story is that of the frenzied politics of journalism, a story that probably holds little interest to anyone not involved in journalism and is hard to dramatize because there are so few clear-cut heroes and villains to be found in it. (And in any case, it has been superseded by another story: the slow demise of print journalism.) And finally, there's the story of the way reporter Gary Webb's involvement in the other two stories sent his life into a downward spiral. This is the story the movie chooses to concentrate on, but it does so in such a heavy-handed, cliché-raddled way, particularly with its focus on Webb's relationship with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and teenage son (Lucas Hedges), that it doesn't make the tragic impact that it could have. I never met Gary Webb, and when the Sturm und Drang of "Dark Alliance" was taking place in the newsroom at the Mercury News, I was busy doing my thing in a far corner on the third floor back of the Merc's Ridder Park Drive plant. I recall that on the day the first story in the series appeared, a colleague said, "Well, Gary Webb just won us another Pulitzer." That was, of course, before the shit flung by the big papers in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles hit the fan. But it also revealed something about the way Pulitzer fever infected the Mercury News, as it does other newspapers. Webb was a victim of it, as was the Merc. There are things to like about the movie, mostly having to do with its performers, starting with Jeremy Renner as Webb. It's also good to see underused actors like Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta, and while nobody who knows the real Jerry Ceppos would ever have chosen Oliver Platt to play him, Platt does a good job of playing a man caught up in a whirlwind of competing pressures and managing to keep his head.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Yoyo (Pierre Étaix, 1965)

Yoyo (Philippe Dionnet) retrieves the cigarette packet his mother has sent from the trailer to his father in the car.
Even though at one point in Yoyo the character Pierre Étaix is playing resists a photographer's attempt to have him pose in Buster Keaton's porkpie hat, it's clear that Étaix worships Keaton. The film is replete with sight gags that Keaton would have loved, such as the sequence in which, while traveling down a road in a trailer pulled by a car, the characters cook up an ingenious way to pass a packet of cigarettes from the rear of the trailer to the driver's seat of the car. The story, devised by Étaix and the great Jean-Claude Carrière, is a slight one: In 1925, a millionaire lives alone in great luxury in his chateau, attended by a battalion of servants who wait on him hand and foot: When he wants to walk his dog, for example, a chauffeur drives him around the courtyard of the estate while the dog trots alongside the car on a leash. But the millionaire is silently pining for a lost love, whose image he keeps in a desk drawer. One day, a circus arrives at the estate, bringing with it the woman (Luce Klein), who is an equestrian/acrobat in the show. It also brings a small boy (Philippe Dionnet) dressed as a clown, who turns out to be the millionaire's son with the woman. When the stock market crashes in 1929, the millionaire goes bust, so he finds the woman and the boy, who is known as Yoyo, and sets out on the road with them as traveling performers. Years pass, and the boy grows up and makes his own fortune in the new medium of television, which enables him to restore the dilapidated chateau to its former glory. (The son is also played by Étaix.) What makes the film a charmer is its continuous barrage of sight gags -- as well as sound gags: The great gilded doors in the chateau squeak loudly every time they're opened, mocking their grandiosity. There are in-jokes, too: The little traveling troupe arrives in one town to find that another troupe has beat them there -- the poster for the rival troupe announces the appearance of Zampanò and Gelsomina, the characters played by Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina in La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). At a running time of 92 minutes, Yoyo seems to me slightly overextended, but it's a welcome discovery, very much in the vein of Jacques Tati's movies -- on which Étaix worked as an assistant director. Although his film Happy Anniversary won the Oscar for best short  subject in 1963, Étaix is not as well known in the States as Tati. His Wikipedia biography seems to have been written by someone whose first language isn't English.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Two Japanese Films

A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippêji), Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926

Eiko Minami in A Page of Madness
Servant: Masao Inoue
Servant's Daughter: Ayako Iijima
Servant's Wife: Yoshie Nakagawa
Young Man: Hiroshi Nemoto
Doctor: Misao Seki
Dancer: Eiko Minami

Director: Teinosuke Kunugasa
Screenplay: Yasunari Kawabata, Teinosuke Kinugasa, Minoru Inozuka, Banko Suwada
Based on a story by Yasunari Kawabata
Cinematography: Kohei Sugiyama
Art direction: Chiyo Ozaki

Once again, my thanks to Turner Classic Movies for programming this fascinating film. But this time I have to temper the thanks with a complaint about Ben Mankiewicz as host. Not only did he mispronounce the director's name (as "Kinagusa") but he also failed to give much substantial information about the film's content beyond noting that it was thought to have been lost until Kinugasa discovered it in 1971, and that the film's style was influenced by the German Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), which preceded it on TCM. Given that the film plays without intertitles, it would have been helpful if Mankiewicz had indicated something of the film's storyline. Apparently, Japanese silent movies relied on benshi -- live narrators who told the story and sometimes supplied dialogue for the on-screen players. Watching A Page of Madness without such an aid is challenging, especially since the first portion of the film is largely composed of a montage of images that establish the atmosphere of the film and its setting, an insane asylum. Eventually I became aware that there was a central story about a janitor (Masao Inoue) in the asylum and his involvement with a particular female inmate (Yoshie Nakagawa) and a woman (Ayako Iijima) who visits the madhouse. But I had to turn to the Internet to learn that the woman is the janitor's wife and the visitor his daughter. However, much of the plot, based on a story by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, remains enigmatic, subordinate to the power of the images supplied by cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama and art director Chiyo Ozaki. But it's still exciting to watch, not only for the bizarrely evocative camerawork but also for Kinugasa's direction, which includes a riot in the asylum. He is best known in the West for Gate of Hell (1953).

The Idiot (Hakuchi), Akira Kurosawa, 1951

Masayuki Mori and Setsuko Hara in The Idiot (Hakuchi)
Taeko Nara: Setsuko Hara
Kinji Kameda: Masayuki Mori
Denkichi Akama: Toshiro Mifune
Ayako: Yoshiko Kuga
Ono: Takashi Shimura
Satoko: Chieko Higashiyama

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa
Based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cinematography: Toshio Ubukata
Production design: Takashi Matsuyama

I read Dostoevsky's The Idiot a few months ago, so I was glad when Turner Classic Movies programmed Akira Kurosawa's film based on the novel. It's prime early Kurosawa, made in the year after Rashomon and the year before Ikiru, with the stars of the former, Masayuki Mori and Toshiro Mifune, in the respective roles of Kameda (the novel's Prince Myshkin) and Akama (the novel's Rogozhin). And Takashi Shimura, the star of Ikiru, has the key role of Ono, the novel's General Yepanchin. Setsuko Hara, best known for her work with Yasujiro Ozu, is the "kept woman" Taeko Nasu, the novel's Nastassya Filippovna. So it's something of an all-star affair, originally designed as a two-parter. After a flop opening, the studio forced Kurosawa to cut it from its original run time of 256 minutes to the extant 166-minute version. It became something of a brilliant ruin in the process. As a recent reader of the novel, I appreciate the faithfulness with which Kurosawa stuck to Dostoevsky, while adapting the 19th-century Russian characters and setting to postwar Japan. Mori is, I think, an almost ideal Kameda/Myshkin. The raw edges from the cutting of the film show, however -- it's hard to follow the logic of some the characters' actions, and the presence of the mob that shows up with Rogozhin at one key point in the story goes unexplained in the film. The complex relationship among Takeda, Taeko, and Ono's daughter Ayako (the novel's Aglaya Ivanovna) becomes reduced to a kind of love triangle. But there are few sequences in Kurosawa as haunting as the candlelight vigil Kameda and Akama keep over the body of Taeko at the film's end.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

I don't know how many years it's been since I saw this in some university film series or other, but I remember finding it rather silly and quaint. In the meantime it has been carefully restored: The flickering black-and-white images I must have seen have been replaced by smooth digitalized projection and the appropriate color filters, as well as the original hand-painted intertitles, and an appropriately spiky modern score by John Zorn has been added. It's clearly a classic, both of its time and enduring into future times. The film has been endlessly analyzed, most notoriously by Siegfried Kracauer in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, in which Kracauer posits that the film reveals post-World War I Germany's subconscious desire for an authoritative leader. In other words, Caligari equals Hitler. Considering that in the film Caligari, as played by Werner Krauss, looks both sinister and absurd, something like an elderly owl in a top hat, I find the argument hard to swallow. But this is one film that will probably never exhaust interpretation. I think it's best just to enjoy it as a tremendously gripping artistic experience.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges, 1960

In July, Turner Classic Movies, my indispensable source for movies, ran two 1950 films by Akira Kurosawa that demonstrated how profoundly influenced by Hollywood Kurosawa was: the film-noir-steeped The Bad Sleep Well and the romantic drama Scandal. (In the latter, Toshiro Mifune plays a pipe-smoking, motorcycle-riding artist who could have come out of a Paramount or 20th Century-Fox film of the 1940s -- an imitation of any number of Hollywood leading men of the era, such as Gregory Peck, Dana Andrews, or Joel McCrea.) But as any Kurosawa fan knows, the major influence on his films, especially his samurai movies, was the American Western. No wonder that filmmakers eventually turned things around and borrowed from the borrower. Sturges's version of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), was the first to do so, but Martin Ritt soon followed suit with The Outrage (1964), his version of Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950), and Kurosawa sued Sergio Leone because of the unacknowledged remake of Yojimbo (1961) called A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Magnificent Seven, though probably the best of the Kurosawa copies, pales in comparison with its source, but it helped make Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn into stars. In his book Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, my former Mercury News colleague Glenn Lovell has some amusing stories about the jousting among the actors for screen time, and you can clearly see McQueen, with his more naturalistic style, upstaging the stiff and mannered Yul Brynner.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

It's often said -- in fact, it was said in today's San Francisco Chronicle -- that Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films that must be seen in a theater. That statement kind of gets my back up: If a movie's story and performances are secondary to its spectacle, is it really a good movie? As it happens, I first saw Lawrence in a theater in the year of its release (or at least its European release, which was 1963), but it was a theater in Germany and the film was dubbed in German. Only moderately fluent in spoken German, I don't think I followed the dialogue very well, though I certainly appreciated the spectacle, especially Freddie Young's Oscar-winning cinematography. It took some later viewings on TV in the States for me to grasp the movie's story, though the film was trimmed for time, interrupted by commercials, and subjected to atrocious panning-and-scanning because viewers objected to letterboxing of wide-screen movies. So this viewing was probably my first complete exposure to Lean's celebrated film. And though I watched it at home -- in HD on a 32-inch flat screen TV -- I think I fully appreciated both the spectacle and the story. Which is not to say that I think the movie is all it's celebrated for being. The first half of the film is far more compelling than the latter half, and some of the casting is unforgivable, particularly Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda. Guinness was usually a subtle actor, but his Feisal is mannered and unconvincing. Quinn simply overacts, as he was prone to do with directors who let him, and his prosthetic beak is atrocious. Omar Sharif, on the other hand, is very good as Ali. The producers are said to have  wanted Horst Buchholz or Alain Delon, but they settled on Sharif, already a star in Egypt, and made him an international star. His success points up how unfortunate it is that they couldn't have found Middle Eastern actors to play Feisal and Auda. In his film debut, Peter O'Toole gives a tremendous performance, even though he's nothing like the shorter and more nondescript figure that was the real T.E. Lawrence, and it's sad that screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson couldn't have found room in the script to trace the origins of Lawrence's obsession with Arabia. I recently read Scott Anderson's terrific Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which not only depicts Lawrence's complexity but also the madness of the spy-haunted, oil-hungry wartime world in which he played his part. It's beyond the scope of even a three-and-a-half-hour movie to tell, though maybe it would make a tremendous TV miniseries some day.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Show People (King Vidor, 1928)

It's a shame that Marion Davies is known today primarily as William Randolph Hearst's mistress, and hence the presumable model for the talentless opera singer Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). For Davies was not only not an opera singer, she was also bursting with talent. Show People demonstrates her skill for comedy, acknowledged as an inspiration by such later glamorous comedians as Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball. Everything Davies could do except talk -- this is one of her last silent films -- is on display, including her skill at slapstick: She does a fine pratfall and takes copious amounts of seltzer in the face. (Hearst reportedly forbade her being the recipient of a custard pie -- that was somehow one shtick beneath her.) She mugs divinely as the comic actress Peggy Pepper who is "promoted" into the serious artiste Patricia Pepoire. Attempting a Mae Murray-style bee-stung lips, Davies comes up with a hilariously rabbity moue. The movie also gives us a chance to see William Haines at work. One of the few leading men of the day who dared to lead an almost openly gay life, Haines plays the comic actor who gives Peggy her first break into pictures, loses her when she tries to become a dramatic actress, but of course finally gets her after she sheds the Patricia Pepoire persona. When he was ordered by MGM's bullying Louis B. Mayer to pretend to be straight in his offscreen life, Haines quit pictures and became a successful interior designer; his life partner, Jimmie Shields, became his business partner as well. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were among their clients. Show People also has cameos by Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and other stars of the day. Peggy Pepper even encounters Marion Davies herself in one scene.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

I didn't get Rushmore the first time I saw it, so I thought that, having seen most of Wes Anderson's subsequent films, it was time to revisit. And yes, I get it now. The problem is that it still leaves me a little cold. Part of my trouble with the movie lies with its central character, Max Fischer, who as played by Jason Schwartzman and written by Anderson and Owen Wilson begins as such an obnoxious twerp that it's hard to switch allegiance when the film eventually turns him into a sympathetic figure. It's difficult, too, to see why Olivia Williams's character, Miss Cross, puts up with him so long. My suspicion is that Williams didn't quite understand what Anderson and Wilson were going at with her part -- maybe she didn't get Rushmore either. As a result, we see her torn between two inappropriate suitors, Schwartzman and Bill Murray, but playing her part as a conventional romantic comedy heroine. Fortunately, everyone else in the cast, including such splendid actors as Seymour Cassel and Brian Cox, is completely into the loopy world that Anderson has created. There are those who think that in his later movies Anderson has either gone too cutesy or atrophied into a kind of zaniness for zaniness's sake, but I'm not one of them. I think he has learned how to superimpose his eccentric stories on the real world so that they work as the kind of satiric commentary that doesn't quite come off in Rushmore.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi in A Separation
Nader: Peyman Moaadi
Simin: Leila Hatami
Razieh: Sareh Bayat
Hojjat: Shahab Hosseini
Termeh: Sarina Farhadi
Nader's Father: Ali-Asghar Shahbadi
Simin's Mother: Shirin Yazdanbakhsh

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Cinematography: Mahmoud Kalari

The original title in Persian translates as The Separation of Nader and Simin, but the film is about more separations than just that of the husband and wife played by Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami. It's about the separations between parents and children, between the middle class and the laboring class, between the devout and the worldly, and between the judicial system and those it supposedly serves. And for American audiences it also serves as a reminder of the separation that has existed between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than 30 years. The movie was the first Iranian film to win the best foreign language film Oscar, and Farhadi's stunning script was also nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar. (It lost to Woody Allen's screenplay for Midnight in Paris.)  Whatever we may think of the regime in Iran, the universality of the human problems presented in the film stands in sharp contrast to the usual American attitude toward Iranians as alien and hostile. It struck me especially because this is the second film in a row I've watched about citizens caught in the inscrutable workings of their judicial system. Like the Russians in Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014), the two Iranian families locked in conflict in Farhadi's film must cope with the seeming indifference of the judges to their complicated problems. I was feeling complacent about the American justice system until I watched a segment of John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on the horrific abuses of the public defender system which, especially if you happen to be poor and black, is every bit as cruelly broken as the corrupt Russian courts and the hidebound Iranian ones.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

I happened on this movie by accident while browsing the Starz schedule, and had to look it up on IMDb before I remembered that it was the official Russian entry in the Oscar foreign film category -- and that there was some controversy in Russia over its portrayal of the hard-drinking Russians, the corrupt bureaucracy, and the complicit Russian Orthodox Church. It's a truly astonishing film when you consider all of these things, and that the villain of the film, the grasping, criminal major (played to the creepy depths by Roman Madyanov) presides over his malfeasance under a watchful portrait of Vladimir Putin. At one point in the movie, the protagonist, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), and his friends engage in some drunken target practice that involves shooting at pictures of Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and other former communist leaders. One of the group says he has pictures of some more recent targets once those are gone. Cynicism and bitterness prevail throughout the film, and with its dark humor and deep-rooted hopelessness it reminds me of hard-core American film noir. Through it all, though, there's the soiled beauty of the Russian landscape, splendidly filmed by Mikhail Krichman. There are some chilling moments, such as the monotone readings of the court's judgment against Kolya in his suit against the mayor and the even more devastating judgment against Kolya at the film's end. And it's heart-wrenching to watch the destruction of Kolya's home from inside, with furnishings that we have come to know from earlier scenes in the movie still in place, being swept away by the jaw of wrecking machine. Zvyagintsev is a director I want to see more of, especially his critically praised The Return (2003) and Elena (2011).

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

From the rather uninvolved performance he gives here, it's a little hard to realize that Ryan O'Neal was once a major movie star. Scenes are stolen from him right and left by such skilled character actors as Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Steven Berkoff, Murray Melvin, Leonard Rossiter, and Leon Vitale. But this detachment of the titular character seems to be part of Kubrick's plan to de-emphasize the story's drama: He even provides a narrator (Michael Hordern) who gives away the plot before it develops on the screen. When actions and emotions erupt in the story, they do so with a kind of jolt, the audience having been lulled by the stately pace of the film and by the undeniably gorgeous visuals: Ken Adam's production design, Ulla-Britt Söderlund and Milena Canonero's costumes, and John Alcott's cinematography all won Oscars, as did Leonard Rosenman's orchestration of themes from Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Handel. It is undeniably one of the most visually beautiful films ever made, its images intentionally echoing works by Hogarth, Reynolds, Romney, Gainsborough, and other 18th-century artists. Alcott used specially designed lenses, created for NASA to allow low-light filming, to allow many scenes to be filmed by candlelight. But it's also a painfully slow movie, stretching to more than three hours. I don't have anything against slowness: One of my favorite movies, Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), is often criticized for slowness. But the slowness of Ozu's film is in service of characters we come to know and care about. Kubrick gives us no one to care about very much, and O'Neal's Barry never registers as a developed character.

Friday, September 11, 2015

V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005)

I'm not sure how Guy Fawkes became a hero and blowing up the Houses of Parliament an admirable political act, but V for Vendetta certainly seems to endorse both of them. (The latter seems especially odd in a movie made only four years after the 9/11 attacks.) I haven't read the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, so I can't comment on the fidelity or lack of it to the source, which is just as well. But the film bears the stamp of most adaptations from graphic novel/comic book sources: an assumption that the viewer will accept the movie's milieu on its own terms, without trying to haul in real-world plausibility. It's easier to do that if you have a cast capable of playing almost anything from Shakespeare to soap opera. So the presence of actors like Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Piggott-Smith, Rupert Graves, and Sinéad Cusack goes a long way to keeping V for Vendetta alive. I particularly liked Roger Allam as a rabble-rousing news commentator in the mold of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. I was less impressed with Natalie Portman, whose British accent came and went fitfully and who generally seemed at sea. It may be that the script by Andy and Lana Wachowski called for her character, Evey, to be off-balance through most of the film, but I failed to connect with her performance, which since she is meant to be the audience's point-of-view character is something of a fatal flaw.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)

I want to watch a movie about the calamity that befalls a Moroccan family when they acquire a rifle to shoot the jackals that prey on their herd of goats. Or a movie about a nanny for a well-to-do San Diego couple who unwisely decides to take her employers' small children with her when she goes to her son's wedding in Mexico. Or a movie about a deaf Japanese teenager who suffers from sexual confusion in the aftermath of her mother's suicide. But I don't want to watch them all at once, which is what Babel forces us to do. It's a terrifically ambitious film, with some stunning location work in four widespread countries, and it has some great performances, particularly by Oscar nominees Adriana Barraza as the nanny and Rinko Kikuchi as the teenager. It probably deserved the nominations for best picture and for González Iñárritu's direction, too. (It won for Gustavo Santaolalla's score.) But intercutting the three stories mentioned above and centering them on the plight of the San Diego couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) severely reduces their dramatic force and interest. Why, I wonder, were Pitt's and Blanchett's characters on a bus tour of Morocco with a bunch of rather unpleasant Brits? If, as the movie seems to suggest, it's to work on their relationship after their loss of a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, it's a very odd choice indeed. Their movie-star presence also skews the film away from the performances of the less well-known international stars. Structurally, the Japanese story seems poorly integrated: Its only link to the other stories is that the rifle that turns up in Morocco was originally owned by the Japanese girl's father. What struck me as strongest about the movie was its subtext: the bureaucratic paralysis of the American superpower in the wake of 9/11. Pitt and Blanchett are unable to get the help they need in Morocco because of the paranoia about Islamic terrorism that forces an unwanted and unnecessary caution on the U.S. State Department. American immigration policy also prevents a sensible resolution to the problem of the nanny and the children. Babel is certainly not without its rewards, but a scaling-back of its ambitions might have produced a better movie -- or maybe three or four of them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

Joseph N. Welch, Lee Remick, and George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder
Paul Biegler: James Stewart
Laura Manion: Lee Remick
Lt. Frederick Manion: Ben Gazzara
Parnell Emmett McCarthy: Arthur O'Connell
Maida Rutledge: Eve Arden
Mary Pilant: Kathryn Grant
Claude Dancer: George C. Scott
Judge Weaver: Joseph N. Welch

Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes
Based on a novel by John D. Voelker (as Robert Traver)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Music: Duke Ellington

An exceptional film, far more deserving of the year's best picture Oscar than the bombastic Ben-Hur (William Wyler), Anatomy has a lot of great things going for it: the wonderful courtroom conflict between old Hollywood pro James Stewart and Method-trained newcomer George C. Scott; the tension and volatility of Ben Gazzara as the defendant; the presence of such scene-stealers as Arthur O'Connell and Eve Arden in the supporting cast, along with other character actor stalwarts like Murray Hamilton, John Qualen, Orson Bean, Howard McNear, and Jimmy Conlin. And even the "stunt casting" of non-actor Joseph N. Welch, famous for the integrity he showed in his confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings five years earlier, pays off handsomely, with Welch bringing both gravitas and humor to his role as the trial judge. The soundtrack by Duke Ellington also adds a touch of greatness to the movie, which  David Thomson calls "magnificent." Where I think it falls short of magnificence is in the treatment of the rape victim played by Lee Remick. There is, of course, some ambiguity remaining in the film as to whether she was in fact raped, but the part as written by Wendell Mayes and the performance as directed by Preminger turns the presumed victim into an air-headed sex kitten. It's possible that Hollywood, so long precluded by the Production Code from even treating the subject of sexual assault, hadn't yet developed a grammar and vocabulary for dealing with the subject. Remick was a fine actress, and she does manage to show moments of vulnerability in her performance, but the general impression of the character given by the film verges on the despicable "she was asking for it." Preminger had been taunting the Code since The Moon Is Blue (1954) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), challenging the strictures on language (the words "virgin" and "seduce") in the former and drug use in the latter. Anatomy continued the assault on prudishness, though few who watch it today will be shocked by its rather clinical discussion of whether Laura Mannion was indeed raped, or be inclined to sniff daintily, as Time magazine did in its review, that the film "seems less concerned with murder than with anatomy."

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Europa '51 (Roberto Rossellini, 1952)

The films Rossellini made during his affair with and marriage to Ingrid Bergman have an everlasting fascination for movie buffs intrigued by the clash of styles: Bergman's Hollywood-style star glamour and Rossellini's gritty, improvisational neo-realism. But they have few real enthusiasts except for hardcore critics inclined toward the auteur theory. For most movie-watchers they seem like failed experiments. Stromboli (1950) has some moments of cinematic excitement -- the volcano explosion, the tuna hunt -- that draw on Rossellini's skill at filming actuality, but the ending, Bergman's epiphany on the side of the volcano, comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, narratively speaking. Both Journey to Italy (1954) and Fear (1954) end with reconciliations of the conflicted couples that are dramatically unearned. When it comes to dramatic structure, only Europa '51 seems relatively coherent, tracing the journey of Bergman from grief at the loss of her child to a kind of beatific transcendence. But even a sympathetic critic like James Harvey, in his fine discussion of the Bergman-Rossellini oeuvre in his book Watching Them Be, finds the screenplay "Like a play of ideas without the ideas." I don't think that's entirely fair: It seems to me that Europa '51 is crowded with ideas to the point that it becomes a movie about the failure of ideas -- or rather ideology. Nothing suffices to explain Bergman's drive toward saintly service -- she helps a poor family pay for the medical treatment of a child; she befriends a young woman (Giulietta Masina) to the point of filling in for her one day at the woman's job in a horrifying factory; she helps a young hoodlum elude the police; she nurses a dying prostitute -- all of which appalls her husband (Alexander Knox) and her wealthy family. Not religion, not politics, not even psychoanalysis serves to explain or justify her actions, at least in the eyes of the church, the state, and the medical establishment. Or, for that matter, in her own eyes. She doesn't know why she becomes a secular saint, and this of course means she winds up in a mental institution -- where she continues to radiate benevolence even toward the tormented inmates. David Thomson, one of the film's admirers, says, "It's a movie that resonates with the deep-seated urge for moral reform after the war." But ultimately it also seems to me to forecast the failure of any attempt at moral reform. It might be instructive to watch this movie in tandem with a slightly later examination of the moral malaise of postwar Europe, La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960).

Monday, September 7, 2015

Saw (James Wan, 2004)

My daughter was shocked to see this in the DVR queue, but hey, a movie-watcher can't just limit himself to Rossellini and Renoir. So when I saw this coming up on the Independent Movie Channel schedule, I decided to record it. After all, it's a prime example of an independent filmmaker's breakthrough into success and of a trend in horror movies, spawning numerous sequels. So what if it does have a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? There were actually some reputable critics like David Edelstein and Owen Gleiberman who reviewed it favorably. And anyway, film critics are typically hard on genre pictures. So maybe I'd like it. I'm not averse to horror: I watch Hannibal and Penny Dreadful on TV, and anyway, I know all that blood is corn syrup and food coloring. The truth is, however, that Saw is neither as good as I'd hoped nor as bad as I feared. The central plight -- two men trapped in a grungy bathroom, one tasked with killing the other in order to spare the lives of his wife and daughter -- is a compelling one, much better than those old teenagers-who-must-die-because-they-have-sex slasher movie plots. Gradually, with the help of some good actors in smaller roles (Danny Glover, Michael Emerson), the plot thickens. But then it goes haywire: Screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who plays one of the trapped men) and director Wan seem to think that if one plot twist is good, then half a dozen will be great. The result instead is incoherence, and the ending is such an obvious attempt to provide an opportunity for sequels that it feels like a cheat. It's also a measure of how far we've gone in 11 years, too, that the violence seems tamer than what's routinely presented on even commercial television, where the serial killer has become a weary character trope. The only characters for whom I felt much empathy were the bound-and-gagged wife (Monica Potter) and child (Makenzie Vega), clinging together in terror. I'm always uneasy when I see children performing in films that they should under no circumstances be allowed to watch. On the other hand, it seems to have done Vega, who made Saw when she was 10 years old, no great harm: She now has a recurring role on the TV series The Good Wife.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Elena et les hommes (Jean Renoir, 1956)

Like French Cancan (1954) and The Golden Coach (1952), this is one of Renoir's brightly Technicolored entertainments, with ravishing cinematography by his nephew, Claude Renoir, that recalls the rich colors of the paintings by Jean's father and Claude's grandfather, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. And like many of those paintings, the movie opens itself up to criticisms of possessing more style than substance. Elena et les hommes, which was originally released in the United States under the title Paris Does Strange Things, is a giddy, somewhat brainless romp whose chief claim to our attention is that it was the first film Ingrid Bergman made after her break from Roberto Rossellini. I watched it just after having seen three of those films -- Stromboli (1950), Voyage to Italy (1954), and Fear (1954) -- in which Bergman is put to extremes of emotional torment. Making Elena must have been an enormous relief for her, because it shows: She has never been more beautiful onscreen, wearing the opulent finery of 1880s Paris. She has also never been more lively or funny, throwing herself with complete abandon into the nonsense of the plot. It makes me regret that she did so few comedies: Only Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958) and Cactus Flower (Gene Saks, 1969) gave her a real chance to lighten up the way Renoir's film does, although she showed her comic skills by parodying her more glum roles, especially the doughty missionary in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Mark Robson, 1958), in her Oscar-winning performance in Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974). It's too bad that her leading men in Elena aren't up to her standards: Jean Marais looks like he doesn't understand what's going on (which is understandable when so much is), while Mel Ferrer looks like he gets it but can't quite overcome the handicap of being Mel Ferrer when what is needed is a Cary Grant or a James Stewart to match Bergman's skills.