Saturday, April 30, 2016
the great movies. Much credit goes to the expert comedy writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and to Harold Rosson's cinematography. Kelly and Stanley Donen wisely did what directors of movie musicals so often fail to do: rely on long takes and full-body shots during dance numbers. As for the performers, no one in the film, and that includes Kelly and O'Connor, ever reached this peak again. Debbie Reynolds was too often betrayed into perkiness, but she is human and appealing here. Jean Hagen stole scenes from everyone and received one of the movie's two Oscar nominations -- the other was to Lennie Hayton for scoring -- but her movie career stalled and she wound up doing TV guest appearances. As for egotism, it pains me to remember that Singin' in the Rain was not nominated for the best picture Oscar winner for 1952. The winner was The Greatest Show on Earth, directed by one of the great egotists, Cecil B. DeMille. Some egotists are geniuses; others are hacks.
Friday, April 29, 2016
*A nitpicky note: The filmmakers never decided whether it was spelled "Charley" or "Charlie." It appears both ways on the posters advertising his fights, but it's "Charlie" in the inscription on a gift he gives Peg and in her letter addressed to him. I'm going with the way IMDb lists it.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944) -- the Bogart character is called on to make a choice between taking the kind of action he has renounced and remaining neutral. Bacall's role is somewhat underwritten, and what few sparks she and Bogart strike seem to be the residue of their previous films together, especially To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946). Having to play opposite that scene-stealing old ham Barrymore doesn't help much, either. But Trevor fully deserved her award as Rocco's moll, an alcoholic club singer known as Gaye Dawn. She has a big moment when she's forced by Rocco to sing "Moanin' Low" on the promise that he'll let her have a drink -- which he then sadistically refuses her. As usual, Robinson is terrific, and also as usual, he failed to receive the Oscar nomination he deserved and was never granted. Karl Freund's cinematography helps overcome the studio's decision not to film on location.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Monday, April 25, 2016
Sunday, April 24, 2016
His Girl Friday (1940), but leave it to Hawks to see World War II (and Ernest Hemingway's "grace under pressure" fiction) through the lens of screwball comedy. And to do it with the movies' most famous tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, and an unknown 19-year-old actress who had her name changed from Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall. And to treat it all as a semi-musical, with Hoagy Carmichael at the piano. Blood is shed and causes are espoused, but nobody takes it terribly seriously. Instead, Bogart and Bacall surf through the film on some of the best dialogue ever written, working out their fine romance as deftly as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did on the dance floor. Walter Brennan adds another memorable figure to his impressive gallery of old coots, and Marcel Dalio brings the kind of charm that might threaten to upstage lesser performers than these stars. It's certainly not a perfect film: Dolores Moran (clambering from shore to ship in heels) and Walter Szurovy are rather tediously noble as the de Bursacs. (Watch the bit when Mme. de Bursac faints and spills the chloroform and Bacall's Slim, sensing a rival for her Steve's affections, casts a stinkeye on the fallen form and intentionally fans some of the fumes in her direction.) As the Vichy police captain, Dan Seymour seems to be trying to do a Sydney Greenstreet impersonation with the worst of all French accents. And does anybody really believe that the odd company that sails off at the end to rescue a Resistance fighter from Devil's Island is going to succeed? But no matter. It's all the stuff of which legends are made.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Friday, April 22, 2016
Touch of Evil (1958) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), and it holds its own against those two landmarks in the Welles oeuvre. In the end, of course, the Wellesian sensibility dominates, the American tendency to affirmation overcoming (barely) Kafka's pessimism: Welles's Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is rather more assertive than Kafka's protagonist. He doesn't succumb "Like a dog!" to his assailants but defies them. That said, Perkins, now carrying the indelible stamp of Norman Bates into all his roles, is superlative casting: We can believe that he's guilty -- even if we never find out what his supposed crime is -- while at the same time we sympathize with his plight. The real triumph of the film is in finding the settings in which to stage K.'s ordeal, ranging from K.'s stark, low-ceilinged apartment to bleak modern high-rise apartment and office buildings, to ornate beaux arts exteriors, to the labyrinthine courts of the law. The film was shot in the former Yugoslavia, in Italy, and in the abandoned Gare d'Orsay in Paris. Welles chose a novice, Edmond Richard, who had never shot a feature film, as his cinematographer. Richard went on to shoot Chimes at Midnight, too, as well as some of Luis Buñuel's best films, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). The cast includes Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, and Akim Tamiroff, with Welles himself playing the role of Hastler, K.'s attorney, after failing to persuade Jackie Gleason or Charles Laughton to take the part. The Trial is probably longer and slower than it needs to be, and there is some inconsistency of style: The scenes involving Hastler, his mistress (Schneider), and K. are shot with more extreme closeups than the rest of the film, where the sets tend to overwhelm the human figures. And the ending, with its explosion followed by a rather wispy mushroom cloud, is a little too obviously an attempt to bring a story written during World War I into the atomic era. Some think it's a masterpiece, but I would just rank it as essential Welles -- which may or may not be the same thing.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Monday, April 18, 2016
A Man Escaped, which takes a similar wordless and music-free approach to showing the preparations for Fontaine's prison break. Other than that, of course, nothing could be further from Fontaine's noble efforts to find freedom than the larcenous thuggery of Dassin's jewel thieves. Dassin knows, of course, that audiences respond positively to cleverness and skill, which is virtually all that his quartet of thieves have going for them. Tony (Jean Servais) is a brutal ex-con who beats his former mistress (Marie Sabouret) with a belt; Jo (Carl Möhner) is a swaggering, handsome guy for whom Tony took the rap for an earlier heist because Jo has a wife and child; Mario (Robert Manuel) is an easy-going ne'er-do-well; and César (Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) is a professional safe-cracker. Dassin manipulates us into thinking of these guys as heroes, if only because the gang led by Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), who wants to muscle in on their ill-gotten gains, is even worse. In the end, both sides are wiped out, but not before Jo's little boy (Dominique Maurin) is kidnapped and held for ransom. The final sequence of the film is particularly harrowing, especially to contemporary viewers used to mandated seatbelts and conscientious childproofing: A dying Tony drives the 5-year-old boy across Paris in an open convertible as the delighted kid stands on and even clambers over the seats of the speeding car. For all its unpleasantness, Rififi is as memorable as it was influential. It led to countless imitations, usually more light-hearted, including Dassin's own Topkapi (1964). It also revived Dassin's career, which had been at a standstill after he was blacklisted in Hollywood; Rififi's international success was a defiant nose-thumbing directed at HUAC's witch hunts.
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950). Neither of them won the Academy Award for best picture. Coming half a century later, Michel Haznavicius's The Artist, which did, looks oddly like an anachronism. It is certainly a tour de force: a mostly silent film with a few witty irruptions of sound in the middle when the protagonist George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), having learned that his career as a film star is ending, suddenly begins to hear sounds, even though he seems incapable of producing them himself. (At the end of the film, Valentin speaks one line, "With pleasure," revealing his French accent.) The project grew out of Haznavicius's admiration of silent films and their directors, and it fulfilled his own desire to make one himself. The title and the central predicament of George Valentin are an acknowledgement of the fact that silent film is a distinct art form, one lost with the advent of sound. At the expense of his career, Valentin insists on preserving the art -- much as Charles Chaplin did by refusing to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) into talkies, long after sound had taken hold. But Valentin is no Chaplin, and his effort, an adventure story in the mode of the films that had made him famous, is a flop, coincidentally opening on the day in 1929 when the stock market crashed. Meanwhile, a younger fan and something of a protégée of his, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), becomes a huge star in talkies. From this point on, the script almost writes itself, especially if you've seen any of the versions of A Star Is Born, which is why some of us wonder how this undeniably entertaining film became such a hit and a multiple award-winner. It was nominated for 10 Academy awards and won half of them: picture, actor, director, costume design (Mark Bridges), and original score (Ludovic Bource). To my mind, Haznavicius's screenplay is at fault for not making Valentin's supine reaction to sound entirely credible: Is it actor's ego? A fear of the new? Embarrassment at his accent? And the decision to play Valentin's suicide attempt as comedy feels like a failure of tone on the part of the writer-director. That said, the performances by Dujardin, Bejo, and the always invaluable John Goodman as the studio boss keep the movie alive. I just don't think it belongs in the company of Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Blvd.
Saturday, April 16, 2016
Åke Fridell) adds little to our understanding of the character. It's also possible to find the reconciliation of Borg's son (Gunnar Björnstrand) and daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) a little too easily achieved, as if thrown in as a correlative to Borg's own affirmation. The radiant performance of Bibi Andersson in the double role of Borg's cousin Sara and the young hitchhiker who shares her name, however, almost brings the film into convincing focus. I don't think Wild Strawberries is a masterpiece, but it's certainly one of the essential films in the Bergman oeuvre.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Thursday, April 14, 2016
|Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice|
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Sawdust and Tinsel), and with whom he would form one of the great working partnerships in film history. In its evocation of medieval narrative and meticulous re-creation of a milieu (the production designer is P.A. Lundgren), it's superb. But as a film from one of the great modern directors it seems oddly anachronistic and insincere.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Cries and Whispers (1972), and that largely because Bergman had by that time realized that innovation could be a dead end and that concentrating on story and character without cinematic tricks was all that was needed to make a successful film. The core of Persona lies in the fascinating, ever-shifting relationship between the mute Elisabet and the garrulous Alma, and we don't even need the sequence in which the images of the two actresses merge into one to get the point. It's sometimes said that the film works because Andersson and Ullmann look so much alike, but they really don't. Andersson has a kind of conventional prettiness: As I noted in my entry on The Devil's Eye (Bergman, 1960), she could almost pass as the heroine of a 1960s American sitcom like Donna Reed or Elizabeth Montgomery. Ullmann has a stronger face: a more determined gaze, powerful cheekbones, a fuller, more sensuous mouth. The two women could not have exchanged roles in the film without a serious disruption in their relationship: Even though she's three years younger than Andersson, Ullman has to play the mature, successful actress, and Andersson the eager young nurse. What gives their relationship in the film its marvelous tension is the sense that Alma is imbibing, in an almost vampiric way, the strength that Elisabet possessed before her onstage breakdown. Part of me wishes that Bergman had had the conviction to tell the two women's stories without the narrative gimmicks, but another part tells me that Persona has to be judged for what it is, and that it's one of the great films.
Monday, April 11, 2016
Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu) and Boyhood were the front-runners, in large part because they took great risks. In addition to an often surreal approach to its subject matter, Birdman was filmed to give the illusion that most of it was one continuous take -- even though the narrative was not necessarily continuous. And Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years, as its protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), went from the age of 6 to 18 years old. Faced with two such groundbreaking but inimitable films, the Academy chose poorly: It went for the flashy technique of Birdman instead of the profoundly revealing story of the pressures a child faces in the process of growing up. But it's not just Mason's story, it's also that of his mother (Patricia Arquette), his sister (Lorelei Linklater), and his father (Ethan Hawke). Arquette deservedly won a supporting actress Oscar, but Hawke (who was nominated) also demonstrated the remarkable ability to adapt his persona over the extended filming time. The divorced parents face pressures, too: the mother the more immediate one of becoming a single parent and then making disastrously wrong choices as she remarries, the father the long-term one of remaining a presence in the lives of his children. He seems to have it easier than his ex-wife does, but every time Hawke re-appears in the film, he beautifully communicates the sense of having lost something precious. Like his son, he grows, shedding his fecklessness and irresponsibility, just as Mason learns to sift through the continuous barrage of advice from adults and find the wisdom to become his own person. I don't know of any film that so tenderly presents what the quotidian is like, without resorting to melodramatic crisis at its turning points. The only other films I can even compare it to are François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Satyajit Ray's Aparajito (1956), which take place in much harsher milieus than the Texas towns and cities in which Linklater sets Boyhood. But even though that world is milder and more familiar than the places in France and India where Truffaut and Ray set their films, Boyhood reveals how the world shapes us -- or as Linklater puts it at the end of his film, "the moment seizes us" -- as well as those films do. I think it's a treasure that belongs in their august company.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934), and only one other picture, The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), has subsequently accomplished that feat. Today, however, One Flew has the look of a skillfully directed but somewhat predictable melodrama; its tragic edge has been blunted by familiarity. In treating the material, director Forman goes for straightforward storytelling, without showing us something new or personal as an auteur. And as time has passed, some of the elements of the source, Ken Kesey's novel, that screenwriters Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman took pains to mitigate -- namely the countercultural glibness and antifeminism -- have begun to show through. It's harder today to wholeheartedly cheer on the raw, anarchic antiauthoritarianism of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) or to accept as a given the unmitigated villainy of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). We want our protagonists and antagonists to be a little more complicated than the film allows them to be. There are still many who think it a great film, but if it is, I think it's largely because it's the perfect showcase for a great talent -- Nicholson's -- supported by an extraordinary ensemble that includes a shockingly young-looking Danny DeVito, Scatman Crothers, Sidney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, and a touchingly vulnerable Brad Dourif.
Saturday, April 9, 2016
Friday, April 8, 2016
Thursday, April 7, 2016
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949), where sweaty detectives track the kidnapper through busy nightclubs and the haunts of drug addicts, and Kurosawa's cameras -- under the direction of Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito -- give us every sordid glimpse. It's a skillful thriller, based on one of Evan Hunter's novels written under the "Ed McBain" pseudonym, done with a masterly hand. And while it's not one of Kurosawa's greater films, it has unexpected moral depth, enhanced by fine performances, including a restrained one by Mifune -- this time, the freakout scene goes to Yamazaki's kidnapper.
Monday, April 4, 2016
Seven Samurai, appeared together five years earlier in this noir detective story. In a crowded bus on a sweltering day, Murakami (Mifune), a rookie homicide detective, has his gun stolen by a pickpocket. He gives chase but loses the thief, and shamefacedly has to report it to headquarters. To make matters worse, he soon discovers that the gun has been used in a robbery, wounding the victim. He begins a dogged search for the gun. In an extended sequence Kurosawa's depiction of police work takes us into the lower depths of post-war Tokyo as Murakami follows a lead that suggests the gun may have been sold on the underground gun market. Murakami's guilt becomes more intense after ballistics work reveals that his gun had been used in a robbery homicide and he witnesses the grief of the victim's husband. But he's teamed up with a veteran detective, Sato (Shimura), who persuades Murakami not to quit the force and accompanies him in an effort to retrieve the weapon. It's not only a well-made thriller but also a complex portrait of the lingering effects of the war on the Japanese populace, peering into sleazy nightclubs and cobbled-together hovels. Mifune and Shimura are a fine team, with the former far more restrained than he was in Seven Samurai and the latter adding a deeper note of warmth to the quiet integrity he demonstrated as the leader of the samurai band. Keiko Awaji plays the nightclub dancer who knows the hangouts of the gunman (Isao Kimura, who played the naive young samurai Katsushiro in the later film) but is reluctant to give him up. A vivid supporting cast and Asakazu Nakai's atmospheric cinematography make this more than just a skillful reworking of an American genre movie.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), shows, there's a universality about the antagonism between fighters and farmers. Kurosawa captures this particularly well in the character of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the would-be samurai who reveals in mid-film that he was raised as a farmer and carried both a kind of self-hate for his class along with a hatred for the arrogant treatment of farmers by samurai. Mifune's show-off performance is terrific, but the film really belongs to Takashi Shimura, who radiates stillness and wisdom as Kambei Shimada, the leader of the seven. There are clichés to be found, such as the fated romance of the young samurai trainee Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and the farmer's daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), but like the best clichés, they ring true. Seven Samurai earned two Oscar nominations, for So Matsuyama's art direction and Kohei Ezaki's costumes, but won neither. Overlooking Kurosawa's direction, Shimura's performance, and Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is unforgivable, if exactly what one expects from the Academy.
Saturday, April 2, 2016
|Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth|