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

Friday, July 29, 2016

Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
Comedy in general often involves characters we would avoid in real life, and screwball comedy, of the type that flourished in the movies of the 1930s and '40s, tends to feature characters that we might otherwise have expected to be incarcerated or committed for treatment. Would we really hang out with Cary Grant's paleontologist and the leopard-coddling socialite Katharine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)? Wouldn't we call the cops on Barbara Stanwyck's con artist and shy away from the snake-hunting Henry Fonda of The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)? But meeting them in movies is a delight. Punch-Drunk Love is a latter-day screwball comedy with a protagonist, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who verges on being a sociopath. At the beginning of the movie, he is standing on the sidewalk when a car crashes with a spectacular end-over-end flip, and just moments later, a van pulls up and deposits a harmonium on the street and drives off. Most of us would call the police and go in aid of the people in the crash, but Barry takes it all in his stride. We never hear about the crash again, and only the next day does Barry pick up the harmonium and move it into his office. (It's blocking the driveway to the row of businesses in which his oddball company is located.) The more we learn about Barry, the stranger he becomes: He has crying jags and violent outbursts, and he calls a phone-sex line -- giving them all manner of personal information including his Social Security number, which any sane person knows not to do -- and then just wants to chat with the woman who answers. Eventually, he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), one of his seven very annoying sisters. Miraculously, Lena accepts him for what he is. Baldly stated, none of Punch-Drunk Love really makes a lot of sense, and yet it turns into an oddly charming movie. Then again, this is a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave us a denouement in Magnolia (1999) that included a rain of frogs. Whatever else you may say about Anderson -- like, for example, that he can be a very self-indulgent filmmaker -- he has a way of keeping us hooked, of luring us into a world of his own. He overlays scenes with odd percussive music composed by Jon Brion, and the song that accompanies Barry and Lena's big love scene is Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me," sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980). Not to mention, of course, that he casts Sandler as his romantic lead, and has him wear a bright blue suit that seems to be made out of microfiber cleaning cloths. I have never seen any of Sandler's other films, and considering the reviews I probably won't, but he gives a very good performance here, somehow holding together a film that could have flown apart at any moment.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

This scathing look by the Belgian Dardenne brothers at the exploitation of workers under contemporary capitalism owes much to postwar Italian neo-realism, especially Vittorio De Sica's classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a worker in a small business, who has been on medical leave for depression. Ready to return to work, she finds that the management has learned that it's more profitable to pay overtime to the workers who have been covering for her than to pay her salary, so they've had the workers vote on whether she should have her job back. If they decide against Sandra, they'll all receive one-time bonuses. The vote goes against her, but her friends at the company protest that one of the managers unfairly told some workers that no one would be safe from layoffs if Sandra is kept on. The management agrees on a revote by secret ballot, and Sandra, still fragile and popping Xanax like breath mints, is forced to spend the weekend before the revote canvassing the other employees, trying to persuade them to save her job. Cotillard, in an extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance, portrays Sandra's journey from fragility to strength as she confronts sometimes hostile but often sympathetic co-workers to plead her case. The lure of the bonus proves strong: Two men come to blows over whether they should take the money or support Sandra, and one woman even leaves her abusive husband, who wants the money to fix up their patio. Sandra's tour of the industrial town in search of her fellow workers is reminiscent of Antonio's attempt in Bicycle Thieves to find the bicycle he needs in order to keep his job. The Dardennes mostly keep the film in a low key, so that Cotillard's work (and that of Fabrizio Rongione as Sandra's husband) shines through. The only serious bobble in the narrative comes when the despairing Sandra attempts suicide by swallowing her remaining supply of antidepressants, a moment that serves as a rather improbable turning-point for the character. And it's possible to object that the ending, in which Sandra is presented with a moral choice not unlike that her fellow workers face in their revote, is a little too formulaic. But Cotillard carries it off beautifully.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)

Made in the twilight of the classic Western, there's something a little decadent about this West-as-it-never-was movie. In a few years, conventional Westerns would be all over TV, and Hollywood filmmakers would start turning out so-called "adult Westerns," films that did what they could to question the values and stereotypes that had been prevalent in the genre. Films like High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953) would be lauded by intellectuals who would never have been caught dead at conventional Westerns. And even Ford would present a darker vision of the West's racism and brutality in The Searchers (1956). On the surface, My Darling Clementine looks like a fairy-tale version of the Old West, with its blithe disregard for actual geography: Tombstone, Ariz., and Monument Valley, Utah, are more than 350 miles apart, but Ford's movie puts the jagged buttes of the valley in every Tombstone back yard. The familiar tale of the shootout at the OK Corral has been turned into a clash of good (the Earps) vs. evil (the Clantons), in which the virtues of the former clan have been greatly exaggerated. There are some of the usual stereotypes: a drunken Indian and a Mexican (?) spitfire named Chihuahua (Linda Darnell). There's a virtuous young woman (Cathy Downs) from back east who tracks her man all the way west and when he's killed settles down to be the town schoolmarm. And yet, My Darling Clementine is one of the great Western movies in large part because Ford and screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller are so insouciant about their patent mythmaking. Henry Fonda is a tower of virtue as Wyatt Earp, infusing some of the integrity of his previous characters, Abraham Lincoln and Tom Joad, into the portrayal. Burly Victor Mature, though seemingly miscast as the consumptive Doc Holliday, gives a surprisingly good performance. And there's fine support from such Western standbys as Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Tim Holt, and John Ireland. The black-and-white cinematography of Joseph MacDonald only seems to emphasize the good vs. evil fable, bringing something of the film noir to the Wild West.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Swann in Love (Volker Schlöndorff, 1984)

I certainly don't think that Proust's In Search of Lost Time couldn't, or shouldn't, be adapted to another medium: a well-produced miniseries might well do the trick. But for all the talent involved in this adaptation of the "Swann in Love" section of Swann's Way, the return on investment is slight: an opulent trifle, a pretty picture of the Belle Époque. The most significant contributions to the film are made by its production designer, Jacques Saulnier, and its cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, who keep the eye ravished even while the mind feels hunger pangs. There are some remarkable performances that make you feel that at least Proust has been read, including Fanny Ardant's Duchesse de Guermantes, Marie-Christine Barrault's wonderfully alive and vulgar Mme. Verdurin, and especially Alain Delon's Baron de Charlus. Yes, Proust's Charlus is fat where Delon is lean, but Delon's dissipated beauty -- he's like the picture of Dorian Gray when it had just begun to reflect its subject's debauchery -- and his sly appreciation of the Guermantes footmen give us something of the essential Charlus. I have a sense that Swann should be a good deal less handsome than Jeremy Irons and that Odette was not quite as sex-kittenish as Ornella Muti, but they move through their roles well even if their voices have been dubbed by French actors. (The dubbing is most noticeable in Irons's case, since his purring lisp has become so familiar over the years.) The screenplay, by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and Schlöndorff, plucks scenes from here and there in the Search, not confined to the titular section, but fails to put it all together in a satisfying whole. If ever a case could be made for a voice-over narrator, reflecting Proust's own Narrator, I would think it would be here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)

A little whimsy goes a long way, but too much is a bad thing if it turns terminally twee. The unique sensibility of Wes Anderson has kept it going for 20 years now, culminating in the best picture and best director nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2012). Though Bottle Rocket was a box office flop, it was an auspicious debut for Anderson, as well as for its then-unknown stars, Luke and Owen Wilson. (The latter also co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson.) Bottle Rocket inevitably became a cult film, building on what seems like a sly parody of Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) mixed with a bit of Coen brothers tongue-in-cheekery. All that it lacks is Bill Murray -- it's the only Anderson film in which he doesn't appear -- but his special above-it-all manner is aptly supplied in Bottle Rocket by James Caan. Anyone coming to this movie in search of characters with fully fleshed-out backstories -- like, why was Anthony (Luke Wilson) suffering from the "exhaustion" that led him to commit himself to the posh, low-security mental institution from which he "escapes" at the movie's beginning? -- is going to be sadly disappointed. The effect is more shaggy-dog than Reservoir Dogs. It's a film that features among other things, a heist on that least likely of targets, a book store, and probably the most thoroughly planned and ineptly executed robbery ever put on film. It's also one of those movies that are perhaps even funnier when you try to remember them afterward and figure out what the hell you just watched.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

Translating a play from its theatrical mode into a cinematic one is never easy, but Justin Kurzel and his screenwriters, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso, do several smart things in their adaptation of Macbeth. They open the film with a scene not in Shakespeare's play, the funeral of a small child presumably born to Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard), an extrapolation from Lady Macbeth's later claim that she has "given suck" to an infant. It establishes the sense of unsettling loss and grave disorientation that feeds the Macbeths' ambition. The film also scraps the witches' cauldron scene, its "double, double, toil and trouble" and "eye of newt" incantations, which can become ludicrous even in a well-done modern production, turning the witches into Halloween hags instead of the eerie prophets Shakespeare portrayed. In their place, the witches become three peasant women, one of whom has a baby in her arms, accompanied by another child. They seem indigenous, gifted with the air of prophecy attributed to those close to the land. Another problematic element of the play, the movement of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane, which can look silly on stage, with soldiers carrying branches in their hands, is resolved into something terrifying: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in the form of ashes and sparks, after the forest is set fire to by the troops of Macduff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor). This also creates a hellish landscape for the final duel of Macbeth and Macduff. There are some other touches that, though cinematic, don't work quite so well. Lady Macbeth's line, "screw your courage to the sticking place," is turned into a kind of dirty joke: an encouragement for Macbeth to penetrate her sexually. The banquet scene and the appearance of Banquo's ghost (Paddy Considine) is awkwardly staged. The lady's sleepwalking scene is shorn of its witnesses, and despite Cotillard's fine performance, it becomes a disjointed monologue in which she returns to the scene of the original crime, the murder of Duncan (David Thewlis). And worst of all, I think, the fear that speaking Shakespeare's verse aloud could become "stagey," leads Kurzel to reduce much of the dialogue and soliloquies to murmurs and whispers. The "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech is barely coherent when Macbeth mutters it as he hauls Lady Macbeth from her deathbed. Fassbender and Cotillard are formidable actors, but they have been done a severe disservice by not allowing them to use their voices to full effect.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948)

Welles may have taken the old theatrical superstition of referring to the play not by its title but as "the Scottish play" a little too seriously. The decision to have actors deliver Shakespeare's lines with a Scottish accent was met with derision by critics, and Republic Pictures, the poverty-row studio that released the film, eventually had it redubbed without the accents after the initial release flopped. The original soundtrack has been restored, however, and it's hard to see what set the critics' teeth on edge: For the most part, the occasional flavoring of the dialogue with Scottish vowel sounds and diphthongs is unobtrusive. The one exception, to my ear, is Roddy McDowall as Malcolm, who carries the accent a bit too far -- though that may be because McDowall's conception of the character is something of a callow noodge, especially in the scene in which he's trying to persuade Macduff (Dan O'Herlihy) to cease grieving for his murdered family and take action. I must have seen the old redubbed and cut version at one point, because I remember the film as rather glum and murky, when in fact, although it's not wholly successful, it's filled with Wellesian visual touches and some very solid performances. Welles makes remarkable use of the celtic cross as a visual motif, for example, having the troops advancing on Dunsinane carry impossibly long staffs surmounted with the cross, a touch that dazzles the eye. His own performance is somewhat uneven -- Welles was seldom the strongest actor in his productions -- and he fails to provide Macbeth with the character arc that makes the character a tragic figure, moving from mere ambition to blind bloodthirstiness. Jeanette Nolan is a good Lady Macbeth and O'Herlihy a suitably strong adversary for Macbeth. As usual, Welles drew many performers from his Mercury Theater company, including Erskine Sanford as a dignified Duncan, something of an about-face from his broadly comic performance as the flustered newspaper editor Herbert Carter, huffing and puffing when he's ousted by the paper's new owner, Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). The low budget for the film shows, especially in the sets -- Dunsinane seems to be more cave than castle, its walls made out of Plasticine -- cobbled together on the Republic soundstage by art director Fred A. Ritter. And although Welles's keen eye served him well, as Alfred Hitchcock's would later when he shot Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), John L. Russell was never a distinguished cinematographer. Still, this is a fairly distinguished effort at putting Shakespeare on film.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

It's at least half an hour too long, and the sex scenes inevitably have something exploitative about them, but Blue Is the Warmest Color remains exceptional in large part because it's one of the most intimate portraits of a human relationship on film. The jury at Cannes was right in citing not only the director but also the two actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, when it gave the film the Palme D'Or. Exarchopoulos in particular demonstrates a rare courage, not for exposing her body but for allowing the rawness of her emotions to show forth. There are moments when her character, Adèle (Kechiche changed the character's name from "Clémentine" when he cast her), becomes almost pitiable in her helpless infatuation with Seydoux's Emma, Exarchapoulos's fresh beauty becoming disfigured in her portrayal of Adèle's suffering at the inability to make the kind of fusion she desires with Emma. It's a fable about the limitations of love that transcends sexual orientation. The film's NC-17 rating once again demonstrates the wrong-headedness of the American ratings board's approach to sexuality, as opposed to its blithe acceptance of any extreme of violence in film.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

It has always struck me as odd that Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) won the 1931-32 best picture Oscar, when Dinner at Eight, a similarly constructed all-star affair, was shut out of the nominations for the 1932-33 awards. Dinner at Eight is much the better picture, with a tighter, wittier script (by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart) and a cast that includes three of the Grand Hotel stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Jean Hersholt. Granted, it doesn't have Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, but it has Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler at their best, and a director who knows how to keep things perking. (Cukor was, at least, nominated for Little Women instead.) It also has one of the great concluding scenes in movies, when everyone goes in to dinner and Kitty (Harlow) tells Carlotta (Dressler) that she's been reading a book, bringing the formidable bulk of Dressler to a lurching halt. (You've seen it a dozen times in clip shows of great movie moments. If not, go watch the movie.) Granted, too, that Dinner at Eight is not quite sure whether it's a comic melodrama or a melodramatic comedy, dealing as it does with the effects of the Depression on the rich and famous, with marital infidelity and suicide (both of them in ways that the Production Code would soon preclude -- as it would Harlow's barely there Adrian gowns). And there's some over-the-top hamming from both Barrymores. In fact, the performances in general are pitched a little too high, a sign that Cukor hadn't quite yet left his career as a stage director behind and discovered that a little less can be a lot more in movies. Nevertheless, it's a more-than-tolerable movie, and a damn sight better than the year's best picture winner, the almost unwatchable Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)

Fassbinder's inspiration was the Hollywood "woman's picture," which made stars of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis in the 1930s and '40s, but more specifically the 1950s version directed by his fellow German, Douglas Sirk (born Hans Detlef Sierck). Sirk brought a distinct style, including vivid Technicolor and high fashion, to his tales of women struggling to assert themselves in a decade usually known for its backlash against liberated women. They were vehicles for actresses like Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession, 1954, and All That Heaven Allows, 1955), Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind, 1956), and Lana Turner (Imitation of Life, 1959). Hanna Schygulla evokes all of them and more in a bravura performance in The Marriage of Maria Braun, in which she gets to suffer through World War II and its aftermath, and to triumph in the postwar German Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and '60s. It's a sardonic story about a woman who claims to be faithful in her fashion to Hermann Braun (Klaus Löwitsch), the soldier she married during an air raid in 1943, despite her affairs with a black American soldier (George Eagles) and a French industrialist (Karl Oswald). In Fassbinder's hands, the story of Maria Braun becomes overlaid with the history of Germany after the war, including scenes in which the dialogue is often partly obscured by radio speeches by German politicians like Konrad Adenauer, the architect of German recovery. "I prefer making miracles rather than waiting for them," Maria proclaims at one point. Fassbinder's portrait of Maria is occasionally elliptical: We don't know, for example, whether she aborted the child she conceived with the American soldier or lost it in childbirth, partly because she seems indifferent to the fact, and Fassbinder leaves it up to us to decide whether the explosion in which she dies at the end is an accident or suicide. The screenplay by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer was based on an idea by Fassbinder, who also contributed to the dialogue. The cinematography is by Michael Ballhaus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951) revisited

Claude Laydu and Jean Danet in Diary of a Country Priest
I chose the still above deliberately, because it's an image uncharacteristic of Bresson's film: the young priest accepting a ride on the back of a motorcycle from Olivier, cousin of Chantal (Nicole Ladmiral), who, along with the rest of her family, has caused him so much stress. Olivier is a soldier in the Foreign Legion, a character and pursuit about as far from the priest's tormented spiritual life as possible. It's a brief, liberated scene, one that suggests a world of potentiality other than that of the kind of suffering, spiritually and physically, that the priest has known in his assignment to the bleak and hostile parish of Ambricourt. Of course, the priest returns to his suffering after his motorcycle ride: He learns that he has terminal stomach cancer and dies in a slovenly apartment watched over by a former fellow seminarian, Fabregars (Léon Arvel), who is living with his mistress. As ascetic as the young priest has striven to be, he has to come to terms with a world that seems irrevocably fallen, even to the point of taking the last, absolving blessing from the lapsed Fabregars. Diary of a Country Priest remains for me one of film's great puzzles: What are we to make of the young priest's intellectualized faith? Is it a film for believers or for agnostics? In the end, its enigmas and ambiguities are integral to its greatness.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

It's rare to see a film whose title character is the villain -- unless you count monster movies like the many versions of Dracula -- but Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) is decidedly that, the slave-driving administrator of a medieval Japanese manor. (It's as if Uncle Tom's Cabin had been called Simon Legree.) But in fact, Sansho serves as a catalyst for the story that centers on an aristocratic family. The father displeases his feudal lord by being too merciful to the people he governs, so he's banished to a distant province while his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and their children, Zushio and Anju, remain behind with her brother until the children are old enough to make the dangerous cross-country journey. But when they set out, they are betrayed and sold into slavery. Tamaki is forced into prostitution and separated from the children, who grow up as slaves on the estate administered by Sansho. One day, Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) hears a new slave, brought from the island of Sado, singing a song about a woman who mourns the loss of her children named Zushio and Anju, and learns that her mother is still alive. Meanwhile, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has decided that the best way to survive in slavery is to go along with Sansho's demands, which include punishing an elderly slave by branding him on the forehead. Anju is appalled by what her brother has become, because he has turned against the principles of mercy and human equality that their father taught them, but when the opportunity to escape presents itself, she persuades him to do so. Staying behind, and facing the wrath of Sansho, she drowns herself. Eventually, Zushio wreaks revenge on Sansho and liberates the slaves, then goes in search of his mother. This reworking of an ancient fable is one of the most miraculous of films, an exquisitely photographed (by Kazuo Miyagawa), designed (by Hisakazu Tsuji), and acted work, radiating Mizoguchi's deep human sympathy. Tanaka, who starred in Ugetsu (1953) and The Life of Oharu (1952), the other two films usually ranked alongside Sansho the Bailiff as Mizoguchi's greatest works, has a smaller role than in the others, but her final scene in this film is one of the most heart-breaking performances in all movies.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Go West (Buster Keaton, 1925)

TCM ran this Keaton feature with a two-reeler from 1917, Coney Island, directed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in which Keaton plays a secondary role to Arbuckle. The remarkable thing about the earlier film is that Keaton hasn't found his stone-faced persona yet: He smiles and mugs in ways that we don't expect from him. Adapting the deadpan became, along with the porkpie hat, Keaton's trademark as a film comedian, and it's even alluded to in a scene in which Keaton's character, known only as Friendless, plays poker with a guy who cheats. When Friendless calls him on drawing from the bottom of the deck, the guy pulls out the familiar line from The Virginian: "Smile when you say that." Incapable of smiling, Friendless attempts the expression by poking up the corners of his mouth with two fingers. It all goes to show that when it came to expressiveness, Keaton was a master of body language, able to communicate love or diffidence or fear with the very angle of his stance. No one ever did a pratfall better than Keaton, once he discovered that the trick is to keep your legs stiff when you land on your butt. Go West is one of the lesser Keaton features, not quite in the league of The Navigator (1924) or Seven Chances (1925) or the sublime The General (1926). The gags are plentiful but they're not set up quite as well as in those pictures, or as elaborate as the ones in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and The Cameraman (1928). When the focus goes away from Keaton, as it does in the scenes in which he leads a cattle drive through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, causing much havoc, the film gets a little scattered. Keaton is at his best when he sets up a simple gag, as when he repeatedly arrives late for dinner with the other ranchhands, who get up and leave the table once he sits down, so that eventually he rushes in, sits down first, gobbles his dinner, and then gets up and leave the moment they sit down. This is the one in which Friendless finally finds a friend: a cow named Brown Eyes -- an outcast like himself because she refuses to give milk. Rescued from the slaughterhouse, Brown Eyes climbs into an automobile with Friendless and, seated beside him, rides away. Arbuckle, incidentally, has a bit part in drag in Go West, as a woman in the department store invaded by the cattle.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)

I will never come closer to understanding Wall Street than I do after watching this film -- but that's about as close as I am to understanding particle physics. It's a remarkable portrayal of what the kind of manipulations that led to the crash of 2008 can do to people, and in this case to the people who helped bring it about. I have seen what that crash -- and the manipulations -- can do to ordinary folk: I live in a condo that's part of a series of small duplexes, each unit of which is only a little over a thousand square feet. A few years before the crash, the unit that adjoined mine was bought by a Mexican-American man who worked as a gardener at Stanford. It was, he explained, a starter home for him and his wife and five (!) daughters. It was soon evident that he was having trouble making the payments on the mortgage -- at one point, the family moved out and rented it to someone else for a while. Eventually, the bank foreclosed. I wondered at the time how he had managed to secure a mortgage in the first place. After the crash, I found out why -- a process that is at the heart of what takes place in The Big Short. There are no heroes or villains in this movie: Even the protagonists with whom we are asked to identify, such as Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), are out to milk a system they know is corrupt. And when they fail, they still manage to make a billion dollars, mostly by using other people's money. But the characters are so shrewdly drawn, first by Michael Lewis in his book and then by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph in their Oscar-winning screenplay, and so deftly acted that we can't help feeling for them. Some of them, like Burry and Baum and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt in one of his best performances), seem to have a touch of Asperger's. Movies like Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) have given us portrayals of America's financial system as dominated by flamboyant greed-heads like Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, but The Big Short shows us something even more disturbing: the moral corruption of exceptionally intelligent men whose lives could have been put to something more useful than playing with money as if it were a board game with no real consequences to other people.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)

Julius Caesar is the starchiest of Shakespeare's major plays, the one with the least sex, which is why many of us first encounter it in a high school English class. It's a play about soldiers and politicians, professions from which women were (unless they were Queen Elizabeth) excluded in Shakespeare's time, so there are only two female roles: Brutus's wife, Portia, and Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and both of them are almost walk-ons. (My high school drama teacher wanted to stage Julius Caesar as our class play until he realized that three times as many girls as boys wanted to try out for parts.) So the remarkable thing about MGM's all-star production is that it turned out so well: It's one of the best Hollywood productions of Shakespeare. (Calpurnia and Portia are lavishly cast with Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr, respectively, in the small roles.) That said, it's a shame that not quite enough was done to take the starch out of the play. The casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony was a start, but although it's a very good performance, it tends to throw the film out of whack. When it was released, Brando had been stereotyped as a "Method mumbler," for his celebrated performance on stage and screen as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). Could he rise to the demands of speaking Shakespearean diction? critics burbled. Of course he could, with a little bit of coaching from his distinguished co-star John Gielgud, who plays Cassius, and who was so impressed that he wanted Brando to go to London where he would direct him in Hamlet. That, of course, never took place, more's the pity. But the attention directed at Brando does tend to shift the focus away from the real central character of the play, Brutus, played with exceptional distinction by James Mason. Gielgud is also very good, although it seems to me that in the first part of the film he is a bit too stagy. Mason gives a kind of colloquial spin to his lines -- a sense that he's speaking what Brutus thinks and feels, and not reciting Shakespearean verse. Later in the film, when Brutus and Cassius go to war against Antony, Gielgud has loosened up more. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the play is solid, and he does smart things with camera placement -- putting the camera in the middle of the crowd, for example, when Brutus and Antony give their great speeches after Caesar's (Louis Calhern) assassination. But there is a kind of Hollywood Rome quality to the film -- not surprising, since it was made after the lavish MGM spectacle Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and uses some of the same sets -- that tends toward the stodgy. That's more surprising when you realize that the producer of the film was John Houseman, who had also been a producer of Orson Welles's celebrated 1937 modern-dress Mercury Theatre production of the play, which created a sensation with its evocation of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Considering that we spend half our waking lives at work, it's surprising that there are so few good films about what we do there. The problem may be that many, if not most, of the jobs we do lack the essential narrative shape: beginning, middle, and end. They're a routine repeating itself until death or retirement provides the closure. The exceptions would seem to be cops and doctors, who deal with life and death, and sometimes lawyers, if their jobs lead to the courtroom and aren't just an eternal drawing up of documents. But surprisingly, given the low esteem in which they're held by the general public, there are also some classic films about journalists at work; His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) and All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) come immediately to mind. (I omit Orson Welles's magnum opus because it seems to me less about journalism than about obsession.) I will have to add Spotlight to the list, though despite its best picture Oscar (or maybe because of it) I think it's too soon to call it a great film. What makes it work for me is that it's a convincing portrait of what I know about journalists: that the good ones love what they do. Take Mike Rezendes, for example, whom I got to know a bit at the Mercury News. He's a few inches shorter and quite a few pounds lighter than Mark Ruffalo, who plays him in the movie, but what Ruffalo gets right about Rezendes is his absolute delight in doing the job right, flinging himself body and soul into his work. I would also single out here the performance of Liev Schreiber, one of our best and most underappreciated actors, whose Marty Baron is a spot-on portrait of the journalist who has found himself promoted upstairs to where his commitment to the profession is regarded with suspicion, even though his heart is in the right place. Michael Keaton's Walter Robinson is one of those who suspect Baron, and I wish there had been more scenes in which the growing confidence each has in the other was dramatized. John Slattery's Ben Bradlee Jr. is a keen portrayal of the journalist whose edges have been worn down to the point where he's always in danger of playing it too safe. Now, this judgment of the film is being made by someone who knows the territory, but considering how many cop movies seem ludicrous to cops, and how doctors tend to despise medical dramas, I think it speaks well of writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer that they manage to capture the essence of the journalism game (at least as it was in 2001-03, before the demise of newspapers) so extraordinarily well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2014)

Coming Home is a story of post-traumatic stress, in which the PTSD is not just manifest in particular people but in a whole society. The immense trauma of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s was shared by an entire people, though it's embodied in Zhang Yimou's film in a single family: Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), his wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), and their daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen). Like many intellectuals, Lu, a professor, is sent during the Cultural Revolution to the countryside to work as a laborer, but he escapes and returns to his family, which has been warned by the authorities to turn him in. When he shows up at their home, Feng wants to hide him, but Dandan, an ambitious young ballet student, betrays him on the promise that she will get the lead role in a production of The Red Detachment of Women. When Lu is finally released and returns home, he finds that Dandan has given up her ballet career -- the promised lead role is denied her anyway -- and is estranged from her mother, who has never forgiven her. But Feng has suffered another trauma, which affects her memory: Not only does she forget mundane daily tasks, she also fails to recognize Lu when he appears. Because she has been told that he will be returning on the fifth of the month, she goes to the train station once every month to wait for him, returning in disappointment. Lu tries everything he can to restore his wife's memory: He pretends to be a piano tuner so he can play a song they once shared, and when a cache of letters he wrote to her on scraps of paper while in prison shows up, he reads them to her, becoming a familiar figure in her life and engineering a rapprochement between her and Dandan, but never quite breaking through the bloc in her memory. It's a somewhat conventional and sentimental story, but Zhang makes it work, with the special help of three exceptional actors. Gong Li gives one of her finest performances as the deeply damaged Feng Wanyu, her face revealing the exact moment when her flickering hopes of reunion with her husband are extinguished by doubt or disappointment or fear. Chen Daoming makes Lu's patient, dogged attempts to cope with his wife's disorder credible, even when the script by Zou Jingzhi sags occasionally into predictability. And Zhang Huiwen, discovered by Zhang Yimou at the Beijing Dance Academy, is both a fine dancer and an actress capable of evoking Dandan's adolescent petulance. The cinematography is by Xiaoding Zhao and the music by Qigong Chen.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Lola Montès (Max Ophuls, 1955)

A commercial disaster when it was released, Ophuls's opulent and expensive last film was heavily cut in a effort to salvage it, and after the director's death a little more than a year after its premiere it suffered from neglect. But it had hugely influential admirers among the Cahiers du cinéma set, French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut, and American auteur theorists like Andrew Sarris. The persistence of the cult of Lola Montès has resulted in a restoration of the film to something like what audiences once saw (and rejected): a giddy, dreamlike tale of the rise and fall of a fabulous 19th-century courtesan, mistress to Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) and King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook), among perhaps many others. Martine Carol is Lola, and her story is told by the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) of a circus in which she is the principal attraction. Ophuls pulled out all the stops, including rather garish Eastmancolor and an unusually restless use of CinemaScope. The camera, supervised by cinematographer Christian Matras, rarely stands still, meandering among the many layers of the sets designed by Jean d'Eaubonne -- every building, from the humblest inn to the most baroque castle, seems to have endless flights of stairs connecting its many stories. There is a kind of feverish fun to the whole thing, as long as you're not interested in the real Lola Montez, who didn't wind up in a cage as a long queue of circus-going men waited to kiss her. You can say it's a kind of meditation on the nature of celebrity or on the double standard that judges women's sexuality in a different way than men's. You can see Lola as a precursor of Marilyn Monroe -- the goddess of the era in which the movie was made. Or you can just sit back and experience the astonishing flow of images that Ophuls directs past us. Is it a great film? I'd be content with just calling it unique, which in an artistic medium like the movies, so dependent on the tried and true, is perhaps greatness enough.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)

You can tell this is an early French New Wave film because there's plenty of sending up the old way of doing things in movies -- in particular the American crime thriller -- without attempting anything terribly new. For example, at one point the protagonist is sitting up in bed with the woman he has just slept with and tells her to "do it the way they do in the movies," whereupon she covers her exposed breasts by tucking the sheet under her arms. The shifts in tone are astonishing, from slapstick to real violence and back again, which is what we expect of a New Wave classic. But there is nothing truly groundbreaking in Truffaut's storytelling here, the way there was in the feature that immediately preceded Shoot the Piano Player, The 400 Blows (1959), or would be in his next, Jules and Jim (1962). Still, we have a wonderfully engaging performance by Charles Aznavour as the titular pianist, Charlie Kohler aka Edouard Saroyan. We also have a perfectly fitted score by Georges Delerue and cinematography by Raoul Coutard that often betrays Truffaut's love of Alfred Hitchcock. Watching Shoot the Piano Player, it's easy to see why Truffaut was the first person approached to direct Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), with its similar oscillations in tone.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

A successful film needs the correct balance of story and style, and when the story is as straightforward as Ida's, there's a great risk of overwhelming it with stylistic tricks. A novice called Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows to become a nun when she learns that she has an aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who wants to meet her. It is the 1960s, and Wanda is a judge in the courts of the communist government with a reputation for having for having presided brutally over the show trials of the 1950s that solidified communist power. She tells Anna, who was raised in an orphanage, that she was born to Jewish parents, one of whom was Wanda's sister, and that her birth name was Ida Lebenstein. Anna goes with Wanda in search of the graves of her parents and the son whom Wanda left with them when she joined the resistance during the war. Along the way, the tough, hard-drinking, sexually liberated Wanda, determined to provoke Anna out of her ascetic, devout ways, picks up a handsome young hitchhiker named Lis (Dawid Ogrodnik), a jazz saxophonist on his way to a gig. The story that director Pawel Pawlikowski and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz develop from this situation is told in an austerely beautiful manner. Two cinematographers are credited: Lukasz Zal took over as director of photography after Ryszard Lenczewski became ill during filming; both were deservedly nominated for cinematography Oscars. Pawlikowski chose to film in black-and-white to evoke the Polish films of the 1960s, the era of the young Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Wajda, although it's more accurate to refer to the cinematography as monochrome because the use of the many shades of gray and the emphasis on the textures of walls and skies and landscapes is extraordinary. The images are also strikingly framed: Characters rarely appear in the direct center of the screen, but are shifted toward the bottom or the corner of images. (Remarkably, the film also sometimes moves the subtitles from the bottom to the top of the frame to accommodate this placement.) Such manipulations could be seen as mannered, but I think it works to suggest that the lives of the characters themselves have been placed somewhere slightly off-center.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

Lifeboat has two things going for it: Alfred Hitchcock and Tallulah Bankhead. Otherwise, it could easily have turned into either a routine survival melodrama or, worse, a didactic allegory about the human condition. As it is, elements of both remain. The situation -- a small group of survivors of a merchant marine vessel torpedoed by a German U-boat confront the elements, their own frailties, and the U-boat captain they unwittingly help rescue -- was dreamed up by Hitchcock and was assigned to John Steinbeck to come up with a story. It was then turned into a screenplay by Jo Swerling, with the uncredited help of a number of other hands, including Ben Hecht and Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. Steinbeck is said to have hated it, partly because the screenplay was purged of his leftist point of view, but anyone familiar with his fiction can see how the script's avoidance of his tendency to preach strengthened the film. And the casting of Bankhead, in what is virtually her only good screen role, adds a note of sophisticated sass that the melodrama desperately needs. Steinbeck also objected that the character of Joe (Canada Lee), the ship's steward and the only black survivor, had been turned into a "stock comedy Negro," which is hardly fair: Although there are unpleasant taints of Hollywood racism in the characterization -- Bankhead's character refers to him as "Charcoal" a couple of times -- Joe is generally treated with respect. At one point, when the occupants of the lifeboat decide to put something to a vote, Joe asks, with more than a touch of sad experience behind the question, "Do I get to vote, too?" And when the survivors finally turn in a frenzy on the treacherous German (Walter Slezak), clubbing him to death and drowning him, Joe is the only one who seems to recognize that what they're doing is essentially a lynching; he tries to dissuade Alice (Mary Anderson), the U.S. Army nurse, from joining the assault. (Of course, it's also possible that the studio feared that having a black man assault a white man would outrage Southern audiences.) While it's not prime Hitchcock, Lifeboat is engaging and entertaining, and a cut above most wartime melodramas, partly because it dares to present the enemy, the German captain, as dangerous, cleverly outwitting and manipulating the Americans and Brits in the boat -- which naturally outraged some of the flag-waving critics.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

Tokyo Story has everything we love about great short stories: a profoundly human situation, a delicate narrative restraint, and -- in the place of literature's powerfully evocative prose -- powerfully evocative images. It also has what literature can't give us: the joy of watching actors bring to life the characters they play. It is certainly one of my favorite films of all time, and while I've listed it at No. 1 on my Great Movies page, I think any horse-race competition to validate greatness does a film of such quiet power a disservice. How can you rank movies of such variety of tone as this subtle family drama, the violent picture of a disintegrating society in the first two Godfather films, the delicious intrigue of Notorious, and the epic portrait of medieval Russian life in Andrei Rublev, all of which currently constitute my so-called top five? I think Tokyo Story earns its place by establishing that there are universal constants in family life, things that transcend particular cultures: the gulf that widens between generations, the inability to face even those to whom one is closest without dissimulation, the tension between what one is obliged to say and do and what one actually feels at a moment of loss, and so on. Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda do a masterly job of gathering these and other themes and placing them in due order. This is one of those Ozu films where his technique of placing the camera almost at floor level seems like more than just a mannerism: It emphasizes that what we are seeing is rooted and basic, while at the same time we have the feeling of contact with the performers that we usually get only in the theater. Yuharu Atsuta's camera rarely moves, causing us to feel enveloped by Tatsuo Hamada's sets almost like participants in the lives of the Hirayama family, even though they are strangers to us, and their secrets and the flash points in their relationships -- such as the past drinking problem of the patriarch, Shukichi (the magnificent Chishu Ryu), or the deep loneliness of Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widowed daughter-in-law -- gradually become known to us. This is a film that trusts its audience to stay and learn, something that has become lost in contemporary movies, which have to nudge audiences into awareness.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Min and Bill (George W. Hill, 1930)

Remembered today chiefly because it was the film that won Marie Dressler the best actress Oscar (for what was by no means her best screen performance), Min and Bill is a good example of the struggle Hollywood movie-makers went through in adapting to sound. Dressler and co-star Wallace Beery had both been stars in silent films, and screenwriter Frances Marion was one of the most successful writers of that era. Unfortunately, Marion and co-screenwriter Marion Jackson don't seem to have mastered writing the dialogue a sound film needs for exposition and continuity, so it often sounds as if  Dressler and Beery are ad-libbing just to keep the soundtrack alive. And director George W. Hill, a former cinematographer who had turned director before sound came in, doesn't quite know how to keep the pace from sagging. The result is a rather choppy movie with a few good scenes, most notably a knock-down, drag-out brawl between Dressler's Min and Beery's Bill.  At the beginning of the film, Min seems to be destined to be one of Dressler's slapstick comic creations: There's an extended chase sequence in which Min and Nancy are at the controls of a runaway speedboat that culminates with Min being thrown overboard and hauled out of the water with repeated dunkings. But the main plot is sentimental drivel: Min runs a waterfront speakeasy/barbershop and has raised a girl, Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), left her as an infant by the now-aging prostitute Bella (Marjorie Rambeau). Now that Nancy is of marriageable age and is being wooed by the wealthy Dick Cameron (Don Dillaway), Bella has shown up again to try to claim the maternal privileges that she fears Min is going to assert. The trouble with this twist to the plot is that we never see Min being particularly loving and maternal toward Nancy, so that the denouement, in which Min tries to keep the girl out of Bella's clutches, doesn't make a lot of emotional sense. Still, the public loved it, and Dressler was for a time MGM's biggest star.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2
Guido Anselmi: Marcello Mastroianni
Claudia: Claudia Cardinale
Louisa Anselmi: Anouk Aimée
Carla: Sandra Milo
Rossella: Rossella Falk
Gloria Morin: Barbara Steele
Madeleine: Madeleine Lebeau
La Saraghina: Eddra Gale
Pace, a Producer: Guido Alberti
Carini Daumier, a Film Critic: Jean Rouguel

Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Production design: Piero Gherardi
Music: Nino Rota

At one point in 8 1/2 an actress playing a film critic turns to the camera and brays (in English), "He has nothing to say!", referring to Guido Anselmi, the director Marcello Mastroianni plays and, by extension, to Fellini himself. And that's quite true: Fellini has nothing to say because reducing 8 1/2 to a message would miss the film's point. Guido finds himself creatively blocked because he's trying to say something, except he doesn't know what it is. He has even enlisted a film critic to aid him in clarifying his ideas, but the critic only muddles things by his constant monologue about Guido's failure. Add to this the fact that after a breakdown Guido has retreated to a spa to try to relax and focus, only to be pursued there by a gaggle of producers and crew members and actors, not to mention his mistress and his wife. Guido's consciousness becomes a welter of dreams and memories and fantasies, overlapping with the quotidian demands of making a movie and tending to a failed marriage. He is also pursued by a vision of purity that he embodies in the actress Claudia Cardinale, but when they finally meet he realizes how impossible it is to integrate this vision with the mess of his life. Only at the end, when he abandons the project and confronts the fact that he really does have nothing to say, can he realize that the mess is the message, that his art has to be a way of establishing a pattern out of his own life, embodied by those who have populated it dancing in a circle to Nino Rota's music in the ruins of the colossal set of his abandoned movie. The first time I saw this film it was dubbed into German, which I could understand only if it was spoken slowly and patiently, which it wasn't. Even so, I had no trouble following the story (such as it is) because Fellini is primarily a visual artist. Besides, the movie starred Mastroianni, who would have made a great silent film star, communicating as he did with face and body as much as with voice. It is, I think, one of the great performances of a great career. 8 1/2 is also one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies ever made, thanks to the superb cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo and the brilliant production design and costumes of Piero Gherardi.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Life As a Dog (Lasse Hallström, 1985)

The American success of Hallström's off-beat but lightweight film netted him two Oscar nominations: best director and -- with co-screenwriters Reidar Jönsson, Brasse Brännström, and Per Berglund -- best adapted screenplay. (The film was based on the middle volume of a trio of novels by Jönnson.) It also brought him to Hollywood, where he has directed more off-beat but lightweight films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Chocolat (2000), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). His most successful film after coming to the States has probably been The Cider House Rules (1999), for which he received another Oscar nomination for directing; it was the perfect teaming with a similarly off-beat and lightweight novelist, John Irving. Mind you, I have nothing against either the off-beat or the lightweight: My Life As a Dog is a perfectly charming and often touching movie that showcases a wonderful performance by young Anton Glanzelius as Ingemar, who gets tossed around from relative to relative as they try to cope with the boy. There are also excellent performances by Anki Lidén as Ingemar's mother, Tomas van Brömmsen as Uncle Gunnar, and Melinda Kinnaman (half-sister of the actor Joel Kinnaman) as the pubescent Sagar, who is distressed that her emerging femininity means an end to playing soccer and boxing with the boys. Jörgen Persson's cinematography is another plus. The trouble comes only when one tries to take My Life As a Dog too seriously as a coming-of-age tale, a genre much worked-over by the movies. The lightweightness of My Life as a Dog shows in comparisons with such classics of the genre as Satyajit Ray's Aparajito (1956), François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), and even so recent an entry as Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014), all of which more successfully integrate the coming-of-age tale with a specific time and place. By contrast, Ingemar's life seems to be taking place in a kind of whimsical neverland that just happens to look like rural Sweden. It's an often heartfelt and certainly entertaining movie that could have been much more.

Monday, July 4, 2016

L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)

L'Atalante is one of those near-universally acclaimed film masterpieces that failed theatrically on their first release and were rediscovered and re-evaluated more than a decade later. But it's also one of those films that young contemporary movie lovers may not "get" on first viewing today. I remember my own reaction to films like The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) and L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), movies that didn't fit what I expected from being raised on energetic, plot-driven, star-centered American movies. Melancholy and irony are not widely praised American values, although lord knows we have plenty of it in the best American literature. They surfaced for a time in the best American films of the 1970s, but have been driven back into the underground by the blockbuster mentality. There was a time, even after the great cinematic awakening of the '70s when I found myself resenting film critics for their inability to appreciate popular movies I enjoyed: "Critics see too many movies to enjoy them," I sniffed. But the truth is, the more movies you see, the more you're able to appreciate those that don't walk the line, that don't instantly gratify the hunger for plot resolution, for spectacle, for something that sends you out of the theater blissfully untroubled by thought. L'Atalante confused and bored its contemporary viewers, but today those of us who love it do so because it seems to us alternately tender and brutal, simultaneously comic and touching, and, taken as a whole, one of the few movies that successfully transport us to a time and place and a company of human beings we have never found ourselves in the middle of before. It is also, despite years of mishandling and cutting and botched attempts at restoration, one of the most technically dazzling films ever made. The performances -- by Michel Simon as the rather gross Père Jules, Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté as the young couple trying to start married life on a cramped river barge, and Gilles Margaritis as the madcap peddler who almost wrecks their marriage -- are extraordinary. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman overcame the severe limitations of filming scenes in the cramped quarters below-decks as well as open-air scenes for which the weather refused to cooperate. Vigo and Kaufman stage visual compositions that have a freshness that never seems arty. And who can ever forget Simon's Père Jules clambering aboard the barge with a kitten on his shoulders? Every corner of L'Atalante is filled with life.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Good Morning (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Masahiko Shimazu and Koji Shitara in Good Morning
Good Morning is, maybe, lesser Ozu, but that's because the director himself set the standard so high -- and perhaps because in some ways it's a reworking of I Was Born, But... (1932) without the depth and clarity of the silent film's themes. We are deep into postwar Japan here, with modernization and the youth culture threatening some of the values and traditions of the country. The families in Good Morning live in a new suburb, but are struggling with problems that still afflict the middle class: unemployment, saving for retirement, keeping up with the Joneses, and so on. The two young sons of Keitaro (Chishu Ryu) and Tamiko Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake), Minoru (Koji Shitara) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) have been sneaking out to watch TV at their neighbors, an unconventional young couple who are scorned by others in the community because "they wear pajamas in the middle of the day" and the woman is said to be a singer in a nightclub. When the parents forbid them from going there, the boys demand that Keitaro buy them a TV set, and throw a tantrum when he refuses. He tells them they talk too much, and Minoru, the older son, retorts that it's adults who talk too much, wasting their breath on meaningless exchanges like "good morning" and "good night" and on small talk. Banished to their room Minoru and Isamu take a vow that they won't speak to adults anymore -- even to their parents and teachers. The vow backfires on them when they're unable to relay the message that they're supposed to bring their lunch money to school, but it also causes trouble when the boys' failure to exchange greetings like "good morning" is interpreted as a reflection of their parents' attitude toward the neighbors. Ozu and co-scenarist Kogo Noda develop this premise into what is essentially a situation comedy, but one that illuminates both the essentials of small talk as a social lubricant and its limitations when it comes to deeper relationships: A shy young man and woman are obviously drawn to each other, but they can't find a way to verbalize their mutual attraction, and at the film's end are shown standing on the platform waiting for a train, both unable to get past talking about the weather. That Ozu manages to introduce layers of meaning into a comedy full of juvenile fart jokes is a tribute to his genius.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

I Was Born, But.... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

Hideo Sugawara, Seiichi Kato, and Tomio Aoki in I Was Born, But....
The family was source and inspiration for many of Ozu's greatest films, but he often focused on the problems caused by the elders in a family, as in Tokyo Story (1953) and The End of Summer (1961). The family is supposedly the basic element in society, but Ozu's films often show how society itself strains familial relationships: In those films and others by Ozu, elders who have outgrown their usefulness can become obstacles to a family's ongoing concerns about fitting into and making a way in the larger society. I Was Born, But.... turns things around by focusing on children, whose self-centeredness can be as troublesome to the family dynamic as that of the very old. Ozu's films are about expectations that can never be quite fulfilled, and in no part of life are expectations more important than childhood. That makes the film sound more grimly serious than it is, for on the surface I Was Born looks an awful lot like American-style comic films about kids -- the Our Gang and Little Rascals comedies, for example. It focuses on Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and his younger brother, Keiji (Tomio Aoki), who have just moved to the suburbs with their father, Yoshi (Tatsuo Saito), and mother, Haha (Mitsuko Yoshikawa). The boys are unhappy with the move, partly because the local kids bully them as newcomers, but also because Ryoichi in particular resents Yoshi's expectations that he'll get high marks in school. Eventually, after playing hooky and being scolded, they begin to adjust, and Ozu's picture of boyhood becomes lighter and more amusing. We see them adapting to their new corner of society: They overcome the bullies and make friends with Taro (Seiichi Kato), who just happens to be the son of Yoshi's boss. But then Taro lets them come over to his house on an evening when his father is showing home movies to Yoshi and some other employees, and Ryoichi and Keiji are embarrassed when some of the films show their father making funny faces and clowning for the boss and co-workers. It's an eye-opener for Ryoichi especially, who becomes aware of his father's place in the corporate hierarchy. Back home, he demands to know why his father isn't a corporate executive instead of a middle manager, and Yoshi is hard-pressed to explain this particular fact of life. The boys pitch a tantrum -- Keiji always following his older brother's lead -- and Yoshi spanks Ryoichi, only making matters worse. By the film's end, the boys and their parents have reconciled, but one senses that everyone has learned one of those lessons that only life can teach. I Was Born, But.... is one of Ozu's late silent films, and it's masterly in provoking serious thought about a near-universal experience while being engagingly entertaining. It's also very much of its pre-World War II time. Perhaps only in hindsight do audiences notice the hints of Japanese militarism in the story: the military-style drills that the small boys undergo at school, and the fact that when Yoshi asks his sons what they want to do when they grow up, they want to be generals. The performances of the young actors are extraordinary, as is the cinematography of Hideo Shigehara.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)

Given the sexism and vulgarity that underlies the teaming of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell -- two women best known at the time for their bodies, not for their talents as actresses or singers -- it's gratifying that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes turned out to be a landmark film in both their careers. Some of it has to do with the director, Howard Hawks, who despite his reputation for womanizing created some of the most memorable roles for such actresses as Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, and many others. Certainly neither Russell nor Monroe ever showed more wit and liveliness than they do here, even though Monroe is playing the gold-digging ditz part that she came to resent, especially after having to play it again the same year in How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco), and Russell is stuck with the wise-cracking sidekick role. Both stars are paired with lackluster leading men, Elliott Reid and Tommy Noonan, but while it might have been fun to see someone like Cary Grant in Reid's part, that kind of casting would probably have thrown the film off-balance. Better that we have Charles Coburn's bedazzled old lech, young George Winslow's precocious appreciation of Monroe's "animal magnetism," and Marcel Dalio's judge overwhelmed by Russell's hilarious impersonation of Monroe's Lorelei Lee. The production numbers, choreographed by Jack Cole, costumed by Travilla, and filmed by Harry J. Wild in a candy-store Technicolor that we'll not see the like of again, are exceptional showcases for Russell and Monroe: The former's baritonish growl blends perfectly with the latter's sweet and wispy soprano (though some of Monroe's high notes were provided by Marni Nixon).