A blog 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, December 28, 2016

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Georges: Jean-Louis Trintignant
Anne: Emmanuelle Riva
Eva: Isabelle Huppert
Alexandre: Alexandre Tharaud
Geoff: William Shimell
Concierge: Rita Blanco
Concierge's Husband: Ramón Agirre

Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Cinematography: Darius Khondji

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000)

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1949)

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

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


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

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

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)

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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015)

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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016)

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

The familiar story of the confused and sometimes disastrous making of Apocalypse Now has been told many times, and never better than by Francis Ford Coppola's wife, Eleanor, in her 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. So it's not worth going into here, except to note that the subtitle of her film plays on both the current meaning of the word "apocalypse" -- i.e., a disaster of great magnitude -- and the original one: a disclosure or revelation. It might be said that the enormous expenditure and hardship that Francis Coppola experienced during the making of Apocalypse Now was revelatory, not only to Coppola but also to the film industry, which was reaching the limits of its tolerance of unconstrained visionary filmmaking. It would cross that limit the following year with Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's film that took down a venerable production force, United Artists, along with its director. Coppola's career, unlike Cimino's, would recover, but he would never again be the director he was in his prime, with the first two Godfather films. And American filmmaking would never again be as prone to take risks as it was in the 1970s. As for the film itself, Apocalypse Now remains one of the essential American movies if only because it epitomizes the nightmare that was the Vietnam War. Coppola deserves much of the credit for this embodiment of Lord Acton's familiar dictum: "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." But there are others who should share the credit with him, including screenwriters John Milius and Michael Herr, who made the connection between Joseph Conrad's tale of imperialism gone wrong, Heart of Darkness, and the war. The ambience of the film is largely the work of Vittorio Storaro, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his cinematography, and Walter Murch and his team , who also won for sound. And while Marlon Brando's Kurtz is a disappointment and Martin Sheen never quite meets the demands of his role as Capt. Willard, they are surrounded by marvelous support from Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Dennis Hopper, and a very young and almost unrecognizable Laurence Fishburne (billed as Larry), among others.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)

Fritz Lang's two-part epic, based on the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, will confuse anyone who knows the story only via Richard Wagner's Ring cycle: There are no Rhinemaidens or gods or Valkyries, nothing of Siegfried's parentage, and, since it lacks gods, consequently no Götterdämmerung. It consists of two films, Sigfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, that tell the story -- parts of which will be familiar from the final two operas in Wagner's cycle -- of how Siegfried (Paul Richter) slew the dragon and bathed in its blood, becoming invincible except for one spot on his back that the blood failed to touch, then killed the dwarf Alberich (Georg John) and took possession of a magic net that renders him invisible. He travels to Burgundy, where he wins the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) by helping her brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos), subdue the warrior maiden Brunnhild (Hanna Ralph). But Siegfried is killed after Gunther's advisor, Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), tricks Kriemhild into revealing his vulnerable spot. Brunnhild kills herself and Kriemhild vows revenge on the whole lot, which in the second film she accomplishes by marrying King Etzel (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), aka Attila, and provoking war between his Huns and the Burgundians. Lang tells the story with an eye-filling blend of tableaus, set-pieces, and scenes swarming with bloody action, concluding with a spectacular fire in which the Burgundians are trapped in Etzel's castle. The performances are pretty spectacular, too. Richter plays Siegfried as a muscular young goof ensnared by fate, Ralph is a formidable Brunnhild, and Schön modulates from naïve to terrifying as Kriemhild. But it's the production design by Otto Hunte and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian that lingers most in the memory. The production evokes late 19th- and early 20th-century book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Walter Crane, but also the stark hieratic figures of Byzantine mosaics, especially Kriemhild, who becomes more powerfully static as the film progresses.
Margarete Schön as Kriemhild
Hanna Ralph as Brunnhild
Paul Richter as Siegfried
Hans Adalbert Schlettow as Hagen 
Much has been written about the way the film fed into the heroic German myth that was co-opted by the Nazis, especially since the screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife at the time, later joined the party. (Lang, whose mother was Jewish, left Germany in 1934.) In fact, the Nazis sanctioned only the first half, Siegfried, after they came to power. Kriemhild's Revenge, with its depiction of the corruption of power and its nihilistic ending, didn't suit their purposes.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)

Almost from the moment that Robert Louis Stevenson published his novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, theatrical producers were snapping it up for adaptation. It was a great vehicle for ham actors who relished the transformation scenes, as long as it could be spiced up a little with a little sex -- the novella is more interested in the psychology of Jekyll/Hyde than in the lurking-horror and damsels-in-distress elements added to most stage and screen versions. There were several film versions before John Barrymore, the greatest of all ham actors, took on the role in 1920. It's an adaptation by Clara Beranger of the first major stage version by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added a central damsel in distress as Jekyll's love. She's called Millicent Carewe (Martha Mansfield) in the film, which also adds a "dance hall girl" named Gina (Nita Naldi) to the mix. Mansfield is bland and Naldi is superfluous, though rather fun to watch when she goes into her "dance," which consists of a lot of hip-swinging and arm-waving. Barrymore, however, is terrific, giving his transformation into Hyde everything he's got in the way of contortions of face and body. Though the screenplay makes much of the distinction between the virtuous Jekyll and the dissolute Hyde, Barrymore manages to suggest the latency of Hyde in Jekyll even before he swallows the sinister potion -- a reversion to Stevenson's original, in which Jekyll is not quite the upstanding fellow the adaptations tried to make him.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Was anyone, even Jean-Paul Belmondo, ever as cool as Alain Delon is in Le Samouraï? It's not just that he's beautiful, for beauty often works against men in the movies: They get classified as "pretty boys" and stuck in roles in which they're shown up by the more rough-hewn types. It's not just that he shows no emotion, or hardly ever; that could easily be mistaken for "limited acting range." It's not just that he wears clothes -- trenchcoat and carefully placed hat -- elegantly. It's not just that he's playing the movies' most evocative loner, the hit man, whose monomaniacal pursuit of his mission invokes a bit of paranoia in us all. Or that, in its 1960s context, the film echoes the rage against order that stirred youth revolt around the world. Or that he evokes the detachment of existentialist heroes like Meursault in Camus' The Stranger. It's all of these things, of course, but mostly it's that Jean-Pierre Melville, in script (co-written with Georges Pellegrin) and direction, is able to create the perfect atmosphere -- part detective story, part American film noir hommage, part romanticism -- around the character of Jef Costello -- even the name, with its missing "f" and its evocation of the Italian-American mobster Frank Costello, has a certain weird glamour. (The Italian release was called Frank Costello faccia d'angelo, i.e., "Frank Costello Angel Face.") Delon is the perfect choice for the role, emphasizing the absurdity of the premise that someone so striking in appearance could go about his bloody work unnoticed. The absurdity is of course intentional on Melville's part, making mock of the glamorizing of violence. Similarly, the title mocks the glamorizing of violence in samurai films -- not so much those of Kurosawa and Kobayashi as the less-prestigious entries in the genre. The mockery is, however, not malicious but affectionate, and only comic in retrospect. I don't know many other films who unfold themselves so remarkably upon reflection.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)


Although it's often called the greatest of all screwball comedies, to my mind Bringing Up Baby transcends that label: It's the finest example I know of a nonsense comedy. Screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936) and Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, 1937) usually have one foot in the real world -- the Depression and its Hoovervilles in the case of the former, exploitation journalism in the latter. Bringing Up Baby exists only in a universe where an impossible thing like an "intercostal clavicle"* could exist. Its world is a place where nobody listens to anyone else and everyone seems to be marching to their own drummer. It's what puts Bringing Up Baby in the sublime company of Lewis Carroll's works or James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Fortunately it's more accessible than the latter and at least as much fun as the former. Nonsense is harder to bring off on film than in literature. Cinema by nature is a documentary medium -- one that's assumed to be recording reality -- and has less flexibility than words do. It's also a collaborative medium, which means that everyone involved in writing, directing, and acting in it has to be on the same wave length, or the whole thing will collapse like a soufflé with too many cooks. That's why Bringing Up Baby is almost sui generis: The only other movies that approach the sublimity of its nonsense are some of the ones with the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields. Even Howard Hawks once admitted that he thought he had gone too far in crafting a comedy with "no normal people in it." Nevertheless, the soufflé continues to rise, thanks in very large part to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, whose four movies together -- the other three were directed by George Cukor: Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940) -- seem to me to demonstrate a more potent teaming than the more iconic one of Hepburn with Spencer Tracy. And then there's the sine qua non of the screwball comedy, a supporting cast of character players like Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, and Fritz Feld. The screenplay was put together by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, from a magazine story by Wilde that Hawks bought and then with their help -- and doubtless much ad-libbing from the cast -- revised out of all recognition. I only hope that whoever came up with the phrase "intercostal clavicle," which Grant delivers with such delight in its rhythms, received a bonus.

*In case you've never thought to look it up, "intercostal" means "between the ribs" and usually refers to the muscles and spaces in the ribcage. The clavicle, or collarbone, sits atop the ribs and therefore can't be between them.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Barton Fink (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991)

The Coen brothers are nothing if not audacious, and attempting something so outrageous and anomalous as Barton Fink at the beginning of their careers -- it was their fourth feature, after Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), and Miller's Crossing (1990) -- shows a certain amount of courage. It's a curious melange of satire, horror movie, comedy, thriller, fantasy, and fable that had many critics singing its praises. It was their first film to receive notice from the Motion Picture Academy, earning three Oscar nominations: supporting actor Michael Lerner, art directors Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Richard Hornung. And it was the unanimous choice for the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival; Joel Coen also won as best director and John Turturro as best actor. Evidently it took everyone by surprise. But I have to admit that although it's a provocative and unsettling movie, I don't much care for it. There's not enough of any one element in the melange to suggest to me that it's anything other than the work of a couple of extraordinarily talented writer-directors riffing on whatever comes to their minds. Barton (Turturro) is a playwright whose hit on Broadway in 1941 gets him a bid to come work in Hollywood. There, studio head Jack Lipnick (Lerner) assigns him to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Stymied in his attempt to come up with a screenplay, Barton decides to pick the brain of a famous novelist who has also come to work in Hollywood, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). The playwright, the studio head, and the novelist are all caricatures of Clifford Odets, Louis B. Mayer, and William Faulkner, respectively. To my mind, this real-world reference point throws the film off center. Each caricature is well-done: What we see of Barton's play is a deft parody of the Odets-style leftist "little people" dramas like Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! that Odets was known for. Lipnick is a rich, sentimental vulgarian with a mean streak, who like Mayer was born in Minsk. And Mayhew not only goes by the name "Bill," as Faulkner did among his friends and family, he also has a wife back home named Estelle, just as Faulkner did. Moreover, he is an alcoholic who is looked after in Hollywood by his mistress, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), who is clearly based on Faulkner's Hollywood mistress, Meta Carpenter. But then we have the turns into horror-fantasy when Barton tries to hole up in a Los Angeles hotel and makes friends with his next-door neighbor, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Good-time Charlie is later revealed to be a serial killer named Karl Mundt -- another of the Coens' in-jokes, I think: The real-life Karl Mundt was a right-wing dunce who represented South Dakota (neighbor state to the Coens' Minnesota) in Washington from 1939 to 1973. Clearly, Barton Fink is not without a certain baroque fascination to it. It's the kind of film you can spend hours analyzing and annotating. And this makes it, for me, little more than a fabulous mess.

Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016)

More evidence that this is a golden age for animation, especially with the perfecting of computer-animation techniques. But Zootopia's success lies as much in its story and its voice actors as in its technology. Actually, the success of the story is a bit of a surprise, considering that it was created by a committee and went through many alterations before settling on the central thread of a young rabbit, Judy Hopps (voice of Gennifer Goodwin), who wants to be a cop, and eventually teams up with a con-man fox, Nick Wilde (voice of Jason Bateman), to solve the mysterious disappearances of several residents of Zootopia, a place where predators and prey have learned to live together amicably. It seems that the disappeared were all predators who "turned feral" before they vanished. No fewer than seven credited writers -- and doubtless many more uncredited -- worked on the story before it was turned into a screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jared Bush (the latter also receives a credit as "co-director," whatever that means). Goodwin and Bateman are full of charm in their line delivery, and Idris Elba, as Judy's blustering and bellowing police chief, brings great energy to his role. Like so many recent computer-animated features, it is sometimes over-crowded with gags taking place on the periphery that it's possible to get a little distracted by them: a sure way of enticing people to watch the movie more than once.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Bank Dick (Edward F. Cline, 1940)


This is what I watched on election night once it became apparent that the votes might take the depressing direction they eventually did. Better a lovable con man like W.C. Fields than a real-life flamboyant fraud, thought I. Fields is Egbert Sousé (the accent is aigu, not grave, as he insists), ne'er-do-well paterfamilias of a dysfunctional household, who escapes from his nagging wife (Cora Witherspoon) and mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph) and his horrid daughters Myrtle (Una Merkel) and Elsie Mae (Evelyn Del Rio) to the corner saloon as well as a brief stint as a movie director that somehow leads to his employment as a detective in the local bank. (Honestly, never try to summarize the plot of one of Fields's movies.) It's all inspired, slightly surreal nonsense, adorned by characters with names like Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), and A. Pismo Clam (Jack Norton). All I can say is that it made me laugh when I felt like crying. 

Nora (Pat Murphy, 2000)


A rather muddled and unsatisfactory account of the domestic life of James Joyce (Ewan McGregor) and Nora Barnacle (Susan Lynch), adapted by Murphy and Gerard Stembridge from Brenda Maddox's excellent biography, Nora. There's not enough narrative drive in this account of their lives up to the publication of Dubliners. Mostly the film deals with the squabblings of the pair, who while mismatched intellectually seemed to have a kind of irresistible attraction to each other. The movie seems aimed at viewers with a ready knowledge of Joyce's life and work, especially the cultural and familial pressures that drove him into a life of exile from Ireland, but anyone who already possesses that knowledge is likely to be left frustrated by what appears on screen. Lynch is excellent in the title role, but McGregor never penetrates to the essence of the brilliant, self-tormenting genius of Joyce.

Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)


Like his Harakiri (1962), Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion has a theatrical, almost Shakespearean quality and is sharply critical of the samurai code of honor. Toshiro Mifune plays Isaburo, a samurai whose son Yogoro (Go Kato) is ordered to marry the concubine Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) of the daimyo of the clan he serves. Yogoro is reluctant, partly because Ichi has a son by the daimyo, but eventually they fall in love. Unfortunately, the daimyo's older son dies, making Ichi's child the heir, and she is ordered to return to his household. The ensuing rebellion against the daimyo's order proves calamitous for all concerned. The beautifully committed performances by all concerned heighten the story's tragic drive. The film's English title was apparently designed to convince Western audiences that they were going to see a conventional samurai film, whereas it's really a story about the heroism of Ichi, giving a distinctly feminist spin to the genre.