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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Animal House (John Landis, 1978)

Tom Hulce in Animal House
John "Bluto" Blutarsky: John Belushi
Eric "Otter" Stratton: Tim Matheson
Donald "Boon" Schoenstein: Peter Riegert
Lawrence "Pinto" Kroger: Tom Hulce
Kent "Flounder" Dorfman: Stephen Furst
Daniel Simpson "D-Day" Day: Bruce McGill
Chip Diller: Kevin Bacon
Dean Vernon Wormer: John Vernon
Marion Wormer: Verna Bloom
Prof. Dave Jennings: Donald Sutherland
Katy: Karen Allen
Clorette DePasto: Sarah Holcomb
Mayor Carmine DePasto: Cesare Danova

Director: John Landis
Screenplay: Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, Chris Miller
Cinematography: Charles Correll
Art direction: John J. Lloyd
Film editing: George Folsey Jr.
Music: Elmer Bernstein

The granddaddy of gross-out comedies, Animal House has a certain innocence to it 40 years later. For one thing, it goes lightly on the gross-outs, the most famous one being Bluto's zit joke. We don't even get to see Flounder throw up on Dean Wormer. For another, without their familiar lined faces and grayed, thinning hair, such veteran actors as Peter Riegert, Tom Hulce, and Kevin Bacon look almost naked. The film has maintained its reputation, even being inducted into the National Film Registry in 2001. There are things in it, however, that wouldn't pass muster today, including the blatant objectification of the young women, especially in the scene in which Bluto spies on them undressing. And would any reputable filmmaker today dare to include the scene in which Pinto debates whether to rape the unconscious Clorette, abetted by a roguish devil and a prissy-voiced angel? There are touches of unchecked homophobia throughout.  John Landis's direction, too, sometimes seems a bit stiff-limbed, as if waiting for the audience to laugh before proceeding with the next line. There are flashes of wit in the screenplay, as when Bluto refers to the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor, and Boon tells Otter, "Forget it, he's rolling." But many of the sight gags, such as the climactic assault on the homecoming parade, weren't worked out enough in advance, the exception being the marching band that gets led into a blind alley and then can't extricate itself. Still there's a fine energy to the performances, and even Dean Wormer gets to make a good point: "Fat, drunk, and stupid" really "is no way to go through life." But mostly the film is a strong reminder of what we lost with the early death of John Belushi -- and, more recently, of Stephen Furst.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Ivan's Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

Ivan Bondarev: Nikolay Burlyaev
Leonid Kholin: Valentin Zubkov
Galtsev: Evgeniy Zharikov
Katasonov: Stepan Krylov
Gryaznov: Nikolay Grinko
Old Man: Dmitri Milyutenko
Masha: Valentina Malyavina
Ivan's Mother: Irina Tarkovskaya
Soldier With Glasses: Andrey Konchalovskiy

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay: Vladimir Bogomolov, Mikhail Papava
Based on a story by Vladimir Bogomolov
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Production design: Evgeniy Chernyaev
Film editing: Lyudmila Feyginova
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov

There are scenes in Ivan's Childhood that wouldn't work in the hands of almost any other director than Andrei Tarkovsky. The famous scene in the birch forest, in which Kholin straddles a trench and kisses Masha while dangling her over it is completely extraneous to Ivan's story, as are almost all the scenes in which Masha, the physician's assistant, appears. And Tarkovsky never falls into the trap of sentimentality in the dream sequences, including the film's ending. In fact, I think it's a mistake to call them "dream sequences" -- they mostly avoid the conventions of movie dreams like odd angles or camera tricks or surreal elements. They're really memory pieces, explorations of the other side of Ivan's childhood, the innocent years of peace, poetically interpolated into the harshness of war. In fact, the "real" sequences are often more dreamlike than the memories: the dizzying ghostlike trunks of the birch trees, the flares falling silently like meteorites, the spiky war ruins that threaten to impale. It's a heartbreaking film because Tarkovsky refuses to pull out all the melodramatic stops but lets his images speak for themselves and because Nikolay Burlyaev performs with such conviction as Ivan, in one of the greatest performances by a child ever captured on film. It's probably the most poetic war film ever made because the war recedes into the background as a thing remembered.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

Gian Maria Volontè, Alain Delon, and Yves Montand in Le Cercle Rouge
Corey: Alain Delon
Inspector Mattei: Bourvil
Vogel: Gian Maria Volontè
Jansen: Yves Montand
Fence: Paul Crauchet
Chief of Internal Affairs: Paul Amiot
The Prison Guard: Pierre Collet
Rico: André Ekyan
Santi: François Périer

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Production design: Théobald Meurisse
Film editing: Marie-Sophie Dubus
Music: Éric Demarsan

Caper films are such a standard movie genre that it takes a skilled director to make it new. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge stands out from the herd of jewel heists and missions impossible because of its effortless-seeming cool. Of course, if you want effortless cool you cast Alain Delon and Yves Montand, whose pictures should accompany any dictionary definition of the word. Nobody ever wore a trenchcoat with such handsome finesse as Delon and nobody ever smoked a cigarette with such world-weary fatalism as Montand. The centerpiece of Melville's film is the extended sequence in which the trio of thieves light-finger the loot, a scene distinguished by its near-silence, so that you hear every bump and rustle (along with the gasps and chuckles of your fellow viewers) as it takes place. But Melville has given us more: A fable based on a quotation from the Buddha that Melville himself made up, to the effect that men who are fated to meet "will inevitably come together in the red circle." So Corey, released from prison, finds himself linked to Vogel, who has made a daring escape from Mattei, the cop who arrested him and is transporting him to prison, and eventually to Jansen, an alcoholic sharpshooter, in pulling off a spectacular jewelry theft. Their coming-together forms the plot, but what distinguishes the film is the quiet mastery with which Melville draws each of his characters, giving us details about them, like Corey's failed relationship with his former mistress or Mattei's devotion to his three cats, that bear no significance in terms of the plot. Mattei's slipup in letting Vogel escape puts him on the hot spot with internal affairs, a sinister figure (of course) who believes in the essential depravity of humankind: "All men are guilty," he growls. "They're born innocent, but it doesn't last." That's about as noir a sentiment as you can get, even in a film made in color.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)

Yuzo Kayama and Hideo Takamine in Yearning
Reiko Morita: Hideo Takamine
Koji Morita: Yuzo Kayama
Hisako Morizono: Mitsuko Kusabue
Takako Morita: Yumi Shirakawa
Ruriko: Mie Hama
Shizu Morita: Aiko Mimasu

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama
Based on a story by Mikio Naruse
Cinematography: Jun Yasumoto
Music: Ichiro Saito

Mikio Naruse's Yearning could almost have been a Douglas Sirk romantic melodrama, with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in the roles played by Hideo Takamine and Yuzo Kayama, except that Hollywood would never have allowed the Japanese film's bleak downer ending. (Sirk argued for an ending to the 1955 All That Heaven Allows in which Hudson's character died, but was overruled by producer Ross Hunter.) Like Sirk, Naruse takes the woman's side and uses the film for sharp commentary on the changing role of women. Reiko Morita's husband died in the war, after a brief marriage, but she stayed on to help the Morita family rebuild its business after the war ended, and in the subsequent years has run the family grocery and liquor store with great skill. But now a new threat has emerged to their business: the supermarket, which can afford to cut prices below what the Morita's store is able to charge. Reiko runs the store almost single-handedly, with no help from her brother-in-law, Koji, a college-educated layabout. And then her sister-in-law, Hisako, acting on a suggestion from her husband, proposes that the family convert the store into a supermarket because of its prime location. Koji, as the surviving male in the family, would become president -- if he can clean up his act. The problem with the plan is that there's no room in the scheme for Reiko, who is not actually a member of the family, even though she has kept it going for years. Meanwhile, Koji also discloses to Reiko that he's in love with her, which causes problems because she's his brother's widow as well as because she's 11 years older than he is -- the kinship and the age gap being huge challenges to tradition. When the situation reaches a crisis point, Reiko decides to go home to her own family, which lives far away. Koji follows her onto the train and in a long ride they try to work things out. Naruse and his lead actors give this concluding section a great poignancy, though it ends abruptly and painfully, leaving the audience to work out the consequences of the ending for themselves.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

Toshiro Mifune, Takako Irie, and Reiko Dan in Sanjuro
Sanjuro: Toshiro Mifune
Hanbei Muroto: Tatsuya Nakadai
The Spy: Keiju Kobayashi
Iori Izaka: Yuzo Kayama
Chidori: Reiko Dan
Kurofuji: Takashi Shimura
Takebayashi: Kamatari Fujiwara
Mutsuta's Wife: Takako Irie
Kikui: Masao Shimizu
Mutsuta: Yunosuke Ito

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Akira Kurosawa
Based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto
Cinematography: Fukuzo Koizumi, Takao Saito
Production design: Yoshiro Muraki
Music: Masaru Soto

Akira Kurosawa's tongue-in-cheek Sanjuro is not so much a sendup of samurai films as it is an effort to carry a genre to its logical and sometimes absurd extremes, the way the James Bond movies took spy films to a point of exciting but improbable and often comic point of no return. It reaches its peak in the final combat between Sanjuro and Hanbei, with an explosion of gore (produced by a pressurized hose that nearly knocked actor Tatsuya Nakadai off his feet) that's surprising and shocking but also very funny once you put it in the context of the usual bloodless deaths of samurai films. But Kurosawa has made us aware of the just-a-movie unreality of Sanjuro's action throughout, with his careful arrangements of the nine samurai under the spell of the sloppy ronin who calls himself "Sanjuro Tsubaki," which means something like "30-year-old camellia," a name he makes up on the spot. The not-so-magnificent nine are always grouping themselves for the camera, either in little triple triads or in chains that fill the widescreen. Their arrangements come to annoy Sanjuro so much that once, when they're trying to sneak up on someone, he tells them not to move in single file behind him: "We look like a centipede!" In addition to Mifune's irresistible scene-stealing, there's a delightful comic performance by Takako Irie as Mutsuta's wife, dithery and concerned with propriety, but also with a fund of commonsense that Sanjuro wisely heeds. Tatsuya Nakadai is wasted as the villain who's the only plausible challenger to the hero -- a kind of Basil Rathbone to Mifune's Errol Flynn -- a role that otherwise doesn't give Nakadai much to do but glare at the fools he's allied with.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Geraldine Chaplin, and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence
Newland Archer: Daniel Day-Lewis
Ellen Olenska: Michelle Pfeiffer
May Welland: Winona Ryder
Larry Lefferts: Richard E. Grant
Sillerton Jackson: Alec McCowen
Mrs. Welland: Geraldine Chaplin
Regina Beaufort: Mary Beth Hurt
Julius Beaufort: Stuart Wilson
Mrs. Mingott: Miriam Margolyes
Mrs. Archer: Siân Phillips
Henry van der Luyden: Michael Gough
Louisa van der Luyden: Alexis Smith
Mr. Letterblair: Norman Lloyd
Rivière: Jonathan Pryce
Ted Archer: Robert Sean Leonard
Narrator: Joanne Woodward

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Based on a novel by Edith Wharton
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Production design: Dante Ferretti
Film editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Costume design: Gabriella Pescucci
Music: Elmer Bernstein

Voiceover narrators in movies are usually to be avoided: They often serve as a crutch for screenwriters and directors who can't tell their stories through dialogue and action. But Joanne Woodward's cool, wry, witty narrator in The Age of Innocence is an essential element: She's really playing Edith Wharton, or more properly the "narrative voice," the storyteller who is there to comment on and clarify the characters and their motives and backstories. It's a device, and a performance, that brings us closer to the source of the movie. Whether that's a good thing or not is subject to debate: Many think that trying to squeeze one medium, literature, together with another, motion pictures, does a disservice to both art forms. Still, The Age of Innocence does it better than most literary movies, including much of the late flood of Jane Austen adaptations and even some of the Merchant Ivory oeuvre. The chief criticism of the film is that it's over-upholstered, that the attention devoted to period detail tends to overwhelm the story. But Martin Scorsese assembled a cast that could upstage all the fabric and cutlery and crockery, starting with Woodward, but of course including the three stars on screen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder, and extending to one of the best supporting casts ever mustered. My criticism is that the film is overlong, coming in at 139 minutes. I don't begrudge the time spent watching that cast, but the film does Wharton's story a disservice by making it seem more portentous than it is. Epic length in movies is justified if the topic demands it, like the Russian stand against Napoleon in Sergey Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1966) or the struggle to unite Italy in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963), to name two of the more successful historical epics. But Wharton was working, like Austen on her "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory," in comparative miniature, with a thin slice of history in which manners and morals, not countries and continents, were undergoing revolutionary change. Fiction like Wharton's is meditative, film like Scorsese's is visceral, and while narration like Woodward's allows for some of the first, what lives with us after the film ends is likely to be the impact of Dante Ferretti's production design, Gabriella Pescucci's Oscar-winning costumes, Elmer Bernstein's score, and especially Michael Ballhaus's images, not to mention the pleasure of watching Day-Lewis, Pfeiffer, Ryder, et al. at peak performance. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Youth in Fury (Masahiro Shinoda, 1960)

Shima Iwashita and Shin'ichiro Mikami in Youth in Fury
Takuya Shimojo: Shin'ichiro Mikami
Yoko Katsura: Shima Iwashita
Setsuko Kitamura: Kayoko Honoo
Fumie Sono: Hizuro Takachiho
Seiichi Mizushima: Kazuya Kosaka
Michihiko Kihara: Junichiro Yamashita
Shizue: Yachiyo Otori
Oseto: Yunosuke Ito

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Screenplay: Shuji Terayama
Based on a story by Eiji Shinba
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Toru Takemitsu

Like the French New Wave directors, the Japanese also found themes and stories in the insurgent, rebellious post-World War II generation. But unlike such films as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) and Bande à Part (1964) or François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), the Japanese equivalents never quite caught on internationally. Perhaps it's because the French found a new approach to the material, where the Japanese directors were more directly inspired by the tone and technique of American movies like The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), which had a more moralistic or didactic tone, blaming the eruption of youthful rebellion on societal neglect. Even so shrewd a director as Nagisa Oshima, in his second feature, Cruel Story of Youth (1960), seems constrained to portray the departure of his young rebels from the old ways as shocking, whereas Godard and Truffaut relish their liberation from old moral norms. Youth in Fury (also known as Dry Lake) was also a second feature for Masahiro Shinoda, and it centers on young people caught up in the political revolt that culminated in student riots against the 1960 Japanese-American mutual security treaty. One of them is Takuya Shimojo, who is politically engaged but also confused -- he decorates his walls with pictures of political figures ranging from FDR to Hitler to Fidel Castro. Essentially he's a nihilist. He becomes involved with Yoko Katsura, whose father, a politician, has recently committed suicide, brought on by threats to expose his corruption. Her family is left penniless by his death, and with the consent of their mother, her older sister has agreed to sleep with a conservative politician who helps the family out with money. Eventually, Takuya's rejection of conventional morality will get him arrested: He hired a drunken boxer to beat up the man who had been engaged to Yoko's sister but jilted her after her father's suicide; instead the thug slashed the man's face with a razor. Yoko, the "nice girl," ends by being swept up in the crowds of students protesting the treaty. The problem with Youth in Fury is that it's overloaded with secondary characters, such as the rich young layabout who tries to rape Yoko, and Takuya's old girlfriend who resents his taking up with Yoko, as well as a group of politically engaged young idealists with whom Takuya first works but finally rejects. Shinoda has trouble sorting out and delineating these various characters, so that the film sometimes loses focus. But it's propelled by a good score by Toru Takemitsu -- like many films of its day, it relies more on jazz than on rock, which was just beginning to become the dominant musical idiom.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Age of Innocence (Philip Moeller, 1934)

John Boles and Irene Dunne in The Age of Innocence
Countess Ellen Olenska: Irene Dunne
Newland Archer: John Boles
Julius Beaufort: Lionel Atwill
Granny Mingott: Helen Westley
Augusta Welland: Laura Hope Crews
May Welland: Julie Haydon
Howard Welland: Herbert Yost
Mrs. Archer: Theresa Maxwell Conover
Jane Archer: Edith Van Cleve
The Butler: Leonard Carey

Director: Philip Moeller
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman
Based on a novel by Edith Wharton and a play adapted from it by Margaret Ayer Barnes
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Art direction: Alfred Herman, Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner

The fine ironic edges of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel have been filed down in this first sound version. (There had been a silent film based on the book, directed by Wesley Ruggles, in 1924.) Instead we get a rather soppy melodrama of forbidden love, which suggests that marital vows and family commitments are unbreakable -- an endorsement of old-fashioned values quite in line with the nascent Production Code, introduced in the year of the film's release. The movie opens with a montage of "modern times" replete with jazz and scandals, as if to drive home its message. It's further weakened by the casting of the ladylike Irene Dunne as the scandalous Ellen Olenska. The actress who turned the part down, Katharine Hepburn, might at least have brought a whiff of the unconventional to the role. Dunne tries to give Ellen a spark of life at the start, but after Newland Archer enters the picture and declares his love in spite of his engagement to May Welland, we are presented with Dunne's distant gazes and wistful looks. It doesn't help that John Boles is starchy and vapid as Newland, or that Julie Haydon's May Welland is a sugary ingenue, with no hint of the manipulative until the very end when she plays the pregnancy card. The only real life in the cast is supplied by the supporting players, particularly Laura Hope Crews, eschewing her usual fluttery mannerisms as as May's mother, and Helen Westley, providing some salt and vinegar as Granny Mingott. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Legend or Was It? (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1963)

Kinuyo Tanaka and Shima Iwashita in A Legend or Was It?
Kieko Sonobe: Shima Iwashita
Yuri Shimizu: Mariko Kaga
Hideyuki Sonobe: Go Kato
Shiziku Sonobe: Kinuyo Tanaka
Shintaro Shimizu: Yoshi Kato
Goichi Takamori: Bunta Sugawara
Norio Sonobe: Tsutomu Matsukawa
Narrator: Osamu Takizawa

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Keisuke Kinoshita's A Legend or Was It? begins in an idyllic setting: a mountain valley in Hokkaido, gorgeously filmed in color, almost like a travelogue. But the narrator -- a rather obtrusive and unnecessary presence in the film -- tells us that it wasn't always inhabited by the kindly villagers we see going about their chores today. The setting remains the same as the film switches to black and white and we're told that it's now the summer of 1945. War is nowhere in evidence, but it's an inescapable presence. The villagers know that Japan is about to lose, and they're looking for ways to vent their frustration at having supported a losing cause. They find one in a family, the Sonobes, who have moved there after their home in Tokyo was bombed out. Suspicious and resentful of "city folk" on their turf, the villagers make the Sonobes a target after the daughter, Kieko, breaks off an engagement to Goichi Takamori, the son of the powerful mayor of the village, a wealthy landlord. Kieko's brother, on leave from fighting, has recognized Goichi, with whom he once served, as having killed and raped civilians, and urged Kieko not to marry him. In revenge, Goichi destroys the Sonobes' crops and begins spreading malicious rumors about them. A mob forms and a small-scale civil war breaks out. A Legend or Was It? is a highly kinetic film in its later parts, and the score by the director's brother, Chuji Kinoshita, helps create the kind of tension that needs to be released in action. Like Ennio Morricone, who punctuated Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" trilogy (196419651966), with pennywhistle tweets and percussion, Chuji Kinoshita's score relies heavily on simple, perhaps even primitive instruments, setting up a pounding repetitive sound to propel the action. It  has something of the hypnotic quality of Philip Glass's music, though without the variations that keep Glass's themes from complete monotony.  Critics commenting on A Legend or Was It? sometimes compare it to Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) for its portrait of vigilante mob justice. It's an unforgiving film, without Kinoshita's typical lapses into sentimentality, and an effective one.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven
William Munny: Clint Eastwood
Little Bill Daggett: Gene Hackman
Ned Logan: Morgan Freeman
English Bob: Richard Harris
The Schofield Kid: Jaimz Woolvett
W.W. Beauchamp: Saul Rubinek
Strawberry Alice: Frances Fisher
Delilah Fitzgerald: Anna Levine

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples
Cinematography: Jack N. Green
Production design: Henry Bumstead
Film editing: Joel Cox
Music: Lennie Niehaus

Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is the one "real" Western to win a best picture Oscar. Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931) is more about a fractured marriage, politics and land development in the Oklahoma Territory than about gunfire; Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) is preoccupied with revising our views of the American Indian; and No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007), though it doesn't lack for gunfire, is set in our times, not in the days of gunslingers and dance-hall girls. Unforgiven also a very good movie, though not a classic on the order of Westerns the Academy mostly cold-shouldered, like Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) or The Wild Bunch (1969). It placed Eastwood among the pantheon of contemporary directors, though Eastwood had the grace to dedicate the film to John Ford and the less-celebrated directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel; the latter two had made him a star and taught him the trade. Eastwood is a good director by virtue of not overreaching: He reportedly stuck closely to David Webb Peoples's screenplay, which provided him with characters of considerable depth. Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett is a nasty villain, but Peoples gives him a human side with his obsessive work on his house and a porch he can sit on and watch the sunset. What Peoples doesn't give Eastwood is a wholly satisfactory ending: The movie builds to the concluding shootout, even after we have been led to think that there's more to Eastwood's William Munny than just an old gunfighter in retirement. Earlier, we have seen evidence that Munny has lost his shooting skills, but suddenly at the end he's able to gun down a roomful of armed men with complete ease. Others object to the rather inessential stuff like the episode involving English Bob, and Saul Rubinek's writer in search of a subject for pulp-magazine hagiography is an overworked caricature. Still, for most of the picture Eastwood skates over the clichés and conceals vague motives -- like the swiftness with which Munny decides to leave his two children to fend for themselves while he follows the young would-be gunfighter on a foolish mission -- so that we don't have time to be bothered by them too much.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)

Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin in Faces
Richard Forst: John Marley
Maria Forst: Lynn Carlin
Jeannie Rapp: Gena Rowlands
Chet: Seymour Cassel
Freddie Draper: Fred Draper
Louise Draper: Joanne Moore Jordan
Florence: Dorothy Gulliver
Jim McCarthy: Val Avery
Billy Mae: Darlene Conley
Joe Jackson: Gene Darfler

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Al Ruban
Film editing: Maurice McEndree, Al Ruban

I often feel like there are some very good short films struggling to get out of John Cassavetes's features. One finally emerges in Faces after what seems like hours of the drunken horseplay of middle-aged businessmen who laugh heartily at their antics and bad jokes, egged on by the party girls they have picked up. That stuff is essential to the point Cassavetes is making about the stalled lives of his characters, but it goes on much too long. There are those who defend it insistently and articulately: Without the wearying effect of these opening sequences, they argue, the poignancy of the film's later scenes, such as its quiet conclusion with the estranged husband and wife sitting in a stairwell, would not be so effective. I get the point, just as I can see how tonic Faces was in its late-1960s context -- the '60s were one of the weakest decades for American film. But the movie only comes to life for me when Lynn Carlin's Maria, suffering silently from her husband's announcement that he wants a divorce, goes to the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood with some of her friends and comes back with the freewheeling young Chet. (Seymour Cassel, who was 30 when the movie was made, seems a little long in the tooth for the role, and because the film was released three years after it was made and after things had become shaggier and more psychedelic, Chet is a very clean-cut hippie.) Carlin's performance has a vulnerability to it that is quite touching, and when Chet wakes up to find Maria overdosed on sleeping pills, the scenes of his attempt to revive her are beautifully acted. And when Richard arrives to find Chet fleeing from Maria's bedroom, the intricate attempt of husband and wife to cope with their common adulteries and incompatibility is very well worked-out. I believe these scenes much more than I do the earlier ones of the raucous, blustery businessmen, which feel like actors working too hard to play dumber and more vulgar than they are.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Jean Gabin and Julien Carette in La Bête Humaine
Jacques Lantier: Jean Gabin
Séverine Roubaud: Simone Simon
Roubaud: Fernand Ledoux
Flore: Blanchette Brunoy
Grandmorin: Jacques Berlioz
Pecqueux: Julien Carette
Victoire Pecqueux: Colette Régis
Cabuche: Jean Renoir

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Denise Leblond
Based on a novel by Émile Zola
Cinematography: Curt Courant
Production design: Eugène Lourié
Film editing: Suzanne de Troeye, Marguerite Renoir

Jean Gabin has been called "the French Clark Gable," perhaps because he has some of the charged virility we associate with Gable. But it seems to me that he possesses in equal, or even greater, measure the quiet, sometimes gruff integrity as an actor that we associate with Spencer Tracy. It's very much on display in La Bête Humaine, in which he underplays the role of the doomed Jacques Lantier, making us feel the solidity of the man rather than the inherited demons that Émile Zola's novel inflicted on him. (Perhaps he underplays a bit too much for some people, like Pauline Kael, who found him sometimes "a lump.") In any case, the star of the film is not so much Gabin as the train whose engine Lantier has affectionately named Lison and regards as female. Throughout La Bête Humaine, we see trains rushing down the tracks and surging through tunnels or hear their roar and rumble and shrieking whistles. The film is driven by the energy of trains almost more than by the passions of the characters. In a close adherence to Zola's biological determinism, the trains would be emblematic of unstoppable, mechanistic destiny, but Jean Renoir has tempered Zola's naturalism with his own humanism. Renoir's nods to Zola's determinism are perfunctory: The scene in which Lantier reverts to the darkness of his ancestors and starts to strangle Flore is an awkward way of introducing Zola's ideas. But whenever the passions of the characters come most to the forefront, as in the murders of Grandmorin and Séverine, Renoir's tendency is to look away: Grandmorin dies behind the closed curtains of a railway compartment, and Lantier's assault on Séverine is interrupted by cuts to the dance hall they have left behind. What I remember from the film is less the crushing force of destiny that overwhelms the characters than the irrepressible elements of ordinary life, epitomized in the camaraderie of Lantier and Pecqueux, and reinforced by the film's ending when Pecqueux stops the hurtling train and returns to find his dead friend and gently close his eyes.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)

Michel Vitold and Channing Pollock in Judex
Judex/Vallières: Channing Pollock
Diana Monti/Marie Verdier: Francine Bergé
Jacqueline Favraux: Edith Scob
Favraux: Michel Vitold
Alfred Concantin: Jacques Jouanneau
Morales: Théo Sarapo
Daisy: Sylva Koscina

Director: Georges Franju
Screenplay: Jacques Champreux, Francis Lacassin
Based on a screenplay by Arthur Bernède and Louis Feuillade
Cinematography: Marcel Fradetal
Art direction: Robert Giordani
Music: Maurice Jarre

Judex is, like Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the subsequent Indiana Jones sequels, an hommage more than a spoof. In both cases, the filmmakers were affectionately mimicking films of their youth: the cliff-hanging serials that often accompanied feature films. Unlike Spielberg, director Georges Franju had a particular director in mind: Louis Feuillade, who crafted adventure thrillers usually involving master criminals like the titular protagonist of Fantômas (1913) and the sinister Irma Vep of Les Vampires (1915-16). The original Judex serial of 1916 featured a masked crime-fighter, a figure that became increasingly popular after Douglas Fairbanks adapted a magazine story in The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920), leading to numerous comic books and movies about swashbucklers and superheroes using disguises to protect their secret identity. The archetype became so prevalent that eventually it was subject to amused mockery, as in the camped-up Batman TV series of 1966-68. But Franju isn't out to mock Feuillade's serials so much as to recapture some of the innocent thrills of the original, with sets and costumes evoking a pre-World War I naïveté. Judex is a do-gooder who in the film is trying to expose the fraud and murder committed by a wealthy banker, Favraux. He has somehow disguised himself (with an obvious fake beard) as Favraux's secretary, Vallières -- the film never bothers with backstories of its characters, so we don't know how Judex/Vallières gained Favraux's confidence and trust -- and manages to fake Favraux's death and hide him away in an elaborate dungeon, where he watches Favraux via an improbably early version of television. But Judex's plans -- which are not entirely clear in any case -- are complicated by his adversary, Diana Monti, who has herself been operating as the governess for Favraux's granddaughter. And so on, through an increasingly intricate series of plot twists, clashes, escapes, last-minute rescues, and all of the trappings of the genre. It's really a good deal of fun, though it occasionally goes a little slack, especially if you're not in the mood for it. Marcel Fradetel's black-and-white cinematography mimics the silent-movie style to the mark, even using old-fashion iris shots for transition, and at one point having the comic-relief detective, Cocantin, peer through the keyhole, with what he witnesses viewed through a keyhole-shaped aperture. Judex is played by an American magician, Channing Pollock, who performs some sleight-of-hand involving doves. A very handsome presence but no actor, Pollock was hyped as a new Rudolph Valentino, but without success.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Ron Clinton Smith, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures
Katherine G. Johnson: Taraji P. Henson
Dorothy Vaughan: Octavia Spencer
Mary Jackson: Janelle Monáe
Al Harrison: Kevin Costner
Vivian Mitchell: Kirsten Dunst
Paul Stafford: Jim Parsons
Jim Johnson: Mahershala Ali
Levi Jackson: Aldis Hodge
John Glenn: Glen Powell

Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Production design: Wynn Thomas
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer

What's so bad about feeling good? Hidden Figures was 2016's sleeper hit, a feel-good movie that's almost critic-proof because of its good intentions: to tell the stirring, long-neglected story of how black women mathematicians made a significant contribution to the 1960s American space program. It has some terrific performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as three of the women, and they get strong support from Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst as slightly uptight white folks who can't quite believe that these black women are up to the task they have to set for them. But one place that the film falters is in casting the likes of Costner and Dunst, well-known Hollywood stars, in those roles: They introduce a note of imbalance in the film, evoking not only the "white savior" figure but also suggesting that the struggle of whites to accept black people as equals is on a par with the struggle of African Americans to gain that equality. The film also tries to evoke the horrors of Jim Crow by departing from actuality: Katherine Johnson didn't have to sprint across the NASA complex to find a "colored" restroom -- she simply used the one available -- and the scene in which Costner's character smashes the sign outside the segregated restroom is fictional. The early scene in which a white cop comes upon the three women whose car has broken down is meant to create tension, but it too quickly dissipates into feel-goodism when he learns that they're working at NASA and patriotically gives them an escort to work -- doing his part to thwart the commies. A black director and screenwriters -- Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder are white -- might have kept these suggestions that "white folks were really good at heart" more in balance with the depictions of not only the real pain caused by segregation but also the actual work done by the women.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Ben Carruthers in Shadows
Ben: Ben Carruthers
Lelia: Lelia Goldoni
Hugh: Hugh Hurd
Tony: Anthony Ray
Dennis: Dennis Sallas
Tom: Tom Reese
David: David Pokitillow
Rupert: Rupert Crosse

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Erich Kollmar
Film editing: John Cassavetes, Maurice McEndree

You probably have to like John Cassavetes's later movies more than I do to appreciate Shadows beyond its historical significance. Even the most-praised films in his oeuvre leave me feeling itchy and annoyed, wondering why he has to inflict his hysterical people on me. That said, there's an innocence about Shadows -- chaotic and scattershot as it is -- that I can relate to. It has some good moments: Lelia Goldoni's fresh beauty and the crushing scene in which her character's losing her virginity turns out to be painful and disappointing; Ben and his loutish friends cavorting in the MOMA sculpture garden; the painfully pretentious party-goers yattering on about existentialism; and almost any scene in which Rupert Crosse, playing Hugh's manager, is present, looming with amusement over the action. But though it captures something about the New York scene on the cusp of the 1960s that's as valuable as anything that Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut did for the Paris scene, I keep wishing it were like their films: more polished and focused. Maybe that's because Cassavetes was almost too much of an auteur, too self-conscious about being a rebel. Andrew Sarris, that connoisseur of auteurs, found him "an unresolved talent" who "hovers between offbeat improvisation and blatant contrivance. Somehow his timing always seems to be off a beat or two even when he understands what he is doing." There are those who think that Shadows misses the mark because it isn't about what it seems to be about: race and sex. But if I value the film for anything it's for its decision not to preach or postulate about those or any other topics. And because it loosened up American movies, foreshadowing the best of the early Martin Scorsese, like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).

Friday, December 15, 2017

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Sebastian Wilder: Ryan Gosling
Mia Dolan: Emma Stone
Keith: John Legend
Laura Wilder: Rosemarie DeWitt
Greg Earnest: Finn Wittrock
Bill: J.K. Simmons
David: Tom Everett Scott

Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Production design: David Wasco
Film editing: Tom Cross
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Choreography: Mandy Moore

La La Land is an homage to an homage, which may be why it works so well. The acknowledged inspiration of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), tributes to the Hollywood musicals of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, helps give Damien Chazelle's film the right ironic distancing. Without the tinge of melancholy that informs Demy's hommages, La La Land could have been just another campy pastiche, tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for a movie era that will never return. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were dinged by some critics for not being Fred and Ginger or Gene and Judy, movie stars who could actually sing and dance. But that's very much the point: Just as Gosling's Sebastian wants to be a jazz musician in an age that "hates jazz" and Stone's Mia longs to star in movies like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1952) and Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946), they are stuck in the musical and cinematic present. There are no record companies or film studios that would cherish and nurture their dreams. Sebastian's jazz club becomes a "salsa/tapas" joint and even the Los Angeles revival house where he and Mia meet to watch Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) closes soon afterward. Chazelle delicately, deftly plays on the frustration of being born out of time, witnessing a past turned rosy by nostalgia-tinted glasses. In this context, the skillfully done "what might have been" montage at the film's end, in which Seb and Mia live out the happy ending to their love affair that might have capped a real 1950s movie musical, brings home the bittersweet message: You can't have your dreams and eat them, too.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Insect Woman (Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Sachiko Hidari in The Insect Woman
Tome Matsuki: Sachiko Hidari
Nobuko: Jitsuko Yoshimura
Karasawa: Seizaburo Kawazu
Chuji: Kazuo Kitamura
En: Sumie Sasaki
Midori: Masumi Harukawa
Madam: Tanie Kitabayashi

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Keiji Hasebe, Shohei Imamura
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Film editing: Mutsuo Tanji
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi

The Insect Woman sounds like a horror movie, and in a sense it is: It's the horror of 20th century Japanese history as seen through the eyes of a woman, Tome Matsuki. She is explicitly, and perhaps a little heavy-handedly, likened to an insect by the way Shohei Imamura opens and closes his film. It starts with a close-up of a beetle, scurrying across the ground and then trying to climb a crumbling mound of dirt. It ends with Tome struggling to climb a hill, carrying a satchel on her back and wearing flimsy wooden geta, which eventually fall apart and leave her walking through the mud in her socks. She is, like the beetle, a portrait of blind determination. And that determination, a survival instinct as strong as the beetle's, is what gets her through everything that befalls her in the film. Born in a squalid farming village to a woman known for her promiscuity, she is raised mainly by Chuji, her somewhat mentally challenged stepfather -- who also becomes her lover. She calls him "Papa," as she will later call her lover "Father." When war comes, she goes to work in a factory but is called home by the villagers, claiming that her father is dying, a lie to bring her back so she can become the mistress of their landlord. He abandons her and leaves her pregnant, and when the child is born her mother insists that since it's a girl it should be killed. But Tome keeps her and names her Nobuko. Eventually, Nobuko will also share Chuji's bed as well as that of Tome's lover, Karasawa, both with Tome's approval. Tome meets Karasawa in Tokyo, where she becomes a union organizer, a maid, a prostitute, and eventually the manager of her own staff of call girls. All of this is told in the most matter-of-fact way possible: Imamura never sanitizes or glamorizes or sentimentalizes Tome's behavior. It is what it is, he suggests: a way of getting through life. Even a setback like going to jail doesn't deter Tome. The film is held together by Sachiko Hidari's astonishing performance, in which she ages from teenager to a woman in her waning middle ages without obvious makeup tricks. Imamura's insistence on location shooting gives the film a documentary quality as well as a sense of life closing in on his characters: There is, for example, a horrifying scene that takes place in the home of Midori, one of Tome's friends, in which Tome, in the foreground, is distracted by the sound of Midori and a man making love, while in the background Midori's small daughter by an American serviceman climbs up on a chair by the stove on which the stew Tome is making is simmering. Although the focus is on Tome, we can clearly see the child as she imitates Tome's cooking and then knocks the pot from the stove. Although the little girl is scalded to death, everyone including Midori takes it in stride. Imamura's title in Japanese translates to Entomological Chronicle of Japan, which expresses perfectly the director's detached treatment of his characters: bugs viewed through a magnifying glass.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Coward (Satyajit Ray, 1965)

Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, and Haradhan Bannerjee in The Coward
Amitabha Roy: Soumitra Chatterjee
Karuna Gupta: Madhabi Mukherjee
Bimal Gupta: Haradhan Bannerjee

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a story by Premendra Mitra
Cinematography: Soumendu Roy
Film editing: Dulal Dutta
Music: Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray's romantic drama The Coward owes something, I think, to that greatest of romantic dramas, David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945). Both are drenched in what might have been, and both have directors who know how to create tensions that are never resolved. There's no resort in either film to the feel-good ending. The characters in both films are trapped in custom and convention. But this is explicitly a Satyajit Ray film -- a minor one, perhaps, but a gem nevertheless. The still above is an almost perfect encapsulation of the essence of the characters and their relationships: Karuna masked by sunglasses and giving the coldest of shoulders to Amitabha, whose desire and cowardice are written on Soumitra Chatterjee's expressive face, while Bimal lies passed out in the background, oblivious to what's going on between the other two. Or is he? It's one of the delicious ambiguities of Ray's screenplay and Haradhan Bannerjee's performance that we're never entirely certain that Bimal doesn't know that Amitabha and Karuna knew each other at university and were once in love, and that Amitabha hopes to renew that love in her. Bimal is a man enjoying his power and wealth, and he's not above employing it to abuse not only his wife but also the other man. He taunts the teetotaling Amitabha into drinking alcohol, first a glass of sherry and later a swig of whiskey from his flask, enjoying the coughing fit that the latter brings on in his victim. Ray beautifully builds tension in the scene above by occasional cuts to the cigarette between the supine Bimal's fingers as it burns down and eventually wakes him up. Meanwhile, Amitabha is making typically tentative moves toward Karuna, attempting to remedy his past mistake: When they were students, she tried and failed to persuade him to elope with her after her wealthy family objected to her relationship with a poor student. Even now, the best the dithering Amitabha can do is leave her to make the decision once again: He scribbles a note to her, asking that she leave Bimal and meet her at the train station. Once a coward, always a coward, it seems. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Eddie Shaw, Peter Falk, and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
Mabel Longhetti: Gena Rowlands
Nick Longhetti: Peter Falk
Martha Mortensen: Lady Rowlands
George Mortensen: Fred Draper
Margaret Longhetti: Katherine Cassavetes
Angelo Longhetti: Matthew Labyorteaux
Tony Longhetti: Matthew Cassel
Maria Longhetti: Christina Grisanti
Garson Cross: George Dunn
Harold Jensen: Mario Gallo
Dr. Zepp: Eddie Shaw

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban
Film editing: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear

John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence was one of the first films I reviewed during my brief career as a professional film critic. I didn't like it much, and I compared it unfavorably to another film that had recently been released, the theatrical version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage (1973). I have changed somewhat over the years, and while I still greatly prefer the Bergman film, I have developed an appreciation for what Cassavetes was trying to do. Presenting raw, unfiltered life in a fiction film is no mean task, and it helps greatly that, in Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, Cassavetes had actors who were more than capable of giving their all to the task. The problem for me is that the film comes off as an acting showcase rather than a convincing depiction of a real situation. Cassavetes takes his players and puts them in real surroundings: a construction site, a wintry beach, a rather louche bar, and most of all a cramped house. It's somewhat like the reverse of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads": In A Woman Under the Influence the gardens are real, if rather weedy and untended, but the toads -- Mabel and Nick Longhetti and their children and in-laws and friends -- are imaginary, i.e., actors acting up a storm. The title is a little misleading, too. Mabel is not "a woman," in the sense of a stand-in for all womankind, but a specific person of peculiar habits, and she is not "under the influence" in the sense that we use it in the phrase abbreviated as DUI. Her problem is not drugs or alcohol, although she certainly gets loaded on the latter and there are hints that she has been taking pills (probably prescribed by the odious Dr. Zepp). Her problem is the influence of other people, especially her husband, who give mixed signals about how she should behave: Sometimes she's told "just be yourself," but when Mabel is most Mabel -- giddy and affectionate and generous -- she can't help crossing the invisible boundaries others set for her. And of course her husband, Nick, is as crazy as she is, except in a different way, and he has outlets -- his job and his buddies -- that allow him to blow off much of his steam. Mabel's only outlet is her children, who adore her, and that proves threatening to people like her mother-in-law (in an extraordinary performance by the director's mother, Katherine Cassavetes), who have their own fixed and unalterable ideas about child-raising. Ironically, Mabel's encouraging the kids to dance and play dress-up are much healthier than Nick's bullying them at the beach and letting them drink beer while riding in the back of a truck. I still don't think A Woman Under the Influence is a great film, as critics like Roger Ebert and Kent Jones do. I'm not sure it's even a good one. But it's an important and even fascinating one and I'll let it go at that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Cobra Verde (Werner Herzog, 1987)

Klaus Kinski in Cobra Verde
Francisco Manoel da Silva: Klaus Kinski
Taparica: King Ampaw
Don Octavio Coutinho: José Lewgoy
Captain Fraternidade: Salvatore Basile
Bernabé: Peter Berling
Euclides: Guillermo Coronel
Bossa Ahadee: Nana Agyefi Kwame II

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Based on a novel by Bruce Chatwin
Cinematography: Viktor Ruzicka
Music: Popol Vuh

With Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Cobra Verde constitutes the third element in a trilogy about the insanity of colonialism written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. It's the weakest of the three films, though it's the only one based on a previously published work, Bruce Chatwin's 1980 novel The Viceroy of Ouidah. Its weakness may even stem from having a source: With an existing narrative to work from, Herzog may have been constrained to follow its outline, instead of giving free rein to his usual improvisatory imagination. The film really begins about a third of the way in, after Herzog has loosely established his protagonist's background as a failed rancher, Francisco Manoel da Silva, who has turned outlaw, the "Cobra Verde" of the title. Eventually his charismatic lawlessness leads him to a job as overseer on a Brazilian plantation where, after having impregnated the owner's three daughters, he gets sent on an errand to buy slaves in West Africa -- a task that his employers figure is a win-win situation: either they get rid of a troublesome person or they profit from his success as a slaver. The problem with the first third of the film is that it is told in rather enigmatic sequences, one including a conversation with a philosophical dwarf who owns a bar -- a scene long on talk and short on significance. But the African scenes are often powerful and colorful; Herzog doesn't yield to the impulse to preach about the slave trade, but we see its evil infect everyone, not only da Silva but also the Africans who have been corrupted by participating in it. Some of the big scenes don't quite fit: da Silva spends a long time training an army of women to depose the local chieftain, but his efforts end anticlimactically when the ruler, seated in a courtyard decorated with the skulls of his enemies, folds without a fight. In the end, da Silva is defeated by the decision of the Portuguese to end the slave trade, leaving him penniless and without purpose in a hostile land. In the powerful last scene, da Silva desperately tries to haul a boat, single-handedly, into the crashing surf, only to wind up rolling in the waves. The only witness to his futile efforts is a cruelly deformed man, whose lower body has been so weakened by what we can assume must have been polio, that he walks on all fours, mostly using his hands. It's a horrifying image that tacitly makes its thematic point about the consequences of imperialism.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Éric Rohmer's First Two "Moral Tales"

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
Barbet Schroeder and Claudine Soubrier in The Bakery Girl of Monceau
Young Man: Barbet Schroeder
Jacqueline: Claudine Soubrier
Sylvie: Michèle Girardon
Voice of Young Man: Bernard Tavernier

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Bruno Barbey, Jean-Michel Meurice

Suzanne's Career (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
Philippe Beuzen and Catherine Sée in Suzanne's Career
Suzanne: Catherine Sée
Bertrand: Philippe Beuzen
Guillaume: Christian Charrière
Sophie: Diane Wilkinson

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Daniel Lacambre

One-third of Éric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales series, the first two films, The Bakery Girl of Monceau and Suzanne's Career, together take up about an hour and a half of screen time and were shot on the cheap, using 16 mm film and available locations. But their greatest virtue is economy of storytelling. By "moral," of course, Rohmer meant anything but didactic; instead, his films are about the way people behave, especially in matters of sexual attraction. He leaves any judgment of what his characters do up to the audience, though sometimes his characters deliver their own verdicts about what has been done and said. Especially "said," because Rohmer's films are typically more about talk than action. Both films are also about the young in Paris in the early 1960s, a period and place on the brink of a revolution not only in politics but also in morals, manners, and style. This was a time just before the young of Paris reinvented themselves as what Jean-Luc Godard would call, in Masculin Féminin (1966), "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola." The students in these films still wear suits and neckties, not bluejeans, to class, and even among themselves maintain a kind of politesse. The protagonist-narrators of both films are shy guys, dithering on the edges of their infatuations and needing help from more outgoing friends to make the first move at the young women they have fallen for. The young man played by future director Barbet Schroeder in The Bakery Girl is a bit more outgoing than Bertrand in Suzanne's Career, but both blunder their way into romance. In fact, the former has a touch of the caddishness of Guillaume in the latter film, hitting on Jacqueline, the lower class bakery girl, while trying to catch a glimpse of the more sophisticated Sylvie, a member of his own social class. Even when the tables are turned, and he learns that Sylvie, laid up with a broken ankle, has been spying on him while he is toying with Jacqueline, he still throws over the bakery girl for her. We don't see Jacqueline's reaction to being dumped -- that might have tilted the moral tale toward didacticism. And Sylvie seems to feel no remorse about either her voyeurism or his touches of caddishness: She marries him anyway. Suzanne's Career is more complex, with money (or the lack of it) playing a key role in the amatory games being played by its quartet of characters. As in The Bakery Girl, it's the woman who apparently wins out in the end: Suzanne, after her on-again, off-again relationship with Guillaume, winds up happily married -- at least if we can judge from Bertrand's assessment of the situation. As always in Rohmer's films, the talk is what matters.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)


Don Lope de Aguirre: Klaus Kinski
Inez: Helena Rojo
Brother Gaspar de Carvajal: Del Negro
Don Pedro de Ursua: Ruy Guerra
Don Fernando de Guzman: Peter Berling
Flores: Cecilia Rivera
Perucho: Daniel Ades
Okello: Edward Roland

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Music: Popol Vuh

In the breathtaking opening scene of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a long line of conquistadors and their Indian slaves descend the trail carved into the almost vertical face of a mountain. It's a scene that we'll never see the likes of again because no one today would have the audacity to film it the way Werner Herzog did: with real people really descending a real trail down a real mountain. It would be done today with computers supplying either the mountainside or the people or both, and something would be lost in the process. Which is not to say that I think that Herzog's defiant insistence on working his cast and crew to the point of exhaustion and madness is a virtue. We can watch a film filled with similar perils, such as Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (1953), and know that the dangers are artfully simulated and that cast and crew are not in real danger, but still be thrilled by the simulation. But there is something about the raw, passionate obsessiveness of Herzog's work that remains essential. A film like Clouzot's, for example, is tightly scripted with well-drawn characters. Herzog's feels improvised, and the characters are simply figures in a hostile landscape. The central figure, Aguirre, is played by an actor who was, by all accounts, only a bit this side of the kind of madness that infects the character. Aguirre, the Wrath of God almost feels like a documentary, a genre in which Herzog was a master. That it's also a historical fable about colonialism, about the thinness of civilization's veneer, about the horrors wrought by religious fanaticism, and perhaps an allegory of recent German history only adds to one's uneasy sense that art sometimes emerges from cruelty and obsession.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Life Is Sweet (Mike Leigh, 1990)

Alison Steadman and Timothy Spall in Life Is Sweet
Wendy: Alison Steadman
Andy: Jim Broadbent
Natalie: Claire Skinner
Nicola: Jane Horrocks
Patsy: Stephen Rea
Aubrey: Timothy Spall
Nicola's Lover: David Thewlis
Paula: Moya Brady

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Production design: Alison Chitty
Music: Rachel Portman

In Life Is Sweet Mike Leigh switches his focus from the angry working class and soulless yuppies of High Hopes (1988) to the muddling-through lower middle class, coping with a world they never made but doggedly trying to make the best of it. Andy hates his work as a chef in an institutional kitchen, but he keeps on at it. Wendy, his wife, holds a couple of part-time jobs, one as a children's dancercise teacher, the other as a salesclerk in a children's clothing store. Her cheerful laugh hides disappointment and pain, some of it generated by their twin daughters. Natalie has short hair and works as a plumber, and we sense that there has been some concern from the parents about her lifestyle, though everyone maintains a façade of contentment. But Nicola has unkempt long hair and does nothing but lie about the house, snarling and smoking and mouthing left-wing slogans, and having slightly kinky sex with her boyfriend. Nicola is also bulimic, a disorder she hides from her parents, though her twin hears the vomiting through the thin row-house wall that separates their bedrooms, and Nicola has been hospitalized before. Despite this, the film is decidedly comic, partly because Andy and Wendy have friends who aren't always as helpful as they could be. Patsy persuades Andy to buy a rundown trailer that has been converted into a hamburger stand, with the idea that Andy can make enough money on weekends to eventually quit his job. Aubrey is trying to open a French restaurant with an Edith Piaf theme, the Regret Rien, and when his waitress decamps just before the opening he persuades Wendy to take her place. Disasters ensue, leaving the characters teetering on the line between hilarity and tragedy, as life in Leigh's film so often does. The "sweetness" in the film lies in the fact that Andy and Wendy are genuinely nice people who suffer fools gladly, even if they're their own daughters and friends (or each other). Leigh is never content to stick to formula, however, no matter how much the conventional logic of film comedy seems to demand it, so every moment of Life Is Sweet is likely to hold a surprise: The characters do and say things we wouldn't necessarily expect of them. The performances are uniformly brilliant, as we might expect of this particular roster of British actors, and Rachel Portman's lovely, almost subliminal score backs them up well.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)

Clemens Scheitz and Bruno S. in Stroszek
Bruno Stroszek: Bruno S.
Eva: Eva Mattes
Scheitz: Clemens Scheitz
Pimp: Wilhelm von Homburg
Pimp: Burkhard Driest
Mechanic: Clayton Szalpinski
Indian: Ely Rodriguez
Warden: Alfred Edel
Scott: Scott McKain
Auctioneer: Ralph Wade
Doctor: Vaclav Volta

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Music: Chet Atkins, Sonny Terry

Stroszek is Franz Kafka meets Mark Twain. Or maybe it's Alice in Wonderland if Alice had been a middle-aged ex-con with a history of institutionalization for mental illness. Or it's The Wizard of Oz with Stroszek/Dorothy accompanied by a prostitute and an elderly man instead of a scarecrow and a tin man. Or Stroszek is Don Quixote, or any other wandering naïf of myth and literature. Those analogues give the adventures of Bruno Stroszek the resonance they need to rise above the gritty absurdity of what happens in Werner Herzog's film. In any case, it's a film that's more than what some would reduce it to: a satire on the American dream. To be sure, Stroszek and Eva and Scheitz set out for Wisconsin certain that America will offer something better than the bleakness of lower-class Berlin. Scheitz has a nephew there who owns a garage and can offer a job to Stroszek while Eva can leave her abusive pimps -- who also torment Stroszek and Scheitz -- and get a job as a waitress. And for a while all is well, except for the language barrier and Stroszek's companions' belief that they can get a mobile home and a color TV on credit without making payments. As a consequence, Scheitz goes to jail and Eva, resuming her old life, this time as a truck-stop hooker, goes to Vancouver. Stroszek ends up literally going in circles, the tow truck he has stolen madly chasing its tail in a parking lot until it explodes while Stroszek rides a ski lift around and around, up and down the hillside, and a dancing chicken in a "roadside attraction" continues its mindless scratching. Herzog's real forte is documentary, and his precise and even witty choice of locations, plus his ability to employ real people instead of actors -- and to make them remain real instead of just amateurs reading lines -- gives Stroszek its grounding, even as the film's narrative goes wildly loopy. It's a film of richly strange and strangely rich details. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963)

Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels
Jacqueline ("Jackie") Demaistre: Jeanne Moreau
Jean Fournier: Claude Mann
Caron: Paul Guers
M. Fournier: Henri Nassiet
Hotel Clerk: Conchita Parodi

Director: Jacques Demy
Screenplay: Jacques Demy
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Music: Michel Legrand

A platinum blond Jeanne Moreau, dressed in white, evokes Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), though Moreau's Jackie Demaistre is not so lethal as Turner's Cora Smith. Jackie is modeling herself on both Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, but without Monroe's fragility or the American Jackie's poise. In short, the Jackie Demaistre crafted by Moreau and Jacques Demy is her own woman, and one of film's most memorable. She is a compulsive gambler, whose habit has estranged her from her husband and her small son, but she carries on nevertheless, winning big and losing big, yet somehow surviving even when she bets away her train ticket home -- or more likely, to the next casino. Into her circuit wanders a young bank clerk on his vacation, Jean Fournier, who has been introduced to the gambling life by a co-worker. Jean thinks gambling is immoral, yet once he gets a taste for it, and more to the point, once he meets Jackie, he flings himself headlong into the life. Unfortunately, Jean is played by an actor making his first film, Claude Mann, who although he has a handsome presence is not able to make the character into a coherent figure. Sometimes broody, sometimes violent, sometimes philosophical, sometimes just a callow young man with no aim in life, Jean is mostly obsessed with Jackie, who is obsessed with gambling. She returns his affection in her way, which means that if he stands between her and the roulette wheel, he'd better watch out. She takes up with him because she thinks he brings her luck, and their relationship frays when he doesn't. If Moreau had had someone more compelling than Mann to play against -- one of the hyphenated Jeans, Belmondo or Trintignant, for example -- Bay of Angels might have blown me away. As it is, it's just one of those quintessential French films of the 1960s -- a bit wispy as it comes to plot but full of atmosphere, much of it provided by the casinos of the Riviera and Michel Legrand's score. It has many enthusiastic admirers, but I have a feeling most of the enthusiasm was generated by Moreau, who could always blind one to the defects of her movies.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982)

Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald: Klaus Kinski
Molly: Claudia Cardinale
Don Aqulino: José Lewgoy
Cholo: Miguel Ángel Fuentes
Captain: Paul Hittscher
Huerequeque: Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez
Station Master: Grande Otelo
Opera Manager: Peter Berling
Chief of Campa Indians: David Pérez Espinosa
Man at Opera House: Milton Nascimento
Enrico Caruso: Costante Moret
Sarah Bernhardt: Jean-Claude Dreyfus

Director: Werner Herzog
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Thomas Mauch
Production design: Ulrich Bergfelder, Henning von Gierke
Film editing: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus

Why does Werner Herzog's infamously extravagant Fitzcarraldo begin with Fitzgerald/Fitzcarraldo and his brothel-owner mistress Molly attending a performance of Verdi's Ernani that stars not only Enrico Caruso but also, in the role of Elvira, Sarah Bernhardt (played by a man in drag), who mimes while a soprano sings from the pit? Probably to add several more layers of myth to the story, since there is some doubt that Caruso ever sang at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus and he almost certainly never appeared in a production of Ernani with a lip-synching Bernhardt. If Fitzcarraldo is about anything, it's about obsessions, the more extravagant and, yes, operatic the better. Which is why Herzog's own obsession with actually hauling a steamship over a hill through the jungle, instead of using special effects, models, and montage, is so ironic. If we can believe that Klaus Kinski is an Irishman, we can believe almost anything. Why resort to reality?  Fitzcarraldo is also about the power of illusions, of misguided and conflicting belief systems. Fitzgerald believes, against all evidence to the contrary, in himself. The Indians who labor for him do so because they believe he is some kind of god. So it's entirely appropriate that the central metaphor for a film about extravagantly obsessive belief in illusions should be opera, that most extravagant and illusion-filled of artistic media. (If, that is, you exclude movies.) Is Fitzcarraldo a great film? As fascinating as Kinski's eye-popping is to watch, he never transcends his persona as an actor to create a credible character. And I don't understand what Fitzgerald hopes to achieve by hauling the ship across the isthmus to the rubber plantation. Wouldn't he have to haul it back over again, this time with cargo, to benefit? But such considerations tend to fall by the wayside when viewers encounter the audacity of what's on the screen, and even more so when they learn the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the film. Fitzcarraldo falls into that category of cinematic overreaching occupied by movies like Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980). If it isn't a great movie, it's certainly a unique one. And maybe we should be thankful for that.

Monday, December 4, 2017

High Hopes (Mike Leigh, 1988)

Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis in High Hopes
Cyril: Phil Davis
Shirley: Ruth Sheen
Mrs. Bender: Edna Doré
Valerie: Heather Tobias
Martin: Philip Jackson
Laetitia: Lesley Manville
Rupert: David Bamber
Wayne: Jason Watkins

Director: Mike Leigh
Screenplay: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Production design: Diana Charnley
Music: Andrew Dickson

Mike Leigh's excoriating satire of Thatcherite Britain, High Hopes, ranges from shrill to droll, from gratingly silly to quietly touching. A film like it from any other director might have been said to be out of control, but as usual Leigh knows exactly what he's doing, and he does it brilliantly if annoyingly. Annoyance is, in fact, part of the process: If we object that his characters are unreal, over the top, his response would have to be yes, but you know who they are, don't you? And we do, from the shabby socialists, Cyril and Shirley, to the working-class strivers who can't rise above their bad taste, Valerie and Martin, to the parvenu Tories, Laetitia and Rupert. We've all seen their likes, even in the United States -- perhaps they're even more noticeable in today's Trumpian America. Fortunately, Leigh knows to ground his satire in people we can sympathize with, namely, Cyril and Shirley. They are menial cogs in the capitalist machine, he's a motorcycle courier, she works for a landscape gardener, and they rage against the system, especially Cyril, who drags Shirley to Highgate Cemetery to worship at the grave of Karl Marx. She's more interested in the foliage -- "That ivy could use a pruning," she notes -- than in the moribund class struggle, but she loves her man, even if he doesn't want to have children because he doesn't want to bring anyone else into an overpopulated world in which socialism has failed. Poor as they are, they have good hearts, taking in the mentally challenged stray Wayne for a night and putting him up in their "spare room," which is a large closet with a mattress and sleeping bag. But they have to contend with family: Cyril's aging mum, who precipitates a crisis by locking herself out of her house, and his giddy sister, Valerie, whose husband runs a used-car lot and is a thorough cad. The crisis introduces us to mum's gentrifying next-door neighbors, Laetitia and Rupert, who have bought one of the row houses in a council estate and are renovating it to the height of yuppie chic. Rupert proclaims his mantra: "What made this country great was a place for everyone and everyone in his place." Then he adds, "And this is my place." The scenes from the lives of Laetitia and Rupert and from those of Valerie and Martin are hysterically funny, but Leigh knows that a little of them goes a long way -- a little of Valerie's manic giggle goes a very long way indeed -- so he wisely turns back to the more identifiably human (and humane) Cyril and Shirley to put things into perspective. The film concludes with Cyril and Shirley taking his mum up to the roof of the building in which they live to admire the rather drab view of the St. Pancras railway yards and the gasworks, with just a peek at St. Paul's. For once in the film, mum, who is usually sunk in senile confusion and depression, brightens a little: "This is the top of the world," she says. God help us, but it probably is.