A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 31, 2017

Where Is My Friend's House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Babek Ahmed Poor in Where Is My Friend's House?
I think Dickens would have liked Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House?* It deals with one of Dickens's great subjects: the anomalous place of children in an adult world that often doesn't even hear or see them or recognize them as human beings with their own problems and concerns. It's the story of 8-year-old Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), who goes to school in the village of Koker. One day the teacher berates the boy who sits next to Ahmed, Mohamed Reda (Ahmed Ahmed Poor), because he has done his homework on a piece of paper and not in the prescribed notebook. It's the third time Mohamed Reda has done this, the teacher scolds, and the next time he'll be expelled. We can see Ahmed wincing at the treatment of Mohamed Reda, and after school he helps the boy when he stumbles and drops his schoolbooks. When he gets home, Ahmed discovers that he has accidentally picked up Mohamed Reda's notebook and is horrified that this means the boy will be expelled. He tells his mother that he needs to take the notebook to his friend, but she's preoccupied with doing the wash and tending to the baby, so she tells him to do his homework first and then to pick up the bread for dinner. Perplexed, Ahmed tries to do his homework but his mother keeps interrupting him to help with the baby or to carry the washbasin, constantly dismissing his insistence that it's important that he deliver the notebook. Finally, he seizes the opportunity to leave, but he knows only that Mohamed Reda lives in the neighboring village of Poshteh, which is over the hill from Koker. So he races up the zigzag trail that takes him over the steep hill and down through the olive grove that lies outside the village. He knows Mohamed Reda's family name is Nematzadeh, but there are lots of Nematzadehs in Poshteh, and he doesn't know which branch of the family is his friend's. Finally, he gets a lead and is told that Mr. Nematzadeh and his son have just set off for Koker. So he races back over the hill, only to be delayed in his search by his own grandfather (Rafia Difai), who sends Ahmed off to fetch his cigarettes. While Ahmed is running this errand, the grandfather expounds his theories of child-rearing to a friend: His own father, the grandfather says, would give him some money and a beating every other week, whether he deserved it or not. Sometimes, he admits, his father would forget the money, but he always remembered the beating. This, the grandfather proclaims, taught him the discipline and obedience that children today like Ahmed don't learn. Meanwhile, Ahmed, who is struggling to fulfill what he sees as his duty to his friend and his family, has learned that the boy who accompanied Mr. Nematzadeh was not Mohamed Reda, and that the man has just started back for Poshteh, riding on a donkey. So Ahmed makes another trip over the hill, keeping Nematzadeh in sight and following him into the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Poshteh, only to discover that he has the wrong branch of the family after all. Eventually, after another misadventure, a despondent Ahmed returns home, finishes his own homework, and copies it into Mohamed Reda's notebook, which results in a well-earned happy ending. It's an excellent movie for children, but beside that, Kiarostami's screenplay, direction, and editing, and his empathy with the people and landscape of Northern Iran bring everything together into a fable about miscommunication and the difficulties of growing up. It's not as ambitious or complex as some of Kiarostami's later films, but it has their depth of feeling and brilliance of execution.

*The Persian title has been translated several different ways: IMDb, for example, calls it Where Is the Friend's Home? I prefer "my friend's house" as more colloquial, and because it avoids the real-estate-agent coziness that tries to pretend that every house is a home.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953)

Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste, Riccardo Fellini, and Alberto Sordi in I Vitelloni
The international success of I Vitelloni launched Federico Fellini's directing career after the comparative failures of Variety Lights (1951), which he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, and The White Sheik (1952), his first solo directing effort. It also earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, which he shared with Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli. It's certainly one of his most endearing early films, made before his familiar mannerisms set in -- though there are glimpses of those in the tawdry theatrical sequence with the grotesque aging actor played by Achille Majeroni (a part that Fellini tried to persuade Vittorio De Sica to play). But somehow it has taken me several viewings over the years to fully appreciate it. I think that's because Fellini's greatest films have a strong central character -- usually played by Giulietta Masini or Marcello Mastroianni -- to hold the narrative together. I Vitelloni is by definition and title an ensemble picture, but it's also the first of Fellini's excursions into himself, concluding with the Fellini surrogate, Moraldo Rubini (Franco Interlenghi), boarding a train that will take him away from the idlers of his provincial home town -- and presumably to Rome, where he will become the jaded Marcello Rubini of La Dolce Vita (1960) and the blocked director Guido Anselmi of 8 1/2 (1963). The problem is that the character of Moraldo isn't written strongly enough or given enough substance by the actor: Interlenghi, who was discovered by Roberto Rossellini and cast in Shoeshine (1946), had a long career in films and TV in Italy, but the part in I Vitelloni demands someone with more charisma -- a young Mastroianni, in short. Moraldo is overshadowed by the womanizing Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) and by the comic figures of Alberto (Alberto Sordi) and Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste). The scenes that should develop Moraldo as a central figure don't quite work, particularly the early-morning encounters with Guido (Guido Martufi), a boy on his way to work at the railroad station -- a sharp counterpoint to the idling vitelloni. "Are you happy?" Moraldo asks the boy. "Why not?" he replies. The exchange seems designed to undercut the frenetic strivings and complaints of the vitelloni, who chafe against the boredom and provinciality of the town, but don't seem to be able to muster enough resolve to do something about it, instead continuing to pursue phantoms of creative or sexual success. The trouble with the Moraldo-Guido scenes is that they come out of nowhere narratively -- and even have oddly uncomfortable (and probably unintended) hints of pedophilia on Moraldo's part. Nor do they satisfactorily set up the film's ending: Moraldo departs and we see Guido walking along the train tracks, the former facing up to the uncertain future, the latter heading comfortably back into his routine. Still, it's a film held together by the score by Fellini's great collaborator Nino Rota, and filled with the boundless energy that often rescued Fellini from his worst impulses.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

Kinuyo Tanaka in The Life of Oharu
Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is by turns a lover, a concubine, a courtesan, a servant, a wife, a prostitute, and a nun, which in the 17th-century Japan of Kenji Mizoguchi's film is almost everything a woman could possibly be. But Tanaka's great performance individualizes Ohara, keeping her from just being a representative figure, a stand-in for Woman. Over the course of the film, Oharu suffers almost every indignity that could be inflicted on her: At the court in Kyoto where she is a lady in waiting, she falls in love with a page, Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), but when their affair is discovered, she and her parents are expelled and he is beheaded. One day a courtier for a powerful feudal lord comes to the village where they are exiled: The lord is in need of an heir, and his wife is barren. Oharu fits his rather exacting specifications to the letter, so she is brought to his palace where she bears him a son, but she's not allowed to nurse the child and is expelled from the household by his jealous wife. She goes to work as a courtesan to pay off the debts incurred by her greedy father (Ichiro Sugai), takes a job as maid to a woman who suspects her of sleeping with her husband, marries a man who is killed by robbers, and becomes a Buddhist nun but is expelled from the temple for supposedly seducing a man who was actually trying to rape her. Years pass and she loses her beauty and now walks the streets to earn money to survive, but she is subjected to scorn and mockery as a "goblin cat" by a man leading a group of young pilgrims. Hope dawns when she is summoned to meet her son, who has succeeded his father as lord, but it turns out that the officials in the court really want to cover up the fact that their lord's mother has been a prostitute, so she runs away after only a brief and distant glimpse of him. At the end she wanders the streets as an itinerant nun receiving alms in exchange for prayers -- her prostitution is now spiritual rather than physical. It's easy to take a synopsis like this and dismiss the story as "lachrymose as a soap opera," and "a reverse Horatio Alger adventure," as a particularly obtuse New York Times review did when The Life of Oharu was first released in the United States in 1964. It is neither of those things, of course. Even the Times reviewer was struck by Tanaka's performance, Mizoguchi's direction, and Yoshimi Hirano's cinematography, without understanding how or why these elevate the story into art. The story comes from a 17th-century novel by Ihara Saikaku, The Life of an Amorous Woman, a work far more erotic and picaresque than the melancholy screenplay Mizoguchi and co-screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda derived from it. The Life of Oharu is unremittingly grim -- it put me in mind of the novels of Thomas Hardy, whose characters suffer more than seems absolutely necessary for the author to make his point about the workings of fate. But the film is not about suffering; it's about strength, and women's strength in particular.  

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

It's been some years since I last saw The Deer Hunter, and watching it again last night I found it had a different resonance for me. It was no longer a film about the Vietnam War, but instead a film about the destruction of the American industrial working class. Who is willing to bet that the steel mill in which Michael (Robert De Niro) and his buddies work is still open? And who can doubt that the group singing "God Bless America" at the film's end, and their progeny, all voted for Donald Trump, responding to his "Make America Great Again" call and helping him carry the state of Pennsylvania? The Deer Hunter didn't even start out to be a film about Vietnam: The germ of it was a screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker about people who bet on Russian roulette in Las Vegas. Michael Cimino was brought on to direct and to develop the script with Deric Washburn. Many drafts, arguments, and hurt feelings later, it had become a film about steelworker buddies who go off to Vietnam, and the Russian roulette had become first a torture method used by the Viet Cong and then a device to symbolize the destructive effect of the war on the American psyche. It remains the most controversial part of the film -- there are many who assert that Russian roulette was never used as torture or for gambling in the back streets of Saigon -- but there's no denying its dramatic potency or the larger symbolic role it plays. The great strength of the film lies not in its screenplay but in its performances, starting with De Niro, whose Michael is the embodiment of Hemingwayesque "grace under pressure." De Niro was also responsible for the casting of Meryl Streep as Linda, a small role in which she does what she can to offset the machismo in which the film is awash, and which earned her the first of her record-setting string of Oscar nominations. Along with Streep came her lover, John Cazale, whom the producers wanted to fire because he was dying of cancer and was hence uninsurable, but Streep refused to appear without him. Christopher Walken did win an Oscar as Nick, and there are memorable performances from John Savage and George Dzundza as well. It's the strength of this ensemble that keeps the film from flying out of control as Cimino's follow-up, Heaven's Gate (1980), so disastrously did. Certainly there are signs in The Deer Hunter of Cimino's fatal self-indulgence, particularly the overextended exuberance of the wedding reception scene, which anticipates the out-of-control Harvard commencement sequence in Heaven's Gate. Neither scene adds measurably to the narrative or the themes of its respective film, but Cimino bitterly fought all efforts to trim the wedding sequence in the editing process, and later claimed, after editor Peter Zinner won an Oscar, that he had edited the film himself. Because of its sloppiness and self-indulgence, I hesitate to call The Deer Hunter a great film, but it's certainly one in touch with the darkest strain of recent American history.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)

Cinqué Lee and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train
I was born 40 miles from Tupelo, 75 miles from Memphis, and five years and nine months after Elvis Presley, but I grew up preferring the jazz-pop standards of Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, and Porter, and singers like Jo Stafford and Mel Tormé. It took me a number of years before I finally caught up with what was supposedly my generation, but eventually I succumbed to the myth of the King -- just in time to witness its deconstruction. That's partly what's going on in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, a film that dragged me back to my own roots the moment I saw the City of New Orleans racing through a kudzu-shrouded railway cut. The myth is still so potent that it can draw young Japanese tourists from Yokohama to Memphis to visit Sun Records and Graceland, but also so porous that Jarmusch can peer through it -- like the ghost of Elvis that visits Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi) -- and glimpse some of the racial injustice that elevated Elvis to superstardom and left black musicians like Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Rufus Thomas (both of whom have roles in the film) struggling for recognition. If the film's three interlocking stories feel too much like a familiar contrivance, it's worth remembering that Mystery Train was made five years before Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and probably influenced it. The first segment, with the young tourists Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) and Mitsuki (Yuki Kodo) providing a decidedly original point of view on a country they view through the lens of rock 'n' roll, is the best. The middle one, in which the newly widowed Luisa drifts toward the same hotel where Jun and Mitsuki are staying and winds up sharing a room with the frenetic Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), is the weakest, particularly Luisa's ghost-sighting. The third section, with the wonderfully eccentric trio of Joe Strummer, Rick Aviles, and Steve Buscemi, ties everything together, but fortunately it doesn't do it so neatly that it feels phony. And the intermediary scenes with Hawkins as desk clerk and Cinqué Lee as bellhop keep everything in the skewed perspective that the film needs. Robby Müller's cinematography treats the characters in the film's three episodes as only transients through the city: He and Jarmusch often frame a scene, like the downtown buildings rising in the distance beyond vacant lots, and have the characters walk through the frame. The boarded-up storefronts and empty streets have an ironic permanence to them that the characters lack, so that the central character in Mystery Train is Memphis itself, seen here as bleak and grimy but still charged with some of the vital spark that gave rise to so much music. Jarmusch wrote the screenplay before he ever visited Memphis, but he found exactly what he anticipated there. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Foreign Correspondent was made by people walking on eggs as they worked their way through a minefield. It displays Alfred Hitchcock's gift for witty surprises and edgy suspense, but it was made at a peculiar moment in history: Britain had gone to war against Hitler, but the United States was officially neutral -- thanks to a series of Neutrality Acts forced through Congress by isolationists. Moreover, Hitchcock himself had left his native country, signing a contract with David O. Selznick shortly before the war began in Europe.* So making a film about espionage and the outbreak of war in Europe that stuck to the American party line was tricky business, especially if your director was an Englishman. The surprise is that Foreign Correspondent turned out as well as it did. The plotting is fairly ramshackle, which is not surprising, considering the number of hands that were put to it: The screenplay is credited to Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, but there's also a dialogue credit for James Hilton and Robert Benchley, and it's well known that lots of others, including the ubiquitous script-doctoring Ben Hecht, were involved. The romantic subplot involving the titular foreign correspondent Johnny Jones aka Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea) and peace activist Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), whose father (Herbert Marshall) turns out to be the villain, is particularly flimsy, but even the central espionage plot, involving an especially obscure MacGuffin, doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. And yet Foreign Correspondent zips along because Hitchcock's direction distracts us from the niggling inconsistencies. If we ever start to wonder if things make sense, there's a new gag -- a chase through a crowd of umbrellas, a windmill whose blades are turning backward,  a new threat on the hero's life, a spectacular plane crash at sea -- to distract us. Or there's a bit of witty casting: Edmund Gwenn, who also played Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (Robert Z. Leonard) in 1940 and later became one of the more beloved embodiments of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947), here plays a murderous Cockney, and the usually villainous George Sanders is the stalwart if cynical good guy named Scott ffolliott, complete with funny story about why his surname is spelled without a capital letter. So much is going on in Foreign Correspondent, in short, that thinking too closely about its plausibility feels irrelevant. Despite the pressures to keep the film's message neutral, at its end there's a sense that even isolationist America is about to yield to reality, with a stirring speech, written by Hecht, urging the United States to "keep the lights burning." Foreign Correspondent received a best picture Oscar nomination but lost to Hitchcock's other film of the year, Rebecca.

*Hitchcock's American stay was much criticized in Britain, although he didn't become a citizen of the United States until 1955. His absence from Britain, especially during the war, may be one reason why, even though he retained dual citizenship, he was not knighted by Queen Elizabeth II until the year of his death, 1980. In 1943 and early 1944, partly in response to the criticism, he went to Britain to make two short propaganda films for the British Ministry of Information. Both of them, Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage, were in French and were designed to be shown to the Free French forces as morale boosters for the Resistance, although whether they were actually released as such is unclear. After the war they disappeared into the British National Archives and were not rediscovered until the 1990s, when Hitchcock scholars retrieved them for public showing and video release. The story of Aventure Malgache is framed by a group of actors putting on their makeup. One of them remarks on how much another of the group resembles a Vichy official he knew when he was in the Resistance on Madagascar. The official had the actor imprisoned, but after the Vichy government was ousted by the Battle of Madagascar in 1942, the official hid his portrait of Pétain, hung a portrait of Queen Victoria, and stuck his bottle of Vichy water in a cabinet -- perhaps an echo of Claude Rains's dropping the Vichy bottle in a wastebasket in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Bon Voyage is a more complex narrative about an RAF pilot who is shot down in France and is aided in his return to Britain by the Resistance -- or so he thinks. When he reaches London he learns that the supposed Resistance man was actually a German counter-spy using him to unmask real members of the Resistance. Neither film is first-rate, though both, especially the unreliable narrative of Bon Voyage, show the sure-handedness of an experienced director.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)

Isao Shirasawa, Chishu Ryu, Chieko Hagashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Ichiro Sugai, Kuniko Miyake, and Zen Murase in Early Summer
Early Summer is the second of the "seasonal" films made by Yasujiro Ozu in what is now recognized as his peak postwar period. The first was Late Spring (1949), and they were followed by Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (1961), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962). I mention this chiefly because the English-language titles confuse even Ozu's hard-core admirers, among whom I count myself. "Was that Early Summer or The End of Summer?" we find ourselves asking when we're talking about Ozu's films. The confusion is further compounded by the fact that four of them starred the marvelous Setsuko Hara. It also doesn't help that the name of her character in Early Summer is Noriko, which was the name of her characters in Late Spring and Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953). So we have to remind ourselves that in Early Summer she is Noriko Mamiya, the unmarried 28-year-old daughter of Shukichi (Ichiro Sugai) and Shige Mamiya (Chieko Hagashiyama). She lives with them as well as with her brother, Koichi (Chishu Ryu), and sister-in-law, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake) and their two bratty sons (Isao Shirasawa and Zen Murase). She also has a well-paying clerical job and a group of old girlfriends from her schooldays. So why does everyone, even her boss (Shuji Sano), want her to get married? When her boss starts arranging things with an old business friend of his, her family encourages the connection, even though she's never met the man and he's in his early 40s. Noriko has a mind of her own, however, and eventually surprises everyone -- perhaps even herself -- with her decision. It's a comedy-drama in which nothing exciting happens -- even key events like the search for the bratty boys when they decide to run away from home take place mostly off-screen -- but Ozu holds everything in such delicate suspension, allowing us to meditate on the relationships at length, that we get caught up in the everyday lives of the film's huge cast. There are some wonderful scenes between Noriko and her girlfriends, who share the kind of in-jokes that old friends everywhere have. Some of these are lost in translation, but even that reminds us of real life, when we're left out of a group's established routines. And sometimes the subtitles wittily help us out, finding equivalents for the hick accents Noriko and her friend adopt when talking about the possibility of moving from Tokyo to the country. Ozu and co-screenwriter Kogo Noda bring the characters to life in their private moments, as when Shukichi and Shige talk wistfully about the son who remained MIA after the war, or when they see a balloon floating ahead and reflect on how sad the child who lost it must be. No filmmaker had a profounder sense of the inner lives of people in their ordinary routine.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)

The Big Sky is a good Henry Hathaway or Budd Boetticher movie, except that it was made by Howard Hawks, from whom we have come to expect more. Hawks had just passed through one of the peak periods of his long career, with the sterling achievement of To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Red River (1948), and he was to return to form in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Rio Bravo (1959). But The Big Sky looks like a routine Western adventure in that company, even though it has some old Hawksian hands on board in screenwriter Dudley Nichols, cinematographer Russell Harlan, and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. It has the director's characteristic touches in places: overlapping dialogue and the usual male-bonding moments. Some of the latter, especially between Kirk Douglas's Jim Deakins and Dewey Martin's Boone Caudill, verge on the homoerotic, since Boone is given to wearing tight leather pants and both go around with their shirts flared open, making one scene look like it's taking place in a West Hollywood bar and not a St. Louis saloon. The absence of the usual "Hawksian woman," able to return wisecrack for wisecrack, is particularly noticeable. The only woman in the large cast is Elizabeth Threatt, playing an Indian woman named Teal Eye, who doesn't speak English. This was the only film appearance for Threatt, a model Hawks had spotted in a photograph. Her chief function in the film is to provide sexual tension among the members of a crew of fur traders making their way up the Missouri River and to spark a bit of rivalry between Jim and Boone. Teal Eye has been brought along on the expedition by Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt) to act as a go-between with the Blackfoot tribe, to which she belongs. Also along for the journey is a somewhat addled Blackfoot known as Poordevil, played by Hank Worden, a regular member of John Ford's stock company who sometimes moonlighted for Hawks. The journey is interrupted by Indian attacks, river rapids, and the threats from a rival trading company, in scenes that are staged and shot well but never provide more than the routine excitement of the genre. Hunnicutt and Harlan received Oscar nominations for their work.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

An Enemy of the People (Satyajit Ray, 1989)

Dhritiman Chatterjee and Soumitra Chatterjee in An Enemy of the People
The phrase "enemy of the people" regained currency recently when the current president of the United States applied it to the news media. It's also the title of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play about the persecution of a truth-teller, so let the irony fall where it may. Writer-director Satyajit Ray's adaptation of Ibsen's play is one of his last films, made three years before his death. His health had been severely weakened by a heart attack in 1983, and his consequent lack of vigor shows in the film's static character: limited camera movements and a restriction to only a few sets, mostly interiors. It's very much a filmed play -- even in the final scene we hear but don't see the crowds outside proclaiming their support of Dr. Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee). Ray's screenplay follows Ibsen in general outline, while shifting the scene from a Norwegian town to an Indian one. The title character, Dr. Ashok Gupta, is concerned about a sharp increase in diseases that are typically water-borne, such as hepatitis and cholera, so he sends a sample of the town's water, including that from the newly built Hindu temple, for analysis, and his suspicions are confirmed. He writes an article for the local newspaper explaining his findings and suggesting that the temple be closed until necessary water treatment measures are taken. But he is opposed in this by his own brother, Nishith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), the equivalent of the town's mayor, who fears that closing the temple will hurt the economy, especially with a festival approaching that is likely to attract religious pilgrims. Nishith enlists a priest from the temple to proclaim the water safe and pressures the newspaper's publisher into killing his brother's article. Dr. Gupta calls a town meeting, but it is taken over by Nishith, who even goes so far as to call his brother's faith into question. Religious fundamentalists attack the Guptas' home and the landlord asks the doctor to move; the doctor's daughter loses her job as a teacher, and his privileges in the local hospital are revoked. Ibsen's play ends with his Dr. Stockmann standing firm, with only his family's support, but Ray softens his film's ending with the off-camera sound of the rallying supporters of Dr. Gupta. It's not really a cop-out ending, however. Ray has shifted the focus of his film from Ibsen's attack on bureaucracy and capitalist privilege to one he believed more relevant to his country: the clash of science and religious fundamentalism. What saves Ray's An Enemy of the People from preachiness and its lack of cinematic finesse is the director's usual involvement in his characters and the deep conviction of his actors, particularly Soumitra Chatterjee, who made his film debut in The World of Apu (1959) and worked with Ray on more than a dozen films over the next three decades.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

There's something decadent about The Birds, and I'm not referring to the sordid tattle about Alfred Hitchcock's alleged pursuit and torment of Tippi Hedren. I mean the conspicuous use of great talent and technique on material that doesn't deserve it. David Thomson has called it Hitchcock's "last unflawed film," but he also observed it was "more abstract than anything he had done before," which I think is absolutely right if you take "abstract" to mean devoted to form without connection to observable reality. For neither the birds nor the people in the film behave as we know actual birds and people to do. They are cinematic constructs: special effects (birds) and the fantasies of a screenwriter (people), manipulated by a director more engaged in playing with his audience than in telling us about nature, human or otherwise. Screenwriter Evan Hunter, very loosely adapting a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, makes a feint at creating plausible characters: the rich playgirl, Melanie Daniels (Hedren); the San Francisco lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), who plays around in the city during the week but goes home to his emotionally needy mother (Jessica Tandy) on the weekends; the schoolteacher, Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), who followed him home to the small coastal community one weekend but could never quite win over his mother and yet decided to stay on among the stereotypically quirky residents of Bodega Bay. But Hitchcock doesn't make us care about them except when they're being attacked by birds. They don't even care that much about one another: Melanie has to remind Mitch to take Annie's body inside after she's found dead from a bird attack on the steps of her house. Mother Brenner is a mildly sinister presence, who clings to Mitch because he reminds her of her dead husband. She casually yields the task of comforting her daughter, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), to Melanie, although by film's end she has become a kind of surrogate mother for the traumatized Melanie. The Hitchcock who had handled sinister motherhood so deftly in Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960) has turned unaccountably soft here. The acting is only passable. There are times in the film when I sense Tandy, a great actress, trying but failing to find a character to play. As for Hedren, she's quite good as the Melanie who schemes to find a way to connect with Mitch, but if you watch her in scenes when she's talking with someone else you see an actress who hasn't yet been taught to register what she's hearing on her face. The film is elevated above the mundane -- turned into a classic, in fact -- by Hitchcock's gift for pacing, by the extraordinarily intelligent decision not to provide a music score but to let the sound design supervised by composer Bernard Herrmann serve in its place, by Robert Burks's cinematography, by George Tomasini's film editing, and of course by the Oscar-nominated special effects supervised by Disney pioneer Ub Iwerks. But is it anything more than a movie for people who like to be scared and a case study for film students who want to learn how to scare them?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Story of a Love Affair (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950)

Ten years before L'Avventura, with its elegantly muddled and elliptically presented relationships, Michelangelo Antonioni was working in a mode clearly influenced by Italian neorealism and American film noir, though one that gives us glimpses of the filmmaker he would become. His first feature film, Story of a Love Affair, takes place in the realms of the wealthy postwar Italian business class. A Milanese industrialist, Enrico Fontana (Ferdinando Sarmi), has come across a cache of photographs of his wife, Paola (Lucia Bosè), and hires a detective agency to find out what it can about her early life. Paola, it seems, was friends with a woman, Giovanna, who died when she fell down an elevator shaft. Giovanna had been engaged to Guido (Massimo Girotti), who, when he learns that Paola's past is the subject of an investigation, goes to see her in Milan. They are both worried that they are under suspicion of causing Giovanna's death, which they witnessed. Guido and Paola fall in love and, realizing she is trapped in her marriage to Fontana, form a plot to murder him. But before Guido can kill him, Fontana dies in an auto accident. When the police arrive to inform her of his death, Paola, fearing that she will be arrested, runs out into the night to meet Guido, who tells her of the accident and agrees to meet her the next day. But when he gets into a waiting taxi, Guido tells the driver to go to the train station. Antonioni admitted that he was influenced by James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as the 1946 film version directed by Tay Garnett, in creating the lovers' plot to kill Fontana, but the ironic accident is his own invention, as is the mystery surrounding Fontana's death: Although Guido, who has been lying in wait to shoot Fontana, fails in his task, he hears the crash as well as what sound like gunshots, and arrives at the scene to see the body. He later tells Paola that there was a hole in Fontana's neck, as if he had been shot. The inconclusive ending, as well as the unresolved question of whether Paola and Guido were actually responsible for Giovanna's death, foreshadow Antonioni's later enigmatic approach to narrative, as does his use of the urban landscape as a correlative to the often bleak emotional states of his characters. The film shows its age with its shallow sonic ambience, in which scenes shot both indoors and outdoors have the same resonance, a symptom of the post-sync dialogue dubbing characteristic of Italian films of the period

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Jean Martin in The Battle of Algiers
It's a truth as old as fable, as ingrained as myth: Our sympathies go out to the oppressed, the underdog. Which is why the attempt to find "impartiality" or "objectivity" in a docudrama like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers -- or to criticize the film for lacking it -- is so futile. It's a truth that even nations need to learn: When, for example, Israel ceased to be the underdog in the Middle East, the sympathies were bound to shift to the Palestinians. It's also a lesson that demagogues unfortunately do tend to learn: Make your followers believe that they're the oppressed, the victims of some other group, then you can lead them by the nose in the direction you prefer. (If you think I'm hinting at something about the current U.S. president, you're right.) In any case, what makes The Battle of Algiers so potent, so continually relevant is that director Pontecorvo and his co-screenwriter Franco Solinas are so meticulous in their portrayal of a dynamic: that of oppressed and oppressor. Never mind that the techniques of both sides are so frequently heinous: We cringe when the Arabs send women out to plant bombs that kill innocent noncombatants, just as we flinch from the sight of French soldiers torturing suspects. What matters here is the pattern of action and reaction. What matters with The Battle of Algiers is not so much the brilliance of its filmmaking -- its artful use of non-actors like Brahim Hadjhadj, who plays Ali La Pointe, and actual NLF commander Yacef Saadi, as Djafar, or little-known professionals like Jean Martin, as Col. Mathieu; its powerful restaging of events in the places where they occurred; the cinematography of Marcello Gatti; the smartly used score by Ennio Morricone -- as the film's ability to trace the dynamic of a particular event, a dynamic that continues to underlie events as they unfold in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, perhaps in the United States itself. Is there another 50-year-old film that remains as essential to our understanding of the way the world works?

Monday, March 20, 2017

No post today

Doing my taxes. For the record, I watched The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) last night.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

Midway through the film, Johnny (David Thewlis) happens upon a parked limousine whose driver is dozing at the wheel. Waking up, the driver mistakes Johnny for his client and invites him into the limo, only to realize his mistake suddenly and order Johnny out. He's one of the few lucky ones in Naked: Lots of other people invite Johnny in, only to realize their mistake after he's wrought chaos in their lives. For Johnny is less a realistic character than an symbolic force: the spirit of anarchy loose in a world that's trying to impose something like order. Johnny is something of a Shakespearean fool, licensed to deflate pomposity, to expose absurdities like the meaningless job of Brian (Peter Wight), the security guard for an empty building: "You're guarding space? That's stupid, innit? Because someone could break in there and steal all the fuckin' space and you wouldn't know it's gone, would you?" Writer-director Mike Leigh typically begins his filmmaking in disorder -- sessions in which the actors improvise what their characters are like, what they might do or say in a given situation, and how their interrelationships might work out -- and ends in order -- a scripted film in which the actors are not allowed to deviate from what's on the page. He is fortunate in Naked to have had a brilliant company, headed by Thewlis, to find out what's in their characters. In Naked, Johnny is reading James Gleick's Chaos, which posits an underlying pattern to what appears random and chaotic. Johnny is the butterfly flapping its wings that causes a storm to sweep through the lives of flatmates Louise (Lesley Sharp), Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), and Sandra (Claire Skinner) -- not that they don't already lead lives of quiet (and sometimes noisy) desperation. It can be argued, however, that Johnny, for all his sponging amorality and his sexual aggression, represents something of a life force in the film, especially when contrasted with the rich and predatory Jeremy (Greg Crutwell), a character Leigh introduces I think intentionally to serve as a foil for Johnny, who at least has a measure of self-awareness even if sometimes it has to be beaten into him. Never let it be said that Leigh uses nudity gratuitously: It's gym-toned Jeremy who stays snugly encased in his designer briefs but scrawny Johnny who strides boldly toward the camera, genitals aflop.  Viciously funny, tonically brutal, Naked is one of those wake-up-call films we need to subject ourselves to now and then.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)

I don't know if TCM intentionally "counterprogrammed" the Trump inauguration by scheduling Elia Kazan's film about a faux-populist demagogue on the same day as the ceremony, but it sure looks like it, and I approve. Like Trump, A Face in the Crowd's Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is a product of the media's amoral pursuit of the colorful character, a man lifted to uncommon power by those entertained by the flamboyance and vulgarity. Rhodes (perhaps like Trump) isn't so much the villain of Budd Schulberg's story and screenplay as are his enablers, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), and his exploiters, like Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), who enrich themselves while discovering the previously untapped potential of mass media. In 1957, this potential was just beginning to be realized, but 60 years later it had taken a dangerous man to the White House. I don't think Kazan and Schulberg fully realized that possibility, just as Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky didn't fully realize the prescience of Network (Lumet, 1976). Both films should serve as a permanent warning that today's satire is tomorrow's nightmare. A Face in the Crowd is an important film without being a great one. Schulberg's screenplay falls apart in the middle, and the denouement in which Marcia somehow comes to her senses and exposes Rhodes as a fraud is awkward and mechanical, largely because Marcia herself is something of a mechanical character. An actress of considerable skill, Neal does what she can to make the character live, but the words aren't there in the script to explain why she tolerates Rhodes's fraudulence as long as she does. Matthau and Franciosa come off a little better because their roles are written as stereotypes: Cynical Writer and Go-getting Hot Shot. So the film really belongs to Griffith, who parlays his dead-eyed shark's grin into something that should have been the foundation of a career with more highlights than a folksy sitcom and an old-fart detective show. It's a charismatic but ragged performance that needed a little more shaping from writer and director, something that Kazan admitted to himself in his diaries when he wrote about Rhodes and the film, "The complexity ... was left out." Rather than having Rhodes revealed as a fraud to his followers, Kazan said, Rhodes should have been allowed to recognize that he had been trapped by his own fraudulence. Deprived of anagnorisis, a moment of tragic self-recognition, Rhodes becomes a figure of melodrama, bellowing "Marcia!" from the balcony at the end but probably fated to make what Miller suggests to him, the comeback of a has-been. Fortunately, Kazan and Schulberg were wise enough to change their original ending, in which Rhodes commits suicide -- there's not enough tragedy in their conception of the character for that.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

It's easy to imagine Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy remade into a 1930s "women's picture" starring Bette Davis, except that nothing made in Hollywood under the infantilizing Production Code would have had the depth and insight into the real problems of women that Mizoguchi's film does. Mizoguchi's direction frames the story elegantly: He begins with a shot of the neon-lighted city, backed by the pop standard "Stairway to the Stars" on the soundtrack, as day gradually breaks and the glamour of the neon fades into the drab reality of the daytime city. We go to the home of Sumiko Asai (Yoko Umemura), the head of a large pharmaceuticals company, where he berates the maids for small infractions and quarrels with his shrewish wife. The opening sets a tone of disillusionment that pervades the entire film, which becomes a sharp commentary on both traditional and contemporary sexual roles. The film's protagonist is Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), switchboard operator at Asai Pharmaceuticals, whom Asai wants to become his mistress. Ayako is reluctant -- she has a boyfriend, Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), another employee at the company -- but her feckless father (Shinpachiro Asaka) has been skimming from the till at work and has lost the money in the stock market. So she quits her job, lets Asai set her up in a fancy modern apartment, and sends her father the money he needs. After Asai's wife uncovers the arrangement, a friend of Asai's, Fujino (Eitaro Shindo), tries to move in on Ayako. But Ayako reconnects with Nishimura, who proposes to her. Uncertain how he will respond to the truth about her life -- she has told him she works in a beauty parlor -- she postpones her answer. Then she learns from her younger sister that their brother is being forced to drop out of the university because her father can't pay the tuition. She gets the money by pretending to yield to Fujino's advances, but runs to Nishimura and agrees to marry him, while also confessing her liaison with Asai. As Nishimura is pondering this information, a furious Fujino arrives and after being turned away, calls the police, charging her with theft. Nishimura cravenly tells the police that he was innocently dragged into the affair by Ayako, but because it's her first offense she is released into her father's custody. Her family, whose money problems she has dutifully solved, shuns her and her brother calls her a "delinquent." Ayako walks out into the night and we follow her to a bridge, where she looks down into the trash-filled waters. But as we wonder if she is going to commit suicide, the family doctor, who has been present at several of the crisis points in her story, happens to meet her on the bridge. She asks him if there is a cure for delinquency, and when he says no, she accepts the judgment and, holding her head high, walks away toward the camera. Yamada's terrific performance was one of several she gave for Mizoguchi, establishing her as a specialist in strong female roles -- she is perhaps best-known by Western audiences as the Lady Macbeth equivalent in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957).

Thursday, March 16, 2017

28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)

Danny Boyle's science fiction/horror film 28 Days Later was a critical and commercial success, which owes much, I suspect, to its post-apocalyptic theme, capturing a mood prevalent after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many viewers noted the similarity of the kiosk in the film, covered with notices posted by people searching for lost friends and relatives, to the real ones posted in New York City after the fall of the World Trade Center towers -- a prescient touch on the part of the filmmakers, since the scene was shot before the terrorist attack and its aftermath. It has also been an influential film, helping spark an interest in "zombie"* movies and TV shows. After a prologue that shows how animal-rights activists attacked a research laboratory and unwittingly released a virus that causes uncontrollable rage in its victims and is spread by contact with blood and saliva, the film's protagonist, Jim (Cillian Murphy), wakes up from a coma in a London hospital to discover that he has been abandoned there and that the streets outside are empty. (The premise of someone waking up from a coma to discover a world depopulated by an incurable virus was repeated by the creators of The Walking Dead, first for the graphic novel published in 2003 and later for the TV series that began in 2010.) Jim soon discovers that he is not entirely alone: He is attacked by people infected with the virus and rescued by two who weren't: Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). Unfortunately, Mark gets bitten by one of the infected and has to be killed, allowing Selena to explain that the disease takes hold swiftly and is incurable. Naomie and Jim then discover two more survivors, Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), who have a crank-operated radio that has picked up a signal from survivors north of Manchester calling for others to join them. Frank is infected and killed during their perilous drive northward, and Jim, Selena, and Hannah discover that the survivors are in a well-armed military outpost under the command of Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston). It turns out that West has been sending out the signals especially to attract women to service his sex-starved troops, which means not only that Selena and Hannah are in danger of rape but also that Jim is expendable. Before he helps Selena and Hannah escape, Jim also hears the theory of a soldier opposed to West that the virus has not in fact spread worldwide: that it has been contained in other countries and that the island of Britain is quarantined -- a theory that Jim confirms for himself when he sees the contrails of a jet plane flying high overhead. The released film ends happily -- or at least hopefully -- when Jim, Selena, and Hannah, having escaped, construct a giant "HELLO" sign that is spotted by a plane flying reconnaissance over the cottage where they live. It's not the preferred ending of director Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland, who proposed a bleaker resolution of the story that failed with test audiences. Well-directed and -acted, 28 Days Later does what it's designed to do: build suspense and provide interesting characters. It also resonates nicely with our paranoia about pandemic infections in the age of HIV, Ebola, and the annual influenza scare . But it doesn't hold up well under the old test of Questions You're Not Supposed to Ask: like, why has Jim been abandoned, stark naked and comatose, in a hospital? If the hospital was attacked by the infected, why wasn't he attacked? If it was evacuated -- we see a newspaper headline, EVACUATION, at one point -- why was he left behind? How did he survive unattended for 28 days with only an IV drip that would have run out in a few hours? If the rest of the world is safe and only Britain is quarantined, why doesn't Frank's radio pick up international broadcasts? Where are the humanitarian operations like the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders? And so on....

*The infected in 28 Days Later aren't technically zombies. i.e. animated dead people. They're still alive, and they can be killed by ordinary means like shooting or stabbing them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993)

Poster designed by Akira Kurosawa for Madadayo
Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo isn't quite the autumnal masterpiece we want a great director's final film to be, but it has a suitably valedictory tone. It's a portrait of a kind of Japanese Mr. Chips, a teacher so beloved that his students reunite every year to celebrate his birthday with lots of singing and drinking. The film is based on the life of Hyakken Uchida, an actual professor of German at Hosei University in Tokyo. We never really see what made Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) so beloved by his students: The film opens with his retirement from teaching so he can devote more time to writing, but we can infer from the genial, eccentrically bookish manner that peeps through his professorial sternness that he has always been a favorite of his students, often drinking with them after hours. The narrative (such as it is -- Kurosawa's screenplay, based on the real Uchida's essays, has no real plot or dramatic arc) picks up on his birthday in 1943, when his former students help him and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) move into a new house. When the house is destroyed by fire from the American bombing, Uchida and his wife move into a tiny shed that was an outbuilding on a wealthy man's estate and live there until after the war, when his students build a new house for him. We see him celebrate his 60th birthday with his students at a banquet that grows so noisy some GIs from the occupying forces arrive in a Jeep to check it out, but they leave with smiles on their faces. He's so beloved that when a rich man proposes to build a three-story house across the street from him, thereby casting Uchida's house and garden in shadow, the man selling the land reneges on the deal and then sells it to a group of the ex-students. The greatest crisis in his life is not the war but the loss of a beloved cat, who wanders off one day, causing him so much grief that his wife calls in the students to help find it. Eventually, a new cat takes up with Uchida and life goes on. At the film's end, Uchida collapses from a heart arrhythmia at the banquet celebrating his 77th birthday, but even then he calls out the phrase "Mada dayo!" ("Not yet!"), which has become his ritual defiance of death at his birthday celebrations. Matsumura's performance sustains the film, which at 2 hours and 14 minutes is overlong and more a film for Kurosawa completists than for general audiences. The birthday celebrations become wearyingly exuberant, and the search for the lost cat seems to go on forever, but the film is lightened by Kurosawa's sense of humor and his affection for the characters. It also touches on the changes in Japanese society over the years: The classroom scene at the beginning has a militaristic formality, and the drinking bouts of the early birthday celebrations are all-male affairs. But by the end, not only has Uchida's ever-dutiful wife joined in the celebration, but his students' wives, children, and grandchildren are present, too.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954)

Lloyd C. Douglas, Lutheran pastor turned novelist, was in some ways the anti-Ayn Rand. His Magnificent Obsession, published in 1929 and first filmed in 1935 with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor directed by John M. Stahl, advocates a kind of "pay it forward" altruism, the obverse of Rand's laissez-faire individualism. Douglas preached a gospel of service to others with no expectation of rewards to oneself. Fortunately, director Douglas Sirk and screenwriters Robert Blees and Wells Root keep the preaching in the 1954 remake down to a minimum -- mostly confining it to the preachiest of the film's characters, the artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), but also using it as an essential element in the development of the central character, Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), in his transition from heel to hero. This was Hudson's first major dramatic role, the one that launched him from Universal contract player into stardom. Not coincidentally, it was the second of nine films he made with Sirk, movies that range from the negligible Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) to the near-great Written on the Wind (1956). More than anyone, perhaps, Sirk was responsible for turning Hudson from just a handsome hunk with a silly publicist-concocted name into a movie actor of distinct skill. In Magnificent Obsession he demonstrates that essential film-acting technique: letting thought and emotion show on the face. It's a more effective performance than that of his co-star, Jane Wyman, though she was the one who got an Oscar nomination for the movie. As Helen Phillips, whose miseries are brought upon her by Merrick (through no actual fault of his own), Wyman has little to do but suffer stoically and unfocus her eyes to play blind. Hudson has an actual character arc to follow, and he does it quite well -- though reportedly not without multiple takes of his scenes, as Sirk coached him into what he wanted. What Sirk wanted, apparently, is a lush, Technicolor melodrama that somehow manages to make sense -- Sirk's great gift as a director being an ability to take melodrama seriously. Magnificent Obsession, like most of Sirk's films during the 1950s, was underestimated at the time by serious critics, but has undergone reevaluation after feminist critics began asking why films that center on women's lives were being treated as somehow inferior to those about men's. It's not, I think, a great film by any real critical standards -- there's still a little too much preaching and too much angelic choiring on the soundtrack, and the premise that a blind woman assisted by a nurse (Agnes Moorehead) with bright orange hair could elude discovery for months despite widespread efforts to find them stretches credulity a little too far. But it's made and acted with such conviction that I found myself yielding to it anyway.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Den Obinata and Takeshi Sakamoto in Passing Fancy
In Passing Fancy we can see Yasujiro Ozu edging, however reluctantly, toward sound. For a silent movie it has an extraordinary number of intertitles, reflecting a stronger reliance on dialogue to carry the story and the relationships of the characters. Ozu even departs from convention on occasion to show a title card before the character has spoken the line. The film also shows more of the development of Ozu's personal style as a director than some of his contemporary silent films do: There's a greater reliance on low-angle camerawork, his so-called "tatami shots," and a more frequent use of shots of streets and buildings that don't necessarily carry information about the plot and characters but serve as something like "chapter breaks" in the narrative. But film technique aside, Passing Fancy would be remembered as one of Ozu's most charming early films. Takeshi Sakamoto plays Kihachi -- a character name the actor would retain in other films by Ozu, including A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and An Inn in Tokyo (1935). The several characters are discrete from one another, although the Kihachi in Passing Fancy bears some resemblance to the one in An Inn in Tokyo in that they are both single parents of a son played by the marvelous child actor Tomio Aoki. (If you're not confused yet, let me also add that in Passing Fancy Aoki is billed as "Tokkan Kozo," the title of a 1929 Ozu short film based on O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" in which Aoki appeared. Oh, and that in Passing Fancy, the character is named Tomio.) Anyway, Kihachi and Tomio share rundown lodgings with Jiro (Den Obinata), who works with Kihachi in a brewery. Tomio is a good student, and he's a bit embarrassed by his illiterate and occasionally drunken father. One night, Kihachi and Jiro encounter a young woman, Harue (Nobuko Fushimi), who has just been fired from her job and is looking for a place to stay. Jiro is suspicious that Harue is "no better than she ought to be," as the saying goes, but Kihachi is smitten with her and arranges for her to live with and work for Otome (Choko Iida), a woman who owns a neighborhood bar-restaurant. Kihachi begins to spruce himself up to woo Harue, but she's more attracted to the younger and handsomer Jiro. Eventually, Otome persuades Kihachi that he's too old for Harue and that he should try to get Jiro to return her affections. Then Tomio falls ill and, following the familiar sick-child motif of many Japanese films in the 1930s, Kihachi is pressed to find a way to pay the doctor bills. Ozu's generous humor and genuine affection for his characters suffuses the film, and the splendid rapport of Sakamoto and Aoki as actors provides a special insight into the often volatile father-son relationship. There's a wonderful scene, for example, in which Kihachi slaps Tomio once too often and the boy turns around and begins to pummel his father, who submits, resulting in a deeper understanding between them. The screenplay is by Tadao Ikeda, from a story by Ozu under his pseudonym James Maki. The cinematographers are Hideo Shigehara and Shojiro Sugimoto.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965)

The influence of American movies on the work of Akira Kurosawa is well-known. His viewings of American Westerns, for example, helped shape such classics as Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). But Red Beard seems to me an instance in which the influence wasn't so fortunate. It's a kind of reworking of MGM's series of Dr. Kildare movies of the 1930s and '40s, in which the ambitious young intern Dr. Kildare tangles with the crusty older physician Dr. Gillespie and thereby learns a few lessons -- a dynamic that persists today in TV series like Grey's Anatomy and soap operas like General Hospital. In Red Beard, ambitious young Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) is sent to work under crusty older Dr. Kyojo Niide (Toshiro Mifune), known as "Red Beard" for an obvious facial feature. It's the 19th century, the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate, and Yasumoto, having finished his studies in Nagasaki, expects that the influence of his father, a prominent physician, will land him a role as the shogun's personal physician. He's angry when he finds that he's been sent to a rural clinic that mainly serves the poor. There is one affluent patient at the clinic, however: a young woman known as "The Mantis" (Kyoko Kagawa) because she stabbed two of her lovers to death. Her wealthy father has built a house for her on the grounds of the clinic, but only Red Beard is allowed to approach and treat her. Yasumoto initially rebels against the assignment, feeling disgust for the patients: When he asks the physician he's replacing at the clinic what smells like "rotten fruit," he's told that that's the way the poor smell. But eventually (and predictably), he learns to respect the work of Red Beard and to value the lives of his patients. Red Beard is hardly a bad movie: Kurosawa brilliantly stages the first encounter of Yasumoto and The Mantis, who has escaped from her house, in a carefully framed sequence, a long take in which the doctor and the madwoman begin at opposite sides of the wide screen -- it's filmed in Tohoscope, an anamorphic process akin to Cinemascope -- with a tall candlestick between them. Gradually, accompanied by slow camera movements, the two approach each other, the doctor trying to gauge the motives and the sanity of the young woman. Finally the calm framing of the scene is shattered into a series of quick cuts, as she attacks with a pair of scissors, and the scene ends with a brief shot of Red Beard suddenly opening the door. Red Beard was shot by two acclaimed cinematographers, Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito, both of whom frequently worked with Kurosawa, and the production design was by Yoshiro Muraki, who fulfilled Kurosawa's exacting demands for meticulous faithfulness to the period, including the construction of what was virtually a small village, using only materials that would have been available in the period. But what keeps Red Beard from the first rank of Kurosawa's films, I think, is the sentimental moralizing, the insistence of having the characters "learn lessons." Yasumoto, having learned his initial lesson about valuing the lives of the poor, is given a young patient, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), rescued from a brothel where she has essentially gone feral. (During the rescue scene, Kurosawa can't resist having his longtime star Mifune show off some of his old chops: The doctor takes on a gang of thugs outside the brothel and single-handedly leaves them with broken arms, legs, and heads. It's a fun scene, but not particularly integral to the character.) When Yasumoto has succeeded in teaching Otoyo to respond to kindness, it then becomes her turn to teach others what she has learned. The moralizing overwhelms the film, leaving us longing for the deeper insight into the characters found in films by Kurosawa's great contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Moonlight Serenade (Masahiro Shinoda, 1997)

Moonlight Serenade is an entertaining mélange of several genres: historical drama, coming-of-age tale, and family drama, with a touch of road movie and two romantic subplots, all kept more or less in focus by a framing story that turns it into a film about the endurance of the Japanese people in the face of everything that life can throw at them. It begins with Keita Onda (Kyozo Nagatsuka), a man in his 60s, watching the news reports about the 1995 earthquake that devastated Kobe. The film flashes back to 10-year-old Keita (Hideyuki Kasahara) watching, from a safe distance, the red sky over a burning Kobe after an American air raid. Like the other boys watching the fiery sky, who claim that the sight gives them an erection, Keita is more excited than frightened. Then the war ends, and Keita's family is marshaled his father, Koichi (also played by Nagatsuka), into a difficult journey from Awaji, where they now live, to the ancestral home in Kyushu. Keita is entrusted with seeing after the box that supposedly contains the ashes of his elder brother, who enlisted in the Japanese navy at 17 and was killed two years later when his ship hit a mine. (What the box actually contains is one of the film's surprises.) The family also consists of Koichi's wife, Fuji (Shima Iwashita), and their 18-year-old son, Koji (Jun Toba), and small daughter, Hideko (Sayuri Kawauchi). The neighbors are astonished that anyone should be making such a perilous trip across American-occupied Japan; the trains are unreliable and overcrowded and ships are still prey to undetonated mines. Gossip builds that Koichi, a tough police officer and a notoriously hidebound traditionalist, intends for his family to commit ritual suicide when they reach the ancestral burial place. The journey is in fact difficult and often suspenseful, but director Masahiro Shinoda, working from a screenplay by Katsuo Naruse from a novel by Yu Aku, maintains a light touch, infusing the difficult journey with humor. The film develops a love interest for Koji in the form of Yukiko (Hinano Yoshikawa), an orphaned girl who is also going to Kyushu, to live with relatives she has never seen. Koji, who hates his father, plans to run away somewhere along the journey, and when he meets Yukiko, he tries to persuade her to join him. A group of secondary characters joins the family on shipboard, including a black marketer (Junji Takada), whose stash of whiskey helps break down Koichi's stiff reserve (along with his policeman's distaste for the black market), and a traveling film exhibitor whose collection of movies includes some illicit samurai films that have been banned by the occupying Americans for their militarism. Keita, naturally, is enchanted by the movies, and there's a charming scene late in the film in which he goes to a theater to see Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) with his father. Unfortunately, Keita can't follow the American romance -- some of the words in the Japanese subtitles are too hard for him, he says -- and his father only says he'll have to be older to understand it. Moonlight Serenade is one of the late films by Shinoda, who apprenticed with Yasujiro Ozu and became a prominent member of the "Japanese New Wave" in the 1960s. It displays his skill at storytelling, handling several subplots and surprises, and has a fine sympathetic treatment of the people caught up in the postwar crisis. But it's a bit old-fashioned for a movie made in the 1990s, too overloaded with characters and incidents for its own good, and the frame story seems unnecessary.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

The British used to like to think of themselves as congenitally disposed to law and order -- so much so that they didn't need a written constitution to maintain it. Crime, when it happened, was presumed to follow rules of decorum, or at least that's the case in countless "cozy" murder mysteries like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series. The trend reached its peak in the Ealing Studios comedies featuring Alec Guinness in the 1950s: Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951), and The Ladykillers. Murder and larceny are treated almost as genteel, if eccentric, pursuits, avoiding violence unless it becomes unpleasantly necessary. It's significant that the most menacingly violent member of the crew that pulls off the robbery in The Ladykillers speaks with a foreign accent and is played by the Czech-born actor Herbert Lom, as if only a foreigner would think of killing the sweet old lady (Katie Johnson) who threatens to reveal their crime to the police. It's possible, too, that the mastermind of the crew, Prof. Marcus (Guinness), is not entirely British -- his surname has foreign overtones -- although the oversize false teeth Guinness wears do seem like the product of British dentistry. The Ladykillers is a wry tribute to the Britain that had just muddled through World War II and was emerging from postwar austerity. The house in which Mrs. Wilberforce lives, perched precariously on the brink of a railway tunnel, has had its upper stories condemned as unsafe after the wartime bombing, but it's filled with tributes to the Empire that was crumbling as steadily as the house. She lives alone, guarded only by her late husband's parrots, which he had rescued from the ship he went down on, and by the local constabulary, who tolerate her frequent visits to the station to report things like a neighbor's sighting of a flying saucer. She is obviously an easy mark, however, for Prof. Marcus and his gang: Claude (Cecil Parker), Louis (Lom), Harry (Peter Sellers), and the punchy ex-boxer One-Round (Danny Green), who pose as a string quintet practicing in the rooms Marcus leases in her house. (They play a recording of a Boccherini minuet while they plot the heist, and afterward stash the loot in their instrument cases.) Naturally, they bumble themselves into revealing their secret to Mrs. Wilberforce, and after deciding that they must kill her to protect themselves manage to bumble themselves into killing one another instead. As usual with Ealing Studios comedies, the acting is uniformly delightful: Guinness said he modeled his character on Alastair Sim, for whom the role was originally intended, and it's fun to see Sellers and Lom together some years before their re-teaming in the Pink Panther films. Interestingly, this tribute to the Brits was written by an American, William Rose, who received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. Rose had stayed on in England and married an Englishwoman after service in World War II. Otto Heller's color cinematography and Jim Morahan's art direction add greatly to the success of the film.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Every-Night Dreams (Mikio Naruse, 1933)

Tatsuo Saito and Sumiko Kurishima in Every-Night Dreams
Why do the plots of so many Japanese films from the 1930s hinge on the illness of a child? It was the case in three of Yasujiro Ozu's films I watched recently: That Night's Wife (1930), Tokyo Chorus (1931), and An Inn in Tokyo (1935), and it happens again in Mikio Naruse's Every-Night Dreams. In two of the Ozu films, a man commits robbery to get money to pay the child's hospital bills and is sent to jail. The man in Naruse's film also commits a robbery but, wounded and desperate, he commits suicide -- an instance of how much darker in tone Every-Night Dreams is from the Ozu films. It's also different in that the central figure is a woman, rather than the men who seize the focus in the Ozu films. The dominant figure in Every-Night Dreams is Omitsu, played beautifully by Sumiko Kurishima, whom we meet as a single parent, working as a bar hostess to support her small son, Fumio (Teruko Kojima). Soon, however, the boy's father, Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saito), shows up, down and out. She's reluctant to take him back after his earlier abandonment of them, but he's so needy and the boy is so glad to see his father that she gives in. Mizuhara is a weakling in both body and character, however. He searches for work that will allow Omitsu to give up her rather disreputable job -- there's a scene early in the film in which she gets reproachful glares from the passengers on a streetcar -- but he is turned down for factory work because the employer thinks he's not strong enough for it. And then Fumio is struck by an automobile: He survives, but the doctor says he will need extensive therapy to regain the use of a shattered arm. So Mizuhara pulls off a robbery to get the funds, but is wounded by the police in his escape. He brings the money to Omitsu, but she is appalled by what he has done and urges him to turn himself in to the police. He leaves, and the next morning Omitsu learns that he has drowned himself. In a touching final scene, she urges Fumio to grow up strong. Though Naruse is credited in IMDb with 92 titles as director, from short films in 1930 to his last feature in 1967, his reputation in the West has been overshadowed by that of his contemporaries Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Akira Kurosawa. But Every-Night Dreams displays a fiercely original talent, with a distinct bias toward portraying strong women like Omitsu. In contrast to Ozu, who preferred to work with carefully framed scenes with little camera movement, Naruse favors an active camera -- zooms, pans, dolly shots -- and fast-paced editing: The scene in which Fumio's accident is announced is a series of quick cuts from a toy car rolling off the edge of a table through shots of the boy's playmates running in with the news. He likes narrative foreshadowing: In one scene, a despondent Mizuhara looks out over the harbor as the camera pans from boats and buildings down to the water itself, while in another, Mizuhara urgently signals to Fumio to stay on the other side of a road until a car speeds past and the boy can cross safely. Yet he also allows his actors room to develop their characters: Kurishima builds up our sense of Omitsu's inner strength through her expressions and gestures. The film's story is by Naruse and the screenplay by Tadao Ikeda; the cinematographer is Suketaro Inokai.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

With her Mamie Eisenhower bangs and heart-shaped face, Rooney Mara in Carol becomes the reincarnation of such '50s icons as Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, and Maggie McNamara -- particularly the McNamara of The Moon Is Blue (Otto Preminger, 1953), that once-scandalous play and movie about a young woman who defies convention by talking openly about sex while retaining her virginity. It's just coincidence that Carol is set at the end of 1952 and into 1953, the year of the release of The Moon Is Blue, but the juxtaposition of McNamara's Patty O'Neill and Mara's Therese Belivet seems to me appropriate because the 1950s have become such a touchstone for examining our attitudes toward sex. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, adapting a novel by Patricia Highsmith, have done an exemplary job in Carol of not tilting the emphasis toward Grease-style caricature or Mad Men-style satire of the era, or exploiting the same-sex relationship in the film for sensationalism or statement-making. Carol is a story about people in relationships, clear-sightedly viewed in a way that Therese herself would endorse. After asking her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) if he's ever been in love with a boy and receiving a shocked reply that he's only "heard of people like that," Therese replies, "I don't mean people like that. I just mean two people who fall in love with each other." It's this matter-of-factness that the film tries to maintain throughout its story of Therese and Carol (Cate Blanchett), the well-to-do wife in a failing marriage. That the film is set in the 1950s, when cracks were showing in the conventional attitudes toward both marriage and homosexuality, gives piquancy to their relationship, but it doesn't limit it. The story could be (and probably is) playing itself out today in various combinations of sexual identity. The film works in large part because of the steadiness of Haynes at the helm, with two extraordinary actresses at the center and beautiful support from Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol's ex-lover, and Kyle Chandler (one of those largely unsung actors like the late Bill Paxton who make almost everything they appear in better) as Carol's husband, the hard-edged Harge Aird. The sonic texture of the 1950s is splendidly provided by Carter Burwell's score and a selection of classic popular music by artists like Woody Herman, Georgia Gibbs, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, and Billie Holiday.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Assassin(s) (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1997)

Perhaps no movie since Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) has sledgehammered television quite so thoroughly as Assassin(s). But where Network took the business of television for its target, Assassin(s) aims at the medium's ubiquity and its desensitizing effect on viewers. It's not a novel point, of course, and even the spin writer-director Mathieu Kassovitz decides to give it -- the effect TV has in creating a culture of violence -- is neither fresh nor unquestioned. The story at the film's center is about an aging professional hit man, Mr. Wagner (Michel Serrault), who takes on a young petty thief, Max (Kassovitz), as his apprentice. It's set in the Parisian banlieus that were the socio-political milieu for Kassovitz's earlier (and much better) film about violence, La Haine (1995). It opens with Mr. Wagner guiding Max into the brutal and entirely gratuitous murder of an elderly man (Robert Gendreu), and then flashes back to bring the story up to a recapitulation of the event -- rubbing our noses in it, so to speak. Max is a layabout and a screwup, but there is a core of reluctance within him that Mr. Wagner is determined to obliterate. Eventually, Max takes on his own protégé, a teenager named Mehdi (Mehdi Benoufa), who is decidedly not reluctant to engage in a little killing, seeing it as just an extension of the videogames he plays. Throughout the film, television sets are blaring game shows, commercials, sitcoms, and even nature documentaries in the background, an ironic, if sometimes heavyhanded, counterpoint to the murders committed by Mr. Wagner, Max, and Mehdi. Kassovitz stages much of the film well, extracting full shock value, and he sometimes embroiders the realism of the story with surreal touches: At one point, when Mr. Wagner is walking away from Max, we see a demonic tail emerge from beneath Wagner's overcoat -- or is it Max, perpetually stoned, who sees this? More effectively, reinforcing Kassovitz's treatment of the effects of television, Mehdi -- who is coming unglued after his first commissioned hit -- watches a TV sitcom about a group of young people that suddenly turns into violent, necrophiliac pornography, accompanied by a laugh track. Kassovitz showed undeniable talent with La Haine, and some of it is on display here. Assassin(s) was booed at the Cannes festival, and has never received a wide commercial release in the United States, but it's something of a fascinating (if often repellent) failure.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)

The first stage of Marlene Dietrich's Hollywood career, when she was under the tutelage of Josef von Sternberg, ended with her being labeled "poison at the box office" by a disgruntled exhibitor in 1938, a label that helped push many of her contemporaries -- Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer -- into early retirement. Dietrich was made of sterner stuff, and after a celebrated turn entertaining American troops during World War II, she carved out a second film career by taking on character roles in films by major directors like Billy Wilder in A Foreign Affair (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Fritz Lang in Rancho Notorious (1952), Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (1958), and Alfred Hitchcock in Stage Fright. Of these, the Hitchcock film is surprisingly the least memorable. It may be that Dietrich, who had learned everything she could about lighting and camera angles from Sternberg and cinematographers like Lee Garmes, was too much the diva for Hitchcock, who liked to be in control on his sets. But the fact remains that she is probably the most interesting thing about Stage Fright, a somewhat overcomplicated and sometimes scattered mystery in which we pretty much know whodunit from the beginning. Her appearances often come as a welcome relief from the rather tepid romantic triangle involving the characters played by Jane Wyman, Richard Todd, and Michael Wilding. Dietrich sings -- if that's the right word for what she does, being more diseuse than singer -- a few songs, including "La Vie en Rose" and Cole Porter's "The Laziest Gal in Town," and wears some Christian Dior gowns as Charlotte Inwood, the star of a musical revue in London, who bumps off her husband with the help of her lover, Jonathan Cooper (Todd), who is also the lover of a young student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Eve Gill (Wyman). But Eve also gets caught up in the murder plot when she falls for the detective investigating the case, Wilfred Smith (Wilding). Also providing relief from the romantic plot are Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike as Eve's separated and slightly eccentric parents, and some funny cameos by Miles Malleson and Joyce Grenfell. The screenplay is by Whitfield Cook from an adaptation by Alma Reville of a novel by Selwyn Jepson. There are some clever Hitchcockian moments, including a flashback that turns out to be a complete misdirection and some skillful tracking shots by cinematographer Wilkie Cooper. But Wyman, the only American-born member of  the cast, feels out of her element, and Wilding turns his character into a moonstruck milksop. (Whatever did Elizabeth Taylor see in him?)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Poil de Carotte (Julien Duvivier, 1932)

Poil de Carotte -- which means "carrot top" -- is a curious amalgam of fairytale themes and psychological realism. The film evokes fairytales with its story of a neglected and exploited child who has a kindly godparent, set in a picturesque French village that, except for the absence of a castle with a prince in it, could have doubled for the setting of Cinderella. We first meet the film's Cinderella analog, François Lepic (Robert Lynen), known universally as "Poil de carotte," as he is about to leave school for a vacation back home. He doesn't really want to go: When we first see him, he is being criticized by a teacher for having written in an essay, "A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who can't stand one another." We soon find out how he comes by this cynical definition when he arrives home to his vaguely neglectful father (Harry Baur), his icy, controlling mother (Catherine Fonteney), and his spoiled older siblings, Ernestine (Simone Aubry) and Félix (Maxime Fromiot). His status in the family becomes apparent at the dinner table, where he sits licking his lips in anticipation of the dish of melon slices being passed around, only to have his mother say he doesn't want any, apparently because she doesn't like melons. After dinner, he is sent to take the melon rinds -- he gnaws on them once he's outside -- to the rabbits and to shut the gate to the chicken yard. He protests: It's dark outside and he's scared. But his sister and brother refuse the task because they're both reading, and he's sent out into the night, which he imagines to be full of ghosts dancing in a ring. His only escape from the chores, his mother's harshness, and his father's indifference is to visit his godfather (Louis Gauthier), a cheerful idler, where he wades in the brook and has a mock wedding with a little neighbor girl, Mathilde (Colette Segall), presided over by the godfather playing a tune on his hurdy-gurdy. It's a lovely little pastoral idyll that ends all too soon. As he returns home, Poil de Carotte realizes how lonely and unloved he is, and he begins to contemplate suicide. This abrupt reversal of mood comes from an 1894 novella by Jules Renard that writer-director Julien Duvivier first adapted for a silent movie version in 1926. It's a little too abrupt for a work of psychological truth: Poil de Carotte has been seen as resilient and resourceful up to this point, and his deep depression comes upon him all too suddenly. When he finally achieves a connection with his father, in a scene that despite the dramatic flaws of the film is quite touching, it's explained to us that Poil de Carotte was conceived by accident, long after the husband and wife had ceased to love each other. He therefore became an object of resentment by both parents. At the end, the father vows that everyone will call him François, not Poil de Carotte, henceforth. The performances by Lynen and Baur make this second reversal plausible, if not entirely convincing. Duvivier's direction is more solid than his screenplay, and the film is at its best in the scenes of village life, beautifully shot by Armand Thirard.