A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Early Hitchcock

The Ring (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
Ian Hunter, Carl Brisson, and Eugene Corri in The Ring
"One-Round" Jack Sander: Carl Brisson
Bob Corby: Ian Hunter
Mabel: Lillian Hall-Davis
The Promoter: Forrester Harvey
The Showman: Harry Terry
Jack's Trainer: Gordon Harker

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox

The Farmer's Wife (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928)
Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas in The Farmer's Wife
Farmer Sweetland: Jameson Thomas
Araminta Dench: Lillian Hall-Davis
Churdles Ash: Gordon Harker
Widow Windeatt: Louie Pounds
Thirza Tapper: Maud Gill
Mary Hearn: Olga Slade
Mercy Bassett: Ruth Maitland

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard
Based on a play by Eden Phillpotts
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox

The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)
Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson, and Malcolm Keen in The Manxman
Pete Quilliam: Carl Brisson
Philip Christian: Malcolm Keen
Kate Creegen: Anny Ondra
Caesar Creegen: Randle Ayrton
Mrs. Creegen: Clare Greet

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard
Based on a novel by Hall Caine
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox

These nicely restored silent Hitchcock films don't have a lot that's "Hitchcockian" about them except his ability to tell a story visually. Even compared to his other silents like Downhill (1927) and especially The Lodger (1927), they feel a little routine. What sets them apart from his later work is the focus on working-class people: carnival workers, farmers, and fishermen. Two of them are romantic melodramas involving a love triangle, the other a comedy about a widower in search of a wife. The Ring is the liveliest, with an impressive opening sequence that establishes the carnival setting with some kinetic camerawork and introduces the hero, "One-Round" Jack Sander, a carny boxer who takes on all comers, with the promise that anyone who lasts more than one round with him wins a pound. His girlfriend, Mabel, is the ticket-taker, and our first sight of Jack in the ring comes as she pulls up a flap between her booth and the interior -- a characteristic Hitchcock point-of-view take. Hitchcock also doesn't show the fights at first, only the boastful contenders being knocked back by Jack's punches, until his real antagonist, the professional fighter Bob Corby, puts up a real fight. From there, it's a story of Jack's rise as a pro and Mabel's increasing infatuation with Corby, even after she marries Jack. This is the only film on which Hitchcock took a credit as screenwriter, and though it's an entirely predictable plot, it's a workable one. Carl Brisson, the handsome Danish actor who plays Jack, returns in The Manxman, which is somewhat overplotted -- it's based on a popular novel. Once again, he's on the outs in a marriage. Pete, a fisherman, loves Kate, a publican's daughter, who agrees to wait for him while he earns his fortune on an overseas voyage, but she also loves Philip, Pete's best friend, a lawyer with ambitions to become a "deemster," the name for a judge on the Isle of Man. And when a report comes that Pete has been killed, she and Philip feel free to indulge their love, though his family opposes their marriage as destructive to his ambitions -- apparently Philip's father damaged his career by marrying beneath him. When Pete turns up very much alive, he marries Kate, who is pregnant with Philip's child, whereupon much anguish ensues. Eliot Stannard wrangles the material from the Hall Caine novel into something coherent, but Hitchcock rarely seems terribly interested in it. The Farmer's Wife gives Hitchcock a chance to show off a talent for comic pacing that he rarely exhibited in his later career except in the "lighter side" moments of his thrillers and in such marginally successful comedies as Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and The Trouble With Harry (1955). The film opens with Farmer Sweetland's wife on her deathbed, followed shortly by the marriage of their daughter, leaving the farmer open to suggestions that he needs to take a new wife. Completely, and somewhat illogically, ignoring the pretty housekeeper, Araminta, he courts -- disastrously -- some obviously unsuitable local women before realizing that Araminta is the one for him. A hint of misogyny pervades The Farmer's Wife in the comic portrayals of the mannish Widow Windeatt, the prudish Thirza Tapper, and the hysterics-prone Mary Hearn. It could be said that a similar misogyny colors the portrayals of Mabel in The Ring and Kate in The Manxman, women who seem to have no fixity in their affections. But Hitchcock was never the most "woke" director when it came to the treatment of women in his films. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Love in the Afternoon (Éric Rohmer, 1972)

Bernard Verley in Love in the Afternoon
Frédéric: Bernard Verley
Chloé: Zouzou
Hélène: Françoise Verley
Gérard: Daniel Ceccaldi
Fabienne: Malvina Penne
Martine: Elisabeth Ferrier

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros

Love in the Afternoon, released in the United States originally as Chloé in the Afternoon, is the last of Éric Rohmer's cycle of "Six Moral Tales," and it may be the most conventionally moralistic of them all. It's about a man, Frédéric, happily married, with one child and another on the way, who indulges in the fantasies about women in which all men indulge -- even Jimmy Carter, remember, confessed to committing lust in his heart. He's careful to avoid anything other than fantasies until an old acquaintance, Chloé, re-enters his life. Free-spirited and footloose in ways that Frédéric once remembers being, Chloé offers an enlargement of his fantasies: a dalliance that never extends to sexual intercourse -- until, of course, the day that consummation actually looms. Like most of Rohmer's "Tales," Love in the Afternoon is mostly talk -- rich, stimulating dialogue that only the philosophically loquacious French seem able to indulge in. It's a tour de force in sexual tension, with splendid performances by Bernard Verley and Zouzou -- one of those supremely French jolie laide actresses who audibly suck on their cigarettes.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984)

Michael Elphick, Me Me Lai, and Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime
Fisher: Michael Elphick
Osborne: Esmond Knight
Kim: Me Me Lai
Kramer: Jerold Wells
Therapist: Ahmed El Shenawi
Housekeeper: Astrid Henning-Jensen
Coroner: János Herskó
Coroner's Assistant: Stig Larsson
Schmuck of Ages: Lars von Trier

Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Niels Vørsel, Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Tom Elling
Production design: Peter Hølmark
Music: Bo Holten

Film noir becomes film jaune. The sulfurous hues of Lars von Trier's first feature-length film were apparently achieved with the use of sodium-vapor lamps not unlike the ones used in some cities as streetlamps and parking-lot illumination to cut down light pollution. The nightmarish monochrome so pervades the film that an occasional irruption of blue light comes as a welcome relief, especially since the determined grunge of the settings gives the eye no place to rest.  The Element of Crime is, in short, an assault on our expectations that a film will involve us in either its characters or its story. It's a detective story, in which Fisher, a former police detective now living in Cairo, visits a therapist to help him in remembering his last case -- the one so disturbing that it caused him to go into exile from Europe. Under an induced trance, he returns to the scenes of the crimes committed by a serial killer who murdered and dismembered young girls who sold lottery tickets. But the Europe -- no specific country, but though everyone speaks English, the place names are German -- to which Fisher returns in the trance is not the one his conscious mind recalls: It's a trashed-out land where the sun never shines and it always seems to be raining. There is a conventional film noir plot at work throughout the movie, but von Trier is less interested in it than in crafting a sinister dreamworld. He succeeds at that exceptionally, but fails to create a film that lingers in the mind as more than a tour de force in giving you the creeps.

Filmstruck Criterion Collection

Friday, September 15, 2017

Effi Briest (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

Hanna Schygulla, Wolfgang Schenck, and Uli Lommel in Effi Briest
Effi Briest: Hanna Schygulla
Instetten: Wolfgang Schenck
Major Crampas: Uli Lommel
Frau Briest: Lilo Pempeit
Herr Briest: Herbert Steinmetz
Roswitha: Ursula Strätz
Johanna: Irm Hermann
Wüllersdorf: Karlheinz Böhm

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Based on a novel by Theodor Fontane
Cinematography: Jürgen Jürges
Art direction: Kurt Raab
Costume design: Barbara Baum

Our ideas of the movie costume drama adapted from a literary source were formed by MGM and Merchant Ivory: Lushly produced, expensively costumed, glamorously cast, but often a little askew from the original novel. So it's informative to see what a writer-director with a determinedly contemporary oeuvre that often features satiric glances at modern life comes up with when he turns his hand to adapting 19th-century literature. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Effi Briest is based on a novel by Theodor Fontane with which most anglophones (I include myself) are unfamiliar. Instead of lush, it's spare; instead of sweepingly romantic, it's stately and slow; instead of glorious Technicolor, it's filmed in a rich and textured black-and-white. But it's also fascinating and, from all accounts, steadfastly close to the source. Fassbinder even uses dialogue and narration -- he does the voiceovers himself -- straight from the novel. Scenes often end with abrupt whiteouts that some critics liken to turning the page of a book, and there are intertitles in Fraktur, the font used in German books well into the 20th century. It's a film that demands attention -- especially because some of the dialogue and commentary were meant to be read and not spoken, so that they can sometimes feel a little oblique and stilted -- and reflection upon its themes, which center on moral rigidity and the pursuit of social status. Yet Fassbinder also makes it highly cinematic, particularly with his characteristic framing of figures in doorways and mirrors. There is, for example, a key conversation between Instetten and his friend Wüllersdorf that's glimpsed mostly in an ornate mirror with beveled mirrors in its frame, so that we get a fragmented, almost cubist take on the figures seen in it. The story is about the failure of the marriage of lively young Effi to a man who is twice her age when they wed, and her removal from a cosmopolitan household to one in a provincial backwater. The analogous stories are those found in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, among other famous novels, but Fassbinder turns his tale of adultery into a sharp indictment of German respect for authority and class -- the time is the late 19th century, but you can clearly see the attitudes that plunged Germany into two world wars. I wouldn't recommend Effi Briest to anyone who isn't already familiar with Fassbinder's work -- it's not a film that reaches out and grabs your attention eagerly -- but I would rank it among his best.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Joel Barish: Jim Carrey
Clementine Kruczynski: Kate Winslet
Patrick: Elijah Wood
Stan: Mark Ruffalo
Mary: Kirsten Dunst
Dr. Mierzwiak: Tom Wilkinson

Director: Michel Gondry
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Pierre Bismuth
Cinematography: Ellen Kuras
Production design: Dan Leigh
Film editing: Valdís Óskarsdóttir
Music: Jon Brion

I have a sneaky feeling that there's less to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than meets the eye. That it is nothing more than a romantic drama tricked out with intricate storytelling devices like misleading cuts and deceptive flashbacks and an overlay of sci-fi. The story of the affair of two misfits, the morose Joel Barish and the eccentric Clementine Kruczynski, has been told before. How far, for example, are Joel and Clementine from C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960)? The course of true love never did run smooth, but Eternal Sunshine doubles down on that premise, putting Joel and Clementine through the bumpy paces twice, leaving us to ponder if Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, et al. are telling us that their mismatched couple were meant to be together no matter what. Did Joel and Clementine split prematurely, rushing into the radical solution of erasing themselves from each other's memories, when instead if they had stuck it out they could have resolved their differences less drastically? No matter, because Eternal Sunshine is so efficiently and originally accomplished that we can overlook the conventional situation that is masked by so much cleverness. It is certainly the peak of Jim Carrey's boom-or-bust career, Kate Winslet demonstrates once again how invaluable she is as an actress, and the supporting cast is made up of top-caliber actors. I suspect that the film owes more to the fertile imagination of Charlie Kaufman, who won an Oscar for it (along with Gondry and Pierre Bismuth), and film editor Valdís Oskarsdóttir than to Gondry's direction -- he has yet to make another film as impressive as this one.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion
Maréchal: Jean Gabin
Boeldieu: Pierre Fresnay
Rauffenstein: Erich von Stroheim
Rosenthal: Marcel Dalio
Elsa: Dita Parlo
Cartier: Julien Carette
An Engineer: Gaston Modot
A Teacher: Jean Dasté

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Cinematography: Christian Matras
Production design: Eugène Lourié
Music: Joseph Kosma

I have to confess that when I first saw Grand Illusion a long, long time ago, I didn't get what the fuss was about. Why was this mildly amusing prison-escape movie considered one of the greatest films of all time? I mean, I got the general idea: That people are the same everywhere and that what divides us more than nationality is class. But where was the action? Why was there so little suspense? Why don't we get the raucous humor of Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953) or the heroics of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)? All of which is to say that our expectations have been so shaped by Hollywood to the point that it's difficult for the casual filmgoer to fully appreciate the subtlety of Jean Renoir's treatment of a story about which we have so many preconceptions. The greatness of Grand Illusion consists in Renoir's understanding of people and in his cast's dedication to bringing depth to the roles they are playing. To expect Grand Illusion to give us the full Hollywood measure of laughter, thrills and tears is like expecting War and Peace to stop teaching us history and concentrate entirely on the love life of Natasha Rostova. Like a great novel, Grand Illusion is designed to be savored and reflected upon, not to be watched and swiftly forgotten. The rapport between enemies, i.e., Boeldieu and Rauffenstein, and the tension between allies, i.e., Maréchal and Rosenthal, is what the film is about, and not Boeldieu's self-sacrifice and Rauffenstein's pomposity. It's also why we don't have closure on the stories of Maréchal and Rosenthal: Do they survive the war? Does Maréchal return to Elsa? Does Rosenthal become a victim of the Nazis? It's only because they have become such real characters to us that we even feel a twinge of frustration at not knowing those things. Hence the irony of the film's title. Hollywood gave us illusions. Renoir is determined to let us see the realities behind them.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

Isabelle Huppert in Elle
Michèle Leblanc: Isabelle Huppert
Patrick: Laurent Lafitte
Anna: Anne Consigny
Richard Leblanc: Charles Berling
Rebecca: Virginie Efira
Irène Leblanc: Judith Magre
Robert: Christian Berkel
Vincent: Jonas Bloquet
Hélène: Vimala Pons
Ralf: Raphaël Lenglet
Kevin: Arthur Mazet
Kurt: Lucas Prisor

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: David Birke, Harold Manning
Based on a novel by Philippe Dijan
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Production design: Laurent Ott
Music: Anne Dudley

Elle begins with Michèle Lebanc being raped by a man in a ski mask wearing black. He slugs her viciously during the act, and when he finishes, he takes her underwear and wipes himself off, then flings it at her before leaving. Michèle picks herself up and, as the audience silently cries out, "Save the evidence," sweeps up the broken glass and the underwear and dumps it in the trash. The next day she is back at work as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, working on a video game -- she owns the company along with Anna -- that features violent sex, and even urges her programmers to make it more violent. When she finally mentions the rape, in an almost off-hand manner, to her friends, she refuses their advice to go to the police. We learn that Michèle has never trusted law enforcement since she was 10 years old and her father was convicted of the mass murder of a number of children in their neighborhood. Elle is, in short, not a pleasant film, though it begins to take on the character of a thriller as we learn more about Michèle, her family, her ex-husband, and her friends. When we do find out the identity of the rapist, things become even more disturbingly odd. It takes an actress of the caliber of Isabelle Huppert to bring off a role like Michèle, and she remains the chief reason for watching this provocative, disturbing film. Paul Verhoeven has always been a director out to shock, and Elle is hardly an exception in an oeuvre that includes Basic Instinct (1992). But thanks in large part to Huppert, Elle becomes a probing character study, an exploration of the life of a woman whose moral compass was severely damaged by an intensely traumatic past. Huppert's performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination, helps lift the film above sensationalism into something with a solid psychological grounding, but if ever a film merited "trigger warnings," it's this one.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sandakan 8 (Kei Kumai, 1974)

Kinuyo Tanaka in Sandakan 8
Keiko Mitani: Komaki Kurihara
Osaki Yamakawa: Kinuyo Tanaka
Osaki as a young woman: Yoko Takahashi
Okiku: Takiko Mizunoe
Hideo Takeuchi: Ken Tanaka

Director: Kei Kumai
Screenplay: Sakae Hirosawa, Kei Kumai
Based on a book by Tomoko Yamazaki
Cinematography: Mitsuji Kanau
Production design: Takeo Kimura
Music: Akira Ifukube

Kinuyo Tanaka was one of the world's greatest actresses, celebrated particularly for her work with Kenji Mizoguchi in The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and she gives a heartbreaking performance in one of the last films she made before her death in 1977, Sandakan 8. She plays Osaki, an elderly woman who was sold into prostitution as a girl, servicing overseas Japanese in brothels in what's now Malaysia. In the film she tells her story to a young woman, Keiko Mitani, who is researching the history of the karayuki-san, women who were sent throughout the South Pacific to work as prostitutes. We see Osaki's life in flashbacks in which she's played beautifully by Yoko Takahashi. Osaki struggles at first against the life she has been forced into, but eventually gives in to the reality of her situation. Still, once the practice of selling girls for overseas prostitution is ended by the Japanese government and Osaki is able to return home, she finds herself the object of scorn. Even in old age, living in a shack on the outskirts of a town, she is looked down upon by her neighbors because of her past. When Keiko first visits her, Osaki tries to pass her off to the neighbors as her daughter-in-law from Kyoto. (After her first return to Japan, Osaki went to Manchuria, where she married and had a son. He sends her money, but his wife has never visited and seems determined to have nothing to do with her.)  Sandakan 8 tells a compelling story without excessive sentimentality or sensationalism. It drifts occasionally into clichés, as when Osaki falls in love with a shy young man who loses his virginity with her and promises to return when he's made enough money to buy her out of prostitution, but eventually he betrays her when he finds her exhausted after servicing a pack of randy sailors that has swarmed into the brothel after their ship came to port. But the rapport that develops between Osaki and Keiko is splendidly portrayed, as is Keiko's determination to make the story of the karayuki-san known in a country that would prefer to keep it an unknown episode in Japan's history.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970)

Daria Halprin in Zabriskie Point
Mark: Mark Frechette
Daria: Daria Halprin
Lee Allen: Rod Taylor
Cafe Owner: Paul Fix
Lee's Associate: G.D. Spradlin
Morty: Bill Garaway
Kathleen: Kathleen Cleaver

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Franco Rossetti, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra, Clare Peploe
Cinematography: Alfio Contini
Production design: Dean Tavoularis
Music: Jerry Garcia, Pink Floyd

It sometimes seems as if every bad movie eventually finds an audience, even if only as fodder for wisecracks on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Makers of bad movies even have movies made about them, like Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) or James Franco's The Disaster Artist, his upcoming film about Tommy Wiseau, the auteur of The Room (2003), a film whose badness turned it into a cult movie. Things get a little more complicated when the filmmaker is a director of the stature of Michelangelo Antonioni. Zabriskie Point is certainly a bad movie by any usual standards of plot or performance. Its endorsement of the revolutionary fervor of the young felt naive at the time and now seems at best simplistic. It was a critical and commercial flop: Roger Ebert called it "silly and stupid," and it banked only $900,000, against a cost of $7 million, on its initial theatrical run. But like another major flop, Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), it has been the subject of a continuing reassessment, attracting defenders and even a small coterie -- not to say cult -- of admirers, especially for its ending: a spectacular demolition of a desert house, with interpolated shots of the contents of a refrigerator and a closet being lofted in the air in slow motion. The fact remains, however, that Zabriskie Point really has nothing to say except that capitalist consumerism is bad and being young is good -- especially if you're hot. Neither point is made subtly and persuasively. The most glaring weakness is in the casting of its two young leads, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, who give almost hilariously inept performances as lovers drawn together in their rebellion. We never learn, for example, why Daria becomes so destructively disillusioned with her boss, real estate developer Lee Allen, that she imagines the cataclysm that ends the movie. It seems to have been inspired by her improbable encounter with Mark, who has stolen a small plane and, seeing her driving far below, decides to buzz her automobile. When he lands and they meet, they wander out into the desert, where they have sex. Their coupling is multiplied by a fantasy sequence of perhaps a score of couples rolling around in the dust. Incredible as the meeting of Mark and Daria is, it's perhaps more incredible that Antonioni, who had worked with actors of the caliber of Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon, and Monica Vitti, should have found anything to work with in Frechette and Halprin, whose lack of affect and stilted delivery verge on the ludicrous. Still, the film always gives us something to look at. Cinematographer Alfio Contini has an especially keen eye for the absurd and ugly jumble of billboards and signs that clutter Los Angeles, but he's equally skilled at capturing the beauty of Death Valley and the high desert in Arizona. Too bad that the visuals only serve to reinforce the banal contrast between civilization's corruption and nature's purity.

Turner Classic Movies

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)

Jason Franklin, Bette Henritze, and Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven
Cathy Whitaker: Julianne Moore
Frank Whitaker: Dennis Quaid
Raymond Deagan: Dennis Haysbert
Eleanor Fine: Patricia Clarkson
Dr. Bowman: James Rebhorn
Sibyl: Viola Davis
Mona Lauder: Celia Weston

Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Production design: Mark Friedberg
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Costume design: Sandy Powell

Homage never turns into parody in Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, a film whose very title alludes to Douglas Sirk's great 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Haynes's film is set in 1957, only two years after Sirk's was released, but the sensibility that controls it is very much of an era almost half a century later. Haynes has the liberty to deal with matters that were taboo for American filmmakers in 1955, specifically miscegenation and homosexuality -- two terms that now have an antique sound to them. But his film has the same resonance as Sirk's: Both expose the raw wounds inflicted on people by social conventions, by the desire to "fit in" with what a given community establishes as its values. We like to think of the 1950s as the nadir of American conformity, a society on the brink of having its repressive qualities exploded by the rebellious 1960s, but although Haynes's film is a "period piece," I think it also provokes us to evaluate what restricts us today. We can pat ourselves on the back that we -- or at least the liberal-minded people in the circles in which I travel -- no longer recoil in horror at an interracial couple or find ourselves shocked, shocked that there are people who love others of their own sex. But just as Cathy Whitaker and her circle of friends retreat into an exclusive community, we too often find ourselves falling into a similar trap of smug self-righteousness that won't withstand the cold shock of reality -- like, for example, a presidential election gone awry. Cathy's blithe intellectualized conviction that all people are created equal is tested when she crosses the invisible line between the races. Her frustration at not being able to have a friendship with a black man -- i.e., someone other than the dull suburbanites that surround her -- is mirrored by her husband's inability to make his way out of the closet. But Cathy naively thinks that there's a "cure" for his problem, making it a lesser trial than her own, which she can blame on society. In the end, the beauty of Haynes's film is that he never yields to the temptation to impose a false liberation on his characters, an ending in which everyone lives happily ever after. Cathy sees Raymond off at the station, knowing that she'll never visit him in Baltimore. Frank is holed up in a hotel room with his lover instead of his spacious suburban home, his family life and probably his job now at an end. They are real enough characters that we want to know what will happen to them, but we suspect that there are no stirring triumphs ahead, only a struggle to rebuild damaged lives. Haynes and his team of cinematographer Edward Lachman, production designer Mark Friedman, costumer Sandy Powell, and composer Elmer Bernstein have crafted a 1950s world that's familiar to us from countless movies, but because of the shrewdness of the screenplay, the depth of the characterization, and the brilliance of the performers the film succeeds in making it real. There are stereotypes in the film, like Celia Weston's malicious gossip, but they are balanced by roles that could have fallen too easily into stereotypes -- Patricia Clarkson's best friend, James Rebhorn's doctor, Viola Davis's maid -- yet manage to develop dimensions of actuality. Far From Heaven also does something that very few films inspired by older ones do: It illuminates its source, so that it's possible to watch All That Heaven Allows again with a new understanding of Sirk's achievement.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Marcel Pagnol's Marseille Trilogy (1931, 1932, 1936)

Marius (Alexander Korda, 1931)
Raimu and Pierre Fresnay in Marius
César Olivier: Raimu
Marius: Pierre Fresnay
Honoré Panisse: Fernand Charpin
Fanny: Orane Demazis
Honorine Cabanis: Alida Rouffe
Félix Escartefigue: Paul Dullac
Albert Brun: Robert Vattier
Piquoiseau: Alexandre Mihalesco

Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol
Based on a play by Marcel Pagnol
Cinematography: Theodore J. Pahle
Art direction: Alfred Junge, Vincent Korda

Fanny (Marc Allegret, 1932)
Fernand Charpin, Raimu, Pierre Fresnay, and Orane Demazis in Fanny
Cast identical to Marius, except:

Félix Escartefigue: Auguste Mouriès
Aunt Claudine: Milly Mathis
Elzéar: Louis Boulle
Dr. Venelle: Édouard Delmont

Director: Marc Allegret
Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol
Based on a play by Marcel Pagnol
Cinematography: Nikolai Toporkoff
Production design: Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Vincent Scotto

César (Marcel Pagnol, 1936)
André Fouché and Raimu in César
Cast identical to Fanny, except:

Césariot: André Fouché
Félix Escartefigue: Paul Dullac
Innocent Mangiapan: Marcel Maupin
Elzéar: Thommeray
Pierre Dromard: Robert Bassac
Fernand: Doumel

Director: Marcel Pagnol
Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol
Cinematography: Willy Faktorovitch, Grischa, Roger Ledru

Critics of the auteur theory -- that the director is the true "author" of a film -- point to Marcel Pagnol's Marseille trilogy as a glowing exception: It's the writer's characters and dialogue that carry all three films, even when Pagnol himself is the credited director, as he is in the third film, César. This amounts to nitpicking, I fear. Pagnol was on hand for all three films, even when they were nominally being directed by Alexander Korda and Marc Allegret (neither of them inconsiderable directors), and by all accounts Pagnol was not at all silent about making his opinions known. He had been an early enthusiast of the talkies, and immediately saw that his plays, Marius and Fanny, were naturals for the screen. What better way to sweeten his stories about life in Marseille than by opening them out with visuals of the actual waterfront? But for Pagnol, the words and the sounds came first: It's said that he would turn his back as a scene was being shot, and would only give his approval when what he heard sounded right. That presupposed, of course, a cast capable of making the words work, which meant starting with the original César, the actor known only as Raimu (Jules Auguste Muraire), and the original Panisse, Fernand Charpin, both of them born in the neighborhood of Marseille. The Marius, Pierre Fresnay, and the Fanny, Orane Demazis, had to be coached in the dialect, but most of the rest of the cast were from the south of France. The dialect is lost on us subtitle-dependent Anglophones, but it seems to have been one of the reasons that all of France took the trilogy to heart, relishing this slice of provincial life even in Paris. And it is a glorious trio of movies still, rich with comic performances, dominated of course by Raimu as the blustering, sentimental César. It's hard to find a performer to compare with Raimu, but the one that comes to my mind is Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, certain of himself and capable of explosions that go off with lots of noise and very little actual damage. Raimu, Charpin, and the actors that form their little circle -- best seen when playing cards, as in the classic game in Marius -- are a superb ensemble. There is some controversy over Demazis as Fanny -- the actress is described in one source as "pudding faced," and if you're expecting a gamine type like Leslie Caron, who played the part in the 1961 Fanny directed by Joshua Logan, you'll be disappointed. But I don't mind Demazis at all. While it's hard to think of her as the most beautiful girl in Marseille, she has the ability to pull off the more melodramatic scenes -- admittedly the weakest moments in the trilogy -- with real feeling. Pierre Fresnay is a touch too old in Marius and Fanny, but he comes into his own in César, when the character is closest to his actual age. But what makes it work are the ebullient characters and the splendid comic timing of the performers.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Fear of Fear (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Margit Carstensen in Fear of Fear
Margot: Margit Carstensen
Kurt: Ulrich Faulhaber
Mother: Brigitte Mira
Lore: Irm Hermann
Karli: Armin Meier
Dr. Merck: Adrian Hoven
Mr. Bauer: Kurt Raab

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Jürgen Jürges
Design director: Kurt Raab
Music: Peer Raben

As the title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film suggests, the protagonist, Margot, is stuck in a kind of emotional feedback loop: Her anxiety is exacerbated by the fear that she'll have another anxiety attack. As a sufferer of free-floating anxiety myself, I know the problem: Your inability to control fears that you know to be absurd undermines your sense of self, thereby arousing more fears. Fear of Fear, made for German television, is not an entirely satisfactory portrait of the problem: Fassbinder loads too much against Margot. Beautiful, model-thin, she's married to a loving but homely schlub, who is so preoccupied with passing an examination that he tends to shut her out. Moreover, they live in the same house as her mother-in-law, a homely woman who resents Margot's beauty, and constantly rates her for laziness, for neglecting her children, for not cooking wholesome meals for her family, and the criticism is only echoed by Margot's sister-in-law, Lore. Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann bring these Dickensian harpies to full life, but the element of caricature in the conception of the roles, though it adds a splash of needed dark humor, tends to undermine one's sense of Margot's plight as a real-world experience. Margot tries to escape from her ills into exercise, but she even gets criticized for swimming too much. So the other avenues of escape follow: Valium, alcohol (she guzzles cognac straight from the bottle), and sex. She begins sleeping with the handsome pharmacist across the way, partly to thank him for illegally refilling her Valium prescription when she runs out. Naturally, her dalliance is discovered, and Lore's husband, Karli, even tries to make a move on her. Finally, after being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, she goes to a mental institution where she's treated for depression. Seemingly cured, she returns home, but the film ends on a doubtful note: After learning that the strange man who stares at her and her daughter on their way home from kindergarten has committed suicide, she once again experiences an anxiety attack, which throughout the film Fassbinder has shown from Margot's point of view as a kind of rippling in the image. Margit Carstensen's performance carries the film, with the help of Fassbinder's shrewd direction, filming scenes through doorways and in mirror frames to suggest Margot's entrapment.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Gaslight (Thorold Dickinson, 1940)

Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook in Gaslight
Paul Mallen: Anton Walbrook
Bella Mallen: Diana Wynyard
Rough: Frank Pettingell
Nancy: Cathleen Cordell
Ullswater: Robert Newton
Cobb: Jimmy Hanley
Elizabeth: Minnie Rayner

Director: Thorold Dickinson
Screenplay: A.R. Rawlinson, Bridget Boland
Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles
Music: Richard Addinsell

One of the more famous crimes of MGM was its attempt to destroy the negative and all existing prints of Thorold Dickinson's 1940 version of Gaslight in order to avoid any comparisons between it and the 1944 remake directed by George Cukor. It failed somehow, and the two versions can now be seen back to back. The 1944 film is superb entertainment, winning an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman and showcasing Charles Boyer to very good effect. By its side, Dickinson's version can feel a little undernourished -- or is it just that the later version is overfed, fattened up by Hollywood largesse? I feel very kindly toward the earlier film, which doesn't attempt to disguise the fact that it's sheer melodrama with backstories that try to add psychological realism. All we really need to do is accept the film's Victorian subtext and to know is that Paul Mallen is a foreigner and that his wife, Bella, grew up breathing the pure air of the English countryside to see whose side the film is on. Just the way the Viennese-born Anton Walbrook smooths his mustache is enough to let us know he's a rotter. And was anyone more born to play the gaslighted victim than Diana Wynyard who, with her slight strabismus and her habit of staring into the distance, seems to be seeing things that no one else can? The 84-minute run time sets everything up efficiently and moves steadily through some truly suspenseful moments to its tables-turned conclusion. The 1944 remake runs half an hour longer and while its performances may be more elaborate (and in the case of the teenage Angela Lansbury's conniving maid, superior), Thorold's version keeps us nicely tantalized. The casting of Robert Newton as Bella's cousin is amusing, considering that Newton would go on to make his name as an actor with the terrifying Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). Those of us who saw that film first may suspect that he's up to no good in Gaslight, but we'd be wrong.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Suspicion
Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth: Joan Fontaine
Johnnie Aysgarth: Cary Grant
General McLaidlaw: Cedric Hardwicke
Mrs. McLaidlaw: May Whitty
Beaky Thwaite: Nigel Bruce
Mrs. Newsham: Isabel Jeans
Ethel: Heather Angel
Captain Melbeck: Leo G. Carroll

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville
Based on a novel by Anthony Berkeley as Francis Iles
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Sr.
Music: Franz Waxman

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you," as Joseph Heller put it in Catch-22. Considering how many plots of Alfred Hitchcock's films are variations on that theme, he might well have had the phrase posted on his office wall. Suspicion is one of the purest explorations of that premise: A woman thinks her handsome rotter of a husband is out to murder her, and the evidence keeps piling up up that she's right. Of course, she isn't, but it takes an hour and 39 minutes to reach that rather anticlimactic conclusion. Suspicion was Hitchcock's fourth American film, and it shows that he was still getting used to working in a rather different studio system than the one he had in England. After the micromanaging of David O. Selznick on his first, Rebecca (1940), he had a comparatively easier time with producer Walter Wanger on Foreign Correspondent (1940) except for the difficulty of making a film about impending war in Europe while the United States was still officially neutral -- so the bad guys could never be explicitly identified as Nazis, for example. But his third film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), his first set in the United States, was a dud, in large part because Hitchcock had yet to master American idiom: The prissy character played by Gene Raymond, for example, was supposed to have been the best fullback at the University of Alabama. I doubt that Hitchcock knew what a fullback was, let alone one from Alabama. So for Suspicion he retreated to familiar territory, England at a time when there wasn't a war going on, and some actors he had worked with before: Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, and Leo G. Carroll from Rebecca, as well as May Whitty, who had starred in The Lady Vanishes (1938). The chief newcomer was Cary Grant, who would become, along with James Stewart, one of Hitchcock's most reliable leading men. But Grant's presence in the film presented its own problems: He was known as a charming actor in romantic comedy. Would an audience accept Grant as a potential murderer? One story, reportedly verified by Hitchcock himself, holds that the studio, RKO, didn't want to mar Grant's image and insisted on a change from the novel's original ending, in which Johnnie Aysgarth really is guilty. Biographers, however, have disputed that story, claiming that Hitchcock really wanted to focus on Lina's paranoia and not on Johnnie's villainy. In any case, the film's ending feels wrong, mostly because it resolves nothing: Is Johnnie's fecklessness really curable? The chief problem is that Lina herself is an unfocused character, improbably wavering between shyness and passion, between common sense and paranoia, between tough determination and a tendency to faint. Fontaine did what she could with the part, and won an Oscar for her pains, but the film really belongs to Grant. Hitchcock was the one director who could really bring out Grant's dark side.* He did it more brilliantly in Notorious (1946), but in Suspicion Hitchcock effectively exploits Grant's ability to turn on a subtle, cold-eyed menace.

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*A possible exception to this statement is George Cukor, who first explored the "other" Cary Grant as the Cockney con-man in Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Brigitte Mira and Gottfried John in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven
Emma Küsters: Brigitte Mira
Corinna: Ingrid Caven
Thälmann: Karlheinz Böhm
Frau Thälmann: Margit Carstensen
Helene: Irm Hermann
Niemeyer: Gottfried John
Ernst: Armin Meyer
Knab: Matthias Fuchs
Nightclub Owner: Peter Kern
Bar Owner: Kurt Raab

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kurt Raab
Based on a story by Heinrich Zille
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Production design: Kurt Raab
Music: Peer Raben

It's a too-familiar story in the United States: A disgruntled employee attacks his place of work and then kills himself. It may have had a more ripped-from-the-headlines feeling in West Germany during the recessionary times of the 1970s, which is my way of saying that Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven feels a little more stuck in time and place than Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films usually do. The setup is familiar: A man goes berserk at his workplace and commits suicide, leaving his family to face the aftermath. The follow-through is predictable: People -- tabloid reporters and politicians -- flock to milk what they can from the family's pain. But Fassbinder being the satirist that he was couldn't simply play the story for conventional domestic drama. He treats the family from the outset with a sardonic tone: The soon-to-be widow does piecework, assembling electric sockets on her kitchen table, as her son and his wife squabble over their coming vacation. Helene, Emma Küsters's pregnant daughter-in-law, is given to putting on airs about healthy living, preparing salads for dinner when Emma's husband and son want meat. Ernst, the son, works as a butcher, but he is so under his wife's thumb that he submits to her every wish, including a vacation in Finland when he would really prefer to go somewhere warmer. When news comes of the crime committed by Herr Küsters, we meet the daughter, Corinna, who fancies herself a singer, but really is just sleeping with the owner of the bar where she works. When the whole family gathers, the reporters flock to get the dirt, which is immediately swept up by Niemeyer, a writer and photographer, who starts sleeping with Corinna. In the background, their initial presence never quite explained, are a well-dressed couple, the Thälmanns, who turn out to be members of the Communist Party, eager to find a recruit in Frau Küsters, who becomes "Mother Küsters" for them. And so the unsavory game of exploitation begins. The problem comes when it has to end: Fassbinder provided two endings, in both of which Mother Küsters becomes a pawn in a game between the Communists, who are really just bourgeois radical-chic types, more interested in election victories than revolution, and the anarchists, who want headline-grabbing action. But one ending, the one shown in Germany and Europe, culminates in the death of Mother Küsters -- though the bloodshed isn't acted out, but just narrated in end titles. In the other ending, shown only in the United States, the action, a sit-in in the offices of the newsmagazine for which Niemeyer works, fizzles out because nobody really cares that much. Mother Küsters goes home with a janitor who has to close up the place and invites her to join him in a dinner of "Himmel und Erde" -- apples and potatoes with blood sausage. Both endings make the point, the first by refusing to dramatize the outcome of the protest, the second more directly: There's no real political conviction anymore. I rather like that both endings are available together now, not only because they reinforce one nicely, but also because there is nothing definitive to be said about the plight of Mother Küsters in a post-ideological context. Fassbinder, that great admirer of Douglas Sirk, seems to be saying that life itself has been reduced to melodrama, and the choice of a bloody ending or a happy one is completely arbitrary. 

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Saturday, September 2, 2017

White Nights (Luchino Visconti, 1957)

Mario: Marcello Mastroianni
Natalia: Maria Schell
The Tenant: Jean Marais
Mario's Landlady: Marcella Rovena
The Maid: Maria Zanoli
The Prostitute: Clara Calamai
The Dancer: Dirk Sanders

Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Luchino Visconti
Based on a story by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Production design: Mario Chiari
Music: Nino Rota

With White Nights, Luchino Visconti made a move from neorealism to neoromanticism that would be the major direction of his career -- a shift toward characters with operatic, overstated emotions, treading on the edges of sanity. It's a tribute to the skill of Marcello Mastroianni that he manages to keep White Nights grounded as Maria Schell's performance tests the limits. Mastroianni's Mario is a man whose good sense tells him that Schell's Natalia is a fragile woman on the bounds of self-destruction but his loneliness and infatuation with her beauty -- did anyone ever have a more dazzling smile than Maria Schell? -- keep him tied to her. He tries to break away, but an encounter with a prostitute restores his longing for the innocence he cherishes in Natalia. White Nights teeters on sentimentality, as do almost all of Visconti's films, but it's rescued by the skill of the performers and by the rightness of its mise en scène, especially the carefully crafted heightened realism of the studio sets. It also helps that there's a brilliant break in tone in the scene in which Mario learns how to dance to the music of Bill Haley and His Comets -- another demonstration of Mastroianni's boundless talent.

Turner Classic Movies 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)

Mel Ferrer and Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious
Vern Haskell: Arthur Kennedy
Altar Keane: Marlene Dietrich
Frenchy Fairmont: Mel Ferrer
Beth Forbes: Gloria Henry
Baldy Gunder: William Frawley
Maxine: Lisa Ferraday
Mort Geary: Jack Elam
Wilson: George Reeves
Preacher: Frank Ferguson
Harbin: Francis McDonald
Comanche Paul: Dan Seymour
Kinch: Lloyd Gough

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Daniel Taradash
Based on a story by Silvia Richards
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Music: Emil Newman

Arthur Kennedy was one of those reliably good Hollywood actors who never made it to the first rank of stardom though he received five Oscar nominations during his 50-year career on screen. He gives what is perhaps the most convincing performance in Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious as the Wyoming cowboy who obsessively tracks down the man who raped and murdered his fiancée, but convincing acting perhaps isn't to the point when you're up against Marlene Dietrich, one of those larger-than-life movie stars who can upend a scene just by tossing back her shoulders, unleashing her familiar hooded gaze, and letting a famous leg slip from the slit in her skirt. The part of Vern Haskell needs a Gary Cooper or John Wayne just for balance. Nor does Mel Ferrer, his reliable blandness offset by frosted highlights in his hair, fare particularly well as Frenchy Fairmont, the current lover of Dietrich's equally absurdly named Altar Keane. But Lang keeps Rancho Notorious from steering too far into the direction of camp, offsetting its Western clichés with some well-staged action scenes and a steady pace that briskly ties up the plot in just under 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Rancho Notorious, which was originally titled Chuck-a-Luck, was tricked out with a narrative ballad accompaniment, "The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" by Ken Darby, with the unsingable refrain, "Hate, murder, and revenge," that pops up every time you think you can keep a straight face. Still, the film is as watchable as it is incredible.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Wrong Move (Wim Wenders, 1975)

Peter Kern, Hanna Schygulla, Rüdiger Vogler, Nastassja Kinski, Hans Christian Blech in Wrong Move
Wilhelm: Rüdiger Vogler
Laertes: Hans Christian Blech
Therese Farner: Hanna Schygulla
Mignon: Nastassja Kinski
Bernhard Landau: Peter Kern
The Industrialist: Ivan Desny
Wilhelm's Mother: Marianne Hoppe
Janine: Lisa Kreuzer

Director: Wim Wenders
Screenplay: Peter Handke
Based on a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Film editor: Peter Przygodda

With his presence in Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road (1976) Rüdiger Vogler became as essential to Wim Wenders's films of the mid-1970s as Robert De Niro was to Martin Scorsese's work in the late 1970s and the 1980s. His homely everyman face is perfect for the self-centered loners of the first and the third films in Wenders's "road trilogy," men who find themselves having to come to terms with a world -- or at least a Germany -- they can't fully accept. But Vogler feels miscast in the middle film -- too old to be playing the young writer out to discover himself, a character drawn by screenwriter Peter Handke from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and thrust into modern post-Nazi, post-Wirtschaftswunder Germany. There is no naïveté left in Vogler's face, there are no illusions to be lost. Yet Wenders sends his 30-year-old Wilhelm on the voyage from northern to southern Germany, from Glückstadt to the Zugspitze, and into encounters with the world of art and politics that might have disillusioned a 20-year-old. Which is not to say that Wrong Move is a failure. It remains a film that tantalizes with its non-realistic narrative, its sense of of a world grown alien to people who think and feel, and of a country haunted by its desperation to escape from a terrible history. No surprise that a good part of its dialogue consists of people telling one another of their dreams, for the film itself has a liminal dreamlike quality. Would a fully awake and aware Wilhelm really pay the train fare for the con artist Laertes and his mute traveling companion Mignon? Do people really fall in love when their eyes meet between trains traveling on different tracks, and then somehow manage to get together after all? Do strangers really decide to travel together and wind up by mistake in the mansion of a suicidal industrialist? Or does all of that happen only in dreams? Wenders's film is touched by the mysterious angst that afflicts the characters in Antonioni's films -- the scene in the concrete caverns of Frankfurt evokes the bleak modern Rome of a film like L'Eclisse (1962), for example. In the context of a film so beautifully shot, so eccentrically put together as Wrong Move, even the miscasting of Vogler feels like not so much a mistake as a provocation.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015)

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth
Fred Ballinger: Michael Caine
Mick Boyle: Harvey Keitel
Lena Ballinger: Rachel Weisz
Jimmy Tree: Paul Dano
Brenda Morel: Jane Fonda
Queen's Emissary: Alex McQueen
Julian: Ed Stoppard
Paloma Faith: Herself
Miss Universe: Madalina Diana Ghenea
Masseuse: Luna Zimic Mijovic
Sumi Jo: Herself

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay: Paolo Sorrentino
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi
Music: David Lang

Woody Allen
Is it just accidental that in Youth, wearing a slouchy hat and dark-rimmed glasses, Michael Caine often looks like Woody Allen? Or is Paolo Sorrentino suggesting some kind of connection between Caine's character, a reclusive composer-conductor trying to drift into retirement, and the prolific but scandal-plagued writer-director? The resemblance might have been more on point if Caine had played Harvey Keitel's part, a writer-director trying to put together what turns out to be his last film, meanwhile obsessing on the lost past and approaching death. But then nothing quite fits together right in Youth, a somewhat scattered and occasionally enervated film. Caine's Fred Ballinger and Keitel's Mick Boyle are old friends -- there is even a suggestion, not followed up, that they may once have been lovers. They are also tied by the fact that Fred's daughter, Lena, is married to Mick's son, Julian. Fred and Mick have come together at a spa in Switzerland, Fred to undergo medical examinations, Mick to work with an entourage of screenwriters to put together the final touches on a script that's meant to star one of his longtime collaborators, the actress Brenda Morel. Also on hand, as a kind of confidant for both Fred and Mick, is a young actor, Jimmy Tree, preparing for a film in which he would play Adolf Hitler, an attempt to counter his popular image as the star of a sci-fi movie in which he played a robot. Sorrentino tries hard to bring together all the threads of each character's plot, including the breakup of Lena and Julian's marriage, Fred's resistance to a command performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and Mick's difficulties in coming up with a final scene for his film. But the pacing of Youth is too slow, and the manipulation of the themes of youth and age, past and present, too superficial. Caine and Keitel are two of the most dynamic actors ever, and Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano are certainly worthy of their company, but Sorrentino tamps down their energies. The only time Youth ever comes to life is when Jane Fonda finally makes her appearance as the aging, rather blowsy Brenda, in a performance that reminds us how good she has always been. She delivers the worst news Mick could imagine: that she has decided not to appear in his film but to do a TV series. But Sorrentino follows up her scene with one that feels ripped off from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), in which Mick, like Fellini's Guido long blocked from completing his film, finds himself surrounded in an Alpine meadow by the women from his earlier movies. It's not so much shamelessly derivative as it is pointless. Sorrentino is a formidably imaginative writer-director, as demonstrated by his dazzlingly off-beat TV series The Young Pope and his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty (2013) -- also indebted to Fellini but with a more inventive twist. Youth has touches of inspiration, but too often gets snarled in its own plots.


Monday, August 28, 2017

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)

Elliott Gould and Sterling Hayden in The Long Goodbye
Philip Marlowe: Elliott Gould
Eileen Wade: Nina van Pallandt
Roger Wade: Sterling Hayden
Marty Augustine: Mark Rydell
Dr. Verringer: Henry Gibson
Harry: David Arkin
Terry Lennox: Jim Bouton
Jo Ann Eggenweiler: Jo Ann Brody

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Leigh Brackett
Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: John Williams

The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's loopy take on the myth of the hardboiled private eye, holds up well today, thanks to Elliott Gould's performance as Philip Marlowe. A long way from the world-weary, cynical Marlowes of Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell, Gould's version of the character is a guy who will go out in the middle of the night to buy food for his cat and will stop dead in the middle of the street for a dog that refuses to get out of the way of his car. Not that he's a softy, exactly. He's not above meting out his own brand of punishment -- a bullet to the gut -- for someone who's eluded the law. It's just that he sees the world as a messed-up place and feels sympathy for its innocents: mainly, cats and dogs. Otherwise, there are few innocents in the circles Marlowe finds himself caught up in. He smokes incessantly, even though no one else around him does, thinking nothing of lighting up -- often from the butt of a previous cigarette -- before he enters someone else's space. He smokes so much that it's surprising he has the wind to chase Eileen Wade's car on foot for several blocks. The plot, as so often in adaptations of Raymond Chandler, doesn't matter so much as the attitudes on display, Marlowe's as well as the various people who are trying to prevent him from uncovering their secrets. Altman indulges himself in his usual overlapping, improvised dialogue, especially in group scenes like the one at the L.A. police station or the ones at which Marlowe is surrounded by gangster Marty Augustine and his henchmen. (One of whom is played by the unbilled and mute but indomitably there Arnold Schwarzenegger.) There are some great set pieces, such as the horrifying scene in which Marty Augustine smashes a Coke bottle in his girlfriend's face, or the attempt of Marlowe and Eileen to rescue Roger from the crashing surf -- with the nice touch that the Wades' Weimaraner fetches Roger's cane from the waves. There's some entertaining filigree around the narrative edges, like the gaggle of nubile starlets who live next door to Marlowe. And there's some offbeat casting that, for once, works: Nina van Pallandt, whose chief claim to fame is that she was hoaxer Clifford Irving's mistress and ratted on him about his fake Howard Hughes autobiography, and Jim Bouton, the ballplayer whose behind-the-scenes book Ball Four tattled on the misbehavior of idols like Mickey Mantle. Leigh Brackett, who collaborated on the screenplay for Bogart's The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), is the credited screenwriter, and apparently did shape the plot for Altman, but the dialogue has that off-the-cuff, on-the-set character of most of the director's films. John Williams's title theme, sometimes with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is wittily deployed throughout the movie, as doorbell chimes or supermarket Muzak, and in various arrangements, including one for the municipal band of the Mexican town of Tepotzlan.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Tsuyoshi Kinoshita and Tetsuo Abe in Boy
Toshio Omura: Tetsuo Abe
Takeo Omura: Fumio Watanabe
Takeko Taniguchi: Akiko Koyama
Peewee: Tsuyoshi Kinoshita

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Tsutomu Tamura
Cinematography: Seizo Sengen, Yasuhiro Yoshioka
Music: Hikaru Hayashi

We meet the 10-year-old title character of Nagisa Oshima's Boy when he's playing hide-and-seek with imaginary friends -- the only kind he'll make in the course of the film -- around a war memorial. We don't even learn his name, Toshio, until the end of the film: His family simply refers to him as "the boy." They are on the down and out in increasingly prosperous Japan: The father, Takeo, is a disabled veteran who has married for a second time and fathered a child, known as "Peewee," with Toshio's stepmother, Takeko. They have cut off ties with their extended family, and when Toshio mentions his grandparents he's told they don't want to see them. They make a living by fraud: Takeko runs into the street to fake being hit by cars, and Takeo bullies the motorists into paying him off instead of calling the police. At a certain point, the parents realize that drivers would be even more willing to pay up if they think they've hit a child, and Toshio agrees to become the pretend victim. They travel around Japan to avoid detection -- too many incidents in one location would cause the police to get wise -- and Oshima's film takes us on this unsentimental journey, going as far as the northernmost point of the country in Hokkaido. The parents squabble constantly, especially when Takeko gets pregnant and decides not to have an abortion, all of which begins to take its toll on Toshio. He runs away several times, always to return: His stepmother gives him cash, to his father's annoyance, so once he tries to buy a ticket to where his grandparents live, but finding himself short of cash he goes only partway, then play-acts a meeting with them before returning to his family. Oshima directs this story, drawn from an actual case of an accident-faking family, with as much detachment as he can muster, but the pathos is inherent to the story, especially since the point of view is that of Toshio. A young non-professional, recruited for the film from an orphanage, Tetsuo Abe gives a remarkable performance, maintaining a precocious stoicism through the worst experiences, but also revealing that there is still a child behind that persona.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Peter Chatel in Fox and His Friends
Franz Biberkopf: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Eugen Thiess: Peter Chatel
Max: Karlheinz Böhm
Philip: Harry Baer
Hedwig: Christiane Maybach
Wolf Thiess: Adrian Hoven
Eugen's Mother: Ulla Jacobsson

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Christian Hohoff
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Production design: Kurt Raab
Music: Peer Raben

I have a feeling that Fox and His Friends seems much less exotic or sensational to viewers today than it did in the mid-1970s, given the steady movement of depictions of gay men into mainstream entertainment culture. At the time it created outrage, not just from defenders of the heterosexual norm but also from the gay community, which found much of it distorted and unflattering. But Rainer Werner Fassbinder's story is not about being gay, it's about being exploited, about mistaking predation for love. Fassbinder's Franz Biberkopf, known as "Fox" from his gig as "Fox the Talking Head" in a sleazy carnival act, is a classic naïf who is taken for all he's worth -- which is the 500,000 Deutschmarks (a bit under $125,000 in the day) he won in the lottery. Fassbinder the director doesn't make it clear that the well-dressed guys Franz meets after one of them, Max, picks him up outside a public lavatory, are intentionally trying to fleece him, until Eugen, whose father's printing business is in financial trouble, sees a way to persuade Franz to rescue the company with a sizable investment and promises of part ownership of the firm. It could be, of course, that Eugen just gets a kick out of sleeping with the working class Franz. But he throws over his current lover, Philip, and takes the rough-hewn, slightly homely Franz into his home and bed. Is Eugen telling the truth when he tells Franz that he's being kicked out of his apartment for being gay? It would be entirely plausible in the day and time. Or is it a lie that gives Eugen an opportunity to persuade Franz to buy a posh new apartment, and to furnish it with opulent antiques from Max's shop. And to go along with Franz's new image as a haute bourgeois businessman, he of course needs new clothes from Philip's fashionable shop. None of this exploitation feels premeditated except in hindsight, as Franz becomes Eliza Doolittle to Eugen's Henry Higgins -- though with less overt success. The resulting film is a superb tragicomedy, one of Fassbinder's best films, I think. Fassbinder turns out to be as good an actor as he is a writer and director, giving Franz just the right blend of naïveté and street smarts. I think the ending of the film is a shade heavy-handed, but the rest of it is full of extraordinary satiric moments: The horrifying scene in which Eugen brings Franz to dinner with his parents. The vacation in Morocco, where the man* Eugen and Franz pick up on the streets is refused entrance to the Holiday Inn Marrakech -- though wouldn't a pretentious bourgeois like Eugen have chosen a tonier hotel? -- because it doesn't admit Arabs. (The employee refusing the entrance, himself an Arab, suggests that if they want boys, he could provide some from the hotel staff.) And the moment of truth in which Franz realizes he's been conned is shattering. Michael Ballhaus's vivid color cinematography is complemented by Kurt Raab's production design, especially in the garishly overdressed apartment which includes a chandelier hanging so low that guests have to walk around it, that Eugen puts together with the most expensive pieces from Max's antique shop. Only after Eugen and Franz break up does Eugen reveal that he hates the place: He has clearly condescended to what he thinks an uncouth working class guy would think is the height of fashion.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

*Played by El Hedi ben Salem, the star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), who had been deported to Morocco after a bar fight in Germany. Brigitte Mira, ben Salem's co-star in that film, also has a cameo as the shopkeeper who originally denies Franz admittance to her store to validate his lottery ticket until the suave Max flatters her into it.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Cruel Story of Youth (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

Yusuke Kawazu and Miyuki Kuwano in Cruel Story of Youth
Makoto: Miyuki Kuwano
Kiyoshi: Yusuke Kawazu
Yuki: Yoshiko Kuga
Dr. Akimoto: Fumio Watanabe
Horio: Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima
Cinematography: Takashi Kawamata
Music: Riichiro Manabe

In addition to the shamelessly exploitative title Naked YouthCruel Story of Youth has also been released as A Story of the Cruelties of Youth. So is it the story that's cruel or the youth in it? Those who know Japanese can probably tell me which is closer to the original title, Seishun Zankoku Monogotari, but I suspect the ambiguity is intentional. It's a cruel story about cruel young people, with the usual implication that society -- postwar, consumerist, America-influenced Japan -- is to blame for the cruelties inflicted upon and by them. With its hot pops of color and unsparing widescreen closeups, the film puts us uncomfortably close to its young protagonists, Makoto and Kiyoshi. Makoto is just barely out of adolescence -- Miyuki Kuwano was 18 when the film was made -- but carelessly determined to grow up fast. She hangs out in bars and cadges rides with middle-aged salarymen until the night when one of them decides to take her to a hotel instead of her home. When she refuses, he tries to rape her. But a young passerby intervenes and beats the man, threatening to take him to the police until the man hands over a walletful of money. The next day, Makoto and her rescuer, Kiyoshi, meet up to spend the money together. He's just a bit older -- Yusuke Kawazu was 25, three years younger than the film's director, Nagisa Oshima -- and over the course of their day together on a river he slaps her around, pushes her into the water and taunts her when she can't swim, and seduces her with his mockery of her inquisitiveness about sex. When he doesn't call her again, she seeks him out and they become lovers. They also become criminals: She goes back to her game of hooking rides with salarymen and he follows them, choosing a moment when the men start to get handsy with Makoto -- sometimes she provokes them to do so -- to beat and rob them. Naturally, things don't get better from here on out, especially after Makoto gets pregnant. We can object to the film's sentimental attempt to redeem Kiyoshi, who starts out as an abusive young thug but is transformed by love, and there's some awkward coincidence plotting, like an abortionist who turns out to be Makoto's sister's old boyfriend. But Oshima's portrait of a lost generation has some of the power of the American films that inspired it, Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) and Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950), as well as the French New Wave films about the anomie of the young by Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard. It was only Oshima's second feature, but it signaled the start of a major career.

Turner Classic Movies

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1946)

Charles Coburn, William Eythe, and Tallulah Bankhead in A Royal Scandal
Catherine the Great: Tallulah Bankhead
Chancellor Nicolai Ilyitch: Charles Coburn
Lt. Alexei Chernoff: William Eythe
Countess Anna Jaschikoff: Anne Baxter
Marquis de Fleury: Vincent Price
Capt. Sukov: Mischa Auer
Gen. Ronsky: Sig Ruman

Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer, Bruno Frank
Based on a play by Lajos Biró and Melchior Lengyel
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Costume design: René Hubert

Sometimes it's better not to know too much about a movie, for example the fact that A Royal Scandal was to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch and Greta Garbo almost made one of her many rumored comebacks as Catherine the Great. Might have been tends to distract us from what was: a more-than-passable comedy about the goings-on in the court of the Empress of all the Russias. It was a notorious flop, however, and essentially ended any hopes Tallulah Bankhead might have had for screen stardom after her much-praised performance in Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). The film was savaged by the often unreliable but enormously influential Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: He called it "oddly dull and generally witless," though he faulted the script rather than Bankhead and the cast. I still think that if you go into A Royal Scandal with diminished expectations, you can find some fun in it. True, the script drags a little, and the central palace intrigue -- a plot to overthrow the empress -- is rather muddled in the setup. But it has some clever lines, and it has Bankhead and Charles Coburn to deliver them. William Eythe, a kind of second-string Tyrone Power, handles well his role as the naive soldier captivated by the empress, showing some shrewd comic timing, and Anne Baxter, as his fiancee and Catherine's lady-in-waiting, represses her tendency to overact. The faults in the film are generally more due to the director than the script. In Lubitsch's hands the romance might have been wittier and the comic-opera complications of the plot more effervescent. Otto Preminger, who took over after Lubitsch suffered a heart attack, was not the man for the job. As he showed with his first big hit, Laura (1944), Preminger was greatly gifted at handling scheming nasties and noirish perversities, but he was never one for costume-drama frivolities. What success he has with A Royal Scandal comes from giving a capable cast the reins.