A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Beulah Bondi in Make Way for Tomorrow
Lucy Cooper: Beulah Bondi
Barkley Cooper: Victor Moore
Anita Cooper: Fay Bainter
George Cooper: Thomas Mitchell
Harvey Chase: Porter Hall
Rhoda Cooper: Barbara Read
Max Rubens: Maurice Moscovitch
Cora Payne: Elisabeth Risdon
Nellie Chase: Minna Gombell
Robert Cooper: Ray Mayer
Bill Payne: Ralph Remley
Mamie: Louise Beavers
Doctor: Louis Jean Heydt

Director: Leo McCarey
Screenplay: Viña Delmar
Based on a novel by Josephine Lawrence and play by Helen Leary and Nolan Leary
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Art direction: Hans Dreier, Bernard Herzbrun
Film editing: LeRoy Stone
Music: George Antheil, Victor Young

As the music ("Let Me Call You Sweetheart") swelled, and the train taking her husband to California pulled out of the station leaving Lucy Cooper alone on the platform, I muttered, "Please end it here. Please end it here." And so Leo McCarey, bless him, did. He could have, as the studio wanted, moved on to a mawkish conclusion, pulling a sentimental rabbit out of the hat in which their children relented and found a place where Barkley and Lucy Cooper could live together, but thank whatever gods preside over cinema, he didn't. I knew, before my reading confirmed it, that Yasujiro Ozu must have seen Make Way for Tomorrow -- or as seems to have happened, his scenarist Kogo Noda did. This is one Hollywood picture from the '30s and '40s that has its head on straight, keeping its heart in the right place. The film gives us complex, fallible characters instead of sugary and vinegary stereotypes: The elder Coopers are as much to blame for the predicament in which they find themselves as their children are for not finding a satisfactory way to resolve it. As an aged parent, one who once faced the problem of an aged parent, I find the film's willingness not to lay blame on anyone refreshing: Barkley Cooper should not have allowed himself to get in the financial difficulty in which he finds himself; he and Lucy should have come clean to the offspring about their money difficulties long before they did. And though it's easy to see the children as hard-hearted and selfish -- the film does tilt a little more in that direction than it might -- what we see on the screen makes clear that housing Lucy and Barkley is a little harder than it ought to be. She seems oblivious to the burdens she puts on George and Anita, and he is a cantankerous handful for Cora and Bill, refusing to follow the doctor's instructions. McCarey and his wonderful cast handle all of this superbly, with McCarey not only stubbornly refusing to provide a conventional movie ending, but also withholding some information a lesser director would have made much of, such as what Rhoda did when she disappeared that night, or what Barkley said to his daughter on the telephone when he informed her that he and Lucy weren't coming to their farewell dinner. (I think it's better that we don't know what he told her to do with that roast she was planning to serve.) A small, surprising treat of a movie.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fargo (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1996)

Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in Fargo
Marge Gunderson: Frances McDormand
Jerry Lundegaard: William H. Macy
Carl Showalter: Steve Buscemi
Gaear Grimsrud: Peter Stormare
Wade Gustafson: Harve Presnell
Jean Lundegaard: Kristin Rudrüd
Norm Gunderson: John Carroll Lynch
Stan Grossman: Larry Brandenburg
Lou: Bruce Bohne
Mike Yanagita: Steve Park
Shep Proudfoot: Steve Reevis
Scotty Lundegaard: Tony Denman

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Production design: Rick Heinrichs
Film editing: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Music: Carter Burwell

Every time I watch Fargo, which has been a lot of times, I start out trying to figure how Joel and Ethan Coen bring off the film's unique tone, its shifts from extreme violence to almost benign humor. But then I get caught up in the film itself and forget to make notes. This time around, I found myself struck by Carter Burwell's score, which helps create the mood of the melancholy snow-swept landscape but also occasionally breaks into something like an Elizabethan mode -- think John Dowland or Thomas Tallis, for example -- which, set against the Muzak that pours from speakers in various interior scenes, makes for a strangely wistful effect. The sound ambience of Fargo -- boots crunching on snow, the pinging of open car door alerts, the whine of the wood-chipper that we hear well before we see it -- adds to the film's special capturing of a sense of place. There are a few critics who don't love Fargo, who think that it's snotty and condescending toward the people who live in places like the film's Brainerd and other outskirts of the Twin Cities -- the place where the Coens grew up -- but I think they miss the film's affection for people like the Gundersons, especially in the final scene in which Marge and Norm snuggle in bed and dream of the child they'll have in two months. This scene would be ickily sentimental in other contexts, but it feels just right: The Gundersons are survivors in a landscape that does all it can to drive people mad, a madness that manifests itself in Jerry Lundegaard's financial desperation, his father-in-law's meanness, the killers' disregard for human life, or just the sad fantasy world in which Mike Yanagita seems to exist. It takes a special kind of stoic acceptance tinged with hope to live there, which the Gundersons exhibit perfectly. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Une Parisienne (Michel Boisrond, 1957)

Brigitte Bardot and Henri Vidal in Une Parisienne
Brigitte Laurier: Brigitte Bardot
Michel Legrand: Henri Vidal
President Alcide Laurier: André Luguier
Prince Charles: Charles Boyer
Monique Wilson: Madeleine Lebeau
Caroline Herblay: Claire Maurier
M. d'Herblay: Noël Roquevert
Queen Greta: Nadia Gray

Director: Michel Boisrond
Screenplay: Annette Wademant, Jean Aurel, Jacques Emmanuel, Michel Boisrond
Cinematography: Marcel Grignon
Production design: Jean André
Film editing: Claudine Bouché

Michel Boisrond's Une Parisienne is also known as La Parisienne. I don't know why the indefinite article used for the original release in France was later changed to a definite article, but I wonder if the thinking was something like that of the French censors when they made Jean-Luc Godard change the title of his 1964 film from La Femme Mariée (The Married Woman) to Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman): They insisted that the definite article implied a kind of case study, that the adulterous wife of Godard's film became typical of all married women; changing the definite article to an indefinite one turned the film into the story of one and only one married woman. So maybe taking the reverse route, changing "a Parisian woman" into "the Parisian woman," was the producers' way of suggesting that all Parisian women were like Brigitte Bardot, then at her perky peak as an international sex symbol. Whatever the reason for the title change, Boisrond's film is a fairly banal sex farce, and the only reason to watch it is Bardot -- no one was ever more skilled at exploiting her own charms -- and some nice comic support from Henri Vidal and Charles Boyer, who gives himself over to this nonsense with his usual charm and professionalism.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, and Richard Haydn in Cluny Brown
Adam Belinski: Charles Boyer
Cluny Brown: Jennifer Jones
Andrew Carmel: Peter Lawford
Betty Cream: Helen Walker
Hilary Ames: Reginald Gardiner
Sir Henry Carmel: Reginald Owen
Col. Charles Duff Graham: C. Aubrey Smith
Jonathan Wilson: Richard Haydn
Lady Alice Carmel: Margaret Bannerman
Mrs. Maile: Sara Allgood
Syrette: Ernest Cossart
Mrs. Wilson: Una O'Connor
Dowager at Ames's Party: Florence Bates
Uncle Arn: Billy Bevan

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt
Based on a novel by Margery Sharp
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film editing: Dorothy Spencer
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Ernst Lubitsch's celebrated "touch" was mostly a good-humored, occasionally naughty irony and a flair for pulling off sly sight gags such as the one that ends Cluny Brown: Cluny and Belinski are viewing his book in a shop window when she's suddenly taken faint, followed by a cut to the shop widow in which a sequel to Belinski's book is now displayed. The gag works only if you've caught the set-up, a joke I needn't spoil, but it's a reminder that Lubitsch, like so many of the great directors of the '30s and '40s, learned his trade in silent films. Which makes it all the more amazing that he was so deft with dialogue. Cluny Brown is also a great showcase for its stars, Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones, who were never quite so charming in any of their other films. Especially Jones, who was manipulated by David O. Selznick into so many roles that she had no business playing, such as the supposedly sultry but really campy part of Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, a film that appeared the same year as Cluny Brown, but seems to be taking place in another galaxy. That Jones could move from Pearl to Cluny with such grace suggests that she was a finer actress than Selznick ever let her be. Cluny also showcases some wonderful character actors, especially the always welcome Richard Haydn as Cluny's unsuitably prissy would-be fiancé and Una O'Connor as his mother, whose "dialogue" consists of clearing her throat. But mostly the Lubitsch finesse is what saves Cluny Brown from turning into the twee horror it might have been with its gallery of talkative eccentrics and off-beat situations. Instead, it's a refreshingly delicate comedy shadowed only by the fact that it was to be its director's last completed film, a reminder of the exchange that took place at Lubitsch's funeral when Billy Wilder sighed, "No more Lubitsch," and William Wyler replied, "Worst than that. No more Lubitsch pictures."

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989)

Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Graham Dalton: James Spader
Ann Bishop Mullany: Andie MacDowell
John Mullany: Peter Gallagher
Cynthia Patrice Bishop: Laura San Giacomo
Therapist: Ron Vawter
Barfly: Steven Brill
Girl on Tape: Alexandra Root
Landlord: Earl R. Taylor
John's Colleague: David Foil

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh
Cinematography: Walt Lloyd
Art direction: Joanne Schmidt
Film editing: Steven Soderbergh
Music: Cliff Martinez

Steven Soderbergh's dialogue for his very first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape had wit, candor, and originality, and his sharply drawn characters were beautifully played by a quartet of up-and-coming actors, winning him the Palme d'Or at Cannes and launching a major career. Sex and lies are still very much with us -- videotape not so much -- so it's no surprise that this deftly accomplished film still feels fresh going on 30 years later. My only reservation about the film has to do with its ending, which feels a little pat and formulaic, almost as if Soderbergh didn't know how to stop without tacking on a moral. So Graham, whose addiction to sex and lying is the most egregious of the four, gets punished by losing his job -- or so we surmise, since we never see him after he's been summoned to the office of the head of his law firm. Ann reconciles with Cynthia, which feels a little pat, considering that she broke up Ann's marriage, though on the other hand it wasn't much of a marriage to begin with and they are sisters, so she might as well make future Thanksgiving dinners less of an ordeal. But why do we get the pairing of Graham and Ann? Are we expected to believe that the various revelations and the destruction of his video collection has cured him of his voyeurism and impotence and her of her frigidity? There's a kind of obligatory quality to the ending -- movies have to round things out -- that feels at odds with the otherwise sharp exploration of the hangups of its characters.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978)

Randy Quaid, John Hurt, and Brad Davis in Midnight Express
Billy Hayes: Brad Davis
Susan: Irene Miracle
Tex: Bo Hopkins
Rifki: Paolo Bonicelli
Hamidou: Paul L. Smith
Jimmy Booth: Randy Quaid
Erich: Norbert Weisser
Max: John Hurt
Mr. Hayes: Mike Kellin
Yesil: Franco Diogene
Stanley Daniels: Michael Ensign
Chief Judge: Gigi Ballista
Prosecutor: Kevork Malikyan
Ahmet: Peter Jeffrey

Director: Alan Parker
Screenplay: Oliver Stone
Based on a book by William Hayes and William Hoffer
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Production design: Geoffrey Kirkland
Film editing: Gerry Hambling
Music: Giorgio Moroder

Late in Midnight Express there's a line that suggests the reason Billy Hayes was confined so long in Turkish prisons is that he became a pawn in the negotiations between the Nixon administration and the government of Turkey over the cultivation of opium poppies. If true, that's a much more interesting story than the one the film tells, which is hardly a story at all, but just a grim sadomasochistic slog through the degrading experiences of Hayes, tinged with a bit of homoeroticism. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his screenplay, which was only a foreshadowing of more of the same to come from Stone as he worked out his darker impulses on screen. The absence of anything more than a hint of what was going on to try to extract Hayes from his predicament, even to explain how he got into it (who, for example, is the shadowy American called Tex, who is "something like" a consular official?) turns the film into one long wallow in misery and a rather devastating one-sided portrait of the country of Turkey.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in The Babadook
Amelia: Essie Davis
Samuel: Noah Wiseman
Claire: Hayley McElhinney
Robbie: Daniel Henshall
Mrs. Roach: Barbara West
Oskar: Benjamin Winspear

Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk
Production design: Alex Holmes
Film editing: Simon Njoo
Music: Jed Kurzel

As a horror movie, The Babadook often feels derivative and somewhat overloaded with shocks. But as a fable about the psychology of stress and grief, it's a remarkably effective film. There is more to Amelia, brilliantly played by Essie Davis, than just a victim of malevolence. She is a woman under stress, not only suffering the aftereffects of grief but also lost in a world with which she can't connect. Parenting is something one goes through alone, the film seems to be saying, and some of us, especially those cut adrift by the terrible accident that deprives Amelia of the support of her husband, are not fully equipped to handle the stress of a somewhat hyperactive child, an uncomprehending sister, a depressing workplace, unresponsive doctors, rigid schools, suspicious police, and bureaucratic social workers. The only person to whom Amelia has to turn is an elderly neighbor suffering from Parkinson's. I think Kent has loaded the dice against Amelia a bit too much if she wants us to take The Babadook seriously as a portrait of a parent in extremis, and I wish she hadn't staged her film in the cliché Old Dark House -- the horrors Amelia and Samuel encounter would have been even more telling if they'd appeared in a nondescript suburban home. But there's much to ponder in Kent's unsettling fable. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

Greta Garbo and Bela Lugosi in Ninotchka
Nina Ivanova Yakushova: Greta Garbo
Count Leon d'Algout: Melvyn Douglas
Grand Duchess Swana: Ina Claire
Iranoff: Sig Ruman
Buljanoff: Felix Bressart
Kopalski: Alexander Granach
Commissar Razinin: Bela Lugosi
Count Alexis Rakonin: Gregory Gaye
Hotel Manager: Rolfe Sedan
Mercier: Edwin Maxwell
Gaston: Richard Carle

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch, Melchior Lengyel
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Film editing: Gene Ruggiero
Costume design: Adrian
Music: Werner R. Heymann

I had forgotten how audacious Ninotchka is when viewed in the context of the volatile international politics of 1939, a year teetering on the brink of a world war that had already begun in Britain when the film was released in November. All of the jokes about Stalin's show trials ("There are going to be fewer but better Russians"), about the ineffectual economic planning ("I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the past 15 years"), and about the deprivations suffered by the Soviet people feel edgy, even a little sour, when we remember that almost everyone was just about to embrace the Soviets as a valued ally against the Third Reich. It's a film that shows a bit less of the "Lubitsch touch" than of the cynicism of Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay. That it transcends its era and still feels vital and funny today has mostly to do with Greta Garbo, whose shift from the Party-line drone to the vital and glamorous convert to capitalism, along with the delicate way she retains elements of the latter on her return to Moscow, is beautifully delineated. That it was her penultimate film is regrettable, but except for her definitive Camille I think it's her greatest performance.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

Matt Damon and Tony Hale in The Informant!
Mark Whitacre: Matt Damon
Ginger Whitacre: Melanie Lynskey
FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard: Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Robert Herndon: Joel McHale
Mark Cheviron: Thomas F. Wilson
Mick Andreas: Tom Papa
Terry Wilson: Rick Overton
James Epstein: Tony Hale

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Production design: Doug J. Meerdink
Film editing: Stephen Mirrione
Çomposer: Marvin Hamlisch

Both Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) and The Informant! are based on true stories about people who exposed corporate malfeasance. But while the former movie was a solid piece of entertainment showcasing a star turn for Julia Roberts, it was also one that could have been made by any good director. The Informant! is the work of an auteur, a director with a distinct, even idiosyncratic style and a clear point of view, a measure of how Steven Soderbergh has grown in technique and confidence. You can sense that from the gratuitous exclamation point appended to the title and the clunky font, redolent of rock posters from the psychedelic era, that has been imposed on the screen credits. Soderbergh is out to play with our expectations of what a film about a whistleblower cooperating with the FBI should be like. The cast is full of comedians and actors who usually play comedy, such as Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Scott Adsit, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, and both Smothers Brothers -- Tom is a senior executive at Archer Daniels Midland and Dick is a judge -- all of them playing it straight. Their presence creates a kind of tension in the film: We keep expecting them to break out into familiar comic shtick -- for Tony Hale, for example, as Mark Whitacre's continually surprised lawyer to turn into the busybody political factotum he plays on Veep -- but they don't. Soderbergh's ironic tone is designed to fit the facts: Mark Whitacre may have been out to expose the crookedness rife at ADM by cooperating with the FBI, but he was a crook himself. We begin to sense that Whitacre may be a little bit off when we start hearing his thoughts in voiceover, meditations on polar bears and butterflies and anything else that crosses his mind, a delicious stream of consciousness that doesn't begin to hint at the complications of the character. Matt Damon gives one of his best performances as the chubby, cheerful, and morally unhinged Whitacre, and Scott Z. Burns, who had previously written a very different character for Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007), gives him wonderful things to say and do. Under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews, Soderbergh is his own cinematographer for The Informant! and he chooses slightly faded colors and casts a soft haze over many scenes, creating a subtly dated atmosphere for a film set in the early '90s, the era before ubiquitous cell phones and laptops. This is a sleeper of a film that almost went under my radar.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)

Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich
Erin Brockovich: Julia Roberts
Ed Masry: Albert Finney
George: Aaron Eckhart
Brenda: Conchata Ferrell
Donna Jensen: Marg Helgenberger
Pete Jensen: Michael Harney
Pamela Duncan: Cherry Jones
Charles Embry: Tracey Walter
Kurt Potter: Peter Coyote
David Foil: T.J. Thyne
Theresa Dallavale: Veanne Cox

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Susannah Grant
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Production design: Philip Messina
Film editing: Anne V. Coates
Music: Thomas Newman

Any film that purports to be what the title character of Erin Brockovich calls a "David and what's-his-name" story is bound to be somewhat formulaic. But I can forgive Steven Soderbergh's movie for its clichés, such as the hunky next-door neighbor who provides Erin with sex and babysitting, or the starchy, tightly wound female lawyer who tries and fails to do the kind of work in signing up participants in the lawsuit that comes so naturally to Erin. We're asked to swallow a lot of narrative shortcutting in the relationship that she builds with Ed Masry, too. But it's to Julia Roberts's great Oscar-winning credit that she makes this fictionalized version of a real person (whom we see early in the film in the role of a waitress) as believable as she does, with the considerable help of the invaluable (but never Oscar-winning) Albert Finney. I've always thought that Soderbergh is undermined by his choice of material: Traffic, which came out the same year as Erin Brockovich and won an Oscar for Soderbergh, is weakened by the difficulty of cramming so many interlocking stories into the confines of a feature film, and it too suffers from some formulaic plotting. But Erin Brockovich makes the case for the feel-good movie with its director's obvious delight in providing a showcase for such skilled actors. This is what makes his Ocean's movies (20001, 2004, 2007) and Magic Mike (2012) so entertaining. Would a grittier approach with less charismatic stars have done a better job of telling the story of Brockovich and Masry's fight with PG&E? Yes, probably. But there's something to be said for good things in glossy packages.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Sheik (George Melford, 1921)

Ahmed Ben Hassan: Rudolph Valentino
Lady Diana Mayo: Agnes Ayres
Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert: Adolphe Menjou
Omair: Walter Long
Gaston: Lucien Littlefield
Mustapha Ali: Charles Brinley
Sir Aubrey Mayo: Frank Butler
Zilah: Ruth Miller
Yousaef: George Waggner

Director: George Melford
Screenplay: Monte M. Katterjohn
Based on a novel by Edith Maude Hull
Cinematography: William Marshall

Today The Sheik looks more like a classic demonstration of the kind of colonialist condescension toward non-European cultures described in Edward W. Said's book Orientalism than like the campy bodice-ripping romance that both titillated audiences and inspired parodies. It's likely that nobody ever took it seriously until critics like Said made us realize how much its imperialist attitudes had infected our social and political discourse. The key moment comes when St. Hubert reveals to Lady Diana that the man who had abducted her was not an Arab but the son of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman -- thereby making his otherness safe. It provides a kind of wish-fulfillment: kicking off the traces of civilization (as defined by the West) and going "primitive." Setting all that aside (as if we could or should), The Sheik is a still-potent demonstration of the star appeal of Rudolph Valentino, whose eye-popping, teeth-baring, and nostril-flaring have gone out of style, but not his brand of boyish sex appeal. Agnes Ayres, on the other hand, is a rather dowdy heroine.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Most Dangerous Game (Merian B. Schoedsack, Irving Pichel, 1932)

Fay Wray and Joel McCrea in The Most Dangerous Game
Bob Rainsford: Joel McCrea
Eve Trowbridge: Fay Wray
Count Zaroff: Leslie Banks
Martin Trowbridge: Robert Armstrong
Ivan: Noble Johnson
Tartar: Steve Clemente
Captain: William B. Davidson

Director: Merian B. Schoedsack, Irving Pichel
Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman
Based on a story by Richard Connell
Cinematography: Henry W. Gerrard
Art direction: Carroll Clark
Film editing: Archie Marshek
Music: Max Steiner

Director Merian B. Schoedsack and actors Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong were literally moonlighting when they made The Most Dangerous Game: During the day they were working on King Kong (1933), which also used many of the same sets. While not the landmark film that King Kong has become, The Most Dangerous Game has some of the same sexy intensity, much of it provided by Wray's ability to look both wide-eyed and sultry. As in King Kong, she is a damsel in distress, trekking through the jungle in entirely inappropriate and flimsy attire. But although Wray is given little to do but shriek, writhe, and run, she manages to persuade us that if anyone could survive such perils, she's the one. Also like King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game carries an ambivalence about the sport of big-game hunting, articulated by Joel McCrea's Bob Rainsford when he admits that being hunted has let him know how the animals he hunted felt. Leslie Banks is the main show, however, using his war-paralyzed face to convey the madness of his supposedly Russian count -- who doesn't seem to speak Russian but instead some kind of gibberish -- with his credo of "Kill, then love." This is a pulse-pounding classic that moves along at a relentless clip from the exceptionally speedy shipwreck to the well-staged chase. It gets much of its energy from Max Steiner's score, which picks up the two notes of the count's hunting horn and embroiders on them effectively.

Friday, April 6, 2018

To Joy (Ingmar Bergman, 1950)

Victor Sjöström, Maj-Britt Nilsson, and Stig Olin in To Joy
Stig Eriksson: Stig Olin
Marta Olsson: Maj-Britt Nilsson
Sönderby: Victor Sjöström
Marcel: Birger Malmsten
Mikael Bro: John Ekman
Nelly Bro: Margit Carlqvist

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Production design: Nils Svenwall
Film editing: Oscar Rosander

Not long ago, while watching some YouTube videos of symphony orchestra performances, I was struck by how few women players were in the ranks of the great orchestras of Berlin and Vienna, especially in comparison to the numbers of women in the equivalent orchestras of New York, Boston, and Chicago. Even when the soloist was an Anne-Sophie Mutter or a Julia Fischer, the ranks of players behind her were almost exclusively male. It didn't take much Googling to learn that the fact hasn't escaped the notice of women musicians, especially in Europe. So I wasn't surprised when the crusty old conductor played by Victor Sjöström in Ingmar Bergman's To Joy introduced Marta Olsson, a new member of his orchestra, by commenting that her talent was "against nature." Eventually, Marta gives up her profession to raise the children she and fellow musician Stig Eriksson produce, while (mostly) patiently suffering his ego and infidelity. He's the one who, though tormented by the fear that he's mediocre, tries to move from the orchestra into a concert soloist, suffering a crushing setback when his attempt at performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto ends in disaster. The film is a flashback to their marriage after she dies, and though he's softened a bit by her kindness and good nature, he retains his egotism and self-doubt in equal measures. It's easy enough to see Stig Eriksson as the director's self-portrait, coming as it does after the failure of his second marriage. "Joy" is not an emotion that we readily associate with Bergman, though in this film it's an allusion to the final choral movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, an excerpt from which is performed at the end of the film. The Freude of Beethoven (and of the Schiller poem that he set to music) is an emanation of the divine, emerging after struggle and pain, and Bergman tries to embody it in Stig and Marta's young son, sitting alone in the concert hall as the orchestra rehearses the symphony. It's a conclusion that teeters on the edge of sentimentality, as Bergman's invocations of the innocence of childhood often do. Still, though a lot of things in the film don't work, such as a resort to a voiceover commentary on the marriage of Stig and Marta by the conductor Sönderby that feels jarringly out of place when it occurs, To Joy is a long early step toward the mastery of Bergman's later films.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Spring Dreams (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1960)

Chieko Hagashiyama and Chishu Ryu in Spring Dreams
Chizuko Okudaira: Mariko Okada
Miss Yasugi: Yoshiko Kuga
Shobei Okudaira: Eitaro Ozawa
Shinichiro Atsumi: Chishu Ryu
Grandma: Chieko Hagashiyama
Miss Yae: Michiko Araki
Tamiko Okudaira: Yatsuko Tan'ami
Mamoru Okudaira: Yusuke Kawazu
Dr. Hanamura: Shuji Sano
Eiichi Kato: Shinlji Tanaka
Ema: Miki Mori
Haruko: Mie Fuji
Kimiko: Meiko Nakamura
Umeko: Yukio Toake

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Keisuke Kinoshita's attempt at something like screwball comedy, Spring Dreams, has been likened to Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) because of its premise: a member of the lower classes throws a self-centered middle class household into chaos. In this case, it's a sweet potato vendor who has a stroke in the living room of the Okudaira household and is forced to recuperate there. Because most of the action takes place in a few rooms in the Okudaira house, I'm more reminded of the stage comedies of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It With You, especially since Kinoshita films with long "theatrical" takes. The head of the household, Shobei Okudaira, is an irascible would-be tyrant, bullying and mocking not only his family but also his secretary, Miss Yasugi, taunting her as an old maid. The workers of his pharmaceutical company are threatening to strike as the film begins, so he has a lot to bluster about. In true comic fashion, there are romantic problems to solve -- Shobei's daughter Chizuko wants to marry an artist, while he wants her to marry the son of one of his executives, if only to provide a suitable heir for his business. His own son, Mamoru, is a nerdy would-be philosopher who goes about inquiring into the meaning of life and has no interest in the business or much of anything else. (He's played by Yusuke Kawazu, unrecognizable as the same actor who played the rebellious Kiyoshi in Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, made the same year.) In the course of the film, the spinster Miss Yasugi will also find love, and even the matriarch of the household, Okudaira's mother-in-law, will recognize the sweet potato vendor as the lost love of her youth -- they're played, incidentally, by Chieko Hagashiyama and Chishu Ryu, the elderly couple of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953). Chuji Kinoshita's harpsichord score lends a delicacy to a film with a good deal of charm.

Tout Va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

Him, Jacques: Yves Montand
Her, Susan: Jane Fonda
Factory Manager: Vittorio Caprioli
Genevieve: Elizabeth Chauvin
Jacques: Castel Casti
Lucien: Éric Chartier
Georges: Louis Bugette
Léon: Yves Gabrielli
Frederic: Pierre Oudrey

Director: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin
Cinematography: Armand Marco
Production design: Jacques Duguied
Film editing: Claudine Merlin, Kenout Peltier

Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's sardonic look at what happened to the leftist intellectuals who were on the forefront of the May 1968 protests in France has two great cinematic showpieces. The first is the multi-chambered two-decker set on which we watch the employees of a sausage factory play out their messy, scattered, and mostly ineffectual efforts at a strike. Though the set is often described as an hommage to Jerry Lewis's similar set for The Ladies' Man (1961), the concept goes back to the era of silent comedy. The other remarkable sequence takes place in an enormous supermarket, in which the camera, placed behind the row of cashiers ringing up purchases, tracks back and forth as shoppers wheel up their goods, a communist hawks his book with a newly marked-down price, and a small revolution starts in which people are told that everything is free. It's a nightmare of consumer capitalism run amok. Godard and Gorin's satire is directed at the complacency into which everyone has sunk in the four years since May 1968, while attempting to demonstrate that the class struggle is still viable. It's conceived as a kind of film about a film, with off-camera voices discussing the need to cast stars -- i.e. Jane Fonda and Yves Montand -- to guarantee the money needed to make the movie. As a demonstration of Godardian film technique, it has moments of brilliance, but even though it scores some points, as political filmmaking it feels inert and now inescapably dated.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)

Ronny Cox, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Burt Reynolds in Deliverance
Ed: Jon Voight
Lewis: Burt Reynolds
Bobby: Ned Beatty
Drew: Ronny Cox
Old Man: Ed Ramey
Lonnie: Billy Redden
First Griner: Seamon Glass
Second Griner: Randall Deal
Mountain Man: Bill McKinney
Toothless Man: Herbert "Cowboy" Coward
Sheriff Bullard: James Dickey

Director: John Boorman
Screenplay: James Dickey
Based on a novel by James Dickey
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Art direction: Fred Harpman
Film editing: Tom Priestley

I haven't read James Dickey's novel Deliverance, but I think I can see why Dickey grew so angry at director John Boorman's revisions on his screenplay version of the book. The film never quite decides what it wants to be: an adventure story, an environmental fable, or a story about a clash between cultures. It works best as an adventure story, which is in the nature of film, and somewhat as a clash of cultures. The four suburban hotshots who arrive in the backwoods of northern George for a weekend adventure are from the outset rude and condescending to the people who live there year-round, and of course they get their comeuppance in extreme ways. The irony is that the one man in their company who sympathizes with the locals is the one who fails to survive: Drew brought along a guitar, not the bows and arrows that Ed and Lewis bring with them, and he interacts musically with one of the supposedly "inbred hillbillies" in the celebrated "Dueling Banjos" sequence. Drew is also the only one who tries to hold out for facing justice after Lewis kills one of the mountain men who attack them. Lewis argues that if they stood trial for killing the man, they'd face a jury of the man's peers; Bobby doesn't want the story of his being raped to get out, and Ed passively goes along with them. Better backgrounding on the four adventurers might have given more substance to their characters and their ideas, and the villainous mountain men are monsters out of nightmares rather than actual human beings, so the debate over justice seems a little out of focus. But it's mostly the environmental issue that falls by the way: There's little sympathy shown for the people who face seeing their homes flooded -- one of them even says it's the "best thing that ever happened to this town" -- an almost no feeling for the wilderness that will be sunk beneath the man-made lake. Boorman would later make The Emerald Forest (1985), a more environmentally conscious film also about the construction of a dam, set in the Brazilian rain forest.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The River Fuefuki (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1960)

Okei: Hideko Takamine
Sadahei: Takahiro Tamura
Sozo: Koshiro Matsumoto
Ume: Shima Iwashita
Heikichi: Shinji Tanaka
Yasuzo: Kichiemon Nakamura

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Production design: Kisaku Ito
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

In The River Fuefuki Hideko Takamine gives a remarkable performance as Okei, a woman who marries into a peasant family on the banks of the titular river. As generations pass in the small house that lies at one end of the bridge across the river, the family's sons are drawn, despite warnings from their elders, into service of the feudal lord in battle after battle. Keisuke Kinoshita has apparently designed the film as an antiwar fable, sometimes giving the monochrome images a storybook quality with overlaid washes and streaks of color, often highlighting just a candle or the fire in a small hearth with a spot of red. It takes the heroism of the samurai film and debunks it, reducing the combat to mere slashing and hacking. Okei endures and ages through the film, becoming the true hero of the story.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Man With the Recalcitrant Hat

Million Dollar Legs (Edward F. Cline, 1932)
Susan Fleming, Jack Oakie, and W.C. Fields in Million Dollar Legs
Migg Tweeny: Jack Oakie
The President: W.C. Fields
The Major-Domo: Andy Clyde
Mata Machree: Lyda Roberti
Angela: Susan Fleming
Mysterious Man: Ben Turpin
Secretary of the Treasury: Hugh Herbert
Mr. Baldwin: George Barbier
Willie: Dickie Moore

Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Henry Myers
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Edward F. Cline, 1941)
W.C. Fields and Margaret Dumont in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break 
The Great Man: W.C. Fields
Gloria: Gloria Jean
The Producer: Franklin Pangborn
Mrs. Hemogloben: Margaret Dumont
Ouilotta Hemogloben: Susan Miller
The Rival: Leon Errol
The Waitress: Jody Gilbert
The Soda Jerk: Irving Bacon
The Producer's Wife: Mona Barrie
Butch: Billy Lenhart
Buddy: Kenneth Brown
The Cleaning Lady: Minerva Urecal

Director: Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: John T. Neville, Prescott Chaplin, W.C. Fields (as Otis Criblecoblis)
Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Art direction: Jack Otterson
Film editing: Arthur Hilton
Music: Frank Skinner, Charles Previn

Was ever man so troubled by his hats? Million Dollar Legs and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break bracket W.C. Fields's career as a movie star (discounting his appearances in short subjects and in supporting roles in silent films and early talkies), and both begin with him struggling to manage a hat. It's a top hat in the earlier film, and it insists on having its own way, culminating in a familiar Fieldsian bit in which it rides behind him on the tip of his walking stick. In the later film, it's a straw boater whose lid comes to grief. Fields had crafted these hat tricks in vaudeville, and they remain one of the most endearing aspects of a potentially unlovable personality. Fields always managed to triumph over his own persona: Although Sucker finds him repellent in aspect, the broken veins of his nose and face unconcealable by any makeup artist, you can't help understanding why Gloria Jean, in an odd curtain line, proclaims her love for him. Both films are the apotheoses of the kind of sublime lunacy that emerged from his imagination, the former a surreal take on the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the latter an assault on the movie studios that tried (and usually failed) to stifle that imagination. Although Fields was surrounded in both films with superb comic talent -- Jack Oakie, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Hugh Herbert, Franklin Pangborn, Margaret Dumont, Leon Errol -- they are dominated by him, braving it out through all reversals of fortune that may come his way. The greatest film comedians -- Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, the Marxes -- were similarly indomitable. The climax of Sucker is a spectacular car and firetruck chase that owes more to the direction of Edward F. Cline, veteran of the golden age of silent slapstick comedy, than to Fields, but we shall never see his like again.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985)

Macha Méril and Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond
Mona Bergeron: Sandrine Bonnaire
Mme. Landier: Macha Méril
Yolande: Yolande Moreau
Jean-Pierre: Stéphane Freiss
Assoun: Yahiaoui Assouna
David: Patrick Lepcynski
The goatherd: Sylvain
The goatherd's wife: Sabine
Aunt Lydie: Marthe Jarnias

Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Film editing: Patricia Mazuy, Agnès Varda
Music: Joanna Bruzdowicz

We Americans tend to regard homelessness as a socio-economic problem, a consequence of a lack of economic opportunity (i.e., jobs) and affordable housing. But leave it to the French, or more specifically to Agnès Varda, to see it as an existential problem, a challenge to our notions of freedom. Mona Bergeron, found frozen to death at the start of Vagabond, couldn't have cared less about economic opportunity if she could find just enough to buy some bread that wasn't too stale and hard to eat, and she carried her housing, a tent, with her. Nor does she care that the stench from her unwashed clothes and body is repellent to some that she encounters as she hitchhikes her way around the Languedoc. Hers is a life, as the French title, Sans Toit ni Loi, says, "without roof or rules." She's not your typical off-the-grid dropout: Those are embodied in the film by the goatherd with a degree in philosophy who scorns Mona for her unwillingness to work, to which she responds that she may stink but she's free; he works all the time and stinks anyway. Varda has crafted an extraordinary docudrama, featuring both professional actors and people who actually met the real Mona Bergeron, played beautifully by Sandrine Bonnaire. Varda has a way of summing up things in simple images, such as the one above with the manicured hands of Mme. Landier, the scientist who picks up the hitchhiking young woman, and the grimy fingers of Mona, meeting but not touching across a cafe table. In simple strokes, Varda examines not only Mona's life but also those of people who encounter her: Mme. Landier, her colleague Jean-Pierre, the goatherd and his wife, and Yolande, a young woman who nominally takes care of the elderly Aunt Lydie, with whom Mona easily strikes up a more effective rapport. It's a bleak, sometimes funny, sometimes profound film that never succumbs to sentimentality or falseness.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Late Autumn (Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

Yoko Tsukasa, Setsuko Hara, Ryuji Kita, Shin Saburi, and Nobuo Nakamura in Late Autumn
Akiko Miwa: Setsuko Hara
Ayako Miwa: Yoko Tsukasa
Yuriko Sasaki: Mariko Okada
Soichi Mamiya: Shin Saburi
Shuzo Taguchi: Nobuo Nakamura
Seiichiro Hirayama: Ryuji Kita
Shotaru Goto: Keiji Sada
Shukichi Miwa: Chishu Ryu

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Based on a novel by Ton Satomi
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Production design: Tomiji Shimizu
Film editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Music: Takanobu Saito

It's possible to think of 1960 as a kind of watershed year in Japanese film, with the appearance of two such radically different films as Nagisa Oshima's The Sun's Burial and Yasujiro Ozu's Late Autumn. The contrast between the lurid chaos of Oshima's underworld and the strict geometry (of both style and morals) of Ozu's middle classes couldn't be sharper. I imagine some alien intelligence on a distant planet intercepting transmissions of both films and wondering that they could possibly come from the same world, let alone the same country (and even the same film studio, Shochiku). Ozu was of course an established master, whereas Oshima was beginning a career -- with a bang, it should be said, making three feature films that year. The razzle-dazzle of The Sun's Burial was long behind Ozu, if it was ever really in his cinematic vocabulary. But both films speak to the restless undercurrents in Japanese postwar society, Oshima's by confronting the disorder and corruption, Ozu's by slyly examining the breakup of stifling traditions in the Japanese family. Both end with solitary women, the gangster-prostitute Hanako in The Sun's Burial and the empty-nest mother Akiko in Late Autumn, confronting loneliness. But if Hanako has a counterpart in Ozu's film, it's really the feisty Yuriko, the representative of the younger generation who sorts out all the tangled threads that the meddling older generation has gotten snared in. At this point I feel the comparisons getting strained, but it's always fun to let differing films sort themselves out.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Vengeance Is Mine (Shohei Imamura, 1979)

Mayumi Ogawa and Ken Ogata in Vengeance Is Mine
Iwao Enokizu: Ken Ogata
Shizuo Enokizu: Rentaro Mikuni
Kazuko Enokizu: Mitsuko Baisho
Haru Asano: Mayumi Ogawa
Hisano Asano: Nijiko Kiyokawa
Kayo Enokizu: Chocho Miyako
Tanejiro Shibata: Taiji Tonoyama
Daihachi Baba: Goro Tarumi
Kawashima: Yoshi Kato
Prostitute: Toshie Negishi

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Masaru Baba
Based on a novel by Ryuzo Saki
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Production design: Akiyoshi Satani
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Shinichiro Ikebe

It might have been called Vengeance Without a Cause for all Shohei Imamura's film tells us about what drove Iwao Enokizu, a character based on the real-life con man and serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, to his criminal excesses. We are left to see them as the product of societal decay in postwar Japan, or perhaps as something in the air -- as the strikingly fantastic end of the film seems to suggest. It's a film with all the repellent fascination of a rattlesnake, and Imamura is intent on holding the viewer's gaze on the crimes. Nothing escapes Imamura's scathing treatment: not motherhood, not the police, not religion, and certainly not Japan's prewar history, which is touched on in a scene that a lesser filmmaker might have used as a source for Enokizu's disorder: His father is forced to submit to an imperial soldier as the boy Iwao looks on in disgust. Ken Ogata is attractively repellent as the adult Enokizu, and Rentaro Mikuni portrays the father as a man who hides his moral cowardice behind a façade of devout Catholicism. There are daring performances by Mitsuko Baisho as Iwao's wife, erotically fascinated by her husband's father, by Mayumi Ogawa as the manager of a sleazy inn who gets fatally ensnared by Enokizu, and by Nijiko Kiyokawa as her grasping, voyeuristic mother. It's part crime film and part horror movie.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964)

Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek
Alexis Zorba: Anthony Quinn
Basil: Alan Bates
The Widow: Irene Papas
Madame Hortense: Lila Kedrova
Mavrandoni: Giorgos Foundas
Mimithos: Sotiris Moustakas
Soul: Anna Kyriakou
Lola: Eleni Anousaki
Pavlo: Yorgo Voyagis
Manolakis: Takis Emmanuel

Director: Michael Cacoyannis
Screenplay: Michael Cacoyannis
Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Art direction: Vassilis Photopoulos
Film editing: Michael Cacoyannis
Music: Mikis Theodorakis

For a film that supposedly celebrates the life force embodied in its title character, Zorba the Greek sure is full of cruelty and death and destruction. I don't think I know a scene more horrifying than the ransacking of Madame Hortense's hotel after her death, when the black-clad, toothless harpies of the village swarm through in a riot of looting that ends with the dead woman on her bed in the stripped room. And yet at the end, after their mining efforts have collapsed spectacularly, after Basil has unwittingly caused the death of the widow and the suicide of his rival for her affections, Basil and Zorba dance. I suppose this is supposed to signify that life goes on. It was, nevertheless, a critical and commercial success, even though to my mind it's a disjointed film with radical switchbacks in tone. What it has going for it is a couple of colorful performances by Anthony Quinn and the Oscar-winning Lila Kedrova. Alan Bates, usually a fine actor, seems a little off in his performance, as if he hadn't quite got a hold on the character beyond the obvious odd-coupling of his mildly stuffy Brit with the flamboyant Zorba. It might be fun to see this film back-to-back with An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978), in which it's Bates who plays the life-force character, the shaggy artist Saul Kaplan, who brings Jill Clayburgh's Erica out of her post-divorce funk.

The Sun's Burial (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

Isao Sasaki and Kayoko Honoo in The Sun's Burial 
Hanako: Kayoko Honoo
Shin: Masahiko Tsugawa
Takeshi: Isao Sasaki
Yosehei: Fumio Watanabe
Batasuke: Katamari Fujiwara
Chika: Tanie Kitabayashi
Yotsematsu: Junzaburo Ban
Agitator: Eitaro Ozawa

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Toshiro Ishido, Nagisa Oshima
Cinematography: Takashi Kawamata
Production design: Koji Uno
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Riichiro Manabe

A harrowing portrait of gangster life in Osaka, filmed with the kind of widescreen eloquence that Nagisha Oshima and cinematographer Takashi Kawamata brought to Cruel Story of Youth, made the same year. This is a cruel story of all ages in the Japanese underworld, with a remarkable performance by Kayoko Honoo as the ruthless young woman who survives (and perhaps thrives on) degradation. For a little perspective, see my comments on Yasujiro Ozu's Late Autumn, also from 1960.

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Joan Crawford and Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce 
Mildred Pierce: Joan Crawford
Wally Fay: Jack Carson
Veda Pierce: Ann Blyth
Monte Beragon: Zachary Scott
Ida Corwin: Eve Arden
Bert Pierce: Bruce Bennett
Lottie: Butterfly McQueen
Mrs. Maggie Biederhof: Lee Patrick
Inspector Peterson: Moroni Olsen
Kay Pierce: Jo Ann Olsen

Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Ranald McDougal
Based on a novel by James M. Cain
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art direction: Anton Grot
Film editing: David Weisbart
Music: Max Steiner

Mildred Pierce provided Joan Crawford with her shining Oscar moment, even if she had to accept her statuette from her sickbed -- surrounded, to be sure, by press photographers. But I don't think it's her best performance. I prefer her as Crystal Allen in The Women (George Cukor, 1939), who, though she loses her sugar daddy still manages to kiss off the "respectable" women with a splendid curtain line. Or as Helen Wright, the consummate rich and predatory patroness in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), treating the Fannie Hurst melodrama as if it were Ibsen, inhabiting every absurd moment with full conviction. Or even as Millicent Weatherby in Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956), in which she fights against the hardness into which her face was beginning to settle as she turned 50 by crafting an image of a younger, more vulnerable woman. There are things about Mildred Pierce that don't quite work,  particularly the shifts from film noir, shot with expressionist flair by Ernest Haller, to "woman's picture" opulence of setting. But it is still an indispensable film, as essential to defining Crawford's career -- and hence to an understanding of how Hollywood viewed women in the 1940s -- as Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) was to Bette Davis's.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Ulrich Matthes and Bruno Ganz in Downfall
Adolf Hitler: Bruno Ganz
Traudl Junge: Alexandra Maria Laga
Magda Goebbels: Corinna Harfouch
Joseph Goebbels: Ulrich Matthes
Eva Braun: Juliane Köhler
Albert Speer: Heino Ferch
Ernst-Günter Schenk: Christian Berkel
Werner Haase: Matthias Habich
Hermann Fegelein: Thomas Kretschmann
Gen. Weidling: Michael Mendl
Heinrich Himmler: Ulrich Noethen

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger
Based on books by Joachim Fest and Traudl Junge and Melissa Müller
Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann
Production design: Bernd Lepel
Film editing: Hans Funck
Music: Stephan Zacharias

Downfall may be best known today for memes: the video parodies that take parts of the film, particularly the ranting of Bruno Ganz's Hitler, and supply new subtitles that spoof everything from contemporary politics to the efforts of the producers to suppress the parodies on YouTube because of copyright concerns. The producers were misguided: The parodies probably led more people to watch the actual film than would have without their notoriety. It's a well-made film, particularly because it manages to deal with an inherent problem: Would a dramatization of the last days of Hitler and his coterie tend to glamorize their futile struggle to survive, turning it into something like heroism? Ganz's superb performance helps the film sidestep that danger: His Hitler is humanized, to be sure, even to the point of once shedding a tear, but ultimately it's a portrait of repellent fanaticism and megalomania. He's a twitchy old man, one hand held behind his back in a palsied claw, but it's easy to see how the rather beleaguered men and women who surround him could be filled with a terrified awe of the man. I'm not particularly happy with the framing of Downfall, however. I think the decision to see much of the story through the eyes of Hitler's pretty secretary, Traudl Junge, shifts the focus away from the desperate horror of the final days, using a somewhat glossy survival story to keep the audience entertained. The footage of the real Traudl Junge that begins and ends the film doesn't much help illuminate why the "ordinary" German could be hoodwinked by Nazism, and her insistence that she didn't know of the true horrors of the Reich feels a little specious. There are, however, some moments of genuine drama in the film that emphasize how foul a spell Hitler cast over his followers, particularly the hysterical collapse of the otherwise icy Magda Goebbels at Hitler's feet when she realize the end is at hand. She pulls herself together and then proceeds to systematically murder her five children. I also liked the depiction of the cynicism of the Nazis who, when someone reminds them of the plight of the German people, sneeringly retort that it was their fault for bringing them to power in the first place. There's a lesson in the film somewhere for contemporary Americans, but I don't want to be the one to spell it out. Kudos to Stephan Zacharias for avoiding Wagnerian clichés in his score, although I thought the quotation from Purcell's aria "When I Am Laid in Earth" might have been a touch too sentimental.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)

Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie
Nana Kleinfrankenheim: Anna Karina
Raoul: Sady Rebbot
Paul: André S. Labarthe
Yvette: Guylaine Schlumberger
Le chef: Gérard Hoffman
Elisabeth: Monique Messine
Journaliste: Paul Pavel
Dimitri: Dimitri Dineff
Jeune homme: Peter Kassovitz
Luigi: Eric Schlumberger
Le philosophe: Brice Parain

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Film editing: Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Guillemot
Music: Michel Legrand

The essential tension of Vivre Sa Vie comes from Jean-Luc Godard's dry intellectual detachment and self-conscious filmmaking set against his exquisitely passionate involvement with Anna Karina. It shows itself at the very beginning, when Godard gives us almost a mug shot treatment of Karina's face -- frontal, right profile, left profile -- and then follows with an extended scene that features only the back of her head. And it continues through to the end in which Edgar Allan Poe's story about an artist who sucks the life out of his beloved by painting her portrait foreshadows the death of Karina's character, Nana. On one level, the film posits art as the enemy of life, while on the other, art becomes a source of life. In the latter case, I'm thinking of the celebrated scene in which Nana is brought to tears by watching Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928). It can be argued that Nana identifies with Joan as a fellow martyr: Joan to her faith in God, Nana to her faith in herself -- viz., the speech in which she claims "responsibility" for everything she does. Vivre Sa Vie is full of such intellectual puzzles, including the extended conversation between Nana and the philosopher Brice Parain. But it's Karina's performance that lifts the film out of the thicket of mid-century existentialism that it threatens to become ensnared by. She makes Nana one of the essential characters not just of the French New Wave but of the entire history of movies.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Our Marriage (Masahiro Shinoda, 1961)

Noriko Maki and Chieko Baisho in Our Marriage
Keiko: Noriko Maki
Saeko: Chieko Baisho
Komakura: Shin'ichiro Mikami
Matsumoto: Isao Kimura
Father: Eijiro Tono
Mother: Sadako Sawamura

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama, Masahiro Shinoda
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Naozumi Yamamoto

It goes without saying (though I've said it often enough) that cultural differences are a hindrance to our understanding or enjoyment of films made in other countries, but Masahiro Shinoda's Our Marriage brought the point home for me in an unusual way. It's a simple, elegantly made film, scarcely over an hour long, about two sisters and the pressures on women to get married. That's nothing we haven't seen in films by Naruse and Ozu and others, but Shinoda is particularly focused on social and economic change -- not just in the role of women in Japan but also on a society in which upward mobility is becoming possible and desirable. Keiko and Saeko are office workers in a factory, the daughters of a man struggling to make ends meet by harvesting seaweed. His job has become more difficult because of industrial pollution, and his wife sometimes has to borrow money from the daughters to pay bills. So the parents begin looking for a husband for 22-year-old Keiko. The father wants her to marry the son of the union chief at the factory, a widower nearing 30, but another man, Matsumoto, who works for a dry goods company, also shows interest in her. The parents disapprove of Matsumoto because he traded in the black market in the postwar years, but he has since cleaned up his act. The complication is that Keiko has met a handsome young factory worker, Komakura. Saeko, who has a secret crush on Komakura, wants Keiko to marry him, and Keiko is certainly not averse to the idea except that Komakura doesn't make much money. Things work themselves out after some family drama, of course. But the cultural difference that mars the film for me is not the tension between arranged marriages and marrying for love -- that's familiar enough even in the Western tradition. The problem is that the music arranger has chosen the tune of the old spiritual "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore" as the film's main theme. Anyone who grew up singing it around a campfire, or knows the recorded versions by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, is going to have a hard time reconciling the music with the story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

Jim Broadbent in Moulin Rouge!
Christian: Ewan McGregor
Satine: Nicole Kidman
Harold Zidler: Jim Broadbent
Toulouse-Lautrec: John Leguizamo
The Duke: Richard Roxburgh
The Doctor: Garry McDonald
The Unconscious Argentinean: Jacek Koman
Satie: Matthew Whittet
Marie: Kerry Walker
Nini Legs in the Air: Caroline O'Connor
Audrey: David Wenham
The Green Fairy: Kylie Minogue
Chocolat: Deobia Oparei

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Production design: Catherine Martin
Film editing: Jill Bilcock
Music: Craig Armstrong
Costume design: Manolo Blahnik, Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie

The newspaper I used to work for had, at its heyday in the late '90s and early '00s, two staff film critics, with the result that at the end of the year, readers were given two 10 best and 10 worst lists of movies. Moulin Rouge! made one critic's 10 best list and the other's 10 worst. Well, it's that kind of movie: It either exhilarates you or exhausts you. I have a bent toward directors who have their own idiosyncratic visions, even if the idiosyncrasies can be annoying. So I will confess to being swept away by the tide of images and sounds that Baz Luhrmann crafts for his film. I wouldn't want every movie to be like it, but for me, Moulin Rouge! is fun to watch -- maybe every 10 years or so. There are those who think that Luhrmann confuses noise with life, and I get that objection, but his pastiche musical, a blend of Bollywood and Busby Berkeley filtered through what MTV used to be, has the kind of energy you don't see very often, and it's a beautiful showcase for Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, not to mention the production design of Catherine Martin, the cinematography of Donald McAlpine, and the film editing of Jill Bilcock that brings their work into a dazzling flurry of images. The objection that the film is all images -- i.e., camera tricks and cutting -- is probably justified, as is the observation that none of the leads is a real singer or dancer -- Ewan McGregor is more a shouter than a singer, and Nicole Kidman's moves are poses strung in sequence by the editor. But there's no market for Freds, Gingers, Judys, and Genes anymore, so finding people with star quality who can also sing and dance is tougher than it used to be.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015)

Jenjira: Jenjira Pongpas
Itt: Banlop Lomnoi
Keng: Jarinpatta Rueangram
Nurse Tet: Petcharat Chaiburi
Teng: Sakda Kaewbuadee
Goddess 1: Sujittraporn Wongsrikeaw
Goddess 2: Bhattaratorn Senkraigul
Richard Widner: Richard Abramson

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematography: Diego Garcia
Art direction: Pichan Muangduang
Film editing: Lee Chatametikool

As I said in my brief note about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), I feel handicapped by my ignorance of Southeast Asian history and culture when I watch Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films. I can appreciate them aesthetically but there are layers of significance hidden to me. Yet the more I watch his films, the more they draw me in, the more they linger in my thoughts, even stray ones when I'm not specifically concerned with trying to comprehend a particular film. His long takes, often with the key characters in the middle distance rather than in closeup, allow things to stray into the frame, the way a hen and her chickens do at one moment. They allow the eye to wander, and to wonder at the details of setting. In another filmmaker these would be distractions, but since Weerasethakul is not urgently concerned with telling a story, the distractions provide texture and surprise. We Westerners are not used to films that force us to contemplate -- I don't think any filmmaker since the art-house heyday of Antonioni and Resnais has so carefully taken the time to give us extended contemplative moments as Weerasethakul does. Is it, I sometimes wonder, the "exotic" quality of his settings that keeps us from boredom as we watch scenes in which nothing much happens?  But enough does happen in Cemetery of Splendor that I'm driven to keep watching and waiting for a theme or even a mood to resolve itself. Sometimes the things that do happen seem gratuitous, as when we watch a group of people in a park by a lake begin to swap places, moving from one bench to another, as in a dance or a game with no discernible rules. Sometimes they're strikingly beautiful, as in the slow dissolve from an Escher-like intersection of escalators to the light poles that stand beside the beds in the hospital. There is a wizardry in Cemetery of Splendor that gives it magic. But then I read that the film is in some ways a commentary on the politics of Thailand, and I'm brought up short by my own ignorance.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Immortal Love (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1961)

Hideko Takamine, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Yoshi Kato in Immortal Love
Sadako: Hideko Takamine
Heibei: Tatsuya Nakadai
Takashi: Keiji Sada
Tomoko: Nobuko Otowa
Yutaka: Akira Ishihama
Naoko: Yukiko Fuji
Sojiro: Yoshi Kato
Rikizo: Kiyoshi Nonomura
Eiichi: Masakazu Tamura
Morito: Masaya Totsuka
Heizaemon: Yasushi Nagata

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

I'm a little surprised to find that Keisuke Kinoshita's screenplay for Immortal Love is "original." The film has the feeling of an adaptation from one of those doorstop "sins of the father" family sagas like East of Eden. It's full of melodramatic moments, including at least one rape and several suicide attempts, including a successful one in which the character jumps into a volcano. It spans three decades and is loaded with enough plot and characters to fill a much longer film, which is why it sometimes seems a little skimpy. The plot is set in motion when Heibei, the son of a wealthy landowner, returns from the invasion of Manchuria in 1932 with a crippling war injury. He spies the pretty Sadako, the daughter of one of his father's tenants, but she loves Takashi, another tenant farmer's son who has also served in China. When Takashi returns he finds that Sadako has been raped by Heibei and is set to marry him. As the years pass, Sadako stays with Heibei, tending to him and his aging father, and bearing three children -- one of whom was conceived during the rape, a fact that will develop into a plot point. Takashi marries and moves away, but his wife, Tomoko, bears a kind of grudge against Sadako, her husband's first love. And things get complicated as the children grow up. The film works largely because of the actors, even though both Hideko Takamine and Tatsuya Nakadai, considerable performers, seem a little stretched to put across their characters. Heibei, for example, comes across as a deep-dyed villain until the very end, despite some closeups in which Nakadai seems to be trying to suggest the character's remorse for his villainy. And Takamine is faced with playing the dutiful wife to a man she despises, undermining him secretly and passive-aggressively. It's a tribute to both actors that they make the film as watchable as it is. Kinoshita tries some things that don't really work, like a ballad that bridges the time gaps between "chapters" (of which there are five), and the guitar-based score by his brother, Chuji Kinoshita, sounds like flamenco -- an odd choice for the very Japanese story and setting. Even the title given it for American distribution is askew -- none of the loves depicted in it seem particularly deathless. It was released in the United Kingdom as Bitter Spirit, which seems more appropriate. The film was Japan's entry for the foreign language film Oscar; it made the shortlist but lost to Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)

Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone in Certain Women
Laura: Laura Dern
Gina: Michelle Williams
The Rancher: Lily Gladstone
Elizabeth Travis: Kristen Stewart
Ryan: James Le Gros
Fuller: Jared Harris
Sheriff Rowles: John Getz
Guthrie: Sara Rodier
Albert: Rene Auberjonois

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Kelly Reichardt
Adapted from stories by Maile Meloy
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production design: Anthony Gasparro
Film editing: Kelly Reichardt
Music: Jeff Grace

I haven't seen any other films by Kelly Reichardt and I haven't read the stories by Maile Meloy on which Reichardt based her film Certain Women, but it's clear to me that Reichardt has a sure hand with the essence of the contemporary short story: the pregnant slice of life that comes to no definitive conclusion within its confines, but reverberates long after you've read it. One touch struck me almost immediately: When we first meet Laura, the central character in the first third of the film, she is getting out of bed after a mid-day liaison with a man. We don't see him again until the second third of the film, when he turns up again as the husband of another woman, Gina. But Reichardt leaves this fact undeveloped: It's there as something to be contemplated as we watch the sections of the film that deal respectively with Laura and Gina. The two women never meet in the film, and if Ryan's infidelity has any effect on his marriage, it's only as backstory to the tensions that surface between Ryan and Gina when we see them together. This is a film in which nothing is ever really resolved: Laura's client, Fuller, goes a little mad and she has to talk him out of a hostage-taking situation, so he goes to jail and at the end of the film she brings him a vanilla milkshake and listens as he tells how his wife left him. Gina and Ryan are building a house and their sullen teenage daughter sulks in the car as Gina bargains with an old man for some sandstone blocks in his yard. The old man's mind wanders while she talks, and he seems to address all of his remarks to Ryan, when Gina usually handles business matters. Later, when they're loading the sandstone onto a truck, Gina waves to the old man as he stands in his window, but he doesn't respond. And in the most poignant section of the film, a young woman who tends to the horses on a ranch wanders into a night class taught by Elizabeth, a stressed-out young lawyer, and develops a crush on her. She returns to the class and takes Elizabeth to a diner several times until the night when a new instructor appears and tells them that the long drive Elizabeth has been making to teach the class has gotten too much for her. The young woman then takes the four-hour drive to the town where Elizabeth (as well as Laura and Gina) lives, seeks her out, and bids an awkward goodbye. Then she gets into her truck and drives back, falling asleep at the wheel but fortunately only running off the road into a field. The sequences meld into one another without breaks, and the whole thing is permeated by a sense of place: the beauty, loneliness, and subtle menace of the Montana landscape.