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, January 18, 2018

A Flame at the Pier (Masahiro Shinoda, 1962)

Koji Nanbara and Takashi Fujiki in A Flame at the Pier
Saburo Minakami: Takashi Fujiki
Yuki: Mariko Kaga
Tetsuro Kitani: Koji Nanbara
Kaga: Tamotsu Hayakawa
Reiko Matsudaira: Kyoko Kishida
Tommy: Shinji Tanaka
Kohei Matsudaira: So Yamamura

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Screenplay: Ichiro Mizunuma, Masahiro Shinoda, Shuji Terayama
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Toru Takemitsu

Imagine that instead of Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley had been cast as Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) and that Budd Schulberg's screenplay had been rewritten to give him a couple of songs to sing. Then you'd have a pretty good sense of what Masahiro Shinoda's A Flame at the Pier* is like. That's not meant to belittle Takashi Fujiki's performance in the film, which is closer to Brando (or really James Dean) than to Presley. Clearly, Fujiki's singing ability -- he had a side career as a pop singer -- inspired the filmmakers to arrange for these fairly well-integrated musical moments. The standout is a command performance put on by Fujiki's character, Sabu, who has been roped into doing an a capella rock number at a party for some rich people, friends of the owner of the shipping company for which Sabu works. The song is about a tour of hell, which is pretty much where Sabu finds himself. He works as an enforcer on the Yokohama docks, where the workers are trying to unionize. His loyalties are to his boss, Kitani, who is the company man in charge of keeping the dockworkers from organizing. Sabu believes that when he was a toddler during the war, Kitani rescued him from a fire and was crippled during the rescue. When he's not pushing the dockworkers around, trying to get them to go back to work after a sitdown strike, Sabu is wooing a pretty waitress, Yuki. But after his performance at the party, he's seduced by Reiko, who is married to the owner of the shipping company and is also having an affair with Kitani. Eventually, all of these plot threads tangle when Sabu is asked to rough up one of the men trying to organize the union but accidentally kills him. The murdered man turns out to be Yuki's father. Sabu also learns from Reiko the truth about what crippled Kitani. A Flame at the Pier rises above this overplotted narrative because of the performances, especially by Fujiki and Mariko Kaga as the young lovers, as well as Masao Kosugi's eloquent black-and-white cinematography, and a score by Toru Takemitsu.

*The retitling and/or translation of Japanese film titles for English-speaking countries is always mysterious. A Flame at the Pier has also been titled Tears on the Lion's Mane, which seems to be, if Google Translate is to be trusted, a little closer to the Japanese title, Namida o shishi no tategami ni. There are certainly a pier, a lion, and considerable tears in the film, but the attempt at poetry in both titles rings false as a label for what is essentially a gritty dockside melodrama.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Carol: Catherine Deneuve
Michael: Ian Hendry
Colin: John Fraser
Helen: Yvonne Furneaux
Landlord: Patrick Wymark
Miss Balch: Renee Houston
Madame Denise: Valerie Taylor
John: James Villiers
Bridget: Helen Fraser
Reggie: Hugh Futcher

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Art direction: Seamus Flannery
Film editing: Alastair McIntyre
Music: Chico Hamilton

Repulsion was only Roman Polanski's second feature film, yet it's the work of a master. It's nothing more than a portrait of a schizophrenic, played by the astonishingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, and treated with a remarkable detachment. We don't know why Carol Ledoux is mad. A lesser director would have given us flashbacks to Carol's childhood and a depiction of some trauma that has driven her repulsion toward sex. But all we see of her childhood is a photograph of a family group, glimpsed three times in the film: Once when the camera is surveying the furnishings of the living room in the apartment she shares with her sister, Helen; again when the brutish landlord, before attempting to rape Carol, picks it up and identifies the little blond girl in the picture as her as a child; and at the very end, when the camera tracks into the photograph, singling out the girl and drawing ever closer to her face, finally closing in on the little girl's eye and bringing us back to the opening of the film and its closeup on the adult Carol's eye. The expression on her face is distant, almost blank -- an expression we have seen throughout the film on the grownup Carol's face. What are we to make of this? That Carol was the victim of a childhood sexual trauma? Polanski chooses not to tell us because the focus of his film is on the effect rather than the cause. Carol has apparently been "normal" enough to learn a trade as a beautician, to hold down a job in a salon, to have a handsome boyfriend. But suddenly that "normality" is shattered when her sister decides to go off on a vacation to Italy with her own boyfriend, Michael, whom Carol detests. Left to her own devices, Carol spirals into insanity and eventually into murder. Whenever a headline-making crime occurs -- a mass shooting or something like today's news about a Southern California couple who kept their children prisoners and starved and tortured them for years -- our first instinct is to ask why they did it. And we rarely come upon the sources of the criminal's disturbance. The neighbors usually say he was such a quiet boy, or she was shy and a little weird but seemed nice enough. Polanski keeps us on edge through the film by making Carol's environment one that is simultaneously ordinary and conducive to madness: a piano playing scales somewhere in the apartment building, a neighboring Catholic school ringing bells, a shabby apartment full of dark corners and odd angles, a beauty salon whose customers undergo grotesque treatments like mud packs to improve their looks. On the street she passes an odd trio of buskers (one of whom is played by Polanski) and is harassed by a construction worker. Even her boyfriend, Colin, is a little edgy, having dated this beautiful woman long enough to expect her to have sex with him. In the end, it's as if Carol lashes out at a world that gets on her nerves. Polanski's film seems to be asking if that horror resides within all of us. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in Adaptation.
Charlie Kaufman/Donald Kaufman: Nicolas Cage
Susan Orlean: Meryl Streep
John Laroche: Chris Cooper
Valerie Thomas: Tilda Swinton
Amelia Kavan: Cara Seymour
Alice the Waitress: Judy Greer
Caroline Cunningham: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Marty Bowen: Ron Livingston
Robert McKee: Brian Cox

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Based on a book by Susan Orlean
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Production design: K.K. Barrett
Music: Carter Burwell

Adaptation.* is a hall of mirrors and a kind of cinematic pun, starting with the title. The word "adaptation" refers to (1) the process of transforming material from one medium to another, and (2) the evolutionary process by which an organism's particular characteristics enable it to survive. So the movie's Charlie Kaufman is adapting a nonfiction book into a screenplay, with all the "fictionalizing" that is normally involved. But he's also writing, or rather wants to write, about the way plants adapt themselves to their environment, a key subject in Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. Kaufman is trying to do the honorable thing: stay as close to the original material as possible. He wants "to present it simply without big character arcs or sensationalizing the story." As a result, Charlie is blocked. Meanwhile his twin brother, Donald, is also writing a screenplay, but his is an unfettered original, a preposterous tale about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder, in which the one character is both the killer and the detective trying to capture him. To Charlie's great dismay, while he is blocked in his attempts to adapt Orlean's book, Donald's screenplay is gobbled up by the studios. And from this, Charlie learns a lesson: To adapt in the first sense of the word, you must adapt in the second sense. That is, in order to survive as a screenwriter, you have to make compromises with the source material. So, after meeting with Donald's mentor, Robert McKee, who gives seminars on how to write a screenplay, Charlie gives in and takes McKee's advice: "The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end and you've got a hit." So in the last act of Adaptation, which is a film about a screenwriter blocked by his attempt to stay true to Orlean's book about a quirky naturalist in search of rare orchids, he forgoes his efforts at integrity and turns it into a crowd-pleasing story full of sex and drugs and violence. The real Charlie Kaufman doesn't have a twin brother, but he invented one for the screenplay, partly to provide a character who serves as a motivating force for his fictionalizing of Orlean's book. And he gives the moral of the film to Orlean and her orchid thief, John Laroche. The latter says, "Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world." To which Orlean replies, "Yeah, but it's easier for plants. I mean they have no memory. They just move on to whatever's next. With a person, though, adapting's almost shameful. It's like running away." Adaptation is a movie about thriver's guilt.

*The period is part of the title, both in the onscreen credits and on the poster for the film. But from now on I'm going to ignore it whenever it results in overpunctuation.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

Yuko Miyamura in Battle Royale
Shuya Nanahara: Tatsuya Fujiwara
Noriko Nakagawa: Aki Maeda
Kitano: Takeshi Kitano
Shogo Kawada: Taro Yamamoto
Kazuo Kiriyama: Masanobu Ando
Mitsuko Souma: Kou Shibasaki
Takako Chigusa: Chiaki Kuriyama
Shinji Mimura: Takashi Tsukamoto
Hiroki Tsugimura: Sosuke Takaoka
Yukie Utsumi: Eri Ishikawa
Yuko Sakaki: Hitomi Hyuga
Training Video Girl: Yuko Miyamura

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kenta Fukasaku
Based on a novel by Koushun Takami
Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Production design: Kyoko Heya
Film editing: Hirohide Abe

In my brief and admittedly superficial exploration of Japanese cinema, I have often been struck by how postwar filmmakers take a rather harsh attitude toward the generation born after World War II. Even so hip a director as Nagisa Oshima paints a rather jaundiced picture of wayward teenagers in films like Cruel Story of Youth (1960), though suggesting that American influence at least helped push Japanese young people into delinquency. Masahiro Shinoda's Youth in Fury, made the same year as Oshima's film, focuses on the student riots against the Japanese-American mutual security treaty, suggesting that the political impotence of the young is to blame. An older filmmaker like Keisuke Kinshita, in The Young Rebels (1980), blamed the rebelliousness on parents, a familiar scapegoat. And then there's Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, which subjects the problem of turbulent youth to what we might call a final solution: mutual extermination. In an era plagued by depression and unemployment, the government passes a population-control law: Each year, a middle school class is chosen and sent to a remote island where they are forced to fight to the death. If you're thinking this sounds a lot like The Hunger Games, have another drink. In fact, Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games trilogy, the first book of which appeared in 2008, has said that she never saw the film or read the 1999 novel by Koushun Takami on which it was based. Her claim is plausible: Battle Royale stirred up so much controversy in Japan over its violence that it wasn't released theatrically in the United States until 2011, partly because American distributors were scared off by memories of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Fukasaku's film is in fact like a bloodier, more barebones version of The Hunger Games movies (Gary Ross, 2012; Francis Lawrence, 2013, 2014, 2015). It's also funnier and scarier because it has been shorn of the Olympic Games-style spectacle of  the American movies. Instead, we get a "training video" in which a ditzy instructor, a parody of Japanese game show hosts, explains the rules: Each player gets a bag of supplies that includes a "weapon" -- ranging from a semiautomatic rifle to a paper fan -- and they are all fitted with monitoring collars that will explode if they try to remove them, as well as if the game ends on the third day with more than one survivor. The film, written by the director's son, Kenta Fukasaku, doesn't waste a lot of time on character development, except for two principal combatants, Shuya and Noriko, who fall in love along the way. There are also a trio of villains: Mitsuko, who relishes the thought of killing her classmates, and a ringer, a "transfer student" named Kazuo Kirayama, who is really a psychopath brought in by the sadistic director of the game, the schoolteacher Kitano, to spice things up. There's another supposed transfer student, Shogo Kawada, who is actually a survivor of an earlier game, but he turns out to be a good guy, seeking revenge on Kitano for his girlfriend's death in that game. Aside from these characters, most of the players are nondescript, except for the computer geek, Shinji Mimura, who manages both to hack into the game's system and to construct a bomb he plans to use to take out the game headquarters. There is much vivid killing in the film, but it's paced so fast, and the characters are mostly so undefined that, except for the fact that these are kids killing kids, it's easy to get caught up in it all. It's not surprising that it's one of Quentin Tarantino's favorite movies.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

George Clooney, Ving Rhames, and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
Jack Foley: George Clooney
Karen Sisco: Jennifer Lopez
Buddy Bragg: Ving Rhames
Maurice Miller: Don Cheadle
Adele: Catherine Keener
Marshal Sisco: Dennis Farina
Glenn Michaels: Steve Zahn
Richard Ripley: Albert Brooks
Chino: Luis Guzmán
Kenneth: Isaiah Washington
White Boy Bob: Keith Loneker
Moselle: Viola Davis
Midge: Nancy Allen
Hejira Henry: Samuel L. Jackson
Ray Nicolette: Michael Keaton

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Scott Frank
Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Film editing: Anne V. Coates

When George Clooney left ER in 1999, there were some who thought it was a case of David Caruso Syndrome: a TV star whose ego had led him to think he had outgrown the medium that made him famous and was ready for movie stardom. There was evidence to support this premise: Clooney had done a disastrous turn as Batman in Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin (1997), a film that Clooney himself has disowned, and his forgettable appearances as a leading man with Michelle Pfeiffer in the romantic comedy One Fine Day (Michael Hoffman, 1996) and with Nicole Kidman in the thriller The Peacemaker (Mimi Leder, 1997) had done little to establish his credibility as a film actor. The one exception was Out of Sight, and among other things it cemented a working relationship with the director who had brought out the best in Clooney, Steven Soderbergh. The two have since worked together numerous times, with Soderbergh serving as director and/or producer, as well as mentoring Clooney's own directing and producing career. What Soderbergh found in Clooney was a kind of puckishness and vulnerability that has been further developed into broad comedy by directors like Joel and Ethan Coen in such films as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). But at the same time, Soderbergh helped Clooney figure out how to be a romantic leading man: His scenes with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight have a kind of heat that Clooney never generated even with Pfeiffer or Kidman. That said, the romantic scenes in Out of Sight are probably the least entertaining part of the film. Much better are the scenes in which Clooney plays off against such wizardly character actors as Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, and Albert Brooks. Out of Sight puts such superb actors as Catherine Keener and Viola Davis in tiny roles, and also supplies unbilled cameos for Michael Keaton -- as Ray Nicolette, the character he played in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) -- and Samuel L. Jackson. It's wittily put together, with such teases as the opening sequence in which Clooney's Jack Foley angrily dashes his necktie to the ground before going across the street to rob a bank -- an action that isn't explained until halfway through the film, after numerous flashbacks and setting changes. It includes audacious surprises, such as the macabre-comic death of White Boy Bob, whose klutziness has been subtly hinted several times before he brains himself with a slip on the staircase. (Clooney's reaction to the death is priceless.)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Purple Noon (René Clément, 1960)

Alain Delon in Purple Noon
Tom Ripley: Alain Delon
Philippe Greenleaf: Maurice Ronet
Marge Duval: Marie Laforêt
Riccordi: Erno Crisa
O'Brien: Frank Latimore
Freddy Miles: Billy Kearns

Director: René Clément
Screenplay: René Clément, Paul Gégauff
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Production design: Paul Bertrand
Film editing: Françoise Javet
Music: Nino Rota

The original title of René Clément's Purple Noon, Plein Soleil, which means "full sun," with its implications of something done out in the open, by the light of day, seems to me a better indication of what this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley is all about. And not just because the first part of the film, including Ripley's first murder, takes place under the bright sun of the Mediterranean. Ripley is the perfect embodiment of Hamlet's discovery "that one may smile and smile and be a villain," that someone can be as beautiful as Alain Delon and get away with murder. Henri Decaë's gorgeous color cinematography and the film's handsome settings are sometimes thought to be at odds with the darkness of the story. Even Ripley's shabby room at the Hotel Paradiso has a kind of glamour to it -- though that may just be the nostalgia of someone who recalls staying in places like that during his first visit to the Continent, a copy of (it is to laugh) Europe on $5 a Day in hand. But that kind of dissonance is very much to the point:  Ripley is almost an antihero, or antivillain, if you will. His victims are the abusive Philippe Greenleaf and the snotty Freddy Miles, both of whom scorn Ripley for his lowly origins. Highsmith disliked the film's ending which, although it doesn't quite show Ripley brought to justice at least implies that he's about to be caught. Her novel ends with Ripley in triumph, though edgy and paranoid, and able to con and kill again through four sequels. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

James Cagney and Margaret Wycherly in White Heat
Cody Jarrett: James Cagney
Verna Jarrett: Virginia Mayo
Hank Fallon aka Vic Pardo: Edmond O'Brien
Ma Jarrett: Margaret Wycherly
Big Ed Somers: Steve Cochran
Philip Evans: John Archer
Cotton Valletti: Wally Cassell
Trader Winston: Fred Clark

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts
Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Music: Max Steiner

It still baffles me that Raoul Walsh's terrific crime thriller White Heat received only one Oscar nomination, and that one for the scenario devised by Virginia Kellogg, which was notoriously revised not only by Kellogg but also by the credited screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts with much uncredited help from James Cagney and his friends Humphrey Bogart and Frank McHugh. Where were the nominations for Walsh's no-nonsense direction, Cagney's superbly over-the-top performance (especially the scene in which Cody Jarrett goes berserk on learning of his dear old mother's death), Margaret Wycherly's tiger mom, or even Virginia Mayo's tough broad? Mayo was one of the more underrated blond bombshells of the era. She could have been a rival to Dorothy Malone and Gloria Grahame for tough-girl roles, but under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, she got stuck in forgettable musicals and comedies in which she played the foil to fellow Goldwyn contract player Danny Kaye. The good reviews she got for playing Dana Andrews's cheating wife in William Wyler's 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives showed that she had more acting talent than Goldwyn had revealed, but with a few exceptions -- White Heat being the most notable -- she got stuck in movies that played off her beauty more than her acting ability. Edmond O'Brien also shines in the part of the undercover detective who buddies up to Cody, and a good deal of the suspense of the film hinges on his hair-breadth avoidance of having his cover blown. It's to the credit of Walsh, the supporting players, and the fleet of screenwriters that although Cagney's performance fires the film, it never completely burns it up -- there's always someone or something else to watch.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight
Paula Alquist: Ingrid Bergman
Gregory Anton: Charles Boyer
Brian Cameron: Joseph Cotten
Miss Thwaites: May Whitty
Nancy: Angela Lansbury
Elizabeth: Barbara Everest

Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L Balderston
Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art direction: William Ferrari, Cedric Gibbons

There is a tendency among critic-historians to prefer the 1940 Thorold Dickinson film of Gaslight to the slicker and more opulent 1944 version directed by George Cukor, partly because MGM attempted to suppress the earlier film -- an absurd and vicious effort that evidently failed. But although I myself went along with that attitude in my entry on the Dickinson version, I have to admit that rewatching Cukor's film has brought me around, partly because Cukor is a director I have more and more come to appreciate for his warm professionalism. He loves actors and showcasing them, which he does to great effect in the 1944 film, winning an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman -- largely, I think, for her wonderful scene in which Paula turns the tables on Anton -- as well as bringing out Charles Boyer's great gift for attractive menace. And perhaps best of all, giving the teenage Angela Lansbury an opportunity to shine -- and to earn the first of her sadly unrewarded Oscar nominations. Lansbury's Nancy is a saucy baggage, and she steals the show from the stars by wielding her sharp little chin like a knife, making Paula's fear of Nancy entirely credible while flirting boldly with Anton. May Whitty as the nosy Miss Thwaites, with her delight in the macabre, provides a needed bit of comic relief, too. Her curtain line, "Well!", when she comes upon Paula with Brian Cameron after Anton's arrest, provides a satisfactory ending, partly because it's delivered in a different tone -- this time one of delight -- than her earlier scandalized "Well!" when she saw Paula and Anton kissing. This is high Hollywood filmmaking at its most satisfying.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Tomas Ericsson: Gunnar Björnstrand
Märta Lundberg: Ingrid Thulin
Karin Persson: Gunnel Lindblom
Jonas Persson: Max von Sydow
Algot Frövik: Allan Edwall
Fredrik Blom: Olof Thunberg

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production design: P.A. Lundgren
Film editing: Ulla Ryghe

I have to admit that I was seduced into nostalgia by the opening of Winter Light, as the liturgy and communion service brought back memories of my Methodist childhood. But the mood vanished swiftly as the chill reality of the film took hold: The church is cold and nearly empty, most of its congregants brought there by necessity or duty. The pastor is a hypocrite with a head cold, unable to muster enough enthusiasm for his faith to keep a man who comes to him for counseling from blowing his head off with a shotgun or even to console his widow. His former mistress, the local schoolteacher, is as comfortable in her atheism as he is uneasy in his attempts to believe. It's Bergman at his bleakest, though paradoxically filled with a kind of existential affirmation. The message boils down to: Don't sweat the big stuff. That is, don't let theology get in the way of going on with your life. You can respond to this kind of message in three ways: With stubborn denial, with an exhilarated sense of liberation, or with a painful feeling of loss. Winter Light is a talky film, one that sometimes seems more fit for the stage than for the movies, but its characters are alive and complex, its performances uniformly superb, and its images -- supplied by the great Sven Nykvist -- sometimes even more articulate than its dialogue.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in The Phantom Carriage
David Holm: Victor Sjöström
Anna Holm: Hilda Borgström
Georges: Tore Svennberg
Edit: Astrid Holm
Edit's Mother: Concordia Selander
Maria: Lisa Lundholm
Gustafsson: Tor Weijden
David's Brother: Einar Axelsson

Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Victor Sjöström
Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf
Cinematography: Julius Jaenzon
Art direction: Alexander Bako, Axel Esbensen

In commenting on Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) recently, I observed that its ending, in which Arthur and Doreen plan a wedding and dream of a home of their own, almost took on the character of a parody of a movie "happy ending," given their previous behavior and the blighted milieu in which they live. It's almost certainly what Reisz and Alan Sillitoe, adapting his own novel, intended. They were making a drama, which depends on belief, in this case an ironic credibility in which the viewer knows the story of Arthur and Doreen hasn't really ended. If drama depends on belief, then melodrama depends on feeling: a willingness to suspend credulity in favor of a kind of emotional certainty, a feeling that the way the story ends is emotionally, if not intellectually, right. That's why I can't quarrel with the ending of The Phantom Carriage, even though I know that the supposed reformation and redemption of David Holm is scarcely credible in terms of real-world alcoholism and abusiveness. It feels right in the context of a ghost story. Victor Sjöström's movie is one of the acknowledged masterpieces of silent film, notable for its lasting influence, not only on Sjöström's compatriot Ingmar Bergman, but even on a filmmaker as recent as Stanley Kubrick, who copied the harrowing scene in which David takes an ax to the door between him and his terrified wife when he filmed the "Here's Johnny!" sequence in The Shining (1980). This is also one of the few films by an actor-director in which the actor is as successful as the director. Granted, we may quibble about a few things, such as the fact that 50-year-old Hilda Borgström was a bit too old to play the mother of two small children (who never seem to age during the film). Or that the ghost story gets jettisoned in favor of the morality tale: If David wasn't really dead, then who gets to relieve Georges of his duty of driving the carriage? But this is melodrama and it's enough to say that it feels right.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959)

Katsuko Wakasugi in Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan
Iemon Tamiya: Shigeru Amachi
Oiwa: Katsuko Wakasugi
Naosuke: Shuntaro Emi
Yomoshichi: Ryuzaburo Nakamura
Osode: Noriko Kitazawa
Ume Ito: Junko Ikeuchi
Maki: Kikuko Hanaoka
Kihe Ito: Hiroshi Hayashi
Takuetsu: Jun Otomo
Samo: Shinjuro Asano

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay: Masayoshi Onuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa
Based on a play by Nanboku Tsuruya
Cinematography: Tadashi Nishimoto
Production design: Harayasu Kurosawa
Film editing: Shin Nagata
Music: Michiaki Watanabe

Keisuke Kinoshita's 1949 version of the much-adapted ghost story, Yotsuya Kaidan, jettisoned the supernatural in favor of the psychological, turning the protagonist, Iemon, into a somewhat more sympathetic, even tragic figure. But ten years later, Nobuo Nakagawa went straight for the horror: a bloodthirsty, ambitious Iemon, who doesn't even need Naosuke's Iago-like promptings to descend straight into murder. In fact, if you try to apply psychology to Nakagawa's Iemon, you'll run up against some blank walls: It's hard to understand why Iemon in this version even bothers to settle down to a life of umbrella-making after his slaughter of Oiwa's father and his complicity in Naosuke's dispatch of Yomoshichi, his rival for Osode's hand. By this time, Iemon is steeped in blood so far that "returning were as tedious as go o'er," to put it in Macbeth's terms. In this version, the ghosts of Oiwa and Takuetsu are particularly real and vengeful, not just phantoms of Iemon's imagination, as in Kinoshita's version. They lead Iemon into slaughtering Ume and her father and finally to his own doom. Nakagawa's film lacks the subtlety of Kinoshita's, but in the end I think that's for the good: What you want from a ghost story is catharsis, not irony.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

Shigeru Amachi in Jigoku
Shiro Shimizu: Shigeru Amachi
Yukiko/Sacihko: Utako Mitsuya
Tamura: Yoichi Numata
Gozo Shimizu: Hiroshi Hayashi
Ensai Taniguchi: Jun Otomo
Kinuko: Akiko Yamashita
Kyoichi's Mother: Kiyoko Tsuji
Mrs. Yajima: Fumiko Miyata
Prof. Yajima: Akira Nakamura
Ito Shimizu: Kimie Tokudaiji
Yoko: Akiko Ono
Kyoichi "Tiger" Shiga: Hiroshi Izumida

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Screenplay: Nobuo Nakagawa, Ichiro Miyagawa
Cinematography: Mamoru Morita
Production design: Shosuke Sasane, Haruyasu Kurosawa
Film editing: Toshio Goto
Music: Michiaki Watanabe

I know what hell is: I just spent two days without internet access. (Hence the absence of recent posts.) A good chunk of those two days passed waiting for the repairman, who was supposed to arrive between 1 and 4 p.m., but of course showed up just before 6 p.m., so my idea of hell is an infinite waiting room. Which is not the idea that director Nobuo Nakagawa and co-screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa present. It's pretty much the traditional one of fire and torture. Jigoku is a cult film, as many of the better (or at least more arty) horror films become, and while I'm not a member of the cult I can appreciate the skill with which Nakagawa presents his vision. It's a movie that ranges from deeply somber to extraordinarily lurid. The protagonist, Shiro, is a student who, after celebrating his engagement to Yukiko, gets into a car driven by his sardonic friend Tamura. On a dark road, Tamura runs down and kills a gangster, Kyoichi, whose mother witnesses the accident. Shiro wants to stop, but Tamura keeps driving. Since her son was a gangster, she doesn't report the hit-and-run to the police but, along with Kyoichi's girlfriend, Yoko, vows to hunt down Tamura and Shiro and kill them. After pleading with Tamura, Shiro decides to go to the police himself, but on the way the taxi driver -- whom Shiro briefly hallucinates as Tamura -- runs into a tree and Yukiko, who has reluctantly accompanied Shiro, is killed. Shiro's road to hell is certainly paved with good intentions, and after his death he winds up there. He has received a telegram that his mother is critically ill, so he goes to see her at the home for the elderly that his father runs in the country. She's not as ill as he feared -- the telegram was actually sent by Kyoichi's mother and girlfriend to lure him into their trap. He discovers that the old folks' home his father owns is actually run on the cheap, with a doctor who skimps on medicine and food. He also encounters Sachiko, a young woman who looks exactly like his fiancée, Yukiko, down to the pink parasol she carries. She turns out to be the sister Shiro didn't know he had, but by this time revelations are coming hard and fast: Tamura -- who appears more and more demonic -- turns up too, as do the potential assassins, and in an elaborate concoction of circumstances, everybody dies, including Shiro. And everybody goes to hell, which is a fantasia crafted out of depictions from old Buddhist paintings and traditional cinematic imaginings of the underworld. Shiro learns there that the taxi accident killed not only Yukiko but also their unborn child, and he spends much of his time trying to rescue the infant from the torments of the afterlife. The film ends, after much exploration of the more gruesome torments of hell, with Shiro's vision of the twinned Yukiko and Sachiko, both with pink parasols, but although it suggests Faust being redeemed by Gretchen, there's nothing to indicate that this is any kind of redemption for Shiro. In short, Jigoku is complicated, contrived, confusing, sometimes a little cheesy and more than a little morally questionable -- does Shiro really deserve to go through all this? -- but also thoroughly fascinating.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)

Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Arthur: Albert Finney
Doreen: Shirley Anne Field
Brenda: Rachel Roberts
Aunt Ada: Hylda Baker
Bert: Norman Rossington
Jack: Bryan Pringle
Robboe: Robert Cawdron
Mrs. Bull: Edna Morris
Mrs. Seaton: Elsie Wagstaff
Mr. Seaton: Frank Pettit
Blousy Woman: Avis Bunnage
Loudmouth: Colin Blakely
Doreen's Mother: Irene Richmond

Director: Karel Reisz
Screenplay: Alan Sillitoe
Based on a novel by Alan Sillitoe
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Art direction: Edward Marshall
Music: John Dankworth

The 24-year-old Albert Finney was spot-on casting for the antihero of Alan Sillitoe's adaptation of his novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. With his slicked-up coif, predatory grin, and omnipresent cigarette, Finney's Arthur Seaton exudes the kind of sexual attractiveness that allows one to ignore his rough edges. Always on the prowl, Arthur is the quintessential working-class yobbo, drinking too much and sleeping around too carelessly. He gets his comeuppance when Brenda, married to the stodgy Jack, becomes pregnant -- Jack's sexual neglect makes her sure the child is Arthur's -- and Jack's brother and another soldier work Arthur over in a vacant lot. Meanwhile, he has fallen for Doreen, and the film ends with Arthur and Doreen on a hillside overlooking their factory town, planning a wedding and dreaming of a home of their own. But from what we've seen of Arthur, this is almost a parody of a happy ending. Doreen's a tough cookie, too, and we can only foresee a kind of grim muddling-through future, a recapitulation of the lives of their parents and neighbors. It's to the credit of Finney and a superb supporting cast that the film is not a dreary slog through blighted lives, but a kind of tribute to the persistent energy of the working class. It helps that the movie is filmed by the great Freddie Francis, who finds a rich palette of grays in the surroundings, and provides a needed burst of action in the fairgrounds sequence. But above all, it's Finney's show, launching one of the great movie careers, from rakish young leading man to invaluable character actor.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra
Roy Earle: Humphrey Bogart
Marie: Ida Lupino
Red: Arthur Kennedy
Babe: Alan Curtis
Velma: Joan Leslie
Pa: Henry Travers
Louis Mendoza: Cornel Wilde
Big Mac: Donald MacBride
"Doc" Banton: Henry Hull
Algernon: Willie Best
Jake Kranmer: Barton MacLane
Healy: Jerome Cowan

Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Film editing: Jack Killifer
Music: Adolph Deutsch

Ida Lupino gets first billing in High Sierra, an indication of where Humphrey Bogart's career stood at the time. He had labored for Warner Bros. for more than a decade as a supporting actor, usually in gangster films and occasionally miscast in roles like the Irish stablemaster in Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939). High Sierra would be a breakthrough into leading man roles, establishing his persona as a tough guy with a soft heart, as in films like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944). He owes his role in High Sierra in large part to its screenwriter, John Huston, who as a director would emphasize the tough Bogart over the softie: the brutal Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and the vicious Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In High Sierra, however, although Roy Earle has just been released from prison and is off to pull another caper, he's full of nostalgia for his childhood as a farmboy and along the road adopts a family heading west, where Pa hopes to get a job and help his granddaughter, Velma, get surgery for her clubfoot. Roy gets soft on Velma and pays for the operation, but his proposal is turned down. Just as Roy has a soft side, Velma is at heart a party girl and wants to go back east and hook up with her ne'er-do-well boyfriend. High Sierra is full of reversals like that. Lupino, for example, plays a party girl who goes soft on Roy and turns into a stand-by-your-man accomplice. And there's even a cute little dog who turns out to be a jinx and rats on Roy at a crucial moment. There's a good deal of silliness in the plotting of High Sierra, as well as some lamentable racist shtick forced on the fine comic actor Willie Best, who is usually caught napping and awakens with his eyes crossed. But at its best, especially in the climactic chase scene along winding dirt roads in the Sierra, the film is a good vehicle for Bogart's leap into superstardom.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Horror, The Horror

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye in Dracula
Count Dracula: Bela Lugosi
Mina: Helen Chandler
John Harker: David Manners
Renfield: Dwight Frye
Van Helsing: Edward Van Sloan
Dr. Seward: Herbert Bunston
Lucy: Frances Dade

Director: Tod Browning
Screenplay: Garrett Fort
Based on a play by Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston adapted from a novel by Bram Stoker
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Production design: John Hoffman, Herman Rosse
Film editing: Milton Carruth

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Dwight Frye, Colin Clive, and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein
Henry Frankenstein: Colin Clive
Elizabeth: Mae Clarke
Victor Moritz: John Boles
The Monster: Boris Karloff
Baron Frankenstein: Frederick Kerr
Fritz: Dwight Frye
Dr. Waldman: Edward Van Sloan
The Burgomaster: Lionel Belmore
Little Maria: Marilyn Harris

Director: James Whale
Screenplay: Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh
Based on a story treatment by John L. Balderston of a play by Peggy Webling adapted from a novel by Mary Shelley
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art direction: Charles D. Hall
Film editing: Clarence Kolster
Music: Bernhard Kaun

Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein have a lot in common. Both were based on stage plays adapted from celebrated novels; together they established the Universal studios as specialists in horror movies, the way gangster movies seemed to characterize Warner Bros. and musicals became identified as an MGM specialty; both launched the careers of actors known almost exclusively for their roles as monsters -- a millstone around the neck of the very talented Boris Karloff, an alternate identity for the less-gifted Bela Lugosi. There are some other incidental similarities: Both feature performances by Dwight Frye, a rather ordinary looking character actor who became a specialist in creep roles. In Dracula he's the vampire's stooge, Renfield, marked by a wheezing laugh that sounds like a cat trying to heave up a hairball. In Frankenstein he's the hunchbacked Fritz, stooge to the titular scientist. Both feature Edward Van Sloan as professorial types: the vampire expert Van Helsing and the ill-fated Dr. Waldman. Both have ingenues preyed upon by the monsters and handsome juveniles who try to be their stalwart defenders but mostly just get in the way. But Frankenstein is by far the better film than Dracula. It may be that James Whale was a more gifted director than Tod Browning, although Browning had a long career in silent films. including some standout Lon Chaney features, before Whale made his mark in Hollywood. Or it may just be that Dracula was made first, so that everyone working on Frankenstein could learn from its mistakes. Browning, I think, hadn't quite gotten used to making talkies, so that the pacing of Dracula is off: Scenes and speeches seem to halt a little longer than they need to. Dracula also betrays its origins on the stage more than Frankenstein. Apart from the spectacle of the storm at sea, there's little in Dracula that couldn't have been put on stage, whereas Frankenstein is loaded with spectacle: the opening funeral and grave-robbing scene; the sparking and flashing laboratory equipment and the thunderstorm; the murder of Little Maria; the torch-bearing villagers and the burning of the old mill. One thing they don't have much of is actual scary stuff, especially as compared to today's blood-and-gore horror movies. To contemporary audiences, Dracula and Frankenstein seem bloodless and gutless, and Dracula in particular has been deprived of its shock value by Lugosi's lack of sex appeal -- vampirism is a sexual threat, given its preoccupation with the exchange of bodily fluids, which is why vampires have gotten hotter over the years. The monster in Frankenstein on the other hand elicits sympathy: It's alone in a world it never made, which is why some think Whale, a gay man, betrays an identification with the character.  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Animal House (John Landis, 1978)

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

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

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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Ivan's Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

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

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

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


Friday, December 29, 2017

Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

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

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

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

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

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

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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Youth in Fury (Masahiro Shinoda, 1960)

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

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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Age of Innocence (Philip Moeller, 1934)

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)

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

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

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