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

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994)

Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran in Clerks
Dante Hicks: Brian O'Halloran
Randal Graves: Jeff Anderson
Veronica: Marilyn Ghigliotti
Caitlin Bree: Lisa Spoonauer
Jay: Jason Mewes
Silent Bob: Kevin Smith

Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith '
Cinematography: David Klein
Film editing: Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith

Every aspiring filmmaker's dream come true, Clerks is famous for having been made on the ultra-cheap with maxed-out credit cards, the proceeds of Kevin Smith's sale of his comic book collection, and essentially the loose change found under sofa cushions. It then made $3 million and established Smith as an auteur. Unfortunately for its imitators, it is also non-stop funny, an achievement few if any of them have equaled. Too often the wannabe Kevin Smiths have emulated the film's raucously potty-mouth humor, its sometimes amateurish acting, and its reliance on transgressive attitudes without possessing its lightness of touch and swiftness of delivery. Smith never leaves time for anyone to wonder whether a joke has come off, even though most of his do.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

Dr. Toey: Nantarat Swaddikul
Dr. Nohng: Jaruchai Iamaran
Noom. the Orchid Specialist: Sophon Pukanok
Toa: Nu Nimsonboom
Pa Jane: Jenjira Pongpas
Ple, the Dentist: Arkanae Cherkam
Sakda, a Monk: Sakda Kaewbuadee
Old Monk: Sin Kaewpakpin

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematography: Sayombhyu Mukdeeprom
Art direction: Akekarat Homlaor
Film editing: Lee Chatametikool
Music: Kantee Anantagant

Syndromes and a Century is the kind of film that is apt to have some people say, "It's like watching paint dry." And that's what makes it so fascinating. During the long stretches in which the viewer has nothing to do but watch an odd dark oval, the aperture of some kind of device that seems to be vacuuming up smoke from a room full of mysterious medical equipment, we're left with nothing to do but meditate on how that oval suggests a black hole, or how it echoes a solar eclipse earlier in the film, or how medical technology seems alien, or to wonder nervously whether the hospital in which the scene takes place is on fire. Things happen in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film; sometimes they even happen twice, a kind of reincarnation of earlier events -- Weerasethakul is fascinated by the belief in past lives. But the events are there for us to assemble in our imaginations: The film isn't going to that work for us. A doctor has a somewhat oddball interview with a job applicant, who later reveals that he's madly in love with her, whereupon she tells him of her inconclusive relationship with a man who collects orchids. A dentist works on a patient, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes, and begins singing to him. Later, the two meet in a scene in which the dentist speculates on whether the monk might be the reincarnation of the brother for whose accidental death he blames himself. It's also clear that the dentist has something of a crush on the monk. A young doctor's girlfriend wants him to move with her to a burgeoning new city, and shows him pictures of the industrial construction there as if it were some kind of enticement. They start to make out and he gets an erection. An older doctor, a hematologist, tries to treat a younger doctor's patient, who has suffered from carbon monoxide inhalation, by healing his chakras. When it doesn't work, the young doctor tells her he had already tried that. And so on, through various incidents that somehow echo one another but stubbornly refuse to be assimilated into a conventional narrative. Unlike Weerasethakul's other films, Syndromes and a Century take place in a scientific culture at which untamed nature only laps furtively around the edges. The settings are modern hospitals, not plantations or jungles, and there are no ghosts or forest monsters on hand. But for all that, the world remains as haunted and mysterious as the worlds seen in Tropical Malady (2004) and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Weerasethakul has been compared to Michelangelo Antonioni in his technique of introducing situations and settings that never quite resolve themselves into completed stories, but where Antonioni was filled with angst by the world's intractable conflicts, Weerasethakul seems content to enjoy the mystery without worrying about its implications.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Paris Belongs to Us (Jacques Rivette, 1961)

Betty Schneider and Giani Esposito in Paris Belongs to Us
Anne Goupil: Betty Schneider
Gérard Lenz: Giani Esposito
Terry Yordan: Françoise Prévost
Philip Kaufman: Daniel Crohem
Pierre Goupil: François Maistre
Jean-Marc: Jean-Claude Brialy
De Georges: Jean-Marie Robain

Director: Jacques Rivette
Screenplay: Jacques Rivette, Jean Gruault
Cinematography: Charles L. Bitsch
Film editing: Denise de Casabianca
Music: Philippe Arthuis

Paris belongs to the French, which is one of the problems Francophobes have with it. And there's much for them to find problems with in Jacques Rivette's first feature, one of the key works of the French New Wave. Even I found myself squirming at the gallery of poseurs present at the party near the beginning of the film. But then I realized that the film is a kind of critique of poseurs: Everyone plays a role, it seems to be saying, and everyone tries to bend the narrative in their direction. The narrative of Paris Belongs to Us is a deconstruction of the political paranoia thriller: Its characters are caught up on a vast international right-wing conspiracy that may or may not exist. The idea that it does exist seems to be supported by the fact that several of its characters are exiles from Franco's Spain and Joe McCarthy's America, and the fact that some of them end up dead. The idea that it exists only in the minds of the characters seems to be supported by the fact that none of these anxious artists and intellectuals ever manages to accomplish anything: They're paralyzed by their own paranoia and egotism, or rather, like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, they're running fast to stay in the same place. Rivette admired Lewis Carroll, so we can see his protagonist, Anne Goupil, as Alice in the Parisian pays des merveilles. She falls into the chaos of a production of Shakespeare's Pericles, a mess of a play that he probably wrote only half of, directed by Gérard Lenz, who is somehow ensnared in the political mesh that claimed the life of a composer named Juan, who had taped a guitar piece as accompaniment for the production. But after his suicide (if it was one) the tape has disappeared. Anne takes on the job of finding the tape, which leads her deeper into the mesh and into encounters with more strange characters. In the conclusion, nothing is concluded except the lives of several people, and the viewers are left wondering, "What was all that about?" Which is exactly what Rivette wants them to wonder. The film is like life: full of loose ends.

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

Conceived and edited by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematography: Plasong Klimborron, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

We tell stories to try to find meaning in what our senses provide us from the bewilderment of force and matter in which we exist. Stories become myths which become religions which eventually become science, our only bulwark of knowledge. Even when we sleep, our dreams are stories crafted out of the incessant neural storm. So it's not surprising that we love stories so much that we spend much of our lives telling them and hearing them. The story around which Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon whirls is begun by a traumatized young woman, who has just told her own story of being sold into servitude by her own father. Prompted to tell another story, one that she has heard or read, she speaks of a boy who can't walk, so he's tutored by a young woman. One day, she excuses herself from the lesson to go to the bathroom, and when she doesn't return soon, the boy rolls his wheelchair to another room where he finds the teacher unconscious. As he tries to move her to a bed, a mysterious object rolls out from her skirts. And there the young woman's story stops, only to be continued across the country of Thailand by a number of willing narrators prompted by the director and his crew. In the various elaborations on the premise, the teacher receives a name, "Dogfahr."* The object transforms itself into a boy, but one with shape-shifting powers, so he also takes the form of the teacher herself, leading to a confrontation between Dogfahr and her doppelgänger. Some narrators attempt to provide a backstory for the disabled boy: He survived a plane crash during the war that killed his parents. The story takes on political and social overtones, as well as being colored by movies and TV shows. The narrators range from villagers to a traveling troupe of players to a group of eager schoolchildren, as well as the filmmaker himself, who tries to convert these stories into a movie. The result is a fascinating mélange of fable and fact, of the imagination and the literal reality of Thailand as seen through Weerasethakul's camera eye. It's a hypernarrative: a story about telling stories.

*That transliteration appears in the subtitles, but it's often seen as "Dokfa" in sources that attempt to translate the film's original title, "Dokfa in the Devil's Hand."

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life
Lora Meredith: Lana Turner
Annie Johnson: Juanita Moore
Steve Archer: John Gavin
Sarah Jane Johnson: Susan Kohner
Susie Meredith: Sandra Dee
Allen Loomis: Robert Alda
David Edwards: Dan O'Herlihy
Sarah Jane, age 8: Karin Dicker
Susie, age 6: Terry Burnham
Frankie: Troy Donahue
Choir Soloist: Mahalia Jackson

Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Eleanore Griffin, Allan Scott
Based on a novel by Fannie Hurst
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Richard H. Riedel
Film editing: Milton Carruth
Music: Frank Skinner

John Gavin was Hollywood's ultimate decorative male, there to look good in bed with Janet Leigh in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) but otherwise to play no significant role in the film. (When he shows up later with Vera Miles, playing Leigh's sister, to find out what happened to Marion Crane, she's the one who does all the work, including the discovery of the mummified Mrs. Bates in the cellar.) It's no surprise that when Gavin died recently, several of the obituaries mentioned the scene in Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, 1967) in which his character is paralyzed by a poison dart: He's been presented as so handsomely wooden that it takes a long time before anyone notices he's just sitting there. He's not quite so inert in Imitation of Life, but that's because Douglas Sirk, like Hitchcock, knew how to make use of him: He's there to hang as nicely on Lana Turner's arm as the Jean Louis gowns do on her body. Unfortunately, this makes for some of the film's weaker scenes, the ones in which Sandra Dee's Susie develops a crush on him, but even there the fault is more Dee's limitations as an actress than Gavin's as an actor. He comes off much better in one of the key scenes, in which his Steve Archer proposes to Turner's Lora Meredith. It works because Turner is skillful enough to make Lora into a woman who knows how not to get trapped by male expectations of what women should be. It's not quite so well-played as the scene in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) I wrote about a couple of days ago, in which Charlotte Vale rebuffs Jerry Durrance's suggestion that she should be looking for a man instead of taking care of his daughter, but that's because Lana Turner wasn't Bette Davis. Still, the scene comes off, and it's reinforced later when Lora is the one who proposes to Steve, after she's gotten what she wanted. The film belongs, of course, to the women, not only Turner but also and especially to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner, who got the Oscar nominations they deserved. It's possible to fault the film for "whitewashing" by casting Kohner as the black girl who tries to pass for white, especially since in the earlier version of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934), the corresponding character was played by Fredi Washington, who was indeed black. But even to raise the issue of "passing" in 1959, especially in a film that some considered little more than soap opera, was audacious: The Production Code had long forbidden any treatment of miscegenation. And Sirk artfully turns the issue into a generational one: Sarah Jane's desire to be white as a reaction against the subservience of her mother, foreshadowing a generation gap that would be operative in the coming decade's civil rights struggle. Sirk's films have a way of working themselves into your head unexpectedly, putting the lie to my observation that drama makes you think and melodrama makes you feel. Sirk's melodrama -- Imitation of Life is unashamed of the clichés it exploits and usually transcends -- undoubtedly makes you feel. Is there ever a dry eye at showings of the film's funeral finale? But by confronting the problems that underlie the melodrama it also has a sneaky way of making you think.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

George O'Brien and Margaret Livingston in Sunrise
The Man: George O'Brien
The Wife: Janet Gaynor
The Woman From the City: Margaret Livingston
The Maid: Bodil Rosing
The Photographer: J. Farrell MacDonald
The Barber: Ralph Sipperly
The Manicure Girl: Jane Winton
The Obtrusive Gentleman: Arthur Housman
The Obliging Gentleman: Eddie Boland

Director: F.W. Murnau
Screenplay: Carl Mayer
Based on a story by Hermann Sudermann
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Carl Struss
Art direction: Rochus Gliese
Film editing: Harold D. Schuster

Sunrise has always seemed to me a triumph of style and technique over substance, which is why I'm not over-eager to join in the chorus hailing it as a masterpiece. Extraordinary, ingenious things are brought to bear on material that seems to me tired and derivative: the town-country divide, the good wife vs. the scheming vixen, the rescues and revelations, the sentimentalizing of the simple folk. All of these were clichés in 1827, let alone 1927. The pretentious subtitle, "A Song of Two Humans," and the labels pasted onto the characters instead of names seem to me laborious attempts to heighten the material into a significance it doesn't really have. That F.W. Murnau, with the considerable help of cast and cinematographers and designers, was able to overcome these flaws and give us something of lasting distinction is undeniable. But a masterpiece would have given us something new, the way, for example, Fritz Lang was able to do the same year in Metropolis, a film that rises above its banalities in visionary ways. There are great moments in Sunrise, but too much of it is horseplay like the pig chase sequence and condescending hokum like the "peasant dance" performed by the Man and the Wife for the amusement of the city slickers. That said, it's possible to be moved by Sunrise without being completely snookered by it.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Paul Henreid, Bette Davis, and John Loder in Now, Voyager
Charlotte Vale: Bette Davis
Jerry Durrance: Paul Henreid
Dr. Jaquith: Claude Rains
Mrs. Vale: Gladys Cooper
June Vale: Bonita Granville
Eliot Livingston: John Loder
Lisa Vale: Ilka Chase
Deb McIntyre: Lee Patrick
Mr. Thompson: Franklin Pangborn
Dora Pickford: Mary Wickes
Tina Durrance: Janis Wilson

Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Casey Robinson
Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art direction: Robert M. Haas
Film editing: Warren Low
Music: Max Steiner

"A campy tearjerker," "kitsch," "a schlock classic" -- that's pretty much what you have to call Now, Voyager if you're a critic trying to prove your tough-mindedness, like Pauline Kael or the unidentified New York Times reviewer who dismissed it as "lachrymose." But there are at least two moments in the movie that bring it into focus as something more than just a routine weepie, or rather that suggest that even a routine weepie has a point to make. One is the scene in which Charlotte Vale and Eliot Livingston break off their engagement in an off-handed, all-in-a-day's-work manner. Eliot is, after all, as square as John Loder's jaw, and not at all the mate for a woman who has just discovered who she is. Of course, the breakup kills Charlotte's mother, but that consequence is long past due. The other key moment for me is in the long final scene between Charlotte and Jerry Durrance. She has more or less adopted Tina, the daughter that Jerry's never-seen wife doesn't want. But when Jerry tells her that he's taking Tina away, there's one of the more magnificent Bette Davis moments from a career full of them. His reason, you see, is that by devoting herself to Tina, Charlotte is apparently depriving herself of the opportunity to catch a man. For a brief moment we see Charlotte incredulous at the reason, followed by another moment of something like, "Lord, what fools men are." Jerry drops several notches in Charlotte's esteem at the moment, which leads into the film's most famous line, in which she dismisses Jerry's egocentric wishful thinking: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars." Charlotte Vale emerges from the film as one of the more admirable, level-headed women ever seen on a movie screen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (Masaki Kobayashi, 1961)

Tatsuya Nakadai in The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer
Kaji: Tatsuya Nakadai
Michiko: Michiyo Aratama
Shojo: Tamao Nakamura
Terada: Yusuke Kawazu
Choro: Chishu Ryu
Tange: Taketoshi Naito
Refugee Woman: Hideko Takamine
Ryuko: Kyoko Kishida
Russian Officer: Ed Keene
Chapayev: Ronald Self

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama, Koichi Inagaki, Masaki Kobayashi
Based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa
Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima
Art direction: Kazue Hirataka
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Homer's Odysseus made it home to Ithaka and Penelope, but Masaki Kobayashi's Odysseus, Kaji, doesn't make it home to his Penelope, Michiko, and he's not certain that his Ithaka in southern Manchuria still exists. Kaji struggles toward her against all odds, but dies in a snowstorm, without even a moment of transcendence or a heavenly choir on the soundtrack to ennoble his death. It's a downer ending to a nine-hour epic, but if it feels right it's thanks to the enormous conviction of Tatsuya Nakadai as the stubborn idealist Kaji. The Human Condition is an immersive experience rather than a dramatic one: Drama would demand catharsis, and there is really none to be had from the film. The human condition depicted in the film is Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short -- though the length of the film works against the last adjective. It is a statement film: War is a stupid way for people to behave to one another. And as such it never quite transcends its message-making, leaving the film somewhere short of greatness. Still, it has to be seen by anyone who seeks to understand Japan in the twentieth century and after, and by anyone who wants to know the limits of film as an art form.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959)

Tatsuya Nakadai in The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity
Kaji: Tatsuya Nakadai
Michiko: Michiyo Aratama
Shinjo: Kei Sato
Obara: Kunie Tanaka
Yoshida: Michiro Minami
Kageyama: Keiji Sada
Sasa Nitohei: Kokinji Katsura
Hino Jun'i: Jun Tatara

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama, Masaki Kobayashi
Based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa
Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima
Art direction: Kazue Hirataka
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

If, as I said yesterday, the first part of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition makes me think of the earnest "serious pictures" that came out of Hollywood in the 1940s -- I have in mind such movies as The Razor's Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946), in which Tyrone Power searches for the meaning of life, or Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), in which Gregory Peck crusades against antisemitism -- then the second part, Road to Eternity, suggests, even in its subtitle, the influence of  From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953), that near-scathing* look at brutality in Army basic training. Kaji, our idealistic protagonist, has been sent to war, and has to endure all manner of abuse even though he's an excellent marksman and a sturdy trooper. His objections to Japanese militarism and his belief that the war is wrong mark him out as a "Red," and for a time he contemplates escaping into his idealized version of the Soviet Union. But his sympathy for his fellow recruits keeps him plugging away, occasionally taking heat for his defense of them, especially from the military veterans who have been called up to serve. They object to his treating the recruits he is put in charge of training with respect and human decency -- they went through hell in basic training, so why shouldn't everyone? The film ends with a cataclysmic battle sequence, during which Kaji has to kill one of his fellow soldiers, who has gone stark raving mad and with his antics threatens the lives of other soldiers. It's not the first time Kaji has resorted to killing a fellow soldier: Earlier, he has been mired in quicksand with a brutal man who has caused the suicide of a recruit, and Kaji lets him drown. The intensity of the battle scenes takes some of the focus away from Kaji's intellectualizing, which is all to the good.

*I have to quality: From Here to Eternity is not as scathing as the James Jones novel on which it's based, thanks to the Production Code and the residual good feeling of having won the war. In some ways, The Human Condition II is more properly an anticipation of Stanley Kubrick's no-holds-barred
Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (Masaki Kobayashi. 1959)

Tatsuya Nakadai and So Yamamura in The Human Condition I: No Greater Love
Kaji: Tatsuya Nakadai
Michiko: Michiyo Aratama
Tofuko Kin: Chikage Awashima
Shunran Yo: Ineko Arima
Kageyama: Keiji Sada
Okishima: So Yamamura
Chin: Akira Ishihama

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama, Masaki Kobayashi
Based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa
Cinematography: Yoshio Miyajima
Art direction: Kazue Hirataka
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The first three and a half hours of Masaki Kobayashi's nine-hour, 47-minute epic The Human Condition are themselves divided into two parts, though the break seems more a courtesy to the Sitzfleisch of the viewer than to any inherent division in the story. I have a friend who says he's never read a bad novel over 600 pages long, because once he's done with it he has to justify the time spent reading. I think something like that may apply to The Human Condition once I've finished it. Which is not to say that there isn't a greatness that adheres to Kobayashi's unsparing, audacious film, even though at times I found myself feeling that The Human Condition I: No Greater Love derived as much from the more earnest black-and-white Hollywood films of the 1940s, the ones that starred Tyrone Power or Gregory Peck, than from the high artistry of Ozu or Mizoguchi. It is often unabashed melodrama: We worry that Kobayashi hasn't burdened his protagonist, Kaji, with more than is really credible. An idealist, he not only finds himself supervising slave Chinese labor in Manchuria during World War II, he also has to manage a brothel staffed with Chinese "comfort women." And the more he does to better the lot of the workers, the more he elicits the ire of the kenpeitai, the Japanese military police. On the other hand, if he compromises with the authorities, the Chinese prisoners and prostitutes make his life miserable. And not to mention that, his wife is incapable of comprehending the stresses that make him so distant at home. But Tatsuya Nakadai is such an accomplished actor that he gives Kaji credibility, even when we're beginning to think he's too virtuous, too idealistic, for his own good.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Pornographers (Shohei Imamura, 1966)

Sumiko Sakamoto and Shoichi Ozawa in The Pornographers
Subuyan Ogata: Shoichi Ozawa
Haru Matsuda: Sumiko Sakamoto
Keiko Matsuda: Keiko Sagawa
Banteki: Haruo Tanaka
Elderly Client: Ganjiro Nakamura
Koichi Matsuda: Masaomi Kondo
Shinun Ogata: Ichiro Sugai
Doctor: Kazuo Kitamura

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Shohei Imamura, Koji Numata
Based on a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Art direction: Hiromi Shiozawa, Ichiro Takada
Film editing: Mutsuo Tanji
Music: Toshiro Kusunoki, Toshiro Mayuzumi

Fascinating. confusing, sometimes funny, and sometimes just a little repellent. Must be a Shohei Imamura film. I don't shock easily, but Imamura always keeps me on the edge of being shocked, mostly because I don't know how far he'll go next. In The Pornographers, we're dealing not only with the title subject but also with incest and prostitution and even abuse of the mentally challenged, while desperately trying to sort out the very confused life of Subuyan Ogata. He is one of the pornographers of the title, and he lives with a widow, Haru, who thinks her dead husband has been reincarnated as the carp she keeps in a very confining fish tank. She has two nearly grown children: Toichi, who seems uncommonly attached to his mother, and Keiko, a rebel without a cause. Ogata is obsessed with Keiko, whom he has known since she was a little girl. Nothing good is going to come out of his relationship with the Matsuda family, of course, especially after Haru gets pregnant and goes insane. But figuring out the ins and outs of the film's plot, and even whether what we're watching is flashback or dream or fantasy is part of the essence of its fascination -- and its repellent quality. Imamura isn't quite like any filmmaker I know of. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm, 1962)

Aleksey Batalov in Nine Days of One Year
Dmitri Gusov : Aleksey Batalov 
Lyolya : Tatyana Lavrova 
Ilya Kulikov : Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy
Prof. Sintsov: Nikolai Plotnikov
Narrator: Zinoviy Gerdt

Director: Mikhail Romm
Screenplay: Daniil Khrabovitsky, Mikhail Romm
Cinematography: German Lavrov
Production design : Georgi Kolganov 
Film editing : Yeva Ladyzhenskaya
Music: Dzhon Ter-Tatevosyan

The Soviet film Nine Days of One Year, about nuclear physicists, appeared in 1962, which makes for an interesting counterpoint to the major news event of that year, the nuclear standoff known as the Cuban missile crisis. But for all its geopolitical significance, Mikhail Romm's film is a love story, a blend of the eternal triangle and a conflict between marriage and career. Dmitri Gusov, known as Mitya, is a dedicated scientist who in the first of the film's nine days -- they aren't consecutive but spread out over the year -- receives a dose of radiation while overseeing an experiment conducted by his mentor, Prof. Sintsov. The professor gets a lethal dose, but Mitya is told that he's safe as long as he doesn't get exposed to another large burst of radiation. Mitya is in love with a fellow physicist, Lyolya, who is also involved with Mitya's friend Ilya, a theoretical physicist. Ilya and Lyolya are on the verge of telling Mitya that they're going to get married, but the accident propels Lyolya into marrying Mitya instead. It's a rocky marriage, to be sure, with Lyolya worrying that Mitya is putting himself in harm's way while at the same time fretting that she's not doing enough to overcome his coldness and obsession with work. Through all this there's much talk, especially between Ilya and Mitya about the morality of nuclear science, the nature of humanity, and even about whether they're doing enough to advance the future of communism. Fortunately, the ideological talk is kept to a minimum. Romm directs all of this with great style: long takes shot at low angles and a camera that moves restlessly between the characters as they talk. Somehow the film never falls into the obvious clichés, maybe because Aleksey Batalov, Tatyana Lavrova, and Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy bring their characters to life.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Cossacks (George W. Hill, 1928)

John Gilbert and Renée Adorée in The Cossacks
Lukashka: John Gilbert
Maryana: Renée Adorée
Ivan: Ernest Torrance
Prince Olenin Stieshneff: Nils Asther
Sitchi: Paul Hurst
Ulitka: Dale Fuller

Director: George W. Hill
Screenplay: Frances Marion
Title cards: John Colton
Based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons
Film editing: Blanche Sewell

Nobody comes off well in The Cossacks. Not even John Gilbert, for whom MGM made the movie, hoping the reteaming with Renée Adorée, his co-star in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), would strike fire at the box office. Gilbert spends much of the movie in a shaggy Astrakhan hat that makes his nose look big. Nor was the film much fun for screenwriter Frances Marion and director George W. Hill, who spent much of the production time fighting with studio interference and handling complaints from Gilbert and Adorée. Hill eventually quit and was replaced by an uncredited Clarence Brown. Nor does the film do much justice to the novel by Leo Tolstoy on which it's based. It completely inverts the story, in which Prince Olenin is the protagonist, an idealistic Russian who hates Moscow society and finds himself in the simpler, more primitive way of life in the Caucasus. In the film, Olenin has been sent by the tsar to mingle with the Cossacks and find a bride in some vaguely diplomatic attempt to cement relations between the urban Russians and the rural populace. Nils Asther is a very pretty Olenin, who of course lights on the equally very pretty Maryana, played by the very pretty Adorée, but she's in love with Lukashka, even though he's a "woman man" who doesn't like killing Turks, which is all that the male Cossacks seem to do. (The women, meanwhile, do all the work.) The film winds up as an absurd paean to the Cossack way of life, after Lukashka decides he really does like killing after all. True, The Cossacks is often fun to watch, and there's some spectacular stunt riding by a troupe of actual Cossacks brought to the United States for the film. But there's too much nonsense and too many clichés.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Cary Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Roy Neary: Richard Dreyfuss
Claude Lacombe: François Truffaut
Ronnie Neary: Teri Garr
Jillian Guiler: Melinda Dillon
David Laughlin: Bob Balaban
Barry Guiler: Cary Guffey
Project Leader: J. Patrick McNamara
Farmer: Roberts Blossom

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Steven Spielberg
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Production design: Joe Alves
Film editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams

There are two undeniable facts about Steven Spielberg as a director: He is one of the great visual storytellers, and he often doesn't know how to end his movies. The latter is usually held against him, as with the extended didacticism of the concluding scenes of two of his greatest films, Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). We can see both at work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film that let everyone know that his big breakthrough movie, Jaws (1975), was more than just beginner's luck. Spielberg resists spelling things out for the viewer through dialogue from the beginning, letting images and situations carry the narrative weight. Even a simple gag can work wonders: Roy Neary, the lineman out to resolve a power outage, is stopped at a railroad crossing to look at his maps when we see headlights behind his truck. A car then pulls around him and the driver calls him an asshole. But then another set of headlights shows up, and instead of pulling around him, the lights go up and over the truck as Roy has his first close encounter. The first sightings of the alien ships are thrillingly enigmatic: Where can Spielberg go with this? But by the time we get to the final payoff, things drag out much too long, as if Spielberg has become so enamored of the special effects that he can't bring himself to lose a minute of them. Nevertheless, Close Encounters is epochal filmmaking, not just in its elevation of sci-fi to a major film genre but also in its revelation of Spielberg's genius for instilling a sense of wonder in an audience.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Logan (James Mangold, 2017)

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in Logan
Logan / X-24: Hugh Jackman
Charles Xavier: Patrick Stewart
Laura: Dafne Keen
Pierce: Boyd Holbrook
Caliban: Stephen Merchant
Gabriela: Elizabeth Rodriguez
Dr. Rice: Richard E. Grant
Will Munson: Eriq La Salle
Kathryn Munson: Elise Neal
Nate Munson: Quincy Fouse

Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Production design: François Audouy
Film editing: Michael McCusker, Dirk Westervelt
Music: Marco Beltrami

James Mangold knows something that James Cameron figured out on the first two Terminator movies and George Miller on the Mad Max series: that if you're putting together a big action movie with superheroes and sci-fi concepts, it's best that you keep the human scale in mind. That's the secret of Logan's success -- and to my mind the undoing of most of the blockbuster comic book movies, even those in the Marvel X-Men series of which Logan is a part. Hugh Jackman's Logan/Wolverine character is a known quantity, and his performances have stood out through most of the films in which he appears. But Logan has never been a particularly human-scale figure: His adamantium superstructure makes him virtually invincible. But he has a troubled past, and in the beginning of Logan he's also physically ill, making him snarlier but also more humanly vulnerable than ever. Holed up in Mexico with the last of the X-Men, Charles Xavier and Caliban, he's just trying to get by, procuring medicine for the nonagenarian Xavier, who has occasional seizures that, because of his telekinetic powers, endanger everyone around him. All of this is the usual fantastic stuff of the Marvel movies, but the humanizing of Logan takes place when he's faced with saving a young mutant named Laura, who has been created in a laboratory using some of Logan's own DNA. And so the story of the declining Logan, the dying Xavier, and the imperiled Laura develops a human emotional content that actually becomes quite touching -- especially as Logan is not at first inclined to acknowledge Laura as essentially his own daughter. Plot complications ensue because of the attempts of the biotech company that created Laura and a handful of other synthetic mutants, who have escaped captivity, to reclaim them by any means necessary. The slam-bang action stuff is well-done but the whole thing would be just routine without the fine performances of Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and especially young Dafne Keen, whose fiercely determined Laura reminded me of Millie Bobby Brown's work as Eleven on the series Stranger Things. This is evidently a great time for very young actresses.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dames (Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley, 1934)

Mabel Anderson: Joan Blondell
Jimmy Higgens: Dick Powell
Barbara Hemingway: Ruby Keeler
Mathilda Hemingway: Zasu Pitts
Horace Hemingway: Guy Kibbee
Ezra Ounce: Hugh Herbert
Bulger: Arthur Vinton

Director: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Delmer Daves, Robert Lord
Cinematography: George Barnes, Sidney Hickox, Sol Polito
Art direction: Robert M. Haas, Willy Pogany
Film editing: Harold McLernon
Music: Heinz Roemheld

Utterly inane and completely delightful, Dames is mostly a showcase for three great Busby Berkeley dance spectacles, each giddier and more kaleidoscopic than the one that went before. The big numbers -- "The Girl at the Ironing Board," "I Only Have Eyes for You," and the title song -- are clustered at the end of the film, the supposed (if impossible) production numbers in a Broadway musical. Until we get to them, there's a lot of nonsense about multimillionaire Ezra Ounce's moral crusade and his cousin Horace Hemingway's kowtowing to Ounce in order to get a sizable chunk of his millions, which involves keeping his daughter, Barbara, from marrying her 13th cousin, Jimmy, who is banking on his ability to put on the big show, which supposedly offends Ounce's moral code. Got that? Fortunately, the bluenoses are played by such grand grotesques as Hugh Herbert, Guy Kibbee, and Zasu Pitts, and there's a lot of silliness about Ezra Ounce's hiccup cure, which is something like 70 percent alcohol. There's also the invaluable Joan Blondell as a chorus girl on the make. Unfortunately, we also get a couple of songs from Dick Powell, in his sappy tenor avatar, and some clunky tap-dancing from Ruby Keeler. But Berkeley's extravaganzas are worth the wait, including the title number, which features chorus girls riding a miniature Ferris wheel. Standing. Backward.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne, 1996)

Laura Dern and Kurtwood Smith in Citizen Ruth
Ruth Stoops: Laura Dern
Diane Siegler: Swoosie Kurtz
Norm Stoney: Kurtwood Smith
Gail Stoney: Mary Kay Place
Rachel: Kelly Preston
Harlan: M.C. Gainey
Dr. Charlie Rollins: Kenneth Mars
Blaine Gibbons: Burt Reynolds
Jessica Weiss: Tippi Hedren

Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cinematography: James Glennon
Production design: Jane Ann Stewart
Film editing: Kevin Tent
Music: Rolfe Kent

"Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim," said George Santayana, a statement quoted by Chuck Jones in commenting on his inspiration for Wile E. Coyote's futile pursuit of the Road Runner. It applies equally well to most of the characters in Citizen Ruth, with the exception of Ruth herself, whose only clear aim, getting high, she never forgets. Director Alexander Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor crafted an audacious satire on political fanaticism, focused specifically on the American furor over abortion, but still applicable 22 years later to almost all of the many political controversies, from gun control to collusion with foreign powers, that dominate our divided discourse. Ruth Stoops is a hopeless case, too addled by whatever she can get her hands on to produce a state of narcosis and too much a product of societal breakdown to ever be the focus of anybody's cause. But when a judge, learning that Ruth is pregnant with a fifth unwanted child, suggests that he might go easy on sentencing her if she'll have an abortion, she is first snapped up by right-to-life advocates and then blunders her way into the opposing camp of freedom-to-choose proponents. Eventually, her decision (which Ruth is incapable of arriving at rationally) begins to be swayed by a bidding war between the two groups, each of which offers her money -- a rather paltry $15,000 that seems like a fortune to the indigent Ruth -- either to have the baby or to abort the fetus. There are those who find the plight of Ruth no laughing matter, and they're right. But Payne manages to stay on the far side of reality in his treatment of the subject, and he benefits from a company of actors capable of teetering on the edge of caricature without actually lapsing into it. Laura Dern manages to find something sweetly naive in Ruth that makes her headlong self-destructiveness both touching and funny. She is a hopeless case, just as a resolution of the abortion debate seems hopeless, too.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Feu Mathias Pascal (Marcel L'Herbier, 1926)

Ivan Mozzhukhin in Feu Mathias Pascal 
Mathias Pascal: Ivan Mozzhukhin
Romilde: Marcelle Pradot
Adrienne: Lois Moran
Mathias's Mother: Marthe Mellot
Aunt Scholastica: Pauline Carton
Sylvia Caporale: Irma Perrot
The Widow Pescatore: Mireille Barsac
Jérôme Pomino: Michel Simon
Terence Papiano: Jean Hervé
Scipio: Pierre Batcheff
Batta Maldagna: Isaure Douvan

Director: Marcel L'Herbier
Screenplay: Marcel L'Herbier
Based on a novel by Luigi Pirandello
Cinematography: Jimmy Berliet, Fédote Bourgasoff, Paul Guichard, René Guichard, Jean Letort, Nikolas Roudakoff
Art direction: Erik Aaes, Alberto Cavalcanti, Lazare Meerson

Feu Mathias Pascal takes nearly three hours to demonstrate the truth of Kris Kristofferson's observation that "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Mathias is a studious young man working on a magnum opus, The History of Freedom, while the world around him begins to crumble: His widowed mother is cheated out of her home by an unscrupulous magistrate in their small Italian town. Meanwhile, his shy, homely friend Pomino wants him to court Romilde on his behalf, but she secretly has a crush on Mathias, who falls in love with and marries her. Because Romilde is under the thumb of her shrewish, demanding mother the marriage quickly sours, and when the two people Mathias loves more than any others, his mother and his infant daughter, die, he decides to leave town. In Monte Carlo, he wins a fortune at roulette, but after deciding to go home he learns that he has been declared dead. Embracing this new opportunity for freedom, he goes incognito to Rome, where he spots the pretty Adrienne and, following her home, takes a room that her father has for rent. There's much ado involving a plot to marry Adrienne to the odious Terence, and in the course of it Mathias realizes that you can't have your freedom and enjoy it too. It's a fascinating mess of a film, with startling shifts in tone from pathos -- the death of Mathias's mother and child -- to Kafkaesque surrealism -- Mathias's stint as an assistant librarian in a dusty, rat-filled jumble of a library -- to romantic comedy -- his rescue of Adrienne from the clutches of Terence and his fake-spiritualist cohorts. The narrative gets a little elliptical, especially toward the end, when Mathias exposes the corrupt magistrate who cheated his mother. But the Russian actor Ivan Mozzhukin is adept at both the pathos of Mathias's life and the Buster Keaton-like deadpan comedy of much of the film, and he's well-supported by the cast, including Michel Simon in one of his earliest roles as Pomino. Filmed on location in San Gimignano, Monte Carlo, and Rome, the movie provides glimpses of such familiar places as the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Forum, strikingly free of traffic and tourists.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016)

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge
Desmond Doss: Andrew Garfield
Sgt. Howell: Vince Vaughn
Capt. Jack Glover: Sam Worthington
Smitty Ryker: Luke Bracey
Tom Doss: Hugo Weaving
Dorothy Schutte: Teresa Palmer
Bertha Doss: Rachel Griffiths
Lt. Manville: Ryan Corr
Col. Stelzer: Richard Roxburgh
Milt "Hollywood" Zane: Luke Pegler

Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Production design: Barry Robison
Film editing: John Gilbert
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams

Hacksaw Ridge doesn't shy away from biopic or war-movie clichés, it embraces them: There's on the one hand the familiar bullying sergeant, and on the other the typical shy romance. But it succeeds in being a well-made action movie, after spending a little too much time on the shy romance and other bits of Appalachian backgrounding for the character of Desmond Doss, a real person who was both a conscientious objector and a Medal of Honor winner for his heroism as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa. To play Doss, the movie needed the equivalent of a young James Stewart or Gary Cooper, and found him in Garfield, who received a best actor Oscar nomination. The movie also provided a measure of redemption for its director, Mel Gibson, who had been persona non grata in Hollywood after a 2006 drunk-driving arrest in which he made antisemitic remarks to the arresting officer, a capper on a string of homophobic and extreme right-wing statements he had reportedly made over the years. He was nominated for best director for Hacksaw Ridge, and the film was also up for best picture and for film editing and two sound awards. It won for film editing and sound mixing. Gibson remains something of a problematic figure in the industry, and has yet to find a followup in his would-be comeback. Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates some of his known flaws, such as his violent delight in mayhem and bloodshed, and it's a bit heavy-handed in its endorsement of Doss's simple (not to say simple-minded) faith, but it provides some very old-fashioned movie gratifications.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Inheritance (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

Keiko Kishi in The Inheritance
Yasuko Miyagawa: Keiko Kishi
Senzo Kawahara: So Yamamura
Kikuo Furukawa: Tatsuya Nakadai
Satoe Kawahara: Misako Watanabe
Naruto Yoshida: Seiji Miyaguchi
Junichi Fujii: Minoru Chiaki
Mariko: Mari Yoshimura
Sadao: Yusuke Kawazu

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Koichi Inagaki
Based on a novel by Norio Najo
Cinematography: Takashi Kawamata
Art direction: Shigemasa Toda
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Toru Takemitsu

Looking as chic and mysterious as Anouk Aimée, Delphine Seyrig, or Monica Vitti ever did in the French and Italian films of the era, Yasuko Miyagawa steps from her car, dons her sunglasses, and goes for a bit of window-shopping. But in front of a jewelry store window, she is stopped by a man she once knew. She agrees to join him in a cafe, where the flashback that constitutes most of Masaki Kobayashi's The Inheritance unfolds in her narrative. When they knew each other, she was a secretary and he was a lawyer for the wealthy businessman Senzo Kawahara, and both of them had key roles in determining who would benefit from Kawahara's will. The rest is a noir fable, based on the oldest of plot premises: Where there's a will, there are people scheming to benefit from it. Upon learning that he has cancer and only a short while to live, Kawahara set his managers the task of locating his illegitimate children: He and his wife, Satoe, have none from their marriage. And in the search for the heirs, even the searchers are prone to make deals with the potential legatees. By law, Satoe stands to inherit a third of her husband's 300 million yen estate, but she of course wants more, which means making sure that none of her husband's offspring earns his favor. And then there are the offspring, some of whom have adoptive families that would benefit from being included in the will, while others have come of age and want to curry favor with the father they've never met. No holds are barred: not only fraud but also murder and rape. But mainly the film is the story of Yasuko, beautifully played by Keiko Kishi, transforming from the self-effacing secretary into the consummate schemer, motivated at least as much by revenge as by greed. It's a nasty tale, but an involving one.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)

Sakda Kaewbuadee and Banlop Lomnoi in Tropical Malady
Keng: Banlop Lomnoi
Tong: Sakda Kaewbuadee

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematography: Jarin Pengpanitch, Vichit Tanapanitch, Jean-Louis Vialard
Production design: Akekarat Homlaor
Film editing: Lee Chatametikool, Jacopo Quadri

Tropical Malady comes in two not-quite-discrete segments. The first is a more-or-less realistic account of the romance of Keng, a soldier, with Tong, a farmboy Keng meets during a mission to recover a body. The second part is an elaboration on a kind of ghost story in which a soldier (also played by Banlop Lomnoi) goes into the jungle to search for a missing villager, and there encounters the spirit of a shaman (also played by Sakda Kaewbuadee) who can turn himself into a tiger. Although the first part is mostly a love story, it is as shadowy in its way as the second part, beginning with the discover of the body -- and the soldiers' glee in having their photographs taken with the corpse -- and ending with Tong's disappearance into the dark, after which Keng rides his motor scooter past a group of men beating up another man and then pursuing Keng. Although the narrative of Tropical Malady is more conventionally handled than that of Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), there are some clear links between the two films, including the fact that Kaewbuadee plays a character named Tong in both, and in Tropical Malady refers to his uncle who can recall his past lives. There's also a key scene in both films set in a cavern, along with an obvious preoccupation with the spirit world. If there's a theme that runs through both, it's that of the thinness of the boundary between civilization and the primitive world, or between body and spirit.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

Dennis Price and Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets
Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini: Dennis Price
Edith D'Ascoyne: Valerie Hobson
Sibella: Joan Greenwood
Ethelred, Lord Ascoyne/Rev. Lord Henry/ Gen. Lord Rufus/Admiral Lord Horatio/Young Ascoyne/Young Henry/Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne: Alec Guinness
Louis's Mother: Audrey Fildes
The Hangman: Miles Malleson
The Prison Governor: Clive Morton
Lionel: John Penrose
Lord High Steward: Hugh Griffith

Director: Robert Hamer
Screenplay: Robert Hamer, John Dighton
Based on a novel by Roy Horniman
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art direction: William Kellner
Film editing: Peter Tanner
Costume design: Anthony Mendleson
Music: Ernest Irving

Kind Hearts and Coronets is best known for Alec Guinness's tour de force as the entire D'Ascoyne family, but that's hardly the greatest of pleasures the film affords. Dennis Price's performance as the suavely lethal Louis is as much a demonstration of how to act sophisticated comedy as one could wish, and who can resist Joan Greenwood as Sibella, especially in hats that seem to contain an entire florist's shop? It evokes her definitive Gwendolen Fairfax in Anthony Asquith's 1952 filming of The Importance of Being Earnest. In fact, Oscar Wilde's play is the essential background reference for Robert Hamer's screenplay -- it apparently also influenced the novel on which the film is based -- and you hear Wilde's voice in such lines as Mazzini's "It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms." Hamer's staging also provides the necessary distancing from Mazzini's murders, as in the scene in which he offs Young Henry D'Ascoyne: While Mazzini is taking tea with Edith in the garden we hear a whump that neither character acknowledges as Henry's darkroom explodes with him in it. Then smoke begins to arise beyond the garden wall, and Mazzini comments that someone must be burning leaves. Not this time of year, Edith replies, and Mazzini rushes off to "investigate" what he knows has happened. Kind Hearts and Coronets seems to me the best of all the classic British comedies of the late 1940s and the 1950s.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brad Rearden, Bill Paxton, and Brian Thompson in The Terminator
The Terminator: Arnold Schwarzenegger
Sarah Connor: Linda Hamilton
Kyle Reese: Michael Biehn
Lt. Ed Traxler: Paul Winfield
Detective Hal Vukovich: Lance Henriksen
Ginger Ventura: Bess Motta
Matt Buchanan: Rick Rossovich
Dr. Peter Silberman: Earl Boen
Pawn Shop Clerk: Dick Miller

Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Art direction: George Costello, Maria Caso
Film editing: Mark Goldblatt
Music: Brad Fiedel

Watching The Terminator a week after the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, is a different experience than it might have been, especially when the Terminator goes into a pawnshop to get his weaponry and is told by the owner, "There's a 15-day wait on the handguns, but the rifles you can take right now." Still, although the movie's promiscuous mayhem may feel a bit off at the moment, it serves its purpose. The Terminator is a film of ideas about humanity and artificial intelligence, about machismo and law and order and survival -- maybe not as much as it's a film about things blowing up, but still enough that many of us can watch it and not feel the deadening effect that some action films produce. It's also a movie whose old-fashioned special effects like stop-motion puppetry feel oddly fresh and real when contrasted with the slick computer-generated effects of most sci-fi films now -- including most of director James Cameron's later work. The performances are good, the pacing is right, there's just enough humor in the dialogue, and even the time-travel gimmickry manages to make enough sense to be plausible within the confines of its fable.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)

Joseph Frady: Warren Beatty
Bill Rintels: Hume Cronyn
Lee Carter: Paula Prentiss
Austin Tucker: William Daniels
Sheriff L.D. Wicker: Kelly Thordsen
Deputy Red: Earl Hindman
Senator Carroll: William Joyce
George Hammond: Jim Davis
Former FBI Agent Will: Kenneth Mars

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Based on a novel by Loren Singer
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Production design: George Jenkins
Film editing: John W. Wheeler
Music: Michael Small

This somewhat elliptical political paranoia thriller was a critical and commercial dud in its day, but time has been kinder to it than it has to more conventional films in its subgenre, such as Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975), which looks rather slick and self-satisfied by comparison. The story, about a reporter's investigation of a shadowy company that seems to provide fall guys for political assassination, is framed by shots of a panel of judicial figures delivering their conclusion that the most recent assassination was the work of a "lone gunman." We think "Warren Commission" without hesitation. Although the main story is somewhat fragmented and the film occasionally seems rushed, there are some terrific action sequences and an overall feeling that the director and screenwriters are on to something real. The "downer" ending leaves us with that sinister panel floating in darkness, and although conspiracy theories are thicker than fleas these days, who doesn't think there might be one or two of them that have merit?

Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944)

Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace
Mortimer Brewster: Cary Grant
Abby Brewster: Josephine Hull
Martha Brewster: Jean Adair
Elaine Harper: Priscilla Lane
Jonathan Brewster: Raymond Massey
Dr. Einstein: Peter Lorre
O'Hara: Jack Carson
Mr. Witherspoon: Edward Everett Horton
Teddy Brewster: John Alexander
Lt. Rooney: James Gleason

Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
Based on a play by Joseph Kesselring
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art direction: Max Parker
Film editing: Daniel Mandell
Music: Max Steiner

This may be Cary Grant's worst performance. Certainly director Frank Capra put no restraints on Grant's lurching, mugging, groaning, and whinnying as he tries to portray Mortimer Brewster's reaction to the discovery that his beloved maiden aunts have been killing old men and burying him in their basement. But then Capra doesn't bother to restrain anyone else in this too-frantic version of the very popular Broadway farce. It's a film in which nobody listens to anyone else, producing complications that are supposed to be hysterically funny but are just hysterical. The Epstein twins do a fairly good job of adapting Joseph Kesselring's one-set stage play into a slightly opened-out movie -- though some scenes, such as the opening baseball park sequence and the bit at City Hall where Mortimer and Elaine get their wedding license, seem to be staged just for the sake of getting out of the confines of the Brewster house. No one covers themselves with comedy glory here, with the possible exception of Peter Lorre, who remains on the fringes of most of the action, providing a wry, restrained point of view on the nonsense. The film was made in 1941, but was held from release for three years because it couldn't be exhibited before the play had ended its Broadway fun.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Ballad of a Worker (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1962)

Hideko Takamine and Keiji Sada in Ballad of a Worker
Torae Nonaka: Hideko Takamine
Yoshio Nonaka: Keiji Sada
Chiyo: Yoshiko Kuga
Toshiyuki Nonaka: Toyozo Yamamoto
Miyoko Ishikawa: Chieko Baisho
Mochizuki: Kiyoshi Nonomura
Mrs. Mochizuki: Kin Sugai
Yoshio's Mother: Teruko Kishi
Yoshio's Father: Toranosuke Ogawa

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Keisuke Kinoshita's somewhat conventional and sentimental temperament informs this film about 16 years in the lives of Torae and Yoshio Nanaka, beginning with Yoshio's return from the war in 1946 and ending with the graduation of their son, Toshiyuki, from university in 1962. The couple scrimp and save to give their only child an education, hoping that he'll have a better live than theirs: Yoshio works on the roads around their village, and Torae is a housekeeper for his boss. The strength of the film lies in its earnest portrayal of ordinary lives -- even Toshiyuki is only a middling student, which means he has to work his way through college, even with the help of his parents. What it lacks is some wit and irony to leaven the rather plodding narrative.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Wallapa Mongkolprasert in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Boonmee: Thanapat Saisaymar
Jen: Jenjira Pongpas
Tong: Sakda Kaewbuadee
Huay: Natthakarn Aphaiwonk
Boonsong: Geerasak Kulhong
Princess: Wallapa Mongkolprasert
Roong: Kanokporn Tongaram
Jaai: Samud Kugasang

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Screenplay: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Production design: Akekarat Homlaor
Film editing: Lee Chatametikool

I think I would have to be more familiar with Southeast Asian history and culture to fully appreciate Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, especially to understand the relationship between the Thai landowner Boonmee and the Laotians who work on his farm. My ignorance only adds another layer of mystery to an enigmatic film.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Bruce Wayne: Christian Bale
Joker: Heath Ledger
Harvey Dent: Aaron Eckhart
Alfred: Michael Caine
Rachel: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman

Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Cinematography: Wally Pfister
Production design: Nathan Crowley
Film editing: Lee Smith
Music: James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer

I have never really understood the appeal of Batman, or really of Bruce Wayne: a superwealthy technocrat whose compulsive dressing up to hide his identity seems like silly bit of role-playing rather than an essential element of his superheroism. Moreover, he always seems to be outshone by his villainous adversaries, whose own dressing up is a manifestation of psychosis that eerily mirrors his own. So I'm not as enthusiastic as some are about the rebooting of the comic book hero as a dark knight, rather than the old TV series' campy avatar of the character. The best thing about The Dark Knight is clearly the re-imagining of the Joker and the superb performance by Heath Ledger. Otherwise, I found the usual slam-bang action rather tiresome.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pigs and Battleships (Shohei Imamura, 1961)

Jitsuko Yoshimura in Pigs and Battleships
Kinta: Hiroyuki Nagato
Haruko: Jitsuko Yoshimura
Himori: Masao Mishima
Slasher Tetsuji: Tetsuro Tanba
Hoshino: Shiro Osaka
Ohachi: Takeshi Kato
Gunji, Gangster in Check Shirt: Shoichi Ozawa
Katsuyo: Yoko Minimida
Kikuo: Hideo Sato
Kan'ichi: Eijiro Tono
Sakiyama: Akira Yamauchi
Hiromi: Sanae Nakahara
Haruko's Mother: Kin Sugai
Harukoma: Bumon Kahara

Director: Shohei Imamura
Screenplay: Hisashi Yamanouchi, Gisashi Yamauchi
Based on a novel by Kazu Otsuka
Cinematography: Shinsaku Himeda
Art direction: Kimihiko Nakamura
Film editing: Mutsuo Tanji
Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi

It seems to be common in critiques of Shohei Imamura's work to contrast him with his mentor, Yasujiro Ozu. The world of Ozu's films is that of the settled middle class families, with their marriageable daughters and salarymen breadwinners, filmed in the stately, low camera angle style that almost immediately identifies Ozu's work. Imamura's films are full of low-lifes, people struggling to get along by any means necessary, and are full of flamboyant camerawork, such as the spectacularly crowded widescreen compositions in Pigs and Battleships. A contrast of Ozu and Imamura is rather like a contrast of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens: Both do things with radically different means, the one with a raucous, satiric assortment of colorful characters, the other with a quiet, ironic examination of manners and mores. But both Ozu and Imamura share something: an admiration for strong women. In the case of Pigs and Battleships, it's Haruko, struggling to find herself in the hurlyburly of Yokosuka, the port city infested with American sailors. She has had the misfortune to fall in love with the goofball Kinta, who wants to make his name as a yakuza, getting involved with the gang's pig-raising scheme. Hiroyuki Nagato gives a hilariously loosey-goosey performance as Kinta, mugging like Jerry Lewis when he really wants to be Humphrey Bogart. It's not entirely clear what Jitsuko Yoshimura's Haruko really sees in Kinta, but the performance of the two actors together is highly entertaining. Although the film plays mostly for comedy, culminating in the destruction of much of the red-light district by a stampede of pigs, it features several murders and the rape of Haruko by three American sailors, with the result that it's dominated by a kind of Swiftian satiric tone.