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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)

Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn in La Strada 
Zampanò: Anthony Quinn
Gelsomina: Giulietta Masina
The Fool: Richard Basehart
Giraffa: Aldo Silvani
Widow: Marcella Rovere
Nun: Livia Venturini

Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Cinematography: Otello Martelli
Production design: Mario Ravasco
Film editing: Leo Catozzo
Music: Nino Rota

Sad clowns have gone out of style, so to many of us today Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina seems more than a little cloying. But when La Strada was released, she was hailed as a master of comic pathos, as if she were the unacknowledged daughter of Charles Chaplin and Lillian Gish. Similarly, Federico Fellini's film now feels like an uneasy attempt to blend neorealistic grime and misery with a kind of moral allegory: Zampanó as Body, Gelsomina as Soul, and The Fool as Mind. So when Body kills Mind, Soul pines away, leaving Body in anguish. But La Strada has retained generations of admirers who are willing to overlook the sentimentality and latter-day mythologizing. It does remain a tremendously accomplished film, made under some difficulties, including constant battles by Fellini with his formidable producers, Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti. If it sometimes feels like a throwback to the era of silent movies, it was virtually filmed as one, with its American stars, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart, speaking their lines in English and the rest of the cast speaking Italian, and everyone later dubbed in the studio -- which leads to that slightly disembodied quality the dialogue of many early postwar films possesses.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1960)

Susan Strasberg, Didi Perego, and Emmanuelle Riva in Kapò
Edith / Nicole Niepas: Susan Strasberg
Sascha: Laurent Terzieff
Terese: Emmanuelle Riva
Sofia: Didi Perego
Karl: Gianni Garko

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Cinematography: Aleksandar Sekulovic
Production design: Aleksandar Milovic
Film editing: Roberto Cinquini, Anhela Micheli
Music: Carlo Rustichelli

As a rule, filmmakers should be discouraged from using the Holocaust as a backdrop for film dramas -- or worse, as in the case of Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997), comedies. The enormity of the Shoah inevitably undercuts even the most heartfelt attempts to dramatize it -- and I would include, even though it's a film I admire, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993). Gillo Pontecorvo is a filmmaker whose The Battle of Algiers (1966) exhibits a real skill at portraying moral complexity, and I think he's striving for something like that in Kapò, which depicts a Jewish girl's desperate attempt to survive, even to the extent of prostituting herself to the SS and serving as a bullying kapo in the concentration camp to which she has been sent. Unfortunately, Pontecorvo muddles the moral questions the film raises by resorting to romantic melodrama, when Edith, his protagonist, who has taken on the identity of a dead prisoner to hide the fact that she's Jewish, falls in love with a Russian POW. Even before then, the film displays narrative thinness: Edith's escape from the building in which she and other children are held prior to being sent to the gas chambers is altogether too easy, and the fortuitous way in which she finds a prisoner and a camp doctor willing to help her disguise herself stretches credulity. Slight, pretty Susan Strasberg also feels miscast as the girl who turns overnight from a shy waif into a tough prison camp enforcer. It was almost a case of "stunt casting": Strasberg originated the role of Anne Frank in the 1955 Broadway dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, but was judged too old for the role in the 1959 film version directed by George Stevens. Her casting in Kapò looks a bit like an attempt to make amends.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in The Third Man
Holly Martins: Joseph Cotten
Anna Schmidt: Alida Valli
Harry Lime: Orson Welles
Maj. Calloway: Trevor Howard
Sgt. Paine: Bernard Lee
Porter: Paul Hörbiger
Kurtz: Ernst Deutsch
Popescu: Siegfried Breuer
Dr. Winkel: Erich Ponto
Cribbin: Wilfrid Hyde-White
Anna's Landlady: Hedwig Bleibtreu

Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Graham Greene
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art direction: Vincent Korda
Film editing: Oswald Hafenrichter
Music: Anton Karas

It's my contention that the mark of a great film is the density of its texture, its ability to let you find something new or different, or simply to remember a forgotten moment, each time you watch it. I have to admit that I wasn't much looking forward to rewatching The Third Man, but I felt obliged since I hadn't seen it for some time and I do have it on my list of great movies. I knew what was coming: the great doorway revelation, the ferris wheel conversation, the chase through the sewers, and Anna walking toward and past Holly along an allée of pollarded trees. But Carol Reed's film is full of so many incidentals that bring even familiar scenes to life. For example, when Anna is picked up by the international police -- a force made up of members of each of Vienna's occupying forces -- she's allowed to pack a bag. It's the Frenchman who reminds her that she has forgotten her lipstick. Touches like this, or Anna's landlady protesting in German that needs no subtitles to get its point across, are essential to the film's greatness. I had forgotten the demon child who fingers Holly as a murderer after the porter's death. I hadn't realized how Robert Krasker's expressionistically tilted camera in much of the film is counterpointed by his concluding shot, the long, foursquare, devastatingly symmetrical take of Anna's walk along the allée. To be sure, there are things that don't quite make sense: Why is a man selling balloons at night in the deserted Vienna streets? And the light that reveals Harry Lime in the doorway comes from no plausible source. But these are moments for quibblers, not for those who luxuriate in cinematic poetry.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Wilson (Henry King, 1944)

Geraldine Fitzgerald and Alexander Knox in Wilson
Woodrow Wilson: Alexander Knox
Edith Bolling Galt: Geraldine Fitzgerald
Joseph Tumulty: Thomas Mitchell
Ellen Wilson: Ruth Nelson
Henry Cabot Lodge: Cedric Hardwicke
Henry Holmes: Charles Coburn
William Gibbs McAdoo: Vincent Price
George Felton: William Eythe
Josephus Daniels: Sidney Blackmer
Col. House: Charles Halton
"Big Ed" Jones: Thurston Hall
Georges Clemenceau: Marcel Dalio

Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art direction: James Basevi, Wiard Ihnen
Film editing: Barbara McLean
Music: Alfred Newman

Wilson was a famous flop, its failure magnified by the angry disappointment of its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, who thought that a film about the man who was president during World War I would be just the ticket during World War II. Still seething about it when he accepted the best picture Oscar for Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947) three years later, Zanuck grumbled, "I should have got this for Wilson." One problem was that audiences were not particularly enthusiastic about sitting through a history lesson in mid-wartime, but another was that Woodrow Wilson was not one of our more charismatic presidents. He was nominated by a deadlocked Democratic convention and elected because the Republicans were split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" candidacy. Wilson was an intellectual, a college history professor who became president of Princeton University, and never mastered the technique of selling his lofty ideas about world peace to the electorate. Though Wilson is chock full of biopic clichés, including wall-to-wall patriotic music, and it's about an hour too long, it's not as boring as it is cracked up to be. It has moments of real energy, particularly in its depiction of the political conventions and their high-flown oratory, and the introduction of newsreel footage brings it back to reality. It's also opulently produced, with some spectacular interiors and some vivid (not to say lurid) Technicolor. Alexander Knox does what he can to warm up a man who was probably rather chilly in real life.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Saïd Taghmaoui, Chris Pine, and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman
Diana: Gal Gadot
Steve Trevor: Chris Pine
Hippolyta: Connie Nielsen
Antiope: Robin Wright
Ludendorff: Danny Huston
Sir Patrick: David Thewlis
Sameer: Saïd Taghmaoui
Charlie: Ewen Bremner
The Chief: Eugene Brave Rock
Etta Candy: Lucy Davis
Dr. Maru: Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenplay: Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs
Cinematography: Matthew Jensen
Production design: Aline Bonetto
Film editing: Martin Walsh
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams

For much of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins directs Gal Gadot and Chris Pine the way Howard Hawks directed Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, keeping the romantic tension and witty byplay at the fore. But this is a superhero comic book movie, and eventually the demands of the genre force romantic wit to be subsumed in pyrotechnics and CGI. Still, for much of the film, Wonder Woman is as entertaining as you could wish. Gadot is the perfect embodiment of the Amazon demigod, carrying herself with regal power but also allowing the human vulnerability to show through. Pine seems to have become everyone's second favorite Chris: The others -- Hemsworth, Evans, and Pratt -- wound up in the currently dominant comic book universe, Marvel, whereas Pine got stuck in the second-tier DC universe. But he's probably the most talented of the four, having demonstrated his musical gifts in Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, 2014) and his dramatic ones in Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016). So although Steve Trevor meets a fiery end in Wonder Woman, Pine is too valuable a performer to let go entirely, and besides, Trevor always had a way of coming back from the dead in the comics.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965)

Diana Scott: Julie Christie
Robert Gold: Dirk Bogarde
Miles Brand: Laurence Harvey
Prince Cesare della Romita: José Luis de Vilallonga
Malcolm: Roland Curram

Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: Frederic Raphael
Cinematography: Kenneth Higgins
Art direction: Ray Simm
Film editing: Jim Clark
Costume design: Julie Harris
Music: John Dankworth

When Darling was first released, the marriage of its protagonist, Diana Scott, to a minor European royal was taken to be a sly reference to the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Today, it looks a lot more like a strikingly prophetic vision of the future awaiting Diana Spencer, then only 4 years old, who would find that marrying a prince entails not only a lot of unwelcome attention but also a good deal of boredom. Boredom is the keynote of Darling, as well as its undoing. There were filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Alain Resnais who could portray the existential ennui of the glamorous upper classes without boring their audiences as well, but John Schlesinger wasn't one of them. Julie Christie gives her considerable all as Diana Scott, a pretty young model whose lack of inner substance is her undoing, and she won an Oscar for her pains. But her performance isn't enough to save the film from tedium. As written by Frederic Raphael, who also won an Oscar, there's not enough to Diana to keep us interested in her fate. Instead, the filmmakers fall back on thudding irony, like Diana's being hyped as "The Happiness Girl" when we know that she's cruelly unhappy. The blame falls on the media exploiters, of course, the producers and journalists and ad-men who could hardly care less about the person they're exploiting. But they're an easy target, and for the blame to land we need to feel that there's more to Diana than meets the eye, that she's a victim of something more than her own aimlessness. Unfortunately, we never get a sense that there's unexplored potential to the character.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943)

John Garfield, George Tobias, and Harry Carey in Air Force
Capt. Quincannon: John Ridgely
Lt. Williams: Gig Young
Lt. McMartin: Arthur Kennedy
Lt. Hauser: Charles Drake
Sgt. White: Harry Carey
Cpl. Weinberg: George Tobias
Cpl. Peterson: Ward Wood
Pvt. Chester: Ray Montgomery
Sgt. Winocki: John Garfield
Lt. "Tex" Rader: James Brown
Maj. Mallory: Stanley Ridges
Col. Blake: Moroni Olsen
Susan McMartin: Faye Emerson

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Art direction: John Hughes
Film editing: George Amy
Music: Franz Waxman

"Fried Jap coming down!" crows gunner Weinberg as a Japanese fighter pilot and his plane attacking the Mary-Ann are consumed in flames. It's a much-quoted and much-parodied line that puts Howard Hawks's Air Force squarely where it belongs: in the wounded jingoism of the period immediately post Pearl Harbor. We wince at the line today, but Air Force has endured not so much because it's a period piece as because it's a tremendously effective piece of filmmaking. Hawks, who was a licensed pilot and had served in the Army Air Corps during World War I, was the exactly right person to make the film, which producer Hal B. Wallis put into production shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and which he wanted to release on the first anniversary of the attack in 1942. Hawks was too savvy and persistent a craftsman to allow anything like an arbitrary deadline to hinder him, and his failure to adhere to Wallis's schedule led to a brief replacement as director by Vincent Sherman. Wallis was exasperated in particular by Hawks's constant departure from the producer-approved screenplay, particularly the dialogue. Nevertheless, Hawks persisted, and called in William Faulkner to rewrite Concannon's death scene, which the director found too saccharine. The result is one of the most affecting moments of the film. The rest is pretty much razzle-dazzle heroism and entertaining male-bonding: There's no Hawksian woman in the movie to take the guys down a peg, although Faye Emerson's bit as McMartin's sister and Williams's girlfriend has a good deal of the Hawksian tough cookie about her. Hawks wanted the film to be a wartime version of his great movie about pilots, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), but the propagandist pressures to support the war effort, and probably a good deal of meddling from Wallis and Warner Bros., kept him from achieving that goal. Still, the action is exciting and the performances are good, especially John Garfield as the reluctantly heroic Winocki and Harry Carey as the oldtimer mechanic -- though Carey, in his mid-60s, was probably more of an oldtimer than the role strictly calls for.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West
Jill McBain: Claudia Cardinale
Frank: Henry Fonda
Manuel "Cheyenne" Guitiérrez: Jason Robards
Harmonica: Charles Bronson
Morton: Gabriele Ferzetti
Stony; Woody Strode
Snaky: Jack Elam
Sam: Paolo Stoppa
Sheriff: Keenan Wynn
Brett McBain: Frank Wolff
Barman: Lionel Stander

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Art direction: Carlo Simi
Film editing: Nino Baragli
Music: Ennio Morricone

An acknowledged genre classic, Once Upon a Time in the West is also a rather self-conscious product of European filmmakers tipping their hats to the American masters of the Western movie, particularly John Ford, whose favorite setting, Monument Valley, plays almost a cameo role in the film. Ford would never have made anything quite so slowly paced, however. Director Sergio Leone's film is full of stylish gestures that make it immensely watchable, but draw attention to themselves rather than the story being told -- a pitfall that the great Western moviemakers like Ford or Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah never let themselves stumble into.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

Sabinin: Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy
Tanya: Tatyana Samoylova
Andrey: Vasiliy Livanov
Sergey: Evgeniy Urbanskiy
Vera: Galina Kozhakina

Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Screenplay: Grigoriy Koltunov, Valeri Osipov, Viktor Rozov
Cinematography: Sergey Urusevskiy
Production design: David Vinitsky
Film editing: N. Anikina
Music: Nikolai Kryukov

Letter Never Sent tells the story of a team of Soviet prospectors and geologists searching for diamonds in the Siberian wilderness who are trapped when a forest fire breaks out. A beautifully filmed adventure story, it's also overlaid with Soviet patriotism, from an opening title sequence that lauds the heroic pioneers of Soviet exploration and the space program, to occasional interpolated speeches in which the characters extol the country's shining future. The diamonds, it seems, are not bourgeois capitalist gemstones but minerals essential to the advancement of Soviet industry. Fortunately, the adventure story overwhelms the propaganda.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona, 2016)

Lewis MacDougall in A Monster Calls
Conor: Lewis MacDougall
Grandma: Sigourney Weaver
Mum: Felicity Jones
Dad: Toby Kebbell
The Monster (voice): Liam Neeson
Harry: James Melville
The Head Teacher: Geraldine Chaplin

Director: J.A. Bayona
Screenplay: Patrick Ness
Based on a novel by Patrick Ness from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
Cinematography: Oscar Faura
Production design: Eugenio Caballero
Film editing: Jaume Martí, Bernat Vilaplana
Music: Fernando Velázquez

The fable of A Monster Calls is the intertwining of grief and guilt. Young Conor, mourning his mother, who died of cancer, is haunted by nightmares in which he tries and fails to save her as the earth crumbles beneath their feet. The nightmares cause him to be dysfunctional at school and in the home of his grandmother, with whom he has gone to live.  Eventually, the nightmares come to life in the shape of a giant monster yew tree that gives him parables which reveal to Conor something more terrible: that he wanted his mother to die. But the revelation also makes him aware that his wish for her death was the product of his wanting her to be released from suffering. The psychological complexity of the fable is richly imagined, but its subtlety tends to get overwhelmed by the impressive special effects -- yet another lesson that film is not always the best narrative vehicle for complex ideas.

Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)

Richard Harris and Russell Crowe in Gladiator
Maximus: Russell Crowe
Commodus: Joaquin Phoenix
Lucilla: Connie Nielsen
Proximo: Oliver Reed
Marcus Aurelius: Richard Harris
Gracchus: Derek Jacobi
Juba: Djimon Hounsou
Falco: David Schofield
Gaius: John Shrapnel
Quintus: Thomas Arana
Hagen: Ralf Moeller
Lucius: Spencer Treat Clark
Cassius: David Hemmings
Cicero: Tommy Flanagan
Tigris: Sven-Ole Thorsen
Slave Trader: Omid Djalili

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, William Nicholson
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Production design: Arthur Max
Film editing: Pietro Scalia
Music: Lisa Gerrard, Hans Zimmer

"Are you not entertained?" Well, to answer the question Maximus bellows at the crowd: No, not very much.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch, 1938)

David Niven, Gary Cooper, and Claudette Colbert in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
Nicole De Loiselle: Claudette Colbert
Michael Brandon: Gary Cooper
The Marquis De Loiselle: Edward Everett Horton
Albert De Regnier: David Niven
Aunt Hedwige: Elizabeth Patterson
M. Pepinard: Herman Bing
Kid Mulligan: Warren Hymer
Assistant Hotel Manager: Franklin Pangborn

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on a play by Alfred Savoir and its English adaptation by Charlton Andrews
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Art direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Film editing: William Shea
Music: Werner R. Heymann, Friedrich Hollaender

Almost anything goes in screwball comedy, but why does Bluebeard's Eighth Wife feel just a tad off the mark? It has everything going for it: director, screenwriters, stars and supporting cast. But something seems to be missing. There are those who think Gary Cooper is miscast, but Cooper pulled off similar roles -- lovable eccentrics like Longfellow Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936) and Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) -- and director Ernst Lubitsch had established Cooper's gift for sophisticated comedy in Design for Living (1933). There is a certain lack of spark between Cooper and his costar, Claudette Colbert, but that's partly because their characters are not supposed to spark but rather flare. I think the fault lies mainly in the script, which springs Michael Brandon's many previous marriages on us as a surprise and never makes us feel that they're integral to his character. I suspect that the Production Code, which was administered with a heavy hand by Catholic laymen like Joseph I. Breen, blue-penciled so much of the humor surrounding Brandon's divorces that they no longer get the attention they deserve. Still, Cooper and Colbert et al. are fun to watch, and it may be that they are so much more fun to watch in other movies that Bluebeard's Eighth Wife simply suffers by comparison.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

Antoine Bourseiller and Corinne Marchand in Cléo From 5 to 7
Florence "Cléo" Victoire: Corinne Marchand
Antoine: Antoine Bourseiller
Angèle: Dominique Davray
Dorothée: Dorothée Blanck
Bob the Pianist: Michel Legrand
The Lover: José Luis de Vilallonga
Irma, the Fortune-Teller: Loye Payen
The Taxi Driver: Lucienne Marchand
Plumitif, the Lyricist: Serge Korber

Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Cinematography: Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier
Production design: Jean-François Adam
Film editing: Pascale Laverrière, Janine Verneau
Music: Michel Legrand

Has any director ever so successfully combined the keen editorial eye of the documentary filmmaker with the storytelling gifts of the creator of fictional films as Agnès Varda? From the beginning, with the vivid setting of the small Mediterranean fishing community of La Pointe Courte (1955) serving as background and correlative for the troubles of a married couple, Varda has known how to reverse Marianne Moore's formula of "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" and tell stories about imaginary people in real places. The real place in Cléo From 5 to 7 is the city of Paris, where Varda continually finds ways to enhance her slice-of-life story of pop-singer Cléo, waiting out the results of a medical test that she is sure will doom her to death from cancer. When her protagonist leaves the sanctuary of her apartment and wanders the streets of the city, Varda continually finds little bits of memento mori to insert into the frame, such as the Pompes Funèbres sign on a mortician's place of business that we glimpse from the windows of the bus in which Cléo is riding. It's not done with a heavy hand, but rather with a slyly macabre irony, for Cléo is as much a target of Varda's wry humor as she is an object of concern. We glimpse her vanity and frivolity and superstition while we also feel sympathy with her anxiety and fear of death.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan (Masahiro Shinoda, 1970)

Tatsuya Nakadai in The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan
Naojiro Kataoka: Tatsuya Nakadai
Michitose: Shima Iwashita
Soshun Kochiyama: Tetsuro Tanba
Ushimatsu: Shoichi Ozawa
Moritaya Seizo: Fumio Watanabe
Okuna, Naojiro's Mother: Suisen Ichikawa
Kaneko Ichinojo: Masakane Yonekura
Kanoke-boshi: Jun Hamamura

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Screenplay: Shuji Terayama
Based on a play by Mokuami Kawatake
Cinematography: Kozo Okazaki
Art direction: Shigemasa Toda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Masaru Sato

I think I was culturally ill-equipped for The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan, a wittily stylized film that presupposes an acquaintance with Japanese history and culture that I don't possess. From my own culture, I bring a knowledge of 18th-century portrayals of London lowlife, such as the pictures of Hogarth and the satire in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Buraikan has echoes for me of those, as well as, in its portrayal of the puritanical reformer's zeal, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. But for much of the film I felt at sea.

Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

Girl: Jenny Agutter
White Boy: Luc Roeg
Black Boy: David Gulpilil
Father: John Mellon

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Edward Bond
Based on a novel by James Vance Marshall
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Production design: Brian Eatwell
Film editing: Antony Gibbs, Alan Pattillo
Music: John Barry

Walkabout is both provocative and provoking. It stimulates thoughts about humankind's relationship to nature, about the fragility and even perniciousness of civilization, and about what happens to everyone as they grow up and learn to "fit in" to societal expectations. It's a film in which brutality jostles beauty. But it's as provoking, as annoying in its way, as a 3-year-old's constantly questioning "Why?" You start out trying to answer, but eventually realize that there's no end to the game. Nicolas Roeg has so loaded the familiar tale of the clash of civilization and the primitive with images and narrative incidentals that defy explanation. We begin with trying to understand the film's initial shock, in which the Father drives his children into the desert for a picnic and then tries to kill them before setting fire to the auto and turning the gun on himself. We want to know what brought him to such a terrible moment, but Roeg has no interest in giving us an answer. We want to know why the Girl so stoically accepts this horror, in the face of which most children would break down. Later in the film, we want to explain interpolated scenes like the one of the scientific crew in the outback -- what are they doing, and why is the one female in the crew so provocatively sexy? And the ending, in which we see the now-grown and -married Girl preparing dinner for her husband, who is crowing about his job advancement, juxtaposed with a scene of the three children playing naked in a pond, has a heavy-handed voiceover quoting A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad:

Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
 I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

It feels oddly false and sentimental, an evocation of something untrue to the events shown in the film.  Does Roeg intend this ironic jolt, this disjunction of reality and sentiment? If so, he does little to prepare us for it. It's a fascinating film, but it feels incoherent.

A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923)

Adolphe Menjou and Edna Purviance in A Woman of Paris
Marie St. Clair: Edna Purviance
Jean Millet: Carl Miller
Pierre Revel: Adolphe Menjou
Jean's Mother: Lydia Knott
Jean's Father: Charles K. French
Marie's Stepfather: Clarence Geldart
Fifi: Betty Morrissey
Paulette: Malvina Polo

Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh, Jack Wilson
Art direction: Arthur Stibolt
Film editing: Monta Bell, Charles Chaplin
Music (1976 re-release): Charles Chaplin

Was it Charles Chaplin's great ego that kept him onscreen for almost his entire career as a director? Because on the evidence of A Woman of Paris, his only "serious" film and the only one aside from A Countess From Hong Kong (1967) in which he doesn't appear onscreen (except for blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameos), he was a considerable director of other people. He also had a deftly light touch, not unlike that of Ernst Lubitsch, for livening up a scene with a surprising angle -- such as the way he comments on the frivolity of the Parisian demimonde by concentrating on the somewhat disgusted face of a masseuse as she works on the pampered body of Marie St. Clair and listens to the gossip of Marie's friends. A Woman of Paris is weighed down a bit by the built-in moral assumptions that Marie is to be scorned for allowing herself to become the mistress of Pierre Revel, but Adolphe Menjou's performance as Revel has such gusto that he we understand why Marie is taken with him -- just as we don't understand what she ever saw in the dour, hawk-faced Carl Miller's Jean Millet. A Woman of Paris is a more sophisticated film than it has any right to be, given the melodramatic framework. I like the way Chaplin makes a smart time jump from Marie's departure for Paris to her establishment as Pierre's kept woman. We don't need to know how she got there, just that she did. And the ending, with the obligatory self-sacrifice, is not as saccharine as it could have been: There's wit in the final montage, in which Pierre's automobile passes the wagon in which Marie and one of the orphans she tends are sitting. Pierre's car disappearing into the distance is almost a parody of the endings of Chaplin's "Little Tramp" comedies, in which the Tramp saunters off into the sunset.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper
Maureen: Kristen Stewart
Ingo: Lars Eidinger
Lara: Sigrid Bouaziz
Erwin: Anders Danielsen Lie
Gary: Ty Olwin
Detective: Hammou Graïa
Kyra: Nora von Waldstätten
Victor Hugo: Benjamin Biolay

Director: Olivier Assayas
Screenplay: Olivier Assayas
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Production design: François-Renaud Labarthe
Film editing: Marion Monnier

Olivier Assayas delights in showcasing Kristen Stewart's ambisexual persona in Personal Shopper, a tantalizing ghost story that carefully avoids predictability at every turn. At the end we're left to decide whether the ghosts Maureen encounters are real or just -- as the ghost itself seems to tell her with its single rap signifying "yes" in answer to her question -- projections of her own imagination. It's an ambiguity that seems to have frustrated audiences, which took less warmly to the film than the critics did: Critics see so many movies that resolve their enigmas too patly, so that any film which leaves a viewer dangling in uncertainty seems fresh. Stewart is onscreen for almost the entire film, so that it's easy enough to explain away her encounters with the supernatural as projections of her grief-sodden mind. But then Assayas presents inexplicable occurrences that Maureen doesn't or can't witness, such as the scene in which a hotel's elevator and automatic doors open at the command of an invisible figure, or the one in which we glimpse in the background, as the camera focuses on Maureen, a glass moving through the air and dropping to the ground to shatter behind her back. Assayas is deftly playing with our expectations that what the camera shows us must be real.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival
Louise Banks: Amy Adams
Ian Donnelly: Jeremy Renner
Col. Weber: Forest Whitaker
Agent Halpern: Michael Stuhlbarg
Capt. Marks: Mark O'Brien
Gen. Shang: Tzi Ma

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Eric Heisserer
Based on a story by Ted Chiang
Cinematography: Bradford Young
Production design: Patrice Vermette
Film editing: Joe Walker
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson

Like his film Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve's Arrival seems to be torn between two aims that don't merge comfortably. On one hand, it's a fairly conventional first-encounter sci-fi thriller, with plucky good guys at odds with the bureaucracy and the military, and an 11th-hour, 59th-minute rescue of the world from self-destruction. On the other, it's a provocative exploration of some big ideas about language and time and the nature of humanity. Villeneuve's natural inclination seems to be toward the latter, which may be why so much of the film is dark -- not just tonally, but visually, so that we only begin to see much of the action in full light toward the end. Cinematographer Bradford Young's cameras seem to be stopped down to the point that I often had trouble discerning what's happening. Presumably this gradual emergence into light is a metaphor for the illumination that comes to linguistics professor Louise Banks as she learns to communicate with the aliens and to understand not only why they are visiting the Earth but also what it means for her own life. It's a good, chewy film with some fine performances, and I welcome any sci-fi movie that makes its audiences work to comprehend its ideas. But I also wished for more exploration of those ideas, and how Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly, our heroes, came to arrive at them. The film stints on dramatizing the process of discovery for the sake of building suspense and making some obvious points about media hysteria. It gets in a nice dig at conspiracy charlatans like Alex Jones, and even at certain cable news outlets, as when Louise tells her mother she shouldn't be watching "that channel." But I wanted more specifics on how the teams of linguists and mathematicians began to decode the language of the heptapods, a close encounter of the word kind. Still, any movie that valorizes thought is welcome in these days of comic-book-based blockbusters aimed at the gut.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

Tamura: Eiji Funakoshi
Yasuda: Osamu Takizawa
Nakamatsu: Mickey Curtis
Sergeant: Mantaro Ushio
Army surgeon: Kyu Sazanaka
Officer: Yoshihiro Hamaguchi
Soldier: Hikaru Hoshi
Soldier: Asao Sano
Soldier: Masaya Tsukida

Director: Kon Ichikawa
Screenplay: Natto Wada
Based on a novel by Shohei Ooka
Cinematography: Setsuo Kobayashi
Production design: Atsuji Shibata
Film editing: Tatsuji Nakashizu
Music: Yasushi Akutagawa

War films often have much in common with horror movies: the impending dread, the omnipresence of death and mutilation. But none that I've seen goes quite so far in that direction as Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, which eventually takes on the character of a zombie movie. I don't mean that flippantly or facetiously, because Fires on the Plain is very much a serious film, thoughtful and unsparing in its treatment of the horrors of war. But the images of a swarm of Japanese soldiers crawling across a road in the near-dark and of starving, wounded men staggering toward a hoped-for rescue inevitably evoke those movies and TV series about the walking undead. From the beginning, the film's protagonist, Tamura, is one of those undead figures: Gaunt and tubercular, he is turned away from his company of soldiers making a last-ditch stand because he is of no use as a fighter, and sent back to the field hospital from which he has already been turned away. The officer who sends him off gives him a grenade and tells him that if the hospital won't take him, he's to blow himself up. Tamura doesn't do that, but he begins a long trek across Leyte as things go ever worse for the Japanese, targets not only of the American army but even more so of the vengeful Filipinos -- at one point, an American convoy stops to take prisoners, but a Filipina accompanying the Americans gleefully guns them down instead. Eventually, the most zombie-like thing of all happens to Tamura: He comes face to face with starving soldiers who are eating human flesh. Some of them call it "monkey meat," but one mad and dying man offers his own body to Tamura as food. With this premise, the film could have gone deep into sensationalism -- or worse, into Christian iconography -- but Ichikawa makes it clear that the cannibalism he portrays is a metaphor for the ultimate degradation of war. Critics are often puzzled by Ichikawa's career, which is marked by a great variety of films, all of them made with extreme technical finesse. His other great anti-war film, The Burmese Harp (1956), for example, has moments of lyricism and tenderness that are completely absent from Fires on the Plain. So if you're looking for the consistency of an auteur, you won't find it in his work. But that doesn't keep him from being an extraordinarily daring filmmaker.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

Chester Kent: James Cagney
Nan Prescott: Joan Blondell
Bea Thorn: Ruby Keeler
Scotty Blair: Dick Powell
Francis: Frank McHugh
Silas Gould: Guy Kibbee
Harriet Gould: Ruth Donnelly
Bowers: Hugh Herbert
Vivian Rich: Claire Dodd

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Manuel Seff, James Seymour
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art direction: Anton Grot, Jack Okey
Film editing: George Amy
Choreography: Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley's great trifecta of 1933 also includes 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy). Footlight Parade is the least distinguished of the three by virtue of having the most inane of plots, but it also has a blazingly wonderful performance by James Cagney as the harried impresario Chester Kent, who creates "prologues" for movies -- live action musical numbers designed to precede feature films, a phenomenon that survives today only at Radio City Music Hall. Cagney not only gets to display his typical volcanic persona but also gets to strut his stuff as a dancer. As in other early Berkeley films, the great mad production numbers are not spread throughout but instead clustered at the end. First comes "Honeymoon Hotel," which is a string of double entendres about the fact that people have sex in hotels, and aren't necessarily newlyweds: e.g., everyone registers as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Then there's the lavish "By a Waterfall," which anticipates (and excels) the swimming pool numbers that Berkeley would later craft for Esther Williams at MGM. And finally, Chester Kent gets to save the show by going on for a lead dancer who comes down with stage fright in the "Shanghai Lil," number with Ruby Keeler in yellowface, dancing on the top of waterfront bars with Cagney -- her clunky, anxious tapping is an odd mixture with Cagney's stiff-legged style. (We are fortunately spared one of Kent's more appalling ideas, a musical number about slavery in which the female dancers would appear in blackface and be captured by the male dancers.) The whole thing is good, mildly ribald pre-Code stuff: Joan Blondell's Nan, who crushes on Chester Kent, introduces the predatory Vivian Rich by "accidentally" almost pronouncing her last name with a B, and comments that as long as there are sidewalks, Vivian will never be without a job.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2015)

Matthias Schoenaerts and Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash 
Marianne Lane: Tilda Swinton
Paul De Smedt: Matthias Schoenaerts
Harry Hawkes: Ralph Fiennes
Penelope Lannier: Dakota Johnson
Sylvie: Lily McMenamy
Mireille: Aurore Clément
Clara: Elena Bucci
Maresciallo: Corrado Guzzanti

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: David Kajganich
Based on a novel by Alain Page and a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and Jacques Deray
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Production design: Maria Djurkovic
Film editing: Walter Fasano

Director Luca Guadagnino made his own bigger splash in 2017 with Call Me by Your Name, but his film called A Bigger Splash attracted admiring reviews two years earlier. Guadagnino has said that the two films and his 2009 I Am Love constitute a "Desire" trilogy. Erotic intrigue is at the heart of A Bigger Splash, which deals not with the eternal triangle so much as a fatal quadrangle. Marianne, a rock star, is recuperating from a throat operation on the island of Pantelleria with her lover, Paul, a documentary filmmaker, when her former lover, a music promoter named Harry, arrives with his daughter, Penelope. Neither Marianne nor Paul is especially pleased by having guests intrude on their solitude, especially since she has been ordered not to speak for a while. Marianne's voice problem is not the only sign of damage in the four characters: Paul is a recovering alcoholic who once attempted suicide, Harry is a manic egotist, and Penelope is a 17-year-old pretending to be 22 and -- we discover later -- speaks fluent Italian, a fact she chooses to hide from the others. She also lives with her mother in the States and neither she nor Harry knew of each other's existence until recently. There is a queasy touch of incestuousness to Harry's attentions to Penelope. Guadagnino and his actors keep the tension among the four characters at a low simmer for most of the film, and even after things reach the boiling point, the film deftly avoids melodramatic excess. Fiennes, usually a more reserved actor, gives an uncharacteristically flamboyant performance as Harry. The film oddly feels a little dated, like a French or Italian film from the 1960s, such as Jacques Deray's La Piscine (1969), the first filming of Alain Page's novel.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

El Norte (Gregory Nava, 1983)

Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez in El Norte
Enrique Xuncax: David Villalpando
Rosa Xuncax: Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez
Arturo Xuncax: Ernesto Gómez Cruz
Lupe Xuncax: Alicia del Lago
Nacha: Lupe Ontiveros
Monte Bravo: Trinidad Silva
Jorge: Enrique Castillo
Carlos: Tony Plana
Alice Harper: Diane Cary
Jaime: Mike Gomez
Raimundo: Abel Franco

Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava, Anna Thomas
Cinematography: James Glennon
Art direction: David Wasco
Film editing: Betsy Blankett Milicevic

Thirty-five years have passed since the release of El Norte, and the problems it depicts seem as intractable as ever, adding the poignancy of ongoing history to the film's bleak ending. As a document of the tragedy wrought by colonialism and the muddle of U.S. immigration policy, Gregory Nava's film is an essential one. Regarded as a work of narrative filmmaking, it has some deep flaws, particularly in the resort to overly "cinematic" devices like suspense. The intercutting between the plane departing for Chicago and Rosa's hospital room feels like textbook filmmaking, making the audience hold its breath to find out whether Enrique will really abandon his sister in hope of getting a green card. We don't need movie suspense fakeouts at this painful moment. But Nava does so much else right in the rest of the film, including the staging of the harrowing border crossing, as well as allowing humor to share screen time with pathos, that it's hard to criticize his lapses. If sincerity were everything, El Norte could be hailed as a masterpiece.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927)

Norma Shearer, Ramon Novarro, and Jean Hersholt in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Prince Karl Heinrich: Ramon Novarro
Kathi: Norma Shearer
Dr. Jüttner: Jean Hersholt
King Karl VII: Gustav von Seyffertitz
Lutz: Edgar Norton
Kellermann: Bobbie Mack
Young Karl Heinrich: Philippe De Lacy
Old Ruder: Otis Harlan

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Hanns Kräly
Based on a book and play by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Art direction: Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons
Film editing: Andrew Marton

Though The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg sometimes seems as overextended as its title, given the slightness of its love-or-duty plot, it gets a good deal of zip from Ernst Lubitsch's direction and from the charm of its leads, Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. The latter, especially, is seen to good advantage in a role that doesn't call on her to over-emote, a trap she sometimes fell into in many of her sound roles. Lubitsch inserts sly gags here and there to leaven the obviousness of the plot. After perhaps one too many scenes of students quaffing beer, there's a card to remind us that they were at the university to learn, too, followed by a shot of a professor droning away at a lectern to a classroom of a single student. Eventually, the film bogs down a bit when Novarro's Karl Heinrich is called away to princely duties and has to forsake Shearer's lovely barmaid. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Stranger (Satyajit Ray, 1991)

Utpal Dutt and Bikram Bhattacharya in The Stranger
Sudhindra Bose: Dipankar Dey
Anila Bose: Mamata Shankar
Satyaki Bose: Bikram Bhattacharya
Manomohan Mitra: Utpal Dutt
Prithwish Sen Gupta: Dhritiman Chatterjee
Ranjan Rakshit: Rabi Ghosh
Chhandra Rakshit: Subrata Chatterjee
Tridip Mukherjee: Promode Ganguly
Sital Sarkar: Ajit Banerjee

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Cinematography: Barun Raha
Production design: Ashok Bose
Film editing: Dulal Dutta
Music: Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray's final film, The Stranger, based on one of his own short stories, ends with a rather sentimentally gratifying gesture on the part of its central character, but even this rather conventional narrative twist doesn't spoil the lovely seriocomic mood cast by the film as a whole. It's the story of a long-lost relative who suddenly, after 35 years without contact, arrives at the home of his one surviving family member, a niece who was 2 years old when he disappeared. Anila Bose and her husband, Sudhindra, are well-to-do residents of Calcutta who can't help being suspicious that the man who arrives on their doorstep may not be who he says he is, her mother's brother, Manomohan. Sudhindra is especially cautious, warning that the man may be planning to filch some of the valuable antiquities they have collected, so Anila dutifully locks some of them away. But almost from the beginning, the "uncle" begins to win Anila and especially her son, Satyaki, over with tales from his travels and unusual insights into the way of the world. Even Sudhindra is disarmed when the man produces his passport but also warns him that passports can be forged. Some curious friends of the Bose family "drop in" to form their own opinion of the stranger, and they, too, are won over. Anila begins to have her doubts, however, when, while reading an Agatha Christie novel in bed, it occurs to her that the long-lost uncle may be there to collect his share of her grandfather's will.  Finally, it falls to another, more deeply skeptical friend to challenge the man and his ideas: his observations on civilization that he has formed from his travels. Their heated debate is the intellectual and dramatic turning point in the story. Ray's typically roving camera keeps the film from becoming stagy: It takes place mostly  in the Bose home, because Ray's doctors had warned him to do most of his filming indoors, but there are also some lovely outdoor scenes, especially toward the end, when Manomohan takes the family to a tribal village where dancers show the family that there is more to Indian culture than their privileged middle-class lives. The Stranger is a fine farewell to an illustrious career.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

Peter Quill / Star-lord: Chris Pratt
Gamora: Zoe Saldana
Drax: Dave Bautista
Baby Groot (voice): Vin Diesel
Rocket (voice): Bradley Cooper
Ego: Kurt Russell
Yondu: Michael Rooker
Nebula: Karen Gillan
Mantis: Pom Klementieff
Stakar Ogord: Sylvester Stallone
Ayesha: Elizabeth Debicki
Taserface: Chris Sullivan
Kraglin: Sean Gunn

Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn
Cinematography: Henry Braham
Production design: Scott Chambliss
Film editing: Fred Raskin, Craig Wood
Music: Tyler Bates

What can I say? There's lots of swooping and zooming and crashing, some spectacularly weird computerized sets and characters, cameos by David Hasselhoff and Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green), some good jokes and some duds, some cheeky music cues (e.g., George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord"), Chris Pratt takes his shirt off, and everything moves along efficiently to set up the next sequel. The movie doesn't dally too long on its Oedipal subplot -- Peter kills his father because he (the father) killed his (Peter's) mother. There were times, as when the only characters on screen are CGI ones like Rocket and Groot, when I wondered if a new Oscar category for semi-animated film shouldn't be considered. So I had as much fun as the latent 14-year-old boy in me is capable of having. I actually enjoyed Vol. 2 more than the first film in the series (James Gunn, 2014) because I didn't have to sit through exposition about who and what these characters are and could get right to the swooping and zooming and crashing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921)

Pola Negri in The Wildcat
Rischka: Pola Negri
Commandant of Fort Tossenstein: Victor Janson
Lt. Alexis: Paul Heidemann
Claudius: Wilhelm Diegelmann
Pepo: Hermann Thimig
Lilli: Edith Meller
Commandant's Wife: Marga Köhler

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Hanns Kräly, Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Art direction: Max Gronert, Ernst Stern

One of Ernst Lubitsch's last films made in Germany before he departed for Hollywood, The Wildcat, is subtitled A Grotesque in Four Acts, which is only mildly suggestive of its giddy absurdity. It doesn't resemble any other Lubitsch film I've seen, except in its uninhibited delight in playing with the medium. Pola Negri, usually cast in serious romances and initially burdened with a "femme fatale" label when she joined Lubitsch in Hollywood, here demonstrates a marvelous gift for knockabout comedy as the titular wildcat, the bandit's daughter who falls for a womanizing lieutenant and manages almost to bring an Alpine military fort to rubble. Working not only in actual snowy Alpine locations but also in some of the wackiest studio sets ever built, Lubitsch pulls out all the stops, using a mad variety of matte shots that frame the action at odd angles and in ridiculous compositions. The fort itself bristles with cannons from every corner, and its interiors are full of mad curlicues. The action is no less outlandish: At one point, the bandits breach the fort by using Negri as a kind of human battering ram. And when Negri's Rischka deserts her bandit husband to pursue the lieutenant, she returns to find a stream trickling out of their hut, created by the tears the bandit has shed. Sheer nonsense, but a kind of unknown classic of silent comedy, on a par with the work of Mack Sennett in its pioneering exploitation of the medium. Lubitsch would temper his imagination, but you can still see foreshadowings of the comedy tricks he would bring to less madcap work.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, 1959)

Breno Mello in Black Orpheus
Orfeo: Breno Mello
Eurydice: Marpessa Dawn
Mira: Lourdes de Oliveira
Serafina: Léa Garcia
Hermes: Alexandro Constantino
Death: Ademar de Silva
Chico: Waldemar De Souza
Benedito: Jorge Dos Santos
Zeca: Aurino Cassiano
Ernesto: Marcel Camus
Fausto: Fausto Guerzoni

Director: Marcel Camus
Screenplay: Marcel Camus, Jacques Viot
Based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes
Cinematography: Jean Bourgoin
Production design: Pierre Gouffroy
Film editing: Andrée Feix
Music: Luiz Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim

Celebrated for its music, color, and nearly nonstop dancing, Black Orpheus won big at Cannes and at the Oscars, where it was named the best foreign language film of the year. It remains a film of great energy, one of those movies that cause you to hold your breath when the music stops and menacing silence takes hold. Sure, it can be criticized -- and has been, even by President Obama, in Dreams From My Father -- for its sentimental portrayal of its characters as simple, carefree folk and its sanitizing of the favelas in which they live. But the film takes place in the realm of myth, not reality, and even if we must take our myths with a touch of skepticism, we shouldn't miss the point of what they tell us about larger things like love and joy and jealousy and death.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)

Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, and Jeremy Davies in Saving Private Ryan
Capt. Miller: Tom Hanks
Sgt. Horvath: Tom Sizemore
Pvt. Reiben: Edward Burns
Pvt. Jackson: Barry Pepper
Pvt. Mellish: Adam Goldberg
Pvt. Caparzo: Vin Diesel
T-4 Medic Wade: Giovanni Ribisi
Cpl. Upham: Jeremy Davies
Pvt. Ryan: Matt Damon
Capt. Hamill: Ted Danson
Sgt. Hill: Paul Giamatti
Lt. Col. Anderson: Dennis Farina
"Steamboat Willie": Joerg Stadler
Minnesota Ryan: Nathan Fillion
Gen. Marshall: Harve Presnell
War Dept. Col.: Dale Dye
War Dept. Col.: Bryan Cranston
Elderly Ryan: Harrison Young
Elderly Ryan's Wife: Kathleen Byron

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Production design: Thomas E. Sanders
Film editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams

The criticisms usually leveled at Saving Private Ryan are that its framing scenes of the elderly Ryan visiting the cemetery in Normandy are superfluous and sentimental, that it trades on war-movie clichés such as the ethnically mixed company of soldiers (an Italian, a Jew, a Brooklynite, a Bible-quoting Southerner, and so on), that it eschews any portrayal of the enemy as other than cannon-fodder, and that there's no overall originality of vision on its director's part. And they're all valid criticisms. Are they outweighed by the sheer brilliance of Steven Spielberg's movie-making -- and that of his usual team of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams? As a lover of movies I have to say they are. I would like Robert Rodat's screenplay to be edgier and more intelligent. I would like for the film to provoke thought and to give us a new vision on World War II. But each time I watch the film I come away admiring the way Spielberg and company push my reservations about it into the background as I'm caught once again by the masterly way they manipulate both the medium and its audience. I have learned to ask more of movies than Spielberg gives us -- the unique personal visions of Ozu and Hitchcock and Tarkovsky, for example -- but I'm also content to suspend my expectation that all movies should aspire to that standard and to let myself be manipulated into temporary submission to simple wonder at mastery of the medium.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)

Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility
Elinor Dashwood: Emma Thompson
Marianne Dashwood: Kate Winslet
Edward Ferrars: Hugh Grant
Col. Brandon: Alan Rickman
Mrs. Dashwood: Gemma Jones
John Willoughby: Greg Wise
Fanny Dashwood: Harriet Walter
John Dashwood: James Fleet
Sir John Middleton: Robert Hardy
Margaret Dashwood: Emilie François
Lucy Steele: Imogen Stubbs
Charlotte Palmer: Imelda Staunton
Mr. Palmer: Hugh Laurie
Mrs. Jennings: Elizabeth Spriggs
Robert Ferrars: Richard Lumsden
Mr. Dashwood: Tom Wilkinson

Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Emma Thompson
Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Production design: Luciana Arrighi
Film editing: Tim Squyres
Costume design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright
Music: Patrick Doyle

Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility is a less accomplished work than Pride and Prejudice, and Ang Lee's film of Sense and Sensibility is a less polished one than Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice (2005). Yet I can't help thinking Lee's the better film, largely because Emma Thompson labored to bring her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, an early and somewhat formulaic novel, up to the standards set by Austen's later work, trimming and tightening and giving a better focus to the narrative. And there's something about the casual, good-natured approach to the novel by Lee and his cast that shows up Wright's film as a bit too slick and opulent and self-conscious. I can, and do, quibble with some of the casting: Hugh Grant's Edward Ferrars is a little too goofy and shy to have won the heart of a woman so intelligent as Thompson's Elinor Dashwood. And because Tom Rickman's usual screen persona is often a forbidding one, the film doesn't do enough to establish what Marianne eventually finds so attractive in him. But the whole thing is kept aloft by bright performances, a witty script that embroiders neatly on top of Austen's wit, and by the production design and costuming and especially Patrick Doyle's lovely score.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fargo (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 1996)

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Une Parisienne (Michel Boisrond, 1957)

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978)

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

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

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