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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Koji Tsuruta and Shin Saburi in The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
Mokichi Satake: Shin Saburi
Taeko Satake: Michiyo Kogure
Noboru Okada: Koji Tsuruta
Setsuko Yamauchi: Keiko Tsushima
Aya Amamiya: Chikage Awashima
Sadao Hirayama: Chishu Ryu
Chizu Yamauchi: Kuniko Miyake
Naosuke Yamauchi: Eijiro Yanagi
Toichiro Amamiya: Hisao Toake

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Art direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Ichiro Saito

Yasujiro Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice begins like a 1950s American TV sitcom in which Lucy and Ethel try to pull a fast one over Ricky. In this case, Lucy is Taeko Satake, who wants to get away for a day with Ethel, or Aya Amamiya, at a resort spa without letting Ricky, or Mokichi Satake, know what she's up to. So Taeko decides to tell Mokichi that her niece has fallen ill at a class reunion and she needs to go tend to her. But just as she's about to depart, the niece, Setsuko, drops by the Satake home, so Taeko has to swiftly come up with a Plan B. What we are in for, obviously, is a comedy of marital errors. The Satakes have no children and their marriage has grown stale, which provides an object lesson for Setsuko, whose parents are pressuring her into an arranged marriage and have set up a meeting with the potential groom. Seeing that not only do Taeko and Mokichi have no passion in their lives but Aya is also insouciant about the extramarital affairs of her husband, Toichiro, Setsuko is determined not to fall into their trap. Where Ozu excels is in the presentation of the texture of his characters' lives -- Taeko with her gossipy friends, Mokichi with his daily office grind followed by visits to bars and pachinko parlors, sometimes with his young friend Noboru, whom Mokichi is helping get a start in life after Noboru graduates from college. (There's a wonderful little moment when a slightly inebriated Noboru sings "Gaudeamus Igitur.") At one pachinko parlor, Mokichi discovers that the owner is an old army buddy, Sadao, played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, whose chief role in the film is to provide a note of nostalgia for the more adventurous days during the war. Escaping from the meeting with her prospective groom, Setsuko joins Mokichi at the parlor, where she also meets Noboru, and we see a potential relationship spark between the two young people. But when Taeko learns that Mokichi has met with Setsuko when she should have been at the matchmaking session, she's furious and refuses to speak to her husband. Eventually, the crisis is resolved in a lovely scene in which Taeko and Mokichi begin to resolve their marital problems while raiding the larder after the maid has gone to bed, though the film ends with Setsuko and Noboru having what looks like their first fight. Ozu's bittersweet little comedy is sometimes dismissed as a minor work by a master director, but the mastery is very much in evidence.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)

Dan Fogler, Eddie Redmayne, and Katherine Waterston in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Newt Scamander: Eddie Redmayne
Tina Goldstein: Katherine Waterston
Jacob Kowalski: Dan Fogler
Queenie Goldstein: Alison Sudol
Credence Barebone: Ezra Miller
Mary Lou Barebone: Samantha Morton
Henry Shaw Sr.: Jon Voight
Seraphina Picquery: Carmen Ejogo
Gnarlack: Ron Perlman
Percival Graves: Colin Farrell

Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J.K. Rowling
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Production design: Stuart Craig
Costume design: Colleen Atwood
Music: James Newton Howard

I think I enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than I did any of the Harry Potter movies, but mainly because I wasn't distracted by thinking about what had been left out between the novel and the film. That's because Fantastic Beasts is J.K. Rowling's first original screenplay. She has a way to go yet as a screenwriter: There are too many events and incidents to keep track of, and the story gets swamped by the special effects. But we are clearly in the same realm as the Potter books, even if this movie is set in the 1920s and in New York City, where Muggles are called Non-Majes. (Which even an explanation didn't keep me from hearing "non-Madges" and thinking, "people who don't like Madonna.") And even though there's a lot of noisy CGI work going on, Rowling and her cast have given us some engaging new characters in Newt Scamander, Tina and Queenie Goldstein, and Jacob Kowalski, all of whom seem to be set for a long run of sequels. Eddie Redmayne is terrific as usual, and Colin Farrell makes a fine villain until the ending reveals him to be Johnny Depp in disguise. It was a box office hit, of course, and most of the critics seemed to like it -- the pans seemed to be colored by a weary recognition that here was what seemed to be the launch of yet another blockbuster franchise. I agree that we could do without that, but it's better than yet another Transformers movie. And there's something agreeable about even a Potter-adjacent work.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Pleasures of the Flesh (Nagisa Oshima, 1965)

Mariko Kaga in Pleasures of the Flesh
Atsushi Wakazaka: Katsuo Nakamura
Shoko: Mariko Kaga
Hitomi: Yumiko Nagawa
Shizuko: Masako Yagi
Mari: Toshiko Higuchi
Keiko: Hiroko Shimizu
Hayami: Shoichi Ozawa
Police Inspector: Kei Sato
Sakurai: Rokko Toura
Gang Member: Fumio Watanabe
Egi: Hosei Kamatsu
Mari's Pimp: Akiji Kobayashi

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima
Based on a novel by Futaro Yamada
Cinematography: Akira Takada
Art direction: Yasutaro Kon
Music: Joji Yuasa

With a burst of bluesy music, Pleasures of the Flesh starts out like a film noir, and the plot setup follows suit. The young tutor to a pretty teenager kills a man who has molested her, but the act has been witnessed by a man who has embezzled funds from his place of work. In an attempt to blackmail the tutor, the embezzler says he won't tell the police if the young man will hide 30 million yen of the loot. The embezzler expects to be arrested, he says, but he'll return for the money after serving his prison sentence. If the tutor has spent any of it, he'll tell the police about the murder. The tutor reluctantly agrees, but then the plot not unexpectedly begins to tangle. The tutor, Atsushi, is in love with the teenager, Shoko, but too poor to win her parents' approval. He's so devastated when she marries that he begins to lose his mind. The embezzler has in fact gone to prison, and Atsushi decides to live it up on the 30 million yen, then kill himself when the embezzler has served his term. And so begins a series of flings with four women, each of whom he pays to live with him. There's a showgirl with a gangster boyfriend, a married woman whose husband is desperately in debt, a doctor who insists on remaining a virgin, and a mute prostitute with a thuggish pimp. None of these attempts to wallow in the titular pleasures of the flesh ends well, and then, just as Atsushi spends the last of the money, he learns that the embezzler has died in prison. As if that outcome weren't ironic enough, the embezzler also told a fellow inmate about the 30 million yen he had stashed with Atsushi and when he's released he comes in search of the money. It's a moral tale straight out of Boccaccio or Chaucer, but writer-director Nagisa Oshima is faced with modernizing it and doesn't quite succeed. There's a bit too much fancy camerawork as Oshima interpolates Atsushi's obsessive visions of Shoko and paranoid ones of the embezzler into the narrative. The moral tale still feels heavyhanded. But Pleasures of the Flesh is the work of a major filmmaker at the outset of his career, and as such rewards watching.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals
Susan Morrow: Amy Adams
Edward Sheffield / Tony Hastings: Jake Gyllenhaal
Bobby Andes: Michael Shannon
Ray Marcus: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Laura Hastings: Isla Fisher
India Hastings: Ellie Bamber
Hutton Morrow: Armie Hammer
Lou: Karl Glusman
Turk: Robert Aramayo
Anne Sutton: Laura Linney
Samantha Morrow: India Menuez

Director: Tom Ford
Screenplay: Tom Ford
Based on a novel by Austin Wright
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Production design: Shane Valentino
Film editing: Joan Sobel
Music: Abel Korzeniowski

Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams are two of our best actors, but even they can't do what writer-director Tom Ford calls on them for in Nocturnal Animals: pull the two halves of his movie into coherence. Part of the film is a savage satire on the art world's high end and its wealthy patrons. The other part is a story of sexual violence and revenge. Adams's Susan Morrow exists in the first part as a wealthy gallery owner in Los Angeles with a husband who is cheating on her. One day she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield. It provides the second story, about Tony Hastings, who is waylaid by vicious young thugs while driving across West Texas by night. His wife, Laura, and his teenage daughter, India, are in the car with him, but Tony, who survives by hiding from the men, is unable to save Laura and India from being raped and murdered. With the help of Bobby Andes, a detective who is dying of lung cancer, he gets his revenge but, as they say, at a cost. As Susan reads the manuscript, she envisions Tony as Edward, whom she had betrayed by leaving him and aborting their child, then marrying the wealthy Hutton Morrow, with whom she has a now-grown daughter, Samantha. The story so disturbs Susan that she wonders why Edward chose to send it to her after so many years -- is this tale of revenge itself  a kind of threat? As well-done as the Tony Hastings story is, with strong performances by not only Gyllenhaal but also Michael Shannon as Andes and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the vicious Ray Marcus, it never comes into the same focus as the "real" story of Susan and the rather decadent art world in which she moves. That said, the best scene in the film may be the one in which Susan has lunch with her mother, a big-haired Texas grande dame played with finesse by Laura Linney. Ford has a way of tossing in secondary characters whose backstories sound potentially more interesting than the ones in the foreground. Nocturnal Animals is a disappointment, but only because it feels like it skims the surface of what it has to tell us.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
He: Willem Dafoe
She: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Nic: Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm

Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle 
Production design: Karl Júlíusson
Film editing: Åsa Mossberg, Anders Refn

Any film that begins with a toddler climbing to an upper-story window and falling to his death while his parents have graphically photographed sex has a lot of work cut out for it. Unfortunately, Lars von Trier isn't up to the task he sets for himself: Antichrist is morally and intellectually confused in ways that even arch-provocateur von Trier's earlier films haven't been. It plays like a horror film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (if Tarkovsky had been a less grounded and imaginative director), which shouldn't be surprising since the film's credits include a "horror film researcher" and is dedicated to Tarkovsky, whose film The Mirror (1975) reportedly served as a direct inspiration for von Trier. Antichrist became a cause célèbre when it was shown at Cannes, where some people reportedly fainted and others walked out, but Charlotte Gainsbourg went on to win the best actress award. American critics were similarly divided, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times calling it "ponderous" and "conceptually thin and ... dull" but Roger Ebert praising both the commitment of the actors and the director's drive "to confront and shake his audience more than any other serious filmmaker -- even Buñuel and Herzog." Some critics had it both ways, praising it with reservations: Tom Long of the Detroit News labeled it "probably the best film ever that you'd recommend to absolutely no one." Ebert's measured praise seems to me the most appropriate: Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe are the main reasons anyone who is fascinated by the art of acting should see Antichrist. They throw themselves into near-impossible roles, full of contradictions and sometimes misconceived ideas about psychotherapy and the relationship between men and women, and yet manage to overcome the limitations of the screenplay. And while I would never mention von Trier in the same breath as Tarkovsky or Buñuel (Herzog, maybe), I can't help feeling that there is an immense talent at work in his films. Antichrist was born out of von Trier's period of clinical depression, and while that's not enough to excuse the film's incoherence, it certainly makes it more interesting as a personal work of art.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016)

Jeff Bridges, Margaret Bowman, and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water
Marcus Hamilton: Jeff Bridges
Toby Howard: Chris Pine
Tanner Howard: Ben Foster
Alberto Parker: Gil Birmingham
Elsie: Dale Dickey
Debbie Howard: Marin Ireland
Jenny Ann: Katy Mixon
Justin Howard: John Paul Howard
T-Bone Waitress: Margaret Bowman

Director: David Mackenzie
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Production design: Tom Duffield
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

Hell or High Water has a resonance in Trumpian America, with its portrayal of a kind of rural desperation that echoes the era of Bonnie and Clyde, when robbing banks was seen as a kind of stick-it-to-the-man activity, a way of getting back at an economic system that allowed no other way of breaking a cycle. As Toby Howard puts it, "I've been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation." Toby enlists his ex-con brother, Tanner, in a scheme to rob the small-town branches of the fictional Texas Midland Bank to build up enough cash to pay off the reverse mortgage that threatens the foreclosure of their recently dead mother's ranch, and then to put the property in trust -- with the same bank -- as a guarantee of a better future for Toby's sons. He is, in short, buying off the bank with the bank's money. Given that the Howard brothers have nothing to lose, it's a risk they think worth taking. On the other hand, there is the law to contend with, in the form of Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, just days away from a retirement he dreads. Hamilton, too, has nothing to lose, which means he doesn't mind dragging along his partner, Alberto Parker, on an pursuit that Parker thinks is absurd. It's a film of beautiful performances, not only another laurel for Jeff Bridges, but also a potential career-maker for Ben Foster and a chance for Chris Pine to show that he's not just another pretty face -- he grunges up well. The West Texas setting -- though the film was shot just across the border in eastern New Mexico -- is exploited skillfully, with deft touches like the frequent billboards advertising ways to get out of debt and the moribund small towns that cause Parker to ask, "Do you want to live here? Got an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does, one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress." The film also plays on the Texan love of guns when the robbers discover that the patrons of the banks are taking full advantage of the state's concealed-carry laws. Hamilton also echoes the region's casual racism, perhaps ironically, with his digs at his partner's American Indian heritage, though the point is made without irony when an old man is surprised that the robbers "ain't Mexican." Hell or High Water perhaps doesn't reach the elegiac heights of No Country for Old Men (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007, but in its simpler, less florid way it's an equally worth companion in the neo-Western genre.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

With Beauty and Sorrow (Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

Mariko Kaga in With Beauty and Sorrow
Otoko Ueno: Kaoru Yachigusa
Keiko Sakami: Mariko Kaga
Toshio Oki: So Yamamura
Taichiro Oki: Kei Yamamoto
Fumiko Oki: Misako Watanabe
Otoko's Mother: Haruko Sugimura

Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Screenplay: Nobuo Yamada
Based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi
Art direction: Junichi Osumi
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Toru Takemitsu

Some mannered acting and stagy blocking mars Masahiro Shinoda's otherwise involving With Beauty and Sorrow, a revenge drama that doesn't quite transcend its genre. Toshio Oki, a womanizing novelist whose wife just barely puts up with his extramarital exploits, once had an affair with the young artist Otoko Ueno. She became pregnant but lost the baby at birth, and suffered severe psychological trauma. Now she lives with a young woman, Keiko, her student and her lover. Otoko has recovered her emotional stability, and even agrees to meet Oki when he telephones her on a visit to Kyoto, sending Keiko to his hotel to take him to the restaurant where they will reunite. But Keiko is, as even Otoko suggests, a little "crazy," and after the meeting begins to plot ways to bring about her lover's revenge on Oki. Eventually, this involves Keiko's seducing not only Oki but also his son, Taichiro, a graduate student of medieval Japanese history, with predictably disastrous consequences. Old pro So Yamamura is excellent as Oki, and it's good to see the great Haruko Sugimura, veteran of many films by Shinoda's mentor, Yasujiro Ozu, in the small part of Otoko's mother. But the younger actors, particularly Mariko Kaga as Keiko and Kei Yamamoto as Taichiro, turn what might have been an affecting portrayal of doomed characters into melodrama. The film benefits from Toru Takemitsu's score, though it sometimes feels a bit at odds with the soap-operatic events on screen.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim: Michael Cera
Ramona Flowers: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Knives Chau: Ellen Wong
Kim Pine: Alison Pill
Stephen Stills: Mark Webber
Young Neil: Johnny Simmons
Wallace Wells: Kieran Culkin
Stacey Pilgrim: Anna Kendrick
Julie Powers: Aubrey Plaza
Matthew Patel: Satya Bhabha
Lucas Lee: Chris Evans
Envy Adams: Brie Larson
Roxy Richter: Mae Whitman
Todd Ingram: Brandon Routh
Gideon Graves: Jason Schwartzman

Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright
Cinematography: Bill Pope
Production design: Marcus Rowland
Film editing: Jonathan Amos, Paul Macliss

Edgar Wright's hyperactive but witty Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a box-office failure, despite being an entertaining farrago of everything in 21st century pop culture: comic books, video games, anime, rock, superhero movies, and so on. Critics generally praised it, but that may have been something of a kiss of death, making it too mainstream for the hip. It has since, as such commercial misfires tend to do, become something of a cult movie, finding its audience as it ages and turns into a nostalgia piece. It gets much of its strength from Michael Cera's performance as the sweet slacker Scott, who plays bass in a garage band and has to balance an inappropriate infatuation with the underage Knives Chau and a more appropriate attraction to the très hip Ramona Flowers. Unfortunately, Ramona has a slate of evil ex-boyfriends, each of whom Scott is obliged to vanquish. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh send up their own superhero roles as two of the evil exes, the former a skateboarding movie star with an entourage of stunt doubles, the latter a bassist for a rival band who gets his superpowers from veganism -- about which he is willing to go on at hilarious length. Presiding over the evil exes is record producer Gideon Graves, sneeringly played by Jason Schwartzman. It's all very silly, but it's also bright and colorful fun if you want a break from reality.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990)

John Cusack and Anjelica Huston in The Grifters
Lilly Dillon: Anjelica Huston
Roy Dillon: John Cusack
Myra Langtry: Annette Bening
Bobo Justus: Pat Hingle
Mr. Simms: Henry Jones
Cole: J.T. Walsh
Joe: Gailard Sartain
Gloucester Hebbing: Charles Napier
Jeweler: Stephen Tobolowsky

Director: Stephen Frears
Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake
Based on a novel by Jim Thompson
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Production design: Dennis Gassner
Film editing: Mick Audsley
Music: Elmer Bernstein

Stephen Frears's ice-cold neo-noir The Grifters works as well as it does because of the trio of top-notch leads, a tough-minded screenplay based on a tough-minded novel, unsentimental direction, and a magnificent score by Elmer Bernstein. In short, it's an easy film to admire, but a harder film to like. If it has a message to convey it's that crime may pay, but at the expense of all humanity, including love and family. The most brutal moment comes not with bloodshed, but with Lilly Dillon's attempt to seduce her own son, a moment that has been foreshadowed earlier when Myra Langtry voices her suspicion that Roy Dillon has been sleeping with his mother. Anything goes, it seems, when you're on the grift. This was the film that made Annette Bening a star -- after a well-reviewed but little-seen performance in Frears's Valmont a year earlier -- and earned her the first of her four Oscar nominations. Adopting a Marilyn Monroe-ish little girl voice as Myra, she makes the character a near-equal to Anjelica Huston's Lilly, both of them trying to manipulate Roy to succeed in their respective grifts. But as good as Bening, Huston, and John Cusack are in their roles, the film also rides smoothly on its supporting actors, especially Pat Hingle as the brutal Bobo, Henry Jones as a kind of Greek-chorus hotelier, and the always marvelous J.T. Walsh as the cunning but ultimately fragile Cole. (Walsh's early death -- he was only 54 when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1998 -- deprived us of one of our most watchable supporting actors. Like Bill Paxton, whose death at 61 earlier this year recalls the premature departure of Walsh, he was one of those actors who made any film he appeared in just a little bit better.) 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Yasujiro Ozu, 1947)

Hohi Aoki and Choko Iida in Record of a Tenement Gentleman
Otane: Choko Iida
The Boy: Hohi Aoki
Tashiro: Chishu Ryu
Tamekichi: Reikichi Kawamura
Kawayoshi: Takeshi Sakamoto
Kikuko: Mitsuko Yoshikawa
The Father: Eitaro Ozawa

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Tadao Ikeda, Yasujro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Art direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Ichiro Saito

There are Web pages devoted to the "funny titles" that other countries give American films. The Japanese title for Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995) allegedly translates as I'm Drunk and You're a Prostitute, and Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) becomes The Hole of Malkovich. But presumably other countries have similar sites devoted to silly Anglicizations of their film titles, too. Certainly the Japanese have every reason to wonder how the translators came up with an off-the-mark title like Record of a Tenement Gentleman for Yasujiro Ozu's film. The setting is not what we call a tenement: a multistory apartment building in a slum. It takes place instead in a row of small houses in an impoverished suburb of Tokyo, where people eke out a living as artisans or peddlers. And the protagonist of the film is not a gentleman but a middle-aged widow named Otane, who agrees to take in for a night a small boy who has followed one of her neighbors home. The boy was separated from his father, a carpenter, when the two of them went into the city in search of work after the apartment building in which they lived burned down. He made his way back to where they used to live, which is where he began to tag along with Tashiro, a fortune-teller by trade. Tashiro shares a home with Tamekichi, a tinker, who refuses to take the boy in, so they persuade Otane to shelter the boy for a night. Things do not go well: The boy wets the bed, and Otane, already grumbling at having been pressured to take him in, becomes even more grouchy at the "stupid" child. She takes the boy to the place where he once lived, but the neighbors there say that the father hasn't yet returned. Otane even tries to abandon the boy, running away from him when they start back, but he's too quick for here. Of course, anyone who's ever seen a movie knows where this is going: After he wets the bed again, the boy runs away, afraid of Otane's anger, but she realizes how much she has come to enjoy his presence and her heart softens when he returns home. She begins to indulge the boy with new clothes and even has their photograph taken together. And then, of course, just as Otane has decided that motherhood suits her, the father arrives, having tracked the boy down. That Ozu manages never to descend into mawkishness with this familiar premise is remarkable, but also a great tribute to his actors, especially Choko Iida as Otane, who makes the transformation from grumpiness to affection entirely credible. The film is also a tribute to the stubborn endurance of the Japanese working classes in the difficult environment of the immediate post-war period. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki, 1965)

Yumiko Nogawa in Story of a Prostitute
Harumi: Yumiko Nogawa
Shinkichi Mikami: Tamio Kawaji
Lt. Narita: Isao Tamagawa
Sgt. Akiyama: Shoichi Ozawa

Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Hajime Takaiwa
Based on a story by Tajiro Tamura
Cinematography: Kazue Nagatsuka
Production design: Takeo Kimura
Film editing: Akira Suzuki
Music: Naozumi Yamamoto

Seijun Suzuki seems to have been a kind of Japanese Samuel Fuller, a director initially dismissed by critics as a maker of B-movies, but re-evaluated by a later generation as an auteur with a distinct and innovative style. Certainly Story of a Prostitute is loaded with style, including unabashed subjective camera tricks like the moment when the prostitute of the title, Harumi, sees the brutish Lt. Narita enter her room and freezes his image until it's torn to shreds like a paper doll. Harumi is a "comfort woman" at the front in Manchuria in the 1930s, and the lieutenant is especially taken with her. But she favors his gentle, even initially virginal orderly, Pvt. Mikami. The two fall in love, but Mikami has been so brainwashed by the Japanese army's code bushido-like code of loyalty and honor that he is trapped in a suicidal spiral. When he is wounded and trapped by the enemy, Harumi, who has pursued him behind the lines, persuades him not to kill himself as honor demands. But then he is rescued by his own forces, who suspect him of treason and propose a court-martial. His superiors decide that instead of court-martialing him, which would lead to a conviction that would dishonor his family, they will execute Mikami and report that he died in battle, but in a great scene, Mikami insists on looking his would-be executioner in the eye, and the man refuses to follow through. Eventually, however, he chooses suicide and Harumi, who has procured a grenade for Mikami, who has told her he's going to use it to escape, dies with him. It's a rather florid and sometimes confusing wartime melodrama, but Suzuki transforms it into an effective statement about the absurdity of war and the foolish codes of militarism.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Isuzu Yamada in Tokyo Twilight
Takako Numata: Setsuko Hara
Akiko Sugiyama: Ineko Arima
Shukichi Sugiyama: Chishu Ryu
Kikuko Soma: Isuzu Yamada
Shigeko Takeuchi: Haruko Sugimura
Sakae Soma: Nobuo Nakamura
Gihei Shimomura: Kamatari Fujiwara
Yasuo Namata: Kinzo Shin
Kenji Kimura: Masami Taura

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Art direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Takanobu Saito

In commenting on Mikio Naruse's Sound of the Mountain (1954), I noted that some critics saw his film as a kind of reaction against films by Yasujiro Ozu like Late Spring (1949) in which the plot climaxes with the marriage of a young woman. Naruse was exploring the fact that marriage is not always, or even seldom, the fulfillment of things that the bride and her family have wished for. But I also noted that Ozu himself is not above his own skepticism about marriage, and no film of his depicts that skepticism more keenly and tragically than Tokyo Twilight, in which a father whose own marriage has failed is trying to cope with the failed marriage of one daughter and the troubled love life of another. The father in this case is played, as it so often was in Ozu's films, by Chishu Ryu, Ozu's favorite actor. I can see why Ozu liked him so much: Is there any other actor who can say "Hmm" with such eloquence and variety of intonation than Ryu? He has many opportunities to pack that internalized sound with meaning in Tokyo Twilight, expressing everything from doubt to contentment to disapproval, or just reinforcing his character's stoic resignation to the misfortunes that life continues to bring him. Shukichi Sugiyama and his three children were abandoned by his wife during the war, when he was stationed in Seoul, and he has done what he can to raise the family. The son from the marriage has died in an accident several years earlier, and now his daughter, Takako, has left her husband, bringing their toddler daughter to live with Shukichi. The other daughter, Akiko, has a disastrous fling with the irresponsible Kenji, who leaves her pregnant and looking for the money to have an abortion. The various secrets that the family, packed into one of the boxlike homes Ozu has made into such eloquent settings (expressing both closeness and confinement), only become more pressing when the girls' mother, Kikuko, returns to their lives: She and her new husband (the man she left Shukichi for has died) run a mah jongg parlor that Akiko, searching for Kenji, finds herself in. Kikuko overhears the young woman's name and, realizing she's her daughter, strikes up a conversation, asking about the family without revealing the truth. But then Shukichi's sister accidentally encounters Kikuko while shopping and brings him the news that she's returned. When Takako overhears, she goes to Kikuko and asks her not to reveal her identity to Akiko. But secrets will out, and Akiko, racked with guilt not only for the abortion but also for having been arrested under suspicion of prostitution while waiting for Kenji in a bar, decides that she has inherited a bad streak from Kikuko, even questioning whether Shukichi is her actual father. Events are set in motion that culminate in Takako denouncing Kikuko, who decides to leave town. There is a poignant scene at the end in which Kikuko, hoping that she has made amends with Takako, looks out of the window of the train for her daughter to say goodbye. If you know Isuzu Yamada only as the sinister "Lady Macbeth" of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957), her performance as the woman who has spent a lifetime of quiet regret will be eye-opening. As usual, Ozu transcends the potential for sentimental excess and arrives at just the right blend of pathos and quiet endurance.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Michele Valley, and Christos Stergioglou in Dogtooth
Father: Christos Stergioglou
Mother: Michele Valley
Older Daughter: Angeliki Papoulia
Son: Hristos Passalis
Younger Daughter: Mary Tsoni
Christina: Anna Kalaitzidou

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Efthymis Philippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Cinematography: Thimios Bakatakis

Dogtooth might be taken as a satire on helicopter parenting, were it not that the imagination of Yorgos Lanthimos seems too expansive to be confined that way. The film begins with Mother providing vocabulary lessons to her children, except that the definitions of the words are hilariously incorrect: The word "sea," for example, means "a large armchair." And soon we meet Father, who is bringing home Christina, a young female security guard from the place where he works. She is securely blindfolded during the trip, and when they get there she is shown to a room where she and the Son strip and have sex -- a task the Father occasionally hires her to perform. Other than that, the three children, all of them young adults, have no contact with the outside world -- they've been told that they can go outside only when they shed one of their "dogteeth." They live in an expensive house surrounded by a high wall, and are never allowed outside. They have a television set, but it is used only for home videos. When a cat wanders onto the grounds, the Son kills it with garden shears, and on learning of the intruder the Father slashes his clothes and smears himself with fake blood, then tells them that cats are the most dangerous creatures on Earth and has them get down on all fours and bark like dogs, training them on how to respond if another cat should make its way into their enclave. Eventually, however, the world intrudes, largely because of Christina, who gets bored with the perfunctory sex with the Son, who refuses to gratify her orally, so she teaches the Older Daughter the fine art of cunnilingus, setting off some experiments with licking between the two daughters, usually involving body parts like the shoulder or the inside of the thigh. Christina also gives the Older Daughter some videotapes in exchange for her sexual favors. We gather from the Older Daughter's parroting of lines from the movies that they include Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). When Christina's transgression is discovered, she's banished from the enclave and the parents decide that one of the daughters should take her place in gratifying the Son. But the damage has been done: Older Daughter knocks out one of her canines with a dumbbell and, bleeding profusely, hides in the trunk of the Father's Mercedes. The macabre humor of Lanthimos's film lends itself to all sorts of interpretations: Is it, for example, a lampoon of homeschooling? A fable about the repressive power of society? A knock on utopian theorizing? Dogtooth never quite goes as crazily baroque as Lanthimos's The Lobster (2015) -- or, to judge from the reviews, his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) -- but its consistent exploration of a warped worldview is fascinating.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)

Anna Massey and Barry Foster in Frenzy
Richard Blaney: Jon Finch
Robert Rusk: Barry Foster
Brenda Blaney: Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Babs Milligan: Anna Massey
Chief Inspector Oxford: Alec McCowen
Mrs. Oxford: Vivien Merchant
Hetty Porter: Billie Whitelaw
Johnny Porter: Clive Swift
Felix Forsythe: Bernard Cribbins
Monica Barling: Jean Marsh

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer
Based on a novel by Arthur La Bern
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Film editing: John Jympson

Frenzy is so often called a "return to form" by critics commenting on Alfred Hitchcock's films that it's worth parsing that phrase a bit. What's generally meant is that after the triumph of Psycho (1960), Hitchcock's films seemed to decline in quality: To the critics of the day, The Birds (1963) felt like a gimmicky monster movie, Marnie (1964) an overdone, miscast psychological drama, Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) attempts to cash in on the James Bond-era vogue for spy movies. Later generations of critics have found intelligent things to say about some of these films (though there are few ardent defenders of Torn Curtain and Topaz), largely because of their ability to see the Hitchcock oeuvre as a whole and to work in the revelations of the Hitchcock biographers about the director's obsessions and predilections. But Frenzy was for many mainstream critics what Roger Ebert called it: "the kind of thriller Hitchcock was making in the 1940s, filled with macabre details, incongruous humor, and the desperation of a man convicted of a crime he didn't commit." I would qualify that observation with the remark that Frenzy is the kind of film Hitchcock couldn't have made in the 1940s because of the Production Code's restrictions on nudity, sex outside of marriage, and excessive violence. Liberated from the Code, Frenzy is rated R. And I think Hitchcock's delighted rush into the new era of frankness in film may have had a destructive effect on his ability to maintain consistency of tone. A scene like the rape-murder of Brenda Blaney belongs to a different kind of film than the domestic comedy of Inspector Oxford and his gourmet-cook wife, and there's something a little too sick about the snap of Mrs. Oxford's bread stick as her husband is recounting how Rusk had to break Babs Milligan's fingers to retrieve his stickpin. There is no heart in the film, the way there was in films of the 1940s like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) or Notorious (1946), in which we could feel anxiety over the plight of the characters. Hitchcock does seem to want us to feel some real-world horror at Brenda's reciting Psalm 91 and trying to cover her bared breast as she's being raped, but even that invocation of sympathy feels out of place later, especially when Babs's corpse is treated for comedy when her feet keep finding their way into Rusk's face. And a "joke" like that of the man in the pub who quips "every cloud has a silver lining" on learning that the killer rapes his victims before strangling them should never have found its way onto film. There is much to admire in Frenzy: Hitchcock never did a more skillful scene than the one in which the camera follows Babs and Rusk up to the flat where we know she's going to die, and then silently retreats back down the stairs and across the busy street. Alec McCowen and Vivien Merchant skillfully play the comedy of the husband and wife dinner table scenes -- the soupe aux poissons is particularly unappetizing. I especially like the bit in which Mrs. Oxford offers a drink to the sergeant who brings news of the case to the inspector: It's a new cocktail called a "margarita," she explains, made with what she pronounces "tekwila." The sergeant has to leave, however, so she swigs the drink he has abandoned and then, with a rather odd look on her face, hastily makes her exit. But too often in Frenzy what Hitchcock thinks is naughty is just nasty.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Black Girl (Ousmane Sembene, 1966)

Mbissine Thérèse Diop in Black Girl
Diouana: Mbissine Thérèse Diop
Madame: Anne-Marie Jelinek
Monsieur: Robert Fontaine
Diouana's Boyfriend: Momar Nar Sene
Boy With Mask: Ibrahima Boy

Director: Ousmane Sembene
Screenplay: Ousmane Sembene
Based on a story by Ousmane Sembene
Cinematography: Christian Lacoste

With a run time of just about an hour, Black Girl is a marvel of condensed storytelling, even though it uses a sophisticated technique like flashbacks to create its powerful portrait of the wounds of colonialism. It begins in medias res, with Diouana's arrival in France to serve as the maid -- although she expects to work as a nanny, as she had in Dakar -- to a French couple. We learn a bit of her life in Senegal at the same time that we see her disillusionment and eventual slump into depression with what she becomes in the small apartment in Antibes of the couple. The children are away -- presumably at boarding school or with relatives -- and Diouana is forced into a round of cooking and cleaning that she had never expected. She sees nothing of the city outside of the apartment, and is subjected to insults from the couple's guests: An older man, for example, insists on grabbing her and kissing her because, he says, "I've never kissed a negress." The Frenchwoman's friends chatter about Diouana as if she is invisible, asking if she understands French. Told that she does, one of them says she must do so "instinctually" and adds, "like an animal." The result of the exploitation and abuse is tragic, and although what happens might seem melodramatic to some, I think it feels consistent with the way Sembene tells the story, almost as a moral fable. The central symbol of the fable is a mask that Diouana gave to her employers when she first went to work for them in Dakar. She finds it hanging on a wall of the stark modern apartment in Antibes, a touch of decor without significance, and when she decides she's had enough with her life there, she takes it down and puts it with her luggage. She never goes back to Dakar, however, but the man for whom she worked does, and he returns the mask with her belongings to Diouana's mother. A small boy, whom we first saw playing with the mask before Diouana gave it away, finds it and follows the Frenchman, who takes fright and runs away from him -- the European colonizer fleeing the new Africa. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock, 1966)

Julie Andrews and Paul Newman in Torn Curtain
Michael Armstrong: Paul Newman
Sarah Sherman: Julie Andrews
Countess Kuchinska: Lila Kedrova
Heinrich Gerhard: Hansjörg Felmy
Ballerina: Tamara Toumanova
Gustav Lindt: Ludwig Donath
Hermann Gromek: Wolfgang Kieling
Jacobi: David Opatoshu
Dr. Koska: Gisela Fisher
Farmer: Mort Mills
Farmer's Wife: Carolyn Conwell

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Brian Moore
Cinematography: John F. Warren
Production design: Hein Heckroth

I saw Torn Curtain in the year of its initial release and was never tempted to watch it again until last night. I had forgotten almost everything about it except its general dullness and the one great scene when Armstrong and the farmer's wife take an extraordinary time (for a movie at least) to kill Gromek. It's an exceptionally well-directed scene, harrowing in its unexpected realism in the midst of a film that's anything but realistic. I particularly like the way the struggle leaves Armstrong exhausted when it's over, a refreshing change from the usual movie action in which the protagonist picks himself up and dusts himself off after a fight as if it was no big deal. There is one other thing that struck me when I first saw Torn Curtain: the way Michael and Sarah supposedly blend in with the crowds in East Germany. I had lived in Germany for almost a year several years earlier, and I know how easy it is to spot American haircuts and clothes, like the kind Paul Newman and Julie Andrews have in the movie, so their going unnoticed on a bus full of Germans struck me as silly movie fakery. But almost everything about Torn Curtain feels fake. Andrews and Newman are miscast, apparently having been foisted on Hitchcock by the studio, Universal. Granted, Andrews's role is a particularly thankless one, the stand-by-your-man helpmeet, but it's particularly unfortunate in the context of a film by a director who had traditionally given women strong leading roles. And despite an opening scene that puts the two of them in bed, there is no sexual chemistry between Andrews and Newman. (Was there ever sexual chemistry between Andrews and a leading man? Is that a consequence of having been introduced to movie audiences as a nanny and a novice in a convent?) The one interesting performance in the movie is Lila Kedrova's Polish countess, trying to get Michael and Sarah to sponsor her immigration to the United States, but it goes on much too long, as if Hitchcock knew what a drag the rest of the film was and wanted to showcase this florid eccentric. This was the first film Hitchcock made without the team of cinematographer Robert Burks, composer Bernard Herrmann, and film editor George Tomasini, who had seen him through most of the glories of his 1950s and early '60s classics.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Utamaro and His Five Women (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946)

Toshiko Iizuka and Minosuke Bando in Utamaro and His Five Women
Utamaro: Minosuke Bando
Okita: Kinuyo Tanaka
Seinosuke: Kotaro Bando
Oran: Hiroko Kawasaki
Takasode: Toshiko Iizuka
Oman: Kyoko Kusajima
Yukie: Eiko Ohara
Shozaburo: Shotaro Nakamura
Oshin: Kiniko Shiratao
Takemara: Minpei Tomamoto

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Yoshikata Yoda
Based on a novel by Kanji Kunieda
Cinematography: Minoru Miki
Production design: Isamu Motoki

Utamaro and His Five Women is a film about the male gaze, but is it a celebration or a criticism of it? Kenji Mizoguchi is well-known for films like The Life of Oharu (1952) that explore the lives of women with deep sympathy and understanding, so it's easy to read the Utamaro biopic as a criticism, a portrait of the sometimes desperate existence of the women who inhabited "the floating world" of the 18th-century Japanese demimonde that was the subject of much of the artist's work. But the film also teeters over into exploitation even as it's revealing the seamy side of the male-dominated society. There's a satiric edge to the scene in which Utamaro and his assistants clandestinely observe a powerful lord's gathering of young women who strip to their underclothes and run into the water to catch fish. In a long pan down a row of the women, they disrobe in sequence like a chorus line in a musical. Meanwhile, the assistants are obviously taking more than an aesthetic interest in what's happening. Utamaro and His Five Women was Mizoguchi's first film after the war, and was made under the close observation of the occupying forces who were generally opposed to historical films for fear that they would celebrate the values of pre-war militaristic Japan. Fortunately, the film passed muster, probably because Mizoguchi's subject, a famous artist, represented the positive in Japanese culture. Even so, it's a subtle film with a sly double edge. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)

Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren in Marnie
Marnie Edgar: Tippi Hedren
Mark Rutland: Sean Connery
Sidney Strutt: Martin Gabel
Bernice Edgar: Louise Latham
Lil Mainwaring: Diane Baker
Mr. Rutland: Alan Napier
Susan Clabon: Mariette Hartley
Sailor: Bruce Dern

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Film editing: George Tomasini
Music: Bernard Herrmann

Marnie, once dismissed as just a stew of melodrama and pop psychology, has undergone a wholesale re-evaluation in recent years, much of it spurred by revelations about Alfred Hitchcock's sexual harassment of Tippi Hedren. Now it's often seen as not only one of his most revealing films about his personal obsessions -- second perhaps only to Vertigo (1958), which it much resembles -- but also one of his greatest. Its champions include the New Yorker's Richard Brody and filmmaker Alexandre Philippe. In the introduction to a recent showing of Marnie on Turner Classic Movies, Philippe even compared Hedren's performance to that of Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001). I wouldn't go that far. In fact, the most I'm willing to say is that Marnie is a very odd duck of a movie, one that just thinking about for a while can give me the creeps, especially in these times when each day seems to bring a new revelation about powerful men and their treatment of vulnerable women (and men). That's why the key to Marnie seems to me not so much Marnie herself but Mark Rutland. Hedren is very good in her role, fully playing up her character's ever-present self-consciousness, born of being the constant object of the male gaze. But the film turns on an actor's ability to make Mark's obsession with Marnie, his persistence in trying to treat her disorder, and the breakdown of his endurance when he rapes her into something both credible and meaningful. I doubt that even Hitchcock's most gifted leading men, i.e., Cary Grant and James Stewart, could have brought off the role with much success. Sean Connery brings his Bondian smirk to the part, which heightens our sense of Marnie's fear of men, but also undercuts what should be at least a plausible interest on his part of treating her illness. There's no gentleness in Connery's performance, so that even Mark's attempts to win her over -- buying her beloved horse, for example -- look like power plays. But Marnie's response to Mark is equally perverse: After the rape, she tries to drown herself in the ship's swimming pool, and when he asks why she didn't just jump overboard, she replies, "The idea was to kill myself, not feed the damn fish." Not only is the reply nonsensical but it also underscores the truth: The idea was obviously to let herself be found, either to be rescued or by her death to score another point against men. So it's clear that Marnie is the kind of film that invites exhaustive comment, which is not exactly the same thing as saying it's a great film, or even a good one. To my mind, it's a showcase of Hitchcockian technique without heart or wit. It has some fine touches, such as the scene in which Marnie goes to rob the Rutland safe and we watch as she goes about it on one side of the screen while on the other a cleaning woman comes closer and closer to discovering her. Once again, Hitchcock makes us root for someone who's doing something we should disapprove of, but there's also something overfamiliar about it: We saw something like it in Psycho (1960), when Norman tries and almost fails to sink the Ford containing Marion's body in the swamp. But there it was an important alienating moment; here it just seems like a trick to build suspense in a film that doesn't particularly need it. It's style for style's sake, the essence of decadence, and Marnie may be Hitchcock's most decadent film.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

Tatsuya Nakadai in The Sword of Doom
Ryunosuke Tsukue: Tatsuya Nakadai
Ohama: Michiyo Aratama
Hyoma Utsuki: Yuzo Kayama
Omatsu: Yoko Naito
Taranosuke Shimada: Toshiro Mifune
Shichibei: Ko Nishimura
Bunnojo Utsuki: Ichiro Nakaya
Kamo Serizawa: Kei Sato
Isami Kondo: Tadao Nakamura

Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on a novel by Kaizan Nakazoto
Cinematography: Hiroshi Murai
Art direction: Takashi Matsuyama
Film editing: Yoshitami Kuroiwa
Music: Masaru Sato

One of the joys of my pilgrimage through film history has been the discovery of great actors who aren't exactly household names in the United States. One of the best of them is Tatsuya Nakadai, who threw himself into roles with such commitment that it's almost a surprise to realize that he's still alive: He's 84 and still making movies. Even with the presence of the charismatic -- and, in the West, better-known -- Toshiro Mifune in the cast, Nakadai carries The Sword of Doom on his considerable shoulders, playing Ryunosuke, a psychotic samurai, with frightening conviction. In his first appearance, his face is partly hidden by the latticework of a hat, but his eyes burn brightly through the shadowing. He calmly murders an old man whose granddaughter has gone to fetch water. Granted, the old man is praying for death, but an easy one, not the blow of the titular sword. By the end of the film the madness that glitters in Ryunosuke's eyes has been responsible for countless deaths, and it flares up in a cataclysmic ending in which he slashes out at the ghosts he sees behind the bamboo shades of a brothel and eventually at the assassins who come for him. Nakadai does something extraordinary with his body in this final sequence: As Ryunosuke's mind comes unhinged, so does his body, killing in a kind of Totentanz that looks spasmodic but never loses its lethal precision. And there the film ends, on a freeze frame of Nakadai's face and its glittering eyes. The Sword of Doom was meant to have sequels, but they were never made. Yet although we never learn what happens to several other characters whose subplots have centered on Ryunosuke, or indeed whether he survived this orgy of blood, it doesn't really matter much. It's almost enough to have watched Nakadai in performance. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek in Toni Erdmann
Ines Conradi: Sandra Hüller
Winfried Conradi: Peter Simonischek
Henneberg: Michael Wittenborn
Gerald: Thomas Loibl
Tim: Trystan Pütter
Anca: Ingrid Bisu
Steph: Lucy Russell
Tatjana: Hadewych Minis
Ilescu: Vlad Ivanov
Flavia: Victoria Cocias

Director: Maren Ade
Screenplay: Maren Ade
Cinematography: Patrick Orth

The nearly three hours -- well, two hours, 42 minutes -- of Toni Erdmann don't exactly fly by. It's more that they sometimes pause while we accustom ourselves to the eccentricity of the characters and begin to absorb some of the satire, build up another head of steam, and speed into another head-spinning but frequently funny episode. There's a feeling of improv about the film, and with improv there are often dead spots between outbursts of brilliance. The film is about a father and daughter, Winfried and Ines Conradi. He's a shaggy old prankster who teaches music in a school; she's an intensely driven corporate consultant now working to land a contract in Romania that would help companies streamline -- but mostly by jettisoning their unionized work force. The film is thus a satire on global corporate capitalism, with side glances at the pervasive sexism in that world. But writer-director Maren Ade has chosen not to weight the film in the direction of either character study or satire, and I think the film suffers from tone problems occasionally. Granted, it would be easy to slip into formula with such mismatched characters, and I say this knowing that an American remake with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig is in the works, both of whom are more than capable of doing the conventional if satisfyingly funny thing with the setup: a father who delights in comic disguises like fright wigs and false teeth to shake up his uptight daughter's aggressively workaholic ways. It's to the credit of the film that there are enough unexpected moments -- such as Ines's singing "The Greatest Love of All" at a Romanian family's Easter celebration that Winfried has crashed -- that it never sinks to the routine and conventional. Finally, the film does, I think, go too far, when Ines suddenly decides to host a corporate party in the nude, insisting that all the guests strip too, and claims that it's a "team-building" exercise. Winfried, of course, crashes this party as well, wearing a Bulgarian kukeri costume -- it almost literally turns the film into a shaggy-dog story. Toni Erdmann was a big critical hit, and was a major contender for the foreign film Oscar that went, I think correctly, to Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Josette Day and Jean Marais in Beauty and the Beast
The Beast/The Prince/Avenant: Jean Marais
Belle: Josette Day
Félicie: Mila Parély
Adélaïde: Nane Germon
Ludovic: Michel Auclair
Father: Marcel André

Director: Jean Cocteau
Screenplay: Jean Cocteau
Based on a story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Production design: Christian Bérard, Lucien Carré
Film editing: Claude Ibéria
Costume design: Antonio Castillo, Marcel Escoffier
Music: Georges Auric
Makeup: Hagop Arakelian

There are no singing teapots in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, but there's more than enough magic -- almost too much to provide a satisfying ending, hence Greta Garbo's alleged lament, "Give me back my Beast." This is a fairy tale old style, which means that there's something unsettling about the happily-ever-after. Why does the Beast revert to the form of Avenant, whom it is never quite clear that Belle really loves? Where are they sailing off to at the end? Why does Belle seem oddly not quite enraptured with the turn of events? It's a sublimely erotic, if slightly kinky, film: I love the moment when, making his exit after seeing Belle, the Beast reaches out to caress the bare breast of a statue, as if copping a feel denied to him by his deeply conflicted nature. "Love can make a beast of a man," says the Prince at the end, and it's Cocteau's great achievement that this idea simmers beneath the surface of the entire film.

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser, Jenette Goldstein in Aliens
Ripley: Sigourney Weaver
Newt: Carrie Henn
Hicks: Michael Biehn
Burke: Paul Reiser
Bishop: Lance Henriksen
Hudson: Bill Paxton
Gorman: William Hope
Vasquez: Jenette Goldstein
Apone: Al Matthews

Director: James Cameron
Screenplay: James Cameron, David Giler, Walter Hill
Cinematography: Adrian Biddle
Production design: Peter Lamont
Film editing: Ray Lovejoy
Music: James Horner

Before James Cameron become "king of the world" and infatuated with the possibilities of CGI, he made this exciting sequel to Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), which is not only a superb movie on its own but also one of the few sequels whose creator has actually studied what made the first film so satisfying. In this case, characters. Just observe the still above and compare it with the one I chose from Alien in which the crew of the Nostromo gathered around the infected Kane. In the one from the sequel we see Newt, Hicks, Ripley, Hudson, Burke, and Vasquez gathered around a schematic to plot out a way of dealing with the alien threat. And if you remember the film at all, you can immediately recall what made these characters so appealing -- or in the case of Burke, so appalling. Aliens could have been your standard shoot-'em-up in space, with lots of mindless action. In fact, it starts out that way, with an obnoxiously gung-ho crew of space marines blustering about how they're going to kick some extraterrestrial ass. But as the cast is whittled down by the monsters, we get to know the seven survivors -- Bishop, the android so mistrusted by Ripley, is missing from the picture -- and to feel a genuine concern about their fates. Moreover, because Cameron hasn't yet fallen under the spell of CGI, what takes place looks and feels real -- there's a tactility about the sets that computers have yet to learn how to supply. Action movies don't come any better than Alien and Aliens. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

War and Peace (Sergey Bondarchuk, 1966)


Pierre Bezukhov: Sergey Bondarchuk
Natasha Rostova: Lyudmila Saveleva
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky: Vyacheslav Tikhonov
Field Marshal Kutuzov: Boris Zakhava
Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky: Anatoli Ktorov
Princess Maria Bolkonsky: Antonina Shuranova
Count Ilya Andreyevich Rostov: Viktor Stanitsyn
Countess Natalya Rostova: Kira Golovko
Nikolai Rostov: Oleg Tabakov
Petya Rostov: Sergei Yermilov
Hélène Kuragin: Irina Skobtseva
Anatol Kuragin: Vasili Lanovoy
Napoleon Bonaparte: Vladislav Strzhelchik

Director: Sergey Bondarchuk
Screenplay: Sergey Bondarchuk, Vasiliy Solovyov
Based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy
Cinematography: Yu-Lan Chen, Anatoliy Petritskiy, Alexsandr Shelenkov
Production design: Mikhail Bogdanov, Aleksandr Dikhtyar, Said Menyalshchikov, Gennady Myasnikov
Film editing: Tatyana Likachyova
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov

No film adaptation of a great novel is going to satisfy admirers of that novel. The best we can hope for is a work that stands on its own, that supplies cinematic equivalents for some of the achievements of the prose work. But War and Peace, with its epic battles and accounts of the social lives and romantic entanglements of 19th-century Russians, cries out for filming on the grand and glamorous scale. And few films have assumed a grander scale than Sergey Bondarchuk's seven-hour-long version of Tolstoy's novel. I saw it in a theater in Dallas, where it was shown in four installments, sometime in the early 1970s and have never quite forgotten it, particularly those moments when the camera soared away from the heat of the battle into what seemed like the high heavens, or when it sailed above the dancers at Natasha's first ball. But I've read the novel several times, the latest reading a couple of months ago, and the best I can say, watching Bondarchuk's film again, is that his version is a magnificent failure. We get great gulps of the source material, sometimes in voiceover narration, and the performers are apt embodiments of the characters I see in my mind's eye as I read the book. But no film can capture the interiority of the novel, the psychological insights that make Prince Andrei, Natasha, and especially Pierre into people we feel like we know. Bondarchuk tries to supply some of this with voiceovers in which the characters speak their inner thoughts, but only succeeds in blurring the focus: The voiceovers are distractions from the drama that should be unfolding through action and dialogue. That said, watching the film over four successive nights is a unique experience.

Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky

Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Sergey Bondarchuk in War and Peace, Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky
The longest of the four parts of War and Peace, Andrei Bolkonsky is the expository vehicle, introducing the three major characters, though it gives the lion's share of exposition to the two men, Andrei and Pierre. Natasha, still a little girl, virtually bursts into the film when she flings open a door in a brilliant flash of light, but the narrative concentration is on the youthful indecision of Pierre and on Andrei's unhappy marriage. Why he's so unhappy with the pretty, pregnant Lise is never made clear in the film -- and not much clearer in the book, other than that he's a man who hasn't found a direction in his life. Neither has Pierre, to be sure. He's still spending his time with boisterous companions. Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Bondarchuk are too old to be playing these characters -- Tikhonov was in his late 30s and Bondarchuk in his mid-40s -- but the war and the death of Andrei's wife allow Tikhonov to assume maturity swiftly, whereas Bondarchuk is stuck playing the naïf, railroaded into marriage with Hélène and later into a foolish duel with Dolokhov.

Part II: Natasha Rostova


Lyudmila Saveleva and Vyacheslav Tikhonov in War and Peace, Part II: Natasha Rostova
Lyudmila Saveleva is an exquisite Natasha, but I think Bondarchuk does the character a disservice by not allowing her more time to fall into the clutches of Kuragin. Tolstoy's novel delineates the gradual stages of Kuragin's seduction and Natasha's yielding to him. It also makes more clear that Kuragin really does fall in love with her -- as who wouldn't? The ball is the spectacular set piece of the installment, and the camera dances along with the people. Andrei's father is of course the real villain of the story, and I wish we had more of the torture he inflicts on his daughter, Maria, and on her retreat into religion to bolster the depiction of the old man's cruelty. But as Bondarchuk has chosen to eliminate the very interesting (but not essential) story of Nikolai Rostov's throwing over his cousin Sonya for Maria, there doesn't really need to be much development of the character. Too bad, because Antonina Shuranova does a fine job with what's left of Maria in the film -- like Tolstoy's Maria, she really does have beautiful eyes, but unlike her, she could never be considered "ugly." Bondarchuk has also cut, perhaps wisely, Pierre's involvement with the Freemasons, which takes up many of the less interesting pages of Tolstoy's book.

Part III: The Year 1812


Sergey Bondarchuk in War and Peace, Part III: The Year 1812
There are no more spectacular battle scenes than the ones in this film, and probably never will be, even now that we have CGI to supplant the thousands of extras and borrowed Soviet soldiers that Bondarchuk employed for the film. I think the thunder and carnage of war is made more impressive by the presence of Pierre, immaculately garbed, with a white top hat, absurdly stumbling around as the soldiers go about their terrible business. As the narrator puts it, "On June 12, the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia and war began. In other words, an event took place that was contrary to all human reason and human nature." Bondarchuk pulls out all stops in proclaiming the love of Mother Russia that animates the soldiers, but when the icon of the Holy Mother of Smolensk is brought out for mass adoration, I was ironically reminded of the scene in Sergei Eisenstein's The Old and the New (1929) in which a procession of Orthodox clergy comes out to pray for rain and is mocked by cuts to images of bleating sheep. Clearly, much had changed in the treatment of religion in the Soviet Union by the time Bondarchuk made War and Peace. This part does end on a rather heavy-handed patriotic sermon, which I suspect may have been inserted to placate the censors.

Part IV: Pierre Bezukhov



There is something rushed and jumbled about the concluding part of Bondarchuk's epic, which is forced to wind up the stories of Andrei and Natasha as well as concentrate on the burning of Moscow, the retreat of the French, and Pierre's imprisonment and release. This leaves little time for Tolstoy's epilogue, in which Pierre and Natasha wed and start a family, as do the mostly absent Nikolai and Maria. The coincidence of Pierre's rescue and Petya's death feels particularly rushed: I wonder if anyone who hasn't read the book recently will even be able to follow the action. But we are also spared much of the interaction of Pierre and Platon Karataev (Mikhail Khrabrov), one of Tolstoy's founts of peasant wisdom, which even on the page tends toward mawkish sentimentality. There are still some enormously effective scenes. The burning of Moscow puts the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) to shame -- which may have been Bondarchuk's intent. The execution of prisoners by the French is movingly staged, as is the fate of the retreating French soldiers, summed up on one last spectacular overhead shot as the ragged and freezing French stream toward a huge circle around the fire.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm in Alien
Ripley: Sigourney Weaver
Dallas: Tom Skerritt
Lambert: Veronica Cartwright
Brett: Harry Dean Stanton
Kane: John Hurt
Ash: Ian Holm
Parker: Yaphet Kotto

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Cinematography: Derek Van Lint
Production design: Michael Seymour
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) posited that extraterrestrial beings might not be bent on world domination or worse, but instead were just looking to be friendly neighbors. Spielberg went on to reinforce that idea in 1982 with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It was a kind of reversal of the treatment of space creatures in 1950s sci-fi films, born of Cold War paranoia. But although the Spielbergian vision informed several other successful films, including John Carpenter's Starman (1984), the truth is that when it comes to movies, paranoia is fun.  No movie established that more clearly than Alien, whose huge success launched a whole new era of shockers from outer space, including Carpenter's The Thing (1982). Almost 40 years later, Alien still holds up, while the Spielberg films are looking a bit sappy. Is that a commentary on the movies themselves, or on us? Alien benefits from near-perfect casting and from outstandingly creepy design, making the most of the work of H.R. Giger on the alien and its environment and of Carlo Rambaldi (who had also created the benign aliens of Close Encounters and E.T.) on animating the creature. While it's true that time has not been entirely kind to some parts of the design -- such as the cathode ray tube monitors for the ship's computers, which would definitely be outmoded in 2037 when the film is set  -- everything else has become sci-fi standard, including the depiction of the Nostromo as an aging tub of a ship whose maintenance crew, Brett and Parker, gripe about being paid less than the management staff. Scott doesn't labor over the implicit critique of corporate capitalism that will become more prominent in the sequels, but it's nice to see it there.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Sergei Eisenstein, 1945-46)

Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible, Part I

Nikolay Cherkasov in the color sequence of Ivan the Terrible, Part II
Czar Ivan IV: Nikolay Cherkasov
Czarina Anastasia Romanovna: Lyudmila Tselikovskaya
Boyarina Ephrosinia Staritskaya: Serafima Birman
Prince Andrei Kurbsky: Mikhail Nazvanov
Czar's Guard Malyuta Skiratov: Mikhail Zharov
Czar's Guard Aleksei Basmanov: Amvrosi Buchma
Fyodor Basmanov: Mikhail Kuznetsov
Vladimir Andreyevich Staritsky: Pavel Kadochnikov
Boyar Fyodor Kolychev/Archbishop Philip: Andrei Abrikasov
Nikolay the Fanatic: Vsevolod Pudovkin
Pyotr Volynets: Vladimir Balashov
Archbishop Pimen: Aleksandr Mgebrov
Sigismond, King of Poland: Pavel Massalsky

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein
Cinematography: Andrei Moskvin, Eduard Tisse
Production design: Iosif Shpinel, Sergei Eisenstein
Costume design: Leonid Naumov, M. Safonova
Music: Sergei Prokofiev

David Thomson has made a suggestion that a better film epic could be made of the life of Sergei Eisenstein than the one that was made about the life of John Reed -- i.e., Warren Beatty's Reds (1981). In fact, Eisenstein's life was so crowded with artistic and political drama that it would probably have to be an HBO miniseries like Game of Thrones (which is not a bad subtitle for Ivan the Terrible, come to think of it). The drama surrounding Ivan the Terrible alone would be enough for a whole season's episode, with Eisenstein struggling to bring his proposed three-installment film about Stalin's favorite czar to the screen while at the same time dealing with the lethal whims of the dictator himself. After Part I of Ivan the Terrible was released to great acclaim in 1945, including a Stalin Prize from the hands of the man himself, Stalin soured on the project: The mad frenzy of Ivan in Part II cut too close to the bone and it was not released until 1958 -- five years after Stalin's death and ten years after Eisenstein's. Part III had begun filming but was canceled, and what existed of it, except for some stills and scraps, was destroyed. After all this Sturm und Drang, it would be nice to conclude, as some critics have done, that Ivan the Terrible is one of the masterpieces of world cinema. But I can't go that far. It seems to me a great directorial folly, akin to Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980) in its directorial excesses, its indulgence in style for style's sake. That the style is immensely entertaining in its artistic wrong-headedness pushes Ivan the Terrible in the direction of camp, a world's fair exhibition of stained-glass attitudes, early silent film poses, great garish sets, costumes that make even the hairiest 16th-century Russians look like drag queens, and in Part II there's a sequence in the most lurid color this side of some of the ballet sequences in MGM musicals of the 1950s. The first time we see Sigismond, the king of Poland, in Part II, he's sprawled across the throne in a position that almost screams for a sign proclaiming "Careless Decadence,"  and really looks extremely uncomfortable. Ivan's enemy, Archbishop Philip, swans about in a billowing cloak that has no known sartorial or clerical necessity, and which allows Ivan to forestall his exit by simply placing a foot on it. When Philip does manage to leave, the cloak raises a cloud of dust that suggests Ivan needs to liquidate the housekeeping staff. The collection of poses in Ivan the Terrible is balletic and operatic in the worst senses of the words, but the film is also watchable for all those reasons. There are some redeeming values, of course. It's a window into the mind of the Stalinist Soviet Union, both in what it approved and what it banned. It has a distinguished score by Prokofiev, though unfortunately muddied by poor sound reproduction -- in restoring the film, it's too bad that as much attention wasn't paid to providing a new music soundtrack as to cleaning up the images. Visually, it's fascinating, even when the visuals are absurd.