A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)

John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich
Craig Schwartz: John Cusack
John Horatio Malkovich: John Malkovich
Lotte Schwartz: Cameron Diaz
Maxine Lund: Catherine Keener
Dr. Lester: Orson Bean
Floris: Mary Kay Place
Charlie: Charlie Sheen

Director: Spike Jonze
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Lance Acord
Production design: K.K. Barrett
Music: Carter Burwell

I find it interesting that David Fincher has a cameo -- as the critic Christopher Bing in the documentary about Malkovich's puppeteering career -- in Being John Malkovich, because Fincher and Spike Jonze seem to me to represent two distinct career paths in contemporary filmmaking. Both came out of the heyday of music videos, with their quirky and extravagant special effects and camera tricks, but Fincher has followed a more "commercial" direction with adaptations of bestselling novels like Gone Girl (2014) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). His films are fine ones, with professional polish and careful attention to storytelling. He seems to me a major director who subsumes himself into the material, the way such classic studio-era directors as William Wyler and George Cukor did. Jonze, however, has steered a steady course into the offbeat and personal through his four features. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation (2002), Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and Her (2013) are all marked by an irrepressibly eccentric imagination, an ability to think things not often thought, to imagine the impossible and make it plausible. The collaboration with the similar sensibility of Charlie Kaufman on the first two films suggested that the writer had the imagination and the director the skill to visualize it, but Jonze's later films show him to be a great assimilator, able to merge the ideas of his writers and the interpretations of his actors into a special and unique whole. Being John Malkovich plays with its themes of power and sexuality brilliantly. Jonze and Kaufman affirm the value of a hungry imagination with their special insights into the way we are all striving to transcend the limitations imposed by consciousness confined in a body. We probably wouldn't choose to be John Malkovich, but the possibility of escaping into someone else, even for only 15 minutes, tantalizes us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995)

Leon Lai and Karen Mok in Fallen Angels
Wong Chi-ming / Killer: Leon Lai
The Killer's Agent: Michelle Reis
Ho Chi-mo / He Zhiwu: Takeshi Kaneshiro
Charlie / Cherry: Charlie Yeung
Punkie / Blondie / Baby: Karen Mok
Ho Chi-mo's Father: Chan Man-lei

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Production design: William Chang

Feverish, fascinating, and violently funny, Fallen Angels is a kind of companion piece to Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express (1994), sharing some of the same setting and, in a very different role, the actor Takeshi Kaneshiro. I'm not steeped enough in Asian pop culture to appreciate it as fully as some, but I found its frantic camera tricks and frequently over-the-top acting somewhere between tiring and tonic. I'm glad I saw it, but I'm more glad that Wong showed us that he could move on from the frenzied youth culture of these early films to the mature brilliance of In the Mood for Love (2000).

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Man Who Wasn't There (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2001)

Katherine Borowitz in The Man Who Wasn't There
Ed Crane: Billy Bob Thornton
Doris Crane: Frances McDormand
Frank: Michael Badalucco
Big Dave Brewster: James Gandolfini
Ann Nirdlinger Brewster: Katherine Borowitz
Creighton Tolliver: Jon Polito
Freddy Riedenschneider: Tony Shalhoub
Birdy Abundas: Scarlett Johansson
Walter Abundas: Richard Jenkins

Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Production design: Dennis Gassner
Music: Carter Burwell

The Man Who Wasn't There is a bit like a Twilight Zone episode written by James M. Cain. A barber works in a shop owned by his wife's brother. She has been unfaithful to him with her boss, so when a get-rich scheme is proposed to him, the barber tries to blackmail his wife's lover. Nothing goes quite right, however, and after calamity succeeds calamity, the barber is presented with what appears to be a solution to his problems. It comes, however, from a UFO that hovers overhead, and he rejects it. Perhaps only Joel and Ethan Coen could have accomplished this fusion of film noir and sci-fi with quite the success they achieve, thanks largely to a superb cast, the extraordinary black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins, and a score by Carter Burwell that blends unobtrusively with some melancholy-meditative excerpts from Beethoven's piano sonatas.

Watched on Starz Encore 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Woman Next Door (François Truffaut, 1981)

Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in The Woman Next Door
Bernard Coudray: Gérard Depardieu
Matilde Bauchard: Fanny Ardant
Philippe Bauchard: Henri Garcin
Arlette Coudray: Michèle Baumgartner
Odile Jouve: Véronique Silver

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean Aurel
Cinematography: William Lubtchansky
Music: Georges Delerue

François Truffaut's penultimate film skims along the surface of romantic melodrama (not to say soap opera) without ever really picking up any of that genre's essential energy the way filmmakers like Douglas Sirk or his great European admirer Rainer Werner Fassbinder were able to do. It's a film full of Truffaut touches, such as having the story introduced by a secondary character, Mme. Jouve, an older woman who has her own history of distastrously blighted love. Mme. Jouve even orders the camera about as she sets up the narrative. There are also some intriguing details about the characters that seem to have symbolic potential. For example, both husbands, Bernard and Philippe, have managerial jobs that involve transportation: Philippe is an air traffic controller, and Bernard trains the captains of supertankers, working in a large outdoor scale model of a harbor for tankers -- a job that superficially resembles the one Antoine Doinel held in Truffaut's Bed and Board (1970), except that Bernard takes it much more seriously than Antoine did. Unfortunately, there's not much story here: Bernard and Matilde had been lovers, and after their separation each married someone else. Now Matilde and Philippe have moved in next door to Bernard and Arlette, and the old love affair resumes, with painful results. It's only the finesse in the direction and acting, and the attention to secondary details like the ones just cited, that give The Woman Next Door resonance and depth -- though perhaps not enough.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief
John Robie: Cary Grant
Frances Stevens: Grace Kelly
Jessie Stevens: Jessie Royce Landis
H.H. Hughson: John Williams
Danielle Foussard: Brigitte Auber
Bertani: Charles Vanel
Foussard: Jean Martinelli
Germaine: Georgette Anys

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes
Based on a novel by David Dodge
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Costume design: Edith Head

To Catch a Thief was the third film in a row for Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, and it reteamed the director with such valuable coworkers as screenwriter John Michael Hayes and cinematographer Robert Burks, not to mention Cary Grant, with whom Hitchcock hadn't worked since Notorious (1946). All the talent in the world seemed to be there. And yet is it just because it comes after such a masterwork as Rear Window (1954) that To Catch a Thief seems so lightweight and unmemorable? Preparing to watch it again for the umpteenth time, I found that I didn't remember much about the movie other than the spectacular Riviera scenery, the orgasmic fireworks scene, and Kelly in the gold lamé dress. The plot was something about a jewel thief, wasn't it, with Grant in one of the "wrong man" plights so prevalent in Hitchcock? So it was, and while it all works like a well-oiled machine, I sense a flagging of inspiration, especially in the scene in which Jessie snuffs out her cigarette in a fried egg, which is a gag Hitchcock used 15 years earlier in Rebecca.

Watched on Showtime

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960)

Renato Salvatori and Alain Delon in Rocco and His Brothers
Rocco Parondi: Alain Delon
Simone Parondi: Renato Salvatori
Nadia: Annie Girardot
Rosaria Parondi: Katina Paxinou
Vincenzo Parondi: Spiros Focás
Ginetta: Claudia Cardinale
Ciro Parondi: Max Cartier
Luca Parondi: Rocco Vidolazzi
Morini: Roger Hanin

Director: Luchino Visconti
Story and screenplay: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Vasco Pratolini, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, Enrico Medioli
Based on a novel by Giovanni Testori
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Production design: Mario Garbuglia
Music: Nino Rota

When Rocco cries out, "Sangue! Sangue!" on finding Nadia's blood on his brother Simone's jacket, I almost expect to hear Puccini on the soundtrack instead of Nino Rota. It's one of those moments that cause Rocco and His Brothers (along with other films by Luchino Visconti) to be called "operatic." It's "realistic" but in a heightened way -- the word for it comes from the realm of opera: verismo. The moment is in the same key as the actual murder of Nadia, along with her earlier rape by Simone, and the numerous highly volatile scenes of the family life of the Parondis. It's what makes Rocco and His Brothers feel in many ways more contemporary than Michelangelo Antonioni's more cerebral L'Avventura, which was released in the same year. Movies have gone further in the direction of Rocco -- think of the films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola -- than they have in the direction of Antonioni's oeuvre. I have room in my canon for both the raw, melodramatic, and perhaps somewhat overacted Rocco and the enigmatically artful work of Antonioni, however.

Watched on Filmstruck

Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

Anna Magnani in Open City
Pina: Anna Magnani
Don Pietro: Aldo Fabrizi
Giorgio Manfredi: Marcello Pagliero
Marcello: Vito Annichiarico
Francesco: Francesco Grandjacquet
Laura: Carla Rovere
Marina: Maria Michi
Major Bergmann: Harry Feist
Ingrid: Giovanna Galletti

Director: Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Alberto Consiglio
Cinematography: Ubaldo Arata
Music: Renzo Rossellini

The considerable reputation of Roberto Rossellini's Open City lies in its place in film history, as a pioneering work of what came to be known as neorealism. But it often feels more conventional and traditional than subsequent films in that genre, like Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1949) or Rossellini's own Paisan (1946). Its most famous moment, Pina's run after the truck carrying away Francesco recalls Renée Adorée's pursuit of the truck that carries John Gilbert to the Front in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), and Open City depends very much on such melodramatic scenes, centered on established actors like Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi instead of neorealism's dependence on nonprofessional performers. It also relies rather heavily on stereotypes, especially Harry Feist's sneering Übermensch of an SS officer and the predatory lesbian Ingrid, who is just one step away from the cliché She-Beast of the Third Reich. But none of this really detracts from the film's brilliance or its status as one of the greatest of films. It was made under the harshest of circumstances. That it was made at all is astonishing, but that it is so good and so moving is miraculous.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)

Milena Dravic in WR: Mysteries of the Orgniam
Milena: Milena Dravic
Vladimir Ilyich: Ivica Vidovic
Jagoda: Jagoda Kaloper
Soldier: Tuli Kupferberg
Radmilovic: Zoran Radmilovic
With Jim Buckley, Jackie Curtis, Betty Dodson, Nancy Godfrey as themselves

Director: Dusan Makavejev
Screenplay: Dusan Makavejev
Cinematography: Aleksandar Petkovic, Predrag Popovic
Music: Bojana Marijan
Film editing: Ivanka Vukasovic

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

James Mason and Christopher Olsen in Bigger Than Life
Ed Avery: James Mason
Lou Avery: Barbara Rush
Richie Avery: Christopher Olsen
Wally Gibbs: Walter Matthau
Dr. Norton: Robert F. Simon
Dr. Ruric: Roland Winters
Bob LaPorte: Rusty Lane

Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum
Based on a magazine article by Berton Roueche
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Music: David Raksin

Making a domestic drama like Bigger Than Life in CinemaScope is a bit like sending a love letter in a business envelope: The carrier feels wrong for the message. And yet, Nicholas Ray makes it work, partly by acknowledging the irony and playing with it. CinemaScope's outlandish dimensions were designed to put up a fight against the tiny TV screens of the day, which were rapidly becoming the venue for domestic dramas and situation comedies focusing on everyday family life. So Ray makes Bigger Than Life into a kind of companion piece for his Rebel Without a Cause (1955): Both films are antithetical to the portraits of 1950s families on shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver.* Ray also uses CinemaScope for shock value. The wide screen was designed to provide almost more information than the viewer could process. It's hard to hide things from a viewer if the screen is testing the limits of peripheral vision, but Ray and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald manage it beautifully in the scene in which young Richie Avery frantically hunts through his father's things for the medicine that is causing his father's psychotic behavior. Finally he locates the pills, hidden behind the drawer underneath a mirror on top of a dresser, but as he shoves the drawer back in, the mirror changes angles to reveal his father's face behind him. Although the scene would have worked in a standard format, the wide screen heightens the surprise by almost lulling us into thinking that we could see everything in the room. Bigger Than Life was a flop in its day, despite its ripped-from-the-headlines premise -- Miracle Drug May Be Driving You Crazy -- and one of James Mason's best performances. It may have failed because audiences weren't ready for a portrait of the dark side of American family life that wasn't based, like Rebel Without a Cause, on "juvenile delinquency" or, like Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957), on sex. Bigger Than Life suggested that we shouldn't trust those we were most inclined to trust: doctors and pharmacology. The physicians in the film are cold, gray men with no bedside manner, stonewalling questions from the patient's wife and imperiously clinging to their expertise. The film also gives us a rather chilling portrayal of conventional attitudes toward mental illness, a stigma far worse than any physical disorder. Ed's wife, Lou, resists the idea that her husband might be psychotic simply because it might endanger his job. Barbara Rush gives a capable performance, most effectively when she snaps under the constant pressure and smashes a bathroom mirror, but the role really needed an actress of more consistent depth and range, someone like Jean Simmons for example, so that Lou doesn't just stand around prettily fretting so much. There are also some nice touches in the otherwise conventional pretty suburban decor of the Averys' house, such as the corroded old water heater in the kitchen, a persistent symbol of the precariousness of the family finances, and the rather dark travel posters of Rome and Bologna that hint at a desire to escape. The "hopeful" ending is also nicely ambiguous.  

*The Beaver himself, Jerry Mathers, has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it walk-on bit as one of the schoolkids in Bigger Than Life.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies 

Friday, July 14, 2017

La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir, 1938)

Louis XVI: Pierre Renoir
La Rochefoucauld: William Aguet
Marie Antoinette: Lise Delamare
Roederer: Louis Jouvet
Bomier: Edmond Ardisson
Arnaud: Andrex
Javel: Paul Dullac
Louison: Nadia Sibirskaïa

Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Carl Koch, N. Martel-Dreyfus
Cinematography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bourgoin, Alain Douarinou, Jean Louis, Jean-Marie Maillols
Production design: Léon Barsacq, Georges Wakhévitch
Music: Joseph Kosma, Henry Sauveplane

Just the film for Bastille Day. If ever a movie deserved the oxymoronic label of "intimate epic," it would have to be Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise, a story of the French Revolution from the fall of the Bastille to the victory over the Prussians at Valmy. It's not the part of the revolution we're used to seeing, as it ends before the Reign of Terror, with its tumbrils and guillotines. Instead, it's a collection of vignettes high and low, from the king and queen blithely expecting the trouble to blow over to the foot soldiers who marched from Marseille to Paris to depose them. The director's brother, Pierre, is a wonderful Louis XVI, not quite the caricature that Robert Morley made him in Hollywood's Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke), which was made the same year, but nevertheless more than a little out of touch: As the Tuileries is being stormed, Pierre Renoir's Louis is perturbed that he can't finish his dinner and that his wig is slightly askew. Lise Delamare's Marie Antoinette is somewhat more clued in, but her frosty hauteur suggests that she is fully capable of uttering the apocryphal "Let them eat cake." Much of the film, however, focuses on the soldiers who, after capturing the forts at Marseille, march toward Paris, and especially on Bomier, a mason who joins the regiment after putting things in order for his mother (whose tears are a familiar cinematic clue to Bomier's fate). Bomier tells his companions Arnaud and Javel that the marching song that gives the film its title is no good and will soon be forgotten, but by the time they reach Paris, he is joining in the chorus. Renoir made La Marseillaise between two greater films, Grand Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938), partly as a leftist political statement at a time when the forces of the right were triumphing on every side of France. He got his financial backing for the project from trade unions, but the film was a disaster at the box office and disappeared for a long time. It feels a little more formulaic in its characterization than Renoir's best films are and, given our knowledge of what's to come, the ending could never be quite as upbeat as Renoir seems to want it to be, but it's still the work of a master filmmaker.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011)

Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method
Carl Jung: Michael Fassbender
Sigmund Freud: Viggo Mortensen
Sabina Spielrein: Keira Knightley
Otto Gross: Vincent Cassel
Emma Jung: Sarah Gadon

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton
Adapted from a play by Christopher Hampton based on a book by John Kerr
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Production design: James McAteer
Music: Howard Shore

Sometimes, as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, as Viggo Mortensen, playing the man himself, demonstrates, a cigar is a prop that can help you win an acting contest. Because too often a costume drama based on a play becomes just that: a contest among actors to show who can come out on top, especially when the cast consists of actors like Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, and Vincent Cassel -- none of them exactly shy of showing what they can do before a camera. When I heard of it, I thought Mortensen was a decidedly off-beat choice to play the father of psychoanalysis, and he was in fact the second actor to be cast in the role, after Christoph Waltz, an almost inevitable choice, found he had a scheduling conflict. Mortensen had worked with director David Cronenberg twice before, but playing men of violent action in Eastern Promises (2007) and A History of Violence (2005), not a pre-World War I middle-European Jewish intellectual. And yet Mortensen gives a delicious performance as Freud: puckish, proud, intellectually combative. And the cigar helps, whether brandished elegantly or plugged defiantly in the middle of his face. By contrast, everyone else seems a little over the top. Fassbender (who was second choice after Christian Bale) is his usual handsome presence, but he frets a little too visibly and never quite establishes Jung as the challenger to Freud's authority that Freud seems to have thought him to be. Keira Knightley acts the electrons off the screen as Sabina, almost popping out an eye and dislocating her jaw in her mad scenes, but recovers nicely in her later moments in the film. And Vincent Cassel, as the mad Otto Gross, takes his role to the extreme as the man who carries Freud's theories about repression to their logical extreme: Don't repress anything. Ever. The film's battle of ideas gets a little bit lost in all the emoting, and as so often happens in filmed costume dramas, the scenery and the sets capture the eye when the words should be capturing the mind. But Howard Shore's evocation of the melancholy side of Wagner's music is perfect for the era in which the film is set, the transition from 19th-century Weltschmerz into 20th-century bloodshed, a time when, as Joyce punned, we were Jung and easily Freudened. Jung's prophetic dream of a bloody tide sweeping over Europe is cited in the film, as a warning that all of this intellectual (and sexual) ferment was about to be inundated by war.  

Watched on Starz Encore

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani in Paterson
Paterson: Adam Driver
Laura: Golshifteh Farahani
Doc: Barry Shabaka Henley
Donny: Rizwan Manji
Everett: William Jackson Harper
Marie: Chasten Harmon
Young Poet: Sterling Jerens
Method Man: Method Man
Japanese Poet: Masatoshi Nagase

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Poems by Ron Padgett
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Production design: Mark Friedberg

There have been lots of movies about poets. Some of them, like Jane Campion's 2009 film about John Keats, Bright Star, are even good. But when have we ever seen a movie about poetry, let alone one as good as Jim Jarmusch's Paterson? It's an homage of sorts to William Carlos Williams, who is perhaps the greatest claim to fame for the city of Paterson, N.J., and especially to his minimalist meditations on the quotidian: celebrations of things like refrigerated plums and white chickens beside a rain-glazed wheelbarrow. The protagonist of Paterson (which is also the title of Williams's not-so-minimalist long poem) is Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson.  He, too, writes poems about ordinary things such as Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes. His wife, Laura (who, as we are reminded, shares a name with the subject of Petrarch's sonnets), designs textiles with black-and-white patterns and longs to be a country-music singer and to start a cupcake business. They have a funny-clever-mischievous bulldog named Marvin. If all this sounds terribly cutesy, it doesn't feel that way while you're watching it. (No, I shouldn't speak for everyone. Let's just say it didn't feel that way for me.) It's kept grounded by Jarmusch's treatment of his characters, by a tinge of melancholy perhaps, or a sense that we're living in one of Jarmusch's urban constructs -- a Paterson of the imagination, like the Memphis or New Orleans or Cleveland Jarmusch imagined in his earlier films, places that look like the real thing but aren't. There are moments when Paterson gets sentimental, but it never gets mushy -- it gets Jarmuschy. It celebrates the poetic imagination that can find an emotional world in a familiar detail, as when Paterson, on one of his nighttime visits to the neighborhood bar, passes a laundromat where Method Man is composing a rap (or however you say it -- this is not my scene) to a beat provided by the slosh of a washing machine. The film would be nothing without surefooted direction, but it also benefits immeasurably from Driver's sensitive, funny performance and from the delicacy of the interplay between him and Golshifteh Farahani as Laura. Watch, for example, the way Paterson struggles not to offend Laura after she serves him a brussels-sprout-and-cheddar-cheese pie for dinner and tries to beguile him into a compliment on her creation. Nothing really terrible happens in Paterson: A gun is pulled in a bar by a frustrated lover, but it turns out to be a toy; some guys in a passing car warn Paterson, who is walking Marvin, that bulldogs are prime targets for dognapping, but it seems to be just a warning and not a threat; Paterson's bus breaks down, causing him an anxious moment because he feels responsible for his passengers, but help arrives. The big calamity of the film occurs near the end: Laura has constantly urged Paterson to make photocopies of the poems he keeps in manuscript in his notebook, but before he can do this, Marvin, who seems to be jealous of anything not centered on him (he growls whenever Paterson and Laura kiss), chews up the notebook. Paterson is dejected by the loss of the poems, but an encounter with a Japanese professor* who is visiting the city to pay homage to Williams reminds him that the poetic imagination is universal and indestructible. (It also helps that the professor gives Paterson a fresh notebook.)

*Played by Masatoshi Nagase, who was the young Japanese tourist in Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989).

Watched on Amazon Prime

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Jerry Mathers in The Trouble With Harry
Sam Marlowe: John Forsythe
Jennifer Rogers: Shirley MacLaine
Capt. Albert Wiles: Edmund Gwenn
Miss Ivy Gravely: Mildred Natwick
Mrs. Wiggs: Mildred Dunnock
Arnie Rogers: Jerry Mathers
Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs: Royal Dano
The Millionaire: Parker Fennelly
Dr. Greenbow: Dwight Marfield
The Tramp: Barry Macollum
Harry Worp: Philip Truex

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes
Based on a novel by Jack Trevor Story
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann

The Trouble With Harry, which many people remember as "the one in which Beaver Cleaver finds a corpse," needs to be thought of in connection with Alfred Hitchcock's other films about small towns, such as Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Bodega Bay in The Birds (1963). Like the Vermont village of The Trouble With Harry, these are places where anomalous events, like the return of a native son turned serial killer or a disruption in the natural order or just a mysterious dead body, can be viewed through a privileged, if somewhat cracked, lens. Cities can take serial killers, birds behaving badly, and the occasional unidentified corpse in stride, but they're a big deal in small towns. For an urbanite like Hitchcock, the small town settings are themselves anomalous, which is why he treats them to varying degrees with condescending whimsy. Of those films, The Trouble With Harry is the most whimsical, which may have something to do with its source novel, which was set in one of those cozy English villages so beloved of mystery readers. There are some who think Hitchcock should have left it in that setting, but I don't think much harm was done by the change. For one thing, it gives us a chance to look at New England fall foliage unblocked by tour buses full of leaf-peepers. Even though it was hindered by an unexpected storm that caused many of the leaves to fall prematurely, Robert Burks's achingly lovely cinematography combines well with Bernard Herrmann's score -- his first for Hitchcock -- to meld whimsy with an autumnal wistfulness. It helps, too, that we have actors skilled at sprinkling a little salt and vinegar on the whimsy, particularly Edmund Gwenn and the two great Mildreds, Natwick and Dunnock. Shirley MacLaine's debut film went a long way toward establishing her as a specialist in quirky, but it would take a more charismatic actor than John Forsythe to bring off his role: With his disregard for convention and monetary reward, Sam Marlowe seems to have wandered in from a Frank Capra film like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which needed Gary Cooper -- though James Stewart could have handled it equally well -- to pull it off. I think in the end, your reaction to The Trouble With Harry mostly depends on your tolerance for twee, and if it's low you may not want to stay much past the opening credits designed by Saul Steinberg.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016)

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman
Rana Etesami: Taraneh Alidoosti
Emad Etesami: Shahab Hosseini
Babak: Babak Karimi
The man: Farid Sajadi Hosseini
Sanam: Mina Sadati
Sadra: Sam Valipour
Majid: Mojtaba Pirzadeh
Kati: Maral Bani Adam

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Cinematography: Hossein Jafarian
Music: Sattar Oraki

Protesting an American policy that refuses to distinguish between artists and terrorists, Asghar Farhadi didn't attend the Academy Awards ceremony that gave his film The Salesman an Oscar for best foreign language film. The irony here is that in many ways The Salesman is as critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran as its director's action was of the United States. On the surface, The Salesman is a well-made domestic drama about the stress put on the marriage of Rana and Emad after Rana is assaulted in their own home. It's also a bit of a whodunit, as Emad tries to uncover the identity of the attacker, as well as a problem drama about the nature of revenge. But context is everything, and the context here is a country that seems to be as unstable as the condemned apartment house that Rana and Emad have to flee at the beginning of the film. Throughout The Salesman, the niggling pressures of a state determined to police the private lives of its citizens keep revealing themselves: The production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in which Emad and Rana play Willy and Linda Loman is subject to last-minute cuts demanded by the censors. The class Emad teaches is interrupted by a man telling him that the books he has selected have not been approved -- Emad wearily tells him to throw them in the trash. Worst of all, Rana refuses to trust the police to handle her case, knowing that she'd be subjected to interrogation and public exposure worse than the attack itself. We never learn the full details of what happened to her, whether she was sexually assaulted or just subjected to a terrifying visit from a voyeur -- although the latter, especially in a state that prescribes rigorous standards of modesty from women, is an equivalent violation. We get a hint of the tensions and mistrust between the sexes in Iran in a scene in which Emad shares a taxi with one of his male students and a woman, who first accuses him of what we'd call "manspreading," and then asks to change seats with the student. Afterward, when Emad proclaims his innocence, the student tells him that the woman had probably been molested by a man during a cab ride and is oversensitive to any contact. Official standards of behavior have eroded community standards: Although the apartment Rana and Emad have moved into was once occupied by a prostitute, a profession both strictly illegal and widespread in Iran, the neighbors only gossiped about her, never notifying the authorities. Emad's vigilantism when he discovers the identity of Rana's attacker is the product of a system of justice that has broken down. That Rana and Emad are actors is suggestive: In the film's vision of Iran, everyone is playing a part, concealing their real selves. The social and political subtext is what makes The Salesman a more fascinating and important film than its mere plot, well-handled as it is, would suggest.

Watched on Amazon Prime

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Love Is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ulli Lommel in Love Is Colder Than Death
Franz: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Johanna: Hanna Schygulla
Bruno: Ulli Lommel
Woman on Train: Katrin Schaake

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann
Music: Holger Münzer, Peer Raben

I love Turner Classic Movies for its occasional programming surprises, but I have to wonder what its regular viewers thought if they stayed tuned to that channel after whatever Hollywood classic from MGM or Warner Bros. was over and started watching Love Is Colder Than Death. For the audience for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's first feature film largely consists of (1) hard-core Fassbinder fans; (2) professional film scholars; and (3) compulsive film-bloggers. (Since I don't belong to either of the first two groups, I guess I have defined myself into the third.) The rest of the usual TCM viewers probably gave up on Love Is Colder Than Death after a few minutes of the minimally staged, flatly lighted, tonelessly acted opening scenes, which look like a documentary of a performance in an experimental theater. (Like, for example, the Antiteater in Munich that Fassbinder helped found.) If they lasted through these scenes, which are about the attempt of the mob to recruit Franz and his first meeting with Bruno, they may have bailed out during an enigmatic conversation between Bruno and a woman he meets on a train, or shortly afterward, during Bruno's search for Johanna, the girlfriend Franz pimps out, a long sequence that consists largely of views of the nighttime streets down which Bruno is driving. Eventually, however, Love Is Colder Than Death comes together into the story of the ménage à trois formed by Bruno, Franz, and Johanna, and an ill-fated attempt to rob a bank. At this point it becomes clear that Fassbinder is mimicking and perhaps parodying the French New Wave. The ménage is very much like the ones in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part (1964) and François Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), though entirely lacking the joie de vivre of either. In a somewhat shabbier way, Bruno emulates the gangster chic attempted by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (Godard, 1960) and mastered by Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967). There's some of the larky post-adolescent lawlessness of Breathless and Masculin Féminin (Godard, 1966), as when the trio shoplifts sunglasses in a department store or Johanna and Bruno filch things in a supermarket, though Fassbinder's characters never seem to have much fun doing it. But there are touches throughout the film that might be called more Fassbinderish than Godardian. The supermarket scene is accompanied by several bars from a duet in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier that have been looped endlessly into a kind of insane Muzak, giving an eerie, almost feverish note to the scene. For much of the film, Fassbinder avoids pans and zooms and other camera tricks, but when he uses them it's noticeable, as in the scene in which Franz is being held by the police for interrogation: The camera glides regularly back and forth along a steady track, without holding for a second on the person speaking -- it's like moving your head back and forth during a tennis match without focusing on the ball. It can't just be the absence of a budget for blanks and blood squibs that makes the several scenes in which people are shot so lacking in conventional movie realism: In each case, we hear the sound of the shot without seeing either smoke or a muzzle flash from a gun, and the victim falls down dead, like a kid in a playground pretend gunfight. And even the ending, which fades to white instead of black, seems like Fassbinder making fun of movie conventions. I don't know of many other movies that manage to be so derivative and yet so original at the same time.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Jean Yanne and Mireille Darc in Weekend
Corinne Durand: Mireille Darc
Roland Durand: Jean Yanne
Head of the Front de Libération de la Seine et Oise: Jean-Pierre Kalfon
Saint-Just: Jean-Pierre Léaud
Tom Thumb: Yves Afonso
Emily Brontë: Blandine Jeanson
Joseph Balsamo: Daniel Pommereulle
Pianist: Paul Gégauff
African: Omar Diop
Arab: László Szabó

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on a story by Julio Cortázar
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Antoine Duhamel

"You say you want a revolution / Well, you know, / We all want to change the world." I'm old enough to remember when John Lennon and Paul McCartney were denounced as capitalist reactionaries for that song, especially for lines like "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." So watching Jean-Luc Godard's satire Weekend takes me back to the days of a revolutionary fervor that now seems naive, especially since the violent year of 1968 culminated in the election of Richard Nixon, and Mao has been relegated to the ranks of history's more odious tyrants. Still, there's nothing naive about Weekend, which although it now looks less like a great film than a self-indulgent one at least demonstrates the indulgence of a great self, i.e., Jean-Luc Godard's. Is Godard celebrating the revolutionary spirit or sending it up? Weekend ranges from fascinating to stupefying, from bravura filmmaking like the pan along the traffic jam and the repeated 360-degree pan around a farmyard where a pianist is playing a Mozart sonata, to the eye-glazing extended readings from the works of Stokely Carmichael and Frantz Fanon and the drum solo accompanied by a Whitmanesque poem by Lautréamont. Pauline Kael got it right when she called Weekend a "vision of Hell," but what seems most significant now is that it's a hell that lies just beneath us, covered by the veneer of civilization. In Weekend, civilization is showing cracks being widened by unbridled consumerism. And who's to say in the age of climate change denial, abrogation of human rights, and raging corporate globalization that those cracks haven't widened still further? This is a film made by a man who definitely doesn't "know that it's gonna be all right."

Watched on the Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Friday, July 7, 2017

Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956)

Lorne Greene and Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves
Millicent Wetherby: Joan Crawford
Burt Hanson: Cliff Robertson
Virginia Hanson: Vera Miles
Mr. Hanson: Lorne Greene
Liz Eckhart: Ruth Donnelly
Dr. Malcolm Couzzens: Shepperd Strudwick

Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Jean Rouverol*, Hugo Butler*, Lewis Meltzer, Robert Blees
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Music: Hans J. Salter
Costume design: Jean Louis

Six years before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Robert Aldrich directed Joan Crawford in Autumn Leaves. I mention this because the image many people now have of Aldrich comes from Alfred Molina's portrayal of him in the TV series Feud that this year concentrated on the shenanigans of Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of Baby Jane. Molina's Aldrich is a punching bag for Jessica Lange's Crawford and Susan Sarandon's Davis, and a studio hack under the thumb of Stanley Tucci's snaky Jack Warner. In fact, Aldrich was a gifted director with some strong credits, including the noir version of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and the action epic The Dirty Dozen (1967). Autumn Leaves shows off his strengths, especially in keeping a florid melodrama about Hollywood's idea of mental illness just this side of plausibility. He makes the most of the film's major set, Millicent Wetherby's bungalow, collaborating with cinematographer Charles Lang to keep an ordinary dwelling shadowy, confining, and off-kilter. Aldrich is particularly good at working with significant objects, and not only the typewriter that Burt Hanson so memorably hurls at Millicent. After a tense confrontation between Millicent and the increasingly unstable Burt, she goes from one room to another and there, front and center, Aldrich has placed precisely what we want to see: the telephone she should use to call for help. You sometimes sense that Aldrich is having a little fun with the film, too: He stages a beach makeout scene with Millicent and Burt kissing in the incoming tide that's an allusion to the celebrated scene with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Aldrich is surely aware that Crawford was offered Kerr's role but turned it down. Crawford had just turned 50 and her face was beginning to harden into the familiar mask of her later years, but she's still plausibly a good five to 10 years younger as the tense, wary, but near-fatally susceptible Millicent. Cliff Robertson, especially in his early scenes, keeps us wondering whether Burt is more than just a creep who likes to hit on older women. Unfortunately, the portrayal of mental illness is the usual Hollywood hackwork: Millicent is in denial about Burt's psychosis because she is starved for love, having sacrificed herself in her youth so she could tend to her father, an invalid. Burt's compulsive lying is the result of a trauma suffered when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with his father. And of course, a montage of medication and shock therapy is all that's needed to persuade us that Burt has been rehabbed and is ready to resume something like a normal relationship with a wife old enough to be his mother. If I were Millicent, I'd keep the typewriter locked up when not in use.

*Jean Rouverol and Hugo Butler were blacklisted. The screen credit went to their "front," Jack Jevne.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai, 1997)

Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in Happy Together
Lai Yiu-fai: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Ho Po-wing: Leslie Cheung
Chang: Chen Chang

Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Screenplay: Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Production design: William Chang
Music: Danny Chung

The title, of course, is ironic: Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing are anything but. In short, Happy Together is another of Wong Kar-Wai's studies of frustrated passion, though unlike the heterosexual couple in In the Mood for Love (2000), Lai and Ho have each other as a physical outlet for passion -- the frustration comes from their blocked desires to have their relationship transcend sex. Any happiness they might find together is prevented by incompatibility: Lai is steady and hard-working, Ho is unfettered hedonism. It's never made explicit why they have chosen to exile themselves in Argentina, other than that Buenos Aires might be presumed to offer a more tolerant environment for a gay couple than a Hong Kong threatened by the transfer to the People's Republic of China that took place in the year of the film's release. As it turns out, exile serves mainly as a catalyst for their breakup. This is, in short, a character study, and a fine one. Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung give searing performances as the volatile lovers, and Wong Kar-Wai wisely concentrates the film on them, providing only one other witness to the intensely destructive entanglement of Lai and Ho: a young Taiwanese named Chang, out to see the world, who works in a kitchen with Lai. In fact, Chang sees only Lai's side of the relationship, although the fact that he is gifted with heightened powers of seeing and hearing suggests that he perceives more than he can interpret. Chang is presented as rather asexual -- perhaps gay, but not experienced enough to make any sort of move toward Lai -- and as such serves as the perfect foil for Wong's portrait of the erotic time-bomb that is the relationship of Lai and Ho. The film ends poignantly with Lai, having finally broken completely with Ho, returning to Hong Kong, but making a stopover in Taipei where he visits's Chang's family's food stall, but narrowly missing the chance of a reunion with Chang. It's another missed connection in a film filled with them.

Watched on Filmstruck

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Camille (George Cukor, 1936)

Henry Daniell and Greta Garbo in Camille
Marguerite Gautier: Greta Garbo
Armand Duval: Robert Taylor
Baron de Varville: Henry Daniell
M. Duval: Lionel Barrymore
Prudence Duvernoy: Laura Hope Crews
Nanine: Jessie Ralph
Olympe: Lenore Ulric
Gaston: Rex O'Malley
Nichette: Elizabeth Allan

Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, James Hilton
Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas fils
Cinematography: William H. Daniels, Karl Freund
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope, Edwin B. Willis
Music: Herbert Stothart
Costume design: Adrian

MGM was notoriously a producers' studio, a factory system in which the director was rarely allowed to stand out as the guiding influence on a movie. But somehow out of MGM's producer-driven concentration on high style in sets and costumes, and above all on the production of "more stars than there are in the heavens," George Cukor managed to emerge as one of the great directors. He did it in part by his ability to elicit definitive performances from actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford -- and later Judy Holliday and Judy Garland -- but most especially from Greta Garbo in Camille. Garbo's Marguerite Gautier is of course one of the great creations by an actress in the movies, but the remarkable thing about Camille is that Cukor is able to keep her performance from swamping the film. He remembers that there is an ensemble to work with that includes not only such formidable scene-stealers as Lionel Barrymore and Laura Hope Crews, but also a raw, untrained leading man, Robert Taylor. It's to Cukor's credit that Taylor holds up as well as he does against a luminous presence like Garbo, though it's perhaps to Garbo's credit that she makes us believe Marguerite is so profoundly infatuated with a man who has nothing but good looks to work with. Though Camille was always destined to be The Greta Garbo Show, Cukor makes her part of a very entertaining whole. He manages to modulate Lionel Barrymore's usual camera-hogging and turn him into a credible concerned paterfamilias -- in fact, Cukor directed two of the few Barrymore performances I really find myself enjoying, the other being Mr. Peggotty in David Copperfield (1935). He tames another performance that could have got out of hand in Henry Daniell's arrogant Baron de Varville, though he might have reined in Daniell's attempt to turn the French baron into an English upperclass ass: Daniell lays on the r-tapping (e.g., "veddy" for "very") a little heavily, and when he's asked if he wants to dine replies, "Ai'm not hungreh." Which brings us back to Garbo, who is glorious from her febrile first moment, clutching the camellias as if they were life itself slipping away, to her last, a death scene that has never been equaled. Garbo knew that the best performances are the most "actressy," the ones that transcend realism, that throw down a challenge to other actresses: Top this if you can. It's a knowledge demonstrated by many others, from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep. (Jennifer Lawrence shows signs of learning it, too.) Call it camp if you will, label them divas if you want, but the movies would be poorer without it.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle, 1971)

Benoît Ferreux, Ave Ninchi, Lea Massari, and Daniel Gélin in Murmur of the Heart
Laurent Chevalier: Benoît Ferreux
Clara Chevalier: Lea Massari
Charles Chevalier: Daniel Gélin
Thomas Chevalier: Fabien Ferreux
Marc Chevalier: Marc Winocourt
Augusta: Ave Ninchi
Father Henri: Michael Lonsdale
Helene: Jacqueline Chauvaud
Daphne: Corinne Kersten
Freda: Gila von Weitershausen

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle
Cinematography: Ricardo Aronovich
Production design: Jean-Jacques Caziot

There's a very dated play from 1953 called Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson that was made into an even more dated film by Vincente Minnelli in 1956 about a prep-school boy whose effeminacy makes him the target for gibes about homosexuality. To prove to the boy that he's a real man (i.e., not gay), the headmaster's wife offers herself sexually to the boy, telling him as she unbuttons her blouse and the curtain falls, "Years from now, when you speak of this, and you will, be kind." The film version, responding to Production Code strictures, adds a coda in which we learn that the boy is now married -- i.e., "cured." I thought of Tea and Sympathy as I watched Murmur of the Heart, whose very different problem -- adolescent horniness -- has a very different cure -- incest. Murmur of the Heart has always been something of a critical darling, from Pauline Kael's description of it as an "exhilarating high comedy" to Michael Sragow's essay for the Criterion Collection proclaiming that it "boasts the high spirits to match its high intelligence." And for the most part I concur: Lea Massari's joyously earthy performance as the mother is beautifully detailed, and Benoît Ferreux's endearing gawkiness brings the character of Laurent to full life. Louis Malle's script and direction keep things moving splendidly, never allowing things to bog down into "message moments" about priestly pedophilia -- years before that became the stuff of headlines -- or the parallels between the French involvement in Vietnam and that of the Americans, which was very much in the headlines when the film was made. And yet for me the ending of Murmur of the Heart seems as hollow as that of Tea and Sympathy. After having sex with his mother, the product of his attempt to console her for a breakup with her lover, he goes out to have sex with one of the girls he has met at the spa hotel where they're staying -- as if to prove that he's "straight," though in a different way from that of the Tea and Sympathy protagonist. There's an awkwardness in the setup -- the shocking taboo of incest -- for what turns into a feel-good ending gag: The whole family, including the mother, the cuckolded father, the bullying older brothers, and Laurent himself, join in uproarious laughter at the fact that Laurent has gotten laid. If what had gone before the incest scene had not been so splendidly wrought -- if, in fact, the incest scene itself hadn't been so tastefully handled -- would we really feel satisfied with this ending? For that matter, are we today really content with the film's ongoing sexism, including the scene with Laurent in the brothel and an uncommonly pretty prostitute? Would anyone ever dare to make a comedy that concluded with a girl whose quest to lose her virginity ends with her having sex with her father? Or is it that what makes Murmur of the Heart a successful film is that it raises all these questions without belaboring us with them? It's a virtual catalog of all of the social and sexual hangups that continue to make growing up such a trial. That it achieves this with, yes, "high spirits" and without preachiness may be its real virtue.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Johnny Depp in Dead Man
William Blake: Johnny Depp
Nobody: Gary Farmer
Cole Wilson: Lance Henriksen
Conway Twill: Michael Wincott
Johnny "The Kid" Pickett: Eugene Byrd
John Scholfield: John Hurt
John Dickinson: Robert Mitchum
Salvatore "Sally" Jenko: Iggy Pop
Benmont Tench: Jared Harris
Big George Drakoulios: Billy Bob Thornton
Thel Russell: Mili Avital
Charlie Dickinson: Gabriel Byrne
Train Fireman: Crispin Glover
Trading Post Missionary: Alfred Molina

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Production design: Bob Ziembicki
Music: Neil Young

It was probably inevitable that Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Depp, two of American film's best-known off-beat artists, would collaborate, and it seems appropriate that they should do it in that quintessentially off-beat American genre, the "stoner Western."* Unfortunately, for some viewers the film just feels stoned: slow, meandering, and fixated on images that refuse to yield up their significance. It is, I think, one of those films that are more involving to think about after watching them, which is why its reputation has grown since its initial release, when Roger Ebert, among other critics, dismissed it as "unrewarding." It opens with a long montage of young accountant William Blake's westward train journey from Cleveland to the end-of-the-line factory town called Machine, a name that suggests the real manifest destiny of the United States was the spread of industrial capitalism. Blake is on his way to a job with the Dickinson Metalworks in Machine, and is unaware that he shares a name with the poet and artist who was one of the great enemies of industrial capitalism. He dozes through spectacular scenery that has filled the great Westerns -- a reminder that before there were movies there were train windows. But when he arrives in Machine, no job is waiting for him, and his protests are futile when he demands to see Mr. Dickinson, who turns out to be the always-formidable Robert Mitchum in his last screen role. Moreover, that night he kills Dickinson's son in self-defense and, wounded himself, flees town on a stolen horse. Dickinson immediately hires a trio of gunmen to kill him. Blake is found half-dead from his wound by an Indian, who patches him up but also tells him that the bullet is lodged near his heart and he will die from it eventually. The Indian is called Nobody because he belongs to no tribe, having been abducted by white men as a child and taken to England to be exhibited. He was educated there and learned to love the art and poetry of William Blake, so naturally he proclaims the hapless accountant a reincarnation of the poet. And so Blake and Nobody begin an odyssey toward the Pacific, a picaresque in which Jarmusch manages to cross an adventure story with a satiric look at the failure of American ideals, using bits of Blake's prophetic verse as a running commentary. (Remarkably, quotations from Blake turn out to sound much like the kind of native wisdom usually ascribed to American Indians in the movies.) It's to Jarmusch's credit that this high-concept blend becomes as moving as it often is, especially, as I've suggested, in retrospect.

*Jarmusch referred to Dead Man as a "psychedelic Western," but aside from the scene in which Nobody, under the influence of peyote, sees the skull beneath William Blake's skin, it doesn't have the conventional distortions and hallucinations associated with movie psychedelia.

Watched on The Movie Channel

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

Marie Ault and Ivor Novello in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
The Lodger: Ivor Novello
Daisy: June Tripp
Mrs. Bunting: Marie Ault
Mr. Bunting: Arthur Chesney
Joe: Malcolm Keen

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Eliot Stannard
Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes
Title writing: Ivor Montagu
Cinematography: Gaetano di Ventimiglia, Hal Young
Art direction: C. Wilfred Arnold, Bertram Evans
Title design: E. McKnight Kauffer
Film editing: Ivor Montagu

As Alfred Hitchcock's first major film, The Lodger has been strip-mined for anticipations of the themes and techniques that would recur throughout his career, from the fixation on blondes to the fear of cops, from Russian-inspired montage to German expressionistic lighting and camera angles. They're all there, of course, as is the "wrong man" motif that Hitchcock frequently exploited. It's often told that the film was almost shelved by the studio until producer Michael Balcon called in Ivor Montagu, film critic for the Observer, to critique it. The extent of Montagu's contributions will never really be known, although he has been credited with sharply reducing the number of title cards, and for suggesting that designer E. McKnight Kauffer be hired to give the ones that remained a distinct style. In any case, The Lodger is a film that really feels "Hitchcockian," especially when you compare it to Downhill, the melodrama Hitchcock made the same year, which also starred Ivor Novello. The difference is not just that The Lodger is a suspense movie and Downhill isn't, but that The Lodger has a rhythm to it that Downhill, with its rather sprawling account of the fortunes of its protagonist, lacks. You can sense Hitchcock developing a narrative pace here, especially in the central section in which the landlady begins to suspect that the lodger might actually be the serial killer and snoops in his room while he's out -- at the same time that the blonde-murdering Avenger claims another victim. Hitchcock would refine the rhythm over the years until it reaches its brilliant peak in the similar scene in Rear Window (1954) in which Lisa decides to snoop in Lars Thorwald's apartment. We probably don't have as much problem as contemporary audiences did with the idea that matinee-idol Novello could actually turn out to be the villain, although we can understand it if we remember that Hitchcock faced the same problem in 1941 with Cary Grant's casting as a potential murderer in Suspicion. In The Lodger, Hitchcock gave in and abandoned his original plan to leave the conclusion ambiguous, though he lays it on a bit too thick in the opposite direction by posing Novello cradled in June Tripp's arms like Christ in a Pietà. The Lodger has been beautifully restored, so that it remains a wonderful film to look at, with its elegantly designed title cards and its atmospherically tinted frames.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963)

Peter Breck and Hari Rhodes in Shock Corridor
Johnny Barrett: Peter Breck
Cathy: Constance Towers
Trent: Hari Rhodes
Stuart: James Best
Boden: Gene Evans
Pagliacci: Larry Tucker
"Swanee" Swanson: Bill Zuckert
Dr. Menkin: Paul Dubov
Dr. Cristo: John Matthews
Wilkes: Chuck Robertson
Dr. Fong: Philip Ahn

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez

Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor is the kind of raw, nightmarishly energetic film that cinéastes love but more classically oriented movie lovers often find ridiculous or repellent. And sure enough, there's plenty to ridicule, starting with the film's premise that schizophrenia is a contagious disease. (This is not a film for people who take mental illness and its treatment seriously.) Johnny Barrett is a hotshot reporter lusting after a Pulitzer Prize -- "Pulitzer fever" is, as anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows, a real and untreatable illness -- who pretends to be in love with his sister so he can get committed to a mental hospital where he plans to solve the recent murder of an inmate. He doesn't have a sister, however, so he persuades his girlfriend, Cathy, who works as a stripper, to play the part. Cathy doesn't much want to go along with the plan, worrying that he can't handle the stress of constant contact with the inmates and may go mad himself. But she somewhat abruptly decides to go along with the idea, which is endorsed by Johnny's editor. Once inside, Johnny befriends three inmates who actually witnessed the murder. The murder case, however, is just a MacGuffin -- a plot device that allows Fuller to make symbolic statements about the malaise of America in the 1960s, afflicted by the Cold War, racism, and the nuclear arms buildup. One of the witnesses, Stuart, is a Korean War vet who briefly turned communist and was imprisoned; he now thinks he is the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Another, Trent, is a young black man who was the first of his race to attend a Southern university; he was harassed into a breakdown and now thinks he's the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan -- he steals pillowcases off of beds to make hoods. And Boden is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb and is so laden with guilt that he has regressed to the mental age of 6. Johnny's friendship helps each of them break through to brief moments of sanity during which they provide clues that help solve the murder before reverting to their disturbed states. But Cathy's fears about what might happen to Johnny also come true, so at the end, as one of the doctors says, "An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize." This is grand exploitation B-movie stuff, treated with a mixture of low-budget quickie filmmaking and actual artistry, but it doesn't quite deserve to be taken as seriously as some of its admirers do. There are too many glaring continuity gaffes: In one scene, the closeups, lighted by the fine cinematographer Stanley Cortez, have a deep-shadowed expressionist look, but when the film cuts to an establishing shot the faces are conventionally lighted. There's a ridiculous scene in which Johnny wanders into the women's ward and is attacked by a group of what he calls, in voiceover, "Nymphos!" Six or eight women knock him down and swarm over him, but it's not entirely clear what they're up to. Later, we see Johnny with his face heavily bandaged as if they had bitten or scratched him, but after the bandages come off there are no visible bruises or scabs. The performances are mostly good, especially Hari Rhodes as Trent, but Constance Towers's part is a thankless one. She spends most of the film histrionically worrying about Johnny, but she also has to bring off a clunkily choreographed striptease scene that begins with her face completely muffled by a large feather boa, making her look in closeup like Big Bird's butt. In short, Shock Corridor is fascinating personal filmmaking, which is why it has an enormous cult following. But if you're of a conservative or conventional bent, you should know what you're getting into.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Friday, June 30, 2017

Le Bonheur (Agnès Varda, 1965)

François Chevalier: Jean-Claude Drouot
Thérèse Chevalier: Claire Drouot
Émilie Savignard: Marie-France Boyer
Gisou Chevalier: Sandrine Drouot
Pierrot Chevalier: Olivier Drouot

Director: Agnès Varda
Screenplay: Agnès Varda
Cinematography: Claude Beausoleil, Jean Rabier
Film editing: Janine Verneau

A summer idyll set to the music of Mozart -- what could be more charming and pleasant, especially when it's filmed in such ravishingly beautiful color? It features a handsome young working-class couple, François and Thérèse, and their two adorably well-behaved children. He's a carpenter, she's a dressmaker, and they are obviously blissful, taking the kids on excursions in the countryside where, while the little ones nap, they make love. Happiness indeed. And then he goes on a business trip and meets the very pretty Émilie who works in the post office and is about to move to the very Parisian suburb, Fontenay-aux-Roses, where François and Thérèse live. He agrees to build shelves in Émilie's new apartment and she becomes his mistress. This doesn't diminish his love for Thérèse, however. Indeed, it only increases his happiness. He's so happy, in fact, that Thérèse notices it and, one day when they're on an excursion to the countryside and the children are down for their naps again, she asks him why he has become so happy lately. After hedging for a few moments, he tells her the truth. He explains that they and the children are like an apple orchard in a field, and that one day he saw another apple tree growing outside the field, blooming along with them: "More flowers, more apples," he burbles. Thérèse not only seems to understand this analogy, but she and François then make passionate love. But at this point Agnès Varda's carefully crafted idyll turns savagely, searingly ironic -- which is what we should have known this portrait of an improbably perfect family was all along. With the aid of skillful photography and clever editing, Varda has crafted an enticing fable about sex, marriage, male egotism, and female enabling of it. Is the story tragic or comic? Is François a fool or a cad? Is Thérèse willfully blind? Is Émilie naive or wicked? How are we to take the film's ending, with its switch from summery to autumnal? There aren't many films that manage to be so satisfying and so tantalizing at the same time.

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)

Walter Huston in Dodsworth
Sam Dodsworth: Walter Huston
Fran Dodsworth: Ruth Chatterton
Edith Cortright: Mary Astor
Arnold Iselin: Paul Lukas
Captain Lockert: David Niven
Kurt Von Obersdorf: Gregory Gaye
Baroness Von Obersdorf: Maria Ouspenskaya
Matey Pearson: Spring Byington
Tubby Pearson: Harlan Briggs
Renée de Penable: Odette Myrtil
Emily: Kathryn Marlowe
Harry: John Payne

Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Sidney Howard
Based on the play adapted by Sidney Howard from a novel by Sinclair Lewis
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Art direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Costume design: Omar Kiam

I have a feeling that Dodsworth is not quite as well known as it ought to be. It's one of the few Hollywood dramas of the 1930s that seem to have been made for grownups, avoiding melodrama and sentimentality in its treatment of marriage and growing old, and sidestepping the Production Code's infantilizing attitudes toward adultery and divorce. And most of all, it has a wonderful performance by Walter Huston, who was nominated for an Oscar but lost, rather shamefully, to Paul Muni's hammy turn in The Story of Louis Pasteur (William Dieterle, 1936). Huston's Sam Dodsworth is a captain of industry, founder of an automobile company, who decides to sell the business and spend the rest of his life figuring out what to do with himself. His wife, Fran, knows exactly what she wants to do: Sail to Europe and flirt with all those interesting men who can't be found in the Midwestern city of Zenith -- which was also the setting for Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt, whose title character became a byword for Midwestern fatuousness. Fran is a few years younger than Sam -- Chatterton was 44, Huston 53 -- and unwilling to grow old gracefully, claiming to be 35 and unwilling to reveal that she has just become a grandmother. Opportunity presents itself immediately on shipboard in the form of a British military officer, but after flirting shamelessly with him, Fran takes fright when they reach England and he wants to take their relationship another step. But when the Dodsworths move on to Paris, Fran becomes bolder and after Sam, bored with life in Europe, returns alone to the United States for a visit with their daughter and her husband, she begins an affair with a suave European. Getting wind of the affair, Sam returns to Paris and confronts Fran, who breaks it off. But their efforts to patch things up fail and Fran asks him for a divorce. In Vienna she finds another suitor, a younger, rather effete aristocrat named Kurt Von Obersdorf, and is ready to marry him once the divorce goes through. Meanwhile, Sam travels on his own and in Naples is reunited with Edith Cortright, a divorcee he had met earlier. Sam moves in with Edith in the villa she is renting, but their happiness is interrupted by Fran's misery: Kurt's mother, the baroness, forbids their marriage on the grounds that Fran is not only divorced but also too old to provide an heir for the family line. A distraught Fran, facing up to failure, urges Sam to return to America with her, presenting him with the dilemma of continuing a marriage that has proved hopeless or exploring the new vistas that have opened for him. Lewis's novel is more in the satirical vein of Babbitt than the film version; Sidney Howard's screenplay, based on his Broadway play, which also starred Huston, evokes Henry James's stories about American encounters with Europeans. William Wyler, with his smooth, unobtrusive professionalism, is the perfect director for the film, which was made under the aegis of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who aimed for polish and prestige and for once achieved it. Given that Dodsworth was made in the mid-1930s, when Nazism was on the rise in Germany and fascism had taken hold in Italy, it seems a bit out of its time. Sam and Edith's dream of traveling the world together feels more than a little naive in the context of the period. The only reference to the rumblings of war perceptible in the film comes in Sam's comment that he prefers the United States because there are "no soldiers along the Canadian border."

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)

Fernando Rey in That Obscure Object of Desire
Mathieu: Fernando Rey
Conchita: Carole Bouquet, Ángela Molina
Édouard: Julien Bertheau
Martin: André Weber
Encarnación (Conchita's mother): María Asquerino
The Psychologist: Piéral

Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenplay: Luis Buñuel in collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière
Based on a novel by Pierre Louÿs
Cinematography: Edmond Richard
Production design: Pierre Guffroy
Fernando Rey's voice dubbed by Michel Piccoli

In my comments on Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) I expressed my attitude toward solving what some people think of as that film's riddles as "like concentrating on the threads at the expense of seeing the tapestry." And I'll stick with that. I'm not particularly interested in why Buñuel cast two actresses in the role of Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire, or why Mathieu occasionally carries around a burlap sack, or even why the central story, of Mathieu's efforts to consummate his desire for Conchita, plays out against a background of terrorist attacks. I know that Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière toyed with the idea of multiple casting even before the film began with a single actress, Maria Schneider, in the role, and that Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina got the part after Buñuel had difficulties working with Schneider. I know, too, that the theory has been advanced that Conchita is a terrorist and that she finally sleeps with Mathieu after he agrees to become one, too -- hence the bomb that explodes at the end of the film. (A theory that reduces a masterwork to the level of hack thriller-filmmaking.) I'm sure that someone has come up with an explanation for the burlap sack, too, along with the fly in Mathieu's drink and the mouse caught in a trap and any other incidental detail that sticks in viewers' minds and can be fitted into an elaborately reductive network of symbolism. But my ultimate response to all of these enigmatic details is delight that they are there, that they popped up in Buñuel's mind as he made the film and that he could and did get away with them. They are what keeps me coming back to Buñuel's films with renewed interest and revived delight, viewing after viewing.

Watched on Filmstruck

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)

Cast: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee, Cinqué Lee, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Joseph Rigano, Vinny Vella, Vinny Vella Jr., Renee French, E.J. Rodriguez, Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankolé, Cate Blanchett, Michael Hogan, Jack White, Meg White, Alfred Molina, Steve Coogan, Katy Hansz, The GZA, RZA, Bill Murray, William Rice, Taylor Mead

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Tom DiCillo, Frederick Elmes, Ellen Kuras, Robby Müller
Production design: Dan Bishop, Mark Friedberg, Tom Jarmusch

For Jarmusch fans only. Coffee and Cigarettes, a collection of 11 black-and-white short films in which people sit at tables and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, began as semi-improvisatory shorts spun off from Jarmusch's features by their crew and cast members and friends. Starting with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright essentially winging it in "Strange to Meet You," the collection evolved from a series of shaggy-dog sketches into more structured narratives with a few motifs echoing throughout. The most structured is certainly "Cousins," in which Cate Blanchett plays two roles: the soigné movie star Cate and her blowsier cousin Shelly, who resents Cate's privileged life. They meet in the coffee shop of a luxury hotel, where Cate patiently endures Shelly's sniping until she's called away for an interview. Shelly has been smoking throughout their conversation, but when she lights up after Cate leaves, a waiter tells her that smoking is forbidden there. The episode "Cousins?" is a parallel story in which Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, two British actors trying to make it in the States, meet for coffee, during which Molina reveals to a very unimpressed Coogan that he has done genealogical research which proves they are distant relations. After an excited fan asks for his autograph, Coogan becomes more and more condescending toward Molina. Then Molina receives a call on his cell phone from Spike Jonze, instantly deflating Coogan's ego to the point that Molina leaves him to pay the check. Amusing as these vignettes are, they don't rise much beyond the level of anecdotes, and some of the other episodes, such as the ones in which Jack White demonstrates his Tesla coil or Renee French fends off a too-attentive waiter, fall flat. Still, if you don't expect too much, there's an evanescent charm to the whole project.

Watched on Showtime