A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Danton (Andrzej Wajda, 1983)

Gérard Depardieu in Danton
Danton: Gérard Depardieu
Robespierre: Wojciech Psoniak
Éléonore Duplay: Anne Alvaro
Camille Desmoulins: Patrice Chéreau
Louis de Saint-Just: Bogusław Linda
Lucille Desmoulins: Angela Winkler

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carrière
Based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewsa
Cinematography: Igor Luther
Production design: Allan Starski
Music: Jean Prodromidès
Costume design: Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Movie costume dramas are usually moral fables, designed not so much to teach history as to illuminate current events. That's certainly the case with Andrzej Wajda's Danton, a French-Polish collaboration about the power struggle between Danton and Robespierre that put an end to the first phase of the French Revolution and paved the way for the rise of Napoleon. Wajda intentionally cast French actors as Danton and his followers and Polish actors as Robespierre and his partisans, suggesting a parallel between Robespierre's suppression of free speech and civil liberties with that of the Soviet puppet government in contemporary Poland. But the performances allow the film to override its political allusions. Gérard Depardieu looks goofy in a powdered wig, and he knows it, but he makes a fascinating Danton, clumsily trying to win Robespierre over with an elaborate dinner and attention to such trivial details as a flower arrangement -- Robespierre likes blue, he insists -- but then angrily sweeping the dishes to the floor when Robespierre proves resistant. In the end, his powerful denunciation of what Robespierre has done to France demonstrates why Danton was such a threat to his enemy. Wojciech Psoniak's Robespierre is almost overmatched by Depardieu's Danton, but he communicates not only the character's hidebound devotion to what he sees as the aims of the Revolution but also his gradually mounting disappointment at the impending doom of his ideals. The end, in which his mistress's nephew recites the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which he has dutifully memorized, is a powerfully ironic moment, emphasizing how Robespierre's direction of the Revolution has compromised and vitiated those rights. Wajda gives his film a strong forward movement, never stalling to preach at us.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: Forest Whitaker
Louie: John Tormey
Raymond: Isaach De Bankolé
Pearline: Camille Winbush
Sonny Valerio: Cliff Gorman
Ray Vargo: Henry Silva
Louise Vargo: Tricia Vessey

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Robby Müller

Watched on Starz Encore Action

The gangster-as-samurai trope has perhaps been a little overworked ever since Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, to which Jim Jarmusch pays homage at the end of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It takes a filmmaker of special sensibilities like Jarmusch (or for that matter Melville) to make it work, to simultaneously explore and send up the notion that the hit man in service of a mobster is somehow the modern equivalent of the warrior in liege to a feudal lord. One reason Jarmusch's film works as well as it does is that he started with the actor, Forest Whitaker, around whom he wanted to build a film. Discovering Whitaker's interest in martial arts and reading the 18th-century Hagakure, a book on the warrior code, enabled Jarmusch to put things together. The result is a smart, funny, improbable but moving fantasia on old-fashioned themes like duty and honor. Big and bearlike -- bear references are key in the film -- but surprisingly graceful, Whitaker moves through the film with the kind of focus and centeredness you expect of a samurai. He's a master of nature -- his flock of pigeons -- and of technology -- his device that enables him to unlock doors, disable alarms, and start cars. He has a second sense with people -- his ability to communicate with Raymond, the Haitian who speaks no English while Ghost Dog (we never learn his given name) speaks no French. He has a rapport with children, especially Pearline, the bookish little girl who inherits his copy of the Hagakure and seems destined to follow his path. Once again, Jarmusch has taken a familiar milieu, the New Jersey mob land known to us from The Sopranos, and transformed it, the way he reimagined Cleveland and Florida in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), New Orleans in Down by Law (1986), and Memphis in Mystery Train (1989). It's not New Jersey, of course, though the film was shot there, but The Industrial State, which seems to be next door to The Highway State, as the license plates on cars tell us. Ghost Dog floats just outside of the real world, which makes it all the more real.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, 2005)

Yeong-ae Lee in Lady Vengeance
Geum-ja Lee: Yeong-ae Lee
Mr. Baek: Min-sik Choi
Geun-shik: Shi-hoo Kim
Jenny: Yea-young Kwan

Director: Park Chan-wook*
Screenplay: Seo-kyeong Jeung, Park Chan-wook
Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung
Production design: Hwa-seong Jo
Music: Seung-hyun Choi

Watched on Filmstruck

The plot of Lady Vengeance is at least as complicated and implausible as that of Park's Oldboy (2003), the film that precedes it in Park's "vengeance trilogy" that began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), and it's made with the same attention to style. But the way it's worked out on screen though flashback dribbles of exposition feels needlessly complicated, and the culminating act of vengeance on the part of the families of the victims doesn't have the presumably intended emotional impact because it's spread out over too long a stretch. As a teenager, Geum-ja had become pregnant and, afraid to tell her parents, went to her teacher, Mr. Baek, for advice. He took her in and not only made her a sex slave but also enlisted her in his scheme to kidnap small children and hold them for ransom. She lured a 5-year-old boy, Won-mo, into Mr. Baek's clutches, and when the boy was accidentally killed, Mr. Baek forced Geum-ja to confess to the crime by threatening to kill her own child, a daughter, who was put up for adoption after Geum-ja's conviction. Released from prison after 13 years because she convinced the authorities that she had thoroughly reformed, Geum-ja sets out to take revenge on Mr. Baek. We learn that despite her apparently angelic behavior in prison, she actually bumped off some of the more repulsive inmates, causing one to take a fatal fall on a slippery floor and slowly poisoning another, thereby gaining  the enduring support of her fellow prisoners. She calls in the favors she earned from some of these now released inmates so that she has the wherewithal to exact her revenge on the psychotic Mr. Baek, who has evolved into a serial killer of small children. The revenge, however, is anything but swift. The subplot involving Geum-ja's daughter, now called Jenny by her adoptive Australian parents, feels extraneous, as does Geum-ja's affair with a young man who is the exact age that Won-mo would have been if he had lived. I suppose Park has a thematic point about the corruption of innocence that he wants to make, but it isn't integrated into the rest of the film very well. As a commentary on the nature of revenge, Lady Vengeance doesn't have the resonance of Oldboy, and despite some imaginatively nightmarish scenes it seems like a mostly empty exercise in film technique.
 
*Park is so commonly referred to, even in Western media, with his surname first in Korean fashion that I have kept to that order. In other instances I have followed the Western order: given name first, family surname last.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Wild Reeds (André Téchiné, 1994)

Élodie Bouchez and Gaël Morel in Wild Reeds
François Forestier: Gaël Morel
Maïté Alvarez: Élodie Bouchez
Serge Bartolo: Stéphane Rideau
Henri Mariani: Frédéric Gorny
Madame Alvarez: Michèle Moretti
Pierre Bartolo: Eric Kreikenmayer

Director: André Téchiné
Screenplay: Olivier Massart, Gilles Taurand, André Téchiné
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie

Watched on Filmstruck

François, a student at a boarding school in France in 1962, is beginning to come to terms with his sexuality. His only real confidante is Maïté Alvarez, whose mother is François's French teacher, but he's strongly attracted to Serge, an Italian immigrant whom François helps with his assignments. One night, Serge welcomes François to his bed and, out of curiosity, has sex with him, though he later tells François that he's really attracted to Maïté. Serge's bother, Pierre, is serving in the army in Algeria, where the war is coming to an end, but not the bloodiness, as the right-wing OAS, a group resisting Algerian independence, is still committing terrorist acts. The film opens with Pierre's wedding, at which he pleads with Mme. Alvarez, a member of the Communist Party and a strong supporter of independence, to help him desert from the army. She tells him she's unable to do anything to help him, and when he is killed in Algeria she suffers a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, a new student, Henri, from a family that supports the OAS, comes to the school, and although he's violently opposed to the political position that she shares with her mother, he, too, falls in love with Maïté. The volatility of this mix is obvious, as each of the four young people has to sort out his or her relationship -- political and/or sexual -- with the others. The film is at its best in portraying François's sexual confusion, particularly in a scene in which he approaches an older man he has been told is gay and asks for advice and help. The man is, understandably, confused and not very helpful.

Sound of the Mountain (Mikio Naruse, 1954)

So Yamamura and Setsuko Hara in Sound of the Mountain
Shingo Ogata: So Yamamura
Kikuko: Setsuko Hara
Shuichi: Ken Uehara
Yasako: Teruka Nagaoka
Fusako: Chieko Nakakita
Kinuko: Rieko Sumi
Hideko Tanizaki: Yoko Sugi

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Yoko Mizuki
Based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Music: Ichiro Saito

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

I find that numerous critics have observed something I sensed while watching Mikio Naruse's Sound of the Mountain: that it feels like a kind of sequel to, or even reaction against, such films by Yasujiro Ozu as Late Spring (1949) and An Autumn Afternoon (1963) that center on the arrangement of the marriage of a young woman. In both of the Ozu films I mention, the marriage is so much the event toward which the plot moves that we never even see the potential bridegroom -- as if just being married were the point. I know that's doing a disservice to the great artistry of Ozu, whose interest is always on relationships and not outcomes, and that Ozu was working in the long tradition of romance and comedy, in which marriage is what the plot is there to move toward, but I have to feel that Naruse is making a direct riposte to that tradition. Why else cast Setsuko Hara, the "Noriko" of three of Ozu's films -- Late Spring, Early Summer (1951), Tokyo Story (1953) -- that center on unmarried or widowed women? In Sound of the Mountain, Hara is Kikuko, an unhappily married woman, whose husband, Shuichi, has taken a mistress and frequently comes home drunk -- or not at all. The couple lives with his parents, to whom she devotes herself almost to the point of servitude. And when their daughter, Fusako, arrives with her small children, having separated from her own husband, Kikuko's household duties increase. Fortunately, she has a sympathetic confidant in her father-in-law, Shingo, who is clearly more than a little in love with Kikuko, and tries to sort things out for her, even to the point of confronting his son's mistress to try to break up that relationship. But things are not so easily resolved in this state of extramarital affairs. Kikuko takes a quietly devastating revenge on her husband by having an abortion -- something that Shuichi's mistress, who is also carrying his child, refuses to do. This is a film of great sadness, a mood that Ichiro Saito's film score does much to emphasize without ever turning lugubrious.  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)

Orson Welles and Alan Webb in Chimes at Midnight
Falstaff: Orson Welles
Prince Hal: Keith Baxter
King Henry IV: John Gielgud
Poins: Tony Beckley
Mistress Quickly: Margaret Rutherford
Doll Tearsheet: Jeanne Moreau
Hotspur: Norman Rodway
Kate Percy: Marina Vlady
Shallow: Alan Webb
Silence: Walter Chiari
Pistol: Michael Aldridge
Bardolph: Patrick Bedford
Page: Beatrice Welles
Narrator: Ralph Richardson

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on plays by William Shakespeare and the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed
Cinematography: Edmond Richard
Production design: Mariano Erdoiza
Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Film editing: Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, Peter Parasheles
Costume design: Orson Welles

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Falstaff wasn't the role Orson Welles was born to play, it was the role he grew -- and grew -- into. He knew he wasn't the great actor he wanted to be: There are countless stories of Welles ducking out of rehearsing scenes in which he appeared, using stand-ins to avoid performing opposite actors he respected. According to Simon Callow's Orson Welles: One-Man Band, Jeanne Moreau recalled that she waited several days to play one of their scenes together in Chimes at Midnight, and when she asked Welles why he said that he had lost his makeup kit: "I can't do any scenes till it's found," he claimed. "We'll start with the reverse shots of you, the close-ups," a technique he often used in which someone else would feed his lines to the other actor, so that Welles could later do his side of the dialogue by himself. When Moreau found the makeup kit on the set, an assistant urged her not to tell Welles: "He has stage-fright. He hid it himself." It's likely, however, that once you've seen Chimes at Midnight, Welles's Falstaff is the image of Shakespeare's character that will always stick in your mind. Other actors have played him as reckless, destructive, self-deluding, foolish, slovenly, and even at heart malicious -- justifications for all of these interpretations and more are present in the text. Welles plays him as just one step ahead of everyone else, so that Prince Hal's final repudiation comes to Falstaff not as a surprise or a crushing blow, but rather as a fulfillment of something he has always suspected might happen. The close-up of Falstaff's face after Hal's dismissal reveals not so much shock or disappointment as a kind of hurt mixed with "I thought this might happen" and even a little pride at having played a role in Hal's evolution toward kingship. It's a tour de force of silent film acting on Welles's part: For once he's not relying on the familiar resonances of his voice. The film itself was a famous commercial disaster, abetted by hostile critics such as the always unreliable Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who scared away many potential distributors. It was caught up in a squabble over rights that kept it from being shown theatrically in Welles's lifetime, and it came into its own after it was restored for video release, which is still the only way most of us have seen it. It's probably the most successful interpretation of Shakespeare for the screen because Welles was not bound by slavish devotion to the source: He picked and chose lines and scenes from at least three Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V) and arranged them in ways that suited the screen more than the stage. The Battle of Shrewsbury scene is a masterpiece of planning and editing, still endlessly imitated. But the film is also full of grand performances, including Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, whose account of Falstaff's death is both funny and heartbreaking, and Keith Baxter as a lively but rather sinister Hal. Welles also showcases John Gielgud better than any filmmaker ever did, allowing him to deliver Henry IV's "uneasy lies the head" monologue in his richly poetic manner, even though the performance is somewhat at odds with the more naturalistic ones of the film's other actors. (It's telling, perhaps, that both Welles and Baxter briefly parody Gielgud's delivery when they come to their mock father-son scene.)

Charulata (Satyajit Ray, 1964)

Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata
Charulata: Madhabi Mukherjee
Amal: Soumitra Chatterjee
Bhupati Dutta: Shailen Mukherjee
Umapada: Shyamal Ghoshal
Manda: Gitali Roy

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Production design: Bansi Chandragupta
Music: Satyajit Ray

Watched on Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Charulata is the beautiful, bored wife of the wealthy Bhupati, who spends his time working on his newspaper devoted to the independence of India. At the start of the film, behind the opening credits, we watch as she embroiders a handkerchief for him, then Ray's ever-fluid camera follows her as she wanders through the richly appointed rooms of their house, gazing at the outside world through opera glasses and searching for something to read. At one point, Bhupati enters the house, smoking his pipe and reading a book, and walks right by her, not seeing or acknowledging her. But he becomes conscious of his wife's ennui and invites her brother, Umapada, and his wife, Manda, to live with them, and turns over the management of his business affairs to Umapada so Bhupati can devote more time to his newspaper. But Manda is empty-headed and prefers playing card games to providing intellectual companionship. Then Bhupati's cousin Amal, an aspiring writer, comes to visit, and Charulata is immediately attracted to him because of his literary interests and his sensitive poetic nature. In a scene set in the neglected garden of Bhupati's house, Amal writes poetry while Charulata soars on a swing, the camera tracking her movements. Their conversation inspires Charulata to express herself in writing, and she succeeds in getting a piece published about her memories of the village where she grew up -- even inspiring a little envy on Amal's part. Then we learn that Umapada has embezzled money from Bhupati and he and Manda have disappeared. Despondent, Bhupati tells Amal that he has lost trust in everyone but him, which stirs Amal's guilt: He realizes that he and Charulata have fallen in love, and rather than add to the burden of betrayal that has already been unloaded on Bhupati, he leaves suddenly. Charulata's grief at Amal's departure opens Bhupati's eyes to what has happened between his wife and his cousin. At the film's end, Charulata and Bhupati reach out for each other, but Ray chooses to depart from his usual mobile camera and to record the moment in a series of still photographs, over which he superimposes not the title of the film but that of the story by Rabindranath Tagore on which it was based: "The Broken Nest."

Friday, June 16, 2017

In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

Martin McDonagh's In Bruges is a bloody little gem featuring Colin Farrell as Ray and Brendan Gleeson as Ken, two hitmen who have been sent by their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges to await further instructions. Brooding, depressed Ray thinks Bruges is a "shithole," whereas Ken is rather taken with the medieval architecture, the cobblestone streets, and the canals. Ray's deep funk stems from guilt: While carrying out a hit Harry ordered -- we never find out why -- on a priest (Ciarán Hinds in an unbilled cameo), Ray accidentally killed a small boy who was standing behind the priest, waiting his turn in the confessional. Ken drags Ray around the city, trying to raise his spirits with sightseeing, but the only thing that works is Ray's discovery of a crew making a film on location and particularly of the pretty Chloe (Clémence Poésy), a production assistant who is actually a drug dealer. Ray is also enchanted that one of the actors is what he calls "a midget" named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), which allows him to investigate his theory that little people are particularly inclined to be suicidal. Wait, I'm getting lost in the filigree that In Bruges is full of. To return to the main plot, it turns out that the real reason Harry has sent Ray and Ken to Bruges is so Ray can have a good time before Ken kills him. But to understand that, you have to go back into the filigree again: Harry has his own personal gangster code, one article of which is that you must never kill a child, so Ray has to pay the price, but since one of Harry's few happy memories is of the time he spent at the age of 7 in Bruges, he naturally assumes that the trip will be so delightful for Ray that he can die happy. Writer-director McDonagh's imaginative intricacies of characterization and motive might have resulted in only a somewhat twee black comedy if it weren't for the brilliance of his performers, especially Farrell in a part that turned him from a second-string leading man to a specialist in eccentric characters in oddball independent films like Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster (2015). In Bruges is crowded with unexpectedly colorful secondary characters, including Zeljko Ivanek as a Canadian whom Ray insults in a restaurant by mistaking him for an American; Jérémie Renier as Chloe's former boyfriend, who attacks Ray but winds up getting shot in the face with his own gun, loaded with blanks; and Thekla Reuten as Marie, the proprietor of the boutique hotel where Ray and Ken are staying, who meticulously takes down a message to them from Harry, who emphasizes every word in the message by modifying it with "fucking." It's true that the film ends in a bloodbath, but somehow the tone McDonagh has established, with the help of a fine score by Carter Burwell, allows it to transcend its violent excesses.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Coming-of-age films are the cinematic equivalent of the Bildungsroman, the usually semi-autographical "novel of education" that tracks the formative childhood and adolescent experiences of the protagonist. Dickens, for example, wrote not one but two Bildungsromane: David Copperfield and Great Expectations. In the movies, the classic coming-of-age films include Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, 1955; Aparajito, 1956; The World of Apu, 1959) and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows* (2017). Lately, Richard Linklater has added a distinguished entry to the genre, Boyhood (2014). And now Barry Jenkins adds to the genre with Moonlight, a fine film about growing up black and gay, while deftly avoiding the double pitfall of making his film about being black or gay. There have been plenty of films about growing up black and about growing up gay -- I watched a good film just last night about the latter, André Téchiné's Wild Reeds (1994) --  and much commentary about possessing the dual stigma in a straight and/or white society. But what sets Jenkins's film apart is its avoidance of pop psychology and trite sociology: Moonlight is about being human. You don't need to have grown up in India or France to understand and sympathize with Apu or Antoine, and you don't need to have grown up in the Miami housing projects to sense why Chiron (pronounced like "Tyrone," but with a spelling that suggests the mythical centaur) is so blocked, so stubborn, so silent. Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play Jenkins adapted for the film, step carefully around the clichés of the genre, especially when it comes to ascribing blame. Juan (Mahershala Ali), the drug runner who finds the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) hiding from bullies in an abandoned crack house and shows him kindness, isn't entirely the heroic figure he might be. Juan becomes the fatherless Chiron's first adult male role model, but he's a poor one even though he's generous and understanding, since Chiron grows up to follow Juan's profession and even imitate some of his showy mannerisms. Paula (Naomie Harris) is a terrible mother, but she doesn't want to be: It's the drugs that Juan sells her that send her skidding off the track she desperately wants to be on. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron's first (and apparently only) sort-of boyfriend, isn't strong enough to stand up to the taunts of Terrel (Patrick Decile), so he betrays the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders), provoking him to violence. So the film ends on an ambivalent note with the reunion of the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland). Are they strong enough now to provide support to each other, or are their lives going to be haunted by the damaged child that was Chiron, seen in the film's final shot? There is something a little too formulaic about that ending, I think. I'm not entirely convinced, for example, that the handsome, bulked-up, successful drug runner that is the adult Chiron would have remained celibate for so long. But Jenkins has risked much and mostly succeeded -- after all, there's that Oscar -- in crafting a film that doesn't play the blame game or rely on pat explanations and outcomes.

*I'm not including the other four Antoine Doinel films by Truffaut because, like many others, I don't sense a real continuity of character between the Antoine of The 400 Blows and the Antoine of the sequels.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)

Of the four films Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made together, I think George Cukor's Holiday may be my favorite. Their first, Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1935), is just, well, weird. The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940) has maybe a touch too much MGM gloss for my tastes, and James Stewart has a better role than Grant does. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) is a greater movie than Holiday and one of the funniest films ever made, but as a showcase for the talents and the chemistry of Grant and Hepburn it falls short because they're mostly called on for one note: zaniness. But Holiday allows them to show off almost everything they could do. It allows Grant to be suave and ardent and acrobatic and sexy. It lets Hepburn be intense and vulnerable and glamorous and noble. And it gives them one of the best supporting casts ever assembled to play off of. As films like his David Copperfield (1935) and The Women (1939) show, Cukor was a master at directing ensembles of colorful players. Here he directs the usually bland Lew Ayres in a heartbreaking performance as Ned Seton, the trapped, alcoholic younger brother of Linda (Hepburn) and Julia (Doris Nolan). He makes Nolan's Julia first a credible match for Grant's Johnny Case and then eases her transition into a chip off the old ice block: the die-hard capitalist tycoon paterfamilias played by Henry Kolker. Johnny's background is illuminated by his friendship with the witty, professorial Potters (Edward Everett Horton and the wonderful Jean Dixon) as that of the Setons is by the snide, snobbish Crams (Henry Daniell and Binnie Barnes). Of course, all of these relationships are built into the film by its source, a play by Philip Barry adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, but it's Cukor's skill at keeping them in balance that allows the film to stay away from sentimentality or getting bogged down in satire of the rich. There's a bit of the latter -- and of the leftist views that would later get Stewart blacklisted -- when Seton calls Johnny's desire to take time off from making money "un-American," to which Linda replies, "Well, then, he is, and he won't go to heaven when he dies, because apparently he can't believe that a life devoted to piling up money is all it's cracked up to be." Holiday has a little more satiric bite than the other Barry-Stewart-Cukor-Grant-Hepburn collaboration, The Philadelphia Story, but this is Depression-era political commentary with a light touch. Best of all, Holiday is one of the greatest members of a much-abused genre, the romantic comedy.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

In high school I appeared in a production of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, playing three roles: In the first act I was Professor Willard, who comes on stage to bore the audience with facts about the town of Grover's Corners, which, he says, "lies on the old Pleistocene granite of the Appalachian range" and is largely populated by "English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock." I have no doubt that, as the class nerd, I was chosen for my ability to pronounce "Pleistocene" and "brachiocephalic," but I also played a newsboy tossing imaginary newspapers on imaginary front porches in the second act, and in the third I was the Second Dead Man, who sits in the cemetery waiting to speak his one line: "A star's mighty good company." Our Town has always been a good choice for amateur theatrics because it's inexpensive, designed to be performed with no scenery other than some chairs, a couple of trellises, and a stepladder, but it was especially good for high schools in the 1950s because it was clean. No sexual innuendo, no profanity. Our straitlaced principal, Dr. Brubaker, acted as censor on all of the school plays, and the only thing he found an objection to was the alcoholic choirmaster Simon Stimson, so the director, our English and dramatics teacher Mr. Wilson, had to threaten our Simon, Billy Cavanaugh, every now and then when he started to play drunk. I mention all of this because Wilder's Our Town looms large over Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Wilder wrote the first draft of the screenplay, based on a story idea by Gordon McDonnell. The screenplay was revised and completed by Sally Benson (author of the New Yorker stories that were the basis for Vincente Minnelli's 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis) and Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville, after Wilder left for service in World War II, but it's his benign vision of small town life that informs the Santa Rosa of Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock even paid tribute to Wilder with a separate on-screen credit in the film's opening. The premise of Shadow of a Doubt is essentially: What if a serial killer showed up in Grover's Corners? What better place to hide out from the cops than in the bosom of one's own "average American family," as the Newtons of Santa Rosa are said to be? Instead of Hitchcock's frequent "wrong man" plot device, what we have here is the wrong place, the tension being developed from Uncle Charlie's threat to small town tranquility. Hitchcock is often quoted as saying Shadow of a Doubt was one of his favorite films, and there's much to admire in it, especially the performances. As Uncle Charlie, Joseph Cotten, with his quick turns from joviality to menace, is splendid, and Teresa Wright as his namesake niece makes the most of their odd emotional connection: If Uncle Charlie is psychotic, Young Charlie is at least neurotic, especially in her often frantic and edgy attempts to launch her own investigation, either to prove or disprove her uncle's guilt. Patricia Collinge is also superb as the mother who has to be protected from the truth about her brother, lest the whole family structure that depends on her hard work and common sense collapse. Henry Travers as the father and Hume Cronyn as his mama's-boy friend provide the necessary macabre comedy in their schemes to bump each other off. But I think the film is undermined by the unnecessary introduction of a love story between Charlie and the detective Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey). It's inserted into the film too abruptly, almost in a cut between scenes: All of a sudden Charlie has not only figured out that Graham is a detective but she has also fallen for him. A more interesting actor than Carey might have made it plausible, but his affable Graham doesn't feel like an appropriate match for the intensity that is Charlie. Grover's Corners was no paradise, as the third act of Our Town demonstrates, and Uncle Charlie is perhaps not the only serpent in Santa Rosa: The scene in which the two Charlies go to a smoky dive and encounter the waitress Louise (Janet Shaw), a schoolmate of Young Charlie's who has fallen on hard times and looks longingly at the ill-gotten emerald ring her friend is wearing, is an effective counterpoint to the folksiness and bonhomie on the small town surface. I think the film could have benefited from a bit more of the dark underside of Santa Rosa and a bit less of its superficial geniality.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Toni (Jean Renoir, 1935)

Authenticity in movies is like sincerity in politics: If you can fake it, you've got it made. Jean Renoir's Toni is a venture into realism, the quest for the kind of authenticity produced by using non-professional actors and shooting on location without resort to studio-built sets. Like the films of the Italian neorealist directors who admired and imitated Toni, it focuses on the struggles of the working class, in this case the immigrant workers from Spain, Italy, and North Africa who come to the South of France seeking jobs on the farms and, in the case of the Italian Antonio "Toni" Canova (Charles Blavette), the quarries. The film begins with Toni's arrival on a train; as the workers spread out on their search, we follow Toni as he knocks on the door of a boarding house run by Marie (Jenny Hélia). Then there's an abrupt cut in which time has passed and we see that Toni is now sharing Marie's bed. It's a time jump that Renoir will use several times over the course of the film. While still with Marie, Toni falls in love with Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish woman, but she agrees to marry the brutish Albert (Max Dalban), who is Toni's boss at the quarry. Toni proposes that he and Marie join them in a double wedding ceremony. After another time jump, Josefa has had a baby and named Toni as the godfather, a role that doesn't please Marie at all. As the marriage of Toni and Marie disintegrates, he moves out of the house and she attempts suicide. Eventually, the relationship of Toni and Josefa ends in calamity, and as the film ends we have a reprise of the opening scene: Another train arrives, with yet another group of laborers. Toni is, as we should expect from Renoir, a work of great cinematic sophistication used to create a sense of simple immediacy, of witnessing real lives unfold. The story, while often melodramatic, maintains its documentary quality by relying on ambient sound and the deglamorization of its players. The polyglot cast is utterly convincing, and for once the viewer reliant on subtitles may be at something of an advantage over those just listening to the dialogue: Even if you know only a little French you can tell that the accents are thick and varied. But the film is also often visually quite beautiful: It was the first collaboration of Renoir with his nephew, Claude, as cinematographer, who achieves some quite striking nighttime scenes without resorting to the filtered or underexposed daylight shooting known as "day for night" or, in France, la nuit américaine.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

I've known enough Christians in my lifetime -- in fact, I used to be one -- that I'm unhappy with the usurpation of the name "Christian" by those who denounce any deviation from their particular interpretation of what is a vast and confusing -- some would say contradictory -- body of texts, teachings, and traditions. Many of these hidebound true believers are charlatans and hucksters, whose proclamations of  "heresy" and "blasphemy" are inspired by the fact that they can milk attention, and therefore money, from those who regularly listen to them. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was an easy target for them: an R-rated film of the life of Jesus, with some nudity and much violence, made by a director whose other films are filled with shocking language, and featuring a scene in which Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). So theaters were picketed and showings were shut down, and even after the film's run ended and it was released on videotape, the largest American video rental chain caved to pressure and refused to stock it. No matter that the offensive scene in context is part of the titular temptation, or that the point of the film is to affirm the entirely orthodox premise that Jesus had to be crucified in order to save the world. If anything, The Last Temptation of Christ should have strengthened Christians' faith, not shaken it. I'm not here, however, to endorse the film's doctrine -- or for that matter to attack it. Theology is not my forte. I'm here to say that as a film, The Last Temptation of Christ is a pretty impressive feat of storytelling by Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Some parts of the story, particularly those adapted from the Gospels, are told in a fresh and engaging manner, shaking off many (if not all) of the clichés of the biblical epic. The deviations or extrapolations from that source -- the long, close friendship of Jesus and Judas (Harvey Keitel), the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been childhood sweethearts -- are really no more shocking or irrelevant than those in Cecil B. DeMille's dutifully pious silent The King of Kings (1927), in which the Magdalene and Judas are lovers and Mark, the author of the eponymous Gospel, is shown to have been a beneficiary of one of Jesus's miracles. It's the concluding "temptation" section, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, that tends to drag and become over-talky. Dafoe unfortunately reinforces the blue-eyed blond stereotype of movie Jesuses, and Keitel's Brooklyn accent might have been toned down more, but both actors perform with conviction. Most of the roles are played by American actors, including Verna Bloom as Mary, Jesus's mother, and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul, so it's something of a neat touch to hear a British accent from the occupying Romans, represented by Pontius Pilate, played very nicely and dryly by David Bowie. Satan, too, is a Brit, at least to judge by the accent of Juliette Caton, who plays his embodiment as the faux guardian angel in the temptation scenes. The Last Temptation received only one Oscar nomination -- for Scorsese, perhaps as a way of acknowledging his role at the eye of the controversy -- but it certainly deserved notice for Michael Ballhaus's cinematography and especially for Peter Gabriel's superb score, for which he brought together an impressive collection of musicians from around the world.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

No Post Today

Feeling a bit under the weather (or maybe just lazy). For the record, here are the films I've seen lately, some of which I hope to write up soon:
Toni (Jean Renoir, 1935)
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

Topical humor and satire has always been a risky business, as Kathy Griffin learned recently with her gag involving a severed Trump head. When a joke about current events offends rather than amuses an audience, producing stunned silence or at best nervous laughter, comedians usually try to defuse the situation by asking, "Too soon?" For Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, it was "too soon" for a very long time. Begun before Pearl Harbor and completed after the United States had declared war on Nazi Germany, To Be or Not to Be had the further misfortune to be released shortly after the death of its star, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash while on a tour selling war bonds. The unavoidable bad timing resulted in a critical and commercial failure, with many critics echoing the reaction of the New York Times's Bosley Crowther, admittedly a man not known for his lively sense of humor, that To Be or Not to Be was a "callous and macabre" treatment of "a subject which is far from the realm of fun." Even the father of the film's star, Jack Benny, walked out of the picture when he saw his son wearing a Nazi uniform. (He was later persuaded to sit through the movie and liked it.) Critical nervousness about To Be or Not to Be lingered for a very long time, especially among the generation that fought in or grew up during the war. Andrew Sarris, who placed Lubitsch in his "Pantheon" of great directors in his 1968 book The American Cinema, took notice of the film's reputation as "an inappropriately farcical treatment of Nazi terror," and rather oddly commented, "For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and no evil was then inconceivable." As late as 1982, in her collection of short reviews, 5001 Night at the Movies, Pauline Kael said that "the burlesque of the Nazis ... is so crudely gleeful that we don't find it funny." That last is, incidentally, a prime example of the Kaelian "we," her tendency to include the reader in her own experience of films. As Sam Goldwyn reportedly said, "Include me out." I'll admit that the first time I saw To Be or Not to Be, I was a little shocked by its tone, and especially its portrayal of the Gestapo as a gaggle of brainless schnooks, epitomized by Sig Ruman's easily duped Col. Ehrhardt. Yes, the Gestapo was a formidable instrument of terror, to the point that they remain emblematic of the utmost viciousness of Nazism, especially after countless movies made after the entrance into the war freed Hollywood filmmakers from their obligation to remain neutral. On the other hand, the Spanish Inquisition was an equally formidable instrument of terror, and is anyone really offended when they turn up as a gag line -- "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" -- in Monty Python sketches? Time allows us to distance ourselves from horror, so today most people acknowledge and admire the skill and wit of Lubitsch's satiric farce, which is also a pretty good spy thriller, with genuinely suspenseful moments. Lombard is at her most poised and glamorous, as well as a surprisingly effective foil for Benny, who as the "great, great Polish actor Joseph Tura" for once in his rather undistinguished career in movies -- which never showcased him as well as radio or TV did -- has a chance to display his perfect comic timing. Tura's reaction -- an indignant slow burn -- when the start of his "To be or not to be" soliloquy cues Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to leave his seat for an assignation with Mrs. Tura (Lombard) is Benny at his best. But the film is also laced with moments of real awareness of the horrors beneath, an awareness that is not really compromised by being made part of a comedy. The most famous line of the film is probably Ehrhardt's observation, in response to the disguised Tura's request for an evaluation of his work on the stage, "What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland." How this double entendre made it past the Production Code censors, I don't know, but it's evidence that Lubitsch was certainly aware of the reality and not just being "inappropriately farcical."

Friday, June 9, 2017

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu, 1963)

If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then what is a wise consistency? Because Yasujiro Ozu was nothing if not consistent, especially in the films of his greatest period: From Late Spring (1949) through An Autumn Afternoon, his final film, we get the same milieu -- middle class Japanese family life -- with the same problems -- aging parents, marriageable daughters, unruly children -- and the same style -- low-angle shots, stationary camera, boxlike interiors, exterior shots of buildings and landscape used to punctuate the narrative. Ozu's style would be called "mannered" except that the word suggests an obtrusive inflection of style for style's sake, whereas Ozu's style is unobtrusive, dedicated to the service of storytelling. There are, I suppose, some who are turned off by such consistency, who don't "get" Ozu. All I can say is that it's their loss, because it's a wise consistency, dedicated to trying to understand the way people work, why, for example, they conceal and obfuscate and manipulate to get what they really want. And why, sometimes, they don't even know what they really want. An Autumn Afternoon could almost be mistaken for a remake of Late Spring because of its central problem: a young woman at risk of sacrificing herself for an aging, widowed father. It stars the same actor, Chishu Ryu, as the father, Shuhei, and it ends in a strikingly similar way: The daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), gets married, but we never see the bridegroom, just as we never see the man Noriko marries in Late Spring. But where Late Spring centered itself on a kind of moral dilemma, the white lie the father tells to resolve the problem, An Autumn Afternoon illuminates the relationship of father and daughter through the experiences of secondary characters. If Michiko marries, will her marriage be like that of her brother (Keiji Sada) and sister-in-law (Mariko Okada), strained by constant arguments about money? If Shuhei doesn't encourage her to marry, will she end up like the daughter (Haruko Sugimura) of his old teacher (Eijiro Tono), embittered because she gave up the prospect of marriage to serve him? There's yet another possibility for Shuhei: His close friend (Ryuji Kita), a widower, remarried, but now his much younger wife (Machiyo Kan) has him on a tight leash, putting limits on him that Shuhei doesn't have, such as the ability to stop off in bars and to drink with his old war buddies. (Even Michiko tries to rein in her father where this is concerned, pointedly commenting when Shuhei comes home a little late and tipsy.) The screenplay by Ozu and his usual collaborator, Kogo Noda, deftly integrates all of these stories and more, but the shining center of the film is the performance of Ryu, constantly letting us see the conflict that is churning beneath Shuhei's calm demeanor. And it's entirely fitting that the final shot of Ozu's last film -- Shuhei, saying softly to himself, "Alone, eh?" -- features Ryu, the actor who appeared in so many of his films that he seemed to be Ozu's alter ego.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946)


Jean Negulesco's Humoresque gets its title from the Fannie Hurst short story it's based on, but it also evokes the music played behind the opening title: the seventh of Antonín Dvořák's Humoresques, a group of short piano pieces that were later transcribed for orchestra. The music is best known today for the several facetious lyrics that have been attached to it, including "Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing in the station" and "Mabel, Mabel, strong and able, get your elbows off the table."* Today, the movie also inspires similar irreverence, as an example of the melodramatic excesses of Joan Crawford's later career. How many drag queens have donned replicas of the Adrian gowns Crawford wears in the film, with shoulder pads so wide and sharp you fear that she could injure a bystander with a sudden turn? But there are far worse movies than Humoresque, and far less impressive performances than Crawford's in it. She doesn't appear until well into the film, after we've established the ruthless desire of Paul Boray (John Garfield) to become a famous concert violinist. All he needs, it seems, is a rich patron, so when he meets Helen Wright (Crawford), who has the money and nothing else to do with it but take lovers and drink, his fate is sealed. It's not like he doesn't have people to warn him off: There's his fellow musician, pianist Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant), who can't supply much more than cynical wisecracks to keep Paul from doing the wrong thing. And there's his mother (Ruth Nelson), who bought him his first violin but now wants him to settle down with fellow starving musician Gina (Joan Chandler) and raise a family. But once Paul falls into Helen's clutches and becomes a hugely successful concert artist, all Mama and Gina can do is sit in the audience and glare up at Helen in her box -- though Gina sometimes bursts into tears and flees the auditorium. None of this would work if Garfield and Crawford didn't play their roles as well as they do. Garfield brings all the intensity and conviction to Paul that he does to his ambitious boxer in Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947). Although the violin playing is actually done by Isaac Stern, with some nice camera trickery that puts Garfield's face and Stern's fingers in the same frame, Garfield keeps up the illusion well, to the extent of busily working the fingers on his left hand, practicing the fingering even when he's not playing. He has some improbable lines to speak -- the screenplay by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold is freighted with them -- but he makes them work. As for Crawford, ambition was her nature and ruthlessness her forte in life as well as art, but she never just speaks her lines -- she inhabits them. There's no surprise in her performance, but that's not what we want from her. Negulesco's direction can be a little shapeless -- there's a mid-film montage that depicts a busy, hyped-up New York City that feels gratuitous -- but he handles the concluding sequence, set to a pastiche of themes from Tristan und Isolde, very well. Franz Waxman received an Oscar nomination for scoring, and there are excerpts from composers like Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bizet, Mendelssohn, and Bach throughout: The film is a reminder that there was once a time when the audience for a Hollywood film would sit through extended passages of classical music.

*Or in my case, the discovery along with generations of other English lit grad students that the pouncing trochees of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" -- e.g., "In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love" -- could be sung to Humoresque No. 7.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Women (George Cukor, 1939)

Despite the sad novelty of its all-female cast, George Cukor's film flunks the Bechdel test completely: All the women in The Women talk about is men. They don't talk about their jobs because they don't have them: They circulate in a world of cocktail parties, kaffeeklatsches, spas, and venues for shopping. The one exception is Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), who to my mind becomes the film's real heroine with her resigned "back to the perfume counter" final speech after she receives her comeuppance. Say what you will about Crystal, and the characters in The Women have plenty to say about her, she has a spine and a pretty solid view that the world is still there for her taking by any means necessary. Of course, the nominal heroine is poor Mary (Mrs. Stephen) Haines (Norma Shearer), who gets the final soft-focus scene as, dewy-eyed, she heads off to reconcile with her husband. I want to be a little more generous to Shearer than some have been: She has been given a thankless role -- generous, self-effacing, motherly to a fault -- and not only a formidable adversary but also a surrounding cast of colorful, wisecracking characters, from Rosalind Russell's bumptious, overdressed gossip to Paulette Goddard's wryly tough chorus girl on the make to Mary Boland's relentless serial divorcee. We are supposed to root for Mary, but why? This is where I think the gimmick, the all-female cast, does Shearer, a disservice. If we actually met Stephen Haines, we might have some clue as to why Mary takes so long to kick him out and then is so delighted to rush to his Crystal-stained arms at the film's end. Shearer is forced to play a role without a motive other than blindly enduring love. That she does it as well as she can gives her some default points, but for most of of the film she has to rely on Shearerisms: chin up, eyes moist, shoulders back. The character comes to life only at the end when Mary decides to fight back by marshaling all the dirty tricks she has been taught, and Shearer is fun to watch as she plays them. Still, her triumph over Crystal is only the product of a tired dramatic formula. It's Crawford who mops the floor with the rest of the cast with her performance and earns our respect for Crystal with her delivery of the famous exit line: "There a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society ... outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!" Everything else is anticlimax. Cukor gives the film great energy, though the adaptation by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin of the Clare Boothe Luce play (with uncredited help from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart) is so full of would-be zingers that they begin to get a little tiresome. Sadly, the only respite from the non-stop bitchery is to introduce another weepy scene between Mary and her mother (Lucile Watson) or her daughter (Virginia Weidler). At two hours and 13 minutes, The Women seems at least 13 minutes overlong.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson, 1945)

I doubt that I would have recognized Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne as a film by Robert Bresson if I hadn't already known it was the second feature film of his career. Its milieu, the haute bourgeoisie, is far removed from the priests, peasants, pickpockets, and prison escapees of his great later films, which also relied on non-professional actors instead of the established professionals of this film. There is even a rather lush score by Jean-Jacques Grünewald, instead of the reliance on ambient sound characteristic of the more familiar period. Clearly, something happened to Bresson's aesthetic in the six years that separate Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne from Diary of a Country Priest (1951). And yet there's something in the restraint with which Bresson films this updating of a story by Denis Diderot and in the clarity of moral vision with which he imbues it that keeps it "Bressonian." Diderot's 18th-century story is of an age with Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses, which has been filmed half a dozen times, including versions updated to the 20th century by Roger Vadim (1959) and Roger Kumble (Cruel Intentions, 1999). Diderot's and Laclos's stories both turn on the failure of the best-laid plans of vengeful lovers: Erotic obsession becomes a two-edged sword. With the help of Jean Cocteau's dialogue and well-judged performances by Maria Casares, Paul Bernard, and Elina Labourdette, Bresson maintains the tension of withheld revelations throughout the narrative in which Hélène (Casares) manipulates her former lover Jean (Bernard) into marrying Agnès (Labourdette), who is not the "impeccable" woman Hélène deceives Jean into believing her to be. The dénouement, in which Jean, having learned the truth, finds himself trapped inside his own automobile, is brilliantly staged. And even the bittersweet sort-of-happy ending feels right, if only because Bresson has revealed the inescapable cruelty of the milieu in which it takes place. I suspect that even if Bresson had gone on in this vein, rather than carving out for himself his unique place in film history, he would still be regarded as an important filmmaker.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf is unquestionably a "horror movie" -- i.e., one filled with incidents and images and narrative details aimed at shocking the viewer. It takes place on a remote island with a mysterious castle. Figures appear who may be either humans or demons. There's a scene in which a man walks up the wall and across the ceiling and one in which a woman peels off first her wig and then her face. The protagonist either murders or imagines that he has murdered a small boy. That protagonist is Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), an artist, who has come to the island with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), to recover after an illness -- physical or mental, we're not told. Johan can't sleep, and Alma sits up with him at night while he tells her about the demons whose images he has sketched, so no wonder that her own mental state becomes fragile. One day, she meets an old woman who tells her that she should read Johan's diary, which he keeps under his bed. She does so, rather like Bluebeard's wife persisting in opening his castle's doors, uncovering some disturbing entries regarding his continued obsession with an old love, Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). They're invited to a dinner party at the castle by the baron (Erland Josephson), where they meet a variety of unlovely sophisticates and are entertained by a rather bizarre puppet show excerpt from Mozart's The Magic Flute (an opera that Bergman would film, in a less bizarre manner, seven years later). But the climax of the evening comes when the baroness (Gertrud Fridh) takes the Borgs to her bedroom to show off her prized possession: Johan's portrait of Veronica Vogler. From then on, it's a deep descent into madness for Johan and a desperate attempt by Alma to save both of them from self-destruction. The "creep factor" in Bergman's movies is never entirely missing, but Hour of the Wolf cranks it up higher than ever. The problem is that the creepiness is sustained almost to the point of tedium, and with a concomitant loss of credibility. The remote island setting prevents the film from grounding itself in normality, so that the action plays out on one sustained note of oppressive isolation. Hour of the Wolf has many admirers, who rightly point out that Bergman, with the considerable help of his actors and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, has crafted a nightmare of erotic obsession with the utmost skill. But I like to compare Hour of the Wolf to another horror movie released the same year, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, a "commercial" product aimed at a general audience, which suggests evil things going on beneath the surface of a commonplace urban setting, and ask which is the more successful: the sustained psychological oppressiveness of the Bergman film or the sinister mixture of comedy and shock of the Polanski movie?  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Torment (Alf Sjöberg, 1944)

For all the menace emitted by "Caligula" (Stig Järrel), the sadistic teacher in Alf Sjöberg's Torment, for me the most chilling moment in the film comes when young Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin) returns home in the early hours of the morning after having slept with Bertha (Mai Zetterling), instead of staying home and studying for his upcoming exams. He slips into his darkened room and turns on the light only to find his father (Olav Riégo) sitting there. The father rises and leaves the room without a word, creating a miasma of guilt so thick you could hack chunks out of it. Torment is a deeply unsettling movie that foreshadows some of the ways its novice screenwriter, Ingmar Bergman, could cloud over even the sunniest disposition with the films he would later direct. It also anticipates Bergman's occasional resort to overkill in his own films, piling misery upon misery. He wrote the screenplay to get even with his own education, to show how the very system of schooling thwarts creativity in the name of discipline. Jan-Erik is a dutiful student who really wants to spend time practicing the violin, but he's forced into the mold provided by the system, which includes a mind-numbing drill in Latin grammar that brings out the will to power in the teacher students call Caligula. It has been suggested that Caligula, who reads a Nazi newspaper in one scene, is also a veiled portrait of the Nazi presence in officially neutral Sweden, but that's only one element in the character's sinister villainy. He's mostly a despoiler of youth, including not only handsome Jan-Erik but also the tobacco shop clerk Bertha, whom he secretly terrorizes, and when Jan-Erik falls for Bertha, Caligula makes the most of it. Torment is a disjointed film, with Sjöberg and cinematographer Martin Bodin laying on the expressionist shadows and camera angles perhaps too heavily, and it never really comes across as an indictment of the education system -- there's a cheerily forgiving teacher and the headmaster really seems to be a well-meaning man -- so much as a somewhat truncated coming-of-age melodrama.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)

When I say that Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is a plain, rather dumpy German woman in her 60s, and that Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a dark, well-built Moroccan man in his late 30s, I'm not just describing them, I'm "othering" them, depending on your own age, nationality, and other physical considerations. The fear that eats the soul in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's social problem drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is the fear of the other. And what draws Emmi and Ali into their odd coupling is their willingness to set aside the fear and accept each other. The film is not quite as formulaic as that sounds, of course: As writer and director, Fassbinder is willing to go beyond that and show that even acceptance can be a kind of exploitation. Emmi and Ali exploit each other for sex, for companionship on Emmi's side, for comfortable lodging on Ali's side. Inevitably, their relationship stirs outrage: The other residents of Emmi's apartment house are outraged at Ali's close presence in their snug German world; Emmi's family disowns her; her co-workers among the cleaning ladies at an office building snub her; the owner of the convenience store across the street refuses to serve Ali ostensibly because he doesn't speak proper German. And then things turn around when those who shun Emmi and Ali discover the potential for exploitation: The female residents realize that Ali can be useful to move things in the apartment house's basement storage area, and when Emmi invites them in, they circle Ali and admiringly feel his flexed biceps. The family accepts Emmi again when it turns out they need her babysitting services. The co-workers draw Emmi back in when they need her support in negotiating a raise and to exclude a new lower-paid woman recently immigrated from Yugoslavia. The shopowner welcomes them back as customers because a new supermarket is stealing his trade. And then there's another twist: Emmi and Ali become alienated from each other. He resents her displaying him like a trophy to the neighbors. She refuses to cook couscous for him because she doesn't like it. They split, and only come to a tentative reconciliation at the end when they allow each other their freedom. But fear doesn't just eat the soul, it also eats the stomach lining: Ali collapses from a stomach ulcer, which, a doctor explains to Emmi, is common among German "guest-workers" -- the immigrant laborers like Ali who helped bring about the Wirtschaftswunder of postwar German recovery. Ali will survive but the ulcer will recur. What saves Fassbinder's film from the didacticism of its problem-drama setup is first of all the credible performances of Mira and ben Salem, whose very ordinariness makes the situation feel real in ways that it might not have if the characters had been played by movie stars. But mostly it's the artfulness of Fassbinder's direction and his use of setting, framing the characters through doorways and in stairwells that create a world of confinement. Things never quite seem settled or easy for anyone. Even when Emmi's son angrily kicks in her TV set -- a detail Fassbinder borrowed from Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows -- it takes him a frustratingly long time to succeed. In the post-9/11/2001 world, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul looks perhaps a little dated. There's an allusion to the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and someone groups Ali with "bombers," but anti-Muslim sentiment and fear of terrorism don't play the overt role in the prejudice against Ali the way they might today. The fear in the title is a more abstract and pervasive one.  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

Humphrey Bogart called John Huston's Beat the Devil a "mess," which it is, but much of the messiness is due to Bogart's presence in the film. His tough-guy persona, for which Huston himself was largely responsible after casting Bogart in roles like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), puts him tonally out of sync with the rest of the cast of eccentrics in Beat the Devil. Bogart doesn't seem to know how to play Billy Dannreuther, an American trying to recoup his fortunes by playing along with some rather oddball crooks and grifters: the florid Peterson (Robert Morley), the German-Chilean who calls himself O'Hara (Peter Lorre), the lugubrious Italian Ravello (Marco Tulli), and the fascist Maj. Jack Ross (Ivor Barnard), whose name almost suggests his character -- a humanoid Jack Russell terrier with a hair-trigger temper. Moreover, Dannreuther is rather improbably mated with the scheming Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) and equally improbably wooing the compulsive liar Gwendolen Chelm (Jennifer Jones). That Bogart has no chemistry with either actress, both of whom give delicious performances, further drags the film down. Jones made two films with Huston, this one and the little-seen We Were Strangers (1949), and they are two of the most interesting performances in her career, making me wish that Huston had been able to release Jones more frequently from the clutches of David O. Selznick. Everyone, including Edward Underdown as Gwendolen's husband, Harry, does delightful comic work except Bogart, who glumly and blankly delivers lines he doesn't seem to be trying to understand. That may be understandable, given that the screenplay was being written by Huston and Truman Capote -- and the uncredited Peter Viertel and Anthony Veiller -- pretty much on the fly while the film was being made. The result is a collection of very amusing moments pieced together with a lot of cobbled-together nonsense about uranium deposits in Africa -- in short, the stuff of which cult movies are made. I'm not a member of the cult, but I happily watch Beat the Devil every now and then, especially for the performances of Jones and Morley and Lorre, while wishing that Huston had cast someone more skilled than Bogart -- Grant? Stewart? Cooper? -- at working amid chaos and nonsense.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949)

Those of us of a certain age can remember when the phrase "foreign film" meant one thing: sex. Which was something the Production Code-ridden American film had long tried to persuade us didn't exist, or at least not outside of marriage. But when European filmmakers began to recover from the war, they were under no such constraints, so a certain whiff of the forbidden tended to accompany even the most artistically conceived French or Italian releases. Even the more austere Scandinavian films were the victims (some would say beneficiaries) of prurient distributors: Ingmar Bergman's Summer With Monika (1953) was snapped up by one who cut it by a third, while carefully retaining Harriet Andersson's nude scene, and marketed it as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl. For a long time, what Americans associated with the phrase "French film" was not Renoir or Bresson, or even Godard or Truffaut, but Brigitte Bardot. And for many Americans, their introduction to Italian neorealism was not the documentary-like work of Roberto Rossellini in Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) or of Vittorio De Sica in Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), but Giuseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice, with its posters and lobby cards emphasizing the voluptuous Silvana Mangano. The story has it that Bitter Rice began with a documentary inspiration: De Santis was riding on a train and noticed that it was full of working-class and peasant women. He learned that they were returning from their annual work in the rice fields of the Po Valley, where women were the primary workers because their smaller hands made them more efficient at planting and harvesting. De Santis was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and the more he investigated, the more the exploitation of the rice workers seemed to him the perfect subject for a film of social commentary. His first film, Tragic Hunt (1947), about the struggles of peasants to form a cooperative, had been well received, and he got the backing for Bitter Rice from Dino Di Laurentiis's new production company. Together with Carlo Lizzani and Gianni Puccini, he put together a story and began casting, signing up handsome newcomers Vittorio Gassman and Raf Vallone for the key male roles and the young American actress Doris Dowling, who had just made an impressive appearance as a call girl in Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (1945), for the female lead. And then he discovered 19-year-old Silvana Mangano and the fine line between serious social-problem film and exploitation film was crossed. Mangano's innate sensuality threw the story off track, to the point that even today all anyone remembers about Bitter Rice is her vivid presence in it. Poor Doris Dowling becomes a secondary player, and the much worked-over screenplay shows the sometimes awkward efforts to integrate Mangano's character into the original plot, in which Dowling and Gassman play thieves on the run, with Dowling's Francesca hiding out among the rice-workers, while Gassman's Walter cooks up a scheme to hijack the entire rice crop. There is much ado about a stolen necklace that turns out to be fake, and a little bit of social commentary about the conflict between the unionized workers and the freelance "illegals." Traces of the original documentary inspiration remain in the movie, in between scenes of Mangano dancing and seducing Gassman and Vallone, and De Santis is a keenly observant director with a gift for staging impressive shots, deftly aided by cinematographer Otello Martelli. But the failure to assemble a coherent story undermines the whole project, so, naturally, De Santis and Lizzani were nominated for the best motion picture story Oscar.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Story From Chikamatsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

Kenji Mizoguchi's A Story From Chikamatsu, which has also been released under the built-in-spoiler title The Crucified Lovers, is based on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 18th-century play The Legend of the Grand Scroll-Maker. It's a romantic drama about doomed lovers that Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda have expanded into a fable about greed, injustice, and the subjugation of women. The lovers don't even start out as lovers, but circumstances force them together. Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a somewhat overworked apprentice scroll-maker who is thrown together with his master's wife, Osan (the marvelous Kyoko Kagawa), almost by accident. The master, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo), is a miser and a philanderer, and the circumstances that initially put Mohei and Osan together are almost the stuff of farce: Osan knows that Ishun has been harassing the pretty maid Otama (Yoko Minamida), trying to persuade her to become his mistress, so Osan hides in the young woman's room one night to try to catch her husband in the act. Instead, Mohei goes to Otama's room and is discovered there with Osan. When Ishun finds out he accuses her of adultery, which as we've been shown earlier in the film is a crime punishable by crucifixion. In addition to this crime, Mohei has also been accused of forgery: Ishun had refused to give Osan's brother a loan, so Mohei agreed to help Osan by using Ishun's seal on a receipt, having been assured that the money would be repaid quickly. When confronted with the forgery, Otama intervenes on behalf of Mohei (whom she secretly loves) and says that she asked for the money. The upshot of all this complex of subterfuges, ultimately caused by Ishun's greed and lechery, is that both Osan and Mohei are forced to flee Ishun's household. They determine that suicide would be more honorable than crucifixion, but when they discover that they are in love with each other, they decide that life in hiding would be preferable to death. Things do not go well, of course, but in the end Ishun gets his comeuppance too. There is perhaps a little too much plot and the outcome is foreseeable, but Mizoguchi's mastery of atmosphere, aided by Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography, lifts the film high above the melodrama. It's at times a strikingly claustrophobic film, whose boxlike interiors sometimes suggest the grids of Mondrian paintings, underscoring the entrapment not only of the lovers but also of those victims of their own avarice, indifference, or subservience who would punish them. When we're not inside, we're on crowded streets, and even when the lovers escape into the countryside, they're adrift on a fog-shrouded lake or framed by the stalks of a bamboo forest, hinting at prison bars. For some reason, perhaps the overcomplexity of the narrative, A Story From Chikamatsu doesn't hold the honored place in the Mizoguchi canon of Ugetsu (1953), The Life of Oharu (1952), or Sansho the Bailiff (1954), but it's still the work of a master filmmaker.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky called Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) "lifeless," and viewing Tarkovsky's Solaris, made a few years later, it's apparent why. As I said in my comments on his Nostalghia (1983), Tarkovsky was a romantic for whom humankind's alienation from nature is a primary theme. Solaris begins with lush images of nature, of water, greenery, birds and dogs and horses, whereas Kubrick's film begins with (and seems to celebrate) the evolution of human beings into masters of technology, to the point that the most human character in the film is HAL, the computer. Technology in Tarkovsky's film has run amok, but not in the way HAL does in 2001: In contrast to the idyllic scene at the home of the protagonist's father that opens Solaris, the world of technology is endless ribbons of crisscrossing freeways, unreliable communications media, and the dilapidated space station that hovers over the ocean on the titular planet. In lesser hands than Tarkovsky's, portraying the disjunction between humanity and nature would lead to didacticism. But by immersing the viewer in the world of Solaris, by refusing to coach the viewer, Tarkovsky makes us work to assimilate his artistic vision. In that respect, he's not so far from Kubrick as his dismissal of 2001 might suggest.  Both films are immersive experiences, stretching the boundaries of conventional narrative to leave a viewer puzzled and provoked. And both end with visions of transformation and transcendence. It might also be said that Kubrick's fetal star-child, on its passage back to Earth, is a vision that allows for more hope than that of Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) on an island of static and sterile illusions in the vast sea of Solaris. In any case, what a cast: especially Natalya Bondarchuk as an infinitely touching Hari, that frightened and frightening figment of Solaris's misinterpretation of Kelvin's past, and, walking the line near madness, Jüri Järvet as Snaut and Anatoliy Solonitsyn as Sartorius, the scientists damned to confinement on a space station manipulated by an uncomprehending but superior alien intelligence. I think the critic who likened Banionis to Glenn Ford, a handsome actor tending toward blandness, is on the mark, but Kelvin needs to be a little bland to serve as foil for the extraordinary things that occur around him.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

Othello (Orson Welles, 1951)

Orson Welles and Suzanne Cloutier in Othello
I watched Orson Welles's film version of Shakespeare's Othello twice last night. The first time was a recording on my DVR of the recent showing on Turner Classic Movies of the 1992 restoration supervised by Welles's daughter Beatrice. The images are crisp and beautiful but the soundtrack is muddy and sometimes unintelligible -- a grave fault when the speeches and dialogue are Shakespeare's. So I decided to check out Othello on Filmstruck's Criterion Channel. It appears to be based on the 1952 European release* that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Though the images are less sharp than those on the TCM restored version, the sound is superior, so I sat through the film again. I don't think it's the masterpiece that Welles's admirers call it, but it's certainly one of the few filmed versions of Shakespeare that succeed in turning what's essentially theater into cinema. The story of the three-year making of Welles's Othello has been often told: the long hiatuses when Welles ran out of money and had to take on acting work in other films to finance his own, the fight scenes that began filming in Morocco and ended in Italy, the striking improvisations like filming the attack on Cassio (Michael Laurence) and the murder of Roderigo (Robert Coote) by Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) in a Turkish bath because the costumes had been held up by the supplier after the bills for them weren't paid, and so on. It's true, too, that the film is full of distracting continuity gaffes: Welles's makeup darkens and lightens within a single scene; MacLiammóir's beard seems to wander about his face; in the scene in which Othello confronts Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) about the handkerchief, he sometimes holds her hand with his right hand, while in the reverse shot it's his left hand. And so on. Would Welles's Othello be greater if he had had all the money and support in the world? I'm not sure that the hunger of Welles's imagination could ever have been satisfied. Moreover, he seemed to relish the role of wounded genius, to enjoy showing off what he could do in the face of adversity. We could ask for a more skillful actress than Cloutier (dubbed by Gudrun Ure, who had played Desdemona opposite Welles on stage), for a film that paid as much attention to Shakespeare's verse as it does to the spectacular settings in Italy and Morocco, for subtler and more original interpretations of the characters. But what we have is Welles at his most creative, always looking for and finding the most expressive way to bring a scene to life, and perhaps that's precious enough. Welles's Othello is no more Shakespeare's Othello than Verdi's is, yet all are touched with some kind of genius.

*In the 1952 version, Welles spoke the credits in a voiceover, but the on-screen credits that were added at the request of American distributors are retained in the 1992 restoration.