OK, this is basically an experiment, and I reserve the right to pull the plug if it looks like becoming a pain in the ass. I never really thought about a Screening Log before, seeing as I write capsules for all the new films I see and most of the old ones where I have something to say, but it seems to be what the well-dressed website is wearing nowadays, and regular readers know what hopeless fashion-victims we are here at the Century of Movies. So there you go...
Warning: these will be quick and useless comments on older (pre-'96) films seen. I'm instituting a 10-minute rule - actually it's more of a guideline - meaning none of these should take more than 10 minutes of my life to write. They are not intended to supplant the occasional reviews of older movies page, where valuable and substantive insights are offered etc etc.
Films are in reverse chronological order seen. I'm not including the precise date when I saw each movie, because I don't remember and it's none of your business anyway. In a feeble attempt to make this page more useful, films can also be accessed alphabetically. Maybe someday, if I break my leg and can't leave the house for weeks, I'll start adding comments from my notebooks for films seen before April 2003. Maybe I'll keep on adding and won't be able to stop till I go all the way back to 1982, when I first started keeping notebooks. Maybe someday all 4900+ films I've ever seen in my life will be represented on this website. Excuse me, it's time for my medication now.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (92) (Vincente Minnelli, 1944): Second viewing, still pretty wonderful. Opening section, introducing the family (first via "Meet Me in St. Louis", then through devices like the ketchup or long-distance phone call), works like a symphony - or an Altman movie - full of overheard comments and precisely-timed detail. Judy Garland (gracefully overcoming a bad hairdo) does the rare thing of acting - and acting well - while she sings, see esp. "The Boy Next Door". Sudden cut to Margaret O'Brien's teary face halfway through "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is as shocking as any cut I know. Again and again, Minnelli conjures up surprising intensity - people thinking darker thoughts than we expect, malicious comments, a death-obsessed little girl - then balances it with a kind of fantasy optimism, people proving unexpectedly kind and generous; it's the tension between 'realistic' human flaws and innocent idealism that's so magical, plus of course the gossamer touch - the resolution of the whole dance scene is so great because the film doesn't dwell at all on its small miracle (the stuck-up "Eastern girl" turning out to be a sweetheart) but concentrates instead on the comedy of Garland's dancing partners. A delicate balance of light and dark, an awesomely-oiled machine and one of the best-ever films about Family; also a nostalgia piece - as it was back in 1944 - for an idyllic time (or childhood) about to disappear, which is really why the family should have ended by moving away from St. Louis. Last five minutes are pleasing but rather misguided, also Tom Drake is dead space as the Boy Next Door; otherwise, perfection.
GOOD NEWS (63) (Charles Walters, 1947): One of those 'interesting' ones, though not too enjoyable (for me) because (a) the songs tend towards the strident and Broadway-brassy (rather than elegant and lilting), and (b) the stars - wooden Peter Lawford and prim, goldfish-faced June Allyson - are uncharismatic. Walters certainly directs the hell out of it, right from the opening crane-shot, and it's downright post-modern for 1947, determinedly detaching itself from the (rudimentary) plot: opening caption promises to take us back to "another age" - though only 20 years before the film was made - and Performance is a theme throughout (Pat's scathing comment that Tommy might make a good actor, characters speaking French as deliberate persona, etc) before being made explicit in the climax, with Connie and the landlady play-acting for Pat's benefit; Walters' favourite shot - appropriately - is a high-angle diagonal, looking down on dancers bunched together in the frame and empty space around them, like the spatial equivalent of quotation marks. In itself, moderately fun, like an "Archie" comic come to life; not the hidden gem I was hoping for, however.
THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (75) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972): Relationships = power struggles. Relationships = impossibility of freedom or total honesty. Relationships = sadomasochism, and the best you can do is acknowledge it. Theatrical emoting with a knowing, high-camp twist, though it's also about the way Fassbinder's camera creeps around the harpies, and the way he'll rack-focus between them or cross the line jarringly (but effectively); definitely not the best Fassbinder to start off with - slow, stylised, pretentious as hell, like a Joan Crawford picture done in the arch style of IVAN THE TERRIBLE. Also rather simplistic beneath the hypnotic style - but when it's over, you know you've seen something. Final act more comic than tragic, which is obviously a good thing.
TOP HAT (83) (second viewing: 81) (Mark Sandrich, 1935): Not enough songs, and what's there never quite matches "Night and Day" or "The Way You Look Tonight" from GAY DIVORCEE (still my favourite) and SWING TIME respectively ("Cheek to Cheek" comes closest, but it doesn't have the yearning imho; "The Piccolino", trying to ape "The Continental", is just an embarrassment). Lots of plot, on the other hand, but tossed off in that blithe nonchalant way that combines with the artificial sets and casual chatter to create a blissful bubble of elegant silliness, like the entertainment at a country-house party (at least till Fred Astaire breaks out his preternatural moves) - though not without a certain aggressive edge, a reminder of the cruelty lurking in 30s sophistication, from the shattered silence in the gentlemen's club to Erik Rhodes with murder on his mind. Life Before Political Correctness Dept.: Fred turns his cane into a rifle during "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" to pick off, one by one, an entire company of tailcoat-wearing dancers. [Second viewing, April 2009: Still magical; best F&G for dance numbers, and actually "Isn't it a Lovely Day to Get Caught In the Rain" comes close to matching those other songs I mention above. Astaire is subtly different in this and GAY DIVORCEE, more airy, like a Wodehouse toff or a character from stage farce; he acts like he's never worked a day in his life, whereas later - even in e.g. SHALL WE DANCE - he's more settled, the worldly (if carefree) professional. "Piccolino" still embarrassing - the actual song, not the number - and Ginger deserved an Oscar just for singing it with a straight face. "Drink your glass of vino / And when you've had your plate of scallopino..."]
THE LADIES' MAN (59) (Jerry Lewis, 1961): Might be some kind of masterpiece if Jerry Lewis were actually, y'know, funny, and if it didn't run out of steam at the one-hour mark; he isn't and it does - padding out the running-time with pathos and song numbers after George Raft makes his memorable cameo - but it's still a shock to see Jer so manic and untrammelled (I'd forgotten how surreal his humour is), full of inspired visual gags mostly cartoonish (after he runs screaming from a roomful of women, we cut to a wide-shot and there's suddenly four of him running off in all directions) but also near-poetic e.g. when the camera pulls back from invisible walls to reveal the action in many rooms at once. Some of it, on the other hand, is just inept - e.g. the totally incoherent insert of our hero's father - which I guess is the price of this kind of personal filmmaking ; gratuitous lunacy like the opening and closing captions ("We wish to thank the United States Armed Forces [but only if they came to see the picture]") suggests Lewis wrote down a list of gags then simply threw them in, not caring much if they fit (and ran out of ideas halfway through). Plot is non-existent, and the Lewis character seems uncertain - a reluctant manchild, calling for his Ma yet fighting against infantilisation. Shaky ground for Jerry the actor, more a showcase for Jerry the director. "And he works like a son of a gun"...
THE BAKER'S WIFE (63) (Marcel Pagnol, 1938): French peasants being folksy for two solid hours; better than it sounds, because Pagnol gives everyone a fair crack of the whip - even the himbo shepherd who runs away with The Baker's Wife - measuring approximately one part saucy charm for every two parts sagacious humanism. But the film-making is literal, the village rivalries too cute by half, the anti-clerical digs rather dated, and (though Raimu gives a bravura performance) the middle section basically stops so Raimu can give a bravura performance. "A perfect movie" according to Orson Welles; his imperfect messy movies are a lot more exciting, though.
LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (68) (Robert Bresson, 1945): Matt Lotti has a point (as usual), but is much too harsh (as usual): something slightly poky and pinched about this one - the plot involves emotional manipulation, but it's not set off via lush visuals as in DANGEROUS LIAISONS or THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, making for a chilly quality (not in the magisterial Bressonian sense, just a thinness in the texture; the tone is incredibly non-Bressonian, in fact - much closer to Cocteau, who gets a dialogue credit). Significantly, we know what's happening at all times - i.e. that Maria Casarès is setting her inconstant lover up for a fall - giving the proceedings a weight of fatalism ("Destiny is tragic," exclaims someone, and of course the original is Diderot's "Jacques the Fatalist") which seems a little dead onscreen; ending makes up for a lot, though, not just blindsiding us for the first time but confirming the film's greatest achievement, the way sympathy imperceptibly shifts from the wronged woman to her victims - unlike (say) DANGEROUS LIAISONS it starts off heartless and ends almost romantic. Most unforgettable: Casarès herself, a black-widow spider with Marlene Dietrich eyes and amazing voice that purrs huskily but breaks like a teenager's in the upper registers. If that makes any sense...
DECEMBER 1, 2003
FAVOURITES OF THE MOON (66) (Otar Iosseliani, 1984): Usual Iosseliani magic (unfortunately seen on crappy video copy): pleasant but diffuse to begin with, till the randomness slowly becomes its own reward and the unforced style - cinematic equivalent of the Parisian flâneur - makes you wish it could go on forever, looking at this and that with its mordant eye and sly sense of humour. Recurring theme in this one is Destruction (incl. the destruction of Art) as the way of the world - linking up with comment that hunting, i.e. destroying, is what's always brought Man closest to Nature - and it's both very cruel and very civilised, enfolding violence in its deadpan jokes and light classical music. Highlights include: an exploding statue, a lover hidden on a window sill, and a very young Mathieu Amalric in a minor role; hasn't changed a bit in 20 years.
ASHES OF TIME (50) (Wong Kar-Wei, 1994): Lush deconstruction of the martial-arts movie, with flashes of parody - e.g. the swordsman who's embarrassed by his wife tagging along all the time - and characters defined by / trying to forget their memories, as befits a film haunted by the ghosts of Wuxia Past. Also notable use of Wong's trademark 'smearing' (slo-mo looking like a series of smudged, stretched-out freeze-frames) in the fight scenes, though his overheated style - actually an artificially 'hot' style wrapped around icy reserve, playing on the contrast to evoke the transience of Love - once again ends up flattening the characters (some will say he leaves them their dignity; I suspect he just doesn't care). Cool eye-candy, but my mind was elsewhere; hard to imagine any other response, really...
FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (51) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975): Still only my fifth Fassbinder, but it's kind of worrying how I seem to like each one a little less than the previous one; this one's hard to take, with lumpen hero Fox systematically destroyed and exploited by his Friends, being also a symbol of the exploitation of the workers by the bourgeoisie (the suggestion that he brings it on himself by trying to rise above his station - trying to be "better" than his barroom buddies - is especially odd and offensive). Fassbinder's shots suggest power relationships at every turn, often 'layered' so as to put hierarchical distance between two people in the same shot - one may be closer to the foreground, or more clearly defined, or the camera may distance itself by shooting from behind objects (an early shot of Fox frames him, low-angle, between the torsos of two people watching him); one motif involves people literally wiped out, as in the car ride with the sun blindingly reflected on the windshield. Well enough made to be quite pleasing scene for scene, once you accept what's going on and just wallow in the hero's downfall. What on earth's the point, though?
THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (55) (Vincent Sherman, 1948): Errol Flynn's final swashbuckler, which is why it's poignant when world-weary Don Juan begs irate husbands not to force him into yet another duel (before of course dispatching them in no time at all), and at the very end, when the Queen asks "But where will you go?": "Into oblivion, I suppose, like most legends". Elsewhere, a certain stifled (and stifling) quality in the handsome but uninspired production smothering the witty lines, esp. because most of it is palace intrigue in a single (lavish) setting, lacking the sweep of e.g. THE SEA HAWK (Max Steiner's score clearly tries to ape Erich Wolfgang Korngold). Best detail: the King attended by his personal midget, copying his movements as he sits for a painting. Mini-Me!
THE WIND (69) (Victor Sjostrom, 1928): Almost justifies its reputation - it's certainly among the most visually striking of Silent movies - but takes a few wrong turns, with a problematic ending : surely supposed to be a victory for the Wind, i.e. our heroine goes insane, but it pulls its punches and plays closer to conventional happy ending (telling her husband she's no longer afraid, will stay with him forever, etc); maybe it was seeing this together with THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE [see below], which makes it clear Sjostrom knew all about endings of quiet desolation - and presumably had this one softened by MGM. Before that, it's unfortunate that we lose the Dickensian, Miss Murdstone-like figure of the shrewish wife, and even more unfortunate that the salesman - an ambiguous figure, sleazy yet reminding heroine of her happy past life - should be turned into the usual moustached seducer; generally seems to grow less rich as it goes along, though it's certainly very well-made (the wedding-night sequence is superbly modulated, and playing the pivotal moment off shots of the couple's feet as they move toward each other is downright Bressonian). Lillian Gish, with ethereal face and wild wind-blown hair, is a figure for the ages.
THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE (84) (Victor Sjostrom, 1918): Elemental power, even in a rushed and tattered 73-minute cut (the original was 136). Tempting to call it primitive Art - using landscape for its atavistic force, taking its hero from civilised society to a steadily more rugged, unencumbered existence - but there's nothing primitive about an unreliable-narrator flashback in a 1918 movie, or an inter-title that acts like a cliff-hanger ("He's the man who many years ago...", then the rest is whispered). "Their only law was their love," we learn of the Outlaw and his Wife, but it's a very Nordic tale of amour fou, ending in dour resentment and hopeless sacrifice, expressed in craggy visuals - that amazing sheer drop, with heroes forever standing on the edge - and a kind of curt animalism ("They'll never take the cub!" cries our heroine, grabbing the baby - now an 85-year-old woman, if she's alive at all - as the authorities close in). Theme seems to be the impossibility of passing judgment, good and bad in everyone, etc - key scene may be the one where hero's friend, secretly in love with his wife, gets the chance to cut the rope that'd send him hurtling over the cliff, and clearly wants to do it just as much as he doesn't - told with a kind of pagan fatalism, but it's really the physicality of the action and fervour of the emotions that grabbed me. Love Is Blind Dept.: fortysomething heroine, repeatedly described as beautiful, really isn't - but she is Mr. Sjostrom's real-life wife.
ACROSS 110th STREET (76) (dir., Barry Shear): Second viewing, but I'm only now appreciating this superb crime movie. Famously violent and intense - everyone in the film seems to be smouldering with hatred of someone else - but also taking its time in slice-of-life establishing scenes (the numbers guys counting out cash has the dogged professional feel Abel Ferrara may have been trying for in 'R XMAS) and carefully giving all its characters - from epileptic killer to resentful Mobster son-in-law to Anthony Quinn (a great performance) playing the corrupt racist cop as old wounded lion - an excellent reason for behaving as they do. Balances sadism and compassion, also managing to be terrific early-70s blaxploitation and pungent snapshot of Harlem at its peak; obvious rough edges (Shear crosses the line like an amateur in the scene where Quinn's examining the corpses) cancelled out by the kind of final shot you tell your friends about years later. All that's missing is a decent version of the title song - but we've got JACKIE BROWN for that.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (64) (second viewing: 58) (Tobe Hooper, 1974): Caveat: saw this while slightly drunk (figuring it could only enhance the experience, and maybe it did). Comes in two flavours, nameless alienation with that wondrously amorphous 70s style - underpopulated visuals and a random quality, like it's really happening - and extreme weirdness, when the killers are revealed as a family and the thing turns into a kind of black comedy. Neither tone is remotely 'scary', which is fine (though it must be disappointing to casual viewers) - the problem, for me, is the STRANGER THAN PARADISE problem, viz. that it feels like a perfectly acceptable base on which other, similar films have built more imaginatively: doesn't have the emotional (or political) heft of DAWN OF THE DEAD, or the perversity of Cronenberg, or the skill with visual starkness of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or even (to cite a film that came earlier) the Man vs. Nature layers of DELIVERANCE. Just an exploitation flick - check out the low-angle shots up the girls' miniskirted legs - with suggestive style and an anti-carnivore theme (heroes are like cattle in a slaughterhouse, etc) that's intriguing but a bit too narrow - though the miniskirted-leg shots do succeed in objectifying the girls, adding to the sense of people treated like things (the 'abnormal' killers are probably most human, in terms of having personalities and a range of emotions; the disabled character comes second). Am I the only one who thinks it must've started life as a "Scooby Doo" spoof?...
DIRTY HARRY (81) (Don Siegel, 1972): Third viewing, and Pauline Kael's "immoral movie" still holds up well. Not so much the scenes seeking to establish Harry as a bad motherfucker (e.g. the bit where he talks down a 'jumper'), but the central battle of wills between two not-dissimilar men - both voyeurs, just like us - and above all the visual expression of a city at night, pushing themes of light-and-dark (Scorpio is caught when Harry's friend turns on the blinding stadium lights; he's protected by murky legal technicalities, while Harry represents the daylight of the final section - he's always outside, never happy indoors whether in office or hospital). Worldview is similarly light-and-dark, which is why accusations of "fascism" miss the point slightly - not only is Scorpio wildly exaggerated but Harry doesn't represent Authority so much as Release, a light in the darkness, cutting through the red tape of everyday life (FALLING DOWN is a recent equivalent). Obviously right-wing, though, and the most amazing shot is also the most problematic: Harry "torturing" the suspect in the middle of the stadium as the camera pulls back and back and back - trying to look away? trying to minimise his actions? trying to justify them by means of a God's-eye view?
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (83) (Robert Altman, 1971): Couple of points added in full confidence that seeing this on the big screen, the way it's supposed to be seen, will be so hypnotic as to overcome the slight feeling of inertia (and yes, boredom) that creeps in for a while at the halfway mark. It is hypnotic, doing things like no other (esp. American) film, gauzy and ethereal, set in a hazy hedonistic utopia finally destroyed by the forces of gangster capitalism; "I've got poetry in me," says McCabe, and his poetry - like the film's - lies precisely in treating reality as dream (its "squalid 'realism' comes as close to fantasy as does THE WIZARD OF OZ," grumbles "Halliwell's Film Guide", missing the point entirely), as opposed to Mrs. Miller who's able to compartmentalise, sensible in business, turning to opium for her poetry. All about the magic of mixing things up - archetypal Altman - which is why it needs to be appreciated for the lyrical, elliptical, exasperating mix it is; moments like the light filtered through the trees, with an autumn tang in the air and Leonard Cohen singing "Sisters of Mercy" are so indescribably beautiful I'm... just...
NOVEMBER 1, 2003
SAY ANYTHING... (62) (Cameron Crowe, 1989): Second viewing, first in about 12 years; up from 54 but I still thought I'd like it more, given how generally adored it is. Remarkably ambitious for a teen movie, given that it starts as happy-go-lucky romance and ends as high drama, and it must be said that John Cusack is phenomenal - fully manages to justify the description of him as a "great person" ("I'm a good person, but you're a great person") yet also radiates goofiness, vulnerability and hopelessly-smitten desire (I love when he tries to act tough with her - "Are you here because you need someone, or because you need me?" - then shakes his head with a kind of crushed resignation: "Forget it, I don't care"). The central triangle has problems, though, since the father's relationship with Diane seems unhealthy and over-possessive from the start - the whole "say anything" business obviously a sham - so it just becomes a process of waiting for him to get his comeuppance, even as the film is supposedly trying for ambivalence and understanding; seems a bit manipulative, which has always been Crowe's problem in any case - really grates to see him throw in a comic interlude (Cusack and 'the guys') when things threaten to get heavy, or punctuate an argument with cutaways to a little kid (and he's even too much of a softie to cut away when the argument's at its height - just gives us kid looking anxious at the beginning and smiling happily at the end when everything's okay again). Lots of charm in a small way, but the more it tries to do, the more its contrivance becomes apparent. Maybe I ought to give JERRY MAGUIRE another look...
GOOD MORNING (65) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959): Candy-coloured suburbia with a score halfway between Disney jingle and Max Steiner mini-symphony, but no way is this as sanguine and complacent as its cutesy details and theme of community might suggest. Yes, the kids' game has been changed from I WAS BORN, BUT... (not that it's remotely a remake) so they make funny little pooting sounds instead of pretending to drop dead, but this is a much more jaundiced view - you get the sense Ozu disapproves of the English lessons (even while having the younger kid chirp "I love you") and greater material wealth and especially TV, sitting in its box in the dark corridor like an alien intruder while the kids obliviously celebrate in the background; I WAS BORN seemed to take place mostly outdoors whereas the key shot here (repeated again and again) may be the sliver of green hill blocked on both sides by houses - a feeling of Japanese life partitioned and compartmentalised, like the many rooms cut in half by beams, doorways or the edges of walls. Add malicious gossip, drunken husbands and a touch of paranoia and this really becomes an old man's movie (though Ozu was only 56), mistrustful of the new and unhappy with human nature; unsurprisingly, pace creaks and the theme - small talk as social lubricant - is over-explicit, though it's hard to know how seriously to take that theme anyway, given the fissures on display and odd, hard-to-classify tone. Is it sour, or just sourly amused?
OCTOBER 1, 2003
THE DRUM (56) (Zoltan Korda, 1938): Celebration of British colonialism, protecting the natives from Islamic fanatics "dreaming of a holy war" (sound familiar?); 'good' Indians are either children - Sabu as cherubic princeling - or talk in clipped British accents to show they're 'one of us', the bad ones are duplicitous sneaks who try to set a trap instead of fighting like men, and there's also a rosy Englishwoman who's brave and kind, and completely passive, and says things like, "You know, doctor, polo originated in India". Too many obstacles to get over (I have the same problem with Korda's FOUR FEATHERS), and it needed to be absolutely tight and compelling in order to work, whereas it's sort of loosely thrown together; still a good yarn, and that early Technicolor has its own poignant resonance.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2003
THE MYSTERIOUS LADY (73) (Fred Niblo, 1928): "Vienna before the War": horse-drawn carriages, opera hats, ballrooms with big chandeliers. Young officer falls madly in love with Garbo, and she with him - but she's a Russian spy and steals the secret documents, so a court-martial sentences him to "degradation" and they break his sword and strip off his buttons one by one; he becomes a musician, and gazes moodily from behind his piano as she carries on with a commissar named Boris. Silly plot but loads of atmosphere, starting as romance - the long sequence where the two first meet and parry their way to intimacy is a quite sublime series of sidelong glances, attentions courted and repulsed - ending as surprisingly exciting adventure story, and Niblo's direction is always imaginative (see e.g. the double exposures, juxtaposing characters' expressions with whatever they're thinking about). Coolest effect: as our hero sulkily plays piano for Garbo to sing, an imaginary fantasy self rises up from his body, goes to where she's singing and tries to throttle her.
SITTING DUCKS (66) (Henry Jaglom, 1980): A comedy about men and women, and how the latter will always be unknowable to the former - though also one of Jaglom's freewheeling self-indulgences, wherein various neurotics endlessly talk about their problems while the plot goes to hell, and also a film about Patrice Townsend's cheekbones (she later became Mrs. Jaglom), and the hint of German accent in Michael Emil's priceless querulous-accountant routine ("You still owe me 13 dollars from that shared dinner six months ago"), and the unfair yet persistent thought that Zack Norman, bald and thrusting, gives off the sense of a giant human penis. Muddy sound, with everyone talking at once, several satisfyingly manic conversations, self-consciously jazzy tone; more interaction with other people needed - it is a road movie, after all - but I guess it's all part of the self-absorption. Blast-from-the-past detail: the way TV sets all have interference, before they figured out how to fix the frame-rate.
IT HAPPENED TO JANE (57) (Richard Quine, 1959): Doris Day, 'before she became a virgin'. Jack Lemmon, doing that thing where he gets so indignant his voice gives out and he seems about to fly off in all directions (their relationship is amusingly explosive). Ernie Kovacs, blustering and barking (think Jon Polito) as the ruthless capitalist, with shadings of insecurity and misogyny - ten bucks says he added those sexist asides himself, to make sense of the character's animosity toward a pretty young widow. Quine adds more style than you'd expect (that silhouette through-the-glass-door shot, or the zooms and camera moves when we first meet Kovacs), and perhaps more than necessary (all those high-angle shots often seem unmotivated); sharp enough to see that small-town 'democracy' can easily lead to corruption and inertia - but of course it's all made good with an inspiring speech about the American Way, and there's a cringe-making kiddie song and it all becomes less clever (and more corny) as it goes on. Blast-from-the-past detail: seems beer-cans had no rings in the 50s, and you had to cut them open like tins of soup or something. Gosh...
THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (79) (second viewing: 77) (William A. Wellman, 1943): So near and yet so far: can't remember the last time a film was so ruined by its last 10 minutes. Reading the condemned man's letter is bad enough (rule of thumb: the more you set something up as being powerful, deep etc, the more you're going to disappoint by actually showing it), but the fact that it reads like a social tract or Author's Message - with perfunctory p.s. to "Kiss the children for me" - is even worse. Probably lost about 10 rating points right there - which should tip you off to how seriously great the rest of it is, mixing the shrewd crafted talk of a TV play (Henry Fonda + liberal message irresistibly call to mind 12 ANGRY MEN) with a tough, dusty view of the West where you don't just punch a man in a bar-brawl, you stamp on him when he's down. Portrait of a sleepy one-horse town with nothing to do - eat, drink, sleep, fight, play poker or stand in line for the town's lone prostitute - is superbly caught, also of course setting up the plot which is driven (chillingly enough) by boredom and the fact that random violence makes men feel better when they're feeling confused or disoriented ("Don't matter if he wins or loses," chuckles Fonda's sidekick, dragging him away after the brawl - or, by extension, if a lynch mob's victims are guilty or innocent); works like a vivid short story, making its points tersely and concisely - not much poetry perhaps, though Andrew Sarris' comment that it "looks grotesque" is baffling (the stylised look adds to the spareness and the night-time photography is beautiful if a bit arty, a suggestive series of half-caught images). Obviously self-conscious - anything with 'Incident' in the title is bound to be acutely aware of how it deliberately circumscribes its story - but amazingly rough and non-genteel for such a certified classic, and utterly compelling; at least for 65 minutes.
THE LEOPARD MAN (65) (Jacques Tourneur, 1943): Tired plot gussied up with exotic setting, dabblings in the occult, clever use of sound (castanets that rattle like a snake) and intriguing incidentals incl. philosophical talk on the hidden forces that impel our lives - whether to Love or Madness - and the possibility that the whole plot's really a metaphor for the exploitation of the Indians by 'civilised' men (note the leopard's owner and significance of the final ceremony, with of course the villain being the most civilised man of all). Too obvious to be very exciting - as with many of these Lewtons, one gets the feeling of damage limitation more than anything; short of doubling the budget and rewriting from scratch, however, it's hard to see what more they could've done to make it interesting.
42nd STREET (67) (Lloyd Bacon, 1933): Obviously a classic but I like FOOTLIGHT PARADE more, with its "Honeymoon Hotel" number and Cagney in the Warner Baxter role; this one takes itself a bit too seriously, with the comedy stuff somewhat ghettoised away from the romantic mush and putting-on-a-show, no-business-like-show-business shenanigans. All a bit familiar, though you can hardly blame it for being so influential - even FRENCH CANCAN owes it quite a debt, though Jean Gabin does more with the poignant moment of the great director suddenly superfluous once the show opens and the actors take their bows. Corny but effective - and if you think those girls can't be sexy as hell in their super-short pants just because a movie's 70 years old, you're blind, Mr. Magoo...
THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (82) (Frank Capra, 1933): Early-30s Capra was the man, it seems - not just staging a spectacularly brutal civil war on a Columbia budget but also taking on the whole Christian-missionary ethos (showing them to be naive and deluded compared to the heathen dictator, whatever that may say about Mr. C's own fascist leanings), throwing in an audacious dream sequence where the sexually repressed white heroine imagines the "yellow swine" creeping up to her like Max Schreck in NOSFERATU, and playing a subtle game of competing desires spiced with the whiff of miscegenation, not to mention doing it all with constantly inventive technique (note the blocking in the early scene where a missionary tells of his experience with Mongolian bandits, people shifted quietly in the frame to guide our attention to the speaker). A little tentative in the early scenes but increasingly rich and strange once the action shifts to the General's palace, capped by a final shot with La Stanwyck gazing into the distance as Walter Connolly babbles on about the Oneness of everything, looking as impassive yet expressive as Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS or Garbo at the end of QUEEN CHRISTINA. A film I want to see again right away.
LADY FOR A DAY (71) (Frank Capra, 1933): Not really very Runyonesque - no-one speaks in that elaborately formal way like they do in GUYS AND DOLLS - but a great job of filmmaking (Capra even finds a use for the young lovers, in a gorgeous shimmery shot as their kiss is reflected in the water); plot sags in the middle - mainly because the focus isn't on anyone in particular - but that ending totally caught me by surprise, even if it does trade in a ludicrously optimistic all-in-this-together view of America (rather like those office comedies where the big boss is finally revealed to be a swell guy, happy to help our humble hero). May Robson acts as if doing high drama - and gives the thing an emotional anchor - Guy Kibbee is very funny esp. when challenging the Count to a game of billiards and making him think it was all his idea, and there's lots of incidental pleasures (Butler to Gangster: "Had I a choice of weapons with you, sir, I would choose grammar"). Bonus points for unexpected gay joke and that silvery early-30s look.
RAISING ARIZONA (75) (Joel Coen, 1987): Oh great, do I have to re-visit all my 80s favourites now? Third viewing (first in about 12 years), and some of it - notably the white-trash family and Goodman-Forsythe bellowing - didn't work for me at all this time; combination of storyboarded showiness and loud slapstick occasionally threatened to become (as per David Thomson) "close to unwatchable". Yet the prologue remains hilarious - "An' when there was no crawdad to be found, we ate sand" - the epilogue had me fighting back tears, Holly Hunter is phenomenal, spoofing new-mother hysteria with the deftest of touches in the scene where she frets about the baby having his shots ('87 was her annus mirabilis, what with this and BROADCAST NEWS), and this is Nicolas Cage's finest-ever comic performance (with ADAPTATION a close second). Still just about a favourite, but really had me worried for a while; guess I'd better try BRAZIL next...
THE BIG CITY (57) (Satyajit Ray, 1963): Honourable failure, though I'm starting to warm up to it after reading Dave Kehr's inexplicably out-to-lunch capsule, where he seems to think it's a simple Message Movie; in fact, the best (i.e. worst) you can say is that it's a great director trying to make a Message Movie, but turning out to be far too humane and fair-minded. Maybe Ray is too nice for this - he seems deeply pained by the thought of people hurting one another's feelings - which is why the racist-capitalist boss is actually quite likeable (great performance by Haradhan Bannerjee), and the suspicion that he plans to use our heroine's meekness to sow dissent among her colleagues comes to nothing, and her tensions with her husband never lead to a showdown; or maybe melodrama just isn't Ray's forte - he resorts to tired scenes like the husband happening to be in the same restaurant as the wife and getting the wrong idea as he eavesdrops on her conversation, and the rare scene where he cross-cuts - between riot and resignation letter - isn't very effective (maybe he was never much of a technical filmmaker: a car-driving bit with back-projection is almost comically inept). Limpid style works for some films, and I just don't think this is one of them. Note amusing mix of languages, always a fringe benefit of watching Indian movies (esp. for this viewer in another former British colony, where we also tend to mix English words with our Greek): no surprise that they use the English for "crossword puzzle" and "interview", but who knew there was no Bengali word for "injustice"?...
SOME CAME RUNNING (59) (second and third viewing: 67) (Vincente Minnelli, 1958): Hugely impressive, but not actually very enjoyable: gives Martha Hyer's uptight schoolteacher ("Your kind of violence frightens me") way too much respect, never really calling her on her hypocrisy - telling her students an artist should be allowed his own morality, yet refusing to allow such leeway to our hero - which is really just as craven as that of the other small-towners, and treating the Shirley MacLaine character (easily the most generous and honest person in the movie) with outrageous shabbiness, fobbing her off with back-handed compliments then making her look pathetic and sacrificing her on the altar of Cathartic Tragedy. Minnelli does a great job, moving from the single-take dialogue scenes of the early part to deliriously baroque carnival climax: real-time realism constantly bumps against Expressionist touches - notably the kiss that plunges the screen into near-darkness, and the characters into silhouettes - pink-neon images and the va-va-voom jazz riffs of Elmer Bernstein's score (an appropriate style, since a central theme is the clash between logic and passion). Skilfully manoeuvres its way to a position where every option available to our hero is deeply unappealing; not entirely sure that was the intention, though. [Second viewing, May 2009: Still ridiculous how Sinatra keeps making protestations of love for prim, chilly Hyer - easily the most colourless character in the movie - still infuriating how MacLaine, brimming with warmth and spirit, gets treated like a happy imbecile, but I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt this time and assuming it's intentional, meaning (a) our heroes are supposed to look bad when they call Shirley "stupid", "a pig", etc, and (b) it's all part of its melancholy Message, which is that however much you love someone, you can't force them to fall in love with you. Hard to tell what's misjudged and what's deliberate, but the film is still remarkably intense - easy to see why fans like Richard Linklater cite it as their all-time favourite - teeming with currents of repression (almost all the characters are repressing something, the only difference between the jazzy beatniks - represented in Elmer Bernstein's score - and small-town squares being Integrity vs. Hypocrisy). Also, Dean Martin is some kind of Icon of Cool in this movie.] [Third viewing, May 2016: Similar reaction, also really noticed how wide Minnelli stages the action this time, master shots and long takes - a theatrical look matching the theatrical touches: that Sinatra-Hyer kiss is quite something, literally plunging her into sudden darkness ("your kind of violence") to 'explain' her panicked reaction. Stuck with people who don't make sense, Minnelli uses stylistic flourishes to do the job instead.]
AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR (73) (Robert Bresson, 1966): Second viewing, still basically a patchy drama with moments of unique and incredible transcendence: the scene where Balthazar 'meets' the caged animals has to be one of the best arguments for film over other art forms - what else could take you inside the mind (and soul) of an animal without resort to poetic metaphor or the anthropomorphism of something like "Watership Down"? The problem is the human actors, esp. the guy who plays the loutish young delinquent - he's not bad as such, but he's got a flat, smug presence that sucks energy out of his scenes (the girl is quite expressive, though). Bresson's abbreviated style creates its own dynamic, though he can't build a narrative sequence to save his life. But maybe that's the idea.
THE CROWD ROARS (60) (Howard Hawks, 1932): Half-baked characters - hero's intolerance seems to come out of nowhere - generally poor performances; James Cagney's brazen persona doesn't really mesh with Hawks' group dynamics (though that's partly the point). Glimmers of a better film in e.g. the twisty motivations - audience sympathy is all over the place - and e.g. the way car-racing becomes a metaphor for blinkered vision (only we the audience see the bigger picture), but there's really not much there beyond the exuberant racing scenes, which may well be why Hawks took the project in the first place: final race is a hoot, mixing random footage from all kinds of angles any which way (it's like a trailer for the 30s equivalent of DRIVEN) - but totally omitting the pivotal dramatic moment, i.e. where Cagney decides to redeem himself by taking his brother's place and persuades said brother to let bygones be bygones. Deliberate distancing device or just lack of interest in the ostensible story? I vote (b) in my opinion.
THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (68) (Vittorio De Sica, 1943): Always kind of odd in these neo-realist films to see so many writers (six, in this case) being credited for something so simple - but God is in the details, the bits of business and the way every minor character gets a personality: the doctor who tries to turn everything into a game, the indifferent young man saying goodbye to his more amorous girlfriend at the train station, the (even) smaller boy who asks our young hero for a ride on his scooter, the prying neighbour coming in supposedly to borrow a box of matches, the "professor" at the boarding-house, etc etc etc. Veers towards melodrama - the kid's on the train tracks! and the train's coming closer! - and even a misguided attempt at flash in the fever-dream sequence, but De Sica's true subject is people and a strong sense of a world where everyone's in each other business, with the director himself as the chief busybody. Humane and generous, though keeping both parents sympathetic requires the unconvincing figure of a Slimy Seducer (you'd think one of those six writers would've come up with something better), and the final leap to tragedy comes off a bit judgmental; that's one thing he learned to avoid later.
ROMAN HOLIDAY (52) (William Wyler, 1953): Ending still packs a punch, with the princess now a woman and Queen-to-be and her Roman jaunt already a youthful fling to be filed away and recalled (inwardly, of course) should they ever meet again, and that endless reverse dolly-shot to finish off with (naive question: How do they hide the tracks for a shot like that?). Rest of it - i.e. most of it - lacks enchantment, partly I suspect because it's structured so the girl's joy is always tainted by the reporter's deception, charm undercut by suspense (might've worked better if he'd only learned her true identity later, i.e. after they'd fallen in love); and partly because it's full of travelogue-style views of Rome and stock Italians saying things like "Aspetta, you wait please"; and partly because Gregory Peck is so stiff and square (he always was, poor man). A big hit, no doubt helped by Royal-mania (made a year after Queen Liz's coronation); long live the republic, etc.
AUGUST 1, 2003
MUNCHHAUSEN (72) (Josef von Baky, 1943): Fascinating, not least for what it isn't. Terry Gilliam played up the fantasy as a kind of showbiz - his Munchausen is first seen onstage - but this is a much more sombre film (as befits Nazi Germany in the middle of the war), Munchausen's exploits bringing him closer to a realisation that Life is transient, like a puff of smoke (he doesn't even want to talk about his adventures, and ends up freaking out his listeners). Most of it is actually a story of a free man (who at one point is offered, and refuses, power) trying to deal with and appease a succession of absolute rulers - Catherine the Great, a tyrannical Sultan and the Doge of Venice - which is kind of a brave theme for that time and place, and much of it isn't fantastical at all, just duels, palace intrigues and an encounter with an ageing, world-weary Casanova (who informs the Baron that Life is short). Definite cruel streak and a casual attitude to Death, as well as much more open sexuality than in Hollywood of those years (this must be the first time I've seen T&A in a film made in the 40s); not entirely sure how well it works, and it must be said only the pure fantasy scenes - notably the trip to the moon, with its disembodied heads and four seasons in one day - have the visual invention one associates with this story; wondered at the halfway mark if it'd even crack the 60+ threshold, but it grows on you once you realise how much it has on its mind. Intermittently amazing, and that Agfacolor sure looks purty.
7 FACES OF DR. LAO (53) (George Pal, 1964): Definitely a strange one, ostensibly a kids' fantasy Western - special effects are quaint and charming - but full of philosophical talk on the demise of youthful ideals, life as a process of stagnation and self-delusion, etc: a fortune-teller tells people the unvarnished truth - that each day will be like the one before, and when they die it'll be as though they've never lived at all - the villain isn't so much bad as jaded (believing Man to be a "base, pathetic animal"), magical circus master Dr. Lao represents the power of Art to open our eyes, restore our faith and give meaning to our lives, telling the kid "the whole world is a circus, if you look at it the right way" (why do they have him sway the townspeople with fear tactics, though?); some will object to his yes-prease Chinese accent, but it's made very clear that's just a mask to fool the unwary. Interesting on paper, but direction is clunky and the film comes off dull and verbose; hell of a thing to show kids, though...
HARD TO HANDLE (83) (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933): Maybe I'm not too reliable on the pre-Code 30s (probably my favourite period for American cinema), and I love all the Cagneys I've seen from 1931-33 - except maybe LADY KILLER, which is merely hilarious - but he's perfect here as a small-time arch-capitalist battling the Depression with one get-rich-quick scheme after another: a man of few redeeming features - best of all: he does in fact sleep with the vamp, even while insisting to his fiancée that "I'm as innocent as a child!" - except that everyone around him is also out to scam everybody else, from promoters to society matrons to tailors ("So I cheated a customer") to 'respectable' businessmen to prospective mothers-in-law (Ruth Donnelly matches our hero wisecrack for wisecrack). Funny, fresh and breathlessly made - several scenes abbreviated to a succession of quick 'wipes' - but it's more than cynical demotic comedy: the speed with which fortunes change, coupled with the uninhibited style, dialogue so fast it's impossible to catch every line, view of a world where money is everything, culture a joke and morality a smokescreen, all conspire to create a kind of blithe anarchy comparable only to the Marx Brothers (the college scene echoes HORSE FEATHERS, esp. the preference for football over academia), in turn reflecting the growing pains of American capitalism, the desperate energy of a system trying to fight its way back from the brink, the free-for-all before the corporations moved in, take your pick. Exhilarating.
COUNSELLOR AT LAW (77) (William Wyler, 1933): 90% vivid prose in the constant scurrying, wheeling-dealing and people trying to gain various kinds of advantage; 10% unexpected poetry in everything staying unresolved (I was so sure the secretary would at least end up responding to the nice young lawyer's advances) and Life going on at the end. Easy to claim that Wyler treats his people as pawns, to be shifted around at breakneck speed (short scenes, preference for cutting over camera movement, rat-a-tat dialogue), but it builds to a moment which, if this were a novel, would go something like "All his insecurities, and carefully concealed pangs of conscience, erupted at that moment" - except this isn't a novel, and it's incredibly hard to set up that kind of wordless Defining Moment in a movie. Not as bristlingly witty as some of the other early-30s movies, but among the most grown-up and skilful. Useless trivia: that bratty kid actor is future director Richard Quine.
ZOO IN BUDAPEST (69) (Rowland V. Lee, 1933): Second viewing, slightly downgraded; still very distinctive and ethereal, once or twice very beautiful in the mist-and-water way of the lake crossing in UGETSU or the skiff floating downriver in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. But it bogs down in the second half, and Gene Raymond is annoying as the animal-loving hero. Why Budapest, anyway?...
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (71) (David Butler, 1943): Pure vaudeville: jaunty songs with clever rhymes, spliced with comedy featuring the high-energy mugging of Eddie Cantor, perpetual indignation of Edward Everett Horton and bouncing cheeks of S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (also a couple of serious songs, but we don't talk about those). Casual vibe, with the likes of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn turning up to cut a rug, evocative detail of life during wartime - Davis sings "They're Either Too Young or Too Old", Ann Sheridan lectures teenage debs on the new, looser morals: "Here is a fact / To face: / A man won't take a taxi just to get noplace" - script smart, verbal and surprisingly wacky (orchestra conductor Sakall looks down at the pit to find all his musicians turned into Eddie Cantors). Special credit for rhyming "Aleutians" with "the Roo-ssians".
MILDRED PIERCE (61) (Michael Curtiz, 1945): Film noir meets the 'woman's picture', but Curtiz' moody shadow-play doesn't really fit Joan Crawford's assertive masochism or the heroine's work ethic and mother-sacrifice: nothing kills the pitiless 'noir' world like a hero(ine) who finds moral value in self-destruction. Also seem to be two conflicting impulses here, the intriguing suggestion that Mildred - who spends her life trying to make money, and uses it like a weapon - is responsible for her Daughter From Hell's greed and venality (i.e. she's created a monster), vs. the tear-jerker dynamic of the DFH as ungrateful brat sent to torment her Long-Suffering Mother; to quote James Agee, "an attempt is made to sell Mildred as noble when she is merely idiotic, or at best pathetic". Good-looking and memorably-designed, each space with its own character (taking Mildred from chintzy suburb to nightclub-like restaurant to faded old house), and performances generally live up to their reputation though Jack Carson steals the show, far as I'm concerned. Don't usually care about this stuff in old movies, but 'comic relief' involving stupid black maid seemed more than usually unnecessary.
NOUVELLE VAGUE (45) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1990): Thought I'd like this as much as ELOGE DE L'AMOUR, but maybe I need the Big Issues - Ages of Man, cultural imperialism, etc - to give shape to the snippets, aphorisms, endless movie references and stray moments of visual beauty (obviously didn't help that I saw it on a not-great video copy). This one's more about feelings - 'eloge de l'amour' - and philosophical questions of Memory and the past impinging on the present ("The present and past on top of each other, like two waves [hence the title] on the same ocean"), which may be a bit too diffuse for this already diffuse treatment; all part of late-Godard's ongoing project, which is to rescue us from the transience of the here-and-now (the line about our society being just a charming historical blip in the long run recurs in ELOGE). The attempt, as per one of the many captions - mostly referencing famous philosophical works - is to show the "true nature of things" as opposed to mere words, and the film is really about all the things going on beneath its wordy surface: Nature, sumptuously shot, is implicitly part of the solution - the venal capitalist talking endlessly of dollars tells his girlfriend to "admire Nature" in the same tone of voice as he tells her to admire the decor in their hotel room - and darkness is another part of the "true nature of things" (fades to black, lights going out in windows), a place where "things can hear what they really are". Above all is Memory - opening line: "Nothing external can affect my memory" - "the only paradise from which they can't chase us out" (though also, he immediately adds, a kind of hell we enter voluntarily); Godard is a man living in memories, purloining favourite quotes and wondering - like Walter Brennan in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT - if one can still be stung by a dead bee. Heavy going.
CHRISTINE (67) (John Carpenter, 1983): What's all this? Weak / misfit / weirdo anti-hero falls prey to dangerous passion and ends up destroying himself while his strong / popular / 'normal' friend keeps his head, saves the day and gets the girl? Surely not a case of the geek being punished for daring to act like a football player? (Arnie grows physically stronger as well as more arrogant; he and Dennis, though best friends, are locked in a zero-sum game - one's strength increases as the other's decreases.) In a way as reactionary as FATAL ATTRACTION, with Christine representing perverse sexuality - possessive-psychotic, not to mention an older woman! - which must be vanquished (along with those it taints) in order to confirm the status quo, yet also complicated in making its hero progressively less sympathetic (cf. Michael Douglas) and treating the ending as tragedy as well as triumph; also, really well acted (esp. by future directors Keith Gordon and John Stockwell) and showcasing Carpenter's expert sense of space, finding tension in the out-of-focus blur of car headlights approaching in a far corner of the frame. Liked this story better as THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, but still a potent mix of the fevered and trashy; also problematic, but that's part of the fun I suppose.
THE RIGHT STUFF (65) (Philip Kaufman, 1983): Caveat: saw a truncated 150-minute (as opposed to 193-minute) cut, which I'm sure made a difference because it all seemed to be cut much too fast, never really developing its characters. Still pretty sure I got the gist of what it's doing, which is to play the stirring macho-heroic stuff for laughs yet still emerge as stirring and macho (maybe even heroic) - a tough balancing act generally sustained, which is to say it's breezy and irreverent yet obviously sympathetic, but the laughs are a bit too cartoonish and the stirring stuff seemed a little lacking in personality (I'm afraid I don't really buy Sam Shepard as the strong silent Man Who Made This Country Great). Favourite scenes: the "What Gus is saying" bit and Ed Harris (superb) as John Glenn standing up for his shy wife against Lyndon Johnson; Dennis Quaid must've thought he was going to be such a big star after this movie...
A NOS AMOURS (71) (Maurice Pialat, 1983): A real shape-shifter, headed comfortably into 80+ territory then making a bizarre left turn that has you thinking "who are these people?" - everyone basically swerves into hysteria - then finding a new kind of grandeur in the climactic dinner-party scene, with our heroine swallowed up and all the neuroses out in the open; significant that Pialat also plays the father, whose actions trigger the characters but who then disappears, relinquishing any control over them - film itself gives the feel of controlled realism breaking down into irrational, exaggerated behaviour (Mike Leigh does this too sometimes), convincing only in a train-wreck way yet somehow enriching the realism. Heroine is the only normal - in the sense of easily accessible - character (mother impossibly shrill, brother split right down the middle, boyfriend inhumanly remote and beautiful), which is obviously ironic since everyone finds her obsessive need for love 'wrong' and incomprehensible. When did this loveable Sandrine Bonnaire, with the puppy-fat and goofy Hayley Mills grin, morph into the gaunt unsmiling Bonnaire we know and, uh, respect?
A NEW LIFE (64) (Olivier Assayas, 1993)
KOYAANISQATSI (47) (Godfrey Reggio, 1983): Closing titles claim there's an eco-Message here (title means "life out of balance" in Hopi), which I'm sorry no there isn't - not when the urban man-made spaces are just as beautiful as the 'natural' spaces, and indeed beautiful in exactly the same otherworldly way; rippling seas of clouds turn into slow billows of smoke out of smokestacks, rocket exploding in a thousand slo-mo fragments, car headlights tracing patterns in the city-by-night, etc (unless of course you think they can't be beautiful because they're cars and smokestacks, in which case enjoy the movie). Only really works as a kind of science fiction, making modern life look strange through an assortment of tricks (mostly the combination of time-lapse and Philip Glass's tolling score), but meanings are much less teased-out and poetic than in SANS SOLEIL, nor is the abstract dreaminess used for any kind of dramatic purpose, as in GERRY - it's all the same, with nothing to bump against. Footage of collapsing buildings unexpectedly poignant, ditto quick glimpse of Pac-Man and other early-80s videogames.
ONE FROM THE HEART (36) (Francis Coppola, 1982): Glitzy, bloated, intricately manufactured: might've been the perfect Vegas movie, at least if it were any kind of kitschy fun. Dull couple trade stale dialogue - might be the Banality of the Common Man (and Woman), except it seems they are intended to be sympathetic - finally embark on over-telegraphed, absurdly safe storyline. Tricksy visual texture, all invisible cuts, double exposures etc, smothers the movie, proclaiming Coppola's easy victory over his characters (see also RUMBLE FISH); Teri Garr and Raul Julia dance in a studio set then suddenly burst through a curtain and find themselves on a Vegas street, surrounded by people - except of course the street is also a set, this being explicitly (see closing caption) Coppola's paid advertisement for the resources available at his Zoetrope Studios. Spectacularly pretty, but also hollow and self-aggrandizing; an egomaniac showman tries to be romantic, and the result is a bouquet of roses that's as big as a house (fake, of course). Rare good moment: Nastassia Kinski's elfin reserve and sweetness-toughness when she says all our hero has to do is close his eyes and she'll disappear; "like spit on a griddle".
NATURAL BORN KILLERS (68) (Oliver Stone, 1994): Third viewing, first since it blew me away in '95; didn't blow me away this time, though much of it - esp. the climactic prison riot, and the second half generally - is still very impressive. Is it the Avid that's changed things, making this kind of breathless cutting much less of a big deal (even CHICAGO moves like a demon, fer chrissakes)? Is it that it looks too clean on DVD, not the grungy fuzzy thing I recall from the big screen? Is it that grunge in general is out of fashion (ditto the grim, we're-all-going-to-die end-of-millennium mood)? Is it that the whole thing is simply dated, too caught up in the brief mid-90s tizzy over celebrity killers (O.J., Menendez brothers, etc) to be very terrifying 10 years later? Is it just that I've become harder to terrify? Is that even a good thing?...
THE CINCINNATI KID (63) (Norman Jewison, 1965): Third viewing, first in many years; guess I kind of knew it wouldn't hold up. Proportion of Cool Stuff to Embarrassing Stuff roughly 60-40, the former including Edward G. Robinson and most of the mammoth poker game that takes up the last half-hour - above all the secret understanding between 'The Man' and 'The Kid', poker players extraordinaire - the latter being mostly Tuesday Weld in a simpering role and Mr. Jewison's flashy devices (which I once would've filed under Cool Stuff), from needless crane-shots in the early scenes to 'eyes' montage when the Jack of Diamonds is uncovered at the climax; not to mention overbaked New Orleans atmosphere and 'symbolic' little boy as Greek chorus. Still a good film, just not ... you know.
BREWSTER McCLOUD (57) (Robert Altman, 1970): Went in expecting a disaster but it actually goes down very smoothly, maybe because its rather lame central fable (bird-as-symbol-of-freedom, yawn) is just one of many running gags, also including a birdlike ornithologist giving useless bird info, increasingly bizarre series of killings, permanently pissed-off Texas sheriff ("Bewl-sheet"), out-of-town cop who insists his assistant call him by his first name - though he doesn't treat him as an equal, showing the hypocrisy of such shallow counter-culture - Sally Kellerman as mysterious 'bird lady', etc. All about individualism - hence the Altman style, giving everyone their freedom - but also the dangers of individualism: why can't Brewster be allowed to make love, losing his apart-ness as he loses his virginity? why must the cop's assistant call him "Frank" when he's obviously more comfortable with "sir"? Not the hippy-dippy anthem I expected - actually quite tough, even conservative in some ways (Icarus ends up getting burned); still just doodling, for the most part.
L'ECLISSE (60) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962): Impossible to describe Antonioni's limpid style in these early-60s movies, but 'ennui' is inadequate - more a sense of people losing their place in the world, impelled by larger forces which is what the camera's actually recording when it wanders round these mysterious urban spaces, rather than whatever stray people happen to be in the frame (see esp. the justly-famous final 10 minutes); there's a sense of the wayward and impulsive, a sense that anything can happen ("Look at that man," our heroine is told, and a stranger is pointed out - then followed for a while, then abandoned). It's hypnotic, and I'm tempted to rate the film stratospherically high - but L'AVVENTURA managed to connect the melancholy drift to specific sense of loss whereas here you feel the style is all there is, or (even worse) what's behind it is finger-wagging: characters get caught up in stock-market chaos (see the Dark Workings of Capitalism!), reveal their racism when they talk about Africans, etc. No-one else can make 'nothing happen' so breathtakingly, but are we expected to identify or disapprove? Or something else altogether? Discuss.
LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY (77) (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986): Visually the wildest Miyazaki of the four I've seen - massive cloudbanks, fire and smoke in psychedelic billows, skewed compositions, a city under fog, airships out of Jules Verne with turrets and massive propellers; also the most action-packed (you might call it his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK movie - just as ZU is Tsui Hark's - at least if both it and RAIDERS weren't already feeding on a much longer tradition of quests, pirates, fearless heroes, ancient amulets, etc.). As close to the experience of reading, and being enthralled by, an adventure comic - not a superhero mag but one of those "Tintin" deals where the hero is an enthusiastic amateur - as any film I know; but it does ramble a bit (isn't that part of the fun?) and I guess it didn't really have to be 125 minutes long, and the emotions seem a little thin compared to KIKI (which I think I may have underrated now). Best bit: the opening cliffhanger, followed by lilting Joe Hisaishi score.
MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE (86) (Alain Resnais, 1980): Enjoyed it with my cerebral cortex, my "memory brain", even my reptilian brain (no I'm not babbling; watch the movie), though - as in JE T'AIME JE T'AIME, which it resembles (is that the same white mouse?) - the basic story isn't quite as interesting as the layers piled on top of it ("All of [Resnais'] features treat romance with a surprising banality" - D. Thomson). Still incredibly stimulating, because it treats its characters as complex beings with their own prehistories - montage of random moments for each one, from childhood transgressions to what they do in bed, at work, in church; everyone is so unique (I love the idea of lives expressed in randomly plucked moments; if only DEFENDING YOUR LIFE hadn't chickened out on the idea) - then watches their (i.e. our) humanity take shape as a kind of natural scientific phenomenon. A film, in the most explicit sense, about what it means to be human, which isn't necessarily what the resident expert, behavioural scientist Henri Laborit, defines it as (which is why the film is more than an illustrated lecture) - we learn enough of the characters' secrets to draw our own conclusions, and besides Laborit gets his own moments-montage (he too is only human); impulse to dominate - i.e. aggression - as defining human factor is a good theory but what about e.g. the Nicole Garcia character's self-sacrifice? Restless, complicated (fun, too); in its twisty egghead way, a masterpiece.
NINOTCHKA (79) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939): Second viewing, prompted by the lukewarm response from various younger cinephiles (not you guys again!) at recent E.L. retro. What's the problem? Suave romantic comedy made at the height of the Stalin show-trials with the world about to go to war - hard to imagine Hollywood coming up with anything similar today on (e.g.) Islamists in the US - taking a stand on the issues yet also playing as an ode to hedonism, silliness and laughter. Perfectly-weighted banter, throwaway lines both funny and wise ("If you don't care about food, what do you care about?" "The future of the common people!" "That is also a question of food"), impressively grown-up politics making clear the Communists are awful but what came before was more awful still. All in all a brilliant balancing act, though admittedly the second hour isn't as effortless as the first (also, Garbo's hat makes her look like a munchkin). Definition of an actress in command over every facial muscle: Ninotchka's approximately four-stage reaction to her first-ever sip of champagne.
FALLEN ANGEL (65) (Otto Preminger, 1945): Starts as a lost noir masterpiece - streetlights and fog; a good woman and a dark woman; romantic obsession; shady characters with obscure motivations; Preminger's camera tailing the characters at a cool remove - doesn't exactly fall apart but goes off in too many directions to maintain its tension. Still masterly, above all in parceling out sympathy to a very unsympathetic hero - victim of Life, victim of amour fou but also a manipulative con-man and cold-blooded liar; whole film constantly forces us to re-think our attitudes to the characters (esp. Charles Bickford as the authority figure who mutates into a psycho), and Preminger's taste for psychologically damaged heroes even stronger here than in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (though, as in that film, colourless Dana Andrews is the weak link, far as I'm concerned). 'Interesting' more than satisfying, and they should've done more with the great John Carradine as a fake medium; still very much worth watching.
THE MERRY WIDOW (62) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1934): I'm slowly realising that Lubitsch - at least in these 30s comedies - needs to be viewed in the way of someone like Guy Maddin, not so much a narrative as a choreographed ballet with conspicuous cinematic effects that, far from being incidental, are in fact the point. Key moment is perhaps the gag about the letter in code, because codes are what this director deals in, the gap between appearance and reality - the code of love between a man and a woman (so that when she says she hates him it really means she loves him) and of course the social code that dictates what can be shown and what remains behind closed doors; the famous 'touch' depends entirely on what's offscreen - most deliciously in the gag with the king and the sword-belt, which is just about perfect - though Lubitsch isn't endorsing the hypocrisy by leaving things unseen; rather, as Dan Sallitt points out, the style is really an act of generosity, "allowing the characters the grace and composure that they would like to present to the world". This one's kind of all over the place, and Jeanette MacDonald is already in the shrill-diva mode of her operetta films with Nelson Eddy, but every once in a while it does something so elegant it takes your breath away. Most romantic (and logistically complicated) moment: the couple quarrel out on the balcony, then Maurice Chevalier suddenly sweeps up MacDonald and they start to dance - and, as the camera moves to the right (from MS to wide-shot) to follow them, dozens of dancing couples stream in unison through the French windows, enfolding them in a frame full of whirling dancers. Whoa. [Second viewing 7 years later, similar reaction - a lumpy, patchy, sometimes lovely mix of crazy comedy and elegant disquisition on Sex vs. True Love, hampered by the fact that True Love is played by Jeanette MacDonald - but I'd also like to add (just for the record): Una Merkel's ditzy perfection; "The Morning Moo, A Paper for Table and Stable"; the King pinning, taking back and re-pinning a medal on Edward Everett Horton in the course of a single conversation; "From now on, counsel will refer to 'Exhibit No. 2' as 'Witness No. 1'."]
JULY 1, 2003
PERFECT STRANGERS (US title: VACATION FROM MARRIAGE) (74) (Alexander Korda, 1945): One of those films (like HOPE AND GLORY) where WW2 becomes an enabler, shaking a dull couple out of their staid, musty lives; James Agee is right that it might've been more psychologically truthful for the couple to sink back into their pre-war selves in the final act - I had the same thought - but it would've also gone against its whole allegorical weight whereby the couple = Britain itself, irrevocably changed by the experience and now having (just like devastated London) to rebuild itself, which is not the same as going back to the way things were. Maybe a little too broad - the couple are so mousy at first, and so glamorous and articulate at the end - but the BRIEF ENCOUNTER-like tenderness for small people leading humdrum lives brought me close to tears (esp. when Robert Donat in MR. CHIPS mode describes his life, and Deborah Kerr later describes how the two of them first met) and the whole thing is full of neat touches, like the darkness that initially obscures their new selves when they reunite (it's important that they speak their mind before seeing each other). Funny and literate, with deadpan wit - Kerr, still a mouse: "I don't use lipstick, my husband doesn't like it"; new friend Glynis Johns (mock-horrified): "Oh, well then you must never use it! Never!" - not to mention its abiding fascination as a mirror of how war changed Britain. US cut is 10 minutes shorter, possibly explaining the slightly abrupt ending.
THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (61) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927): Really digging all these Lubitsches, but it's odd how they all seem to start and finish really well but stall in the middle; maybe it's because that's when the plot takes over ('prince loves commoner', in this case) and the plots are mostly dated and uninteresting, most of the fun coming in the style and incidental gags. Fine incidentals here - heroine forgetting her lines when she welcomes the prince and being prompted by increasingly hysterical parents, Jean Hersholt as the wise old tutor blocked out by well-wishers so he gradually recedes further and further from his former pupil (visually representing his obsolescence) - but it's all a bit stodgy and a bit of a drag, partly redeemed by the tear-jerking (but effective) climax. Nice example of the 'Lubitsch touch': camera tracks with hero as he chases heroine down a path in the forest, catching up with her just as they both disappear behind a tree - and camera moves on without batting an eye, stopping just past the tree and staring at the empty path for a good ten seconds (punctuated by a dog wandering in and out of frame) before heroine finally totters into view, looking flustered and just-been-kissed...
MONTE CARLO (74) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1930): First half-hour is just delightful, with Claud Allister (as the twit of a Count our heroine refuses to marry) a figure straight out of P.G. Wodehouse, morals generally loose and the cast breaking into song at the slightest provocation, René Clair-style (reaching a peak of adorable silliness in an ode to the joys of hairdressing, "Trimmin' the Women"). That said, songs aren't always great - needed a Rodgers and Hart to do it justice - and the plot runs out of steam a little, though the resolution (heroine sorts out her problems via watching a play whose plot mirrors her life) is a clever wink-and-nudge, given how unabashedly artificial and un-lifelike the film is. Blithe, funny, altogether splendid trifle, standing up surprisingly well - not least technically - after 73 years.
ANGEL (81) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937): Really more of a high-70s movie, with a couple of points added in awed recognition of how elegant and debonair everyone is (when did romantic comedy go from this to Nora Ephron?); may be the purest expression of the Lubitsch style, whittling the characters down to a meaningful smile or raised eyebrow, his famous 'touch' being of course a tease - but a tease designed to conceal pain (often dependent on leaving things offscreen), whether playing Angel's departure off the old flower seller (with a practical note at the end as she retrieves her bunch of flowers) or leaving us in delicious suspense over the business of the hidden photo. As with our heroine's climactic plea for her husband not to open the door to the next room, one gets a sense that a tiny action - turning a door knob, looking at a photo - could cause the whole thing to collapse, and it's really the fragility of this elegant world and its preternaturally composed inhabitants that makes the whole experience so bittersweet. Marlene Dietrich is iconic and remarkable - as many have noted, this is really Lubitsch's Von Sternberg movie - Melvyn Douglas and Herbert Marshall never more urbane; lacks something in plot, and there's moments in the second half when you feel everyone's just standing around flaunting their sophistication. Final shot makes up for a lot, however.
BROKEN LULLABY / THE MAN I KILLED (49) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932): Wrecked by some incredibly creaky performances: it's almost like the actors have been directed to move in slow motion and insert Significant Pauses before each line of dialogue, making you wonder what Lubitsch thought he was up to. Charitable interpretation might be he's trying for a stylised dreamlike feel, more common interpretation is he's just being portentously solemn, as befits the Important subject; certainly very sincere, full of a German exile's concern at post-WW1 German bitterness, esp. with a new war on the horizon ("Last time it was 9 million dead! Next time might be 90!" says our hero prophetically). Village atmosphere is rather amusing, in an exaggerated way - whiskered burghers talking politics over sauerbraten and beer, rotund biddies gossiping in the street ("Did you really see it, Frau Stein?" "With my own eyes, Frau Klein!") - film itself quite intriguing when it's not being absurdly dated. The final shot - panning slowly with Nancy Carroll from our hero playing Beethoven on the violin of The Man He Killed, moving closer and down with her as she unlocks the piano, then away to the old couple sitting transfixed on the couch as piano music joins in offscreen - is really quite beautiful.
THE BIG HEAT (76) (Fritz Lang, 1953) [second viewing]
THE AVIATOR'S WIFE (73) (second viewing: 79) (Eric Rohmer, 1980): Might've liked this (even) more if I hadn't seen it on a shoddy, washed-out-looking DVD (you suck, Winstar); visuals are deceptively important in Rohmer, which is partly why MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S is still my favourite. This one's basically about solipsism - aren't they all? - and how we're all wrapped up in our own problems and unable to grasp other people's situations: the plot hinges on a misunderstanding, and constantly upends things we take for granted, esp. emotionally - it's shocking when the Marie Rivière character, sidelined in the film's middle section and taken for granted as the Experienced Older Woman (contrasting with the childish, quasi-farcical goings-on), suddenly reveals the full extent of her vulnerability. Everyone in the film is wrong about everybody else - the young girl about Rivière's intentions, the hero about the identity of the 'other woman', Rivière about the aviator's feelings towards her, etc. - building to a surprisingly sad final scene, the opening 'proverb' - "It's impossible to think of nothing" - suggesting we often bring these problems on ourselves (surely there'd be no more misunderstandings if we all just stopped thinking and theorising and just took people as we found them). Poignant, amusing and insightful, if not as immediately loveable as THE GREEN RAY or PAULINE AT THE BEACH (I just like the summery ones more); if Criterion bring out a spiffed-up edition, I'm there. [Second viewing, June 2014: much better-looking DVD may have helped (thanks, Arrow) - but what really delighted me this time was the structural feint of abandoning the ostensible heroine (with her various dilemmas and frustrations) for an entire second act when it charmingly regresses into Nancy Drew adventure with a side of chaste teenage flirtation, only to return to push-pull neurotic dynamics in the final stretch. The main theme still derives from the opening proverb, of course - "It's impossible to think of nothing", what we think about being invariably our own little worlds; our hero is explicitly reminded, not once but twice, that other people have their own hidden problems - but the glimpse of an innocent idyll where relationship bullshit is forgotten is beautifully done, then the ending tweaks (and complicates) matters just right. Some may still discern a dodgy Message that nubile teen girls are better than neurotic grown women, but I reckon that's their problem.]
CARRIE (83) (Brian De Palma, 1976): Grand Guignol in a white-hot style, utterly compelling and intense; the climax has been called cruel and excessive - sympathetic characters die with the bad ones, etc - but I think it's one of those cases where irrationality has its own power: caught between two rigid belief-systems - her mother's fundamentalism and the high-school social hierarchy - Carrie's rebellion has to be irrational, lashing out at the world and whoever she feels like (to quote William Munny: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it"). De Palma's florid, full-on romanticism - the over-ripe mix of tender sensuality and morbid violence anticipates THE VIRGIN SUICIDES - is as important as his stylistic brio and flair for audacious touches (e.g. Piper Laurie's beatific smile at her final crucifixion). Cheap in some ways, but also extraordinary: a film buff's dream that's also a genuine crowd-pleaser.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (69) (Nicolas Roeg, 1976): So much brilliance, to so little purpose ... No-one's making films like this anymore, and fragile David Bowie is remarkable in the title-role, and Roeg weaves a spell with his zooms and cross-cuts and random, hallucinatory images (scene where Bowie zaps through endless TV channels, movie clips crashing into each other DJ Shadow-style, would unfortunately cost a fortune nowadays); but nothing carries any weight, the plot flutters briefly then collapses on itself (instead of remaining completely abstract, which might've worked) and the spell is broken, ending up as a bit of a chore. A failure, but the first half at least is seriously mind-blowing.
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (79) (Ingmar Bergman, 1955): Part RULES OF THE GAME, esp. the climactic country-house party (cross-cutting between Upstairs and Downstairs), part Oscar Wilde, with rich people slinging jaded aphorisms like "Patience [the card game] is the only thing in life that calls for absolute morality", part Ophuls, though actually improved - pace David Thomson - by its glittering quality and absence of "warmth and sadness". Resisted it for a while, probably because I'd just finished watching another very formalist comedy [see below], but performances are elegant, soft lighting and deep-focus compositions often sublime, theme of hopeless struggle for dignity in a world predicated on the twin forces of lust and humiliation is very poignant, and the ending - with everyone more-or-less finding happiness, and the coarse coachman's triumphant cry, "There is no better life than this life!" - literally had me in tears. A cinch for an 80+ on second viewing.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (66) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (65) (Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], 1924): The ultimate masochistic male weepie: embittered scientist, betrayed by his wife and best friend, becomes a circus clown whose act consists entirely of being slapped in the face while people laugh at him. Terrific first half, playing out the corny-yet-potent premise (nice circus detail too, esp. the moth-eaten orchestra), let down by middle section in which the great Lon Chaney hardly appears at all, then rather silly climax with about half the cast devoured by a circus lion (!). Sjostrom does a stylish job, with optical effects (double exposures, globe dissolving into a ring of clowns), imaginative cross-cutting, etc - not to mention downright philosophical intertitles - but the second half still feels truncated; historical interest as the first MGM production and pretty good example of the 20s blockbuster.
ROBIN HOOD OF EL DORADO (69) (William A. Wellman, 1936): Actually more of a Zorro or Zapata - except the tyrants are American settlers, making the film a surprisingly frank tale of injustice (even the neutral figure of the lawyer pretty much admits the US stole California from the Mexicans). Wellman films in bold, vivid strokes with a taste for violence, like a proto-Sam Fuller - lingering on saintly mother, hero's fresh young fiancée (clearly doomed, pushing him over the edge into banditry), the whistle of the lash at a public whipping - never losing sympathy even as it becomes clear the rebels must be defeated in the name of law and order; even J. Carrol Naish as the frankly psychotic sidekick isn't judged, more a mischievous child with an itchy trigger-finger. Worth recalling in these days of 'terrorists' and America-boosting, but pretty powerful even in itself: shoot-out climax has the poignant resonance of good people in a bad situation that's really nobody's fault.
JUNE 1, 2003
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (57) (Busby Berkeley, 1949): Best seen as a dry run for ON THE TOWN, with most of the same personnel but Kelly/Donen not directing and (most importantly, perhaps) Comden and Green not supplying the script. Songs plentiful but unmemorable, Kelly himself a little over-manic, and the boisterous red-blooded ever-so-slightly-homoerotic high spirits - redoubled by the sports setting - start to grate after a while (on the other hand, there's none of the deadly ballet stuff that almost sinks ON THE TOWN); generally second-best, e.g. Betty Garrett has a song where she pursues shy Frank Sinatra (his "little feller" manchild routine is a bit bizarre) but it's no "Come Up to My Place", and Kelly and Sinatra do a number with Jules Munshin but it's no "On the Town". Rare subtle moment: an oversized baseball bat is produced, and President Theodore Roosevelt poses with the "big stick".
CIMARRON (54) (Wesley Ruggles, 1931): Not good, but immensely interesting: first, as a film about the building of the West just a couple of decades after the fact, with the melting-pot in full effect and an epilogue bringing the characters to the time when the film was made; second, for its weirdly gratuitous religious references, presumably meant to bolster the comment that the settling of America was akin to "a miracle out of the Old Testament" (the otherwise far-from-pious hero quotes from the Bible, doubles as a minister, kills the chief troublemaker - ergo bringing civilisation - during a sermon, and at one point intervenes when a Jew is 'crucified' by bullies who make him topple back against a wall with his arms spreadeagled); third and most important, for its startling pro-Indian sentiments - "robbed of their birthright," rants our hero - suggesting that contemporary Americans did feel guilty over what their government had done, before a later generation dismissed the Indians as bloodthirsty savages and a still-later one rehabilitated them (isn't that always the way it goes?). As a film, almost unwatchably disjointed, giving the impression of a really bad adaptation - naturally it won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay - that faithfully follows the first part of a book then runs out of time, trying to cram all the remaining parts in a single hour. If they had TV mini-series back in 1931, THE FRONT PAGE wouldn't have been robbed of its Best Picture Oscar in my opinion.
WHITY (52) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971): Peter Berling's wacky account of "The Making of WHITY" (excerpted in the excellent "Movies", ed. Gilbert Adair) is no doubt exaggerated, but even if the tales of no-budget chaos and constant bad behaviour are only part-true - "Fassbinder would start the day demanding ten Cuba libres, rum and Coca-Cola. He would drink nine and throw the tenth at the cameraman" - they still confirm (yet again) what an ephemeral process film-making is, conjuring beautiful or effective moments even when there's minimal resources and everyone's too spaced-out or caught up in their squabbles to consciously 'create Art'. Clearly shambolic, yet the Western trappings (horses and Stetsons, signs and saloon songs in English though of course everyone speaks German), florid design detail - baubles, cherubs, gaudy costumes - Black Power politics and affectless performances do create a certain tension, powerfully broken when Fassbinder finally goes all-out into melodrama (esp. when the will is read, w/camera hurtling from face to face); and of course it's fun that the most retarded white man is also the whitest (an albino), and of course Fassbinder-esque that sexuality is constantly equated with pain and punishment. Nobody's idea of a great film (I hope); still...
THE FLY (78) (David Cronenberg, 1986): Second viewing, and talk about newfound appreciation (first viewing, 16 years ago [gasp!], was in the 40s; 1984-86 is a time when I really don't trust my original opinions, for reasons too boring to go into). Stark and spare as a classical tragedy - starts without preamble, ends without epilogue, focuses almost entirely on three people - beautifully acted and proportioned. All I can really say against it is that it wears its ambition on its sleeve: you know it's trying the impossible, out to fuse disgusting gross-out effects and ultra-romantic love story - just as the plot is about the fusion of man and insect (coincidence? I think not) - making it not quite organic, more a dare that works spectacularly well. When the sight of a loathsome bug-eyed mutant creature lifting our heroine's gun with its claw, putting the barrel to its head - silently begging her to put it out of its misery - brings a lump to the throat, you know you're in the presence of something extraordinary. Also perhaps the most compassionate reading of the 'scientist who tried to play God' scenario: as in VIDEODROME and DEAD RINGERS, Science is obsessed - and finally destroyed - by "the Flesh", but at least now there's Love at the end of it all. Aww...
LARCENY, INC. (67) (Lloyd Bacon, 1942): Well, what d'you know - this is the movie Woody Allen was riffing on for the first half of SMALL TIME CROOKS! Set-up identical, though Woody obviously made more of the gag about the legit 'cover' business ending up more successful than the heist itself; based on a play, hence the constant farcical exits and entrances, but lively and well-maintained almost to the end (a stronger ending might've put it in the Hon. Mention zone). Edward G. Robinson coasts enjoyably, totally softening his already-soft gangster-capitalist from SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER - reunited with the director of that film, plus gratifyingly large role for bug-eyed, fire-hydrant-shaped Edward Brophy, Jackie Gleason hilarious in tiny cameo, Broderick Crawford as the kind of amiable lug who, if this were a kids' cartoon, would be a big clumsy dog with a hee-haw voice. "This job should be done with finesse"; "Who's dat, boss?".
FELLINI SATYRICON (47) (Federico Fellini, 1970): Fellini does Ancient Rome as a plotless pageant, with Love and Death in constant tug-of-war; the idea is poetry through earthiness - living "half your life in the bowels of the earth, the other half in a golden dwelling in the sky", as the resident poet puts it, and he's possibly the Fellini figure, starting out as a kind of court jester to a rich philistine, ending up rich and powerful himself, playing jokes even after Death by willing his 'friends' a cut of his fortune if they'll eat his dead body (they're too greedy to decline). Middle-aged greed and debauchery vs. youthful lust and joie de vivre seems to be the main dynamic, not to mention orgies - cf. DOLCE VITA - with slaves and catamites and jewel-encrusted women with pancake makeup and come-hither looks; trouble is finding a thread - what does it mean, e.g. when our young hero becomes temporarily impotent? - because the characters are non-characters (we don't know if the film is sympathising, teasing his wounded machismo or making some larger point about accepting bisexuality). Undisciplined quality makes for a relaxed rhythm, esp. since it starts in darkness and moves into sunlight, but it's certainly not deep, or exciting, or one-hundredth as evocative as reading (or watching) "I, Claudius" - though some of the visuals are admittedly striking, in a theatrical way. Fellini-style circus also includes a nympho, a Minotaur, a woman with fire in her loins (literally!) and a hermaphrodite seer. Yeah, whatever...
KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (77) (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989): Beautiful, heartwarming, etc., but reaction may depend on one's response to the scene where Kiki's black cat is forced to impersonate a stuffed toy - in a house with a little boy and a large dog - while she searches for the real toy so she can replace it; you expect Jiji (that's the cat) to get bashed around cartoonishly till his mistress finally turns up to rescue him, but in fact everyone is very nice, the dog turns out to be an ally and Kiki and Jiji go home talking about their "wonderful adventure". Anti-climax for some people, but a welcome change from the adversarial quality of most cartoons imho, and it's certainly refreshing to see a more Japanese set of values: independence, self-assertion and parental authority barely come into it, emphasis is totally on kindness, community and burgeoning emotion - witchcraft turning out to be a metaphor, the natural magic of childhood curdling into adolescence when everything is suddenly awkward and impossible. Almost ruined the experience by watching the first 10 mins. in subtitled version, then re-watching them dubbed then finally deciding to watch the whole thing with subtitles - which were indeed a distraction, but hearing familiar Disney-babble and Jiji voiced in brassy Nathan Lane fashion seemed even more alien to the film's gentle good humour. As with SPIRITED AWAY, I don't think I can really explain why I love this so much (even beyond the charming hand-drawn style and Joe Hisaishi's score lapping like wavelets on a beach); but I do.
IF... (71) (Lindsay Anderson, 1968): Second viewing, first in many years. Seen right after WEEKEND, and what is it with these late-60s counter-culture flicks and their final-reel meltdowns? No doubt a result of being made at a time when Revolution - in its vaguest form - was an aim in itself, and a line like "Violence and rebellion are the only pure acts" could still get a 'Right on!' from the audience. Terribly patchy, but constantly inventive and trying things out (sometimes ludicrous and great at the same time, e.g. meeting the girl in the coffee shop), and entirely fascinating as a hellish portrait of the English public school; alarming, human, often very funny detail of the first half - new kid having to memorise the official school nicknames for masters, headmaster and townspeople ("bloody oiks"), teachers using classrooms for languid self-indulgence or petty sadism, boys treating a master's wife (an actual woman in their midst!) with exaggerated solicitude - more than makes up for messy climax and half-baked surreal touches (which ironically are what made it famous). Not as well-controlled or sophisticated as ZERO DE CONDUITE, but I'm pretty sure I like it more.
WEEKEND (63) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967): Godard's state-of-the-nation address (the title appears in red, white and blue), though all he really says is the nation is fucked-up and bourgeois materialist society is rotten to the core, putting his middle-class couple through the wringer with only occasional fourth-wall-breakage allowing them to fight back ("This film stinks: all we ever meet are crazy people!"). Clearly a director at the peak of his powers - the woman's sexual confession, growing ever more surreal, shot in a single deliberately indistinct medium-shot; the dreamy Mozart interlude expressed in three slow 360-degree pans - and the early scenes feel like a Blier satire (yes, I know Blier came later) in the way outrageous behaviour spirals out of nothing at all. Often brilliant, till it stops being brilliant (or even very good): final half-hour is conceptually intriguing - e.g. in that the rebels are cannibals, suggesting they're really no different than the people they rebel against (a caption puts a big cross through the name of their organisation) - but shapeless and tedious, merely of historical interest as a document of late-60s militancy. Kind of significant that the (real-life) killing of a pig is by far the most shocking image, showing up the artificial provocations of the rest of it, though it's doubtless a paradox Godard was aware of (hence the notorious exchange: "Your films have a lot of blood"; "Not blood. Red"). The film of a man on the verge of giving up in disgust, and it shows.
THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (80) (Jean Eustache, 1973)
THE WESTERNER (59) (William Wyler, 1940): Wyler (or DP Gregg Toland) shows his pictorial flair, though the stylistic touches tend to call attention to themselves - a shot through the spokes of a wagon-wheel, or a pan from a fist-fight to the two men's shadows on the ground as they duke it out. Inadequate heroine, a plot that never really gets anywhere and a climactic shoot-out that tries something different (set in a theatre auditorium instead of the usual dusty street) but just feels anti-climactic; the main attraction is undoubtedly Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, one of the most original characters in Westerns - a ruthless villain who's also a comic figure and charming old reprobate (a scene where he and his cohorts railroad our hero is played for laughs, with a horse in the saloon and much Walter Brennan huffing and puffing); his battle of wills with hero Gary Cooper, turning into almost-friendship, is the weirdest mix of tension and good humour. Not exactly classic, but interesting.
MAY 1, 2003
BOMBSHELL (76) (Victor Fleming, 1933): Just a lot of words strung together really fast, I guess - not much in the way of plot, or even style - but still irresistible; passing reference to "a world thinned out by war and famine" is a joke, but it's still worth remembering these pre-Code movies come from a sad, volatile time - hence perhaps the cynicism and constant hustling energy, as if breathless pace could outrun the problems. Jean Harlow is a strange sex symbol, almost grotesque with her over-ripe features and platinum-blonde mane, but the combination of that and good-heartedness (she's always so game, such a good sport) is immensely appealing (you feel a power, like she's seen and done it all yet never lost her sense of humour), and Lee Tracy gets his second-best role - after BLESSED EVENT - not the least of his talents being how he can talk in rat-a-tat streams yet you always catch every word (harder than it looks). Elsewhere, Franchot Tone is the blueblood who courts our girl with poetry ("Your hair is like a field of daisies. I would like to run barefoot through your hair"), and even C. Aubrey Smith kids his crusty-old-coot persona; nothing's allowed to dull the heartless high spirits, neither love nor family values. This is what it feels like to be young - a young medium in a young country. Razor-sharp.
THE NUN (68) (Jacques Rivette, 1966)
THE NUN'S STORY (61) (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)
SEVEN CHANCES (75) (second viewing: 74) (Buster Keaton, 1925): Rating's trying to be objective, hence completely unreliable: this is one of those dream-films (like SHERLOCK JUNIOR), less than an hour long, which moves to its own lovely rhythm though not everything works, objectively. Seldom laugh-out-loud funny - which is really my problem with all the Keatons I've seen - but it builds ever more surreally climaxing in ever-more nightmarish chase, the horde of women moving like an unstoppable monster (they invade a church, take over a bus and throw out the driver, roar through a football field leaving both teams flattened in their wake), chase shifting from the city to ever-more inhospitable country, finally capped by the unforgettable image of Buster running down the hillside dwarfed by landslide of monster-sized boulders (so what if they were papier-mâché, those things could so easily have flattened him if something went wrong). Pre-chase stuff is patchy, but I liked the dog growing progressively more huge to mark passage of time in funny (Technicolor!) prologue, and memorably deadpan encounter with a hat-check girl; oh and yes, a couple of jokes involve blacks and blackface - this is 1925, I mean jesus...
MISS PINKERTON (33) (Lloyd Bacon, 1932): Early-30s Hollywood rulez, but this is a very ordinary mystery, set in the kind of old house where things go bump in the night and a sinister butler is forever listening at people's doors. Plot twists and turns but it's all pretty witless, distinguished only by the presence of saucer-eyed Joan Blondell as our heroine, giving her (second-rate) lines the usual irresistible sassy warmth; best bit's possibly when the hunky cop finally asks if she'll go to the movies with him, and she turns away in mock-concern and sighs "And me so young!". At least it's only 66 minutes...
SILVERADO (69) (Lawrence Kasdan, 1985): Second viewing, and a pleasant surprise; hadn't liked it much when it first came out, but I saw it on TV and thought what the hell - and it's really entertaining, though admittedly it simmers more often than it comes to the boil. Smart lines, actors take their moments (Kevin Costner's manic energy is a revelation even when you know it's coming, and even dour hero Scott Glenn gets some cool bits when he's shooting the spikes off a cactus just because he can, or later when he signals the beginning of the action climax by taking off his head-band, stripping for action); loose, capacious structure moves easily from one confrontation to another, but what's most intriguing is perhaps the philosophy, frequent references to "luck" and "gambling" reinforcing a view of Life as hidden cosmic forces pushing us along seemingly at random - which was also Kasdan's message, more explicitly, in GRAND CANYON (not just fatalism, because there's also a knowledge that "the world is whatever you make it"; happiness lies in reconciling the two, using humility as a source of strength). Eccentric touches - John Cleese as English sheriff - come off, action thankfully non-ironic but resolutely cheerful and non-portentous (Kasdan should've watched this again before making WYATT EARP), personal sensibility definitely there if you look hard enough. Little bit too long, probably.
KWAIDAN (70) (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964): Gives the feeling it could go on forever (but in a good way) : Kobayashi's pace is so deliberate, and the images always so beautiful, and the compositions simultaneously airy and meticulous (wide-screen wide-shots, with stylised backdrops and people organised superbly around the frame), and the plot(s) serviceable and absorbing yet curiously unnecessary. Took a while to get into it, actually, because the first story (of four) is the least interesting and the style doesn't really translate too well to video - but it casts a spell, and it's really incredibly gorgeous even when it's coming on like Roger Corman's cheapo Edgar Allan Poe movies of the 60s (fourth story especially seems very Poe-like in its unmotivated macabre-ness). Can't believe the second story - by far the creepiest - was the one left out of the original export cut, incidentally. Why are those Japanese chicks with the expressionless faces and long straight hair so damn scary?...
THE CROSSING GUARD (54) (Sean Penn, 1995): Second viewing ; saw it again because some people are saying it's better than THE SON, which it isn't obviously - that much is clear from the first 10 minutes, with their flashy shock-cuts from the earnest emotion of a support-group to the seedy glitz of a strip-joint. Liked it more this time, mostly because of the actors - David Morse's near-mystical composure in the scene where Nicholson first confronts him in the trailer is uncanny, though Nicholson himself overdoes the hollow-shell-of-a-man routine - but it's all so contrived (and pretentious). It's contrived when someone makes a speech about Compassion at a party - that being da Theme of da Movie - contrived when Robin Wright Penn says "Let's dance" instead of answering, contrived when Morse meets a madwoman on the bus, contrived when Jack gets impromptu redemption from a scared little girl ; final shot is most contrived of all, which is kind of silly since the film's trying for Cassavetes-style life-on-the-hoof. Weird Serendipity Dept.: Penelope Allen co-stars as the madwoman, which I'd never have known except I'd made a note of her name just a couple of hours earlier after being stunned by her performance in SCARECROW (also, both films were DP'd by Vilmos Zsigmond). Weird.
SCARECROW (66) (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973): Unique Al Pacino performance, looking vulnerable and amazingly boyish (almost newly-hatched) ; never seen him like this before, and Gene Hackman also excellent as truculent paranoid drifter - "I'm the meanest sumbitch alive" - with whom he wanders through dusty American hinterland (another of those miraculous 70s films to evoke that forgotten vastness). Restless first half is the better, mucho inconclusive conversations ("Have you ever seen the dawn from a ship?") in diners and the wagons of freight trains, eccentric behaviour and memorable party scene culminating in Pacino leading a conga-line of revellers through a Denver bar to the strains of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" (almost immediately followed by a brawl breaking out in the parking-lot). Some things caught exactly right, behaviourally-speaking, but the script is trite, taking the worst from MIDNIGHT COWBOY (e.g. the dream we know will never be fulfilled) and horribly sticky ending, Hackman weeping over Pacino's catatonic body - though the actual ending is a gloriously bizarre final shot of Hackman banging his shoe on a counter at a railway station, which is typical. Dull structure, great incidentals, Pacino's phone call to a former lover almost as mesmerising as the similar (yet totally different) scene in DOG DAY AFTERNOON ; how to reconcile obvious homoerotic undertones with the film's rabid fear of gay sex, though?...
KING OF HEARTS (39) (Philippe de Broca, 1966): Broad cartoonish strokes - British officers drink tea, Germans laugh heartily and have names like Hamburger - quite enjoyable for a while, but increasingly something of an endurance test after the lunatics escape from the asylum and create a proto-hippy community that's so much purer and (yes!) saner than our own (everything is shared, emphasis on love and pleasure, "all life is spectacle"). Lots of running around, lots of quirkiness, ironic ending making for an anti-War message ; the kind of nudge-you-in-the-ribs feelgood foreign flick that still breaks out of the arthouse ghetto even today, only today they're called MOSTLY MARTHA and PAULINE & PAULETTE. Not good.
LE PETIT SOLDAT (65) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
THE ASSASSIN (64) (Elio Petri, 1961): One of those thrillers - actually a whodunit - that's in fact a character study, done with a very welcome sardonic sense of humour: vain, devious hero played to perfection by Mastroianni, and the bit where he tries to prove his innocence by insisting his dog won't bark during a reconstruction of the crime (the dog barks straight away, of course) is both very funny and emblematic of his problem - he thinks people aren't 'on' to him, maybe even thinks he's liked, whereas in fact he's the sucker. Nice throwaway gags - woman, asked by the cops to identify Marcello from a photo where he stands beside a statue, identifies the guy in the statue instead - and at least one great scene, when he recalls the beggar he could've saved from suicide. Careful, almost novelistic texture let down by patchy structure; doesn't add up to very much, in the end.
THE WORKING CLASS GOES TO HEAVEN (41) (Elio Petri, 1972): Deliberately conceived as a crude, in-your-face polemic - Morricone's score suggests a war, or perhaps a world stripped of finer feeling - but it's hard to stomach the belligerence when it's in the service of a shapeless plot, a one-dimensional hero and a view of factory life no more complex than the one in MODERN TIMES (minus the inspired slapstick, natch). Very dated, and the flashy technique doesn't help - though I missed 15 mins. in the middle when our hero goes from bosses' lapdog to workers' hero, which may have been clever and ironic. Or not.
NIGHT AND THE CITY (73) (Jules Dassin, 1950): Overheated mix of things, most very good - and the mixing itself is part of the fun, with the film noir look (silhouettes in light, very stark chiaroscuro) bumping up against the exoticism of the wrestlers, sleazy robustness of the Francis Sullivan figure, emotional currents of the father-son dynamic, Hollywood feel of Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe, etc: it's a film that seems to be made up of several little boxes, each wildly different, lined up together in a striking whole. Plot doesn't always click - too much going on perhaps, e.g. Sullivan's wife who must be strung along (her nightclub idea could've been excised altogether), ending in a too-abrupt resolution as she comes back to find her husband dead and the money gone - but the messiness only adds to the vivid Dickensian-London feel (see also the 'beggar king' and other colourful figures on the fringes). Richard Widmark's hustler - nothing but trouble, constantly perched on the edge of hysteria - may well be his best role.
I FIDANZATI (78) (Ermanno Olmi, 1962): Astonishing evocation of mood, village life and the sense of being a stranger in a strange place, full of small human moments - the waiter in the restaurant volunteering personal troubles apropos of nothing; unable to sleep on the first night and going for a cup of coffee at the tiny cafe across the street, the feel of closing-time and the young boy rushing to finish so he can catch his bus; the masked dance, the final rainstorm - above all the graceful way flashbacks are mixed in, all joined together with music. Ends surprisingly, with the fiancée suddenly taking on much more importance, though the happy ending is a little bit ambivalent, I thought - what it's saying is he's gone native, not wanting to work when it rains, and implicitly will find it just as hard to readjust when he does go back (or maybe it's just that the film ends so violently, despite the apparent resolution). Absolutely beautifully made, if obviously minor in terms of plot and characters; a gem.
APRIL 1, 2003