OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2007, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the four previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.


SEPARATE TABLES (62) (Delbert Mann, 1958): Note to self: When I have time (i.e. never) I really need to wade through all the Oscar-laden films of the 50s and confirm how mediocre they are - no other decade leaves me so out of sympathy with its mainstream taste (also re-watched my old tape of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION a few days ago, till the tape snapped halfway through; look for that one to be removed from 1957 HMs just as soon as I can find a DVD to rent or buy). This is the very definition of patchy, all the scenes with David Niven - or revolving round David Niven - being great (Niven's performance is theatrical but beautiful) while all the scenes with Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth are weak, almost entirely due to miscasting. Lancaster's in my personal pantheon but he's far too aggressive for these genteel surroundings - the character's been Americanized, and it doesn't make sense that brash, confident Lancaster would've hidden away in this small hotel all these years; he'd have exploded long ago, and taken the hotel down with him - while Hayworth is too much the mask-like movie star for this insecure fading beauty, not to mention being unconvincing as a woman "not a day over 30". The stories are linked only tangentially - apparently the stage play had the same actors starring in both strands, which at least adds coherence - the main link being class divisions (Niven a usurper, Lancaster a bit of rough for upper-crust Rita) plus Rattigan's worldview of a closeted gay man, implicit in the Major's plaintive "I'm made in a certain way; I can't change that", which may be why he kept coming back to the poignant wish-fulfilment climax of a sad, self-loathing character surprised and gratified by microcosmic Society's public show of support. Not as moving here as in THE BROWNING VERSION, but still pretty shattering.  

STOLEN KISSES (61) (Francois Truffaut, 1968): A film of fragile charm, which I got a little more on second viewing (approx. 12 years after the first one), open to randomness and non sequiturs - who is that briefly-encountered friend talking about his TV scripts? is it someone from 400 BLOWS? - and irrational, not to say youthful, romanticism. Not exactly new for Truffaut, see e.g. the random encounter that kicked off SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, and the style seems more subdued here, rising at best to a kind of tentative elegance (e.g. Antoine hidden at the back of a shot, unexpectedly craning into view when he joins the conversation); the fun is mild, and attempts to underline the zany humanism - mention of the dying man whose last words were "People are wonderful"; the besotted stalker-lover in the final scene - seem contrived, as though Truffaut were straining to insist on Nouvelle Vague exuberance. Best gag: "Quick! Fetch the dentist from upstairs!". 

DECEMBER 1, 2007

THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN (81) (John Sayles, 1980): Second viewing, last seen about a week before I went off to film school (I remember because it was one of the films I name-dropped when I got there, trying to find kindred spirits). I've soured on Sayles in the 15 years since, and fully expected to downgrade it this time round, but it's strange how all his films (that I've seen) range from mediocre to decent but he's managed to raise his game exactly twice - this and MATEWAN - making something close to masterpieces (there's similar directors I can think of, e.g. Robert Aldrich, but most of those worked within a studio system; it's strange to find this happening with someone who has control over all his movies, hence should be equally sympathetic to all his stories). Two things you have to put up with, Sayles the writer's rather contrived device where a conversation will have two strands - one serious, one trivial, e.g. people will be talking about their relationship and also some mundane household chore - so the heavy bits in the serious strand can be finessed off the trivial one, and Sayles the editor's penchant for cute montages (the barbecue, the basketball game). Otherwise everything works, even the period detail (e.g. the girls discussing whether The Pill > diaphragm), Sayles' control and understanding of these characters is miraculous, and the lost-idealism subtext is a good deal more subtle than in THE BIG CHILL even though it's (presumably) closer to home in this case, given Sayles' left-wing leanings. The jokes are funny - even the slapstick, like the charades scene - the sense of friends together overpowering, the working-class small-town vibe exactly right, the ruminations on (e.g.) what it means to have a baby (a bit like the high-school friend who slaved over his hot-rod for the momentary king-of-the-world feeling of zooming down Main Street) witty and astute, the big poignant moments - notably the gang recalling past arrests at the police station - hit home, even the wannabe country singer's songs are good enough to make his ambitions plausible (albeit corny enough to make his success doubtful). I don't know what happened to this blithe, fleet-footed Sayles, and I suspect he doesn't either.   

MOTHER (67) (Mikio Naruse, 1952): Quite picaresque, often cute and not over-burdened with directorial personality - much of it could've been made by anyone - but the theme of the long-suffering mother (trying to make ends meet, suppressing her own life for others') builds and builds, running alongside/beneath the plot's peregrinations, so at the end when the daughter's V.O. narration breaks protocol to address the issue explicitly - "Dear Mother! Are you happy, Mother? Are you happy?" - the mask drops, the dam bursts and the emotional effect is ... well, emotional. A real tearjerker, lined with familiar Naruse preoccupations like money trouble and the melancholy of wasted lives that never came to fruition. Mother and Father recall their youth, and the shawl (or whatever) he bought her 20 years ago: "Why did you never wear it?". "I'll wear it when I get a good kimono," she smiles, and he smiles too: "That's what you said 20 years ago..."

NIGHTLY DREAMS (71) (Mikio Naruse, 1933): Naruse's psychological concerns don't really lend themselves to Silent cinema - the film is full of intertitles where people explain their motivations and feelings to each other - though his style is surprisingly dynamic, actually more dynamic than in most of his post-war Talkies. There's a brisk dolly pull-back with people pushing in and out of frame, a jagged montage to indicate tragedy, above all the ending with four or five different shots of our heroine strung together - not climaxing, just changing our vantage point; the effect is a little like jump-cuts - the visual instability suggesting her state of mind. Strange to think of 1930s Japan producing these humane, low-key dramas of quotidian dreams (Ozu too, of course) even with the country busily arming and psyching itself up for war - but then comes the final Message with heroine berating her husband for being weak, calling on men to be strong, and it all makes sense. [NB. Seen completely Silent, without even piano score, which invariably degenerates into a symphony of coughing and throat-clearing in the theatre; rating may go up if seen with music, which is so omnipresent in (later) Naruse anyway.]

SCATTERED CLOUDS (52) (Mikio Naruse, 1967): Rather ordinary melodrama, letting its morbid undertow - couple meet when he accidentally kills her husband - dribble away, then trying too late to invoke it in the last few minutes. Lush colour and the Rock Hudson-like presence of Yuzo Kayama (plus the theme of Love Repressed) recalls 50s Sirk, but neither protagonist seems to grow more complex as the film goes on (probably the opposite in the case of our heroine). I assume the camera's doing all kinds of eloquent things - hence the placing in Dan Sallitt's pantheon - but I guess I just didn't see them.

LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (70) (Mikio Naruse, 1954): Three ex-geishas: one elegant and fragile, one slovenly and rather undignified, one now devoted completely to money - letting her guard down in the lovely final section to entertain an old client, a fond memory, only to find he's "lost his passion" and, by bitter irony, wants to ask her for a loan (you know she'll never let her guard down again). Placid, monotonous rhythm makes for an uphill struggle, made worse by wall-to-wall music that makes it feel like scenes have no beginning or end, but it slowly imposes itself through precise character detail and an overwhelming sense of regret and desolation - then opens out in the marvellous, deeply moving ending, a rare exterior (the train station) with deeper shots (incl. the very striking one at the foot of a staircase, edged with a dust-motes-in-beam-of-light effect) and the sudden close-up shock of the slovenly geisha's raucous laughter followed by the Marilyn Monroe gag, banishing the sadness of middle age, fading charms and younger rivals. At least for a moment.   

MAIDSTONE (72) (Norman Mailer, 1970): Clearly a folly, and in some respects a terrible film, but Mailer's showing up his own ego and there's something very ballsy about that (it doesn't even look like he set out to do it; he's just following the story instinctively, as an artist will). Most of it is a process of losing control, Mailer fully in charge of the opening hour - playing a film director, so he can ogle starlets, make grand pronouncements and conflate actor and character when women say "You're very spiritual ... And also diabolical" - then the film going explicitly off the rails, the film-within-a-film disintegrating (and turning "pornographic", as opposed to a "tasteful" exploration of sexuality) and the gathering turning into a free-for-all, the oft-mentioned rogue elements taking over. Then the ending has Mailer (now as himself) trying to save face by claiming the film was always supposed to be about "the nature of reality" - then the very end has this claim totally undermined by the famous scene (real? staged? somewhere in between?) involving Rip Torn, an ear being half-bitten-off and some very real-sounding distraught kids in the background; it's a great scene, both riveting to watch (in a jaw-on-floor, can't-believe-I'm-watching-this way) and trumping Mailer's grandiose claims with T.S. Eliot's line that "humankind cannot bear very much reality". Elsewhere, fascinating early-70s detail, incl. talk of "endgame" and an "apocalyptic time", unselfconscious talk of people's ethnic background and even a fleeting mention of "a suspicion of a proclivity toward Greek love". I resent that remark!

SUSPICION (72) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941): Went in knowing only the basic "wife thinks her husband is trying to kill her" plot, which is actually where it starts getting stupid (also knew the ending but I'd forgotten all about it, which helps the experience immeasurably); everything before that - in fact, everything up to the great shot where Joan Fontaine looks back from her front door and suddenly the room is alive with a web of dark shadows - is superb, Hitchcock hitting all sorts of unexpected notes in the central relationship. On the one hand it's amour fou, and Fontaine is shown to be obsessive - all Cary Grant has to do is pique her obsession (by toying with her affections) and she's his for life - and of course love is intimately bound up with danger, their courtship on the moors getting a shock-cut and screaming chord on the soundtrack (you don't know if he's strangling her or fixing her coat, which is precisely the idea). The love/pain proximity is explored throughout - Fontaine gets Grant's attention by claiming she could master him as she does one of her horses; later she's shown tending to her much-beloved parents, knowing she's about to hurt them by running away - but she's also introduced reading a book on "Child Psychology", and Grant's wastrel tendencies - his lies, his manipulation, his irresponsibility - are also the traits of an amoral child (his pal, played by Nigel Bruce, is explicitly childlike), not just explaining her indulgence (the worse he behaves, the more of a child he appears) but finding a great solution to the problem of turning Cary Grant into a villain; Hitchcock surmises that Grant's manic free-spiritedness is attractive in a Peter Pan way, and once that's linked to an underlying pathology it becomes quite creepy even when Grant is just doing his usual charming schtick. It works as a drama (not just thriller), and intimations of danger become so pervasive they give every detail an obscure significance - why is the cop looking at the modern-art painting on the wall like that? - as well as conflating physical danger with emotional: when will Fontaine finally snap, finally fall out of love? Then it starts getting stupid, the last third deflating even though it's the part people remember (glowing glass of milk, etc) - but at least two-thirds of it is very underrated.  

SEVEN SINNERS (48) (Tay Garnett, 1940): "Whatever became of your big knife?" vamps Marlene Dietrich to gangster-admirer Oscar Homolka (who now has a much smaller knife); she also beats the boys at billiards, dons a Navy uniform for one of her songs - she's a singer at the Seven Sinners club, Somewhere in Indonesia - evades a pushy patron by scorching his hand with her cigarette, and ladles on a tad too much Teutonic melancholy as she recalls her first love: "He drank like a fish ... He's dead". One of those films with no plot to speak of, just colourful characters in exotic settings, which is why it needs zingy dialogue (see e.g. Garnett's CHINA SEAS) and a more inspiring romantic lead than John Wayne, for whom Dietrich is willing to give up her life of easy virtue when he says he'll marry her. The climactic brawl is rowdy (if not very elegant) and the ending mildly surprising - if also of a piece with the film's embarrassing reverence for all things US Navy.

NOVEMBER 1, 2007

ROCK, ROCK, ROCK (47) (Will Price, 1956): One for rock'n roll aficionados more than film buffs, much of it being performance clips of 50s legends and semi-legends - The Moonglows, Chuck Berry, etc - shot with no imagination and a static camera. The bits in between are 'charmingly' wooden, from a pre-payola Alan Freed doing his best to MC ("Now let's get into a real happy mood!") to the bit where our hero declares, "So ... we're gonna rock'n roll tonight!" followed by a brief awkward pause as he and his buddies look at each other, mentally counting out 1-2-3 before they launch into "We're Gonna Rock'n Roll Tonight". Somewhat fascinating as a nascent pop-culture idiom striving to define itself, give itself an identity - Freed more than once calls it "the Big Beat", as if trying to coin a phrase, and at one point describes it as a blend of previous idioms like jazz and blues, as if to reassure worried punters - but the prevailing mood may be gauged by the fact that heroine Tuesday Weld (apparently 12 but playing, and looking, mid-teens), informed by her Dad that she'll have to earn the cash to pay for her prom dress, decides on the crazy-kid expedient of becoming ... a banker, only she charges classmates 1% interest on loans instead of the customary 6%. Rock'n roll!  

MY LIFE AS A DOG (54) (Lasse Hallstrom, 1985): Second viewing, first in 20 years; no change in rating, but intriguing in the light of Hallstrom's later career, esp. his major flaw (imho) of careening between the lightly quirky and genuinely painful in the same film (see esp. ONCE AROUND and WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, where he never seemed to realise just how upsetting his characters' behaviour was, and how off-putting it seemed when the films played for laughs right after some emotional meltdown). The two strands are separate here - even geographically separate - but initially it doesn't work, and it seems offensive to be asked to chuckle at quirky villagers (the zany uncle, the neighbour forever fixing his roof, the rascally old man sneaking peeks at lingerie magazines) when the young hero's mother is dying back in the city - but then the tragic strand invades the light-hearted strand in the final section (the boy goes back to the village but summer's turned to winter, the rascally old man is dead, etc), and the film becomes unexpectedly touching because it's like the tragedy is threatening to taint the kid's entire childhood. Key ingredient may be the repeated bit of business where someone falls or crashes or disappears out of frame, a crowd gasps in shocked silence at what seems like a terrible accident, the mood suddenly darkens and grows tragic - but then the 'victim' gets up or reappears and all is well again. He's a card, that Lasse Hallstrom.       

OCTOBER 1, 2007

SEPTEMBER 1, 2007

IL GRIDO (71) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957): Most untypical Antonioni protagonist - macho, rural, working-class - which may be why it takes a while to recognise how typical the style is, or maybe it's only at the third or fourth desultory encounter that you realise it's not supposed to be a slow-burning melodrama but a rehearsal for the Alienation Trilogy, our hero's pain diffused into an increasingly unreal landscape (though it's pace and compositions, as much as landscape per se, that render it unreal); early scenes adorned with mist and rows of leafless poplars, later stages in the journey marked by giant wooden spools standing guard over a love scene, a flatness of road and plain around a gas-station, the faint unhealthy whiff of malarial swamplands. Antonioni works with duration and significant ellipses, e.g. hero's demanding new girlfriend prevails upon him to send his little daughter away and the next scene is set somewhere else entirely with no explanation, hero having moved on, the unravelling of that relationship (because of guilt over the little girl? we presume so) never even shown. Not a film for newbies, who'll be frustrated by the wrong directions (apparently) taken - esp. since there isn't the excuse of the Rich and Bored being different - but exhilarating in its stillness, often approaching a dreamlike state where every move, line and gesture will lead inevitably back to the same conclusion. The ending returns to melodrama and also tries to come full circle, as if suggesting narrative resolution - imperfections that were weeded out for L'AVVENTURA three years later.

MURDER SHE SAID (58) (George Pollock, 1961): More Nancy Drew - albeit with an over-age Nancy - than Agatha Christie, with Margaret Rutherford as eccentric spinster Miss Marple (not really a sleuth in this version, just a woman who's read too many crime novels) posing as a maid, the better to snoop around, and James Robertson Justice in typically thunderous comic form as the lord of the manor. There's a jolly score, a precocious kid and a rather fey librarian sidekick (who I was surprised to find is played by Ms. Rutherford's real-life husband - but they didn't marry till he was 49, and IMDb says he was once "hopelessly infatuated with Sir John Gielgud", so that's all right then); staging is competent, though it's strange how the scene where the suspects talk among themselves feels somehow wrong - they need to be viewed through the eyes of the sleuth, or the rules of the game are betrayed. Does get a bit more tense in the second half, with bodies piling up - but the whodunit angle is slightly compromised once you start to wonder why a Hollywood name like Arthur Kennedy would take on a seemingly inconsequential role as the doctor.

LONE WOLF & CUB: BABY CART IN THE LAND OF DEMONS (64) (Kenji Misumi, 1973): Fifth in the series, first one I've seen; not entirely sure what I expected (I'm no expert on the samurai genre), but it's simply plotted, stylish and easy on the eye. Impressive carnage, with that Asian geysers-of-blood effect - memorable shots include three severed heads (incl. a child's!) side-by-side and a grotesque image of a wounded warrior, still alive, spurting blood with what look like two giant skewers diagonally through his neck - offset by some beautiful photography, esp. the water imagery. Gratuitous sub-plot involving Cub seems designed to showcase the Lone Wolf ethos - stoicism in the face of pain, profound sense of honour, unflinching devotion to a promise once the promise is made - though in fact the dour, pouchy-faced hero (variously reminiscent of Jiang Wen, Raimu and the dude from BRANDED TO KILL) isn't much to write home about, swordplay excepted.  

THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (52) (Irving Pichel, 1947): Robert Young as a weak, reprehensible hero, Susan Hayward a flame-haired bundle of fun (gold-digger, tramp, call her what you will). The result should be sharper than it is, or at least more pungent; it takes a while to get going, zingers are few, and even after Young gets in trouble the courtroom-flashback structure means there isn't much tension - all there is to establish is how he finds himself in a position where he seems to have committed murder but actually hasn't (as set out in the opening five minutes), and it makes for an entertaining patch in the middle but once it's established, that's it. Could and should - and nowadays would - have been condensed to a half-hour TV episode, and even the twist ending seems moralistic.  

WILD STRAWBERRIES (68) (Ingmar Bergman, 1957): Second viewing, first in 14 years. Much of it seems contrived, from the now-we-are-having-a-flashback explications - Bergman wasn't quite "Bergman" yet - to the son's all-encompassing despair and misanthropy, and though Victor Sjostrom's performance is justly famous you can't really tell that his character is selfish and unkind (we hear about it from another character, but all we really see is his emotional reticence). As against that, the sense of walking-dead futility is hauntingly caught - esp. since I'm now 14 years nearer the end of my life than on first viewing - many of the sequences are classic, and the last 30 seconds may be the most touching thing Bergman ever did.  

QUAI DES ORFEVRES (73) (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947): Second viewing, first in ages. Double-bill with the previous year's GREEN FOR DANGER as an atmospheric mystery hauled into the stratosphere by the quirky portrait of the detective trying to solve it - though in this case the mystery isn't a whodunit so much as a (rather too baggy) tale of 'crime passionnel' steeped in smoky music-hall ambience, and the detective isn't just a comic turn (as Alastair Sim was) but a remarkably nuanced miniature. Details are subtly sketched-in - his rumpled home life, his time in the colonies (and young mulatto son), his problems with authority, his fundamental sympathy with the people he investigates - and Louis Jouvet captures the man's world-weariness with a lean, dry humour that goes beyond Inspector Morse-ish dolefulness (it's funny, for a start). The ending may seem like a cop-out but it's actually a mordant joke, the Law bypassing all the many guilty characters to settle on the only one who's legally guilty, even though he probably had least to do with the murder. I'm ashamed to say I didn't realise the blonde was a lesbian till a line of dialogue made it absolutely explicit - the reverse of one's usual experience at a 40s movie. 

DAISY KENYON (83) (Otto Preminger, 1947): A perfect anti-romance, a film where the heroine's moment of clarity is signalled not (as in most films) by the camera moving closer but the camera slowly drawing back, as if to say epiphany comes in seeing the bigger picture; Preminger takes the cool detached perspective he later brought to institutions and applies it to the ways of the human heart - and how much you like it may depend on how much you favour observational over impassioned ("Don't believe the melodrama," advises Daisy). The film's acuity is astonishing, motivations shaded, scenes played with real-life gradations, worldview shaped very much by the War and the new post-war world where the old bullshit ways must now yield to Science (see also BOOMERANG, NAKED CITY and the rest of the New Realist Dramas) - built on a contrast between Henry Fonda's character, who wants Daisy to be "real" and stayed in the Army even after the war was over (as if unable to let go of its brutal reality), vs. Dana Andrews' character who lives a pointedly unreal existence (breezily claiming he enjoys the illogical) till shaken by the after-effects of the War, a case involving a Japanese-American that destroys his delusions. Announces its commitment to realism from the opening scene - "Wait here," says Andrews to a cabbie, like they always do in movies, but the cabbie refuses and launches into a rant about the number of cabs in New York City - and the people behave like grown-ups (though the film adds a sly joke about what we mean by "behave like grown-ups"); Preminger knows a moment of truth can often be delayed by the need to finish a card-game, knows that people (or most people) shy away from melodrama, knows that nasty secrets (like child abuse) won't always be resolved - but knows also that transcendent moments, when they arrive, tend to leave a lasting mark (Daisy's bound to end up with the man who makes her love him in a deep, resplendent way - "like loving the Earth" - even if it's only for a moment). Very much of its time or decades ahead of its time, depending on whether you're talking real life or movies. Bonus points for rescuing the Man Having a Nightmare chestnut from the ninth circle of cliché.      

AMAR AKBAR ANTHONY (76) (Manmohan Desai, 1977): Starts as camp (the bulletproof-vest scene is classic), ends as grand popular entertainment. In between, the socio-political Message - titular brothers are a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, and they only triumph once they're (re)united - is lightly worn, incidents pile up without apparent pattern, and it often seems like the film is going nowhere but even that (with hindsight) is a function of its greatest strength - the way it doesn't set up tone (only plot), treating each new scene as if starting from scratch. One might be action, the next comedy, the next soapy melodrama and so on, making it seem richer - a compendium of genres - but also allowing the (Western) viewer to relax and live in the moment; its abiding thrill, the reason why I couldn't get it out of my head, is the freedom it offers to shed notions of 'good craftsmanship' without succumbing to the post-modern duplicity of camp and so-bad-it's-good; it just refuses to constrain itself. That said, I was only mildly Pro till the rousing final hour, plot coming together with more payoffs and last-minute reversals than a Spielberg movie, then AAA crashing the villains' lair, playing the accordion, wiggle-walking in unison and singing the catchiest title-song of all time while dressed in absurd disguises and putting on absurd British accents. I guess you had to have been there.     

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (62) (John Badham, 1977): Second viewing, way better than I remembered it - though much of it gives the sense that it's not necessarily good, just too artless to be anything but honest (that certainly applies to Karen Lynn Gorney, whose performance is awful but fits her obnoxious character). Domestic life is caricature, but the gang stuff - guys egging each other on - bears comparison to MEAN STREETS, and of course John Travolta is an icon, a strutting peacock with puppy-dog eyes. Bonus points for all but throwing away the big dance-contest climax (how things have changed...) - though I'd like it even more if I could be sure that Badham knows just how small-time and depressingly conformist the dance-floor scenes come across.    

PADRE PADRONE (67) (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1977): Second viewing, not quite so awesome - though the first half-hour is just extraordinary, filling Sardinian peasant faces with unspoken thoughts just as the barren Sardinian landscape is filled with hidden sounds, for those who know how to listen; sheep talk in V.O., an entire village sighs with carnal pleasure, magical realism never worked so magically. The rest goes gently downhill, still gripping when it shows the stunted lives of young goatherds - treated like children into their 20s, trained to obey with calculated violence (the titular Dad isn't necessarily brutal, just crafty) - but kind of trite as its real-life hero struggles towards enlightenment, almost an ad for high culture. Isn't it touching how an illiterate peasant can still appreciate the beauty of a Strauss waltz?, etc.    

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (74) (Larry Cohen, 1977): Whirlwind cartoonish tour through 20th-century American politics - Lyndon Johnson turns up acting boorish, FDR is patrician, the Kennedy boys talk about okaying Bobby's new job (as Attorney-General) with Dad - the genius being that it's styled like an Old Hollywood entertainment, with a lavish Miklos Rosza score and cast of ageing 40s notables, even as we watch iconic politicians being childish or slimy (within the limits of libel law) and Hoover's closeted homosexuality making for some painful encounters with women. It's both a contrast - the same kind of gimmick as in FAR FROM HEAVEN or THE GOOD GERMAN - and in this case a comment on the lies America was fed for so long, mostly on Hoover's say-so, with his own heroic FBI as a symbol for larger hypocrisies. The script is undeniably repetitive, sticking to a then-this-happened template, but Cohen's slam-bang editing turns each encounter into a vivid caricature (it often veers into absurdity, see e.g. the "fly-swatter" incident); strangest of all is how the whole bizarre enterprise ends up being a kind of paean to Hoover, the messed-up prude and racist who became an institution - or maybe he just looks good compared to the Nixon crowd, an Administration that tried to legitimize his unhealthy obsessions. At least Hoover knew he was unhealthy.

MOUCHETTE (53) (Robert Bresson, 1967): Second Bresson in two years about the petty oppression of French rural life (the Bressonian tenet Bruno Dumont now follows), and it's pretty obvious what the various small animals being shot or trapped signify, esp. with a youthful heroine. Tony Rayns in the "Time Out Film Guide" describes her as "an inarticulate teenage peasant girl", which is inaccurate and also suggests one reason why the film is so acclaimed (critics love to get behind the disenfranchised); if anything she declares herself too openly, both in word ("I hate them all!") and deed (throwing clods of earth at her classmates), making you long for the dumb mysterious beast in BALTHAZAR - or even the more inscrutable heroine of ROSETTA (another modern-day equivalent, down to the lethal pool of water on the fringes). Early scenes are the best, set in a stillness where every sound counts - the clop of wooden shoes on a floor, the muted clink-clink-clink of three empty brandy glasses being set down one at a time. Then the plot kicks off, Mouchette breaks her sullen silence and the film loses much of its mystery. A minor work, critical consensus be damned. [Thought second viewing (April 2014) would set me straight, but in fact it just confirmed my opinion. Early scenes are indeed the best, village life thrumming like a Bresson JOUR DE FETE, but his editing techniques muddle geography, and his ideas - see e.g. the dying victim mother - are often thunderingly banal. I assume his fans would retort that both of those things are by design, to create tension as they rub against the style, but the mix doesn't gel in this case; maybe it needed a donkey, as opposed to a plucky little girl.]  

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (62) (Steven Spielberg, 1977): Third viewing, and the light-show at the end ruins it for me every time (even worse in this Special Edition); so much magic, just for a bunch of flashing and blinking. Not that Spielberg is blameless before that, e.g. the scene where the aliens come for the boy is superbly put together but it's just too long. His taste for excess is the main thing that prevents him from being a great director imvho (even SUGARLAND EXPRESS had too many cop cars) - but I guess it's also what makes him so quintessentially American. 

THE DUELLISTS (73) (Ridley Scott, 1977): Often described as visually stunning but it's more a case of visually-consistent - the colours uniform, the images deliberately controlled (filters keep the skies in check) giving the sense of a bubble-world, all the more striking since it's mostly wide-shots. Also often described as pointless, but the point I think is a man's confrontation - and eventual accommodation - with the Irrational, something completely impervious to logic or argument. There's an occult element (someone opines that the duellists must've been enemies in a previous life; a sub-plot is resolved through the appearance of a fortune-teller) but also, in Harvey Keitel's performance, something free and even noble - he's a savage beast, but the purity of his obsession forces the foppish hero out of his well-mannered complacency; like Napoleon (the film's hidden hero), he beats the fops at their own game by wrapping their rigid notions of Honour round his own implacable aggression, finally making Honour as irrational as he is (the great ending lets us see him for the first time, a caged beast as restless as Napoleon on St. Helena). The chilly tone may be a case of Scott not being invested in the project - but there's still enough here to suggest he might've made a formidable arthouse director, were it not for sci-fi.  

CROSS OF IRON (57) (Sam Peckinpah, 1977): Noisy, rather sloppy action scenes interspersed with the dynamic from ATTACK! - working-class super-soldier, much beloved by his platoon, vs. cowardly aristocratic superior - and self-conscious WW2 revisionism, the German POV allowing for a tell-it-like-it-was deconstruction of the 'good war': morale low, cynicism shading into madness, soldiers stinking or deranged, Nazis on the battlefront never greeting each other with "Heil Hitler!" (even speaking against the Fuhrer, albeit discreetly). Emphasis on the camaraderie, with half-conscious acknowledgment of its homoerotic overtones (the nasty superior is pointedly homophobic; an interlude in a brothel paints the girls as sneaky and dangerous), but memorable detail is lacking which is why the final act - the platoon going through enemy lines - falls flat. Gives every indication of a film that kicked off with grand ambitions (incl. a Peckinpah hero, a dour macho maverick with a possible death wish and a soft spot for the weak and vulnerable), ended up getting bogged down in muddy plot and muddier locations, then had to be rescued in the editing - brilliantly so in the nightmarish hospital interlude (the only point when I felt the film might not be going where I thought it was going), jaggedly cut with bits of hallucination and dream sequence, but rather pointlessly in the sudden ending, which no amount of unmotivated freeze-frames can make anything but anti-climactic.

KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (69) (John Landis, 1977): Second viewing, first in exactly 20 years. Held up much better than anticipated, except I always thought it was pretty much consistent from beginning to end - whereas it's 75% hilarious, except for the dismally unfunny 20-minute kung-fu spoof unaccountably plonked in the middle. Funny stuff (and some longueurs) on either side, the ZAZ crew anticipating pun-laden AIRPLANE! with the courtroom sketch - "Mr. Grunwald, would you please follow me to the south end of the courtroom?" "Objection! He's leading the witness!" - but also more outrageous, in their manic performing as well as their writing. Highlights include the film in Feel-u-Round, the how-to sex record, and the happy family whose dead little Johnnie is still a part of their lives (watch him floating face-down in the pool at the family barbecue!) thanks to the United Appeal for the Dead; final gag - in which TV literally fights back - not the funniest possible ending, but perhaps the most appropriate.       

AUGUST 1, 2007

FUNNY FACE (52) (Stanley Donen, 1957): Not quite Dietrich and Von Sternberg, but there should be more of a cult surrounding Audrey Hepburn's trio of films with Donen - if only because she was never more enchanting than in this, CHARADE and TWO FOR THE ROAD. Creative miscasting in this case because she's too enchanting, esp. as the world's most loveable bookworm in the early scenes - it's exasperating when the rude fashion people invade her space, esp. because the film sides with the fashion people. Its emphasis on colour and visual design often pays dividends (e.g. the hat with the yellow veil making the drab surroundings glow when Audrey sings "How Long Has This Been Going On?") but the anti-intellectualism is hard to take, and anyone who thinks Ms. Hepburn looks better after her makeover - hair plastered to her scalp, body wrapped in fabric - than she does as the shy girl surrounded by books has rocks in their head. Also, Gershwin or not, the songs are unmemorable imho. Second viewing, still a blind spot.  

ON CONNAIT LA CHANSON (73) (Alain Resnais, 1997): Second viewing, no real change in rating. Actually gets a little tedious in itself, but what's enthralling is the way a subtle arthouse comedy about love and relationships intermittently collapses giving way to a much zanier movie, typified by the way the songs are used - seldom in their entirety, never as musical numbers but usually in snatches and couplets, like stray bits of Id violently breaking through the surface of polite society. Many films might've thought 'We need a visual symbol to link the various characters together in the big party climax' - but it takes a truly messed-up one to add: 'I know! A giant jellyfish!...'    

THE LAST EMPEROR (55) (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987): I wonder if being called John Lone helped the lead actor to get cast in this movie. (I can see Bertolucci yelling "Destiny!" and giving him the role on the spur of the moment.) His character is certainly (a)lone, a prisoner in various situations - guards are forever slamming gates shut as he tries to escape - and the film peruses the various ironies in his life, from the banal (he's an emperor, yet less free than his humblest subject) to the intriguing (he makes the biggest mistake of his life when he tries to be his own man, doing the one thing he knows how to do), let down by Bertolucci's lack of interest/ability in crafting a compelling narrative. Colour-coded photography is obv. meaningful - I recall reading Storaro's detailed explanation of what each colour signifies - but I've always found this look a bit gaudy (see also HERO). Raymond Durgnat was probably right when he wrote that "Bertolucci is a Marxist like so many Italian peasants are Christians - that is to say, they're happy pagans underneath", but isn't that the same as saying he's shallower than he seems?

THE TALL T (78) (Budd Boetticher, 1957): Strange how this suddenly bursts into life: the first 15 minutes are leisurely and a little over-talky, but then it transforms into a hostage drama that's lean, vicious and psychologically rich, forging a bond between Richard Boone's fascinating villain (he used to be respectable, and looks down on the men he runs with) and Randolph Scott's upright hero, two men bound by the Code of the West (it ends with Scott looking significantly more peeved at the breaking of the Code than gratified by the inevitable happy ending). Slow start doesn't leave much time, since the film is only 78 minutes (not even time to explain the title), but the moral dilemmas are thorny, the heroine is lonely and "plain" as everyone keeps saying - there's a fair possibility that Scott is just preying on her feelings when he gets romantic, the better to save his own skin, and it looks like an afterthought when he puts an arm around her in the final shot (maybe his mind is on buddy Boone) - the cloudscapes are striking and the dialogue is consistently sharp, whether it's the woman who was "scheduled to be an old maid" or the henchman recalling how he worked his way through half the saloon girls in a Wild West party-town: "Still be there, if I hadn't pulled a leg-muscle." Just another Western? "If you can't see the difference, I ain't gonna explain it to you."

FIRES WERE STARTED (61) (Humphrey Jennings, 1943): Seen in a Blitz double-bill with HOPE AND GLORY, and reminiscent of the scene in that film where the family go to the pictures only for the war movie to be interrupted by an air-raid, young Bill begging to stay and watch the end instead of going down to the air-raid shelter and refusing to be mollified by his sister pointing out that "They've got the real thing outside"; "It's not the same...". This is the real thing (a documentary look at the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz) and it's not the same, lacking HOPE's poetic edge - which is odd, since 'poetic' documentary is exactly what Jennings is known for, but the second half here (an account of fighting a fire down by the docks) is closer to action movie, edited, lit and scored for maximum excitement (Nazism is never mentioned, nor do we hear about the toll the Blitz is taking on the city; just this one fire, abstracted from the night's bombardment, treated almost as a technical exercise). It works because it's done so well but I doubt you could even call it documentary, though the firemen involved are the real firemen - then again it also lacks a sense of danger, because the budget only runs to a handful of wide-shots so you never really see the fire they're fighting. The first half is again naturalistic, showing the men at the fire station, but again a little slick - they behave like actors, which is a testament to Jennings' coaching skills, but a little awkwardness might've been more poignant. NB. Might've liked it more if the dialogue were intelligible, but the soundtrack on the Image DVD is faded/distorted/whatever and most of the lines are swallowed up, esp. with the heavy London accents. Caveat emptor, etc.

WAIT UNTIL DARK (75) (Terence Young, 1967): I'm inordinately fond of Frederick Knott's stagy thrillers (i.e. this and DIAL M FOR MURDER), mostly I guess because the stage origins make it necessary for the thrills to come via talk, which means via mind-games. This one is smartly done, leaving strategic gaps in the exposition so we don't realise what precisely the villains' plan involves till it's already underway - and Alan Arkin also scores as a flamboyant villain. A touch of the dinner-theatres, but still very splendid; I wasn't quite convinced by the telephone-signal device (seemed a bit implausible) - at least till it led to a perfectly-placed 'gotcha!' moment that I assume brings the house down.

BEDAZZLED (63) (Stanley Donen, 1967): Browsing the chapter-headings on the DVD afterwards may be the best part of watching this movie, recalling its very funny highlights - "Eyewash", "Fly on the Wall", "Pop Stars", "Get Thee to a...". Constantly inventive but mostly in incidental ways, the main plot proceeding in fits and starts; blasphemous edge also incidental, which is typical of Peter Cook's phlegmatic, secretly supercilious style, shocking things spoken in low polite tones. The whole thing smoulders without catching fire, but it's hilarious (in spots) and likeably zany. "I have such rotten Sins working for me," muses Cook (as Satan); "must be the wages" - and no help is given to viewers not quite sharp enough to catch the drive-by pun. Then there's the elderly aristo with a terrible stammer, who takes a lifetime to deliver a simple line during which Cook and Dudley Moore wait with nary a flicker, then politely respond: "That's easy for you to say, Lord Dowdy..." 

JULY 1, 2007

A KING IN NEW YORK (43) (Charles Chaplin, 1957): 68-year-old Charles Chaplin on Young People Today (they're too noisy), idiotic TV shows - a real buzz-topic in 1957, what with this and FACE IN THE CROWD - and finally the Communist witch-hunts, which is where it gets personal and also where the film gets perversely interesting because the character Chaplin plays seems (way more than in VERDOUX) to be out of sync with the film's true beliefs. Putting the lines he really wants to say in the mouth of his (real-life) 10-year-old son - who clearly has no clue what he's talking about - has a tinge of child exploitation but the downright strange ending, where the King makes light of the boy's obvious distress at having become a 'friendly witness', is either very brave or very inept (the film doesn't even seem to realise that anything's amiss). David Thomson calls it "unspecific" and he's right - it's like Chaplin planned to play an anti-hero but didn't have the heart to make himself truly unsympathetic; he also makes some sad attempts at Silent-style pantomime, recites "To be or not to be" in such a way - and at such length - as to suggest he thinks he's doing it well, and gives the film no sense of visuals or pacing. Flaccid and extremely unfunny, but auteurists looking for "cinematic biography" (A. Sarris on the Chaplin oeuvre) may find fertile ground.  

A FACE IN THE CROWD (74) (Elia Kazan, 1957): Teems with slick hustler's energy, Kazan refusing to let it settle even for a moment (when the pace briefly slows so the couple can discuss their relationship, he sticks a jazzy beat all over it); also seems to take place in an alternate universe, where the clothes and cars are undeniably 1950s but the concerns are amazingly up-to-the-minute - politics dissolving into sound-bites, advertising taking over everything, TV as the instrument of a mass dumbing-down, folksiness and populism used to manipulate the masses, etc. Ahead of its time, not in being especially sophisticated (it's quite cartoonish) but simply in spotting a shift in the zeitgeist before it became blindingly obvious; no surprise that it flopped at the time, though Andy Griffith must be grateful since its failure allowed him to have a TV career - he wouldn't have been allowed within 100 miles of Mayberry if the mass audience associated him with this ferocious, rattlesnake-mean performance (he ends up like GANGSTER NO. 1, howling at the world from his lonely tower). Patricia Neal underplays and does even better, her actions so puzzlingly at odds with her poised, lithe demeanour that the unbelievable truth finally becomes apparent. She's not poised or lithe; she's crazy in love. 

HEAT AND DUST (54) (James Ivory, 1983): Ivory's tepid direction makes for heavy going, though as usual his instincts are more refined and complex than they first appear - handsome Indian princes may behave as badly as ruddy-faced English racists, though perhaps the worst-behaved is the Western hippy trying to be a "holy man" in modern India (he's also the worst-acted, though that doesn't seem to be deliberate). 'Never the twain shall meet' seems to be the message, but the mystery of India is smothered in leisurely rhythm and over-explanatory dialogue. Still better than A PASSAGE TO INDIA - part of the brief early-80s fascination with the place, see also GANDHI - and Greta Scacchi's performance flirts with bewitchment. 

SUSPIRIA (57) (Dario Argento, 1977): Only my second Argento (after DEEP RED), but I reckon he's the Wong Kar-wai of the horror genre; many of the shots here are strikingly beautiful - e.g. camera craning down at the two girls in the swimming pool - but it's not so much a thriller as a collection of music videos. Most telling moment: the sudden unmotivated cut to an extreme God's-eye shot (looking down from the top of the office block) when our heroine meets the witch-expert - and the fact that it's impossible to say if it was imposed by lack of coverage or yet another wild directorial bit of style. Probably a big-screen experience, though I did quite enjoy it.

YOU NEVER CAN TELL (41) (Lou Breslow, 1951): Dopey comedy about dog reincarnated as a man, mostly a case of Dick Powell gobbling dog-biscuits, scratching himself behind the ear, etc. Two startling details, the scene in "Beastatory" - beast Purgatory, i.e. animal afterlife - and the sympathetic character (a war hero, no less) exposed as a villain - but his volte-face is weirdly handled, tossed away as if it should've been obvious all along, and Beastatory is pretty ugly to look at, like watching Animal Planet with the colour turned way up on your TV so it gets all blotchy. Only, y'know, not in colour. 

FATA MORGANA (77) (Werner Herzog, 1971): "In Paradise, plane-wrecks have been distributed in the desert in advance". Mirages - an imaginary truth - vouchsafed to the camera as it pans across vast expanses of sand and rock, catching the shimmer of mysterious things in the distance; classical music, then Leonard Cohen playing hypnotically over fleeting views of sand-dweller shacks, makeshift fences, dusty asphalt tracks. Sounds like the kind of eco-babble peddled by KOYAANISQATSI and its progeny, but that's reckoning without Herzog's feel for the strangeness of things, and his quirky sense of humour. God appears as an old married couple - a Creator and Creatress - contriving Man out of vanity more than anything, so They'll have someone to invoke Their name (earlier prototypes were junked when their invocation skills proved inadequate, explains the voice-over); a German woman leads a bunch of African kids in yelling out "The blitzkrieg is insanity" in phonetic German, over and over; as in WILD BLUE YONDER, a world without people beckons as a wistful ideal - but Herzog is also fascinated by people, facing the sand-dwellers with his camera across the sere landscapes (they stare back, like one kind of animal confronted by another). Question: Is it rip-off, the Arvo Part Effect, or amazing coincidence that two major filmmakers chose Leonard Cohen for their soundtracks within a few months of each other?

THE GRADUATE (84) (Mike Nichols, 1967): Second complete viewing, first in ages. Seems more revolutionary with each passing year - and the much-maligned second half is now a precursor to all those Asian Master Shot movies of alienated youth pining moodily while pop-music plays, just as Nichols' synthesis of visuals and songs anticipates their post-MTV merging. And of course the first half remains uncanny - satire cut with sex farce, played (i.e. visualised) as claustrophobic nightmare. You could say it's unfair to Mrs. Robinson, and she is indeed more interesting than her daughter - but when Ben opens up to Elaine, sounding for the first time like a normal person instead of a frustrated little boy, you realise how toxic the relationship was, and relief at his escape is almost palpable.    

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (68) (John Huston, 1967): Third viewing, first in quite a while, down from the high 70s. Guess my aesthetic preferences have changed over the years, and I do find Huston's style slightly laboured here - though that's part of the deal (as it was in, say, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA), a catalogue of perversities viewed with perfect equanimity. He has to gather all the pieces in order to start the game - which might be called Hothouse Checkers, or just Brando's a Queer, Liz Is a Bitch - the slight tediousness meant to evoke repression; by the time you get to the gay Filipino houseboy comforting the woman who's cut off her nipples with garden shears, or Liz asking Marlon "Have you ever been collared, and dragged out into the street, and thrashed by a naked woman?", the sense of self-contained baroque is complete (not to mention the bizarre claustrophobic colour scheme, smothering the visuals in a haze of amber-yellow). Gay activists steer clear, however. 

THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (85) (Jacques Demy, 1967)

BIENVENIDO MISTER MARSHALL (49) (Luis G. Berlanga, 1953): Not what it looks like at first glance (viz. a rather wan Ealing comedy in Spanish), but the transition doesn't gel - which is to say the key scene, the villagers lining up to specify the gifts they want from the visiting Americans, appears more or less out of nowhere. That's when the Yanks become not just a plot-point but a larger abstraction, post-war Europe's greedy dream of beneficent America - and dreams soon take over the narrative, both literally in fantasy scenes (dealing in Hollywood images of the US) and metaphorically in the revelation of the villagers' inner lives; the latter makes the film quite surprising, even poetic ("Thirty years working the land, then you discover what you really want is a pair of binoculars..." marvels the narrator, pointing out people's unexpectedness), but also confirms the suspicion that the voice-over, esp. the opening let's-take-a-look-round-the-village stuff, carries a touch of condescension, the God's-eye view of the peasants not really taking them seriously (cutting up their reality with freeze-frames and trick dissolves, the better to observe them). Never quite of the People - cf., say, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO - more about the People, a reminder that co-writer Juan Antonio Bardem would move on to arthouse fare like DEATH OF A CYCLIST a couple of years later. Also not that funny, but maybe it's just me.

EL DORADO (78) (Howard Hawks, 1967): Seldom has EXT. NIGHT been used so extensively (most of the second hour) or evocatively, not just making the light-splashed Western town look like a stage - something stylised - but making it clear the gunfighters too are in their twilight years, building an ambience of burnished elegy (synaesthetically speaking, RIO BRAVO always appears in my mind's eye as blue and white, whereas this is more like brown and orange). This time it's the sheriff who's the drunk - one of many witty variations played on the revisited plot - the "kid" can't shut up instead of being laconic (and can't use a gun, instead of being a crack shot), while Arthur Hunnicutt isn't so much an old coot as a deadpan male nanny in the Stumpy role; John Wayne mentors one young gunman in unspoken redemption for having killed another while Hawks builds a West where everyone knows each other but even the best of friends hide their affection, a moving hymn to inter-connectedness and deep-rooted bonds; as the opening song puts it, "There's much more to life than things we can see". Also smart, hilarious, charming, delightful, etc.  

JUNE 1, 2007

KISS OF DEATH (70) (Henry Hathaway, 1947): Original touches include a woman's voice speaking the inevitable hard-boiled voice-over - except she then turns out to be Coleen Gray, a pathetic heroine even by the standards of such things. Hathaway's compositions tend to the stagy, esp. in the domestic scenes, square-on with the camera quite a way back - see e.g. the shot of the little girls round the piano, or the final shots in the scene where husband and wife are up in the middle of the night watching and waiting - making it feel even more like 1930s drama (cf. the bond between sympathetic gangster and the Pat O'Brien-ish figure of the assistant DA) and not much like the semi-documentary promised by the studio - Fox in the late 1940s - typewritten opening credits and pointed insistence on location shooting. Then again there's also Richard Widmark as the psycho, with high-pitched giggle and manic expressions - a seminal, terrifying performance - scuppering any pretensions to BOOMERANG-style naturalism, and the film turns to melodrama at the climax with a great shot of Widmark's eye glinting through a crack in the doorway. The ending itself is stupid, though it could've been saved if they'd played it off Gray's V.O. (Hitchcock would've cross-cut with her praying, making it seem like a miracle), but the film is vivid, combustible and barely dated; also notable for making clear the gangsters are going to a brothel - a post-war loosening of moral taboos, soon to be quashed by 50s repression.

GENERAL IDI AMIN DADA (65) (Barbet Schroeder, 1974): Moment of Truth in this fine documentary has to be when Schroeder pauses a furious rant by Idi Amin during a Cabinet meeting for the startling information that "One day later, the body of the Foreign Minister was found floating in the Nile", over a close-up of the unfortunate Minister (the V.O. was in unsubtitled French and I actually rewound the tape, assuming I must've misunderstood); admittedly the subject of said rant was the said Foreign Minister, but it's hard to take Amin seriously - or it was, till that point - when we'd previously seen him talking to crocodiles like an affable safari guide, presiding over shambolic ceremonies with courtiers laughing at his jokes and singing "Idi Amin Dada", sharing his plans to re-take the Golan Heights and generally behaving like a bumptious buffoon (his kingdom is surreal, and Schroeder is surely aware of the connotations in that titular "Dada"). The film fails, essentially, never quite connecting the voluble, fat-faced, comically vain dictator with the fact of the Foreign Minister's body floating in the Nile (to be fair, Schroeder doesn't seem to have been granted many interviews, though he also skews his questions with an eye to topics - notably Israel - that'll play well in the West); by the end it's actually cheating, doing unmotivated close-ups with dark doomy sound to suggest a Beast Within which Amin manages to keep hidden in the actual interviews. Still, it's chastening to learn - or confirm - that a man can be responsible for the deaths of 300,000 people and still not appear like he's stepped out of, oh let's say THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.  

WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (66) (Karel Reisz, 1978): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. Does have a Robert Stone-ish feel, which makes it all right in my book - that mix of drugged-out paranoia, black humour and offbeat way of expressing itself ("I didn't think we were that way"; "We're that way") - but it also seems to take Nick Nolte's sub-Nietzchian samurai way too seriously (as in, not quite seeing the idiocy of his disdain for "inferior people"), trying to sell self-destructive truculence as misplaced nobility - and it's also quite disjointed, spending too much time on both prologue and climax. Prologue and climax are actually the best of it, the latter set in a deserted hippy commune - 60s values curdled by Vietnam is the underlying theme - the former memorably set in 'Nam itself. "Don't they say this is the place where everyone finds out who they really are?"; "Yeah. What a bummer for the gooks..." 

I SHOT JESSE JAMES (73) (Samuel Fuller, 1949): Watch a film struggle with its own protagonist - who's not remotely the top-billed Preston Foster but in fact John Ireland as "the dirty little coward" Bob Ford, relegated to the "Also Featuring" bracket in the opening credits, prowling around like something cursed as the film unfolds (his low-slung features and a slight lope in his walk make him seem almost simian). He does the titular deed and is haunted by it, so much so that he can't bring himself to face his demons (till the very last line, which for that reason is affecting); instead he tries to make money, convincing himself he can wash away his sins with a plunge into capitalism (the other route, sublimating guilt into showbiz, proves more than he can handle), making the backdrops more expansive to push home the irony that the wide open spaces of America's frontier can yet be trumped by a memory of murder in a small, chintzy room. Fuller seems to sympathise - Danny Peary claims he didn't approve of Jesse James, nor was he exactly anti-capitalism - but Ireland slinks around looking so craven and guilty (and of course he can't be allowed to get the girl), the film is packed with the kind of tension reminiscent less of a Western than a Lon Chaney sympathetic-freak movie. Notable: one Robin Short, whose one-scene role - as a troubadour forced to sing the offensive "dirty little coward" song to Bob Ford's face - is almost as impossible as the Shakespearean actor doing "Hamlet" in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE - and he brings it off almost as well. Who are these people?

MERRILL'S MARAUDERS (53) (Samuel Fuller, 1962): Convincing in the abstract, not so much in the final result. Sounds about right that War is really about physical exhaustion, a regiment of "nervous wrecks" marching their way - half-dead with typhus and malaria - into the history books (actual battle scenes are barely present; it's as though the biggest part of heroism lies in managing to go on, putting one foot in front of another); trouble is, what's onscreen doesn't seem especially gruelling, whether due to low budget or because Fuller's staging isn't sufficiently inventive - someday I plan to compare it with Vidor's NORTHWEST PASSAGE, which tries for much the same thing and succeeds (or did when I saw it). Best seen as a dry-run for THE BIG RED ONE, and some of it has the same unexpected tweaking of familiar moments (making clear it's written from experience of life rather than war movies); pretty much the whole film is redeemed when the aw-shucks moment of a gruff sergeant softened by a native woman and a cute little kid is suddenly derailed by the sergeant - movingly, embarrassingly - collapsing into great unmanly sobs.  

PRIME CUT (61) (Michael Ritchie, 1972): Often surprisingly pretty - 'surprisingly' because aesthetic considerations aren't what one associates either with Ritchie or the rugged crime genre, but city-at-dawn shots, rolling Kansas cornfields and rows of sunflowers are all beautiful to look at. Extra care may have been lavished because the theme is really What Makes Us Human, as opposed to pieces of animal flesh - and appreciation of Beauty is certainly part of it - cf. Gene Hackman as the villainous "Mary Ann" who keeps doped-up naked girls in cattle-pens and grinds his enemies into (literal) sausage. Fleeting, minor and pungently offbeat, with a young Sissy Spacek luminous as the personification of Girlish Innocence - esp. when she recalls being outside, scooping up handfuls of earth and knowing, "in an instant, that being alive was just everything"... 

A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA (67) (Alexander Mackendrick, 1965): Second viewing, first in about 20 years. Slightly insubstantial - the book was the same - mostly because it's so suggestive, building an atmosphere of serpent-in-the-garden sensuality, the illicit attraction between man and girl coupled with the children's instinctive feel for the primitive and supernatural ("duppies", ghosts with their heads on backwards), all of it exposing the hollowness of 'civilised' society (Mackendrick uses melodrama shrewdly, like the lush inappropriate romantic score backing girl and pirate's first encounter). Free-floating strangeness and things below the surface, also deconstructing the jolly conventions of sea-faring tales and children's adventure stories - it begins with spectacle, as if toying with audience expectations, then grows steadily more psychological - and looking forward indirectly to the demon-child movies of a decade later. Even more unsettling now (with our paranoia over all things kid-related) than it must've been 40 years ago.   

MARTIN (75) (George A. Romero, 1977): Not sure why, but I always thought this was about a repressed young man channelling his frustration into vampirism, and it's not that at all. He's not even especially alienated - in fact he's a victim, forcibly beholden to the family curse, which initially rubbed me the wrong way (I hate victim cinema) but then Romero moves triumphantly beyond that as well, partly because he makes it clear that Martin is very good at being a vampire - darting around with a demon's agility when he invades the woman's house (a breathtaking set-piece), so obviously dangerous our pity dies on the vine - and partly because the film doesn't dwell on his misery but merely his condition, turning (like much of this director's work) into a film about anyone who's 'different' and/or marginalized, specifically in this case the junkie getting "shaky" as he longs for his fix, trying to hide his secret from polite society. The prevailing mood is affection - both for Martin and his homely Pittsburgh milieu - blended with cynicism, in asides like the cousin who promises to write but forgets all about him (he knew she would), and in the magnificently abrupt ending - and there's something else as well, Martin self-consciously on the border between fantasy (specifically film, the clichés of old vampire movies) and reality, hamstrung by the former (the "magic") as he tries to fit into the latter, possibly adding a hint that being a film buff is also a kind of addiction (surely this influenced FADE TO BLACK, the 1980 film about a cinephile turned killer). As a reflection on Romero himself, inexorably drawn to blood-soaked genre like a zombie Nosferatu when he'd love (perhaps) to shake the curse, address "real life" and be acclaimed as one of the world's great directors, it's all rather fascinating.

ALL I DESIRE (60) (Douglas Sirk, 1953): ... is home and hearth, the small-town American family co-opting and absorbing its free spirits as it signally failed to do in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS or WRITTEN ON THE WIND. Modern auds may giggle at the 50s slang and use of the word "peeved" ("peeved"!) but it's very well-written, sketching a quartet of characters in light, steady strokes (Billy Gray is also affecting as the forgotten little boy, wisely used as emotional trump-card), and Sirk's two sides seem in concert for once, the honest lover of the homespun (TAKE ME TO TOWN) co-existing with the sly European expatriate dissecting all things domestic. Alas, it turns into a tearjerker - a mother's sacrifice, etc - then cops out even on the tearjerking. Comic relief (the Swedish couple) is shaky, and why anyone would want to stay in this rather toxic little town is even shakier.     

MAY 1, 2007

CONFIDENTIAL REPORT (61) (Orson Welles, 1955): [Taped from TV; no idea which version it is.] Globe-trotting narrative bittiness - in the service of accumulating evidence - chimes surprisingly well with the shambolic nature of mid-period Welles, vital sound thrown over some irrelevant image to cover missing footage, reaction shots obviously filmed days or months later, snippets of one shot masquerading as another. The episodic plot recalls an Eric Ambler novel - or Welles' own JOURNEY INTO FEAR - with the wry addition of a dig at capitalism, the all-too-common imbrication of businessman and criminal (wry, because people like Arkadin are the ones who might've financed Welles' movies, and usually didn't). Finally gives up, turning to absurdism and the search for a nice foie gras with apples and onions. Tilted camera, Expressionist angles, grotesque visual detail all present and correct. 

BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (48) (Robert Altman, 1976): Altman couldn't really have made a disaster in between so many masterpieces, though even the opening lines warn us not to expect entertainment. More a disgusted grunt at the way American history is habitually airbrushed, forgotten then handed back as showbiz - which is probably why entertainment might've been inappropriate, but it's still semi-entertaining, esp. when Buffalo Bill's retinue fight among themselves and his manager mangles the English language ("disimprove") in accepted Goldwyn fashion. As "The Legend Maker", Burt Lancaster is so confident, relaxed and apparently omniscient he makes the whole well-meaning, hand-wringing enterprise seem a bit neurotic. Which it probably is. 

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (63) (Stuart Rosenberg, 1973): Whatever the original (Swedish) novel was like, this is one of those quietly aghast US cop movies made in the wake of Miranda - heavily indebted to DIRTY HARRY and THE FRENCH CONNECTION - that combine police procedural with world-gone-mad wallow in the whole urban detritus, the pimps and druggies and dykes and "fruiters" (they meet in a club called The Ramrod), even Hare Krishnas on a street corner. First half-hour is excellent by any standard, setting up a mass-murder from mysterious prelude to chilling aftermath with the cops attaching tags to corpses' feet and saying stuff like "Can't seem to shake this cold" (it helps having the early-70s dream duo of Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern as our heroes); dissipates slightly once a prime suspect is found - the solution isn't really very interesting - but enjoyable, even when it ends up in a San Francisco car-chase. Anthony Zerbe may be the most OTT chief-who-yells-at-our-heroes in history, second only to Joe Pantoliano in BAD BOYS 2. 

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (73) (Mitchell Leisen, 1935): Too bad it wasn't Cary Grant, but Fred MacMurray proves surprisingly adept at breezy, pun-laden dialogue as the rich young screwball who likes to be unconventional ("What are conventions anyway? Just a bunch of salesmen sitting around swapping stories"); Carole Lombard is the money-minded heroine though her self-delusion is blindingly obvious, since there's already a handsome millionaire suitor who adores her yet she barely even thinks about him (the catch? he's a paraplegic). His presence is the film's biggest structural coup, all but announcing the fact (which of course we already 'know') that Lombard will end up marrying for love/sex, not money - and since this Other Man is also preternaturally good and virtuous, and it's clear that marrying Carole would mean so much to him, one waits to see how the film will reconcile its foregone conclusion with the imperative of not hurting his feelings. Since the central relationship is also among the brightest in 30s comedy - the two are friends, comrades in (alleged) venality, with that childish side so prevalent in screwball, delicately perched in mutual denial about their attraction - the whole thing clearly has the potential to be a masterpiece of frivolity; alas, Leisen and his writers can't find a stylish way to reconcile the opposing forces, the ending is rushed and the overall effect second-tier. Still great fun, shading smartly from comedy to romance, moonlit faces on the balcony etc. Random detail that still makes me smile: all else having failed, a determined cabbie launches into cries of "All abo-o-oard!" in an attempt to rouse his drunken passenger into divulging which train station he's going to.

THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (69) (Archie Mayo, 1941): Mostly for the "novelty acts" - the acrobatic dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (who at one point jump four feet in the air then do the splits as they land on a narrow wall), the sweet harmonies of the politically-incorrect Four Ink Spots (!), above all the amazing Wiere Brothers who are zany as the Marxes (or Donald O'Connor in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) but also dance, play the violin, do that routine where each Brother in turn walks between the other two as they go round and round at lightning speed, and cap it off with stunts like Brother A flipping off his derby as they walk off and the hat landing on the head of Brother B as he walks behind him. Also for Alice Faye in full voluptuous bloom, a song called "I Take to You" that rhymes "henna" with "Old Vienna", a chaotic comic set-piece blending opera, a rainstorm and an exploding transmitter, plus Jack Oakie as the self-denying sidekick who loves the girl but moves heaven and earth to engineer her final clinch with obnoxious hero John Payne (whose stubborn pride often shades into belligerence). I make no great claims for it, but I had a blast. 

APRIL 1, 2007

LAND OF SILENCE AND DARKNESS (54) (Werner Herzog, 1971): Seems at first like Herzog's intention is to use film as a bridge for the deaf-blind to express their inner lives - the woman talks about 'seeing' a road through the fields, and an image of a road duly appears - but in fact it's the opposite. What he's attracted to is their mystery, the fact that they (esp. those who've been deaf-blind since birth) are finally unknowable, as unknowable as Bruno S. or Kaspar Hauser - one can offer them a lifeline, teach them to communicate basic concepts, but their understanding of the world is finally impossible to grasp unless one shares their isolation. The film's climax comes with a totally unsocialised 22-year-old (he looks about 12) who can't talk, never learned to walk, eats only soft food "which he presses between his tongue and palate" without chewing, yet brims with secret expressions of wonder and contentment as he sits there blowing raspberries to himself; Herzog's camera can't get enough of him - but much of the first half is less exciting, focusing on a very capable old lady who only became disabled in her teens and has no problem communicating, at least when she has her interpreter translating words into the palm of her hand. Can it be a case of Herzog being a bit shamefaced about his fascination with the freakshow aspects, feeling the need to include a 'positive' image of the deaf-blind even though what really interests him is the slightly grotesque secret mystery? A grower, in any case.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (55) (Robert Youngson, 1957): Interesting more in itself than for the Silent-comedy clips it features, both because the latter are no big deal in the age of DVD collectors and because the film itself is steeped in affectionate nostalgia, including Silent comedy in the same fond-memory bracket as the big-tent circus, the real-life cowboy and the horse-drawn fire engine even though the films were only made 30 years before (it's unlikely that a compilation made today would treat the 1970s as a forgotten age, which speaks partly to the longer life of pop-culture artefacts when they're propped up by corporate marketing - people's sense of History may be less than before, but their sense of pop-culture history is far greater - and partly to the fact that the 30 years in this case included a Great Depression and a World War). Clips themselves are fine, of course - and archival value is undoubted - though the voice-over tends to be annoying, e.g. in the very 50s invocation of 'experts' ("Most film historians now agree..."), and including only Laurel and Hardy's tit-for-tat comedies leaves out the warm goofy byplay which is what made them special, not to mention Stan's childish tears and Ollie's orotund scolding; this duo really need sound to do them justice. Though I do wonder if Godard had TWO TARS at the back of his mind when he came up with the traffic-jam sequence in WEEKEND...     

MARCH 1, 2007

GATES OF HEAVEN (59) (Errol Morris, 1978): Second viewing, first in about 15 years. Visually arid - there's something quite chilling and oppressive in the stationary one-shots - making it feel quite sad as it details the way a profound human passion (people's love for their pets, and grief when they pass away) gets buried in business plans, motivational thinking and Me Generation desire for self-validation ("What does this [pet cemetery] mean for me?"). Opens on the sweetest character, a middle-aged lug with a kind heart, moves to a rather creepy family business - one son's a hippy, playing his guitar to stave off loneliness; the other believes in positive thinking, has a roomful of trophies, never tells his kids "no" or "not" ("Those are very negative words"); both systematically pump up their work ("it's mind vs. matter"), making it sound important to disguise the fact they're digging burial plots for dogs in the middle of nowhere - and meanwhile the pet-owners edge close to tears as they talk to camera, and garland their pets' graves with sentiments like: "I knew love. I had this dog". Finally dispiriting, and a little boring (the visuals are desolate, the rhythm monotonous), but it does have something; as in Bresson, the stark compositions bring out a latent transcendence. Note the title.      

FEMALE TROUBLE (46) (John Waters, 1975): Divine is a great performer but the film falls into counter-culture circle-jerk, setting up a bizarro world where ugly is beautiful, deviant is normal, etc. When it self-consciously pricks the bubble in the courtroom climax, letting the real world in, it's supposed to be ruefully touching, as if admitting that everything thus far was Panglossian fantasy - Divine plays his final farewells without the wig, ostensibly because Dawn has her head shaved in prison but actually because the jig is up, as if to say 'We don't have to hide anymore' - prompting the audience to pathos though some may discern a hint of mockery in our hero(ine)'s testimony on the witness stand, the same edge that later appeared in DESPERATE LIVING [see below]. Has its moments, but the constant screeching gets tedious - and at some point the visual ugliness is no longer camp, it's ugly. 

DESPERATE LIVING (71) (John Waters, 1977): "I have never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing!" What, not even a little bit? Often very funny, especially in Mink Stole's full-on portrait of female hysteria (tying in with the kind of lush Sirkian melodrama implied in the opening credits), but also disturbingly sour, and the only John Waters film I've seen that moves beyond the maudlin romance of fringe 'freak' characters building a parallel world where they can Be Themselves - in fact, the only one that suggests dandyish, elegant Waters may have felt a certain contempt along with compassion for his characters and cast of non-actors (augmented by the absence of Divine, the one true talent in that crew). Freaks in their WIZARD OF OZ-ish shanty-town are as fascist as any cops or real-world authorities - maybe more so, since the only real cop turns out to be a closet freak with a yen for red thongs - and even their joyous dance at the end has a touch of nightmare, something about the slow camera pull-back and bacchanal-like staging (the whole film seems to borrow from fairytales and horror movies as much as melodramas). Elsewhere, a tyrannical Queen is injected with rabies and a big fleshy dick is messily sheared off with a blunt pair of scissors; so much for penis envy.   

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (66) (Roy Ward Baker, 1967): Vastly ambitious sci-fi, very much a 'film of ideas' - but also dodgy special effects (those alien crickets) and at least one comically hammy supporting scene ("Jumping! ... Leaping!"), so that waiting for stuff to happen is generally more exciting than watching it happen (which usually turns out to be an anti-climax). Also unsure how the plot ultimately hangs together - e.g. why manifestations are sometimes physical (the "ghosts" in the building's past) and sometimes only in the mind, or else expressed as a gust of wind - but my guess is that writer Nigel Kneale was so obviously the only brilliant mind on the project that none of the various journeymen dared ask for explanations. First half magnificently talky - gruff government types arguing it out - climax properly demented and spectacular; in between come remarkable scenes like scientists actually taping (on 1967 video) our collective human memory of life on another planet, playing it back to show unearthly images buried at the heart of human consciousness and repressed for millennia - and they probably couldn't have brought that off on 10 times the budget.

NIGHT NURSE (69) (William A. Wellman, 1931): Feeble final act lets it down, but oh, the Attitude! Gum-chewing nurses on the make, leering interns in pursuit (one can lose count of the number of scenes where the girls strip down to their undies), rich people's parties with everyone blotto and the platinum-blonde hostess in a puddle of booze (meanwhile, her neglected kids are starving to death in the nursery upstairs), the hero a cheerful bootlegger who breaks the law without a second thought and cheerfully hires "some guys" to murder the villain for a happy ending. No surprise that "ethics" are the biggest obstacle faced by heroine Barbara Stanwyck - middle-aged doctor (literally at Stanwyck's feet before the film is 10 minutes old) lets the kids starve because it wouldn't be "ethical" to interfere in a colleague's case, at least till the cheerful bootlegger calls threatening him with an early grave - though her best moment must be when she towers over the supine, wasted dipso and contemptuously sneers: "You ... you mother!". Absolutely astonishing, all the heedless energy of a young country pre-political correctness, even pre-Rule of Law. It couldn't last, of course.

ADAM'S RIB (63) (George Cukor, 1949): Second viewing, first since I was a kid - when I didn't think it was that funny but gave it a pass, because it was a Classic. Still don't think it's that funny, but it probably enfolds the Tracy-Hepburn romance better than any of their movies; the tone must appear weirdly cosy if you don't know they were a couple (though it's quite romantic if you do). Trouble is, Tracy tends to get too comfortable when he knows Hepburn's around to make him look good, knowing she'll play off his reticence and cast adoring looks into the bargain - and the film is mostly about his male insecurity (when he invokes The Law he really means Marriage, trying to pin her down to a narrow view - staid lawyer, obedient wife - because he's not as gifted as she is) so it all seems curiously lopsided. Judy Holliday out-acts them all, and Cukor has the sense to use a fixed five-minute take for her hilarious interview scene.     

THE MARRYING KIND (73) (George Cukor, 1952): "The kind of love they got in movies, that's not for people. You gotta be more realistic". Maybe not 'realistic' per se, more like PENNY SERENADE re-imagined as fluent New York comedy in slangy Noo Yawk-ese ("What makes you think?" for "What makes you think so?", etc) with an admittedly slightly glib m.o. - moments of joy for the central couple invariably smothered by disaster, bad luck or misunderstanding. Sounds a bit schematic but totally redeemed by performance, sense of detail and a balance and fairness about married life that's tempting - and probably right - to ascribe to its having been written by a married couple; husband and wife connect, speak the same language (cf. Vince Vaughn sitting down to watch the football game while Jennifer Aniston looks stricken in THE BREAK-UP), though you'd think they'd have bought a double bed after all these years. Love means intimacy, husband hawking noisily into the sink and wife pulling out her "chin-whiskers", joking about old boyfriends while she's putting on her dress and he's shaving in front of the mirror (years later, they get into such a nasty argument about the same old boyfriend that their child wakes up screaming about the "mad people"), simmering tension about money and in-laws though no one thing causes the rift - it's a bit of everything - and when e.g. the husband messes up (with the song contest on the radio) and feels shitty, the wife doesn't nag or yell at him for losing them the prize with his bossiness (instead she forgives him, resting her head on his shoulder). That's the texture of marriage, daily sacrifices and compromises - and repressions - which is why it can all erupt in a surge of irrational resentment one day. Even the cutesy details - the flavoured-stamps idea (so they're easier to lick), or the kid saying "It's my fourth-favourite dessert" - work in context, and Cukor veers expertly from showcasing performers to accommodating Kanin & Gordon's zany whims (the dream sequence being the equivalent of "Imagine she's a man" in ADAM'S RIB) to canny bits of style like the swelling tramp of running feet in the background, threading menace through Judy Holliday's carefree song even before the shocking cut to wide-shot - when we realise Something's Happened - in the scene where [spoiler]. For your consideration, Best Scene, Skandies 1952: The butcher's speech, THE MARRYING KIND. 

PICNIC (50) (Joshua Logan, 1955): Second viewing, first in about 14 years; did I really used to like this movie? William Holden is ludicrously old for the role - yes, the character is meant to be past his prime, but Holden looks downright middle-aged even as everyone keeps saying "son" and "kid" and "when I was your age" - and the stiff staging leads to dead scenes like the bit where our hero takes off his jacket in the house before the picnic, everyone standing in a line and doing that fake stage laughter as he flexes his muscles. The middle section - the picnic itself - is beautiful to look at (though small-town atmosphere is slathered with a trowel in a hicks-having-fun montage that's even lengthier than the similar one in PEYTON PLACE), and the late scene with the two lonely people negotiating whether to get married is deftly done, but most of it is the kind of hammy theatrical oldie that gets modern audiences sniggering. Heroine seems to strike a blow for women, going with her heart and refusing to just be a sex-object - rejecting Mom's advice to use her looks to find the man best able to support her - but in fact all the women who claim to be independent turn out to be either deluded (Rosalind Russell's needy old maid) or unfeminine (Susan Strasberg as the tomboy intellectual). Men crave power, women crave men; the 50s in a nutshell.   

FEBRUARY 1, 2007

TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS (54) (Marco Ferreri, 1981): "To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without style. To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call Art." Kudos for laying its cards on the table from the very first scene, but sometimes style can get in the way of danger, as e.g. with a Bukowski movie - catching the author (transposed to a poet) in middle-age, no more a barfly but perched on the cusp of fame - done in high arthouse style, with suitably poetic voice-over, interiors decked in beautiful blues and oranges, a deserted beach for quiet ruminations and tragic-diva-like Ornella Muti as the whore with the face of an angel ("Take my soul with your cock," she implores, her ecstasy prettily framed through the strands of a bead curtain when he takes her from behind). Most of the "ordinary madness" comes from women (which was never quite the point with this author), a series of troublesome hoydens like in a 70s sex comedy with Ben Gazzara both smooth and serene as he watches their foibles, Bukowski as a Zen Casanova - making sweet love even to the 'big-boned' girl, and the grateful one who says "You're the first man I ever met who wasn't in a rush" - with soft eyes and a long-suffering liver. "I wasn't about to chase the Great American Wet Dream! I'd rather get drunk..."  

JANUARY 1, 2007