Older films seen in 2010, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 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 seven 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.

[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]

HEAD (75) (third viewing: 83) (Bob Rafelson, 1968): Didn't care for this at all as a young(er) man; "like a revue staged by clever-but-lazy people who decided to get drunk and hope for the best," I scoffed in the early 90s - but second viewing reveals that I missed how essentially serious it is, and how prescient (probably too prescient, in fact, for the early 90s), as well as being funny and inventive. The seriousness is echoed in its use of Vietnam footage, even the infamous Nguyen Van Lem execution which would surely seem tasteless if the equivalent (Abu Ghraib?) turned up today in a wacky comedy; the prescience comes in the mention of "a new world whose only preoccupation will be how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your times, my young friends," The Monkees are admonished, "is that you may get exactly what you want". Enlightenment is located in "the reality of the Now", implicitly including political engagement (that The Monkees are charmless, clueless and mostly apolitical is probably part of the joke); 'amusement' is equated partly with Old Hollywood fakery, prompting spoofs of SAHARA, Westerns - "Quick! Suck it before the venom reaches my heart!" - films about young violinists from the Lower East Side, etc; the pace out-Lesters Richard Lester and a list of zany details would take too long, but would certainly include: talking cow; transvestite waitress; Victor Mature's dandruff; a giant eye in the bathroom mirror; factory worker's head falling off; b&w vox-pop grumbling about Kids Today; "Nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humour". Would Jack Nicholson have concentrated more on his writing, had this been a massive hit? Makes you wonder.   

DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER (55) (Robert Youngson, 1961): "The days of thrills and laughter - when men were men, and movies really moved!". Hollywood discovers nostalgia, and sees that it is good; lots of talk of "bygone eras" and so forth, both because the changes in Western society were far greater in the 40 years from Silent days to this than between today and 1970, and (for instance) because it's superfluous today to lament that "the Master", Mack Sennett, has "departed from the scene", whereas in this case he'd died just the year before (the time of the Youngson compilations was perhaps when it really, viscerally clicked that people can expire yet survive, undimmed, on the screen). The clips themselves are great, of course - Charlie Chaplin and revolving door in THE CURE, Charley Chase with a spring in his bottom, Houdini in Niagara Falls - though suffer by being shown out of context.

SIX OF A KIND (57) (Leo McCarey, 1934): Second viewing, even more troublesome (first viewing was 66). Double-bill with DUE DATE, 76 years apart, Zach Galifianakis played by Gracie Allen - and you just want to strangle her so I guess mission accomplished, but it's still a relief when W.C. Fields shows up. His approximately five-minute rendition of trying, and failing, to set up a pool shot takes gag-milking to insane heights - one of McCarey's trademarks seems to be an appreciation (and indulgence) of shtick in general, from Edgar Kennedy's slow burn in DUCK SOUP to twinkly priests and singing children in the later films - but the shaggy-dog story that accompanies it is some kind of genius: "So I said 'Here's your glass eye, young man'. And ever since that day, they call me Honest John." 

DECEMBER 1, 2010

ANN VICKERS (54) (John Cromwell, 1933): Completely falls apart in the final stretch, partly because we don't get enough information to judge whether Ann is a fool to go against her beliefs and stand by her man (he says he's innocent, but the film seems to assume he isn't), ending with our heroine thanking him for basically wrecking her career because it freed her from "the prison of ambition", which is just noxious. Even more noxious because the first half is impressive, apparently approving of the feminist, independent woman - she can't even cook - and touching maturely on subjects like the need for an abortion (Havana was the place to go in 1933, it seems) and the nice guy at work whom Ann just doesn't love, not to mention prison reform and our heroine's startling line to a female jailbird: "We'll have to get you off the snow, cold turkey". First half-hour fine but strangely irrelevant, unless the point is that only a heartbroken woman would want to become a do-gooder. 

THE STORY OF A CHEAT (63) (Sacha Guitry, 1936): A smooth boulevardier joke on a world ruled by Chance and the folly of trying to tame it (also the hypocrisy of conventional morality, and perhaps a wry reflection on the fine line between Life - esp. Life Recollected - and comic theatre). The opening credits alone make it remarkable - but it's also the kind of film where hearing it described is almost the same experience as actually watching it. In a word, droll. 

CITY STREETS (75) (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931): Arty gangster flick (Paramount, not demotic Warners), kicking off in eye-catching fashion with the undersides of trucks trundling over a low-angle camera, later match-dissolving from a bubbling beer-vat to a rushing river (floating in the river is a gangster's hat, the first of many elliptical murders). Mamoulian's ideas have a whiff of the storyboard, and some are just bizarre - there's a conversation illustrated by symbolic close-ups of ceramic cats - but they're wildly imaginative, an aestheticized crime movie with a plot that's generic but solid; oldies tend to suffer from perfunctory endings but the action climax in this one is both clever and thematically apt (moving from the city to the mountains, our hero's natural element), not to mention visually striking. Gary Cooper's remarkable, almost feminine delicacy is part of the aesthetics but Sylvia Sidney goes beyond that, flinty and feisty - "They can all kiss my foot!" she says euphemistically - and so fervently in love she banishes all thought of storyboards. Thing to Note: the old heroine-assailed-by-lines-of-dialogue cliché kind of works (though of course it's still cheesy) when the voices don't just speak their lines the way we've already heard them but deliver new, melodramatic readings, as if twisted by her fevered mind. Line to Quote: "No hard feelings."      

LADY KILLER (69) (Roy Del Ruth, 1933): Second viewing, first in 9 years. Liked it more this time, probably due to foreknowledge of choppy structure, James Cagney starting out as usher and ending up as movie star with card-sharp, bar-owner, bum and Hollywood extra in between. Cagney's irresistible in these early-30s comedies - rocking on his heels, twitching impatiently ("I can't wait that long!" he exclaims in the film's last line), flipping someone the bird then doing a little dance for no reason at all, making a critic (literally) eat his own words, cracking wise about everyone, even himself ("Funny fella," he adds in a comedy croak after making the girl laugh with one of his jokes, a reminder of his "Hooo-oney" in Del Ruth's BLONDE CRAZY two years earlier). The film is rickety and occasionally dull, but still: Force of Nature.    

NOVEMBER 1, 2010

THE EXILES (82) (Kent MacKenzie, 1961): Thought I'd have to make allowances - long-lost film, important subject - but this is fabulous, straddling the line between found and staged, often intensely beautiful (the matrix of city lights, pools of neon on night-time streets, the clashing lines of houses, high-rises and the sharp diagonal of the uphill trolley), surprisingly modern in being primarily about boredom and just-hanging-out but also alive to dramatic tension, rhythms of speech - the guy promising the reluctant girl a night on the town, punctuating his spiel with "Good enough? ... Good enough?" - and an over-arching story (the Indians as "exiles") adding resonance (saw it back-to-back with ALAMAR, which does much the same thing 50 years later but falls down on its - banal - over-arching story). Watching e.g. the scene in the bar, with the burly, frustrated hero getting increasingly irritated by the gay couple (itself a surprise for 1961), surrounded by startlingly real, sleazy ambience - partly Time-capsule value, but more detailed and alive than e.g. THE SAVAGE EYE from the year before - you wonder how a film like this can get lost, and a director so obviously brilliant can languish in a non-career and die at 50. Mind-blowing.

SHADOWS (74) (John Cassavetes, 1959)

PANDORA'S BOX (71) (G.W. Pabst, 1929): A film of hurtling, seething crowds - at a party, in a courtroom, on the street, in a smoky bar, backstage in a theatre - and an underlying stillness (or absence of melodrama), its characters apt to look resigned and fatalistic when confronted by blackmail or betrayal. Then there's Lulu - my first look at Louise Brooks, taller and more swan-necked than expected - increasingly de-glamourised as the film goes on just as her vamp persona peels away to reveal something more complex, a childlike hedonist forever disappointed by people (not that she cares). She's as happy swinging on the strongman's muscled arm as batting her eyelids at the prosecutor, prone to tantrums but without any real malice (it seems at first like an act of revenge when she lets her sugar-daddy see his sleazy forebear, but in fact she's genuinely tickled to have them both in the same room), finally bonds with a fellow misfit who's like her obverse - a sociopath as painfully aware of his psychology as she's oblivious to her own - only to be disappointed once again. Both the film's murders are staged as embraces, people rushing to their doom like those hurtling crowds, but at least there's a happy ending - a decrepit old man sampling Christmas pudding, "one last time before I die". Ignorant question: is the focus supposed to go in and out during the post-party scene with Lulu and Dr. Schon (I watched the Criterion DVD), i.e. is it just a battered print or deliberately disorienting? Because it works.       

THE BOWERY (66) (Raoul Walsh, 1933): Second viewing, first in almost 20 years. The faint-of-heart won't get far beyond the opening shot - the shop window of a bar called "Nigger Joe's" - but there's wild exuberant pleasure in the vision of a young, lawless New York (cops are repeatedly lampooned) where urchins, whores, "Chinks", Jewish tailors, fat Irishmen and various charming rogues rub along together; Walsh loves them all, most obviously in the opening Scenes From the Bowery montage and the later, unexpected vox-pop where various denizens give their opinion, in fleshy close-ups, on whether George Raft will succeed in jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (they include a newsboy, a cop, and a feathered dame who opines: "He's just a bozo, but I hope he makes it"). That's in the second half, which isn't as good as the first but does contain Wallace Beery and his fat Irish cohorts going on a "picnic" to the beach in striped swimming costumes (they go to the edge of the water, hop around energetically, then rush out again) as well as the climactic drag-down fight between the two main rivals - and Ford would surely have staged the fight in full view of the community whereas Walsh has the rivals going off to settle their differences in private while the crowd simply waits for the winner to return, but I guess that's why Ford is a crypto-Communist and Walsh a proto-existentialist. Or something.      

OCTOBER 1, 2010

ACE IN THE HOLE (75) (third viewing: 71) (Billy Wilder, 1951): Second viewing, first in >15 years, second major shock of the year after SUNSET BOULEVARD [see below]; always thought of this as an all-time fave, but the heavy ironies seem quite heavy now - e.g. corrupt sheriff telling townspeople not to let his virtuous actions in helping the trapped man influence their vote in any way, come election time - Wilder's wagging finger is inescapable, and the whole media-circus satire is no longer fresh. Still remarkably powerful, and Jan Sterling's bitter tart-without-a-heart is even more hard-boiled than Sandy in THE FORTUNE COOKIE. [Third viewing (March 2016) confirms the unthinkable: that Wilder, whom I once revered, makes films I now find to be painfully overwritten. The first half-hour in particular is patchy here, full of horribly stagy scenes like Tatum's extended New York monologue in the newspaper office, or the first meeting with the trapped man who recalls singing songs in the D-Day landings then actually starts to sing by way of illustration (I also can't get used to those one-sided, exposition-heavy phone calls where the speaker repeats his interlocutor's questions in his answers, but I guess that's just a convention). Does get progressively more gripping, the satire is bleak but not without its grace notes ("Mr. and Mrs. America" granted a moment of tenderness at the very end) or visual flourishes (the hero-worshipping kid's face obscured to suggest his inner turmoil), there's a powerhouse ending and e.g. the Jan Sterling character is an unqualified triumph. But still, this used to be my No. 1 film of 1951 and now it's just an HM. I should probably check ONE TWO THREE next.] 

AWARA (63) (Raj Kapoor, 1951): DVD runs 168 minutes, IMDb claims original ran 193, so we'll give the benefit of the doubt to some choppy plotting (above all the fact that, unless I missed something major, heroine has no way of knowing the true identity of hero's father in the courtroom climax) but story generally feels undernourished, dealing in shorthand - Mother's honour blemished by rumours, hero-heroine relationship derailed by her need for a "gentleman" - that was shorthand even 60 years ago, and seems pretty musty now. Even Kapoor seems more invested in other things, esp. the visuals, from random shots - cast-out Mom clawing at Dad's back in startling low-angle, later lying on a rain-soaked street with raindrops catching the light in the background - to the musical numbers, reaching an apogee in the Heaven/Hell number with dry ice and statuary. Kapoor himself goes from clown to Message-monger, an "awara" (tramp) in the catchy title-song, a voice for disenfranchised street-urchins in the film's Nature/Nurture debate. Erik Gregersen is right to speak of Gesamtkunstwerk (yeah, I had to look it up), but the actual material is still pretty ragged.  


DEADLY CIRCUIT (75) (Claude Miller, 1983): My consumer guide for the (few) consumers likely to visit this page and wonder whether to watch the original 120-minute version or butchered 95-minute version of this French thriller - because I watched both on consecutive nights, and the cut version actually works better (admittedly, I watched that one first). Seems bizarre, but in fact the jagged nonsensical cuts - e.g. going straight to the bank robbery, without transitional scenes to explain that the girls have gone on a crime spree - and out-of-nowhere asides ("p.s. Beware! The forces of Evil stalk you like spiders!") fit with the film's shape-shifting quality. Starts as film noir with a surprising strain of comedy, Michel Serrault (magnificent) as the brusque, unsociable detective with a penchant for talking to himself in public places (then pretending he's solving crossword puzzles when passers-by ask "I beg your pardon?"), Isabelle Adjani as the femme fatale - and possible lost daughter - who eats pears, reads Shakespeare, kills men, and has such a hold over him that a carousel bursts into life the moment she brushes up against him. The carousel - like the rolling, jazzy score - brings the idea of circularity, also in the title and the fact that both protagonists are (a) in constant motion yet (b) trying to get back to the beginning, to resolve the past with all its unanswered questions (the only scene whose omission hurts the short version is the one where Adjani - watching THE LAST LAUGH - talks about her dad, making clear that everything she does is haunted by his absence). Turns into a kind of road movie, then a fevered psychological drama with two people searching for connection, linked by obscure telepathy as the backdrops (in Pierre Lhomme's lush visuals) turn ever seedier and slummier. Only the duo of comic blackmailers, with Stephane Audran as "the Woman in Grey", seemed a bit tedious on second viewing; then again, it's well-known the French have no sense of humour.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (72) (Billy Wilder, 1950): Shock of the year! Third viewing, first since my late teens when it rocked my little world - but now it seems little more than a bitchy (if witty) cartoon, and even Gloria Swanson's famous Norma seems one-dimensional, a good joke but the kind that only works the first time you hear it. Maybe I'm moving away from Wilder, given that I also changed my mind on PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES last year - on the other hand, A FOREIGN AFFAIR was revealed as a masterpiece - or maybe it's just a case (like 400 BLOWS) where the experience of watching the film now seems inadequate compared to its weighty effect on my cinephilia (it's like I have to confirm that effect by outgrowing it). William Holden takes the acting honours, and some of it - notably the visit to DeMille - remains riveting.     

CONTRABAND (67) (Michael Powell, 1940): Light-hearted sub-Hitchcock spy movie, hugely entertaining but straining a little to be clever in the details (e.g. hero somehow figuring out that you have to push the 'Stop' button twice to get the elevator in the villains' lair down to the basement), also facing the problem that Conrad Veidt is a very great actor but not quite an action hero, let alone a romantic hero. Nice local colour from the Blitz, air-raid wardens being officious, peddlers selling torches (for the blackouts) and gas masks; also a rotund British officer declaring very firmly that there are "only two things worth a tuppenny damn: gin, and a good circulation!".

THE GILDED LILY (49) (Wesley Ruggles, 1935): Opens with newspaperman Fred MacMurray expounding to Claudette Colbert on why popcorn, not peanuts, is the thing to munch while watching the world from a park bench - doubtless derived from newspaperman Clark Gable showing Colbert his doughnut-dunking scientific method in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT the year before, just as the occasional dissipated vibe - Colbert drowning her sorrows with a slurred philosophical "Who cares? At least we're living!" - recalls pre-Code days (e.g. THE LAST FLIGHT) while MacMurray's amoral celebrity-stalker might once have been played by Lee Tracy, though the reassuring populist vibe (trip to Coney Island, working girl getting the better of English toff, etc) is Capra again. Second-hand and second-tier from beginning to end, though it has its moments. Things Haven't Changed Much in 75 Years: celebrity culture in the 1930s, Colbert as the "No Girl" who's famous for being famous. Oh Yes They Have: Fred ships Claudette a box of popcorn, 'cause he knows "it's so hard to find popcorn in England".  

SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES (62) (Jay Sandrich, 1980): Neil Simon + comedy of remarriage = at the very least, the funniest of the (too) many movies featuring Charles Grodin and a St. Bernard. Actually the jokes are pretty lame, at least till the final stretch and one of the great important-dinner-ends-in-chaos scenes followed by a pretty good plot-gets-sorted-out-before-increasingly-flustered-judge scene, and the bits between Grodin - in the Wrong Man role - and heroine Goldie Hawn are probably funnier than those with nominal hero Chevy Chase, who smirks his way through. "Look at you, with that silly smirk on your face!"; "Well, I tried a serious smirk, but it didn't feel right."  

HOMEWORK (65) (Abbas Kiarostami, 1989): Threatens to become an Iranian "Kids Say the Darndest Things" but retains a fascination, if only to see how close Kiarostami can get to indicting the whole theocratic system without actually saying so - first in showing the kids' daily brainwashing sessions where they praise Allah and spout slogans ("Down with the East and the West!" they cry, which seems needlessly broad), then emphasising blind obedience to Authority throughout then dwelling on a real basket case, a kid who's been driven nuts by the System. The penultimate shot is a stroke of genius, changing the angle for the first time to collapse the filmmaker's own authority - up till then it's all been confrontational, medium close-ups of kids vs. camera eye, but suddenly we see the child and his interviewer/inquisitor in the same frame as if to suggest an alternative model, Kiarostami relinquishing his role and making the brutalized kids his equals - then straight to the frightened child reciting a religious hymn, then credits over freeze-frame. Subversive.  

ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL (75) (Henry Koster, 1937): Second viewing, first in >15 years. Hadn't seen a Deanna Durbin film in ages, doubted her charm would still work on me - but it does, because she's so expressive; the ray-of-sunshine, aria-singing-angel act is one part, but she flits from that to bossiness, indignation, vaudeville timing, childish cuteness (her reaction to the pheasant on the buffet table), often in the same shot. Mostly magical, though you do have to accept that Leopold Stokowski is a hopeless dork (as himself). Just accept it.

THE GOOD FAIRY (73) (William Wyler, 1935): A three-hander with about a dozen long, talky scenes and the least convincing premise imaginable - but nothing that involves Preston Sturges (adapting from a play) and two of the three main players from SHOP AROUND THE CORNER can be all bad. Margaret Sullavan is enchanting, Frank Morgan's solid-citizen bustle makes his malapropisms and confusion funnier (and adds surreal levels of wtf-ness when he says "I'm not really a butterfly, I just look like one"). Pretty much entirely delightful, apart from the slightly too aggressive - and obsessive - waiter whose over-protectiveness shades into psychosis (Sturges always had a tendency to use that in his comedy, see e.g. the mother-fixated Marine in CONQUERING HERO) and the fact that it's all so wordy, though Wyler keeps it moving. Full of tiny throwaway gags, mumbled asides, zany ways of speaking, but mostly recommended to those who find the word "piffle" and the concept of men with bushy beards hilarious. Which they are, of course.  

TOUKI BOUKI (61) (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1973): Way too chaotic and confusing but still one of the best African movies, partly because it's not really African - not rooted in Senegalese society or adopting its rhythms (like Sembene) but viewing it from the point of view of its young disaffected protagonists who are half-in, half-out. The camera behaves like a tourist, taking in the local colour, pushing between the women with pails of water on their heads so they turn to look; our heroes have the traits of young people everywhere, but especially post-'68 - loose ramshackle existence, burning desire to flee, impatience with the System (the girl is first seen rejecting the mutual back-scratching of village-like African life, insisting that the customer pay straight away like they do - implicitly - in big modern cities); the sensibility isn't far from e.g. DAISIES, though this couple have a purpose behind their anarchy. Mambety has an eye - for sea-birds around a rusty shipwreck, the foamy eddies of rocks and water, barren trees with gnarled branches like arms held out in supplication - albeit not much story sense; the result is unsatisfying, but there's certainly enough to suggest he might've had a great career (as opposed to waiting 15 years just to make another movie), if he weren't based in Senegal and had found something better to make films about. 

LE BOUCHER (82) (Claude Chabrol, 1970): "If you only knew human nature..." sighs the detective, but in fact human nature is laid out quite precisely in this brilliant psychological thriller - both its "Cro-Magnon" side, in the killer's blind rage and the butcher's memories of wartime savagery (and perhaps also in the constant background presence of children, as unthinking in their innocence as the killer is in his brutality), and its more exalted side, our attempts at something more transcendent ("Aspirations"!), whether the primitive cave-paintings in the grotto or the tentative tenderness between a man and a woman. The greatest aspiration of all may be Community, the village life that sanctifies and civilises triumph and tragedy through its rituals, its weddings and funerals - the opening caption is more than a dedication; the villagers of Trémolat are the true heroes here - though of course redemption comes in many forms; Chabrol plays Hitchcockian games then deliberately goes beyond them, the damsel-in-distress climax duly offered then transcended by a sublime final 10 minutes, the damaged - but redemptive - love of two damaged people (note the sly side-note of the heroine's disenchantment, which implicitly is what allows her to respond as she does; she'd be deeply shocked, if she still believed in love). Starts with landscape shots, ends with the same shots only wreathed in fog, the noble haze of moral ambiguity. Sounds about right.  

ALPHAVILLE (52) (second viewing: 55) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965): People in Alphaville adapt or die, shake their heads for 'yes' and vice versa, live in a world of pure logic - though Art persists in the cracks, unbidden, in mentions of Dr. Nosferatu or the line "le jour se lève" - without past or future. Godard, admirably, creates futuristic sci-fi with minimal resources, just an emphasis on glass and neon (plus a mischievous penchant for dramatic dun-dun-duhhh music at regular intervals) separated by his trademark flatness, what Manny Farber called "long stretches of aggressive, complicated nothingness" - but his academic quality makes a poor fit with the Orwellian anguish for a world without feelings, and the film is dull because it clamps down on the taste for incipient anarchy that's his best 1960s quality (anarchy ceases to be fun once it's made to mean something Significant). The last three words are so insincere - not because they're un-meant, just because they're only meant in an abstract, conceptual way - they're an insult to the true romantic.

KAGEMUSHA (62) (Akira Kurosawa, 1980): Magnificent to look at, albeit in a way that suggests the true heir to Kurosawa may be Zhang Yimou - multi-coloured armies in striking compositions, etc - but magnificence doesn't quite obscure AK's usual arbitrary way with narrative (he thinks in set-pieces, or at least individual scenes rather than transitions; it's no surprise to learn the film was storyboarded for years before it was made) or answer some niggly questions (why does the Lord insist on his armies staying put after his death? doesn't he want them to fulfil his dream of reaching Kyoto? and why does the "double" volunteer for the job? "sense of duty" seems an unconvincing reason, and surely the implied supernatural element hasn't kicked in yet?). More importantly, Kurosawa's sensibility is grandiose and conservative - or perhaps apolitical - so for instance he's interested in the rather buffoonish thief becoming more regal as he grows into the job when it might've been more satisfying (as suggested by the excellent opening scene) to see the base-born thief showing up the Lord's snobby retainers and their hidebound attitudes - just as the ending goes for bug-eyed pathos when it might've been more meaningful to go for something cold and cynical, the thief quietly disposed-of when he's outlived his usefulness. Awesome psychedelic dream sequence at the 90-minute mark, however.   

DARK VICTORY (74) (Edmund Goulding, 1939): Incredibly brisk terminal-illness movie, the characters refusing to dwell on the awful truth and in fact using it as a kind of lever, sharing or withholding the knowledge as a part of regulating their relationships with each other. It's a quest for control, and ultimately mastery over Death - to die "beautifully and finely" - which is why it's such a perfect Bette Davis vehicle, blending the calculating Bette of THE LETTER and THE LITTLE FOXES with the (less interesting) masochistic Bette of THE OLD MAID. Humphrey Bogart is surprisingly effective as the cocky Oirish groom, Bette's equal in breezy self-centredness - at least till, unaware of the truth, he says she's looking much better, must be all the prayers he's been saying, and her thin smile implies he's lost her confidence; he should know better than to bring God into it.

AUGUST 1, 2010

LIFE IS SWEET (66) (Mike Leigh, 1990): Second viewing, first in 20 years, down from the high 70s. Leigh's consensus pre-NAKED masterpiece now seems a minor work (strangely, I had the exact opposite reaction to HIGH HOPES, which once underwhelmed but now seems stunning), veering further into caricature but not in the symphonic way of HOPES; instead, the Aubrey scenes are entirely cartoonish while the resolution of the family crisis - the big scene between Mum and Nicola - is entirely conventional (if well-written), a theatrical duologue with a proper sense of closure. The undoubted triumph are the two sisters, Jane Horrocks amazing (albeit in a flashy role), Claire Skinner even better in a more difficult role; Skandies 1990 would've been insanely tight in Supp. Actress, with these two plus Jennifer Jason Leigh.  

THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (47) (John Ford, 1936): Not usually bothered by such things in old movies, but it does seem a bit gratuitous for the activist calling on blacks to vote (the year is 1865) to be exposed as a coward and indeed a hypocrite as our hero has him thrown off his property. He (our hero) is "a slaver", and one of his ex-slaves duly accompanies him to Shark Island where the most unpleasant of the prison guards (lanky, narrow-eyed John Carradine) declares that Lincoln was "the greatest man that ever lived". Our man's been convicted of plotting to assassinate Lincoln - and he's actually innocent of that charge but he might as well be guilty given the film's m.o., all but re-fighting the Civil War as intrepid Southerners (his courtly lawyer, his Confederate father-in-law) battle Yankee (in)justice, his heroic moment at the end mostly consisting of using scare tactics on some bug-eyed black people and imposing his will on a recalcitrant "Negro" (guess it takes a slaver to call a spade a spade). All of which would be troubling but not necessarily fatal (different times, and besides Ford always had a soft spot for the Old South) if the film were gripping or incisive, but it doesn't offer much after a decent set-up - not even much detail of life on Shark Island, which is surely the heart of the story. Strangely overrated.

WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME (66) (John Ford, 1950): An obvious double-bill with GROUNDHOG DAY, being a story of a man who's unable, try as he might, to leave Punxatawney - though the first half recalls HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and is just as sharp (if not as uproarious) on the small-town craving for local heroes. Second half broadens into farce, booze jokes and French nightclub singers turned Resistance fighters - and Dan Dailey's rather too-hearty mugging - moving down a rung from satirical to amiable, but the whole thing is full of nice touches; see e.g. an awkward relationship with a domineering dad (William Demarest; say no more) implied in the very slight shifting of a cap and a glimpse of a newspaper photo.

THE OVERLANDERS (58) (Harry Watt, 1946): Australian cattle-drive Western with many a "You beaut!" and "Good on yer!" (it's actually English, made by Ealing as a bit of Down Under exotica). Not much emotional heft (ending's too abrupt, among other things) but a satisfying series of problems to be solved - hilly trails to be climbed, boggy billabongs to be negotiated, a race-against-Time bit of cross-cutting that surprisingly doesn't end with the frantic girl on the horse managing to stop the departing plane. Still hard to take, in a way, because the motley crew of drovers (a sailor, a portly comic drunk, a young family) also includes two Aborigines yet they play almost no part in solving the problems - even though the main problem is getting across 1000 miles of dry Outback country - barely even acknowledged except when they chant at night, prompting this chirpy exchange: "What d'you think he's singing about?"; "Probably the time when his people owned this land". Yeah, that must be it...

OPERATION PETTICOAT (69) (Blake Edwards, 1959): So glad that films like this exist - despite its low reputation in film-buff circles - if only to confirm that I haven't turned into a Hollywood hater (I just have some issues with the current half-assed, infantile model). Tony Curtis does the scavenger-hustler, cousin to Sgt. Bilko or James Garner in THE GREAT ESCAPE - gloriously spoofed by Milo Minderbinder in "Catch-22" - Cary Grant is strange casting as the uptight disciplinarian Captain but that's the way his career was headed, see e.g. the previous year's HOUSEBOAT (he seems to have been quite self-conscious about his age, going the grumpy-old-man route and potentially robbing us of a great 60-something guru in the Terence Stamp style). Comedy, action and even the occasional poignant touch ("Auld Lang Syne") in well-judged proportions, the putdowns often smart, plotting lively, the humour quite earthy and risqué for 1959 - I'd swear that was a joke on the multiple meanings of "head" if it weren't ... y'know, 1959 - and charges of sexism seem exaggerated: the nurses generally give as good as they get, though they do seem implausibly fixated on marriage as opposed to wartime nooky - a reminder that the same writers were responsible for PILLOW TALK.     

WHITE DOG (71) (Samuel Fuller, 1982): Embrace the silliness. Struggling teenage actress Kristy McNichol lives alone in a huge house in the hills (how? why?); her boyfriend thinks it isn't safe, and right on cue a rapist appears in her bedroom - these things happen - but fortunately the White Dog intervenes; "That's the same damn rapist I caught last year!" muses the arresting officer when Kristy calls the cops. The dog makes Scooby-Doo noises when happy and isn't too convincing in attack mode - but Embrace the Silliness because his muzzle in snarling, teeth-flashing close-up makes a chilling visual shorthand for the blind animal hatred of racism. "He just killed a man ... in a church!" we're told, and Fuller zooms into Kristy's reaction (over-)dramatically, but Embrace the Silliness because he also has the blood-spattered mutt - having just killed a man in a church - turn to glare at a stained-glass image of St. Francis of Assisi, and suddenly the undertones and meanings are so dense (glimpse of lost innocence? religion as hypocrisy? 'dumb' animal mocking human attempts at transcendence?) they threaten to blow the B-movie trappings out of the water. Moment Out of Time: Burl Ives throws a dart at a poster of R2-D2, Fuller already seeing - just five years after the fact - how his brand of gritty, low-budget filmmaking has no place in the age of STAR WARS. "By the time they're 25, there won't be any animals [in movies]"; CGI, anyone?    

L'ARGENT (58) (Robert Bresson, 1983): Third viewing, first in >15 years, no change in rating. Never really got this movie, mostly because it feels like it's going to be a precise, cleanly worked-out theorem only to drift into near-irrelevance; the first half-hour traces the inexorable influence of Money - but once our hero goes to prison, Money no longer drives what happens to him, except indirectly (viz. in having got him there in the first place). Used to be annoyed by Bresson's detached, allusive style, whereas now I love it. But I still can't make out what he's saying here.

JULY 1, 2010

THE GREAT GARRICK (72) (James Whale, 1937): Wise, touching and (I suspect) even better now than it was in 1937, because the young woman's gushy romantic chatter is exactly what 21st-century viewers tend to find tedious in old movies, and dismiss - just like Garrick does - as "bad acting", so it's even more potent when he realises (in one of the film's few close-ups) that she's for real, and discovers that the world's best actor is still, nonetheless, only an actor. The climactic rant (and aftermath) is the obvious highlight, before that there's some socio-political subtext of the kind that must've seemed even more relevant in the late 30s - the Continentals are undemocratic, shunning the lowly prompter, whereas Garrick (an Englishman) accepts him on first-name terms - and some moments of pure silly bliss (the actors' stylised patter as they pretend to duel, Edward Everett Horton demonstrating the 'new' way of acting like a lunatic), though I fear some 21st-century viewers won't even get past the opening scene, wherein the camera goes from one peddler to another on a 'typical' London street, all plying their respective wares right on cue. Yeah, it's a little creaky.

AELITA (54) (Yakov Protazanov, 1924): "Place your lips on mine, like the humans do," says Aelita, monobrowed queen of Mars, spying on the Earthlings through a crystal contraption. She's in love (from afar) with Comrade Loss, a Soviet engineer engaged in building "a new Russia" - but his wife is being courted by Ehrlich, a pudgy bourgeois who hoards sugar, pines for the "old days" and is first seen on a train, expostulating loudly when a frail elderly comrade sneezes next to him. Not really sci-fi - the Martians stand apart, like Olympians - till the last half-hour, and even then it quickly slides into propaganda; what kind of sci-fi ends with the scientist torching his plans of space travel because "Enough dreaming! We have serious work to do now!"? Badly lacks a sense of wonder, though the dream business is cleverly worked and the Martians' costumes - cube-shaped helmets, shiny strips of plastic - are very entertaining.  

MEN IN WAR (65) (Anthony Mann, 1957): Great opening sequence with a languid, resigned tone and strong presence of Nature, both unusual in a Hollywood war movie. Mann uses the natural world, though not for contrast (not just "this war in the heart of Nature," à la THIN RED LINE) - Nature is part of the enemy, literally so when the sergeant stops to pick flowers and is killed by Koreans camouflaged with bits of trees and shrubs - and also uses duration, e.g. in the lengthy shot of Robert Ryan watching Aldo Ray trudge down the road, all the way to the back of the frame (so we're looking at a shot of someone's back and the back of someone else's head, also unusual in a Hollywood war movie). Mann is in top form generally, effortlessly picking out the men's fraternity (soldiers on both sides carrying photos of their sweethearts in their pockets) and the tenderness between them, Ray's devotion to 'his' colonel or the obviously homoerotic relationship between the flower-loving sergeant and the sickly young soldier - but what happens to these people isn't very memorable, the actual plot mechanics reflecting David Thomson's use, in talking about the film, of the word "abstract". Which is not a good word for plot mechanics.   

THE CRAZIES (70) (George A. Romero, 1973): Viewed back-to-back with the remake, which is watchable but seems very mechanical - standard BODY SNATCHERS template seguing into chase-movie - next to this heedlessly messy original which begins in medias res (sparked by a single violent incident, little girl lifting up the bed-sheet to reveal mother's bloody corpse) and never seems to settle, constantly shifting point-of-view among other things. The virus isn't even a rage virus, "craziness" taken more literally (one victim turns up with a broom as soldiers fight townspeople, sweeping the battlefield behind them), albeit a madness that finds expression in a middle-aged father's indignation over Kids Today - they're "pigs", he rants, even while subconsciously lusting after his own teenage daughter - or a soldier's deranged trigger-happiness. Vietnam and Kent State hang heavy over it, just as Iraq and Guantanamo hang heavy over the remake - and it may be a sign of how polarised (or simplistic) America has become that the remake none-too-subtly equates US authorities with Nazis whereas here the Army is mostly well-intentioned, just rife with human error, mired in bureaucracy (the "voice prints"!) and generally incompetent, a much more nuanced (and plausible) message. Plotting too sketchy for it to work as a genre pic - I can see it being laughed-at by some modern audiences - but Romero's DIY style is in full swing, from offbeat editing (flurries of military-themed found footage, non-matching cuts in the action scenes) to glimpses of what are obviously local people hired as extras. Scrappy, smart, invigorating.       

JUNE 1, 2010

THE FUGITIVE (54) (John Ford, 1947): Guilt and doubt (as in Graham Greene's source novel) often curdle into self-pity, religious feeling becomes Sunday School piety; an early shot has our hero (a priest) pushing open a door then standing there with his arms flung apart - and the camera pans down to his shadow, elongated into the shape of a man on a cross. Very heavy, also very beautiful - and meaningfully so, since the theme is Mystical vs. Rational and the self-consciously sublime visuals (with their shafts of light and glinting landscapes) implicitly stand for the former, i.e. our hero. Like James Agee (only more so), "I think THE FUGITIVE is a bad work of art, tacky, unreal and pretentious" yet I also respect its "grandeur and sobriety of ambition [and] continuous intensity of treatment"; also it looks delectable, though it's odd how Ford made such an uncompromising Art Movie in terms of style yet compromised so freely on the content, from simplifying Greene to the opening caption which makes it clear this isn't Mexico, it has nothing to do with Mexico, any resemblance to Mexico is purely coincidental and by the way thank you to the Mexican government for its help in making the movie. So much for the straight-talking tough guy.

SAHARA (47) (Zoltan Korda, 1943): Kicks off like LIFEBOAT, ends like SERGEANT YORK. In between, the major problem is a lack of detail, Korda finding neither character detail to make the people interesting nor physical detail to evoke their thirst or exhaustion, nor does he let scenes unfold like Hawks in AIR FORCE. Exciting but canned and inorganic, down to the worthy diversity - "We both have much to learn from each other" - and some near-unwatchable ethnic mugging (can't believe the cretins at IMDb enjoy "Frenchy"'s account of pre-Nazi life in his quaint little village, which is like Jules Munshin's salad schtick in EASTER PARADE only not played for laughs; then again, I also can't believe J. Carrol Naish won an Oscar nomination for his cartoon Italian). You know the Hollywood War Effort is in full swing when you get Humphrey Bogart and Dan Duryea playing heroic soldiers.    

LIQUID SKY (74) (Slava Tsukerman, 1982): 'Camp' is a reductive word for super-saturated colours, freakshow performances, outrageous sci-fi premise and the synth-iest of early-80s synth scores - but even beyond the striking surface (and dialogue dealing almost exclusively with sex and drugs) lies a cry of rage by star and co-writer Anne Carlisle, aimed especially at the tawdry showbiz world of fashion shoots and hangers-on. Her performance-art piece in the second half (a monologue while daubing on fluorescent face-paint in a dark room) equates the showbiz dream of a young actress waiting to be noticed by a powerful agent with the patriarchal diktat of a girl waiting to be wed by her dream-man, and Carlisle flaunts her androgyny by playing two roles, a man and a woman, as if to say - and in fact she does say - that being androgynous is her thing, like David Bowie (she's performing, like a prostitute - or like her character, who "kills with [her] cunt" but never has an orgasm herself). Also a New Wave artefact, with the spiky hair and glam costumes - "At least we know we're in costume" - also a missive to New York in all its scuzzy glory from a pair of entranced Soviet exiles (Tsukerman and his DP Yuri Neyman): "This fuckin' city, it's really something..."        

THE HOUSEMAID (58) (Kim Ki-young, 1960): Something gloriously deranged here, but it's mostly crippled by confused plotting - the other girl adds nothing, merely delaying our heroine's entrance and making it look like she's a cog in some complicated revenge plan when in fact she isn't - and a shaky grip on the Housemaid herself (though the avid, gleeful mischief on Lee Eun-shim's face makes up for much): at first she's a schemer, a femme fatale, but then she seems genuinely overwhelmed by what happens to her, genuinely saddened by what the wife makes her do (compare e.g. Gene Tierney's unsentimental approach in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) and righteously angry as she plans revenge for being so victimised, at which point she becomes a schemer and manipulator again. (Clearly, those abrupt shifts in Korean filmmaking pre-date Kim Ki-duk.) Last half-hour works well - maybe because it finally settles on one thing - and the Author's Message coda is ... hilarious.  

KRAMER VS. KRAMER (58) (Robert Benton, 1979): Second viewing, first in >25 years. Old VHS of the bowdlerised TV version - Dustin Hoffman no longer yells "I hate you back, you little shit!", and JoBeth Williams only appears long enough to agree to have dinner with him - so I may be underrating, but it still seemed unconvincing this time round, both the particulars and general style (won't dwell on the double-standards angle - man seeking sympathy for doing what all working mothers do as a matter of course - since that's 21st-century thinking, but it does slightly hurt its effectiveness as a male weepie). OK, Hoffman's a Madison Avenue hotshot and "insensitive to his son's needs", but he doesn't even know what grade the child is in? And why doesn't he hire a nanny, or a housekeeper? As for the style, the opening shot (and classical music) suggests Benton - or Nestor Almendros - may have aimed at some point for sub-Bergman arthouse, but the acting is tic-ridden (Hoffman's mouth, with those faux-ingratiating grins, acts more than the rest of him combined) and the script is all set-ups and pay-offs (French toast!); even the much-vaunted 'fairness' is a mixed blessing, since it feels like the kid'll be fine wherever he ends up going. Did American 7-year-olds really read "Tintin" at bedtime in 1979, though? Impressive.  

NEAR DARK (63) (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987): Second viewing, first since 1987 when I thought it was "garish and ludicrous" (I know, I know...); better now, but still mostly a case of silky darkness, slivers of light and the moody thrum of Tangerine Dream (plus "Fever" in the most famous sequence). Bigelow gets some excellent slow-burning scenes of mounting tension - the truck-driver, the cop in the bus station - and genuine tenderness in the central romance (which most genre pictures would've treated as disposable), but much of the final act is conventional and the rosy resolution - aided by a handy de-vampirization process - ends the film on a feeble note. Better than THE LOST BOYS, probably.  

ARMOUR OF GOD II: OPERATION CONDOR (72) (Jackie Chan, 1991): Jackie Chan does Indiana Jones. Seen with low expectations - never saw the original, or indeed much of Chan's pre-Hollywood output - making the mad freewheeling mix of action and slapstick all the more exhilarating. Jackie's physicality is itself a work of Art, a point underscored when the film pauses so a particularly audacious stunt can be replayed from different angles - but mostly there aren't any pauses, just bodies in motion (the wind-tunnel climax pushes them even further, a giant fan blowing and stretching bodies into weird angles and contortions) and cinematic space getting twisted and exploded in the action scenes. May indeed be possible to draw a straight line from the visual free-for-all of 80s/90s Hong Kong to the wilful incoherence of Michael Bay, but the difference (at least in this case) is the absence of cynicism - there's an innocent exuberance to the visual illogic, which is also why the non-PC stuff is forgivable: there's no malice in Chan, and I think only a very harsh moralist would cry racism and sexism just because his bumbling villains happen to be Arabs, and his scatter-brained sidekicks happen to be women. Rating likely to go up once I score a non-English-dubbed, non-VHS version.  

ENTER THE DRAGON (63) (Robert Clouse, 1973): Never seen this before (don't tell Quentin), mostly charmed by the Cheese Factor - Bruce Lee's blood-curdling screams and nonsensical Better Kung Fu aphorisms ("A good fight should be like a short play. But played seriously."), Han's island where participants are treated to random exotica including sumo wrestlers, acrobats and doves in cages, even Mr. Braithwaite who explains the mission with much thumbing through top-secret files and clipped English sangfroid ("A cup of tea?" "Yes indeed") - but it does come across as what it is, viz. an attempt to make a Chinese star palatable via the addition of James Bond malarkey (the villain gets an underground lair and a fluffy cat to stroke) and superfluous American characters who don't even make sense (John Saxon's martial-arts expert is especially puzzling, making no objection to co-operating with the villain - or any attempt to avenge his friend - then seemingly siding with Bruce). Hall-of-mirrors climax helps considerably. 

MAY 1, 2010

GUNS AT BATASI (42) (John Guillermin, 1964): Extremely dubious end-of-Empire thingy, with Richard Attenborough's puffed-up, by-the-book little soldier turning out to be brave and resourceful and Flora Robson as the liberal MP (a mannish woman pointedly shown smoking and adjusting her slip in public) learning to revise her naive belief that Africans can be "cultured and civilised". Easy to see what an impact THE HILL (a year later) must've made in this context - but there is a glimpse of girlish young Mia Farrow, a pungent sense of sweaty men at close quarters, plus Attenborough's gruff Sergeant-Major-isms: "I've seen Calcutta, I've eaten camel-dung, my knees are brown, my navel is central ... I can always stomach a good soldier, whatever his faults. What I can't stomach are Bolshies, skivers, scrim-shankers and bog-house barristers!". Word.

BETRAYAL (63) (David Jones, 1983): Literary people, with their Scotch on the sideboard and "Early Auden" and Doris Lessing on the bookshelves. A restless, youthful, almost gangly Jeremy Irons, and Ben Kingsley with the same violent gleam in his eye he had in SEXY BEAST (asked to sit down he replies "I might sit down later", and you can almost hear Don Logan saying: "Yeah I will in a minute, when I've had a piss"). It's part of the slyness in the backwards structure that Kingsley's character is half-mad with repressed rage for most of the movie - which we don't really figure out till the end/beginning, when he's finally 'himself' again - though that structure isn't otherwise milked very much. Comparisons to MEMENTO are superficial, but it is very Pinteresque, characters driven to tortured double negatives ("I don't think we don't love each other"), reduced to talking about books or debating if early September is in fact the end of summer or the beginning of autumn, and hemmed into behaving in hilariously unlikely (or just stylised) ways which you assume must be deliberate, not because Pinter tips his hand but because ... well, he's Harold Pinter. Stagy, but effective. 

TENEBRE (52) (Dario Argento, 1982): Maybe I should just give up on Argento: clumsy staging and stilted acting keep getting in the way, and even when he takes off into free-floating style - viz. the audacious crane-shot up the side of the building as the killer spies on the lesbians - it doesn't seem to have the sensual charge De Palma brings to it (both are basically misanthropes, but maybe it's the difference between being an elegant sadist and just a cold fish). Can't fault the 80s score or impressively high body-count - and the answer to the mystery is clever, but it's too bad they didn't do more with the notion of the killer stalking 'deviants'. Especially when the best, most dreamlike scene has a topless woman being assaulted by a posse of crypto-gay beach boys.

MURDER BY CONTRACT (78) (Irving Lerner, 1958): "I'm a law-abiding citizen; I brush my teeth three times a day," says Claude the contract killer, and it's not entirely sarcasm; he thumbs his nose at scruples and morality - even feelings - but he has a certain compassion for ordinary people (albeit a fierce scornful compassion), probably because he used to be one himself. He wouldn't break a man's favourite record, like Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY - instead he chides an uncomprehending waiter for not being more of a go-getter, and tries to be nice when the weary escort girl (who complains that everyone's always pushing her around) brings his world crashing down. The film isn't noir exactly, feeling more like a film of the 60s with its snarky humour, spacious look and emphasis on LA as a driving city (anyone who watched this and THE LINEUP in 1958 must've sensed there was something in the air), not to mention beatnik influences and alienated hero with implicit woman issues - he can't stand "pigs", meaning for instance dirty girls who leave lipstick smudges on their glasses. Tense, twisted, cool, supple and subtle, with a fabulous guitar score functioning (and even sounding slightly) like the zither in THE THIRD MAN; also a film where a plot-point hinges on a character having that rare and precious thing - a TV remote.    

APRIL 1, 2010

ZORN'S LEMMA (70) (Hollis Frampton, 1970): I may have watched avant-garde films with a semblance of plot before, but this is the only one I know where you keep watching to see how it'll turn out ("Major spoiler: C", as Matt Prigge put it) - which of course is the definition of narrative, and it certainly generates incredible suspense under the circumstances (it's really the a-g version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). Final section remains obscure and slightly anti-climactic - but the text is from a treatise called "On Light, or the Ingression of Forms" so, combined with (what I understand of) Zorn's Lemma, the point may be to posit Verbal and Visual as separate-but-intersecting sets or forms, the latter being implicitly superior and closer to pure Form (both the opening and closing text have a spiritual flavour) as images create their own alphabet - though I kind of wonder how many people do what I did, giving the recurring images appropriate mnemonics to evoke the letters they replace (the girl on the swing was Lucy, the kid bouncing a ball was Oliver; the construction crew were Meatheads). It's not easy shrugging off a lifetime of thinking in words.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (69) (Jacques Tourneur, 1943): Second viewing, first in >15 years, still a case of B-movie cardboard between ethereal highlights - though it actually makes sense for Beauty to be separate because Beauty is what seduces our heroine, the beauty of the island which (as per hero's warnings) conceals a land steeped in Death. Remarkably morbid, also remarkable for respectful, non-condescending view of Black culture (albeit with a West Indian veneer); some of that cardboard is pretty stiff, though.

SON OF PALEFACE (65) (Frank Tashlin, 1952): Second viewing, first in >15 years, no change in rating; Tashlin doesn't really understand Bob Hope's persona, turning him into a mincing Groucho with cartoonish slapstick touches, and most of the funniest gags are in the first half-hour anyway. Diminishing returns, but Hope's double take when he asks stone-faced Roy Rogers "What's the matter, don't you like girls?" - having previously glanced at Roy's crotch (!) to confirm it's not just his face that's being unresponsive to Jane Russell's charms - and Roy replies "I'll stick to horses, mister" (Hope nodding "Horses..." then suddenly grasping the implications, eyeing stone-faced Roy with a look of amused disbelief, and taking a judicious step in the other direction: "Horses? That's ... ridiculous") is one for the clip party.

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (90) (George Marshall, 1939): Second viewing, first in >10 years. Only watched it again because A Certain Party claimed it disappoints on second viewing - but I'm glad I did, because I have no idea what he's talking about. Maybe a suspicion of over-boisterousness, and it's true it deals in an ultra-polished (not to say Spielbergian) style where comedy is immediately balanced by action is balanced by emotion - but it does it so expertly. Everything works, from Hal Mohr's wafting clouds of cigarette smoke in the opening poker game to James Stewart's look of rueful yearning at the very end when a children's song reminds him of what might've been (speaking of which, the songs are great too); nothing is filler, and the throwaways - e.g. the bartender's weary "I set 'em up, you drink 'em down" - get some of the biggest laughs. Call it a proto-blockbuster progenitor of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or TOY STORY if you must - but don't forget the anti-macho Message, purposely muddling gender roles (Destry acts 'like a woman'; a woman is "the real boss of Bottleneck"; women take over at the climax), or the pacifist streak which of course would've been out-of-place just a couple of years later. Very close to perfect. 

MARCH 1, 2010

ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (76) (Louis Malle, 1960): A heavy comedy, Malle having none of (say) René Clair's talent for light, glancing whimsy - more like a purposeful anarchy that might've been perpetrated by the older brothers in MURMUR OF THE HEART - making a deliberate symphony of violence ("Violence is undesirable in human relationships," chides an old biddy, then gets mocked and abused for the rest of the movie); violence to sexual norms, physical violence and (above all) the formal cinematic violence - jump-cuts, trick shots - exemplified by cartoons, Silent slapstick and of course the Nouvelle Vague, though the film's aggression feels like a rebuttal of Godard and Co.'s youthful exuberance ("Screw the Nouvelle Vague!" opines foul-mouthed Zazie). Constantly startling (and yes, slightly exhausting), beautifully shot, and it's not necessarily better than Lester, Chytilova et al. - but it did come first.

FEBRUARY 1, 2010

GOING IN STYLE (67) (Martin Brest, 1979): Disarmingly un-emphatic semi-comedy, moving through its various parts - heist, aftermath, trip to Vegas - without hard-selling any of them, which of course fits nicely with the unhurried worldview of its three septuagenarian senior-citizens-turned-bank-robbers - and also serves to highlight the few things we do glean about them, that George Burns must've been a bit of a tearaway in his youth (he "did a bit of stealing" in the war, and knows his way around a craps table) while Lee Strasberg was obviously a grumpy cab-driver, possibly not a very nice person (his one memory is of having spanked his son when he was little, and never had a chance to "explain"); only the Art Carney character never quite comes into focus. Sentimentality held in check (just about), double-distilled nostalgia - geezers in the 70s pretending to be tough guys from the 30s - and one haunting shot: An old man dying on a park bench surrounded by the babble of kids and skateboarders, a sprinkler spraying violently in the foreground. 

THE STARS LOOK DOWN (72) (Carol Reed, 1940): Almost turned it off in the first minute, when the voice-over said it was going to be about ordinary working men, "their hardships, their humour and above all their heroism" - but it turns out I watched the butchered US re-issue version, with 10 minutes cut and an (idiotic) attempt at a brighter ending. Voice-over may also be in the original cut, of course - but I doubt it, given that the fatuous narrator later disappears (only reappearing for the fake ending) and the rest of the film is so compelling. Starts off like the grittier HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY - no songs, just coal-dust, plus a hard, unyielding mother to make Agnes Moorehead look like Sara Allgood - morphs into a drama of one man's failed ambitions (his meet-cute with Margaret Lockwood is terrific, a matter of hidden agendas on all sides but his own, though it's a shame the film turns her into a hussy; she'd have been a lot more effective as a nice girl with nice - but small - dreams), morphs again into a gruelling disaster movie with pungent detail. Then comes the ending, which is terribly abrupt and unsatisfying; rating likely to soar by 4-5 points if I ever catch up with the original 110-minute version.

SUPERVIXENS (58) (Russ Meyer, 1975): Super vixens, an evil cop, a hunky hero who tries to be a gentleman and gets abused for it; "Martin Bormann" also turns up - backed by WW2-movie music - as the owner of a filling station. The result is Meyer in (even more than usual) cartoonish mode, and Charles Napier as the cop even gets a Wile E. Coyote moment at the very end; he - the cop - also can't get it up with a woman (unless he beats her senseless) and also sticks a big ol' stick of dynamite between our hero's ass-cheeks, despite having previously made it clear he's not one of those "goddam queers". Napier gives it juice, the farcical middle section - wherein our hero tries to fend off the various women who find him irresistible - getting a bit repetitive, but the climax is rousing and incidental 70s ambience also helps; the semi-rural, ramshackle 'hood where our boy lives with his girlfriend, the high-maintenance "Super Angel" (a forgotten place of dirt fields, low houses and wire fences, with red and blue pick-up trucks adding splashes of colour), evokes a whole universe of regional US exploitation.    

AIR FORCE (73) (Howard Hawks, 1943): A crowd-pleaser and a flagwaver - and many of the model-shots look like model-shots - but done with a briskness and lucidity that still commands respect (and kept me watching at a post-midnight hour when most lesser films would've had me dozing off). The most awkward scene, when the dying [spoiler] has the rest of the crew gather round his deathbed, is a model for how such things are done, starting with the visitors slowly coming into focus - establishing the dying man's POV, as well as a dash of psychological realism - and ending on the most unsentimental note ("That's all, boys"). Elsewhere it's true - as James Agee noted - that the crew seldom give the impression of not having slept for days (Vidor's NORTHWEST PASSAGE gets closer to the typical soldier's sense of feeling tired all the time; then again, making these boys Everyman superheroes is part of the plan), and the action climax is a bit one-dimensional - and a bit troubling, though viewers today worry about anti-Japanese racism while Agee worried about the "shamming" of American deaths - though even here, some of the interpolated newsreel footage is unforgettable: an aircraft-carrier about to sink beneath the waves, sailors scurrying madly on its capsized hull like so many ants.

DECEPTION (68) (Irving Rapper, 1946): Second viewing, first in >20 years; only watched it so I could boot it off my Favourite Films list, but in fact it still belongs (just about). Emotional power-games remain compulsive even as the ambience is decidedly camp - I think I must've known this, even as a sheltered 14-year-old with no concept of camp - set in a world of classical musicians where everyone stabs at the piano keys or saws across cello strings as if trying to pulverise them. Actually just a three-hander, Bette Davis (past her prime) being the least enthralling point of the triangle and Claude Rains being the most (the third point is Paul Henreid as the damaged European cellist who's spent five years in a concentration camp, though the words "concentration camp" - let alone the word "Jew" - are never spoken): the plot creaks but Rains is hilarious, a musical Waldo Lydecker - the greatest composer in the world, dripping acidic bons mots, taking an age to order dinner (he doesn't just want trout, he wants it to be "from a good stream"), toying with Davis' feelings (fingering her fur-coat absent-mindedly: "They frisk about, you know...") and cutting short her grievances imperiously: "I don't wish to be rude, but I'd rather listen to Beethoven". You tell 'er, bub.     

JANUARY 1, 2010