Older films seen in 2016, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 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 13 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...]
RAPTURE (52) (Ivan Zulueta, 1979): Good to see Eusebio Poncela and Cecilia Roth pre-Almodovar - the film was surely an influence, coming from the same druggy Madrid milieu as his early-80s work - but the flashiest role is obviously Will More's as the foppish, wild-haired weirdo who may be a vampire ("Invite me in," he requests when he first comes to our hero's room) and also represents Cinema itself - explicitly equated with drugs, with treasures remembered from childhood, and of course with the titular "rapture". The fusion of life and movies is the central theme, a fusion through obsession, an actual fusion as More becomes convinced that his beloved camera (on which he shoots meaningless abstract 'movies') is literally swallowing him up, or else a fusion by piercing the veil between the dimensions - an actor looking into the camera, operatic music turning out to be an opera program on the radio. Legitimately wild but not too enjoyable, More's voice-over musings - delivered in a deep unearthly voice - sounding pretentious (watching with error-strewn fansubs didn't help), while the actual metaphor (emphasis on 'meta') is too insular to really resonate. Lots of strange behaviour, casual drug use, incidental interludes showing off Madrid's hedonistic underside, all with tinkly music and wordy pronouncements. Heavy going.
LA SPIAGGIA (71) (Alberto Lattuada, 1954): Post-war Italian cinema loves beaches - it's where the troubled souls of LE AMICHE and LA DOLCE VITA go on their outings - and it also loves people living at close quarters, a seaside hotel in this case where the industrialist rubs shoulders with the agony aunt, the wastrel, the incognito prostitute, the crabby billionaire and the vacationing English family. Some of it plays almost like an Italian Mr. HULOT'S HOLIDAY, some of it - like the montage of people primping, brushing teeth etc as they get ready for a night out - is high human comedy, then comes the devastating sting in the tail (not a twist; the theme was there all along) taking it to a whole other level, a serenely knowing cynicism that takes the breath away. Lattuada isn't above showy moments like the opening shot - characters walking from the background of a wide-shot all the way to close-up - but his greatest talent seems to be for honing in on the precise human detail that'll crystallise a scene. Gut-punch moment: the little girl clutching her plastic penguin, crying in distress and bewilderment as all her friends are suddenly - for no reason at all - snatched away from her.
NOVEMBER 1, 2016
HEARTBREAKERS (63) (Bobby Roth, 1984): Bit of a slog, in terms of rhythm, but sensibility is everything here - a mainstream American film that feels, or tries to feel, like a European arthouse one, despite the most 80s-kitsch opening ever (a racketball game followed by an aerobics class, all scored to a synth-disco beat by Tangerine Dream). Maybe double-bill with CHOOSE ME, another (better) movie from the same year with a similarly non-conformist hero and open, accepting, everyone-has-their-reasons spirit; Peter Coyote is our artist hero, furious and unreasonable when it comes to his art, and a bit of a user in general - yet people keep surprising him (and us too), both his ex and her new boyfriend trying to be mature about the break-up (Pete accepts the new bf's overtures of friendship, then tries to win her back anyway); a critic who is Pete's sworn enemy - according to Pete - visits him in the studio, coming off wry and self-aware and calmly opining that his new show looks much better than the last one, while a model breaks the bimbo stereotype with a rueful admission: "I've got a great chest. That's the most interesting thing about me". Again and again, simple or melodramatic solutions are spurned in favour of more gentle or grown-up approaches, the only sure thing being - to quote the one pop song we hear in full - that 'Love is a Battlefield'. Bonus points for the quirky girl who says "I don't believe in orgasms".
OCTOBER 1, 2016
THE PRINCE WHO WAS A THIEF (64) (Rudolph Maté, 1951): Even Theodore Dreiser's name at the beginning can't quite elevate this ridiculous costumer, but the touch is light: Maté gives it the carefree rhythm of a musical - the first half-hour has more than its share of dancing-girls supplying short musical interludes - and the writers have decided to stuff every scene with consciously florid dialogue (it's a genre where people are forever planning to "have speech" with other people), so it plays like a tongue-in-cheek pastiche. Guard, to quacking flock of geese: "Quiet, children of a mis-hatched mother!". King, to advisor who talks too much: "Be done, O windbag!". One thief to another, who's just made a helpful suggestion: "For once, your words are not the bleatings of an unmilked camel!" (the other thief looks mortified). The stars add to the fun, especially teenage eccentric Piper Laurie who's flexible, scatterbrained and speaks of herself in the third person - though also gets a poignantly artless moment when she learns of the hero's true parentage (the title should really be 'The Thief Who Was a Prince') and realises she'll never be good enough for him. The formal aspects don't exactly leap out, but the combination of medieval castle sets and 50s Technicolor has its own cachet.
THE BIG CLOCK (71) (John Farrow, 1948)
Brief notes on two films I don't remember very well, because I watched them as part of a Random Movie Marathon on Sep. 10 (the others in the Marathon turned out to be films I'd seen before):
SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
MOROCCO (76) (Josef von Sternberg, 1930): The abiding impression, even more than Von Sternberg's visual lushness (not as all-consuming here as it became a few years later), is of a deliberate heaviness, a languor; it's there in the unhurried way Marlene Dietrich tears up a would-be admirer's card, in Gary Cooper's pause when his CO catches him making hand-signals to a girl for some later assignation ("What're you doin' with those fingers?"; "Nothing... yet"), in the way the camera spends a good 30 seconds on the natives at prayer, partly for exoticism but partly to observe the play of light and shadow. A few draggy scenes in the middle section - heaviness tipping into sogginess - but the bar scene near the end is genius, sparked by the choice of tinkly (diegetic) piano music in the background emphasising the deceptive casualness between the lovers, a joyous humour in the face of melodrama that persists into the famous ending (Dietrich kicking off her shoes is a comedy gesture); the way the couple mask powerful feelings in deliberate joshing and posing - another kind of self-conscious heaviness that's also, miraculously, lightness - is downright Hawksian. Additional props for a most sympathetic Other Man - getting the last word, quite sweetly, after being humiliated by the femme in front of his dinner guests - and the startling frisson, even now, of the lesbian kiss.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (72) (Lewis Milestone, 1930): "And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with Death!" The high-flown language when speeches are called for (which they are, often) is the main problem here, yet the genre excitements are marvellously present - Kubrick's tracking shots are slicker in PATHS OF GLORY, but not by much; stuff like the blessed-relief interlude with the girls appeared just last year in FURY - the care and resources that went into it as spectacle are undeniable, and the psychology gets more interesting after the first half-hour which is just callow young boys getting hardened. The guys going stir-crazy after days of bombardment, the way the dying man confides "I don't think so" (as if sharing a secret) when told that he's going to get better, Paul shamefacedly recalling how good it felt to be alive after leaving his bedside, the hospital scene pushing close to CATCH-22 with the jocular permanent resident - all impressive 85 years later, even before a seemingly random mention of a child's butterfly collection turns out to be a devastating set-up. Tempting to say it's like watching a genre being invented from scratch, but maybe I should watch THE BIG PARADE and FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE first.
INNOCENT SORCERERS (57) (Andrzej Wajda, 1960): Part of the global explosion of jazzy youthful energy that seems to have taken place in 1960 - ranging from merely angry in the UK to downright anti-social in Japan - and surely Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-scripted) couldn't have had time to watch and absorb the lengthy mid-film conversation in A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (which only came out a few months earlier), but the film suffers slightly by comparison. The game of strip-matchbox is a memorable invention, but this kind of thing lives or dies by its exemplars of youthful high spirits and Tadeusz Lomnicki, with his doughy face and Laurence Olivier hair, isn't a very compelling Lothario (Zbigniew Cybulski, who plays the sidekick, would've been better, if more scattershot), while Krystyna Stypulkowska is a bit too sharp as the gamine, too sensible and Myrna Loy-ish. They play lightly ironic games with each other, draw up a kind of self-conscious seduction schedule; "And before bed we have to think about the problems of our times," she adds sardonically, reflecting the cynicism of a generation burned out on politics - at least until the new politics of the late 60s. "What do you care about?"; "Comfortable shoes, good cigarettes, good socks". All the rest, as Arthur Seaton might say, is propaganda.
AUGUST 1, 2016
TWO WOMEN (63) (Vittorio De Sica, 1960): Probably more ambitious than its 100-minute running-time has room for, Zavattini and De Sica's take on the chaos of the Liberation (lots of different nationalities getting in each other's way) and the Italian character more generally - canny, pragmatic ("English or German: whoever wins, wins!"), given to religion but not ideology, happy to cultivate whoever needs cultivating, falling easily into the slipstream of more powerful forces. Sophia Loren's typically immense performance obscures the fact that her character is secondary to the overall sense of fluid humanity, plus an assortment of rather writerly details - a deranged mother wanders through a ruined village, holding out her breast for her dead baby; Loren dives head-first into a field to escape falling bombs, then raises her head once the danger's past and comes face-to-face with a ladybird crawling down a blade of grass - building to a strong dramatic climax, one character brought back to life by the death of another. De Sica's instincts can be crude (e.g. That Zoom to the little girl's face) but his interest in people remains; the way it uses the Moroccan soldiers does seem rather racist, but I guess it wasn't politically feasible to accuse any of the main WW2 actors of that kind of thing in 1960.
STRIPES (55) (Ivan Reitman, 1981): Second viewing, first in many years. An astonishingly limp, tepid comedy, they definitely write better jokes these days - but Hollywood comedies these days are neurotic, and it's blissfully enjoyable to find one that's so un-neurotic, from barely-there premise to cheesy final-act knockabout. Bill Murray is at his most winning, but he's also been domesticated (a mistake Reitman wouldn't repeat in GHOSTBUSTERS), and the scene where drill sergeant Warren Oates goads Murray into taking a poke at him - Bill Murray? taking a poke? - so he can bring him down a peg and 'make a man' of him in the style of the following year's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (this being presumably the fad that inspired Act One of FULL METAL JACKET), totally misunderstands his persona.
THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (66) (William Keighley, 1941): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. The lines are still hilariously wonderful, but it's self-conscious hilarity made even more self-conscious by the constant undercurrent of showbiz types congratulating each other for being so witty. Also must be said that Sheridan Whiteside isn't really so bad (has he been defanged from the play?), avuncularly nice to young people, humble people and/or eccentric people - it's only complacency that sets him off, or maybe he's a control freak and is okay with those he feels he can control - also must be said that the final twist is rather macabre, also must be said that watching Bette Davis suffer through a sickly romance with the biggest drip in history is actively unbearable. A farcical companion-piece to ARSENIC AND OLD LACE for the Epsteins, and possibly the Hollywood classic that is now most incomprehensible (at least in terms of celebrity name-dropping) to a modern audience.
PRIVATE HELL 36 (67) (Don Siegel, 1954): Gets very interesting about halfway through, seguing from public investigation to (yes) private hell, however that particular segue isn't really set up and/or grounded in the psychology of what precedes it. Feels like two different movies, but the Siegel anti-hero is much in evidence (that does get set up, e.g. when he's sympathetic but not overly broken up by the death of a fellow cop: "Stop taking it so hard, he wasn't your brother!") and e.g. the awkward dinner-for-four is a memorable set-piece out of some psychological drama. Cops-as-partners theme also very strong, with some oddly suggestive lines - "lovers' spat", "going steady" - not to mention that both men have keys to No. 36 (their own private hell) but conscience-stricken Jack buries his key (not just hides it, but buries it) in the garden. Don't want to be reductive, or ignore its many assets - incl. one of the first cop-movie car chases - but let's just say the David Ehrenstein, queer-subtext-everywhere crowd could have fun with this one.
JULY 1, 2016
THE DEVIL (49) (Andrzej Zulawski, 1972): A ghost, of sorts, takes revenge, but the reasons are political rather than personal - the partition of Poland in the late 18th century (though also an allegory for May '68), with the politicians guilty of "passive acquiescence" and our hero enjoined to "slash" at the obstacles. The mystery man urging him on is presumably the Devil, though Zulawski offers no clear moral framework for most of the movie, nor any very coherent message; its political point - the evils of nationalism - must be taken on trust. Emotional points also muddy - our hero acts (like Hamlet) on his feelings for his mother, but opaque presentation (and the showy acting favoured by this director) makes it hard to figure out if he's giving in to weakness or, as implicitly suggested, facilitating his own redemption - but the rather random goings-on serve to showcase Zulawski's frenzied style. The whole thing would be worth it for the wtf moment when the boy's fiancee sees her presumed-dead beloved (she's now marrying another) and breaks into a kind of eccentric shimmying dance, then drops to the floor and howls inconsolably.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (64) (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
THE INSECT WOMAN (65) (Shohei Imamura, 1963): Imamura's grandiose side given free rein, telling the history of Japan across 50 years, ditto his theatrical side: lots of static-camera group shots - still marshalled in his old bravura way, with elaborate staging, but unlike the kinetic energy of PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS - though always eye-catching, tending to 'blocked' compositions with foreground/background action and part of the image impeded. Men fancy our heroine - starting with her own father - she's exploited then turns exploiter, from unionist to mendacious (and rapacious) capitalist - but it's also true that women are in charge (see e.g. Midori with her doglike, devoted house-husband), the "god of the mountain" is a woman even if this particular woman is more like the (briefly glimpsed) insect making its way up the mountain. Religion turns out to be a sham, though the church-going madam is unfazed when it turns out she owns a brothel: "People sell sex because there are buyers - we don't just take people's money, like they do at the races". Imamura has a comic side too.
PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (73) (Shohei Imamura, 1961): Pigs and battleships, sure. Also rats, tinned pineapple, Coca Cola highballs - and of course prostitution, and the kind of intricate gangster intrigues Fukasaku did (even) better a decade later. Amazingly vivid, a rollicking comedy of remarkable verve and self-conscious (but stunning) virtuoso scenes like the gang-rape in a hotel room - when the girl gets thrown on the bed, the camera switches to an overhead shot which then rotates faster and faster, turning into almost a circular whip-pan, then an invisible cut takes us straight to the aftermath, all parties drained and out of breath as the camera slows down. Its only massive fault (for me) is nonetheless a conscious decision, Hiroyuki Nagato's hugely annoying simple-mindedness as our "stupid bastard" hero, a gesticulating cartoonish Everyman flopping about like a rag doll; also in two minds about the theatrical grand finale with symbolic pigs running riot - but the dazzling staging just about saves it.
JUNE 1, 2016
VIRIDIANA (76) (Luis Bunuel, 1961): A crucifix turns into a flick-knife. A cow's teat hangs like a limp penis. A rat gets a cat to devour him. Righteous people cause tragedy with their frigid repression, then channel that guilt into misguided charity. Second viewing, first in many years, thought it was going to disappoint at first - Bunuel fully earns Manny Farber's epithet of "stodgy", with his unexciting images and laborious camera moves - but the sensibility is remarkable (and right up my street: do-gooders are one of my pet peeves), totally cynical yet even-handed; even Viridiana is blameless, by her lights, and surely preferable to the pushy 'modernising' son. The kind of film one admires in toto more than the experience of actually watching it; deduct 2-3 points if looking only for the latter.
LE RAGAZZE DI PIAZZA DI SPAGNA (68) (Luciano Emmer, 1952): Script problems in the final act are the only thing holding this back from greatness - all the stories lose steam, esp. the uptight fiance who becomes a mere villain; one of the three girls is wasted on a comic sub-plot, while another is reduced to melodrama. Some will also take offence at the light-hearted take on domestic violence, but in fact it's part of what makes it so wonderful - the post-war Italian comedy from a time when everyone lived on top of each other, families crammed into small apartments and neighbours knowing each other's business, and working-class comedy in general, with a demotic faith in flawed, impulsive, noisy people, before everyone became middle-class and suburbanised (Hollywood made a couple in the mid-40s - FROM THIS DAY FORWARD and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN - then largely stopped, the US being a decade ahead of Europe in the process of prosperity and gentrification). Like a (much) more raucous LE AMICHE, sad in a way - very regimented lives (the girls can't even talk at work, or they get fined) in the shadow of fierce morality, women having to make their way around patriarchal dictates limiting their freedom - but also full of joy, people milling about, gossiping, looking for love; and of course full of youth, making even the perfunctory bookends (the "professor" saluting the now-older girls) quite touching.
WHERE'S POPPA? (52) (Carl Reiner, 1970): In theory, I love this movie; in practice, it didn't do much for me. Reiner plays a risky game, slowing down the pace to the near-funereal, the idea presumably being that the zany, often-tasteless goings-on will take on an air of rueful melancholy - but in fact the film just sits there, and indeed the deliberate pace has the opposite effect so it looks like it's preening over how outrageous it is. All the conceits sound great on paper - George Segal trying to give Momma a heart attack by waking her up in a gorilla suit; Momma embarrassing him in front of the girl by pulling down his pants to kiss his "tush"; insane New-York-in-the-70s detail like the brother on familiar terms with the muggers who mug him every day; Trish Van Devere's wtf memory of her honeymoon gone wrong and what her husband did in bed ("Doesn't everybody?") - but most of them wither and become merely disturbing instead of hilarious; it's like the film didn't have faith that people would find this stuff funny, putting all its emphasis on managing their shocked response instead (easy to imagine e.g. a British equivalent being much less self-conscious). Rape joke is the most politically incorrect these days (and probably in 1970), but it still seems a bit excessive - reading some of the reviews on Letterboxd - to single it out as beyond-the-pale in a film that also gets laughs out of e.g. "gooks" being killed in fondly-remembered war crimes.
I MAGLIARI (66) (Francesco Rosi, 1959): Slow to get going, mostly because what we see of the salesmen's scams is quite lame - one of them is the old chestnut that involves guilt-tripping a recent widow into buying stuff - and Renato Salvatori is a lump as "the kid". Much better once Rosi starts focusing on what he does best, groups of men vying for power (no surprise that he later found his subject in politics) and harsh urban atmosphere, albeit with a gesticulating, fast-talking comedy edge: the many scenes in bars and nightclubs, culminating in the extended passage when the salesmen go on a nocturnal mission to find the Polish gang who've been harassing them - wandering crowded Hamburg streets with light spilling out of every shop, visiting bars full of sharp-looking types, plump girls dancing, music on the jukebox, a black man slumped across the bar - have the look of film noir and the jazzy rhythms of e.g. THE EXILES. Feels like the film starts off disapproving of the salesmen - factory workers turn up briefly, offering a glimpse of the true proletariat - and slowly gets seduced by them, esp. Alberto Sordi as the loquacious buffoon whose (excessively) theatrical scenes are quite un-Rosi-like; romantic passion between lumpy Renato and wild-eyed Belinda Lee never quite gels, though.
MAY 1, 2016
TWINS OF EVIL (68) (John Hough, 1971): "The Devil ... has sent me ... twins of evil!" cries Peter Cushing in this film's second-campiest moment (the campiest comes when the vampire aristo's mute servant frantically pantomimes useful information about the approaching mob for his master: "They have crosses?... And stakes?... And axes?"). Easily the wildest Hammer I've seen, shedding the rather staid trappings of most of the others, taking four juicy elements, any one or two of which might've been enough for a pulpy entertainment - Cushing as a hysterical Puritan witch-hunter leading a pack of self-righteous oppressors of female sexuality; a vampire roaming the countryside, killing at random; a decadent Count playing kinky Satanic games (his penchant for "punishment" mirroring Cushing's) in his castle at the top of the hill; and the titular pair of busty teenage girls seething with frustration - and blending them together in a lurid, violent mix (awesome decapitation, btw) that barrels along in the way trashy older films are supposed to, but seldom do. Needless nitpick: switching the twins is a good idea, but it seems like a missed opportunity to confront the bad twin with the one man who's (apparently) able to tell them apart, only for the girl to break her good-girl disguise right away so his talent becomes irrelevant.
IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND (59) (Roberto Gavaldon, 1951): IMDb lists this as 90 minutes, but I watched a 112-minute version - and it wouldn't surprise me if some scenes got cut at some point because it's very waffly in the early stages, too much time wasted on people talking in florid ways about other people (I miss the terse hard-boiled dialogue of English-language noir, though in truth it's more melodrama than noir). Turns out to be back-loaded, with most of the good stuff in the second half incl. a helpful-cop-and-body-in-the-trunk-of-the-car scene for the ages (runner-up: PALMETTO), though even here the two ironic twists - the one that resolves the stalemate at the cabin (a rare case, incidentally, of having watched the femme fatale set her trap, instead of being blindsided along with our hero) and the one at the very end - seem a bit cheap, too much the cosmic joke or deus ex machina. The inexorable course of malevolent Fate is one thing, a whimsical universe is much less satisfying.
TOUTE UNE NUIT (73) (Chantal Akerman, 1982): Not sure if the final 20 minutes of daylight add very much (except perhaps the dancing woman trying incoherently to capture something of the night before), but the preceding hour is a lovely cinematic evocation of the pleasantly swollen, heavy feel of a summer's night, the darkness both seeming to protect the array of lovers as they court in the shadows and stray pools of light and seeming to oppress them, like a visual expression of the loneliness against which they strive with their trysts (the film is romantic but also melancholy; when people hug they do it with a kind of desperation, clinging to each other). The encounters are sometimes grouped together - two consecutive examples of a partner walking out - but otherwise leap from first meetings to elopements to farewells, a strange interlude with a man and a pubescent girl, a bit of the love that dare not speak its name, and a scene of a married couple lying in bed unable to sleep - the wife's admission that "We haven't loved each other in a long time" being, paradoxically, among the film's tenderest moments. Even Akerman's static style (which I've never especially appreciated) is perfect here.
POTO AND CABENGO (65) (Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1980): Hard to say if Gorin's strategy is even a strategy (or just damage limitation), but something surprisingly astringent emerges from this deceptively slight piece, the ostensible story - 6-year-old identical twins speaking their own, invented language - turning out to be not much of a story. Instead the focus shifts to a mixed-up family on the underside of the American Dream (Ellis Island gets an unexpected shout-out), the film itself - and Gorin himself - implicated in the publicity machine that briefly lifted them, then left them behind; the girls' cheerful energy and willingness to learn become surprisingly affecting in the context of a background that never gave them a chance (they were branded "retarded" from birth) and a family that confused them by bombarding them with a hybrid English/German language without even realising it. The film's wispy nature turns out to be a blessing, forcing our attention on the rather pathetic story of failure and ignorance that emerges from between the lines; Mom's big hair and ginormous glasses ftw.
THE THING (60) (John Carpenter, 1982): Second viewing, much the same rating. Wondering how this film's many champions (it's currently No. 344 on the big TSPDT list of 1000 Greatest Movies!) don't seem to care that it's really two films at once, the suspense and paranoia - which isn't even that well done - exploded for the sake of cartoonish special effects, though not in the manner of SOCIETY where the cartoon is itself a dark joke; Brian Yuzna did the equivalent of throwing up his hands and saying 'How bad is the system? It's grotesquely, unimaginably bad', but Carpenter seems to think he can still play for genre thrills as if nothing happened. Also bothered that it's never 100% clear how exactly the Thing transmits itself from person to person, but I guess that's just my problem.
KNOCK (42) (Guy Lefranc, 1951): Obviously based on a play, to the extent of importing the three-act structure wholesale even though it's not especially clever or rewarding (the third act involves the old doctor coming back to witness all the stuff we already know from the second act). Knock's undisguised venality and straight-faced cynicism - to the startled older doctor: "I believe that, despite all temptations, we should attempt to save the patient" - is amusing at first, but the central joke of making healthy people think they're sick (the better to milk them for doctor's fees) wears thin quickly, and by the end the film has become almost insufferable. Transparently a case of Louis Jouvet recycling an earlier success at the end of his life, and just as mechanical as that sounds; the smattering of anal jokes - presumably meant as relief from the verbiage - is the final insult.
VALENTINA (54) (Antonio Jose Betancor, 1982): Rather charmingly half-baked, basically interesting only insofar as it departs from the standard coming-of-age template. Some of it recalls "Tom Sawyer" (there's a courtroom scene, and a climax in a cave with the kids in jeopardy), the battle with the rival gang - which seems unrelated to the rest of it - is quite WAR OF THE BUTTONS, and then we also have wtf bits like the ghosts of ancestral heroes in the cave (shown in rather cheesy double exposure, though the DP - also the DP of HOUSE OF GAMES, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, etc - makes up for it with a lovely silhouetted wide-shot on a hilltop), plus a half-assed bid to link the whole thing to the Spanish Civil War via a baffling prologue that isn't even a proper bookend, seemingly forgotten at the end. Role of the Church seems surprisingly positive for a Spanish film of this vintage, boy's stern patriarch contrasted with Anthony Quinn as a patient and avuncular priest.
YOU'RE TELLING ME! (58) (Erle C. Kenton, 1934)
APRIL 1, 2016
MAN'S CASTLE (63) (Frank Borzage, 1933): Actually the same small annoyance as a very different film made 65 years later, BUFFALO '66 - a gruff hero who's a dick to a young girl, and a girl who tolerates his dickishness presumably because she sees something behind it. Otherwise often lovely, both visually (that final pull-back!) and in terms of its compassionate attitude to its (mostly un-romanticised) shanty-town denizens: "God chose the weak things of the world, that He might put to shame those that are strong," as Walter Connolly's defrocked priest puts it - but the bulk of it is the central relationship, and I wish I liked it more. Spencer Tracy has a hint of Cagney's animal energy - greedily puffing his cigar at a ritzy restaurant, throwing off his clothes to go skinny-dipping in the river - but chews his words whereas Cagney spits them out; Loretta Young is angelic, for better and worse.
WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH (67) (Ettore Scola, 1974): "We thought we could change the world, but the world changed us." Makes a massive push for emotional impact - and state-of-the-Left lament - in the final scenes, almost but not totally successfully, the first half coming off enjoyable but too shallow to support such a big payoff (the undistinguished b&w - shot in colour - doesn't help). Scola goes for speed and dexterity over knotty moments, though the characters are daringly dislikeable (esp. the resident intellectual, a snotty 'political' film critic); the second half is richer because it ventures into more cryptic territory - a certain wtf quality persists throughout; this is a film where the opening title appears three times for no obvious reason! - like the minor sub-plot of the buffoonish rich bimbo who grows into a tragic philosopher, seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the movie. Post-war Italy gets steadily more rotten, personified in the increasingly rotund and decrepit figure of Aldo Fabrizi ("I won't die!" he yells ominously), the Left is consistently shafted, Italian cinema unappreciated, the heritage of neo-realism reduced to a TV quiz-show subject - but a dubbed foreign film (literally) speaks to our hero, resolving the central not-quite romance. Ambitious and imaginative, maybe a smidgen too fluffy.
THE GREEN ROOM (63) (Francois Truffaut, 1978): First half-hour is remarkable, with Nestor Almendros' sepulchral photography and a sense of a morbid and impossible obsession - a man in thrall to the dead, determined to hold on to their memory even as it makes him withdraw from the life of the living (he's become "a spectator of life"). Then it slackens, for a very simple reason - because the obsession is made literal and tangible, with the construction of a chapel for the dead, and the film becomes only as mysterious and impressive as that chapel (which is quite impressive, incl. a splendid establishing shot of the temple with all its candles burning, but it's not the same). Truffaut's period films have a visual restlessness that keeps stodge at bay - the camera flits, recording movements and connections more than simply images; scenes tend to end abruptly, sometimes with a pan away to some significant object; there are odd details that register as 'creative mistakes', e.g. staying needlessly on the newspaper editor's face instead of cutting away - an appropriate feeling in a film whose very theme is the past being alive. Still wish he'd kept the passions more internalised, but the subject has its own impact - esp. so close to Truffaut's own death.
PIEGES (57) (Robert Siodmak, 1939): Starts off as crime drama with the cops investigating a case of young girls missing, presumed dead, then 40 minutes later we've somehow shifted to Maurice Chevalier breezily singing a song to an audience of appreciative bystanders (in between we've had Erich von Stroheim in an otherwise-irrelevant interlude, gearing up for SUNSET BOULEVARD as a has-been fashion maven exhibiting his new designs to a house full of ghosts). The messiness is actually welcome - esp. as a reflection of this confused period in European history - but the film is signally dopey as cop movie (the plan seems to be to place our heroine in dire peril and hope her police cohort gets to her before she gets killed) and not quite smart enough as light entertainment, Siodmak's touch being sprightly but lacking in memorable Lubitsch-isms; Marie Dea makes a fine, game-for-anything heroine and, just when you think the film is over, Pierre Renoir breaks out a recital of tormented Great Acting. Policier meets UN CARNET DE BAL, with songs; an oddity, if not much more.
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (80) (Christian Nyby, 1951): Second viewing, first in >20 years - and I liked it the first time but didn't quite realise how remarkable it is, totally exploding its B-movie trappings. Like a glimpse of what action/sci-fi/horror movies might've been in a different, more mature universe, concentrating on problem-solving, group dynamics, character interaction (the overlapping dialogue is dazzling, and makes Nyby's credit even more unlikely) and celebrating ingenuity instead of wallowing in fear and terror; it's essentially a feelgood film, because the characters essentially like each other (right up to the end, when the hack makes a hero of the rogue scientist and gets a quick "Well done, Scotty" from one of the soldiers) - but also humorous about human failings, sex constantly in the air and cheekily contrasted with plants' "superior" asexual reproduction, and surprisingly thoughtful about what exactly should be done with a murderous alien that's nonetheless a boon to Science (the military-scientific complex is torn, which is unexpected, and both sides get an airing which is equally unexpected). Our heroes are phlegmatic when things go wrong - e.g. when the spaceship is destroyed - and make casual jokes even while preparing for battle, which might've seemed faux-heroic if it weren't done so lightly. Also funny and quite tense, and an obvious inspiration for THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
THE STEEL HELMET (67) (Samuel Fuller, 1951): Fuller's assembly is graceless but this is a totally distinctive (and demented) war drama, its structure briefly threatening to turn into a slasher movie, its band of soldiers bringing new meaning to the word 'ragtag': a little kid, two ethnic minorities, a guy with no hair, a guy who never speaks, a former conscientious objector toting a church organ - and a grizzled sergeant holding them all together, mostly under the gaze of a giant Buddha ("I want you to leave this temple exactly as you found it," says the CO, which is funny considering how it ends up). Social divisions aren't merely implied but out in the open (not a lot of camaraderie here), and indeed exploited by the wily Commie who reminds the African-American that he's not even allowed to eat with the whites unless there's a war on; absence of sentimentality - e.g. about kids - is taken as far as it can go, the inherent absurdity of the whole enterprise summed up in "If you die, I'll kill you!". Raw and disjointed (FIXED BAYONETS is more controlled, albeit minor-key by comparison), but fascinating. Noisiest war movie of the 50s? That too.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (63) (Terence Fisher, 1968): Highly enjoyable, as advertised, but I guess I didn't expect it to be so silly. Starts off shoddy, both technically shoddy (a shiny forehead due to bad lighting; a conversation interrupted by a meaningless shot of a car, presumably a coverage issue) and narratively shoddy (Christopher Lee is worried because his friend has been missing for months, but obviously never bothered to check ... his house?), and more or less stays that way, even as it throws in everything from a rural car-chase to a giant spider (!) to an appearance by the Devil himself. Lee at his most patrician and authoritative helps enormously, putting across even the campy hand-signal semaphore of "The sign of Osiris slain / The sign of Osiris risen", though it's once again clear that Hammer deals in British class snobbery, Good vs. Evil seen as a duel between elegant aristos who know better than the rude masses (even if the sceptics aren't exactly working-class here, more like upper middle-class). Ending is again unconvincing, with all the useless Satanists just standing around while the little girl haltingly repeats the deus-ex-machina Susama ritual - but the whole thing has such confidence and grandeur, it hardly matters.
THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (57) (Arthur Hiller, 1964): George C. Scott was perfect for THE HOSPITAL, but James Garner is too temperate an actor for Paddy Chayefsky's rants in this - admittedly lighter - confection (Julie Andrews does better, bringing her crystalline Englishness to a woman who crisply abhors her own tendency to the "grotesquely sentimental"). The problem isn't just that people rant, at length and in writerly language - that's not a problem at all; Chayefsky is a spectacular wordsmith - but that those outbursts are used to further the plot, which is bound to seem unnatural (see e.g. the James Coburn character, forced into a halfway switch from slacker to soldier that doesn't really come from psychology, just bravura dialogue). Singular but misconceived, an honest realist trying his hand at romp and making his characters extensions of his ideas instead of vice versa - but still an unusual film, very knowing, very cynical. "Don't show me how profitable it'll be to fall in love," pleads Andrews; "Don't Americanize me!" - then later we get to the D-Day landings (paging Steven Spielberg) and a commander's stirring speech is drowned out by a sailor's comical vomiting. Paul Newman for Garner might've made it a classic imo.
MARCH 1, 2016
THE QUEEN OF SPADES (47) (Yakov Protazanov, 1916): One clearly has to make allowances with a film this old (and I've never read the Pushkin story, and I watched an unrestored copy), but it did seem dramatically puzzling and unsatisfying, taking way too long on what seems like filler - e.g. that our hero approaches the Countess by courting her ward - then cramming the important stuff in the last 20 minutes and fluffing the climax, which gets neither build-up nor logic (apparently it's cryptic in the story as well, the titular Queen being a sort of supernatural intervention, but I assume its appearance is more momentous there). Visual touches are all that remains, esp. a dissolve elegantly bridging past and present and the Countess's snares visualised as actual, inexorable spiderwebs.
Notes on second viewings:
HIGH SCHOOL (75) (Frederick Wiseman, 1968): Wiseman's style - though still observational - seems more youthful in this youthful work, going in for random zooms and extreme close-ups as if trying to extract these people's very essence with his camera, but the film is among his richest, able to accommodate all points of view and audience ideologies. On the one hand, the school does inculcate conformism - one student apologises for being individualistic! - and knowing your place, on the other it's a powerful riposte to the general perception that the 60s were blinkered and patriarchal, the teachers (many of them characters in their own right) openly discussing the MLK assassination and the fact that most Americans live below the 'moderate comfort' wage, not to mention the scene where a class of (apparently all-Jewish) boys silently agrees that Mom is the boss at home, and the one who holds the purse-strings. Final scene - a teacher reading a letter from a Vietnam soldier and former pupil as proof that the school is "successful" - can be taken at face value or ironically (both readings bolstered by Wiseman's striking low-angle framing), which is typical. Almost every scene contains a gem, but 'Dangling Conversation' is amazing.
COPLAN SAVES HIS SKIN (44) (Yves Boisset, 1968): Music is lively in the 60s manner, visuals sometimes elegant (there's a splendid shot of Margaret Lee descending a staircase in a sunlit stone fortress), Istanbul locations evocative; there's a disfigured supervillain, unexpected incest, Bernard Blier as a roly-poly French expat chasing away the local urchins. Script is far too talky, however, editing often abrupt - the better to disguise the lame script, presumably - and Claudio Brook makes such a blank hero that even the disfigured supervillain (who acts with half a face) is more expressive. The climax sounds exciting - Coplan hunted down like an animal, MOST DANGEROUS GAME-style - but is actually a dud, partly because his pursuers (a) can't shoot and (b) insist on coming at him one by one.
I AM TWENTY (67) (Marlen Khutsiev, 1965): More a case of 'I Am 48', this being a bulletin on the health of the 1917 Revolution, as viewed through its youngsters - 20 years old and just out of the Army in the first half, which includes much larking about, spontaneous dancing, getting caught in the rain etc (also the motif of a wrecking ball creating a new city, or a new world), 23 and a lot less carefree in the second half, beset by failing marriages, office politics (which blend into ordinary politics in the Soviet Union) and a general change in the atmosphere. People help each other in the first half, people in a bus pass a fellow passenger's money forward to the conductor, then pass his ticket back to him, without even thinking, or interrupting their conversation - but then the second half sees people trying to undermine each other, and an older man asserting that it's everyone for themselves. Admittedly didactic but not propagandist, and full of lovely touches both big (the virtuoso invisible cut in the opening minute, morphing soldiers into civilians) and small, like our hero turning away from the girl - all we see is the back of his head - to declare his love: "All that matters is you". Life in the USSR (possibly idealised version): a poetry reading that's as packed as a pop concert, playing football in the street, meeting girls in the May Day parade.
ANGUISH (66) (Bigas Luna, 1987): There's a half-hour stretch in the middle when this works like few films I've ever experienced, playing like a gleefully unhinged De Palma slasher-movie take on PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (okay, no more spoilers). First half-hour is more conventional, last half-hour deflates slightly as it becomes clear that Luna doesn't plan to connect his two layers in any meaningful way; subtext of Cinema as a psycho killer - metaphorically (and even kind of literally) 'taking' our eyes to use in its own mad projects - is quite something, though.
FEBRUARY 1, 2016
HOLIDAY CAMP (68) (Ken Annakin, 1947): "Then I saw it wasn't really a crowd at all. Just separate individuals, each one of them with a different set of problems and worries, hopes and fears..." Maybe so, but the almost fascistic lockstep in which holidaymakers are enjoined to laugh, dance, parade and have fun is the most fascinating part of this time-capsule comedy - that, and the sheer range of goings-on, ranging from sitcom to romance to Flora Robson being wonderfully tragic (her delivery of "No... You're not the man I knew" is a show-stopper, though she also gets a stand-up-and-applaud moment when she warns an aspiring young musician that there's only a handful of geniuses out there, and a lot of second-raters) - even to a shocking sex murder which the film tosses into the mix with perverse casualness. Also notable: post-war detail - a joke about chocolate rations - and a climactic set-up where you expect (primed by six decades of sitcoms) that working-class Dad will have to eat his words - but actually no, turns out father really did know best in 1947. Patriarchy, innit.
JANUARY 1, 2016