OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2017, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 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-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the 14 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...]


BUSTER AND BILLIE (62) (Daniel Petrie, 1974): Somewhere between coming-of-age TV drama and the rural-American Gothic that was popular in the mid-70s (see e.g. ALL THE KIND STRANGERS from the same year - and of course TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was also in the same year), an ambience also glimpsed in songs like 'Ode to Billy Joe'. Doubt this kind of rural America exists anymore, and maybe it didn't even at the time - this is actually horny-teen nostalgia in the vein of SUMMER OF '42, taking place in 1948 - but it feels authentic, both because the film doesn't editorialise (70s preoccupations like race are entirely absent) and because the characters are unusual: Buster a sympathetic jock, something of a bad boy but protective of his friends, good to his parents (who are still implicitly shell-shocked over losing a son in the war), at one point opining with some desperation that "You can't think about life, you just gotta live it", Billie looking like a backwoods Lena Dunham but withdrawn, soft, very close to being what the locals would call 'touched'. Obviously minor, rather loosely plotted, with a pivotal line-reading (you'll know it when you hear it) so bad it's more likely to elicit laughter - yet the modest ambitions are an asset nowadays (it's great, for instance, that neither set of parents is given an 'arc' per se), and there's still a simmering strain of rural weirdness which explodes in the final stretch. Also worth it for Freddy Krueger as the funny-looking friend, suggesting (without having to state) that Buster likes shielding weaklings and misfits - like Billie later - and joining him in a day-trip to the beach that's all the more memorable for being gratuitous.

RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL (67) (Jesse Hibbs, 1958): Way above average - almost a major discovery, in fact - except that the script rushes the second half, the better to wrap the whole thing up in 88 minutes. First half sets up surefire tension (an outlaw posing as a Marshal), adds a wry twist - the criminal's deception rhymed with the deception of the prostitute who poses as his wife, i.e. a 'respectable woman' - then fires the whole thing up through a wonderfully juicy Walter Matthau (already middle-aged, at 38) as an alcoholic Judge Roy Bean figure; when cadaverous Henry Silva also turns up as a smirking gangster, the stage seems set for a classic - but Matthau recedes later on, the plotting gets sketchy, and a rather generic kid character is forced to shoulder way too much dramatic ambivalence. Audie Murphy's (lack of) presence also a problem, though it's made to work; our hero's nebulous nickname - "Maybe" - is all too appropriate.

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (56) (Rowland V. Lee, 1934): Don't the guards get suspicious when they see Dantes sleeping in the same position every night, year after year? ("The guards must think the figure in the bed is you, asleep," explains the Abbe, the dummy in the bedsheets being presumably not yet a cliché in 1934.) Did the Abbe really draw those ridiculously elaborate paintings, maps, zodiac wheels, etc on the walls of his cell using only chunks of chalk? Shouldn't the sailors react more forcefully - e.g. take the loot for themselves - when Dantes comes back to the ship a millionaire? (I guess it's possible that, having found the treasure, he kept quiet about it and went back by himself later.) Mildly embarrassed to be worrying about all these dumb plausibility questions - then again that's the level on which this works, lacking both cinematic flair and the kind of psychological strangeness Charles Laughton brought to LES MISERABLES. Lee is a hack, of course, but it's surprising to see Philip Dunne's name among the writers, given the script's lack of creative solutions - esp. at the end, when both of the Count's dramatic dilemmas (whether to fight the duel with young Mondego, then whether to defend himself in court or protect his victim's daughter) are simply allowed to resolve themselves and/or collapse into bathos ("I'll write him a note..."). Still a gripping plot, esp. in the second half, but that's Dumas of course.

JUNE 1, 2017

MAY 1, 2017

THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (57) (Valerio Zurlini, 1976): The cast is starry (if mostly dubbed), the images hauntingly beautiful, but overall this is something of a disappointment. The rocky, unearthly locations recall the previous year's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, and that spirit of old-fashioned adventure is there at first - though in fact it's a red herring and that's perfectly fine, in fact it may be even better, yet the film never quite achieves the existential-nightmare quality it's trying for. The fort is a place where waiting is initially a chore, then a Kafkaesque trap where escape keeps getting deferred, then finally a necessity - one thinks of Cavafy's 'Waiting for the Barbarians' - or maybe the waiting is Life itself and the Tartars are Death (the ending makes this clear), its approach endlessly obsessed-over but also denied, because waiting for it is endlessly preferable to confronting it (Death hangs heavy over the place; Drogo's first approach to the fort is through the cemetery). Could've been great but it needed to be more surreal/artificial, in the style of e.g. the elaborate scene where the officers introduce themselves one-by-one - an overly-mannered hothouse quality, a sense of Time standing still. Zurlini doesn't fully commit to the strangeness, trying to keep the all-star prestige drama going too - but the characters never really matter and the plotting is lumpy (I actually thought there was a reel missing, given how quickly our wide-eyed hero goes to his CO and asks for a transfer), so it falls between two stools. THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is a better variation on such material.

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (63) (John Newland, 1973): Made for TV, and not today's Golden Age of Cable but 70s network TV when horror had to stay PG-ish, with obvious fades-to-black for commercial breaks which must've totally ruined the atmosphere. Newland's solution is perhaps counter-intuitive, viz. to avoid very much subtle build-up - the haunted-house spookiness is established straight away and the monsters are aggressive, shown in full by the half-hour mark and making no secret of their evil intentions - placing all his chips on the convention of the terrified woman whose loved ones (ambitious husband, in this case) don't believe her and in fact are angry at her. The result is intense psychological drama, admirable in the Val Lewton way of finding creative hacks to obvious limitations; also loveable for stray 70s detail like the floral hippy fashions on some briefly-glimpsed extras, plus the friend who - being a woman - is terrified of mice: "I don't care what Women's Lib tells me, the very mention of a mouse drives me crazy!".

APRIL 1, 2017

THE BRIDGE (60) (Bernhard Wicki, 1959): Hamstrung by real life, or at least I assume this is how the true story ended, with the boys defending the bridge - but the decision to end as a big action movie coarsens the ironies: we know from the start that the kids are doomed, one way or the other (the slightly weird atonal music in the early scenes shows that the film knows it too), so it adds nothing to see them turn into soldiers. Looks for a while like it'll be something much more poignant, a film where everyone in the army actually tries to protect the boys but their own misguided idealism ends up destroying them anyway - and that's definitely in there too, but Wicki is perhaps too much of a journeyman to make it poetic (or perhaps he had no choice, in that the story didn't resolve itself poetically in real life). Still well-crafted and of course historically important, the first real suggestion by a German director that, guilt notwithstanding, the German people were victims too; about three-quarters of the boys are memorable - incl. runty, jug-eared Sigi - which is not too bad really.

THE FALLS (72) (Peter Greenaway, 1980): Obvious echoes of Monty Python and Georges Perec ("Life: A User's Manual" had only come out in French at that point, but I bet Greenaway knew about it), one could even mention Tolkien in the world-building and ornate character names. Obviously 'too much' at this length, exhausting, boring even, but the entries that score - maybe due to some structuring element, like being played off close-ups of train timetables or a child's voice telling bird jokes - are even more memorable for being interspersed by a few entries that just sort of sit there, and (as e.g. in ZORN'S LEMMA) repetition ends up building - possibly spurious - links between random elements that keep cropping up (the word "clout", the Goldhawk Road). All of which doesn't remotely capture the fertility of Greenaway's imagination or the breadth of his inventiveness - even if 'breadth' seems an odd word for something so obsessive and single-minded. Verbal humour abounds, characters are described as "frugivorous" or "a collector of berets", their ailments include not just paralysis or bone-marrow disease but also "a preference for travel in spring and autumn", something is described as being named after "the collective noun for immature carrier pigeons" - yet the film is often visually beautiful too, and Michael Nyman's supersized closing credit speaks to the importance of his music. Who knew that Greenaway started out as an entertainer?

MY FATHER THE HERO (56) (Gerard Lauzier, 1991): Writing this two weeks later, I find I've forgotten most of the details - though in fact the same might've been true had I written it two hours later. Determinedly forgettable, maybe even deliberately so as a way of drawing the sting from its controversial premise, despite being made in a more relaxed time when that premise (even with the echoes of paedophilia) was considered risqué rather than tasteless. Plotting is very even-tempered, scenes simmer at the same general temperature whether Dad is reacting to his daughter's deception, trying to rescue her after she's pulled out to sea, or just having fun in Mauritius (the sub-plot with the lonely woman who fancies him is typically half-baked, ending in a kind of tepid friendship). Actually quite amiable, gently-escalating farce (except when it's slapstick), and Gerard Depardieu - in a light, understated performance - is a very cool dad.

1981 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1981 list, so I re-watched a few contenders (all second or third viewings, most of them unseen in >20 years):

MARCH 1, 2017

ROPE (49) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

GHOST IN THE SHELL (55) (Mamoru Oshii, 1995): I don't envy those who've been tasked with rejigging this for the live-action remake, because its strengths are very mid-90s - an impressively expansive look (for pre-CGI), and an excitable technophilia from the days when we all said things like 'information superhighway' ("The Net is limitless," is the final line, not meaning Internet but close enough). The plot has to do with machines becoming self-aware, cyber-brains in cyborg bodies waking up to "the consciousness I call 'me'" - a "ghost" is a soul, more or less - which seems a bit jejune nowadays. Contemplative moments are the best (as in THE SKY CRAWLERS, the other Oshii I've seen), frantic action of e.g. the first 10 minutes seems out of place; another reason to fear the remake.

TOKYO CHORUS (67) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931): Slapstick Ozu and Student Comedy Ozu segue into Domestic Ozu - the most successful section, with the scene-stealing kid who got his own film a year later with I WAS BORN, BUT... - then it's social comment (Hoover's policies haven't made a difference to us yet, says one Depression-hit Tokyo resident to another, anticipating globalisation by almost a century) and a final section that seems a little bland compared to the family stuff. Very picaresque, 20-something Ozu still trying things out, there's a urinal joke and a brief commotion because "a bear broke out of its cage" (we never see the bear, nor is it relevant). Working-class solidarity is one kind of through-line, while the theme of personal will - and personal dignity - over regimentation is there from the very first reel, but one mostly recalls the graceful throwaway touches: the camera staying on a forgotten fish flopping on the ground at the end of a truncated fishing trip, or the two kids - quixotically trying to mend broken vinyl records with spit - passing quickly through the frame as a scene fades out, both of them working intently on their doomed vinyl project.

MR. THANK YOU (63) (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1936): As in many early Talkies, the apparent sloppiness - like the jaunty music score that plays wall-to-wall in the background, not quite synched up to the action - is actually liberating, the impression of looseness and freedom made even stronger by Shimizu's own sloppiness (he seems quite bad at building narrative, based on the three films I've seen; plot just occurs without much set-up) and the sense of the rural bus as a surprisingly fluid world; people get on and off, move around, even abandon the bus and decide to walk to their destination if something upsets them. Not a conventionally 'good' film, but two things happen: first, the ramshackle quality allows simple humanity to shine through - the point of the film is compassion and courtesy; the titular driver is known by his politeness to pedestrians who make way for the bus, even though they probably shouldn't be in the middle of the road in the first place - and secondly, the film's relentlessly dark picture of Japan in crisis (jobless men, girls being sold into prostitution) clashes intriguingly with the stubbornly light tone. When Mr. Thank You says "Sometimes I think I'd be better off driving a hearse" or "These days, when a baby's born you don't know whether to offer congratulations", followed immediately by jaunty music - well, it may just be sloppy, but it's memorable.

LE TROU (76) (Jacques Becker, 1960): Surely there's a pun in the title (they dig a hole while 'in the hole') though I don't know if 'doing time' also works in French - yet time is essential to this movie, the time it takes for a hole to be dug in real time, the necessity of keeping track of time (e.g. with the improvised hourglass that's vital to the plot) and the emphasis on physical process in general. Physicality is also important, the physical proximity of five men in a cramped prison cell - and surely no American movie of the time would've shown the open toilet in the corner being used (albeit only for peeing), though it's also much gentler - more humane - than most American prison movies (or the same year's CONCRETE JUNGLE from Britain): the prisoners live in relative harmony, the warden is a humorous soul, the guards often turn a blind eye and e.g. deliver the thieving plumbers for punishment. A strong sense of functional ecosystems, one above ground and the other below, and a strong sense of community beyond class divisions, exploded in the ending which is even more potent for being abrupt when the rest of the film is so deliberate. One particular cut in the last 10 minutes is among the most shocking single cuts in all cinema. I can say no more.

THE WOMEN (65) (George Cukor, 1939): Given the theme, some infusion of 21st-century political correctness is probably inevitable - though the pre-feminism shouldn't be viewed as simplistic, envisaging more than one way for women to cope with their situation; Mother's old-school insistence that a wife should simply put up with a straying husband is a world away from the serial divorcees on the train to Reno, though oddly similar to Marjorie Main's battered bumpkin and the fashion model's rather pathetic philosophy ("What else have we got to give?"); and of course our "spoiled" society heroines are somewhere in between. The underlying point, however, is the powerlessness of women, emphasised by the gimmick (the fact that men are invisible even though the plot revolves around them makes them seem akin to gods, regulating the affairs of mortals from afar) and even the opening credits, which not only equate each heroine with an animal but also define most of them by their husbands' names - a social and dramatic presumption that's hard to overlook, even though Cukor is a very graceful director (he's forever finding unobtrusive ways to open up the drama, incl. camera moves and e.g. following a little dog from one space to another). Still a play, with an obvious three-act structure that hobbles it slightly imho - but the actresses are game, even staid Norma Shearer, there's a Hedda Hopper joke and a swastika joke, and it may be unfashionable when Mother opines that a man who cheats is essentially "tired of himself" (it's unfashionable even in the context of the movie), but it still made me wish that modern-day moralists would judge a little less, and try to understand a little more.

ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN (62) (Charles Barton, 1940): Peter Lorre is the whole show here, though there's a couple of good twists in the second half when our hero - an undercover agent who seems to have no plan except dumb resistance - becomes a bit more proactive. Lorre employs his arched eyebrow and velvety voice and adds something rather hilarious, the supervillain as nagging, fault-finding husband: "I had a very annoying afternoon... Please, Lorraine, put on something else, I don't like that". He's bored and heavy-lidded almost to the point of self-parody, but it's still delicious - also there are night shots where the leaves in the canopy of jungle reflect little pinpricks of light, like diamonds, and at least one appearance of the proto-noir effect of light streaming in through Venetian blinds, striping the heroine in shadow. Not bad, for 67 minutes.

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (59) (D.W. Griffith, 1919): "The Yellow Man watched Lucy often. The beauty which all Limehouse missed smote him to the heart". Easy to get hung up on nomenclature and miss the sensitivity and beauty of what "the Chink" stands for - not to mention, on a more prosaic level, the fact that the villain is explicitly tagged as a racist who "hates those not born in the same great country as himself" (more surprisingly, a Christian missionary on his way to China to convert "the heathen" is viewed with unnmistakable derision). Griffith's liberalism doesn't quite extend to miscegenation - the Chinaman's love for the white girl remains "a pure and holy thing" - though even that is successfully tagged as an indicator of spirituality rather than a cop-out; the central relationship is a sanctuary, an oasis, cross-cut with an otherwise-irrelevant boxing match to highlight its serenity (it's also a positive flipside to the equally languid opium den where the Yellow Man whiles away his hours). The connection is established physically, through body language (both soulmates favour an attitude of wistful repose), though in fact the film has little more to say once the two get together; dramatically speaking, the final act is a muddle - not to mention that the YM seems terribly quick with a gun, for such a gentle soul. Feel I'm underrating it but in fact the great stuff is mostly incidental, the dramatic core not very satisfying. Still would be worth preserving just for the unearthly expression on Lillian Gish's face - her big sloe eyes and squirrel features terrified yet faraway, as if lost in a dream - in the early scene where she comes home to confront her abuser.

FEBRUARY 1, 2017

GET CRAZY (77) (Allan Arkush, 1983): My only regret is that I watched this late at night, and was forced to keep it down so as not to disturb the neighbours; like THE TREE OF LIFE (actually much more than THE TREE OF LIFE), it demands to be played loud. Hard to pin down its exuberance, but it may be understood as disarmingly silly (but not stupid) comedy with Jay Ward-style cartoonish detail - the villain has two henchmen who follow him everywhere he goes, one on each flank, paraphrasing everything he says: "His time is past." "A has-been!" "History!"; "Exactly." "Precisely!" "To the letter!" - getting cross-bred with putting-on-a-show movie then launched into the stratosphere by exhilarating, unexpectedly tight blues/rock performances. Anarchy meets vaudeville meets 'Rolling Stone' magazine, rock'n roll gets restored to its prelapsarian state as a rowdy good time. Also: a talking penis.

ROCKY (72) (John G. Avildsen, 1976): Hadn't seen this before, for some reason, though I've seen the sequels - which is surely the best way to watch it, the better to marvel at its honesty and naturalism. Is this modest meathead chatting to his pet turtles really the same Rocky Balboa who fights (and wins) the Cold War in a boxing ring in ROCKY IV? Is this almost pathologically shy wallflower really Adrian, who shows little trace of pathology in the rest of the saga? The boxing is almost irrelevant, the first hour merely observing Rocky as he leads the humdrum life of an ageing small-timer, already something of a has-been at 30 - "There's nothin' special about you," snarls acerbic Mickey at the boxing gym - hanging out with (surprisingly troubled) Paulie at the meat freezer and trying to court Adrian by telling her a bad joke every morning. Even his big break comes out of nowhere, his training doesn't have any fancy Hollywood arcs or dramatic devices (he just learns to punch really hard, the rest being simple desire) and even his nickname - 'The Italian Stallion' - turns out to be unglamorous: "I invented that about eight years ago, when I was eating dinner". Mickey's an opportunist and not a nice man (he blows up at the young autograph hunters), the final fight turns into a brawl and a test of guts and stamina - not so much technique - and the sense of working-class community, nasty people generously excused as being "in a bad mood", is a flipside to working-class repression, soundly exploded by outbursts of hysterical rage. That doesn't appear in the sequels much, either.

EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF (66) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980): "That thing in each man which silently screams: 'I am not a machine'..." The repeated stylistic tic of slowing down the action to a series of individual frames does make people look a bit like machines malfunctioning, and of course industrial capitalism is ever-present - but the recurring theme is human contact, esp. physical contact, angrily rejected in the early scenes (the director - "Godard" - is propositioned by the hotel porter, who's apparently a big fan and expresses a desire to bugger him; later, "Godard" touches his wife's hair affectionately, and is pushed away) then turned into a sleazy transaction in the world of prostitutes, culminating in the corporate boss who turns it into (yes) a machine - posing three people in a sexual arrangement with instructions to make certain sounds when touched in a certain way. The dirtiest Godard I've seen (not a bad thing), with less of his wordplay and philosophical quotes, more of his provocateur's shock effects. Also fuel for those who accuse him of misogyny, and he does seem to get a kick out of female humiliation even while successfully getting it to mean something more; 26-year-old Isabelle Huppert trumps all attempts to degrade her through sheer nonchalance.

BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (64) (Mario Monicelli, 1958): Second viewing, no change in rating but renewed appreciation for the little-man compassion amid the slapstick; the Italian title - 'I Soliti Ignoti', i.e. 'Persons Unknown' - is more appropriate, since these small-time crooks are indeed unknown (and fated to remain so). Vittorio Gassman may be too conventionally handsome for the maladroit, stammering leader, whose attempts to be cool always end in failure (if he throws a knife at the door, it bounces back harmlessly), but he makes it work. The jokes are patchy, but the punchline where the robbers break through the wall surely brings the house down - no pun intended! - when seen in a theatre, and the dialogue is sometimes delightful: "Hey kid, you know a guy called Mario who lives around here?" "There's a thousand Marios around here." "Yes, but this Mario's a thief!" "There's still a thousand."

JANUARY 1, 2017