OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2018, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 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 15 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...]


THE LAST YEARS OF CHILDHOOD (50) (Norbert Kuckelmann, 1979): The title sounds idyllic but it's actually legalistic, referring to the time before our juvenile-delinquent hero hits the age of criminal responsibility (14, in West Germany). The kid himself is taciturn and inarticulate, briefly attached to a teddy-bear ("One stuffed animal, used," say the cops, taking inventory of his belongings) but in no way winsome or cute - and the film is more ambitious than it looks, though it's unclear if Kuckelmann is attempting some kind of spare Bressonian style or just not staging very well. Scenes are often truncated, as if the director's aim was to film them in as few shots as possible (see e.g. the bit where our hero lies on the railway tracks, which is crying out for some establishing shot before the train comes); we're often shown the beginnings of e.g. the boy's escape attempts - his dissatisfaction as he thinks about escape - then cut straight to him already on the run, or already caught and brought back to the institution. The idea is presumably to flatten the drama, making the boy deliberately opaque and having things happen without much dramatic inflection, the better to evoke a crushing System - but describing that is more fun than actually watching it, not to mention that the ending feels unearned as a result. On the one hand, probably more realistic than e.g. Alan Clarke's SCUM, just because it's more low-key; on the other, it's a fine line between low-key and tepid.

LENNY (56) (Bob Fosse, 1974): Not a very good film, or even (surprisingly, for Fosse) a very enjoyable one. The writing is stale, with the structuring device of the main characters being interviewed after the event - describing Lenny's life, which then promptly gets reflected in his routines - coming off especially facile, the tone is rather gruelling, seeming to wallow in humiliation, and e.g. the "freak scenes" to which Lenny subjects his wife (viz. a lesbian threesome) get a po-faced clumsiness that's a long way from CABARET; the subject seems to have blunted the director's natural exuberance, and meanwhile Dustin Hoffman embraces Lenny's hectoring, self-absorbed side with such gusto that it seems to go beyond the character to accessing those facets in himself (he's in almost every scene, and never lets you forget it). Gets better as it goes, because it's brave enough - unlike most biopics - to show its hero becoming a crashing bore, losing his mojo and indeed his relevance; and it's also (speaking of relevance) wildly topical now, its message on "the suppression of words" - the first shot is an ECU of a mouth - being back in fashion after decades of seeming perhaps a little quaint. The scene where Bruce says "nigger" over and over and over, making the point that the word itself is just a word and has no magic powers beyond what one assigns to it, should be required viewing in late-10s America.

COME DRINK WITH ME (63) (King Hu [as King Chuan], 1966): My first King Hu, incredibly, and I assume he broadened and deepened from this one - which is not to say it's not entertaining, but the absence of much beyond genre pleasures makes it hard to ignore that the structure is broken-backed, switching protagonist halfway-through without even the obvious solution of bringing them together at the climax (it would've been easy enough for Golden Swallow to pop up unbidden and save the day, but no), and it generally feels like a much longer movie was planned; stuff like the prisoner exchange - which is pretty important to the plot - comes out of nowhere. Also hoped for a while that the pale-faced henchman with the fan and magnificent smirk was going to be an unconventional hero (instead of an obvious villain), also managed to just go with the unmistakable-woman-'disguised'-as-a-man convention; then you have the look of the thing, and the stately wide-shots pierced (or violated) by sudden eruptions of objects through space, and it's clear Hu has an eye for balance and texture. Would like to see more.

WHAT PRICE GLORY (57) (Raoul Walsh, 1926): Mildly disappointed, given Manny Farber's high praise ("an air-filled, lyrical masterpiece") in 'Negative Space'. The Flagg-Quirt rivalry is a non-starter because the characters don't get equal prominence; Flagg is our protagonist, Quirt an occasional thorn in his side (Edmund Lowe also seems peculiarly aloof and unattractive, to women or anybody else, but we'll put that down to changing tastes). The battle scenes could've used more editing, though the wide-shots are well composed. The occasional anti-war sentiment - Flagg bemoaning a world "that's got to be wet down every 30 years with the blood of boys like these" - seems perfunctory. Obviously ballsy in making a breezy romp about WW1 just a few years after the events themselves (it's the THREE KINGS of its day), but I wish they'd stuck with peacetime and the sassy 'Shanghai Mabel', to be honest.

MAY 1, 2018

BREAKER MORANT (66) (Bruce Beresford, 1980): Beresford's cautious, rather neutral style actually helps more than it hinders here, the film refusing to take sides as it complicates a situation that e.g. PATHS OF GLORY (for its own reasons, admittedly) played much more simply. Morant and the other defendants are indeed scapegoats, hence sympathetic - but they're also professional soldiers, undoubtedly guilty of killing prisoners and civilians; Morant's justification that it's "a new kind of war" without the old moral qualms (much like the defence lawyer's claim that they're "not to be judged by civilian rules") isn't necessarily something we're expected to agree with, and Morant is a complex figure in any case, undoubtedly vain and egotistical, the kind who'll bore his comrades with tales of his derring-do and perhaps welcome martyrdom for his own reasons. Subtle and confident in its manipulations - with some not-so-subtle exceptions, like the defence lawyer's early clumsiness - also crisply written, in prime courtroom-drama fashion; Beresford's use of very short flashbacks is elegant, though every time he calls attention to himself stylistically (e.g. the early cut alternating between Morant's left and right profile, or the slow-zoom in to the Dutch singer) it tends to seem flashy. Stick with cautious and neutral, Bruce.

THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE (74) (Frank Launder, 1950): Second viewing, probably first since my teens - and an object lesson in the uselessness of ratings, esp. as applied to comedy. All of it is pleasant, much of it no more than pleasant, but then a few of the lines - "Effort, St. Swithin's, effort!", "So it is, the child's quite ubiquitous", the immortal "Call me Sausage" - are spoken so hilariously, with such fine modulation (I actually rewound and watched again, and laughed all over again), they make the whole thing treasurable - though of course I wouldn't give that rating if I watched it for the first time now, happy familiarity making up for its objective patchiness, so I dunno. A film I recall with fondness, fwiw.

SURE FIRE (70) (Jon Jost, 1990): In many ways a no-budget mess, but compelling in its mix of theatrically arty effects and observational character drama - the alienated hero of LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE (same actor, Tom Blair) now a slightly-too-desperate all-American hustler with a "sure fire" moneymaking plan. There are lengthy monologues to camera (or rather, with the speaker in close-up and the supposed interlocutor also facing the camera, at the back of the frame), flame-lit trees against the night sky, a car ride filmed with back-projection, a couple's distance shown by placing black leader between each shot in their conversation, so the reverse feels like a new scene - but also random chatter in a diner, the rhythms of speech in a small Utah town, Blair long-windedly belabouring his teenage son about gun safety on a hunting trip (a terrific, and funny, scene). The red-state naturalism plays like another theatrical effect but the end result is singular and imaginative, outsider art with a sense of drama and without the usual complacency, maybe because Jost himself was still quite marginal, half-in-half-out at the time. Do we have his equivalent today, when this kind of thing is so much easier to make? Lurking on YouTube, probably.

MS .45 / ANGEL OF VENGEANCE (73) (Abel Ferrara, 1981)

APRIL 1, 2018

INNOCENCE UNPROTECTED (56) (Dusan Makavejev, 1968): Actually wondered for a while - despite the opening credits - if the original 'Innocence Unprotected' from the 1940s was a real movie or something Makavejev had cooked up himself; the mismatched eyelines and comically random camera positions seem to indicate an obvious spoof, then again there seems no reason why someone would invent something so uninspired (and frankly tedious) at such length. The film-within-a-film is the weak link, but the three layers (film from the 40s, documentary footage from the 40s and interviews from the 'present day') do speak to each other: Aleksic says something in the 60s and a movie character answers "Big deal!" in the 40s, or the heroine in the movie goes to the window and 'sees' all the WW2 suffering/atrocities going on outside - the latter also positing 'Innocence' as a relic of the Resistance, just through being made in Serbo-Croat and without the Germans' knowledge, despite its apolitical silliness (the final captions, confirming that the actors did indeed take part in the Resistance, actually weaken the effect; it's funnier if the film is revolutionary, yet also silly). Daredevil antics to the strains of 'The Internationale', mischievous hand-tinted detail (a pair of blood-red lips, etc) on the b&w image; Aleksic himself is a force of Nature, despite - or even because of - the information that his "human cannonball" stunt ended in someone getting killed. Does start to feel a bit random, though.

PANIC IN THE STREETS (62) (Elia Kazan, 1950): The finale taking place by the water (plus 1950 and Richard Widmark) calls to mind NIGHT AND THE CITY, and the comparison doesn't really flatter this solid but rather prosaic thriller. A blend of several genres, the medical-emergency drama - an outbreak of plague in New Orleans - the location-shot, naturalistic crime movie in the style of THE NAKED CITY, a touch of film noir with the banter edging close to the hard-boiled ("With apologies to your mother, that's the second mistake she made!") - and Kazan is also an actors' director, taking care e.g. to make Barbara Bel Geddes' decorative role slightly more substantial than usual (she and Widmark have a very likeable screen marriage, the "mushy dame" bringing out his vulnerable side). Also subscribes to the post-war veneration of scientists and scientific method, which weakens it badly (and adds to the prosaic quality), because the plague isn't really so scary; the doctor can inoculate against it, Science has the answers - the problem is human greed and irrationality, typified by the cartoonish-looking combo of Jack Palance and Zero Mostel, making for a rather smug, prescriptive tone (it lacks the out-of-control quality of e.g. NIGHT AND THE CITY). Changing Times Dept.: (a) our hero's 8-year-old boy spending hours alone with the slightly odd neighbour - a single man, and some kind of artist - and no-one being worried, except insofar as Widmark is annoyed by the neighbour's influence, and (b) the newspaper reporter threatening to destroy the cop's career, and being taken seriously. Ah, the power of the long-ago press.

ELENA AND HER MEN (60) (Jean Renoir, 1956): Renoir supposedly made this so he could see Ingrid Bergman laugh onscreen - and she does laugh, though she also has a right to be slightly resentful that he didn't give her a part to match those played by Magnani and Gabin in the first two parts of the stage-and-spectacle 'trilogy'. Opening scene features a comical cacophony, pitting Elena at the piano vs. a military march from the parade outside - and the film walks a similar tightrope, talking of dictators and politics but content to be a blithe and silly farce, too relaxed for proper plotting, all about the colours, comic elements (there's an opera singer, a humorous butler, a hot-air balloon), conscious artifice and joie de vivre. Line to quote, obviously: "When drilling for oil, choosing a government or manufacturing explosives, we're not the best. But when it comes to the art of living, you can count on the French!".

THE LAST SEDUCTION (63) (John Dahl, 1994): Second viewing, first since the 90s - when, incredibly, I didn't quite realise that this is a comedy (as opposed to a neo-noir, though it's that as well), despite a wall-to-wall score so bouncy it's like a conga-line bobbing through the movie. Also had forgotten (a) how cheesy the production looks, reflecting its made-for-TV origins, (b) how extensive Peter Berg's role is, and how well he acquits himself (Fiorentino is delicious, of course), and (c) the CRYING GAME twist, maybe because it also appeared in ACE VENTURA that same year. Simpler times...

GOD TOLD ME TO (76) (Larry Cohen, 1976): A hurtling, headlong, entirely fearless movie. Cohen works in short jagged scenes, packing in plot with such frenzied shorthand it sometimes topples over into the ridiculous - the guy whispering "God told me to" on his hospital bed, then expiring, is pure Bad Movie - the initial burst of Charles Whitman-inspired policier (amusingly, the shooter's mum falls back on JFK conspiracy theories) soon giving way to disturbing, occult and increasingly outlandish elements. Cohen makes insanely bold choices, and embraces them fully; a flashback ventures into science fiction, there's hippy psychedelia (a few years late), unexpected body horror and a big dollop of Erich von Daniken - yet also earnest drama amid the insanity, our hero's Catholic guilt and deep compassion (his unusual behaviour in the beginning, climbing up the tower to talk to the gunman, is no accident) marking him out as, literally, too human for his own good. Cohen's mid-70s work (also J. EDGAR HOOVER) increasingly looks like a mad-genius phase that was just too much for this world: "This is the most confused feature-length film I've ever seen" - Roger Ebert, in a one-star review.

OPENING NIGHT (58) (John Cassavetes, 1977): "Let's not phony it up anymore." The suggestion is that Gena Rowlands' disintegrating actress Myrtle Gordon brings "something real" to the phony world of theatre by making her neuroses public - a notion undermined by the fact that Cassavetes' world is never real, always artificial (his version of the world has people bluntly telling other people what they think of them: "You're not a woman to me anymore. You're a professional"); the world of showbiz may be the worst setting for one of his films, offering nothing to balance the indulgence. Doesn't convince for a moment, though admittedly that's not entirely fatal; Myrtle becomes more nakedly emotional partly as a (semi-conscious) way to feel young again - at 17 "my emotions were so close to the surface," she laments; now, "I'm finding it harder and harder to stay in touch" - which is interesting, then the film threatens to turn into a horror movie on demonic possession (!), which is even more interesting, then you have some rich colours and visual coups (one moment cuts from Maurice, played by Cassavetes himself, onstage - a shot that's almost entirely yellow - to a shot from the door of the auditorium, which is blood-red, with the stage itself glimpsed in the distance; the sudden change in colours and shot size is bracing). The final act builds what looks like a lose-lose situation, having Myrtle turn up catatonically drunk to opening night - if she manages to rally because The Show Must Go On, etc, it'll seem cheesy; if she bombs, it'll seem unsatisfying - then gets out of it by cheerfully copping out, focusing instead on the "something real" Cassavetes and Rowlands bring to the movie as husband and wife, i.e. their rapport and real-life relationship, all but shrugging off the world of the characters. Quite fitting, really.

HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (54) (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971): Pretty-looking, rather random historical jape (not quite satire, despite the title), notable for not taking sides: the natives are undoubtedly cruel - it's really just our knowledge that they're doomed which makes them sympathetic - but their titular prisoner is venal and not very admirable. All quite watchable (if becalmed compared to, say, Glauber Rocha), with Amazonian landscapes, flute-heavy score and a flowing camera, but then, almost at the end, it does something truly exceptional - the sensual scene where the girl lovingly describes the process of being killed and eaten, and it suddenly becomes clear how apparent barbarity, once ritualised, can become both a token of love and a vivid and necessary part of the life of the community - and you realise how tentative and not-very-focused the rest of it is.

DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (66) (Dorothy Arzner, 1940): My first Arzner, and the obvious game is to try and figure out what a female (and lesbian) director brings to this material - though in fact the game may obscure what's an airy, enjoyable movie in its own right. Most striking change is the absence of a conventional romantic male hero, the leading candidate turning out to be erratic and neurotic (i.e. 'like a woman'!); men do end up resolving the plot, admittedly, but in this case it's a no-nonsense judge and an affable ballet director who's arguably coded as gay (his cohorts include a rather flittery dance instructor and a butch older lady). The emphasis isn't on love but career (and art), the difficulty of making it as a serious artist, which is partly related to being a woman - men in charge always ask "Where's the hot one?"; the male gaze is nicely sent up via a cigar-smoking minor player with a most lugubrious mien - but mostly related to a philistine culture that'll always take burlesque over ballet; the tension comes from un-confident Maureen O'Hara suffering artistically (as a "stooge") instead of making the most of her talents, Art being a sanctuary for unusual people - as it presumably was for Arzner herself, an unspoken undertow that adds something touching to the mix. Lucille Ball also scores as "the hot one", evincing a certain solidarity even when exploiting her friend; clearly another consequence of a female director.

MARCH 1, 2018

MANHATTAN (68) (Woody Allen, 1979): Necessary note: this slight downgrade has nothing whatsoever to do with current controversies, I've never had a problem separating life and art. (Also the Tracy-Isaac relationship is beautiful (*), and the film is unimaginable without it.) Fact is, I've always been up-and-down on MANHATTAN: this was my fourth viewing, and I've only ever loved it once - on the previous viewing, which was also the only one on the big screen, possibly implying that the film is great when seen 'properly' and I'm wrong to downgrade it. Maybe so - but Woody's films often exist around the tension between his wordy, querulous, rather annoying persona and whatever he chooses to play it off: it works when played off zany comedy (as in ANNIE HALL, made in the style of the early funny movies) and surreal conceits, it also works when Allen cordons off the Allen persona as relief from more sombre plots (as in HANNAH and CRIMES) - but here the 'other' element is visually glorious romanticism and it's used in tandem with the comic kvetching, not to create tension, which doesn't wholly work for me. (Simply put, the film's characters seem unworthy of its visuals.) That said, the Planetarium scene and the final 2 minutes are great, great moments.

(*) The girl is obviously idealised ("Tracy's face..."), but youth and innocence have been idealised since the beginning of time. Making Tracy so nice - and either directing Hemingway to be awkward or exploiting her natural awkwardness - probably does speak to something in Woody, viz. the fact that he's easily threatened (he's a competitive, self-absorbed person; in short, an artist) and is drawn to powerlessness and vulnerability (I assume this also plays a part in the Soon-Yi relationship, and e.g. his recent, sincere comments about having given her so much), but that only makes it more fascinating. Finally, note that the relationship isn't seen as normal, Isaac spends the whole film stressing about it and other people also think it's weird ("Somewhere, Nabokov must be smiling!"); they're just not as self-righteous as today's people.

A MARRIED COUPLE (75) (Allan King, 1969): Think I must've underrated SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE when I saw it, but whatever, I like this one more (and of course it came first), its married couple goofier and more playful than Bergman's. Billy seems to have a problem with authority - or at least punctuality - and admits to having been "unhinged" in his youth, Antoinette jokes (?) about buying a harpsichord and joins her husband in a wild dance in the living-room to 'A Day in the Life'; they're bohemians (King apparently met them when they were living in Ibiza in the early 60s) who don't balk at the idea of an open marriage - though Antoinette floats the idea near the end, as a possible solution since it's clear there's "never going to be anything marvellous" between them, which is rather heartbreaking. King adds a contrived-looking scene with Antoinette talking to a friend about the couple's long-standing sexual problems and her own love-hate relationship with weak men (she's drawn to them, yet also despises them), his strategy being to shape his "actuality drama" like any other drama, but of course it's the documentary aspect that gives it its edge; the couple argue over trifles, their arguments starting off civilised (because of the presence of the camera? who knows?) and becoming increasingly savage, culminating in "You stupid cunt!" followed by a shocking moment of borderline-abuse - yet the marriage goes on, the couple looking for imaginative ways to make it work, this being a moment in time when people had changed but institutions still hadn't caught up; Antoinette and Billy play at being their parents, having sown their wild oats and now looking to 'settle down', but expectations are different now, or perhaps the problem lies with this particular couple. Bonus points for Billy's outlandish dress sense, obviously.

THE PROUD VALLEY (61) (Pen Tennyson, 1940): What's most startling, from our perspective, is how little is made of Paul Robeson's skin colour; one Welsh coal miner does complain about a black man having come to sing with them, but another retorts "Aren't we all black, down the pit?" and no more is said about it. (Granted, it's wishful thinking, but it still makes it seem like racism was something the world was on the cusp of solving in 1940, instead of still struggling with it 78 years later.) Local detail is excellent, from the singular way of speaking - "Hurried I have, with my breath in my fist," says one woman, having rushed to deliver some news - to the tender picture of a loving marriage, family life in general (a precocious little girl named Dilys steals some scenes) and class distinctions within the village; the problem is that all the big sensational stuff (esp. the disasters down the mine, but also e.g. the sequence where the men walk to London) seems rushed and stilted, as if struggling to create dramatic impact out of thin air. Robeson's role doesn't demean him, and of course his voice is a wonder; meanwhile, Alfredda Brilliant - on whose story it's based - joins my shortlist (along with folks like Anton Grot and 70s producer M. Smedley Aston) of Magnificent Names from the Past.

FEBRUARY 1, 2018

SIGNS OF LIFE (58) (Werner Herzog, 1968): Forgotten German soldiers in a kind of oasis from war. Hens are hypnotised (anticipating the dancing chicken in another Herzog film with a hero named Stroszek), flies and cockroaches tortured. There are life hacks and magic tricks. The locals are old men playing backgammon (the setting is a Greek island) and kids sitting on the dock - though they're also at one point massed in the village square, stilled as if by magic; "Can't you feel it in the music?" asks a Chopin-playing private, and the sound cuts out suddenly, Stroszek and the private looking round as if to discern what 'it' is. Herzog finds an elusive something - the force "at the bottom of it all" - in the stillness of the island, the rocky landscape and insistent mandolin score - Stroszek a quixotic figure, trying to express the inexpressible, and indeed Quixotic, undone by windmills - though the film seems quite tentative compared to what he's accomplished in the years since. Fun to imagine it with his own unmistakable drone doing the matter-of-fact voice-over, if nothing else.

JANUARY 1, 2018