Older films seen in 2019, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 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 16 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...]

A STAR IS BORN (69) (George Cukor, 1954): Didn't expect the colours at all - they're astonishing! - also didn't expect the relative absence of romantic friction; "Don't you know how I feel about you?" asks Judy about halfway through, but he'd be forgiven for having missed it. Maybe it's that James Mason is such an urbane, cerebral actor (even when Norman is drunk and in the mood for a scrap, he doesn't lash out at people, he warns them that "I know myself" and is liable to lash out at people), but his interest in Esther - though clearly more than professional - doesn't seem tarnished by anything as common as lust (even his womanising, as glimpsed in the club, is quite civilised). He loves her artistry, the "little jolts of pleasure" he gets from her voice - and the film is very much about showbiz and showbiz folk, those "crazy people" as the waiter puts it, the central romance being played out in public, like a performance; even Norman's marriage proposal gets broadcast and applauded - and of course there's 'Born in a Trunk', stopping the ostensible plot for the real plot, a paean to show-must-go-on tenacity (also some of the most incredible production design; I suspect Cukor's model was THE RED SHOES, another tale of doomed showbiz romance told in extravagant visuals). Does seem to be lacking some connective tissue, though I watched the full version with photos filling in the gaps, e.g. Esther's reaction when Norman seemingly abandons her after their first meeting is surprisingly mild (also some weird mismatched cuts in the scene where he drives her home), but Cukor isn't really that invested in the nuts and bolts - hence e.g. the cheeky meta aspects: "Here comes a big fat close-up!" - and the musical numbers consistently take the edge off the melodrama anyway; even Norman's downfall seems a bit rushed, Jack Carson being < Lionel Stander. Mostly struck me as a cool, intensely beautiful object; then again, I've found this story pretty maudlin in all its incarnations.

THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (58) (John Huston, 1963): One from Huston's Irish-squire phase - also a bit of light relief after two serious projects - esp. in the (much weaker) second half which includes much riding to hounds and a wallow in the aristocratic lifestyle, with bridge games in the parlour and an underlying patriarchal flavour ("I leave you gentlemen to your port," says the sole woman, taking her leave - even though the 'gentlemen' include a 12-year-old boy, played by the director's son). The first half is glorious, however, an old-fashioned mystery puzzle with unconvincing makeup effects and general implausibility adding to the fun, and you can't really blame it for being reminiscent of another, much better film from 1963, viz. CHARADE (another jaunty tale of serial murders connected to a dark wartime secret; Jerry Goldsmith's score comes with a touch of Henry Mancini). General nuttiness confirmed by the 'guest stars' in heavy disguise, also by nutty incidentals like the French guy's "trick memory" being repeatedly activated by shutting his eyes and replaying his trauma to ethereal music (sometimes George C. Scott acts it out for him) - or indeed the fabled "Broome foxes", which gather on the lawn outside the mansion and howl piteously each time a member of the Broome family dies.

DECEMBER 1, 2019

RIVER'S EDGE (75) (Tim Hunter, 1986): Second viewing, first since the late 80s, first on the big screen. I recalled it as a film about Amoral Youth but it's actually more poignant, a film about numbness and the inability to feel - admittedly made generational (Hopper's burned-out hippy did love his dead girl) but still too earnestly saddened to be moralistic, esp. since Gen X has always been the Cold Generation (haven't we?). Also a film of great tonal range - albeit maybe not tonal control; Crispin Glover is allowed to run riot - very rich, sometimes tender, sometimes funny, intrigued by everyone, even the hapless mom who gets an unexpected late moment. Part of this 80s sidebar, unfor. the only one I managed to see; I wonder how many of the others managed to compel such a hushed silence from a (mostly young) audience coming to watch musty cult movies at 11pm.

NOVEMBER 1, 2019

MIAMI BLUES (67) (George Armitage, 1990): Second viewing, first since the 90s. Patchily glorious but rather misshapen, mostly because Jennifer Jason Leigh is giving one of the all-time great performances, in any genre - using only the tiniest inflections, she presents a woman who's been told all her life that she's stupid and now accepts it without rancour, making suggestions in the full expectation that they'll be shot down, still harbouring dreams of white-picket-fence suburbia, despite everything - while the two men (through no real fault of the actors playing them) are a lot less interesting; Junior's an excellent sociopath, but all I felt at his downfall was grim satisfaction. Armitage works with small, not always subtle ruptures, like an odd soundtrack choice or the extreme low-angle shot when Hoke gets the gun from the old coot (or, of course, that magical shot with the frisbee). The result isn't quite unique, but still one of the few films (see also: OUT OF SIGHT) where the nuanced stuff is so irresistible I actively begin to resent the genre necessity for violence.

LADY SNOWBLOOD (61) (Toshiya Fujita, 1973): Always gorgeous but lacking complexity, esp. in making very little of the central dramatic tension - viz. that Snowblood was "not born human", a curse-child (and cursed child) who's been groomed since the womb to take revenge, forced to relinquish her childhood and any thoughts of love. Even the visuals are a bit gaudy, compared e.g. to GOYOKIN, but still very pleasurable (my fave is the overhead shot of dazzling red cloaks on the three women standing over the dead mother; the lighting makes them seem otherworldly). One imagines a young Tarantino, who of course recycled the whole thing for KILL BILL, watching the bit where Snowblood literally chops the legs off a hanged woman - leaving only a swaying, suspended, blood-spurting torso - and feeling his heart swell with love.

OCTOBER 1, 2019

BY THE BLUEST OF SEAS (69) (Boris Barnet, 1936): Light on water, with a silhouetted boat moving across it; what could be more beautiful? One way of describing this film might be to say that about 1/4 of it is a shimmering visual miracle in the style of Murnau's TABU while the other 3/4 is lame and amateur-hour - but in fact the two parts create something special, a kind of stumbling, affectionate sense of human buffoonishness even as Beauty (like Love) is literally just beyond the frame. Barnet only leans on it once, when (presumed) death gives way to life and we get a brief, seemingly random shot of seagulls and spray before words give way to joyful dancing - one of those irrationally touching moments working in ways that can't be articulated (only movies can do this). Seems like that should've been the ending, or at least an elegant way of resolving the two men's rivalry - but instead they go right back to bickering. Yeah, it's not very elegant.

THE MORTAL STORM (68) (Frank Borzage, 1940): A certain MGM-isation slowly takes over here - but it opens strong, also speaking powerfully to our own time (I'm not one of those who sees Fascists everywhere, but the inability to debate things calmly - every political discussion turning friends into mortal enemies - feels quite topical). Borzage brings his own emotionalism and sense of the visceral - heroine embracing her Nazi fiance then declaring "It's all over", as if she had to feel it in her body before it became real - and the two stars really help, coming to it fresh from SHOP AROUND THE CORNER: Margaret Sullavan invests "I love him" with a thrilling quiet certitude, while James Stewart's steady presence is much missed in the second half. His character (a vet) stands for Nature (he's even equated with a tree at one point), in a kind of triangle with the primal elements described in the opening caption - our evil natures, as opposed to the trees and animals - and the civilised "brainy" scientists standing as an apex to both of them. By the end, undeniably woolly and worthy - but then it hints at the one son's torment (a first seed of doubt; too little too late, though?), and becomes potentially great again.

THE SWIMMER (58) (Frank Perry, 1968): A film in a time of transition, transitioning from the old world of WASPy certitude to a new world of computer dating and African-Americans calling white folk on their unconscious racism (even if the white folk don't yet recognise they're being called out) - but also from the old Hollywood of Marvin Hamlisch's incongruously lush score to a new Hollywood of flashy montages with double exposures and out-of-focus flurries. Not sure how literally to take Mike's comment that our hero is "traversing time much more rapidly than space" - the film doesn't overtly undermine its single-day setting, despite some ambiguous detail, offering itself much more obviously as a tale of a man in denial who is indeed confused about time (e.g. telling the boy that his own daughters are about his age) but only in the context of slowly waking up to his plight. The fusion of styles is uneasy in any case, Burt Lancaster adrift in the role but not too productively (Perry, who clashed with the star, doesn't have Visconti's knack for using his serious-actor pretensions to complicate his persona); it's the kind of film that's pointedly frank about sex but also includes the sex talk in tediously long, phony speeches, the kind of film that ends with a slow pull-back to wide shot - very old Hollywood - but won't insert an actual caption reading 'THE END', going instead for a modish freeze-frame. All a bit stilted and caught-between-eras; still intriguing, for most of those reasons.


FIRES ON THE PLAIN (63) (Kon Ichikawa, 1959): Opens with a bang - or at least a slap to the face - though also some notably bad exposition ("You know this," admits the officer, as if owning up to the lame writing), and it looks for a while like Ichikawa is directing for effect, like that slap to the face, without much regard for coherence. There's stuff like a shock cut to an extremely low-angle shot (with the camera on the ground, looking up at our hero), cheap narrative ironies ("The hospital! I am saved!"), etc. Does undoubtedly aim to shock, above all - but eventually it does, finding some indelibly cartoonish images (Ichikawa started out as a cartoonist) like the wounded slithering out of the hospital before it gets bombed, like so many maggots, and making the episodic structure part of the nightmare (as it was e.g. in COME AND SEE). A reckoning with a time which - above all - wasn't "normal"; calibrate accordingly.

THE WORLD OF APU (78) (Satyajit Ray, 1959): Second viewing, first since film school. Magnificent staging throughout, often with striking use of foreground/background - the shot from inside the car illustrating the bridegroom's insanity, Apu and Aparna in her room when he makes his proposal. Ray has a lot of emotional baggage to cram into the 100 minutes, Apu growing from feckless young adult to a man scarred by life, and he does so briskly and elegantly (to quote Peter Labuza, "he uses the tools learned as a graphic designer to create direct and clear narrative intentions while also forming gorgeous images"). There's a short stretch I dislike in the first half, the first meeting with Pulu (the heartiness seems overdone) and even the first few scenes at the wedding. Once the central connection is made, however, everything is magical.

RIDE LONESOME (71) (Budd Boetticher, 1959): A chessboard, an impression reinforced by the wide-open spaces. Various pieces make their way across the board, Boetticher observing from a cool distance (the opening shot sets the tone, holding on a landscape for the credits, pan slightly to show hero's horse approaching in the background, pan a little more to show the villain in the foreground), their motivations as transparent as the knight or pawn's movements are known to all. The point is their interaction - and, to some extent, the resolution, though the script dials down the tension and ambivalence of THE TALL T, replacing them with warmth (a reminder that Burt Kennedy went on to make comedy Westerns); the outlaws are way too sympathetic, so the plot can only be resolved in one of two ways (actually two variations on the same ending; I'd have preferred the other one, but I guess Randolph Scott is too iconic). The action is surprisingly poor, both the too-abrupt ending and the Indians' unfortunate battle tactics (riding past so our heroes can pick them off, basically), but the tonal mix of cool and warm is very satisfying, the visual texture is lovely - all those silhouettes and night-time intrigues - and I laughed out loud at James Coburn in his big scene with Roberts: "'Cause I like you!"; "Well, ah never knew that..."

NORTH DALLAS FORTY (67) (Ted Kotcheff, 1979): "You'd better learn how to play the game. And I don't just mean the game of football." Nick Nolte (at his youthful peak) is the too-smart-for-his-own-good footballing misfit (American football, of course) - but this is also Kotcheff doing WAKE IN FRIGHT again, the toxic rituals of obsessively macho, self-destructive men. Found the dynamic a wee bit maudlin, tbh, this weary, witty, articulate jock in constant pain, pumping his failing body full of steroids while wryly wondering why he's doing this to himself (meanwhile being treated like a number - part of the equipment, as he says - by the money men); moreover, even though male immaturity is the point, a little of the locker-room hi-jinks goes a long way. All that aside, a tremendous movie, easily the best one about this particular sport, with irresistibly belligerent turns by the likes of G.D. Spradlin and Dabney Coleman (even Bo Svenson's slow-witted hillbilly giant is a mean sumbitch, not a Victor McLaglen-ish 'big palooka'), a case of male aggression milked by the forces of capitalism, coated in a thin veneer of pious hypocrisy, then cut loose when it's no longer useful. Also some standard Hollywood faults - too much speechifying, flimsy love interest - but still a blast.

THE WARRIORS (71) (Walter Hill, 1979): Second viewing, first in >10 years. The main thing here, imho, is to realise that - despite being about warring gangs - this is not a tough film at all, in fact it's downright 'faggoty' as its subjects would no doubt describe it. A kind of musical, all about movement through space - both onscreen space (the Warriors run, for the most part) and the geographical space of the nocturnal New York they have to navigate - then it builds to a brief, quiet epiphany, the face-off with the rich kids in the subway and Swan pushing Mercy's hand down when she self-consciously tries to smooth her hair. (They're no better than we are.) Watched the 'Director's Cut', with those distracting comic-book frames and Hill explaining in the intro that he wanted to emphasise the link to the ancient Greeks because no-one ever got it; you've got characters named 'Ajax' and 'Cyrus' here, bud, I think it's pretty obvious.

MIDNIGHT COWBOY (79) (?) (John Schlesinger, 1969): Second viewing, first since my teens - when I didn't realise how consistently it deals in gay panic, and what today might be called homophobia. Inevitably dated, or at least unfashionable - but in fact gay panic is used in interesting ways, fitting in with an emphasis on self that seems to anticipate our own 21st-century narcissism; self-loathing (as in the horribly closeted middle-aged man whom Joe robs) is the ultimate evil, Ratso being defiantly self-assertive despite his problems, and the film essentially calls on cowboys to drop the John Wayne facade and get in touch with their vulnerabilities (incl. any homoerotic feelings for li'l buddies), the Warhol Factory party where freaks parade their freakdom being the new 60s style. Strikingly modern in many ways, or not quite modern but laying the groundwork, e.g. in having pop culture as a constant background (Nilsson on the soundtrack, TV channel-surfing during sex) or emphasising a performative side to the self; he and Joe, admits Ratso, are indeed "a couple of characters". Rating finally unreliable - what one sees at a formative age is hard to un-see - but still fascinating imho, complex in small ways (e.g. Joe going after older women implicitly because they remind him of his grandma) and very well-acted; Dustin Hoffman never did so much with his eyes again.

ONE FINE DAY (74) (Ermanno Olmi, 1969): The editing is something here, without an ounce of fat (it cuts in the middle of a word at one point, in its rush to move on to the next bit) and sometimes erupting in Resnais-like flurries, most magically when the young couple go dancing, start to kiss, and a sudden quickening - with cuts to other couples - catches the feeling of being swept away in the moment. Olmi's films tend to sneak up on you, but this one comes on strong from the beginning - maybe too strong, being apparently another sub-Antonioni tale of ennui with the office milieu from IL POSTO, but it's not just about alienation, it's also about that desire to be swept away, like the couple in the disco (earlier, the young man talks of sometimes drifting off into indistinctness, losing himself in "everything around me"). Our hero's a middle-aged ad man, his ache for solitude matching the younger man's - "I've had more than enough of people" - his life derailed by an accident coded as being slightly magical ("No-one was there! I saw no-one!"), the second half shifting to a rather detached courtroom drama with dryly amused Italian cynicism replacing tension; the film's abrupt rhythm is a kind of desperation, the over-alertness of a prisoner scanning the walls for possible means of escape. "This is fancy filmmaking and it is finally as tiresome as the title is heavily ironic," wrote Vincent Canby at the time - but in fact the Italian title is the less-ironic UN CERTO GIORNO, so he's being slightly unfair. Easy to underrate, like all Olmi.

AUGUST 1, 2019

THE WOMAN WITH RED HAIR (58) (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1979): Constant rain, fluids in general - a virgin's blood, then menstrual blood ("It's starting!" says the titular woman, and jumps out of the truck so as not to dirty it; "What a woman," marvels the guy), water and vomit and urine - and talk of sensual things, a woman's smell, the taste of noodles (and penis), the feel of itchy breasts. The woman has a past, is perhaps a former addict, loses herself in sex - though for how long? ("The rain," goes the film's last line, "won't keep falling forever.") She's drawn to a man who treats her badly, he insults and abuses her but probably loves her - or at least it makes him inexplicably horny when he brings a friend home to rape her. Kudos, in a way, to Kumashiro for smuggling human dynamics into a Pink Film - but the outrageous sexual politics of such films (a sub-plot has another girl being gang-raped, then eloping with one of her rapists) don't really fit with romance, even when it's just a vague melancholia. Line to quote: "Dicks are so unreasonable!".

THE SHEEP HAS FIVE LEGS (62) (Henri Verneuil, 1954): Almost nothing first-rate here, but it grew on me. Fernandel in five (actually six) roles isn't necessarily an asset - but two of the five stories curdle their comedy with death, which is already intriguing, another two are flimsy excuses for unexpected pleasures (50s French ooh-la-la and a meta riff on DON CAMILLO, respectively) and the ending, with a nod to Preston Sturges, is very satisfying. Plus there is actually one first-rate thing, you'll know it when you see it, it contains the best-ever performance by a fly (as opposed to a Brundlefly), and confirms what we knew all along: viz. that Verneuil is much better known for suspense and tension - even if I haven't seen THE BURGLARS yet - than he is for comedy.

THE PROWLER (60) (Joseph Losey, 1951): Goes to some interesting places, incl. the fact that the love isn't quite amour fou (unlike in the James Cain model, passion doesn't make murder an acceptable option). Audience sympathies are also muddled in complex ways, right from the opening dolly-in equating the viewer with the prowler; anti-hero has class resentments and a chip on his shoulder, above all his scheming is so intelligently manipulative it makes him cool despite himself (this is a noir with an 'homme fatal' more than a femme fatale) - and it seemed like the film might get really interesting in its final act, the wife riposting with some scheming of her own, but in fact her pregnancy is real, and the shift to a stark desert landscape more of a rather unconvincing, faux-GREED effect ("You could be my doctor", yeah right) than a real dramatic device. Losey directs for effect (not conviction) in general, going for a tight pas de deux with its focus squarely on the lovers - the husband just a disembodied voice, the finale isolating them altogether - but in fact that may be the wrong approach, given how their relationship is defined more by differences (different classes, different morals) than common purpose. The rare case where the filmmaking is inspired, yet the film is something of a near-miss; Fernando Croce's take is closer to consensus, though.

ISLE OF THE DEAD (67) (Mark Robson, 1945): Held back from greatness by one thing alone, the miscasting of Ellen Drew; the heroine has to have a hint of evil - or at least strangeness - for the dynamics to work, but Ms. Drew is so wholesome she wrecks it - though it's hard to think who could've played the role, given old Hollywood's systemic penchant for glamorous actresses (maybe Gail Russell, who brought strangeness to the previous year's THE UNINVITED). Otherwise very 1945, shadows everywhere, a world wearied by six years of death, a deep sense that neither God nor Science can save humanity from extinction - dramatis personae include a black-clad, sinister-housekeeper type saying stuff like "Wash all you want, you cannot wash away evil" - Boris Karloff with a head of blond curls and a great moment when he crawls on the floor looking up with a pleading expression (his opening scene, where he calmly gives his friend a revolver to kill himself with, is also pretty great). Morbid and stately, and surprisingly scary too; "A mess," claims Pauline Kael - but spoils her case by citing the part where Katherine Emery "comes out of her crypt and starts stabbing people with a trident". I know, isn't it wonderful?

THE QUEEN OF SPADES (56) (Thorold Dickinson, 1949): Tiny but significant detail: just before the mazurka at a big ball, heroine's partner takes her aside to say "I must speak to you after the dance!... It's about [the strange man you secretly love]" - then the music starts and the dance begins, but Dickinson doesn't cut to the obvious close-up of heroine looking troubled in the midst of the happy throng, instead we get a good 30 seconds of handsome wide-shots of dancers in perfect formation before any hint of psychological business. Tension is fatally absent, in other words, leaving only lavish Gothic visuals, Edith Evans looking convincingly desiccated, Anton Walbrook at his most elaborately campy (the way he stretches out "you iiiinsolent young puppy" is something to behold) and a nutty montage at the all-stops-out climax - though that climax is a bit confusing, and I'm still not sure if he pulls the wrong card, in a kind of poetic irony, or the Queen is a supernatural checkmate from beyond the grave. Then again, I see I made exactly the same objections to the 1916 version, so it's probably Pushkin's fault.

JULY 1, 2019

CAPRICORN ONE (57) (Peter Hyams, 1977): Second viewing, first since my teens. Been putting it off for years, more or less knowing it wouldn't stand up - and it doesn't, though it's still entertaining. Insanely stupid plotting, esp. the way Rogue NASA disposes of the techie who gets suspicious (doesn't this man have friends who'll wonder what became of him? couldn't they have just staged his death as a mugging in the street or something?), but really everything is a bit half-assed and all-over-the-place, incl. guest stars doing extended cameos; David Doyle makes a meal of his one scene as the irascible newspaper editor, Telly Savalas talks of "perverts" but does take part in a splendid air-battle climax. Looks like it only took three years for paranoid conspiracy thriller to go from era-defining (THE PARALLAX VIEW) to popcorn movie; which I guess is also era-defining.

SOLEMN COMMUNION (69) (Rene Feret, 1977): Is there a Director's Cut floating around somewhere? Condensing a century's worth of family drama into one movie had been done three years earlier by Lelouch in AND NOW MY LOVE (which I haven't seen), but at least that was two and a half hours long; this just feels like it meant to say more, and ran out of time (it claims to be the story of three families, but one of them is barely even glimpsed). The catch - and fascinating aspect - is that it's not a linear history but a jumbled one, more-or-less random moments tied together by a kind of troubadour's folk song which alone sees the whole picture, aligning itself with Resnais' experiments in randomness (the narative-through-music also adds a touch of Demy); the result is wonderful but slightly superficial, Feret not quite taking advantage of the structural freedom to go deep. The emphasis is more on events unfolding - good and bad behaviour - than ideas being explored, the moments aren't always privileged (an exception: 10-year-old son coming home from his first day down the mine, and Father pouring a beer to celebrate), family life is dysfunctional - children are traded like cattle; a recurring theme has one sibling stealing another's beloved; a deadbeat dad (Marcel Dalio, overplaying a bit) gets humiliated by his resentful son in old age - yet the tone remains perky, an intriguing clash (Cukor's THE MARRYING KIND comes to mind, another movie that includes the death of a child). The opening credits have the whole clan coming together for the titular communion, observed in wide-shot as name after name appears onscreen, a celebration of ensemble and community; the closing credits roll to the strains of the theme song played really badly on an out-of-tune piano - "The communion boy's playing the piano!" - which is strangely generous and touching somehow.

THIS LAND IS MINE (64) (Jean Renoir, 1943): "Heroism is glamorous for children," notes the wise old schoolmaster - and this might've been (even) better had it made the link between its hero's final, inevitable heroism and his status as an overgrown child, coddled and bossed by Mother; might've been nice to see him revel in the role of martyr, maybe with a hint that he's being immature - but such acrid heresy gives way before the triple threat of wartime propaganda, worm-that-turns narrative, and memories of Charles Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address in RUGGLES OF RED GAP (he does likewise with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in this case). Actually two films, a strikingly complex one that's a case of Dudley Nichols working through the attraction of an elitist project (i.e. Nazism) for a "middle-class" person like himself - the chief Nazi has a sophisticated mind and a classical education - and Renoir harking back to his Popular Front politics in stressing the right-wing aspect of collaboration (trade unions are mentioned, the George Sanders character being a confluence of capitalism and National Socialism) - and then there's the second film, a film of courtroom speeches and GOODBYE MR. CHIPS-ish redemption that gets to you emotionally but is obviously a lot less considered. Laughton uses his gay man's outsider-dom, e.g. in a scene where he's nodding along uncomfortably as the girl he (secretly) loves talks to someone else - a child trying to keep up with an adult conversation - and does some actorly business with cigarettes; Renoir does bring something distinctive but I'm struck, once again, by how indifferent he seems to basic cinematic competence; the bit where the shadow from the window falls across Sanders' face (albeit shot by an undistinguished DP, Frank Redman) is so half-assed - and ugly - even a hack would have it re-shot, let alone a great director.

JUNE 1, 2019

LABURNUM GROVE (66) (Carol Reed, 1936): Really enjoying what I've seen of Reed's 30s comedies, even if they don't necessarily mark him out as a man who'd make a deathless masterpiece a decade later. This is obviously based on a play, not just the talk but the three-act structure - each act going in a slightly different direction, making for a haphazard feel - but Reed keeps it bouncy and gets a delicious, madly twitchy performance from normally-dull Cedric Hardwicke (anticipating the one he got from normally-average Ron Moody in OLIVER!) as a moochy ex-colonial. The play (by J.B. Priestley) gets increasingly tense, Katie Johnson turns up at her most uncannily beatific, there's a trip to the West End, a weirdo on a bus and comic excitement over a two-pound note, then a long conversation with a cop where every line is innuendo. Extra points for the ending, which is... unexpected.

THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (62) (Gregory La Cava, 1932): You need a better press agent, sez Lee Tracy, "that guy you got is so dumb, he couldn't sell a fat boy to a tribe of cannibals". The main reason why this isn't top-drawer 30s comedy (or in the same league as Cagney's HARD TO HANDLE and BLONDE CRAZY) is that it wastes Lupe Velez, who should be matching Tracy for sharp-witted sass but instead gets stuck in a nothing role; La Cava saves his main bit of cinematic style for the end, when Tracy hears 'her' song in drills drilling and typists typing (belatedly realising he's in love with her) - but that's only because the script hasn't built any plausible attraction. Still a splendid vulgar entertainment, part of the point - as in THE BAND WAGON - being that audiences want vulgar entertainment over Art, a snapshot of confident American capitalism ("Publicity, that's the racket! It's the pulse of a nation!"). Fringe benefits include Eugene Pallette being mistaken for a eunuch and Tracy, having made the big time, being approached by some random guy who's been dusting his office in the background: "Say, Mr. Bates. I've got a scenario I'd like you to read sometime"; "Who hasn't?". Some things never change.

ANTOINE AND ANTOINETTE (74) (Jacques Becker, 1947): An unusual case, since true greatness doesn't start to emerge till the one-hour mark and the whole thing is only 78 minutes. The first hour is also pretty good, in the bustling, gregarious, implicitly socialist way of post-war urban cinema, consciously celebrating people - one's a bookworm, another makes rabbit cages in his spare time; Antoine dreams of buying a motorbike with a sidecar, and is thrilled when Antoinette remembers to buy him "insulators" for the radio antenna - and teeming with period detail, from the everyday nature of sexual harassment to the charming 40s habit of just leaving one's baby with the neighbours when one's going out for the evening (still better than FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, where the kid was temporarily deposited with a total stranger in a movie theatre). Then the plot kicks in, a plot made for farce - in fact, it's the plot of LE MILLION - but whereas Clair played for bustle and slapstick, Becker plays it unexpectedly straight, for melancholy, Antoine devastated at having lost his wallet and (most poignantly of all) the couple sharing their private pain just as they previously shared their love, an invisible secret binding them together in the crowd. The climax at the wedding reception is a really miraculous blend of warmth and desolation, then the extended brawl at the end lets it down slightly but I guess it goes back to the first hour - since the entire population of the apartment block turns up to watch - i.e. Society collectively punishing the creep in its midst. Human comedy with teeth, see e.g. the sad dignity of the woman in the store (the creep's previous "sweetheart", now passed over); a near-masterpiece.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (64) (Billy Wilder, 1957): Ah, Paris, much like any other big city - except that people "eat better, and they make love... perhaps not better, but more openly". Maurice Chevalier's opening V.O. promises a naughty ooh-la-la romantic comedy - but it gradually becomes more complex, maybe because Audrey Hepburn is so gravely beautiful and Gary Cooper such an obviously unworthy object of desire. It's unclear how far the miscasting is deliberate (Coop apparently fell ill after being cast) but Wilder makes the most of it, leaving the ageing roué's face in shadow and Audrey's luminous - or having him reflected in the window behind her - when he spouts his callous romantic philosophy ("I think people should always behave as if they were between planes"). He's already honing the mix of bad behaviour and hopeless, yearning romanticism he perfected in THE APARTMENT - though, like Lubitsch before him (was it also in the Czinner original?), he also knows how useful wacky humour can be in resolving a romantic impasse, Coop's drunken night with the Gypsies (and obsession with Audrey's 19 men) edging into ONE, TWO, THREE territory. Plausibles (like me!) may gripe that the final twist with Chevalier needed more detail in order to work (i.e. Audrey should've been using specifics that could only have come from his files, not just "a banker from Brussels"); that said, the two close-ups that punctuate his ensuing scene with Cooper are among the best justifications I know for the Old Hollywood practice of using close-ups sparingly.

MAY 1, 2019

FRENCH CANCAN (73) (Jean Renoir, 1955): Second viewing, first in >15 years. Never fails to amaze me how technically sloppy Renoir is, for a pantheon director; there's a mismatched cut here, and a tired attempt at cross-cutting, above all there's the famous cancan climax which I still find inexpertly filmed (the camera's too far back on the master shot, then the much-better closer shot is clumsily incorporated); Huston did better in MOULIN ROUGE imo. Yes, but the sensibility is incredible - Danglard the consummate artist, using life strictly as raw material for art (he's forever discovering housewives who sing and house-painters who whistle), treating its ups and downs with a Zen indifference - the way some pretty unpleasant behaviour is enfolded in the overall optimism is also incredible, then you get unexpected detours like the secret unhappiness of the solemn prince, or Nini hastening to lose her virginity before her audition at the theatre (assuming she'll be called on to do more than dance), or the bailiff's gangly assistant turning out to be Casimir, singer and contortionist. Also colours, motion, life on the fringes, etc.

SIMON AND LAURA (59) (Muriel Box, 1955): Be sure and get us a good contract, Simon and Laura (a thespian couple who'll be starring in a TV show 'based' on their real-life marriage) tell their agent; don't worry about it, he replies airily, the Head of Contracts at the BBC "used to be my fag at Eton". The couple, and the Corporation, are keen to "avoid any snob element" in the show - yet this based-on-a-play comedy is fascinating for all the wrong reasons (and some of the right ones), infused with the class-ridden cliquishness of 50s Britain; the notion that Mr. and Mrs. Average (and their kids) would be so enthralled by the saccharine antics of a well-spoken couple is dubious enough, but when the working-class maid says the show is like "Life With the Lyons" (an actual show with American actress Bebe Daniels) "only I don't talk with an accent" and Ian Carmichael - upper-class twit personified - suppresses a superior chuckle (the film sides with him; the maid is a figure of fun), the British class system is displayed in all its condescension. As a film, hampered by the fact that the main dramatic motor (viz. that the couple loathe each other when the camera isn't rolling) doesn't become an issue till almost an hour in - but structure comes second to stuff like the butler waltzing in ("You called, sir?") with S&L in mid-brawl, or the fuss over saying "romp" on TV, or an insult capped with the sick-burn capper "The equestrian phraseology was intentional!", or indeed a glimpse of a time when a BBC exec could speak of "those of us who've been in television since the beginning". Dated, naive, still quite funny.

TIME STANDS STILL (56) (Peter Gothar, 1982): Don't always care about local politics in movies, but it's confusing how the revolutionaries of 1956 in Hungary (like our teen hero's 'stepfather', allied with his dad who fled the country in '56) appear to be totally rehabilitated by 1963, while the old Party faithful (like the teacher's husband) seem to be out of favour; feel like I'm missing a trick there. A film that may have seemed more remarkable at the time (it made J. Hoberman's Top 10), but e.g. American rock'n roll in an unfamiliar context has since been done in A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, while the dank gloomy look is also unsurprising; the final act, a half-assed attempt to cross the border into Austria - teeming with a kind of impulsive, easily-distracted youthfulness - is memorable, ditto the sense of adolescent vigour chafing against the hypocrisies of late-period Communism: "Why can't one give an honest opinion about anything?".

THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (63) (Robert Bresson, 1962): An odd experiment by Bresson, almost guaranteed to be inadequate given the short length and impossibly big shoes it has to fill. (Has anyone ever walked out of THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC saying: 'That was fine, but I'd really like to see that story told using the minutes of the actual trial'?) This Joan is feistier than Falconetti - "Next question" - while her inquisitor is more nuanced, concerned with her salvation more than her death; her essence remains elusive (much is made of whether she should wear men's or women's clothes) and Bresson, as if in response, offers his own cinematic essence, reducing her to a pair of manacled hands, or stumbling feet, or a half-burned stake. These, too, are blatantly inadequate - but at least it's by design.

WELCOME, OR NO TRESPASSING (60) (Elem Klimov, 1964): The anti-COME AND SEE, even if Klimov's view of childhood as outsider-dom is broadly comparable. The title skewers official hypocrisy, the whole thing has dissident tendencies as a dig at Party repression (tying in with the new thaw ushered in by Khrushchev); the fact that it plays like a Soviet version of MEATBALLS probably counts as a feature rather than a bug, a subversive ploy allowing it to speak some uncomfortable truths - but it does play like a Soviet version of MEATBALLS, albeit with more emphasis on kids than counsellors. Recurring jokes, a fantasy sequence, mention of cosmonauts, signs of the times (the kids are expected to gain weight, and troop leaders praised if their charges have fattened), shots of feet - they belong to an informer, another political detail - random absurdities like the children's clothes sprayed with DDT, plus an overall broad, chaotic tone that doesn't exactly scream 'classic'. And Chekhov? "He's funny."

GOYOKIN (70) (Hideo Gosha, 1969): Still haven't seen many of the late-60s samurai classics (SWORD OF DOOM, KILL!, etc) so I may be overrating this - but in fact it's not the genre, it's the plastic qualities (use of colour, compositional sense) that make it special. What actually happens isn't always very satisfying - the plotting is bitty - but at some point the pleasure in just watching these shots follow each other is undeniable. Gosha uses 70s effects like lens flare and shallow focus in addition to the genre's sword fights and panoramic wide-screen shots, echoes spaghetti Westerns (esp. the snowbound ones, like THE GREAT SILENCE from the year before) and even horror movies in the splendid early sequence of the woman coming back to an empty village now inhabited by crows; the causes of the climactic duel aren't as important as the breathtaking shot of countless saplings hatching thin black lines in a background of snow - an overturned tree trunk adds a curved sweep of brown in the foreground - then the two opponents fall over together in the snow and we don't even know who stabbed who, till a slowly-spreading pool of red blood supplies the answer. That the hero is a guilt-ridden hero - and the villain his old friend, who tried his best to avoid such an ending - is just a bonus.

APRIL 1, 2019

IN THE NAVY (43) (Arthur Lubin, 1941): Opens with the titles on flags, which Costello is raising, and he accidentally raises a flag for BUCK PRIVATES - A&C's big hit from a few months earlier - before being corrected by Abbott, pretty much conceding the movie's status as a hastily assembled rip-off. Lou does his brand, alternately rueful and exasperated, Bud is such a straight man he practically fades into the background, The Andrews Sisters - possibly the whitest act on the planet - sing a song enjoining the listener to "give me some skin... like they do in Harlem"; the jokes just aren't very funny, tired slapstick leavened by basic wordplay ("camel that broke the straw's back", "He's tall, dark and then-some", etc), an extended dream scene and a single, incongruously clever gag involving mathematical legerdemain and the numbers 7, 13 and 28. A tentpole movie that's aged badly (as our own tentpole movies are also likely to do), basically.

TETSUO, THE IRON MAN (59) (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989): What happened to this interest in sprawling mechanical innards - pipes, tubes, springs, cables, spigots? (See also: Jeunet & Caro.) Blame the computer chip, and the sleek, sterile minimalist designs that arrive with unprecedented power residing in small, magical objects. Body horror, of course, our hero being a lot like Seth Brundle from 3 years earlier, growing progressively un-human; he also gets sodomised (by a woman) then emasculated via a symbolic frankfurter - but uses a whirring mechanical penis to exact his revenge, after which everything is bound to seem a little anti-climactic. Human relations get flattened, which is why David Lynch does it better (Svankmajer is a closer equivalent). Still frantic, abrasive, totally midnight-movie.

SEARCH FOR BEAUTY (51) (Erle C. Kenton, 1934): Schizophrenic 1934 personified (though it came out a few months before the Production Code), kicking off with a neat visual pun and cheerfully prurient sensibility that not only uses sport and exercise as an excuse to smuggle in half-naked bodies - i.e. sex - but has the glorious temerity to admit to it. Alas, the pre-Code rascals and go-getters ("It's raining soup, boy! Throw away your fork and get a spoon!") are turned halfway-through into villains, making way for jocks and athletes who honestly believe in clean living, have no time for scams or sexual shenanigans, and at one point opine that "there ain't anything that a cold shower won't take care of". Historically interesting because it's so blatant (and small-f fascist, which is also interesting) but it leaves a sour taste, esp. when the film continues to display half-naked bodies even as it preaches propriety and abstinence; sounds subversive, but it just comes off hypocritical.

MASKERADE (78) (Willi Forst, 1934): The obvious fear when the first act is so extraordinary - viz. that the final act will be slightly ordinary - is indeed borne out, though not fatally; the bid to contrive a (literally) operatic climax is fine, but it feels a bit square compared to what precedes it. "It's a stale world," gripes the cigar-puffing princess, claiming everything was better in her day (a play just opened to rave reviews? in her day, plays always flopped on their opening nights, so as to become word-of-mouth hits later!) - but the film itself is anything but stale, miraculously balancing elegant and frivolous, romantic and uproarious, the maid's burlesque double-take expertly finessing the couple's first romantic clinch. Barbs are laid lightly, even the stuffed-shirt husband being rather witty as he berates the gigolo (Anton Walbrook, all perfect poise and Viennese confectionery) - yet this is also a gathering of obsessives, from the servant with his toothache to the brothers who can talk for hours about music. The toothache comes whenever you think about it, the husband can't bear the thought of what happened even though he knows it was innocent; self-consciousness is a curse in this movie (albeit also the source of all the elegance) - hence perhaps the magic of the masquerade, all gliding camera moves and streams of confetti, ramping up the artifice with camera filters and letting music do much of the heavy lifting; an obsessed woman scans the crowd anxiously and the music seems to stall, gathering momentum, as if trapped by her mood - then explodes joyfully as we finally cut to the mayhem she's looking at. So annoyed to have missed what seemed an obvious 80+ that I checked to see where it starts to falter, and it's really just the last 20 minutes; isn't an hour of greatness good enough, really?

A POT WORTH A MILLION RYO (73) (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935): Bouncy human comedy, not without plot holes and weak links but so fulsome and clever (and high-energy, compared to Ozu and Mizo). The titular pot - a mythical fortune - is increasingly sidelined, or at least eclipsed by more urgent questions like how to tell a boy that his father's just died. A one-eyed samurai helps the lad, his wife sings sadly of a transitory world, another man looks for the pot as a way of escaping his own wife (she's not bad; he's just insecure and buffoonish). Makes repeated use of the cliché (not yet a cliché in 1935, I guess) where someone asserts X will never, ever happen, cut to X having happened - but it's actually reflective of its sly, sidelong take on human nature and the way it builds like cotton candy, coming back to characters and picking up a little every time. Most unexpected: the soundtrack of Western music (hugely famous classical piece, wish I could place it) over the comedy sequence of pots being brought in from all over town, and the slapstick punchline of our hero grabbing boy - and million-ryo pot - at the last moment.

LA CHIENNE (49) (Jean Renoir, 1931): Torn between finding this vaguely incompetent - BOUDU and NUIT DU CARREFOUR are the same; if it weren't such an obviously dumb opinion, I'd say Renoir had no idea what he was doing in the early 30s - and deciding that the so-called incompetence, i.e. too-casual tone and weirdly remote, nerveless rhythm, is what makes it interesting. Take, for instance, the scene where Legrand happens to uncover Lulu's deception, coming across the gallery where his paintings are on sale; it's fine that he doesn't mind what she's done, even after learning what prices the paintings are bringing - his indifference to his own artistic talent is the film's most poignant element - but Renoir directs Michel Simon to show very little even when he spots the paintings in the first place, with only a single cutaway and loud traffic noise in the background, so the moment barely registers and the emotional map of his reaction (the clash between surprise, maybe anger, and doglike devotion to Lulu) is dialled down to the point of seeming tossed-away, uninflected. Maybe it's that Fritz Lang focused so intensely on psychology in SCARLET STREET, but this one seems almost apathetic - then again Renoir has already warned us, in the duelling Punch-and-Judy opening, that the film we're about to see "contains no moral message and has nothing to prove", and his lack of interest in melodrama (or the masochism Lang loved so much) is intriguing, the film being more about the flow of money and ironic, concomitant flow of feelings (Legrand begs Lulu to kiss him "better than that", she later begs the same from Dede); the rhythm contains its own negation, as if to say there was never any love story here in the first place. Still hard to care about any of it, especially when plotting is scrappy and implausible; feels like one of those cases where second viewing might be revelatory, though.

THE MISFITS (69) (John Huston, 1961): Second viewing, first in >25 years. The most self-conscious of movies, impossible to separate from its circumstances - viz. the fact that three of its four leads would be dead within 5 years - above all because it's so constantly about Death. "We're all dying, aren't we? All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute," says Marilyn Monroe, wrestling with her husband's unwieldy dialogue - and Arthur Miller really doesn't do the cast any favours, a lot of the film being unspeakably talky and just unspeakable (see e.g. all the scenes where a character recounts their back-story at inordinate length), yet he also finds some deft turns of phrase, and his husbandly devotion seems to have inspired Monroe to a miraculous performance; she's amazing, only once or twice overdoing the tics, at her best when e.g. she's just sitting in the car when they first meet Montgomery Clift, radiating warmth and curiosity; her "gift for life", Roslyn's compassion, her "just-born" quality and deep-down sadness, are radiantly beautiful. Clift thrives too, another neurotic - unlikely cowboy, heartbroken mama's boy - Huston adds his nous as an expert in toxic masculinity, the cowboys self-proclaimedly 'free', wildly self-destructive, wrong-headed, vicious, "three dear, sweet, dead men". They, too, are dying, like the mustangs, like everything; even when Roslyn gives money, it turns out to be for a graveyard! A bad film, but deeply haunting.

HOLY MATRIMONY (53) (John M. Stahl, 1943): A man witnesses his own death/funeral, almost immediately runs into a woman who appears out of nowhere to rescue him from trouble and lovingly attends to his every need (in short: an angel), and accompanies her to a place called... Paradise Villa! The allegorical intention seems clear (esp. given the adjective in the title), and I waited for a tale of spiritual awakening riffing on the afterlife fantasies that were popular in the 40s, maybe a case of a misanthropic artist finding salvation at the hands of a loving, down-to-earth woman who (crucially, perhaps?) understands nothing of Art - but in fact the film turns choppy after a bright start, too-often uses Monty Woolley's irascible persona to disguise how lunk-headed our hero is being, and ends up going for (rather desperate) comedy in a courtroom climax with digressions on the meaning of the word "hirsute". Is the artist's obsessive quest for "peace and quiet" and being left alone implicitly viewed as a character flaw in a time of war? Discuss, etc.

MARCH 1, 2019

EL VERDUGO (65) (Luis Garcia Berlanga, 1963): Edges towards greatness in the last few shots (esp. the very last one, commingling revelry and despair) when the mask drops, the titular old coot is revealed - beneath his bloodhound-like, comical lugubriousness - as a kind of monster, and the film is revealed as the story of a good, rather simple-minded man being inexorably led, step by little step, to evil. Brightly satirical throughout, taking aim at the various foibles of Spanish society - the cut-price church wedding, following on the heels of a more expensive wedding to save on costs; the much-coveted, brand-new apartments, and the random guy defecating in the field outside; the briefly-glimpsed beatniks looking (in vain) for books on Bergman and Antonioni - though in fact it always has teeth, surrounding our heroes with many small examples of human cruelty and selfishness. (My favourite: the picnicking couple who deeply resent the fact that Jose Luis and Carmen are taking advantage of the music playing on their radio to have a little dance: "If they want to dance, let 'em bring their own music!".) Lost me a bit in the second half, though, esp. since the pivotal point of the whole movie - why the young man has to become an executioner - seems inadequately plotted; something about having to 'prove' that Carmen is single so as to keep the apartment, but how is that provable? If it's a gag (viz. that no sane woman would ever marry an executioner), it needed more set-up.

A MONKEY IN WINTER (61) (Henri Verneuil, 1962): A film that's all about the casting (Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo, old and new icons together) - an air of gimmick that creates a certain vacuum, filled in ways which are sometimes delightful, sometimes odd, sometimes slightly tedious. Delightful includes a local merchant known as Landru ("We call him that because of his beard, and his two dead wives"), Belmondo dancing flamenco before an audience of befuddled villagers, and a general sense of relaxed randomness; odd includes a spectacular WW2 scene - the town being strafed by bombers, etc - that must've cost a packet yet is actually quite unnecessary (except perhaps to justify Gabin's vow of teetotalism; but the actor looks so unconcerned, it hardly matters); tedious is much of the final act, incl. the big fireworks scene, mostly because it's hard to evoke drunken high spirits and the tension is lost once our heroes team up anyway (though the very last image - and caption - is touching). Sea-and-sand Normandy landscapes add a sense of desolate grandeur, while Picon bière adds to my knowledge of obscure 60s drinks ("France's version of a shandy," says the internet, though apparently more lethal - at least if you skimp on the beer, like J-PB does); that the film is an ode of sorts to the liberating power of booze is another reason to cherish it.

MOI, UN NOIR (59) (Jean Rouch, 1958): Post-synch sound really hurts this, placing a distance between the action and ostensible dialogue (which sounds more like commentary, or a Rifftrax Effect). That's actually appropriate, since the film is self-conscious by definition, but the real problem is perhaps that, however fascinating the concept - paving the way for Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and all the other instances of real people playing 'themselves' - 60 years later the documentary aspect, i.e. life for a young black migrant in late-50s Accra, is way more fascinating. Rouch hands co-ownership of the movie to his protagonist, thus evading charges of colonialism/exploitation - but such academic hair-splitting pales beside the young man admitting how lonely he is in the city, or stretching out on the pavement for a siesta, or spending a Sunday at the beach with his friends and suddenly coming over all moody, because all the other days can't be like this one. The Western nicknames - 'Lemmy Caution', 'Edward G. Robinson' - add to the air of self-consciousness.

1980 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1980 Top Ten, hence these loooong-overdue second viewings. All films unseen since my teens:

WORKING GIRLS (72) (Lizzie Borden, 1986): So much to be thankful for, esp. from the vantage point of 2019: the candid, un-tormented way the African-American hooker is warned that customers will probably go for the white girls more, that's just the way it is (and her breezy response); how little is made of the heroine being a lesbian - a kind of dramatic shorthand for how completely un-arousing the sex is to her - and how Mary, the strait-laced young mother who's "scared of dykes", is still sympathetically treated, even though she doesn't belong; above all, as implied by the title, the matter-of-fact depiction of the brothel's workings, so unfashionable in our neo-abolitionist times. The feminist slant goes without saying but it's a more joyous kind of feminism, and even the cheesy aspects, the fact that the film works like a one-set play (an offstage doorbell constantly cueing the next encounter), the mundane exchanges and bad jokes - "It's a John"; "Which one?" - add to the goofy, relaxed quality. A film to make you love the 80s, though of course it doesn't approve of this free-market whoring (it's not that 80s), instead the emphasis is on working-class solidarity and the girls being exploited by their (female) boss as much as by the customers (who are cartoons, as they should be); that said, the percussive-electronic score - think a piano improvising to a game of Pong - is perhaps a bit too 80s.

FEBRUARY 1, 2019

REIGN OF TERROR (69) (Anthony Mann, 1949): Briefly becomes EXT. DAY for about 15 minutes in the third quarter, our heroes having escaped to the countryside - and it's suddenly revealed as a slightly tedious movie, a B-Western in French Revolution duds. The rest is mostly night-time, interiors or both, allowing John Alton to redeem the tired plot by creating one incredible shot after another. (He's not just a poet of light, he's a poet of darkness; the first meeting between Cummings and Dahl is near-total blackness with only a few chinks of light, the couple trying to suss each other out before a candle can be lit.) For about an hour, it doesn't really matter that astonishing eye-candy like a silhouetted horse galloping across the horizon lives alongside cheesy dialogue like "There is a man in Strasbourg who will help you. Show him this ring" - in fact the characters are actively interesting, especially Robespierre, with his echoes of WW2 demagogues, and the unctuously opportunistic Fouche (despite Arnold Moss' distracting resemblance to Marty Feldman) - but at some point it becomes impossible to ignore that the action is a bit idiotic. Case in point: Cummings finds the secret room where Dahl is being kept prisoner, guarded by a minion - and the guard, standing unseen behind the door, only has to run our hero through with his sword as he stumbles in, but in fact he slashes wildly and misses him altogether (how do you fuck that up?); the next shot, however, has a spotlit Dahl in a corner of the frame, tied up on the floor while the fight between Cummings and the guard plays out in shadow on the wall behind her - a corner of light surrounded by huge, swaying shadows - and all is well again.

BLOODY KIDS (78) (Stephen Frears, 1980): Takes a while to figure out what this dazzlingly fractured movie is 'about' - though in fact a clue is provided after just 8 seconds, the title appearing in small white letters then immediately repeated in huge blood-red letters. Dull reality followed by heightened TV reality, the presence of TV as the film's true theme (being implicitly what governs the more disturbed of the two kids) reflected in its constant physical presence - a TV set on the janitor's desk, a bank of TVs in a smashed-up shop window, etc - though never explicitly acknowledged. Hot neon lighting and spaghetti-Western music build a fantasy world, a dangerous fantasy, the kind that impels the kids' behaviour, then it turns into a loose urban odyssey, deliberately losing coherence and living in kinetic, dreamlike moments. A disco, a joyride, an edgy (but funny) meal in a Chinese restaurant, cathartic climax topped by 400 BLOWS-ish freeze-frame, odd non sequiturs like the early scene in the senior school with the rather androgynous girl - and you may wonder what became of this punkish, abrasive Stephen Frears but in fact the film is just as careful as his more restrained period dramas, note e.g. the quickfire choreography as Ken and the boy flee the club under the eye of the cops - a scream, somebody faints, they run out quickly, a line of other people follow, then a cool dude emerges from a side-door, putting on his jacket, a girl peeks out, then another girl who's been watching the whole thing also departs as the screen fades to black. Harder than it looks, to put it mildly.

THE CHINA SYNDROME (64) (James Bridges, 1979): Second viewing, first since my teens probably. Bridges spikes the Message Movie plot with classic suspense grammar - cutting from face to anxious face to denote escalating crisis, etc - and leans just a little too heavily on Jack Lemmon's anguished Everyman (or maybe Lemmon's anguish is a little too heavy), a precursor of the dad in MISSING in having his faith in the system ("The system works!") gradually dismantled; Jane Fonda is actually a bit more impressive, getting both the fake smile and instant steely focus at the first sniff of a story. Would've preferred more conspiracy thriller, less noisy drama, but still very solid. Best cameo: the nuclear scientist who looks at the footage, looks up with mild concern, and tells our heroes: "I may be wrong, but I'd say you're lucky to be alive".

JANUARY 1, 2019