OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2018, 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...]


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 take 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 - and James Gleason from malapropism-prone into all-out moron - 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