OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2021, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 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 18 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...]


IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (68) (Rene Clair, 1944): Capra apparently owned the rights for a while - and this is tonally very ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, indeed Dick Powell has an extremely Cary Grant moment where he's sitting on the floor in the midst of pandemonium, politely going "How do you do?" to someone as they cower beside him. He's resigned to dying at that point, fatalism about death being a reminder it was made during wartime ("Nobody believes in miracles nowadays") - but it's actually farce, despite the fantasy premise, cheerfully slapdash in a 'Let's have some random dude turn up and steal the money' way, not to mention the tortuous (but enjoyable) contrivances it sets up so that things can happen as foretold. Clair brings his gift for escalating pace from LE MILLION, while the reassuring prologue (an odd but effective device) means the tension never curdles the comedy; partly based on "ideas by Lewis R. Foster", who presumably was quite the ideas man.

THE CROSS OF LORRAINE (72) (Tay Garnett, 1943): Second viewing, first in many years. Peter Lorre gets stabbed in the carotid artery (blood gushes out), the language is crude by old-Hollywood standards - "Go shove a swastika down your throat and spin it" - we end on a village uprising to match the ordinary-folks-killing-Nazis massacre in WENT THE DAY WELL?, earlier there's a rather glorious moment when it looks like a Nazi officer has a taste for ladies' underwear (he's actually thinking of his wife, a well-endowed woman). WW2 propaganda as comic-book sadism, probably not as elegant as HANGMEN ALSO DIE (which I haven't seen) but redeemed by obvious topicality and strong performances (even Gene Kelly is restrained). "There is also a good deal of shock and brutality, for which Mr. Garnett seems to have a special talent" - James Agee.

SHOZO, A CAT AND TWO WOMEN (71) (Shiro Toyoda, 1956): Shozo is lazy, "unreliable, like a cat", very much a leg man when it comes to women. He's torn between two of them, though his main affection is reserved for his cat (their relationship is "almost sexual") - and this often-broad comedy feels unusual for its time, more like the Japanese movies being made a decade later, treating Ozu-type domestic comedy in the emerging Sun Tribe style. There's a beach, a line of girls half-buried in the sand with their legs waggling, a new Japan of sassy young things yelling "Bye-bye!" in American - though also the old Japan of a suffering woman trying to find employment as a maid, or mistress, complaining that "men squeeze us dry", the cat weaponized in the two women's intrigues against each other. Toyoda treats them both in a balanced way, the spoiled rich girl also allowed to be sympathetic (casting Kyoko Kagawa against type helps) just as the oppressed first wife is also shown to be bitter and malicious - and of course Shozo is completely unworthy (that's the joke), a male protagonist one would never see in American films of the period, weak, immature (he even talks about his farts!) and, it's implied, only good for sex. Rather overlong, maybe something of an un-serious project; terrific wry sensibility, though. "Unlike humans, cats don't get overly emotional."

APRIL 1, 2021

SHOCK TREATMENT (43) (Jim Sharman, 1981): Seen before, though I had to check my logs to even recall it. ("That might help, yes" was the entirety of my review as a not-very-funny 13-year-old.) Strident and shambolic, a bad combination, coasting on a kitschy combo of bright colours, wink-wink jokes and songs with titles like "Look What I Did to My Id". In our small town "You'll find happy hearts and smiling faces / And tolerance for the ethnic races," sings a blonde Aryan princess - but the satire of white-picket-fence America was tired even then, and the vibe can only be described as Self-Loathing Gay given gratuitous moments like the conclusion of the dad's song: "Faggots / Are maggots! / Thank God I'm a man". Nothing as catchy as 'Time Warp or 'Dammit Janet' in ROCKY HORROR, then again I'm not huge on that film either - and hearing Barry Humphries mangle the word "pussyfooting" mit Cherman accent is surely something.

1963 REVISITED, second complete viewings after approx. 30 years:

BROKEN ARROW (53) (Delmer Daves, 1950): Quite enjoyed GREEN BOOK, but watching this well-intentioned Western helps explain why some people loathe it (though they mostly admire this one as a classic): given what the US government did to 'Indians', it seems almost in bad taste to tell the one story that promoted racial harmony and ended halfway-peacefully - even with mea culpas about the whites breaking treaties, and a focus on extremists on both sides trying to wreck the peace. "I learned things that day..." reflects the voice-over, and the film's didactic thrust is unmistakable, James Stewart learning much about the Indians who in turn call him 'Tall One' ("It is good to understand the ways of others"); historically valuable, a link between the old-school Western and the new post-war revisionism, paving the way for THE SEARCHERS et al, also of course a metaphor for racial minorities in 50s America - though also a glimpse of where Stewart might've ended up without Anthony Mann, the war-hardened actor clearly up for a change of persona but the film lacking Mann's scalpel touch on human behaviour. Noble Savage factor off the charts (though Cochise is admittedly more shrewd than savage), visually more about handsome landscapes than e.g. lucid geography when the Indians attack (not even sure what happened to the men hidden in the wagons, unless I missed something), the appeal to good Christian values understandable but rather hypocritical; Stewart's limp romance with the distractingly younger Debra Paget also a weakness, though it does allow for an earnest plea on the difficulties faced by interracial couples. It's that kind of movie.

BACK STREET (71) (John M. Stahl, 1932): Might be underrating, since it did indeed wreck me, but there seems to be an unresolved tension between how spectacularly unworthy the man is, a neglectful lover and giant narcissist (our heroine laments how empty her life is - having given up a good career to become a kept woman sitting around at his beck and call - and he sounds surprised: "Empty? When you have me?"), and the way the story nonetheless ends up painting their relationship as a grand romance, the final act making clear that he does indeed love her. Love is toxic here, an amour fou sweeping up all rational arguments - "I love you, Ray!" he declares after she's tried to make her case; "Oh..." she responds in a small voice, defeated, and we fade to black - and it's unclear if the film is hamstrung by being a 'woman's picture' forced into romance or, alternatively, aware of the tension and changing the guy in the final act as a pointedly pointless gesture when it's too late to be any help. The passage of time haunts even the early scenes (Jane Darwell griping about changing times), time - being a few minutes late - undoes the heroine, and time ultimately lends the film its pathos, the passing of the years exposing both the foolishness of love and its resilience; the script is sharp, very aware of money (the son's honest surprise at how cheaply her services came is a great moment, salt in the wound but also a kind of vindication), Stahl's direction similarly stark and unsentimental (*), the ending both high-flown and hopeless. Dated, and emotionally devastating.

(*) To quote Dan Sallitt, a master at describing directorial style (from his notes, reproduced without permission; hope it's okay): "From the beginning, total formal control, with icy tracking shots and closeups, scene transitions suspended in the emptiness of the last completed gesture, crowds, weather, everything one associates with mature Stahl".

SKIP TRACER (65) (Zale Dalen, 1977): The cops can't solve the case when our hero gets stabbed: "Seems there are too many suspects," he explains drily. He is indeed quite unpopular, a hard-nosed debt collector and ice-cold loner with a permanent sneer - and this Canadian indie is suitably bleak, though also with some unexpected nuance like e.g. the moment when, alone in the bathroom, he cheekily sticks his tongue out at his reflection in the mirror. (Just because he hates people doesn't mean he has no sense of humour.) Kind of BAD LIEUTENANT-ish as a close study of a bad man falling apart in the space of a few days - with intimations that his life is in danger - but none of Ferrara's excess and decadence, just a case of low-key action, evocative flatness and nondescript locations that don't even rise to seediness. Sign behind the counter in a diner where a hard-faced waitress brings a cup of coffee: "We Positively Do Not Cash Cheques".

ROAR (59) (Noel Marshall, 1981): Love the opening caption: "It is with great pride that we display the seal of the American Humane Association. Although some scenes appear to show animals being injured, they were never actually hurt". No wild animals were hurt, yay - never mind the 70+ cast and crew members who got mauled by the lions! (You kind of wonder, if an AHA representative was actually on set, why they didn't report something.) Not exactly a so-bad-it's-good movie (actually quite impressive technically) but it has the lack of self-awareness endemic to all such movies, playing as animal horror - with a conscious nod to Tippi Hedren's most famous role, viz. THE BIRDS - while also trying to be a kind of Disney wilderness adventure, with cute details (a lion on a skateboard) and comical reactions to people being nearly killed by the beasts ("Hey, what are you doin' on the floor?") - and of course it's also confused in that the lions aren't actually malicious, "just playing" as our hero keeps saying (human beings are the true villains); it has the Bad Movie hallmark of breezily, confidently setting out to do one thing while actually doing another. Probably most productively seen as a reflection of the back-to-Nature hippy dream, and of course its curdling in the film's turn to horror and the real-life horror of its production (Marshall apparently took years to recover from the injuries he sustained; he and Hedren divorced in 1982), the overall impression being of flower-child good intentions in denial at the unravelling reality around them; there's a give-peace-a-chance song at the end, and an amusing inadvertent note of hep-talk when our hero describes one of the lions as "the nicest cat in the world".

HAPPINESS AVENUE (63) (Hirano Katsuyuki, 1986): Notable mainly for scrawny, 24-year-old Sion Sono in a supporting role, also for the contrast between the unabashed nihilism of 80s alternative Japanese cinema and its 60s equivalent, which was pessimistic about the world but implicitly optimistic about Cinema's capacity to change things (in between, of course, came Terayama, Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi, etc etc). We open with black-clad nationalists lamenting that Japan has become a "defeated nation", not unlike the mood in early-60s Imamura and Oshima - but then we cut to a young couple skipping down the street singing a silly children's rhyme and in fact the nationalists are never seen again, the general mood exemplified by one character's line: "Whatever it is that's happening, I don't care". Larky anarchy is off the charts, indeed too much for a while - manic misfits tear down the street and the camera hurtles with them, a TV presenter is groped, people beat each other up, our hero approaches a campy LGBT couple earnestly begging: "Can you teach me how to become a gay?" - but the camera settles down and there's a moment of fuzzy 8mm beauty around the 25-minute mark, a girl touched by a violet lens flare as she sits in the hazy light, then later an idyllic interlude swimming in a lake in near-total darkness. (Wouldn't surprise me to learn that Eduardo Williams had drawn on this for THE HUMAN SURGE; the arc is similar.) Still chaotic, of course, a film that doles out its pleasures casually, if at all. We end in fireworks, madness, the neighbours coming out - the only real glimpse of the bourgeois world outside the bubble - to see what the commotion is. "She's such a nuisance." "What is it?" "I'm not sure... She seems young..."

MARCH 1, 2021

THE GARDEN (57) (Derek Jarman, 1990): "I walk in this garden holding the hands of dead friends." Jarman's AIDS lament is often lovely in a blotchy, DIY way (lots of back-projection) and increasingly camp, from a rendition of 'Think Pink' to pantomime scenes of homosexuals being tormented by hammy baddies. Writing this a week later and it's mostly evaporated, though I recall Tilda Swinton crawling on all fours, religious imagery - the title invokes both Eden and Gethsemane - a certain self-interrogation about the media's own complicity (paparazzi are glimpsed; the camera itself is attacked at one point) and a male couple standing on a beach cradling a baby, decades before gay adoption. Very of-its-time, visually striking; mostly a curio, though.

THE IN-LAWS (66) (Arthur Hiller, 1979): Second viewing, first in decades. I only recalled the broad outlines - and was not prepared for 'Signor Pepe', a very Andrew Bergman touch, anticipating the Komodo dragon in THE FRESHMAN and skydiving Elvises in HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, but way more hilarious than either. Then again, the inspired Richard Libertini scenes come directly after a rather ragged, generic car chase, so the film is patchy; fully understand why it's a cult item, though. Peter Falk is a little one-note, Alan Arkin gloriously repressed as the ostensible straight man; his beady-eyed annoyance at the dinner table - seeming to flinch at every new mention of gigantic tsetse flies - is something.

FEBRUARY 1, 2021

THE SUN'S BURIAL (71) (Nagisa Oshima, 1960): Ragged structure hurt THE KAISER'S LACKEY (another post-war missive from a defeated nation) a couple of weeks ago, but in this case (a) the fragments are infused with bravura style, and (b) they echo the ragged collapse - and incoherent anger - of a broken and humiliated country, haunted by past horrors and new fears of war. Sex and violence are conflated, violence breeds violence "like a spinning top" as one gangster ruefully puts it (they have to keep killing, just to keep going), dead bodies are looted for valuables, cynical cruelty is everywhere. "All because his girl was raped?" scoffs the heroine, speaking of a boy who killed himself after that incident; "Idiots like him are better off dead". Oshima anticipates Fukasaku and the yakuza films of the 70s - but also adds ethereal classical-guitar music (*), brick-and-brown colours, and a stunning erotic passage at sunset in the shadow of a construction site. (Plus there's also something of the old Japan, gangster violence side-by-side with the gossipy life of the neighbourhood, like in Ozu.) "There's no hope for Japan nowadays," says an old man - then tries to peek between his daughter's legs. Need to watch NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN next.

(*) Which may have been a convention in Japanese prestige dramas of the period; I've now heard something similar in Kinoshita's SHE WAS LIKE A WILD CHRYSANTHEMUM.

EL (72) (Luis Bunuel, 1953): A bleak joke: the patriarch (see title), the respected man, the Mexican caballero, the friend of the Church, the landowner - or fallen landowner; he spends the film trying to get 'his' land back - as a foot fetishist, a middle-aged virgin, an obsessively jealous tyrant, finally a madman. Structurally ingenious in the way it shifts identification from Francisco to Gloria, through the device of having her tell her story in flashback (the middle section starts to resemble GASLIGHT), then back to him again; tonally also ingenious, Bunuel pulling no punches yet also finding comedy in the man's disintegration (Kubrick may have had this at the back of his mind for Jack Torrance, another patriarch who goes cartoonishly nuts) and touching briefly on the wife's enabling masochism. Also that opening scene is stunningly staged - fluid camera moves (and shots of feet!) equating the priest's quasi-lascivious devotion with Francisco's own - for a director not really known as a formalist.

DARK OF THE SUN (62) (Jack Cardiff, 1968): Any film that includes the line "What exactly is this mission, sir?" is prime old-Hollywood hokum - but this is surprisingly jagged and jarring, with a lot of bold ideas that don't work and a few incidentals that startle (e.g. pointing out Western complicity in African wars); way more violent than expected, too. The team includes an actual Nazi, plus Jim Brown as an unlikely African and 60s variation on the Magical Negro ("How come you don't hate whites?"; "Because I'm good"); the great Jacques Loussier score - borrowed by QT for BASTERDS - goes from jabbing excitement to catchy swoon, as striking and messy as the rest of it; the final act adds a moral component, early scenes include a shifty capitalist doing a Sydney Greenstreet impression. There's a chainsaw fight, a suggestion of sodomy, and LION KING kids will cry at the terrifying savages being called the 'Simbas'. A good time, despite everything.

THE STOLEN CHILDREN (81) (Gianni Amelio, 1992): Second viewing, first in 25 years. Any film that unites Dan Sallitt and Dale Thomajan is bound to be strong, but I'd forgotten how strong. One might say it's too genteel (the kids don't really seem traumatised), and I wasn't really on board till about halfway through - but the careful, reticent staging starts with reaction shots (the kids are very expressive), tiny moments and a neo-realist interest in quotidian faces and places, moves into idyll with the addition of beach and pop music, then adds a sledgehammer coda. As perfectly controlled as any film I know, really.

THE KAISER'S LACKEY (60) (Wolfgang Staudte, 1951): Historical value clearly off the charts: an East German comedy condemning German nationalism (at one point, nationalist slogans are literally printed on toilet paper) and standing up for workers' rights and social democracy - six years after the war. Also notable for a blend of swooping, dollying camera moves - a shot through an open window and out into the street, that kind of thing - and fleshy, bombastic Werner Peters as the buffoonish hero, a coward, a drunkard, a sneak, a born lackey, a tyrant with his workers but cripplingly afraid of all authority; he's a memorable comic creation, crypto-fascist burgher personified, but the film seems to be a poor job of adaptation (the source is a hefty Heinrich Mann novel), lacking connective tissue so e.g. Peters is in love with a girl one minute and has abandoned her the next (it's explained, but was surely explained more lucidly in the novel). Momentum is lost, narrative lurches, set-pieces - like a rowdy bit of courtroom comedy - lack foundation; mostly just a bunch of bewhiskered Teutons toasting the Kaiser and scheming for power, which is fun admittedly.

JANUARY 1, 2021