Older films seen in 2023, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 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 20 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...]

PROSTITUTE (72) (Tony Garnett, 1980): Maybe the (non-pro) lead actress is a bit miscast - not quite unusual/charismatic enough to explain why a high-end London call girl would take her in and help her so readily. The presence of a class system among prostitutes isn't quite explored either, Garnett (Ken Loach's producer) tending to focus on solidarity, and a large chunk of screen time also goes to the middle-class social worker trying to protect the hookers and get them to organise; also very pointedly multicultural, full of glimpses of immigrants - even beyond Sandra being in an interracial relationship - suggesting a broader solidarity among the marginal and disenfranchised, plus of course the tireless lefties looking out for them. That said, not at all political in the narrow sense, maybe because Thatcher had only just come to power (she's mentioned once, not disapprovingly), the film working beautifully as a sex-positive 80s artefact - anticipating WORKING GIRLS by a few years - as a glimpse of its time (door buzzers were new, apparently), as reportage, above all as a series of dense, often funny conversations and real-time encounters. The talk isn't quite as organic as in Mike Leigh - it doesn't really go to surprising places - but it's intelligent and full of character touches; the gossip and camaraderie among the girls (you don't kiss them, says one, you never know where their mouth's been - "then you've got to go home and kiss the kids, it's not nice"), the well-off, well-spoken young man who turns out to be into ageplay (our heroine is initially grossed out, then starts getting into it), the extended mating dance between the social worker and a jargon-spouting but good-natured academic met at a conference (take a bow Colin Hindley in his only role, one of cinema's great dorks), ending up in bed together - the process of conventional sex set beside the prostitutes' more transactional version. Bracing for its grown-up tone, the absence of judgmental moralism veiling quite a stark view of the world; it just ends, to the strains of a dirty kids' rhyme, a few efforts made but the system basically unchanged.

DECEMBER 1, 2023

PORTRAIT OF JASON (52) (Shirley Clarke, 1967): Major time-capsule value, but a rather misbegotten project really. The whole point of Warhol films like FLESH was the tension between the un-self-aware subjects and the camera seeing them in ways they can't see themselves - but of course Jason is fully in control here, "performing" even as he slides into melancholy, the offscreen voices serving only to guide him ("Do one that makes you cry") or occasionally goad him. He's also essentially maudlin, doing his suave nightclub routine (his Mae West impressions are feeble, though that wouldn't have mattered so much pre-video) and boderline-manic laughter to hide his pain, meanwhile making clear that that's exactly what he's doing. Interesting stuff going on, of course - tales of growing up black and gay in a working-class family, talk of Jason exploiting black stereotypes (like the "houseboy" persona) for his own purposes, mention of Miles Davis and various local characters like the drag queen who called herself 'Kitty Cunt' - but I checked out pretty early tbh. 'Are you lonely?' ask Shirley and the other offscreen voices. "Lonely? I'm desperate!... But I'm cool."

THE NAKED DAWN (59) (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1955): Undoubtedly does things few other Westerns ever did; more debatable if it does them well, or even if those things are worth doing. A mystical Western about sin and redemption, an implicit father-son story where the father (Arthur Kennedy's wandering good-bad man) is also a kind of God, even as he tempts the boy with money and criminality - hence his comment to the girl that everything is ultimately "God's will" because everything comes from God, good and bad alike - also a film about morality being relative in general ("Your ideas on sin are changing"). Ulmer is admirably brisk, the film underway even as the opening credits roll, but he's up against three strikes even before the halfway mark - one of those ludicrously over-extended death scenes that make people laugh at old movies, lots of florid 'ethnic' diction in the dialogue ("It will please me to drink some"), and an overly broad performance by an actor playing a 'kid' character 10 years younger than himself - then the final act gets into all kinds of trouble due to 1950s mores; I'm def. not one of those people who insist on applying modern-day standards, but when a movie depends on the audience judging its characters (our hero wants to do the right thing, but what is it?) it's germane to note that a clearly unhappy wife abandoning her violent husband is a no-brainer today, not so much then. Ambitious but also rather sparse, padding out the already-short running time with an irrelevant song and a slapstick brawl; not quite convinced Ulmer's "camera style" is as extraordinary (in this case) as David Thomson claims, either.

NOVEMBER 1, 2023

FALLING LEAVES (63) (Otar Iosseliani, 1966): Not just playful but about play, the importance and ubiquity of play - literally so in football and backgammon (the former an improvised game with players silhouetted against the light, one of the few conspicuously beautiful shots) but also more broadly in the manager's shambolic office, with people shooting billiards and two little boys in matching shirts taking turns practising on the piano, and more broadly still in the many scenes of casual interaction, people singing together, strolling on a Sunday, lighting each other's cigarettes. This is Iosseliani's usual theme, of course, what you might call the ennobling power of leisure (MONDAY MORNING being perhaps the purest expression); there's an aristocratic tinge to his worldview, and it's surely relevant that our childlike young hero, who refuses to sign off on bad wine just to fill a quota - incidentally standing with the salt-of-the-earth rural winemakers in the prologue - has fallen on hard times but appears to come from an aristocratic family (old photos on the wall make the point), the two sides of old Georgia (nobles and serfs) ranged against the new, shabby Communist reality. In itself, picaresque and half-explained, more about behaviour than plot (one IMDb reviewer watched it with an intro by Iosseliani, who advised the audience to ignore the subtitles), full of little touches like the camera lingering on four old fellows sitting outside the collective, or the chapter after 'Thursday' turning out to be, unexpectedly, 'Wednesday'. Probably (even) more fun to discuss than sit through, however.

STARDUST MEMORIES (59) (Woody Allen, 1980)

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (64) (Louis Malle, 1958)

THE LONG FAREWELL (77) (Kira Muratova, 1971): Startling and dazzling from the get-go; the images so alive and unsettled, backed by relentless piano. "I'm your mother! I have a right to know what's on your mind" - but in fact she's a bit of a monster, giggly and silly when it suits her but also temperamental, over-emotional, causing (and plunging into) storms "as though in storms were peace" as the final song puts it. The whole film seems to vibrate on her wavelength, Muratova specialising in half-spoken anger, a fecund intensity of feeling visualised in over-full, over-intricate shots - but then she also does ambitious things like the slightly on-the-nose (but still potent) scene of the old man asking our heroine to please write his letter, a letter about youth and old age, or the story of the red bird (a perfect symbol of her volatile cravings), or the fairly amazing bit when the boy springs to his girl's defence with bumptious adolescent braggadocio only to be thoroughly schooled by the older committee man; the dynamic is so well achieved. He's ostensibly the cold-hearted child, a source of pain, but the film treats him with a secret tenderness, trapped by needy Mother (a couple of shots near the end pointedly hide his face), sealing his fate with that final "I love you"; weird that he's obviously saying more (but inaudible) dialogue in that phone-booth conversation, though.

OCTOBER 1, 2023

HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (57) (Rouben Mamoulian, 1937): Notable for the genre mash-up - an adventure Western that's also a musical - and the presence of Mamoulian, but the songs aren't good (even the semi-standout, 'The Folks That Live on the Hill', seems to be a case of Jerome Kern ripping off his own 'The Way You Look Tonight'), Irene Dunne's very late-30s soprano isn't my thing, the second half is heavy with contrivances (the whole Akim Tamiroff character is one big contrivance, though surrounding him with cats is a nice touch), and Mamoulian's stylistic flair leads to missteps like the risible repeated shot of evil capitalist Alan Hale laughing demonically. That said, the evil-capitalism angle is surprisingly explicit and prominent, the scent of money disrupting the old pastoral idyll (black oil stains a white wedding dress), the oil-rich farmers fighting a cabal of big businessmen - "Sooner or later," explains Hale, "oil's got to be controlled by a small group of strong men" - and the action climax is also quite something, overhead shots of the wide-open spaces and the carnival folk turning up to fight alongside the farmers (an elephant picks up a baddie with his trunk, midgets turn up to bash him with sticks, etc), a meeting of the film's two genres, cowboys and showbiz. Also with a young Dorothy Lamour as not quite a femme fatale, more a femme triste; I assume she wasn't much of an actress, still a shame she ended up getting lost in lightweight comedies though.

THE EVE OF IVAN KUPALO (58) (Yuri Ilyenko, 1968): Made halfway between VIY and THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES, reminiscent of both (though I've only seen stills from the former) - but it also adds burlesque and pageantry and a madcap sensibility, roosters fighting, a herd of cows painted in various colours. The craft is often staggering, not just the theatrically dazzling visual design but also e.g. a sequence of perhaps a dozen shots that keeps whip-panning from a shot of the heroine to find her again in a whole other shot while she keeps talking, the succession of invisible cuts almost seamless. The story is another matter, a picaresque Faustian thing that's admirably bleak but not too compelling (watched it with inadequate subtitles, which didn't help); best comparison is perhaps with something like THE BOXER'S OMEN, overall tedious but full of striking images: midget priests, candles on scorpions, a woman weeping over her husband (a pile of ashes!), staged so that she and her retinue are standing at impossible angles (obviously attached to wires or some such), a deal with the devil done in fuzzy photo-negative style. At the end the camera goes nuts, and that's the end.

CLAUDINE (69) (John Berry, 1974)


SCENT OF A WOMAN (72) (Dino Risi, 1974): Not entirely sure about this rather scrappy movie - but fortunately the Hollywood remake exists, a side-by-side comparison showing how eloquent and melancholy Risi's choices are compared to Martin Brest's. No embarrassing prep-school finale, to be sure, and though Alessandro Momo is a little broad as the kid he's more expressive than Chris O'Donnell - but Gassman's whole character is also conceived less grandiloquently (even beyond Pacino's hamming), more lecherous, more bluntly despairing; "I am a stone," he says, defeated (there's no tango scene either), berating himself for anti-social acts like driving away the dull bourgeois on the train, chasing after momentary pleasure and the blind hopefulness of youth. The final act explains why the remake cooked up the whole prep-school angle, being too pervy for American sensibilities (it's often forgotten that Woody Allen in MANHATTAN was playing on a whole Euro-arthouse trope of the redemptive nymphet), though in fact the girl makes it clear that it's not some schoolgirl crush - and it's touching anyway, "We're all afraid" etc. Like so much Italian cinema of the 60s and 70s, the small human touches are key - like the whole interlude with the prostitute in Genoa, the sullen little girl with the turtle (who half-smiles at Ciccio when she realises he's not one of her mother's clients) then the arrival of the next client, a gaunt buffoonish middle-aged man who comes in clutching his daily paper, shakes hands politely then sits with eyes bulging, checking his watch.

THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (67) (Hideo Gosha, 1964): Probably a Eurocentric bias that I liked Gosha's fiery, straightforward class-war politics (reminiscent of spaghetti Westerns like THE BIG GUNDOWN) and robust dramatic staging, with extensive use of foreground/background compositions - one high-angle shot has a samurai in an upper bunk bed, facing the camera, with a line of peasants scurrying across the room behind him - more than e.g. King Hu's more abstract, more lyrical staging in RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN. Society is rotten, codes of honour have succumbed to power and money (the madam at the brothel is also a peasant: "But I'm buying," she tells the new arrival, "and you're being bought"), meanwhile the three outlaw samurai - a languid heroic one, an aloof ambivalent one, and a short, tubby, soulful one - wander through the action, which gives way to a certain bittiness in the second half (once the kidnapping gets resolved). Fight scenes seem a bit rushed, the way women keep being treated as disposable (their role being mostly to goose the plot by getting killed) is increasingly iffy. The ending seems a bit rushed too, but in fact its quiet harshness is remarkable: the poor stay poor - being too scared and oppressed to fight back - the rich revert to type, all the samurai can do is move on. Bleak.

AUGUST 1, 2023

THE STEEL HELMET (67) (Samuel Fuller, 1951)

AGE OF CONSENT (52) (Michael Powell, 1969): Enough quirky choices to suggest that whoever made this had great work in them, or (in this case) behind them - but Powell's trying to make a jolly romp, with some very broad supporting performances, cheapening the two main characters and the BELLE NOISEUSE-ish nature of their relationship. Wisely resists a romantic involvement (the whole point is that it's artistic, not sordid), but runs out of ideas before the one-hour mark - hence the reintroduction of Jack MacGowran and his unfunny antics ("I've been raped!" does dovetail with the unequal nature of the main couple in implicit ways, but it's just too dumb to be very enjoyable) - and then of course it protects its hero at the very end anyway, going for the feelgood freeze-frame. Helen Mirren is an odd choice for a Nature Girl, but does get a very pretty shot where she's walking by the sea with the light waxing and waning around her.

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST (65) (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967): Second viewing, first in >20 years. No change in rating, still a bit patchy and flabby, but newfound appreciation for how good it looks - some really sleek compositions (DP William A. Fraker), esp. for a first-time director who's naturally more concerned with script than visuals - and how startlingly relevant it remains. Conspiracy theory about microchips implanted in brains was already present in 1967, it turns out, ditto today's polarised America - though the suburban liberal is also a gun nut here, which he blames on "right-wing extremists" ("Disarm them, and us liberals will disarm"). Also the Russian spy's observation that America's becoming more socialist and the USSR more capitalist, soon enough they'll meet in the middle. Prescient!

THE RED LANTERNS (72) (Vasilis Georgiades, 1963): The material is melodrama - one whore has a secret child, another pines for a sea captain, another finds occasional happiness with a man on the outside (who of course doesn't know what she really does) - but it starts and finishes so strongly that it makes up for some rather stale patches in the middle. The ladies are lively in any case, not much like the passive/masochistic geishas in Mizoguchi (or the silent tormented women in Zhang Yimou's similarly-titled piece), the brothel a multicultural place presided over by a fun-loving madam; Georgiades' style is lively too, with funfair montages, an eye for crowds and a mobile camera. Builds to a poignant note, the brothel closing and a bleak fate for (almost) every character - but it also ends on one minor character, the merry, un-complex young whore with no moral scruples, taking over the reins, too insensitive and practical for tragedy. Life goes on, implacably.

ARTISTS AND MODELS (70) (Frank Tashlin, 1955): Leads with its weakest suit, Jerry Lewis' tiresome mugging; the early scene where he eats a single bean in a crude mock-up of Chaplin eating his boot in THE GOLD RUSH makes it seem like it's going to be a tough sit. Later we have Dean Martin doing Gene Kelly (tap-dancing, surrounded by kids), which is surely the most counter-intuitive use of Dean Martin - but by then it doesn't matter, the film has established itself as a patchy but glorious grab-bag, high on visual invention and intriguing undertones. The sexist title is quickly undermined, women in charge - the successful artist is a woman; the comic-book publisher lives in fear of his unseen wife - and of course Jerry's comic-book babblings come from a fear of women, 'Vincent the Vulture' tormented by 'Zuba' (her skimpy costume "exposes her two big round shoulders"); 50s fear of sex dovetails with 50s fear of comic books, George Winslow as the horror-damaged kid, the Better America Forum discussing the issue. By the time the Soviets turn up, the range of contemporary terrors being mined for satire is complete - but we've also had Shirley MacLaine and a secret formula, the REAR WINDOW gag, the chiropractic tangle of limbs, the splendid palette-of-colours musical number, even a recalcitrant dicky. Anarchy and neurosis, a wild combination. "Have you ever posed with a girl?" "Not with people watching."

JULY 1, 2023

LA BOUM (68) (Claude Pinoteau, 1980): How bizarre that the most 'offensive' (certainly bawdy) scene in DINER had actually been done two years earlier, in a cute French comedy about 13-year-olds. Not what I expected, not just in terms of good taste and/or prudishness (there's also a potentially icky scene that anticipates MY FATHER THE HERO) but also in being jittery, and surprisingly unsentimental about love - even puppy love. The recurring motif is lying, most obviously in the philandering dad but also e.g. Vic's friend lies to her folks, Vic herself lies to the boy about having hitchhiked to find him, etc - and Love itself is also a kind of lie, esp. youthful romantic love, in that it purports to be obsessed with the object of desire to the exclusion of all else (Vic festoons her bedroom with posters of the boy) but is actually more like a cloud, a miasma, liable to drift away and attach itself to someone else at any moment. The ending is bracingly bittersweet (the final freeze-frame almost vaulted it to 70+ all by itself), before that the plotting is also jittery, fast and farcical with a few too many sudden reversals and random bits like the German teacher being attacked by "hooligans"; the guiding voice is obviously 'Poupette', the great-grandma - not because she's a dotty old lady, as in most Anglo teen movies, but because she's a bohemian (and an artist) who stands for breezy sophistication, a notion of love as a game to be played and enjoyed. Also some cute childish stuff like the girls acting cool while being invited to the 'Boum', Vic trying to find the right time to ask her parents for permission, etc.

ZOUZOU (60) (Marc Allegret, 1934): Am I underrating? A funny French riff on 42nd STREET-type musicals (at one point, a producer actually mentions the "miracle" of an usherette becoming a star in order to save the show, and deems it unlikely) - but not only is there some shoddy plotting but there's also Josephine Baker, whose role (actually a laundress who becomes a star) leaves a slightly bad taste. The film isn't racist - one difference with the US, as implied in her song about Haiti, is that France's relationship with race was colonial rather than slave-owning - but it still feels unable to offer her a sex life, going big on zany antics and childlike high spirits instead (she's a kook, first seen clowning around with an actual child) and contriving a tortuous brother-and-sister relationship to ensure that Jean Gabin can never be a plausible romantic prospect. (She's like Zasu Pitts, a livewire eccentric keeping her soulful side private.) At least she sings, and even Gabin sings, and the backstage ambience is lively (and more sensual than Hollywood) though a bit second-hand; Palau is basically doing Guy Kibbee as the distracted investor, and when a musical number recalls Busby Berkeley (chorus girls dancing amid outsized sets, starting by waking up on a gigantic bed) it's also not developed - beyond the main gimmick - with the flair or invention of Berkeley.

JUNE 1, 2023

1966 REVISITED, second or third viewings after many years:

PARK ROW (74) (Samuel Fuller, 1952): "Blood and ink", indeed! Gene Evans still playing Sgt. Zack from THE STEEL HELMET, though Fuller's warlike instincts - and penchant for explosive out-of-nowhere violence - shouldn't obscure his facility for complex one-shots and elaborate compositions; the way he handles those crowded frames at the bar, when the paper is being birthed - the intricate camera moves, and e.g. the way the kid bobs up into frame halfway through to complete the composition - is a thing of beauty. Starkly idealistic and didactic ("The joy of working for an ideal is the joy of living", instant chills), also a procedural of how newspapers worked - "pied type", "printer's devil" - in the old days, also strong on FRONT PAGE-ish cynical banter (the old hack promising "molasses in every paragraph" as he sits down to write a heart-rending story); the woman publisher - almost the sole female character in this masculine world - is the only slight hiccup, not because she's a villain (she's a dynamic character by 50s standards) but because her 'crime' isn't really laid out so it seems like she's being harshly treated (the scene where the kindly old newspaperman says he's glad she's a woman, so that her name will die with her, is way harsh). Propulsive and tender, a John Ford movie if Ford had been nostalgic for a real, invaluable profession instead of soldiering and some abstract idea of America; that opening roll-call - 1,772 local papers, down to none today - hits hard.

THE KNIFE (64) (Fons Rademakers, 1961): Plays like a short story, both because it's quite minor(-key) and because the effects skew quaintly literary, notably the titular knife with its phallic-symbol quality (a very Freudian horse turns up later). It's the boy's ticket to a man's authority (and potential violence), using it to scare his little playmate - though of course he's on the cusp, that's the point, made momentarily nostalgic by the kindly maid who smells of "the hearth" and the security of childhood. A fortune teller speaks of the future, foretelling a busy love life - "You'll marry a rich woman, but she'll be unfaithful" - meanwhile his upper-class mum has her own convoluted relationship going on in the background, trapping the boyfriend's hand beneath her stiletto heel then reacting needily when he abandons her to go drinking. The boy's arc is low-key momentous, nothing and everything happens, early-60s jazz thrums on the soundtrack and early-60s public spaces add their own appeal, incl. the small-town fair where one performer concludes her act by eating an apple underwater. "I wanted to tell her something. But what?"

A ROOM IN TOWN (71) (Jacques Demy, 1982): Why make the baroness a baroness unless it's to have her rail briefly against the bourgeois, "wallowing in their habitual comforts"? - and this is very much an ode to non-bourgeois, non-habitual things, romantic passion and working-class idealism, mysticism and fatalism (the fortune teller), exaggerated primary colours, even blood and violence. Physical violence literally adds colour to the opening scene, a street protest (enter our hero, an anarchist metal-worker in a shocking-pink shirt), the link between violence and sex is constantly present; meanwhile the baroness is sexually repressed, reproving her daughter for not wearing stockings, the recurring motif of seeing and being seen from behind windows - an image of voyeurism - adding to the sense of forbidden fruit; more than other Demys, it does feel like the work of a closeted man. The absence of Michel Legrand is keenly felt, the music fairly tuneless compared to 60s Demy - there's literally only one repeated bar that's halfway-memorable - then again that's precisely the point, the passion of sung dialogue without the bourgeois comforts of hummable melodies, a febrile but slightly alienating mix fitting the dark subject matter; CHERBOURG disguised bleakness in chocolate-box prettiness, and was even more devastating, but you have to admire Demy's perversity in throwing away his best weapon. Also an insane degree of practical difficulty, given that the singing voices (Darrieux is the only main exception) aren't the actors' voices, also is this the first movie musical about a workers' strike since THE PAJAMA GAME? Probably.

MAY 1, 2023

ON TOP OF THE WHALE (59) (Raul Ruiz, 1982): The earliest Ruiz film I've seen (out of only 7 in total) and THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR does seem to have been a pivotal moment, pushing him in a more playful - and mystical - direction than the Greenaway-ish archness on display here. Visually eye-catching, indeed magnificent - not just the filters and grainy texture, also e.g. the splintered hall-of-mirrors effects in some of the later scenes - but the sense of humour is tortuous, playing like a gag on some academic theory of language that Ruiz expects viewers to recognise (I don't). Language as a tool of colonialism but also a weapon against its monolithic diktats, "denying singularity" and pursuing its own goofy diversity (the natives' language only has a few dozen words, so e.g. the same word can mean "Sea, earth, mother, Republic of Chile, Argentina, canned fruit, son, dog, a song sung by others, a fatal conflict between two tribes, death, Puntanela hospital, river stones, [and] light of the moon"). The tales are tall, the violence casual, the dialogue self-conciously multilingual, paradoxes come thick and fast. Marvellous to ponder (even to watch, intermittently) but Ruiz the magician > Ruiz the rather desiccated satirist, in my limited experience.

I BY DAY, YOU BY NIGHT (64) (Ludwig Berger, 1932): I always played tragic roles, sighs the retired actress - now a landlady mediating between our two heroes - I know nothing of "French comedies of mistaken identities". That's what this is - though German rather than French and mostly in the second half, a maid's misunderstanding leading to three different men being mistaken for one another. The first half is a case of rather scattered imaginative ideas (notably the films being shown in the cinema next door contrasted with the action), the plot a kind of reverse SHOP AROUND THE CORNER - the couple love each other, unaware that they also secretly hate each other - and slightly lacking that film's finesse; the ending in particular needed the big reveal - the couple's realisation that they do indeed share a bed, she by day and he by night - to appear through some clever contrivance, but instead it falls back on making the guy so drunk that he behaves arbitrarily. Still feel I'm grossly underrating it, maybe because it gets lighter and (so to speak) gayer as it goes along; Kathe von Nagy is charming (Willy Fritsch slightly stodgy), but MVP is one Elisabeth Lennartz who made too few films, as a Hepburn-ish rich girl with severe 30s bangs and amusingly commanding personality.

RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN (63) (King Hu, 1979): A film of people walking - sometimes running - across handsome wide shots, often of monumental structures, sometimes of craggy mountains and misty exteriors; plot becomes motion, even the fight scenes unusually airy and dance-like - and of course the mountains and structures dwarf the scurrying people, tying in with the spiritual aspect. The question of who will succeed the old abbot is a spiritual question, the men's various worldviews reflected in the "clear water" task (meanwhile the thief admits she cares nothing for the "spiritual life," worrying more about money and matters of the flesh); plotting is clearly not so important in this rarefied setting - but the film still collapses in the final act, the selection of the new abbot (which anchored the first two thirds) disposed of rather quickly and unsatisfyingly, then the last half hour is muddled and choppy (it also ventures out of the monastery, which rhymes with the opening but still breaks the spell); seems like it doesn't even make sense - all the stuff about needing to raise money and Wen An suggesting that they use the Scroll as security seems irrelevant when he's about to get the keys and steal it anyway - but I suspect I just missed something there. Maybe a bit overrated ("[A] fabric of feints, flights, encirclements and concealments, extending through the temple’s seemingly infinite interior spaces and into the gorges, mists and forests beyond"; Geoffrey O' Brien in S&S) but undoubtedly graceful; worth it just for the colours, massed monks in grey-blue tunics and outsiders in red and saffron weaving in between.

THE MAN WHO LEFT HIS WILL ON FILM (56) (Nagisa Oshima, 1970): Film as a weapon? Or a personal statement? Oshima on the student radicals of the late 60s (double-bill with UNITED RED ARMY), with an emphasis on meta-commentary, even name-checking actual Japanese directors incl. Oshima himself at one point. "Editing can't save bad films," notes one radical, the group acting both as film critics and ideological-purity enforcers, censuring our hero for considering the camera to be 'his' camera; the illusion is that cinema is useful in the first place - an artistic illusion akin to the political illusion that change can come from above, without mass action. Felt a bit jejune and unfocused, esp. combined with hero and girlfriend going on some madcap quest to 'cure' his insanity, but (a) I watched a slightly damaged file with frequent pixellation, and more importantly (b) I'd just watched the Kuroki [below] which is so much more magical and timeless. Who even cares about these callow kids, etc.

SILENCE HAS NO WINGS (70) (Kazuo Kuroki, 1966): "Behind the mirror lies an infinite silence..." Incomprehensible, yet I watched it twice in two days; many luminous and remarkable passages, incl. the opening on Hokkaido with the very intense kid catching butterflies. The form is exhilarating, mobile camera, zooms, ECUs - the camera even rotates at one point - coupled with contrapuntal editing, then the minor-key contrast of Teizo Matsumura's doleful theme. The subject is partly love - almost all its sections include an "I love you" - but mostly Japan itself, struggling to break out of its chrysalis but hamstrung by memories of atom bombs and wartime atrocities; the allegory seems to meander, then at some point it turns into a yakuza movie with gangsters looking for "the worm" (the tiny caterpillar whose journey from Nagasaki to Hokkaido ties the film together) and becomes a bit obscure, even silly - but Kuroki's architecture is compelling in itself, underlain with a sense of constant questing (a caterpillar struggling to break out, again) and quiet despair, "a life without turning points" like the life of the salaryman. A lot of it is wanderings and ennui, Antonioni-like; "Butterfly is eagle and flies between swans", whatever that may mean.

MIX-UP (72) (Francoise Romand, 1986): On the periphery of 'Is it a proper movie?' (just an hour long, made for TV), but I guess it qualifies if e.g. VERNON, FLORIDA qualifies - and Errol Morris comes to mind often, in the deadpan formal oddity, the unforced excursions into unexpected detail (George Bernard Shaw?!), and the underlying respect for its people. There are mirrors, doublings, stylised shots using background and foreground, lines spoken with deliberate artifice; all this is easy, even the hilarious eccentricity ("This is my bowling hat. I play a lot of bowls") is a little bit easy, but the texture hits emotionally too, both in evoking the sense of everyday weirdness - two families plunged into soap-opera melodrama, and making the best of it - and in positing the thrown-together clans as a kind of alternative family unit: "We all belonged to one another". Wish it were longer, frankly.

APRIL 1, 2023

THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (68) (Felix Feist, 1947): Dunno what it says about our joyless age that the hero's carefree attitude to drink-driving actually seems more shocking than the titular anti-hero's murder and manipulation - though placing such blind trust in a random hitchhiker (even after people start getting hurt) is also rather startling. Extremely unlikely and extremely entertaining, filling its remarkably full 62 minutes with hard-boiled 40s slang - "That bird's got a hot rod" = 'That man is armed' - and a bevy of vivid characters including the drunken-bumpkin night-watchman and eager-beaver gas-station youngster who tags along after the killer insults his baby daughter (even our hero secretly admits the kid is funny-looking), and turns out to be a dab hand at poker. Poker games are among the fun tangents - the police chief addressed, while at the table, as "sweetheart" - Feist (acting as writer-director, unusually) juxtaposing Lawrence Tierney's ice-cold, misanthropic turn with the rollicking tone and escalating plotting of farce - a combo that works despite itself, partly because the fun comes off more as a shield against the bleakness than a counter to it. (The "sharp" showgirl who throws in with the killer after he kills her friend, shrugging that she "meant nothing to me", is sharp indeed.) Some of the choices are a bit eyeroll-inducing, though.

THE CASTLE OF PURITY (59) (Arturo Ripstein, 1973): Would be an achievement even without the DOGTOOTH connection - esp. the look, muted colours, pouring rain on ochre-brown tiles (a dab of lipstick stands out, in close-up) - the biggest difference being perhaps the focus on the tyrannical patriarch more than his victims. He's akin to a cult leader, or one of those charismatic bad dads like Allie Fox in MOSQUITO COAST, imposing healthy living, a vegetarian diet and an exercise regimen on the family (he's also an environmentalist, railing against excessive plastic and over-population; didn't realise this stuff was already established in the early 70s), genuinely revered by his increasingly alienated wife and imprisoned children - but of course he's a hypocrite, eating meat and sleeping with hookers when out in the world. The idea of the male sex drive - a frustrated will-to-power - as the driving force behind the oppression is another aspect that wasn't really in DOGTOOTH, then again that film was tonally much more coherent (and hip); this one tries to do too much, wanting the dad to be both tragic and evil, growing bitty and erratic in the second half. Still distinctive; cryptic games - "Do the statue of Death!" - locks of hair in a box, etc.

DRAGNET GIRL (64) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933): Unfamiliar territory for Ozu, from the boxing gyms and billiard rooms of the early scenes to the lovers-on-the-run melodrama of the final act (the weakest part), also droll seeing Kinuyo Tanaka as a gangster's moll - she leads a double life as an office typist - the strap of her dress frequently slipping down provocatively. The director changes his style, the visuals unusually expansive, choreographing large groups, playing with focus and the depth of the frame - one early scene in a dance hall has the couple starting to dance, dancing off into the background, then three random girls playing with yo-yos enter the frame to fill the gap. The many signs in English speak to the influence of SCARFACE and Co. though in fact the minor gangsters often seem like the mischievous kids in Ozu's other films of the period; also a barely-concealed gay subtext, with a girl-on-girl kiss - actually a peck on the cheek, but then why hide it? - shifted offscreen by cutting to feet instead of faces. A youthful lark, and more.

GREY GARDENS (62) (Albert & David Maysles, 1975): Is Little Edie just bitter? Is Big Edie controlling, abusive? Hard to say because the film is a performance, though not in the way of today's documentaries where subjects act out a story, playing 'themselves' as if the camera didn't exist, more in the way of an intimate (but self-conscious) conversation with an invited guest. The Maysles are characters too, addressed by name and sometimes responding; there's no character arc, just a 90-minute slice of someone's life - and of course the 'someones' are quasi-celebs, related to Jackie Kennedy ("The hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility," muses Little Edie, and they're probably as close as it gets to American aristocracy), a snobby aspect that's a little tacky and tawdry. The BABY JANE aspect makes up for it, a sense of curdled glamour and faded beauty, the younger woman especially fascinating - childlike, attention-seeking, but also sad, still waiting (at 56) for her life to begin. She rambles on about clothes, recalls old regrets, worries about pilfering, meanwhile her mother sings 'Tea for Two' in a still-melodious voice, sitting up in bed in a big floppy hat. The voyeurism must've seemed more shocking in '75, but the pathos remains.

THE ANDERSON TAPES (71) (Sidney Lumet, 1971): Remarkable act of self-sabotage, refreshing the parts other heist movies don't reach - and in fact steer away from. TAKING OF PELHAM 123 mixed the genre with comedy in similar ways, but the script here systematically wrecks tension (the heist-movie pleasure of a plan being laid) at every turn, constantly making clear that everything the gang do is being watched or listened to - a take on the surveillance society 50 years before the fact (or just a premonition of Watergate a couple of years in advance) and/or a rueful comment on Mr. Anderson himself, a doomed criminal forever "hammering at locked doors". Self-consciousness is absolutely everywhere, a Mafia guy turned businessman bemoans his growing softness - "Man's a hunting animal", yet here he is worrying about "crabgrass in the lawn and worms in the fuckin' poodle" - and decides to finance the score as a sort of gesture, even though "it's gonna be a disaster", later our hero is confronted by his girlfriend's sugar daddy - amassed while he was in the slammer - who shakes his head at the foolishness of the whole situation ("Fighting over a woman..."), later still the heist itself is broken up with flash-forwards to its own aftermath, once again adding self-consciousness and exploding tension (albeit smartly managing not to spoil how it actually turned out). The only flaw is perhaps that the heist is dumb and wouldn't have worked anyway - the tenants would surely have recognised the flamboyant little man who knocked on their doors, giving his real name, a few days earlier - some may also find the fact of a racist, homophobic world to be a 'flaw' but it only underlines the implicit social angle of the gang as a symbol of all those demeaned by the System. The final joke is perhaps a little obscure, or perhaps - given all the fuss about being caught with "illegal" tapes, privacy still being a thing in the early 70s - the joke's on us.

CROSSFIRE (73) (Edward Dmytryk, 1947): Second or third viewing, first in >25 years. Brilliantly done for such a totally unsubtle Message Movie - and yes, it's a little painful watching pipe-smoking cop Robert Young spell out the message (anti-Semitism bad), or the Army guy who turns up for 30 seconds just to make it crystal-clear that the Army doesn't condone this kind of behaviour, but the dialogue is pungent, I dug the fusion of two total opposites - noir and didactic - and even the message is refreshingly reasonable, compared to the extreme victimisation and melodramatic politics we see today (basically that the virulently anti-Semitic killer is an outlier, but still fed by everyday bigotry). Even better is the post-war confusion and free-floating hatred, now that the "win-the-war peanut" has been consumed, even better is Robert Mitchum opining on the general craziness - "It's not just you. The snakes are loose, anybody can get them. I get 'em myself, but they're friends of mine" - best of all is Gloria Grahame as the floozy with an unhappy story and Paul Kelly as 'The Man', her unhinged, possibly shell-shocked husband (?). A slow-dance in a forgotten garden, terrific stuff.

MARCH 1, 2023

1989 REVISITED, second viewings after many years:

PSYCHO II (53) (Richard Franklin, 1983): A thoughtful (and not very scary) psychological drama, but I reckon the doubters at the time were right: PSYCHO is a film of shocks, and once the ambiguity is resolved there's nothing to replace it except less compelling ambiguity. Perkins does a properly poignant variation of the ex-con who's trying to go straight but that dynamic seems a bit lethargic for a psycho killer, nor does the film ever square the circle between viewing him as a victim and a potential monster. Shot through with reverence - opens with the actual shower scene from the original, closes with the producers acknowledging their debt to "Sir Alfred Hitchcock" - but also irreverence, Norman deadpan-reacting to every sudden noise and request for a knife (to cut a sandwich), and of course it saves its trump card for last (the clever staging suggesting that it might be all in his head). Only unforgettable bit: the shovel.

THE CYCLIST (70) (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1989): Just pure chaos and I'm not sure it works, the construction is so slapdash it mangles the narrative; still unclear what happens when the gangsters decide to sabotage our hero (but fail), it looks like the nurse gives the drugged (?) glass of milk to the doctor by mistake (?), but it all happens so choppily and chaotically it's hard to tell. Then again, Makhmalbaf's construction - in the sense of spending time on connective tissue - has often been slapdash (it's why I don't love A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE as much as most people), and in this case it doesn't really matter because the style is so fevered and the subject so explicitly "a circus", recalling Kusturica (the barker looks a bit like the uncle in TIME OF THE GYPSIES) or, I guess, Fellini - but political. Very hot lighting, dramatic score, baroque foreground/background compositions - but also e.g. a shot of a dying woman gasping, reaching out for an oxygen mask in the foreground, then money changes hands, a phone call is made, and a nurse lets her have the oxygen mask. Social decay and social comment, just a few years after the revolution, our hero an Afghan immigrant so desperate he embarks on a stunt reminiscent of the dance marathon in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (explicitly referenced) - but we open, spectacularly, on a daredevil biker cross-cut with Dickensian misery in a dingy hospital, later we cross-cut (why?) between dynamic shots of a buzkashi game (the polo-like Afghan game played on horseback) and an old man lying down - trying to kill himself? - beneath a moving bus, his head about to be crushed by the wheel. A line of boys appear in matching uniforms, all holding roses; onlookers get their moments, there's a tragic flashback (or fantasy) and an odd charming interlude with two kids hiding under a hospital bed, giggling at a bandy-legged doctor. Frantic, satirical, exciting to watch.

ILLEGAL (54) (Lewis Allen, 1955): Didn't realise this was actually remaking a pre-Code film (THE MOUTHPIECE), crossed my mind more than once that the lawyer's antics - winning one case by slugging a witness in the courtroom, another by chugging down a slow-acting poison - felt less like the mid-50s and more like something Lee Tracy might've done in the early 30s (though it was actually Warren William). Edward G. Robinson is too old for the role, his repeated "Father's orders" to Nina Foch should be poignant but he actually is old enough to be her father, the script alternates between too much exposition and too little - there are gaps; our hero's fortunes seem to change quite abruptly - and the melodramatic finale, EGR lurching into court, is a bit much. Still some meaty plotting, and two nice surprises on the fringes: Jan Merlin (who?) giving out Dan Duryea vibes as coolly efficient hitman 'Mr. Garth', and a young Jayne Mansfield as an ambitious chanteuse, unexpectedly resolving the narrative through her resentment at being called a "dumb broad".

DEATH RIDES A HORSE (59) (Giulio Petroni, 1967): Very ragged plotting, which is sometimes not a bad thing (we skip the exposition, going straight from John Phillip Law as a child watching his family get killed to all grown up and seeking revenge, of course) but mostly takes away from the effect; plot reversals pile up, often without much build-up, JPL suddenly ties a locomotive (how?) to the bars of Lee Van Cleef's prison cell in order to break him out, and even the beats in the final shoot-out don't really land as they should (the death of the chief baddie - the ringleader in that long-ago slaughter - happens without JPL even being aware of it; that dust storm also seems a bit arbitrary). "I'm on your side," says our hero to victimised blacks and Mexican peasants, straining for some kind of political angle - but mostly it's a case of Van Cleef being untypically avuncular as well as a badass, bits of burlesque comedy (the drunken wife), Petroni adding sub-Leone style (zooms, ECUs of eyes, gratutous pans around the card table), and Morricone's choral score sounding downright African amid the barren landscapes. On the one hand, feel I'm underrating; on the other, further proof that the spaghetti Western was more a case of one (maybe two) world-class directors than a really fruitful genre.

FEBRUARY 1, 2023

JANUARY 1, 2023