List List Bang Bang

January 9, 2010

2006 Screening Log Notes

Filed under: 2006,Screening Log — misterjiggy @ 8:00 pm

State of the Union (1948 – Frank Capra) pro (DVD)

In some ways the most mature of Capra’s take downs of corrupt politics; and certainly the least folksy, sentimental and emotional (though there are still plenty of those qualities).  Spencer Tracy is Grant Mathews an aircraft magnate cum populist politician seeking the Republican nomination as presidential candidate (circa 1946).  Mathews puts his marriage (to Katharine Hepburn naturally) on the line as he succumbs to the promise of sex and power – all rapped up in the form of his mistress, the heiress and wannabe king maker Kay Thorndyke (a comely Angela Lansbury).  Thordyke’s steely predatory gaze seems to hypnotize Mathews and his idealism and principles soon give way to pragmatism and opportunism – a mere puppet to the usual array of Capra fat cat power brokers.  Lansbury, a mere 23 at the time but with the poise and confidence of a woman twice that, gives a performance that anticipates her memorable turn as Raymond Shaw’s brainwashing mother in The Manchurian Candidate.  Hepburn plays Mary Mathews the shunted aside wife and chief Thorndyke rival who is forced into the spotlight by her husband’s naked ambition.  Hepburn, in a role originally slated for Claudette Colbert, conveys a nice mix of the vulnerable and the strong willed and gives the key performance of the film.  Watched this one just after revisiting the sometimes sublime and always completely ridiculous The Fountainhead.  Despite residing on the polar opposites of the political spectrum these films share quite a bit in common as statements about purity of purpose and refusal to compromise (though Frank Capra easily trumps Ayn Rand). 

Electra Glide in Blue (1973 – James William Guercio) mixed(+) (DVD)

Pop/Rock music producer Guercio’s sole film, an independent budget conscious effort made quite beautiful by his insistence on hiring Conrad Hall as his DP.  A sort of New Hollywood “revenge of Easy Rider” film about a motorcycle cop and Viet Nam veteran (a theme barely explored) whose career ambitions go far beyond hassling hippies in VW campers for minor (or non-existent for that matter) traffic violations committed on a deserted stretch of Arizona highway (though shot in Utah’s Monument Valley in a vague attempt to suggest some sort of counter-culture version of a John Ford Western).  Robert Blake (in a sort of benevolent Perry Smith (In Cold Blood) mode) plays the protagonist John Wintergreen, a cop with a Napoleon complex aching to get off his Electra Glide model motorcycle and out of his uniform blues and into a four wheeler and the brown suit and Stetson hat of a homicide detective.  He temporarily gets his wish when an old hermit is murdered in a desert shack and he impresses the local detective Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan).  Poole’s a Hank Quinlan (Touch of Evil) type full of ego, twisted bias and instinct.  The problem is that the film meanders between the plot and character elements and the supporting performers (Ryan, Elisha Cook Jr. as an old coot nut job, Billy Green Bush as clownish wild card motorcycle cop “Zipper”, Royal Dano as a cranky coroner and the shapely Jeannine Riley) leave their teeth marks all over the scenery.  The screenplay drops the ball on some easy economy, Riley is given a lengthy drunken monologue that slows the film down right when it shouldn’t (though the scene is crucial to the Wintergreen/Poole rift).  Blake is solid but we learn surprisingly little about his establishment conformist character, one that is pretty interesting on the surface.  Not entirely successful but certainly worth seeing.  The downbeat ending is a 70s classic made all the more powerful by Hall’s camera and Guercio’s tune “Tell Me” (performed by the late Terry Kath of the band Chicago.  Kath has a small by key part in the film).

Kapo (1959 – Gillo Pontecorvo) pro(+) (DVD-R)

In the same year of release as George StevensThe Diary of Anne Frank actress Susan Strasberg (Anne Frank on the Broadway stage, passed over for the film version in favor of Millie Perkins) starred in another gut wrenching Holocaust themed drama, Kapo, a French/Italian co-production helmed by Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn).  A flawed but highly compelling story of a 14 year old Jewish girl from France who while interred in a concentration camp takes on a new identity and renounces her heritage in order to survive.  Her compromises begin to mount and she soon finds herself a boss (“kapo”) of one of the work camp huts, giving in to the dark side of human nature by abusing her power and imitating her captors in order to curry favor.  Her two year transition from innocent youth attending piano lessons to no-nonsense kapo is given short shrift.  There’s little sense of a gradual degression of character (and the likely concessions of a sexual nature are soft peddled).  Eventually she is redeemed by a rather moving  final act of heroic martyrdom spurred on by a her love for a Red Army officer held as a prisoner in the camp (a rather ill conceived plot point no doubt motivated by Pontecorvo’s Marxism).  Emmanuelle Riva in her first featured screen role (Hiroshima mon amour would come later in 1959) and Didi Perego provide strong support as fellow prisoners.  Carlo Rustichelli serves up a memorable score.  In some ways anticipates Andrzej Munk’s more nuanced incomplete 1963 film Passenger.

The Quiet Duel / Shizukanaru ketto (1949 – Akira Kurosawa) mixed(+) (DVD)

Only Toshiro Mifune’s fourth credited screen role and his second of many with Kurosawa.  In this humanist melodrama Mifune plays Dr. Fujisaki a dedicated and stoic surgeon that prefigures in some ways the much older character he would play in Red Beard, Mifune’s final collaboration with Kurosawa.  The titular battle (to the dismay of those hoping for a Kurosawa/Mifune samurai film) is an interior one between Dr. Fujisaki’s bottled up sexual desire and his conscience.  You see, the good virgin doctor has contracted syphilis from a patient during the course a war-time operation in a make shift mobile hospital.  He is a pure man inadvertently tainted by the sins of another which leads to a break in his commitment to his one true love (Miki Sanjo) who to her great frustration is not advised of the reason for the end of their engagement.  In keeping with his character’s saintly self-denial and steadfast martyrdom Mifune is rather subdued throughout the film save for one scene of emotional release where his pain boils over in the form of an anguished confession to a student nurse who loves the Doctor (herself a fallen woman with her own redemptive path).  It is in this one scene the audience can see the Mifune style that would dominate the Japanese films that found their way into the International art houses from here on out (somewhat similar to the explosive potential exhibited by Marlon Brando in The Men – another humanist post war effort).  There appears to be a strong social comment going on in The Quiet Duel about post-war Japan perhaps suggesting that even Japan’s most worthy and upstanding citizens had been infected by the disease of the effects of war and that, as a result, they have been robbed of their normalcy and nobility (there are similar themes, though less overt, in the superior Stray Dog from the same year).  Interesting and technically well executed but just as uneven as other Kurosawa films of the period (see One Wonderful Sunday, Scandal and The Idiot for instance). Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura supports as Fujisaki’s doctor father and Noriko Sengoku steals many a scene as the apprentice nurse and single mother.

City for Conquest (1940 – Anatole Litvak) pro(-) (DVD)

One of Warner Brothers’ honorable tough guys from the slums concoctions, James Cagney bread and butter territory.  Surprisingly ambitious, almost borders on pretension when it shies away from Cagney’s boxing exploits and focuses on his sensitive Gershwin-esque kid brother composer (Arthur Kennedy in his debut).  It’s like Body and Soul meets Humoresque.  This film wants it all, with ruff and tumble urban thuggery often giving way to romance (between childhood sweethearts played by Cagney and Ann Sheridan), sentiment (Cagney blinded in the ring by a cheater while Sheridan weeps), dance numbers (Sheridan and Anthony Quinn’s (!) hoofer characters), melodrama (brutish Quinn abusing dance partner Sheridan) and hokum (cornball narrative device featuring a hobo played by Frank Craven).  Uneven, but Cagney’s talent and charisma makes the film worthwhile.  Sheridan is miscast but likeable as always.  Then future director Elia Kazan gives a winning turn as the colorfully named delinquent Googi Zucco.  A pure studio product that’s not as visually distinctive as some of Litvak’s better films (Mayerling, All This and Heaven Too, The Snake Pit, Sorry, Wrong Number).

The Seven-Ups (1973 – Philip D’Antoni) pro(-) (DVD)

Largely unsung and forgotten policier of the super authentic gritty early seventies variety; back in the good old days when New York was still a cesspool of garbage and crime. Director D’Antoni previously produced Bullit and The French Connection and while The Seven-Ups is easily the weak sister amongst this trilogy of sorts, it also comes equipped with one of those super awesome CGI free extended car chase sequences that made D’Antoni’s earlier films the classics they are today. Roy Scheider heads up the secret undercover crack team of cops that are dubbed the Seven-Ups because they are pursuing crimes that will get the bad guys at least seven years in the big house. Naturally, they don’t play by the rules. The double dealing informant played by Tony Lo Bianco is an undertaker and childhood friend of Scheider’s character from the old neighborhood . Lo Bianco and the mobsters in the film are much more compelling figures than the cops. Solid for its type, but largely diluted after decades of like minded television shows.

Red Angel / Akai tenshi (1966 – Yasuzo Masumura) PRO(-) (DVD)

The first four Masumura films available on DVD in North America (Giants and Toys, Afraid to Die, Manji and Blind Beast) are notable for, among other reasons, their expressive use of vivid, sometimes garish, color.  With the offbeat war film Red Angel Masumura wisely retreated to black and white recognizing that color’s an impossibility for such a grim and bleak subject, namely the medical care administered to the victims of the bloody battles of the Sino-Japan war circa 1939 (much like fellow cult director and purveyor of brilliant color Seijun Suzuki did for the great Story of a Prostitute which is set during the same war).  If Red Angel is a masterpiece, it’s certainly a troubling one with a sensibility that’s hard to pin down. There’s an uneasy and provocative blend of the harrowing and the erotic; the viewer’s never sure if he should be horrified or titillated. Piles of corpses and graphic amputations are offset by scenes of obsessive sexual yearning. While Red Angel is a straight faced anti-war film in the vein of realistic “war is hell” meditations like Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain and Masaki Kobayashi’s Human Condition trilogy it’s certainly not the fodder for middle brow humanists (made abundantly clear when the film’s heroine Sakura Nishi (the beautiful Ayako Wakao from Manji and Irezumi) a nurse who had previously been raped gives an amputee a hand job). It’s most disturbing that Nurse Nishi’s rape by aggressive battle scarred patients would motivate her to become a sort of sexual healer – a de facto sex worker (or – using the watered down Japanese descriptor – “comfort woman”).  The central paradox seems to be that the dehumanizing and amoral environment drives Nishi’s need to humanize the broken men that surround her, including the object of her all consuming love the impotent morphine addicted Doctor with a penchant for amputation (Shinsuke Ashida – a sort of 180 from Toshiro Mifune’s surgeon in The Quiet Duel).  Nishi’s absurd martyrdom is strangely poetic if not a little abstract. Not for all tastes, but up there with the best of the new wave Japanese cinema of the sixties.  Observations that this film prefigures M*A*S*H, while understandable, are a little superficial, as there’s nothing particularly irreverent about Red Angel.

The MacKintosh Man (1973 – John Huston) mixed(+) (DVD)

Low key European set espionage thriller in the anti-James Bond mold.  That is, the film eschews the glamour, flash, gadgetry and sex of the Bond films, though never quite aims for the grim realism of a film like The Spy Who Came in from the ColdPaul Newman’s secret agent, a decidedly more interesting one than he played in the Hitchcock misfire Torn Curtain, is no indestructible super hero, he makes love to the girl (the beautifully blank Dominique Sanda) off-screen and is never particularly composed or suave.  James Mason provides serviceable support in his urbane creep mode (think of an aging Phillip Vandamm from North By Northwest).  The first half of the film set in England and Ireland is much more compelling that the meandering final portion in Malta though I did appreciate the final scene (a standoff among Newman, Sanda and Mason) which makes a rather interesting statement about patriotism vs. pragmatism.  The film has a poor reputation and it’s downbeat tone suggests some disinterest in those involved in making it; but there’s some good stuff in this one.

Japan’s Longest Day / Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (1967 – Kihachi Okamoto) pro (DVD)

True to its English title this Toho produced film is a little on the long side, but it’s a rather complex and fascinating study on the mechanics, politics and emotion of surrender.  In this case, the response to the Potsdam Declaration and the unconditional surrender of Japan at the end of World War II.  How does a nation mobilize to give up? How is the group will achieved? How is well meaning dissent quashed? The impact of capitulation and defeat on the nation’s psyche is accented by the value honor and duty have within the Japanese ethos (which includes the mind set of the kamikaze pilot and the ancient tradition of seppuku).  An ethos given weight in the film by the distinct portrayals of Toshiro Mifune as Minister of War Anami and a scenery chewing Toshio Kurosawa as Major Hatanaka.  Anami is a steadfast, grizzled and reasoned militarist and Hatanaka a highly emotive and loyal rebel with a brash ill conceived enthusiasm Anami’s and Hatanaka’s differing methods of committing ritual suicide say a great deal about their approaches, one old school nobility, the other a rash response to emotional overload.  The film does it best to create suspense despite the fact that the history books give away the ending.  Just when you think there’s little hope for war film action (for a true combat film see Okamoto’s harrowing The Battle of Okinawa) outside of internal administrative and political debate comes a mini-coup and a bloody massacre that gives the lagging story the urgency it sorely needs.  Very well made but more conventional than the other Okamoto films I’ve seen (the chanbara efforts The Sword of Doom and Kill!).  Ultimately the film gave me a clearer understanding of how artists like Kenji Mizoguchi during the war would be motivated to make National Policy Films (the Japanese equivalent of what is essentially pro-military propaganda) like The 47 Ronin

Tiger Bay (1959 – J. Lee Thompson) pro (DVD)

I admired both the precocious Hayley Mills’ debut performance as the 12 year old tomboy Gillie who witnesses a hot blooded murder and the authentic look of the Cardiff set film which conveyed a real port town grit.  The ending is a bit of a cop out though, it allows law enforcement to get their man while Gillie gets to reaffirm her working class street honor by remaining completely loyal to Horst Buchholz’s murderer on the run.  Everybody wins save for the prison bound Buchholz and audiences who spent an hour and a half sympathizing with the poor cuckolded Polish sailor.  Papa John Mills does a solid job as the head cop but it’s kind of a thankless role.  The film works better as a crime thriller than as a character study or mismatched “buddy” movie.  The Buchholz / Hayley Mills relationship kind of anticipates the Alan Bates / Mills relationship in Whistle Down the Wind.  The street kids jostling for guns reminded me of Mai Zetterling’s 1962 BAFTA award winning short Wargame.

The Cremator (1968 – Juraj Herz) pro (DVD-R)

Set in German occupied Prague this twisted expressionistic Czech film downplays the trademark New Wave black comedy giving way to horror.  The eerie film’s notional protagonist Mr. Kopfrkingl, an entrepreneur and family man who runs a crematorium, is a wormy chatterbox of a man, a borderline personality who readily adopts the views of others like a Nazi era Zelig ripe for collaboration in the name of ambition and conformity.  Rudolf Hrusinky’s Kopfrkingl is like an extroverted version of Fassbinder’s Herr R., what with his pasty complexion, pudgy torso and greasy matted down hair, only this wing nut doesn’t wait until the final reel to run amok on his unsuspecting part-Jewish family.  This stylish and grotesque film is suitably unsettling but ultimately unsatisfying.  Classic horror is an act of sublimation and the horror here is far too real, down right literal given the historic context.  There’s no catharsis, only nausea.  History through an absurdist’s fish-eye lens.

Takeshis’ (2005 – Takeshi Kitano) mixed (DVD)

Kitano seems indebted to Fellini and Lynch with this one, accenting expressionism over narrative cohesion.  A colorful show-biz take down that tap dances right down the thin line between self-indulgent navel gazing and revealing personal filmmaking.  A dream film that doesn’t bother much with dream logic.  Kind of drops the ball on a scenario ripe for exploiting doppelganger themes.  Beat Takeshi’s double, convenience store clerk and wannabe actor “Mr. Kitano”, mirrors the real life man’s stoic persona and becomes little more than a passenger to the action, a passive spectator and it hurts the story (be that as it may).  At least Fellini could bring introspection to his Guido character in . Creative and certainly not dull; but I was under whelmed.

The F.B.I. Story (1959 – Mervyn LeRoy) mixed (DVD)

Overlong highly episodic pro-bureau propaganda, but there are some really well made and compelling bits amongst the squareness and James Stewart and Vera Miles almost validate the apple pie slant.  Starts better than it ends, the final “case”, a hunt for treasonous communists, is both bland and hasn’t worn well with the benefit of hindsight.  For what is ultimately a police procedural, the film is surprisingly moving, if not a little manipulative (Miles miscarries, their son dies at Iwo Jima, Stewart’s partner (Murray Hamilton) is gunned down on the job).  The film has a rather artificial look, shot, it seems, largely on sets and the studio back lot, but the art direction detail is good and the artificiality, oddly enough, enhances the sometimes simplistic world view.  Veteran Hollywood composer Max Steiner provides a suitably stentorian score.

Hands Over the City / Le Mani sulla città (1963 – Francesco Rosi) pro (DVD)

A Naples set urban planning/municipal corruption intrigue where the only thing that outnumbers the vast multitude of identical non-descript apartment buildings that dot the city’s skyline is the sea of middle aged men that run the city, the paunchy and balding power brokers that are icons of self-interest.  Rosi’s quasi-documentary style dispenses with the sentiment and melodrama that sometimes plagued, sometimes elevated, the best of classic Italian neo-realist cinema making the film seem all the more “real” (though Piero Piccioni’s invasive score sometimes breaks the mood).  Rosi’s precise style is also unique because there’s a compositional and choregraphical rigor, there’s none of the looseness or deliberate faux amateurishness one often sees when a documentary style is used in a fictional narrative film.  Where the more complex and effective Sicily set Salvatore Guiliano treated its Mafioso subject as an enigma Hands Over the City abandons subtly, all of its cards are on the table.  The Neapolitan Mayor and his Commissioners are shameless, their motives undisguised with blatant conflicts of interest leaving them virtually unfazed.  There’s no threat of jail only the fear of failing to be re-elected and as a result being cut off from the source of easy money.  While the political Left is the voice of reason, the issue at hand is really one would characterize as a motherhood issue; in that the allegations against the tainted system are irrefutable.  Political and ideological allegiances are red herrings, it’s purely a moral issue, a matter of personal and procedural integrity.  Rosi does endeavor to give the villains of the piece nuance with the occasional suggestion of introspection, including the central bad guy played by a dubbed, yet still distinct and effective, Rod Steiger (the expressiveness of Italian mannerisms certainly suits Steiger’s high octane style of emoting).  Steiger’s church visit and speech about quality buildings stand out in particular and give his character some added dimension.  Unfortunately the film’s most visceral moment, the collapse of a shoddily built tenement building killing two and seriously injuring a young boy, occurs at the beginning of the film creating a false expectation of further “action”.  The rest of the film is largely populated by talking heads back grounded by maps, models, plans, blueprints, skylines and construction sites.  Real life Neapolitan city councilor Carlo Fermariello plays a vocal opponent to the underhanded right wingers giving one of the better performances by an amateur I’ve seen.

The Honeymoon Killers (1970 – Leonard Kastle) pro (DVD)

The true crime milieu cries out for the kind of grey heavy palette only black and white on a budget can bring.  Hitchcock toyed with certain true crime stylistic elements in Psycho and The Wrong Man and Richard Brooks strived for some semi-documentary realism with his seminal take on Capote’s In Cold Blood. Yet, those great films despite their grasps at the common, the grim and the mundane are meticulously crafted, highly professional, and the result is downright artful.  The Honeymoon Killers, about the 40s era “Lonely Hearts” serial killer duo of nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and con man Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco), is more in tune with the pulpy, seedy, low brow torn from the headlines genre origins.  The first third of the film with its matter of fact approach is startlingly bland and amateurish, even dull.  Somehow, almost as if by fluke, the film suddenly begins to gel.  The momentum starts to build right around the moment Mary Jane Higby appears as Janet Fay, the god fearing hat making widow who entrusts her life savings to the smarmy but amiable Fernandez.  Higby’s spot on portrayal of an eccentric bitty deluded by romance elevates Stoler’s and Lo Bianco’s performances.  The less hysterical Martha becomes and the needier Ray gets the more menacing and combustible the pair become. Despite Higby’s inevitable exit, Stoler and Lo Bianco are more than able to drive the sordid tale to its unsettling conclusion.  If done today surely the tone would be ironic and the performance mode deadpan.  Kastle succeeds in creating a mood of unease because he gets the actors to play it straight, without wink or camp.  Even a low rent contemporary film like Night of the Living Dead had stylistic ambition evident in its editing, lighting, make-up and camera angles.  The lack of stylistic flourish in The Honeymoon Killers actually makes it work.  I’d even argue that the use of the Mahler compositions was superfluous.

The Crook / Le Voyou (1970 – Claude Lelouch) pro (DVD)

The colorful musical opening (the film within the film) almost suggests a gangster spoof; but there’s a rather serious and foreboding undercurrent that runs throughout this entertaining caper flick starring Jean Louis Trintignant as master thief Simon “the Swiss” Duroc (a surname borrowed from the more famous Trintignant/Lelouch collaboration A Man and a Woman).  The film has some significant (and sneaky) narrative ellipsis; but the non-linear approach is so imbedded you’ll miss it if you are not on your toes. Certainly one of the better pre-Pulp Fiction uses of the structure that comes to mind.  The result plays with audience allegiances to the characters on the screen.  Charles Denner who plays a father of a kidnapped boy slowly goes from victim to villain.  Not a particularly hard boiled crime film, but unpredictable and offbeat enough to diffuse any playfulness suggested by the likeable Francis Lai score.  Trintignant’s Simon is a remotely romantic figure – but also a peculiar kind of a sociopath.  Sinister and conflicted and thereby hinting at his next performance in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

Lust for Gold (1949 – S. Sylvan Simon) mixed (DVD)

This odd little Western largely set in 1880s Arizona while not wholly successful is of some interest and entertainment value.  Noirish not so much in style but in tenor and mood.  Like in all good post-war film noir the universe created is morally unbalanced, everyone is corrupt or corruptible, succeptible to both greed and paranoia.  The film’s leads, the late great Glenn Ford (with the occasional questionable German accent), Ida Lupino and Gig Young, are paradoxically both the film’s heroes and villains.  Each willing to sell their body and soul to find the Lost Dutchman gold mine deep in the heart of the rugged Superstition Mountains.  None are saved because none are truly redeemable.  In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre terms it’s like a film made up solely of Fred C. Dobbs characters without the Bob Curtain (Tim Holt) or Howard (Walter Huston) characters to dull the edge.  There is really no one to root for and it hurts the drama.  The film is narrated in part and book-ended by two rather lengthy portions set in contemporary Arizona.  More than just a framing device these sections are equipped with their own narrative developments intended to complement the historic action.  Given the two time periods it’s a pretty economical little genre piece.

Town Without Pity (1961 – Gottfried Reinhardt) pro (DVD)

This German/US co-production is a highly compelling drama about the riverside gang rape of a young German girl by four drunken American G.I.’s (including a young Robert Blake and Richard Jaeckel) stationed near a Bavarian village within occupied Germany.  There is enough interesting location shooting, artful black and white compositions and economical court house debate and cross-examination that the film never feels bound to the courtroom or seems like a dry police procedural. The film treads dangerously close to the line between blaming the victim and indicting those that blame the victim, as represented by Kirk Douglas’ morally conflicted defense attorney character who must save his clients from the electric chair by smearing a young girl’s increasingly shaky reputation.  The portrayal of the “adult’ content in the film certainly owes a debt to the once censor challenging Anatomy of a Murder, though Town Without Pity is a much more somber and serious minded film than Preminger’s occasionally sly and humorous masterpiece.  Good performances all around including the one from a 16 year old Christine Kaufmann (the then future Mrs. Tony Curtis) as the rape victim.  Gene Pitney’s juke box hit that shares the film’s title and figures prominently has aged nicely.  The film suffers a little for relying on narration where German subtitles would suffice.

The Seduction of Mimi / Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (1972 – Lina Wertmüller) pro (DVD)

Somewhat reminiscent of Pietro Germi’s darkly comic attacks on Sicilian mores, this film has the same mania as Germi’s sixties classics (Divorce – Italian Style, Seduced and Abandoned) but its all been politicized with the absurdity amplified and the characters generally made even more grotesque.  If Germi’s work suggested the spirit of a social reformer Wertmuller’s suggests the work of both a political anarchist and a late period Fellini acolyte (she was an assistant director on ).  Giancarlo Giannini’s revenge seduction of an obese woman who is married to his wife’s lover is certainly (disturbingly) memorable, anticipating a similarly comically grotesque scene of sexual awakening in Fellini’s Amarcord (both of which bring to mind the freakish sexuality of the monstrous beach whore Saraghina from ).  The Seduction of Mimi is creatively shot and edited and, on the whole, pretty funny, though it tends to grate here and there when you’re deep into the Southern Italian hysteria.

Lord Love a Duck (1966 – George Axelrod) pro(+) (DVD)

Very funny, if not overly scattershot, black comedy from the poison pen of George Axelrod.  Frustratingly this naughty underseen satire never truly fixes its focus on any one theme, be it youth culture, high school, parent / child relations, religion or the movie industry.  In its barely coherent attack on everything (an “act of pure aggression” goes the tagline) something is lost.  The Loved One, a sort of caustic cousin from the previous year that’s equally broad and manic, beats it in look, execution and bite.  Quibbles aside it’s still a pretty great comedy.  Tuesday Weld as Barbara Ann Greene the ultimate cashmere sweater girl of Consolidated High is so good she overshadows Roddy McDowall’s oddball Mollymauk character that is presumably meant to be the catalyst for the irreverent action.  She plays every scene for keeps, sometimes seemingly oblivious to the parody (and thereby heightening it).  A performance anticipated as early as Weld’s appearance in Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (a film in which Axelrod apparently did some uncredited screenwriting in the adaptation of satirists Max Schulman’s novel) where Weld plays Comfort Goodpasture, a boy crazy high schooler. Weld’s greatness aside there’s a slew of winning supporting turns especially Lola Albright as Barbara Ann’s cocktail waitress Mom and Ruth Gordon doing the Ruth Gordon thing.  The Charles Grodinesque Martin West plays Bob Bernard, a mama’s boy/marriage counselor in training and Barbara Ann’s doomed suitor.  Parts of this film seem to anticipate elements in 80s black comedy standard-bearer Heathers.

The Last Wagon (1956 – Delmer Daves) pro(+) (DVD)

If you watch enough Cinemascope films that were released by Fox during the mid-fifties you start to realize that the camera typically seemed imprisoned.  While the pretty vistas became more awe inspiring as the result of the wide frame the filmmaking became more staid, with little but static shots and minimal cuts (an occasional pan, but few tracking shots).  As the filmmakers technical tools became more cumbersome montage took a back seat, and even exotic location shot scenes could seem stage bound.  The ebullient direction in, for example, Litvak’s Sorry Wrong Number, Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda or Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight is nowhere to be seen in Cinemascope films like Anastasia, Three Coins in the Fountain or Silk Stockings.  In the early days of the process there were the occasional exceptions.  Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life, Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie come to mind.  Despite practical restrictions in camera mobility these films offer extremely expressive looks with unique, sometimes extreme, angles and dynamic editing.  I’d put Delmer Daves direction of the oater The Last Wagon in this bar raising category.  While the story is formulaic, the characters clichéd and the ending pat and disingenuous, this movie is still pretty awesome and an awfully cinematic Cinemascope picture.  Reliable Richard Widmark is the tough as nails anti-hero Comanche Todd a wanted man who delays his date with a hangmen to assist the five teenage survivors of a wagon train full of settlers that were victims of an Apache massacre (a plot that would be recycled for the 2000 sci-fi sleeper Pitch Black).  Daves and DP Wilfred M. Cline (who did similar good work in the Cinemascope Western The Indian Fighter) mix in all sorts of low and high angles, long shots and close-ups, and quicker than usual cuts to create momentum, tension and psychological depth.  According to IMDB the average shot length of 6.7 seconds in The Last Wagon is fast for the Cinemascope films of the era.  In 1956 terms the film doesn’t come close to all time great The Searchers or perhaps even the lean and mean Seven Men From Now, but The Last Wagon is well worth checking out.  Prefer this one to Daves other 1956 oater the almost Shakespearean Jubal (Felicia Farr co-stars in both).  A rather low key Susan Kohner plays the role of a part Navajo part Caucasian girl paving the way for more “ethnic” type casting (Trooper Hook, Imitation of Life).

Loving Couples / Älskande par (1964 – Mai Zetterling) pro(+) (DVD)

Actress turned director Mai Zetterling’s impressive feature debut.  It’s highly derivative of Ingmar Bergman on the surface, aping the structure and themes of early Bergman and employing the talents of Sven Nykvist, Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Eva Dahlbeck, and Gunnar Björnstrand, but there’s an original voice to be heard here if approached with an open mind.  It’s an ensemble piece set in early twentieth century Sweden focusing on the back stories of three young pregnant women (Andersson, Lindblom and Gio Petré) about to deliver their babies.  The largest chunk of the battle of the sexes /class warfare narrative, told in flashback, takes place at a seaside estate at a party celebrating midsummer.  The film is anti-marriage and aggressively feminist, teetering towards irrational man hating, but this tenor gives it some interesting bite.  Controversial in its day, there’s at least one moment late in the film that’s still liable to shock.  As in Bergman’s films the excellent Gunnel Lindblom is underused which is a shame because she is such a fearless, almost primal, actress who can express a wealth of emotion without uttering a single word.  Zetterling and Nykvist deliver artful black and white compositions and the film is jam packed with inventive stylistic flourishes.  Zetterling is certainly worthy of association with fellow female art house helmers of the sixties Agnes Varda and Vera Chytilová.  By sheer chance I watched this film on the day of the great Sven Nykvist’s passing – R.I.P (December 3, 1922 to September 20, 2006).

Joy House  / Les Félins (1964 – Rene Clement) pro(+) (DVD)

This twisty thriller shot in black and white and ‘scope reunites the Purple Noon crew of Alain Delon, Rene Clement, DP Henri Decaë and the scenic Côte d’Azur.  A stylish gothic neo-noir where the convoluted plot is half the fun.  The highly compelling pre-credit sequence and the opening scenes involving American gangsters are basically red herrings, little more than a plot mechanism to get the caddish anti-hero played by Delon into a hillside mansion hideout and into the clutches of an enigmatic and sexy pair of ladies played by Lola Albright and Jane Fonda (both are great).  Is this fetching duo lonely, crazy, sex starved, or homicidal?  Whatever the case it becomes increasingly clear that they will end up aiding and abetting the comeuppance of Delon’s cocksure womanizer.  The jazzy Lalo Schifrin score is first rate, accenting an already super cool nouvelle vague vibe.  Surprised this film doesn’t have much of a reputation, it’s a real kick.

Innocents With Dirty Hands / Les Innocents aux mains sales (1975 – Claude Chabrol) mixed (DVD)

If the conceit behind screwball comedy is metaphorical “remarriage” than Chabrol’s convoluted Innocents With Dirty Hands must surely be a screwball thriller. The set-up is as generic as they come – young beautiful wife (the always lovely Romy Schneider, quite good in this) conspires with cash strapped young lover (Paolo Giusti) to bump off ineffectual rich older husband (Rod Steiger). As the result of being the target of a murder plot Steiger’s impotent drunken cuckold becomes reinvigorated, paradoxically both a voyeur and a man of action. His manhood and mojo awakened from a deep slumber by a little genre Viagra. There’s lots of heavy handed irony in the Schneider character’s development which consists of both comeuppance and a personal, almost spiritual, journey. The murder investigation acting as de facto marriage counseling. Chabrol teases at exploring some interesting psychological angles in the characters but, like in many of his projects, he doesn’t go as deep as you’d hope (the curse of the prolific it seems). There’s not much pizzazz in the film, it’s lost between an edge of your seat suspense thriller and a darkly comic camp melodrama resulting in a product that is merely serviceable and a little bland. If it were really a “screwball thriller” the comedy would be integrated into the story, instead it’s left on the fringes with the minor characters like Jean Rochefort’s sneaky lawyer (with the surname “Legal” no less) and François Maistre and Pierre Santini’s detectives (reminiscent of Hitchcock’s investigators in The Lady Vanishes and Frenzy). A passable time waster but lower tier Chabrol.

A Woman of Rumour  / Uwasa no onna (1954 – Kenji Mizoguchi) pro(+) (Theater)

After years of cinematic triumphs the legendary paring of Mizoguchi and Kinuyo Tanaka would end here.  Supposedly Tanaka rejected Mizoguchi’s marriage proposal during the course of filming.  The irony is that in the narrative of this film the tables are turned, it’s Tanaka (as a brothel madam) that is jilted by a younger ambitious doctor who opts for her modern thinking young daughter who is, naturally, critical of the geisha life.  Perhaps Mizoguchi found a bit of revenge or some small consolation in his art.  Excellent film, but a little too rote to be in the master’s top tier.  The most Naruse like of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen.

Roma Città Libera (1946 – Marcello Pagliero) mixed(+) (DVD)

This neo-realist poseur is a real curiosity.  The director, actor Marcello Pagliero, starred the previous year in Roberto Rossellini’s seminal Roma, Città Aperta (he also received a story credit for Rossellini’s Paisà) and as the result of the success of that film the title was nicked for this one replacing the original more appropriate title La Notte Porta Consiglio (The Night Brings Wisdom).  This switch is a bit of a shame because despite the occasional neo-realist trappings the moniker is somewhat misleading; Roma Città Libera is more of an homage to the poetic realism of 1930s French cinema (the films of Marcel Carné and René Clair in particular) than lockstep with the then burgeoning neo-realist style.  The story focuses on a night in the life of various desperate characters caught in the post war doldrums, drifting amongst the seedy Roman night clubs and cafes populated by gamblers, grifters, American soldiers and prostitutes on the make.  The personnel involved in making this film is impressive, the story/script came from Italian screenwriting legends Flaiano, Cecchi d’Amico and Zavattini and it stars Andrea Checci (The Lady Without Camellias and Two Woman), director/actor Vittorio De Sica and Valentina Cortese (who would take a stab at a Hollywood career starring in Jules Dassin’s produce hauling noir Thieves’ Highway and Robert Wise’s woman in distress noir The House on Telegraph Hill). Plus the score is from Nino Rota who has never been afraid to steal from himself (The Godfather theme was derived from his score from the 1958 Fortunella).  This time he would recycle motifs from Roma Città Libera for Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni.  Hardly a must see classic, but certainly underseen and of some interest for fans of French and Italian movies of the thirties and forties.

The Milky Way / La Voie Lactée (1969 – Luis Buñuel) mixed (VHS)

Certainly the least successful and least cohesive of Buñuel’s triptych of episodic absurdist black comedies (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty would follow).  Easily his most overtly blasphemous work, though you’d think that something so gleefully scathing would be more fun and feel a little more subversive.  Despite it’s general unevenness and sometimes philosophical/theological density there are a number of inspired and memorable episodes that emerge from the anti-clerical vitriol.

 

The Red Tent / Krasnaya Palatka (1969 – Mikhail Kalatozov) pro (DVD) (international version)

This arctic survival adventure based on true events that took place in 1928 is wholly compelling even in the trimmed by more that an hour international version.  The narrative framework involving a trial by apparitions in the guilt ridden insomniac mind of the Italian dirigible commander General Umberto Nobile (Peter Finch) is, initially at least, a silly miscalculation.  Only in the end does the seemingly unnecessary flashback structure add some psychological depth.  There’s some excellent location cinematography; director Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying and I Am Cuba) still demonstrating a great eye.  The presence of Finch and Hardy Kruger in the cast make one think this is a cold weather cousin to the desert survival adventure The Flight of the PhoenixSean Connery gets top billing as arctic explorer Roald Amundsen but he doesn’t factor in the story much.  Claudia Cardinale is mere window dressing as the sole female character – a love interest pinning away for one of the lost men, a Scandinavian meteorologist.  This epic historical drama about self-doubt and leadership in a time of crisis is well worth checking out.  Ennio Moricone provides a lush and evocative score.

The Gypsy Moths (1969 – John Frankenheimer) pro (DVD)

Downbeat mood piece about a trio of barnstorming skydivers (Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman & Scott Wilson) staging a stunt show in the Kansas hometown of their rookie jumper (Wilson).  In Frankenheimer terms it’s an odd mixture of the melancholic small town Americana of All Fall Down and the puerile kicks of Grand Prix.  A deliberately paced study of a sort of spiritual malaise book-ended by thrilling aerial sequences.  Some sixteen years after their surf drenched extra-marital clinch in From Here to Eternity Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr take their adulterous canoodling to a suburban sofa.  The excellent Kerr, as Wilson’s unhappily married Aunt, even provides a nude scene that’s not so much gratuitous as downright shocking given that Kerr’s filmography is peppered with the prim and proper (see for instance Kerr’s prude in Separate Tables, her and co-star Lancaster don’t hook up in that one).  Suffers from being a little on the vague side but I quite liked this film – a sort of New Hollywood precursor.  Lancaster, as the tight lipped self destructive veteran jumper, gives one of the most uncharacteristically subdued performances of his career.  Frankenheimer’s direction is top notch, his visual sense is still on target at this stage of his career.  Bonnie Bedelia has a small role as a border and Wilson’s love interest.

Women of the Night / Yoru no onnatachi (1948 – Kenji Mizoguchi) pro (Theater)

A much more overt social problem film than Mizoguchi’s later more carefully rendered studies of the sexual exploitation of woman (Street of Shame, A Woman of Rumour, The Life of Oharu).  Solid, but surprisingly preachy.  The depiction of some of the street walkers verges on the cartoonish.  At the center of the film is a virtuoso performance by the great and versatile Kinuyo Tanaka who effortlessly transforms herself from prudish desperate war widow to brazen heartless whore.  Unfortunately the metamorphosis is rather Jekyll and Hyde-ish – there’s no suggestion of a more believable gradual evolution in her demeanor and world view (at least in the screened version I saw which had a seemingly truncated 73 minute running time).

Border Incident (1949 – Anthony Mann) pro(+) (DVD)

Pretty great government agency noir, despite the now tired semi-documentary police procedural stuff.  The death by farm equipment of the undercover American G-Man played by George Murphy (prefiguring a combine’s wheat field pursuit of Lee Marvin in Prime Cut) definitely caught me off guard.  I figured a last minute rescue by the Mexican agent ably played by Ricardo Montalban and his bracero pal portrayed by James Mitchell was imminent.  Instead we have a rather thrilling conclusion in a quicksand infested desert cavern that allows for the moneyed boss man played memorably by Howard Da Silva to receive his comeuppance from his own muscle (Charles McGraw – also a trigger man in Mann’s like minded T-Men).  With its principled incorruptible cross-border heroes (Montalban and Murphy) there’s not enough moral uncertainty for this film to be a true text book noir – though JohnIt’s not what you light – it’s what you DON’T lightAlton’s exceptional cinematography would suggest otherwise.  It’s a shame Mann and Alton (who would make only one more film together – Devil’s Doorway, Mann’s first Western) didn’t do any other bigger budgeted A pictures in the vein of this MGM product.

Lady in the Lake (1947 – Robert Montgomery) mixed (DVD)

The subjective camera gimmick is, for the most part, a loser.  Other films have shown that the experiment can work in small doses (see the opening reel of Dark Passage, the first moments of Executive Suite or in an isolated scene in A Farewell to Arms (1932)) The camera tracks and pans don’t really seem to mimic human movement, they seem far too cumbersome.  Also Robert Montgomery’s (playing Raymond Chandler’s P.I. Philip Marlowe) voice seems disembodied, outside the action.  Marlowe’s interactions with other characters are also problematic; absent the necessary reaction shot editing the co-star performances end up reeking of stage bound screen tests.  It’s a shame because both of the requisite femme fatale’s – blonde Audrey Totter and brunette Jayne Meadows – show glimmers of greatness within their almost campy line readings.  An often entertaining film that will likely remain of interest for years to come for its uniqueness.  The use of the Christmas season and the limited use of saccharine, yet haunting. choral music is rather inspired.

 His Kind of Woman (1951 – John Farrow) pro (DVD)

The kind of offbeat genre hybrid that ends up acquiring a sort of cultish appeal with noir geeks.  The film mixes comedy, intrigue, eccentric characters, byzantine plot and noirish elements in a way that Orson WellesThe Lady From Shanghai did or John Huston’s Beat the Devil later would (though that one, it seems, would only become a “comedy” in the editing room).  There’s even a couple of musical numbers performed by a top form Jane Russell as a gold digging chanteuse / faux heiress fond of low cut tops.  The musical interludes suggest that earlier noir hybrid Black Angel.  Despite the fact that Vincent Price steals the show as a self-important philandering movie star and wannabe big game hunter, this is a must see for Robert Mitchum fans.  His portrayal of Dan Milner, a burly tee totaling down on his luck gambler, is the glue that holds the convoluted machinations together.  A worn looking Tim Holt (his baby face fading fast) gets fourth billing but has limited participation.  Raymond Burr as an exiled crime lord is as explosive and menacing as he previously was in a similar role in Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal.  The vague and generic title pretty much is indicative of nothing.  A highly entertaining mess, par for the course when meddling producer Howard Hughes is the film’s auteur, what with his infamous re-shooting re-cutting piecemeal approach (see also his The Racket, 1951 version). 

I Walk the Line (1970 – John Frankenheimer) pro(-) (DVD)

I’m as guilty as the next guy for pigeonholing Gregory Peck as Hollywood’s poster boy for the upright, steadfast, respectable and honorable.  Yet, there’s quite a bit more complexity in the characters he has played when you give his filmography meaningful consideration.  Peck’s role in I Walk the Line, a film that finds Frankenheimer in the mode of his prior film The Gypsy Moths in that it’s a downbeat character study set in rural small town America, is a good example.  Peck’s Sheriff Henry Tawes who patrols the impoverished Tennessee hills turning a blind eye to the occasional moon shiner is like the anti-Atticus Finch.  Whereas Atticus was principled, admired, reliable, sage, even tempered, Tawes is a beaten man who has lost his bearings, a man made lethargic by the mundane and unhinged by lust for an ignorant backwoods belle named Alma played exceptionally well by Tuesday Weld (then 27 looking 19).  He seems to hold the townsfolk to whom he serves and the family with which his lives in complete contempt.  Willing to throw career and family away for a misguided embrace with Alma, who’s certainly not as guileless as she first seems.  While the film is slowly paced with some flat patches it ramps up nicely for a solid only in the 70s downer conclusion.  Though the finale is unfortunately marred by some obvious studio shot inserts.  As per his career norm, Peck’s performance is largely an interior one, but he occasionally lets it all hang out in a few uncharacteristic flashes of passion.  The terrific Weld is more than his equal.  Each of Ralph Meeker as Alma’s father, Charles Durning as Tawes’ duplicitous deputy and Estelle Parsons as Tawes dowdy wife are pros enough that their stereotypical characters remain believable and interesting.  As the title would suggest there’s plenty of Johnny Cash on the soundtrack which adds a certain authentic flavor, except that the songs are not particularly well integrated into the narrative, they tend towards filler.

Capricious Summer (1968 – Jiri Menzel) pro (DVD)

Aptly named, this colorful whimsy drenched film set in the not too distant past at and near a rickety riverside “spa” never lives up to the promise of the first five beautifully rendered minutes.  A meandering pleasantly naturalistic film that’s a little funny, a little erotic, a little sweet and a little sour.  Sadly, full appreciation by English speaking viewers is hindered by the sparse and vague sub-titling on the Facets DVD. The jokes, philosophical musings and any social commentary or political allegory are a little hard to discern.  With the vagabond carnival and sex farce elements this is most Fellini-esque Czech new wave film I’ve seen.  Director Menzel, best known for the excellent Closely Watched Trains, plays the bespectacled tight rope walker and conjurer of limited ability and few words.  His young beautiful blonde assistant, a sort of poor man’s Elvira Madigan, is the enigmatic object of affection of a trio of middle aged layabouts.

 The Battle of the Rails / La Bataille du rail (1946 – Rene Clément) pro (DVD)

WW2 set ode to the railway workers of the French Resistance, neo-realist style.  While the Italians used the style to give grit to the sentimental and the melodramatic, Clément, with his feature debut, makes a pretty unemotional procedural film about railway saboteurs that’s almost devoid of characterization.  While still having a patriotic bent, the film is rather subdued save for the inspiring flag waving final moments.  Not exactly the French equivalent of Paisan or a crowd pleasing precursor to John Frankenheimer’s French Resistance/railway actioner The Train.  With Rossellini, Visconti and, especially, De Sica the faux reality never got in the way of the heart string pulling.  Clément’s documentary realism is largely devoid of this manipulation save for a poetic and highly memorable execution scene in the early going.  Clément would later embrace the De Sica “realism” approach with his smash hit Forbidden Games.

1900 / Novecento (1976 – Bernardo Bertolucci) pro (DVD-R) (302 minute version)

Though flush with flaws it’s hard to dismiss this mixed bag epic due to the many memorable and provocative set pieces, the sublime Vittorio Storaro camera work and the solid Ennio Morricone score.  The continuation of Bertolucci’s fascination with the rise of socialism and fascism during his 1970s work.  Yet, the operatic, sprawling and often unfocused 1900 lacks the nuance, subtlety and ambiguity of his early landmarks The Conformist and, the lesser known, The Spider’s Stratagem.  In the exploration of the roots and impact of fascism Bertolucci, as with his Euro contemporaries Visconti (see The Damned), Wertmüller (see Seven Beauties) and Bergman (see The Serpent’s Egg), could learn a lot from Louis Malle’s even keeled but haunting Lacombe, Lucien.  Malle understood that evil acts stemming from warped ideology and social and political circumstance can be perfectly banal, they need not be cartoonish variations of inhuman depravity and perversity.  I suppose Steven Spielberg and Steve Zaillian verged on making a similar error when drawing the insidiously evil Amon Goeth character in Schindler’s List; but Ralph Fiennes virtuoso portrayal of Goeth won the day and is a startling contrast to the mistakes made by a sneering Donald Sutherland in his attempt to bring to life the twisted black shirt Attila.  The sins of the other actors, from the sometimes formless Robert De Nero and Gerard Depardieu to the hysteria of Dominique Sanda and Alida Valli, are mere misdemeanors.  Thematically the film shares quite a bit with Bertolucci’s Oscar darling The Last Emperor, a film that seems to me to be currently on the underrated side.  Still it must be said – Viva Storaro!

Old Acquaintance (1943 – Vincent Sherman) pro (DVD)

Warner Brothers intended to reunite The Old Maid trio of Bette Davis, Miriam Hopkins and director Edmund Goulding but Vincent Sherman pinch hit for an ailing Goulding.  Seminal “Woman’s Picture” but, surprisingly, not one designed to activate the tear ducts.  Quite modern in theme and tone, the family vs. career debate still has great resonance today.  Davis is, as typical for the period, outstanding as the high brow novelist.  She’s mannered, but likeably so.  Hopkins, as Davis’ successful trash novelist best friend, doesn’t fare as well, she’s deep into her campy hysterical shrew period and the skilled comedienne of the early thirties is a distant memory.  Hopkins and Davis hated each other, but Davis wisely maintains restraint, only Hopkins’ teeth marks are left on the scenery.  Though Davis couldn’t hold back the ham in the third act of her next Sherman feature – Mr. Skeffington.

Boom Town (1940 – Jack Conway) pro(-) (DVD)

Entertaining film with a winning cast.  It’s a love triangle melodrama disguised as a sprawling macho oil worker adventure.  A chick flick for the boys.  Individual scenes, especially early on, are terrific but overall it’s bit of a muddle as the plot speeds up glossing over a number of absurdities (especially the impulsive Clark Gable / Claudette Colbert marriage that leaves Colbert suitor Spencer Tracy out in the cold).  Kind of sad to see Colbert being reduced to Gable’s steadfast wife after their prior more modern pairing in the screwball genius that is It Happened One Night.  Though Boom Town is a sort of anti-Capra piece, as revealed in the oft putting yet fascinating court room finale with a Tracy speech that reeks of a conservative apologia for monopolies, a sort of folksy anti-government rant.  Frank Morgan, Chill Wills and the gorgeously inept Hedy Lamarr support.

Valley of the Bees (1967 – Frantisek Vlacil) PRO (DVD)

Highly compelling and nicely shot film that is set during medieval times and a good exemplar of biblical maxim the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons.  A man gives his only son over to a militant order of knights / monks in order to atone for a rash act of cruelty he committed during the celebration of his marriage to a child bride.  Years later the son abandons the zealotry of his religious order and heads for his childhood home all the while being pursued by a rather draconian brother monk.  Released during the height of the Czech New Wave but the film doesn’t really fit the mold, it is not an irreverent, romantic, self-referential or modish work; it’s stark with strong period flavour that suggests the same authenticity and serious mindedness of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, The Magician or The Virgin Spring (though is perhaps more accessible than those films).  The film portrays an unforgiving and brutal world and reveals disturbing similarities between the fanatical Christian knights and the earthy pagan dwellers of the valley.  The ending of the movie is particularly arresting.  Released the same year as the director’s more ambitious Marketa Lazarová which in 1998 was voted by Czech film critics as best ever Czech film.

I Vinti / The Vanquished  (1953 – Michelangelo Antonioni) pro(-) (Theater)

Antonioni’s stab at the juvenile delinquency film – a sub-genre soon to be a 1950s mainstay in world cinema (this film is like the Italian equivalent of The Wild One from the US or Crazed Fruit from Japan).  Three stories divided into three discreet parts (“France”, “Italy”, “England”) each dealing with a senseless murder and idle affluent post-war youth.  An interesting film that loses momentum after the very strong first segment (“France”) that involves a botched country side robbery/murder committed by disaffected male and female high schoolers.  These aren’t slackers with a heart of gold ala Fellini’s lovable crew in I Vitteloni (also from 1953) they’re cynical, remorseless, lusty and hungry for money and freedom from authority.  In this segment Antoinoni shows the same flair for directing a young ensemble as he later would with Le Amiche.  The second segment (“Italy”) involving a young cigarette smuggler on the run from the authorities (Franco Interlenghi, who was Moraldo in I Vitteloni and one of the young boys in Shoeshine) is the weakest; it’s operatic but verging on the tedious and pointless.  Eduardo Ciannelli who was great as the gangster in the Bette Davis vehicle Marked Woman has a small role as the smuggler’s father.  The third segment set in pre-Blow Up pre-swinging London involving a layabout amateur poet who discovers a murdered woman and sells his story to the press is likeable and offbeat enough though it seems that the ending is meant to be stark and ominous but, to 2006 audiences, it vaguely suggests the darkly comic.  More dry British wit than art house ennui.  Peter Reynolds as the poet seems to be channeling Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony from Strangers on a Train.  He’s good but the tone is incongruous in the grand scheme.  Antonioni would come into his own once he dropped overt social relevance and the trappings of genre (see the noir elements in the earlier Story of a Love Affair as well).

The Lady Without Camelias / La Signora senza camelia (1953 – Michelangelo Antonioni) pro(+) (Theater)

Rather stinging indictment of the commercial Italian film industry, more so than Visconti’s Bellissima.  Character study of young shop girl that’s turned into a starlet then bullied and manipulated by both the film producer/director who discovered and married her and her selfish diplomat lover.  Lucia Bosè as the lovely twenty two year old ingénue Clara Manni is much warmer and gives a far more nuanced performance than she did as the ice cold lover in the earlier Antonioni film Story of a Love Affair or she later would as the amoral adulteress in Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist.  Clara’s desire to abandon cheese cake roles and become a true actress is treated sympathetically despite being revealed to be little more than a pipe dream (as the title suggests, the prestige roles like that of Marguerite Gautier (Alexander Dumas’ “The Lady of the Camelias”, subsequently popularized for opera, stage and screen as “Camille”) are beyond her unformed talents). This talky film, a touch reminiscent of Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa from the following year, tends to meander a bit until it ramps up for the bitter final act where the story is revealed to much more than a simple love triangle melodrama or industry expose.  The final scene is one for the ages, a moment of total defeat and resignation (enlightenment as nightmare) presented with great humanity and directed with exceptional fluidity.  The swirling orchestral score as the camera moves in for a close up of Clara’s smile through her tears is a memorable exclamation point and the least esoteric of the slew of downbeat endings in Antonioni’s filmography.  It’s heartbreaking as narrative; but enthralling as cinema.

Mauvaise Graine (1934 –Billy Wilder & Alexander Esway) mixed (DVD)

This slight almost slapdash French film about a rag tag team of Parisian car thieves has loads of energy.  Really does seem like a New Wave precursor with the on the fly location shooting; though I’m sure it had zero influence over the Cahiers crowd.  As this is early Billy Wilder, Franz Waxman and Danielle Darrieux it’s a worthwhile diversion for any film buff worth his or her salt.  The rookie Wilder who gets a co-director and co-script credit asserts that he did all the major directorial leg work.  Certain scenes remain exceptionally fresh and its surprising that Wilder wouldn’t helm a film again for another 8 years.  Esway, the veteran of the pairing, appears to have done little of note before or after this fun little film.

 

Katzelmacher (1969 – Rainer Werner Fassbinder) mixed (DVD)

Fassbinder’s second feature (adapting his own play) shot in nine days in grainy black and white with a largely static camera is a darkly comic, caustic, and misanthropic social commentary.  The film, centering on various idle and amoral twenty-something Germans (played by what would continue to evolve into Fassbinder’s stock company) and one Greek immigrant worker (played by the director), is stiff and clumsy but fairly fascinating.  Could have just as easily been a career killer as a career starter; but Fassbinder’s artistic drive and work ethic would allow him to persevere and become one of the most prominent and prolific voices of the art house cinema in the seventies.  Decidedly uneven; but worth checking out.

Violent Summer / Estate violenta (1959 – Valerio Zurlini) pro (DVD) Girl with a Suitcase / La Ragazza con la valigia (1961 – Valerio Zurlini) pro (DVD)

Two solid bittersweet films by Zurlini, each centering on a May-December romance (actually, more like July-September).  It’s pretty clear why Zurlini falls outside of the pantheon of Italian directors of the period (Rossellini, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica); these early high grade melodramas, while thoughtful and artful, have too many predictable and rote elements and don’t appear to reward on deeper analysis.  It’s all there on the surface; but at least the surface shines.  Each of the character driven films offers a strong performance from the female lead.  Violent Summer, set in the coastal town of Riccone in war torn 1943, has Eleonora Rossi Drago (like a spicy Mediterranean Deborah Kerr) as a war widow who falls for a rich fascist’s draft dodging son played by a young Jean-Louis Trintignant.  Girl With a Suitcase, set in current day Parma, has the fresh and pneumatic Claudia Cardinale as a poor jilted singer named Aida who is the object of affection to a baby faced Jacques Perrin (then 19 playing 16) as the younger brother of the cad who abandoned her. There’s an incredibly lyrical scene in each of these films involving slow dancing that suggests the very best of the cinema of pure emotion.

Yellow Sky (1948 – William Wellman) pro(+) (DVD)

With a suggestion of Shakepeare’s The Tempest and a serious tinge of the adult/psychological/noir Western (ala Raoul Walsh’s Pursued) there’s a lot of meat to chew on in this film about a band of weather beaten bank robbers (including Gregory Peck, ripe for redemption, and Richard Widmark, as Peck’s inevitable foil) who end up in a frontier ghost town inhabited by a grizzled prospector (James Barton) and his comely gun toting granddaughter (Anne Baxter).  Though brimming with ideas (and sex – Peck is as desperately horny for Baxter as his Duel in the Sun gunslinger was for Jennifer Jones) there is no pretense, this is a genre film through and through with none of the message or prestige elements of Wellman’s earlier classic Fox Western The Ox-Bow Incident.  Despite a strong cast the real star is Joe MacDonald’s top rate atmospheric cinematography.  He cranks up the stark chiaroscuro elements he showcased in My Darling Clementine suggesting a sort of Death Valley John Alton.  As a tale of gold lust and survival it’s no match for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre from the same year, but that’s a pretty high standard.

Three Strange Loves / Thirst (1949 – Ingmar Bergman) mixed (VHS) (dubbed)

Bergman takes no writing credit on this one which is a little surprising given that (i) the structure of interwoven episodes with flashbacks resembles the approach in a number of his other early films (Summer Interlude, Secrets of Women, A Lesson in Love, Dreams); and (ii) the brooding style and misanthropic themes anticipate his mid-period psychological classics.  Story centers on two different women – a depressive young married former ballet dancer with the scars of a prior extramarital affair and an abortion (Eva Henning) and a depressive widow (Birgit Tengroth, author of the source short stories).  The widow is the target of a lesbian seduction which may have raised some eyebrows back in the day (the scene was cut it seems – and perhaps anticipates The Killing of Sister George and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant).  An interesting and sometimes unpredictable film but not a particularly good one.  Sometimes seems as if it was assembled randomly.  For Bergman devotees only.  Bleaker than most of his other pre-Seventh Seal films.  Suffered through a dubbed version on VHS.

Susana (1951 – Luis Buñuel) pro (VHS)

In 1951 terms this film must have played like soft core art house erotica.  Rosita Quintana as the titular anti-heroine/reformatory escapee has the earthy sensuality of Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice but with a voracious femme fatale edge.  The story in this provactive melodrama is simple enough, on a dark and stormy night the filthy rain drenched super sexy Susana arrives at the ranch of a successful god fearing land owning family.  In record time she ends up poisoning the once tranquil environment seducing the ultra macho lead hand, the book worm adult son and the horse loving patriarch (Fernando Soler, of The Great Madcap, anticipating the look and manner of Fernando Rey in late period Buñuel).  As a parable or mock morality play it’s kind of one note – but it’s still highly entertaining despite its reputation as minor Buñuel.  The hyper-happy ending where the devilish Susana is extricated from the ranch and harmony is ultimately restored is certainly worthy of discussion. A cop-out states the Maltin Video Guide (a fair point); but it’s so tidy and formulaic it’s unsettling, absurd enough to suggest the subversive.  Buñuel’s intended irony is deep below the surface (I had similar questions about the “happy” ending in Buñuel’s The Young One).  In some ways this film seems to anticipate ideas found in Pasolini’s more pretentious TeoremaSusana would make an interesting double bill with Viridiana – the lead characters are 180 degrees apart but their effect on those around them is decidedly similar.

The Seventh Continent / Der Siebente Kontinent (1989 – Michael Haneke) PRO (DVD)

A deeply disturbing character study.  Yet it’s not the seemingly normal and successful family of three at the center of the story that is the character – it is, like in all of Haneke’s work it seems, the dehumanizing urban environment in which they live.  Meticulously paced and composed, the banal routines of everyday living are made remarkably ominous.  Slice of life as psychological horror; but without the trappings of genre.  There are no hints of mystery (Caché), black comedy (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? or even Haneke’s own Funny Games), avant-garde stylistics (Dillinger is Dead) or the gothic (Repulsion).  Shots of household and workplace objects, hands, feet and limbs disembodied from the unique personalities hidden behind the frame of the camera eye deliver a cold, as opposed to lyrical, effect.  It’s like the stylistic distance between the work of Robert Bresson and the work of Claire Denis.  It’s a surprising non-judgmental and apolitical exercise (as opposed to Caché or Code Unknown), the tone never seems like an indictment of bourgeoisie complacency so much as a lament for the trappings that surround the life.  Matter of fact, open ended and horrifying, I was made extremely nauseous.  Brilliant, but with the soul crushing finale I’m not eager to revisit.  At least the almost as disturbing Benny’s Video had a sort of twist.

Night and Fog in Japan / Nihon no yoru to kiri (1960 – Nagisa Oshima) pro (DVD-R)

Story of infighting among left wing student activists after the failed attempt to halt the signing of the Japan-United States Security Treaty.  A challenging, dense, theatrical and dead serious film that’s not so much talky as speechifying.  Shot on a sound stage the story is set during a wedding party between a journalist and a former protester with the meat of the narrative told in flashback from various points of view.  The structure is similar to the funeral sequence in the second half of Ikiru, but digging up the past does not unify the characters it divides them.  The recrimination, preaching, bickering and regret solve little.  We are left with an angry diatribe against selling out and the inadequacy or impossibility of individual and group will.  Unlike in his prior two 1960 films (Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial both of which I prefer) new wave pioneer Oshima shies away from metaphors and allegory, the political themes are specific and direct.  Yet, the film is not entirely didactic, Oshima is more even handed than I would have thought, vaguely sympathetic to the temporary Marxists that eventually abandoned the cause and bought into the mainstream and all its trappings (money, career, love and marriage).  Oshima’s camera constantly pans and tracks across the scope frame giving the film more flow and style than you’d think possible for its type. A fascinating cinematic artifact; but tough going. 

Dead Reckoning (1947 – John Cromwell) pro(-) (DVD)

A pretty entertaining text book film noir in the cynical post-war vein that gets more and more rote as it goes along.  Lizabeth Scott’s double crossing femme fatale Coral Chandler (aka “Dusty” or “Mike”) is fatally obvious.  She’s a low protein Brigid O’Shaughnessy with Lauren Bacall’s stylist and voice coach (Scott’s dubbed singing number is laughably staged – and from the same studio that gave us a sublime Rita Hayworth as Gilda).  Humphrey Bogart’s ex-serviceman Rip Murdock makes a rather lackluster effort to fall for Chandler just to move the plot along.  Scott would be much better as a street wise chanteuse in Cromwell’s 1951 film The RacketDead Reckoning is competent through and through but contrived and clichéd enough to suggest mediocrity.  Nevertheless, this type of genre movie and hard boiled role is in Bogart’s mid-period wheelhouse and he delivers the goods without hinting at disinterest.

The Princess Comes Across (1936 – William K. Howard) pro(-) (DVD)

The simple premise of Carole Lombard masquerading as a Garbo-esque Scandinavian diva en route to Hollywood to jump start a movie career should have been enough of a concept to keep this ship set film afloat for 90 minutes – especially with Fred MacMurray as her co-star given that they struck comic gold together in Hands Across the Table the previous year (they made 4 films together in total).  Sadly, the film is a bit of a genre mish mash, with as much emphasis on murder mystery as romantic comedy, with a musical detour to boot.  This better than passable time waster is a screwball that sobered up for the drive home. 

 

The Flame Of New Orleans (1941 – René Clair) pro(+) (DVD)

The first of René Clair’s four amiable American efforts, a light as air charmer.  Many assert that Marlene Dietrich was misused by Universal in the her post Von Sternberg work, that her central strength lay in her exotic elusiveness where audiences could dismiss plot and luxuriate in mood, décor, music and sublimely lit close-ups.  I don’t buy into this, while Dietrich is certainly best remembered for playing mysterious man devouring femme fatales/chanteuses, she’s still a very able and likable screen comedienne.  Her range may have been a little limited but her persona was versatile enough to be applied across a wide variety of story concepts and genres.  Would prefer to have efforts like Destry Rides Again and The Flame of New Orleans than more rehashes of her early to mid-thirties inimitable vamp characters.  Roland Young is perfect as the deep pocketed gout inflicted suitor and Bruce Cabot does a solid Clark Gable-lite as the brash salt of the earth sailor who steals the heroine’s heart.

 

Secret Agent (1936 – Alfred Hitchcock) pro (DVD)

The weak sister of the 39 Steps/Foreign Correspondent vein of films; but there are a number of rewarding suspenseful set pieces including the Alpine murder of a “wrong man” while his pet dachshund furiously scratches at a door miles away.  John Gielgud’s reluctant assassin is no where near as compelling as Peter Lorre’s cartoonish “hairless Mexican General”. The deus ex machina ending where fighter planes derail a train is a tad unsatisfying; a great deal more tension could have resulted from the Robert Young / Madeleine Carroll dynamic.

 

The Intruder / L’Intrus (2004 – Claire Denis) pro (DVD-R)

Denis’ style in Beau Travail and Friday Night, one that accents texture and mood above all else, bordered on abstraction (in a most compelling way); but the scenarios in those films were insular and contained enough to maintain the semblance of a conventional narrative thread.  With L’Intrus, the story scope has been so broadened and the filming locations are so varied that the abstraction is more pronounced and the story (an elliptical character study) becomes virtually impenetrable.  Which is not to say that this enigmatic film of great beauty is plot less or even overly experimental; but it has only a passing resemblance to contemporary commercial cinema.  Interviews with Denis on the film are fairly instructive (see 30 minute DVD interview and Film Comment article); she’s a generous artist in this sense.  There’s willingness in her to further explore her approach, motivations, technique, successes and failures, where many artists of her caliber would simply retreat into a Lynchian shell and only further obfuscate their work.  Though I was often frustrated, even baffled, by this film it’s further evidence that Denis is one of the most vital directors working today.

The Idiot / Hakuchi (1951 – Akira Kurosawa) mixed(+) (DVD)

The original long lost director’s cut of this film was screened only once (or so the story goes) and I’d imagine that it has an equal chance of being a masterpiece as it does a mind numbing slog.  Sadly, we may never know on e way of the other.  The available version is beguiling – at times the impressive work of a virtuoso director coming into his own and at times a frustrating head scratcher.  Shochiku’s 100 minute trim down to the film’s current 166 minute length is pretty much an unforgivable mangling (though, oddly enough, the film is still a little unwieldy).  Unlike studio mandated edits to films like The New World, the deletions in The Idiot are not seamless, they are blatant and jarring often involving wipes in an attempt to ape Kurosawa’s stylistic preferences of the period.  Narrative flow outside individual scenes is non-existent and we are left with an episodic abruptness that undermines any hope for coherence.  The strong humanist thread in this sprawling yet intimate film is not subtly integrated as it was in Kurosawa’s previous film Rashomon or presented with the same lyricism that’s evident in Kurosawa’s next film Ikiru.  Donald Ritchie stated that “if, like all great creators, Kurosawa is a moralist, then, like all stylists, he manages to hide the fact superlatively well“. In The Idiot Kurosawa is not always successful in disguising the moral or his compassion; it bubbles over into melodrama.  I was quite impressed by Setsuko Hara’s intense and emotional performance (though it may ultimately be more sedate than what the character called for).  She displays much more range for Kurosawa (see also No Regrets for Our Youth) than in her better known work for other master directors (see Hara’s iconic dutiful daughters for Ozu and dutiful wives for Naruse).  Rashomon cast mates Masayuki Mori and Toshiro Mifune are serviceable, with Mori a little more impressive in the challenging titular role as a pure, simple, guileless Christ figure.

The Man From Colorado (1948 – Henry Levin) pro (DVD)

Glenn Ford gets top billing in this Technicolor Western but by the time (some four minutes into the movie) his demented Union Colonel orders the slaughter of 100 surrendering Confederate soldiers it’s crystal clear he’s not going to be the film’s hero.  It’s also evident that this Glenn Ford/William Holden film won’t be a rollicking buddy picture like their first paring in the amiable 1941 George Marshall effort TexasThe Man From Colorado is an early example of the adult Western, where genre was mere window dressing for psychological character studies and the examination of social problems.  Ford’s Owen Devereux shares not only the first name of Henry Fonda’s Fort Apache Calvary martinet, he also shares the same twisted world view.  In the aftermath of the US Civil War Devereux’s madness doesn’t wane it intensifies as he transitions from commanding officer to hanging judge and pawn to mining company interests (led by type cast fat cat Ray Collins).  Devereux favors big business over the economic plight of budding entrepreneurial ex-servicemen.  Holden plays Del Stewart the man caught in the middle.  Not only is Stewart (a former Union Captain) Devereux’s chief lawman but he’s his best friend and the rival for the heart of the same girl (Ellen Drew).  Stewart is torn between duty, loyalty and his growing sympathy for his former comrades in arms.  The conflict eventually boils over and Stewart is soon acting like a frontier union steward going toe to toe with frontier capital; collective bargaining with six shooters.  Ford is quite good playing against type, he brings the same type of intensity to a villain role that he later would to his righteous avenging cop in The Big Heat.  There is none of the smirking mischievousness of his 3:10 to Yuma villain Ben Wade.  Holden is merely serviceable in a routine role.  Above average.

Kuroneko / Black Cat from the Grove (1968 – Kaneto Shindo) PRO (DVD-R)

At a time of civil war desperate foraging samurai brutally rob, rape, murder and burn the bodies of a woman and her daughter-in-law.  The deceased duo becomes vengeful cat-spirits that stalk a bamboo grove in order to suck samurai blood.  Their supernatural bloodlust is put to the test when the woman’s son / girl’s husband, a farmhand turned warrior, returns from the war and is sent to destroy the murderous specters of the night.  It only sounds like genre trash, in reality it’s another gorgeous artful erotic horror in the mold of Kaneto Shindo’s earlier masterpiece Onibaba (another film where a mother/daughter-in-law team hunt adrift samurai).  Not as memorable as Onibaba but still first rate, an eerie and atmospheric film with an evocative score by Hikaru Hayashi.

The Railroad Man / Il Ferroviere (1956 – Pietro Germi) PRO(-) (DVD)

Kitchen sink drama– Italian style.  Late neo-realist period soaper that owes a pretty big debt to Vittorio De Sica – especially his The Children are Watching Us (with a hint of Bicycle Thieves).  This episodic domestic drama centers on a year in the life of a southern Italian family of five, book ended by Christmas Eve celebrations (the final festivities have a slight suggestion of Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life).  The trials and tribulations are of the usual kind; labour unrest and health concerns for the father, an unwanted pregnancy and an unhappy marriage for the daughter (Sylva Koscina), chronic loafing and a gambling debt for the older son, and martyrdom for the wise put upon mother (an excellent Luisa Della Noce with the perfect world weary face) .  Director Germi, best known for his dark comedies of the sixties, is exceptional in the role of the family patriarch, a train engineer who seems to love “the grape” above all else.  A deeply flawed character who suffers through the various humiliations life doles out to the working class is given a thoughtful and sympathetic treatment.  The vivid naturalistic emotionally charged proceedings are all seen through the eyes of the upbeat ten year old son Sandrino (Edoardo Nevola) which tends to accent an overarching sentimentality (as does the effective Carlo Rustichelli score).  Germi has an excellent eye for character detail in even the most minor secondary characters.  Despite familiar plot elements it’s an excellent film for its type and criminally underseen.  Hopefully the recent DVD release will remedy that.

Teorema (1968 – Pier Paolo Pasolini) mixed (DVD)

Just wasn’t the film I wanted it to be, having been apprised of the plot in advance my expectations were rigged.  I liked the basic idea of the story but the unconventional execution left little lingering effect on me.  The concept is rather simple on the surface, a mysterious visitor (Terrence Stamp, with little dialogue and crotch hugging trousers working an angel/devil – Billy Budd/Toby Dammit dynamic) acts as a passive sexual/spiritual force and catalyst that overwhelms each member of an haute bourgeoisie Milanese family leaving them irrevocably altered on his departure.  If in fact the family was superficially harmonious and spiritually unsatisfied on an individual basis it wasn’t really communicated.  There’s little meat in the enigmatic fable like narrative to determine how each character has transformed from their pre-Stamp visit selves.  They shun material things and compulsively, almost robotically, embrace either sex, art, religion, or catatonic contemplation, all without any real connection to their vaguely implicit epiphanies.  There’s none of the grit and realism of Pasolini’s earlier films, here he opts for the lush, symbolic and abstract.  For a Marxist provocation with a touch of modest modish eroticism the film surprisingly lacks energy and drive, suggesting a Buñuel film (Susana perhaps) made humorless and ponderous and shot with the sensibility of an Antonioni.  A curious and challenging film that is certainly of its time, I should probably give another shot someday, many seem to feel this was Pasolini’s finest hour.

Spirits of the Dead / Historires extraordinaires (1968 – Roger Vadim, Louis Malle & Federico Fellini) mixed (DVD)

Three good looking Edgar Allen Poe inspired mini-films directed by a trio of then in fashion Euro-auteurs (history has not been kind to Mr. Vadim).  Each star studded segment improves on the previous one, but it’s pretty unfulfilling on the whole, never getting particularly creepy (save for a Jane & Peter Fonda incest angle that I doubt Poe intended).  Fellini’s wild “Toby Dammit” about a burned out substance abusing film star (a devilish Terrence Stamp seemingly anticipating the dandified British glam rock boom) is the most admired and talked about piece; but its virtues are directly tied to its non-feature length running time.  Fellini’s garish hyper-surreal style of the period (which commenced with his first feature length color endeavor Juliet of the Spirits – a film I admire) rewards in small doses.  With his next film, the beautifully grotesque but patience trying Satyricon, we find out what it would have been like to spend two painful hours with the likes of Mr. Dammit.

Color of Pomegranates / Sayat Nova (1968 – Sergei Paradjanov) pro (DVD)

This portrait of 18th century Armenian troubadour and martyr Sayat Nova, a sort of biography as epic poem and performance art, is a true original.  This rigorously structured film moves from static shot to static shot, often from the same camera eye level (in this sense it’s rather Ozu like).  The result is a series of meticulous composed tableaux that paradoxically are often both ornate and spartan.  The fact that the meaning behind the iconography, artifacts, allegories and music was largely incomprehensible to me sitting on my living room couch was, surprisingly, not particularly detrimental to my overall appreciation.  A reminder that in the era of Ray, Kinsey and Walk the Line that film biography need not be predictable, cliché and formulaic; it may, like in this film (see also Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and HaynesI’m Not There) be open, impressionistic and elusive.  A low budget effort released in a year of memorable financially challenged productions (Night of the Living Dead, Faces).  While Romero and Cassavetes ended up as cult favorites on the fringes of their film industry for their efforts, Paradjanov ended up in a Soviet prison work camp.  Tough times.

Buffet Froid / Cold Cuts (1979 – Bertrand Blier) pro (DVD)

Absurdist to a fault, like late period Buñuel in overdrive.  Very funny and oddly accessible for a scenario rife with illogicality and non-sequiturs.  For a film littered with self-destructive personalities and murders, it’s not particularly mean spirited and one actually ends up rooting for the central trio of Gerard Depardieu, Bernard Blier (the director’s papa) and Jean Carmet despite their acts of depravity and self-loathing.  Does the male buffoonery in the film trump the possible misogyny?  Not quite sure.

 

Real Life (1979 -Albert Brooks) pro(+) (DVD)

Whether or not the portrayal of pseudo-reality filmmaking in 1979 is prescient or not (seems to me it is) is beside the point – it’s damn funny film in idea and execution.  There are some missed opportunities though, Brooks opts to focus most of his satire on Hollywood egos and the mental health community.  The American nuclear family and suburban life, the ripest targets of all, are left surprisingly unscathed.  If Brooks could have pulled back from his “Albert Brooks” character just a little, the scope could have been broadened and the film could have paid even bigger comic dividends (e.g. the perfectly cast Charles Grodin as the patriarch of the Phoenix family of four was a little wasted).  Its funny how the more self-deprecating a comic is the more self-obsessed they come across.  Self-awareness of an inflated ego does little in the end to deflate it.  A terrific comedy in a great year for comedy (Manhattan, The Jerk, The In-Laws, The Muppet Movie, Buffet Froid, Breaking Away, Life of Brian etc.)

 

Love on the Run / L’Amour en fuite (1979 – Francois Truffaut) mixed (DVD)

Save as an exercise in nostalgia this exceedingly slight and slapdash film has little going on.  There is no urgency, Truffaut fails to instill any burning desire in the audience to want see what will become of man-child Antoine Doniel.  The clips from past installments never seem to be the result of an auteur playing with narrative structure – they just reek of padding (despite Truffaut’s claims of “experimentation”).  Jean-Pierre Leaud’s tired eyes should have been the first clue to abandon this project.  Some darker notes relating to the Collette character in the final act are of interest but peculiarly out of place in the grand scheme of things.  Not without entertainment value for fans of the director, star and the Doniel cycle of films.

 

The Tin Drum / Die Blechtrommel (1979 – Volker Schlöndorff) PRO (DVD)

Probably the one award winning international art house smash that emerged from the New German Cinema.  Though shaved down from Günter Grass’ expansive 1959 novel it’s still a pretty sprawling and episodic tale.  The story, mired in allegory, is told from the perspective of an odd boy with the vocal cords of a banshee and a penchant for percussion who wills himself to stop growing at the age of three (a haunting David Bennent).  A surreal and sometimes grotesque portrayal of an unhinged Nazi era Germany set predominantly in the politically volatile “free city” of Danzig.  Though some elements are reminiscent of Fosse’s Cabaret, Schlondorff’s other efforts and the films of compatriots Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders, The Tin Drum seems to be most stylistically and thematically in step with certain of the work of contemporary Italian filmmakers – in particular Federico Fellini, Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Luchino Visconti (The Damned), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist) and Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter).  Maurice Jarre provides an excellent eclectic score and the offbeat sound mixing seemingly anticipates what Peer Raben accomplished for Fassbinder in Lola and Veronika Voss.  Has a horse head scene the ups the ante on The GodfatherJean-Claude Carrière, who was no stranger to the darkly comic and the surreal as evidenced by a long time working relationship with Luis Buñuel, had a hand in the script. 

And the Ship Sails On / E la nave va (1983 – Federico Fellini) pro (DVD)

Likely the closest Fellini ever got to a true musical.  There are a number of indelible moments in this film of striking images and heightened artificiality.  It’s a less grotesque and garish exercise than Fellini’s other color and late period films; more in tune with the sentimentality, nostalgia and lyricism of Amarcord.  While the film succeeds in mood, design, and atmosphere it never establishes a cohesive narrative thread that drives the action, such that it is.  The story is as series of set pieces and the characters are sketches that are never fully flushed out.  This is often an issue in any ensemble piece with an episodic structure; but one senses that Fellini had an overarching idea here, something potentially in tune with his earlier more conventional narrative approach, but by this stage of his career he was entrenched in a dream style.  Rarely mentioned and certainly under seen, And the Ship Sails On is well worth seeking out.

Jamaica Inn (1939 – Alfred Hitchcock) mixed (DVD)

Missed opportunity this one – lots of potential for 39 Steps/Lady Vanishes style intrigue that largely goes unrealized.  I think the Daphne Du Maurier story (the first of three employed by Hitchcock) is a strong one and disagree with Hitch’s assertion (see the Bogdanovich and Truffaut interviews) that the early revelation of the Charles Laughton character’s involvement in the ship wrecks and smuggling diffuses any tension that could potentially have been built  The film’s failures are not so much grounded in story problems (as with almost all Hitchcock projects the film is not truly a whodunit) but the result of Hitchcock’s general disinterest and a strained working relationship with the high maintenance Laughton.  Perhaps Hitch’s mind and heart were already in America, what with the signed Selznick contract in his back pocket and passage booked.  A young and luminous Maureen O’Hara makes for a strong and compelling heroine; but the sexual chemistry between her and Robert Newton does little more than lurk.  Newton seems miscast, he’s not matinee idol dashing and charismatic enough for the character and is ultimately unworthy to take up the mantle of Robert Donat or even Michael Redgrave.  Newton’s strengths would lay elsewhere as evidenced by terrific turns as the villain Bill Sikes in David Lean’s Oliver Twist and as an eccentric artist in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out.  Jamaica Inn like Hitch’s other period costumer and critical failure Under Capricorn still has lots of interesting bits – including O’Hara’s rescue of Newton from makeshift gallows and their ocean flight from the band of revenge hungry smugglers.

Gloria (1980 – John Cassavetes) pro (DVD)

The kind of film that can’t win for trying as it’s sure to turn off many Cassavetes fans for it’s super conventional approach across the board (plot, shooting, cutting, Bill Conti score) and likely to alienate the mainstream with its sometimes meandering and less than urgent tact.  Overlong for a straight forward genre film (but even the very best Cassavetes films are overlong) and it suggests a character study but never quite gets there.  Gena Rowlands as the titular on the lam gun moll and reluctant caretaker of a six year old boy orphaned by vicious mobsters is highly believable and down right riveting.  When the no-nonsense Gloria, the perfect mix of confidence and the justly paranoid, looks down the sight of her gun, she’s as effective as any grizzled Eastwood type.  The kid (John Adames) isn’t very good – but it’s not really Razzie territory.  Save for the final moment freeze frame Gloria is, thankfully, a pretty unsentimental exercise.

The Damned / La Caduta degli dei (1969 – Luchino Visconti) mixed (DVD)

This film tracks the decline of a filthy rich industrialist family against the rise of the SS faction of the Nazis.  Has an occasional nicely rendered twisted moment but overall it’s a pretty sluggish and sometimes clumsy melodrama.   Visconti doesn’t indict decadence and depravity so much as he fetishizes it, makes it decor.  Occasional bursts of anguished (horribly dubbed) cries from the various actors, even from the typically subdued and repressed Dirk Bogarde, turn perversity and hysteria into camp.  Likely best remembered for the “Night of the Long Knives” sequence where Visconti’s camera revels in a bloodbath initiated by the SS to quash a potential SA coup, a brownshirt orgy suffering from coitus interruptus.  A haunting but absurd scene that stands out in the same way that the final sequence in The Day of the Locust does.  Can’t make up my mind if Ingrid Thulin as Sophie Von Essenbeck, a Lady Macbeth vampiric fag-hag type, is great or horrible.  In any event, given her ghoulish half naked turns in Bergman’s The Rite and Hour of the Wolf, she’s type cast.

 

Out of the Blue (1980 – Dennis Hopper) pro (DVD)

Bleak and downbeat but highly evocative of a time, place and attitude.  A character study about an adolescent only child named Cindy (aka Cebe), a tomboy, Elvis fan and wannabe punk drummer who has deluded herself that her alcoholic father’s release from prison will return order to her volatile family life.  Linda Manz, the young narrator from Days of Heaven, is excellent as the tough but vulnerable heroine (in The Bad News Bears terms it’s like they put Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earle Haley in a blender and set the switch to androgyny) .  Dennis Hopper, pinch hitting for a fired director, uses impressive exceedingly long takes to flush out a gritty naturalism and adds the occasional elliptical editing flourish to boot.  Hopper (in uneasy rider mode) and Sharon Farrell as the ne’er do well parents are also generally solid though they do slide a little into self-indulgence during the sloppy scenes of substance abusing theatricality.  The nihilistic finale is pure punk rawk(!); all of which is set up with a scene involving Hopper basking in a rather disturbing pre-Blue Velvet Frank Boothian moment.  All Canadian backed tax shelter movies from this period should be this good.  Disco Sucks – Kill All Hippies!

City of Women / La Città della donne (1980 – Federico Fellini) pro (DVD)

The barely coherent doodlings of a dirty old man plagiarizing his own best work? A virtuoso piece that brilliant synthesizes the thematic concerns expressed throughout a career laden with masterpieces?  Could go either way really.  In any event, I quite enjoyed this imaginative sometimes funny film that’s 99% dream sequence.  Despite it’s potentially oppressive length (140m) it moves quickly enough between episodes and set pieces to fend off any tedium.  While decidedly unfocused and pretty simplistic, it’s one of Fellini’s most creative efforts from an art direction and set design perspective.  The Maltin Video Guide nailed it in stating “a Fellini feast or déjà vu o.d., depending on your mood and stamina”.

 

Till the End of Time (1946 – Edward Dmytryk) mixed (VHS)

This post war return to the home front drama released just four months before The Best Years of Our Lives is strikingly similar to that lauded film in story, approach and themes.  Guy Madison, in his first starring role, as a returning serviceman adjusting to civilian life is pretty much a disaster.  While well equipped with matinee idol looks, his performance is bland, stiff and awkward and given his huge amount of screen time he nearly sinks this sometimes thoughtful film.  Luckily pros Robert Mitchum and Dorothy Maguire also star.  The easy going Mitchum, along with Jean Porter as the buoyant bobbysoxer next door, are like a breath of fresh air amongst the sometimes dour proceedings.  Maguire, as a war widow, gives an incredibly intelligent reading of an unusually nuanced and unpredictable character.  Given her similarly strong work as the mute in the thriller The Spiral Staircase, looks like 1946 was a terrific year for Maguire.  A statement against anti-Semitism clumsily shoehorned rather late into the story anticipates the topical concerns to be expressed the following year by Dmytryk and Mitchum in Crossfire and Maguire in Gentleman’s Agreement.  Watched this movie the day after I checked out The Murderers Are Among Us, the first German film released on the same subject.  That impressive historically important highly stylized (to a fault) film, set in a decimated Berlin, tends to make the concerns expressed in Till The End of Time look a tad trivial by comparison.

The Boston Strangler (1968 – Richard Fleischer) pro (DVD)

The heavy use of split screen is hit and miss (style wise, story wise and as a metaphor for the schizoid) but not without flair. I preferred the procedural elements of the first two thirds to the pseudo-psychological analysis in the last third (think of the last 3 minutes of Psycho times 10). Some of the shooting and editing during the sequences where DeSalvo’s memory is unlocked is pretty creative. The film is, surprisingly, not without some humor but lacks the personal touch of sometimes similar 1968 serial killer film No Way to Treat a Lady. Tony Curtis is not exactly a virtuoso here as the titular sicko; but his strong performance in an atypical role is amongst his career best.  Henry Fonda as the lead investigator brings his usual credibility and likeability. As with Madigan from the same year, there’s a half hearted effort to give his character a bit of an edge. Hurd Hatfield and William Hickey shine in small roles as suspects.

Fallen Angel (1945 – Otto Preminger) pro(+) (DVD)

This film is not going to find many fans amongst those slavishly devoted to plausibility as there are plenty of gaps in plot logic and character motivations. After a beautifully constructed and highly compelling set up involving the morally dubious drifter played by Dana Andrews integrating himself into a small town dynamic the film sags in the second half when the tone shifts from noir to melodrama. Quibbles aside, Preminger’s long fluid takes are exceptional and the composition and editing nicely convey both a contrast and a doubling of the Alice Faye and Linda Darnell characters (good/bad, blonde/brunette). It occurs to me that, despite some of the usual trappings, Darnell’s prickly and sluttish waitress Stella is not your typical film noir femme fatale. She’s a pretty passive figure, it’s her mere presence that brings out evil mindedness in the rag tag collection of men who flock to her. She need not suggest sin by word or deed, she simply has to be.

Water (2005 – Deepa Mehta) mixed (DVD)

Passable but overrated, at least locally (Canadians don’t eat their own).  If religion and a history of patriarchy are smoke screen justifications for the oppression of the widows in the film and the root problem is truly driven by socio-economic factors why all the pretty pictures?  The poverty and hardship has been given a romanticized gloss that undermines the themes.  The central lovers seem little more than models primped and extracted from the pages of Indian Vogue.

 

Deception (1946 – Irving Rapper) pro(-) (VHS)

Here I thought the melodrama in the similarly themed Humoresque (also from 1946) was heightened to the breaking point; but Deception dives head first into the high camp pool and doesn’t come up for air.  Rapper, reunited with his Now Voyager leads Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, helms this love triangle backdropped amongst the Manhattan orchestra set.  Just when you think it’s strictly a décor film, along comes a noir drenched segment of great tension.  Though the final pseudo-resolution drags and is ultimately pretty absurd.  Film highlights include Ernest Haller’s exceptional deep focus cinematography, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score and arrangements and a 10 minute scene of Rains ordering dinner at a restaurant.  Rains, as a maestro extraordinaire who is also Davis’ sugar daddy, chews more scenery than Joan Crawford’s Humoresque sugar momma.  No small feat – but kitsch is king in this one.

A Taste of Honey (1961 – Tony Richardson) pro (DVD-R)

Richardson is deep into his kitchen sink new wavy period with this one.  The realism is a tad watered down by an often playful, dominant and incongruous score; and the performances seemingly more professional and self aware (though less so than Richard Burton’s grand eloquent posture in Look Back in Anger) than in hyper-realistic shaky cam recent efforts like Rosetta or Lilja 4-EverRita Tushingham in her debut role as Jo, a working class neglected and pregnant Manchester (Salford) teen, is believable mainly because she remains childlike, angry and wounded without much hint of sweetness despite her elfin appearance  The film is on the dated side on the whole; but still carries some weight and importance especially given the female protagonist within the angry young man milieu.  For a social problem film it’s refreshing that it’s not particularly message driven.  The extensive location shooting removes any traces of staginess despite the film’s theatrical roots.  Was surprised to learn that the early 60s Brit-pop hit A Taste of Honey (covered by no less than The Beatles on their debut LP) makes no appearance in this film.  Oddly this one is written off as a crummy effort by such critics as Dave Kehr and David Thomson.  Richardson’s sometimes rather interesting work seems to be fatally out of fashion.

Le DoulosThe Finger Man (1962 – Jean Pierre Melville) PRO(-) (DVD-R)

The format of the Melville/Delon classics to come is clearly in place at this stage of the game; but tone and style don’t yet dominate to the extent that they actually become the narrative.  Jean Paul Belmondo’s gangster makes for an interesting contrast to Alain Delon’s underworld figures in the later Melville films.  There’s an undeniable vitality to Belmondo’s smirking duplicitous informant Silien, there’s only a hint of that dead inside existential sobriety trademarked by Delon.  Belmondo, like many iconic film stars, can never seem to complete subvert his own unique personality when playing a role.  His personal style, his smug cool playfulness, always informs his characters be them priests (Leon Morin, Priest), manipulative boors (à double tour) or everymen caught in intrigue (That Man From Rio).  Despite Belmondo’s memorable flash and charisma, it’s Serge Reggiani’s world weary killer and burglar Maurice Faugel that stays with me.  Reggiani’s resigned sorrowful expression and posture renders his romantic characters from Casque d’or and La Ronde a distant memory.  His face simple exclaims that he’s a pawn of fate.  A great looking film with a twisty confusing plot that keeps you on your toes.  It’s all well versed in American film noir; but is never overly derivative.  The beautifully executed opening and closing scenes while perhaps familiar, if not predictable, to seasoned noir aficionados are exhilarating.

Kill!Kiru (1968 – Kihachi Okamoto) pro (DVD)

Comical, cynical and sometimes tough to follow samurai film with enough stark and gritty accents that it doesn’t slide into arch parody.  The story centers on, and contrasts, two starving wandering hobos, one a disillusioned former samurai (Tatsuya Nakadai), the other a farm boy and wannabe warrior (Etsushi Takahashi).  Sourced from the same Shugoro Yamamoto novel that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (but not his earlier Yojimbo, go figure).  It’s the first samurai film I’ve seen that seemed to be directly influenced by the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, suggesting that the act of cinematic referencing had come full circle – from East to West and back again.  Masaru Sato’s effective score certainly suggests what Ennio Morricone brought to extreme close-ups of weather beaten squinting faces and Spanish desert vistas.  It’s all so self-reflexive that the chanbara genre almost collapses onto itself.  Nakadai’s scruffy vagrant, a seen it all before ronin who wants little part of the pointless blood soaked world of shifting allegiances, is less cocksure and manipulative than Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro character; but he’s a just as effective fly in the ointment.  Nakadai is a more diverse talent than Mifune, it’s amazing that he could pull off, with equal aplomb, both the likeable sad eyed slacker in Kill! and the dead eyed amoral killing machine in Okamoto’s earlier Sword of Doom.

Cutter’s Way (1981 – Ivan Passer) PRO(-) (DVD)

Somewhat in the mold of the nifty mid-seventies neo-noir Night Moves where everything is ambiguous and possibly corrupt if you dig deep enough under the surface.  A film that would have been more at home if released deep during the pre-Star Wars New Hollywood era.  Santa Barbara resident Alexander Cutter, given a rather extreme scenery chewing treatment by John Heard, is a embittered Vietnam veteran missing an eye, an arm and a leg.  He’s an extremely volatile aimless malcontent, a sort of Ahab by way of the Mekong delta.  The brutal murder of a local teen hitch-hiker gives Cutter a sense of purpose, an obsessive desire to play provocateur and amateur sleuth.  Though his motive is not so much to unravel a mystery, but to make his own grand gesture of counter-culture protest, to punish the power brokers that have left him a shell of the man.  He wants to get into the ring and trade proverbial punches with the primal forces of nature (as elucidated by Ned Beatty’s Arthur Jensen in Network), in this case represented by an oil tycoon named J.J. Cord who may or may not be guilty of the specific crime. (Compare and contrast Cutter with Jon Voight’s Coming Home vet whose central goal, it seems, is to bring a frigid Jane Fonda to climax).  Heard’s self-destructive high-octane Cutter is nicely contrasted by Jeff Bridges as Cutter’s mellow buddy Richard Bone.  Bone’s a sun bleached ivy league slacker stud who avoided the war (a sort of pre-The Dude dude) and he oscillates between distancing himself from Cutter and humoring his unformed mission all the while drifting into a love triangle involving Cutter’s emotionally scarred booze soaked wife Mo (a good Lisa Eichhorn).  Despite the film’s tone of paranoid imagination one is clearly left with the belief that the outsiders Cutter and Bone are ultimately justified in both their anger and their actions.  The filmmakers share with the motley duo, if not their temperament, their disgust for those who aren’t accountable.  Jack Nitzsche’s quirky effective score is reminiscent of the one he did for Cuckoo’s Nest, a film that was helmed by Cutter’s Way director Ivan Passer’s mentor and fellow Czech ex-patriot Milos Forman.

The Woman Next Door / La Femme de l’aviateur (1981 – Francois Truffaut) pro (DVD)

In Truffaut’s penultimate film he again visited a favorite theme – l’amour fou.  Yet, unlike that in The Story of Adele H. or Two English Girls this obsessive passion cuts both ways.  Neither of the two married to others lovers, nicely played by Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, is particularly rational or predictable.  The handsome toothy Ardant was a worthy contemporary addition to the Truffaut crazy women harem, the members of which were essayed by the likes of Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Adjani, and Kiki Markham (or was it Stacey Tendeter?) in period set films.  While certainly worth a look and likely underappreciated today, I got the sense Truffaut never made this film completely his own, seems more like an uneasy blend of the Rohmer and Chabrol aesthetic.

Night Passage (1957 – James Neilson) pro (DVD)

A Borden Chase script, a Dimitri Tiomkin score and Brandon De Wilde again as a youngster named “Joey”, the Technicolor/Technirama Night Passage has all the trappings of an entertaining Oater.  Originally slated to be the sixth James Stewart/Anthony Mann Western (and their ninth collaboration overall), Mann walked away over script differences and wouldn’t work with Stewart again.  Mann would retreat from color and widescreen to make The Tin Star instead.  It’s a bit of a shame cause Mann could have elevated this piece by shading the characters with a little more psychological complexity.  Still, it’s a very solid film with yet another thoughtful performance by Stewart, this time as an accordion playing freelance railroad man tussling with the baby faced Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) and a very hammy Dan Duryea over a $10,000 payroll.  A lot is packed in for its ninety minute running time.  Director Neilson would go on to a fruitful TV career, at the helm for a number of episodes of popular Western series.

Charly (1968 – Ralph Nelson) mixed(-) (DVD)

Mentally retarded man is temporarily made a genius by experimental surgery, begging the question – is ignorance bliss?  This thoughtful film based on the popular Daniel Keyes novella Flowers for Algernon with an Oscar winning (and baiting) performance by Cliff Robertson clearly hasn’t aged well.  It’s an odd mixture of an oft rote approach that works but doesn’t inspire and jarringly unique stylistic sections that miss the mark completely.  The inexplicable motor-cycle riding montage at the mid-point of the film employing the then au courant split screen technique with a pseudo-psychedelic vibe (see also The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler from the same year) has to be seen to be believed.  I must say that the downbeat ending is a heartbreaker and the film generally tries to avoid the mawkish.  Except for the occasional eastern reference, I would never have guessed that the score is from sitar master Ravi ShankarClaire Bloom supports but doesn’t do much; for better or worse it’s Robertson’s show through and through.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958 – Richard Quine) pro(-) (DVD)Arizona (1940 – Wesley Ruggles) pro (DVD)

Two examples of cinematic women’s liberation in reverse.  In Arizona Jean Arthur plays Phoebe Titus a no-nonsense shoot first ask questions later independent woman.  A tough as nails pie baking entrepreneur and matron to the emerging dusty Wild West community of Tucson – a sort of rural variation of Arthur’s street wise urban career woman characters.  As this entertaining sprawling episodic film unfolds, Phoebe is slowly domesticated and feminized by the love of a young drifter played by William Holden (in only his fifth major role with none of his trademark cynicism yet evident).  By the end she has ditched the leather chaps for pretty frills and while she still picks the fights (with villains effectively played by Porter Hall and Warren William) it’s lover boy Holden that has to do all the heavy lifting.  The end of the film suggesting that Phoebe would become the same kind of homestead hearth minder that Arthur would later portray in Shane.  Of course it’s fair to say that Phoebe’s transformation largely parallels the evolution of the Old West which was in its own way gradually feminized and domesticated.  In the colorful fluffy romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle, Quine film regular Kim Novak plays Gillian Holroyd a Manhattan resident witch who runs with a screwball coven of witches and warlocks (including Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester) who frequent the underground Zodiac club (the black arts with a strong hint of the beatnik).  In yearning for conventional life Gillian casts, with the help of her cat Pyewacket, a love spell on normalcy poster boy James Stewart (though maybe not in the other Stewart/Novak 1958 teaming – Vertigo).  The plot naturally revolves around Novak keeping her witchiness from Stewart.  Slowly but surely as her love grows and nuptials become inevitable she loses her magic power.  Her unique personality (and her once sexy eclectic wardrobe) subverted by the promise of domestic bliss with a publishing executive.  In both cases, Arthur and Novak go along willingly, Arthur casting away her shotgun and Novak her incantations.  You’ve come a long way baby(?)

Millennium Mambo  / Qianxi Manbo (2001 – Hou Hsien-Hsei) mixed (DVD)

I guess I’m supposed to admire the formal technique and the moody pretty pictures – but it’s not enough.  Agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum who noted that “(t)he characters are boring–terminally familiar zeros”.  I don’t require that characters be sympathetic; but they should at least be interesting.

Hustle & Flow (2005 – Craig Brewer) pro (DVD)

This pimp to rapper character study attempts to give the audience both the edge and grit of independent film and the feel good inspirational elements of a commercial film with an underdog focus.  The commercial elements win the day and I’d argue that the filmmakers should have had more of a fixation on the bottom line box office and adopted a full on mainstream approach.  The recording session scenes are some of the most enjoyable of the 2005 film year.  Terry Howard was rightfully lauded for a heartfelt performance that rises above surface mannerisms.

Match Point (2005 – Woody Allen) pro(+) (Theater)

It seems that all of the early press relating to Match Point focuses on it as both a departure and return to form for Allen from a career perspective.  The later reactions are your typical backlash against post-festival pre-release hype and the resulting high expectations.  Few are willing to solely address the content of this nifty genre piece (which is basically An American Tragedy/A Place in the Sun and Room at the Top by way of Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors sans misdemeanors), so I won’t either.  Good movie though.

 

 

Man On The Train /  L’Homme du train (2002 – Patrice Leconte) pro (DVD)

A non-Western neo-Western – an homage to genre that defies genre expectations.  A “what if?” story about identity, choices and regret.  Nicely shot with two effective performances; but the result is much more slight than it could have been.  Full of interesting ideas never fully explored – like a trial run for a great film.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970 – David Lean) mixed (DVD)

Was hoping for a diamond in the rough, encouraged by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the venomous critics that took Lean to task back in the day were biased, cranky or misguided.  Nope – Ryan’s Daughter is indeed a bloated and plodding film with a rather simple story unworthy of an epic scope and butt numbing running time.  Certain actors are miscast (Robert Mitchum as a passive school master/cuckold), pour it on too thick (Oscar winner (!) John Mills as the gimpy village idiot) or are just plain inept (a wooden and dubbed Christopher Jones as a shell shocked English Officer).  Thankfully Sarah Miles as the conflicted titular character is competent enough.  Still, despite the film’s flaws, there’s some nice period and ethnic detail and some awesome vistas of the West Coast of Ireland (though by the book landscape painter staid).  Plus there are few truly great moments including a scoreless pastoral love making scene worthy of the Terrence Malick films to come and an awe inspiring ocean storm scene involving the villagers recovering adrift contraband to be used to fuel Irish resistance against the English occupation.  The transfer on the new DVD is absolutely pristine.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped / De battre mon coeur s’est arête (2005 – Jacques Audiard) pro (DVD)

As much about the imprint parents leave on their children as The Squid and the Whale; though the central high brow-artist/low brow-thug dichotomy remains as in its source film, James Toback’s grim character study Fingers, a pretty sophomoric concept (if memory serves, a less overt approach to the two sided man can be found in Five Easy Pieces).  Director Audiard wisely disposes of a number of “out there” plot elements from Fingers (including some rather intense misogyny) creating a far more believable scenario without diminishing the necessary emphasis on character psychology.  Romain Duris’ portrayal of the conflicted tightly wound Tom won’t make one forget Harvey Keitel’s explosive turn as Jimmy in Fingers; but his different take on the character is still pretty impressive.

 Saraband (2003 – Ingmar Bergman) pro(-) (DVD)

An emotionally intense domestic chamber drama not far off the quality of Bergman’s past like projects (say Autumn Sonata).  Found the use of the Johan and Marianne characters from Scenes from a Marriage to be unnecessary and artificial, almost arbitrary (as was the use of the secondary couple from Scenes From a Marriage as played by different actors in From the Life of Marionettes).  The Johan/Marianne reunion is anti-climatic and peripheral to the central story Bergman wants to tell about the relationship between a young cellist, her self-loathing father and their past demons (*).  Is the loose sequel many years after the fact ever a good idea (The Two Jakes, Texasville, The Evening Star)?  Felt no more informed about Johan and Marianne than I did after the incredible Scenes from a Marriage.  It was interesting that this “sequel” focused on a parent and child relationship given that one of the central criticisms of the original film was the lack of any focus on the children as part of a family unit that inevitably impacts any marital relationship.  Was the final, almost tender, scene between Marianne and her institutionalized daughter a comment on this? An acknowledgment or an act of contrition by Bergman?  Or does Johan as a remorseless disinterested father (pathologically so) continue to be the Bergman surrogate – art and ego above all else?  As a career coda, I’d prefer Fanny and Alexander. [* I was similarly frustrated with Wong Kar Wai’s unnecessary use of Tony Leung’s In The Mood for Love character Chow Mo-wan in his last film 2046In The Mood for Love ended on a perfect lyrical note – the Angkor Wat whisper; open-ended for sure, but there was an element of closure at the poetic level.  To see Chow Mo-wan love and lust again in 2046 diminishes the romantic purity of the prior film.]

Black Girl / La Noire de … (1966 – Ousmane Sembene) pro(-) (DVD)

Story of a young Senegalese woman who goes to work as a domestic for a French family resident in the Riviera.  Her dreams are soon dashed when she finds herself treated no better than a slave without any opportunity to experience the outside world around her.  Short, simple and to the point; but undermined somewhat by wooden amateurish acting and one dimensional white French characters.  Yet, the final act scream of social protest still rings out loud and clear long after you have finished watching (and echoing into my next day viewing of Caché which focuses on a similar France/Africa dynamic).

 

The Rains Came (1939 – Clarence Brown) mixed (DVD)

Slick ambitious film set in sweltering plague infested Ranchipur, India.  It’s kind of like In Old Chicago (another Twentieth Century Fox Tyrone Power vehicle) in that the sole highlight is a big budget disaster segment.  In this case its not a fire but an earthquake and a resulting flood.  The trials and tribulations of the characters (played by acting optional glamorous stars naturally) being little more than filler.  The Indian characters, Power’s Doctor Safti included, are absurdly cast.  The last act focusing on the Myrna Loy character’s redemption seems like the sequel to Jezebel, as if tracking Bette Davis time with the lepers just to put an exclamation point on her martyrdom.  Loy’s open eyed death scene is pretty cool though.  George Brent’s boozy rogue character is the best of a middling bunch; though there are a number of character actor stalwarts in the cast.

Black Peter / Cerný Petr (1964 – Milos Forman) mixed(+) (DVD)

Early Czech New Wave and Forman’s prize winning feature film directorial debut (unless you count Audition a pseudo-documentary that consolidated two shorter films – a clear precursor to Forman’s Taking Off).  Though a little rough around the edges this film shares much in theme and style as with Forman’s following three films – each of which has a specific and affectionate focus on youth culture and the generation gap.  The leisurely and comic slice of life dance hall sequence is a clear warm up for similar effective sequences in Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball.  Comic documentary realism rules the day; owing more of a debt to post neo-realist naturalistic efforts like Bergman’s Monika and Olmi’s Il Posto than to the “new waves” of other jurisdictions.  The approach is improvisational and humanist, never suggesting the modishness of the French New Wave or the nihilism of the Japanese New Wave.  It’s interesting that (as per IMDB) Forman cites The Deer Hunter as one of his ten favourite films.  The lengthy free flowing wedding sequence in that film is probably the best example of an American born director aping Forman’s greatest strengths.  These strengths (at least early in his career) seem to me to be Forman’s ability to create a loose vibe within a very specific time and place, making the audience feel like a fly on the wall without the sordid suggestion of voyeurism.  There’s less emphasis on the riffs, quips and gags of an Altman or the actorish in your face intensity of a Cassavetes (which bring their own unique pleasures). 

Thérèse Raquin (1953- Marcel Carné) pro(+) (DVD)

Émile Zola source novel twisted into a James M. Cain style potboiler.  Kind of like Double Indemnity without the premeditation and malevolent femme fatale.  The most genre inspired of the five Carné films I’ve seen.  Simone Signoret as Thérèse, the dead inside shopkeeper’s wife, gives one of her many tremendous interior performances.  Torn between her lust for a burly foreign truck driver (Raf Vallone) and her loyalty to her shrewish Aunt and sickly husband/cousin(!), she’s at once cold, stoic and full of boundless desire.  Fate, like in all classic noirs, plays its hand in a predictable but delicious final act twist involving a bold blackmailer.  Solid.

 

Island In The Sun (1957 – Robert Rossen) con(+) (DVD)

Gorgeous looking Cinemascope color film shot on location in Barbados and Grenada.  This multi-character melodrama that touches on Caribbean politics and murder is supposed to be forward thinking (in typical Zanuck middlebrow fashion) in its portrayal of interracial couples and mixed race bloodlines; but it’s pretty unfocused and often absurd.  The two central interracial couples, Harry Belafonte/Joan Fontaine and Dorothy Dandridge/John Justin, despite passionate romances don’t even get screen kisses.  The filmmakers did have the courtesy to allow Joan Collins and Stephen Boyd to lock lips (Collins’ and James Mason’s characters are, shockingly, something like 1/64th Black).  Pretty entertaining with some camp value and an enjoyable (though incongruous) Belafonte musical number (“Lead Man Holler”).  Stylistically the film has no resemblance to Rossen’s vastly superior directorial efforts from the late 40s and early 60s.  Perfect DVD transfer.

Sudden Rain / Shu-u (1956 – Mikio Naruse) PRO (Theater)

Terrific film about marital ennui with some comic elements and a great ending.  Notable in that the male character is more nuanced and sympathetic than in other Naruse home dramas.  More even handed than the great Repast where the sympathy lies solely for the Setsuko Hara character.

Lovefilm / Szerelmesfilm (1970 – István Szabó) pro(+) (DVD)

This love story with a layered non-linear narrative is a thoughtful and artful blend or memory, imagination and recent political history.  A young Hungarian man (András Bálint) briefly reunites with a former childhood playmate/surrogate sister/lover (Judit Halász) in Paris.  A flood of memories and dreams (of real and possibly imagined events) ensues.  Owes a pretty big debt, both from a stylistic and thematic perspective, to the various European New Waves and to the work of Alain Resnais in particular; though the film never descends into the overtly derivative.  Szabó has a strong sense of his own voice, weaving in a number of beautiful expressive images and indelible moments into the fabric of his story. Shot in color with predominantly autumnal tones, the film conveys a bittersweet and elegiac mood.  Romantic and of its time; but generally eschews the glamour and fashionableness of an art house crowd pleaser like Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005 – Miranda July) pro (DVD)

Director/star July applies her training as a conceptual artist to put a unique twist on deadpan indie quirk.  Off beat mixture of the precious and the borderline depraved.  Various outsider characters, regardless of age, oscillate between the childlike and the furious.  Not all the attempts at grace notes work, but some stick like glue.

Mysterious Skin (2005 – Gregg Araki) pro(-) (DVD)

These types of wrenching personal stories seem less and less unique or cathartic as they proliferate across our screens.  By adding lyrical touches to memories of past abuse at the hands of depraved manipulators, the result is more artful; but the twisted nostalgia seems less honest – swallowed by a stylistic conceit.  Still, this film has some haunting elements that are hard to shake.

Repast /  Meshi (1951 – Mikio Naruse) pro(+) (Theater)

Though Naruse was reportedly far from a feminist in his private life, this is a heartfelt feminist work that brought to mind Rossellini’s Stromboli with its focus on a wife’s dissatisfaction, loneliness and isolation (though the final puzzling and incongruous, almost disingenuous, narration of Repast seem to subvert any feminist reading). Speaking of Rossellini, the husband and wife’s moment of reconciliation and grace clearly seems to anticipate the famed moment between Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Voyage in Italy. The first of six adaptations of a Fumiko Hayashi novel by Naruse.  Setsuko Hara in the lead is terrific as usual.  I’d imagine this is a good example of the tsuma-mono – the Japanese “wife” film genre.

Bad Timing (1980 – Nicolas Roeg) pro(+) (DVD)

Roeg’s study of a destructive relationship is kind of like an acrid version of Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road complete with Euro setting and the same type of reliance on disjointed narrative ellipsis. A storytelling and stylistic conceit that only seems justified by the final depraved revelation (structuring the story around the sometimes mysterious investigation led by Harvey Keitel’s police detective seems redundant for most of the film). Didn’t find Art Garfunkel particularly miscast as the research psycho-analyst, as most do, just a little on the bland and vacant side. Theresa Russell’s trampy unpredictable moody flake Milena is wholly compelling, though it’s hard to detect what parts of her portrayal are really performance (she’s amateurish and uneven in the best of ways). Really liked the style of the film, specifically the use of colour, music, changes in camera lenses, full use of the ‘scope frame and creative meaningful editing. The film was nowhere near as pretentious or incoherent as I suspected it would be; though I suppose my rating could have been higher or lower depending on my mood. Kind of like Roman Polanski’s later film Bitter Moon but devoid of any humour or camp.

The Constant Gardner (2005 – Fernando Meirelles) pro (DVD)

I liked the whole faux cuckold angle; it was interesting to see how the wrongfully tarnished reputation of a deceased loved one is slowly restored in the mind of the living.  There was some good manipulation of the viewer early on in this respect.  The central conspiracy plot was a little unimaginative though; and I don’t think Meirelles busy visual style served the material well at all times.  A good Rachel Weisz seems to be getting all the accolades but Ralph Fiennes was outstanding.

 

A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki (1953 – Keisuke Kinoshita) pro (DVD)

Film opens with a rapid fire extended montage of newsreel footage and newspaper headlines illustrating the intense political and social turmoil in post-war Japan.  Hard to believe these events actually happened because this intro plays to modern audiences like the set-up for a science fiction story set in a post-apocalyptic world (I kept thinking of the opening of The Road Warrior).  The film then shifts gears ultimately focusing on the trials and tribulations of a disreputable (by necessity) war widow (expertly played by Yûko Mochizuki, so memorable as Tomi in Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums) and her two ungrateful children on the verge of adulthood.  A family living the urban equivalent of a hardscrabble existence.  Makes for a fascinating contrast to Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story released the very same year.  Both films deal with cross generational conflict and the breakdown in family tradition – one film bittersweet, one just plain bitter.  Tokyo Story, a more beloved film, is so much more bourgeoisie and middlebrow in focus and approach than the gritty, bleak and borderline experimental A Japanese Tragedy (bursts of silent flashbacks are particularly effective).  Tokyo Story is more timeless and universal, but certainly more soft and less in the moment.  The humanism in the Kinoshita film is not so much expressed as a lament, it’s more of an angry shout of protest.  Have only seen three Kinoshita films (this one, Twenty Four Eyes (1954) and The Ballad of Narayama (1958)), but he seems to have an incredibly diverse body of work.

Nobody Knows / Dare mo shiranai (2005 – Hirokazu Kore-Eda) pro (DVD)

In Satyajit Ray’s landmark film Pather Panchali there’s a moment of great lyricism when the young brother and sister watch a train wiz pass the outskirts of their rural impoverished village.  There’s a similar grace moment between brother and sister watching a train (bound for the local airport) in this low key film about four children abandoned by their selfish and unreliable mother.  Despite the urban industrialized setting the same themes bubble to the surface – freedom from isolation, the possibility of a new life, the profound beauty of the unknown.  Soon after the respective train scenes both films take on a tragic trajectory without clear resolution; but in each case the perspective remains humanist, sympathetic and hopeful.  Aside from a few almost expressionistic sequences, Kore-eda opts for documentary realism instead of the poetic naturalism employed by Ray.  It’s an effective but sometimes challenging style, especially in light of the deliberate pace and (excessive) 140 minute running time.  (Plus is it just me or does Kore-eda have a foot fetish that would give Buñuel a run for his money).

Scandal / Shunbun (1950 – Akira Kurosawa) mixed  (DVD)

Middling and muddled Kurosawa film released between two of his greatest early triumphs – Stray Dog and Rashomon.  While it demonstrates his usual technical virtuosity and contains a number of wonderful isolated moments the plot and tone is schizoid. One moment it’s a slight media satire with a potentially romantic subplot; then it twists into domestic tragedy and courtroom melodrama. The last act shift in focus from Toshiro Mifune’s principled biker painter to Takashi Shimura’s unprincipled down and out boozy lawyer is fatal.  An off-screen death bed motivational speech from Shimura’s pure and innocent tubercular daughter (she’s like a Japanese Little Eva) that spurs his redemption is about as manipulative as Kurosawa ever got. The hunched over melancholic and bathetic Shimura seems like a rough sketch for his cancer ridden bureaucrat in Ikiru.  The film also stars the likable actress/singer Yoshiko Yamaguchi, who looks like a Westernized interpretation of 50s era Asian beauty.  She would later make her mark in the West as “Shirley” Yamaguchi in Sam Fuller’s Japanese set House of Bamboo.  Minor, but of some interest.

À double tour (1959 – Claude Chabrol) PRO(-) (DVD)

This murder melodrama is wild and unpredictable, garish and florid, everything seems amplified. Yet, the intent seems to be ironic, as if the heightened emotion is meant to be deconstructed by satire or the thriller genre. The film plays like a psycho sexual black comedy in the same fashion as Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession from the same year.  The liberated camera moves demonstrate a youthful enthusiasm that I haven’t seen in Chabrol’s later work; here he works like a free styling Hitchcock that neglected to storyboard and pop his Ritalin – it’s a visual feast. A pre-Breathless Jean-Paul Belmondo, as the hyper boorish and unrepressed Laszlo Kovacs, acts as the catalyst thrust amongst the eccentricity, dysfunction and Oedipal urge of the wealthy elite that Chabrol loves to hate.  Not as fully realized as the terrific Les Bonnes Femmes but just as interesting and vibrant as the earliest triumphs of the French New Wave (though shares little with fellow 1959 entries The Four Hundred Blows or Hiroshima Mon Amour). In terms of color, decadence and intrigue one senses both the fallout of Bonjour Tristesse and …And God Created Woman; and the germ of Contempt. 

No Name On The Bullet (1959 – Jack Arnold) mixed(+) (DVD)

Half decent Western where ominous arrival of mysterious baby faced gunslinger for hire (Audie Murphy) in a dusty frontier town elevates feelings of suspicion and guilt amongst the locals with less than clear consciences.  Nicely shot in color and Scope; but the paranoia may have been heightened with a less slick more B Movie approach (think black and white with tight shots ala Terror in a Texas Town).  Shares some of the style and mood with the superior modern oater Bad Day at Black Rock.  Written by Star Trek scribe Gene L. Coon, the creator of the Klingons and the “prime directive”.

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