List List Bang Bang

January 10, 2010

2007 Screening Log Notes

Filed under: 2007,Screening Log — misterjiggy @ 5:43 pm

Two Rode Together (1961 – John Ford) pro(-) (cable)

An extremely bizarre and interesting second tier John Ford Oater which, despite the director’s cranky dismissal of it as a work for hire (or favor for Harry Cohn), oozes with the usual well worn Fordian touches – even seems to subvert a few.  The film largely concerns the rescue of white settlers that were abducted by the Comanches many years prior and suggests some sort of odd coda/companion piece to, or even apology(!) for, The Searchers (Frank S. Nugent was the screen scribe for both).  It’s like an attempt to build an entire film around the psychology suggested by that split second when Ethan Edwards lifts niece Debbie in his arms and must decide whether he will execute her for carrying the taint of savages or welcome her to back to hearth and home.  Two Rode Together is an almost complex film, full of awkward, sometimes puzzling, tonal and even philosophical shifts over and above the usual high wire act Ford attempts to pull off (often successfully) when he bounces between comedy and drama.  Has a sort of “be careful what you wish for” moral with a rather overt, almost Giant-ish, social commentary indicting the settlor community for their hypocrisy and bigotry.  Yet Ford and Nugent, through their characters, consistently undermine or even contradict their (possible) message(s).  Are we to believe that a “white” woman turned Comanche squaw (like Debbie in The Searchers or the Mexican born Elena (Linda Cristal) in this film) is ultimately redeemable whereas a white boy turned Comanche brave (David Kent as Running Wolf) is beyond reintegration into polite society? Did Richard Widmark’s and James Stewart’s characters condone the frontier (kangaroo court) justice lynching resulting from the cold blooded murder of a naïve old woman who in the midst of her good intentions had lost her wits; or was such an offense the equal of an officer’s refusal to dance with “Stone Calf’s woman”?  Where did Ford and Nugent stand?  It seems that behind every voice of reason in the film railing against intolerance (usually Widmark’s noble officer character or Stewart’s seen it all cynical town Marshall character) comes a similarly perverse or flawed world view.  In addition to the fascinating thematic contradictions, the film is also notable for the type of character played by James Stewart in this his first of three appearances in Ford films. When Stewart and Anthony Mann collaborated many of the characters Stewart portrayed had dark shades but here his Marshall Guthrie McCabe is beyond haunted or edgy, he’s an unapologetic rogue, a self-interested opportunist prone to graft and adverse to righteous causes.  Perhaps Stewart’s least noble film character.  Lots of auteurist meat to chew on in this one, the kind of film one gets more out of once they have a couple dozen Ford pictures under their belt otherwise it may come across as little more than passable and unremarkable old fashioned entertainment.

Autumn Leaves (1956 – Robert Aldrich) mixed(+) (cable)

A not too bad half way interesting mental health potboiler where a surprisingly vulnerable Joan Crawford gets to play steadfast devotion to an unhinged and cuckolded Cliff Robertson (the May of their May-December romance).  A good example of the sometimes ultra ripened “woman’s pictures” occasionally made by Aldrich between his various odes to machismo.  Melodramatic, but no where near as overheated and modern gothic as the Baby Jane/Sweet Charlotte/Sister George 1960s tri-fecta.  Worth the price of admission to hear Joan tear a strip off of unrepentant lovers played by Lorne Greene and Vera Miles (as father and daughter-in-law no less) with this nugget: “You, his loving, doting fraud of a father! And you, you slut You’re both so consumed with evil, so rotten! Your filthy souls are too evil for Hell itself!” (which doesn’t play half as campy as you might suspect).

 Once (2006 – John Carney) pro (DVD)

I’m clearly a sucker for recording session scenes in movies as the scene in which the rag tag crew of Dublin buskers win over the jaded sound guy with their talent and enthusiasm was perhaps my favorite scene in a 2007 film.  Just as the scene in Hustle and Flow where they lay down some killer tracks in a home made studio was a fave back in 2005.

Four Wives (1939 – Michael Curtiz) mixed (cable)

The participation of John Garfield in the extremely likeable first film in the series (Four Daughters), while significant, was not the tipping point in my appreciation of it.  So it follows that his absence (save for a small ghostly piano bit) in this sequel is not really the problem that leads to my less than enthusiastic reaction.  The formula just seems a little tired, charm diminished by familiarity, the concerns that lead to the melodrama just a little more trite and less compelling.  Jeffrey Lynn’s Felix Dietz, quite amiable in the first go round despite the imposing shadow cast by Garfield, is bland here – given little to do but pine away for Priscilla Lane’s Ann Lemp from a respectful distance as she struggles with the fact that she is carrying the child of her suicidal martyr of a dead husband.  Instead of a cynical, brooding and self-loathing Mickey Borden (Garfield’s character) we are given a rather awkward and pleasantly folksy doctor played by Eddie Albert as the new chick magnet on the scene.  Talk about the dissipation of vigor (it’s like asking June Allyson to play Lola in The Blue Angel).  Still, all in all an entertaining enough film, the fetching Priscilla Lane is a winner and Warner Bros. stalwart helmer Curtiz’s effortlessly fluid direction is pleasingly slick.

The Hunt / La Caza (1966 – Carlos Saura) PRO(-) (VHS)

After five films I’m still trying to get a handle on the nature of Saura’s auteurness – his stylistic/thematic borrowings (Peppermint Frappe is like a Buñuel film by way of Hitchcock and The Garden of Delights is like a Buñuel film by way of Fellini) don’t seem to detract from what is clearly highly personal, yet unsentimental, filmmaking.  The Hunt is a raw and bleak film that is not so much cynical as it is full of venom.  There’s no dark comedy or surreal touches in this no-holds barred character study like you’d find in the director’s pitiless yet funny The Garden of Delights.  In Buñuelian terms the film The Hunt perhaps most resembles is The Young One with its blend of meanness and a satire free directness (despite an overarching sense that everything in The Hunt is allegorical, it’s still an awfully blunt and direct film).  A film with enough macho bluster and montage heavy ultra violence that it seemingly anticipates The Wild Bunch / Straw Dogs era Peckinpah.  The set up is fairly simple, three old middle aged friends whose paths have crossed in both combat and business embark on some friendly R&R in the form of a rabbit hunt in a desolate and dry sun bleached valley that was a one time civil war battlefield.  They are accompanied by the young nephew of one of the men who is ultimately to act as the innocent observer and the audience surrogate.  The environment offers little tranquility, as an oppressive heat beats down on the hunters they become surrounded by diseased infected rabbits, a long rotted corpse, underfed ferrets, a gimpy gamekeeper and his invalid elderly mother – mix in old personal and professional grudges, festering guilt, lust, alcohol, guns and ammunition and you have a perfect storm for catastrophe.  Despite the wide open spaces of the valley the action plays out like a chamber drama, with tight framing that suggests a claustrophobic psychological thriller.  The dialogue and often crazed or paranoid interior monologues are largely full of recrimination and vitriol.  Saura and co-screenwriter Angelino Fons exhibit an almost global distain for their characters – sort of like Mamet and his Glengarry Glen Ross.  Notwithstanding the narrative simplicity, even obviousness, the character backgrounds and motivations are strangely enigmatic which adds an oddly compelling aura of mystery (ironically the requirements of Franco era state censors likely drove this storytelling approach).  As for the various rabbit hunt scenes, it’s like an amplified and extended version of the orgy of animal deaths that occurs in The Rules of the Game (this film should come equipped with a reverse animal cruelty end credit disclaimer: “Many animals were harmed during the making of this film”).

Hangover Square (1945 – John Brahm) PRO (DVD)

Great performances, great score (one of numerous memorable Bernard Herrmann efforts) and Braham and DP Joseph LaShelle make like Welles and Hitchcock with the gothic visual flourishes.  Film’s got to be a hit with music geeks – what with villain (almost an anti-hero) driven mad by discordant sound and actually scoring his own downfall/pursuit/capture from a piano bench as it happens.  Film lags a little after the inspired disposal of a rather thrilling Linda Darnell (a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire no less), but the finale more than makes up for it.  A step up from the already pretty great Braham/Laird Cregar/George Sanders/Barré Lyndon like styled period thriller from the previous year – The Lodger.  Incredibly rich film for 77 minutes.

I’m All Right Jack (1959 – John Boulting) pro (cable)

Union and management get an even handed skewering in textbook example of Brit wit of the era.  Peter Sellers, as the Marxist shop steward, seems to get most of the laurels – but the cast is jam packed with notable British comic and character actors.  Good fun, and one of the BFI’s top 100 films (for what that’s worth).

Le Plaisir (1952 – Max Ophüls) pro(+) (Theater)

The epitome of camera fluidity, an often jaw dropping technical marvel in which a voyeuristic camera prowls through often cluttered space with the determination and grace of a jungle cat.  Sadly for me, as with the lovely but a little unsatisfying La Ronde, the portmanteau structure (the film is segmented into three separate stories based on tales from 19th century short story pioneer Guy de Maupassant) stops Ophüls from hitting it out of the park.  Visual fluidity does not in itself equal an overall narrative fluidity.  The two shorter pieces entitled “Le Masque” and “Le Modèle” (arranged first and third respectively in the original French version (they were reordered in an English version)) seem rather slight plot wise – mere sketches too tied to the notion of the clever twist (quite O. Henry like – to site an author who was certainly influenced by Maupassant).  In terms of Maupassant adaptations I was much more engaged in the story when watching the Val Lewton/Robert Wise made Mademoiselle Fifi (which stars Simone Simon who plays “Le Modèle” in Le Plaisir).  While Fifi is without a doubt a lesser film with a war time propaganda agenda it still seems to have more to say – more overall narrative drive.  Quibbles aside the mid-section of Le Plaisir “La Maison Tellier”, with its lyrical and ironic mixture of the sacred and the profane, featuring Danielle Darrieux (with constantly dangling cigarette as a comic prop) and a robust Jean Gabin is a real highlight.  Apparently Stanley Kubrick in the late fifties cited Le Plaisir as his favorite film and the influence of the “Le Masque” segment can certainly be seen (thematically anyway) in Eyes Wide Shut.  Sure seems like these portmanteau films were popular in the early 50s, there was also the memorable omnibus efforts O. Henry’s Full House from the same year and the Somerset Maugham (yet another Maupassant inspired short story writer) adaptations from the UK –  Quartet (1948), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951).

Black Moon (1975 – Louis Malle) con(+) (cable)

The most atypical Malle film (even considering the manic Zazie dans le Metro) – a rather fascinating miscalculation and a most obtuse exercise in personal filmmaking, especially in the immediate wake of the coming of age Murmur of the Heart and occupation war drama Lacombe, Lucien.  Malle shoots for fantasy world surrealism (Luis Buñuel’s daughter-in-law Joyce even gets a dialogue credit) but its far more bizarre than dreamy (the film was apparently based on Malle’s dreams and the “script” evolved daily based on whim and directorial improvisation).  Meaning, even at a most superficial level, is elusive.  At least the style of the film avoids the tropes of the “psychedelic” film which it certainly would have been littered with if made 4 to 8 years earlier. The film is occasionally tedious but not half as boring as I suspected it might be; and its certainly not as grating as the somewhat like spirited Alice in Wonderland inspired Roman Polanski mindfuck What?, nor does it, to the same extent as What?, pander to the art house Euro film fans’ penchant for light erotica (though it may in fact meet the requirements of some unusual fetishists).  Malle, ever the provocateur, does have the film’s 16 year old lead Cathryn Harrison (grand-daughter to Rex) go topless in the final moments, but I highly doubt, given the film’s lackluster distribution, there was much Pretty Baby/13 year old Brooke Shields style controversy.  Overall, the kind of film that makes one appreciates David Lynch’s accomplishments even more. Sven Nykvist was the DP (he would also lens Malle’s Pretty Baby) so the film certainly looks good.  The promising opening segment has a decided dystopian sci-fi Children of Men vibe, but it all soon gives way to talking unicorns, naked feral children, incestuous twins, and the breast feeding of an old dieing women.  Not sure if Freud and Dali would be impressed or embarrassed.

36 Hours (1965 – George Seaton) pro(-) (DVD)

Neat premise for a WW2 set espionage thriller (Germans assemble a phony US military hospital and try to trick an American operative (James Garner) into believing the war is over in order to solicit confidential information concerning the D-Day Invasion) but the film peaks way too early.  Once Garner’s character learns of the diabolical scheme it’s simply just another a man on the run story.  Rod Taylor is sympathetic as the pseudo-villain doctor and Eva Marie Saint is solid as the complicit ex-concentration camp internee that’s won over by Garner.  The third consecutive non-combat war film made by Seaton after The Counterfeit Traitor and The Hook.

  

  

Westward the Women (1951 – William Wellman) PRO (cable)

This off beat pre-feminist western in which 100+ mail order brides haul themselves from Chicago to an emerging California community is a wagon train ensemble piece somewhat in the mode of John Ford’s terrific Wagon Master.  Many of these adventurous pioneering souls would not survive the arduous journey (there are a few quite startling deaths even for today’s audiences).   Robert Taylor, so often relegated to pretty boy window dressing, is surprisingly rugged and effective as the no-nonsense world weary trail guide/wagon master, but it’s the array of women players that are the true stars.  A real gem, a masterful blend of realism and sentiment with some exceptional set pieces (including a role call of the dead that echoes through a desert canyon), and also notable for its effective absence (outside opening credits) of a musical score (take that – No Country For Old Men).  Kudos are also in order for the ethnic diversity (French (a feisty Denise Darcel as Taylor’s love interest), Italian (Renata Vanni), and Japanese (Henry Nakamura)) which, for its time of release, avoids condescension if not stereotypes.  I’d call this film A League of Their Own for the Old West set – but that would be seriously underselling it.  Frank Capra originally wanted to make this film (retains a story credit) but I doubt he could have improved on what Wellman and screenwriter Charles Schnee delivered.

Déjà vu (2006 – Tony Scott) pro(-) (cable)

Equal parts preposterous and inventive.  A sci-fi police procedural for contemporary times – a sort of reverse Minority Report.  Just wish Tony Scott had Spielberg’s sense of pace and visual grace.  The always solid Denzel Washington can do this stuff in his sleep.  Relative newcomer Paula Patton is also pretty good – and it was quite obviously to me that they wouldn’t let a woman that attractive stay on a morgue slab.  The switch in setting from Long Island of the original script  to New Orleans is kind of opportunistic/trendy/exploitive, but adds some spice.  The happy ending is, oddly, both gutless and satisfying (read: happy).  A quality genre effort for those who can stomach the ridiculous.

  

David and Lisa (1962 – Frank Perry) con(+) (cable)

As far as American made mental institution relationship dramas that borrow heavily from Euro New Wave stylistics go, this has nothing on Robert Rossen’s Lilith.  This one time small scale out of left field hit is of some historical importance, but 45 years later it’s horribly dated.  If you’ve only seen Keir Dullea cloaked in Kubrickian stoicism (2001: A Space Odyssey) you’d never suspect he could be such an incredible ham (see also The Fox).  Fellow head case Janet Margolin (Woody’s girl in Take the Money and Run) and one time noir heavy and blacklist victim Howard Da Silva fair much better than Dullea.

  

10:30 P.M. Summer (1966 – Jules Dassin) mixed(+) (DVD)

Yet another exercise in melancholic Euro decadence from the decade that made it fashionable.  This Spain set love triangle back dropped by a crime of passion, Dassin’s second film in color, is pretentious and highly superficial, but simply gorgeous looking and constructed with great flair (the DP is largely unsung Hungarian Gábor Pogány who spent it seems most of his career in the Italian film industry).  In the context of Dassin’s post American career, this film, at least thematically, most closely resembles The Law (1960) though visually its Dassin’s most inventive since Rififi (though Phaedra has its moments).  Peter Finch plays the heel (typecast it seems – having previously sent Anne Bancroft off the deep end in The Pumpkin Eater) and the beauteous Romy Schneider the window dressing; but its Dassin’s wife Melina Mercouri (“the last Greek Goddess”) as the self-loathing drunk with bi-curious tendencies that is the focus the story.  Thankfully for most of the film Mercouri dials down her Stella / Never on a Sunday scenery chewing slightly (but only slightly).  Though it’s hard to justify, I kind of liked this sub-Antonioni effort in the cinema of melodramatic alienation.  Certainly prefer it to the Dassin-Mercouri ennui free crowd pleasing efforts Topkapi and Never on a Sunday or even the compelling but overheated Greek myth meets doomed love melodrama Phaedra.

The Mad Fox (1962 – Tomu Uchida) pro (Theater)

A memorable, if not always successful, film that turns folklore into the fantastical.  This color ‘scope movie is like a mixed media collage, alive in unpredictability and artificiality.  An almost experimental theater/film hybrid with constant shifts in presentation styles that keeps an audience on its toes. Yet the shifts also tend to distract from the otherworldly tale being told, one loses his footing in the narrative with all the art and set design pyrotechnics.  I was never sure why a certain scene was served better by a particular presentation approach.  Whereas the presentation style in the 1958 Kinoshita film The Ballad of Narayama is also highly artificial, what with the kabuki and the soundstages draped with painted backdrops, the compelling story ultimately rules the day – narrative drive is served by the visual design (the need to evoke an expressionistic version of hell in Nakagawa’s  Jigoku also comes to mind).  The somewhat similarly stylized art direction in the later film Kwaidan, despite being segmented into separate stories, seems decidedly more cohesive.  The Mad Fox is probably most similar to Ichikawa’s genre bending 1963 pot pourri An Actor’s Revenge though it lacks that film’s new wave pulp thrills.  Though I must confess, distracting eye candy aside, kabuki can be hard going.  Worth seeing if given the opportunity. 

Cruising (1980 – William Friedkin) con (DVD)

The attempts to rehabilitate this once provocative and maligned film through a limited theatrical revival, DVD release and magazine articles (enjoyed Melissa Anderson’s piece in Film Comment) were enough to peak my interest to check out this protester and Razzie magnet.  The film’s ability to rankle has been somewhat dulled by time, now it’s just another cultural artifact, a pop museum piece that’s only interesting because it was once considered (and still should be I might argue) highly offensive.  The film’s subculture backdrop, the gay S&M leather bars of NYC, is really the only thing of interest.  The murder mystery / police investigation machinations are purely run of the mill stuff though Friedkin does give the proceedings some French Connection-ish grit and gloom.  I wasn’t as troubled by the mustachioed macho man on macho man action (fisting(!) and all) as much as I was by the lame script weighed down by dime store Freud and the bland or inept performances.  Al Pacino is, surprisingly given his usual style, rather blank – a sieve, not much registers, he doesn’t seem particularly repelled or seduced by the sleazy subculture.  There’s little to suggest his gradual descent (ascent?), subconscious or otherwise, into the lifestyle and scene other than the occasional wardrobe touch that creeps its way into his non-undercover hetero world with his girlfriend (Karen Allen in a truly vague and ultimately thankless role).  The film is also fairly incoherent which is taken by some as some sort of virtue, in that by avoiding a tidy resolution/easy answers the film defies genre convention – the realism yielding to the surreal.  There’s a fine line between the effectively nebulous and the sloppy and I’m not convinced that studio mandated trimming is entirely to blame.  A bad, but never boring, film.

Peppermint Frappé (1967 – Carlos Saura) pro (VHS – Letterboxed)

An obsession leads to humiliation story that’s derivative but, thanks to an express dedication to Luis Buñuel and comments by Saura (“a blatant homage to Luis”), completely up front about it.  Though perhaps given the strong Vertigo strain the Master of Suspense should have also got himself a dedication.  Geraldine Chaplin, Saura’s then common law spouse to be, is rather excellent in two roles as both a free spirited modish blonde and a meek and awkward brunette eager to be retrofitted by a repressed and chauvinistic doctor effectively played mostly in stone face by José Luis López Vásquez (to Saura as Fernando Rey was to Buñuel).  This often ambitious and stylish film is set in and around the picturesque medieval town of Toledo, Spain.  Elements of the satire, thriller, and romance genres are present but the film is hard to pigeonhole.  In some ways it anticipates Buñuel’s own later efforts Tristana (set in Toledo) and That Obscure Object of Desire (re doppelgängers).

 

Killing In Yoshiwara (1960 – Tomu Uchida) PRO (Theater)

A good story well told results in a pretty great film that needs more exposure in the West.  Kenji Mizoguchi’s go to guy Yoshitaka Yoda provides the script for this evocative and detailed melodrama with immaculate set and costume design and expertly nuanced performances (especially the lead, Uchida regular Chiezo Katakowa).  It’s a story of a decent man (burdened by a birthmark on his face) looking for love in all the wrong places, specifically Edo’s pleasure quarter where parasitic pimps and whores feast on good intentions and naiveté.  Our earnest unwitting hero is manipulated by scheming brothel owners into become the patron to a wholly uncultivated indentured prostitute (Yoshie Mizutani) who has as the result of her employer’s desperation and greed been thrust into geisha-dom with zero training.  The amoral and ambitious neophyte geisha’s determination to become a grand courtesan at any cost is often rather comic.  The film hints that the story will take the trajectory of the hooker with a heart of gold or Pygmalion cliché, but soon twists in a completely different direction.  I would still think this an excellent film even without the unforgettable ending that ultimately gets all the attention from commentators.  The crowd pleasing end segment, which results in one serious shift in tone, is perhaps the best example of catharsis that I’ve come across in the movies.  It’s predictable/inevitable only in that you sense that entire audience in the theater seems to will it to happen.  When the despondent hero retreats to solitude with the cursed sword that was the sole item left with him as a foundling the audience dreads the possibility of ritual suicide and demands that the hero emerge from contemplation with new resolve so that their revenge fantasies can be fulfilled.  While the idea panders to baser instincts, the result is wholly emotionally satisfying.  In a way the end both prefigures and is a reversal of the end of Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom – a film that suggests that the killing spree in the final moments is eternal.  Here, instead of the suggestion of nihilism and damnation, you have a righteous triumph.  Instead of a freeze frame that denotes a sort of apocalypse you have a camera craning upwards to the heavens back dropped by the fall of both combatants and cherry blossoms, the blood letting implicitly approved of by the gods and the cinema patrons.  While the hero’s defeat is logically inescapable, the refusal to show it is the sort of happy ending only art and our dreams can provide.

Le Silence de la Mer (1949 – Jean-Pierre Melville) mixed(+) (DVD-R)

Should be Exhibit A to any argument against voice over narration.  Heartfelt, personal, lyrical and enigmatic, but still reeks of post war propaganda.  An influential film (see Robert Bresson) nonetheless that provides some groundwork for better French resistance films from Melville to come (Leon Morin, Priest and, especially, Army of Shadows). 

  

3:10 To Yuma (1957 – Delmer Daves) PRO (DVD) (rewatch)

Second viewing and still a pretty great one, perhaps the best black and white Western of the 50s, only a let down at the end where Glenn Ford’s charismatic villain Ben Wade hands Van Heflin’s downtrodden but upstanding Dan Evans’ a gimmie.  Evans’ ultimate heroism is not really the result of his perseverance and fortitude but Wade’s complicity in initiating his own reformation.  What started as Wade seducing Evans with charm, courtesy and illustrations of the pragmatic course or action, becomes a seduction of Wade by Evans upstanding family man example.  In the end Wade both admires and pities the sod busting drought victim Evans.  Van Heflin it seems is unable to fully shake off the lingering taint of his earlier emasculation at the hands of Alan Ladd’s Shane.  As good as the two leads are the ladies in support (Leora Dana and Felicia Farr) are equally impressive, offering a nice good/bad doubling.  I’d imagine Wade’s “nooner” with Farr’s former saloon chanteuse yearning to settle down would be enough motivation to accelerate his (inevitable?) escape from a Yuma prison.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944 – G. Von Fritsch & R. Wise) pro(-) (cable)

This pseudo-sequel, a gothic fantasy that is never quite sure if it wants to be spooky or not, is an absolute triumph of mood over plot.  An ode to the imagination and loneliness of childhood, its lyrical and elegant but all over the place – drifting in genre no man’s land.  Simone Simon, fresh off a nice performance in a meatier role in the Val Lewton produced Robert Wise directed Mademoiselle Fifi, gets top billing as a child’s (Ann Carter) imaginary friend from the beyond (Cat People’s Irena) but it really borders on being a cameo.  As for any cat people in the film, perhaps only Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell’s feline bone structure qualifies.

  

  

Down in the Valley (2005 – David Jacobson) mixed (cable)

It’s like a David Gordon Green film if it were an awkward amalgam of a modern elegiac Western like Lonely Are the Brave and a character study of a lonely sociopath like Taxi Driver.  Nice looking and generally compelling but awfully pointless.  The lead role is tailor made for method man Ed Norton, but he doesn’t deliver anything remotely fresh.  Evan Rachel Wood does her parents worst nightmare sexualized teen thing (ala Thirteen), Rory Culkin does his deadpan tween malaise thing (ala Mean Creek), Bruce Dern does his disheveled old rural crazy man thing (ala Big Love) and David Morse continues his morphing from sensitive baby faced TV doctor (St. Elsewhere) to ultra menacing film character actor (16 Blocks, Disturbia).  Perhaps this film was inspired by Steven Wright’s Jewish cowboy joke (… my analyst said I’m a nymphomaniac and I only like Jewish cowboys… By the way, my name is Denise.’ I said, ‘Hello, Denise. My name is Bucky Goldstein.)

Decoy (1946- Jack Bernhard) pro (DVD)

As far as Poverty Row B movie noir goes, think I prefer this once hard to find nutty plotted Monogram film to the more famed Detour.  The great Jean Gillie who never saw her 35th birthday surely belongs in the inner circle of the femme fatale pantheon along with the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer and Joan Bennett.  Her Margot Shelby, more of a ring leader than a moll, is diabolically calculating and remorseless to her last sinful breath, which is a gasp with a laugh that takes place against the backdrop of the film’s final cosmic joke.  Great, but a little too absurd for its rep to flourish much outside of noir cultists.  Got to get me some of that “Methylene Blue”.

  

Act of Violence (1948 – Fred Zinnemann) pro(+) (DVD)

Act of Violence along with The Search from the same year and The Men from 1950 could be said to form a loose trilogy concerning the lingering effects of war after the battles have ended (with Zinnemann’s war time set The Seventh Cross acting as a sort of prologue).  The specific post war “effect” in this film is the guilt ridden conscience of a successful suburban family man named Frank Enley played by Van Heflin.  Enley’s guilt is tied to a cowardly act of self interest that occurred in a Nazi POW camp leading to the slaughter of a number of the men in his unit and a leg injury to a former comrade in arms named Joe Parkson (ably played by Robert Ryan).  The embittered and revenge hungry Parkson doggedly, despite being lame, hunts down Enley with a view to imposing some harsh vigilante justice.  The Parkson character isn’t flushed out too much, he’s little more than a device or an emblem, Enley’s internal demons personified (bringing to mind the decidedly more passive use of Maurice Benichou as Majid the wronged Algerian in Cache).  The film is expertly lit and framed by Zinnemann and his DP Robert Surtees and the visual style maps nicely against the psychological trajectory of Frank Enley.  The film seamlessly moves from the sun baked idle of a manicured lawned suburbia and a tranquil lake for sport fishing to the chiaroscuro hued dives, tunnels and back alleys of the seedy and pitiless parts of L.A., a gradual transition which resembles the sort of descent into hell you would find in mythology.  Even the lovely Enley home once invaded by the obsessed Parkson begins to resemble a gothic house of horrors.  The final scene train station confrontation has a strong suggestion of a Western showdown, prefiguring Zinnemann’s own High Noon.  Too bad for Van Heflin there’s no fresh faced young blonde bride, ala Grace Kelly (or in this case a 21 year old Janet Leigh as Enley’s wife), to come to his rescue.  Though as in High Noon with the Katy Jurado character, Zinnemann seems far more interested in the fallen woman figure (in this case a world weary barfly/hooker memorably portrayed by Mary Astor) than the pure of heart wife.  As with Anthony Mann’s similarly gritty and noirish 1949 film Border Incident it’s surprising this movie was backed by MGM, home of the slick and glossy (see also MGM 1950 noirs Side Street and Mystery Street).  In some ways Act of Violence is like a genrefied version of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, which was adapted for the silver screen the same year by director Irving Reis and screen writer Chester Erksine for Universal.  Except that the Van Heflin character in Act of Violence is far more willing to confront his past moral failings and embrace redemption / martyrdom than the self denying / willfully blind munitions manufacturer Joe Keller (played by Edward G. Robinson) in All My Sons.  In any event, both films clearly recognize that a nation victorious in war is not entirely composed of heroes.

Black Test Car / Kuro no tesuto kaa (1962 – Yasuzo Masumura) pro(-) (DVD)

Pulpy and often lurid tale of industrial espionage and corporate spies in the automotive industry.  An attempt at a grim neo-noir thriller as indictment of post war corporate greed, lack of business ethics and misguided loyalty.  The plot concerns two companies (Tiger and Yamato) rushing to perfect their competing sports car prototypes and bring them to market.  Aspiring young executives lie, scheme, blackmail, pimp their girlfriends, and threaten all in efforts to abscond with confidential information from their equally duplicitous competitors.  Businessmen translating tactics they learned in the Japanese military during the Manchurian occupation into the world of commerce. While thematically linked to Masumura’s earlier unsentimental but colorful satire on corporate competition Giants and Toys (about the candy industry), the approach in Black Test Car is far more somber and sober – closer is style and spirit to Kurosawa’s uneven corporate mood piece The Bad Sleep Well.  Wrongfully billed as a comedic satire by DVD marketers, Black Test Car, in American movie terms, is closer to Sam Fuller than Frank Tashlin, far more blunt and muscular than it is playful and sly.  The already obvious message of the film is given rather heavy handed punctuation in the dialogue at the end, but at least it’s backgrounded by Masumura’s meticulously and artful arranged black and white compositions.  This film apparently launched a string of eleven Daiei studio produced films with “black” in the title each a pulpy exposé of cutthroat business practices in a particular industry.  Masumura helmed two more films, Black Report (1963) and Black Express (aka Black Superexpress) (1964), in this unique cycle.

Where Danger Lives (1950 – John Farrow) pro (DVD)

Prefigures the later Robert Mitchum noir classic Angel Face in that the femme fatale is not your usual sexy but cold and calculating amoral sociopath, she’s a sexy but completely off her nut psychopath.  The mental instability of Faith Domergue’s Margo Lannington when coupled with Mitchum’s doctor character’s lingering concussion adds a dose of unpredictability to the plot and creates a real hallucinatory mood.  Initially the film seems to be conventional and straight forward when compared to the later Mitchum/John Farrow/Howard Hughes kooky noir effort for RKO His Kind of Woman, but once Domergue and Mitchum hit the road for Mexico the film almost veers into a picaresque, strongly suggesting the eccentricity to come in His Kind of Woman.  Domergue, another Hughes brunette protégé ala Jane Russell, has been identified by some as the weak link in this film, but I found her to be better than serviceable.  Claude Rains is perfectly cast in what amounts to little more than a cameo as Lannington’s possibly abusive but nevertheless doomed husband / “father”.  Director Farrow’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan has a small role as Mitchum’s good girl nurse (“white rose”) love interest who is shunted aside in favor of the unhinged suicide attempting (“red rose”) Lannington.

Being Two Isn’t Easy / Watashi Wa Nisai (1962 – Kon Ichikawa) pro (VHS)

A better title might be “Being a New Parent Isn’t Easy”.  The versatile and unpredictable Ichikawa and his screenwriter better half Natto Wada deliver a warm and episodic slice of life about a toddler and his well meaning but inexperienced parents.  In the beginning the film threatens to be mawkishly told entirely from the perspective of Taro the toddler, suggesting a sort of Japanese precursor to the generally unbearable Hollywood comedy Look Who’s Talking franchise, but the film thankfully switches gears to focus on the family unit as a whole.  A slight but sometimes colorful and inventive film that blends light humour with mild melodramatics involving in-laws and male/female differences.  The tone and spirit of the film is reminiscent of Ozu’s Good Morning and in some ways prefigures Truffaut’s Small Change.  Has none of the twisted edge of Odd Obsession, the only other present day set “home drama” directed by Ichikawa that I’ve seen.

  

The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953 – Andre De Toth) con (cable)

Like another Andre De Toth entry from 1953, the seminal horror House of Wax, this Western was made to be screened in the presentation gimmick du jour –  3-D.  When shown “flat” there’s little left but a rather blandly constructed film, that’s certainly not redeemed by guns, fists, flaming torches or speeding stagecoaches being thrust towards the camera lens.  The often visually ambitious De Toth (see Last of the Comanches, The Indian Fighter, Springfield Rifle, Crime Wave) is downright indifferent in his compositions and choreography of the action, and the film’s not saved by the muddled plot, unintelligible editing, generic dialogue or the wide array of bad to bland performances (some from some usually pretty good actors like Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and George McCready).  A chore even at 83 minutes, stick with the comparatively sublime Oater from the same vintage – Last of the Comanches, a no-nonsense remake of the WW2 Bogart actioner Sahara that has the merits of both a solid desert survival film (ala The Flight of the Phoenix) and a fort under siege film (ala The Lost Patrol or Zulu).

The Children’s Hour (1961 – William Wyler) mixed(+) (cable)

Despite being more forthright on the lesbian issue, this film still pales when compared to Wyler & Lillian Hellman’s earlier purged, and therefore less provocative, take on the same play – These Three (1936).   Hard to muster much criticism of the ultra tasteful and professional film making technique or the competent even keeled performances, but there’s little meat here to move the hearts and minds of a 2007 audience (I’d imagine that the impact in 1961 was decidedly different).  In this sense, as the Turner Classic Movies guest presenter noted, the film is a bit of museum piece, a cultural artifact that does little but reveal past mores.  What troubles today is not so much that the Shirley MacLaine character feels despondent, dirty and ashamed when confronting her sexual identity (there’s a least a semblance of honest emotion in the characterization) its that the material (through the dialogue or actions of other characters) doesn’t address that such feelings are wrongheaded or at least misguided, purely the shameful byproduct of an intolerant and bigoted society that treats homosexuality as a malady to be cured or a birth defect to be pitied.  From a plot perspective the big sexuality reveal (MacLaine’s heartbreaking knockout of a performance in the scene pretty much makes the film for me) comes off like the twist in a murder mystery or horror film resulting in a rather adult drama being debased by oversimplified genre convention (some of the tinges in Alex North’s musical score don’t help matters either (appropriately enough North had previously scored The Bad Seed)).  One would find similar but more pronounced problems in another lesbian couple & a man love triangle film that would follow 6 years later, the Mark Rydell directed film The Fox based on a D.H. Lawrence novella, another movie guilty of treating the central melodrama as fodder for hints of gothic horror.  With respect to The Children’s Hour I was fairly indifferent to a serviceably dashing, if not misused, James Garner and a rather sexless Audrey Hepburn (appearing in her second of three Wyler films and in the same year she fast tracked to icon status by essaying Holly Golightly) but thought Fay Bainter as the duped Aunt of Karen Balkin’s malevolent lying brat was quite excellent.  Bainter, who had previously won Oscar gold under Wyler’s care in Jezebel, was lured out of big screen retirement for this film and justly collected another Oscar nom for her efforts.  The young Balkin, however, is a little too grating as the story’s obnoxious “bad seed”, failing to live up to the more inspired Oscar nominated turn by Bonita Granville in These Three.  A young Veronica Cartwright as the likeable but guilt ridden kleptomaniac blackmailed by Balkin’s character is much stronger.

Strategic Air Command (1955 – Anthony Mann) mixed(-) (cable)

This peace time military movie features Anthony Mann/James Stewart at their absolute dullest (and their many collaborations were rarely, if ever, dull).  I blame the always sunny and sexless June Allyson who when betrothed to Stewart on screen (see also The Stratton Story and Mann’s own The Glenn Miller Story) is the ultimate buzz kill.  A US forces public relations (read: propaganda) piece designed to both calm those cold war nerves and build support for the SAC.  Of some interest to aviation buffs, but movie buffs should stick with the five Mann/Stewart Westerns and Stewart as Lindbergh in Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis.

  

Larceny, Inc. (1942 – Lloyd Bacon) pro(+) (cable)

Could be said to complete a loose sort of trilogy of Edward G. Robinson gangster comedies Lloyd Bacon directed for Warner Brothers (with the very funny A Slight Case of Murder and Brother Orchid being the other two films) – all perhaps inspired by Columbia’s earlier Robinson gangster comedy The Whole Town’s Talking.  Lubitsch’s To Be of Not To Be is probably the best comedy from 1942; but Larceny, Inc. is neck and neck with Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story to claim the 1942 title for most laughs per minute.  A very funny bank heist film with a great ensemble cast of familiar faces (including Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn, Edward Brophy and Jane Wyman in her bottle blonde phase).  A clear inspiration for the first portion of Woody Allen’s like plotted Small Time Crooks.

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962 – Vincente Minnelli) mixed(+) (cable)

In the context of Minnelli’s often gloriously artificial milieu this Rome set movie industry themed film is like The Cobweb meets The Bad and the Beautiful, a colorful and trashy melodrama cruising on the fumes of one international art house film (La Dolce Vita) and prefiguring another (Contempt). An ensemble cast of American and Italian actors overripe with emotion ceremoniously choreographed as they roam through precisely composed shots and meticulously arranged décor.  Though the film may seem inspired by the paparazzi laden Via Veneto of La Dolce Vita, one has to wonder if Fellini himself wasn’t inspired by the lush and rich palette of this film for his first color full length feature Juliet of the Spirits (though it should be noted that Fellini’s first color film was actually released earlier in 1962 – The Temptation of Doctor Antonio, his contribution to the omnibus film Boccaccio ’70).  The colors are so vibrant they almost bleed into garishness.  In any event, the delightfully ludicrous finale to the movie with Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charise in a convertible spinning out of control so artificially it approaches psychedelia certainly must have inspired Fellini’s own Toby Dammit segment from Spirits of the Dead which portrays the film industry as some sort of gaudy nightmare (Douglas would again attempt film suicide by sports coupe in Elia Kazan’s equally fascinating overstuffed melodrama The Arrangement).  The performances in Two Weeks in Another Town are a mixed plate of various grades of prusciotto.  Kirk Douglas’ film industry casualty character is a rather awkward blend of his egomanical Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields from The Bad and the Beautiful and his emotionally tormented Vincent Van Gogh from Lust for Life, all with a sprinkling of Marcello Mastroianni’s world weary detached journo in La Dolce VitaGeorge Hamilton broods unconvincingly, completely loosing any facility for character nuance that he hinted at in Home From the Hill.  The worst offender is probably an incredibly shrill Claire Trevor, graduating from Edward G. Robinson’s gun moll in Key Largo to his shrewish wife here (supposedly based on Darryl F. Zanuck’s wife Virginia).  The film is nowhere near as affecting as Minnelli’s other late mid-period (early late period?) widescreen melodramas Some Came Running or Home From the Hill largely because the film appears to value visual design over narrative logic.  Historically Minnelli and Douglas have blamed the studio meddling in the editing.

Comanche Station (1960- Budd Boetticher) pro (cable)

It’s interesting seeing a Boetticher Western (the last of his Randolph Scott collaborations) immediately after a Sergio Leone (Duck, You Sucker).  These visceral films dominated by landscape are equally impressive yet oh so different in scope and style.  The Boetticher, shot (according to IMDB) in a mere (and impressive!) 12 days, is straight forward, economically paced, highly focused and bound to archetypes.  A film stripped down to the bare essentials, 74 minutes of genre purity.  The over twice as long Leone film Duck, You Sucker, a Dollars Trilogy hangover that lacks a compelling villain, sprawls almost to the verge of bloat, is stylized almost to the verge of cartoonishness and has a more complex narrative structure that includes gauzy lensed nostalgic and bittersweet flashbacks (clearly anticipating the structure and melancholic tone of Leone’s epic career capper Once Upon a Time in America).  If Boetticher’s a minimalist than Leone’s a maximumalist (just pretend this is a word).  The basic plot in Comanche Station involves Randy Scott seeking to return a woman he rescued from a Comanche tribe to her husband while contending with money hungry bounty hunters hoping to cash in.  My only quibble is that Scott’s character is largely decent and chivalrous and he lacks some of the nuance and ambiguity of, for example, James Stewart’s bounty hunter in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (a similar film in many ways).  Scott could have used some of the edge seen in the character he played in Decision at Sundown, an earlier but vastly inferior Boetticher/Scott Oater that’s really only notable for Scott’s uniquely ornery and obsessed protagonist and its downbeat ending.

The Immortal Story (1968 – Orson Welles) pro(-) (cable)

A glacially paced and spartan parable like chamber drama based on a Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) novella that Welles made for French TV.  Welles, with his usually healthy dose of face transforming make-up, stars with Jeanne Moreau (in Bay of Angels bottle blonde).  Moreau previously having acted in The Trial under Welles direction and co-starred with Welles in Tony Richardson’s The Sailor From Gibraltar.  At only 63 some odd minutes the film apparently played in US theaters as a double bill with Luis Buñuel’s equally funding challenged less than feature length 1965 film, the blasphemous satire Simon of the Desert.  If anything this “minor” late work of the master, his first in color, demonstrates that Welles would have been just as an accomplished visual artist working in color. The look is easily on par with other lush Euro efforts that use made for television techniques like Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem and Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass (Welles’ DP was Willy Kurant who is probably best known to film buffs for lensing such French films as Godard’s Masculine-Feminine and Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan).  The Immortal Story furthered Welles fascination with the tenuous interplay between fact and fiction which would reach its zenith in F for Fake.

Five Came Back (1939 – John Farrow) pro (cable) :  Los que volvieron (1948 – Alejandro Galindo) pro(-) (cable)

John Farrow’s cracker jack of an RKO B-Movie Five Came Back was a box office hit back in the day, a 75 minute winner of a film (scripted by no less than Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West) about a plane crash in the South American Andes stranding 12 passengers of disparate backgrounds and world views.  As a local tribe of cannibalistic headhunters close in, the dozen must decide which five of them can get on the repaired plane with depleted fuel to escape to safety.  It may be a cheapo quickie but the cast includes such notables as Chester Morris, a still emerging Lucille Ball, and cream of the crop character actors John Carradine, Joseph Calleia, and C. Aubrey Smith.  The corker of an ending, which while kind of poetic for its elements of redemption and martyrdom, isn’t exactly your typical Hollywood sunshine and roses.  Farrow would return to the material in 1956 for a fairly faithful reworking called Back From Eternity starring Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger and Anita Ekberg.  However the Mexican studios beat Farrow to it on the remake front, prolific director Alejandro Galindo’s 1948 Spanish language remake Los que volvieron (loose translation: Those Who Came Back) is about as close as you’ll get to a shot for shot word for word remake of Five Came Back.  In fact the final shots of the approaching tribesmen’s legs were clearly lifted from the original film.  As it’s a virtual carbon copy, the Mexican film, while just as effective as Five Came Back (there’s little, if any, downgrade in the acting), isn’t really worth seeking out if you’ve seen the more readily available American original.

Waitress (2007 – Adrienne Shelly) pro(-) (Theater)

Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly (rest her soul) as small town pie diner waitresses lay on the Flo and Vera vibe a little too thick, but lead Kerri Russell is a complete revelation in an outstanding performance as a pie making genius named Jenna, a woman trapped in a dead end marriage to an abusive and insecure man (Jeremy Sisto).  Saddled with an unwanted pregnancy Jenna falls for her married OB/GYN (Nathan Fillion) which leads more to comedy than to melodrama.  The townie quirk is a little formulaic but the late Shelly showed some real screenwriting and directorial chops.  Jenna’s imaginings of speciality pies and her “Dear Baby” letters were effective narrative devices – offering both style and economy.

 Vacation From Marriage (1945 – Alexander Korda) pro (cable)

A mousy ineffectual couple (Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat) that are just as married to mundane routine than they are to each other undergo wholesale personality transformations during a three year period of war time separation from each other.  Quite a good film nicely directed by Korda, beautifully shot by Georges Périnal (DP on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Fallen Idol and René Clair’s early thirties classics) with strong nuanced performances by Kerr and Donat and able support from Glynis Johns and Ann Todd, but ultimately this is post war propaganda, a morale booster disguised as a romantic comedy/drama.  The real underlying message is that the war made the English better people – stronger, more confident, vital, worldly and even sexy (and not, as one might expect, bitter, hard and cynical).  A marriage, just like a bombed out London, can be rebuilt from the ashes into a bigger and better version.  While there’s certainly a grain of truth to all this, one has to ask if the film has soft peddled weighing the cost of the death and destruction against the incidental benefits (particularly given the term “Vacation” in the title to the American version of the film).  Surely a returning war veteran missing a limb or two and saddled with the psychological scars of combat would find little comfort in the fact that a few marriages have been revitalized as the result of the conflict.

The 317th Platoon (1965 – Pierre Schoendoerffer) pro (VHS) :  China Gate (1957 – Samuel Fuller) con(+) (VHS)

A curious self made war film double bill; two films with similar subject matter and setting but with extremely different approaches and style.  Both films are set in 1954 in Viet Nam around the time the French Union forces were expelled from Indochina by the Viet Minh communist army (the climatic fight being the battle at Dîen Bîen Phû). Schoendoerffer’s shot on location in Cambodia combat film The 317th Platoon is made in a highly realistic, verging on cinema vérité, style as it follows a platoon of four French officers and 41 Laotian soldiers through the jungle to its inevitable doom. It has a real you are there quality similar to that of the 1975 WW2 set film Overlord (which heightened realism by expert integration of stock footage) and is largely devoid of the expressionistic showmanship you would find in a film like Apocalypse Now (however, Coppola was apparently influenced by The 317th Platoon particularly in the excised (until the release of Apocalypse Now Redux) French plantation sequence).  Most importantly the movie has the feel of personal filmmaking which is not surprising given that director Schoendoerffer and his DP Raoul Coutard (in the same year he lensed Godard’s Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) were both veterans of the First Indochina War.  Coutard was a lauded war photographer and Schoendoerffer a war correspondent and both men would return to the subject of this war in their later work.  As for Fuller’s back lot shot China Gate, surely it’s the hokiest and lamest of his war mission films.  All overheated bombast attempting to exploit tired old genre elements to the strains of a domineering Hollywood score (courtesy of no less than Max Steiner and Victor Young).  Fairly entertaining in its ludicrousness (case in point: Angie Dickinson plays a Eurasian purveyor of contraband dubbed “Lucky Legs” eager to trade in her whoredom for martyrdom & Lee Van Cleef is a Eurasian communist army major who lusts after her), the movie generally lacks the power, urgency and general apoliticalness of Fuller’s memorable 1951 Korean war films Fixed Bayonets and The Steel Helmet.  Fuller’s equivalent I was there so I know film is clearly the highly personal The Big Red One (in fact Fuller does name drop his old Big Red One unit in China Gate).  Despite its numerous shortcomings China Gate does offer elements of interest – including a nice low key performance from Nat “King” Cole (who sings the pretty title song) and certainly one of the more rabidly racist protagonists (Gene Barry) seen in a Hollywood film of the era.

The Girls / Flickorna (1968 – Mai Zetterling) pro(+) (DVD)

Loosely set around a theater production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata this anti-war = anti-male feminist riff is, surprisingly, not particularly ponderous, dogmatic or, despite a bombardment of art house stylistic flourish, pretentious.  It’s actually kind of fun (and funny for that matter).  While Zetterling’s impressive 1964 debut feature Loving Couples overtly channeled Ingmar Bergman at his most morose this far less somber effort, with its numerous fantasy/day-dream sequences, owes more of a debt to mid-period Federico Fellini.  Like in Fellini, the plot-light material is character driven and surreal; one minute irreverent and melancholic the next, and above all highly digressive.  Fantasy become indistinguishable from reality but not at the expense of coherence.  It’s almost like a feminine response to the famed harem/Guido with a whip sequence in .  The first rate cast is bursting with talent, The Girls are played by Swedish film icons and Bergman mainstays Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom, (only a Thulin and an Ullmann short of a sixties Swedish cinema casting coup).  While I’ve never seen Harriet so modish or Gunnel so “normal”, this is largely a Bibi Andersson showcase, with her perfect blend of the playful and the introspective, a confident and independent posture balanced against an occasional dose of ennui and self-doubt.  Gunnar Bjornstrand & Erland Josephson (yet more Bergman regulars) join the fray, saddled with the thankless roles of playing smugly dismissive sexist caricatures of men, the inevitable targets of Zetterling’s and her actresses’ venom.  Despite the potential for serious satire and social commentary on war and peace and oppressive gender roles the tone is light.  For example, a theater patronized solely by women shows slides of war mongering World leaders (that runs the gamut from WW2 era fascist leaders to contemporary American presidents) resulting in cat calls and the hurling of food all of which brings to mind the food fight in Vera Chytilová’s irreverent Czech New Wave effort Daises, another key feminist art house work of the era (and perhaps even the famed war room pie throwing scene that never made the final cut of Dr. Strangelove).  While never quite sliding into farce, the sense of frivolity does dull any possible edge to be gained from social/political commentary.  The Girls is a film that’s certainly of its time but definitely worth seeing for any fans of films from a key decade in Euro cinema.

The Great Moment (1944 – Preston Sturges) con(+) (DVD)

No hidden treasure here.  Preston Sturges wobbles through unfamiliar territory, namely the inexplicably once popular sub genre of the inventor biopic.  In this case the focus is on New England dentist William T.G. Morton (played by seasoned Sturges films lead Joel McCrea) the man who perfected an inhalation anesthetic that would be the key stepping stone in developing the discipline of anesthesiology.  Whether or not the studio trimming and reorganizing of the structure of the film was a true mangling or just a tweak here and there (Paramount apparently made the material less serious) it’s difficult to imagine how a possible Sturges director’s cut (presumably one doesn’t exist) could be much of an improvement.  Not at all horrible, just quite dull and certainly the ugly stepsister to the two other 1944 Sturges films, the comedy classics The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek and Hail The Conquering Hero.

  

Aventurera (1950 – Alberto Gout) pro (DVD)

Mexican genre mish mash that’s (paradoxically) intentionally derivative of Hollywood musicals, melodramas and film noirs and wholly offbeat and original.  This surreal revenge film complete with musical numbers is often implausible and teetering towards camp, but is never less than entertaining.  The story involves a beautiful young woman named Elena made a de facto orphan after the suicide of her affluent father upon his discovery of his wife’s torrid love affair.  Unable to make ends meet in the big city Elena turns to slick and seedy boyfriend Pretty Boy Lucio who betrays her trust by drugging her and selling her to an upscale brothel/nightclub (or rather a “caberetera” – also the name of the uniquely Latin musical/noir genre to which this film falls) run by a tough as nails madam named Rosaura (an excellent Andrea Palma channeling late period Marlene Dietrich) who relies on a creepy and mute knife wielding henchman named Rengo.  In addition to her presumed duties as a prostitute, Elena becomes a rumba dancing sensation at the cabaret.  Her stardom soon giving her the necessary freedom to put the wheels of revenge in motion by courting Rosaura’s respectable son who believes his mother to be a reputable and dignified dowager.  Cuban actress/dancer Niñon Sevilla portrays Elena and she’s absolutely riveting, a real charismatic force of nature.  Aventurera is a glorious slice of subversive overwrought trash.

There Was a Crooked Man … (1970 – Joseph L. Mankiewicz) pro(-) (DVD)

This highly entertaining Western comedy with a little satirical bite starring Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda is a good example of the transitional period where the Old Hollywood star system attempted to accommodate/assimilate New Hollywood stylistics.  Despite its Old Hollywood pedigree (the cast is peppered with tinsel town vets and is helmed by Joe Mankiewicz in his work for hire non-screenwriting post Cleopatra wilderness period). There Was a Crooked Man … is far more in tune with a Sam Peckinpah Western than say a bland and out of step old school Western like The Cheyenne Social Club (to site another Henry Fonda Oater from the same year).  The brief flashes of nudity and blood squirting gun shot wounds reek of Bloody Sam, though the playful cynicism is pure Mankiewicz (obviously significant credit should also go to the screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, the scribes who played a major part in ushering in the New Hollywood era with Bonnie and Clyde).  The film begins as a sort of ensemble picaresque, bringing to mind Little Big Man released the same month; but soon settles into a prison escape film in which a rag tag team of miscreants (including Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, Hume Cronyn and John Randolph) led by an ebullient rogue colorfully named Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) plot their escape from their frontier penitentiary under the watchful eye of a seemingly idealistic sheriff cum warden with a prison reform bent (Fonda).  Explosions, gunfights and double crosses ensue, wrapped up with an amusing and highly cynical (if not predicatable) ending.  Worth seeing and easily superior to Peckinpah’s own stab at Western comedy with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, but in 1970 terms its hard to overshadow au courant Westerns like the surreal El Topo or the deconstructionist Little Big Man. 

Who Wants To Kill Jessie? / Kdo chce zabít Jessii? (1966 – Vaclav Vorlicek) pro (DVD)

Irreverent, bordering on anarchic, Czech New Wave film that’s a screwball celebration of personal and creative freedom.  The dowdy scientist wife of a middling engineer is an innovative studier of dreams, and her experiments inadvertently bring her husband’s dreams about the stars of a comic strip serial (the Who Wants to Kill Jessie? of the title) to life. A trio of cartoon characters, a pneumatic scantily clad blonde and keeper of sought after anti-gravitational gloves and her two evil pursuers – a strong man in Superman styled togs and a mangy looking cowboy – run amok in the streets of Prague delivering their lines through bubbles of text.  The socio/political subtext is easily discernable with jabs at the institution of marriage, soul crushing bureaucracy and “re-education” efforts of the state.  The film hints at but never truly descends into Benny Hill style bawdiness. The attempts of government officials to “liquidate” the projected dream figures is, despite the ominous implication, extremely light in tone (compare and contrast to the idea of liquidation in the Czech New Wave film The Cremator where the absurdity is so black it becomes horror).  This is type of film that would be impossible to make only two short years later as the brief Prague Spring was figuratively crushed under the roll of Soviet tanks.  Certainly more slapdash than the seminal Closely Watched Trains from the same year, this film fits in nicely with other 1966 “pop” cinema trend offerings from around the world including  Masculine Feminine, Lord Love A Duck, Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, Morgan, Batman The Movie, Tokyo Drifter, After the Fox and fellow Czech New Wave offering Daisies.  Director Vorlicek seems to suggests a sort of Czech version Richard Lester.

A Brief Vacation / Una breva vacanza (1973 – Vittorio De Sica) pro (DVD)

De Sica’s thoughtful and lush penultimate film is a pretty good one, a sort of Diary of a Mad House Wife Italian Style with a premise that plays off the cynical maxim “illness is a poor man’s vacation”.  Florinda Bolkan (despite being incongruously equipped with the cheekbones and figure of runway model) is excellent as Clara Mataro a put upon tubercular factory worker on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown.  De Sica and longtime screenwriting collaborator Casare Zavattini stack the sympathy deck in Clara’s favor right from the get go.  Her husband (Renato Salvatori), children and a useless extended family cramped in a basement Milanese apartment rely completely on her as bread winner, decision maker, nursemaid, cook, etc.  Mired in drudgery she is enslaved to the needs and whims of others.  The dour first act of the film threatens to be yet another go by De Sica at neo-realism, but the film soon takes an interesting turn.  As if by stroke of luck, a state doctor prescribes a needed respite for Clara, she is sent for a rest to a scenic sanatorium nestled in the Italian Alps suggesting a Lost Horizon-esque Shangri-La.  Clara has been transported from the figurative (and aesthetic) hell of her basement apartment to the grandeur of snow capped mountains back dropped against pristine blue skies.  It’s here the focus shifts to Clara’s temporary spiritual, intellectual and sexual liberation.  De Sica and Zavattini introduce an undercurrent of gender and class politics but the overall tone filtered through Clara’s perspective remains surprisingly detached, bordering on apolitical.  Despite hitting the point that the sanatarium has paying (read: wealthy) patients and government subsidized patients, there’s never really much of a comment on the two tiered health system.  Notwithstanding Clara’s poverty and lack of social status (while she’s a resident of Milan, Italy’s most progressive and cosmopolitan urban center, it is key that she is born and bred in the Southern Italian Region of Calabria) she is welcomed with open arms by the well preserved moneyed patients soaked in designer perfumes and draped in furs (including a flamboyant terminal ill patient played by Adriana Asti with scene stealing vigor).  Only an ancillary Marxist patient character offers much comment on the seeming frivolousness of the wealthy ill.  Despite its passive acknowledgment of social/political issues, with the romance plot line A Brief Vacation treads dangerously close to suggesting a sort of Shirley Valentine goes to a How Stella Got Her Groove Back theme park funded by socialized medicine.  The message being that the arms of an attractive and sensitive young lover is the most therapeutic treatment of all.  Yet, in the end, Clara is sent packing (deemed cured) by a sanatarium staff doctor of Calabrese background.  While her time in paradise would inevitably have to end, she has been betrayed by her paisano, largely for politely ignoring his implied sexual advances.  Ultimately punished for her dalliance with the good life and the beautiful people by way of a subtle form of class and sexual oppression.  With Clara’s train ride home, there is no reformist cry of protest, no women’s lib platitudes, just quiet resignation.  (At least Clara gets on the train, the fact that she was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina hinted that she might get under the train instead).

The Science of Sleep (2006 – Michel Gondry) pro (DVD)

This entertaining slice of surreal melancholia is gutsy not so much in its off-kilter structure and style (an approach that today seems less and less unique, though certainly not stale) than in its focus on an increasingly unhinged and occasionally unsympathic protagonist.  The naiveté and eccentricity of Gael Garcia Bernal’s Stéphane is not as lovable as that of Jim Carey’s depressive introvert Joel in Gondry’s like spirited Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Stéphane’s dissatisfied state, askew inner dream life and vague yearning seems comparatively dangerous.  To the film’s credit, the root cause of Stéphane’s mind set is never succinctly distilled and therefore explained and the story benefits from this mystery.  The occasional bittersweet grace note bubbles up organically, seemingly without contrivance.  It’s these bits of ragged beauty that save the film from sliding into a morbid study of a social misfit’s self destructive impulses. Charlotte Gainsboug as Stéphane’s fellow eccentric and love interest Stephanie gives an extremely natural performance largely devoid of the actorly flourish (as great as it was) Kate Winslet delivered in Eternal Sunshine.

Will Penny (1968 – Tom Gries) pro(-) (cable)

The same year Charlton Heston was pawed by talking “damned dirty apes” he delivevered a decidedly more low key performance as an aging cow hand / line rider in this Western.  Unique in Heston’s oeuvre in that Will Penny isn’t a particularly heroic or mythic figure; he’s simple, steady, kind and hard working – a survivor, fully aware of his limitations.  Heston doesn’t make any stentorian declarations of purpose; he sincerely and effectively retreats into his introverted man of few words character. When Will is confronted by conflict and violence he doesn’t morph into a super skilled fighting machine, he muddles along relying on his worn instincts and innate toughness.  Despite the occasional gun play and fisticuffs the meat of this character driven story is the relationship between Will Penny and a traveling woman and her young son (the lovely Joan Hackett and Jon Gries, the director’s son) abandoned by their guide and forced to squat for the winter on the land Penny was hired to keep clear of trespassers.  It’s a Shane for the temperament of the late sixties, downbeat and stripped of the usual emblems of heroism and Cowboy folklore.  Heston leaves all the hammy emoting to Donald Pleasance as the cartoonishly evil Preacher Quint, the patriarch of a wandering band of inbred degenerates that terrorize Penny and his two helpless de facto charges.  It’s only in this rather artificial conflict between Penny and Quint that the film unfortunately slides into a predictable genre formula.  The ending suggests an homage to the iconic final moments of Shane, which, while still lyrical, has been tweaked by realism.

Old Joy (2006 – Kelly Reichardt) pro (DVD)

A mystery to me why this lauded mood piece isn’t at all boring.  There’s nothing particularly exceptional in the performances or the film making technique (though solid enough) but there’s some sort of perfect storm of elements that transforms the malaise portrayed on screen into profundity despite the lack of any discernable narrative meat, including the complete absence of conventional resolution or catharsis.  Perhaps each viewer brings his own baggage to the array of quiet moments and reflects on his own state of affairs; however different they may be from those of the seemingly adrift and disconnected duo on the screen – making this an odd kind of interactive cinema experience. The pace, symmetry and deceptive simplicity in the movie is almost Ozu like.  Art comes from strange places, including this surprisingly unpretentious Indie effort.  Without being forced to put too fine a point on it, it seems to me the style here is particularly feminine – in tune with what we’ve seen in the cinema of Claire Denis, Sophia Coppola, Jane Campion, Susanne Bier, Lynne Ramsay or, most recently, Sarah Polley. Only Reichardt’s future efforts will reveal if this was a fluke or not.

Night Train (1959 – Jerzy Kawalerowicz) pro (DVD)

Based on the arty style, bleak look, claustrophobic setting and participation of actor Leon Niemczyk I couldn’t help while watching this Polish film recalling Polanski’s breakthrough Knife in the Water (which would follow 3 years later).  The story here focuses on a variety of dour dissatisfied types traveling by overnight train with the possibility that a wife murderer is aboard.  Has some loose similarities to Hitchcock’s Rear Window in that within the confined environment there is the suspense of a possible killer on the loose all the while the narrative is implicitly commenting on the trials and tribulations of male/female relations through the interaction of an ensemble cast.  What the film lacks is an audience surrogate or everyman witness to identify with or root for (i.e. a Jimmy Stewart figure).  In this sense the tone, if not the style, is more in tune with the cynicism and disorientation in Clouzot, or even Welles, than Hitchcock.  Hitchcock rarely, if ever, got so pervasively morbid – granted his settings were rarely as bleak as economically depressed post war Poland under the thumb of Soviet communism.  For the bulk of the film Night Train comes across as a serviceable but generic genre piece until the final act which commences with an unforgettable scene in which a mob of passengers flee the stalled train in rabid pursuit of the possible killer, running through a field until the suspect’s eventual capture in a makeshift grave yard.  Upon his capture to only the haunting sound of barking dogs in the distance the camera tracks across the mob suggesting some vague, and wholly unfulfilling, moment of existential commune.  Seemingly prefiguring the sixties work of Vlacil, Tarkovsky, Jancso or Bergman.  The film then pushes onto resolution of the genre elements but leaves certain key character points open to interpretation.  Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean”, (Ashes and Diamonds, The Saragossa Manuscript) supports and the film has a likeable vibraphone heavy jazz score that often lightens the mood.

Cinderella Liberty (1973 – Mark Rydell) pro (DVD)

This film was released within the same week as The Last Detail, that other film adaptation of a Darryl Ponicsan novel that focuses on Navy sailors mixing amongst the civilians.  Of the two films it’s The Last Detail that’s best remembered today, largely due to the combination of Robert Towne’s censor challenging profanity laced script and a note perfect performance from an in his prime and on the rise Jack Nicholson (a Towne/Nicholson collaboration that predates their Chinatown breakthrough).  It’s kind of shame that Cinderella Liberty has been left out in the New Hollywood cold as its an equally good character study of shaggy types treading on society’s margins.  While then screen neophyte Marsha Mason as a single mom, pool shark and sailor cruising bar whore rightfully got an Oscar nomination, it’s James Caan that impressed me most. Caan gives possibly a career best performance as John Baggs Jr. a good hearted, down to earth and sometimes naïve sailor waylaid on the Seattle harbor front for medical and bureaucratic reasons.  Baggs is a man yearning to act as a surrogate father to Mason’s pre-teen street savvy mixed race son (believably portrayed by Kirk Calloway). In portraying the simple minded, rugged yet sensitive and moralistic Baggs, Caan eases up on his usual m.o. of exaggerated macho posturing (see from the period Caan’s Sonny Corleone (The Godfather) or Axel Freed (The Gambler)).  His Baggs may be uncultivated but he has a heart of real gold.  And here I thought it would be the hooker with the 14 karat ticker.

Violette Nozière (1978 – Claude Chabrol) mixed(+) (DVD)

It seems to me that by the time the late seventies rolled along Isabelle Huppert had taken up the Jenanne Moreau mantle as icon of the sexy frowny face, a kind of pitiless angel of death.  Her most memorable roles exude a sort of blank calculated amorality (refer to Loulou, Coup de Torchon, The Piano Teacher, La Truite and for long time collaborator Chabrol The Story of Women and La Cérémonie) rivaled only by her great contemporary, and La Cérémonie co-star, Sandrine Bonnaire.  Here, in a story based on real events that took place in the early nineteen thirties, the then 25 year old Huppert portrays a syphilis infected teenage girl charged with patricide and attempted matricide.  Huppert’s performance, which followed her international breakout in The Lacemaker, is the primary reason to seek out this film (though a de-glammed Stéphane Audran as Violette’s mother is pretty good as well). It’s a terrific warm up for that other Chabrol helmed true story about a woman faced with prospect of the guillotine for her sins that would follow a decade later – The Story of Women.  As a character study it also prefigures to a certain extent the non-Huppert Chabrol film Betty (which I prefer).  While the period detail is good, Chabrol’s direction in Violette Nozière seems largely indifferent to style and the narrative tends to plod a bit.

 The Pursuit of Happyness (2006 – Gabriele Maccino) pro(-) (Airplane)

Barely hints at any socio-political context, just Horatio Alger myth territory where a downtrodden man by sheer will and perseverance can triumph over adversity; which is enough for a marginally compelling feel good movie (though it leaves you with the impression that 1980s corporate America was actually a meritocracy).  Lucky for Will Smith that his ambitious but undereducated character is actually super talented – leaving one with the disheartening impression that an averagely intelligent regular black guy would never escape the cycle of homelessness.  Although somewhat formulaic, performance elevates this material – kudos to Will Smith who could have really milked the emotion and hammed it up; he demonstrates impressive skill and remarkable restraint in modulating his performance.  He should do more character driven stuff (had high hopes in this regard after the excellent Six Degrees of Separation).  Another positive: the father-son angle isn’t half as cloying as you would expect.  The chasing of lost bone density scanner is a handy, if not obvious, screenwriter’s device – certainly more vital and dynamic than watching Will cram from textbooks for exams.  The film is more enjoyable if you can actually convince yourself that becoming a stockbroker is a triumph and owning a Ferrari is a noble goal.  Not exactly Jimmy Stewart saving the Bedford Falls Savings & Loan.

Elephant Walk (1954 – William Dieterle) con (cable)

Ceylon (Sri Lanka) set love triangle melodrama in brilliant color.  Plot and themes bring to mind elements in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Renoir’s The River – mainly because they are vastly superior films in every way.  Elizabeth Taylor’s character seems to anticipate her fish out of water character in Giant.  After an OK and sort of compelling set-up, the story soon moves from hokey to ridiculous.  Had trouble even rooting for the elephants who have been denied their beloved easement by a self obsessed tea plantation owner with Daddy issues (an unlovable Peter Finch).  Vivien Leigh originally had starting filming in the Taylor role but bowed out after one of her mental breakdowns.  This breakdown may not have been Olivier, Finch or shock treatment related; she may have just seen some of the dailies from this dog.  Nice looking film though (shot by Loyal Griggs).

 

Stars in My Crown (1950 – Jacques Tourneur) pro(+) (cable)

A folksy and warm episodic survey of small town Southern life seen through a young boy’s (Dean Stockwell) fawning admiration for his uncle, a civil war veteran and pragmatic hymn loving town pastor (Joel McCrea).  A funny, moving and engaging film where even the occasional dose of corniness feels heartfelt and true.  Further evidence of Tourneur’s impressive genre versatility.  Brings to mind John Ford’s later film The Sun Shines Bright (based on his earlier film Judge Priest).  Like The Sun Shines Bright, Stars in My Crown has a few of its own racial issues that might rankle some modern audiences – especially when a lynch minded local chapter of Ku Klux Klansmen get off with barely a lecture (the scene is so well done, prefiguring Gregory Peck’s peacekeeping jail house scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s easily forgiven).  Though Juano Hernandez’s sharecropping Uncle Famous character never really veers into Stepin Fetchit minstrelry.  The film is so rich in plot and character it could easily have benefited from being a good twenty minutes longer.

The Edge of the World (1937 – Michael Powell) pro(+) (cable)

Canadians have been wringing their hands over defining the essence of their national character since as long as there has been a Canada.  The typical fall back position is that this character is molded by, and a product of, the country’s rugged and diverse physical landscape.  British director Michael Powell in his often goofy and episodic WW2 propaganda effort 49th Parallel gave Canucks a taste of how pop art can express nationhood through landscape (he gave the Dutch a similar sampling with One of Our Aircraft is Missing).  After a viewing of his earlier film The Edge of the World it’s clear to me that Powell is perhaps the master director when it comes to the complete integration of character and environment (with perhaps Robert Flaherty being the nonfiction film equivalent).  Consider the mountain top mission in Black Narcissus, the dingy flat in The Small Back Room, the ship and port in Contraband, the rocky mountains of Crete in Ill Met By Moonlight, and especially, both the Kent village in A Canterbury Tale and the islands of Mull and Killoran in I Know Where I’m Going! each of which has a palpable almost profound effect on the psyche of the characters whether they be insiders or outsiders.  The very nature of the inhabitants of, or visitors to, these locations is informed by a specific sense of place.  The rugged isolated windswept Shetland Isle of Foula (doubling for the Hebrides Isle of Hirta) in The Edge of the World is no different – the island is the major character in Powell’s nostalgic and episodic look at the resilient residents forced to evacuate their desolate home.  Location shot, there’s great authenticity in the style (one only wishes I Know Where I’m Going! contained as much location work – male lead Roger Livesey didn’t even set foot on a Scottish Isle), a style that both reflects the then popular Euro poetic realism all the while anticipating the grittier neo-realism of the forties.  The Edge of the World is more hopeful and uplifting than other film studies of geographic and cultural isolation (see Stromboli, Padre Padrone, La Terra Trema, A Girl in Black, Signs of Life, Captive’s Island) though this is not unusual for the Brits who tend to prefer whimsy over gloom (see remote community comedies Whiskey Galore!, Waking Ned Devine).  The pitiless and primeval locale brought to mind the vivid ocean storm scene in David Lean’s Ireland set Ryan’s Daughter (which in turn may owe a debt to Flaherty’s Man of Aran) involving the villagers recovering adrift contraband (the best scene in a film of bloated gloss).

The Good Shepherd (2006 – Robert De Niro) mixed(+) (DVD)

Thoughtfully made, handsome looking, intelligent and occasionally intriguing but it’s hard to discount the common criticisms of the film’s detractors for I simply couldn’t help concurring that the film is, at times, both dull and unnecessarily confusing.  And it’s not simply a matter of misguided expectations, I was not expecting a genre thriller, some sort of sexy edge of your seat spy game, I fully anticipated a sprawling decade spanning mood piece of melancholic navel gazing ala a film like the somber and virtually actionless The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  Plus it’s not like The Good Shepherd is made any more lively by its more clichéd “action” sequences (three sequences come to mind: the interrogation scene, the scenes with hero Edward Wilson being bedded by a double agent who is then assassinated for her duplicity, and the scene of forced parachute-less skydiving).  While screen writer Eric Roth is loathe to spoon feed the audience the intricacies of the plot, he’s not above spoon feeding the audience the themes.  Long before Roth gives us the film’s Joe Pesci scene, the sole purpose of which is for Wilson to deliver his uncharacteristically pithy nugget on “America”, or a G-man’s observation about the absence of the article “the” in relation to God and C.I.A. the audience has long digested the film’s message about loyalty, trust, secrecy and the agency’s nebulous role in the cold war (heavy handed, if not entertaining, moments which bring to mind Roth’s sin of obviousness in his scripting of the safe house scene in Munich)  The malleable Matt Damon (one of my favorites from mainstream Hollywood cinema) as Wilson is serviceable in a role that suits him, but ultimately falls just short.  He struggles to bring the necessary depth to his character’s state of haunted introspection which is constantly accented by a pensive gaze.  When Francis Ford Coppola was more actively involved in considering/developing the project in the early/mid nineties (as per the custom he retains an executive producer credit) he reportedly stated something like (forgive the paraphrased hearsay) “I can’t direct this material, I don’t understand these WASPs, I don’t know what makes them tick”.  Yet Coppola, at the height of his powers, directed two of the best interior performances in the American cinema – Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather and Gene Hackman as Harry Caul in The Conversation.  While non-WASPs, these characters suggested a heightened introverted reserve, there was no gregariousness or ethnic flourish.  While Coppola was probably underestimating his faculty for molding restrained performance while avoiding blandness, perhaps there’s some validity to his instinctive reaction, the Italian America De Niro and the American Jew Roth as cultural outsiders certainly struggled to bring any unique depth or nuance to WASP America (a challenging task that I suspect with the right touch is in fact possible).  De Niro was so wary it seems that in his small role he plays a Catholic.

Living on Love (1937 – Lew Landers) mixed (cable)

Brief (60 minutes) fairly lifeless but faithful remake of the likeable recently rediscovered pre-code battle of the sexes comedy Rafter Romance (1933) the plot of which both owes a debt to certain earlier theatrical farces and anticipates The Shop Around the CornerJames Dunn might be a marginal improvement over the mediocre Norman Foster but Whitney Bourne is close to a disaster, she barely deserves to be a Ginger Rogers stand-in.

Executive Suite (1954 – Robert Wise) pro (cable)

Film opens with a Lady in the Lake style subjective camera gimmick in which an unseen captain of industry emerges from the lobby of a Wall Street skyscraper and drops dead on a curb as he hails a cab.  With one fell swoop the furniture manufacturing concern Tredway Corporation is left rudderless, and 5 executives of varying degrees of desire and ambition each begin to jockey to either take the helm or have their preferred candidate anointed as President.  This scoreless film with a killer ensemble cast is mainly just gray flannel suited talking heads playing board room politics, but it’s quite compelling, true to life and continues to be highly relevant.  The performances are pretty much strong from top to bottom, but it’s Fredric March as a perspiring bottom line obsessed comptroller (the notional villain of the piece) that shines the brightest.  Perhaps it’s a cynicism earned through decades of hindsight, but in 2007 the moralizing ending is just a little too Hollywood.  A finale that sees unfettered self-interest ceding to a heart felt statement of principles from William Holden’s character which for dramatic effect he accents with a self-righteous smashing of one of the Company’s low quality budget products all of which awakens the activism in the numb and borderline suicidal majority shareholder/board member played by Barbara Stanwyck (in her arch fifties hysteria period).  The film would have been better served with a more ambiguous conclusion such as the one in the like themed and slightly superior film Patterns (Rod Serling’s 1955 teleplay/1956 film; though Patterns does suffer a little from Serling’s penchant for allegory and his trademark blend of moralism and misanthropy (Stanley Kramer meets Franz Kafka) all of which gives the material an unreal almost hermetic quality).  Van Heflin’s Patterns up and coming exec is decidedly more complex than Holden’s quality product first idealist, just as Heflin’s pragmatic wife, played by Beatrice Straight, is decidedly more interesting than June Allyson’s mousy and wholesome hearth warmer in Executive Suite.  However, as good as over the top dynamo Everett Sloane is as the ruthless CEO in Patterns, he could have used some of the shading Fredric March delivered.  March would latter excel as a different type of exec in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956).

Four Daughters (1938 – Michael Curtiz) PRO (cable)

This highly charming winner of a film is affectionately book ended by virtually identical idyllic scenes in which a creeping voyeuristic camera navigates blossoming peach tree branches and a white picket fence with a squeaky gate in order to peer in on the musical Lemp family giving Schubert’s “Serenade” a go. The all-American Lemp clan consists of a widowed patriarch (Claude Rains), his firm but fair spinster sister (May Robson) and his four marriage age man hungry daughters.  Based on Fannie Hurst’s “Sister Act”, Four Daughters often gets sited of being of interest largely because of John Garfield’s Oscar nominated debut performance.  The funny thing is, Garfield doesn’t show up until the second act of the story and by that time it’s already a damn good movie – warm, funny, romantic with great ensemble banter and incredibly fluid and lyrical direction and camerawork (Ernest Haller).  The location shot family picnic scene is a particular standout and wouldn’t be out of place in a Jean Renoir film.  From a genre perspective Four Daughters is equal parts wistful sentiment, romance, comedy, weepy melodrama and musical – and the film doesn’t suffer from such a kitchen sink treatment.  Three of the four film daughters are portrayed by three of the four talented mid-west bred Lane sisters (Priscilla, Lola, and Rosemary).  Eldest Lane sister Leota auditioned for Warner Bros. but failed to make it a Lane casting sweep.  Of the four Lemp girls it’s Lane baby Priscilla as Ann Lemp and non-Lane Gale Page as Emma Lemp who are the stand outs.  The pretty Priscilla, the love object of ingratiating good boy Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) and moody rebel Mickey Borden (Garfield), is a fairly savvy comedienne, bringing to mind the work of silver screen contemporary Ginger Rogers.  It’s a shame Lane retired in 1948, she certainly turned up in a few memorable films (The Roaring Twenties, Saboteur and Arsenic and Old Lace) during her decade long stretch.  As for Garfield, he is pretty riveting as the brooding and cynical Mickey Borden, a brilliant musician convinced that he is fated to a life of poverty, professional failure and heartache despite the fact that Ann Lemp on the verge of marriage to Deitz chooses him instead.  The dark portion of the film focusing on Ann and Mickey’s depressing married life and Mickey’s suicidal act of martyrdom brings a certain edge to the material.  Garfield was certainly ahead of the curve when it came to Hollywood anti-heroes, Mickey Borden type characters wouldn’t become common place until at least another decade.  Four Daughters was so successful the director, screenwriter (Julius Epstein) and most of the cast immediately did a loose reworking (Daughters Courageous).  Two sequels (Four Wives, Four Mothers) would also follow.  Still not sated, Warner Bros. would go to the well once more with Young At Heart.

 The Sniper (1952 – Edward Dmytryk) pro (cable)

Very well made ultra pulpy no holds barred B noir, one of Stanley Kramer’s early gritty low budget productions ala The Men and the equally good Champion.  This highly compelling super sleeper of a film about a crazed assassin sniping at attractive women (including iconic noir mainstay Marie Windsor) was shot over about 18 days partially on location in San Francisco.  It’s helmed by Hollywood Ten stalwart turned congressional canary Edward Dmytryk who in 1952 returned from the exile of both prison and the UK film industry.  Dmytryk who grew up in the Bay Area was no stranger to quality noir (Murder, My Sweet, Crossfire, the opening scene of Christ in Concrete) so he’s right at home with this one.  Arthur Franz, while not particularly subtle, gives a pretty good performance as Eddie Miller the titular gunman, a highly misogynistic loner engulfed with self loathing, a character that somewhat prefigures Travis Bickle (or at least a genre bound dinner theater version).  The Miller–Bickle association especially hit me when the Miller character impulsively holds his hands to a stove top burner.  When Bickle does this in Taxi Driver it’s both a test of will and an act of purification, with Miller it’s both an act of self destruction and desperate cry for help (his message to the police: find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again).  The tormented Miller character is made a sympathetic figure (he is highly emotive unlike the stoic automaton shooter in Targets) largely to drive home Kramer’s indictment of the mental health system and law enforcement’s inability to deal with repeat offender psychopaths (it is a Stanley Kramer film after all).  Dmytryk would direct 3 more Kramer films culminating in 1954 with the hit The Caine Mutiny.

The Goddess (1958 – John Cromwell) con(+) (cable)

Best remembered as the screen debut of influential and lauded Broadway stage actress and professional neurotic Kim Stanley.  Stanley rarely worked in film and is best remembered, by me, for her honey voiced narration in To Kill a Mockingbird and her psycho psychic in Séance on a Wet AfternoonThe Goddess is the story of a poor neglected small town girl with ambitions of screen stardom.  Your basic casting couch prototype fated to shallow glory and ultimate unhappiness (failed marriages, booze, pills, hysteria).  If melodrama is simply life with the boring bits removed, than The Goddess is a most unusual case.  Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky employs a rather peculiar structure, deliberately leaving out key events in the subject’s life such as, for example, a stint in an asylum.  The focus is on emotional fall out and it plays like random snap shots of a life.  The material is lost between Chayefsky’s two storytelling strengths – the pure character study (ala Marty and The Bachelor Party) and indictments of institutions (ala The Hospital and Network) (The Americanization of Emily probably straddles both approaches).  It’s hard to tell if The Goddess is a critique of the studio system because the narrative, quite deliberately it seems, never allows Stanley much direct interaction with that world.  Hollywood lay only on the fringes of the scenes.  Notwithstanding some structural ambition, the result is the material seems conventional, overwrought and stage bound (despite not even being based on a play).  Stanley shows off her range, but is ultimately miscast – too old to play the young ingénue and too homely to play the sexy starlet.  Steven Hill (TV’s Law and Order) and Lloyd Bridges are underutilized in support as the cast off husbands.

Satan Met a Lady (1936 – William Dieterle) mixed (DVD)

Off the wall and all over the map – the kind of goofy movie that encourages mixed metaphors.  This is the film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon with all the names changed –  Spade becomes Shayne, Archer becomes Ames, Gutman becomes a woman named Barabbas, Cairo becomes a brit named Travers and gunsel Wilmer becomes the chubby beret wearing Kenneth.  Even the prized gold encrusted bird statute has become a jewel stuffed Grecian horn.  I’m not certain if familiarity with the other film Falcons, including John Huston’s iconic 1941 classic, is a distraction or makes this oddball film all the more interesting.  In any event, it’s a challenge to meet the material on its own screwy terms.  Warren William as Shayne gives a highly eccentric almost undisciplined performance.  It’s like he’s escaped from the loony bin and solving a mystery is a mere lark.  William is ultimately closer in spirit to Ricardo Cortez’s 1931 skirt chasing Spade than Humphrey Bogart’s comparative hard boiled stone faced eunuch.  On the female side, the thespian triptych of Falcon femme fatales couldn’t be more different.  There’s little common ground to be found among Bebe Daniels’ 1931 trampy seductress , Bette Davis’ 1936 self aware quip uttering trickster and Mary Astor’s 1941 cold and coy diva – yet each interpretation has its rewards.  Viewing Satan Met a Lady as a straight comedy it’s Marie Wilson’s Miss Murgatroyd (Ames’ and Shayne’s exceedingly blonde secretary) that walks away with the picture.  A funny performance that anticipates Dorothea Kent’s memorable man devouring ditz in the Jean Arthur comedy More Than a Secretary from later in 1936.

Lonelyhearts (1958 – Vincent J. Donehue) pro(-) (cable)

I had lots of problems with this film adaptation of the Nathaniel West novel “Miss Lonelyhearts”, but ultimately found it, despite its flaws, to be both engaging and fascinating.  Montgomery Clift in his late period post accident phase is an intriguing hit or miss proposition.  Any expressiveness he lost in his face he made up for (overcompensated?) in his eyes, voice and posture.  In this film he appears to be too old to play Adam White an ambitious and earnest neophyte advice columnist and boyfriend to a fresh faced girl (a good Dolores Hart); but his physical and emotional fragility and general unease (which suggest the method as a gateway to nervous breakdown) ties in nicely to his character’s psychology.  Robert Ryan, at his most unsubtle, plays Clift’s ultra cynical booze soaked editor and nemesis, a man who lets no venomous thought go unspoken.  The two men engage in a philosophical battle of wills over humankind’s true nature – with the sin of adultery (which touches on the four central male/female relationships in the film) as the backdrop.  The simplistic dichotomy set up between Ryan’s sadomasochistic grudge holding misanthrope and Clift’s bleeding heart humanist is far too schematic to be believable – but once the mid film twist involving Maureen Stapleton’s character (justly Oscar nominated in her screen debut) kicks in, the broad ideas expressed in the film become surprisingly compelling.  The soft almost conciliatory tone of the final moments (hinting at redemption for Ryan’s character) has a bit of that tacked on happy ending feel.  Director Donehue (prolific in television but made only one other theatrically released film) adds little in much of style though DP John Alton’s lighting occasionally suggests his roots in gritty 40s noirMyrna Loy supports as Ryan’s world weary wife resigned to continuous suffering for a decade old indiscretion.

The Sun Legend of the End of the Tokugawa Era (1957 –  Yuzo Kawashima) pro(+) (Theater)

I’ve seen my share of classic Japanese films but almost none have been pure comedies, at least of the side-splitting variety.  This underseen in the West raucous dark comedy co-scripted by Yuzo Kawashima’s famed apprentice Shohei Imamura (who also assistant directed) is easily the funniest.  Can see why the Ontario Cinemateque guide proclaims that this film is “considered by many to be the best Japanese comedy ever made” and was “recently voted one of the five best Japanese films of all time in a poll of 140 critics taken by the venerable journal Kinema jumpo”.  This period film set almost entirely within a hive like brothel features a hilarious Frankie Sakai (Kinema jumpo award winner for best actor) as Saheiji, a crafty and tubercular wastrel working to pay off an intentionally created debt.  He’s a manipulative schemer in the manner of Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s Genta character (from Okamoto’s Kill) yet without any samurai acumen or lady killer looks.  Saheiji with animal like instinct effortlessly and with guileless expression bank rolls his escape from servitude by navigating his way through an array of corrupt buffoons and grifters including two duplicitous and competitive geisha-whores, a band of misguided rebel samurai and a pair of greedy proprietors.  This sometimes bawdy and occasionally slapstick satire pokes fun at a full complement of the clichés of Japanese cinema, including samurai bravado, faux geisha demureness, beyond the grave apparitions and double suicide love pacts.  Though ultimately the film goes easy on Japanese sentimentality by allowing for Saheiji, despite his guilt free opportunism, to assist a young and pure girl in escaping from the whoredom she was pledged to by her no good father in settlement of a gambling debt.  Stylistically, like Imamura’s first directorial effort Stolen Desire (1958), this film is still pretty far removed from the new wave then appearing on the horizon.  Little of its look resembles Elegant Beast (the only other Kawashima film I’ve had the pleasure of seeing) though both films work wonders in bringing dynamism to confined space.  I’m hopeful for a proper Kawashima retrospective someday.

Madeleine (1950 – David Lean) pro(+) (cable)

The pulled from the headlines (circa 1857) story of a wealthy Glasgow girl’s possible involvement in the death of her secret lover, an ambitious working class Frenchman.  Lean’s then wife Ann Todd (in her second of three Lean films) nicely portrays the defiant, passionate and unpredictable Madeleine and Ivan Desnay plays, rather unsympathetically, Emile L’Angelier her brooding jilted lover and possible victim.  In her capsule critic Pauline Kael refers to Lean’s moviemaking technique in Madeleine as “stiff”.  She was clearly watching a different film, because there are numerous moments where Lean, DP Guy Green and designer John Bryan (who all worked so well together on Lean’s Charles Dickens adaptations) are practically channeling Welles and Toland (and a little Hitchcock, specifically in a shot of a poisoned coffee cup).  If that’s overstating it than the film’s look at least emulates the expressionistic chiaroscuro achieved by Carol Reed in his great late forties troika of visual splendor The Fallen Idol, Odd Man Out and The Third Man.  When Emile and Madeleine steal off in the night to frolic in the woods on a hill above the dancing and drunken frivolity of the local plebes there’s a great otherworldly lyricism despite the soundstage setting with matte painting backdrop – an achievement akin to that of Powell and Pressburger’s in I Know Where I’m Going in which studio sets successfully suggest both a decidedly real environment and a magical mood.  Though I must agree with Kael with respect to Madeleine’s ending.  After Madeleine’s arrest the story bogs down for the court room finale (though visually Lean and Green certainly convey a trial by mob with a sea of spectators’ heads as a constant backdrop).  Strange that the one time real life trial of the century would be the dullest bit (the NY Times oddly claimed at the time of release that “the courtroom drama is the high point of the picture”(!)).  The open ended conclusion after a “not proven” verdict is indeed (as noted by Kael) unsatisfying, with Ann Todd’s sly enigmatic glance at the camera as a frustrating and, perhaps, incongruous exclamation point to a compelling tale.

The Burmese Harp / Biruma no tategoto (1956 – Kon Ichikawa) PRO (DVD)

Versatile and eclectic journeyman director Kon Ichikawa’s big hit and his gateway to the international art house.  Set in the waning days of WW2 as Japan is surrendering, the story is about a choral singing loving Japanese combat unit and their harp playing messenger who while on assignment goes missing and undergoes a figurative resurrection and a literal pilgrimage.  A mysterious spiritual transformation that befuddles his former comrades in arms/informal glee club.  If you stretch genre definitions a bit this could very well be one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.  The kind of film that might have inspired John Ford to make a movie where the Sons of the Pioneers are the actual stars of the picture and not mere cameo color (ala the sublimely sappy musical interludes in Rio Grande).  The Ford link is perhaps apt – this is a highly sentimental film that reeks of a yearning for home and an innate national pride (the familiar tune of “Home Sweet Home” (“Hanyuu no Yado”) being the dominant leitmotif).  A sort of Japanese form of Ford’s blarney.  [The harp as the trigger object to nostalgia/homesickness reminded me of the use of bagpipes in The Hasty Heart (1949) another story about homeward bound soldiers stationed in the South East Asian theater of war].  Despite the film’s sometimes simplicity and sentimentality, it’s never emotionally oppressive or cloying – it’s a beautiful and moving work.  The crooning troops recall the constantly singing school children regaling the school teacher in the tear jerking Japanese home front set classic Twenty Four Eyes.  In each case, music is the great unifier, a sort of secular religion.  In some ways The Burmese Harp with its blend of war, spirituality and the natural world prefigures Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, though coherence and profundity is achieved with an ease that escaped Malick (The Thin Red Line, of course, has numerous other virtues).  Interestingly Ichikawa and screenwriter wife Natto Wada chose to excise from the script the portion of the source novel where the harpist hero is nurtured back to health, not by Buddhist monks, but by a tribe of cannibals in an effort to fatten him up for supper.  This alteration, given Ichikawa’s penchant for the darkly comic and iconoclastic in his subsequent films, is surprising.  In the fascinating companion/counter piece to The Burmese Harp – Fires on the Plain Ichikawa and Wado would, ironically, take the opposite approach, this time removing, instead of accenting, the spiritual undercurrent (a Christian one in this instance).  In each case, it seems the filmmakers have made the effort to personalize the source material.  Perhaps in tune with the film’s anti-war bent, one element that is given short shrift is the streak of fanatical militarism that was quite prevalent in the Japanese troops.  There is no portrayal of ritual suicide like in other Japanese “surrender” themed films as diverse as Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day and The Battle of Okinawa and Clint Eastwood’s recent Letters from Iwo Jima.  Suicide is portrayed not as an honorable and inevitable alternative to capitulation but as a wasteful and senseless act.  With the adoption of this humanist world view it’s easy to see why a film focusing on a lovable and benign troop of singing soldiers would be welcomed by Western audiences and result in an Oscar nomination.  Perhaps even Steven Spielberg was inspired for his film Empire of the Sun, the scene where Christian Bale’s choir boy cum P.O.W. serenades a newly minted Japanese pilot from the opposite side of a barbed wire fence certainly has shades of a few moving scenes in The Burmese Harp.

 Sandra / Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa… (1965 – Luchino Visconti) pro (Theater)

From the pre-credit sequence set at a posh cocktail party hosted by the drop dead gorgeous heroine of sorts (Claudia Cardinale) you’d think that this was going to be another Italo evocation/indictment of modish decadence and the urban sweet life – but as soon as Sandra and her new American husband Andrew (Michael Craig in a key but thankless role) set off on the road in their stylish coupe for Sandra’s Tuscan family estate you realize that Visconti’s film is really a provincial gothic melodrama concerning the hushed family secrets of a decaying aristocracy.  An overripe subject that’s long been the fodder for the operatic sensibility of various Italian directors (see also Pasolini’s Teorema or Visconti’s own The Damned).  A modern take on the Electra myth famously dramatized by the three great ancient Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the story concerns Sandra’s reluctant return to her childhood home to attend a ceremony concerning the donation of the family gardens to the township and the dedication of a statute commemorating her father who died in a Nazi concentration camp.  As Sandra settles in at the decomposing almost crypt-like homestead she is immobilized by memory and ridden with an unspecified guilt all somehow tied to her part Jewish blood, her institutionalized mother (Marie Bell), a suicidal brother mad with incestuous desire, a possibly corrupt step-father (Renzo Ricci) and a jilted peasant lover who rose up the social ladder in a vain attempt of winning Sandra’s impossible love.  The father’s memorial statue is mysteriously first “seen” covered in a white sheet blowing in the wind on a dark night in the ominous unkempt gardens; a metaphoric ghost bearing witness to the first creepy sinful clinch between Sandra and her brother Gianni (Jean Sorel, uneven, in a role Alain Delon would have excelled at) who meet like old lovers with unresolved passion.  A greeting awkwardly observed by Sandra’s husband who’s rendered an emasculated spectator/audience surrogate, forced to play Nick Carraway to Sandra and Gianni’s Gatsby and Daisy, or Lockwood to their Heathcliff and Cathy.  This beautifully shot in black and white film is more insular and, mostly, more restrained than the operatic ensemble sprawl of Rocco and his Brothers or the overwrought cartoon decadence of The Damned.  Yet the grim mood and thick atmosphere eventually boil over into overt recrimination and inevitable tragedy – all driven by Cardinale’s dominating presence if not performance.  The gorgeous Cardinale is the epitome of the unattainable sex object, she’s both, paradoxically, sensuous and closed.  Her curve clinging garments say come-hither but a constantly furrowed brow says step back.  Perhaps the film Sandra best resembles is Marco Bellocchio’s wonderfully perverse debut from the same year Fists in the Pocket – a superior examination of a corrupt, declining and decrepit haute bourgeoise fatherless Italian family (with its own unique spin on dysfunction, madness and incest).  Sandra’s original Italian title Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa… (translated as either “Twinkling Stars of the Bear” or “The Dim Stars of the Big Bear”) is taken from a Giacomo Leopardi poem and is the title of brother Gianni’s unpublished biography that seems little more than an ill-conceived tool for blackmail. 

Zorba the Greek (1964 – Michael Cacoyannis) pro (cable)

I have always been a little wary of this award winning one time popular hit, fearing an Anthony Quinn ham fest (envisioning a Zampanò with a heart of gold) and warned by critic David Thomson’s claim that the film “reeked of tourist ouzo”.  Thomson’s not particularly fair in his pithy dismissal; other than the switch to the English language and the involvement of non-Greeks Quinn, Alan Bates and Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck there’s little to suggest that this film is somehow less authentically Greek than Cacoyannis’ smaller scaled fifties films – the often overwrought Stella and the quite excellent Ellie Lambeti vehicles A Girl in Black and A Matter of Dignity.  Cacoyannis’ Crete set film, based on a sprawling Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ) novel, is no cheery travelogue, there’s little to idealize or romanticize about the Crete portrayed in this film.  The rocky sun bleached environment is harsh and there is a suggestion that a certain madness results (cross reference Werner Herzog’s Greek Isles set Signs of Life).  The backward peasants are mired in twisted honor bound local tradition accented by their pitiless and criminal treatment of the dying prostitute (Lila Kedrova in a showy Oscar winning performance) and the beautiful widow (Irene Papas rather brilliantly, without much dialogue to speak of, suggesting a more mature version of Lambeti’s dignified and melancholy A Girl in Black).  They make the denizens of Rossellini’s volcanic island of Stromboli look down right progressive.  Quinn’s excellent performance as the shaggy life affirming Zorba is not all the bombast and energy one would naturally suspect, it’s often shaded with surprising complexity.  “Noble savage” may be a convenient short hand descriptor for such characters but Quinn (via Cacoyannis’ script) never relies too heavily on the usual carpe diem platitudes.  While there are certain small flaws in the film, Bates yields a little too much to Quinn and Cacoyannis over indulges Kedrova, the central problem with the film is its excessive length.  While not exactly oppressive, the meandering structure tends to heighten the slice of life elements at the expense of the highly dramatic set pieces.  It seems like a reasonably small budgeted personal film teased into an epic mold, and focus is sacrificed.  Quibbles aside, the highlight of the film is Walter Lassally excellent cinematography – a perfect blend of the picturesque and the realistic.  Lassally was no stranger to the gritty and “real” (he lensed Tony Richardson’s angry young brit films A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner); but here he’s raised the bar – the perfect blend of artful, meticulous, unpretentious compositions and graceful and dynamic camera moves all of which evoke a unique time and place.

So Big! (1932 – William Wellman) mixed(-) (cable)

This film (a thrice filmed adaptation of an Edna Ferber novel with the typical Ferber resilient female protagonist) offers the ultimate classic Hollywood film buff carrot – the promise of a scene with both Barbara Stanwyck (1st billed) and Bette Davis (fourth billed).  Two silver screen icons born only one year apart, each of whom would make over 80 films.  Ultimately it’s a big tease – in the final scene of the film the camera pans from Davis on a couch to Stanwyck at the window and they are never seen in the same frame despite being separated by mere feet.  Frequent Davis co-star George Brent gets second billing for pretty limited screen time.  For a sprawling story that covers decades the film’s short running time (81 minutes) doesn’t really allow for properly paced plot development.

 The Actress (1953 – George Cukor) pro (cable)

Not so much a Ruth Gordon biography as it is a sort of “I Remember Papa” nostalgia piece.  A sentimental ode to Gordon’s father, a former New England sea-captain turned working stiff landlubber.  While the whole cast is excellent, including Anthony Perkins in his screen debut, Spencer Tracy is particularly winning as the eccentric frugal father with a hard exterior.  Despite being largely set in smallish 1913 home located in a working class Boston suburb, Cukor’s able direction liberates the material from staginess.  I marveled at how Cukor and director of photography Hal Rosson negotiated their camera through the tight confines of the sets, when they could have easily mailed it in with a point and shoot treatment.  Hard to imagine Teresa Wright playing Jean Simmons mother just a decade after playing a fresh faced teenager in Shadow of a Doubt (as she would again 16 years laters in The Happy Ending).

True Confession (1937 – Wesley Ruggles) mixed(+) (DVD)

Carole Lombard & Fred MacMurray screwball with Lombard as MacMurray’s wacky compulsive liar wife.  Inspired start with a hilarious typewriter as baby scene, but runs out of steam once a murder mystery plot is added.

Elegant Beast / Shitoyakana kedamono (1962 – Yuzo Kawashima) pro(+) (Theater)

Shown as part of the Shohei Imamura career retrospective making the Cinemateque rounds.  Director Yuzo Kawashima was one of Imamura’s mentors and a central influence on the tone and style of his films.  This is one of Kawashima’s last features (he died prematurely at age 45), a rarely seen in North America claustrophobia inducing pitch black comedy.  A sort of grifter chamber drama almost entirely set within the tight confines of the small apartment in a shabby tenement, where an amoral family of four schemers reside.  The members of the twisted sociopathicly Machiavellian nuclear family are not shy about lying, cheating, embezzling and whoring themselves out in the name of the all mighty buck.  Kawashima constantly shifts camera positions, often from extreme low or high angles, giving the two room apartment a labyrinth quality which reflects both the characters duplicitous natures and volatile temperaments.  There’s also in the compositions, despite the close proximity of the characters to one another, the expression of a strong voyeurism theme.  Characters spy on one another from around corners, over screens and through grates.  Kawashima wisely adds a few post modern expressionistic touches that relieves the potential tedium resulting from having the action restricted to one set.   The lovely Ayako Wakao (a Daiei studios contract player and star of a number of Yasuzo Masumura and Kon Ichikawa films of the period) plays a widow and the accountant of the son’s employer.  It’s eventually revealed that she’s both mistress to the son and their mutual employer and is the most skillful and conniving swindler of all, indirectly bankrolling a hotel out of bribes and embezzled funds.  Her acumen at scamming ultimately gives the family a sort of comeuppance, even though when in the face of failure the family instinctively retreats to an indifferent posture.  The final shot of the film through a derelict barbed wire fence of a string of tenement buildings in the distance suggests that the film might really be implying that the apartment is simply a microcosm of a post-war Japan in decline.  The father’s observation near the end of the film that a little fresh air might lead to purer thoughts certainly suggests that environment plays a rather strong role in driving the characters cynical and opportunistic natures.  The very funny award winning screenplay came from fertile mind of writer-director Kaneto Shindô.

Endless Desire / Hateshinaki yokubo (1958 – Shohei Imamura) pro (Theater)

Funny noirish tinged heist film that’s closer in spirit to comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and Big Deal on Madonna Street than harder boiled offerings like Rififi or The Killing.  Only Imamura’s third film, following Stolen Desire (both films awkwardly dubbed with similar inappropriately provocative English language titles) and the rather offbeat and ridiculous 52 minute trifle of a film Nishi Ginza Station both from 1958, and it seems many commentators strain to find Imamura’s auteurist imprint (the Ontario Cinemateque program guide claims “Endless Desire is the film in which Imamura became Imamura”).  I didn’t find the trademark Imamura style from his better known later films to be particularily pronounced in this one.  Endless Desire is as far way from, say, The Pornographers or The Insect Woman as Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty is from Branded to Kill.  I found Imamura’s debut Stolen Desire, about a traveling theater troupe, to be a much more personal film.  Yet, as a pure genre effort Endless Desire is absolutely outstanding.  Five individuals loosely connected via the war ten years earlier meet to abscond with a drum of morphine buried in a fall out shelter under a butcher shop in a village earmarked for demolition.  The rag tag crew must simply set up a phony store front and dig a tunnel to the booty.  Predictably, fear of exposure and double crossing ensues.  The film grows more hilarious and decidedly more dark as it moves along.  The screenplay is from Kon Ichikawa’s wife and principal scribe Natto Wada.

 The Hurricane (1937 – John Ford) pro (cable)

The Hollywood studios of the 1930s, like those in the 1970s and late 1990s, loved to churn out disaster films.  Much like the raging fire of In Old Chicago, the earthquake in San Francisco, the earthquake/flood in The Rains Came, the famine/plague in The Good Earth and the erupting volcano in The Last Days of Pompeii, Ford’s south seas set The Hurricane finishes up with a spectacular natural disaster set piece.  Depression audiences could walk away from a night at the movie house comforted by the fact that they could have it a hell of a lot worse.  The Hurricane has a leg up on some of its apocalyptic contemporaries simply due to the fact that the exotic adventure melodrama of the pre-disaster narrative portion is still relatively entertaining and compelling.  The story centers on the carefree Terangi (a consistently shirtless and athletic Jon Hall) a native of the Island of Manakoora which is firmly under the thumb of French Imperialism as represented by Raymond Massey’s autocratic governor Eugene De Laage.  Terangi, a beacon of freedom battling the shackles of colonialism, is wrongfully convicted of a crime committed in self defense and sent to a Tahitian prison where he does everything in his power to escape the clutches of a vicious overseer (John Carradine) in order to reunite with his wife and childhood love Marama (Dorothy Lamour in one of approximately six pictures in which she was clad in her signature sarong).  Then, like the will of a vengeful God, comes the titular island decimating wind (a typhoon really).  A virtuoso piece of editing and special effects laden filmmaking that coaxes you to the edge of your seat.  Story wise, I’m not quite sure what cautionary message the all mighty (read: God and/or Paramount studios) was trying to convey given that the vast majority of peace loving indigenous villagers were wiped out and the narrow minded white despot De Laage gets to live another day in the arms of his supportive wife (Mary Astor).  Not exactly the best intolerance deterrent.  At least Hall and Lamour get to paddle off into the sunset.

Marie Antoinette (2006 – Sophia Coppola) pro (DVD)

Full of great stuff, Sophia Coppola bolsters her budding auteurist cred with this anti-plot biography which highlights her continuing (autobiographical?) fascination with the “four poster dull torpor” of immobilized feminine privilege (a fascination perhaps evident as early as the “Life Without Zoe” segment in Daddy’s contribution to New York Stories where a seventeen year old Sophia got a screenwriting credit).  Kirsten Dunst as the titular teen queen proves a great ally for the director, the talented actress does wonders in hinting at some gravity during the often rather jejune goings on.  This is Coppola’s most impressive and assured film stylistically, though there is a tendency, perhaps more than ever, for her to wear her litany of classic art house cinema influences on her sleeve be them shades of Altman, Kubrick, Godard or Malick (Wong Kar-Wai and Antonioni didn’t really jump out at me).  Perhaps the best looking sublimely painterly period film since the outstanding The House of Mirth.  Thankfully, the result does not seem particularly forced or in your face derivative.  Acts as a nice companion piece to the lush, sometimes staid, plot driven MGM 1938 classic.  Would have liked to see Coppola’s version of the scene in which Norma Shearer as the Dauphiné meets Tyrone Power’s Swedish Count in the gambling den – notwithstanding the fact that it was a pure screenwriters’ concoction bringing a little Hollywood to moldy old history.  One quibble, Jason Schwartzman as the dim and timid lock obsessed Louis XVI, while serviceable, is no Robert Morley.  Will be curious to see if Coppola can take it to the next level with her next project and embrace a completely unique visual and/or narrative personal style ala someone like Claire Denis.  Sadly, I suspect that this film’s not insignificant failure at the box office may cause Coppola to retreat to a safer more conventional audience friendly approach.

Half Nelson (2006 – Ryan Fleck) mixed(+) (DVD)

This performance driven character study with its unhinged, but sympathetic, protagonist, gritty humanism, and tightly framed selective focus shots accenting a subjective view point all feels reminiscent of the better Lodge Kerrigan films Clean, Shaven and Keane.  American answers to the neo-neo realism of the Dardenne brothers.  Pretty much a downer which, in a weak moment, makes me wonder if the movie going public would be better served by feel good confections like Akeelah and the Bee that tend to inspire.  Given the film’s lackluster box office and undeniably hardened edge, it’s a shocker that Oscar came calling for Ryan GoslingShareeka Epps and Anthony Mackie are no less worthy of award season laurels.

 Cimarron (1960 – Anthony Mann) mixed(+) (cable)

Like the Wesley Ruggles 1931 Best Picture winner that preceded it, Mann’s version of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron has a middling reputation today.  Despite the Old West setting the material certainly doesn’t play to Mann’s primary strengths as a filmmaker.  The epic story about the settling of the Oklahoma Territory sprawls, it’s not tidily self-contained or particularly psychological like the best Mann films.  Glenn Ford’s Yancey “Cimarron” Cravat is a restless cowboy with a case of wanderlust and somewhat conflicted over curbing his urge for adventure in favor of establishing domestic roots; but he doesn’t share the darkness of some of Mann’s more notable protagonists.  As with other films based on Ferber novels there is a significant focus on the concerns of the strong willed woman in a male dominated frontier environment (see also So Big!, Come and Get it, Saratoga Trunk, Giant), in this case the story often zeroes in on the perspective of Cravat’s immigrant bride Sabra (the Austrian Maria Schell, star of Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche and older sister to actor Maximilian).  Much of whether one finds this film at all successful rests on Schell’s performance and, while effective in parts, she’s not always up for the task.  Yet, it’s a difficult role, one that requires an actress to remain somewhat sympathetic while her character is slavishly devoted to pragmatism over principle, social progressiveness and the romance of adventure.  There are a few rousing action set pieces including the first come, first serve Oklahoma land rush early in the film; but the final act is largely a talky melodramatic affair, with guns neatly holstered as Sabra reflects on her lot in life as a prominent business woman and community leader that has been abandoned by the familial interests she desired to protect.  This final elegiac portion suggests a certain thematic complexity but seems oddly out of step with the earlier more genre driven ingredients (John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn would suffer from similar, and equally fascinating, problems).  Cimarron shares a number of elements with Ferber’s Giant (fish out of water new bride, the nouveau riche of the oil patch, racial intolerance) though Mann doesn’t hit the points as hard as George Stevens did.  While the Stevens method slid into liberal self-congratulation it did have commitment and gusto that is often absent in this effort.

The Spoilers (1942 – Ray Enright) mixed(+) (cable)

A conventional but rousing “B” oater with an “A” cast.  The fourth of five movie versions of the Rex Beach novel, a Northern Western set during the Alaskan gold rush, with mud soaked streets, grizzled drunken prospectors, saloon chanteuses (Marlene Dietrich looking great in Destry Rides Again mode) and claim jumpers.  Ray Enright seems to have been a competent journeyman without much of a rep but his solid direction here could have easily come from a higher profile Michael Curtiz or a Raoul Walsh type.  Runs out of steam mid-way getting a little too mired in a rather familiar formula, but its revitalized in its final scene, a lengthy sprawling knock ‘em down drag ‘em out fist fight between hero John Wayne and villain Randolph Scott (with the able support of some very resilient stunt men)- a sort of precursor to the Duke’s epic dust up with Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man.  Still the best movie fight I’ve seen in recent weeks was between Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer clad in ball gowns in George StevensVivacious Lady (1938).  This comic tussle over the heart of James Stewart’s character is a screwball cat fight for the ages.

Moonfleet (1955 – Fritz Lang) mixed(-) (TV – TCM)

In addition to some head scratching love from the French critical establishment (read: auteurist zombies), this color set-bound Cinemascope film produced by MGM generally gets mention in relation to Lang’s Contempt maxim about Cinemascope, funerals and snakes that’s been abused by film geeks for decades.  I couldn’t see much in Lang’s compositions and camera moves that made an argument one way or the other.  Set in 18th century Great Britain, Moonfleet is a serviceable gothic boyish adventure / romantic costume drama about a young lad’s Shaneish / Treasure Island-ish enthusiasm for a swashbuckling smuggler resident of the coastal town of Moonfleet played by a rather stern looking Stewart Granger.  Was I supposed to actually be rooting for Granger’s caddish blue blooded buccaneer?  Taken in by his half hearted redemption that closes out the film?  I’ll take Hitchcock’s somewhat like minded Jamaica Inn despite its flaws.  Apparently MGM went with the Lang shot but non-Lang approved ending.  However, the preferred ending Lang describes in his Bogdanovich interview hardly sounds like a world beater.  This film was inexplicably the sole Lang effort to make John Kobal’s Top 100 movies poll conducted in the late 80s.  The next closest Lang film to make Kobal’s list was, no not M or Metropolis, but While the City Sleeps.  Must have been a revival of Lang’s mid-fifties work in the world’s Cinemateques around the time that poll was taken. G. Sanders and J. Greenwood support but are underutilized.

Waterloo Bridge (1931 – James Whale) pro (DVD)

Startling differences in plot when compared to the hyper sentimental Vivian LeighRobert Taylor 1940 version of the same story.  Absent are Taylor’ s suave and assured soldier and Leigh’s graceful, charming and respectable ballerina.  Mae Clarke’s Pre-Hays Code Myra, the wayward daughter of East St. Louis dipsomaniacs, is a fallen woman right from the get go.  The film opens with her lightning quick transformation from chorus girl to streetwalker before she even sets her eyes on her young and incredibly naïve suitor, a Canadian soldier unevenly played by Kent Douglass (an actor to be subsequently renamed Douglass Montgomery).  Clarke’s Myra is not made ignoble by mere circumstance (the combination of war, poverty and misinformation in the 1940 version) but, it seems, by a combination of circumstance, choice, will, character and breeding (or lack thereof).  It’s rather refreshing in that the film has a hooker with a heart of gold that actually retains some of the rough edges throughout.  The ending here, death by Zeppelin air raid, is tragic and soul crushing though the Anna Karenina styled suicide in the 1940 version is decidedly more lyrical.  Save for a sole moment of false ringing melodramatics Clarke’s performance is a knockout.  Though I must admit the presence of Bette Davis in a small supporting role has the mind racing as to what she could have done with the character Myra.

Baby Face (1933 – Alfred E. Green) pro (DVD) (pre-release version)

Around the time a demented mustachioed Austrian embraced Nietzsche’s will to power in the real world so did the fictional Lily Powers (will to power / Lily Powers, get it) in transforming herself from an East St. Louis speakeasy floozy groomed for whoredom by her degenerate father into a corporate climber that uses sex as the ultimate weapon.  Lily’s passionate declaration of her new world view as she leaves the slums behind is worthy of Scarlet O’Hara’s famed survival pledge.  Barbara Stanwyck is pretty riveting as Lily, with her no-nonsense scheming and feminine wiles leading one horny lover to a murder/suicide and another to a suicide attempt.  Not a particularly great film, but there’s some fascinating stuff despite it’s nuance free porn-like plotting. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a hint of biography in Stanwyck’s Lily, after all the Brooklyn reared Babs was born the rather common “Ruby Stevens” later orphaned and employed in speakeasies and burlesque during the twenties.  Notwithstanding it’s rep as the film that lead to the implementation the Hays Production Code, the film ends on a redemptive note worthy of the slew of moralistic studio films that would follow.  Emblematic of Lily’s moral transformation is the (forced) abandonment of her Powers surname and her expressed yearning to have “Mrs.” on her tombstone.  With her will to power curbed, is Lily just another vital and independent woman placated by the promise of love and marriage? A victim of an age old Hollywood screenwriter trope?  Inevitable perhaps, and whether or not it’s a happy ending will depend on the viewer’s sensibility.  Stanwyck’s blonde dye job (or wig?) is more convincing than her Double Indemnity coiffure (come to think of it Baby Face is kind of like a film told from Phyllis Dietrichson’s point of view).  The prolific Theresa Harris offers strong support in one of her meatier roles as Lily’s maid and confidante Chico.  John Wayne also has a part as one of Lily’s cast offs.

 The Whole Town’s Talking (1935 – John Ford) pro (cable)

I suppose the real guts of Ford’s auteurness wouldn’t be revealed until later films, but it sure seems like either Columbia Pictures or screenwriters Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin are the real auteurs of this urban set mistaken identity comedy that exploits Edward G. Robinson’s tough guy film persona.  Would be curious to see if Frank Capra would have handled this material any differently.  Nice showcase for Robinson’s range given his dual role as an ultra meek bookkeeper (akin to his Scarlet Street wimp) and a vicious gangster escaped from prison (Little Caesar personified).  Often cited as the film where Jean Arthur pioneered the savvy modern quip uttering career girl character, her bread and butter in her Capra films to come.  This film could have used more Arthur, it works best with her and Robinson on screen together.  The doubling effects allowing Robinson to be on screen as both characters (ala De Havilland & De Havilland in The Dark Mirror) are pretty good.  A winning comedy but not quite at the level of later Robinson gangster farces A Slight Case of Murder or Larceny, Inc.

The Young Savages (1961 – John Frankenheimer) pro(-) (cable)

Frankenheimer’s first of five collaborations with actor Burt Lancaster.  Lancaster, an often highly emotive performer, always seemed welcomely restrained under Frankenheimer’s guidance.  This film about an investigation into the knifing murder in Spanish Harlem of a blind Puerto Rican American teenager by three Italian American teenage gang members has the warranted reputation as being an earnest message movie that falls towards the tail end of the juvenile delinquency cycle of films.  A sort of blend of The Blackboard Jungle and West Side Story (sans romance/singing/dancing).  While it’s certainly the most conventional and sometimes routine of Frankenheimer’s impressive sixties output, The Young Savages still has an incredibly authentic look and feel.  There’s plenty of urban grit and ethnic flavor that conveys a real time and place.  Until the film inevitably bogs down in the court room for the uneven final act, Frankenheimer’s dynamic location heavy shooting style, with showy off kilter angles and meticulous compositions, elevates the material.  The acting and directing is pretty much look at me bombast of the highest order.

Pushover (1954 – Richard Quine) pro (cable)

Solid noir about a police stakeout of the apartment of a bank robber’s moll (Kim Novak on the verge of her 21st birthday and in her first of four roles for director Quine).  The lead Detective (Fred MacMurray) succumbs to the temptation of Novak’s curves and a trunk full of heist loot.  As a noir, Pushover is decidedly more fifties than forties in tone and style.  A certain hard boiled edge has been softened with Novak playing one of the more benign femme fatales you’ll see (it’s here where the film really diverges from Double Indemnity the film it’s most often likened to) and the addition of the Phil Carey/Dorothy Malone relationship (with shades of Rear Window from later in 1954) which acts as a wholesome counterpoint to the sinful canoodling of MacMurray and Novak.  One wonders if the studio balked at making Novak a total cold hearted bitch so as not to taint their rising star.  The final moments of the film accent this dilemma.  MacMurray lies prone in the street bleeding to death (shades of the Double Indemnity finale) and his last words are something like “we didn’t really need the money did we” – Novak says nothing at all in response but does have a tear in her eye.  Not until she is deposited in the back of the police car does her gaze turn a little more steely making her character all the more nebulous. Wonder if this character would have even lived in, say, a 1946 version of the story.  Then with the final shot, in true fifties fashion, the camera cranes up wide to focus on Carey walking Malone back to her apartment conveying a real everything is going be all right vibe (this is very similar to the “happy” ending of the 1951 pseudo-noir Fourteen Hours where new loves (Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget) walk home together after a harrowing evening with the promise of a brighter (more wholesome) day).  The proceedings are further dulled by Arthur Morton’s domineering schizoid score which oscillates from overwrought violin swirling to more appropriate suspense building percussive rhythms.  Carey’s voyeurism (as he spies on Malone) is made playful as opposed to salacious (contrast with the slight knowing sexual edge of L.B. Jeffries spying on “Miss Torso” in Rear Window).  The decision to shoot in widescreen rather than the more suitably claustrophobic academy ratio doesn’t help either (Note: IMDB and TCM websites show the film as 1.37:1 but TCM aired this letterboxed).  Despite some watering down, Pushover is a tight little sleeper that I would heartily recommend.  My reaction to the Quine films I’ve seen to date is interesting.  He’s best known for his light colorful romantic comedies; but the one’s I like best fall in other genres.  Strongly prefer Strangers When We Meet (melodrama), My Sister Eileen (musical) and Pushover (film noir) to the fluffy romance of Bell, Book and Candle, How to Murder Your Wife and The Notorious Landlady.  I have a similar reaction to Quine’s contemporary Blake Edwards (a screenwriter on a number of Quine efforts); give me the post-noir thriller Experiment in Terror or the wrenching melodrama of The Days of Wine and Roses over Breakfast at Tiffany’s or 10 any day.

Too Many Husbands (1940 – Wesley Ruggles) mixed (cable)

Pales against the like plotted gender reversed My Favorite Wife from the same year, though the first half is great fun and the 3 leads make for a strong nucleus to a game ensemble.  There is a terrific odd little scene involving Jean Arthur and her husband(s) law firm secretary, where the secretary confesses to dreaming that she is Arthur.

Sylvia Scarlet (1935 – George Cukor) pro (cable)

When you’ve seen far too many movies there’s a tendency to inflate your rating of any offbeat genre defying film that was rejected by the (so-called) ignorant masses back in the day.  I guess you can slide me into the camp with guys like Rosenbaum who felt that this Euro set Katharine Hepburn in drag item “survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era”.  It’s certainly one of the most bizarre, fresh and unpredictable studio films from a major director that I’ve seen.  Though I think the film has quite a bit more in common with its Gallic contemporaries helmed by the likes of Renoir, Carné and Duvivier than somehow prefiguring the iconoclastic side of the French New Wave (as Rosenbaum noted (overstated) in his capsule).  Joseph August’s excellent cinematography seems particularly European in style (ala the American films of Lubitsch and Von Sternberg).  Wouldn’t begrudge someone for despising this oddity (Hepburn did not become “box-office poison” on a whim), but it has some truly inspired bits (plus a great Cary Grant in pre-None But the Lonely Heart cockney mode).  Who knows, seventy years from now some cutting edge cinephile might be taking our generation to task for rejecting the transcendent lyricism in Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006 – Eric Canuel) con (DVD)

Regional (local) humor doesn’t save this tired rehash of the Lethal Weapon formula.  The leads have a certain charisma – but the generic action set pieces are poorly assembled / choreographed and the villain (and his ill conceived scheme) is just kind of lame.  Sad to see a Canadian box office hit that is pure Sub-Hollywood (if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em?). 

 Angel Face (1952 – Otto Preminger) pro (DVD)

It seems that the characters played by Robert Mitchum throughout his career were completely incapable of being duped, they were rarely, if ever, suckers or chumps, at least not without their tacit consent.  Mitchum’s paramedic turned chauffeur Frank Jessup with his laid back acceptance of doom brings to mind Mitchum’s classic retort to Jane Greer in Out of the Past.  The duplicitous killer played by Greer hollowly pleads “I didn’t know what I was doing.  I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?” to which Mitchum laconically replies “Baby, I don’t care” before continuing their passionate clinch.  Bottom line, Mitchum’s getting some action regardless of the integrity of his lover, he lets the chips of fate fall where they may.  What makes Jean Simmons sociopathic femme fatale with training wheels in Angel Face so startlingly unique in the noir genre is the utter failure of her schemes to manipulate and deceive.  Neither Mitchum nor his jilted steady girl (played by Mona Freeman) really fall for Simmons’ amateur head games; yet her evil design to eliminate her wealthy step mother continues on its inevitable course.  After the film almost derails itself in the plot focused court room segment (where the two stars are reduced to being silent spectators to the usual dance between attorneys), Preminger rescues the material from the predictable in the last act.  It’s here where the film truly moves from plot driven crime melodrama to a character study, with the final psychological twist being that Simmons’ Diane Tremayne all consuming obsession with Mitchum’s Jessup was, while twisted, completely real, not a mere faux passionate means to an end.  Ultimately, Tremayne is like a self destructive femme fatale who lost her genre playbook, failing to realize that she’s supposed to have a heart made of stone.

Black Rain (1989 – Shohei Imamura) PRO (Theater)

A bit of an odd entry in Imamura’s filmography, has more in common with the humanist streak in early post-war Japanese cinema than the director’s usual iconoclastic new wave vision.  Despite falling in the genre of the hibakusha (films that deal directly or indirectly, psychological, physical or otherwise, with the repercussions of the atomic bomb), most of Black Rain plays like a homage to the home dramas (shomin-geki) of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho etc., what with the typical social concerns such as the marrying off of a young daughter or niece (ala Ozu’s Early Summer for example) (in this sense it shares the hibakusha / shomin-geki genre blending of Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear).  There’s an unusual level of reverence, Imamura’s trademark earthy black humour, while present, is muted.  Yet, the tone of the film is cleverly, and quite subtlety, subverted by its unique context – the world of post atomic bomb Japan, where a portion of the populace is burdened by a slow and unpredictable death by radiation poisoning.  Despite some harrowing flashbacks interspersed throughout the story of the destruction of Hiroshima to the terror of its surviving denizens, the film is largely set in a tranquil rural valley.  The pastoral setting is romanticized on the surface, the tenor, despite the horrors of war, is business as usual.  Yet, ultimately the village community has undergone an unspoken, self-imposed quarantine – a soft peddled death watch.  Socially, maladies like shell shock and radiation poisoning, are treated like the usual more mundane barriers to elevating ones social status and participating in the community in a normative meaningful way.  Yasuko’s (Yoshiko Tanaka) radiation poisoning is an impediment to marriage in the same way as, for instance, Jezebel’s red dress.  The traditional concerns and values of Japanese society march on in the wake of a new global age, but they have been irreparably tainted by world events.  This gives the narrative an overwhelmingly elegiac tone as accented by the vague ending with the patriarch’s (unanswered?) plea for a sign of hope.  Downbeat exclamation point aside, Imamura earlier in the film delivered a symbol of hope in the form of a leaping carp from a once fallow pond, which, in a way, prefigures the beautifully strange ending with a whale in Dr. Akagi.

Phffft! (1954 – Mark Robson) mixed(+) (cable)

Could be said that along with Adam’s Rib and The Marrying Kind this likeable oddly titled battle of the sexes comedy forms a sort of Judy Holliday-marriage in trouble trilogy.  Holliday is re-teamed with Jack Lemmon, her co-star from It Should Happen to You from earlier in the same year.  Sometimes ribald writer George Axelrod’s first produced screenplay.  A young Kim Novak has the pneumatic blonde air head role to be later occupied by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield in other Axelrod penned efforts (1955’s The Seven Year Itch (from Axelrod’s 1952 play) and 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?).

 

 

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