List List Bang Bang

January 20, 2010

2008 Screening Log Notes

Filed under: 2008,Screening Log — misterjiggy @ 8:00 pm

Inserts (1975 – John Byrum) con(+) (DVD)

Bonnie and Clyde not only launched a “New Hollywood” era for a certain style and attitude in American commercial movies and a certain type of filmmaker, it launched an industry obsession with period films set in the 20s and 30s.  Depression era gangster angled films like Dillinger, Bloody Mama, Thieves Like Us, Lucky Lady, the Grissom Gang and even Bugsy Malone would follow the Bonnie and Clyde lead. Some Hollywood types would appear particularly obsessed with pre-WW2 America; like Robert Redford with The Sting, The Great Gatsby, and The Great Waldo Pepper, Ken Russell with The Boy Friend and Valentino, and Peter Bogdanovich with Paper Moon, At Long Last Love and, the earlier set, Nickelodeon.  No genre or subject matter was left out, agrarian hardship had Sounder and Bound for Glory, Weimar Germany had Cabaret, disaster films had The Hindenburg, prestige bio-pics had Julia, stage adaptations had The Iceman Cometh, suspense films had The Other, mysteries Murder on the Orient Express and broad comedy had The Fortune, The World’s Greatest Lover and Silent Movie.  John Byrum’s (one time) X-Rated film Inserts was part of a run of period films focusing on the seedier, underground and salacious elements of Los Angeles and/or the film industry, films like The Wild Party, Chinatown, The Day of the Locust, or The Last Tycoon.  In Inserts Richard Dreyfus plays a character dubbed only as Wonder Boy, a former silent era Hollywood director who is now an impotent, alcoholic recluse making stag films in the comfort of his dilapidated home on the funds of a disreputable sort (Bob Hoskins).  A kind of blue movie mini-mogul who engages more in self loathing than Norma Desmond styled delusions.  Inserts, though not based on one, is like a talky two act play; as it’s confined to one set with limited characters (5 actors).  Despite his career long penchant for over emoting, Dreyfus is comparatively subdued here when seen against his four cast mates.  In the tradition of former child actors getting naked to jump start an adult acting career, Veronica Cartwright (a little girl in The Children’s Hour and The Birds) employing a voice suitable for the silent cinema (shades of Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain) and the curves of a flapper plays a doomed junkie stag film star.  It’s a fearless performance but she doesn’t just chew the scenery she gives the decor a hand job.  Cult film darling Jessica Harper, as Hoskins’ financial backer character’s girlfriend and a sort of curious tourist to the seedy fringes, though equally naked fares a little better than Cartwright.  The rambling dialogue oscillates between the erudite and the crude and the performances between indulgence and introspection. Given Byrum’s fondness for long takes, the claustrophobic setting and the theatrical flourish of the actors, it’s all a little stagy, and at 115 minutes it can be a little tedious despite promises of a money shot.  Sometimes provocative, often offensive, the film’s commercial failure comes as no surprise.

 

The Killer is Loose (1956 – Budd Boetticher) pro (cable)

A taut, hard boiled and effective no-nonsense crime drama.  Wendell Corey, in an atypical role for him, is terrific as the unhinged heavy Leon “Foggy” Poole.  A revenge seeking crook with a loopy mind suggestive of Arthur Franz in The Sniper and Frank Sinatra in Suddenly, while pre-figuring arch criminal crazies like Eli Wallach in The Lineup, Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.  After this, Boetticher started his terrific run of lean and mean Westerns.

  

Six in Paris (1965 – Various) mixed(+) (DVD)

Hit and miss like all omnibus films it seems.  The bigger the director’s name (Godard, Chabrol), the bigger the let down.

Docteur Popaul / High Heels (1972 – Claude Chabrol) con(+) (DVD) (dubbed version)

Some potential, but Chabrol is out of his element with overt black comedy. Jean-Paul Belmondo, such a winning ham in Chabrol’s early effort À Double Tour, mugs his way through much of this vaguely noirish sex farce (including a rather embarrassing and incredibly dated montage which plays like a Laugh-In blooper) as a doctor who specifically courts only the unattractive girls until he falls for his wife’s lovely sister (Laura Antonelli).  Of course, on behalf of female kind, the smarmy doctor receives his inevitable comeuppance; appropriately courtesy of his wife played by a (supposedly) uglified Mia Farrow (a revenge which is sort of like a happy version precursor to the dark and dead pan The Match Factory Girl).  Absurdly, this is one of Chabrol’s biggest commercial hits.  It shares little in approach and tone with Charbol’s other bourgeoisie marriage in crisis films from the period (La Femme Infidèle, La Rupture, Just Before Night Fall, Innocents with Dirty Hands). 

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939 – Michael Curtiz) pro(-) (cable)

One of the great acting mismatches – Bette Davis vs. Errol Flynn.  Talky and set, if not stage, bound.  Director Curtiz and his regular star Flynn faired better with the child’s version of a Technicolor Old England with The Adventures of Robin Hood from the prior year.  Liked both the downbeat ending and Bette’s scenery chewing.

 Death By Hanging / Koshikei (1968 – Nagisa Oshima) PRO (Theater)

The polemic elements didn’t resonate as much with me (death penalty bad; yadda, yadda, yadda) as the nature of the Japanese identity theme; but the central narrative stunt is like a Brechtian bang heard round the cinema world.  A dense one of a kind film that highlights Oshima’s incredible versatility.  One minute funny, thought provoking or moving the next. 

 

Arch of Triumph (1948 – Lewis Milestone) mixed (DVD)

Director Milestone had previously turned an Erich Maria Remarque novel into cinema gold with All Quiet on the Western Front and Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman had already had a highly successfully pairing in Gaslight; but there’s little magic in either of these two re-pairings in this downbeat Europe on the verge of WW2 film..  The film is set in a Paris populated by world weary refugees on the run from Nazi oppression, with Boyer as a Czech doctor with a tormented past and without a proper visa and Bergman as a suicidal kept woman (her introduction brings to mind the main character Myra in either version of Waterloo Bridge).  Bergman is perfectly cast on paper (her forties filmography is littered with war time oppression, martyrdom and resistance fighting), but the audience is left recalling her beloved like situated characters in vastly superior war themed films like Casablanca and Notorious.  While there are some nice looking scenes, Milestone and ace DP Russell Metty work an occasional Wellesian vibe, and some quality supporting turns from Charles Laughton as a sadistic Gestapo official and especially Louis Calhern as Boyer’s exiled Russian friend (a uniquely sympathetic role for him); at 131 minutes it’s a rather sluggish affair – especially for a film that is ultimately more about mood than plot.

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me / Une belle fille comme moi (1972 – Francois Truffaut) pro (DVD-R)

With reference to critic Stanley Kauffman’s pithy (yet overly simplistic and dismissive) comment that Truffaut only has three subjects (1) men in love with being in love, (2) women who kill men, and (3) children; this minor often forgotten entry in the director’s filmography falls neatly into Kauffman’s category number 2.  Though the tone and style here is not neo-noir like in “category number 2” films such as The Bride Wore Black or Mississippi Mermaid, it’s an irreverent and often bawdy dark comedy.  Probably the most deliberately crude and globally comic of any Truffaut film and a 180 degree turn from the film that preceded it, the humorless, yet very good, period romantic drama Two English Girls.  Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me has a loosely structured story that involves an attempted glimpse into the feminine criminal mind.  Through episodic reminiscences the film’s anti-heroine Camille Bliss (a terrific Bernadette Lafont of The Mother and the Whore and one of the lovers in Truffaut’s own early short film Les Mistons) conveys her life history to a prim and naïve sociologist (played by Alain Resnais favorite Andre Dussollier in his feature film debut).  The instinctively Machiavellian Camille uses sex as a weapon to advance her lot in life and to realize her absurd dreams of singing stardom, leaving plenty of broken men in her wake.  Camille is a remorseless force of nature that seems, like a woman in a Bertrand Bier film, to have paradoxically sprung from the schizoid imagination of a feminist and a misogynist.  I suppose in nouvelle vague  terms this film is to Truffaut as Zazie dans la Metro was to Malle or Doctuer Popaul was to Chabrol, though I found the mania in Zazie and the black comedy in Docteur Popaul (speaking of feminism butting heads with misogyny) to be far more obnoxious.  With this viewing I’ve now seen all 21 of Truffaut’s feature films and he remains, to me, one of the great personal film makers and a real master of blending art and entertainment.

The Visitor (2007 – Thomas McCarthy) mixed(+) (cable)

This message movie disguised as a character study is more or less saved by its good intentions and strong performances.  To the filmmaker’s credit, with the lack of stylization, the generally low key anti-melodramatic emoting and the deliberate pace, it doesn’t feel like a heavy handed film; but let’s face it; the story is rigged as they come.  The denizens of the illegal immigrant community portrayed in the story come across as down right unimpeachable; but there is an unintended condescension towards them; they are, in their seeming perfection, mere plot devices used as catalysts in the thawing of the wounded and uptight wannabe musician widower Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) who has let his professional malaise drift into self denial and minor academic fraud.  With his sensitive upbeat attitude and contagious ear to ear grin Haaz Sleiman as Tarek, the young jazz/world beat percussionist, is the Syrian equivalent of the “magic negro” the mystical stock character who, by use of special insight or powers, helps the white hero find himself (Tarek instructs Walter on the glories of the djembe, a West African drum).  The story is further rigged by the nature of Tarek’s plight.  His “crime”, inadvertent turnstile hopping, is so absurd and perfunctory that his incarceration could only be interpreted as the most profound violation of human rights; the product of the heartless and draconian policies of post-9/11 America.  At least Tarek’s Senegalese and more traditional Muslim girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira) is allowed to express some well earned bitterness and indignation though even her initially sour puss character softens throughout the film (in writer/director McCarthy’s multi-culti urban Utopia, Zainab harmoniously sells her “exotic” wares (hand crafted jewelry) to pseudo forward thinking white Americans next to the cultural knick knacks of a young and genial man of Israeli heritage).  Compare and contrast Zainab’s slight edge to the idealized dignity and grace of Takek’s mother (a lovely Hiam Abbass), a Muslim that is not above a glass of wine with a tentative suitor or in delighting in pop musical theater (The Phantom no less).  A Muslim woman quaffs some vino and a straight laced white guy pounds the djembe and suddenly the cultural divide has shrunk.  If only it were that easy.

The Ascent / Voskhozhdeniye (1977 – Larisa Shepitko) PRO (DVD)

Much like everyday Russian society circa 1977 was out of step with the modernity of the Western world; The Ascent is a cinematic anachronism, an art house film out of step with the medium’s fashion and trends of the time.  This WW2 set film presented with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and shot in black and white has little in common with its world cinema contemporaries.  It’s the kind of allegorical humanist film that would feel right at home if released in the late 50s / early 60s, comparables that spring immediately to mind are faith themed works like Dreyer’s Ordet or Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and bleak but heartfelt war set films like Wajda’s A Generation, and fellow Soviet offerings like Tarkovsky’s My Name is Ivan, Chukhraj’s Ballad of a Soldier, Bondarchuk’s Destiny of a Man and Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying.  Films where man’s inhumanity to man is treated without an overbearing cynicism or irony (read: there is a God) and are expressed with an artful formal rigor but without post-modern stylistic tics.  The unforgettable ending to the film would seem darkly comic if it weren’t so earnest and profoundly tragic.  The Judas figure’s futile and pathetic grasp at absolution and grace in the face of his fallen comrade’s inspirational Christ-like martyrdom is brilliantly realized.  If the ending at all resembles the ending of a contemporary world cinema release of the time it would be Greek director Michael Cacoyannis’ take on the Euripides play Iphigenia, an underseen gem and a more “traditional” art house film.

Shadows in Paradise / Varjoja paratiisissa (1986 – Aki Kaurismäki) pro (DVD)

A poker faced deadpan black comedy; the work of a Finish Jim Jarmusch (who incidentally is a fan/friend).  A love story of seeming emotional indifference.

 The Match Factory Girl (1990 – Aki Kaurismäki) pro (DVD)

I decided to make a film that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.” – Aki Kauismaki.  Ya but Mouchette never got the last laugh.

  

  

The Great Madcap (1949 – Luis Buñuel) pro(-) (DVD-R)

The Buñuel auteurist “brand” and the apparent work for hire nature of this Mexican comedy are hard to reconcile.  The general plot suggests a sort of class warfare screwball comedy that would be well served by some anti-establishment irony with dashes of the surreal; but the execution is, while certainly entertaining, pretty much mainstream formula.  Just when you think the bourgeoisie are in for a royal skewering the story drifts into an opposites attract / train tracks crossing romantic comedy that would have been a natural fit for a Frank Capra or Gregory La Cava type in 1930s Hollywood.  Fernando Soler, who would later star in Buñuel’s more subtextually subversive Susana, stars as the wealthy but complacent family patriarch who turns the tables on his lay about extended family in their attempt to fool him into believing that he has lost his fortune.  Buñuel portrays the lower classes with great affection, but they seem light years away from the impoverished types in Los Olvidados, much like the great divide between The Great Madcap’s love conquers all The Graduate like finale and the fetishistic proceedings in Belle de Jour.  Not without its charms.

  

 Mr. Freedom (1969 – William Klein) mixed(-) (DVD)

Pulverize the Eiffel towers, who criticize your government!” – Green Day.  Sure the satire is intentionally broad and obvious and the presentation style deliberately cartoonish; but the anti-American sentiment in this pop art scatological film is so intense that the film loses any real bite and any intended socio-political commentary momentum is denied.  Even Dr. Strangelove with its amplified absurdities at times showed remarkable restraint and a loose but ominous grounding in reality.  By comparison, Mr. Freedom‘s satiric simplicity just comes across as uninformed, leaving it with about as much edge as Otto Preminger’s disastorous youth market pandering effort Skidoo.  Klein’s skewering of fashion/media/celebrity with Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? three years earlier, while equally manic, was more successful (and funnier) to me (and evidence that even the easiest targets may be successfully parodied (which in hindsight makes Robert Altman’s failure with Prêt-à-Porter even more disappointing)).  Still, Mr. Freedom, is a rather interesting counterculture artifact, with some funny bits and inspired art design.  French beauty Delphine Seyrig as Marie-Madeleine looks incredible fetching with an orange afro and star spangled jump suit; plus one has to admire her incredibly eclectic (even subversive) choices in projects (Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Accident, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, Donkey Skin, Stolen Kisses, Jeanne Dielman, India Song).

 $ (aka Dollars) (1971 – Richard Brooks) pro(-) (DVD)

Found this one time box office and critical failure to be a fairly entertaining, occasionally ambitious and sometimes fascinating film.  A Hamburg set bank heist film that has an oddly uneven mood and tone; awkwardly meshing elements of the conspiracy thriller, the screwball romance, the international espionage film, the gritty policier, and the black comedy.  The first 30 minutes are incredibly confusing for a mainstream genre film, plot threads and the interrelationships between vaguely drawn characters are hard to discern. It’s easy to see why likeable female lead Goldie Hawn (as a seemingly guileless call girl exploiting her corrupt clients consisting of tax evading Vegas bag men, German drug dealers, & US military black marketers) has never fully watched the film claiming it “exhausted her patience”.  Despite some obvious New Hollywood stylistic intentions, $ is never quite like The French Connection or The Parallax View, its more like the John Huston Paul Newman 1973 misfire The Mackintosh Man (another interesting but shaggy, moody and confusing Euro set almost thriller).  Warren Beatty, as the inside security man, plays one of his more self-assured characters exhibiting less of his trademark disheveled befuddlement than usual.  Gert Frobe is winning as the manager of the target bank, a role that’s a knowing wink to, and a twist on, his best known character to American audiences – Fort Knox heister and James Bond iconic adversary Auric Goldfinger.  Composer Quincy Jones spends most of the film ripping off his own memorable score from In Cold Blood (another Richard Brooks film) until he brings some solid sonic color to the bizarrely long and largely dialogue free chase scene that closes the film (I found the snow covered lake portion of the chase to be both absurd and inspired).  Loopy elements aside, including an animal and human death by way of ingesting pure concentrated LSD, it’s the safety deposit box heist that makes up the middle portion of the film that’s most thrilling.

Just Before Nightfall / Juste avant la nuit (1971 – Claude Chabrol) pro (DVD)

A purely interior “thriller” in which a successful family man kills his mistress, either by accident or sublimated intent, and the combination of the odd unconditional acceptance and forgiveness of his wife and the victim’s husband (his best friend (of course) played by François Périer) and the lack of institutional punishment leave the man in a state of profound ennui.  It seems like a strangely moral film (especially for Chabrol), like a counter argument to Woody Allen’s “guilt fades” posture in Crimes and Misdemeanors / Match Point and made me think it was some sort of existential version of the priest’s death row jail cell speech to Montgomery Clift at the end of A Place in the Sun in which guilt and atonement are matters of the mind, heart and soul and not merely external factors.  I also thought of the despondency of Edward G. Robinson’s unpunished Chris Cross character at the end of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet StreetMichel Bouquet stars as the conflicted killer with a similar cool detachment he brought to Chabrol’s The Unfaithful Wife and is reunited in screen matrimony with Chabrol muse Stéphane Audran who plays perhaps the most enigmatic figure of all.  A solid offering from what most consider the prolific Chabrol’s strongest period.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985 – Paul Schrader) pro (DVD)

Paul Schrader, a decade after scripting The Yakuza, returns to Japan with this American produced Japanese language bio-pic on the life of novelist, playwright, poet, actor and right wing body builder Yukio Mishima (who may be best known to Western film buffs for penning the novel Kon Ichikawa’s Enjo is based on and for starring as the brooding gangster in Masumura’s Afraid to Die).  Mishima can at times be confusing and keeps the audience at an emotional distance but it’s incredibly inventive, even audacious, with a structure and style that attempts to infuse the subject’s life with his art.  Major kudos to Eiko Ishioka for the dazzling production and costume design.  If there’s a more recent film that Mishima prefigures its Todd Haynes I’m Not There one of the few films in the current age of the bio-pic willing to take narrative chances.  Philip Glass’ score often dominates unnecessarily, but is also both beautiful and memorable.

Pride and Glory (2008 – Gavin O’Connor) con(+) (Theater – TIFF)

This film project suffered through post September 11th development hell to actually getting made and then, after being beaten to the genre punch by The Departed, collected dust on a studio shelf for a year and a half to finally emerge at a gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival a month and a half prior to its scheduled wide release.  Somebody must have owed someone a favor.  It’s like they carpet bombed this NYC corrupt cop drama with clichés, lathered it in stereotypes, spread tired tropes over it with a rusty trowel, etc., etc.  It’s one of those gritty good brother cop (this time Ed Norton) / bad brother cop (Colin Farrell) ultra macho melodramas where there are speeches peppered with the words, “blood”, “family”, “loyalty” and “pledge” [they even threw in the morally ambiguous drunken Dad cop (Jon Voight) and other brother with dying wife cop (Noah Emmerich)]. The kind of film where there are slow motion scenes with Irish music while forlorn cops in full ceremonial uniform march at the funeral of fellow officers under a grey winter sky.  The confusing opening scenes laden with insider lingo and profanity are back dropped against grainy quick cutting darkly lit shaky cam visuals all of which seems to have imported directly from stylized filmmaking hell.  Yet surprisingly, the film actually settles down to, despite familiar genre elements, some rather entertaining and occasionally riveting scenes (including a seat squirmer with bad cop Farrell holding a heated iron to a baby’s face to extract info from a drug dealer) – but hold on for the ridiculously plotted overheated final half hour that needs be seen to be believed – it’s like the end of Red River meets Do the Right Thing with a Serpico twist (save for the fact that those are all good movies). Half way through the wife nudged me and said – “this makes We Own the Night look like The Godfather”.  Joe Carnahan (of the sleeper policier Narc fame) had a hand in the script and is in hindsight looking like a one hit wonder.  Director O’Connor (Miracle, Tumbleweeds) spoke at the screening and was revealed to be a fairly passionate nutbar. [An unrelated side note: in his film intro TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey referred to current times as “the golden age of American film acting” (!?!)].

 The Third Part of the Night (1971 – Andrzej Zulawski) PRO(-) (DVD-R)

Set in a WW2 era occupied Poland; this film is a Nazi resistance fever dream, where characters aren’t so much doppelganger figures as they bleed into one another as part of an overarching surreal hallucination involving birth, death, paranoia, betrayal and survival.  A rather stunning and audacious debut film that showcases a wildly brilliant formal technique where swirling and subjective hand held camera effects are suitably disorienting without inducing viewer nausea like more recent hyper edited shaky cam dominated films.  Though Zulawski acknowledges Andrzej Wajda’s films as inspiring him to become a filmmaker, gone from The Third Part of the Night is any overt thread of humanism that can be seen in Wajda’s war trilogy which has become the standard bearer for Polish WW2 films (Zulawski started on the second unit of a few post war trilogy Wajda films).  Though The Third Part of the Night is ultimately a one of a kind film it does in its detailed and expressionistic aesthetics and moral ambiguity recall Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and some stylistic elements reminded me of Roman Polanski’s early short film Where Angels Fall.  The mood of dread and paranoia in the faceless urban environs recalls the Czech Nazi resistance film The Fifth Horseman is Fear and prefigures Polanski’s eerie The Tenant.  Similar plot and thematic elements would turn up in other Nazi occupation films of the 70s such as Joseph Losey’s rather good Monsieur Klein with its focus on identity and Ingmar Bergman’s rather lame late period effort The Serpents Egg with its grotesque look at scientific research.  The Third Part of the Night is an often puzzling film; but is surprisingly coherent notwithstanding its time shifting dream logic that blurs memory, fantasy and a rather nightmarish reality.

Jewel Robbery (1932 – William Dieterle) pro (cable)

A witty and innuendo filled trifle of a film that’s downright Lubitschian.  Looks rather slight in the wake of Trouble in Paradise which would follow later that year, but it’s a brisk and charming entertainment well worth seeing (it’s hard not to think of Trouble In Paradise given the charming and suave thief protagonist (this time William Powell), European setting and Kay Francis as the upper crust love interest).  One of seven Kay Francis movies from 1932 which also includes another love match with William Powell (the excellent One Way Passage) and the Dieterle helmed Man Wanted which is another pre-code charmer that suggests Lubitsch with its cheeky gender role reversing comedy.  The well dressed Francis loves falling for the debonair thieves; she previously fell under the spell of Ronald Colman’s gentleman cat burglar (the “Amateur Cracksman”) in Sam Goldwyn produced and Gregg Toland lensed Raffles from 1930.  Jewel Robbery is also notable for the inclusion of some rather funny cigarettes.

Devil’s Doorway (1950 – Anthony Mann) pro(+) (cable)

One of 4 Tony Mann films from 1950, each of which is an incredibly solid work.  This, the third of his 1950 Westerns, was actually the first of them made but was held back from release by MGM due to similar themes in Delmer Daves serviceable but blander Broken Arrow which had the distinct commercial benefits of a bigger budget, Technicolor, and then future key Mann collaborator James Stewart as its star.  This was the first of eleven Westerns Mann would direct in the next decade and his last of six collaborations with DP John Alton who’s legendary knack for light and shadow place this film in the realm of the great noir tinged Westerns like Yellow Sky and Pursued.  This Oater is forward thinking in its portrayal of Native Americans and woman (female lead Paula Raymond is a lawyer), transcends genre simplicity and message movie pandering; and the few compromises made by the filmmakers do little to diminish its powerful impact.  It’s remarkable what Mann does with Guy Trosper’s tight no-nonsense script (Mann reportedly noted “the best script I’ve ever read”) in a mere 84 minute running time.  Like (the Oscar nominated) Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow, Robert Taylor is forced to play against ethnic type (his character is a Shoshone Indian) and he does a half way decent job given his limitations, but he’s much better the following year in another underseen forward thinking Western, William Wellman’s Westward the Women.

Moontide (1942 – Archie Mayo) pro (DVD)

While not one of the greats, it remains a film of great interest; the kind of film for the hard core movie buffs who are as equally fascinated with a film’s flaws and a filmmaker’s compromises as they are with a film’s merits. Largely notable as the Hollywood debut of Jean Gabin (in a sort of Port of (American) Shadows), the fact that Fritz Lang helmed it for three weeks and that it has supporting ace Thomas Mitchell in a rare less than likeable role (as “Tiny”).  Somehow the participation of Gabin and the limited involvement of Lang have made a European imprint on the film’s look and feel, suggesting a sort of thirties French poetic realism by way of the studio back lot, with a California wharf setting that’s more suggestive of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante than John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. The artificiality of the studio sets and the wobbly plot do little to undermine the emotion conveyed through the skilled and earnest performances.  Narrative wise Moontide, with its fringe dwelling economically disenfranchised characters and its hints at moral turpitude, would have fared much better in Pre-Hays Code Hollywood, though some of the seedier or offbeat elements retain some interesting sub-textual bite including Tiny’s man love for Bobo (Gabin saddled with another Pepe le moko-esque moniker).  Ida Lupino as the suicidal waif who falls for Gabin’s boozy restless man with a past is her typical strong self.  It seems to me that Lupino more than any other actress of her era appeared in roles where her characters’ very being is defined by the rugged physical environment that surrounds them.  The misty waterfront of Moontide suggests those similar spots in Lupino films Out of the Fog and The Sea Wolf.  Just as the mountains in High Sierra, the moors in the gothic Ladies in Retirement, the decrepit valley shack in Deep Valley, the backwoods border town bar in Road House and the snowy remote farm house in On Dangerous Ground all would inform the state of mind and attitude of her other characters.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008 – Woody Allen) pro(+) (Theater)

Certainly has to be one of the most organic and free-flowing of all the Woody Allen films; even, shockingly, one of his most unpredictable.  All of which is pretty counterintuitive given that the first reel or two reeked of a schematic, with character types slotted into a tired sex farce template ala Woody’s own early 80s Smiles of a Summer Night homage / comic throw away A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.  Yet, somehow, with its loose nod to (now) respectable Euro ménage à trois films of yesteryear like Jules and Jim, The Mother and the Whore and Two English Girls, the film transcends formula. Reviewer descriptions of the film as breezy or characterizations of the film as a pleasant diversion with travelogue eye candy don’t really do the performances and deeper character issues justice.  Rebecca Hall as Vicky, the uptight conformist who against her better judgment and nature falls for Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio (a name that surely must be a nod to Juan Antonio Bardem, Javier’s famed director uncle (Death of a Cyclist)), is outstanding; but is likely to be overshadowed in most eyes by Penelope Cruz’s smaller but showier scene stealing performance as the suicidal hyper-passionate ex-wife muse to the brutally honest painter Juan Antonio.  Woody’s own late period muse, the ever sexy Scarlett Johannson, is merely serviceable, but hers is easily the more thankless role as I suspect few in the audience were actually rooting for her superficially hedonistic and non-committal Cristina to emerge fulfilled and triumphant.  The movie’s central misstep is use of an omniscient third party narrator, who describes the proceedings in a detached and ironic style, more suited to one of Woody’s New Yorker published short stories.  While it’s the narration that is ultimately the source of the more conventional comedy, one wonders if its removal would make the comedy more proverb-like and suggestive of one of Eric Rohmer’s “moral tales”.  In any event, the final moment, which is more than a tad downbeat if not profoundly observant, makes one wonder if the film should be characterized as a comedy at all.  Rebecca Hall’s dejected expression suggests a certain resignation that fate has made her the victim of some sort of existential joke.  All of which jibes with Penelope Cruz’s observation that while shooting the film it never felt to her like she was in a comedy, she laughed only when she initially read the script and then when she watched the finished product with an audience.

The Passionate Friends (1949 – David Lean) pro(+) (cable)

An underseen and underappreciated mid-early period David Lean film and the first in what some call Lean’s Ann Todd Trilogy.  With its love triangle story, adultery/suicide contemplating heroine, and Trevor Howard in a key romantic role, The Passionate Friends is understandably, though ultimately unfairly, generally dismissed as a Brief Encounter retread.  While it never matches the simple truth and profound emotion of Lean’s first masterpiece, The Passionate Friends tops it with narrative, emotional and, with the help of DP Guy Green, visual complexity (changes in composition, focus and lenses suggest Borzage or Renoir one minute, Hitchcock or Reed the next).  There’s a certain surface banality to the story of a loveless marriage, missed opportunities and rekindled love, but an odd undercurrent highlighted by the film’s flashback/memory/fantasy structure with its various repetitions and echoes coupled with Todd’s unreliable narrator bring a sort of peculiar depth (compare and contrast Ann Todd’s upper crust self denying narrator to Celia Johnson’s suburban earnest one Brief Encounter).  Much like her portrayal of the titular character in Madeleine (her next underseen and underappreciated collaboration with then husband Lean), Todd’s portrayal of Mary Justin can be puzzling, her motives are ambiguous and her true nature enigmatic.  Claude Rains, the forties king of the cinematic cuckold with Deception and Notorious, initially seems type cast as the sucker, given little to do but be regal, cold and aloof, until the film’s final reel where he comes alive in spewing a memorable reprimand/kiss off to his wife Mary, leading to her inevitable downward spiral.  All of this heightened drama leads to Rains’ character getting a, somewhat problematic, Mr. Skeffington styled “happy” ending in which a long term loveless marriage is somehow validated.

Middle of the Night (1959 – Delbert Mann) pro(-)  (cable)

From Marty (1955) to The Bachelor Party (1957) to Middle of The Night the trajectory of the Delbert Mann/Paddy Chayefsky kitchen sink urban dramas is clear – increasingly downbeat; moving from the lovably dour to the downright depressive; a sort of “put your head in the oven trilogy” (It should be noted that The Catered Affair (1956), which also fits nicely into this cycle of dissatisfied regular people living lives of quiet desperation , was a Gore Vidal adaptation of a Chayefsky play and was directed by Richard Brooks).  This character driven story is a May-December romance between a lonely widower and a recently divorced secretary who works in his garment factory.  Fredric March master of business men on the edge of breakdown (The Best Years of Our Lives, Executive Suite, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Death of a Salesman) is simply outstanding as the decent man searching for an emotional connection while balancing oppressive family and work obligations.  A de-glammed Kim Novak (comb your hair woman!) as the insecure and well meaning but capricious love interest is also fairly solid, somewhat in the mold of her working class neighborhood girl/musician’s girlfriend character from The Man With the Golden Arm

Cassandra’s Dream (2007 – Woody Allen) mixed(+) (DVD)

Perfectly entertaining and very well made, but just a tad routine and certainly unnecessary after both Crimes and Misdemeanors and the too recent Match Point.  Sort of like Woody’s Chabrol film (to site another prolific director who has little fear in revisiting worn genres and repeating himself) but without honing a twisted psychological undercurrent.  With this and the solid In Bruges, I’m starting to think Collin Farrell is a pretty darn good actor.

  

  

Funeral Parade of Roses / Bara no soretsu (1969 – Toshio Matsumoto) pro (DVD-R)

Given the provocative subject matter, drag queens working in the Tokyo gay underground, and the heavy 60s counter culture influence (there’s plenty of free love/drug fueled “happenings”) I think I expected this film to be more trashy and exploitive ala Seijun Suzuki, Yasuzo Masumura, Koji Wakamatsu or the erotic “pinku” cycle of films; but this vital stylistic hodgepodge owes more to the self-reflexive avant-garde tendencies of directors like Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shohei Imamura and Masahiro Shinoda (who makes a cameo appearance as himself).  Often tough going, especially during the unforgettably disturbing ending where the Oedipus myth meets Japanohorror.  Where some of the film’s sonic, visual or narrative experiments have dated, others remain rather mind blowing; a sort of midnight madness for the art house.  The influence on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is fairly apparent in a few scenes and elements, but one wonders if certain twisted ideas in this film also had a small influence on the recent Asian extreme cinema standard bearer Old Boy.

Classe tous risques (1960 – Claude Sautet) pro(+) (DVD)

Recent reaction to the revival/rediscovery of this gangster intrigue demonstrates how certain auteurist focused reviewers tend to curb the burgeoning critical bona fides of a well executed film.  Much of the on-line chatter seems to focus on two areas: (1) The fact that director Sautet is an outsider to the genre and the film is not representative of the personal vision expressed in his better known work which focus on male female relations at a time of emotional upheaval (such as excellent early 70s efforts Les Choses de la vie and César et Rosalie) and not heists and honor amongst thieves; and (2) how despite the film’s clear influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential gangster cinema still to come, the film remains decidedly inferior to those later iconic films.  I found it more useful to tune out such critical white noise and attempt to go in untainted, simply enjoying an extremely solid French crime film in the hard boiled tradition of Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, Dassin’s Rififi and Melville’s own Bob le flambeur.  Regardless of how it fits or doesn’t fit within the Melville oeuvre, it’s an artful and compelling meloncholy film.

Beach Red (1967 – Cornel Wilde) pro (cable)

This nontraditional anti-war combat film set during WW2 in the South Pacific theater of war is even more stylistically ambitious than Wilde’s very good prior film The Naked Prey (another urgent portrayal of machismo on the defense where environment is as much of a character as the actors are).  Wilde fearlessly employs montages of photo stills/freeze frames, multi-character voice over narration that takes the form of poetic internal monologues, flashbacks and a general dreamy expressionism.  It doesn’t always work, coming across as a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge that tends to date the film more than elevate it to timeless “art”; none of which is helped by some occasionally clunky dialogue and stilted acting from a generally starless ensemble cast.  In any event, this sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange film had to have had some influence over Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

  

Too Bad She’s Bad / Peccato che sia una canaglia (1954 – Alessandro Blasetti) pro (cable)

Extremely likable romantic comedy featuring the pre-international fame Neapolitan raised duo of Sophia Loren (as a con artist in a con-artist family) and Marcello Mastroianni (as her unwitting cab driver victim) in their first of thirteen celluloid pairings. Both of the then future movie icons, despite their youth, come across as seasoned pros in this breezy Italo-screwball.  Vittorio De Sica, often as good an actor as he was director, offers amusing support as Loren’s scheming but charming petty thief father.  This is the first Blasetti film I’ve seen; but it seems that he was a significant director of commercial movies in the Italian film industry throughout the 40s and 50s directing each of the three leads a number of times (he also, like DeMille in Sunset Blvd., played himself in Visconti’s memorable Anna Magnani vehicle Bellissima).

  

  

The Fifth Horseman is Fear (1965 – Zbynek Brynych) pro(+) (cable) (Pan & Scan)

In terms of Czech New Wave Holocaust themed films The Fifth Horseman is Fear in style, theme and tone falls somewhere in-between humanist art house classic The Shop on Main Street from the same year and the lesser known dark and pitiless The Cremator (1968).  It’s not quite a grotesque film, but it’s far from warm.  In a film that oozes Kafkaesque dread and paranoia both visually and thematically, the Nazi occupation element is largely allegorical.  Director Brynych’s primary subtlety disguised target seems not to be the Nazis or their weak kneed collaborators but the then contemporary totalitarian Communist regime, driven home by the intentional lack of period detail (clothing and decor seem decidedly mid-60s Eastern Bloc).  The minor anachronisms aren’t heavy handed for satirical intent, like in say Alex Cox’s film Walker, they simply make the story more universal and timeless.  The story involves a Jewish doctor, forbidden by the Nazis to practice medicine, who reluctantly treats a wounded resistance figure in a treasonous act of personal and professional duty, conscience and, eventual, martyrdom.  In movie terms it suggested to me the well meaning but persecuted Dr. Samuel Mudd of John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island forced to wander through the creepy corridors in one of the films in Roman Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”.  A chillingly effective film, lead Miroslav Machácek ably coveys the Doctor’s torment.

The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz / Ensayo de un crimen (1955 – Luis Buñuel) pro(+) (DVD)

A darkly comic tale of homicide-us interruptus; in which the film’s anti-hero is constantly thwarted in bringing his twisted misogynistic fantasies to life.  The theme of a bourgeoisie man’s unnatural obsessions is somewhat reminiscent of that portrayed in Buñuel’s earlier commercial Mexican period film El, though the genre template in that film was melodrama as opposed to thriller in this case.  While directed with less visual flair than Buñuel brought to El and with a less compellingly unhinged central performance, Criminal Life is a more overtly funny and offbeat effort than El.  By mere coincidence I watched this film immediately after the recent Lars and the Real Girl, another film where a glorified mannequin acts as a surrogate for a flesh and blood female and has a therapeutic effect on the emotionally damaged protagonist.  The tones and approaches of these two films are light years apart.  In the humanistic Lars the “terminally ill” doll is gently euthanized on the shoreline of a serene lake by her benign keeper, in Criminal Life the doll is incinerated in burst of madness and sadism.  In some ways the result is the same for each, the men have been liberated from their fetishes & neuroses, able to move on to “normal” male-female relations.  Only in the earnestness free zone of Buñuel does the resolution resemble the punch line to a joke.

Diabolically Yours / Diaboliquement vôtre (1967 – Julien Duvivier) mixed(-) (DVD)

An amnesiac, haunted and befuddled Alain Delon gets the Gaslight treatment from a smoking hot/cold as ice Senta Berger who may or may not be his wife.  Only by bedding this strangely unavailable supposed spouse can he hope to unlock his memory and mysterious past.  Veteran helmer Julien Duvivier’s final film which, while occasionally inspired, is generally routine.  Often absurd (especially the vaguely Eurasian man servant Kim); but always watchable.  Gets by on its lurid plot, gorgeous stars and scenic French country side locales – but Pepe le Moko this ain’t.

Silver Lode (1954 – Allan Dwan) mixed (DVD)

Given this effort and the earlier minor noir classic Kansas City Confidential clearly actor John Payne excels as playing framed men in B movie genre flicks.  Payne’s the best thing in this Old West indictment of mob violence and McCarthyism, an obvious High Noon knockoff and descendent of message Oater The Ox-Bow Incident.  Shot in overlit Technicolor which tends to hinder DP John Alton from playing to his strength as master of shadows.  Lizabeth Scott (who looks much better in black and white) gets saddled with the thankless good girl role (recall Grace Kelly’s Quaker bride in High Noon) ceding the more interesting scenes to feisty saloon girl Dolores Moran (ala High Noon’s Katy Jurado).  40s pin-up girl Moran was the wife the film’s producer Benedict Bogeaus.  Overall I prefer the later Bogeaus/Dwan collaboration The River’s Edge.  This film came to many-a-film buff’s attention via A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.

The Lovers / Les Amants (1958 – Louis Malle) PRO (DVD)

What is the definition of a great movie? I can’t really say; but I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is certainly that (with apologies to Justice Potter Stewart).  At the center of the greatness is an luminous and unpredictable Jeanne Moreau who can alter the film’s mood and her character’s emotional trajectory with the slightest glance or change of expression.  Her work in Malle’s hard boiled Elevator to the Gallows from earlier in the same year seems merely serviceable in comparison.  She’s like décor in that film, but as Jeanne Tournier, the melancholic and dissatisfied adulteress in The Lovers, Moreau’s the be all and end all of the film .  The otherworldly lyricism of the famed (and one time controversial) final portion is more old school Renoir, Carne or Borzage than it is some sort of nouvelle vague jump start.  When it comes to the adultery theme, The Lovers is not as subversively nonjudgmental as Agnes Varda’s enigmatic Le Bonheur; but the post coital love hangover of the final minutes has an oddly ominous, almost puzzling, tone.  In the cool light of morning the wisdom of Jeanne’s pseudo existential epiphany that lead to her rejection of bourgeoisie conformity and her role as wife, mistress and mother is brought into question.  Jeanne immediately upon seeing a young child at a rest stop catches her reflection in a mirror and the implication is that the mother of a child can never truly be free of human entanglements, the possibility of a hedonistic or bohemian guilt free life is illusory.  Malle’s direction doesn’t strive to accent it, but Morneau’s performance (with the help of some rather unnecessary third person narration) sells it.  Not a particularly complex film in idea or execution; but there is depth of character and theme beyond its stylish surface.

The Smugglers / Les Contrebandières (1968 – Luc Moullet) con (DVD)

Irreverent, anarchic, anti-establishment sub-Godardian comedy.  This episodic, loose, improvisational farce is Nouvelle Vague from the fringes, with a sort of modish amateurism that suggests a poor man’s Pierrot le Fou.  The kind of film that envisions counterculture pseudo-revolutionaries rebelling against bourgeoisie conformity and traditional gender roles while looking fetching in a bikini.  While some of the hit or miss subversive comedy is more inspired than the filmmaking technique, I became easily bored.  Should have heeded the warning from a blog that described a later Moullet film (A Girl is A Gun, a psychotronic riff on Westerns, a sort of improv dinner theater El Topo) as “for aficionados of outré singularities like Rohmer’s Perceval and Malle’s Black Moon”.  [I’m a pretty big fan of both Malle and Rohmer; but consider Perceval and Black Moon (despite a certain admirable ambition) to be their least successful efforts].  According to IMDB, fellow French filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub referred to Moullet as the “only heir to both Buñuel and Tati”.  One can certainly see this association in The Smugglers, but I didn’t come away with the impression that blending the satiric black comedy of Buñuel with the measured humanist slapstick of Tati is a particular virtue.  Sounds like Moullet, who cut his teeth as a teenage film critic, was to the Cahiers du Cinema as Cameron Crowe was to Rolling Stone.  Crowe would ape the warm and fuzzy romanticism of Truffaut; Moullet the self aware iconoclasm of Godard.

Equilibrium (2002 – Kurt Wimmer) con (DVD)

Watchable dystopian sci-fi nonsense with a half decent cast – Christian Bale (!), Emily Watson (!), Sean Bean (!) [Although the height challenged Taye Diggs as a villain is fairly lame].  The head spins at all the sources the film shamelessly rips off (1984, The Matrix, Fahrenheit 451, Gattaca, Brave New World).  The film has some martial arts for the NRA set, dubbed “Gun Kata” – which is a little bit cool; but mostly stupid.  In a fascist world in which emotion has been outlawed and suppressed by injections apparently it’s a lot easier to torch the Mona Lisa or kill 118 people (“sense offenders”) than to put a puppy down.

Something Wild (1961 – Jack Garfein) pro(-) (cable)

If the Czech born, Auschwitz surviving, Carroll Baker marrying, Actor’s Studio pimping, director Jack Garfein had made only a few more features he would likely have garnered himself a major cult reputation amongst cinephiles.  Like Garfein’s decidedly odd 1957 film The Strange One set in a Southern military college, Something Wild is an extremely downbeat and offbeat Anti-Hollywood fringe product.  Carroll Baker plays Mary Ann Robinson a rape victim with suicidal tendencies who, as if in a trance, abandons her Bronx home and college for downtrodden anonymity in the kind of grimy mean streets of Manhattan one would see in contemporary films like The Pawnbroker, The Young Savages and Blast of SilenceRalph Meeker plays a Lower East Side basement dwelling mechanic who is part good Samaritan, part demented suitor.  The film deals with alienation and imprisonment on both a psychological level (think Repulsion) and a physical level (think The Collector).  Courtship and the healing of emotional scars by way of Stockholm Syndrome.  Garfein is much better with mood, tone and directing actors than he is with pace and structure.  The film is authentic and low-key, but the characters’ motivations and decisions are logic defying and the story is both depressing and slow to a fault.  Despite the film’s clear budget limitations there’s some extremely evocative location shooting and some serious behind the scenes technical talent that features an Aaron Copland score (to be the foundation for his Music for a Great City, a tad incongruous here), a Saul Bass designed title sequence, and Eugene Schüfftan’s Euro flavored black and white cinematography (shot in and around the time he lensed such legendary brooders The Hustler and Eyes Without a Face).  Perhaps not a great one, but this obscurity is certainly bound to linger with viewers and worth seeking out simply as an of-its-time example of an alternative to the American mainstream commercial cinema.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938 – Ernst Lubitsch) pro(-) (cable)

Probably peaks too early – the first scene with Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert meeting cute over a department store pajama purchase on the French Riviera is this likeable innuendo filled film’s highlight.  A true screwball comedy, legendary scribes Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket (who would work again with Lubitsch for the better Ninotchka) go so far as initiating the “remarriage” concept right at the time of the Cooper-Colbert marriage.  It’s like The Palm Beach Story as a one act play.  Certainly one of the slightest films either of Lubitsch and Wilder were ever involved in – almost a throw away.  Worth seeing nevertheless. 

  

Southland Tales (2006 – Richard Kelly) con (DVD)

A work of extreme hubris, beyond any conceivable sophomore slump.  Pop culture B List overload, a sort of John Waters meets David Lynch styled satire wrapped up in a pseudo graphic novel package.  Without question a bad film; but not exactly an unmitigated disaster.  The film is mitigated by some funny ideas/characters and nicely shot sequences.  First half is much stronger than the second where the film’s shortcomings are less fascinating and tedium sets in.

La Pointe Courte (1954 – Agnes Varda) mixed (DVD)

Of great interest with a number of exceptional moments though not a particularly good film overall.  While never quite radical, there are occasional grasps at narrative, visual and aural experimentation that are pretty far removed from commercial filmmaking circa 1954, inspired largely it seems (though Varda apparently denied any influences) by 30s era poetic realism (Vigo’s L’Atalante for instance) and 40s post-war Italian neo-realism (fishing village set films Visconti’s La terra trema and Rossellini’s Stromboli certainly come to mind).  The film also recalls Bergman’s realist/aesthetic excursions to the world of the sea side proletariat in Port of Call and Monika though La Pointe Courte lacks the proper integration of any dramatic arc you would find in the Bergman films.  Paradoxically it’s at once an impressive mature work and work that could only be made by a neophyte director.  In other words, there’s formal brilliance coming from the sensibility of a recent art school grad.  If there’s an early Nouvelle Vague film it prefigures it’s not Varda’s own early features (like Cléo from 5 to 7) but Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon amor with it’s melding of environment, memory and the pensive contemplation of lovers that seem both separate and one.  Fitting given that Resnais was the film’s editor and Varda’s mentor during its making.

Mafioso (1962 – Alberto Lattuada) pro(+) (DVD)

Once forgotten Italian comedy that’s now justly celebrated as the result of being revived and restored for a 2007 theatrical release and a 2008 DVD from the Criterion folks (sort of like this year’s version of Army of Shadows, though less of a revelation).  A great little schizoid kind of film that spends most of its running time suggesting a sort of kinder gentler version of Pietro Germi’s darkly comic satires on Sicilian mores (recalling Divorce – Italian Style and prefiguring Seduced and Abandoned which share this film’s screenwriters) until the final third where it inexplicably borders on becoming a deadly serious crime thriller – almost suggesting the tone of another Mafia focused film from 1962, Francesco Rosi’s often challenging and complex masterpiece Salvatore Guiliano.  While both sections are effective in their own right the rather jarring tonal shift undermines any overall vision or general cohesiveness.  Alberto Sordi gives a virtuoso tragic-comic performance as Antonio Badalamenti a Sicilian born efficiency expert for Fiat who now lives in modern Milan with his chic blonde wife (Brazilian actress Norma Bengall) and adorable blonde daughters (who look more like residents of Stockholm than Palermo).  Antonio is a man who while on vacation in his sea side home town of Catanao learns that you can in fact go home again; it just might not be advisable.

Dangerous Crossing (1953 – Joseph M. Newman) pro(-) (DVD)

A fast and cheap (shot in 18 days and recycling the sets from Titanic and Gentleman Prefer Blondes) Fox noir starring the undervalued Jeanne Crain as a freshly minted bride getting the “Gaslight” treatment while on a honeymoon cruise.  In a gender twist on the old The Lady Vanishes plot, Crain’s new husband goes missing and she has trouble convincing the ship’s creepy crew (including Klaatu himself – Michael Rennie) of his existence.  Nothing earth shattering, just a very solid genre programmer with great attention to psychology and mood.  In the tradition of such solid woman in distress noirs Sorry, Wrong Number, My Name is Julia Ross, Suspicion and The House on Telegraph Hill.

  

 

Colorado Territory (1949 – Raoul Walsh) pro(+) (cable)

If memory serves this solid Oater is at least on par with Walsh’s prior and more famous filming of like material – the John Huston adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s High Sierra (the prolific Bogart’s gateway to the A List).  Though Joel McCrea’s redemption seeking anti-hero Wes McQueen is decidedly less edgy than Bogie’s buzz cutted gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle.  On the other hand Virginia Mayo as the “bad girl” Colorado Carson gives Ida Lupino’s High Sierra gun moll a run for her money.  Mayo plays Colorado like highly sexualized former feral child with a comely off the shoulder blouse that recalls other Hollywood soft hearted bad girls like Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua (My Darling Clementine) or Jennifer Jones’ Pearl Chavez (Duel In The Sun).  Many have lauded the exciting almost spiritual canyon set ending of Colorado Territory as an improvement on the High Sierra finale.  I’d whole heartedly agree.  Good stuff, I’m definitely a fan of Walsh’s take on Westerns (see also Pursued with its hints of psychological noir).

Walker (1987 – Alex Cox) mixed(+) (DVD)

A gonzo biopic with a blank faced grey eyed Ed Harris playing William Walker a 1850s era filibuster, soldier of fortune and short term Nicaraguan president. A real interesting misfire and a textbook example how irreverence, black comedy and eclecticism can dull satirical bite.  Cox seems to want the film to be some sort of Little Big Man for the Reagan era with its attempts to turn shameful historical events into a picaresque adventure that acts as an allegory for contemporary political activity.  This movie with deliberate anachronisms (perhaps inspired by Ferreri’s Don’t Touch the White Woman (1974)), a deadpan ironic voice over, and stylized bloody violence (including an overt nod to Sam Peckinpah) could have resulted in a hardcore indictment of American manifest destiny and corporate neo-imperialism; but it ends up being little more than an amusing riff from a filmmaker insulated, and unfortunately rendered barely relevant, by his status as a cult filmmaker.  A film like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! that takes on similar themes in a straight forward less rhetorical manner has much greater resonance and punch (to confuse matters in that film Marlon Brando plays a (Sir) William Walker not the William Walker of history and Cox’s film).  In any event, a film this ambitious and fascinating certainly doesn’t deserve its BOMB designation in the Maltin Video Guide and Roger Ebert’s claim that the film suffers “a poverty of imagination” couldn’t be further from the truth – it’s the coherence of the imagination that’s in issue.

Margot at the Wedding (2007 – Noah Baumbach) pro(+) (DVD)

For all the rightful comparisons to Rohmer, Eustache & Bergman those guys were never this funny.  Despite the film’s often rather vicious tact it’s generally hilarious.  There’s more vitriol here than in the equally personal The Squid and the Whale, a film where a certain dash of sweetness curbed the bitter quality.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel Baumbach has any obligation to balance his tone in order to make it go down any easier for the audience though he likely paid the price when counting the box office receipts. I know many find these type of self satisfied yet neurotic and narcissistic bourgeoisie characters grating, but, with the right touch, I find them endlessly amusing. In this sense, as a director of talky comedies, Baumbach is more Woody Allen like than his art house Euro influences. Maybe not so much stylistically (unless one counts the shaky cam of Husbands and Wives) as thematically what with the focus on the dysfunctional navel gazing north eastern rich white types. Especially love how Baumbach never boils his narrative down, or builds it up, to any one specific moment for the melodrama to crystallize (thought the falling tree scene briefly risked a conventional narrative path). Some scenes seem almost abandoned, as if half finished, a sort of anti-plot drive by style of film-making that, surprisingly, achieves a certain momentum and never seems sloppy or half baked.  An approach that leaves plenty of gaps that the audience can fill in for itself. A good example is how casually Baumbach shows Pauline (the director’s wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) discovering that she has likely miscarried (though by treating this moment as peripheral it may come across to some as either cruel or exceedingly darkly comic). Hope the film’s financial failure doesn’t deter Baumbach and his backers.

In The Valley of Elah (2007 – Paul Haggis) mixed (DVD)

Perhaps in my advancing age the arteries of my bleeding heart are hardening, because I found the anti-war/anti-military message (something that typically appeals to me) that bubbles up from this glorified crime procedural to be just a tad offensive (support the troops yadda, yadda, yadda).  I know it’s a crummy ill conceived war and post traumatic stress disorder is a real and horrible condition but one gets the impression based on the content of the film that military service will simply ruin a nation of young adults by disengaging them from their moral bearings, prompting them to abuse recreational drugs, turning them into killers of civilian children in a foreign land or, worse yet, senseless murderers of each other on domestic soil.  It’s almost as if the only enemy is the “system” itself, an awfully simplistic posture that provides little discourse on why their service remains needed and important.  Nevertheless it’s a fairly compelling story based on real events with an Oscar nominated Tommy Lee Jones outstanding as a proud straight forward man dealing with some complex emotions.  Charlize Theron, in North Country drab mode, offers competent support, but Susan Sarandon as the grieving mother is given little of substance to do.  Save for the laughable ham fisted flag scenes that virtually bookend the film, it’s nice to see that Haggis has chilled out (though not eradicated) some of his self-important/master of the obvious/speechifying tendencies on full display in the inexplicable message movie hit Crash.  Perhaps there’s hope for Haggis as a director yet.

La Vie en Rose (2007 – Olivier Dahan) mixed (DVD)

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as iconic singer Edith “The Little Sparrow” Piaf is really outstanding, successfully imbuing her spot on mimicry with real emotionally depth. This handsomely made film is however mired in the usual rise and fall and rise bio-pic banalities; particularly the now de rigueur non-linear structure which often tends towards the confusing (another bastard child of Bob Fosse’s Lenny, or even Citizen Kane).  I guess the French now also have their own Ray or Walk the Line or Beyond the Sea or etc. etc.  The cinema equivalent of Euro Disney?

Drunken Angel (1948 – Akira Kurosawa) pro (DVD)

Like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night from the same year, Drunken Angel is really a post war social problem film and not much of a Japanese film noir as some assert (Stray Dog from the following year is much closer to the noir characterization).  Notable for the debut of the incredibly fruitful Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration (co-star Takeshi Shimura was already a Kurosawa film veteran even by this early stage) and for a number of rather visceral and expressive segments.  However, the film isn’t entirely successful as a cohesive whole; much like other Kurosawa films of the period such as Scandal, The Quiet Duel and the studio truncated The Idiot, a certain flow is missing.  Indicative of which is the dream sequence with the coffin on the beach (recalling Dreyer’s Vampyr and pre-figuring Bergman’s Wild Strawberries?) which despite being rather thrilling seems sorely out of place.  As would continue throughout his career, Kurosawa and his screen writers hit the metaphors pretty hard, in this case the central symbol spoon fed to the audience is a swamp of disease infested stagnant water the separates the medical clinic from a bustling black market amidst the Tokyo slums.  Oddly the overtness of the symbolism remains surprisingly effective and rather lyrically integrated into the story’s setting.  Drunken Angel is also a good example of Kurosawa’s career long  penchant for giving his character’s some form of life threatening medical ailment that can be tracked against their, or other key character’s, moral development or act as a catalyst for redemption.  Here Shimura’s doctor character is plagued by alcoholism and Toshiro Mifune’s gangster character named Matsunaga is burdened by tuberculosis, much like the corrupt lawyer’s TB infected daughter in Scandal.   In The Quiet Duel Mifune’s character contracts syphilis, I Live in Fear finds him burdened by a paralyzing fear of radiation poisoning/nuclear annihilation, and in Red Beard Mifune’s stern doctor is literally surrounded by disease.  Not to forget Kurosawa’s most famous and penetrating character study Ikiru, in which Takeshi Shimura is saddled with incurable stomach cancer.  Aside from both reflecting a certain social reality in post-war Japan and being an old and rather convenient plot device, a sort of easy gateway to melodrama, this reliance on illness and disease seems to be line with Kurosawa’s need to portray psychological and emotional drama physically.  The constant scuffles bordering on brawls between Matsunaga and Shimura’s flawed but benevolent doctor, while thematically tied to Matsunaga’s inability to confront his mortality, is also evidence of Kurosawa’s in his earliest films using “action” as a narrative crutch where a more seasoned director may have relied on dialogue and gesture and a more placid mise-en-scène.  Not at all surprising for one of the cinema’s all time great visual directors.  A solid enough film, but Stray Dog and the atypical No Regrets for Our Youth remain my pre-Rashomon Kurosawa favorites.

Black Book / Zwartboek (2006 – Paul Verhoeven) mixed(+) (DVD)

Handsomely made, highly entertaining, but often silly B grade pulp that as a result of its subject matter (Nazis, Resistance fighters, Jews in hiding) seems to suggest “prestige picture” meant to make the middlebrows contemplate the human condition (it is apparently the most expensive Dutch film made).  Far more sexy thriller ala Basic Instinct than emotionally complex whoring for the cause espionage piece ala Notorious.  Only a auteur as base as Paul Verhoeven would consider redeeming a Dutch Gestapo head (Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others fame) through his horniness or one up Brian De Palma’s/Stephen King’s drenching of Carrie White in pig’s blood with the topless Carice van Houten (who’s quite good in this) being showered in human feces! All in all it’s as zany and fun as Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s outrageously provocative assertion that Black Bookin its dark moral complexities … puts Schindler’s List to shame”.  I’m not entirely sure how dime store novel double crosses telegraphed from a kilometer away constitute moral ambiguity, especially when back dropped against machine gun battles that would embarrass Sam Fuller on the slimmest of budgets.  I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on this engagingly slick effort as I am a fan of Lewis Milestone’s war time released Norwegian resistance actioner Edge of Darkness which isn’t without its own sublime silliness (it’s propagand-tastic!).

Irezumi (1966 – Yasuzo Masumura) pro(+) (DVD-R) 

No matter how pulpy the studio assignment, no matter how salty the tale being told, Masumura’s passion and formal technique seems to transform B Movie trash into auteurist class.  Exploitation somehow cedes to more respectable melodrama; yet an edge and twisted personal vision remain front and center.  Irezumi is not a quaint period romance so much as a visceral tour of obsession, perversion, betrayal and bloody revenge; all in brilliant color where the redness of spilled blood is downright otherworldly.  The plot concerns a beautiful and spirited pawnbroker’s daughter named Otsuya who is secretly engaged to her father’s passive assistant.  The couple runs away with hopes to eventually have their pending marriage blessed by their parents.  Such intentions are soon derailed when Otsuya is abducted, sedated, forcibly tattooed and enslaved by a Geisha house.  Otsuya’s large freshly minted back tattoo of a blood sucking tarantula soon becomes a self fulfilling prophesy when her conduct turns homicidal.  The question of whether the spider tattoo has mystically invaded her psyche or is merely emblematic of her true ravenous nature is neatly accented by the film’s structure.  The story opens with the Otsuya being assaulted and subdued followed by the meticulous application of the tattoo, but the initial portion of the film that immediately follows this lurid scene flashes back to Otsuya’s pre-tattooed state where her dialogue and demeanor reveals an already rather selfish, strong willed and manipulative person bullying her timid fiancé, suggesting that the presence of the tattoo is perhaps a mere excuse to reveal her true conniving self.  Yet, by placing the tattooing scene up front the spider whore image is given a decidedly more ominous and mysterious position in the proceedings.  The luminous Ayako Wakao is the anti-heroine/femme fatale Otsuya in a performance that’s a complete 180 from the sympathetic character she would play in Masumura’s grim and offbeat war film from later in 1966 – Red AngelIrezumi (Japanese for tattoo) reunites a talented trio from the singularly awesome Manji, joining the prolific maverick director Masumura and his actress muse Wakao is screen writer / sometimes new wave director Kaneto Shindô who never shies away from the occasional erotic touchAn impressive triumvirate that would collaborate on at least five films.

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