List List Bang Bang

February 27, 2010

2009 Screening Log Notes

Filed under: 2009,Screening Log — misterjiggy @ 9:46 pm

 Porcile / Pigsty (1969- Pier Paolo Pasolini) mixed (DVD)

The one with the tag line: I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy. A two-pronged narrative with one story that suggests the stripped down primitivism of the director’s Oedipus Rex and another that recalls the enigmatic critique of haute bourgeoisie post fascist industrialists found in TeroemaPorcile (or Pigsty) is surely one of Pasolini’s most sly and challenging films.  The portion set in the past is straight faced, solemn and largely silent whereas the modern scenes more absurd, playful, chatty and overtly satiric (particularly those scenes with a dubbed Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky (it was Wiazemsky who became catatonic in Teorema, in this case its Léaud)).  The trajectory of Pasolini’s career is pretty indicative of the shift in the style, tone and content of the commercial art house cinema over the decade of the sixties.  The leap from the neo-realist elements in Mamma Roma & Accattone to the abstract provocations of Teorema and Porcile is not unlike Pasolini’s protégé Bertolucci’s move from La Commare secca to the Godardian Partner, Bergman’s leap from the straight forward allegory of The Virgin Spring to the post-modernism of En Passion & Shame, Antonioni’s leap from L’Avventurra to the likes of Red Desert & Zabriskie Point, Kurosawa from The Bad Sleep Well to Dodeskedan, Visconti from the melodrama of Rocco and His Brothers to hysteria of The Damned, Fellini from La Dolce Vita to the excesses of Satryicon, and so on.  Each ambitious auteur flying closer and closer to the proverbial sun, risking the alienation of whatever commercial audience he may have once benefited from, a trend that would continue well into the seventies with works increasingly dark and cryptic.  Director Marco Ferreri (who in 1969 would release his own somewhat shocking head scratcher Dillinger is Dead) appears as an actor in Porcile which is fitting because he would, along with Lina Wertmuller, carry the Italian art house provocateur mantle into the 70s.  Of course it’s harder and harder to provoke today, with even Lars Von Trier getting little water cooler conversation for his shock tactics (genital mutilation is so 1972 / Cries and Whispers). Being devoured by pigs may have been repulsive and shocking in 1969, but nowadays it happens in Guy Ritchie films (see Snatch).

 An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962 – Robert Enrico) pro(+) (DVD)

The French short about a US Civil War era execution is light on dialogue but strong on dreamy mood. With the “twist” ending you can see why Rod Serling picked it up for the final season of The Twilight Zone.  A very memorable and haunting film.

 

 Whatever Works (2009 – Woody Allen) pro(-) (Blu-Ray)

Woody’s constant recycling of past ideas, jokes, and themes (this one has bits of Manhattan, Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry and Hannah and Her Sisters to name just a few) is starting to have an effect on me not unlike Ozu’s films do.  His films are beginning to blend together and the effect is almost soothing, like a favorite pillow or comfort food meal.  Larry David is a good match for Woody’s sensibility and as an actor he largely avoids a note for note mimic of Woody’s screen persona, unlike many others before him (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity being the worst offender).

Don’t Make Waves (1967 – Alexander Mackendrick) mixed(-) (cable)

One of those manic Tony Curtis sex comedies ala Sex and the Single Girl or Boeing Boeing from the same period.  A rather loose, offbeat and downright strange film – with a body building angle it’s like a Stay Hungry for the 60s.  It takes a slow-mo Sharon Tate (and her nubile body double) on a trampoline to out sexy Claudia Cardinale.  Colorful and irreverent but full of unfunny bits, some bordering on painful. Surprisingly, it’s still pretty watchable.

The Woman With Red Hair / Akai Kami No Onna (1979 – Tatsumi Kumashiro) con(+) (DVD)

From the pinku cycle of films, this one has a very strong reputation placing at #39 in the Kinema Jumpo 1999 Poll of Top 100 Japanese Movies.  The director has a strong visual sense but the material is degrading and unerotic and was, to me, ineffective as social comment or protest.  For a passion beyond reason film, this one gives me a greater appreciation for Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.  The lead actress is, however, fearless. 

  

  Violent Saturday (1955 – Richard Fleischer) pro (cable)

If it were a 50s movie mash up one might call it Bad Day at Peyton Place Rock.  Ensemble small town melodrama meets hard boiled heist film.  The confrontation at the Amish farm is the film’s best set piece – a lesson in economy for scenes driven by both action and suspense.  As with his The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing from the same year director Fleischer (this time employing DP Charles Clarke and not Velvet Swing’s Milton Krasner) is well equipped to deal with the expansive Cinemascope frame.  The camera may not be particularly mobile but the staging, framing and cutting are first rate.  The resolution and mood of general happiness of the ending treads towards the bizarre in its “Americaness” – particularly given that five people meet their ends by gun shot, pitch fork or wooden barrel (which in addition to the four had it coming armed thugs include a newly repentant adulteress) and both a peeping tom bank manager and completely innocent young Amish boy are shot. 

 Shockproof (1949 – Douglas Sirk) pro (DVD)

A nonsense titled genre film sprung from the fertile minds and eyes of two auteurs on the cusp of realizing their best and most personal work – Douglas Sirk and Sam Fuller. A noir about the attempted reform of a socio-path, where some elements make it seem like a precursor to Marnie.  A surface tough but kind hearted parole officer (Cornel Wilde) who lives with his young brother and blind Italian Mama takes an interest in a seemingly unrepentant bottle blonde paroled murderess played by Patricia Knight (Wilde’s then real life wife).  Knight’s character is unpredictable, though more Jane Greer/Out of the Past cagey than Faith Domergue/Where Danger Lives crazy.  Ironic circumstances lead to both the reform of parolee’s attitudes and the corruption of parole officer’s principals, with the couple meeting in the nebulous middle and on the run from the law.  The happy ending finale (from screenwriter Helen Deutsch) is rather absurd, an unraveling of director Sirk and Fuller’s original more subversive intentions which would see the on the lam couple’s downward spiral reach its inevitable more downbeat and fatalistic conclusion.  Give this one a slight edge over Sirk’s other passable late 40s noirs Lured and Sleep, My Love.

 The International (2009 – Tom Tykwer) con(+) (cable)

Attempts to be both timely (international banking is the bad guy) and a sort of Parallax View for the Aughts, but despite the cynical tone comes across as bland and formulaic.  Naomi Watts saddled with clichéd dialogue is completely wasted.  Only the nicely executed Guggenheim shoot out provides any real action thrills.  Film offers further evidence that Clive Owen was never up to the task of being the new James Bond.  Sad to see director Tykwer relegated to this type of genre fair, his more auteurist misses (see Heaven) are far more interesting.

Moulin Rouge (1952 – John Huston) pro (cable)

Have seen plenty of Huston films (around 23); but always approach his films with a certain skepticism.  Perhaps it was the low expectations, but this one surprised me, not far off the quality of Renoir‘s French Can Can or Minnelli‘s Lust for Life, like themed films of the era more likely to be championed by auteurist focused film buffs.

 

Hearts Divided (1936 – Frank Borzage) mixed (cable)

Based on numerous inflated IMDB ratings Marion Davies, the star of this film, has a real cult following.  I like Davies well enough but this period film, relating to the Louisiana Purchase, is easily lower tier Borzage.

Choose Me (1984 – Alan Rudolph) mixed(+) (DVD)

Altman protégé Rudolph’s film is an offbeat R&B soaked (Teddy Pendergrass) loose ensemble piece that oozes sex. The look is replete with pastels and neon that recall One from the Heart and prefigure After Hours and later 80s Jonathan Demme.  Character motivations tend to defy logic or explanation and the acting is hit (Lesley Ann Warren) and miss (Rae Dawn Chong); but it’s a highly original film.

A Colt is My Passport / Ta Colt wa ore no passport (1967 – Takashi Nomura) pro (DVD)

Far more conventional than Jo Shishido’s more famous 1967 effort – Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill .With its Ennio Morricone influenced score and barren wasteland set corker of a finale one can’t ignore the film’s debt to Sergio Leone.  The highlight of the Nikkatsu Noir DVD box set.

Summer Storm (1944 – Douglas Sirk) mixed(-) (DVD)

To me this adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Shooting Party doesn’t even match the lesser of the mixed bag 1940s Sirk films like the odd A Scandal in Paris (which also star George Sanders) or the noirish trio Lured, Shockproof and Sleep, My LoveI like the beautiful Linda Darnell as an actress (she was only 20 here), but she’s not up to the task in this one – she would improve a great deal within two years in the likes of Fallen Angel and Hangover Square.  Also recently saw another adaptation of the material, Emil Lonteau’s 1978 Soviet film The Shooting Party (Moy laskovyy i nezhnyy zver).

Harry Brown (2009 – Daniel Barber) con (TIFF)

Vigilante vengeance film that’s much more problematic than say exploitation fare like Ms. 45 or even, Death Wish, because it passes itself off as a social problem film as opposed to guilty pleasure genre fun.  The titular pensioner with a pistol is played by a typically strong Michael Cain who has somehow convinced himself that he’s making an important film.  There’s little to no socio/economic context to this film, with thuggish villains that are cartoonishly evil without an iota of nuance.  A rather silly film full of cheap catharsis, particularly when weighed against the scope, complexity and impact of something like The Wire

Dodes’ka-den (1970 – Akira Kurosawa) pro (DVD)

Like fellow art house boom darlings before him (Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut) Kurosawa’s (rather belated) first stab at color gives the audience an extremely rich palette with very deliberate color choices.  Also Kurosawa’s first film in the academy ratio (the previous six films were in Tohoscope) since the film it most resembles thematically – 1957’s The Lower Depths.  An episodic ensemble film full of both dreams and despair.  While still in a humanist vein, Kurosawa allows a rather eccentric darkness to bubble up – reportedly reflecting the state of his personal life at the time.  Tôru Takemitsu provides a likeable, and surprisingly (for him) conventional, score.  A commercial failure and often cited as Kurosawa’s one big misfire, it appears there may be some momentum in rebuilding the film’s reputation.

 The Night Porter / Il Portiere di notte (1974 – Liliana Cavani) mixed (DVD)

Provocative and offensive; but too interesting in concept, if not entirely in execution, to be completely dismissed.  A good example of the obsession in Euro art house cinema of the 70s with the post-war focus on the rise and impact of fascism.

  

  

Red Psalm / Még kér a nép (1972 – Miklos Jansco) mixed(+) (DVD-R)

Jancso the maker of anti-character driven films provides a true one of a kind communist propaganda folk musical with lyrical long take after lyrical long take (less than 30 in all).  Some of the politics were lost on me but the running time (around 80 minutes) was merciful. 

  

  Sorcerer (1977 – William Friedkin) pro(+) (DVD)

A corker of a re-make of 50s French classic Wages of Fear – on par with other fave remakes such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidate which both tweak and honor their original classic sources.  An intense, suspenseful and pitiless film.

The Innocent (1976 – Luchino Visconti) pro(-) (DVD)

A languid and painterly film and Visconti’s last (directed from a wheelchair as the story goes). Not quite a swan song but solid enough.  In comparison to other of Visconti’s period set color films within an aristocratic milieu, The Innocent lacks the emotion of Senso, scope and breadth of The Leopard, kooky hysteria of The Damned and stylistic flourish (zooms galore) that is Death in VeniceLina Wertmuller fave Giancarlo Giannini stars with Jennifer O’Neill (presumably dubbed) and Laura Antonelli (more familiar for sex bomb roles) providing able support.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974 – Michael Cimino) mixed(+) (DVD)

Couldn’t quite detect the style of that auteur behind the lauded The Deer Hunter or the studio crushing Heaven’s Gate in this buddy road/heist film.  In the end it’s, save for an occasional eccentric moment (a trunk full of bunnies?), largely a typical Clint Eastwood tough guy vehicle of the period.  The almost touching ending is more melancholic Midnight Cowboy than pseudo-triumphant Thelma and LouiseJeff Bridges in drag unfortunately made me recall 80s embarrassment Tango and Cash and George Kennedy’s trademark bluster wears thin pretty quick.  In 70s terms – for eccentric crime pictures I prefer Prime Cut, for heist films gimme Charley Varrick or The Hot Rock, for character studies sign me up for The Friends of Eddie Coyle and for Jeff Bridges on the rural road one step ahead of the law let’s go with Bad Company.

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973 – Alan J. Pakula) mixed (DVD)

A romantic middle brow rebellion film more suitable for Pakula the producer (recall his sensitive Robert Mulligan helmed films) than the director of hard boiled conspiracy films like Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men and (the rightfully maligned) Rollover.  The Spain set tale consists of misfit love ala Harold and Maude with a touch of Love Story melodramtics.  Timothy Bottoms is in typical awkward baby face hang dog mode and a prissy and aloof Maggie Smith gives her usual tic filled but strong performance. 

  The Spikes Gang (1974 – Richard Fleisher) pro(-) (On-Line)

This half way decent Western poses a sort of coming of age cautionary tale whereby a naïve trio of young adventurers (a post Summer of ’42 Gary Grimes, and a post American Graffiti Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith) unwittingly become outlaws as a result of their admiration of a veteran bank robber (Lee Marvin).  Grimes, Howard and Smith lay the earnestness on a little thick but are counterbalanced nicely by Marvin’s world weary gruffness.  The pitiless final act (with a tonal shift that ultimately makes the film memorable as opposed to routine) could only come in a film released after the seminal efforts of the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn.  Fleisher provides an emotional directness showing little interest in adding the lyrical touches found in the like themed Bad Company.

Rancho Notorious (1952 – Fritz Lang) pro (cable)

Despite my reservations about the Western being the right genre fit for Fritz Lang (finding his Western Union not much better than middling), this is a pretty fun film.  The opening murder that sets the plot in motion prefigures the even more shocking one in Lang’s The Big Heat, unfortunately Arthur Kennedy’s revenge hungry hero can’t maintain Glenn Ford’s almost pathological steely determination for the duration.  Made on the cheap and bound to rather artificial looking studio sets the film lacks some of that verve one would find in Johnny Guitar where heightened artificiality and a past her prime starlet (oddly) become virtues. In this case the aging actress is Marlene Dietrich playing it up in Destry Rides Again mode.  Despite her refusal to bring nuance to her character by acknowledging her age, she can still deliver the stuff.

  Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979 – Werner Herzog) pro (DVD)

The deliberateness of the pace with the typically stylized line deliveries of a Herzog film slowly won me over after spending much of the first half lamenting the fact that Herzog was turning F.W. Murnau’s and Bram Stoker’s material into a mind numbing slog akin to Heart of Glass or Woyjeck.  Count Dracula himself, despite Klaus Kinski’s rather restrained brilliance, seems fairly benign when compared to the plague and pestilence he brought to the cobbled streets of Old Amsterdam.  The farm animals in the desolate town square seemed particularly Herzogian.  The creepy ending offers the downbeat shades of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a newly vampiric Bruno Ganz recalling Donald Sutherland’s pod person. Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold, later ably used for inspirational impact in Terrence Malick’s The New World, is effectively employed here to communicate dread.

Stay Hungry (1976 – Bob Rafelson) mixed(+) (DVD)

Loose, sprawling and offbeat to a fault; with the elements of conventional plot so shoehorned in that they feel redundant, out of place or down right cliché.  It’s the variety of eccentric characters that make this a unique, only in the 70s, movie work.  Set in Birmingham Alabama this episodic film contains bodybuilding contests, water skiing, gym rats, mobsters, hookers, all female karate classes, a hillbilly hoedown, a country club soirée, a drug fuelled sexual assault, a good ole’ boy bar brawl and a nude former flying nun (Sally Field).  One can feel the transition from the obfuscation and artiness of The King of Marvin Gardens to the slobs vs. snobs ethos of Caddyshack and the like.  A bizarre mix to say the least with Jeff Bridges (as the black sheep of Southern blue bloods) at the center in the same way he would be in another interesting free wheeling ensemble mess Winter Kills.

Harry and Tonto (1974 – Paul Mazursky) pro(+) (DVD)

A picaresque for the seniors set that’s only shortcoming is its use of the tried and true but tired road movie formula.  Carefully observed, sensitive, funny and, despite the old man and his beloved pet angle, never cloying.  Not quite shades of a New Hollywood Make Way for Tomorrow, but an extremely worthwhile film that has held up well.  An exceptional 56 year old Art Carney (playing much older) is pretty much in every scene and carries the film from start to finish.  To the chagrin of the film buff set Carney was awarded with the Oscar in a year of the nominated iconic performances by Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather: Part II) and Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) (not to mention Albert Finney taking on Belgian detective Hercule Poirot), but one shouldn’t fret, Carney was in their league.  Sandwiched between Blume in Love and Next Stop, Greenwich Village – Mazursky had himself a nice little run.

The Carey Treatment (1972 – Blake Edwards) mixed(+) (cable)

This New England hospital set murder mystery from a Michael Crichton novel has the versatile director Blake Edwards in Experiment in Terror mode.  It’s like the conspiracy and suspense of Crichton’s Coma meets the vigilante grit of Dirty Harry with the black comedy of The Hospital mixed in. James Coburn deep in “me generation” fashion plays the hip and cocky pathologist / freelance investigator who doesn’t play by the establishment’s rules.  His character beds down a hospital colleague played by the lovely Jennifer O’Neill who gives a muddled unconvincing performance in a thankless role.  There are an equal number of great scenes (typically involving Coburn taking the smug wealthy down a notch) and ridiculous ones (largely involving less than ethical interrogation techniques), all of which results in a very entertaining, occasionally lurid, but highly uneven film.

  The Housemaid / Hanyo (1960 – Ki-young Kim) pro(+) (On-Line)

Lauded Korean cautionary melodrama that came to my attention by its appearance in the excellent reference books “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and “Defining Moments in Movies”.  The film is more pulp than art house, and more Sam Fuller than Douglas Sirk (though some of the fluid camera moves are seemingly out of Max Ophuls). The story is full of Manji like kooky and lurid plot turns. Well worth seeing.

Dry Summer / Susuz yaz (1964 – Metin Erksan) pro (On-Line)

This parable-ish film is like a Turkish Jean de Florette.  Well executed within a realist mode with a hint of erotica, but the good and evil characters are too clearly demarcated that there’s little nuance chew on.  Nevertheless, strong central performances carry the day.

The Safety of Objects (2001 – Rose Troche) con (DVD)

A text book ensemble suburban ennui indie film whereby various dysfunctional families navigate their way through a non-linear narrative that focuses on a slowly revealed tragedy from the past that links them all.  It’s American Beauty meets Crash and the result is painful.  Not exactly a Peyton Place for the Aughts.  Watched solely because portions were filmed down the street from where I grew up.

The Adversary / Pratidwandi (1971 – Satyajit Ray) pro(+) (DVD-R)

The second part of what some call Ray’s “Calcutta Trilogy”, this conscience in crisis coming of age story is populated with many of the thematic and stylistic tropes of humanist personal filmmaking; but Ray keeps it incredibly fresh and interesting by seamlessly melding realism, memory and dreams.  The protagonist Siddhartha is a university age med student on leave from his studies due to his father’s death and the resulting need to assist in family bread winning.  Forced to seek a job in a Calcutta awash in social unrest, poverty and corruption our hero waffles between institutional conformity and political resistance/student radicalism.  While expressly admiring commitment and action (specifically the wartime resistance of the Vietnamese peasants) he himself ails from inertia, a sort of spiritual entropy.  Befuddled more than disgusted, he is surrounded by friends, relatives, acquaintances and citizens that remorselessly engage in acts of compromise to their honor – a sister embraces the superficial, non-traditional and, perhaps, adultery as a means to career advancement, a nurse is a part time prostitute, a student plays budding terrorist building bombs and a classmate steals from charity.  Couldn’t help but compare the film to American films of the era dealing with post graduate stasis (like The Graduate or Goodbye Columbus).  Yet those films take place in an environment of comparative affluence; the cross-roads decisions faced by the American characters relate to modes of self-fulfillment, not choices that impact their very survival.  By contrast, The Adversary is a political film with events predetermined by an ever present socio-economic reality and not fly by night modish pseudo-radical sloganeering.  As with Ray’s masterful Charulata, The Adversary ends with a freeze frame that suggests a story unfinished, a journey that extends far beyond the final reel.  The hero, after a self-destructive act of protest during a job interview, frozen in self-imposed exile both unfulfilled and alienated; but, Ray, ever the humanist and optimist never counts out the possibility that love will conquer all. 

The Verdict (1946 – Don Siegel) pro (cable)

A gothic tinged detective film from the sub-sub genre of “locked door mysteries” whereby a murder victim is found behind an undisturbed door locked from the inside.  Was fairly surprised by the film’s ending which has a nifty revenge component to it (though I went along for the ride without trying very hard to unravel the mystery).  Ace Warner Brother’s supporting actors Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre get the spotlight in one of the nine films in which they co-starred.

A Very Private Affair / Vie privée (1962 – Louis Malle)  con (cable)

What’s one to make of this lush and scenic star powered (Brigitte Bardot and Marcello Mastroianni) meandering film?  After my half-hearted effort to peel back some deeper meaning, I see little choice but to take the film at face value, a glamorous but superficial candy colored film that can be a bit of a chore to get through.  Bardot, channeling life experience it seems, play’s a pouty former dancer turned famous actress made melancolic by her celebrity and a constantly stalking pack of paparazzi; a prisoner of her fame.  Her performance suggests an emotional blankness and Mastroianni’s role as her older lover is just plan thankless.  The film’s merits are purely visual.  The profuse color palette brought to mind both Bardot’s star making vehicle …And God Created Woman and another Euro set 1962 film, Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.  In my capsule for that one I noted that “the colors are so vibrant they almost bleed into garishness”, the same would apply to DP Henri Decaë’s often stunning work here (reminiscent of the luxuriant look he gave both Chabrol’s À Double Tour and Clément’s Purple Noon).  From a narrative perspective Minnelli’s film may be overstuffed melodrama but at least it has plot and general storytelling drive.  Malle’s film borders on narrative indifference. Though, like Two Weeks in Another Town, the film ends with a delightfully ludicrous psychedelic death spiral – offering a kind of payoff.  Malle did much better with lyricism and feminine melancholy with The Lovers and would give despondency a proper treatment with his next film The Fire Within

La Femme Publique (1984 – Andrzej Zulawski) mixed (DVD)

From the moment you experience the low angle camera eye view tracking along side the super hot Valerie Kaprisky briskly walking down a Paris street you know you’re in for some cinematic eye candy.  Too bad this mad overheated rambling pseudo-political film lacks general narrative coherence and doesn’t have enough of that fever dream vibe of Zulawski’s earlier films to fall back on (like that in his memorable debut  The Third Part of the Night).  Credit goes to Alain Resnais & Peter Greenaway’s cinematographer Sacha Vierny in helping Zulawski to populate his raw and emotional film with numerous sumptuous images and to navigate an incredibly energetic mobile camera.  The resulting film suggests some sort of insane collaboration between Max Ophüls and R.W. Fassbinder.  The film appears to have some minor (probably deserved) cult appeal.

The Fortune (1975 – Mike Nichols) mixed (cable)

Watchable and amusing black comedy infused neo-screwball, but following on the heels of Nichols’ rather absurd contribution to the era’s conspiracy films – the talking assassinating fish flick The Day of the Dolphin – one can see how this box office miss would cause Nichols to take an extended breather from feature film making (his next narrative feature wouldn’t come for another 8 years). A retreat from the industry spotlight that fittingly seemed to coincide with a general decline in the quality of films being produced by most of the so-called New Hollywood darlings.  The Fortune is a film that also seemed to mark the end of Nichols’ ambition as a visual stylist.  His first 5 films are very overtly stylized, full of energy and invention and given that each film had a different cinematographer surely Nichols deserves a great deal of credit for his eye and the look of his films.  Yet, if The Fortune is personal filmmaking it seems to me that the personality is tied not to the director but to star Jack Nicholson (who previously appeared in Nichols’ caustic Carnal Knowledge).  After all, there’s a strong link to prior Nicholson films – the DP and Art Director were from Chinatown (John Alonzo and W. Stewart Campbell) the screen writer from Five Easy Pieces and The Shooting (Carole Eastman under her pseudonym Adrien Joyce) and the composer from the Nicholson helmed Drive, He Said (David Shire).  It’s ultimately an actor’s vanity project with a curly haired (!) Nicholson and a mustachioed Warren Beatty (always good for a bomb per decade) playing doofus con men trying to liberate a sanitary napkin company heiress (Stockard Channing) from her sizeable inheritance.  In the year of Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it’s pretty easy for this item to get buried in the stars respective resumes.  Apparently the Coen Brothers are fans of the film, which isn’t surprising as the tone of the material is right up their alley (ala broad period farces O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers).  I found The Fortune better than its reputation – though hardly worth championing as an unfairly maligned forgotten gem.

Invitation (1952 – Gottfried Reinhardt) pro(-) (cable)

This economical set bound melodrama is buoyed by Dorothy Maguire’s sincere and emotional performance and some nifty twists on a tired old plot.  The story involves a conspiracy of good intentions; whereby an invalid woman is unaware that her case is terminal and that her wealthy paternalistic father has arranged everything for her comfort and happiness in her final year of life; from nursemaid, furs, sprawling Connecticut home and, here’s the rub, a marriage to a childhood friend (Van Johnson plays the husband for hire).  The film really comes alive when Maguire’s character Ellen begins to detect her father’s benevolent fraud and for a reel the film almost plays like a woman in distress thriller.  As is typical for chick flicks of this type the men, Johnson and Louis Calhern as Ellen’s Dad, are serviceable but bland.  It’s the heroine and her inevitable rival that are allowed to shine.  In this case the rival is Ruth Roman as Maud, Ellen’s husband’s “temporary” ex-girlfriend.  Roman provides a real emotional edge; she’s like the grim reaper laying in wait for the year to be up and for Ellen to kick the bucket so that she can re-stake her claim on her man.  It’s a passive sort of evil that transcends stock villainy.  Inevitably the husband’s faux paid for love has grown to real love over the year and the charade has slowly dissolved.  German born director Reinhardt keeps it moving along but the style is generally indifferent.  Reinhardt would add a little more visual pizzazz to later efforts like The Story of Three Loves and Town Without Pity.

Wendy and Lucy (2008 – Kelly Reichardt) pro(+) (Theater)

As many have noted (generally without condescension) this film is an Umberto D. for the Sundance set; an independent film where easy sentiment and melodrama are minimized to the point that a kind of social realism emerges. A more accessible film than Reichardt’s lingering and mysterious Old Joy, but it has a similar deliberate pace, understatement, poignancy and grace (Reichardt’s neo-neo-realist character studies lack the shaky cam mania you tend to see in a Dardenne brothers films, they are more placid and interior).  Despite being highly sympathetic to the working poor and the destitute, I found the film to be surprisingly apolitical (though it’s easy enough for the audience to import their own politics/social commentary). Michelle Williams’ often stoic Wendy paradoxically suggest both defeat and perseverance.  Her intended journey to Alaska brings to mind Chris McCandless’ journey to the American frontier in Into the Wild – yet Wendy’s motivation to survive (and go where she is “needed”) makes McCandless’ self actualization motives seem rather trite in comparison.

Secrets (1933 – Frank Borzage) mixed (TV – TCM)

A decades spanning romance that is regimentally segmented (to a fault!) into three very distinct acts; with only the beautifully constructed and exciting middle act, set against Old West frontier hardship, holding my full attention.  Best characterized as a Mary Pickford vanity project (her final starring vehicle financed by her; neither a failure nor a swan song) than a typical Borzage auteurist product of the period.  Borzage also directed the 1924 version of this material, though I understand that film has not survived in its entirety.

Taken (2008 – Pierre Morel) mixed(+) (DVD-R)

An incredibly propulsive and economical action revenge film – a pure genre programmer type the appeals to the most basic of instincts. This pulp piece is xenophobic, preposterous and a little sadistic; but absolutely riveting.  Liam Neeson is a little long in the tooth but otherwise perfect as the former expert spy/overprotective Dad (Jason Bourne meets Tony Danza).  I felt both the adrenaline and some fleeting catharsis; but also pretty empty mere seconds after the credits role.

French Connection II (1975 – John Frankenheimer) pro (DVD)

Addiction is both literal and figurative in this largely forgotten and perhaps underrated sequel.  Gene Hackman takes Popeye Doyle and his pork pie hat to the south of France to track down the dapper and elusive drug lord Charnier (Fernando Rey).  A mission that’s as much of an addiction to the scrappy Doyle as anything shot into a junkie’s eager veins.  The fish out of water / culture shock elements are hit pretty hard (think In the Heat of the Night, Coogan’s Bluff, even Crocodile Dundee) with Doyle playing the consummate boorish New Yawk xenophobe.  Just as gritty as the original Friedkin film but likely less relevant by the time 1975 rolled around.  Depending on your temperament Hackman’s heroin withdrawal scenes are either the highlight or where the film gets bogged down.  The final chase scene which concludes the film (an anti-car chase really – odd for car nut Frankenheimer) with Charnier in Doyle’s sights is closure personified; a catharsis with an exclamation point.

 

The Locket (1946 – John Brahm) pro (cable)

While not as visually impressive as The Lodger or Hangover Square that Brahm made at Fox, this RKO noir / melodrama with a multi-layered flashback structure is plenty effective and entertaining.  Though only the lovely Laraine Day (Foreign Correspondent) as the unknowing psychologically damaged devourer of husbands (a sort of benevolent black widow) demonstrates much acting chops – Brian Aherne is fairly bland, Robert Mitchum cool but somnambulant and Gene Raymond a piece of furniture.  To the extent Day can even be characterized as a femme fatale she’s certainly a sympathetic one – particularly when viewed against other unhinged types in other noirs like Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives and Jean Simmons in Angel Face.  The dime store Freud at the heart of the plot in The Locket is less clunky than that in Spellbound or The Dark Mirror from the same year and in some ways prefigures Hitchcock’s late period classic Marnie

Nickelodeon (1976 – Peter Bogdanovich) pro (DVD) (B&W Director’s Cut)

It’s not so much that the black and white of the 2008 Director’s version (in an attempt to meet Bogdanovich’s original wishes) adds to the period authenticity (as it arguably would in The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon) as it is that it somewhat dilutes the broadness of the slapstick heavy comedy.  A mere sampling of the theatrically released color version reveals that this often manic ensemble piece could be a rather grating affair.  Despite an over all lack of emotional resonance Nickelodeon was clearly made with great care and affection and the formal film making craft (Laszlo Kovacs was DP) is really first rate.  Makes one think that Mike Nichol’s similarly farcical period film The Fortune might have similarly faired better with a black and white treatment. 

What Makes Sammy Run? (1959 – Delbert Mann) pro (DVD-R)

Haven’t read the famed 1941 novel, but what stuck me upon seeing this 1959 television version (originally screened in two parts on NBC’s Sunday Showcase) was how much Budd Schulberg borrowed from himself for A Face in the Crowd (1957). Notwithstanding the fact that A Face in The Crowd was based on Schulberg’s own short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” (as inspired by a conversation he had with Will Rogers Jr. about his famous father being a real life political reactionary despite his grass roots everyman image – leading to a sort of expose on faux folksy), there’s a direct line between the character types in both works.  Back stabbing lower east side bred slickster Sammy Glick (Larry Blyden) is transformed into “singing” demagogic corporate shill Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), whip smart sophisticated career woman and novelist Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush) becomes Sarah Lawrence educated radio host Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and principled critic Al Manheim (John Forsythe) becomes journo nice guy everyman Mel Miller (Walter Mathau).  One could even argue that high society sex pot diversion Laurette Harrington (Dina Merrill) becomes baton twirling nymphet diversion Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick).  In each case, to the chagrin of the honorable observer character (Manheim/Miller), the supposedly sensible woman (Sargent/Jeffries) falls for the energetic morally dubious character (Glick/Rhodes) who is in turn seduced by cheap thrills (Harrington/Fleckum) (though ultimately this is all a mere emotional backdrop to Schulberg’s critique of Hollywood, corporate America, media and politics).  None of this echoing diminishes the achievement of A Face in the Crowd, but clearly Schulberg was working from a template.  This TV adaptation is pretty darn solid and more evidence that Delbert Mann, despite an indifference to visual style, was one of the finest directors of actors of his era.  In Sweet Smell of Success terms (a film which What Makes Sammy Run? must have provided some inspiration) Sammy Glick as interpreted by an excellent Blyden represents that combustible combination of Sidney Falco’s Machiavellian drive with the J.J. Hunsecker’s steely eyed pitiless power.

Gumshoe (1971 – Stephen Frears) pro(-) (DVD)

Fits in nicely with other self-reflexive detective films of the era like Pulp, The Long Goodbye, The Late Show and, I imagine, The Singing Detective.  The more recent film Brick also comes to mind.  Not without an edge, but much more jokey than later Frears efforts in the same milieu like The Hit or The Grifters.

The Miracle Worker (1962 – Arthur Penn) pro (cable)

Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of the black and white, the period setting, the fact that the film is a biography of a seriously impaired individual and the participation of Anne Bancroft; but I kept thinking that there were often strong stylistic similarities between The Miracle Worker and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, particularly in the arty surreal tinged dream/memory sequences.  I guess I expected the film, with its theater roots and reputation as an “actor’s film”, to be less visually ambitious and informed by the gothic.  It’s eventually uplifting at the climax, but throughout the story there are no holds barred (literally) and no easy descent into sentimentality.  Absent is the pastoral lyricism that would add a certain gloss to the similar themed The Wild Child which would follow years later.  At times the film treads the line between commercial prestige offering and “disreputable” genre effort (think of the gothic drenched hysteria in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? from the same year which treads a similar line).  Despite director Penn’s stylistic ambition, he does have the good sense to keep the cutting to a minimum for the big dinner scene which certainly contains one of the great tours de force of physical acting by women ever captured on screen (Penn directed the play as well).  The awards and accolades for Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller are well deserved; but the film did not need to pile the overheated supporting performances of Victor Jory and Inga Swenson on top.  With To Kill a Mockingbird, Sundays and Cybèle, Ivan’s Childhood and Lolita also from ’62, it certainly was a good year for young actors.

Night Must Fall (1937 – Richard Thorpe) pro (cable)

Better than the 1964 remake which, despite Karel Reisz and Albert Finney, failed to leverage that “angry young man” vibe and speak coherently to its own time.  Robert Montgomery is terrific as the dangerous Danny.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992 – David Lynch) mixed (DVD)

As a huge Twin Peaks TV series fan from back in the day (had a “Damn Fine Coffee” T-Shirt and even bought a copy of Laura Palmer’s Diary) I avoided this film largely because of the widespread negative critical reaction at the time of release and the knowledge that Lynch was not above train wreck sized failure (see Wild at Heart, Cannes win notwithstanding).  The film’s reputation seems to have gradually grown more positive over the years so I decided to give it go, trying to watch it both as a stand alone product (and the opening smashing of the television hints that maybe Lynch wants you to) and as part of the larger Twin Peaks fabric.  Viewed either way, the film completely lacks the counterpoint of “normalcy” that you find in Blue Velvet, the first season of the series or even Mullholland Dr.  Without juxtaposing wholesomeness against a sordid underground sub-culture there’s no grounding in “reality” and thus no veil to be pierced, no veneer to be chipped away at; no irony, no genre deconstruction, no social commentary etc. etc.  The slow reveal over the course of the series of Laura Palmer’s self destructive and decadent extra-curricular activities gave the story intrigue in addition to bite.  All that remains is a pure nightmarish fever dream with what was once suggestive made explicit without proper context or anything emotionally at stake.  Without any accent on Lynch’s mid-western squarishness – his personal stamp – the experience is interestingly visceral at best, degenerate and meaningless at worst.  Unpacking any narrative truth or logic seems barely worth the effort.  Viewed as a stand alone film (i.e. if the viewer has no knowledge of the television series) Fire Walk With Me surely must be one of Lynch’s most challenging narrative films, arguably even more than the vastly superior Inland Empire.  That said there are still some chilling and riveting bits.

 Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso (1964 – Michelangelo Antonioni) pro (DVD-R)

You can sense a film’s influence when all the other films it reminds you of (2001, Safe, Wanda, Paranoid Park, Dillinger is Dead, etc.) have followed, as opposed to proceeded, it.  After his prior three films, it’s logical that Antonioni’s portrayal of ennui and alienation could evolve into a portrayal of madness.  It’s like the sci-fi vibe from the end of L’Eclisse on steroids.

Doubt (2008 – John Patrick Shanley) pro (DVD-R)

Had heard some complain that Meryl Streep’s performance as the ostensible villain of the piece was, despite award season recognition, broad, cartoonish, hammy or one dimensional.  Though not normally a knee jerk Streep booster, I’ll generally disagree with this contrarian sentiment.  Perhaps I was expecting more The Crucible like absolutes in the plot; but to me there was a surprising depth to the Sister Aloysius character she played, her performance had many notes and shifts revealing a person that may be more Hank Quinlan styled malevolent instinct than head in the sand dogma.  There’s more to her than a intolerant monster with a distain for ball point pens and Frosty the Snowman (it’s key that she had previously been married and therefore sexually experienced – which distinguishes her immediately from Amy Adams’ emotionally open but naïve Nun, a character that takes a few interesting turns of her own).  Though I didn’t completely buy Streep’s end of film break down / confession, it is a fascinating idea, in that I saw it as an expression of her doubt not in her own instincts to judge and act on the Priest’s supposed conduct; but in her doubt in her church (the Priest, after all, was promoted within the system).  Despite Sister Aloysius’ domineering authority over all within her sphere (small that it is), she is ultimately undermined by a patriarchical institution – and a faceless one at that.  The feminist angle is accented by Viola Davis’ thick skinned characters’ tear stained admission of the pragmatic concessions that she has made in protecting her son (memories of Mary Kane sending off her son Charlie with Thatcher in Citizen Kane), which, strangely perhaps, are made more understandable than they are disturbing.  Cinematically there’s too much spoon feeding of the film’s themes, but the story and the ultra-professional performances (too professional?) are highly compelling.

Seven Thieves (1960 – Henry Hathaway) pro (DVD)

The casino heist is unnecessarily complex but it’s an entertaining film nevertheless.  Watching with more modern day sensibilities / expectations the ending could be viewed as a bit of a let down with logic being undermined by all the wholesomeness (they give the money back) and sentimentality (Rod Steiger’s character insists on honoring Edward G. Robison’s character).  I felt as though I’ve been trained by more recent films to expect a double-cross or like twist and then was denied (the paradox of complaining that a convoluted plot isn’t convoluted enough).  A young and lithe Joan Collins is lovely to look at; but merely serviceable at best as an actress.

Changeling (2008 – Clint Eastwood) mixed(+) (DVD)

Artfully crafted and extremely handsome looking film that’s surprisingly bland and its potential impact is ultimately undermined by its narrative sprawl.  A much more accomplished film (or at least “prestigey”) than Eastwood’s ham fisted but far more entertaining crowd pleaser Gran Torino.  The authentic look and feel of Changeling is somewhat reminiscent of Cinderella Man (Ron Howard and right hand man Brian Glazer also produce here) but it lacks even the minor emotional punch from that underperforming period effort from a few years back.  This film shows a strain from its very structure which is likely the result of the slavish devotion to the true crime elements which allow for a potentially compelling character study to morph into yet another police procedural with a court room finale.  The eventual exposure of the police corruption rings hollow with the nuance free portrayal of the various bad guys.  One could better buy into the absurd but true tale if the bad guy’s motives were better flushed out.  I was left with a minimal understanding of what drives the rather wide reaching conspiracy beyond the content of John Malkovich’s crusader character’s pulpit pronouncements.  In some ways the story behind the corrupt cops and doctors, the substitute son, or the story of the boy who participated in the “Wineville chicken murders” are potentially more interesting than Christine Collins’ tragic tale.  Or even better, they could have dispensed with the true story elements entirely and turn the film into a subjective psychological melodrama whereby the audience begins to doubt the protagonist’s sanity altogether (ala Bunny Lake is Missing or more recent French film head trips like La Moustache or Lemming).  In such an alternative film Angelina Jolie could really show off her acting chops, instead her character’s story bogs down during the internment in the “Snake Pit” sequence in which she befriends Amy Ryan with a perm. This plot turn could have used more My Name is Julia Ross suspense and less Titicut Follies / One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest exposé.  It’s hard to remain indignant for over two hours when the institutional wrongs of the bad old days have been long since righted.  As far as Los Angelas set old timey depraved true crime goes, surely there must be a middle ground between Eastwood’s respectable restraint and the lurid over-the-topness of Brian DePalma’s flashy misfire The Black Dahlia.

The Element of Crime (1984 – Lars Von Trier) mixed(-) (DVD)

No problem with the (very impressive) style, just the substance.  A pervasive downer mood and general narrative incoherence make it a slog.  As a dystopian sci-fi neo-noir, it’s a bit of a Blade Runner hangover (on a budget).  Some scenes add fuel to the Von Trier is a misogynist argument.

The Secret of the Grain / La Graine et le mulet (2007 -Abdel Kechiche) pro (DVD)

A slice of life set in a French sea side town (Sète, the locale of Agnès Varda‘s debut La Pointe-Courte) with a focus on an ethnic minority community (Tunisian immigrants).  The film suggests a little bit of Pialat, Dardenne, Cassavetes and Sayles in the approach, with a nod to De Sica in the plot.  The slightly excessive running time (154m) offers some challenges but also rewards as the naturalistic scenes are allowed to be played out unimpeded by script contrivance.  Though to me the intense close up shooting style, while intensifying subjectivity and emotion, tends to undermine the fact that a family dynamic is about interaction.  As the wounded pseudo-patriarch Habib Boufares gives a fine interior performance; but it’s the performance of young Hafsia Herzi that steals the show and makes the film her own.  In terms of crowd pleasing endings, this one’s the anti-Slumdog Millionaire.

No Greater Glory (1934 – Frank Borzage) pro (cable)

An extremely unique and, despite some pretty unsubtle manipulation, emotionally moving film involving two gangs of young boys (“The Paul Street Boys” and “The Red Shirts”) organized in a pseudo-military fashion tussling over a vacant lot that doubles as their playground.  The stakes may be a handful of marbles, some turf and boyish pride but the passion exhibited by the boys suggests even greater concerns.  A film that proves that Borzage can give any subject matter a romantic gloss, though the only “love story” in this case is the love of young boys for camaraderie and a general sense of belonging.  If the film is intended to be an anti-war allegory or cautionary tale about the futility and high cost of war (as the film’s opening scene with a wounded soldier so strongly suggests), the message is a little mixed.  Valor, loyalty, sacrifice, courage and the chain of command are fetishized to the extent that the film has a decidedly pro-military feel.  It was interesting to contrast this film with John Huston’s take on Stephen Crane’s US Civil War set The Red Badge of Courage.  In that 1951 film adaptation “cowardice” seems like normative human behavior with courage being merely the by-product of experience, an almost sickness the results from being battle tested.  I got a far less corruption of innocence message from Borzage’s film.  It’s difficult to imagine Borzage and screenwriter Jo Swerling taking the same approach with No Greater Glory if they made the film after or during WW2 (one need only consider Borzage’s own The Mortal Storm or the 1959 German film The Bridge).  In fact Hungarian Ferenc Molnár’s beloved novel on which No Greater Glory was based (The Paul Street Boys) even predated WW1 (it was written in 1907) and Molnár himself would end up fleeing the Nazis for America.  Borzage was no stranger to bringing Molnár to the screen, having previously giving his spousal abuse apologia Liliom a go in 1930 (a Fritz Lang version would follow in 1934).

Liliom (1930 – Frank Borzage) pro (DVD)

Visually stunning with a nifty use of artfully crafted German Expressionism inspired sets; but the performances (save perhaps for Lee Tracy or H.B. Warner) are lacking, especially in the lifeless stilted delivery of the dialogue.  The pace is off with an abundance of dead air which I suspect is largely due to the fact that this is early talky and one of Borzage’s first sound films.  Though the acting in the Fritz Lang version of the Ferenc Molnár play is an improvement (Charles Boyer trumps (a talking) Charles Farrell), I’d still give this version a slight edge overall (though I’m in the minority in this regard and in any event both are flawed but interesting minor works from major directors).  Although there appears to be no hard evidence, I guess the ending of this film is the source of the title and the twisted perspective on display in the Goffin & King penned 1962 Crystal’s hit He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss). Fittingly Phil Spector’s lush otherworldly wall of sound production of that tune is downright Borzagian.  Borzage was no stranger to the interplay between abuse and love, after all the Charles Farrell / Janet Gaynor courtship in his final silent film, the corny but awesome Lucky Star, begins with a spanking.  Also of similar note Charles Farrell’s slap of a street walker in Street Angel elicits a smile and Borzage’s late classic Moonrise has some troubling rape subtext.

 The Red Badge of Courage (1951 – John Huston) pro (cable)

As far as classic films with long gone missing footage this may not be a Magnificent Ambersons type tragedy, but a damn shame nonetheless.  As with Ambersons, the compromised commercially released version is still pretty damn solid. Reportedly one Huston’s favorites of his own films. 

 

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971 – John Cassavetes) pro(-) (DVD)

This naturalistic and shaggy tale of a misfit love match is a relatively accessible effort for Cassavetes, and while it approximates a screwball comedy it’s not exactly a genre formula film.  While neither oppressively bleak nor a glossy romance, to describe the film as light or warm would deny that the central courtship between Seymour Cassel’s Seymour Moskowitz and Gena Rowlands’ Minnie Moore has a rather sharp edge.  With this often funny film Cassavetes certainly didn’t abandon his exclamation point style of directing a scene, while there’s less of the indulgent run on drunken scenes of a film like Husbands, the tone in this film rarely approaches mellow. Moskowitz is a brash, scrappy, and unpretentious carhop who leaps before he looks and speaks before he thinks.  An inarticulate emotional honesty constantly bubbles out of him.  The marginally more refined Minnie must be seriously lacking in self-esteem because she’s a glutton for punishment in the romance department.  The passionate but boorish and somewhat unbalanced Moskowitz is an upgrade in suitors given Minnie’s former relationship with an abusive married man with a suicidal wife (played by the director uncredited) or her blind date from hell (Val Avery plays a crazed chatterbox named Zelmo in one of the film’s most memorable scenes).  Yet, upgrade or not, Minnie constantly puts herself in the line of fire, ripe for receiving the verbal, physical or emotional abuse of men who want to both possess and destroy her.  Despite the numerous amusing bits (the meeting of the mothers is especially winning), the audience is left with the slightest taint of misogyny.  Declarations of profoundly felt affection and devotion are almost signals of inevitable violence. Vincent Camby accurately stated in his review “every frame depicts a bodily assault or an exchange of angry words, representing love”.  I suppose this is what makes Cassavetes films unique, interesting and deeply personal, but the more I see the more his world view seems extremely limited.

 

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