Sunday, August 28, 2011

Zéro de Conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933)

A depiction of childhood innocence and anarchy, Zéro de conduite is nearly as bold a display of Jean Vigo's capacity for capturing reality and the poetry of motion as his final work, his magnum opus L'Atalante. A film that romanticizes defiance in childhood without pushing into the realm of pure nostalgia, Zéro de conduite never feels like an adult's concept of youth so much as youth itself, a time when bonds are formed without any deeper desire than to have a friend, when even the smallest bit of mischief could relieve days of authoritarian discipline. The movie's subtitle reads "Little Devils at School," but these hellions have too much good in them to be demons. They only seem so because they've not yet integrated into the social values of the system.

As the young lads of a boarding school prepare to return to their studies after holiday break, we see the kids enjoying their last vestiges of freedom on the train. Two boys, Caussat and Bruel, compare the trinkets the received for Christmas, entertaining each other with gags like the old making-your-thumb-disappear act. When they casually light up two cigars, one senses they won't fall back into rigid discipline in school. Sure enough, upon their arrival, they only recruit more lads to their miniature rebellion: Colin, a pipsqueak who can take the fall because he's too young to punish severely, and Tabard, a new kid clearly struggling with being away from home for the first time. They treat the monitors and teachers with indifference bordering on scorn, and the professors are more than happy to respond in kind.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Opening on a quick zoom-in on a cop blowing a whistle, a frenzied police shootout and a brutal rounding up of the usual suspects, Knock on Any Door wastes no time exhibiting its maker's gifts. All of this unfolds in no time, with barely a few lines of dialogue scattered among throngs of witnesses and enraged police officers to make sense of things. Only someone like Nick Ray could use this torrid, forceful start to introduce what will eventually become a courtroom drama that uses flashbacks to craft a social study of the role of society in shaping thugs.

Ray frames the cop killing in shadow, enshrouding the face of the killer, but the police confidently charge Nick Romano (John Derek), a local thug with a a rap sheet as long as a medieval tapestry. Nick, like much of the movie, plays as a sort of run-through for the ideas Ray would flesh out further with Rebel Without a Cause. As if working his way up the social ladder, Ray precedes his take on the invasion of bourgeois, suburban values with a decidedly working-class overview of the same broad topic of disaffected youth. But if Nick, like Jim Stark, has no active cause, he is nevertheless the product of causes of a different sort, transformational social influences pointed out in detail by the visualized arguments of lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).

Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though Flying Leathernecks is a solid war movie in terms of its construction, the drama that must have happened behind the camera is infinitely more appealing than the one that unfolded before it. Nicholas Ray and Robert Ryan, both committed liberals (Ray a former Communist and Ryan a pacifist) clashed with John Wayne, an actor whose personal beliefs and professional style could not have put him more at odds with Ray if he'd actively been trying to mess with the emerging director. The film itself is purported to exist primarily as one of RKO head Howard Hughes' patriot cred pictures to defend himself from accusations of Commie ties. Watching the various dealings, spats and good old-fashioned passive-aggression at work on this movie would make for one hell of an experience.

Nevertheless, the film is not quite so stupid as its shallow jingoism. Granted, its use of newsreel combat footage, incessant validation of Wayne's reluctant but dedicated warrior act and push for strict discipline make it a traditional war movie through and through. But Ray, who may not have cared as much as he did for films that more adequately reflected his beliefs, nevertheless finds a few moments of intelligence and character in the conflict between experienced professional Maj. Daniel Kirby (Wayne) and Capt. Carl Griffin (Ryan), the too-chummy officer who values the casual approval of his hotshot pilots over proper military decorum.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2011)

For the first five minutes of The Arbor, I assumed that one of the two actresses appearing on-screen was the subject of the movie, Andrea Dunbar, the late UK playwright. But after they detailed the abuses and neglect they suffered in their dingy household, I was horrified to learn that the two characters (I'm not sure if that's the right word, as I'll explain shortly) were Dunbar's daughters, that the tyrannical specter of a drunken, uncaring mother, a stereotypical artistic motivator for the downtrodden yet ambitious, was the artist herself. That realization, even more so than the film's adventurous presentation, kept me riveted for the remaining 90 minutes.

Told through reenactments with actors lip-synching to taped interviews of relatives, neighbors and friends, The Arbor initially seems an arty take on the documentary, a cute gimmick to make the movie stand out among the pack. But Clio Barnard's film proves original not merely in its staging but in the structure of its drama. This is a biography, but one that explores the far-reaching consequences of Andrea's all too brief life and the social significance of her family story. Barnard reaches her death less than halfway into the film, leaving the remaining time to sift through the lives of those she left behind, in the process delving into the perpetuating cycle of the same social ills that Dunbar documented in her realist writing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Brian De Palma: Mission: Impossible

Though not nearly as deconstructive as De Palma's '80s pastiche and travesty, Mission: Impossible feels like a classical, identifiably "'90s," art-for-art's-sake blockbuster, a bit of formal excess that uses the implausibility of the original TV series as an excuse to make no sense whatsoever. Unburdened from the need for logic, the film unfolds as an incessant series of double-crosses, grandiose setpieces and classical techniques. That coherent aesthetic propels the film long after its narrative becomes a mire of betrayal and intrigue.

Sent to intercept a diplomat selling U.S. secrets, the Impossible Missions Force team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), stakes out an embassy with precision planning. But just as everything seems to be going perfectly, tiny cracks begin to form, and in short order sabotage leaves the entire team dead save for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who looks mighty suspicious when superiors inform him that they are hunting a mole in the organization. Betrayed by the true traitor and now suspected of treason by his bosses, Ethan has no choice but to flee and clear his name. These betrayals, real and imagined, are but the first in a film where the dead return and mirrored shots always reveal different perspectives.

Steven Spielberg: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Given that my return to A.I. is what prompted my decision to revisit all of Steven Spielberg's films in the first place, I was afraid I had nothing to add to my original review. However, I think I mostly avoided retreading and if I have no particularly new point to make about the ending, I do at least come at it from a different angle in response to Roger Ebert's recent addition of the film into his Great Movies canon, a move that makes me happy but does not preclude me from disagreeing with his interpretation. I stand by this being Spielberg's finest film, and also one that I think is better for his involvement, not some second-best option to a Kubrick direction (Kubrick likely would have agreed, since he urged Spielberg to take it well before he passed). Perhaps the most philosophical blockbuster ever made, and certainly one of the finest American films of the Aughts.

Check out my new review of the film at Cinelogue.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

The Help takes the obliviousness of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 hit novel and magnifies it to the level of the dangerously ignorant. The novel at least had the decency to include a modicum of ambiguity and the suggestion that Stockett could vaguely remember some of her 3rd-grade social studies lessons on the Civil Rights Era. The film, on the other hand, is erected out of pure fantasy, set in a plastic, pastel Jackson, Miss. that has all the authenticity of Lars von Trier's Dogville set. Stockett's novel dropped whiffs of the true reality of 1960s Jackson among her dialect-ridden, charmed view of social prejudice like talismans to ward off criticism, but childhood friend Tate Taylor has to condense 500 pages into two-and-a-half hours. Given the paper-thin characterization of the novel's figures, this means that the obliterated subplots and truncated, blunt dialogue serve to make the material even more farcical.

In fairness, Taylor does try to refashion Stockett's book around the African-American characters instead of a white guilt cipher. But this idea goes no farther than letting Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who becomes the first to tell her stories of life serving whites, narrate the movie. Soon enough, focus is back on Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college grad and sort-of feminist who, despite no clear identity before leaving for school and a blindness to current events (at least in the book), decides to get the black perspective of Jackson life. In the novel, Skeeter is almost jaw-droppingly entitled and never criticized for it. Here, Taylor dispenses with nearly all of her story, which would be a significant improvement if he also cut down her screen time to match. But no, regardless of who had to go in to record ADR, this is still Skeeter's story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

I don't know that a weak documentary could be made about the White Stripes. It Might Get Loud, which boasted the presence of a certifiable guitar god and an alt.icon, was never more alive than when Jack White was front and center; heck, even Jimmy Page and The Edge seemed enthralled by his artistic approach, philosophy and passion. Under Great White Northern Lights, filmed during the band's first-ever Canadian tour in 2007, is as scattershot as any film focusing on such oddball characters as Jack and Meg White must be, but it is also a poignant document of what one critic called "the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world," a pullquote Jack references with a mixture of bitterness and acquiescence.

The performances it captures are incendiary, energetic, and often hilarious. The film opens on the goofy debut of the Stripes in Canada with a self-explanatory "one-note show" that leaves fans hilariously chanting "One more note!" after the pair bangs out a chord and disappears with all the frenzy with which they arrived. For the rest of the film, they behave like a band struggling to get noticed, not multiple-Grammy winners and platinum sellers. By night, they are stars, filling theaters with fans who have been waiting years to see them. By day, however, they play town squares, classrooms, rec center, bowling alleys, a boat that makes the Orca look like a yacht, and anywhere where they can squeeze in a guitar, some drums and a microphone or two. These free side shows make the conquering schedule of every province and every territory more intimate and friendly than domineering, a means of making up for lost time and changing up the usual touring mode.

Emmett Malloy directs the film to the band's quirky white-black-red aesthetic, slipping between black-and-white film and color stock saturated in the red of the duo's gear and garb. A few stylistic flourishes fit his montage assembly of gigs, the visuals slurring through a jump cut as the songs skip around by both editing and the band's lightning-quick transitions, and he wryly captures the drives around Canada with good-natured banality and idyll. But the chilly calm of even the most remote province seems to shatter when the White Stripes arrive and set up in the nearest odd spot.

As they ride around with pleasant chauffeurs who don't always understand who these cats are, a portrait emerges of the band that both confirms and subverts their image. The love of traditional music bridges their focus on Delta blues with the music of an Inuit community center they visit. Jack likes to push the idea that he and Meg are siblings rather than a divorced couple, but damned if they don't behave like brother and sister. They tease each other, jovially bicker but always admire the other. In the film's finest moment (and its last), Jack plays "White Moon" on the piano for Meg, who sits on the stool with him fighting back tears as that high, broken voice of his growls out the lyrics.

That chemistry carries enough sweetness that the film is even more touching now that the White Stripes are, for the time being at least, no more. A few archival clips show the band at their inception, but Malloy wisely sticks to the present, showing the two celebrating their 10th anniversary by trying one last injection of spontaneity into a line of work that all too often feels like just that. Though it neither breaks any rules nor expands any horizons, Under Great White Northern Lights is a funny, touching, revelatory work that probes into one of this fashionably unfashionable outfit and the impact it had on those looking for something different.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Made in the same year its director also launched Cary Grant to superstardom, Make Way for Tomorrow was always Leo McCarey's favorite project. He even said as much when he accepted his Oscar the following year The Awful Truth, graciously thanking the Academy but noting they honored "the wrong film." For audiences that increased movie attendance significantly during the Depression for the promise of free air-conditioning and some escapist relief from the bewildering sense of aimlessness outside, however, a film that directly confronted the horrifying realities of the day could not have been more unappealing. Seen today, however, the film is a marvel, a movie that plays within Hollywood convention even as it ignores them at every turn. McCarey certainly has a message in mind, broadcast in an opening bit of text, yet he and his actors never give into histrionics, never try to make this anything other than a human story of pain and separation. The result, as Orson Welles once said, is the saddest movie ever made. I should warn that spoilers follow, though anyone who makes it past the first few scenes will feel the doom falling over the film. Besides, what happens, sad as it is, is not nearly so devastating as how it unfolds.

Preceded with a solemn reminder to "Honor thy father and thy mother," the film soon moves beyond the chastising tone of that text scroll to an idyllic shot of a rural house, glistening in wintertime as grown children arrive at their parents' house. The old couple's home looks comfortable and warm, and Pa is sitting in his leather recliner as the children remember from their youth. But when one son makes a toast to the family home, the father, Barkley (Victor Moore), interrupts the lad and tells the family that the bank repossessed his and Lucy's (Beulah Bondi) house. They had six months to vacate, but before the children can get out their sigh of relief for bought time, Bark informs them that the six months are up in a few days. Flummoxed, the children, insisting they cannot afford housing both parents come up with an impromptu plan: two of them at a time will take a parent until some vaguely hoped-for break allows husband and wife to live together again.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Tod Browning's freak empathy, honed by a life on the road with all the sundry acts of vaudeville and carnival that his final profession would eventually kill off, may not be openly on display in his chilling 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it's still the best version of the work ever made, at least of the legit adaptations (Nosferatu, naturally, is still king). Though not as sultrily erotic as the 1979 version with Frank Langella, Browning's version teems with enough atmosphere to show all those years making sympathetic monster movies with Lon Chaney held back a sense of pure horror.

Browning establishes Dracula's castle with ludicrously outsized sets, moody cutaways to hovering bats and crawling vermin and the incessant creak of rotted, dormant wood gasping in horror at the things moving upon it. Its vastness creates a self-contained echo chamber, magnifying the sound but making clear that no matter how loud something might get, no one will ever come for help.

Many note the zombie-like nature of Lugosi's performance, but there's something stately in his carriage, refined. When Van Helsing confronts the count with his lack of reflection in a mirror, Dracula can only compliment the doctor, impressed by a man who knows so much despite not having even "lived one full lifetime." Lugosi draws out his words as if sucking the blood from their necks as well, inserting pauses with near abandon to ensure the camera lingers on his composed but immobile face. Only the look of insatiable hunger in his eyes, frequently illuminated in a strip of light over the rest of his darkened face like a reverse superhero disguise, gives away the monster beneath.

Certain shots, such as the long view of Renfield standing frozen in rictus below the ship deck, paralyzed in a clenched-mouth groan of a laugh like a skipping record, have lost none of their terror all these years later. Though the latter half of the film lacks the level of expressive scares contained in Murnau's copyright-infringing masterpiece, Dracula still brims with Gothic ostentation. The final climax is magnificent pre-epic staging, making its full-frame mise-en-scène, especially on the staircase that looks as if it could stretch up to Heaven (or, more accurately, perhaps, lead down to Hell) as big as a 70mm roadshow.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Gentleman Jim, The Roman Orgy, The Killers (1946)

Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942)

Walsh doesn't get nearly enough credit for his technique, but maybe that's because it's all in the service of making good, solid, engaging pictures instead of showing off. He favors the perfect reaction shot over axis rules, and it's always fun (and often funny) to see something as unnecessary as a slightly low-angle shot for a gym trainer talking to customers just to make the squat gym coach look a bit taller. His framing of the boxing scenes is supremely kinetic, the camera darting around the ring to capture spectator agitation, loved ones' concern, coaching and, of course, the fights themselves. Errol Flynn is, as ever, charming to the point of unfairness, capable even of stiffing a waiter without offense. Brash, meaty and frequently hilarious—especially when Jim's Irish family has the spotlight—Gentleman Jim is yet more proof for Walsh as a talent deserving of more recognition than being "merely" a great studio hand. Grade: A-

The Roman Orgy (Louis Feuillade, 1911)

Even in this early one-reeler, Feuillade demonstrates his capacity for sophistication in primitivism, arranging oddities and juxtapositions in long, static takes. As the court watches lions tear apart some hapless servant, Feuillade arranges the scene to have the lions mulling around, backed by a stone wall, and he places the people at the top of the frame, visible through a slatted rail that clashes with the scene. When those lions later crash his titular orgy (which isn't as naughty as you might expect), the vertical arrangement becomes more humorous, the lions capering about the  festivities as terrifed people cling to higher ground. His sense of dense, layered framing and simple direction is the opposite with Griffith's bombastic but typically clean frame and camera innovation, but it's incredible to see how much excitement he can pack into eight simply progressed minutes. Grade: C+

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Steeped in menace from its opening of two hitmen driving by night and engaging in a lengthy intimidation match with a diner owner, The Killers is so skillfully plotted and doused in shadow it gets away with showing its full climax at the beginning with its beat-for-beat recreation of Hemingway's short story. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to this bravura nightmare of macabre, confrontational humor and pitch-black shadowplay, but the less-convincing extensions on the short story is sold earnestly by Siodmak's stylistic flourishes, which use Elwood Bredell's cinematography to search for the tipping point just before shadow plunges into murk. I don't think Burt Lancaster was as tragic again until The Leopard, and Ava Gardner, as ever, puts a pointed heel through the notion that blondes have more fun. It's impossible not to see a young Tarantino gutting this for his own Pulp Fiction, from its broken chronology to its chatty hitmen to its corrupted boxer. Of course, one look at this stark-to-the-point-of-surreal journey to find all kinds of dangerous places to stick one's nosy head in and it's obvious QT was merely the last in a long line of admirers to take something from this archetypal noir. Grade: B

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Platinum Blonde, The Mad Monk, The Lodger

Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931)

Now this is more like it. Capra gets it all together with a rip-snorting good time with newspaper idealism, dialogue you just wanna tap with a spoon and peel, and sentimentality that works instead of hinders. Robert Williams is more flirty than Jean Harlow (hilariously playing the straight role as the starched, bossy heiress), and the gender-reversed Pygmalion structure makes for some great comedy with the Eliza in this case being a properly snappy, streetwise paper hack. Not to mention, his gender makes for more interesting resistance to change, as Capra shows how a man reacts to being the less prominent member of a pair and the one actively being molded. Granted, it also encourages the audience to cheer when he demands chauvinistic things like his rich wife taking his name, but this is still a fascinating inversion at times. Also a delight is Louise Closser Hale as the aristocratic matriarch with her affected voice and constant, faint-headed outrage at scandal that truly no one with anything to do cares about. My distrust of Capra has always been balanced by my true admiration for him when he clicks, and this is Capra firing on all cylinders. Grade: A

The Mad Monk (Johnnie To, 1993)

A deliriously ludicrous comedy that has more fun with Eastern religion than an American genre film could ever hope to have with Christianity, The Mad Monk opens in a heaven where the head god has to deal with so many deities he doesn't recognize all of them and only gets odder from there. The Mad Monk tasks a prankster god with altering the life(s) paths of three archetypal individuals with only a trick fan for powers, leading to a whimsically ridiculous farce that To directs to a frenzy. Everything in this movie is funny; To even steps on an emotional death scene by having our Lo Han (played by Stephen Chow) burst into the wrong room (and an embarrassing bit of sexual play) as he hunts for his felled mark. With To's manic camera movement and cutting, inventively staged comic fight scenes and a climax that moves from a kaiju battle with a giant demon to a piss-take on pageantry with a heavenly promotion complete with tiara, The Mad Monk is a bewildering, side-hurting riot. Grade: B

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

This thrilling silent, Hitchcock's fifth feature, while still a bit stiff in the narrative department, shows Hitchcock's rapidly developing talent as a director and his seemingly innate control of the camera and the Expressionistic techniques he observed in Germany. It's somewhat amusing that he still finds a way to be expository in a silent film, using multiple news stories to get across developments in the murder mystery. A 'wrong man' narrative involving murdered blondes, pained romances and the suggestion that a slit throat might always be just around the corner, this almost feels like a preemptive tribute to Hitchcock than an early work. This is a fun showcase for a man whom one can tell even here would deserve the title of "master" thrust upon him, from the use of a glass floor for Hitchcock to stick a camera under to a perfectly framed shot looking straight down a staircase as a man obscured by angle and his black clothes runs down the stairs with his sliding hand as the chief guide to his position. A real treat. Grade: A-

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)

Today, many attribute the box office failure of Alfred Hitchcock's 1949 opus Under Capricorn to it not being a thriller. That, obviously, is true, but the stiff-upper-lipped love triangle is nevertheless mysterious. Set in colonial Australia, Under Capricorn moves through a world of ex-convicts, where people cut off any attempt to suss out the crimes that sent other people there, lest someone eventually come question them, too. And because the characters must sit in isolation of each other, gestures of concern and caring get interpreted as secretive, self-serving actions, while manipulative ones are dismissed as nurturing.

Though it opens with a series of largely static, talky takes, Under Capricorn rapidly establishes itself as not only a Hitchcock film but one of his most immediately identifiable. The long-take structure he used as an ingenious formal experiment in Rope is here subsumed into a florid melodrama, constantly emphasizes the freedom and restrictions of movement within the tucked-away, Gothic house where most of the action takes place and embodying the stiff mannerisms of the strict, willfully oblivious social codes that dictate behavior among the characters.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Capsule Reviews: The Smiling Lieutenant, Ménilmontant, The Miracle Woman

The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)

A delightfully wicked musical that puts the Lubitsch touch on full display, The Smiling Lieutenant has the sophistication and subtly charged sensual construction one expects of the artist. Maurice Chevalier is a joy as the titular lieutenant Niki, putting his massive grins and thick accent to hysterically suggestive use with some lines that show Lubitsch, as ever, pushing himself to the limit of decency. Claudette Colbert, playing Niki's naughty true love, asks him whether the princess he's unwittingly been forced to marry is blond or brunette. "I don't know," replies Chevalier with a caddish grin, removing all doubt as to what hair he's really talking about. The songs are all jovial, but if you pay attention to the lyrics you realize they could be sung in a pub after a pint or four. It all ends with a demented (yet classy, natch) spin on Cyrano as Franzi teaches Anna how to make our lieutenant switch his affections, and a significant fade-out puts a wider smile on Niki's face than ever before. The way Miriam Hopkins looks when she finally grabs her husband's attentions? Hell, I'd be singing too. Grade: A-

Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

The phrase "avant-garde Russian silent cinema" is redundant; I've yet to see a Russian film from the '20s that was anything less than confrontational and experimental, even when it amounted to nothing more than naïve propaganda. Ménilmontant named for the Parisian suburb where it was shot, may technically be a French work, but one need not be told that a Russian emigré directed it to know its true national roots. Opening with an unexplained, terrifyingly edited and grisly axe murder of the parents of two young girls, Ménilmontant soon morphs into an abstracted tale of grief and isolation, following the sisters as they grow up and slowly drift apart when one of them gets a lover. A host of silent-era techniques—including double exposure, superimposition, impressionistic close-ups, mood-setting pillow shots of buildings and nature, and, of course, montage—create a manic state of bewilderment and poetic terror as the women discover what a harsh world it really is out there for a lady. This neglected masterwork feels like a proto-feminist, modernist fairy tale as made by Dziga Vertov. With potential like that, who needs intertitles? Grade: A+

The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)

An improvement over Capra and Stanwyck's first collaboration, chiefly because Capra, having figured out how to work with Stanwyck's style, now knows how to get even more out of her. The story itself is simple, but it's noteworthy that Capra would rework its basic theme—a protagonist giving up prestige and wealth for morality and/or love—several times after Hays office cracked down but always with the more acceptable male lead instead of a strong-willed female played with fiery, if fabricated passion by Stanwyck. Oddly prescient in its depiction of ludicrously ostentatious evangelism (shame Jerry Falwell never stuck his fat ass in a lion cage for a stunt), The Miracle Woman boasts three unforgettable setpieces in its first 20 minutes. The second half doesn't match the brilliant staging of Stanwyck's opening sermon, theatrical debut as a charlatan (she emerges on-stage over roused men like the dancing robot in Metropolis) and the averted suicide of the sweet blind man, an otherwise grating presence who often plays like a self-treating Patch Adams. I was also mildly disappointed that its rich potential for social commentary gave way to the usual Capra story of an affirming romance. Nevertheless, Capra's increasing visual sophistication, Stanwyck's dynamic performance and a flirtation with the dark side of Pre-Code immorality make this one of the director's more enjoyable pictures. Grade: B

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)

With some 60 films to his name a mere 16 years after starting in the film industry, Kenji Mizoguchi certainly had enough on-the-job training to get his act down. Nevertheless, 1939's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums represents such a stylistic leap it almost seems less an evolution than a complete rebirth. It is not the master's first great work — in fact, I might even continue to argue for the powerful (and more defiantly upbeat) The Straits of Love and Hate, released two years earlier — but it is the true emergence of Mizoguchi the master, ironing out the style of immaculate compositions and increasingly sophisticated historical detail (courtesy of designer Hiroshi Mizutani, who had started working with Mizguchi on Straits) that would become his forte.

Admirers routinely (and correctly) note the nobility of Mizoguchi's female characters, but that implies placement on a pedestal that, despite their recurring Madonna/whore dynamics and martyrdom, these fully human characters do not reside upon. Not all of the women in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is a saint; many, in fact, are gossipy and territorial, geishas tugging at men as if quarreling over a kimono. But even these sweet-talking gaggles do not feel like mere props in Mizoguchi's world, instead perpetuating a clear but unforced social commentary on the insular nature of the occupational caste system that defines each person in his period pictures. The men of the film, Kabuki actors in late-1800s Japan, are also isolated by the social restrictions of their professions, forced to adhere to strict codes of conduct even when far nobler actions prove to be outside that set of manners.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Capsule Reviews: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Lost Weekend, Ladies of Leisure

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946)

On the basis of film noir, were I husband in the '40s, I'd never allow my wife to speak with another man. Not out of jealousy, mind you, merely self-preservation instinct. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film about comeuppances both undeserved and well justified. A wife plots against her kind, if too-often drunken, husband to run away with a drifter, who has no qualms turning on her when the police put the squeeze on him. Double-crosses and the long-reach of karma arrive through cynical, razor-sharp dialogue and the always scheming faces of John Garfield and Lana Turner (even the wise prosecutor played by Leon Ames has his manipulating plots). Not as atmospheric as my favorite noirs, the Postman Always Rings Twice is nevertheless a finely crafted vision of a world where love and hate can invert on a dime and justice always catches up with the criminal, even if it has to fabricate a new crime to do so. Grade: B+

The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

Marred by a simplistically moralizing final act, The Lost Weekend is nevertheless one of Wilder's most aesthetically inventive films and, for a time at least, a remarkably nonjudgmental view of a taboo that had yet to be seriously explored in cinema. From a crucial opening shot of a whiskey bottle danging outside an apartment to theremin-scored nightmares that detach our poor alcoholic from any semblance of sanity, Wilder's camera is devilish in its visualization of the despair of the alcoholic. But it's Ray Milland's agonized performance that continues to impress most of all. Milland talks fast, fidgets incessantly and constantly darts his eyes back and forth, not only seeking out the next drink but in paralyzing fear of being found out. He's the addict trying to "maintain" when everyone around him knows of his addiction and even strangers could never mistake his stumbling gait for anything less than substance abuse.

Wilder's writing is ripped from the headlines but nevertheless informed by his singular gift as a screenwriter. A lengthy monologue near the start gets at the comforting and inspiring effects of alcohol on the alcoholic, but Wilder adds comedy to it by cutting away from Don to his impatient brother and girlfriend ranting about them before returning to show Don still boring the bartender to death with his spiel. There are also some disturbingly felt scenes of true human terror, such as Don pleading with a ringing telephone to stop, not only to ease his hangover but because he assumes the person on the other end is the devoted girlfriend he cannot face. Scenes like that bring the film to the edge of greatness, and it's a shame the climax drops a top-tier Wilder picture down a rung. And who would expected the weakest part of a Wilder film, any Wilder film, to be its conclusion? Grade: B

Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra, 1930)

Capra's first collaboration with Barbara Stanwyck makes a quick case for the fruitfulness of their relationship: she adds an edge his films lack without her, while he sentimentalizes her overpowering presence just enough to show how genuinely appealing Stanwyck is as a person, not merely a sexual virago. Capra's style is evident even in this early talkie, courtesy of Joseph Walker's backlighting of the ladies (finely honed in Stanwyck's poses for Ralph Graves' trust fund kid/aspiring painter) and tranquil nighttime shots that use diegetic sound to alternately romantic and suggestive effect. The two of them were also smart enough to ignore Harry Cohn's attempts to glamorize Stanwyck by instead making sure to capture the far more appealing realness of her look. This fine-tuning of Capra and Walker's long-running partnership is as rewarding as Stanwyck's performance, which, as Pauline Kael would later note of her effect on all melodrama, gave a naturalism to even the most saccharine treacle.

And God does this movie serve as much a demonstration of Capra's excesses as his skills. Capra came up with a first draft based on a Broadway play that screenwriter Jo Swerling found so awful he didn't even want to waste his time rewriting it, and even his best efforts fail to make the film feel like anything less than a pat emotional shortcut of a melodrama. But Capra also helped shape Stanwyck into the actress she became, catering to her first-take style even as he challenged and teased it to make sure that one take was as golden as it needed to be. And that care paid rich dividends: after misleading Stanwyck as to how Graves would play a confrontational scene, she had to play off a much tougher and angrier moment than she expected, and Stanwyck responds by tearfully holding two fingers up to Graves' mouth to silence him. The way she slowly drags her fingers down Graves' lips is more pained than any expression of hurt she just silenced with her morose gesture. A moment of visual poetry in a film that too often counteracts its unspoken grace with simple-minded plot progression and starched dialogue. Grade: C

P.S. Also enlivening this otherwise tedious narrative is Stanwyck's equally streetwise, slowly plumping roommate played by Marie Prevost. She gets the biggest laugh of the film out to dinner with a man who's gentlemanly compliments are belied by the look of concern on his face as she orders enough food to feed an entire speakeasy. She tops off the order with a cup of coffee, and the poor, dumb waiter has the thickness to asks "small or large?" Prevost picks herself up in almost aristocratic dignity and replies, "Do I look like a SMAHLLLL cup of coffee?" drawing out that "small" to hysterical effect.

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

There is something indefinite about Barbara Stanwyck's overpowering effect, a subconscious response triggered by an almost imperceptible shift in body language. A lightly cocked eyebrow, a slight repositioning of a leg, all tiny, calculated moves designed for a delayed response to a beauty that, mere moments ago, didn't seem remarkable but is suddenly intoxicating. She made the perfect seductress, someone who doesn't announce herself from afar but waits to ensnare men as they pass by, forcing a double-take that draws them in more wholly and madly than the bombshells. Those ladies wielded their bombshell-selves like the artillery for which they were named, but Stanwyck got up close and personal. If love is a battlefield, she was a black-ops guerrilla. There's a line in Joseph McBride's Capra biography that calls her beauty "proletarian," which is indicative not only of the unexpected power of her uncommonly common looks but of the forceful impact of that beauty when it was unleashed.

Yet despite this singular power, Stanwyck possesses the capacity to portray this Venus flytrap man-baiting as something other than sinister sexual warfare. Sure, everyone remembers her turn in Double Indemnity, one of the bar-setters for the femme fatale icon, but compare her man-devouring turn there to her more enamored brush with hapless innocence in Ball of Fire, where she in no way softens her appeal but manages to fall for a man so resolutely innocent that she must overcome pangs of shame for being with him. Even when she was naughty, which was always, Stanwyck could find ways not only to unearth some nugget of guilelessness in her tramps but to suggest that her forthright seduction was a valid expression of sexual identity. I would say this was incredible given the time period in which she worked, but never mind all that: when's the last time a film made today gave its females such nonjudgmental sexual freedom?

Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)

After I found Real Life so brilliant, layered and prescient that I scuttled my planned review entirely so I could revisit it first, I insisted on jotting down some thoughts for Albert Brooks' next film, Modern Romance. This proved to be something of a mistake, perhaps, as Brooks' second film has even more human brilliance within its cynical narrative than his previous work of genius. The title of Modern Romance, like that of Real Life, is at once to-the-point and subversively ironic, much like Brooks' brand of humor. It is also a slyly ambitious name, aspiring to serve as a summarizing overview of the status of something as important as the current state of love in society. With Brooks at the wheel, the film earns its title.

Brooks continues to cast himself as someone who works within the filmmaking industry, only this time he's not a hotshot director but an editor-for-hire named Robert Cole. This occupation proves critical, as he spends his days recontextualizing films by deleting obvious lines and adding in perspective-altering cutaways. In his romantic life, however, Bob is ruled by narrow preconceptions fueled by jealousy, and for someone who surely knows about the Kuleshov Effect, he rarely stops to consider that every shred of ostensible evidence he uses to accuse his girlfriend of something has less objective meaning than subjective belief.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)

Elevator to the Gallows is a brilliantly constructed misdirection, moving so quickly into a premeditated murder that, in retrospect, it's only natural that the film should so quickly switch gears due to mishaps. Malle soon plunges into a series of things going awry that introduces characters solely to trap them in their own morbid downfalls. The film sometimes gets labeled as a film noir, yet the film's sense of macabre irony is far more indicative of the coming genre deconstruction of the Nouvelle Vague than just another thriller. Indeed, for all the icy beauty of the picture, Elevator to the Gallows is often a dark riot, made by a director with a multilayered, daring grasp on cinema even with this marvelous debut.

The film begins with the hushed, torrid whispers of lovers speaking to each other on the telephone, reaffirming their romance and putting the final touches on a plan to kill the husband of the woman, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), who is also Julien's (Maurice Ronet) boss. With silent precision, Malle immediately cuts to the act in question, an absurdly grandiose maneuver that has Julien scaling the modern office building walls of glass to sneak into Simon's floor without detection, allowing him to kill the old industrialist and frame it as a suicide. Undetected, Julien climbs back down to his office and leaves, getting out to his car and putting the key in the ignition before he takes one last look at the building and...notices he left the rope danging. All it takes is one slip-up.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a fear du jour-updating reboot of the apes-take-over-Earth franchise, has just enough creativity in it that its problematic whole is all the more frustrating. The only actor who genuinely fits into his role comfortably is animated out of the picture, while a good third of the film feels like padding to establish questionable, simplistic motivation for a primate proletariat revolt. Yet when the film clicks, Rise of the Planet of the Apes finds a surprisingly effective tone between the sentimental and vicious.

Swapping out fears of nuclear holocaust for the less definite disease paranoia, Rise of the Planet of the Apes repositions the root of man's fall as the noble but misguided attempt to alter nature. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist for a pharmaceutical firm who engineers a virus to repair the brain, effectively curing Alzheimer's and other brain-degenerative diseases. It's a lofty goal, and one that doesn't particularly need the addition of Will's Alzheimer's-stricken father (John Lithgow, making the most of an almost unwritten part) to sell the importance of such a breakthrough. But when an aggressive test chimp forces the closure of the research, Will secrets away the ape, Caesar, who inherited his mother's altered genes and exhibits intelligence even beyond that of a young human.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Capsule Reviews: Cronos, Smiles of a Summer Night,

Cronos (Guillermo Del Toro, 1993)

Admittedly more of a primer for Guillermo Del Toro's career to come than a great work in its own right, Cronos is nevertheless a delightfully wicked and kooky spookfest that introduces recurring objects (bugs, gears), actors (Ron Perlman, Federico Luppi) and themes (fantasy's co-mingling with the real and not-as-concrete-as-it-seems in such a way as to expose humans as both the purest heroes and most terrible monsters) in an original vampire story. Intriguingly, Del Toro uses an aged lead and does not transform him into a younger man, instead showing the device that gives cursed immortality to its users only marginally turning back the clock, further demonstrating the futility of this dark quest for eternal life. The film boasts some wonderfully macabre moments, especially an autopsy of the undead man, who revives before cremation with his mouth sewn shut. The scene is all the more darkly funny for the issues the undertaker has with the crematorium's gas line. Perlman steals the film as the put-upon nephew tasked with finding the alchemical device for his loathed, dying uncle, a performance that is as petulant as it is sneering an brutish. Del Toro's camerawork isn't as hauntingly elegant as it would later be, yet his inventive manipulation of existing sets into fantastical sub-realms presages his later gift for grandiose set design. An embryonic work, perhaps, but when you're watching the birth of a filmmaker as good as Del Toro, there's plenty to please the viewer. Grade: B-

Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

Bergman's breakthrough hit is a light comedy that initially seems so unlike the director's later experiments in spiritual vacuums. But even its tone of jaunty, theatrical aestheticism (aided greatly by Gunnar Fischer's trademark cinematography of cinematically skewed stage framings) reveals the darker impulses within Bergman, who makes farce of the psychological mire of a love triangle between a father, his son and the lad's stepmother even after the pressure bursts the dynamic and spills into other characters. Yet if this is a sex farce, it must surely be the most lyric and graceful one ever put to film. The men deal with confusion, insecurity and and hormones they cannot control, while the women's hushed plotting is less misogynistic scheming than a show of their dark amusement at the follies of men and their attempts to, as ever, sort everything out for their hapless lovers. The mixture of Wildean wit and Bergman's despair works magnificently, and lines like "How can a woman ever love a man?" imbue the mired sexual relationships with an overarching poetry. And only someone capable of such bottomless depression as Bergman could spin a positive, warm ending out of a climax of Russian roulette. Grade: A

(P.S. Criterion's new Blu-Ray is one of their best transfers this year along with Pale Flower.)

Animal Farm (John Halas and Joy Bachelor, 1954)

More noteworthy today as the first released British animated feature than as a great work, John Halas and Joy Bachelor's Animal Farm is a dated work but not particularly a failure. It's most telling flaw is its substitution of the melancholy of Orwell's book, which realized the folly of Communism with regret for its impossibility, with a more propagandic sense of victory over the authoritarians who seize control of the supposedly egalitarian society. (It is now believed that the CIA itself funded the film as a piece of anti-Commie propaganda.) That robs the work of a great deal of its power and the satire of its bitterness, leaving a film that, to use the old saying, knows the steps but not the rhythm. And while I understand that the budget for any British production will not compare to the Hollywood or Disney machines, but the lack of visual dynamism holds back the film. It would have been clever to show a transition from a utopia to an autocratic nightmare, but instead the narrative moves through a flat, unchanging background. Nevertheless, the animation of the animals themselves is a briefly redeeming flash of light, allowing them more sophisticated movements while still maintaining their proper forms, only fully anthropomorphizing the pigs for thematic purposes. Grade:C-

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)

The warped Catholicism of Sion Sono's four-hour epic Love Exposure is fitting, given how the director clearly seeks to kill aesthetic gods. Known in some circles for referring to Japanese legend and humanist director extraordinaire Yasujiro Ozu as, quote, "the anti-Christ," Sono clearly wants to provoke and carve out his own name. On the basis of this film alone, he has succeeded. This film chews up everything — manga, pink films, J-horror, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, the Japanese New Wave — and spits out an unholy mess so sloppy and overstretched that it can't help but work without a hitch. My unfamiliarity with modern Japanese cinema precludes me from making any sweeping statement about its greatness compared to its peers, but I must admit I haven't seen as aesthetically revolutionary and explosive a film since another Japanese work, Yoshishige Yoshida's Eros + Massacre.

Like Yoshida's stupefying masterpiece, Sono's film tells its story with an off-kilter aesthetic: de-centered compositions cant and distort the image, faces rarely fitting entirely into the frame. Sex is also central to the narrative, but in the opposite manner that it proved crucial to Yoshida's late-60s work. Eros + Massacre was informed by the sex-positive revolution against repression that played a bigger part in youth movements across the world than we are typically taught to day. Love Exposure, on the other hand, is the product of a porn-saturated, pink film-inured society where even the cartoons are doing it. If the bifurcated timeline of Yoshida's film hinged (and ultimately came apart) on the freedom to explore one's sexuality, Sono's shows a young man trying to find sense and sanity through chastity, at least until he can find his own Virgin Mary to make his wife. That he essentially wants to have sex with the Blessed Mother, who also contains symbolic memories of his own deceased mom, instantly plunges this tale of Catholic guilt beyond the realm of Scorsese and into Buñuel territory.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Comment Ça Va (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976)

Despite the blatant reflexivity of the film's premise, Comment ça va might have been a remarkably straightforward film about a newspaperman making an instructional video about the paper business with his partner. But as much as Godard has always been fascinated with process, the single question out of the journalistic "Five Ws" that is truly addressed here is "Why?" The complexity that will eventually push the film into some of the director's most challenging work to this point (no mean feat) is prompted by an almost childlike simplicity on behalf of the radical woman, Odette (Miéville), who oversees this project with the Communist newspaper editor (Michel Marot). Though her questions are complex, political, philosophical and aesthetic, they ultimately boil down to that simplest yet most agonizing of queries.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1959)

My review for Satyajit Ray's breathtaking The Music Room is up now at Cinelogue. A story of tradition and modernity clashing in egotistical microcosm, The Music Room never forces its point but always makes clear that the battle in question is really only a matter of shifting supremacy in the types of haves who have power over have-nots. But this, despite its dour ending and constant sense of foreboding, is not an altogether pessimistic film, for Ray at all times finds the humanity within his imploding landlord and even in the arrogant capitalism represented by the moneylender's heir. Filled with non-intricate but nevertheless stunning shots (which look all the more gorgeous in Criterion's incredible restoration, one of the most remarkable restorations they've ever done), The Music Room made for a great and utterly enticing introduction to a filmmaker I've long meant to sample. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 1, 2011

La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

La Nuit du Carrefour is so atmospheric and vague that the absence of an entire reel is scarcely noticeable unless you've been alerted to the fact. Given how much is already left out in the impenetrable fog hanging over the titular crossroads, an inadvertently excised 11 minutes of footage likely would not have cleared things up much. As a noir, Renoir's adaptation of pulp author Georges Simenon's novel appropriately occurs mostly at night, but even in daylight the cramped area where the director situates his film is bleak and misty. Like the air station in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, the three houses and filling station that make up the crossroads are isolated to the point of solipsism, where even the sound of cars buzzing and humming all around seems merely a projection of the night and fog.

Made in the infancy of film noir, La Nuit du Carrefour preemptively deconstructs the genre to its most atmospheric tropes, beating the analytical takes of some pop-minded New Wavers of various nationalities by a good three decades. This is not an insensible film, certainly not on the level that, say, The Big Sleep is one long shaggy dog story, but Renoir turns each element of the genre into expressive abstraction. That fog turns straight, level roads leading out to other towns into ominous, finite stretches, paths leading off a world that seems flat. The detective can piece together everything solely through a few words and a quick survey of a room. And everyone, to some extent, is guilty of the whodunit. And as for Else (Winna Winifried), Renoir seems to have taken apart the femme fatale and ice queen before it got properly established by the likes of Hitchcock. Winifried digs into the image of female innocence, speaking in light chirps and flirting with ostensible clumsiness; her face even has a roundness to it that suggests the baby fat hasn't melted off yet. But under that amusingly cherubic facade is a steely glare filled with Teutonic sturm und drang that betrays darker intent, a giveaway not lost on the genius detective who cannot help but court her anyway.

Renoir's sense of satire is evident even within this genre exercise: a patrolling police sergeant stops by the filling station to get his motorcycle repaired, and when news comes through that a car has been stolen and that a local gang of thieves is suspected, the local constabulary is baffled at the existence of thieves in the area despite how freely everyone talks about them. And when a local discovers his car has been stolen, blame immediately falls upon the "Danes," the Andersen siblings who live in one of the crossroads' three houses. Even when the car (complete with corpse) is found in Carl Andersen's garage, his arrest seems more a matter of xenophobic convenience than proper procedure.

From there, things get murkier, not particularly as a result of plot mechanics but by Renoir's loose, suggestive camerawork. When the famed Maigret (Renoir's brother Pierre) arrives, Renoir switches to a use of gentle zooms and close-ups to show how the inspector picks up on details as he casually moves around a room. Rather than wait for the Sherlock Holmes-esque expository explanation at the end, Renoir pieces together clues even as he leaves the ultimate connections hanging in the air mysteriously. Elsewhere, Renoir employs cheeky methods of figuring out the movie's skewed sense of spatial and temporal relations. The police hold Carl for questioning for 17 hours, the static vacuum of the windowless room punctuated by cutaways to low-angle shots of a newsstand as the day's papers change from morning editions to afternoon versions, finally settling on a crumpled, waterlogged evening edition being swept up at night by a cleaner. And the hazy yet skillfully plotted geography of the area is central to the climactic car chase, a murky POV rumble through the streets illuminated only by headlights and muzzle flashes even as is moves in a clear trajectory around town.

"I tried to give you the feeling of mud sticking to your feet, and of fog obscuring your sight," Renoir later said of the picture. La Nuit du Carrefour certainly feels mucky and grim, and more than a little absurd; it's no wonder that the one song that the local, accordion-toting musician can play is a tune he learned at the circus. "It's not safe anywhere," says the mechanic Oscar near the start of the film, a preemptive rejoinder to the xenophobia about to set upon the desolate area. By the end of the film, the sense of doom that confirms that assessment stems less from the revelation of mass culpability than the suffocating fog closing in on the crossroads. By that point, the rolling mist seems less condensed humidity than mustard gas fumes. Even the final show of humanity and love only truly serves to lock these people within this poison cloud.