Wednesday, June 7, 2023

On the Buses (Harry Booth, 1971)


This spin-off from a British TV sitcom of the time has to be seen to be believed, which isn’t the same as saying it has to be seen; when I saw the film it was preceded by a warning from the broadcaster citing its outdated cultural attitudes, and that's just for starters. Stan and Jack, driver and conductor on a double-decker bus, are primally threatened when their employer tackles a staff shortage by employing a group of women drivers; the threat is both financial (no more overtime), and sexual (as conductors, women are “available,” but as drivers they’re not). When the women thwart the initial predictions by being basically capable, Stan and Jack set out to undermine them through such devices as planting spiders under their seats and spiking their tea with diuretics. Like so many sex-crazed British movies of the period, the film’s visual unsubtlety hurts the eyes (no “painting with light” here!), and the subtext is drably miserable: at an unspecified advanced age (the actor Reg Varney was in his mid-50’s) Stan lives with his mother, his married sister and her miserable husband in cramped quarters, their finances so unstable that when the overtime gets cut back they have to let go of the washing machine; the devotion to getting a bit of “crumpet” can only sustain its mechanical single-mindedness because it’s basically all there is to keep these wretched people going. The movie lacks any shred of basic human decency and warmth, seeming particularly brutal in its treatment of Stan’s sister Olive, presented as being slow-witted to the point of near-dysfunction, although Stephen Lewis’ portrayal of the put-upon inspector Blake approaches something oddly touching in its pathos. Several of the actors barely found work again after the series (and two further spin-off films) went off the air, a fate which gives their unrestrained excesses a rather macabre undertone, the one respect in which the film might reflect the broader tradition of the originating Hammer Studios…

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Muriel ou Le temps d’un retour (Alain Resnais, 1963)


Alain Resnais’ Muriel will probably seem disorienting at a first viewing, at times dawdling and at others jarringly jumping around, the events shown on screen often seeming less significant than others that are frequently referred to, its ending unresolved and cryptic. But with repeated viewing, these characteristics come to seem central to its astounding interweaving of form and content, and evocation of history and memory; it feels less like watching a film than moving around inside it, always aware that to look in one place is to miss what’s happening in another. The plot has Delphine Seyrig’s Helene reconnecting with her old wartime lover Alphonse after many years, during which she was married and widowed and now lives with her stepson, dealing in antiques out of her home (a perfect representation of a life highly conditioned by memories, if not necessarily one’s own). The stepson, Bernard, refers to a fiancĂ©e, Muriel, who appears not actually to exist; we later learn that during his wartime service, the same name was used to denote a woman subjected to military atrocity, an event which continues to haunt him. But it seems it wasn’t that woman's real name either (the real Muriel in the film isn’t even seen, being merely the subject of a briefly overheard cry in the street), and likewise almost every aspect of Alphonse’s past and present is unreliable, a characteristic reflected in the film’s unstable-seeming, pliable form, and in its small-town setting, damaged during the war and now uncertainly evolving (one of its key landmarks is a brutalist-looking casino which appears to wreak havoc with Helene’s finances). The ending, coming in the wake of some abrupt realigning of the lives we’ve been watching, follows a previously unseen character arriving in town and wandering alone through Helene’s space, providing a strangely appropriate sense of rebalancing even as it withholds conventional closure. Overall, a must-see (and, as noted, once won’t likely do).

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A Warm December (Sidney Poitier, 1973)


In Sidney Poitier’s A Warm December, the star/director plays Matt Younger, a widowed American doctor on vacation in London with his young daughter; he falls in love with Catherine Oswandu (Ester Anderson), the mover-and-shaker niece of the “Republic of Torunda’s” Ambassador to Britain, eventually learning that she has fatal sickle-cell anemia, and only a few years to live. The film’s main virtue, and not a negligible one, is its very Blackness: race is never cited as an issue in any context, and it incorporates several diverse scenes of Black music and culture (ranging from Miriam Makeba to an odd open-air scene in which Younger and Catherine play records for a group of rural white kids, as their elders look on in mostly bemused fashion). Much else about it is disappointing or confounding though. The initial scenes, for whatever reason, have a cloak-and-dagger feel about them, shrouding the purpose of Younger’s trip in some mystery, and presenting Catherine as a stylishly mysterious figure with a host of ethnically diverse people on her trail; that all peters out, the film then becoming mostly defined by repetitive soppiness (aided by a generally excruciating music score, drawing not at all on the best of Black culture) with Catherine’s entourage and duties and mercurial nature repeatedly thwarting Younger’s plans and dreams. In truth though, given Poitier’s predominantly bland performance, it’s hard to know why the guy keeps at it, and the film doesn’t make the most of Anderson’s vivid presence; Yvette Curtis is intriguingly stoic as Younger’s daughter, although the film treats her as little more than a plot device. The ending might be read as an endorsement of prioritizing nation-building pragmatism over personal desire, but if so that’s mostly botched too. Still, for all its flaws, the film is notable as the high point of Poitier’s directorial ambition; following its failure he stuck entirely to comedy (well, and Fast Forward…)

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

From the Life of the Marionettes (Ingmar Bergman, 1980)


From the Life of the Marionettes is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most chilling films, infiltrated with a loathing and pessimism that feel all-consuming: it was made during Bergman’s German exile from Sweden, a period of great acknowledged personal difficulty, in which the film feels helplessly suffused. It certainly feels like a deliberate stifling of any lightness we might detect in his work, with for example a protagonist called Egerman harking back to Smiles of a Summer Night (and with another famous actress prominent in the structure), except that the smiles here are heavy with malice and/or calculation, and the “little night music” becomes a deadening disco-inflected grind; the film’s cheerless interiors generally preclude any sense of day or night or any other index of the natural world. It starts with Egerman’s murder of a prostitute, then goes back in dossier-like fashion to place the event in a kind of context: we learn early on that he was plagued by fantasies of killing his wife Katarina, with the doctor in whom he confides these thoughts promptly summoning Katarina to his office, and then making sexual moves on her (which seemingly come close to succeeding); almost every subsequent scene provides a further moral or ethical or behavioral transgression or atrocity or mark of trauma. It perhaps follows that Egerman can gain a measure of control over his deadeningly repetitive, joyless life only by embracing the extremity of depravity, placing himself beyond the pale; the murder and his subsequent life in prison, removed from any knowledge of what’s going on outside, are the film’s only sections in colour, contrasting with the forcefully drab black and white of everything else. The film is highly artificial, its single-mindedness sometimes verging on parody; it causes you to worry for the state of mind of its maker (or would do, if not for one’s knowledge that Bergman’s next work was Fanny and Alexander), and for your own.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Darling Lili (Blake Edwards, 1970)


As a major Blake Edwards fan, I’ve long felt I’m missing something with Darling Lili; a recent reviewing didn’t really remedy that. The film certainly has some of Edwards’ most sophisticated play with image and identity, right from the initial emergence of Lili from a black screen to sing the haunted, almost disembodied “Whistling in the Dark” number. Given the plot of a beloved English singer who’s also a German spy; with moments that appear to explicitly channel Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and which look ahead to later works like “10” and “Victor/Victoria,” its use of Julie Andrews’ star image is unusually multi-layered. And yet, the film’s machinations often feel unduly heavy and joyless, not least due to Andrews herself, who here as in several films to come hardly seems to justify her husband/director’s faith in her. Even allowing that the opaqueness is part of the point, Lili is a confounding blank; every time I see the film, I expect it to be revealed that she was actually a double agent all along, or at least that there’s more to it than I’ve previously grasped. Her relationship with an American ace, Larrabee, evolves from spycraft to real reciprocated love, but as embodied by Rock Hudson, the character remains strangely formal and distant; the Clouseau-type sight gags, in the form of a sozzled colleague of Larrabee’s and two French policemen on Lili’s trail, aren’t too well integrated; the film is likely to leave you puzzled on a number of other narrative and thematic fronts. It’s true that these and other criticisms could be repositioned as evidence of a slyly elusive intelligence, but where I’ll happily rush to point out what people overlook in (say) S.O.B. or even The Man Who Loved Women, I’ve never felt capable of making the effort for Darling Lili. Oh well, can’t win them all…  

Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Last Adventure (Robert Enrico, 1967)


Robert Enrico’s Les aventuriers is a consistently fresh and unpredictable pleasure, its surprises spanning the film’s tone, pacing, narrative construction, the behaviour of its characters and, well, just about everything. As if in response to a write-this-if-you-can challenge, it starts with a woman (Laetitia, played by Joanna Shimkus) rummaging through a scrap yard; she soon crosses paths with the owner Roland (Lino Ventura) and his best friend/collaborator/fellow dreamer Manu (Alain Delon), the three soon coming to form a loose trio (the film establishes the deep importance of these connections while gently side-stepping conventional sexual competitiveness). After a string of failed passion projects, they take off to the Congo in search of a stash of treasure located underwater on a crashed plane; this time they achieve their goal, but at a wrenching human cost which directs and underlies their activities on returning to France. The film evokes the great human dynamics of Howard Hawks: the three principals have a sense of each other that allows bumps and breaks to be traversed, whereas a fourth participant who joins the group for a while in the Congo (Serge Reggiani) is consistently shown to be in small or large ways suspect, and is ultimately cast out, despite having tried to do the right thing. It’s typical of the film though that it allows Reggiani’s unnamed character a late reappearance which establishes his basic moral fortitude; such moments seem rooted in a pervasive curiosity which has the two men digging into Laetitia’s humble origins, and to some degree assuming her life trajectory as their own, with time for charming diversions such as a visit to a rinky-dinky small-town museum, in which we get to examine just about every stuffed animal and rusty artifact. The climax delivers all the scenic action the adventure genre demands, but without any ultimate sense of exultation, ending on another note of bitter loss and existential arbitrariness.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

In Nicholas Ray’s Knock on Any Door, commercial attorney Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart) steps back into his criminal-law past to defend Nick Romano (John Derek), a young “hoodlum” accused of killing a police officer: much of the first half unfolds in flashback as Morton recounts for the jury his past experiences with Romano, and his own possible partial culpability for why the young man’s life went wrong; the second half focuses mainly on the trial itself. The rather ungainly structure and all that’s packed into it generates a feeling of Ray being hemmed in much of the time, finding limited room for visual invention or meaningful character exploration; it achieves a few grace notes at the end though, in a lonely overhead framing of Morton making his final argument, and in the very final, transcendence-tinged shot (no less striking for being rather absurd). John Derek’s Nick Romano is as thin a presence as everyone has always said, but Bogart is as fascinatingly shaded as always, and the diverse supporting cast accommodates Preston Sturges-like eccentricity, unrestrained excess, wild intensity, the soft-spoken loveliness of Allene Roberts as the girl with whom Romano falls in love, and a relatively prominent, naturalistic Black character, whose testimony sparks a courtroom blow-up over whether or not he would even have been allowed inside the bar where he claimed to be at the time of the murder. The film’s speechifying, however overdone, still connects at a time when large factions of mainstream America seem to be defined largely by drummed-up fear and paranoia; the revelation that Romano is actually guilty, despite Morton’s skilled argument for his innocence, speaks directly to the wearisome burden of maintaining one’s idealism. But overall, it’s instructive that a film so strenuously seeking to enhance our sense of ambiguity and perspective should end up being one of Ray’s most unilluminatingly straightforward.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

The Beekeeper (Theo Angelopoulos, 1986)


Theo Angelopoulos’s The Beekeeper feels rather strenuous at times, but it’s a quality rooted in bottomlessly searching despair, for its central character and the world he represents, and for the fate of the mode of cinema in which such an individual could be the protagonist. Marcello Mastroianni (inherently deep in art cinema resonance, but cast here in sternly withholding mode) plays Spyros, newly-retired from his small-town schoolteacher position, attending his youngest daughter’s wedding and then leaving behind his family (which in any event seems to be barely held together) to focus on his beekeeping, depicted here as a nomadic vocation, driving from one location to another, setting up and tending the hives for a while and then packing it all up and moving on; along the way he gives a ride to a young, unnamed woman, and their paths keep crossing thereafter, her attitude toward him ranging from affectionate to contemptuous, sometimes almost simultaneously. The film’s effective climax could hardly be more symbolic: Spyros and the woman spend the night in a disused cinema likely slated for demolition, where she undresses before him as if in sexual offering, but the resulting contact is bizarre and suffused in alienation, apparently marking the end of the dance between them; from there it’s a short journey to an final scene in which Spyros reaches his tragic existential destination, powerfully conceived and haunting, but less for an individual man’s fate than for that of a generation, its collective memories, its relationship to homeland and tradition. Much of the film might have been set decades ago; the film’s newest-looking locations are also among its most desolately alienating (in this context, a passing reference to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms seems weirdly out of place), defined by almost empty, characterless roadside diners and the like, and by numerous shots of people moving in expressionless, almost zombie-like manner.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Les stances a Sophie (Moshe Mizrahi, 1971)


Moshe Mizrahi’s Les stances a Sophie falls a little short of feminist classic status, but it’s a spikily enjoyable work from start to finish, excellently drawing on Bernadette Lafont’s distinctive crossing of slightly removed amusement with unerring seriousness of purpose. She plays Celine, a low-overhead arty type, who in the film’s opening stretch meets and sort of falls for businessman Philippe, accepting his marriage proposal in part because of what she calls “gravitation.” She’s hardly suited to the world he inhabits (a scene early in their marriage has him trying to drum the details of the coming evening’s social commitment into her head while she’s entirely preoccupied with trying to remember the previous night’s dream), but benefits from her friendship with Julia (Bulle Ogier), wife of Philippe’s best friend Jean-Pierre, who shows her some of the rich woman ropes (which, in one of the film’s less progressive notions, largely seem to involve buying clothes); in turn, Celine’s greater appetite for sex seems to help Julia out of her “semi-frigid” state, and the two eventually start collaborating on a theory-informed study of gender relations. But the film thwarts any expectations of a sexual free-for-all: in particular, Celine’s response to a pass that Philippe makes on her is withering, and the exact nature of her close relationship with Philippe’s sister is left unclear. Mizrahi has some fun with masculine car obsessions and their dim view of female drivers, until the joke turns bitterly sour, leading to an ending that delivers the expected note of liberation and self-determination while weaving in some intriguing notes of regret, abiding affection and male desolation. The film’s reputation is much bolstered (in some quarters entirely constituted by) the score by The Art Ensemble of Chicago, its only such feature-length assignment; their work soars and pivots and counterpoints, bolstering the sense of investigative complexity.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (Masahiro Shinoda, 1976)


The title of Masahiro Shinoda’s Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees seems to promise a largely soothing experience, and even after the warning in an opening voice over that such trees were historically more to be feared than relished, it still often seems possible that the film might ultimately find its way into such a register. But that’s just one aspect of its continual capacity to surprise and misdirect, being at various other times blackly comic, cartoonishly violent, mythically possessed, or (in the extended relish with which it plunges into urban hustle and bustle) an amused study of the gap between city and country. Ultimately this might all be tied together as an extreme parable on the perils of getting what you wish for, built around a mountain-dwelling bandit in ancient Japan who slaughters a group of travelers from the city, sparing a woman he finds uniquely beautiful and decreeing she’s to be his wife. The captive accepts her fate with strange equanimity, while harassing him from the start and testing him with extreme demands, including that he kill most of the multiple women he already has on hand; eventually she persuades him to move to the city, where he slaughters dozens of victims for the sake of feeding her growing obsession with disembodied heads. But it’s hardly a sustainable way of life, and in the end they set off back to the country, his excitement at going home causing him to disregard his usual caution regarding the cherry trees, and their fate accordingly awaits them. It’s a visually striking ending, but also an evasive one, potentially leaving the viewer feeling rather abandoned. But then there’s a final shot of the trees, certainly looping back to that opening warning, and perhaps commenting more generally on how our modern-day traditions and rituals lack a sense of the past complexity and turbulence from which they arose.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

City on Fire (Alvin Rakoff, 1979)


Alvin Rakoff’s City on Fire is a particularly grim addition to the 70’s run of disaster films, a relic of a time when audiences were assumed capable, by some producers anyway, of being entertained by almost any old thing: it lacks the resources to convey the titular burning city (unnamed here, but played by Montreal) with any kind of plausibility, but also, more damagingly, doesn't have the creative energy and sense of adventure that might have compensated for such a lack (or even made a virtue of it). Taking the thing on its own wearily literal terms, weaknesses pile up: it fails in every area of special effects, wastes time on trivial narrative devices while seeming weirdly disengaged from what presumably ought to be interesting about the whole thing (what would actually happen, if a city had 180 separate fires going, as stated here at one point?), lacks much internal consistency (almost as soon as the fire breaks out, we get a shot of an entire high-rise building collapsing in flames, which doesn’t correlate at all with what follows) and allowing no scope either for good acting or (again, perhaps more regrettably) for the enjoyably bad kind. The plot, such as it is, has a disgruntled employee sabotaging (with remarkable ease) an oil refinery located too close to the centre of town; he subsequently hangs around the hospital which dominates the “action,” as does the mayor (Leslie Nielsen), who seems weirdly unconcerned about keeping tabs on the big picture, a stalwart nurse (stalwart Shelley Winters), irascible surgeon Barry Newman (what, you expected Paul?), and sundry others. Henry Fonda as the fire chief barely leaves the situation room; even more limitingly, Ava Gardner as an alcoholic local TV personality anchors the coverage while never apparently talking to any other reporter, her broadcasts seeming desolately stark and isolated. Nevertheless, we’re informed they were a spectacular success, by some unclear measure.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Left-Handed Woman (Peter Handke, 1977)


Haven’t you noticed, asks the closing epigram of Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman, that there is space only for the one who brings space himself…? Acknowledging that the precision of the subtitles may only extend so far, it’s an apt closure; the conversational tone emphasizing the film’s investigative qualities, its questioning of the interplay between inner and outer lives. The choice of “himself” could be puzzling in this context, and yet the credits that follow identify Edith Clever’s protagonist only as “die Frau,” even though the film itself does give her a name, Marianne; her husband on the other hand is identified as “Bruno,” the same name as the actor playing him, Bruno Ganz, seemingly setting out its own little puzzle regarding the relative identifiability and tangibility of the two character/actor presences. The film revolves around a German couple living in Paris (summing up the pervasive sense of dislocation) – he returns from a business trip to Finland professing his renewed joy in their relationship, to which she soon responds by instigating a split; he moves out and she goes on living in their house with their young son, gradually constructing a revised personal and social equilibrium. Marianne talks very little (her first words come so far into the film that one might have assumed her to be mute) and explains herself less, demanding that we take her on her own terms, an act of feminist sympathy which however does carry the offsetting effect of rendering her something of an abstraction (her relationship with her main female friend Franziska is also one of few words, although provides a key moment of validation when, after earlier flailing to understand Marianne’s choices, Franziska finally allows that “now even I want to be alone”). But it’s a satisfying film overall, with numerous secondary mysteries including the brief presence of Gerard Depardieu, billed as “Mann mit dem T-shirt,” which indeed sums up his contribution exactly.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Who's Who (Mike Leigh, 1979)


Mike Leigh’s Who’s Who isn’t the best of his works for the BBC, often seeming rather ungainly and strained both in its individual devices and in its contrasts and juxtapositions; still, Leigh being Leigh, it still hits a generous number of targets. The film's central character is Alan, an administrative worker at a London stockbroking firm, weirdly obsessed with the world of nobility and titles from which he’s inherently excluded, but of which he receives ample glimpses via the more highly-bred and better-connected professionals at the workplace; these in turn divide between the practiced if distant courtesy of the old school, and the crasser younger generation who cross into sexually harassing the female staff and holding loud obnoxious conversations in the office hallways. Unstable and pitiful as this all is, the film sometimes seems to be carrying multiple regrets for a bygone age in which these distinctions were better defined and more rigidly observed: Alan’s delusional notion of self-elevation through osmosis (he bores everyone with his knowledge of Royal family trivia; his other main hobby is writing requests for signed photographs of celebrities) is somewhat pathetic, although, in a way, indicative of the desire for greater affinity and transparency that’s contributed to transforming the notion of Royalty in subsequent decades. It’s all laid on a little thick at times though, and the film’s main set-pieces (including a misfiring dinner party attended by two of the young stockbrokers, at which for example the host chef ends up serving canned celery soup because the guest who was supposed to bring the avocados didn’t show up) don’t entirely cohere. At the end, although no doubt only temporarily, Alan succumbs to more accessible pleasures, joining his colleague in watching through the window a rather creepy ongoing flirtation in a nearby building; in the circumstances, this might actually constitute a healthier form of voyeurism?

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Anna and the Wolves (Carlos Saura, 1973)


The title of Carlos Saura’s Anna and the Wolves likely evokes a children’s story, a suggestion supported by the opening shots of Anna (Geraldine Chaplin) arriving at the isolated mansion where she’s to take care of three young girls, and the notion of playacting and invention that runs throughout the film. Any sense of innocence though is rapidly squashed out: all three of the brothers who occupy the house have their eye (and often hands) on Anna as soon as she arrives, and the roleplaying (including, over time, that of Anna herself) becomes increasingly malevolent and perverse. Juan, the only married brother, bombards her with lewd anonymous letters, raiding the family stamp collection to make it appear that they come from around the world; Jose maintains a private museum of military uniforms, guns and other memorabilia; Fernando becomes increasingly mystic (he’s even seen levitating in one impressionistic moment), retreating into a hermit’s cave and hardly eating, for a while impressing Anna with his apparent lack of designs on her, until his underlying perversion comes to light. The twistedness of course has deep roots: the family matriarch, prone to sudden fits of collapsing which seem to be largely strategic, maintains boxes of childhood mementos for each son, although the labeling system is chaotic, and the contents include such items as a spiked thimble that was used to stop one of them from sucking his thumb (we’re told it lacerated his mouth for some five months).  Nevertheless, the film’s shocking ending clarifies that for all the bourgeoisie’s dysfunction and internal dissention, it ultimately sticks together in perpetuation of its interests, with outsiders paying a brutal price (Anna’s fate, and an earlier sequence involving a buried doll, bring to mind the masses of the Franco-era disappeared). Overall, the film belongs with The Hunt and The Garden of Delights among the incisive peaks of Saura’s major, generally under-screened period.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Home Sweet Home (Mike Leigh, 1982)


Home Sweet Home is emblematic early-ish Mike Leigh, bitterly funny and appalling, inviting suspicions of condescension, but with too many flashes of desperate verisimilitude for any such charges to completely stick. A plot summary seems to align the film with randy workplace concoctions on the lines of On the Buses: postman Stan has an affair with the wife of one of his colleagues while being aggressively pursued by the wife of one of the others, things coming to a head when both women show up at his house at once. But Stan (Eric Richard) is no working-class Casanova, his appeal seeming mainly based in the contrast with the two inadequate husbands, and capable of awful self-serving coldness, as in the heartrending mini-portrait of his treatment of a woman he picks up at the launderette. His teenage daughter, Tina, has spent most of the time since her mother’s departure in foster care or group homes; Stan only reluctantly visits her, his inadequacy as a father pushing him into irritable taciturnity. It’s Tina who occupies the film’s final shot, suggesting she’s the most major casualty of the whole mess; a sly late pivot introduces a new social worker who bombards Stan with jargon while providing an ample window on his own bitter preoccupations. The title is ironic to a fault of course: as always, Leigh has an eerie capacity to create lived-in spaces and routines (how many cups of tea were offered and consumed in his work of this period?), while conveying how the frail economic predictability they provide is, as Sondheim might have put it, a daily little death. Tim Barker’s indelibly conceived Harold may be the saddest of the sad bunch, his wife snapping back at his most basic utterances, a stream of dumb jokes and disconnected utterances failing to disguise how he’s barely present in his own life, let alone anyone else’s.