Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Curse of the Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1983)

 

I wrote in the past that Blake Edwards’ fascination with the Pink Panther universe carries the air of a stubborn, doomed quest toward revelation, and the late failure Curse of the Pink Panther fits right in with that assessment. Things kick off with yet another heisting of the titular diamond, but this time executed so cursorily that it seems like mere referential nodding; Clouseau apprehends the perpetrators and abruptly disappears, with a bereft France summoning the world’s best remaining detective to track him down, except that the computer making the selection is secretly reprogrammed by Inspector Dreyfus to instead identify the world’s worst, Chicago officer Clifton Sleigh. As played by Ted Wass, Sleigh is indeed sufficiently inept and bumbling that several characters wonder whether he and Clouseau are related, but he’s otherwise an affectless blank, sheer dead air, which however somewhat fits the obsession with absence; the ending has the world convinced that Clouseau is indeed dead, whereas he’s actually undergone plastic surgery and is now played by Roger Moore (apparently embodying a weird simulacrum of himself, given that Sleigh recognizes him as a famous star). Edwards churns out the set pieces (miraculously-avoided assassination attempts; the mandatory car chase; any amount of falling into swimming pools and the like) with barely a hint of his formal strengths, suggesting a broader displacement and dilution of spirit. And yet, the film’s selective navigation of the Panther universe is weirdly intriguing: it reaches back to the first film to resurrect David Niven’s Charles Litton (erasing the fact that Litton was subsequently played by Christopher Plummer in Return of) and related characters while relegating Graham Stark (who, among other things, was Clouseau’s assistant in A Shot in the Dark) to the role of a waiter, in a scene in which Sleigh’s extended ineptness has the people at one adjacent table hysterically laughing as if watching the movie Edwards wanted this to be, while those at the next table are utterly oblivious, presumably more securely lodged in the fictive universe. All very strange...

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Broken Mirrors (Marleen Gorris, 1984)

 

Marleen Gorris’ follow-up to A Question of Silence is very much its companion piece, foregrounding some of the same actors, extending the earlier film’s questioning of the basic structures and assumptions of work and family, carrying a similar sense of a text that can’t be contained by prevailing patriarchal norms and expectations. Broken Mirrors is the more structurally ambitious film, with two intertwining narrative tracks, one located primarily within a brothel, the other tracking a serial kidnapper and killer of women: the juxtaposition of two such cinematically loaded milieus can seem strained at times, the point about contrasting forms of female powerlessness all too obvious even before one of the characters voices it explicitly near the end, but never to the point of negating the film’s overall strengths. It’s at its strongest when observing workplace activity, the women putting up with a wide spectrum of male behaviour (the “nice” clients as tediously transparent as the aggressors), the two strongest characters gradually forming an axis which ultimately allows them to stand up to a transgressing client and then to walk out (it’s telling that the image of a woman holding a gun and firing into one of the titular mirrors made it onto the film’s poster, given how wildly unrepresentative it is of the overall substance). But it’s also plain that their stand, no matter how momentarily brave, leaves the broader picture essentially unaltered (as soon as they leave, the remaining women return to their usual time-killing activities), and while one of the two says she won’t ever be back, the other can go no further than “not if it’s up to me.” The law, in the form of police or otherwise, is entirely absent: as in A Question of Silence, one leaves the film with a sense of a female discourse from which men are excluded by their very nature.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

 

Looked at now, it’s hard to decide whether the ending of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is really even a remotely happy one, as opposed to a sad capitulation. Certainly the two principals (Jack Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter and Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik) regard each other with genuine-seeming delight in the final shot, and the film pulls off the conceit of the two never even using each other’s first names, let alone kissing or more; the formality and caution makes them an oasis of mutual decency and regard in a mostly crass world. But on the other hand, it’s the kind of device that obscures as much as it reveals character (likewise the snappy Wilder dialogue – “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise’), and the film provides precious little evidence that they’re well-matched in any substantive regard (one wonders if Kubelik looks happy mostly because she knows she’ll never flip for the trying-too-hard Baxter as she has in the past for various unsuitable guys, finally giving her a protective upper hand). On the whole, one probably chooses to feel uplifted, if only because the rest of the film is so seeped in the disheartening sexual go-rounds that surround them in the workplace: the sense of a relentlessly predatory culture, of a genuinely callous attitude toward women, certainly holds up, such that the takeaway might merely be that if you find something that’s just half a step above squalidity, you shut up and deal. On the other hand, the portrayal of the office itself, with its dystopia-worthy rows of desks and its stifling hierarchies, is less productive, and at times the movie just seems grumpily dated, as in the scene of Baxter flipping through old movies and sponsor announcements in search of something to watch with his TV dinner, eventually giving up in exasperation. Whether or not one rates Wilder’s film as a masterpiece, it retains its mordant singularity, even if there’s something rather depressing about that too.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Police Python 357 (Alain Corneau, 1976)

 

One might approach Alain Corneau’s Police Python 357 with some trepidation given that seemingly gun-stroking title, an impression bolstered by the fetishistic opening titles, and by the knowledge that while the film casts Yves Montand (an irresistible presence throughout) as Inspector Marc Ferrot, the proud owner of the titular weapon (he even makes his own bullets), it saddles his real-life wife Simone Signoret with the far less dynamic role of a largely bed-ridden old schemer whose husband (Francois Perier, playing Ferrot’s boss Ganay) openly maintains a much younger mistress. Early on, the film may also seem overly reliant on coincidence, as the young woman, Silvia (Stefania Sandrelli) starts seeing Ferrot as well, each man becoming aware that he’s not the only one, but unaware of the other’s identity; when Ganay murders Silvia, the prime suspect is the unidentified man that neighbours and others most recently saw her with, entailing that Ferrot is effectively assigned to track down himself. But Corneau keeps things unpredictable, and slyly subverts expectations throughout, intercutting Sylvia’s murder with a goofy scene of a drunk Ferrot opening the back of a parked truck to release its cargo of pigs, and later having Ferrot (for whom the affair seems to have been a radical deviation from a buttoned-down existence) go to extremes to avoid being in the same room with witnesses whom he knows will recognize him, first by barging into a heated group of strikers and getting himself beaten up, and later by throwing acid onto his own face and permanently disfiguring himself. The finale showcases Ferrot’s personal courage and marksmanship, but any sense of triumph is by then heavily offset by the character’s diminished physical, professional and psychic state; likewise, Montand and Signoret only really have one scene together, an extremely bleak one that subverts any likely expectation for such a star pairing.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Flight to Berlin (Christopher Petit, 1984)

 

Christopher Petit’s Flight to Berlin sustains the brittle surface of a modern-day Euro-noir, starting with a visitor to the city, Susannah, taken from her hotel for police interrogation, the questions apparently based in suspicion of illicit smuggling and connections with murky local figures, then going back in classic style to review the events that lead her there. That’s almost as much as one can say with any certainty about Petit’s film, all that follows being almost endlessly slippery, ambiguous, mutable and playful, drawing (but not too strenuously) on Berlin’s then-unique status as a divided, liminal space. To note just a few points: Susannah, we find out, is indeed fleeing a crime scene, but not the one she’s questioned about; she frequently calls herself by a different name, Marianne (and although English, is played by the Swedish Tusse Silberg); she has a German sister, Julie, with whom she’s seldom ever spent time, and she rapidly sleeps with a man who’s also slept with Julie, and who works for a shady character who turns out to be Julie’s husband (a Frenchman who claims he only married her for a German passport, seeming more interested in being with Susannah). The film at various times evokes almost every major European director of its time in one way or another (the casting alone provides connections with Rivette, Fassbinder, Wenders, Godard and onwards), as well as the looming shadow of classic Hollywood, with Eddie Constantine showing up as himself, oozing presence and charisma and opining along the way that by going into politics Ronald Reagan ruined a perfectly good career in B-Westerns. Ultimately, the film offers no resolution, perhaps ending where it might have begun, indeed defined largely by a sense of flight, of storytelling and reinvention, both of its protagonist and of the unstable city around her.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Passe ton bac d’abord (Maurice Pialat, 1977)

 

Maurice Pialat’s Passe ton bac d’abord looks at a loosely-constituted group of young people in the dead-end French town of Lens, adults in some ways (they drink and smoke and are sexually active) but not yet in others (some are still in school, few if any are economically self-sufficient). The film starts and ends in philosophy class, the teacher instructing the students on the necessity to free one’s mind from preconceptions, an admonition hopelessly at odds with a reality defined by lack of economic and cultural opportunity, by deadening repetition, by a peer group that makes major life decisions such as marriage or pregnancy on the basis of entirely short-term calculations. Of course, many films have covered such territory, but as always, Pialat’s powers of vision and empathy give his work an almost unnerving connective power. The film certainly feels naturalistic and drawn from life, but is also muscularly shaped and balanced, the mundane central realities offset with a sense of possibilities around the edges. The most striking of these is perhaps the late arrival of a Rolls-Royce, its passage through the streets given quite a build-up, turning out to contain two model agency representatives who want to offer one of the girls a contract; whether or not the opportunity is worth pursuing, the broader point is that the parents dismiss the two out of hand without even a minimum amount of due diligence regarding what’s being offered and where it might lead. As a different kind of example of the film’s acuity: during a trip to the coast, one of the group meets a girl from Paris who in her unforced way embodies the greater inner and outer resources that they lack; he has sex with her (at her initiation) and later shows off to the others the exotic undergarment that he took from her, but the scene is more poignant than triumphant, an embodiment of distances that can only momentarily be traversed.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)

 

Hal Ashby’s Being There remains famous for its central conceit, that a developmentally-challenged middle-aged gardener who knows almost nothing of the real world might fall into the orbit of rich and powerful people who take his simplicity as a sign of serene analytical intelligence, such that he may even be destined for the Oval Office. The notion no doubt carries a certain dreamy appeal, but even allowing for the inevitable concisions and conventions of movie narrative, the film can only work at all by engaging in rampant fakery, for example by boiling down conversations and events which would spread over hours into a minute or two, or by having Chance start off in one improbably rarified high-end environment and then, once he’s expelled from there, luck out within a day into one that’s even more so. The film has its prophetic aspects in that a rampant idiot did indeed ascend to the Presidency in recent years, except that the angry, bitter, wrecking-ball reality of what we’re still living through makes Ashby’s benign conception seem even more irrelevant than it did at the time. Even Chance’s accidental wisdom, his supposed message of sticking it out through economic fall and winter in anticipation of the inevitable upturn of spring and summer, amounts to no more than counseled complacency (no doubt the burden of the fallow seasons wouldn’t fall too heavily on the plush lives depicted here). The film sustains a thin veneer of tastefulness, and Peter Sellers does as well with the unplayable character as can be imagined, but any assessment of this as an important or meaningful film must be rooted in Chance-level misapprehension. The film’s losers include Shirley MacLaine’s character Eve, defined as having almost no attributes other than that of being a rich man’s younger wife, distastefully falling for and offering herself to Chance within a few days of meeting him.

Friday, January 12, 2024

In the Dust of the Stars (Gottfried Kolditz, 1976)

 

The plot of Gottfried Kolditz’s In the Dust of the Stars could have been plucked straight from episodic television: a spaceship of six crew members (four of them women, including the commander) touches down on an unknown planet in response to a distress call, only for their hosts to claim it was sent by accident; the crew laps up the local hospitality while preparing to depart, but then discovers that the call came from the planet’s native inhabitants, now oppressed and forced underground to mine a rare mineral. Viewed in the present day, the film’s allegorical aspects benefit hugely from the clear physical resemblance of the oppressors’ leader to Vladimir Putin (although they have less in common behaviorally); that aside, it’s rather hard to gauge how seriously to take the film. It often lacks even basic plausibility (for example, the crew members put themselves immediately in the hands of the planet-dwellers, including ingesting whatever’s offered to them, without taking even minimal precautions) but the prevailing earnestness doesn’t suggest (despite various mostly labored comedic touches) a parody or jape, and the overall thrust of the narrative is fairly politicized. But then it provides an array of peculiar visual flourishes, including the penchant of the local women for dancing in skimpily diaphanous outings (the movie seems well-resourced in some respects, but some of the special effects and other trappings are distinctly rickety), and the Putin character’s mixing-board-like toy at which he sits and makes music (again with accompanying dancers always on call) while his giant pet snake slithers around. The film’s ideological footprint is somewhat confused, broadly aligning itself with the resistance to the colonial occupiers, but seeming far more intrigued by the latter; it crafts its villains far more colourfully than its heroes, with the six cosmonauts having largely interchangeably non-descript personalities (one of them standing out only by virtue of an extended shower scene).  

Friday, January 5, 2024

The Disappearance (Stuart Cooper, 1977)

 

At the time of writing, there are two versions of Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance easily available online, one of them a shorter, linear cut with almost unwatchably dark image quality, the other longer and more impressionistic, but with opening and closing credits missing; I only watched a few minutes of the former for comparison, enough to reveal intriguing small differences such as an assassination victim who cries out “Don’t do it” before he’s killed, but is silent in the second version. The multiplicity of versions and details enhances the evasively prickly nature of Cooper’s film, one built around basically familiar narrative ingredients, but with most points of certainty removed: although the title seems to refer specifically to the sudden disappearance of the protagonist’s wife, the film is full of sudden absences and strangely brief appearances (the movie has a starry sounding cast including John Hurt and Christopher Plummer, but most only show up for one or two scenes). Donald Sutherland’s Montreal-based assassin Jay Mallory is a perfect focal point, unreadably spiky and short-tempered at times, completely charming when the situation demands it: he takes a job in Britain that he doesn’t want, apparently because it allows an opportunity to follow a lead on his wife’s location, and it’s no surprise of course when he finds a link between the disappearance he’s investigating and the one he’s being paid to effect. If that’s all broadly predictable, the treatment is consistently intriguing and expansive, always suggesting greater mysteries and ambiguities, all the way to the final seconds which introduce yet another unexplained disappearance of sorts. A peculiar sequence has Sutherland and Hurt encountering a couple of roadside bandits, seemingly unrelated to anything else in the film; one of the two criminals is apparently played by Norman Eshley, the sailor in Welles’ The Immortal Story, although he doesn’t receive a single identifying close-up here, perhaps the saddest of all the film’s erasures.   

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Love is a Funny Thing (Claude Lelouch, 1969)

 

Even at their sappiest, Claude Lelouch’s films are usually more eccentrically ambitious and personal than his reputation often acknowledges; the 1969 Love is a Funny Thing is no exception. Henri (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Francoise (Annie Girardot) are both working on the same American-shot movie, as composer and actress respectively; they hook up and take off on an improvised road trip, with the film intriguingly eliding both the details of the initial seduction and most of the key decision points thereafter, concentrating instead on momentary experience and engagement. This allows a quasi-pre-Herzogian cavalcade of American oddities, including a Western shoot-out enactment (Lelouch thoughtfully lets the scene run long enough for each participant to be acknowledged and to take a bow), the ability to walk into a gun store and make a purchase using travelers cheques, and the all-round kookiness of Las Vegas (where the food may be lousy, but at least there’s a trapeze act to distract you from it, or failing that, Pat Boone with special guests Sonny and Cher). The two return to Europe and to their spouses with the idea of meeting up again later, but their connection was all too obviously dependent on a particular set of circumstances, and the film ends in absence and separation (the original title, Un homme qui me plait, better reflects that the story belongs more to her than to him). It’s a shame that a viewer is most likely to encounter the film in a dubbed English version which flattens the sense of language and broader cultural differences (although the person who dubs Girardot does so with some delicacy, reflecting the actress’s reticent presence), but it’s still worthwhile viewing, with the bonus of a very young Farrah Fawcett, cast in the early scenes in a miserable have-I-got-a-girl-for-you role, at the mercy of Belmondo at his most offputtingly leering and predatory.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Q Planes (Tim Whelan, 1939)

 

Tim Whelan’s Q Planes makes for fun viewing, especially perhaps for the retrospective hints of a Bond-like franchise in formation, with Ralph Richardson’s secret service agent Hammond quipping his way through fraught situations, battling a foreign power equipped with cutting-edge technology in the service of malign dreams of dominance. Pursuing a theory about a series of recent supposedly unconnected accidents, Hammond embeds himself inside a airplane manufacturer, soon crossing paths with test pilot McVane (Laurence Olivier, a mostly workmanlike presence here) who shares his suspicions; the next test flight promptly goes missing, and we see it brought down by a device located on a nondescript-looking industrial ship, which scoops up the plane and imprisons the crew. The scheming foreign power isn’t specifically identified, but audiences of the time would obviously have had little problem filling in the blank; the film focuses just as much on treachery from within though, suggesting an environment of multi-faceted, destabilizing threat. The country’s best safeguard against this, it implicitly posits, is to put one’s trust in the grand old establishment: the film is fairly drenched in class-based privilege, with Hammond and his journalist sister (Valerie Hobson), who also sneaks her way into the plant in pursuit of a story (and of course soon has a thing going with McVane) scything their way through the world with an innate moneyed confidence, exhibiting the unwavering good humour of those for whom things always work out (Olivier’s McVane by comparison often seethes with resentment, feeling himself hard done by, exhibiting few of the same social skills). A running gag has Hammond continually phoning a woman to postpone his latest date with her, often when she’s virtually out the door already, never letting her get a word in; like other aspects of the film, it would fall flat if not for Richardson’s superb force-of-nature timing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Crime of Love (Luigi Comencini, 1974)


Luigi Comencini’s unhelpfully titled Crime of Love is single-minded to a fault, but makes a walloping cumulative impact, rooted in fine personal and social detail. Nullo and Carmela (Giuliano Gemma and Stefania Sandrelli) both work at an emblematically awful Milanese factory, its employees mired in mind-numbingly repetitive tasks while often enveloped in toxic fumes; the mutual attraction is plain, but held back by Carmela’s mercurial nature, based in a mixture of strategy and instinct and in the inherent impossibility of her situation. She’s from Sicily, living with the rest of her family in a single room seemingly filled mainly with beds; Nullo’s home in a more modern building, although also shared with parents and siblings, appears luxurious by comparison (plastic covering still on the couch; a fish tank); he’s an anarchist who rejects the idea of a church wedding whereas she can’t imagine anything else. And yet, she frequently demonstrates the inclination and capacity to be freer and more self-defined: she swings from not wanting him to enter her house because she’s there alone to being the one who shortly afterwards initiates sex (and mentions that she’s been on the pill ever since they met); she sets the tone and direction of things far more than he does, to his perpetual bemusement it seems. The film sometimes evokes Antonioni, depicting a world from which one could only possibly feel alienated (when she talks about wanting to go somewhere sunny, Nullo takes her to a swimming spot of his youth, now a polluted cesspit surrounded by garbage and dead birds), but Comencini’s intentions are more straightforward, with Carmela ultimately a victim of just about everything there is to be a victim of (when her brother beats her up for coming home late and gives her a black eye, she tells people that Nullo did it, because that seems more respectable, and indeed earns him praise from some co-workers). The film ends on a startling act of protest, but one that barely registers, compared to the persuasively draining chronicle that precedes it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

One Mile from Heaven (Allan Dwan, 1937)

 

About as eventfully varied as any 67-minute movie you’ll ever see, Allan Dwan’s One Mile from Heaven has Claire Trevor as Tex, a reporter who takes an unplanned trip to Harlem and then starts fixating on Sunny, the Shirley Temple-lookalike daughter of Flora, a Black mother (Fredi Washington). Tex instigates a juvenile court proceeding to investigate Sunny’s parentage, and the newspaper coverage of the case triggers a long-dormant history involving a convict father and a now well-connected mother who believed her child to be dead. The film is a fascinating melange of the progressive and patronizing: to take just a couple of examples, the Black community exhibits a distinct lack of rancour toward Tex’s meddling, accepting her actions mainly as the natural excesses of a newspaper woman and downplaying the obvious element of race-based prurience; the narrative ultimately works its way to a sort of proposed co-parenting arrangement, but one in which Flora will plainly only be marginalized over time, given the vast disparity in economic power and social connection. The film generally views Black culture in terms of prettified otherness: the depiction of Harlem, with its teeming streets and hoards of kids running outside to watch the dancing neighbourhood policeman (Bill Robinson), seems to place it as close to toytown as to heaven (Washington’s inherent dignity and gravity make her a general exception to such trivialization). Still, Dwan avoids the worst potential pitfalls, and at times appears to be grasping for something genuinely and idealistically radical; Robinson’s dance numbers are valuable on their own terms, and if it’s hard to see his persona as that of a beat cop, it's notable that he’s not merely a comic relief, but is treated as a credible and considerate moderating presence. On top of all that, the film includes strands of screwball comedy (mainly involving Tex continually getting the best of rival reporters) and of gangster melodrama, all melded together with no-nonsense efficiency and know-how.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Question of Silence (Marleen Gorris, 1982)

 


Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence remains a classic of political feminist cinema, endlessly stimulating and debatable for all its inevitably dated trappings: three women, strangers to each other and with little in common, spontaneously join together in brutally killing the male owner of a clothing store; another woman, a psychiatrist, is assigned to prepare a report for the court, and is unable to provide the expected conclusion, that the women were insane (at least by some measure). This isn’t a vigilante movie based in a whipped-up sense of righteous revenge (the women aren’t violently abused by their partners for instance); the injustices and imbalances underlying their actions are more subtle and systemic, rooted in the basic structures and assumptions of work and family, sometimes seeming to verge on the supernatural, particularly in the depiction of four other women who witness the murder, and thereafter seem to be joined in some silent form of communion (the sense of other-worldly possession bolstered by the highly of-the-moment synthesizer score). Such devices may seem a bit overly emphatic at times, but they’re a vital element of the prevailing sense of otherness, of a text which can’t be contained by prevailing patriarchal norms and expectations. It follows that the question of motive is never resolved (and indeed is rendered almost comically inadequate, an attempt to impose an easy narrative on an action which inherently resists that); a suggestion by the prosecutor that the crime should be assessed no differently from, say, a murder of a female shop assistant by three men strikes the women as so clueless that only laughter can follow, rendering the proceedings morally void, if not legally so. Inevitably, Gorris doesn’t arrive at a tidy conclusion, her film’s ending suggesting further new alliances ahead, an ongoing need for breakage and disruption.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Joe Hill (Bo Widerberg, 1971)

 

Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill follows the history of the real-life early 20th-century activist from his arrival in America as a Swedish immigrant, through early struggles in New York, through years of itinerant labour and increasing involvement in the workers’ rights movement, to his shocking death by firing squad after a murder conviction. The film has some wonderful, light-footed passages, at its strongest when channeling formative, unstructured experiences and realizations, such as his stumbling into song as a way of getting his message across (Hill is apparently reliably credited as the source of the phrase “pie in the sky’). It skimps though on setting out the arc and substance of his political journey, allowing a few isolated sequences to represent a complex whole, and spending relatively disproportionate time on the trial and its aftermath (although the contrast between the state’s painstaking management of execution protocols and its indifference to matters of infinitely greater social importance is well-made). Like Widerberg’s Adalen 31, the film feels less radical than its subject might demand; potential anger and righteousness somewhat defused by a sensitivity to the unpredictable nature of experience and influence, to the unreliability of memory and history in prioritizing events. Joe Hill acknowledges the possibility that a martyred Hill might be worth more to the movement than a live one, but doesn’t attempt to provide any broader perspective on the validity of that judgment; the final scenes show the organization making strategic use of his ashes, but also hints at how quickly hearts and minds move on. Widerberg’s curiosity and openness are among his most appealing qualities, even if they might suggest a lack of rigour and focus; in this case, at the very least, his approach results in a very personal engagement with history and myth, leaving ample space for competing versions of Hill’s story and significance (an implied invitation not yet taken up by other filmmakers though).