Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Brave (Johnny Depp, 1997)

 

Seen in retrospect, Johnny Depp’s The Brave (made when the actor was just about at his peak of coolness, preceding the commercial highs to come and the subsequent reputational collapse) seems suffused by a desire to withdraw – into silence (there’s little dialogue, and none at all for the first ten minutes or so), into myth and beyond. The film is set around a hand-to-mouth melting-pot community, the landscape dominated by mounds of garbage and shimmering heatscapes, which suddenly yield to something quasi-Lynchian as Depp’s unemployed and luckless Raphael, following on a tip he received in a bar, enters a strange building to ask about a job, descending into a symbolic hell in which he’s eventually offered $50,000 to extinguish himself in a snuff film in a week's time. Taking the offer and a cash advance on the basis of stunningly little negotiation, Raphael conspicuously spreads the money around, attracting various kinds of suspicion; at the end of the week, he’s strengthened his core spiritual bonds, while putting himself beyond redemption in other ways. The film resists the audience’s most likely expectations, whether for some kind of last-minute escape or for any depiction of what Raphael must finally endure; with his business with the world as we know it concluded, it leaves his final hell to him and his acquirers. Depp has an intriguing if patchy feeling for eccentricity, although it’s a rather distant viewing experience, even allowing that this is inherent to what’s intended. The film has at least one major see-it-if-you-can aspect, the casting of a long-haired Marlon Brando in one of his last roles, extending the fateful offer from a wheelchair, in between musing on pain as a virtuous end to life and blowing on a harmonica, a performance no doubt “phoned in” by some measures, and yet embodying Brando’s unmatched capacity to transform whatever cinematic space he (however peculiarly) chose to occupy.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Plaisir d'amour (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

 

Nelly Kaplan’s last feature film, Plaisir d’amour, works an enjoyable if not ultimately too surprising variation on a self-gratifying male fantasy. Guillaume (Pierre Arditi), a practiced seducer (1,003 past conquests, we’re informed), chances into a position as tutor to a teenage girl on a tropical island; the girl is absent when he arrives, but while waiting for her arrival he separately beds, with little difficulty, her grandmother, mother and sister, all of whom share an elegantly dilapidated colonial mansion, with no male authority figure in sight. He figures he’ll step into the driver’s seat, but his attempts to impose greater order and efficiency get nowhere, and he becomes obsessed with the perpetually delayed girl (whose letters home and readily accessible diary indicates a psyche of a sexual rapaciousness that outdoes his own). The film suggests greater moral stakes through glimpses of fighting between the island’s army and its rebel faction, and through its late 1930’s setting, with WW2 percolating in the distance; and steadily muddies the sexual waters (both the women’s eccentric servant (Heinz Bennent) and their talking parrot appear to regard Guillaume as an object of desire); frequent references to Albert Einstein and a fanciful opening sequence throw in some scientific and mystical resonances as well. In the closing stretch, it becomes clear how little power and agency Guillaume has had throughout – he tips over into quasi-madness, and becomes a simple nuisance, his utility spent. It’s in no way a major film (not the equal of Kaplan’s La fiancĂ©e du pirate, which is much more zestily provocative on its own terms, and more broadly resonant as a social critique), but it’s an elegant one, even if a lot of it plays very conventionally and decoratively (there’s seldom a moment when any of the women seem to be behaving entirely naturally, albeit that this fits in with the artificially heightened nature of things).

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)


For all its contrivances and simplifications, Richard Quine’s The Solid Gold Cadillac is notable as one of the few movies about shareholder democracy, its uplifting finale revolving around the collection of sufficient small-stake proxy voting forms to overturn the complacent status quo. Laura Partridge (Judy Holliday), on the basis of her meagre holding of ten shares, regularly attends the meetings of the mighty corporation International Projects, irritating the complacent board members with her probing questions about their compensation packages and the like; they eventually give her a job, on the theory that it’s the best way to stifle her, but her threat to the established order only grows, especially when she starts a relationship with the company’s ousted founder McKeever (Paul Douglas), now in a high-ranking but unsatisfying Washington position. The film unnecessarily blunts its attack by, among other things, portraying the directors as such inept, disengaged boobs that they couldn’t possibly have attained such power (their sole plan to increase profitability is to get more government contracts, for which their strategy seems to consist solely of endlessly begging McKeever for them). The titular automobile only appears in the very last scene, as a symbol of Partridge’s ultimate professional and romantic triumph - the film switches from black and white to colour to better showcase the vehicle’s stunningness, although it’s rather a shame that a film that holds up corporate integrity and ethics would end on such a grandiose symbol of conspicuous consumption. For all the dismal personal behaviour on display, the movie is likely to be watched now with a significant amount of nostalgia, for a time when bloated dreams of self-enrichment capped out at annual salaries of a few hundred thousand dollars, or when an insignificant stakeholder like Partridge could even grab as much of the executive suite’s attention as she does here.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995)

 

Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris could almost evoke a rather plaintive response – the work of a man in his mid-70’s, immersing himself in protagonists four or five decades younger, obsessively examining and reexamining the mechanics of love and attraction, as if in search of something that tragically got away. The film’s sparseness – it was made under extremely minimal conditions, with just a handful of closing technical credits – gives it the sense of a modern pilgrimage of sorts, albeit that the site of the pilgrimage is on the doorstep, the city of Love, inexhaustible fount of pleasure, frustration and complexity. The film’s three segments are all, in the broadest sense, triangles: Esther suspects that her boyfriend Horace is seeing someone else, and then by chance meets the someone else in question; an unnamed woman, her relationship with her long-time partner on the rocks, meets an unnamed man in a series of locations, unwilling to take things beyond a certain level; a painter is set up with a Swedish visitor and takes her to the Picasso museum, but then finds his attention drawn to someone else, ending up without either woman. Rohmer’s genius with such material lies in his extreme attention to detail and awareness of contingency, for example of how the slightest change in the existing dynamic or equilibrium might disrupt something that might otherwise have tenuously held together; the film’s final scene points to how one never knows what may live in the memory, or may count as a compensation. Regardless that the characters are mostly living fairly basic lives, financially speaking, it’s hard not to view the film as a kind of aspirational fantasy, in which disappointments and compromises are as intoxicatingly necessary as the moments of fulfilment, all of it a reason to keep walking and talking and flirting, and ending things and beginning others.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)

 

The title of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle subtly points to the film's structuring displacement –  it identifies Eddie as its central point, played by its biggest star by far (Robert Mitchum), but concerns itself as much with the chains of connection around him, to the point that Eddie ultimately becomes more notable as absence than presence. He’s a habitual criminal, looking to avoid pending prison time, even at the cost of giving people up to the police – first the ones he doesn’t care about, and then even those he does - but his view of the big picture, and of his own place within it, is fatally limited. The film is populated with risk-aware characters trying to shore up their positions, posturing and pushing others around, but often still misjudging the real threats – it’s full of subtly tragic ironies and inter-dependencies. But if the constant transacting of guns and information almost verges at times on self-contained abstraction, the film provides sufficient evidence of the brutal tangibility with which this activity intersects with the real world, depicting a series of bank robberies (carried out with guns channeled through Eddie) in forensic detail. The film’s audaciously desolate climactic stretch has Eddie failing in his final play, and gradually fading from the movie and from life itself, becoming drunk and incoherent and lost in a hockey game crowd, his subsequent death shown with chilling offhandedness, treated largely just as a training exercise between experienced and novice killers; in the final low-key scene between two of those “friends,” his death is barely even worth dwelling on. Mitchum is ideally cast, allowed a rare opportunity to evoke a life and a history that don't run out at the edges of the frame, his wife and kids briefly but astutely depicted, marooned outside the community of “friends” that wearily propels his fate.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

 

It’s hopeless at this point to try saying anything new about Godard’s Breathless, and yet of all films it still feels like the one that might most be written about, or rather responded to, whether in words or celluloid or gestures or dreams, still in possession of a space all its own, where established orders of classical cinema and post-war American exceptionalism and gender relations and social correctness are in their different ways teetering or fraying or morphing, to be abandoned or appropriated depending on their adaptability. One could rhapsodize over every moment, but the dying run of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is as worth singling out as any – a defiantly absurd cinematic flourish, but with real life (or “real life”) all too obviously continuing on each side of the street, people going about their business apparently oblivious to, or unmoved by, the gorgeous history-making charade taking place within feet of them, and yet preserved for posterity whether they know it or not, a moment of their life rendered transcendent even as they looked the other way. One could speak of so much of the movie in similar terms – it shimmers with a constant sense of delighted experimentation, of trying poses and attitudes on for size, of relishing the sound of new words and the look of new faces, of creating and immediately fully occupying fresh cinematic space, of happy accidents (the resonances attaching to Jean Seberg prime among them). One almost feels protective of her and the movie, knowing that Godard would so quickly move on – for all Michel’s immense charisma (and Belmondo here is one of the all-time great alluring screen presences, and he and Seberg one of cinema’s all-time fascinating couples), he expresses himself worn out by the film’s end, ready to yield if circumstances would have allowed (if a friend hadn’t thrown him a gun), a capitulation that seems like Godard’s own acknowledgement of territory already defined and conquered.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

 

John Huston’s The Unforgiven provides some early images of pure relish, the three frontier-dwelling Zachary brothers high on the imminent prospect of material wealth, with several references to the sexual gratification that might follow, dynastically plotting to cement through several possible variations of inter-marriage their ties with the neighboring Rawlins clan. The fourth Zachary sibling, adopted daughter Rachel, seems in her impulsiveness and vibrancy both more modern and more primal than the others, a duality that becomes suspicious to the surrounding settler community when a mysterious old man claims that her ancestry is Native American (in the film’s terminology, Kiowa Indian); once the word is out, the Kiowa steps up its hostility and the community starts to fracture from fear, suspicion and prejudice. In the end, the four siblings are left standing among the ruins of their home and business, the family’s coherence apparently having survived the ordeal, but the movie provides little scope for optimism about its prospects of recovering its external bonds and standing, or about those of the country being built around them. Huston’s delighted engagement with actors reaches a kind of zenith here, pushing Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster to the point of frenzied excess at times, and surely enjoying the contrast with Lillian Gish as the mother, a portrait in severe perseverance; it’s Gish who’s at the centre of some of the film’s most haunting (and we’re encouraged at times to read events in almost supernatural terms, as if the layers of myths and past traumas standing in the way of progress were ever lurking in spectral form) moments, playing on a grand piano out in the open to counter the ominous music coming from their adversaries, or unilaterally ending an in-progress “trial” by shoving the horse away, ensuring that the defendant will end up hanging from the noose, uttering no more truth nor lies.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

 

Watched shortly after the welcome ending of the Trump years, the most prominent topical reference point for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain might be Qanon, a swirling, ever-renewing theory of everything, in which its adherents claim (however sad their disillusionment) to transcend the lying confines of conventional understanding (the main narrative follows a group of powerful individuals, each associated with one of the planets, that comes together to acquire ultimate power). Of course, the comparison is unfair to the ecstatic and (in their way) deeply-sourced aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, but the film is, by some measures at least, so (as they say) out there that it’s hard for the uneducated viewer to separate meaning from opportunism. It certainly impresses as an exercise in physically committed movie-making – pressing tigers and hippos into action for the sake of one or two shots, marshaling a series of staggering crowd scenes, a parade of amazing sets and other design elements and any number of logistically impressive shots (it’s staggering that the budget was apparently under $1 million); it also has a constant parade of nudity, mostly of an impersonally ceremonial kind of nature, summing up the absence of much that feels authentically human, or relevantly rooted in contemporary experience (leaving aside its various satirical aspects, for example its parodies of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, which although overdone at least further demonstrate the scope of Jodorowsky’s imagination). The surprisingly offhand nature of the ending seems on the one hand unequal to the involved quest that led up to it, but on the other hand asserts the film’s most direct connection with its audience, an implicit invitation to take from it what we wish and discard the rest. Still, even though one could list the movie’s points of interest almost indefinitely, it all ultimately feels less illuminating or potentially transformative than any number of far more modest, earthbound works.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Airport (George Seaton, 1970)

 

George Seaton’s Airport is a pretty damn irresistible entertainment machine, a portrait of society strewn with personal failure and dissatisfaction, the trajectory of which is nevertheless toward exceptionalism. It anticipates the present-day decline of American infrastructure in how its Lincoln Airport is governed by low-vision local politicians more worried about local interests and short-term cost considerations than looking ahead to the future; the more far-sighted general manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) is the emblematic figurehead whom everyone both relies upon and second-guesses. Bakersfeld specifically refers to himself as a kind of bigamist, the first and official family all but broken and the second consisting of his work; other main characters manifest similar tensions, home life coming second to lovers, or blocked runways, or unattainable goals, reaching its apex in Van Heflin’s Guerrero, overwhelmed by psychological and economical problems, evolving the desperate plan to blow himself up on an aircraft so his wife might at least reap an insurance windfall; the final scene of his wife (Maureen Stapleton), consumed by unprocessable shame, may provide the film’s most raw, uncontainable emotion. At the end of the day, the narrative resolves the most immediate problems with a relative lack of grandstanding, and while the film is hardly a character study, it has a somewhat greater interest in its people, even at their most briefly-glimpsed, than the genre typically demonstrates. The dialogue frequently emphasizes airplane durability and capacity (Boeing even receives a specific grateful shout-out), radiating little doubt that even the most lurid rupture will be purged (perhaps literally by being sucked out into space) and that equilibrium will be restored, even if that may entail some reshuffling of domestic arrangements. Among the relish-inducing cast, Oscar-winning Helen Hayes is less the draw now than Jean Seberg, in her most prominent late movie, embodying a model of supportive professionalism, her complex personal resonances in no way drawn upon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Jacques Becker, 1954)

 

Looked at through modern eyes, Jacques Becker’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is something of a moral atrocity – a plot driven substantially by slavery and exploitation, set in a world where the ruling class appear to admit no challenge to their hegemony, and in which women have no rights other than what relatively benevolent men might gift to them. Ali Baba is sent by his master Cassim to buy a suitable woman to add to the harem, but instead buys Morgiane, a woman more to his own taste, later drugging his master to preserve her virtue; he later crosses paths with the thieves, discovering the location of the great treasure they’ve accumulated and of the secret to access it (Open Sesame!) enabling him to buy Morgiane’s freedom and return her to her father – who promptly tries to sell her again – as well as his own freedom. Ali ultimately simultaneously triumphs over the thieves, and over Cassim’s efforts to take the bounty for himself; the treasure gets distributed to the masses (presumably to no lasting benefit) and he’s left with Morgiane, who happily walks home through the desert as he rides alongside her on horseback (an image of subjugation so blatant that it’s surely a joke). The charitable explanation would be that Becker’s unexamined presentation of so much venal materiality serves as its own quiet indictment (the director's preceding film, the infinitely more highly regarded Touchez pas au grisbi, surveys another milieu of calculating older men and their self-entitled relationships with woman who earn their living on display), but that’s not particularly apparent in a film that relies so much on Fernandel’s foregrounded mugging and on easy colour and spectacle. One salvages whatever compensations one can – the final advance on the cave is impressive by virtue of sheer human numbers, and the movie throws gold coins around with happy abandon.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981)

 

Ivan Reitman’s Stripes delivers a familiar kind of ideological reassurance, of an American exceptionalism that shines through when required, while being able to ignore all the lame strictures and requirements that bog down gratification and self-expression. As depicted, the army promotes absolute idiots into command positions and allows recruits to stumble ineffectually through basic training, none of which stands in the way of attaining personal and institutional greatness; it’s weird to be reminded of the genuine stakes in the background (the proximity of the Eastern bloc and its associated threat), however superficial the film’s depiction of that. It’s a bit strange that the movie carries as much status as it does – Bill Murray’s Bill Murray-ness is much more productively showcased in other films, and the presumed comic highlights (like the scene in which John Candy’s character mud-wrestles with various women) are more bizarre than funny. But even this much inspiration seems absent from the final stretch, in which the Murray and Harold Ramis characters use a top-secret military vehicle to rescue a bunch of their trapped comrades; for whatever reason, things veer into James Bond territory as the bland-looking RV reveals a plethora of destructive special features, causing all manner of explosive mayhem without (as far as we’re shown anyway) leaving a single enemy combatant dead. It’s a flatly-staged denial of reality that lines up against the treatment of female soldiers - depicted as capable of stepping it up when required, but secondarily to their main function of giving it up for the guys (which is itself a more elevated function than the alternative, of being ogled through telescopes while in the shower). The movie pokes a couple of times at racial division, but always pulls back immediately; it acknowledges homosexuality only in the form of a jokey throwaway exchange early on. In the end, despite everything, Stripes doesn’t even remotely question the traditional virtues of military service, leaving a pallid aftertaste.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Huis-clos (Jacqueline Audry, 1954)

 

Jacqueline Audry’s filming of Sartre’s Huis-clos is an emblematic example of “opening out” a piece of theatre, taking a four-character, one-room play, and visually depicting much of what was merely discussed in the original text, expanding the reach of the material in ways that are explicitly cinematic. The film’s opening sequence evokes Powell and Pressburger, as the newly departed arrive by elevator in a hotel lobby which marks the entrance to hell, then soon narrows down to the setting of Sartre’s original, a single room in which three unrelated adults, two women and a man, are set down, initially somewhat diverted by images from the lives they left behind, which eventually run out once they’re effectively forgotten by the world, leaving them only with each other, for all of eternity, with the facts of their stained lives (marked among other things by cowardice, murder and predatory desire) out in the open, and with the classic realization that “hell is other people.” The film within a film devices are mostly effective, but inevitably serve to rather dilute the existential horror of the central situation: it depicts the three staking out the games they’ll likely play for all eternity, alliances and enmities spontaneously forming and as rapidly dissolving, the ugliness and neediness that condemned them on earth emerging and retreating, but the film rather races through it all (it only lasts a little more than an hour and a half) so that one feels at the end mildly diverted rather than existentially drained (the contemporary impact may be diluted also by so many meta-movie concepts subsequently cycled through by Hollywood). But the film is entirely worth seeing on many levels, including its presentation of same-sex desire and relationships (providing a natural bridge to Audry’s best-known film, Olivia), and a final shot equal to the evocation of a sealed-off eternity.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

 

The most (perhaps only) conventionally readable portion of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is indeed the title sequence, in which protagonist Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), under extreme pressure from gangsters after running up a gambling debt he can’t pay, gains entrance to a well-guarded enclave, commits a high-profile murder, shoots several other people in the course of the resulting mayhem, and makes it out of there alive: Vitelli’s improbable proficiency and success suggest a form of clarity, perhaps of self-liberation, more generally denied him, but one defined more by conventional cinematic archetype than character. It stands in intriguing contrast to the strangely preoccupied sense of searching that defines the rest of the film – Vitelli is the owner-manager of a supremely idiosyncratic night spot which bears the exterior of a strip club, but actually seems to titillate audience only through the highly mediated form of musical numbers fronted by the peculiar “Mr. Sophistication.” We see nothing of Vitelli’s private life, beyond interactions with some of the employees and their families, mostly taking an artificially courtly kind of form: Gazzara’s one-of-a-kind mixture of off-putting smugness and compelling connectivity reaches a fascinatingly unreadable apotheosis here. In classic film noir fashion, Cosmo’s success at pulling off the job fails to put the gangsters out of the picture, leaving him in a final position that appears desperate and hopeless, and yet also, as manifested in his demenour when he gets up on stage, defiantly triumphant, a duality which perhaps echoes the strange status of the film itself, a barely-released “flop” far more prominent now than most of its widely-seen contemporaries. The end credits roll over a “Mr. Sophistication” rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” the tone and phrasing strangified to the point of rendering it fittingly unclear whether or not that’s a condition to be lamented.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Trois places pour le 26 (Jacques Demy, 1988)

 

Jacques Demy’s last and mostly overlooked film is a perfect ending to his career, as beautiful and joyous and yet quietly transgressive as all his best work. Yves Montand (himself only two films from the end, as it turned out) plays (some version of) himself, returning to his childhood home town of Marseille for a stage show based on his own life (Demy visualizes the show with just the right amount of warmly cheesy intricacy), while also hoping to find his old love (Francoise Fabian); she’s living in genteel poverty after her once-rich husband got sent to jail, with a headstrong daughter (Mathilda May) who adores Montand and gets a part in the show, falling for him and then sleeping with him, after which she rapidly learns that she just committed incest with her biological father. Needless to say, few musicals have taken the inwardly winding nature of genre plotting to such a point, although the speed and equanimity with which those involved shake it off and move on is equally notable. The film has great fun with the Montand persona, acknowledging the cornerstones of his biography, including his legendary love affairs (Piaf, Signoret, Monroe) and apparently ongoing virility, while suggesting suppressed shadows and secrets; it’s as flexible with the musical form itself, at first giving us a world where characters break into song and dance in classic style; then in its latter stages confining the performance to the stage. And just as it channels Montand, there’s the sense of a shadow portrait of Demy himself – another kind of return, heavy with allusions to and parallels with earlier works, and with something always beyond reach, summed up in the film’s final, almost offhand moments, reminiscent of how The Young Girls of Rochefort placed the long-awaited meeting of its star-crossed lovers just beyond the final scene.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

That's Life (Blake Edwards, 1986)

 

Given the considerably underexamined scenic affluence of its environment, it’s not clear that Blake Edwards’ That’s Life is appropriately titled in any very generally applicable sense – the label of “first world problems” hardly starts to describe it, and between that and the over-indulgence of Jack Lemmon’s familiar mannerisms, I’ve always considered the film a disappointment. On a recent reviewing, those reservations still seem generally applicable, but maybe with age I’ve become more attuned to the genuine anxiety that drives it all, to the expression of a raw insecurity that material comforts can’t suppress and may in some ways (such as by reducing the capacity for genuine spontaneity) even exacerbate. Lemmon plays Harvey Fairchild, a successful architect (but, as he makes clear, no Frank Lloyd Wright) approaching his 60th birthday, weighed down by hypochondria, blind to the fact that his wife Gillian (Julie Andrews) is quietly dealing with a much more urgent health problem; their adult children and partners arrive, all with their own issues; an old friend of Harvey’s reappears, now a Catholic priest (displaying an intriguing mixture of hard-line doctrine and pragmatic personal behaviour); casual sexual possibilities drift by. The casting of actual family members doesn’t add as much nuanced realism as it might, given the regimented nature of things, and a form of happy equilibrium is ultimately restored all too easily. But there’s much that may linger uncomfortably in the mind – notwithstanding the comment above, Lemmon sometimes (as in a scene where he may actually be trying to induce a heart attack on an exercise cycle) seems agonizingly possessed, and the final professing of need and devotion doesn’t sweep away Harvey’s easy recourse to adultery on two occasions within as many days (albeit that he fails to perform the first time, and that the second time is just plain weird).