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).

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Last Tycoon (Elia Kazan, 1976)


The closing moments of Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon suggest that the film was intended all along as a romantic valorization of the "dream factory" aspect of Hollywood lore: its doomed 30’s studio head protagonist Monroe Stahr seeming on the verge of being eased out, for the first time addressing the camera directly to reprise a story he improvised earlier in the movie as inspiration for a bogged-down writer, except that now we understand it as an expression of lost love, followed by a final walk into the literal and figurative darkness. It’s an ending that extends the film’s two main strands – Stahr’s bullheaded approach to running things, perpetually making expensive creative decisions which no one else in the more money-minded executive suite sees the need for, and his longing for a woman who can ultimately never be his – but it carries far too little charge, given the strangely still and displaced quality of much that precedes it, the sense of a film joylessly located outside both history and myth. In theory at least, Kazan must have been better placed than most to probingly recreate the studio system’s uniquely epoch-defining mixture of glory and corruption, but his work here is dutiful and passionless, neither pleasurably nostalgic nor gleefully eviscerating. Similarly, Robert De Niro is at his most quietly withholding as Stahr – as with Kazan’s direction, it’s often hard to determine what he had in mind – but the film at least provides a good source of trivia questions and degrees-of-Bacon type connections: yes, it’s true, De Niro did indeed once act with Dana Andrews and Ray Milland. Jack Nicholson shows up late in the film as a union organizer, but he’s yet another oddly ineffectual presence, a theoretically crackerjack meeting of two of the decade’s defining actors coming across as a chore that they both just had to plod through.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Perceval le Gallois (Eric Rohmer, 1978)


In itself, it would be mainly of academic interest that the apparent peculiarities of Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois can be explained by his emphasis on fidelity to the tone and content of Chretien de Troyes’ 12th-century source material, but Rohmer’s choices here also resonate fascinatingly against the main body of his work. For example, the film’s second half contains a startling narrative switch, abruptly putting aside the story we’ve followed to that point (the young Perceval leaves his home to become a knight, gradually accumulating in knowledge and understanding) to follow that of another knight, Gawain, who’s been only a secondary character to that point; later on, at what might seem to be just as arbitrary a point, it switches back. In this context, the device promotes a heightened reflection on the artificial and conditioned nature of all narrative coherence; when the film then culminates with an enactment of Christ’s crucifixion, there’s a feeling of all narrative, of all creation, deriving from Western civilization’s core origin story, underlining the sense of humility and fidelity that marks the entire enterprise. The film is in part a heightened version of the behavioral and ethical puzzles that mark Rohmer’s contemporary work: Perceval is initially a near-blank slate, who at the start of the film sees a knight for the first time and peppers him with basic questions; later on when a wise man advises him not to talk too much, he takes the advice too far, missing out on opportunities, and even unknowingly committing grave sins. Rohmer’s chosen style beautifully supports the project, emphasizing artifice and immediacy, the act of storytelling (with the characters, for example, often describing their own actions) as prominent as the story being told. And it’s delightful how his reversion to an ancient text carries the sense of a personal rebirth, with the cast containing several young performers (Pascale Ogier, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere) who he would use more prominently in later, modern-day works.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

El cochecito (Marco Ferreri, 1960)


Marco Ferreri’s El cochecito lives up to its reputation, its perspective on the community of the differently-abled still seeming radically matter-of-fact and quasi-aspirational. A retired bureaucrat, Don Anselmo, visits an old friend who now gets around in a motorized wheelchair, and who gives him a ride on it when Anselmo can’t find a taxi; it leads to other get-togethers and contacts and diversions (presented in enjoyably garrulous, lived-in manner) and to Anselmo desiring such an item for himself, regardless that it’s beyond his means, and that he doesn’t actually need it. The desire becomes a near-fixation, and yet appears more rational than his family’s strident opposition to it (this aspect of the film aligns well with modern Uber-aligned notions of choice and autonomy), in particular as he actually wants to get out and experience people and places, an ambition seemingly beyond the scope of his relatives’ closeted thinking. Threatened with being committed to an asylum, Anselmo takes a desperate step to get what he wants, his awareness of his transgression made clear in a startling, long-held close-up, in which Ferreri temporarily seems to yield to the evocative powers of his lead actor, Jose Isbert. The final scene (in the full original version that is; the film was reportedly available for years only in bowdlerized form) allows him a final taste of freedom, and although it’s clear that a severe reckoning lies ahead, Anselmo’s final remark has a resigned lightness to it, suggesting that from his hemmed-in point of view, his liberation, however brief, was worth it at almost any logistical and moral price. The film allows occasional glimpses of the later more expansive Ferreri (for example, Anselmo enjoys an indulgent lunch that presages La Grande Bouffe), but on the whole occupies its own stylistic and tonal space within his oeuvre, no less enjoyably for that.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)


Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is an exemplary action-fantasy, frame after frame overflowing with compositional exactitude and beyond-the-call-of-duty detail; there’s never a moment of apparent corner-cutting, of Verhoeven’s immense focus and willpower even momentarily faltering. If it’s generally viewed (despite major defenders) as lying outside the top drawer of modern genre classics, that’s partly because of the relative blandness of the foreground, relying on somewhat blandly attractive leads put through conventional narrative arcs of self-discovery. But that’s also the source of some of the film’s most mind-boggling resonances: the sense of young and inexperienced recruits thrown into situations for which they’re barely prepared (and which, in some cases, they have little rational chance of surviving) suggests that the war of the future, however technologically advanced, will demonstrate little moral or ethical advance on our brutal past (modern-day debates about the propriety of drone warfare are beyond the movie’s scope). Even more remarkable is the evocation of Fascism, most explicitly in the scientist character played by Neil Patrick Harris (!), strutting around in black leather and justifying any amount of human loss for the sake of strategic advancement, focused specifically on sinister scientific experiments, all of this ultimately presented as positive and virtuous, and intertwining with a bracing notion of “citizenship” as something that’s no longer a matter of birthright, but that has to be earned through various forms of service, most prominently the military kind. The film concludes on a note of interim rather than total success, which seems here less like laying the ground for sequels (although of course it does that too) than leaving the viewer somewhat off-balance, with every indication that the splashy celebration of military triumph will be paid for in part with wrongs and atrocities elsewhere, daring us not to succumb to the momentary sense of triumph.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Love Unto Waste (Stanley Kwan, 1986)


The 1986 Love unto Waste, the second film by Hong Kong’s great and mostly underappreciated Stanley Kwan, sounds conventional in its outline, but becomes steadily more evasive and unreadable as it goes on, the implications of its title only fully coming into focus at the very end. Tony Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is first seen getting flamboyantly drunk at his birthday party, vomiting over young model Billie (Irene Wan), whom he nevertheless rapidly ends up dating, and through her becoming part of a quartet which also includes the actress Liu (Elaine Jin) and singer Chiu (Tsai Chin). When Chiu is brutally murdered in her apartment, detective Lan (Chow Yun Fat) enters the orbit of the remaining trio, his methods flamboyantly eccentric and unfocused (he cites Columbo as an inspiration), but rapidly seeming more interested in hanging out with them than in solving the case. The film continually muses on matters of cultural identity and self-definition, with the characters debating the meaning of a particular word, or how best to express a certain thought (it’s likely that even more subtlety than usual is lost in the subtitling here), all of which intertwines with the work in progress of their personal and professional identities; when the trio takes Chiu’s ashes to her family in Taiwan, and into a milieu where two of them don’t speak the language, the existential investigation almost entirely displaces the criminal one. The film ends far from where it began, both narratively and tonally, with the group having dispersed, and a key character visiting another who’s now dying from cancer, the two summing up their achievements and finding them wanting, marked by too much wasted time and possibility. It’s an ending that puts the film’s moments of joy – karaoke and drinking and laughing and smoking and flirting and cooking (a chicken inside a pig’s stomach!) – in poignant, haunting perspective.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)


Entirely by coincidence, I watched Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema the day after the “Joan is Afraid” episode of Black Mirror, a juxtaposition which made Hong’s film seem, if not prophetic, then at least beautifully attuned to art/life paradoxes which take on a new edge in an era of CGI, AI, quantum computers, 24-hour connectivity, and whatever else you want to blame. Of course, Hong’s film contains nothing which obviously constitutes “special effects” (the English title at least evokes Eric Rohmer, which doesn’t seem too out of place tonally speaking), but halfway through it provides a purely cinematic thrill, when one realizes that everything we’ve watched up to that point represents a film that has just been viewed by Dongsoo, the protagonist of the film’s second half, and which he later claims was largely based on his own experiences. He spots the actress from the film in the street, and follows her as she revisits one of the locations; later on they go drinking together, and things develop somewhat as they did in the movie in which she starred, although eventually art and life inevitably diverge. It’s beautifully ambiguous whether Dongsoo’s claim about the past is entirely or partially true, and in turn whether he’s trying to ape what he saw in the film, or reliving a past experience, or finding something unlocked in himself, or some combination of all three; as such the film elegantly expresses the complexity of our interaction with movies. It wouldn’t have been a great surprise if Hong had rebooted a second time; the final note though warns against the allure of such rabbit holes, emphasizing the importance of thinking, of rationality, of applied intent. And indeed, it’s the kind of film that in its unpreachily graceful but detailed way makes you want to reexamine yourself and your coordinates, and to change them for the better.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Conversation (Francis Coppola, 1974)


The details of Francis Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation may be superficially dated (even at the time, a competitor throws barbs at Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul for using outmoded equipment), but the themes of lost control and corroded sense of self remain enormously resonant in an age of online identity theft and accelerated AI. Caul is a professional surveillance expert, engaged by a corporate director to record an open-air conversation between the director’s wife and another man, achieved by synthesizing the recordings from several different microphones; as he works on polishing the tape, he becomes ambivalent about completing the assignment, partly because of past occasions when his work triggered unforeseen and violent outcomes. The film feels overly schematic in some ways, such as the strenuous artificiality surrounding its conception of “the director” and his sinister assistant, but this must be offset against the sensationally detailed and layered conception of Caul, a marvelous amalgamation of paranoia, Catholic guilt, ego, fear, and underserved desires. If the film stands as one of the key works of the 70’s, it’s partly because it feels to be in, indeed, a conversation with the surrounding culture: an extended scene of late night shenanigans evokes Cassavetes, some of its more baroque moments evoke De Palma, the presence of Harrison Ford as the assistant seems like a harbinger of new populist waves to come, and so on. Not unusually for its period, the film’s perspective on women is limited, viewing them primarily as appendages to a world of male intrigue, defined largely by sexual availability; even here though, Coppola strikes some productively mysterious notes, suggesting that Harry doesn’t entirely grasp their agenda, or the full extent of what they know about him. Indeed, the narrative ultimately turns on the fundamental likelihood of the self-assured biter, even the most powerful biter (even entire societies of them) eventually becoming the painfully bitten…

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Don't Cheat, Darling! (Joachim Hasler, 1973)


I don’t know how many musicals came out of 1970’s East Germany, but Joachim Hasler’s Don’t Cheat, Darling! confirms that the total is more than zero. There are even fleeting moments, as dozens of brightly-dressed performers sing and dance in the picturesque, cobbled-street town of “Sonnenthal,” in which Jacques Demy’s sublime The Young Girls of Rochefort comes to mind, although Hasler can’t approach the choreographic finesse and cinematic grace of Demy’s film, and the songs (lots of strenuous odes to collective happiness) mostly evoke Eurovision (or on occasion perhaps, Man of La Mancha) more than Michel Legrand. Don't Cheat, Darling! is hardly a biting critique of the governing regime, but the narrative is explicitly premised on an infrastructure of extensive central planning and intervention and constant resource constraints, albeit that the film’s characters treat this mainly with good-natured exasperation, or as a challenge to be creatively overcome. The main medium of that is soccer; the accomplished Dr. Barbara Schwalbe arrives to take up a new administrative post, finding that the bus she arrived on and the apartment that should have accompanied the job are both being commandeered for the benefit of the local team. By the end of the film, just about every special interest group in town claims to have formed its own competing and equally entitled squad, and things end on a general note of renewal and optimism, although some of the narrative’s cumbersomely-articulated details escaped me. In common with the more drably crowd-pleasing British cinema of the period, the film suggests that just about every character has sex more or less constantly on their minds, given the lack of anything else to think about (excepting the character preoccupied with his pet rabbits, which might just be a variation on the same thing). although matters remain highly decorous - a late suggestion that two characters actually spent the night together comes as a mild shock!

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The Last Days of Dolwyn (Emlyn Williams, 1949)


In The Last Days of Dolwyn, the only film directed by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams, he casts himself as Rob, returning to a picturesque village of his youth with the object of buying up all the property rights and flooding the place, thus facilitating the most cost-effective flow of water from the nearby dam across the border to England. The locals are offered a new life in Liverpool, only a hundred miles away, but far beyond the experience of most; it’s telling that they seem to lack the inner or financial resources to consider any alternatives, like moving to another, closer village. The ultimate plot mechanics, depending on a cruel twist of fate, are rather unproductively melodramatic (not helped by Williams’ own egregious over-acting), but the film does tap into a broader authenticity, aided by large amounts of untranslated Welsh-language dialogue (the village’s dominant tongue, with some of its inhabitants barely functional in English). The film is notable for Richard Burton in his first screen role, also often speaking Welsh (although much of his time on screen is squandered on a pointless romance) and an early appearance by future Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith, who would seldom be as restrained in his later roles. And the estimable Edith Evans, playing the mother of Burton’s character, is quite touching at times, never more than in a scene where she visits the local gentry to plead her case, and is simply unable to process that a grand-looking house could be burdened by debt, such that its inhabitants would possibly describe themselves as functionally poor. For all its flaws and limitations, the film conveys the tragedy of forced migration, the loss of sense of place and belonging and community; it’s a theme that takes on renewed charge in the era of climate disruption (as the bill comes due, you might say, for so much reckless intervention into peacefully sustainable lives.)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Marriage in the Shadows (Kurt Maetzig, 1947)


The historical importance of Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows flows helplessly from the time and place of its making; a German film from 1947 dealing with the country’s then-very recent history of anti-Semitism, explicitly positing that those who went along with the Nazi project should face a subsequent moral reckoning. Assessed ungenerously, the film is an early exemplar of the (at worst) implicitly Holocaust denying strand of cinema that pushes the collective experience of the six million into the background, focusing on an individual narrative of relative privilege (albeit here of a short-lived kind). But the film has more than enough social and emotional authenticity and immediacy to surmount its narrative and cinematic limitations. It focuses on a group of actors, starting off in 1933 in flirtatious mode with the beautiful Jewish actress Elisabeth juggling several potential suitors, most of them assuming that the ascendant Nazism will either peter out or that their status as actors will somehow shield them from its worst impacts; eventually. Elisabeth marries the non-Jewish Hans, not her first choice, but seemingly providing some stability and protection. The relationship deepens, but eventually it’s clear that Elisabeth will be deported, and Hans fatally poisons her and then himself (the closing titles cites the actor Joachim Gottchalk, who died with his Jewish wife and son in 1941, and whose history the film draws on in several respects). With few exceptions (such as a late passage subjectively depicting Elisabeth’s overwhelmed mental state) the film is stylistically unremarkable, but it effectively enough conveys a horror greater than the characters’ capacity to comprehend it; even several years into the war, Hans is fatally naïve regarding his ability to protect Elisabeth, and another character deludes himself that he’s doing some good within the system, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Depressing contemporary resonances and parallels are, of course, all too easy to identify.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972)


In the opening minutes of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, Charles Grodin’s Lenny and Jeannie Berlin’s Lila meet, court, get married, and set off to drive from New York to Florida on their honeymoon; by the time they reach their destination he’s already tired of her, and a few days later has resolved to get out of the marriage, his mind now set on being with Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), there on vacation from Minnesota with her parents. It’s all as funny as anyone could wish for, with uniformly spot-on performances, the actors seeming perfectly in sync with May’s exactingly deadpan style. The underlying dynamics are satisfyingly hard to pin down: a summary of the trajectory may make it sound like a triumph of the male go-getter, the replacement female object of desire merely submitting to inevitability, but Shepherd’s sustained sense of amused knowingness (and the fact of Kelly being the initial pursuer, appearing to Lenny on the beach as if torn from the sun) complicates that reading. As does the ending, at Lenny’s second wedding celebration, his goal achieved, but with little apparent exultation, Kelly waiting on the side as he immerses himself into conversations about business and opportunity (he grandiosely claims to want to do something that involves giving back to the land, as opposed to his current role in selling sports equipment, but this objective seems capable of being easily jettisoned). The film certainly represents a kind of triumph for WASP capitalism – his second wedding is a much more conventionally lavish affair than his first; Kelly’s well-to-do family embodies a certain kind of aspirational living – but at the possible cost of losing his soul (as annoying as Lila may be to him, his interactions with her are real and textured where those with Kelly are sculptured and artificial). The resonances are terrific, and yet The Heartbreak Kid may be the most relatively straightforward of May’s four films, which is really saying something about the other three.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Blind Spot (Claudia von Alemann, 1981)


Claudia von Alemann’s Blind Spot is a small, quiet film, almost seeming designed to be overlooked (it might as well have been so designed, given its lowly place in the conventional canon) but capable of permanently shifting one’s inner paradigms. A young German woman, Elisabeth, comes to Lyon to carry out research on the real-life 19th century writer and activist Flora Tristan,  focused less on traditional archival methods than on walking in Tristan’s footsteps, seeing what she might have seen, hearing what she might have heard, thereby moving toward a new form of identification and understanding. It’s a sometimes draining project (she comments that she can’t even find a bakery that’s open, let alone tap the depths of Tristan’s experiences) and in any case unclear what output might result from it; part of the film’s point is that it couldn’t possibly be clear, because a feminist history requires a comprehensive renewal, encompassing everything from the nature of the inquiry (Elisabeth somewhat randomly finds herself listening to first-person testimony on Lyon’s persecution of the Jews during WW2) to how one defines and engages with eventual discovery (equally randomly meeting a woman who makes collages out of newspaper headlines as an way of better perceiving the inter-related totality of what’s reported). The project is personal as well as professional: it appears that Elisabeth has left her job, and her relationship with her partner and daughter is uncertain (there are a couple of hints that she may be pregnant); she briefly makes out with a stranger (and there are several moments when the film makes us aware of the male gaze upon her) but it doesn’t appear to lead anywhere. The film concludes, unexpectedly, in two very different kinds of musical outburst; the ending is tinged with frustration, failure, but also a kind of acceptance and reclamation of self, even a sense of transcendence, in which the viewer may gratefully share.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)


Anthony Asquith’s 1929 film A Cottage on Dartmoor is as skillfully varied an entertainment as any silent film, placing elements of bustlingly orchestrated social comedy within a starkly tense thriller. It may be true that one responds to individual moments more than to the film in its totality - it lacks (say) the intensity and broader implication of Lang’s best silent work, or the sustained poetry of Murnau's, and the ultimate narrative trajectory is unremarkable – but this caveat emerges more in retrospect than while watching and submitting to the film. At the start, we follow Joe, an escaped prisoner, making his way over the moor to a lonely house containing a woman and her young child; she recognizes him and calls out his name, and we’re immediately in the busy beauty salon where they once worked together, tracing the events that brought them to their sorry place, setting up an ultimate sorry ending. Throughout, Asquith keeps intertitles to a minimum, trusting on the audience’s engagement with the evocative power of images: to randomly pick from countless examples, when an ebullient Joe chatters away to a customer, Asquith juxtaposes images of cricket and racing and other conversational fodder with shots of the bored customer; later on, with Joe now disconsolate and unable to engage with a garrulous client, the device is reversed (this being the Britain of the time, cricket is a constant). An extended sequence in a movie theater is a tour de force, depicting a varied crowd taking in a sound film preceded by a Harold Lloyd silent (nicely indicated by a couple of kids noting another attendee’s resemblance to Lloyd and arguing over whether or not it’s him up there on the screen), the talkie's novelty summed up by shots of the live accompanists now killing time by drinking and playing cards, the camera taking in a rich range of audience reactions, all punctuated by flashes of Joe’s jealous, uncomprehending, furious inner life, the overall effect quite thrilling.

Friday, August 18, 2023

La signora di tutti (Max Ophuls, 1934)


One of the most lastingly elegant and piercing films of its era, Max Ophuls’ La signora di tutti fully realizes the tragically ironic paradox implicit in its title, that if the signora belongs to all, she belongs to no one, least of all to herself. Isa Miranda, perfectly embodying the character’s journey from exploited innocence to doomed fatalism, plays Gaby, early in the film expelled from school after a scandal where a professor killed himself over her (we don’t see the professor, and it seems clear that she did little or nothing to encourage him, the first in the film’s succession of doomed romantic imbalances). She’s invited to a party by a young man, Roberto, who might be the potential love of her life, all the more so after his disabled mother also becomes fond of her, and then largely dependent on her. But Roberto’s financier father also falls for her, messing things up, leading to family tragedy and his financial ruin; she flees and eventually becomes a movie star, without of course finding the happiness to match the image. Roberto briefly reenters her life and she starts to think there may be a way back for them, but it turns out he’s married her estranged sister instead; however, he tells her, he’ll still see her, onscreen in her latest film, once it reaches them. Of course, despite Ophuls’ satirical approach to the film industry’s calculations and mercantilism, his feeling for the medium is peerless, alert to the entire visual possibilities of the narrative space, deeply attuned to emotional fragility and longing. But even as this lends the film a sense of expansive possibility, there’s a persistent offsetting gravity, a sense that nothing can ever be entirely consigned to the past. In this regard too, Gaby’s allure is that of cinema itself, in a film that speaks deeply to its moment, and barely any less to our own.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

La mamain et la putain (Jean Eustache, 1973)


Much as Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain leaves you staggering and drained, there’s a distinctly aspirational strand to the film: its protagonist Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud) lives a life, albeit a low-budget, low-possession one, free of conventional constraints, with no job or apparent source of income, yet usually with sufficient money to meet the needs of the moment; he exercises his wits as he sees fit, with life providing ample material (he meets an old friend in a café and a few days later sees her picture in the paper as a wanted murderer); he lives with one woman, Marie (Bernadette Lafont), who allows him much latitude in sexual and other matters, and pursues another, Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), eventually ending up in bed with both of them. It’s inevitable that this structure would hardly feel built to last, but it’s unclear what can replace it: at times he seems preoccupied with marriage (however unpromising the putative match), at others with the past, even in its least savoury form (such as his and a friend’s mutual interest in a book about Nazism); the sense of personal energy lacking any applied momentum creates a rather unique, unsettling sense of stasis and draining, and it’s not coincidental that Veronika, almost always clad in flowing black, has a certain vampiric quality. The haunting aspects of Lebrun’s performance are entirely human though: open about her promiscuity, often seeming detached from her own behaviour, at other times hollowed out by it, culminating in an astounding, soul-tearing monologue positing in part that sex means nothing unless it’s to have a baby, a view partly complementary to those expressed by Alexandre, but he’s also earlier suggested that abortion providers are the Robin Hood of our age, and the final images of the two together, possibly on the edge of formal union, are contorted with pessimism. In this respect and countless others, one feels newly pummeled and penetrated by the film on each reviewing.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)


Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains grandly entertaining viewing, with a pumped-up tonal unity that certainly wasn’t inevitable for such a project. With that stipulated, a detailed consideration of the film tends to turn into a pile of objections (some of them, admittedly, clearer now than they might have been at the time). It’s not necessarily a drawback if the conception of the institution shaken up by Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy seems based in vaguely grotesque theatre more than clinical fidelity (it’s telling that the subsequent highpoints for many of the actors came either in horror or comedy), even if one never gains a coherent sense of how the place actually works. But within those parameters, the details of many of the characterizations still leaves one uneasy, such as McMurphy’s girlfriend (if that’s the right word), perpetually available to do his bidding, including having sex with other men. Nicholson’s best actor award seems as inevitable as it must have then, even if the performance is dotted with signs of pending excess and self-caricature; Louise Fletcher’s Oscar for best actress though must be one of the most generous in the history of the awards, her role as Nurse Ratched clearly a supporting one (if the distinction means anything at all) both in terms of screen time, and more importantly within the film’s structure and emphases. The central theme of the institutional stifling of an uproariously non-conforming individual still drives the film, but the mechanics of the ending leave one uneasy (the sadistic take-down of Brad Dourif’s forelorn character; the tasteless rush of pleasure presumably intended to accompany McMurphy’s subsequent murderous lunge at Ratched; the lumbering final image of freedom, with Will Sampson’s “Chief” smashing through the window and running into the sunset). Still, despite these and other caveats, you mostly submit to the film’s defiant, propulsive grandeur.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Les granges brulees (Jean Chapot, 1973)


Jean Chapot’s Les granges brulees revolves around an investigation of murder in a rural community, located close to a struggling family farm overseen by long-married couple Paul and Rose; an investigating judge, Larcher (Alain Delon), turns up from the city, installing himself in a local inn and slowly working to crack local codes of silence and suspicions. Given that Larcher’s approach seems to consist largely of showing up at the farm and hanging around Rose, the film often evokes one of those episodes of Columbo where the detective seems to many observers irrationally (but ultimately correctly) fixated on a single suspect. Of course, those interactions were defined largely by garrulousness, whereas Delon’s Larcher barely has as much dialogue in the whole movie as Columbo might have had in a single scene; the actor’s performance is an absolute master class in steely, unblinking silence, and as Simone Signoret embodies Rose with equal self-containment, it’s tempting to read the whole thing primarily as an exercise in juxtaposing complementing, distilled star images. Although the film is set in the then-present, it often seems lost in time: there are many references to WW2 and its legacy, and “the city” is referred to as if to some unattainable dream; as if confirming the extent to which the community resists any kind of outside influence, the mystery’s ultimate resolution comes out of nowhere, from a source unrelated to Larcher’s investigation. While the film suggests that the judge nevertheless feels strangely informed and elevated by the experience, the film provides only a slight indication of what form this takes: in the closing moments, Rose demonstrates an utter certainty that he won’t follow up on a crime committed by one of her sons, for the sake of closure and some broader sense of equilibrium. It seems likely that she’s correct, but the film provides no space for celebration on this point, nor on any other.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

To You, From Me (Jang Sun-woo, 1994)


Jang Sun-woo’s seldom-seen To Me, From You gleefully assails just about every aspect of contemporary South Korea, finding almost no marker of propriety or achievement that can be taken at face value, no sexual coming together that isn’t toxic, transactional or otherwise doomed. A writer under a cloud for allegedly plagiarizing his prize-winning novel is visited by a younger woman who says she knows he’s innocent, because his narrative corresponded to a dream she had; they rapidly have sex, and then she moves in, seeming intent on boosting his flagging career (reduced to various corporate ghost jobs and other menial assignments) while also doing it with other men for a variety of strategic or intuitive reasons. The third main character is the writer’s drinking buddy, a bank clerk left impotent by his life’s one big love affair, and with little forward momentum of any other kind (none of the three characters are named, seemingly a mark less of symbolic universality than of their ultimate insignificance and malleability). The film is stylistically and narratively restless, allowing the viewer little chance of guessing at any point what’s coming next; it frequently cites writers and theorists (John Berger, Theodor Adorno…) and spends a surprising amount of time on analyzing and channeling Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (seemingly the bank clerk’s favourite film, in part at least for the impotence angle); toward the end, it transitions for a while into animation, in a passage startling for its savage sexuality. The final (live-action) stretch has the trajectories of all three characters unexpectedly shifting, while offering little sense of permanence; two of them achieve celebrity with little effort, the other settles into subservience and seems all the happier for it, for now. So there’s some sort of message there about applied self-knowledge and integrity. Sort of…

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Troubles We've Seen (Marcel Ophuls, 1994)


Marcel Ophuls’ tragically underseen The Troubles We’ve Seen is a marvelously provocative work, knowingly untidy and digressive and sometimes downright eccentric, but all the more stimulating and debate-sparking for that. The film is subtitled “A History of Journalism in Wartime,” but it's far less linear and comprehensive than this might suggest: the overwhelming focus is on the then-current war in Serbia, and on Sarajevo in particular, with other conflicts mentioned in more fragmented form along the way. Ophuls structures the first part primarily around his own trip to Sarajevo and his observations and interactions there; the second spends more time on various ethical and practical issues, such as whether warzone journalists should travel in armoured vehicles for their protection, or whether that would primarily serve to distance them from realities and to over-align them with the military. In often jarring ways, Ophuls contrasts the stark (although, as is acknowledged, not entirely fun-starved) realities of the war-reporting game with the comforts of life in Vienna and Venice (a short distance and a whole world away from Sarajevo), and the imagery of war with various snippets of classic Hollywood, from Hawks to Holiday Inn. The film’s opening point (made eloquently by Philippe Noiret of all people) draws a comparison between Bosnia and WW2, and the degree to which moral and strategic failure can be attributed to lack of information; watched in 2023, comparable, desperately acute parallels between what’s shown and debated and the current situation in Ukraine arise at every turn. Which is to say that however dated the film may seem in some of its particulars (and, to some, further distanced by the relative focus on French TV personalities), it speaks no less strongly to the eternal issue of how to engage (that is, as something other than mere compliant, capitalism-friendly consumer) with media assertions on what we need and deserve to know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Her Brother (Kon Ichikawa, 1960)


It’s oddly appropriate that the title of Kon Ichikawa’s film Brother has alternatively been rendered in English as both Her Brother and Younger Brother, summing up the film’s elegantly evasive nature, the difficulty of establishing the intended perspective on what’s shown. The opening stretch suggests no such difficulty: Gen and her younger brother Hekiro in their different ways struggle to cope with the stepmother, a pious Christian who endlessly cites her medical ailments to justify doing almost nothing around the house; their father, a subdued writer, is silent for so far into the film that one starts to assume he’ll never speak at all. An early, chilling scene has Gen wrongly accused of shoplifting, shoved around and even threatened with a whip by the store manager before being released with the thinnest of apologies; it’s Hekiro though who actually steals, for which he’s expelled from the Christian school (a mere prank, he says, to which the adults overreacted). From there the film evolves into something more wayward and unpredictable, with strange characters and potential subplots (particularly involving men with an eye on Gen) popping up and then exiting the narrative; Hekiko’s behaviour becomes even more wild and impulsive (and the film’s depiction of these actions correspondingly fragmented), often with financial consequences for the family, all of which comes to a sudden fault when a persistent cough turns out to be tuberculosis. All of this often carries the sense of a darkly velvety mystery which can’t quite be solved, a sense which carries right to the final shot, when the family dynamics appear to have shifted once more, in a way beyond our capacity to analyze. Overall, the film may not showcase Ichikawa’s restless experimental streak as consistently and strikingly as, say, An Actor’s Revenge (or, less happily, the insipid and barely watchable Being Two Isn’t Easy), but it lingers in one’s mind almost as effectively.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The Whistle Blower (Simon Langton, 1986)


Simon Langton’s The Whistle Blower plays rather flatly for a film that involves several state-orchestrated murders and cites pending apocalypse as a key part of its motivation, but still provides adequate diversion and stimulation overall. Michael Caine plays Frank, father of Bob (Nigel Havers), a Russian expert toiling away for British intelligence, toying with quitting but then finding something that renews his interest, that is before he’s found dead in what may or may not be a suicide. The film is a periodically interesting time capsule, bookended by a London Remembrance Day ceremony providing glimpses of Margaret Thatcher and other dignitaries; there are several references to hard economic times, with Frank counseling his son on the folly of quitting a steady job, and to Britain’s utter dependence on the United States, given that (as one high ranking functionary puts it) a nuclear war with Russia is assessed to be a pending near-certainty. There’s not much razzle-dazzle to how things unwind though: Frank gets the name of one key contact through the mildest outburst of aggression, then in turn extracts the necessary information from that contact simply by filling him up with booze, and reaches his ultimate object (John Gielgud) by turning up on the doorstep and being welcomed in. Caine gives one of those performances where you’re not sure how hard he cares or is trying (I mean that as a compliment); the rest of the cast mostly only briefly registers, although Barry Foster gives the drunk scene his all. But for a film in which a journalist and other innocent individuals are cold-bloodedly eliminated for the sake of political calculation (and the perpetrators calmly express their willingness to throw in a young woman and her child, if that's what it takes for Frank to yield), while guilty but well-connected men are shielded from consequences, the narrative and moral sophistication fall short of what should have been required.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)


At least at the time of writing, the subtitling of Criterion’s version of Ozu’s Early Summer contains an intriguing error, taking a reference to its key character Noriko’s enthusiasm for “Hepburn” to refer to Audrey (who wasn’t even yet famous when the film was made) rather than the longer-established Katharine. Whereas the “Audrey” interpretation would have seemed to connote no more than “style icon” fandom, the corrected “Katharine” version carries more complex connotations, suggesting a reference point in an ongoing project of self-determination, and at least a flavour of greater sexual ambivalence. Accordingly, Noriko (Setsuo Hara) is a happily single 28-year-old woman, intrigued by marriage as a discussion point with her friends, but showing little personal desire to end her own status. When, despite all this, the pressure to marry becomes insurmountable, Noriko confounds everyone by choosing a man who hadn’t even asked her, without even discussing it with him, leaving it to his mother to tell him the news. He’s doesn’t appear again in the film, not even through numerous scenes where Noriko discusses her choice with family and friends and prepares for her departure; the other man who wants to marry her, her family’s preferred choice, is never seen at all. Ozu’s quiet radicalism in this respect doesn’t diminish over time; for example, it’s still a challenge to prevailing discourse when Noriko won’t even acknowledge to her best friend that what she feels for her future husband is love, preferring to use terms like “trust.” In so many physical and figurative respects, the film is defined by absences as much as presences (including a brother who never returned from the war and has never been officially pronounced dead), and at the end, so calmly that it’s almost shocking, the tight-knit family of the opening scenes has become dispersed, happy hubbub replaced by a quiet both soothing and deadly. Overall, it’s one of Ozu’s fullest works, formally and thematically inexhaustible throughout.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Sinner (Willi Forst, 1951)


A moderate scandal in its day, Willi Forst’s The Sinner doesn’t leave much of an impact now, although one may enjoy registering the various points of bygone envelope-pushing: a brief nude scene; a wild party which manages to convey a passing sense of recklessness despite everyone having their clothes on; the fairly non-judgmental portrayal of a woman, Marina (Hildegard Knef), working a world of men for her own financial advantage. Marina’s life of sinning, which includes sleeping for profit with a besotted stepbrother whom she hates, and consorting indifferently with Nazi soldiers during the war and American ones thereafter, comes mostly to an end when she falls in love with a troubled painter, Alexander (not entirely though – for instance, during a phase when Alexander’s work isn’t selling, she helps things along by having sex with an art dealer). Alexander’s profession fuels a few expressionist highlights, such as the arty juxtapositions of his head against titillating extracts from his work, but Gustav Frohlich’s dull performance makes the character’s artistic identity, and the attraction between him and Marina, more mysterious than seems to be intended; the disappointing ending merely suggests that while Marina may at one time have been defined by her sinning, she now finds definition only in Alexander’s eyes and work, to the point of seeing no worthwhile existence without him. Among other weaknesses, the film has an overly busy structure, tiresomely navigating between past and present as it attempts to place Marina’s current actions in context, while its over-reliance on her voice-over (which accounts for well over half of all words spoken in the film) imposes a recurring tonal similarity. And while, as noted, the film doesn’t entirely deny Germany’s then-recent past (it also includes a brief appearance by some Gestapo agents), the absence of much perspective in this regard doesn't age too well either.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion may sound in outline like a rather distanced and hermetic project: a family of soldiers in the 1770’s, dutifully occupying its designated place within the clan, is leaned on to betray its morality and instincts for the sake of a whim of the clan lord, insisting that the family’s oldest son should marry his discarded mistress; then later, after having accepted and even prospered from the consequences of that, is asked to bend again when the whims reverse themselves, and the clan lord wants her back. The film resonates now as a study of the distorting workings of privilege and self-entitlement; time and again, concepts of honour and propriety and simple human decency are shown to be hopelessly malleable, the infrastructure that supposedly supports their workings incapable of standing up to one man’s lust and ego (hello there, Republicans!). Toshiro Mifune is at his most resonantly moving as the family head Isaburo, long weighed down by an unhappy marriage but now energized by his oldest son’s happy one and by becoming a doting grandfather, finding liberation in looming disaster (even declaring, as things close in, that he’s never felt so alive). The film is finely sculptured throughout, with any number of stunning individual shots, wringing a high quotient of nuance and feeling from the genre’s non-naturalistic conventions. The satisfying ending culminates in a fatally wounded Isaburo lamenting that he’s failed in his one remaining goal, to ensure that the story of what happened would be told; the fact that it is being told by virtue of the film’s existence provides a stray note of hope among the absurd loss and desolation. Certainly there’s a rather lost in time quality to the film – a few shots aside, it might as easily have been made in 1947 as in 1967 – but overall, that enhances its searching grandeur.

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 fiancée, 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.