Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Home Sweet Home (Mike Leigh, 1982)


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

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Another Man, Another Chance (Claude Lelouch, 1977)


Claude Lelouch’s Another Man, Another Chance feels almost dizzyingly expansive in its opening stretches, switching between a low-key Western starring James Caan as David Williams, a veterinarian who starts a new life after his wife is murdered, and a drama set in a war-devastated Paris with Genevieve Bujold; when the Bujold character, Jeanne Leroy, and her photographer husband decide to emigrate to the US, the two strands gradually coalesce (some of the plot details are directly recycled from Lelouch's biggest success Un homme et une femme). The film contains some outstanding period feeling – I’ve seldom for instance seen the centrality to the community of the regular stagecoach route evoked so fully – and striking single takes, such as an early one showcasing Caan’s horseriding and roping skills; the muted colour pallet and low-key acting (with close-ups of the principals kept to an extreme minimum) all work well. But Lelouch also throws in a regular stream of oddities, from a disconnected prologue with Caan playing a descendant of his main character, through the soundtrack’s recurringly jarring use of the famous notes from Beethoven’s Fifth, to an ending so low-key that it almost feels as if they just ran out of celluloid. Still, overall, the film crafts a distinctive emotional space, basing the relationship between the two (as far as one can tell – there’s not much to go on) more in mutual logic (by that point for example, they’re both single parents) than passion; Bujold’s regular recurrence to her native language, and insistence on trying to teach it to her rapidly Americanizing daughter, suggests their relationship will be inherently defined in part by distance and loss (the final voice over tells us that she never achieved her dream of returning to Paris). Lelouch has remained true to his idiosyncratic instincts and their consequent mixed results: for instance, his late film The Best Years of a Life contains some unforgettable close observation of the aged Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee, within a slack overall scheme incorporating ill-judged fantasy inserts.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)


Fritz Lang’s 1941 film Man Hunt makes for strangely abstracted viewing now: the (still startling) footage of Adolf Hitler in the opening minutes signaling a project urgently grounded in real-life atrocities, and yet yielding a rather hermetic subsequent narrative (the film overall carries a far less striking sense of threat than the more fantastic Mabuse works). For sure, this partly speaks to Lang's core project, to dramatize one man’s evolution from partial fatuousness to life-consuming commitment: at the start, Walter Pidgeon’s crack game hunter Thorndike has the Fuhrer in his sights, but doesn’t take the shot, subsequently straining to convince his German captors (and perhaps himself) that he only did it for the sport of finding out whether it would have been possible. The Germans (mainly represented by George Sanders and John Carradine!) plan to manipulate him for propaganda purposes, but he escapes and makes his way to London, crossing paths with working-class Jerry (Joan Bennett) who rapidly falls for him and becomes an indispensable collaborator. While Bennett’s exaggerated accent and mannerisms may seem like objectively awful acting, the difference between her and the frequently flippant Thorndike does fuel one of the film’s key contrasts: between a society that facilitates such intuitive bonding across class lines and another that (at least in this telling) knows only cold calculation (inadvertently aided by some upper-class British cluelessness). The film is propelled by a series of spatially-confined set-pieces – on a ship, (most memorably) in the London underground, in a cave where the only means of escape has been blocked off – giving expression to that broad theme of the compression and hounding of freedom and possibility. It’s nowhere near to being Lang’s best work, but certainly adds to the sense of his films – even more than for most great directors –as constituting individual chapters in a sobering overall vision.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Full Moon in New York (Stanley Kwan, 1989)


Stanley Kwan’s absorbing Full Moon in New York is built around the friendship between three young women living in the big city, linked by common Asian heritage (Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China) but otherwise very different in their life experiences and aspirations. Ms. Lee (Maggie Cheung) spends some of the time working in her family’s restaurant, supplemented with various other deals and trades, prompting several discussions about the perceived risk of opening a Chinese restaurant anywhere other than in Chinatown, and about appetite for risk in general. Ms. Wang (Sylvia Chang) tries to make it as an actress, which at that time typically necessitates having to specifically explain her suitability, as an Asian woman, for a particular role. Mrs. Poon (Yat-Gam Chu) comes to America to be married while barely able to speak English – her husband treats her well, but won’t yield to her deep desire to bring her mother over, either ignoring the request, or rationalizing it away as an example of old thinking. In other ways though, old practices and expectations still apply, for instance in the notion of parents finding a suitable marriage match for their children (even applying to Ms. Lee, whose romantic relationships are with other women); Kwan’s view of New York is very much that of an outsider, filming the city mainly either through high-rise windows or in disembodied panning shots, and finding it to be imperfectly integrated.  Some of the film’s most delightful passages simple observe the women as they hang out together, messing about in the restaurant kitchen or chatting about such mundane matters as shaving their legs; Kwan presents such moments both as an assertion of individual identity and as formative experience. Of course, the act of formation, the balancing of self-discovery and assimilation never reaches an end point, perhaps rendering the film’s unresolved ending inevitable; even so, it’s among the relatively few films that one might certainly wish to have gone on for longer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)


The problem with James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, viewed nowadays, isn’t so much that it seems dated (how could it not?) but rather that the way in which it’s dated isn’t particularly instructive regarding the movie’s own time, or our own, or the transition between the two. Take for example the big ethical reveal that drives the final stretch: the discovery that the empathetic tears of on-the-rise reporter Tom Grunick as he listens to an interviewee in one of the stories that made his name were filmed afterwards and edited into the flow. The revelation hardly lands now as intended (did it ever?), both because from what’s shown in the film, it’s not believable that a crew of experienced news people wouldn’t have tuned into it at the time, and more broadly because compared to the subsequent travails and degradations of politics and culture, it just doesn’t seem like an important enough violation to change the direction of things (one wonders more generally about the plausibility of a Washington bureau where there’s almost no talk about politics). Still, William Hurt was arguably never better than in his perfect calibration of Grunick, possessed of almost supernatural on-screen ease, exactly smart enough to know his considerable limitations; Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman, in contrast, ideally conveys someone possibly too smart for his own good, held back both personally and professionally by a missing X-factor. Holly Hunter’s Jane, the best-rounded professional of the three, is an object of admiration and desire for both, a device undermined by the film’s emotional shallowness and sexual timidity. Brooks allows rather too much padding, as in some pointless opening vignettes of the three leads as children, and the film doesn’t have much of what you might call cinematic writing, but of course it’s an amiably professional job, in much the way that network prime time once connoted.