Wednesday, July 19, 2017

YOUNG & INNOCENT - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally written for DVDTalk.com as part of a review of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection.


Though arguably a minor Hitchcock effort, this fugitive story is also prototypically Hitchcock, showcasing a man wrongfully accused on the run, searching for the one object that will clear his name. In this case, it's a stolen raincoat, and if down-on-his-luck movie writer Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney, Spitfire) can find it, he can prove he didn't kill the actress whom he may or may not have been having an affair with. Helping him on his flight from justice, at first reluctantly and then with the romantic fervor befitting the teenage heart, is no less than the constable's daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam, previously in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much [review]). The more Erica becomes convinced of Robert's innocence, the more dangerous the situation gets--both her life and her heart are under threat.

Both De Marney and Pilbeam are fairly charming in the leads, though neither of them really distinguishes themselves as stars on the rise. The true stars of Young and Innocent are the many back-road locales Hitchcock takes us to, flitting between opulent country estates and rundown flop houses. The Tisdall character has basically been living his recent life as a tramp, and tracking his coat takes him and the girl deeper into the poor underbelly of 1930s England. Thus, the Innocent of the title both refers to Robert in terms of his involvement in the killing and Erica in terms of the life lesson she will learn. In some ways, she prefigures the young girl in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt who discovers that the way of life she has been raised to believe in may harbor darker shades of morality, including gray areas that aren't as simple as her law-enforcing father would have her believe. (This black-and-white world is also very much a man's world, as evinced by Erica being the only daughter in a motherless clan of boys.)

The tone of Young and Innocent is pretty light, with lots of humor and, of course, a healthy dollop of romance. Hitchcock has some fun with bumbling cops, but also is fairly ambitious in some of the action sequences, showing cars racing trains and one harrowing scene inside a collapsing mine.



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for the Criterion Cast in 2011.


Any cinema fan knows the story of a good cinematographer is really the tale of a good painter. Legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff gives us solid proof of that idea, and Craig McCall’s documentary tribute to the influential artist lets us not only hear Cardiff’s opinions about classic painting, but to see his brushwork, as well. Cardiff, who is probably best known for working with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on movies like The Red Shoes [review 1 2] and Black Narcissus [review], left us in 2009 at the age of 96, but he also left behind a tremendous legacy. Having started in the film business in 1918, acting in his first silent film at the age of four, he never stopped working, racking up 73 cinematography credits on IMDB and directing 14 films himself. He shot high art, such as the fevered romance Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [review], but he also made incredible entertainment. In the 1980s, he was behind the lens for action films like Conan the Destroyer and Rambo [review].

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff lives up to its title. It stands as both a biography of the late filmmaker and an exploration of his extraordinary career. Cardiff worked a variety of jobs, including camera operator, in the British film industry at the advent of sound, and he was the principle photographer on his first full-length picture, Powell and Pressburger’s extraordinary A Matter of Life and Death, in 1946. He worked with many incredible directors, including Hitchcock, Huston, Hathaway, and Lewin, as well as some of cinema’s most celebrated stars. Sitting in front of McCall’s camera, Cardiff shares stories about Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, and Humphrey Bogart. Singing his praises are such commentators as Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Thelma Schoonmaker, and Charlton Heston, as well as actresses from his Archers work, Kathleen Byron (Black Narcissus) and Kim Hunter (A Matter of Life and Death). Director Richard Fleisher shares tales of collaborating on films like The Vikings, and Peter Yates (The Friends of Eddie Coyle [review]) talks about what it was like to assist Cardiff on Jack’s directorial masterpiece, the 1960 feature Sons and Lovers.

All of this chatter is generously decorated with clips from Cardiff’s most famous efforts, including outtakes and photos from his archives that illustrate how he put some of his more innovative camera tricks together. Cardiff shows off a photo of himself and Marilyn, and tells a great story about how it came to be autographed by the actress and her then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller. He also lets McCall peek into his portfolio of photographs of famous actresses, a combination of obsession and work research. Cardiff loved taking pictures of the beautiful women he was charged with lighting, and the still photographs taught him how to best capture their famous faces.

When it’s all spliced together, Cameraman is a fascinating portrait of an artist at work. You might want to watch it with a pen and paper handy, because you’re going to walk out with a list of movies you will want to see as soon as possible. While it’s sad that Jack Cardiff passed away, it’s fortuitous that first-time director Craig McCall managed to get Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff in the can before he did. Cameraman is an invaluable document of the creations of a true original, and even with the heavy hitters analyzing his work here, there is nothing to compare to hearing it straight from the artist’s mouth. A must for all cinema lovers.


Monday, June 26, 2017

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG - #885

Originally written for DVDTalk.com as part of a review of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection.


Considered by Hitchcock to have been his first real movie, this silent chiller is based on a novel by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. The book of The Lodger is an early entry in the extensive Jack the Ripper lore, and one of the very first pieces of fiction to try to offer a solution in the case. This movie version never mentions Jack, instead showing us a similarly styled killer calling himself "The Avenger." Every Tuesday night for several months, the Avenger has murdered a fair-haired woman and left behind a mysterious calling card featuring his moniker inside a triangle.

Thus, suspicions are high and nerves are on edge when an odd new tenant moves into a rooming house near where the latest killings have taken place. Jonathan Drew, played by early British film star Ivor Novello, keeps to himself and has several "queer" habits, such as demanding all the portraits of women be taken out of his room. (There seems to be some implication that he isn't just "queer" as in "weird," but the landlady also suspects he is gay.) If Drew is the Avenger, though, he's picked a rather bad place to set up shop. While the landlords' daughter, Daisy (Marie Ault), would make a perfect candidate for the next victim, her suitor (Arthur Chesney), is a police detective on the Avenger's trail. Naturally, Drew's odd behavior endears him to Marie while alienating everyone else, and the next Tuesday, the cop will make his move.

The Lodger has several telltale Hitchcock moves, from the innocent ingénue being drawn to dark forces and the resulting romance to the theme of a man being wrongfully accused. There are snooping neighbors, ostentatious settings (Marie is a clothes model), and several red herrings and deceptively tense sequences where all is not as it initially appears. The movie is an effective character piece, well constructed by the young director. He manages to draw convincing, demonstrative performances from his actors, and Hitchcock is also already experimenting with mis-en-scene and other conventions of film language. Of particular note are his creative title cards that mimic theatre marquees and announce characters in a visual equivalent to signature motifs we often hear in film scores.



Saturday, June 24, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT - #880


The first feature from director Nicholas Ray, 1948’s They Live By Night prefigures his iconic Rebel Without a Cause as a story about two doomed teenagers who fall in love despite the circumstances that put them on the wrong side of an adult world that either doesn't understand them or refuses to try. Adapted from the Edward Anderson novel Thieves Likes Us (also made into a later film by Robert Altman, reviewed here), They Live By Night stars Farley Granger (Rope) as Bowie, a kid who got into some trouble when he wasn't looking for it and now has broken out of jail with older bank robbers who also had life sentences for murder. On their backwoods crime spree, Bowie meets Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell, The Best Years of Our Lives), and their reaction to each other is romantic, hormonal, and strangely endearing and comforting. Keechie tries to find solutions to get Bowie out of his trouble, but the newspapers have seized on him as some kind of pretty boy highwayman, putting the lives of the two young lovers beyond their own grasp.


That kind of foreboding permeates They Live By Night. Ray harnesses the adolescent us-against-the-world feeling of doom and gloom and wraps the entire picture in it like a cloth. It doesn't matter what Bowie and Keechie try to do, they can't live in isolation. A water pipe might burst and the plumber will recognize the young thief, or a former ally might get an itch for some kind of reward and turn snitch. Even Ray's camera acts as an otherworldly force, with his pioneering helicopter shots careening over the fleeing couple, showing just how much larger their surroundings are than a pair of kids in love. They live by night because the daylight means exposure.

By the end of the film, the phrase "thieves likes us" has become a kind of mantra. Bowie has to accept that a thief is what he is now, there is no use struggling. It's a cold ending for the boy, because once he gives in, the shields come down, and the punishment that is meted out to such tragic figures arrives with swift ferocity.


For those who owned They Live By Night in its previous incarnation, as part of Warner Bros.’ Film Noir ClassicCollection, vol. 4--which is what I originally wrote this review for--will recognize most of the bonus features here as coming from that 2007 set. The upgrade here is in picture and sound, which have been newly restored and remastered, rescuing the finer details of Ray’s production and preserving them for new audiences.

You also get a new package design with art by MarkChiarello, a colleague of mine at DC Comics. Mark is a master of visual language, and his simple, evocative drawings bring the figures from the film to life in a way that captures their essential character while also transcending caricature.


Folks who enjoy They Live By Night might be curious to note that Granger and O’Donnell reunited two years later for director Anthony Mann in a movie called Side Street. Since the previous release presented the two films as double feature, here is a bonus review of Side Street:

They Live By Night opens with tight close-ups of the lovers clutching one another as words on the screen inform us that they have been stranded in a world that hasn't allowed them their right to grow up. In similar fashion, Anthony Mann's Side Street has an all-pervasive narrator whose almost wry tone suggests that here, too, there are elements of fate that extend beyond what we can choose for ourselves. In fact, as the ersatz hero of the story will learn, one false move ends up having reverberations, setting off a chain of events that could be impossible to undo.

Side Street reteams Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as another pair of young newlyweds. Joe and Ellen Norson aren't that different than Bowie and Keechie from Night, except they live in New York instead of the hills and they started out by trying to live right, only the payoff hasn't been very good. Ellen is pregnant, but after a stint in the army and a failed business venture, Joe can only find part-time work as a postal carrier. He dreams of buying his beloved wife a fur coat, but he can't even afford their own apartment. On his delivery route, he sees that a lawyer keeps cash stashed in his office. Thinking he'll be stealing only enough to get by, Joe returns to rob the place. Only, when he checks the stash, it's actually $30,000. Unbeknownst to Joe, the crooked lawyer and his heavy have blackmailed a rich pervert, and the girl that lured the patsy to his doom has ended up dead. Yup, poor Joe is in over his head.


Tough-guy director Mann, working from a script by Sydney Boem (The Big Heat), arranges his various plot points like pieces in a game, each character moving across the giant playing field, no less than New York City itself. Shooting on location, Mann takes us through the streets of Joe's troubles, mixing the semi-documentary style of Jules Dassin's The Naked City [review] with the nervous, feral atmosphere of the noir masters (something Dassin was also pretty good at, particularly in Night and the City [review]). There's nobody in this film that Joe and Ellen can trust, not even the police, who though righteous in their duties aren't necessarily compassionate. Friends will rob you, street-savvy children will sell you out for ice cream money, and life isn't worth very much at all. And yet, despite his brutal directing hand, Mann always has a weird 1950s innocence to him. As much as Joe flails about, there is a kind of safety in Mann's tone. It's like he's that smart little kid with the info, who even tries to school the police in how to resolve the situation. He knows how it's all gonna turn out, not to worry. It's also the comfort of genre: we have certain marks to hit, and Mann is going to get us there.


Portions of this review originally published on DVDTalk.com.

Images here are taken from the 2007 standard-definition release of They Live by Night and not the Blu-ray under discussion.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, June 19, 2017

ANOTHER YEAR - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally published in 2010 on DVDTalk.com.


Mike Leigh's new movie Another Year isn't a day-in-the-life movie, it's a 365-days-in-the-life movie. The drama follows a group of friends and family over four seasons, spring to winter, through their personal ups and downs, some small and maddeningly trivial, some large.

At the center of Another Year is one stalwart couple. Tom and Gerri, played with personality and heart by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, have been together since they were teenagers, and their marriage couldn't be better. He is a geologist who studies soil to determine the safety of different building projects around London; she is a counselor at a health clinic. Together, they work on a small patch of land in a community garden, growing their own vegetables, enjoying the shared work. These are people who we trust have made most of the right choices in life. Even their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), a lawyer who takes on special hardship cases, seems to have turned out all right. Good spouses, good parents.


By contrast, their friends don't have it together. Gerri's workplace friend, Mary (Lesley Manville), is a bundle of nervous energy, a middle-aged woman with no one in her life. Her constant chatter will annoy you. It's supposed to. It annoys everyone else in the movie, too. She drinks too much, maybe has a crush on Tom, definitely has one on Joe. When Tom's old friend Ken (Peter Wight), an overweight, going-nowhere career man, visits, he expresses his own feelings for Mary. She rejects him, and is more than cruel in her judgment of this other lost soul. It just goes to show you, no one is so far down in life that they can't find someone else to judge as harshly as others judge them.

Leigh structures his movie to match the moods of the passing seasons. Spring is hopeful, summer is happy, fall brings disappointment, and winter delivers heartache. The cold climes also inspire the group to huddle together, to reconnoiter, and in a way, make peace--though honestly, we're not sure how well that will actually work. Another Year begins with an emotional gut punch--Gerri tries to help an older woman (Imelda Staunton) with her insomnia, but the woman is so resigned to her fate, there seems to be no way out for her. (Staunton is unforgettable in the short screen time she has; she is so bitter and angry, she looks like she will spontaneously turn to stone at any second.) The writer/director also ends on a note of brutal heartbreak, a question mark hanging in the silent air as the film fades to black.

Yet, to cast Another Year as a downer drama would do the film a disservice. Sure, it's tough going at times, and the grief it portrays will follow you around for some time to come, but it doesn't necessarily inspire the same sadness in the viewer. Rather, Leigh is provoking us to think about our own lives and how we deal with others. The writing in Another Year is amazing. Leigh has a true knack for small talk, arranging banalities like a sophisticated puzzle, finding more poetry in his characters' anxious utterances than he could ever wring out of a formal soliloquy. What a person says without meaning to say it is more illuminating than an intentional confession or revelation.



He's also quite good at making us feel sorry for characters who otherwise drive us up the wall. It's similar to how he handled Sally Hawkins' character in the marvelous Happy-Go-Lucky [review]: these chatterboxes are so achingly human, we can't help but be caught up in their struggles. Neither Ken nor Mary, or any of the other supporting players we meet, ever really intended to end up alone and broken. Leigh shows us how fragile they are, and presumably, this is what Tom and Gerri see in them, as well, and what keeps them from sending the friends away. Not that the couple are doormats. They take their stands when it counts. The subtlety of the performances cannot be praised enough. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen manage a real back and forth, finishing each other's sentences, often sharing secret reactions through a look or a gesture. These are mature actors who understand what a mature relationship entails. You can believe that Tom and Gerri have honestly spent all those years together.

They also give us much to laugh at. Another Year isn't just twelve months of tears. The banter can be funny, and even Mary's endless string of mishaps has some comedic value. We critics spend a lot of time bandying about terms like "realism," usually for cheaply filmed verité-style films with loosely crafted dialogue; it's a whole other accomplishment when a filmmaker harnesses the engine of true experiences and infuses his art with it. Another Year's construction is delicate, and outside of the signals of time passing, barely perceptible. The drama moves in small, evocative ways. Even the music works its magic subtly. Gary Yershon supplies Leigh with short, almost insubstantial cues, and Leigh peppers these tiny snippets of instrumentation throughout, leading us from moment to moment, at times preparing us for the shifts in feeling.

It's refreshing to see a movie that isn't afraid to be many things and is adept at being all of them. Too often, when filmmakers try to inject humor into a heavy situation, or when a moral is tacked onto a comedy, the efforts feel forced. Another Year comes by its many moods naturally and is all the more touching for it.



Saturday, May 27, 2017

DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE

Though not yet released on disc, Criterion is offering David Lynch: The Art Life on digital platforms like Amazon and iTunes.



One wouldn’t expect any portrait of David Lynch to be all that straightforward, but the straight story is exactly what you’ll get when watching David Lynch: The Art Life. Building a narrative from an extended monologue by the auteur, directors Rick Barnes, John Nguyen, and Olivia Neegaard-Holm put together a pretty clear path from Lynch’s early life to his first film, Eraserhead, backing the anecdotes with home movies, personal photographs, and images of Lynch’s art, as well as contemporary footage of the man at work in his home studio. David Lynch: The Art Life is both insightful and surprisingly unassuming. Those expecting Lynchian digressions into uncharted weirdness will be surprised to find there are none here. Rather, the artist looks back with clear eyes at the building blocks and stepping stones that led to his cinematic career.


Those also expecting behind-the-scenes gossip or explanations about Lynch’s challenging filmography are going to be more disappointed than surprised, however; The Art Life is not about that. Nor is it about taking Lynch’s formative memories and looking for their reoccurrence in his fictions. There are some things you might infer for yourself--the tale of the naked woman emerging on his suburban street when he was a child brings to mind Isabella Rossellini’s nude escape in Blue Velvet; his time growing up in Spokane may have been the origin of Twin Peaks [review]; etc.--but the documentarians instead work with Lynch’s fine art, finding images that match his words and juxtaposing the two in provocative ways. David Lynch: The Art Life is a lesson in the other side of the director’s creative life, the one not seen as regularly.

The greatest revelation here is just how average Lynch’s experience seems. But then, isn’t that also thematically in tune with the cinematic stories he would eventually tell? Beneath the most innocuous surface lurks darker thoughts. It just takes a willingness to look behind the veneer to find them--and that’s exactly what David Lynch: The Art Life does.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

DHEEPAN - #871


There is no frying pan, only fire.

Three refugees make their way from war-torn Sri Lanka to France, banding together as a family even though they have never met. The father, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), is a soldier from the losing army going into hiding following the slaughter of his men and his family; the mother, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), is hoping to escape to London and join her only remaining relative; and the daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is an orphan in the right place at the right time. Families have a better chance of getting through the immigration red tape, so these strangers will have to pretend they are tied together by marriage and blood. It’s a nightmare for many in Trump’s America, the huddled masses gaming the system, but then again, maybe a story like Dheepan will inspire some empathy. What would you do if your country went to war and you ended up on the wrong side, or worse, had no real stake in the fight and just got caught in the crossfire?


Released in 2015, Dheepan is the latest from French director and Cannes-darling Jacques Audiard, who previously made a splash with A Prophet [review] and Rust and Bone [review]. Dheepan has more in common with the earlier movie--a prison picture about gangsters coping with life inside and outside their cells--in that the filmmaker manages to take very specific group sand relate their individual experience in a way that is true to their story but also relatable. The particular becomes universal.


Once this lost trio lands on French shores, they are put into the system, which eventually sends them to a remote ghetto where Dheepan will work as caretaker, Yalini will care for an infirm old man, and Illayaal will go to school. As they learn to make their way in their new home, they also start to become a real unit, with the lure of traditional roles proving too strong to resist. They also start to learn that the world is terrible everywhere. The complex where they’ve been placed is run by drug dealers, and Yalini is unwittingly caring for the father of the local boss, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), who himself is freshly out of prison, only to be trapped in the tenement by an ankle monitor. It seems for some people, circumstances never change: you’re always imprisoned, you’re always at war.


The movie is called Dheepan, but I feel that’s misleading, it’s not entirely his picture. Sure, he gets an interesting arc, and becomes an active plot agent in the film’s powerful climax, as his past comes back to haunt him and he wrestles with his PTSD, but the true center of Audiard’s film, co-written with the director’s regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, is Yalini. She drives their scheme, searching out Illayaal in the refugee camp, and she has the most connection with the varying lines of action. When Dheepan decides to fight back against the thugs, like some kind of 1980s vigilante, it’s Yalini who must shuttle messages back and forth between her husband and the bad guys. Likewise, as Dheepan loses his way, she is the one who takes responsibility of their adopted daughter, a task she has otherwise tried to avoid. (If anyone gets short shrift, it’s Illayaal, who kind of gets set aside after some initial hiccups at her new school; there’s more to be explored here regarding the young girl’s search for acceptance.) That said, both lead performers have a quiet strength that gives them equal footing. One can sense there is much going on beneath the surface of their words and deeds.

In fact, that’s one of Audiard’s greatest strengths, hinting at and then ultimately revealing what is hidden. There is much going on behind all these stories, a history to each character, a politic to their situation. Audiard plays with light and dark throughout Dheepan, using visual metaphor to suggest truth emerging. In early scenes, it is literally lit objects appearing in blackness, the people carrying them or around them only becoming evident as the light sources--mouse ears, a lamp--gain power. Later in the movie, when too much has been revealed, we see Dheepan sitting in an orange light, fully exposed, but his own darkness still lurking within. For him, it’s secrets that are brought out; for Yalini, a strength and resourcefulness otherwise untapped. And a goodness.


It’s a credit to the script that, despite a very exciting, violent finale, the climactic scenes don’t overtake what comes before. The grit and flow of this action reminds me of Cuarón’s Children of Men [review], for as much as Audiard is a master choreographer as for his assured hand. The confidence we see in these scenes is what keeps them from calling too much attention to themselves, even if they are the biggest and loudest moments in the entire film--at least on the face of things. Audiard’s real skill is that every quiet moment is still big and loud to him, and thus given as much emphasis. The silence speaks volumes, or even the lines he chooses not to translate, as his main characters jump between languages--Tamil, French, and a little English--it’s the tone of the words, the force with which they are said, the expression on the actor’s face, that tells the real story. And their emotional conflagrations are as powerful as any gunshot, their unexpressed rage as hot as any emotion.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.