Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Oh, dear. Here we go again! I'm off to Comic Con today. Preview night is tonight, and the big carnival is going all weekend. It's going to be an exciting year. I am a bit of a free-floating agent this time around, and I will be dividing my time between the Oni Press table and the Tr!ckster event that will be going on across the street. Film fans can best understand Tr!ckster being analogous to Slamdance as an alternative to Sundance: a creator-ran festival that opens its arms to those who feel maybe a bit marginalized by the bigger show. Expect it to be a blast.

Of special note is the fact that Criterion is participating in Tr!ckster, and there will be an Akira Kurosawa-themed art show raising money for disaster relief in Japan. Read all the details in the link above or by clicking on this image:

My full schedule is posted to my Confessions123 blog. Please check it out. Come meet me, and attend my Tr!ckster symposium with Greg Rucka, Mike Allred, and Larry Marder.

My creative partner Joëlle Jones is an exalted special guest of Comic Con, because she's awesome, and you want to check her schedule at her blog, too, to see where she'll be when she isn't signing with me. She has a spotlight panel on Sunday, of which I will be part. It will be amazing. Also, dude, you gotta buy these prints.

My pal Mike Allred will also be performing with his band the Gear on Friday and Saturday. Take a look at Mike's schedule at his blog.

For updates, follow me on Twitter.

Get on an airplane, take a train, do what you gotta do...but don't miss it! Comic Con passes might be hard to come by, but the main Tr!ckster event is free, only the Symposia cost money. Truly alternative!

Monday, July 18, 2011


Plenty of filmmakers and artists believed in the magic of cinema, but few dabbled in it the way Jean Cocteau did. From his earliest efforts, including his revered Orphic Trilogy, he experimented with the possibilities of special effects and camera trickery to create indelible filmic illusions. While some of his tools may seem old hat today--he regularly ran his film backwards, used mirrors, double exposure, etc.--we can't forget how new the form still was when he jumped into the fray, trying anything and everything with gleeful abandon.

Of all his films, though, none has as much enduring magic as Beauty and the Beast. Released in 1946, it is a potent and meticulously realized cinematic fairy tale. Working from the original story by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, Cocteau invents a whole other plane of existence, one he invites us into with a typical storytelling incantation, "Once Upon a Time..."

Most of us know the story of Beauty and the Beast. In the French countryside, a once wealthy merchant (Marcel André) is struggling to keep his family out of the poorhouse, efforts disrupted by his fun-loving son Ludovic (Michel Auclair) and his selfish daughters Félicie and Adélaïde (Mila Parély and Nane Germon). His only devoted child is Belle (Josette Day), and though her sisters judge her harshly, the merchant at least sees that she has the family's best interest at heart. No overtones of Lear here; this daddy doesn't waver in his love for Cordelia. That's why when she asks for him to bring a rose back from his next trip, he more than willingly agrees.

Too bad he picked the wrong garden to snatch it from. The merchant wanders into an enchanted estate, one owned by the cursed Beast (Jean Marais, who also plays Belle's suitor, Avenant, a duality that will become thematically important when you watch the film). This Beast doesn't take kindly to anyone stealing any of his treasures, no matter how small. In exchange for his life, the merchant must send one of his daughters to stay in the Beast's mansion. Belle insists on sacrificing herself, since the offending rose was for her. She goes fully expecting to die, but instead, the Beast gives her a life of luxury. Each night, he feeds her a banquet and showers her with gifts and proposes marriage, hoping one day she will learn to appreciate him and say yes. He is a man at odds with his own nature. The human inside the furry form has love and compassion to give, but the animal instinct that comes with his transformation stokes a primal fire deep down.

The plot is simple, but effective. It has endured for a reason. Beauty and the Beast speaks to fundamental human desires: to be loved for who we are, and also to conquer our true nature. Whether you believe that man is born good and learns to be bad, or vice versa, most of us struggle in the day to day to do the right thing. Beast represents that common conflict, and though his outward appearance suggests the more primitive side is losing, his treatment of Belle proves otherwise. The outcome of the fairy tale is to prove this, partially by showing that even those who possess great beauty also lack the purity that is often ascribed to them. It's all in the eye of the beholder, as they say.

Like the best fairy tales, Cocteau's wraps its message within glittery trappings. Beauty and the Beast is a marvelous movie. Cocteau invents his own dimension, working with an army of art directors and costume designers to establish a mystical realm where the cursed Beast resides. From the lush garden with its ornate statuary to the deepest recesses of his mansion, every inch is packed with something interesting to look at. The most famous sequences feature a long hallway where human arms serve as candelabras and the stone busts come to life. (And perhaps these human objects are a symbol of how each and every one of us is enslaved to our own similar beastly compulsions.) The Beast himself is an impressive creation, a combination of costume and make-up, with glowing eyes and a smoldering body that regularly emits smoke, particularly when the creature has been on the hunt. It's not perfect, particularly not to modern eyes, but it's more convincing than the combination of computer animation and the rudimentary costume on the similar Beast in this year's X-Men: First Class [review] movie. There is also a warmth to Cocteau's other world that is lacking in the sparkle of modern effects-laden films. It's one of the reasons I'm no fan of the cloying Disney version of this story. Their early use of CGI in some of the cartoon sequences is jarring rather than enchanting, and the songs are execrable. (Yeah, I said it. Find the link for the hate mail, go ahead.)

The same can't be said for the music in Beauty and the Beast's alternate audio track, a full opera composed with the movie's dialogue by Philip Glass. I know this might be considered sacrilege to some, but I prefer to watch Cocteau's film this way, with all the dialogue sung and the constant presence of the orchestra. It adds to the otherworldliness, abstracting the piece further, so that I am truly somewhere other than the presentation space. I find Glass' music profoundly moving, and it gives even more cosmic heft to the movie's dreamy finale.

Sometimes it's hard to imagine what kind of space must have existed to allow a film like Beauty and the Beast to happen. Cocteau's undertaking must have sounded crazy, particularly in post-War France, when resources were scarce. (The movie was shot on several different film stocks, because the director had to use whatever was at hand.) It must have also seemed frivolous when compared to, say, what was happening in Italian film, which was going in the opposite direction. And yet, the affirmation that comes at the conclusion of Beauty and the Beast, that man can conquer the evil inside and love and good will out, must have also seemed tremendously comforting, validating the escapism the movie provided--and continues to provide. If you trust Cocteau at his word, and accept his invitation, you will be transported and possibly even transformed by watching his romantic fable.

Beauty and the Beast was first restored in 1995, and with each successive home video release (this is their third), Criterion manages to up their own game. The BD of the 1946 film, shown at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio in black-and-white, is magnificent. Tonal values are pronounced and expertly rendered, the blacks go deep, and the surface grain preserves the look of the original film without distracting from its foggy landscapes. One always worries that more clarity might dim the power of the effects work; it often can expose the cracks and seams. Not so here. I found the clever creations to be more effective than ever. In fact, seeing the incredible level of detail, which is now sharper and deeper than even on the stellar 2003 reissue, just makes Beauty and the Beast all the more enchanting.

Please Note: The screengrabs used here are from the standard-definition remastered DVD released in 2003, not from the Blu-Ray.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


When Criterion was releasing their most recent Eclipse set, Raffaelo Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas, a fellow Portland-based film critic, Shawn Levy, was wondering aloud about this relatively obscure filmmaker. Shawn tweeted, "Matarazzo gets one sentence each in Shipman's 'Story of Cinema' and Bondanella's 'Italian Cinema,' and four paragraphs in Liehm's 'Passion and Defiance.'" The implication is that, in all of cinema history, Matarazzo is little more than a footnote. Neither this assessment nor Shawn's posting is a dismissal, but a curious inquiry. Who was this mid-century Italian director that we were all about to be (re)introduced to?

According to the liner notes that accompany the set, Matarazzo was a journeyman filmmaker with a long line of mid-range studio pictures under his belt but little by way of mainstream success when he shifted gears in the late 1940s. Following the Neorealist remodel, Matarazzo dismantled and rebuilt his approach, marrying old-school sensibilities with new-school technique. Having helmed a lot of literary adaptations prior, the director decided to take the stuffy strictures of traditional melodrama and shoot them in the more naturalistic manner that De Sica and Rossellini were popularizing in post-War Italy.

How this all turned out is...well, it's interesting. Some of the tell-tale signs of the Neorealist style are immediately apparent, but so are the tropes and traditions of the dramatic format, including all the narrative coincidences and overwrought emotions that practically made "melodrama" a dirty word in the last couple of decades. Matarazzo's films work both sides of the class divide, and he shoots the upper classes and the lower in the same light. Sure, the rich stepmother in Tormento may live in a large apartment, but in keeping with the modern aesthetic, the director doesn't dress it up further, using instead the space as it is. He works out in the open, which allows him to circle and photograph life from its varying angles. He takes no real allegiance with one side or another, at least not as determined by social standing. His characters are more clearly defined by actions: good is good, and bad is bad.

The watershed movie for Matarazzo was 1949's Chains (Catene) (94 mins.) , which teamed him with the Titanus studios and actors Yvonne Sanson and Amedeo Nazzari. Sanson in particular was a revelation, a new find whose sensuality and beauty is immediately striking, and yet who fits easily into the roles of mother and devoted wife. In Chains, she plays Rosa, and Nazzari is her husband Guglielmo, a mechanic who owns his own shop and is looking to expand. They have two children, a young daughter named Angelina (Rosalia Randazzo) and a growing boy eager to be a man, Tonino (Gianfranco Magalotti). They are the typical working class nuclear family, the core unit of the decade to come.

Things change for the worse for them overnight, however, and the clan finds themselves stuck in a plot straight out of a pulp magazine. A car thief having engine trouble parks in Guglielmo's garage. His partner Emilio (Aldo Nicodemi) turns out to be Rosa's former fiancé, who went to war and as far as she knew, never came back. Seeing each other again awakens old feelings, and Emilio sticks around, insinuating himself into Guglielmo's business in hopes of getting Rosa back in his arms.

Matarazzo reveals himself master of the slow burn in Chains. Emotions simmer before they boil, and though his pacing is perhaps too languid at times, it does have its payoffs. A particularly powerful scene comes midway when Tonino sees hands clasped under a table and realizes that maybe his mother is up to no good. Matarazzo doesn't crank the emotion here, he just lets it settle. The boy watches, the reality of the scenario sinks in, the feeling takes root. The director uses "live" music to underscore this scene, as he does throughout the film. Neapolitan ballads are full of stories of lost love and pain, and Matarazzo isn't afraid to choose a number with obvious parallels to his story. Later in Chains, after Guglielmo has found himself in legal hot water, a Christmas Eve crooner hits the fugitive father right in the heart with his overwrought lyrics.

Music serves a similar role in Matarazzo's follow-up film, Tormento (1950; 98 minutes). In this feature, Roberto Murolo plays a singer who re-enters the heroine's life midway through the story, and his songs unknowingly detail every heartbreak and sacrifice she has to make in the film. Yvonne Sanson stars again, this time as Anna, a loving daughter and mother who has been victimized for years by her cartoonishly evil stepmother (Tina Lattanzi). After her husband-to-be (Nazzari again) is falsely convicted of a crime, Anna must take care of their child on her own. On his deathbed, her father (Annibale Betrone) makes his wife swear to take care of his granddaughter, but the mean old witch will only do so if Anna locks herself away in a home for wayward women. Like her husband, Anna is innocent of any sin, much less a crime--she doesn't even cheat with the musician, and loses her job because she won't bend over for her boss (Nicodemi)--but the young girl's failing health takes precedence over her reputation.

A theme of compromised piety and female sacrifice emerges in Matarazzo's work in both of these films. In Chains, Sanson's character can save her husband by accepting charges of adultery; in Tormento, she acquiesces to the stepmother's lies to give her daughter a better life. Matarazzo's technique, it seems, is to bring his heroine as low as he can, letting the audience suffer with her and testing our expectations, seeing how far he can strain our belief that things will turn out all right in the end. This, of course, only increases the relief when they do. It's a move that works better in the earlier film; the back half of Chains is full of predictable, yet tantalizing, plot machinations, whereas Tormento is more plodding, full of hand wringing and cruel proclamations. The coincidences pile on one after the other, including a well-timed heart attack that strikes like lightning. It's the kind of storytelling that can be delicious fun when given a more feverish tone, but Tormento is too restrained. When the dirty deeds are slowed down this much, it's hard not to note how overdone it all is. Tormento borders on self-parody.

Things move from the city to the country in 1952's Nobody's Children (I figli di nessuno) (96 mins.), and it's best to know going in that it and the last film in Runaway Melodramas, 1955's The White Angel (100 mins.), form a two-part epic of misery and heartbreak. This helps some of the storytelling leaps in Nobody's Children make sense--though others really are just jumpy moves from one plot point to the next without much in between. Of the quartet presented in this box, Nobody's Children has the choppiest third act.

Nobody's Children is set in a quarry owned by the Canali family. Countess Elisabeth (Francoise Rosay) has been running the family business since becoming a widow, though her son Count Guido (Nazzari) will take over one day. Not soon enough for him. He wants to change the poor conditions and replace the outmoded equipment, but the foreman Anselmo (Folco Lulli) is in the way. To keep his hold on everything, Anselmo interferes with more than just business life: he rats out Guido for having a love affair with Luisa (Sanson), the daughter of the quarry's security guard. Behind-the-scenes scheming to separate them works, and on the Countess' orders, Anselmo even kidnaps the baby that Guido knows nothing about--only for the house Luisa was hiding in to burn down, too, and compel Luisa to think the child died. Oh, and did I also mention that she has already faked her own suicide? Following the child's death, she becomes a nun, one cruelly assigned to serve in the town where her life went so wrong.

This is the most fevered set-up so far, and Nazzari and Sanson slip comfortably into their expected roles: he is arch and unyielding, she is constantly at her wit's end. The quarry backdrop makes the human foibles on display seem all the more primitive, though some of the interior sets look fake compared to the craggy exteriors. Folco Lulli makes for a particularly slimy villain, giving Matarazzo his most believable threat so far. Anselmo's greed even transcends class barriers: he inadvertently provides the link between the trod-upon miners and the benevolent boss, because as the middle man, Anselmo does the trodding. It's bizarre social commentary. We could all get together, regardless of position, but the rats among us keep us separated.

The second half of the film focuses on Bruno (Enrico Olivieri), the kidnapped child. Guido's mother has been paying for his boarding school tuition. As Bruno gets older, he begins to wonder about his past; the headmaster tells him he's an orphan, but the other kids tease him for being a bastard, and he wants to know who his secret benefactor is. He runs away to find Anselmo after discovering the crook's address and starts working in the quarry, right under his real family's nose. And since this is Matarazzo, his journey to his hometown is soundtracked by a troubadour with a guitar!

The script for Nobody's Children grows pretty convoluted, though the protracted, tense climax more than makes up for it. It's true cinema cliché: Bruno rushes to stop some dynamite from detonating while Anselmo and Guido wrestle in the dirt down below. It adds a ticking-clock element to Matarazzo's work that we haven't seen before, while also setting him up for the weepy sickbed scenes he loves so much. The concluding scenes are also a bit of a curveball, as they don't deliver what we might usually expect from this kind of picture. Then again, there is a sequel...

Note: It's pretty much impossible to write about the next film without giving away at least something about what happens in Nobody's Children. If you are the type that gets queasy and/or senstivie about spoilers, you might want to go pour yourself some milk and come back later.

The White Angel picks up the story by repeating the final scene of Nobody's Children. Distraught over Bruno's tragic fate, Luisa has transferred to another convent, leaving no forwarding address, while Guido is angry about the role his wife (Enrica Dyrell) played in the deception. Wanting to erase all reminders of the past, Guido dissolves his marriage and is about to get rid of the quarry, too, when another tragic twist forces him to get himself back together. While away on business, he spots a woman in the train across from his and runs to meet her. She is a showgirl named Lina, and she is a dead ringer for Luisa. (She should be, she's also played by Yvonne Sanson.) Guido strikes up a tenuous relationship with her, and narrowly avoids being conned by the girl and her rotten boyfriend (Philippe Hersent).

The plot takes a surprising turn when Lina is sent to prison for holding on to her boyfriend's counterfeit money. In jail, she has a pretty bad time of it, especially after she runs afoul of the sexy head prisoner (Flora Lillo). Matarazzo isn't above a little behind-bars lady fighting. Lina begins to see the light after her beatdown, and it's revealed she is pregnant with Guido's baby. Adding to the weirdness, the doctor who comes to take care of her works in the same church as Luisa and is taken aback by the resemblance. Knowing this is why Guido liked her, Lina asks to see her twin so that she can tell the nun her story.

The White Angel is probably the best movie in the box, and it provides the set with the appropriate closure. Not only does it circle back to the beginning by embracing the same pulpy plot style as Chains, but it provides the most believable transformation and sets things right in Guido and Luisa's world. Throughout the Runaway Melodramas set, Yvonne Sanson's characters have been striving for atonement, often seeking it through religious conversion and an affirmation of family. Though The White Angel would make no sense if its lovers came back together in the finale--Luisa is a nun, after all--where they end up is perfectly logical and also extremely satisfying. One could even interpret the situation as the man finally having to accept responsibility for his sins and do the right thing. The women no longer need to carry the burden unfairly.

It probably doesn't hurt that Matarazzo goes for broke in this last entry, either. He has shed most of the Neorealist clothes he had put on previously, and The White Angel is at his most "Hollywood." Brooding lovers, flamboyant criminals, heavy consequences, and a tone of swelling, heaving orchestration to carry it along. Speedboats crash in brutal storms, fires get started during daring prison escapes, and despite all the talk of God and Catholicism, yet another infant is born out of wedlock. (For four movies that lack any onscreen sex, there sure are a lot of babies!) It's still not as great as, say, a Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minnelli movie, but few are, really. Raffaelo Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas ends better than it starts, and that in itself is its own kind of atonement.

Raffaello Matarazzo's Runaway Melodramas, the 27th entry in Criterion's long-running Eclipse series, gives us four obscure, little-seen films from a six-year span in one Italian director's career. Though the movies here sometimes suffer from convenient plotting and other shaky storytelling choices, the presence of two strong lead actors, and in particular Yvonne Sanson, keeps the drama riding high. In fact, keeping a core team throughout means we get to watch the filmmakers build something, honing their craft until they get it exactly right. The set particularly gets good the more scandalous the scripting, and fans of overwrought love stories will dig seeing these well-made Runaway Melodramas hit the familiar genre buttons.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Monday, July 11, 2011

THE MUSIC ROOM (Blu-Ray) - #573

It's too bad Criterion didn't release their edition of Satyajit Ray's The Music Room at the same time they released Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited [review]. Anyone who has spent any time with the more recent movie's soundtrack will instantly recognize the song that opens The Music Room. Indeed, Anderson used lots of cues from older Indian films in Darjeeling, and the way he pays tribute to the melodies of Ray's home country is very much in keeping with the legendary director's own showcasing of Bengali music in his 1958 feature.

Fitting, too, that The Music Room thematically demonstrates the struggle between old and new, tradition and progress. Popular Indian actor Chhabi Biswas stars as Biswambhar Roy, a local monarch whose bank account has seen better days. Roy is addicted to music. Specifically, he is addicted to his music room, where he lounges with his hookah and hosts listening parties, hocking his wife's jewelry to pay for private recitals from popular acts. The music room is a status symbol, and so Roy's displays of wealth only escalate, especially when his new neighbor starts to offer him competition.

Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose) is the son of a moneylender, and he has entered the family business. He pays a visit to Roy on the day the older man's son is supposed to have his initiation ritual. Roy could actually stand to borrow some money to cover the cost, but he's too proud to ask Mahim for the coinage. Mahim is seen as new money, someone who has to hustle for his purse. He doesn't have the aristocratic blood that the Roy family has. He also likes modern innovations, like electric devices for the home and cars. Biswambhar Roy rides a white horse and dresses up his elephant just to cross the street.

Things change drastically when tragedy strikes the Roy clan and the aging leader is left alone. He refuses to leave his house, and his station in life continues to decline as Mahim's rises. Neither is happy, though, because neither has what he really wants. Mahim is refused respect by the townspeople because of his less-than-noble birth, yet modernity is clearly here to stay and kings are outmoded. Like Burt Lancaster in The Leopard, Biswambhar Roy can see the world changing and moving past him; like Charles Foster Kane, he has locked himself up in a mausoleum full of things, a tribute to a life no longer lived and an attempt to prevent the future from arriving.

Satyajit Ray works his way patiently through the script, which he wrote based on a short story from Tarasanka Banerji. The Music Room flirts with melodrama--the deaths in the Roy family bring the weightiest emotions; insects show up throughout the film, serving as insidious omens--but Ray restrains himself. The social changes are represented in gesture and decoration. How the two men carry themselves and the way Biswambhar Roy's house starts to fall apart, and even how his servants address him, say enough about how heavy the crisis really is. Even what the two men choose to smoke speaks volumes. Roy uses the hookah, and he calmly inhales his tobacco; Mahim begins by inhaling snuff, but eventually turns to cigarettes, and each says something about who he is and his position on the social ladder. As actors, Biswas and Gupta complement one another. Biswas' performance is more interior, and his reserved posture gives away to physical fragility as the film progresses; meanwhile, Gupta is less mannered and more twitchy, not quite method but almost comedic.

The plot of The Music Room regularly pauses for the musical performances. Ray gives the featured musicians full scenes so they can perform complete songs. In the film's final act, we don't just get music, but dancing as well. It's a special sequence, with Ray using the dance to show the hypnotic power of performance and how music could equalize the two rivals if they would just acknowledge the shared experience. It's ironic, because as much as Roy uses music to bring together his friends, and even though he is clearly moved by the rhythm and melodies, he has long since ceased to give any credence to the way a concert or a popular song can remove personal or even class barriers. Anyone can enjoy a good tune, but I guess only a rich man thinks he can buy it for himself.

The moment to see the error of his ways comes and passes, and the petty victory the fading aristocrat seizes instead does him little good. Honestly, seeing the missed opportunity moved me more as a viewer than the aftermath, which was still powerful despite being more predictable than the material that had preceded it. Then again, there is no other way for The Music Room to end, the march of time must stamp out all that came prior. The old saying "this too shall pass" is meant to be comforting, to suggest that bad times will eventually end, but it applies to all of us as individuals, as well. One day things will change, we'll have aged, and we'll find ourselves on the other side of the line. It may be that the culture has changed simply and quietly and we can carry on or adapt, or it may be the kind of invisible violence that alters the world so drastically, someone like Biswambhar Roy won't survive the metamorphosis. Either way, we too shall pass.

Satyajit Ray

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

BLACK MOON (Blu-Ray) - #571

One man's nonsense is...well, another man's nonsense, most likely. But if nonsense is your thing...

If one applies the word "nonsense" as its literal dictionary meaning, then Louis Malle's 1975 surrealistic pill Black Moon doesn't really fit. There's an obvious method to the madness here. Images reoccur, veins of expression expand, Malle builds his dream world by dismantling our own brick by brick. He presents his vision in the form of a journey, a road trip by car and then by foot, and into a realm where the magical and the mundane have swapped places. Unicorns are real, grandmother is not.

The central figure in Black Moon is Lily (Cathryn Harrison), a lone figure wandering a topsy-turvy wasteland. Blonde girl lost in a dreamscape: the Alice comparisons are obvious and intentional, though Malle has dropped her in the middle of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend rather than any Wonderland. In Malle's wilderness, the human race is at odds. Packs of soldiers roam the countryside, committing summary executions of their enemies. No source of conflict is stated, though we can surmise that divisions have erupted along class and gender divides. Lily runs from anyone with a gun, it doesn't matter whom.

That's how she ends up at a secluded house in the middle of the forest. An old lady (Thérèse Giehse) lays in bed on the top floor, speaking gibberish into her wireless radio. A pair of siblings--a handsome brother (Joe Dallesandro) and pretty sister (Alexandra Stewart)--silently keep her house together and take care of her. The boy works the yard, the girl literally feeds her from her breast. Lily gets stuck there while pursuing a black unicorn. As man has become more isolated from one another, nature has been given rein to run wild. So have children. Innocence is returning. Or maybe it isn't. As a symbol, the unicorn isn't exactly what we expect. The talking horse is judgmental and perhaps is there as an example of temptation itself. Though regularly representing virginity, the unicorn bears witness to Lily surrendering her own purity to a much more common emblem of original sin.

As satire and as surrealism, Black Moon is curiously simplistic while also maddeningly obtuse. It's not as pointed as, say, Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review], which used confined spaces and open roads to expose that, despite their high-falutin' airs, modern society types are still subject to base urges. (Buñuel's daughter-in-law Joyce is credited with "additional dialogue" on Black Moon.) Malle's excursion through the fantastic is a little harder to pin down. The landscape keeps changing, so much so that you'll almost wish you'd began drawing a map when the movie started so you could find your way out. Singular images have potency (one burial of a dead soldier should cause anyone who fears suffocation to get a little anxious, particularly after you see the actor accidentally move under the soil), and there are gags that build and expand (the ever-growing pig). It's also wonderful to look at, as any dream should be, though cinematographer Sven Nykvist lights this headspace so that it appears overcast, a crushing gray always on the horizon. Performances are a little less consistent. Cathryn Harrison carries on stalwartly, but Dallesandro is terrible. He doesn't even speak and he's terrible! Then again, when wasn't he?

Thankfully, for as ambiguous or contrived as Black Moon can feel at times--Malle, really, was better when he was embracing humanity, and I sometimes question his comedic chops (Viva Maria!, anyone?)--the movie does have threads that pull through the length of the narrative, and much of what Malle sets up does pay off. (And since this is a dream, not everything has to; sometimes no sense is truly apropos when working with nonsense.) It's also entertaining, shifting and introducing new elements before what came previously can get boring. I am sure some will find it insufferable or precious, but if you feel like jumping in a rabbit hole--or an open grave--Black Moon can prove to be particularly entertaining.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (Blu-Ray) - #570

"All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream..."

Louis Malle's 1960 French comedy Zazie dans le métro is a children's film dressed up in its grandparents' clothes. This madcap, surreal look at one little girl's day trip to Paris is silly fun, though alternately old fashioned and progressive, adopting well-worn styles of cinematic humor to toy with modern sensibilities. Slapstick and wordplay lend a quirky bend to Zazie's world. Silent films are an influence, as are Looney Tunes [review], and like the best fairy tales, the wolf here has some particularly nasty teeth.

The film's heroine is Zazie, played by child actor Catherine Demongeot, a sort of Pippi Longstocking by way of Chaplin's The Kid. Zazie is a prankster visiting with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, Coup de Torchon) while her mother (Odette Piquet) has a quick fling with her new lover. The gregarious Gabriel is a bit of a loose cannon himself. He tells his niece that he's a night watchman, but he's really sneaking off to a nightclub where he dances in drag. He is not a "homosessual," as the word is regularly mispronounced; on the contrary, he's a ladies man with a particularly gorgeous wife (a particularly gorgeous Carla Marlier). The wife also catches the lecherous eye of Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli, Il generale della Rovere [review], Dassin's The Law [review]), a rapscallion who followed Zazie home after his buying her "blew-jeans" failed to yield the desired results. A surprising joke later in the picture reveals he has been increasing the age of his prey throughout the day, though the older Madame Mwack (Yvonne Clech) jumps his age threshold. His motivation is just one of the many darker, adult jokes peppered in Zazie dans le métro, while the Madame Mwack character is one of the only times Malle's movie proves to be mean-spirited. Unless the joke is that she's not the "old hag" they keep calling her--which she's not--and it's a critique on the shallow prejudices of the other characters.

In fact, there could be a lot of humor in Zazie dans le métro that has been lost across time and culture. The title refers to Zazie's dream of riding the Parisian subways, something she does not get to do in the movie because the train staff is on strike. There is much debate over this method of employment protest, and Malle and his co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (working from a book by Raymond Queneau) are clearly making a comment on current social issues. Excepting the most obvious of meanings, most of this kind of stuff went right over my head.

Thankfully, most of Zazie's adventures don't require any added insight. Unable to ride the rails, Zazie must create other mischief. She sneaks out of the house for some adventure. That's when she meets Trouscaillon. Running away from him is one of the many inspired chase sequences in the film. She leads him through back alleys and shopping districts for a series of gags, which grow increasingly implausible, the brunette Jerry getting away from the aging Tom. Later, Gabriel is hijacked by a tour bus, and Zazie and Mwack must pursue him through clogged traffic. Malle and his editor, Kenout Peltier, favor quick cuts, snipping out middle bits, moving their characters willy nilly through the scenes. They also play with film speed and crank the audio, and something completely nonsensical could be lurking around any corner. The guy in the polar bear suit eventually has his place, but at first, he's just a random bit of fun.

The whole movie is just a collection of random bits of fun, really. Zazie dans le métro is a pure blast of chaos and charm, with a winning young star and a cast of gung-ho supporting players who really get into the spirit of the thing. It plays well to the young at heart, despite some of its more mature undertones. I think a lot of that stuff would go over most kids' heads anyway--or, at the least, they'd do like I did when I was Zazie's age and I'd just pretend I didn't know. Zazie dans le métro is slapstick verité, embracing the oft undervalued tendency for the nouvelle vague not to take itself too seriously. (Indeed, listen for the swipe Malle takes at his compatriots in the new wave in one off-hand joke.) It's no surprise that Zazie is considered a cult movie, as it is a peculiar concoction, playing acquired sensibilities in the broadest manner. If you can keep pace with its precocious star, then there is much joy to be had; if you can't, then maybe you weren't much fun to begin with. Why be so grumpy? Let Zazie cheer you up!

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVDTalk.