Friday, November 30, 2012


My reviews of non-Criterion movies for November.


* Anna Kareninain which Joe Wright goes as crazy as his heroine and throws cinema under the train. But in a good way!

Killing Them Softly, the reteaming of Brad Pitt and his The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director takes on and dismantles the crime genre the same way they did the Western.

A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman sounded like a good idea. In 3D, animated, built with audio recordings by the late comedian. Too bad it sucks.

Life of Pi. The 3D or the tiger? Definitely worth seeing in the theater to see Ang Lee's beautiful adoption of the extra dimension, but expect to be underwhelmed by the story.

Lincoln. Day-Lewis. Spielberg. 'nuff said.

Silver Linings Playbook, in which David O'Russell asks, "How is Bradley Cooper not himself?" You may need a tissue for this one. Either from crying, um...Jennifer Lawrence. (Yeah, I went for that joke.)

Skyfall, Sam Mendes joins the Bond franchise, makes it legitimately good.

Smashed, an underdeveloped but well-meaning tale of addiction with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul.

Also, if you live near Portland, you should stop by Cinema 21 for their three-film, weeklong Bogart celebration "You'll Take It and Like It." I wrote about it for the Mercury.


D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln, a 1930 biopic in which the grandfather of cinema and the father of John Huston make the 16th President seem like a real dud.

Comic Book Confidential: 20th Anniversary Edition, an entertaining snapshot of the comics scene in the 1980s.

The Day He Arrives, an existential quandary, and arthouse take on Groundhog Day, from Korean director Hong Sangsoo.

Film Noir Collection, Volume One: Olive Films bundles together four of its noir and not-so-noir titles for a pretty solid collection of 1950s B-movies.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and 2: Ultimate EditionOr how I spent my Thanksgiving.

John Cage: Journeys in Sound, an informative documentary about the avant-garde composer.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, Sidney Lumet's masterful staging of the Eugene O'Neill drama, with Katharine Hepburn in the lead.

Die Nibelungen, Fritz Lang's epic silent film adaptation of the classic Nordic poem. From 1925.

People Like Us, a mainstream drama with surprising depth. Starring Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks.

Ramrod, a dark western with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, the stars of Sullivan's Travels.

We Can't Go Home Again & Don't Expect Too Much, the lost experimental film of Nicholas Ray paired with a documentary about its making.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


The Private Life of Henry VIII [review] was a great success for Alexander Korda, and so it only made sense that he would continue in this vein as both a filmmaker and a producer. For his next historical feature, Korda handed the directorial reins to Paul Czinner, who had recently left Germany with his wife, the actress Elizabeth Bergner, to escape persecution from the rising Nazi powers. Czinner and Korda settled on Catherine the Great as a suitable starring vehicle for Bergner. Though Catherine had a long reign as Empress of Russia, one full of scandal and rumor, the pair decided to focus on her early life for The Rise of Catherine the Great, and her move from her home country of Germany to the court of St. Petersburg--a situation that Bergner could likely identify with.

At the start of the picture, the Empress Elisabeth (Flora Robson, the Basil Dearden-directed Saraband for Dead Lovers) is on the throne. Lacking both an Emperor and a direct heir, Elisabeth is trying to position her nephew, Grand Duke Peter (Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Little Caesar, The Prisoner of Zenda), to take over and carry on the bloodline. In classic fashion, the young monarch is not as interested in affairs of state as he is in affairs of the heart and also those of the body. Being a ladies man and a scoundrel, the idea of marrying a German princess he's never seen doesn't really appeal to the dandy. His mind changes, however, when he meets Catherine and she charms him with her naïveté and devotion.

Only, his mind is to change just as quickly on their wedding day when a valet (Gerald du Maurier) plants a doubt in his head: what if she is not as naïve as he originally believed? Feeling royally played, Peter approaches his new marriage as if it were a game. Can he carry on as he was and keep his wife in her place? He'll push her to see how clever she really is!

These early portions of The Rise of Catherine the Great are the best parts, with Peter acting the rake and Catherine trying to outmaneuver him, sometimes advised by Empress Elisabeth herself. Flora Robson pulls a coup on her castmates, completely dominating The Rise of Catherine the Great each and every time she appears on screen. (Hell, even Criterion chose to put her on the menu screen rather than the movie's titular star.) The actress reminds me of Helen Mirren, both in attitude and appearance. Hers is by far the most colorful role. She gets to shout and throw tantrums and even gives one of her ministers a black eye. Her showing "Little Catherine" the ropes has echoes of Choderlos de Laclos' Les liaisons dangereuses. The innocent is being trained to disarm the cad. Peter is fueled more by pride and jealousy than he is desire, and Fairbanks handles the wounded ego angle with aplomb.

Unfortunately, The Rise of Catherine the Great nearly skids to a halt when Elisabeth eventually passes on. Peter rules Russia with the same shortcomings that make him such a bad husband, and he quickly fears Catherine's popularity and her keen instincts for fair rule. Or should I say her alleged instincts. The script, which was cobbled together by three writers, gives pretty thin examples of Catherine's decision-making skills, and for most of this part of the film, she appears far from great. The political machinations are a pale replacement for the more swarthy bedroom negotiations, and Catherine is shown as weak willed and easily bested, a wilting flower beholden to a rotten man. She is only convinced to make the right choice and seize power when his insults become too much to bear. Czinner wishes to paint Catherine as the mother of the country who will fight for her children, but that portrait doesn't fit in the frame, not when, for the bulk of the picture, she is too busy pining for her sweetheart to make the bold moves to get rid of him.

While the script clearly goes wrong in sticking Catherine in the backseat for The Rise of Catherine the Great's final act, some blame must also be placed with Bergner. She's not much of an actress, and she also lacks any special screen presence. Just like Peter, the camera doesn't really love her, it's more okay with her. Even surrounded by Vincent Korda's impressive set designs and decked out in John Armstrong's costumes, Bergner can't quite marshal the charisma to make her character believable. A film about a woman coming into her own and taking control of an empire requires a much stronger personality to bring it to life.

But then that's the problem. As a whole, Paul Czinner's directorial style lacks the vitality of even Korda's, who himself wasn't exactly the most vivacious. The Rise of Catherine the Great also lacks the sheer force of a performer like Charles Laughton, or the more lusty aspects of the Henry VIII story. When the gossip and the whispers take over The Rise of Catherine the Great, one can't help but think all that cattiness is much ado about nothing at all. Maybe they were saving all the salacious details for a possible sequel? Too bad the Korda franchise was soon to go elsewhere.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Pier Paolo Pasolini was a notorious author and activist before he became a filmmaker. As a self-described homosexual Marxist Catholic, his viewpoint was, to say the least, unique and his chosen means of expression often abrasive. He began his cinema career as a screenwriter and became a protégé of Fellini--though the two had a falling out when Pasolini struck out on his own to make his 1961 debut, Accatone, the story of a pimp in the Italian slums.

After a decade of increasingly pessimistic movies, Pasolini decided to adopt a new outlook on life. Turning to classic literature, he chose to helm a Trilogy of Life: three films adapting famous books that themselves were a collection of short stories and fables. Working with material by Boccaccio, Chaucer, and tales from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, jumping from Italy to England and then to the Middle East, the filmmaker embraced the ribald and the sensual, turning these well-known parables into a celebration of mankind's pleasures, devotions, and freedoms. Politics and religion were mocked--sometimes lovingly, other times sharply--with Pasolini ultimately letting the human condition--and the human comedy--dictate a narrative free of all expected restrictions (and predictably censored for the same).

It's a surprisingly good fit for the director, even if his newfound blithe spirit was not to last. Shortly after completing the Trilogy of Life, Pasolini rejected the work, claiming that he had succumbed to a particularly thin, knee-jerk liberalism. His next, and sadly last, film turned out to be his most misanthropic and controversial yet. Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom is still one of the more discussed and disturbing pieces of cinema [you can read my review here], both reviled and revered in counterbalancing measures. It's kind of bizarre to consider how Pasolini jumped one to the other. If you saw Salo separately from The Trilogy of Life and had no idea who had made either, I doubt you'd guess it was the same man.

I keep a copy of Boccaccio's The Decameron next to my bed, where I can occasionally grab it and read one of the stories. (Also, to let the ladies know I am edumacated and/or a would-be pretentious intellectual.) The 14th-century tome is credited with having originated the art form of the novella (which is not just a short novel, but that's a discussion for another time). It's basically a collection of short stories, 100 in all, told by ten travelers to pass the time. They are alternately funny, philosophical, dirty, and magical. Despite the book's considerable age, it doesn't read like an antiquated relic. It's lively and bawdy and quite entertaining.

For his 1971 adaptation of the book, Pasolini quite understandably whittles the text down from 100 to about a dozen entries or so (including at least one that is told, rather than performed). His version of The Decameron (111 minutes) also jettisons the framing sequence, instead letting the stories flow naturally one into the other. A few characters connect from one to the next, sometimes stumbling into the neighboring scenario just to kickstart the next tale and send the narrative on its way. For the first half of the film, there is a recurring character of a con man and a thief (played by Pasolini regular Franco Citti; he's in all the films in this set and also in Mamma Roma); for the second half, there is a painter who is struggling to complete a fresco in a church. He is played by the director himself, and so no surprise that the painter's vision gives The Decameron its most fantastical images, including a living painting re-creating classic religious iconography. He also gets to utter the movie's last line, "Why complete a work when it's so beautiful just to dream it."

Pasolini's focus tends to be on stories with either a sexual or religious base, often both, as well as tales that are generally derailed by one person's greed or folly. While much of what we see borders on the blasphemous--a convent full of nuns taking advantage of a man they believe to be mentally deficient; the robbing of a Bishop's grave, etc.--Pasolini is only tweaking the nose of the church playfully. He is creating a connection between earthly and heavenly pleasures, suggesting that each exists in concert with the other. Hence, the penultimate story of the man who literally screws himself to death. He returns from the afterlife to reveal that sex is considered to be a virtue, not a sin, and his punishment will be for other wicked deeds. Granted, he is in Hell, so we don't really know how God and his minions feel about the matter, but the message here is, hey, regardless of the outcome, its worth it.

Pasolini's depiction of medieval living is neither romanticized nor prettied up. The buildings and clothes are shabby, the people are dirty. There are so many rotting teeth in The Decameron, my own mouth started to hurt after a while. Director of photography Tonino Delli Colli, who also collaborated with Raffaello Matarazzo and Louis Malle, shoots without much added light, preferring the natural look of sunlight and shadows--however musty some of those shadows might be. Likewise, Pasolini doesn't push his rather large cast--which is made up in large part of non-actors, in the Italian Neorealist tradition--toward big acting. He plays the comedy for what it is, but mostly let's the rest of the behavior just be. It makes for a surprisingly lithe anthology picture, one that sets the tone for its sibling films.

The set-up for 1972's The Canterbury Tales (111 mins.) more closely mirrors the frame of the Geoffrey Chaucer book: travelers on the road to Canterbury in medieval England agree to swap stories to pass the time--though who is telling the tale and where is never really addressed again. Instead, the thread that runs through the movie is that of Chaucer himself, another winking role for Pasolini, sitting at his desk and writing his book. He says little, instead mostly just looking up from his work to smile at a clever punchline or two.

Pasolini has chosen eight stories from the original text, once again favoring ribald anecdotes and morality plays that involve human greed and betrayal. The sections range from the humorous (a wife and her lover trick her husband into locking himself away while they make love, only for her previous lover to show up looking for action) to the more dire and serious (Franco Citti plays the devil come to Earth to observe human misery; three young boys plot against each other after finding treasure). Some of the sequences lack the punch or the narrative flow that made The Decameron more riveting. Laura Betti (1900 [review]) plays the Wife of Bath in a short vignette that comes to very little, and outside of some familiar settings, not much leads the viewer from one story to the next.

Still, The Canterbury Tales has two superior segments that alternately surprise, delight, and in the case of the second one, horrify. First is Ninetto Davoli, who played a swindled bumpkin in The Decameron, returning here as a shiftless teenager making merry and causing trouble in both work and play. The scenario is Pasolini's tribute to silent cinema, with Davoli doing an imitation of Chaplin's Tramp. The slapstick is funny and the homage loving, with the modern director juxtaposing the "innocence" of the early motion pictures with Chaucer's not-so-innocent characters. (Another Chaplin connection: the revered auteur's daughter Josephine plays the lovely girl May in the opening story.)

The second sequence is essentially the film's big finish. It features a materialistic clergyman being visited by a youthful angel who spirits him away to Hell to take a glimpse at what happens when men of God betray their vows. Pasolini builds a large outdoor set on an English wasteland, with naked demons painted head to toe in garish colors and grotesque scenes of torture and punishment. It's at once both disturbing and hilarious. The director's rudimentary special effects, depicting giant Satanic buttocks releasing wicked priests back into the sulfurous landscape, succeed on sheer audacity. It's hard to laugh when you feel so queasy!

As with The Decameron, perhaps the best element to recommend The Canterbury Tales is the art direction. Pasolini's unique take on ancient living, embracing all the stink and filth, is so vivid, he successfully erases all trace of modernity and creates an alternate world that is believable and intriguing. Even if the movie doesn't gel in terms of narrative, it still looks remarkable. It also seems had Pasolini chosen a better way to end the film, he might have turned what is a very good effort into something great. Sure, the trip to Hell is remarkable, but The Canterbury Tales lacks any final message. There is no summation a la the painted fresco, nor do we get something akin to the libertine's moral that we are privileged to receive at the end of The Decameron (or even the closed circle of The Arabian Nights). Instead, The Canterbury Tales just stops. Ironic for a film about a journey that it kind of doesn't end up anywhere.

Pasolini all but abandons the collected story structuring for 1974's The Arabian Nights (130 mins.), even going so far as to drop the frame from the original source material. Likewise, he steps comfortably away from any overriding religion, instead embracing a more freeform narrative line where man determines his own fate, with only happenstance and our own foolishness to get in the way.

If there is any throughline in The Arabian Nights, it's the clever slave Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), who arranges for her own sale to the handsome young Nuredin (Franco Meril). When her "master" refuses to heed her advice, she is kidnapped and they are separated. Thanks to her wiliness, Zumurrud escapes again, and her flight from capture eventually lands her in a city in search of a king. Mistaking her for a man, and following an ancient tradition, the ruling powers put her on the throne. Meanwhile, a properly shamed Nuredin goes searching for his lost inamorata.

As in The Decameron, one aspect of the script tumbles into the next, with Zumurrud's enemies criss-crossing over plot lines and also getting their comeuppance. Pasolini shot the exteriors of the film in the Middle East, with the interior sex scenes taking place on an Italian soundstage--meaning he also foregoes local actors when away from Italy, presumably because actors willing to get nude for his camera would have been harder to find in Muslim countries (as they apparently were not in England; you ever wanted to see Doctor Who's Tom Baker getting' busy? Me neither!). Even so, The Arabian Nights appears even less like studio-based constructions than the preceding films. The legitimate sights serve the production well.

Midway through the picture, when Nuredin has been taken in by a trio of horny sisters who read to him from, one presumes, One Thousand and One Nights, Pasolini diverges from the path and dives down a rabbit hole into more stories. Ninetto Davoli returns as Aziz, who has lost all he has known in the world, including his love and manhood. He is found in the desert by Taj (Francesco Paolo Governale), and the wandering Prince listens as Aziz relates the circumstances by which he came to be so dejected. This leads to Taj forming a new plan to pursue love on his own, and as he puts his scheme into motion, he gathers the histories of those he recruits in aiding him. These stories end up being the most outrightly mystical of any of the tales in all three movies in the Trilogy of Life, suggesting the happy outcome that is soon to come is more fated than the participants realize.

Unfettered as it is from Catholic judgment and any governing morality, The Arabian Nights is the only film where indulgence in our most natural impulses is not punished. Sexuality morphs freely, basically creating an idealized world where all could act as they pleased, the only price that had to be paid was involvement. Aziz has bad things happen because he doesn't govern his own fate, and Nuredin loses Zumurrud when he does not heed her advice. Yet, those who embrace life are rewarded. Even Nuredin eventually. Perhaps this is what soured Pasolini so, he knew his vividly realized fantasy was not to be. There are couple of key scenes of brutal violence in The Arabian Nights, at least one of which (a castration) is shocking enough to be in Salo. One could argue that maybe Pasolini's disillusionment was quite possibly born from the fact that even in an invented world where everyone was free to frolic and love as they saw fit, such attacks were necessary, because otherwise we might take our free will for granted.

The Canterbury Tales also has an English dub that was overseen by Pasolini. Though I generally shy away from dubs, this one makes sense, as the film was shot in England and features plenty of British actors. The Cockney accents fit the material. Additionally, though they don't play within the movie, there is a supplement with the English inserts Pasolini created for the written elements, like letters and Chaucer's book, seen in the film.

Each disc has its own handful of extras, with the lead bonus on The Decameron, Patrick Rumple's 25-minute visual essay "On The Decameron" being essential viewing early on. I kind of wish that I had watched it before watching the movie, because it both lays the groundwork for how Pasolini built his career up to the point of taking on Trilogy of Life, but also gives some insight into how The Decameron is structured and points out Pasolini's influences from the world of cinema and painting, including the material he borrowed from Giotto, the painter whose work becomes the tableau vivant in the last portion of the film.

This vivacious detour by Pier Paolo Pasolini makes for an interesting, albeit tragically brief, third act in an accomplished film career. Trilogy of Life is an anthology of anthologies, three movies based on famous collections of stories from classic literature: Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and the more mystical The Arabian Nights. Over the three films, Pasolini dissects human desire and our capacity for error, examining sin, indulgence, and punishment, building toward a morality where all would be free to love as they choose. The tales collected are funny, sensual, and sometimes poignant, all composed stylishly. Sure, the message doesn't always gel, and some sequences are clunky, but overall, Trilogy of Life is exactly the enjoyable life-affirming experience Pasolini set out for it to be, regardless of his own eventual disappointment in its thematic qualities.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from promotional materials and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

WEEKEND (Blu-Ray) - #635

"This isn't a novel, it's a film. A film is life."

Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard's incendiary 1967 farewell to motion pictures as he knew (and redefined) them, gives new meaning to the term "road rage." Most of the picture takes place on the highway as city dwellers head to the country for weekend getaways. Except, rather than heading toward some kind of bucolic idyll, what awaits them are traffic jams, accidents, and violence. In Godard's vision of the late 1960s, citizens have come to value their cars more than their lives, and they use the vehicles as weapons. They are status symbols that tell others who you are--the wealthy drive fancy roadsters, men who work drive trucks and tractors--and people vie for social positions the same way they vie for a parking spot.

The focus of Godard's episodic polemic is, ostensibly, the Durands, a bourgeois couple in a loveless marriage. At the start of the film, both husband and wife--Corinne and Roland, as played by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne--are each plotting with their lovers, making plans to murder the other. Corinne has convinced Roland to chance not fixing his brakes in hopes he'll crash and burn; Roland is waiting for Corinne's father to die so he can bump her off after she's gotten her inheritance. Their trip that weekend is actually to go visit her old man, who is on death's door, with the hope of staying in his good graces and preventing anyone from tampering with his will.

How the Durand's view life and their place in the world is immediately evident as soon as they encounter a line of traffic backed up on a two-lane highway. Roland unrepentantly pulls into the second lane and starts pushing his way toward the front, indifferent to the honking horns and angry shouts from the people he and Corinne are knocking aside. This is what the moneyed class do: they insist on their privilege. Godard has set up one long metaphor for society on this roadside. As the Roland's travel the line, we see people from all different walks of life, young and old, working class and middle class. There are trucks full of animals, representing agriculture. We also see signs of industry. Ironically, a Shell gas truck is trapped in the middle of the jam. Along the way, some have been run off the road, crashing into trees. One woman is going the wrong way. Another couple has given up and started playing checkers. A man hauling his sailboat can only dream of the sea.

This long line of vehicles is probably Weekend's most famous sequence. Godard and his longtime director of photography, Raoul Coutard, have orchestrated the whole thing as one unbroken shot, the camera traveling alongside on its own unseen vehicle running through the ditch (be it a four-wheeled ride or some jury-rigged contraption on tracks, like what Coutard rides at the beginning of Contempt [review]). It's an impressive piece of choreography, and one of many ambitious shots that are peppered throughout Weekend. Some are more static than others, like the couple's fight with Jean-Pierre Leaud, which ping pongs between his car and the phone booth where he sings his side of the conversation (presumably to no response). Equally as impressive as the traffic jam set-up is a later scenario where a pianist sits in the middle of a town square explaining the enduring power of Mozart. As the impromptu concert progresses, townsfolk listen and go about their lives. Coutard slowly turns in circles, first one way and then the next, capturing the whole panorama. Tarantino would later lift this routine for the loquacious diner scene in Death Proof [review].

"Are you in a film or reality?"
"A film."
"In a film? You lie too much."

Weekend is less a movie about story and plot than it is a collection of experiments and exercises. Most of the episodes play as more refined versions of the similar political skits that Godard wove through his irregular Rolling Stones documentary Sympathy for the Devil/One Plus One, and though the final title card declares that this is the end of cinema, it's really the beginning of Godard MkII, paving the way for his later output, creating a manifesto that he still adheres to, as evinced by his best efforts from the last decade or so, such as Notre Musique [review] and the more recent Film Socialisme [review]. Its structure and ideas represent his dissatisfaction with traditional filmmaking and his cohorts from Cahiers du cinema's complacent approach to the same, which he considers akin to the political left's inability to put their radical words into practice. It is, in a sense, his claiming the "right of way," while also embracing the "way of might."

Both notions arise within Weekend's varied anecdotes. At one stop, a worker in a tractor collides with a trust-fund kid's sports car. Amusingly, this fatal fender-bender occurs while the older man sings the virtues of unity via "The Internationale." The young driver is killed, his girlfriend is angry, and she keeps insisting that because they are rich and fancy, they had the right of way. He points out that his efforts in the fields feed France. It must have been with a weary heart that Godard decided on including the cruel joke that punctuates the scene: the only common ground these two people share is their anti-Semitism.

"Might" is given lip service further into the story. After the Durand's have finally crashed their own car, they make passage by working on a garbage truck, an effective up-ending of cultural norms. As they gather up trash, the workers who have taken charge, one a black man and the other white (Omar Diop and Laszlo Szabo), share their belief that only a violent revolution is going to make a difference. The pacifism of the flower child movement is not going to cut it. As a symbol of their unity, the black man speaks for the white man, and vice versa, with Godard setting his frame on the face of the man being spoken for, not the one speaking, making their two voices one.

Weekend is basically a string of parables, an extreme take on The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales, or even Pilgrim's Progress: it's a journey that makes pit stops within more individual stories. Godard's script is a dismantling of consumerist culture and class politics, and civilization breaks down the farther the Durand's travel. In another ironic twist, they become less human the fewer automobiles there are running. Earlier, cars and other purchasable products and pop culture fantasies are shown to be more important than God--whom they have possibly met, though he's now a dangerous highwayman who has stepped straight from the Bible into an Alexandre Dumas novel--but once the Durand's lose their car, they are forced to barter with ideas. Give that they are short on ideas, they get stuck. It's a moment straight out of Beckett, with two vagabonds on the curb unable to conjure up any legitimate truth, brutalized for their own lack of purpose.

"The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror."

The question that Weekend poses is a difficult one: as the class system breaks down, are people really becoming less human or is it actually more human? In the final act, the Durand's are taken over by true radicals who have reverted to a kind of primitive tribalism, complete with animal sacrifice and chants. It's the revolution of apocalypse, with people becoming the goods that are now traded and consumed. Yet, the point is made that, in its most natural state, mankind may be savage, but he is honest; it's the imposition of society, of organizing as a system, that alters our nature. We trade savagery for barbarism.

In terms of aesthetic goals, so too does Godard chisel away the imposed structure of more than a half-century of cinema to grasp at something more unfettered, more pure--though arguably more formalist and reflexive at the same time. It's rougher, but more honest. Weekend is getting closer to uncompromised communication. Take your ideas and throw them against the screen, and see what sticks. One could spend a long time mapping it out and picking at the intellectual nuggets that Godard has sprinkled along the trail, but the true experience is more visceral. The audience is meant to just watch, to travel along with the camera, and let the mis-en-scene work its own magic. It tickles at the base of your brain whether you realize it or not. It's what makes Weekend so subversive. It's unnerving and exciting, and for as close as even Film Socialisme got to replicating the results, there is really no second time. Again, this is the start and the finish, both its own thing and the connector between the past and the future.

I'd only seen Weekend once before prior to this release. It was the New Yorker DVD release from 2005. It's been quite a while, but I remember even then there was disappointment that the transfer was middling, with soft colors and problematic resolution. No such issues will greet those watching the Criterion Blu-Ray. The new restoration, working with a massive 2K scan of the original film, is every bit as vibrant as Godard and Coutard intended it to be. Detail is rich, and colors really pop.

Criterion also rounds out the package with plenty of supplements, including archival interviews with the lead actors and French television footage from the set of the movie. There is also an illuminating new video essay by Kent Jones, and three articles in the booklet, including pieces of an interview with Godard conducted in 1969.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The above images are promotional stills and not screengrabs from the Blu-Ray under review.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


"Six wives, and the best of them's the worst."

It's an older, weary, yet unflappable Henry VIII who drops that chestnut on us at the conclusion of The Private Life of Henry VIII. Charles Laughton plays the notorious king in the irreverent 1933 film. He is big and loud and boisterous and he enjoys his game hens--all the things we have come to expect from our knowledge of the marriage-prone monarch. It's a high-wire act of a performance, pitching ever so slightly toward comedy, yet at the same time avoiding being a one-note cartoon version of the historical figure. Far from the evil Dr. Moreau the actor played the year before in Island of Lost Souls [review], and not nearly as bullish as the Hobson who would make his choice in twenty years time [review], this fully built portrait fits nicely somewhere in the middle. It is a spirited portrayal full of nuance, capturing the character's dark currents while also being sympathetic to his loneliness.

The Private Life of Henry VIII, part of the Eclipse boxed set Alexander Korda's Private Lives, opens on the day that Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon), Henry's second wife, is to be executed as a punishment for her serial adultery. Once the beheading is complete, Henry will marry his third wife, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). The duality of sad and happy is established from the get-go, as is the cheeky humor of the piece. The ladies of the court who are tasked with removing Anne's initial from the sheets on the marriage bed and adding a J for "Jane" gossip and titter wondering what it must be like to sleep next to the corpulent ruler. In a move similar to the one Sofia Coppola would take decades later in her fantastic biopic Marie Antoinette [review], director Alexander Korda is examining the king as a celebrity, every bit as desired and maligned and pawed over as movie stars would eventually be. His Henry is bawdy and sometimes buffoonish, a man of many desires who has every way of getting what he wants. Two of the funniest scenes in the movie are when the king discovers the league of barbers spends their meetings talking about his conjugal prospects. You know, instead of talking about cutting hair.

The movie charts wives 2 through 6, and the many reasons why the union to each failed. Henry goes from being pushed into one marriage, and then jumping into another because he's convinced he found love. Henry keeps thinking he's correcting his past mistakes--if Anne was too clever, then Jane was better because she was not, for instance--but then new faults arise and the man is never happy. My favorite of the wives is #4, Anne of Cleves, played by the very funny Elsa Lanchester (who was married to her co-star in real life, and later wed another monster, albeit a fictional one, as Bride of Frankenstein). The German princess has heard enough stories about Henry, she knows any union with him is a ticking clock. On their first night together, she wins a divorce in a card game. Fittingly, she also comes back later to give Henry advice on why he keeps getting it wrong, choosing the sixth wife (Everley Gregg), the one who will get him into old age, on his behalf. She is very funny, mugging for the camera, making silly faces in the mirror trying to decide whether or not she is attractive. (Lanchester was, but Korda dresses her frumpily, isolating her face in order to play up her exaggerated features.) She strives for self-awareness, whereas Henry VIII lacks it completely. The entirety of the pop culture endurance of this Tudor emanates from the scene in Private Life where Henry scolds his court for the decline of manners in the kingdom, all the while slurping on ale and eating a cooked bird, tossing bones and sinews over his shoulder without a second thought.

Korda's film is fancy without being flashy. The director's brother Vincent designed the sets, making them spacious and sturdy, mimicking the look of a real stone castle. He built alcoves for Georges Perinal's camera to peer down from, and corners suitable for cheating scoundrels to hide around, but also where spies like us could peek. In a way, we are like time traveling paparazzi, catching glimpses of the royal life from a peeping tom's distance. If The Private Life of Henry VIII were made today, it would probably be a mockumentary. It's only a matter for time before some British royal gets a reality show, don't you think? The sad thing is, you know they would end up being more loathsome than even a man who had his second wife's head chopped off. Because they'd have to play themselves, and there'd be no Charles Laughton to buff the edges.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Gainsborough Pictures, I'll admit, is not a company I had heard of, despite the fact that they produced Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes [review] (and, indeed, were instrumental in encouraging the master of suspense's early career). Formed in 1924, they spent most of their first two decades struggling to get a foothold in the British film industry. It wasn't until the wartime period, when the studio switched owners and also picked up distribution through J. Arthur Rank, that Gainsborough found its footing. The title of this boxed set, Three Wicked Melodramas, fairly succinctly details what that footing was. Costumed romances and gothic potboilers became the Gainsborough signature. If one were to argue that, say, Ealing was the English equivalent of Warner Bros., producing a lot of respected mainstream fare, then Gainsborough was RKO, a place to make energetic B-pictures that could also be artful crowdpleasers.

The major turning point for Gainsborough came in 1943, when the studio released Leslie Arliss' The Man in Grey (116 minutes). In Hollywood, The Man in Grey would have been dubbed a woman's picture, as it's a hearty mix of romance and soap opera, doomed love and shattered dreams, with costume and setting playing an important role in the psychological drama being portrayed. Indeed Arliss co-wrote the script with Margaret Kennedy, and they were working from Doreen Montgomery's adaptation of Lady Eleanore Smith's novel. If any crew of writers were set to know what women might want to see at the cinema, it was this one.

Except for a bookend sequence set in modern times, which envelopes the tale in such a way to emphasize its theme that some love is fated to be, The Man in Grey's narrative is set in the early 19th Century. Phyllis Calvert plays Clarissa, an heiress to a modest fortune, who makes a move up the social ladder when she marries the mysterious Lord Rohan, a gadabout who is expected to carry on the family line, but whom has no real interest in conventional living. Lord Rohan is played by a fiery James Mason, and represented a breakout role for the actor. He accepts an engagement with Clarissa because he sees her blandness as the path of least resistance. Once she bears him a son, they begin to split their time between separate homes, with the Lord raising their child away from his mother.

This leaves Clarissa alone to occupy herself as she will. On a night out at the theater, she spots her old schoolmate, Hesther (Margaret Lockwood), who ran away from the girl's school after a gypsy (Beatrice Varley) refused to read her palm, sensing that a great evil existed in this woman. The same fortune teller warned Clarissa that Hesther would also be her doom, but as is often the case with romantic heroines, Clarissa is loyal to a fault. Seeing that the life of a traveling actress is doing her friend no good, Clarissa invites Hesther to stay with her. At the same time, the kept wife falls for Hesther's acting partner, the rogue Peter Rokeby (Stewart Granger). Peter is many things--a thespian, a highwayman, an auctioneer--but behind the rakish exterior lurks a nobleman in exile. He and Clarissa begin an affair, while Hesther sets her sights on Lord Rohan. Tragedy will soon follow.

It's kind of a corny, well-worn story, but as with all the best melodramas, the plot is not as important as the tone of the piece. The true pleasure of The Man in Grey is in how Leslie Arliss wholeheartedly and unpretentiously embraces the lustier aspects of the material. Indeed, there is something refreshing in how matter-of-factly the story handles its more scandalous elements. Though more sensual than overtly sexual, one has little doubt that sex is at work here. With it comes the ever-present threat of violence, not just amongst the men, but in Hesther's murderous plans and Lord Rohan's barely contained rage. Indeed, there is some lady slapping. There is also a casual racism that is presented as utterly normal, including a young servant boy (Harry Scott) who is clearly a white actor in blackface. Even this is somehow absorbed into the heated atmosphere. Arliss has dropped his characters into a social oven, and he's going to bake them until they deflate or explode. Given the fates of both Clarissa and Hesther, and the limited options available to them, one could easily make a case for The Man in Grey being more than a simple bodice ripper: it's a film that comments on the role gender plays in society, while toying with the myths of the Byronic hero. (The servant boy, alas, gets no such subtext: he ends up being a plot device, pure and simple.)

There is nothing pure nor simple about 1945's Madonna of the Seven Moons (110 mins.), a film that is as fevered and crazy as its heroine. Directed by Arthur Crabtree (Fiend Without a Face), and adapted by Roland Pertwee (Michael Powell's The Spy in Black) from a novel by Margery Lawrence, this film purports to detail a condition proven by medical history, though the veracity of the details strike me as questionable.

In this pre-WWII drama, Phyllis Calvert returns to play Maddalena, an Italian woman who, as a girl, was raped while picking flowers in the field. The trauma has haunted her ever since, and caused her to develop a split personality. In her everyday life, she is the pious wife of a nobleman (John Stuart); when she is having one of her episodes, she is Rosanna, the lover of the petty thief Nino (Stewart Granger). Maddalena's teenaged daughter, Angela (Patricia Roc) has been away at school for many years, and so has been kept unaware of her mother's illness. When the girl returns, flaunting her modern ways and bringing along her modern friends, including the oily grifter Sandro (Peter Glenville), Nino's little brother, the landscape suddenly gets crowded and, dare I say, secularly inclined. Overcome by all the stimulus, Maddalena succumbs and Rosanna takes over. She returns to Nino, leaving only a symbol of seven moons drawn on the mirror as any hint of where she's gone.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a bit of a mess in terms of narrative. A large cast of characters whirl around Maddalena, each with their own purpose and subplot. There is Angela's fiancé Evelyn (Alan Haines), and his friend Logan (Peter Murray Hill), the painter who inadvertently sketches in the same criminal slum where Rosanna shacks up with Nino. Rosanna also has her own rival (Jean Kent), the girl who took her place in Nino's bed while she was away. There are a pile of secrets to be exposed: Rosanna's true identity; Sandro's true identity; Nino's plot against Rosanna's husband, whom he jealously believes stole his woman. Eventually, Nino and Sandro hatch a plan to ruin the whole family. Nino will rob the house and kill Guiseppe, and Sandro will lure Angela away, drug her, and have his way with her--subjecting her to the same fate as her mother when Maddalena was her age.

Naturally, all of this envelopes the fragile woman, and Maddalena/Rosanna cracks again. In both identities, she is prone to mad fits and fainting spells, triggered by musical cues and familiar sites (including, later in the movie, when she's broken bad, a religious procession that sends her into a breathless tizzy). Calvert goes for broke in these moments. Her mad eyes and fraught expressions predict Norma Desmond's breakdown in Sunset Boulevard. It's actually an impressive performance during the more level scenarios. The actress makes the two halves of the personality distinctive, in appearance and demeanor as much as behavior. There are light years between the buttoned-up housewife and the bawdy mistress.

Crabtree manages to keep all his balls in the air, and he lets them drop at the right moment. Though the story wanes at times, the overall tone of the picture has a lurid exaggeration, as if every frame were panting from the internal heat. Also, the finale is well worth any drag getting there. In the final confrontation, Maddalena exorcises her demons, but with a price, and lessons are learned all around. Even the dastardly Nino is given pause to reflect on his bad self. The Madonna of the title manages to sacrifice herself for her daughter's life education, giving Angela time to correct her own wicked ways before it's too late. If only Maddalena had better gadar and could give the girl a heads up about what Evelyn may not even be admitting to himself...

The Wicked Lady (1945; 104 mins.) reunites stars James Mason and Magaret Lockwood with writer/director Leslie Arliss to adapt a novel by Magdalen King-Hall. It's my favorite film in the Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures set, and unsurprisingly, also the studio's most commercially successful during their run of pulpy romances.

Lockwood stars as Barbara Worth, a headstrong woman making her way in 17th-century England. Barbara is the sort of woman who has learned the hard way that if she wants something, she needs to take it. And so it is that at the outset of The Wicked Lady, she steals a husband directly from another bride. When they first meet, Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones) is due to marry Barbara's best friend, Caroline (Patricia Roc again), but pretty soon Barbara has turned the man around and gotten him to switch fiancées. Too bad for him that, by Barbara's own admission, as soon as she has a something she covets, she no longer wants it. At the wedding reception, she is romanced by Kit Lockley (Michael Rennie), and she'd just as soon run off with him as dance off to her honeymoon.

Alas, such romantic adventures are not to be, and Barbara soon becomes bored at the Skelton estate, far from London, in the province where Sir Ralph serves as judge. After a particularly catty card game with Ralph's sister (a delightfully bitchy Enid Stamp Taylor) in which Barbara loses the brooch that is the last connection she has to her late mother, the scorned woman takes the drastic measure of pretending to be a highway robber and stealing it back. Liking the thrill of crime, Barbara makes night-time hold-ups her new hobby. This leads her to run into the real crook working the territory, Lucky Captain Jackson (Mason), a scoundrel known to empty a man's pockets and then kiss his wife for good measure. Jackson is amused to have female competition, and the two become partners...and lovers.

Of all the movies here, The Wicked Lady makes the most of the subtext of the bored wife finding entertainment outside the home. Whereas Clarissa in The Man in Grey was matching her husband tit-for-tat in seeking happiness beyond the marital arrangement, and Maddalena invented a whole other persona to explore her sexuality in Madonna of the Seven Moons, this wicked lady is closer to self-actualizing. She is choosing to be as she is, and enjoying assuming the male role (her victims all think there is a man behind that gun and mask). In a sense, she is akin to the femme fatale of film noir, and eventually she will have to be neutralized as punishment for stepping outside the boundaries. Indeed, the last shot of Barbara has a bleakness worthy of the best noir, and The Wicked Lady would have been even better had Arliss cut the two small scenes that follow. No one really cares whether Ralph or Caroline are happy. Our allegiance is to Barbara.

 And that's despite the terrible things she has done. In defiance of Jackson's warnings that killing a man will erase all hope of mercy if caught, Barbara ends up shooting a courier, albeit accidentally. Once she has crossed the line, she has even more reason to protect her secret, not to mention a taste of death. Subsequent murders become both easier and deliberate. There is an inevitable decline of a criminal enterprise, and outlaw stories hinge on our still rooting for the bad guy. It's pretty easy to do here, because Margaret Lockwood is clearly having so much fun playing the horse-riding thief. James Mason, too. Both launch themselves into the roles with absolute abandon, though Mason practically runs away with the whole thing in his grandstanding scene at the gallows.

Both Madonna of the Seven Moons and The Wicked Lady were shot by cinematographer Jack Cox. (It should be noted, The Man in Grey was actually shot by Madonna's director, Arthur Crabtree.) Both films are stylish, but there is something just a tad more thrilling about the look of The Wicked Lady. It is most likely the swashbuckling excursions, and the chance to photograph masked riders against a night sky. Yet, that aforementioned shot where Barbara is abandoned to herself works largely because of how Cox pulls his camera not just away from the subject, but up from the floor and out a window. There is a vivaciousness to The Wicked Lady, suggesting it's not just the two main stars who threw caution to the wind during the production, but the entire team of artisans pulling this lark together.

Moviegoers of the 1940s (and indeed, the 1930s and 1950s, if not all decades) were particularly hungry for entertainment, and movies were being churned out across the world at a fairly rapid pace. A good portion of those came and went just as fast, and while there are certainly more artful films than the ones in Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures, this trio endures because of the undeniably base pleasures they offer. These Gainsborough efforts were lusty and vivid and unafraid of pushing the boundaries of taste, in ways closer to pre-Code Hollywood than their American counterparts from the same period. Sex, violence, betrayal, romance, tragedy--all the dangerous ingredients of escapism. Not just dangerous, but essential. And timeless. Indulging the wrong impulses through the vicarious buzz of cinema is always going to be pleasurable, and that means movies like these never go out of style.

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