Tuesday, July 25, 2017

SUDDEN FEAR - FILMSTRUCK

Originally reviewed for DVDTalk in 2006 as part of the Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood set.


Joan Crawford and Jack Palance both got Academy Award nominations for their performances in David Miller's Sudden Fear. Crawford plays Myra Hudson, a playwright who has taken little time to cultivate real-life counterparts to the romantic plots she crafts for the stage. After dismissing actor Lester Blaine (Palance) from her latest hit production for not being appropriately seductive, he proves her wrong by seducing and marrying her.

Only, Myra was right the first time. Lester is a heel, and he and his real girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place [review]), are plotting to create a tragic exit for Myra and collect all of her Broadway money. It's a classic game of criss-cross when Myra uncovers the scheme and tries to beat Lester and Irene at their own game. Miller (Lonely are the Brave [review]) has put together a nerve-wracking final act. He sets it up with an excellent montage in which Myra imagines every step of her counterattack where everything goes right, and with that as a reference point, it increases our anxiety when we see how badly it can go wrong. The action happens in the dead of night, providing plenty of opportunities for people to hide in darkened doorways and skulk around corners.

Jack Palance is a large man with chiseled features, and his presence is imposing. When Myra screws up his sure thing, he grows desperate, and that actually makes him scarier. There is also something to be said for how much more tension is created when the victim is appropriately scared. Crawford's large eyes and severe mouth are a blessing in such a situation, and her fright makes Palance's threat even more palpable.



Monday, July 24, 2017

L'ARGENT - #886


There was an “everything is connected” subgenre in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s that was perhaps kicked off by Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but that really traces roots back to Max Ophuls and La ronde [review]--films where characters are connected by social happenstance (13Conversations About One Thing) or perhaps an object (Robert Altman’s Gun TV series). One chat leads to another, one careless act affects a passerby, a butterfly flaps its wings and a writer looks for meaning.

Linklater is a devotee of Robert Bresson, and it would stand to reason that Bresson’s 1983 crime drama L’argent was an inspiration. Based on a story by Tolstoy, L’argent tells the tale of several lives thrown into upheaval by two selfish teenagers choosing to pass a counterfeit bill at a small camera and photo shop. When the storeowners decide to unload it, along with other fraudulent notes, on a trusting deliveryman, they not only expose their own unscrupulousness, but force the driver into a legal wrangle he can’t get himself out of.


This man, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), is the closest we get to a main character--or at least he's the one we root for, if only temporarily. His life is the most damaged by the initial crime and the several more it inspires. His plight is transformative. He is the good man forced to be bad. It's a gradual change, one that seems natural, despite of--or perhaps because of--Bresson’s technique. The French director is famous for extracting emotion from performance and approaching his actors as poseable “models.” His cast blandly hits marks, delivers its lines with little intonation, and maintains a steady gaze. To some, it's stiff and amateurish, but once you tune in to Bresson’s wavelength, his narrative theories begin to make sense. You just have to lock them in place.

It's almost like kabuki in its formalism. By staging L’argent with such a rigorous dispassion, we are spared the melodrama, we are spared being swayed by our own feelings, and instead we watch the pieces move, staying in the moment rather than trying to guess the plot twists, reserving judgment until it has all passed, the audience serving as an observant jury. We don't judge Lucien, we don’t put ourselves in his shoes, we instead just watch. In fact, when he does show some real emotion, it's such an affront, Bresson has him bury his head in a pillow. Open weeping is for other movies.


Which isn’t to say we aren't invested. We totally are. The sheer cruelty of humanity underlying every callous turn is undeniable, it's just that we follow the events as we would a true crime story rather than a fiction, as if they already happened and are thus beyond inevitable. We can't help but feel for Lucien, but perhaps it makes us less sympathetic when he makes wrong turns. L’argent does not romanticize his crimes.

Ironic, then, that showing the crimes themselves is the only place where Bresson’s theories fail him. While the mechanics of the violence are evident, the abstraction renders them ineffective and even confusing. Is it that showing the actual blood and gore as evidence would bias us more than the director would like, or is he just squeamish? If we are the jury, we would need to consider the victims--even after some of them are declared unlikable--otherwise the testimony is incomplete. Lucien’s actions already seem outsized, and Bresson’s editing—chopping up the scenes, showing the beginning of the action and an implied outcome (jumping from a raised weapon to blood splatter, etc.) but never the in between, proves only to make them less believable.

Luckily, this does nothing to lessen the tragic poetry of L’argent. Particularly as the truly bad people, unmoored as they are by the appearance of this fake cash, suffer very little consequence. Bresson carves out a world where heeding one’s conscience only leads to mistakes and punishment. The survivors mostly serve themselves, or feign charity for effect. Which, when you really think about it, means the themes of L’argent are perfectly in sync with the storytelling. Remove emotion, stick to what can be known--and done.


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

THE PARTY - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com.



Peter Sellers reteams with his Pink Panther [review] co-conspirator Blake Edwards to cut loose and indulge their love of silent film comedies. The concept for The Party is something Chaplin or Keaton could have done wonders with, and though the movie does have quite a few verbal jokes, the majority of the more elaborate gags could run without sound and still inspire a huge round of guffaws.

Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a recent transplant from India to Hollywood trying to make his way as an actor. After a particularly disastrous day on the set, where Bakshi's clumsiness brings the production crashing down, a mix-up causes him to be invited to the studio head's glitzy soiree rather than be fired. From there, comedy ensues, as the good-natured Bakshi just tries to fit in. He loses his shoe, runs afoul of parrots and dogs, tries to communicate with starlets, and even learns to play pool from a cowboy actor (Denny Miller), who is the only person in the movie that has an accent more extreme than Sellers.

The Party is a fantastic showcase for Peter Sellers' true talents. Not only does he completely lose himself in the role, but his physical agility as he traverses the many architectural oddities in the thoroughly modern home (inspired, perhaps, by Tati's Mon Oncle?) lets the actor show just how marvelous of a comedic athlete he is. The Party is one of those films I can watch a million times, and it never fails to make me laugh. I can even put it on while doing other things and check back in and out as the task demands, and every time I check in, I know it will make me smile. It's no hyperbole to call it a masterpiece.


I think a big reason for that is it's all just so good-natured. While there is definitely a sense of making fun, the only people really being made fun of are the stuck-up fatcats whose old-world mentality and opulence are becoming passé. Note the exchange that Bakshi has with the impossibly tall daughter of the hosts (Kathe Green) about the painted elephant, and how quick she is not to offend. It's 1968, and Edwards and Sellers are definitely "with it," seeing a more colorblind world on their horizon (those incorruptible optimists!) and adjusting accordingly. Though a Brit playing Indian would be a little harder to pull off today, Sellers' caricature is less about racial stereotyping and more about capturing the genuine anxiety of a well-meaning outsider. The scenes where he wanders the room alone, on the outskirts of the crowd, have a surprising pathos, identifiable by anyone who has ever ended up at a shindig where they don't know anybody. I would guess that's why they chose Claudine Longet to play the love interest. She is also an immigrant, though one assumes she would have an easier time since she's a cute French girl (read: pretty and white). Still, theirs is a sweet courtship. Plus, we get the singer's performance of the super sugary Henry Mancini-penned pop song "Nothing to Lose." (Not to mention the awesomely cool-daddio title number.)

I should note, though The Party is very funny, it's not a gutbuster. The largely improvised comedy is of a kind that is observed and absorbed more than it is convulsively reacted to. As noted, it's more Chaplin and Tati than it is Jerry Lewis. Its slapstick is designed around character and as a send-up of the unnecessary conceits of the modern age rather than just silliness for the sake of being silly, and one could argue that The Party has likely aged better than most just for that reason.



Friday, July 21, 2017

LA MARSEILLAISE - FILMSTRUCK

Originally written for the Jean Renoir's Collector's Edition released in 2007. Read the full review of that collection here.


In this early entry from Jean Renoir's sound pictures, the maestro does his part to inspire patriotic fervor and maybe goes a little too far over to the propaganda side. La Marseillaise, an historical epic set during the French revolution, follows a battalion of citizen soldiers--painters, masons, and other working-class warriors--as they gather together to stop aristocratic rule and take down Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir) and his foreign-born queen, Marie Antoinette (Lise Delamare). They march from Marseille to Paris. Along the way, a humble hymn gathers steam to become the anthem of the forces of revolt, and "La Marseillaise" becomes a phenomenon.

The script by Renoir, Carl Koch, and N. Martel Dreyfuss often feels more like a string of anecdotes than a wartime narrative. The movie strikes an odd tone, dramatizing the French Revolution as the most polite of wars. Rather than duke it out, combatants stop to discuss philosophy and politics--quite literally. When Honoré Arnaud (the singly named Andrex) leads his ragtag bunch in the takeover of a state fortress, the presiding commander, Saint-Laurent (Aimé Clariond), shrugs and asks his rival what's it all about. Arnaud explains the common man's cause to the rich man before sending him on his way, taking him at his word that he'll leave the country and the battle to the righteous. When there is fighting, it all takes place elsewhere, and we only hear about it later. You get the sense that this whole thing could have been settled over a good glass of wine if the right folks could have just sat down and talked it over. It's a revolution where cross words hurt worse than crossed blades. When a swordfight does break out in Paris, the sky immediately opens up and a sudden rainstorm sends the brawlers scurrying for shelter. Even Mother Nature wags her finger at the prospect of violence when there are more speeches about brotherhood to be made and complex dissertations on the new power structure.

Paradoxically, for all the history lessons, I often found myself lost, not knowing who certain historical figures were or what faction was fighting for what rights. I suppose attention to such reality may not be important in a story so broadly drawn. The revolutionaries are all genial, caring men who'd rather stop in on a puppet show than fight, while the rulers are clueless gadabouts who are more concerned with remembering their dance steps than the needs of the people. La Marseillaise definitely has a satirical bend, but it doesn't go very deep. Renoir nearly suckerpunches himself with this approach. When the unavoidable is finally encountered in the last fifteen minutes of the picture, his band of merry men look like they've been caught in a joke that's gone too far. Though the people do rally, and it's likely Renoir wanted to show from what humble beginnings great things spring, the brutality of the insurrection is off-kilter with the comic journey that got us there. The end result leaves one feeling a little nauseous and confused rather than fired up.


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.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THREE SILENT FILMS BY JEAN RENOIR ON FILMSTRUCK

The below reviews were originally written for the Jean Renoir's Collector's Edition released in 2007. Read the full review of that collection here.


Whirlpool of Fate (La Fille de L'Eau) (silent; 72 minutes - 1925):

This overwrought melodrama is Renoir's second film, and his first as a solo director. Working from a script by Pierre Lestringuez, a frequent collaborator in this silent period, Renoir tells the story of Virginia (Catherine Hessling, Renoir's wife from 1920 to 1930), a hard-luck case who can't catch a break. First her father dies and her uncle (Lestringuez) tries to rape her, then she hooks up with poachers and gypsies, only to be persecuted by the local bully and driven mad in the woods. Through it all, the local rich boy (Harold Levingston) keeps his eye on Virginia, and it's quite clear to Renoir's camera that he is developing a thing for the urchin. Naturally, he waits in the wings to pull her out of the whirlpool that threatens to drag her down.


There are far more complex plots than this one. In some ways, The Whirlpool of Fate comes off as if it were written for a cliffhanger serial. Every couple of scenes, Virginia's life takes another turn, and her very existence is put in peril over and over. As a mild diversion, there is a kind of goofy charm to the movie, but it shows the great director only taking tentative steps into the cinematic arena. He doesn't yet know how to draw great performances out of his actors, and pacing is a definite issue for the young filmmaker. There are several scenes that go on too long, which we particularly notice when we see it takes an inordinate amount of time for people just out of frame to react. Even so, early hints of what was to come are here. Renoir's often slapstick sense of humor pops up from time to time, and he's already showing a flair for it. There are also some fairly ambitious dream sequences that prefigure the surrealist movement's experiments in cinema years later (including some sideways imagery that reminded me of Cocteau's Blood of a Poet), as well as an incredibly ambitious use of quick cutting in the scene where Virginia is attacked by her uncle. Jumping swiftly from the brutal fight to a barking dog and then to a ringing alarm clock not only amps up the frenzied feeling, but it even evokes sense memories of sound.


Nana (silent; 130 min. - 1926):

Once again working with Lestringuez, Renoir adapts the Emile Zola novel, casting his Whirlpool starlet, Catherine Hessling, in the title role--and oh, what a difference a year makes! Renoir took to this grand costume epic much easier than he did any of the pre-sound shorts in this collection. Nana is a terrible stage actress whose sexual allure draws in several society men. Wrapping them around her finger, she convinces one to bribe her into a starring role in the theatre and another to ruin his good name betting against his own racehorse in favor of one named after the starlet. Eventually, though, the acting thing is going to meet its inevitable doom, and Nana ends up becoming a courtesan, seeing gentlemen callers in her opulent mansion. With so many men obsessed with her and competing for her affections, it's only going to lead to trouble, and eventually, Nana's wicked ways catch up with her.

Hessling is way over the top in her performance, even by silent-era standards. Yet, there is such a consistency to her demonstrative acting that she actually pulls it off. Nana is a larger-than-life character, and so Hessling's exaggerated gestures and wide-eyed expressions seem like the right notes to hit (even if Hessling is ironically being a bad actress in her portrayal of a bad actress). In comparison to the overly staid performances from the actors filling the roles of the upper classes, these choices make sense. Nana's sexual appeal is her wildness. It's what makes her different than the uptight bourgeoisie.


For Renoir's part, the future director of The Rules of the Game is already interested in the hypocrisy and hidden secrets of the rich. He uses massive set pieces to show the ridiculous opulence enjoyed by the well-to-do in French society. They have more space than they can ever possibly fill, and their tiny lives look even smaller within it. He also takes a certain impish glee in exposing their bedroom activities, paying particular attention to a Count (Werner Kraus) who goes in for a little domination. Decked out in his full military regalia, he gets down on all fours and barks like a dog, all for Nana's pleasure. For all the public shame these characters will experience in the final act, it compares little to their private shame.


The Little Match Girl (La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes) (silent; 33 min. - 1928):

This slight adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story stars Hessling as the titular heroine and is really only interesting for the early special effects efforts. Renoir uses models, rear projection, double-exposure, and fake backdrops to portray the fantasy journey of the Little Match Girl during her night out in the cold. Though some of the effects may look quaint to our modern eye, it's still impressive when you put it in its historical context and has a cool, expressionistic quality. The movie overall is a bit of a snooze, however, with the performances and the editing being a bit too laconic.




Sunday, May 14, 2017

GOOD MORNING - #84

Please note: the images here are taken from the 2000 standard definition DVD and not the newly released 2017 Blu-ray under review.



Yasujiro Ozu’s light 1959 comedy GoodMorning was one of my first Criterion blind buys. Spotted in a now-closed used record store in Portland, I snatched it up on sight, knowing if I didn’t, it would be gone before I could ever go back to grab it. Such was the rarity of seeing Criterion discs in second-hand bins back in the day--all too unusual, you had to act.

Luckily I had rolled the dice on a pretty safe bet. Good Morning is brimming with joy, even as it maintains Ozu’s usual unassuming attitude. Set in a Tokyo suburb, this genial film tells the stories of several neighboring families. Linked mostly by their young sons, these individual units are subject to gossip, misunderstanding, and judgment--negative foibles hidden just below a very positive surface. You know, the way clans and communities do. When you boil it down, Good Morning is about family, just like most of Ozu’s oeuvre. In this case, not just family by blood, but the community you build.

Oh, and it has fart jokes. To be more exact, one running fart joke that carries through the whole movie. And I don’t care what you think, I love fart jokes. And poop jokes. Especially when a fart joke becomes a poop joke. Which it does here, to hilarious effect.


Though the four boys connect all the houses--including the misunderstood hipster couple with the television and the single English tutor who provide the kids refuge--the central duo of older brother Minoru (Koji Shidara) and younger brother Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu, Late Autumn [review]) end up driving most of the movie. They get the most screen time with their private protest against their supposedly stingy mother (Kuniko Miyake, star of many Ozu films, including Early Summer and Tokyo Story [review]) and her refusal to buy them a TV of their own. Mother Hiyashi is more frugal than stingy, it’s up to her to keep the house on budget, but this is also not the only time in Good Morning that she is accused of financial malfeasance. Another driving storyline is the issue of the missing dues from the local women’s organization. The ladies have varying theories of who made off with the cash, and even though it gets an amicable resolution, the way the situation is concluded splinters off into its own conspiracy theories and gossipy tributaries. There’s not much to do throughout the day, it seems, but get in each other’s business. It’s all innocent and meaningless until it isn’t. Such little things, they make a big difference.


In addition to these kinds of family dynamics, Ozu regularly explored the differences between generations in his movies, and Good Morning is no exception. Here, the aforementioned television is the most prominent example of how times are changing, and the director is certainly seizing upon the cultural shifts occurring at the end of the decade. The kids learning English, the progressive neighbors with posters for French films on their walls (and not just any French film, but Louis Malle’s The Lovers [review]), the nervous patriarchs set adrift in a changing economic landscape--these are all signs of the time. Prescient ones, too. Dad is worried about maintaining employment long enough to have a solid retirement, kids are worried about watching sumo wrestling in the living room. A more judgmental director (like, say, Douglas Sirk in All That HeavenAllows) would be concerned for how this younger generation was going to rot its brain--indeed, one of the older men in Good Morning expresses such a fear--but Ozu seems to take no stance. He is amused by the rebellious youngsters staging their own revolution, but also empathetic to the parents who need to keep things together. If Ozu is siding with anyone, it’s probably the middle generation, like the tutor or the boys’ aunt, both of whom bridge the divide. Is it any surprise, then, that they end up having a little romance?


What may be more interesting here, though, is how Ozu is adopting modern techniques to tell this modern story, particularly since Good Morning is an update of his 1932 silent film I Was Born, But...--which was previously available in the Eclipse set Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies [review], but is also included in full as an extra on this Good Morning upgrade. Shot in vibrant Technicolor by Yushun Atsuta, Good Morning has a look not dissimilar to television’s nascent genre, the sitcom, a comparison further backed by the episodic nature of Good Morning’s narrative and the jazzy lounge score that keeps the action moving. (Toshiro Mayuzumi was a prolific composer for Japanese movies, working also with Naruse, Imamura, and Kurahara.) Not to mention how all the complicated imbroglios have really simple explanations, the discoveries of which only lead to more complications. It’s almost a shame there wasn’t a spin-off so we could have watched all the kids grow up on a weekly basis.


Fans of Good Morning should be pleased with this new 4K restoration. The colors are gorgeous, and the image quality pristine. Given the gap between this release and the original DVD, Criterion had a lot of new technology to put to use in making Good Morning look good, and the results are stupendous. In addition to  I Was Born, But..., fans of silent film will also appreciate the inclusion of the short A Straightforward Boy, a 1929 effort from Yasujiro Ozu, presented here incomplete, in its only existing form. One of the first efforts of the director to create comedy using children, it’s an amusing trifle about kidnappers being stymied by a child who never quite realizes he’s being kidnapped, and proving too much to handle in the process.


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


Saturday, May 13, 2017

THE TRIP/THE TRIP TO ITALY - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL


THE TRIP: Original review 6/10/11

The Trip is a free-wheeling new comedy from director Michael Winterbottom and his regular collaborator, performer Steve Coogan. (The pair previously worked together on 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story [review]). In this, the pair send up travel shows, putting Coogan and his acting buddy Rob Brydon (both playing themselves) on a tour through Northern England, where they spend a week sampling buzzed-about restaurants, seeing the sights, and in Steve's case, bedding random women. Amidst this, Brydon goes through being home sick and Steve wrestles with a flailing film career, a failing relationship, and his distant son partying too hard.

Originally made as a BBC television series, The Trip has been edited down to a sharp feature film, tracking the journey and the ups and downs of the two performers' friendship. Shot in a documentary style, as is often Winterbottom's trademark, the largely improvised comedy is given sense of purpose by the vacation's mission, but the real reason you'll end up watching it is the camaraderie and competition between the two leads. From the get-go, the dichotomy between the family man and the playboy is obvious, but the irony is that for as settled down as he otherwise is, Rob is the more fun and Steve has a bit of a stick up his butt. At their first stop, Rob launches into his impressions of Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and others, setting up an ongoing gag where Coogan feigns irritation but continually jumps in, if only to school his pal on what he thinks is a better imitation. Both are good mimics, and they riff back and forth, trying out 007 lines and in one hysterical scene, the speech of a war captain to his troops the night before the big battle. The pair also occasionally belt out joint renditions of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All."


While this might sound like a rather slender line to hang an entire movie on, it's a surprisingly effective way to replicate what it's like to be on a real road trip with someone you know very well. The shared jokes become an escape when being trapped inside an auto makes the boys go stir crazy, and the manner in which they bandy back and forth ends up revealing their insecurities in unexpected ways. The team doesn't even take the obvious route, either, in having both men envy one another. Nope, it's just Steve that envies Rob. He wants the security that Rob gets from family and the comfort of modest success. Coogan may be more famous, but he's always chasing something. Even in his dreams, he is haunted by conversations with agents and belligerent fans. (The Trip doesn't maintain a strict documentary style; we not only see these dreams but also the opposite ends of phone conversations, including Coogan's real-life agents (or the actors playing them) and his estranged girlfriend (Margo Stilley) in America.)

Some of the stops on the map are interchangeable, but Winterbottom revels in the particular details of each one. He and cinematographer Ben Smithard take the camera back into the kitchen to see the food prepared. Some of the dishes are ludicrous, constructed to look like mini art installations. They also occasionally pan to capture other diners, and by making Coogan go outside to get cell reception--and further and further away from the hotel the deeper they get into the trip--they get a chance to shoot the countryside. Tristram Shandy fans might also appreciate that once again Winterbottom pairs Coogan with a significant literary legacy--a visit to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's home brings up interesting parallels between the dead poet and the living actor.

The Trip is a film that's appeal is so delicate and ephemeral, it's kind of hard to describe without totally deflating the tires. It's not a conventional comedy, by any means, nor is it as unfocused as, say, a home movie. It's carried more by personality than plot, and as a result, it could seem slight if you aren't willing to get into The Trip's particular groove. I found it to be fascinating and fun, thoughtful in spaces, punctuated by big laughs in others. As with any trip, you will eventually experience an eagerness to get home, and that homecoming is also a little bittersweet; what makes it so good is the feeling that you have gone along with something, that you've been a part of the experiment. It reminds me a lot of the fantastic Ewan McGregor/Charlie Boorman TV show from a couple of years ago, Long Way Round, when the old friends traveled across Europe on motorcycles and grew even closer through the shared time together. Except here, Coogan and Brydon dig under the skin a little more, finding comedy in their own foibles. It's really quite moving, and certainly more entertaining than most of the family summer vacations I took as a child, making The Trip an essential cinematic destination of the season.


THE TRIP TO ITALY: Original review 8/15/14 

There's a joke in The Trip to Italy where Steve Coogan teases his friend Rob Brydon about being an acquired taste. Rob has just had an extramarital dalliance on the Italian coast, the sort of thing Steve is usually the one to engage in, and so Steve zings Rob by telling him it was only a matter of time, someone would develop the craving eventually. Though not intended as a meta joke about the Trip series, it could just as easily nestle next to the Godfather [review] comparisons or the thinly veiled jibes about the reality of true-life fiction. If you liked the original The Trip, then you know what the flavor is and you're going to enjoy the follow-up in equal measure, if not more. If you haven't tried either installment yet, it shouldn't take you long to know if they're the kind of thing you'll want to partake of again and again.

As with the 2011 original, Rob and Steve, playing themselves, go on the road in search of good food and the best Michael Caine impression. Behind the camera is Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me [review], Trishna [review]), who is also credited as writer, but one would gather that there is as much improvisation between the two friends as there is scripted dialogue. Over the course of a week, the fellows travel from place to place, bickering and taking potshots at one another, sample some food, and get into trouble. Rob does endless impressions, some of them good and some of them ludicrous. Steve looks fatigued. They are joined by friends and relatives. And then the journey is over.


The transplant to Italy has not made this Trip any less amusing, but Witerbottom takes full advantage of the country's cinematic history. There are references to several famous films set in Italy, with an emphasis on those with bittersweet and unhappy endings, including Roman Holiday [review] and Godard's Contempt [review]. There is also mention of Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy [review], a classic of Italian Neorealism, an aesthetic that Winterbottom has borrowed from heavily in his career and a tradition to which The Trip to Italy owes much of its approach. It seems that it's in ode to this--as well as to the romantic poets whose own travels Rob wants to shadow--that a little melancholy creeps in. Both men spend much of their adventure trying to connect with loved ones back home and pondering just what it's all for.

It's been about three years since I saw The Trip so I don't recall for sure, but I don't believe it ended on as down a note as the sequel. My early impression, though, is that the added sadness allows The Trip to Italy to be a far richer experience. I probably laughed less but I felt more. Steve Coogan takes more of a back seat in the early portion of the movie, it's almost as if we are watching him warm up, but it makes sense for the opposing trajectories he and Rob are taking. Both men are feeling their age, but one seems to be figuring something out while the other is struggling with a newfound confusion.

Which isn't to suggest you're going to leave The Trip to Italy bummed out. Quite the contrary. As Brydon insists during one of his riffs, he is an affable presence, and despite being the grumpy gus, Coogan is pretty enjoyable to be around, too. As with the first film, and with any vacation you might actually take, some places are more fun than others, and sometimes you like your companion more than you do at other times, but that's part of the shared experience. You laugh, you hurt, and you see the sights--sometimes all at the same moment.