Saturday, March 17, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009.

I haven't seen a lot of movies from Luis Buñuel's Mexican period, but what I have been able to catch suggests to me that this fruitful work time often saw the surrealist director turning to more conventional stories rather than the looser, more anarchic films that bookended his creative career. 1956's Death in the Garden (La morte en ce jardin) is no exception. Based on a novel by José-André Lacour, it's one half political drama, one half adventure movie, with a lot of steamy melodrama mixed in.

Death in the Garden is set in a remote South American village that has sprung up around the area diamond mines. A military revolution is underway, and the new ruling class demands that the independent miners move off their claims, surrendering their land to the government. This inspires heated protests that threaten to split the town. The scoundrel Chark (Georges Marchal) unexpectedly wanders into this charged atmosphere on his way to Brazil. Where he's coming from is never really explained, though after he drifts into the bed of Djin (Simone Signoret, Diabolique [review]), the town madam, she gives him up to the police. They claim that the money belt he is wearing is full of stolen cash. It's not clear whether this is true. Chark resists his arrest, but he never really denies the charges.

Amidst all this are an upstanding priest (Michel Piccoli, Belle de Jour [review]), an old prospector (Charles Vanel), and his deaf-mute daughter (Michèle Girardon). All three are looking to get out of town, but the situation explodes before they can. Chark escapes from prison and joins the violent uprising, and the easily identifiable prospector, who is named Castin, is branded alongside Chark as one of the instigators and a bounty is placed on both of their heads. Castin has a pretty sizable cache of diamonds, and he's in love with Djin, who will help him escape and become his wife in hopes of inheriting his riches. She books herself passage on a pimp's boat, sneaks Castin and daughter on board, and is then much chagrined when Chark, who has a grudge against her, hijacks the ship. Oh, yeah, and the priest, Father Lizardi, is there, too.

That's a lot of plot for one movie, and that's just the first half. The cops take off in hot pursuit after the fugitives, and Chark and his crew run aground midway between the village and Brazil. They have to take the rest of the journey on foot, contending with a hostile jungle they are not prepared for. Greed and their natural selfishness begin to take over as they revert to animalistic ways. It's kind of an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em scenario. Humans in the wild will become wild. Here the old rascal Buñuel gets playful, filling the speakers with the cries of jungle creatures, the sounds hedging in on the wanderers as much as the trees. It's a harsh environment where the strongest isn't always the most obvious candidate. Chark--whose name is meant to sound like "Shark," just as Lizardi is a "lizard"--kills a snake, and the snake carcass is set upon by fire ants. The closer you get to the ground, it seems, the deadlier the predator.

Buñuel stages all of this potboiler action in an exaggerated fashion. The melodrama is cranked all the way up, nuanced acting taking a backseat to bald, on-the-face-of-it emoting. Though the early part of the picture has political undertones, with Buñuel and his writers taking aim at oppressive governments and the exploitation of the working class, even before the group gets to the jungle, it's clear that man is hopelessly divided. It's every crook for himself, regardless of class. Amusingly, this means some personality switch-ups. Chark grows compassionate, becoming protective of Castin's daughter, whereas Castin becomes selfish and nihilistic. Not that he doesn't have plenty of reason to hate Chark. The tough guy ends up stealing Djin, who has softened under his impromptu leadership. While before she was willing to marry Castin for his diamond bag, she surrenders the lost jewelry she finds at the site of a plane crash to Chark as a symbol of love and partnership. Through it all, Lizardi is caught in the middle, constantly compromised--or at least caught in compromising positions. Prior to leaving town, he was found in Djin's bedroom, a humiliation he must endure rather than reveal he is there to see a wanted man.

Death in the Garden is fun to watch, full of Buñuel's trademark pranksterism and evocative imagery. He plays it larger here, enjoying the wide emotional expanse the potboiler provides him. I do think, however, that the more focused first half is more interesting. The communist-leaning message gives Death in the Garden some bite, and the action sequences and dirty dealing make for an exciting plot. The jungle trek, on the other hand, feels more conventional and overly long. The broad strokes don't work as well on the confined canvas.

Things pick back up in the final reel, when all the craziness starts to take its toll. With the Promised Land in site, the last vestiges of civility drop. It's a cynical ending, paying off on Buñuel's conceit that the bad will make good and the good will go bad, and actually full of quite a few surprises. In fact, regardless of the familiarity of the territory or even the slowness of some of the walking through it, Buñuel rarely makes the predictable choice. I assume he picked such typical stories for the intended purpose of making them atypical, and he does just that. You know, it strikes me that if this script had been shot in Hollywood at the same time as Luis Buñuel was shooting it down in Mexico, it could have been a fairly decent Raoul Walsh picture. As it is, it's a fairly decent Luis Buñuel one and worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Originally written for in 2014.

The Young Savages was the second directorial feature from John Frankenheimer, a pioneer of live television, and his first of four collaborations with Burt Lancaster. That it's the weakest of their team-ups should not be altogether surprising then, as Frankenheimer goes through some growing pains trying to apply his learned techniques and the social drama of his TV work to a larger canvas.

Lancaster stars in The Young Savages as Hank Bell, formerly Bellini, an Italian kid from a tough New York neighborhood who is now a respected district attorney. Hank is assigned a case involving three kids from his old block, including the son of one of his old girlfriends (Shelley Winters). The boys are the members of a street gang, and they are charged with a vicious stabbing of a blind Puerto Rican teenager. They claim self-defense, a story that doesn't add up. While racial tensions rise, Hank and his boss (Edward Andrews) push for the death penalty.

As Hank begins to build his case, he is pulled from many sides. His ex asks him to keep an open mind about her child, while the dead boy's mother cries for justice. Hank's partner (Telly Savalas) maintains a cynical cop's-eye view of the matter, while Hank's wife (Dina Merrill) angrily chides him for being so politically vicious. Not to mention the Italian and Puerto Rican gangleaders who send their minions to apply their own kind of pressure. This all weighs on the prosecutor as he tries to sift through the evidence and testimony. Not everything is as cut and dried as it seems.

The interviews Hank conducts with the various witnesses comprise some of the best stuff in The Young Savages, especially as Frankenheimer takes his actor to different sections of New York, shooting life on the streets in at least some attempt to counterbalance the near-cartoonish portrayal of urban juvenile delinquency. The script tackles racism with an admirable frankness, never shying away from either the unctuous bigotry of the killers or the more seemly criminal behavior of some of their Puerto Rican rivals. One gets the sense that finding the balance Hank seeks is also important to Frankenheimer. Throughout the eventual trial, when Hank is questioned about his seemingly bizarre prosecutorial tactics (he appears to be tanking the case), he insists he is just trying to find the truth.

The problem is, The Young Savages lacks the same rigor its fictional D.A. shows in his pursuit of a righteous outcome. One can feel the filmmakers straining to find ways to justify their own bias by adding challenging elements to bolster the counter-argument. This devil's advocacy comes off as overly convenient and slightly disingenuous. An attack on Hank's wife, for instance, compels her to question the empathy she has shown the accused, while Hank's own confrontation with street toughs gives him concerns about his personal bloodlust. These sequences make sense in the grand scheme of the dramaturgy, but they are poorly integrated in the whole and seem only minor distractions from a film that is not at all shy about its driving point. (Which, is not wrong in and of itself; have a point of view! It's fine!)

And it's not Hank that tanks the trial, it's Frankenheimer and his writers. Things never get messy, nor are there any unpredictable revelations. The bits we see only hit the right points and are come by too easily, hurrying too fast through the complexities that have been cultivated, rushing to bring us to Hank's inevitable redemption. At least in the eyes of the concerned white women in his life. His bosses, the press, and the victim's family? Not so much.

Still, there's a lot to like. Frankenheimer pulls of some artfully amazing shots, and his general storytelling skills are so facile, the movie never really lags. The way in which the action moves between different settings is so well choreographed, the narrative picks up a real momentum, almost like you're being led through a maze. Lancaster is really strong, as well, providing a stoic wall for other characters to bounce off. I also really liked Merrill, who allegedly never got on with Frankenheimer; her scene where she drinks too much and makes fun of Lancaster's character is edgy and funny. The actress has a good drunk shtick.

The Young Savages is also very earnest, and that both works for it and against it. As silly as its knee-jerk liberalism feels at times, the sheer force of belief combined with the talent behind it wins out. The Young Savages still has a relevancy in its dissection of race and systematic justice (or lack thereof), even if it doesn't still crackle with the same energy as 12 Angry Men [review] or other contemporaries.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

WEEKEND (2011) - #622

A chance flirtation that leads to a one-night stand ends up as a weekend-long affair that should affect both men involved for a lifetime.

Knightfall’s Tom Cullen plays Russell, a lifeguard in Nottingham, England, who lives a semi-closeted life alone in a high-rise flat. One night he leaves a gathering of his straight friends to go to a gay bar, where he spies Glen (Chris New). Though Glen doesn’t appear to return his interest, cut to the following morning, and the two have spent the night together. As is his wont, Glen tape-records Russell’s impressions of the previous evening’s activities for an art project he’s developing where men he sleeps with speak frankly about their sexuality--something he says gay men rarely happens in public. Straight society being as pervasive as it is, real talk about other types of sex are stifled. The conversation stirs something in both men, moving their connection from a fling to something more substantial.

Weekend is the debut feature of 45 Years-director Andrew Haigh [review], and in its way, it is the realization of the fictional Glen’s proposed ambitions. A sort of gay Before Sunrise, Weekend is an intimate glimpse of the private affair of two lovers who never expect to be together, and indeed, know that they can’t. Glen is going to leave England for America on Monday. So, the pair packs as much into their 48 hours as they can--including an extended night together, staying up and getting plastered, sharing memories, and revealing their hidden secrets. And it’s not just about their feelings and desires, but frank conversations about the sex they have had, separately and with each other. Glen being who he is, no personal act can pass without some rearview scrutinization.

The dynamic between the two men fits the paradigm of most romantic movies. One lover, Glen, is outgoing and dynamic; the other, Russell, is more shy. In this case, though, it informs who they are in ways that are different than the heterosexual paradigm. Glen’s openness has allowed him more experiences, while Russell’s reserved nature means he has kept this aspect of his life mostly to himself--and that affects how they fit not just within gay culture, but the straight world, as well. That said, Haigh doesn’t do anything as predictable as suggest that one knows himself better than the other. For Russell and Glen, how they choose to live their lives not only fits their personality for the good, but in the negative sense, it creates a certain barrier, a façade they can hide behind. And in both cases, that gives them an “out” when it comes to lasting intimacy. Both are avoiding long-term relationships for individual reasons, and both end up proving dangerous to the other’s perceived emotional safety.

Like Richard Linklater before him, Haigh doesn’t contrive typical plot machinations to keep his narrative going. Weekend doesn’t have a MacGuffin that the director can keep calling back to, nor do the characters end up in predictable situations to force reaction or change. Rather, conversation carries the action--though Weekend is less talky than Before Sunrise. Sure, the chatter turns to personal philosophies as the men share their histories, but they aren’t pondering bigger truths like third-year communications majors as a matter of course. They don’t even appear to be trying to impress one another with verbal or mental gymnastics; they are just getting along. Both Cullen and New are comfortable not just on screen, but with one another, erasing any impression of either script or improv from the their performance and instead just being.

Haigh and his tiny crew achieve a similar feeling visually. The camerawork is observational rather than designed. Photographed entirely on location, the public scenes often appear to be shot on the fly. It’s hard to tell if the other people are extras or just passersby. In the film’s emotional climax in the train station, watch the folks moving around the actors. Many appear to be aware that Russell and Glen are the focal point of something (presumably that big camera just over there). Even more fascinating is the careful, slow zoom towards the pair as they say goodbye, shot from the other side of the fence, some of the dialogue drowned out by natural ambience. Are the off-screen reactions we here from unseen commuters real or planned? It doesn’t really matter in the long run, but it’s indicative of just how immersive Weekend’s reality turns out to be.

Similarly, the physical connection between the actors appears to be just as real. Their lovemaking appears spontaneous and full of passion, serving as punctuation to the emotional connections they form. Here, Haigh is doing Glen one better--he’s not just talking about gay sexuality, he’s showing it.

In the end, however, for anyone watching Weekend, the sexual orientation of its main characters will not be as important as the humanity they share. Such is the importance of representation, and it’s where Haigh’s realism truly counts. Like another of Linklater’s films, Boyhood [review], the absence of typical screenwriter cause-and-effect means we forget the set-up and become fully invested in the lives being witnessed, moving us past pretense and preconceptions to feel something more profound. A good romantic film should leave us feeling more invested in the very idea of love than we were when we started the picture. It doesn’t matter if the lovers end up together--no one would call Roman Holiday [review] lacking in romance, for example--but how they end up in the perception of the viewer. In this, perhaps above all, Weekend is immensely successful. Were there to be a sequel, an Another Weekend, we would care how Glen got on in America, and who Russell ended up with next, and if such a sequel never come, then fine, because they will remain with us--and with each other--all the same.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

I’ve covered a couple of them in the past--namely Kitty and Dawn, films directed by the actresses Chloë Sevigny and Rose McGowan--and going forward will check in from time to time to sample their library. Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films.

Art (2014; Romania; 19 minutes): A philosophical meditation on the moral quandaries of film representation, Adrian Sitaru’s Art centers around an audition for what is purportedly a movie that would depict the dangers faced by victims of human trafficking. Two filmmakers are looking for a teenage girl to play a prostitute, specifically a scene pantomiming fellatio for the camera, and after they decide one young actress has the qualities they are seeking, they try to convince her mother to let her star in the film.

What follows is a back-and-forth about the meaning of exploitation and abuse, and whether or not money and intent equals art. Some of the directors’ rhetoric strays toward the uncomfortable, and one can only question who has the girl’s true interest at heart, if anyone, and whether or not she is even capable of deciding for herself. Sitaru is self-reflexive without being cute about it, and without crossing his own line into exploiting the girl by making the actual actress do any of what is being debated for real. What makes it interesting is the denouement, following the departure of the women, when the filmmakers turn on each other, and we begin to question what even their own personal motivations are.

Unfortunately, Sitaru doesn’t end Art where he should, tagging on an ambiguous, esoteric finale that is either some kind of justification for his own ambitions or a bad joke about the pretentions of his colleagues. Or perhaps he just watched the most recent Twin Peaks. It’s a trick that distracts from the larger point rather than enhancing its meaning.

Love You More (2008; England; 15 minutes): A slice of teenage life, with a boy and a girl coming together to listen to the only copy of the Buzzcocks’ single “Love You More” for sale in the local shop. Starring Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful) and Andrea Riseborough (Birdman [review]), Love You More does much with very little. This is all about the quick coupling that develops from a shared interest, when love comes at 45rpm and sex lasts the 1 minute and 51 seconds between the first groove to the last. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson would eventually abandon the restraint employed here to direct Fifty Shades of Grey, but that’s the way of punk rock isn’t it? The naïve rush eventually gives way to the cynical cash grab, and the first time is impossible to recapture.

Also worth noting: Love You More was written by Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer and Notes on a Scandal.

Ártún (2014; Iceland; 20 minutes): Like Love You More, this Icelandic coming-of-age story is set to a punk rock soundtrack. Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s mini movie follows three boys from their small town to the city to meet up with some girls and bribe them with cigarettes for kisses. Young Arnar (Flóki Haraldsson) is eager to grow up and be with a girl, but he’s still a little bit behind his friends. Thus, for him, this venture is all bravado, which soon turns to anxiousness as things look to potentially go better than expected.

Guðmundsson (Heartstone) quickly establishes his world, capturing the isolation of the rural community with a few well-chosen details. The boys don’t come from much, and they suffer abuse. Thus it quickly becomes obvious that Arnar’s sexual longing is really born of a need for general affection, a fact that Guðmundsson manages to convey with a disarming tenderness, even as he undercuts it with basic human cruelty.

Tord and Tord (2010; Sweden; 11 minutes): A fox returns home to find a mirror image of his apartment where a rabbit who shares the same name (hence, Tord and Tord has taken up residence. Created via stop-motion animation evocative of Wes Anderson, this little film is an askew fairy tale from Niki Lindroth von Bahr. It doesn’t add up to much, but the look of it is charming and the length just right for those looking for a quick amusement.

Five Miles Out (2009; England; 18 minutes): Director Andrew Haigh (45 Years [review]) creates a mysterious puzzler. Sent on a trip with relatives to escape troubles at home, Cass (Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass) meets a prickly young boy (Thomas Malone) on his way to a secret cave accessible only by swimming through an underground tunnel. Fearful for the boy’s life, she initially dissuades him from going, and then sits guard the next day when he finally does.

The tension during that wait is excruciating, especially if you can imagine the darkness that must await the youngster once he is below the surface. Haigh is all about holding back here, letting Richards only hint at her emotions. Just like we don’t know what is down in the hole, we can sometimes only guess what the girl must be experiencing.

Also available on the Weekend Blu-ray [review]. Likewise for Haigh’s 2005 six-minute short Cahuenga Blvd, a sketch in verité that doesn’t have nearly the emotion or intrigue of the auteur’s later work.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

TOM JONES - #910

Released in 1973, the film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is a ribald comedy of social standing. A decidedly British tale, it has a touch of farce, and a little post-modern cheek. Directed by Tony Richardson (A Taste of Honey [review]) from a script by John Osborne--who also wrote the Richardson-helmed Look Back In Anger--the film today appears to be an advance scout for cinema to come. Its raucous, profane humor tested boundaries of decorum, presenting sex as a fun activity indulged in by anyone but the notoriously dull.

Albert Finney stars as the titular Jones, a child abandoned to a rich landowner (George Devine) that raises the boy as his own. Social mores being what they were, most of the aristocrat’s noble neighbors looked down on the decision, believing a bastard child to be predestined for trouble.

And they weren’t half wrong. The grown-up Tom Jones is a rulebreaker and a scoundrel, but good-natured in his bad activity. He loves women, including the farm girl Molly (Diane Cilento, The Wicker Man [review]). Who Tom really has his heart set on, though, is Sophie (Susannah York, Tunes of Glory), beautiful daughter of the wealthy Squire Western (Hugh Griffith, The Canterbury Tales [review]). Despite enjoying Tom’s lively company himself, the Squire sees different things for his daughter, and when he is sucked into a scheme led by Tom’s dull adopted brother Bilfil (David Warner, Time Bandits), the old man manages to get Tom banished. At the same time, Sophie has run away, and the two would-be lovers make their way into the world separately at the same time.

Tom’s adventures, of course, lead him to trouble. He tussles with drunk soldiers, sleeps with lusty wives, and ultimately ends up in London, where he eventually meets his greatest match (Joan Greenwood, The Importance of Being Earnest [review]) and his greatest misfortune--that is, before things are set right again.

Tom Jones is frank and honest about the debauchery within its narrative, even as it informs the viewer that the camera is going to shy away from showing what a man and a woman might get up to, tweaking the nose of the censors, cutting the shot just as the getting is good. Of course, as with a horror movie that keeps its frights out of frame, such diversions only stoke the imagination--and makes the filmmakers more clever. Tom Jones’ most famous scene is between Finney and Joyce Redman (Olivier’s Othello) where the pair seduce each other by lustily devouring a multi-course dinner, the foley artists working overtime to record every crunch and slurp. In more a more lax era, they would have ruined it by jumping to the dirty deed itself, but here, it’s all about the unbroken gaze of the two ravenous lovers.

Richardson imbues Tom Jones with a playful visual style, including sped-up sequences that are pure British camp, a bit Benny Hill, a bit Carry On, dressed in trappings from the silent era. His quick cutting keeps pace with Finney’s full-steam-ahead performance, and both Finney and eventually Redman are allowed quick glances to the camera, a bit of a wink to make sure that the audience is in on the joke.

That said, Tom Jones also feels a little shaggy. Its farcical elements aren’t nearly as energized as one would hope, and its transgressions are no longer as naughty as they probably once seemed. It’s a fun affair, but also kind of unremarkable, carried mostly by Finney’s never wavering commitment.
For this new edition, Criterion is offering a marvelous restoration of the film, working from a 4K master. The movie comes on two discs, one featuring the original 1963 theatrical version, and the other housing Richardson’s 1989 director’s cut. Surprisingly, for once, the director’s cut is actually shorter than the original. Longtime fans might notice the nips and tucks here and there that removed about seven minutes from the running time, but the casual viewer would be hard-pressed to notice. I’d recommend first-timers following Richardson’s lead and watching his final version.

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2014: 

I wasn't actually familiar with the meaning of "separate tables" before watching this movie. As it turns out, it refers to a perk of a live-in hotel, where the dining room boasts individual tables where guests can eat on their own rather than the big group tables that they might be forced to share at other resorts or boarding houses. It is at once a symbol of independence and isolation. In Delbert Mann's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, the space between can mean everything. It can be as wide as a canyon or just a small step, a simple "good morning" away.

Released in 1958, Separate Tables features a phenomenal ensemble cast. Though David Niven (Pink Panther, Casino Royale [reviews]) won an Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role (and Wendy Hiller for Supporting Actress), one would be hard pressed to single out any one star here. In reality, the original play was split in two itself, and the stories of Major Pollack (Niven) and the drunken writer John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster, Brute Force [review]) were presented as two distinct but conjoined one acts, often with the same actors in both roles.

In this case, Rattigan (The Browning Version) and co-screenwriter John Gay (Sometimes a Great Notion) have intertwined the tales, crafting the Beauregard Hotel as a place where everyone is all up in each other's business. The tables may be separate, but the gossip is shared. The Major is a longtime resident who presents himself as a stoic war hero while harboring strange peccadilloes. He has a good friendship and possible romantic flirtation with the timid Sybil (Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus [review]), who is at the hotel with her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager). It's the busybody older lady who causes trouble for the Major when she discovers he has been convicted for lewd conduct on a train. The soldier's image crumbles under the scrutiny.

The only one to fully stand-up for the Major is John, who has had his own fair share of troubles, including jail time related to a domestic violence charge. His past comes back to haunt him in the form of his ex-wife, Ann (Rita Hayworth, Gilda [review]). Her motives for showing up out of the blue are suspect, but her presence immediately causes havoc in John's life. He has been hiding away at the seaside lodge where he is in a loving affair with the the woman who runs the place (Hiller, Pygmalion [review]). It's almost as if Ann can sense that things are going John's way and is there to purposely knock him off course--though, even she is more complicated than that, more than a mere siren or femme fatale. There are hints that she maybe is addicted to sleeping pills, and as the story wears on, her own loneliness becomes evident.

Action and subplots nicely flow together. Mann (That Touch of Mink [review]) shows a deft control of the elements, and the film runs cleanly despite some tinkering by Lancaster and the studio in the final cut. Though we never go far from the Beauregard, there is some nice differentiation between the interior and exterior setting. Mann uses shots from the outside looking in to remind us of the loneliness and the solitude that such displaced people suffer. They are as separate from society at large as they are from each other. Charles Lang (Wait Until Dark) photographs Separate Table stylishly, using the changing weather and the different times of day to evoke the required moods.

Niven and Lancaster duke it out for supremacy in terms of who the real star is. Both have excellent screen presence, though their characters have completely different demeanors. John can be boorish whereas the Major goes from overly mannered to despondent. His admission of his past failings to Kerr's Sibyl is heartbreaking. Kerr is also quite excellent as the neurotic spinster. Only Hayworth seems underused here. Her iconic image does more to give Ann the kind of seductive allure that would drive a man like John crazy than anything in the script. The part seems underwritten.

Unsurprisingly, the various narrative strands pull apart and then come together again, weaving a tale where people are compelled to make a choice, either to do the right thing or carry on in the wrong. Separate Tables has an excellent finale where all these things are tied up nicely but without it being too clean or cloying.

Monday, February 19, 2018


An Actor’s Revenge opens and closes in a theater, bookending its vengeance tale with performance and placing the audience in a comfortable place that reminds us that this is entertainment and thus meant to be enjoyed a certain way. What lies in between fits the bill perfectly: a bonkers drama with ludicrous twists and audacious visuals. It is artifice at its purest, yet drama at its most sincere.

Writer/director Kon Ichikawa (The Makioka Sisters [review], Fires on the Plain [review]) has set his 1963 film, based on a novel by Otokichi Mikami, in the 1830s, at a time when life in Japan was difficult. The common people lived under the shogunate, and the economy was bad. Rice shortages caused unrest, becoming grist for the mill here as one component of the manipulative scheme put forth by Yuki (Kazua Hasegawa, Gate of Hell), a popular kabuki actor considered by many to be the finest female lead in all of Japan. Yes, this was a time when women’s parts were played by men, and not only does Yuki play a woman on stage, but for all intents and purposes, he remains androgynous in real life--dresses, make-up, speaking at a higher pitch. As with Satyajit Ray’s The Hero [review], the actor has an image to uphold.

At the start of the film, Yuki’s troupe is beginning a guest run in Edo. While on stage, the actor sees several familiar faces in the crowd, ones that chill him to the core. Watching from expensive box seats are men who drove Yuki’s parents to suicide. As we learn through Yuki’s internal monologue--expressed while still performing, the show must ever go on--he has been waiting his whole life for the chance to take his revenge on them. And so Yuki puts into motion an elaborate plot to drive the three merchants to madness and ultimately death, using the lead man’s daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao, Street of Shame [review]), as the entry point into their lives and homes. Namiji is smitten with Yuki, and Namiji is a woman of great influence, so all doors open.

The intrigue along this track develops over private conversations, with Yuki meeting with his three targets in their individual residences, working his way into their personal business, while also developing a genuine connection with Namiji. Meanwhile, outside, a collection of local thieves not only competes for fame in their province, but they also continuously cross paths with Yuki. They are both comic relief and a plot complication. The lady thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) falls for Yuki after he physically stops her from robbing Namiji. Another, Yamitaro, keeps watch from afar, enjoying how Yuki’s life is its own performance, how everything he does has a specific choreography. Hasegawa plays Yamitaro as well as Yuki, a dual role you may not notice on first viewing. That’s how good the actor is. It’s not just make-up and costume, but he creates distinct personas for each. Given that this was his 300th film, he certainly had plenty of time to hone his craft.

It’s the juxtaposition of these two characters where the artifice and the reality truly come together in An Actor’s Revenge. Ichikawa is interested not just in the parts people play in their actual lives, but in how they present themselves to others--and likewise how he can present these things to the film-going audience. An Actor’s Revenge relies heavily on style and staging. Nighttime scenes are set against solid black, with no discernible backgrounds. When Namiji loses her way, she is found on a similarly empty plain, shrouded in fog. Yuki’s plot against his enemies is essentially a stage play helmed in a natural theater. You almost suspect that when Ichikawa returns everyone to the actual stage in the end, he’s going to reveal we never left, and the film actors will return to take a bow.

At the same time, Ichikawa’s approach is deadly serious. There is no irony, no winking at the audience. If art is a reflection of real life, then it must be approached with the same vigor. Our entertainment has consequences. It has lessons to teach. It’s the oldest storytelling trick in the book: lull the consumer into a certain happy state, only for the weight of what we are seeing to land heavily upon us. There is a price for revenge, and one not always paid by the person with the vendetta.

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE HERO - #911

Eschewing popular conceptions of Bollywood movies, India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray takes us not just backstage, but totally away from it, to create a fascinating study of a famous film actor mid-existential crisis.

Popular movie star Uttam Kumar plays a variation of himself, portraying Arindam Mukherjee, a one-time stage actor turned box office success traveling by train to Delhi to accept an achievement award even as his latest film is flopping in theaters. Much of The Hero’s narrative is driven by how the other train passengers react to having a star in their midst. There is the sick girl and her mother who profess to being fans, the salty critic who thinks movie stars are by nature immoral, and a young wife who has dreams of stardom herself. Most important, though, is Aditi (Sharmila Tagore, Apur Sansar [review]), a progressive journalist whose feminist magazine usually doesn’t peddle in movie news, but when urged by her mother to gather some gossip about a barroom brawl Arindam participated in the night before, Aditi finds herself sitting across from the charismatic performer. What the young woman finds is a man eager to talk, and before she knows it, Arindam is laying himself bare, telling her the true story of how he earned his way, focusing mostly on the mentor he disappointed and the one who disappointed him.

The flashbacks to Arindam’s life in the theatre and the mistakes made on his first movie shoot allow Ray--who wrote, directed, and produced--to leave the train and change up the scenery, but honestly, he didn’t really need the variation. The auteur makes full use of the space, moving up and down the corridors and into different train compartments without ever creating a scene that feels cramped--not even when the whole point is that the other passengers can’t escape each other. Ray peppers his main narrative with mini-dramas throughout the rest of the train, including some tales that parallel the main. The young woman (Susmita Mukherjee) being pimped out by her husband (Kamu Mukherjee) to cinch an advertising deal is an alternate version of the ambitious actress (Sumita Sanyal) whose advances landed Arindam in the fistfight. There are fuzzy lines being drawn between exploitation and self-actualization here, with even Arindam losing focus on whether or not he is still pursuing his career for the right reasons.

It’s pretty easy to see the influence The Hero likely had on Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited [review], predominantly in how the later film is constructed, including the use of surreal and handcrafted dream sequences and how Anderson uses the confined space to force people to get real with one another. Pretenses break down as the night wears on, and Arindam in particular is ready to spill his guts. As a performer, Uttam Kumar has a very natural way about him. He switches back and forth from being “on” to just being himself without ever needing to force it. As Arindam, he sees the difference between the personal and the public, and reacts to each fan like a deft politician.

Seeing how in control of his charm the actor is adds gravitas to the more intimate revelations he shares with the reporter. It’s only here that Ray emphasizes the closeness of proximity, eventually framing the conversation as a volley back and forth, his two leads never in the shot at the same time, too close to fit. In terms of action and reaction, Sharmila Tagore is remarkable, providing a blank, yet empathetic, sounding board for her scene partner, and reserving her deeper response to more private moments, when she is left to absorb what she just learned. Ray could have easily fallen into some cliché with the Aditi character, making her a cold intellectual or a strident feminist who rails against anything popular, but instead he gives her conflicts of her own. There is part of her who enjoys what Arindam does and understands why he could help her magazine, even as she tries to maintain her integrity and have a truly genuine experience with him. One could suspect that Ray is wrestling with his own feelings for other types of movies, the old critic maybe hitting a little too close to home, or the dismissal of musicals being a more barbed attack than is apparent in the throwaway joke..

Beyond all the movie-business material, the community that Satyajit Ray builds in The Hero is also subtly reflective of society. There are the successful people--both the actor and the wealthy business man (Ranjit Sen) share a compartment--alongside the middle classes that either just want to get by or who are looking for a leg up. Only the lower classes don’t seem to be represented here--though maybe those are the train workers who don’t get the same kind of focus, a choice that is a commentary unto itself. These distinctions channel into the themes of who needs the entertainment that Arindam provides, and who judges him for not doing more. It’s a tangle of desire, accomplishment, and remorse, with our “hero” being the only one who has lived all three--a bitter realization that he is stuck with as the train comes into the station, and the community disbands to return to their individual lives.

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

Friday, February 16, 2018


This review originally written for the Portland Mercury

One of the more hotly debated films at the Portland International Film Festival in 2011, Apichatpong Weerase-thakul's Cannes favorite might be an exercise in patience—but for those willing to go with the chilled-out flow, it's a deeply rewarding, albeit puzzling, cinematic endeavor. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives tells the story of a dying man in Thailand who exists in a rarefied state where folk tales and ghost stories mingle with everyday life. As the ailing Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) nears his end, family members gather around, including some who have been long absent.

Weerasethakul evokes an oral tradition, letting the dinner guests share the tales of their journeys, and then leads us deep into caves full of spiritual history before disconnecting these lifelines and returning the survivors to the cold of modern urban living. Meditative and mysterious, full of long takes and dreamy ideas—including hairy ape men with glowing eyes and randy fish who take out their sexual frustration on human women—Uncle Boonmee is as unpredictable as it is enthralling. It works in part because Weerasethakul never pauses to question the reality of his fairy tale. To do so would be like explaining a magic trick. As in life, not knowing how it all comes off is part of the adventure.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2010.

Jules Dassin's 1959 French-Italian co-production The Law (La Loi) is a flirty and fun tornado of small-town scandal. Set in the coastal village of Porto Manacore, looking out over the Adriatic Sea, the ex-pat director's adaptation of a Roger Vailland novel was apparently too hot for the censors upon its release, relegating it to obscurity amongst the filmmaker's resume. After spending two hours spinning in The Law's dizzying narrative, I can't understand how a revival took so long to come around.

The Law is a story of how social structures are governed, showing us how life in the town is dictated by two men--the Godfather-like Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur), who has all the political and financial power, and the gangster Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand, Z [review]), the muscle on the streets. "The Law" is also a drinking game that was popular in Southern Italy, and its strange rules mimic the way everything else is run. One man is named the boss, and he appoints his deputy, and together they control the wine. They pour the drinks, choosing who gets a glass via posturing and humiliation, until the pitcher is empty. Then a new boss is chosen, and a new deputy. You keep going until the players can't stand it anymore.

Such is life. You keep going until you can't stand it anymore. The heroine of The Law is Marietta (legendary Italian beauty Gina Lollobrigida). Marietta and her mother and two sisters live with Don Cesare, and are essentially his harem. He currently sleeps with her older sister, but Marietta is next to be called into his bed when he grows bored with her sibling--just as it was with their mother and her eldest daughter before them. Marietta's brother-in-law, the Don's right-hand man Tonio (Paolo Stoppa), also lusts after Marietta, and Brigante is determined to make her his own. She has other ideas, however, and when a new fellow comes to town, Marietta sets her sights on him.

Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni, 8 1/2 [review]) is an agronomist sent to Porto Manacore to modernize it. He represents progress, and so naturally butts heads with Don Cesare. When you own all the land, you don't want to be told what to do with it, after all. Enrico is overwhelmed by the convoluted social structure, and when he tries to play "The Law," it's not to his liking. On the other hand, Marietta very much is to his liking, even if he can't figure out how to make it work. She's a practical gal and ready to marry the outsider, she just needs to find a dowry. When she sees a Swiss tourist with a fat wallet, she lifts it. Half-a-million lire should be enough for any wedding. By no coincidence, she also gets a neighborhood boy--part of a gang of thieves and pranksters that do her bidding--to steal Brigante's knife. It's his only weapon, and the sharp blade scares everyone else. You don't have to have Freud on retainer to get the symbolism of Marietta taking it from him.

If all of this sounds particularly tangled, well, hold up, I'm just getting started. The Law is packed front to back with subplots and narrative complications. For instance, Brigante's son Francesco (Raf Mattioli) is having an affair with the wife of the town judge (Teddy Bilis). The woman, Lucrezia (Melina Mercouri, Dassin's real-life spouse and star of his films Never on Sunday and Topkapi), enlists another lady, Giuseppina (Lidia Alfonsi), to help her pass notes to Francesco. Giuseppina knows what Lucrezia is going through, as she's the mistress of the chief of police (Vittorio Caprioli). Also, Lucrezia bribes her by buying her a dress that is supposed to lift her breasts so she appears to have a bust like Marilyn Monroe's. When we first meet Giuseppina, it's while the cop is telling his buxom wife that he dreamt that her flat-chested friend had a bosom herself--which should tell you something about how sexed-up The Law is. Gina Lollobrigida's cleavage is an element of real focus amongst her neighbors, and I'm starting to understand why my dad thought it was such a big deal when she guest-starred on Falcon Crest when I was 12 years old. Va-va-voom!

Jules Dassin's script for The Law is an extremely agile piece of writing. He never gets overburdened by all this story, nor does he ever shy away from the heat. Visually, he and cinematographer Otello Martelli (La strada [review]) make use of the tall buildings and winding streets of Porto Manacore to give the audience the feeling of traveling through a maze. Built on a hillside, the village has lots of stairs and many levels, and it's easy to get lost. Try to map out which way Marietta is going as you watch The Law and see if you can keep up. The way the town is built, and how it's put to use on film, is another representation of its class structure. One of the earliest scenes is an impressive tracking shot that takes us up to the top of the police building, peering into the apartments where the judge and the chief live, moving down the side of the building and across, past the jail cells. The camera is being dragged along by Marietta's siren song, and we find her across town, shining boots on a balcony and singing to the morning sky. The men of the movie are bewitched, and so are we.

The Law is a real narrative tour-de-force, full of rich characters and surprising script developments. The actors all attack their roles with relish, and Dassin was at the height of his powers when constructing his mis-en-scene. The Law is as fresh and bold as any modern bendy, curvy crime movie, while also not being a crime movie at all. What a fantastic discovery!

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Setting things right, and watching the intended companion in a double-feature with John Huston’s The Misfits [review here, and a part II piece here].

And honestly, I am ashamed of myself for waiting this long to watch Humphrey Bogart’s last picture. Released in 1956, The Harder They Fall features an aging Bogie at his most tenacious, a stand-up guy trying to get through by doing a little wrong. It’s both a tad too late to be classified as a sports-themed noir a la The Set-Up, and a little too early to stand as a symbol of old Hollywood trying to get its licks in with the new generation. Imagine this same movie in the mid-1960s, featuring Bogart tussling with a heavyweight from that era, someone like Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman in the Rod Steiger gangster role, and it would be the classic studio man tearing into the avant garde. This role could have been as iconic for Bogart as a punctuation of a time as Orson Welles’ turn in Touch of Evil [review].

In The Harder They Fall, Bogie plays Eddie Willis, a sports writer who finds himself out of work following the folding of the newspaper where he wrote for nearly two decades. Realizing that the job kept him fed but never gave him enough to start a savings, he throws in with crooked fight promoter Nick Benko (Steiger, Jubal [review]), hoping to earn enough green to never be in this position again. Benko has a South American giant he wants to turn into a North American star, but El Toro (Mike Lane) can neither throw nor take a punch. Only Eddie knows how to work the press to turn this loser into a champion, getting his old pals on the circuit to look the other way when things are dodgy and ignore that the fix is in.

What follows is a long tour of sell-outs, compromises, and lies, as Eddie tries to keep the whole enterprise from going belly up by Toro either finding out the truth about the cheat or getting beaten to a pulp. The audience and some of Eddie’s friends--a television reporter he had a falling out with (Harold J. Stone, Spartacus) and Eddie’s wife (Jan Sterling, Ace in the Hole [review])--see Eddie’s willful ignorance for what it is, even as he doubles-down at every obvious cue to get out. He has to believe that somehow Toro will get his payday, or Eddie will never get his.

The Harder They Fall is directed by Mark Robson (Bedlam [review], The Valley of the Dolls [review]), working from a script by Philip Yordan (God’s Little Acre [review]), who in turn is adapting a novel by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront). It’s a slick picture, its swift pace held together by a tightly constructed script. The dialogue is terse and the viewpoint resolute in its cynicism. You’re going to really hate the bad guys, more so when they appear so spineless next to Eddie. As a narrative, The Harder They Fall is scrappy studio system efficiency, pulling off ten rounds of drama without ever hitting the canvas. 

Robson treats all the boxing matches as important, be it a quick done-in-one where the chump goes down easy or the finale where Toro has to tussle for real with the champ. In that climactic bout, the camera deftly moves in and out of the ring, giving us both the fighter’s POV and that of the audience. The latter’s pained expressions makes the beating seem all the more harsh. The most brutal match, however, is an earlier exhibition where a particularly proud pugilist (Abel Fernandez, TV’s The Untouchables) has to be given a bloody out. Try not to cringe waiting for Toro to hit the right mark.

Eddie is on par with some of Bogart’s most famous roles--the last good man amongst a whole lot of bad ones. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he has a moral code that he should not deviate from lest there be consequences. Unlike them, Eddie has thrown that code out, and his arc is all about getting it back. The older actor mines a weariness that serves him well, making it as if Eddie somehow knows he is the last of his kind. When he goes down, all else will follow. Eddie’s relationship with Toro is a bit like a citified Of Mice and Men, with the simple giant never quite grasping how things work. The tragedy here is that he is very nearly self-euthanizing, taking Eddie’s advice that the only way out is by taking it on the chin--again and again and again.

The Harder They Fall is a fitting finish for Bogart. While, sure, he could have done something more grand or obvious before the final bow, it makes more sense to see him go out as he started: playing the toughest guy in the room. Even the very last scene, when he sits down to write, a flipside to In a Lonely Place [review], there is a statement of intent: Bogie will never give in, he’ll always be Bogie. It would have been interesting to see him punch into the next decade. Imagine his collaborations with Godard, or playing an elderly heavy in a Coppola movie. The old hound dog would have certainly taught the young pups a thing or two about a thing or two.

Jean-Paul Belmondo looking at a The Harder They Fall poster in Breathless.