Wednesday, October 9, 2019

PERSEPOLIS - CRITERION CHANNEL

I reviewed this movie twice for DVD Talk. Both pieces appear below.


THEATRICAL RELEASE, DECEMBER 2007:

The new animated film Persepolis has a truly international pedigree. The French-made feature is an adaptation of a two-part comic book memoir by an Iranian ex-pat, Marjane Satrapi, and though her story is framed by a sequence set in a French airport, the main feature takes us from Iran to Vienna and back to Iran again, before the young artist leaves the country of her birth once and for all.

Persepolis takes place mainly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is an imaginative child who loves Bruce Lee and American pop music. She is inquisitive and rambunctious, as children often are, and she is also a witness to history. In 1977, Iran went through a cultural and political revolution, and being born to politically minded parents, Marjane is in a unique position to hear all about what is behind the various factions that have a stranglehold on her country. Her uncle, in particular, tells her much about the history of Iran's conflict. He is a political dissident who has only recently been released from a long prison sentence he served for being a communist. He gently tells her vivid stories of his struggles, inspiring the young girl's rebellious spirit, the very thing that may ultimately contribute to her own loss of innocence.


Once the revolution turns sour and the hardline Islamists take control of the country, things get gradually worse for the citizens of Iran. The country's women, in particular, lose more and more of their rights. Eventually, Marjane's parents send the now-teenage girl (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) to Vienna, but Europe doesn't turn out to be a friendly paradise either. This disastrous tenure abroad wasn't the girl's idea anyway. Like the rest of her family, she is a patriot, and she loves her homeland--but even upon returning, she is forced to accept that her vision of Iran may never be possible.

Marjane Satrapi's story is one that provides rare insight into a country we don't get accurate portrayals of very often. It could also be an overly charged, issue-driven story if she had chosen to make it so, but instead Satrapi has tied her own personal journey from child to woman to the story about the changes that went on all around her. First in the comic book and now in this animated movie, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi has shown how the struggles of a country and of the individual within that country go hand in hand. In addition to her exploring identity issues, we also see the various romantic travails that define her as a woman. There is no great difference between the hope of love dashed on the rocks and the hope of a better tomorrow smashing face first into fascism. That Satrapi manages to maintain her wit and see the humor in personal foibles keeps Persepolis from getting too heavy, while the storyteller's ability to sometimes step back and let events speak for themselves ensures that the overall meaning of the piece doesn't lose its importance.


Persepolis is the best kind of literary adaptation. The movie maintains the look and feel of the original comic book while still making the material work in an entirely new medium. The appeal of the Persepolis books (recently collected as one definitive volume) came from their conversational tone, and the comic book medium was well suited to show the imaginative nuances of a child's questions about the world. Thus, a cartoon was the ideal choice for bringing such a work into theatres.

The animators manage to create a style that both mimics Satrapi's original drawings while also improving on them. Personally, I didn't care all that much for her cartooning in the book. Though Satrapi's linework has an individual flare, it struck me as somewhat amateurish. The drawing style in the movie takes her primitive, blobby illustrations and slicks them up, giving them movement and vitality. It still looks just like her work, but now better drawn.


Plus, they aren't afraid to take advantage of the fact that Persepolis is a cartoon. Sure, the subject of the story can be rather serious and this is a movie made with older audiences in mind, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers need to wear a stuffed shirt to the party. Concocting an appealing black-and-white style and employing old cinema techniques like iris fades and flickering edges, they evoke a feeling of nostalgia for early Silly Symphonies [review] and silent film. They also use traditional Iranian art styles to keep the history Young Marjane learns about her country from dragging down the forward motion of the story. It is a great example of craft and material walking hand in hand. The artists exaggerate the line drawings when necessary and use dark and shadow to convey the doom and foreboding that gripped Iran in Satrapi's youth. She and Paronnaud also know when to keep it simple, such as the many conversations between the girl and her much wiser grandmother (Danielle Darrieux). If it weren't for the rather corny "Eye of the Tiger" sequence in the final third, I'd be inclined to call Persepolis a note-perfect film.

So, forget preconceived notions that might leave Persepolis off your viewing list. Forget any prejudice about cartoons, black-and-white film, or subtitles. Persepolis is one of the best movies of the year, and missing it would be to deprive yourself of something you really shouldn't do without.

DVD RELEASE, JUNE 2008: 


Persepolis was one of the major indie success stories of 2008. Produced in France, it was adapted from two comic book memoirs by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant who moved to Europe in her early 20s. Co-directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud, the black-and-white animated movie successfully took the crude drawings and personal storytelling of the comics and transferred them to the movie screen, making a story that was surprisingly evocative of the books while also being dazzling cinema.

The story of Persepolis is really a story about being stuck between two worlds--between Iran and Europe, personal belief and mandated zealotry, the freedom of childhood and the burden of being an adult, escapist fantasy and harsh reality, the realistic falseness of cartoons and the synthetic realness of memoir. In the only color sequences in the film, the "present day" of the story sees Satrapi (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) in an airport, trying to decide whether to leave France and return home to Iran after many years in exile. She is stuck by her indecision in a massive construct that is literally everywhere and nowhere. An airport can be a portal to any place you want to go, but really, you feel like you're not standing on any particular country's soil.


The narrative the shifts to the late 1970s when Marjane is just a child, unaware of the turmoil her country is heading for. Her heroic uncle (Francois Jerosme) teaches her about the history of Iran and her family, but the little girl would rather see Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies and listen to Iron Maiden than fight a revolution. The Satrapi parents (Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) are intelligent liberals who want to work toward effecting change, and Marjane's grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) is the voice of wisdom, having seen it all before. Worried that Marjane can't have a life if she stays in Iran, they send her to Austria as a teenager. In one of the most poignant twists in the story, however, the Europeans are just as intolerant and closed-minded as the fundamentalists who are vying for power back home. Wherever you are in the world, people can be small. Judge not lest you be judged.

This excursion rattles the girl, and she returns home for one last try. Here, though, she becomes a woman, having to find her way out of her funk and figure out where she belongs and what she desires. A disastrous marriage and some close calls with religious leaders finally send her away again, never to return. That is, unless she decides to get on that plane.


Persepolis is alive with virtuoso storytelling. While the script is so good it could have been told in any medium, the choice to animate this feature not only preserves the artistic feel of the comic book, but it provides Satrapi and Paronnaud a visual fluidity they might not have had otherwise. They make the most of the possibilities of animation, showing the world through young Marjane's eyes, bringing her daydreams and nightmares to life, and employing techniques out of Iranian folk art and early classic cartoons. Judgmental old women turn into snake-like creatures, their necks stretching to swirl around Marjane to interrogate her, their black robes filling the entire scene. Grisly visions of war are drawn using bold lines and invasive perspective, like a Russian propaganda poster, while scenes of death are often shown in a distance, framed in an iris, like a dark pageant. These are all methods that could be construed as pretentious or showy in live action, but that feel natural in animation.

That said, the greatest strength of the movie is the same as all of Marjane Satrapi's comics: the humanity of her writing. Drawn or not drawn, Persepolis is a story about people. Sure, a curtain is peeled back and we are allowed a glimpse into a culture and a country that is not our own, but in doing so, Satrapi is showing us how borders don't really make us all that different. We all have the same concerns, fears, and dreams. We may come from two different worlds, but we're still on the same planet.


 I also reviewed Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's second film, the live-action Chicken With Plums. Read that review here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

SELECTED SHORTS VIII - CRITERION CHANNEL


Periodically I will gather together my takes on shorter films I’ve watched, looking at the variety of subjects and styles available; a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.

You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7


24 Frames Per Century (2013; Italy; 3 minutes): Director Athina Rachel Tsangari builds an intriguing, sorta cute, but slight tribute to the power of cinema, showing the mechanical worries of two film projectors working side by side on a seaside cliff to send images out into the great expanse. Commissioned by the Venice Film Festival, it plays more like an introduction than a stand-alone piece. One wonders what Jean-Luc Godard, whose Contempt [review] Tsangari draws on, would make of this. Would he enjoy the irreverence but dismiss the sentimentality?


Fit (1994; United States; 8 minutes): Another from Athina Rachel Tsangari, this one playful and clever, a surreal examination of one woman’s obsession with making things fit--onto objects, into her body, wherever they need to go. Leading from a dream where her boyfriend’s mouth doles out marbles by the...well, mouthful, into a day that begins with one of her socks shrinking and no longer covering her foot. It’s neurotic and a bit off-kilter, but enjoyable to see what she’ll pick next and where she’ll stick it. The droll narration only adds to the fun.


Baby (1954; United States; 5 minutes): An early work from the recently departed D.A. Pennebaker. This one is simple: the documentarian took his young daughter to the zoo and followed her as she explored. The camera takes in the sights, looking at each animal and also riding the carousel with the same childlike wonder as its star. Very charming.

[Also available on the Don’t Look Back Blu-ray [review].]


Sacrilege (2017; France/Switzerland; 14 minutes): Saoud (Mehdi Djaadi) is top dog in his French neighborhood. He’s got the freshest kicks, the dopest rhymes, and can walk the talk--that is, until he is unexpectedly accused of robbing the mosque where he and his friends worship. Saoud denies the accusation, but slowly the mob grows and stands against him, the words they once hung on now appearing empty.

Director Christophe M. Saber packs a lot of character and drama into Sacrilege. He establishes who his lead is quickly, and then delineates the roles of the social circle that surrounds him. But what is particularly impressive about Sacrilege is how it defies our perception and our narrative prejudices. We have certain expectations when watching a story like this, and each viewer may also come with their own added preconceived notions based on the people involved (hip-hop, Muslim, French...take your pick). That Sacrilege keeps leading us one way, only to flip our position with the next protestation, not only keeps this short film riveting, but forces us to ponder what we just saw.


Pioneer (2011; United States; 16 minutes): A simple concept executed well: a widower (singer/songwriter Will Oldham, also seen in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy) tells his four-year-old son (Myles Brooks) a long bedtime story about how their bond has spanned history, with separations and returns and the intrusion of the outside world adding twists along the way. That’s it. It’s a story so contained, you almost can’t believe they didn’t try to break out of it.

But writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints [review]) trusts the magic in his script, and possibly even more the charisma of his lead. Oldham is all-in here, spinning a yarn with conviction and panache. He turns life and death, age and experience, on their heads, to create a world of possibility for his young son, and it’s impossible not to buy in yourself.


N.U. (1948; Italy; 12 minutes)/Sunday in Peking (1956; France; 22 minutes): An early documentary from Michelangelo Antonioni (L’avventura [review], N.U. spends a day following street cleaners around Rome. (The title is the abbreviation of the Italian name for the sanitation service.) There is no real narrative, we hop from worker to worker, with the black-and-white photography giving us a wonderful glimpse of the city as it was then--including how dirty. You’ll marvel at the inconsiderate actions of many citizens, and what a thankless task trying to clean up after them can be. Yet, there is something noble in the workers diligently carrying on.


Far from Rome, we have Peking, here shown in full color by Chris Marker (La jetee [review]. Sunday in Peking is almost like a educational travelogue, showing us street scenes from around the city. What is key to Sunday in Peking beyond the photographic document, though, is Marker’s narration. The project began with the filmmaker as a fanciful child looking at a picture in a book, a site the film crew immediately visits. This is very much filtered though Eastern eyes, albeit one of a foreigner with political sympathies in Mao’s regime (the leader even makes an appearance). It comes off now as both respectful and naïve, as it shows many lovely aspects of culture but questions nothing about what lies beyond the tourism.

[N.U. is also available on the Red Desert Blu-ray [review], which makes sense thematically.]


Fry Day (2017; United States; 16 minutes): A portrait of a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood surrounded by any number of Big Bad Wolves. Lauren (Jordyn DiNatale, Lez Bomb) is an enterprising teenager with a grand idea: on the eve of Ted Bundy’s execution, she takes her Polaroid camera to the place outside the prison where onlookers have gathered and sells photos for $2 a pop. There she runs into Keith (Jimi Stanton, The Punisher), a cute boy from her school. He convinces her to go with him and his friends to get some food, and things start to take a bad turn from there.

The genius of Laura Moss’ short film is how easily it slides the audience into this predicament. It takes a while for us to suspect Keith means harm, we go along just as casually as Lauren--who wears a paper Bundy mask around her neck, lest any of us forget just what some men are capable of. When we start to realize that more is going on here than it seems, it’s too late, we’re trapped in it, and we can only hope it won’t go as bad as it could. Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien understand these boys and their pack mentality, including having one of the young men seem more smart and thoughtful. He’s the one who would say he was just along for the ride. And Keith’s final act is perhaps the worst manipulation of all. One kind gesture is all he needs to keep a wedge in the door should he ever get back in.

By that point, Fry Day has made us sick to our stomach, exposing how easy victimization of this kind can be, and even how complicit we are in our own dreamy narrative expectations. This makes the last shot all the more devastating. There’s part of us that still wants to trust, when it’s no stretch to think Lauren has no trust left.

Would make a good double feature with Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

BARBARA - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.


It's East Germany, 1980, and Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss, A Most Wanted Man [review]) has been assigned to a provincial hospital where, she's told, she can pay back all the farmers and laborers who worked so she could have an education. There, she can also have a watchful eye kept on her, either by the head of the hospital, the almost too-perfect Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld) or by the local Communist Party authorities. Barbara, it would seem, is a woman not to be trusted, known for putting on airs, and unable to adhere to the party line. Hence, her being forced to symbolically pay off her symbolic student loan.

Writer/director Christian Petzold (Phoenix) unveils Barbara as a mystery. The early portion of the film leaves us wondering what the doctor has done to earn such disdain. Random home inspections would suggest that she is a dangerous criminal, yet they also leave her hurt and humiliated. Barbara is an inscrutable woman. She is unfriendly to her co-workers, and she doesn't seem to engage in much of a social life, if any at all. At the same time, the good doctor is dedicated to her job and appears empathetic to her patients. When a troubled young girl (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) lands in the hospital after days of hiding in the forest to escape from a labor camp, everyone else is ready to believe she is crying wolf. Barbara spots her legitimate symptoms, however, and takes the girl under her care, creating a bond that will not easily be broken.


As it turns out, the Communists do have a reason to suspect the exiled medical practitioner. Barbara has a relationship with a man from West Berlin who is helping her prepare her escape to the other side. Though one would think the biggest hurdle for her flight to freedom would simply be making the plan without getting caught, as Barbara progresses, so too does its main character's position grow more complicated. As she gets more involved in life at the country hospital, she has to be on guard to prevent her new relationships and her sense of duty from distracting her from what she really wants.

Petzold's narrative is not flashy, nor is his mis-en-scene. Cinematographer Hans Fromm shoots the film in natural light and avoids tricky camera moves or self-conscious framing. Likewise, Stefan Will's score is so subdued as to be almost nonexistent. In fact, I am having a hard time recalling anytime when the music actually dominated the soundtrack or drove the scene. Both Fromm and Will are Petzold's regular collaborators, and together they build Barbara with a meticulous craftsmanship, stacking the story piece by piece, never telegraphing the next move or relying on exposition to get the job done. This is a film where the architects would rather leave you wondering at their choices than explain what isn't necessary. Barbara is full of drama but is never melodramatic, and though the story has its share of twists, they are never forced nor contorted.


It's Nina Hoss who really drives the film, though. Even more than the momentum of the story, it's her performance that leads the viewer from point A to point Z. Though Barbara chooses to keep everything in and push everyone away, there is still something about how Hoss portrays her that makes you want to know what fuels this engine. Perhaps it's just that we're in the same boat as Dr. Reiser, and we believe that there is more than meets the eye. The cold exterior hides a warm interior, and there is something about her that compels us to want to get through the barriers. Barbara only really lets her guard down once. It's a good piece of writing, a scene where Barbara reacts with surprising vehemence when it's suggested by her colleague that she's abrupt. It's a moment well played by Hoss. It's vulnerable and honest, and also a little bit funny. For all the effort she's made to build her own wall between herself and her countrymen, a caring, feeling woman is still on the other side of the divide.

If there's any failing to Barbara, it's that maybe the final resolution is the one thing in the film that is a little easy to see coming. At the same time, I think Petzold protects himself in how he sets up this inevitability. When Barbara examines Reiser's library, it's the director reminding us that, like all genres, stories about doctors require a certain amount of convention. What the patient teaches the doctor, or what the doctor reveals about the patient--or in the case of Barbara, perhaps a little of both as we finally discern which character is really which.



Tuesday, September 17, 2019

THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT - CRITERION CHANNEL

Here is London, giddy London 

Is it home of the free 

Or what?


If you asked someone at random to make a cartoon version of 1960s Swinging England based entirely on whatever vague pop culture knowledge they carried in their brain, The Knack...and How to Get It would be the result.

Released in 1965, this Richard Lester film takes a play by Ann Jellicoe and twists it into a madcap movie full of slapstick and experimental camera moves and tricky editing, all to create a feeling of youthful frenzy and sexual excitement. It’s about one or two steps away from being too much, while also being very much of its time. The Knack...and How to Get It means well, but it hasn’t aged well.


The film stars Michael Crawford, who was ahead of this modern superhero thing when he played the lead in Condorman back in 1981 (mentioned here because it was a movie I loved, age 9). Here he plays Colin, an uptight schoolteacher who rents his upstairs room to Tolen (Ray Brooks), a fashionable playboy who parades an endless string of conquests up and down the stairs, past Colin’s room. Fed up and lonely, Colin looks to his tenant to learn how to pick up women, to get “the knack.”


As the deal is being struck, two other wandering souls are on a collision course with this pair. Tom (Donal Donnelly, The Dead [review]) has been kicked out of his boarding house and is soon to take advantage of Colin’s other room to rent. And Nancy (Rita Tushingham, A Taste of Honey [review]) is fresh off the train, lost in the city, seeking the YWCA. She will eventually catch Colin’s eye--though it’s Tom who actually invites her around. All three men start competing for her attention, with Tolen being the most aggressive. His knack isn’t taking no for an answer. But more on that in a second...

Richard Lester was fresh off A Hard Day’s Night [review] (and years away from Superman III) when he made The Knack...and How to Get It, and when you consider that, it’s easy to see why he was chosen to make a youth comedy of this kind. One of the more effective flourishes he adds to the source material is a tongue-clucking Greek chorus of disembodied voices judging the four kids wherever they go. Every face he captures on the London streets has something going on behind the eyes, and Lester layers these random reactions over the soundtrack like imagined whispers only the paranoid can here. The real locations and documentary-like shooting style lends a potency to the device, while simultaneously adding to the feeling that The Knack...and How to Get It is very much of its moment. In its way, the film feels like a big prank.


Lester attempts to keep things unpredictable even when off the streets, when on set or focused on his leads. Extreme angles, choppy editing, humorous cutaways, and even some fun with subtitles--all of this lends to The Knack...and How to Get It having a zippy pace, but also a contrived sense of urgency that spills into the dialogue. The director fails to let the words breathe, and so his actors kind of tumble over one another to the point where their lines start losing meaning. There’s nothing to invest in here, no one to buy into. The men all seem selfish, and neither they nor the filmmaker really ever stop to get to know Nancy.

Which is weird, because the foundation of Jellicoe’s narrative is more satirical than Lester’s zany presentation gives it credit for. From the moment Nancy steps onto the London pavement, she is sexualized. Men leer at her, some even warn her away, and all the while she is searching for what should be a safe haven for women like her, only to never find it. Tom comes closest to treating her like an individual, but by film’s end, he’s joined the pack. It’s likely no coincidence that Jellicoe named the male characters the way she did. Colin to Tolen to Tom--you can smoosh them all together.


But where things get really weird in The Knack...and How to Get It is in the final act, when Nancy, seemingly fed up with this treatment, starts loudly accusing Tolen of rape. Not in any serious manner or in a way that causes us to wonder if she believes it to be true--we saw, he didn’t do it--but more in a sing-songy impish fashion. She repeats “Rape, rape, rape” over and over, taunting the men, who immediately lock arms in fear for their reputations. It’s hard to imagine that this was ever a tasteful routine, though a generous reading could likely find a way to explain how the exaggeration upends the situation by removing power from the men and shining a light on their lecherous behavior. I find none of that in Lester’s staging, however, and there is little to redeem it in the baffling ending. Sure, Tolen is ostracized for being a creep, but why is Colin rewarded when he not only had the same intention of getting Nancy to bed, but also participated in trying to silence her?


All of this causes one to leave The Knack...and How to Get It pondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” Outside of its photography of period London and jazzy John Barry score, there isn’t much that holds up here. It’s a bit of a lark, at least for the first hour, but like so many practical jokes, it fizzles under its own caprice.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND - #735


Made immediately after The Shooting in 1966 [review], Monte Hellman’s second western, Ride in the Whirlwind, lacks the existential poetry of his previous effort, but it searches for the same dread. This time around, the movie not only stars Jack Nicholson, but he also wrote the script.

For Ride in the Whirlwind, the star adopts the role of Wes, a world-weary cowboy traveling cross-country with two of his friends. Their journey starts with a predictive portent: a man has been hanged along their trail. Yet, the trio ignores the warnings, as well as all the other suspicious signs, when they come upon a cabin that’s been staked out by a gang of five gunslingers. They are hospitable to the strangers, most especially their one-eyed leader Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), who offers them food and shelter, but underneath all the politeness is an obvious eagerness for the visitors to move along. They don’t. Not even when introduced to a convalescing man who is said to have fallen on his knife. You can’t get more obvious than that.


Things go from questionable to terrible the next morning when a posse chasing Dick’s gang arrives. They open fire on the cabin from the hills, and Wes and company are caught in between, having spent the night sleeping with the horses. It’s an ingenious set-up. The innocent riders are trapped, susceptible to bullets from either side, and with no way to distinguish themselves from the bad guys. Blocked from any easy escape, they are forced to head into difficult mountain terrain. One of their number (Tom Filer) is shot before he even makes it to his horse. Wes and Vern (Cameron Mitchell) have no choice but to flee on foot. Can they survive long enough to get beyond the violence and find horses to carry them to safety?


Ride in the Whirlwind is a tense 80 minutes. Even before the gunplay begins, there is palpable nervousness surrounding everything. Something bad will happen, it’s just a question of where it will come from, who will kick it off. The enclosed desert landscapes don’t provide much relief, with the horizon blocked off and a heavy wind consistently pushing against everyone and everything. Most film crews would shut down in such conditions, but Hellman makes the most of it. There is a punishing inevitability at work, Wes and Vern can only get so far.

The final third of the film is set on a small farm, run by an elderly farmer (George Mitchell) who is as tough as his life is hard. He lives alone with his wife (Katherine Squire) and his daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins, returning from The Shooting). Vern and Wes take them hostage, with plans to steal their horses come nightfall. The presence of the young woman adds another layer of tension to the movie. The famer is afraid the men will harm her, and she seems intrigued by them herself. It’s perhaps the best example of Hellman’s technique of withheld release. Just as we waited for Dick and the outlaws to reveal their true nature back at the first cabin, we wonder here how this fearful anticipation will pay off, if our “heroes” will take further advantage.


Because at this point in Ride in the Whirlwind, we are unsure of how much we should continue to lend our sympathies to Wes and Vern. Though we believe them to have been wronged, we don’t know them all that well when the attack happens. This means we aren’t clear of how good they really are, of how close the line has been when they cross it. They continue to insist they aren’t criminals even as they eat the family’s food and rationalize they are justified in stealing their only horses. Nicholson’s script doesn’t make it any easier by holding back info on both Dick’s gang and the men chasing them--referred to throughout as vigilantes. This means the “good guys” aren’t the law, they are some other form of justice. If they are justice at all.


As a viewer, this puts us in the position of wondering what we would do in a similar situation. Would we surrender and hope the “law” buys our story, or do we resort to whatever it takes to survive, effectively becoming exactly what our persecutors believe us to be? It’s a moral quandary that retains its relevance. Ride in the Whirlwind’s allegory is illustrative of all manner of prejudice, and can be applied to class, race, or what have you.

Hellman doesn’t leave his audience with many answers. There are no winners in Ride in the Whirlwind. And if there is any fault in the film, it’s that maybe there should be. It doesn’t feel like enough pays off to give the movie’s end much impact. Unless that’s the point, to not feel a sense of triumph or success, just measured relief.



Tuesday, September 10, 2019

THE SHOOTING - #734


Everything is mysterious about Monte Hellman’s 1966 western The Shooting.

Gashade, played by everyman tough guy Warren Oates (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia [review]), is a former bounty hunter looking to make an honest living. He returns to his mining camp to find his brother gone and his friend Leland (B.J. Merholz) dead. The only remaining miner, the simpleminded Coley (Will Hutchins), explains that the two other men went into town, only to come back in a hurry. An incident there left someone dead, perhaps a child, and Gashade’s brother accused of the murder. The brother left again, but the next day someone shot Leland. There’s no clue as to whom.


There is also no explanation for who has been following Gashade--he felt a presence on the trail--or whether it’s the woman who appears in the camp next. She never gives her name, but she’s played by Millie Perkins, who many will recognize for having played Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. The woman wants to hire Gashade to take her to the next town, but once on the road, it’s clear she has other intentions. She tries to lead the trio off the route to follow the trail of a horseman--or perhaps horsemen, the tracks keep changing--ahead of them. Oh, and she has her own shadow, another man following behind.

He turns out to be a mean gunslinger named Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson, who also produced the picture). Billy’s been keeping an eye on things, and like so much else, it’s never fully explained why. What is his relation to the woman? He claims he is being paid, but Gashade senses something more.


What transpires is a long trek across the desert, as the woman’s bullheadedness and Billy’s misplaced self-confidence lead them all into dangerous territory. Food is in short supply, water is dwindling, and horses are dying. Gashade tries to keep them on pace, and then tries to keep the peace, but there is only so much he can do. He is forced to work with what is immediately apparent, and the prospects become more dire the longer the sun shines.


The Shooting is a minimalist western. Hellman uses the expansive desert and the ambiguous script--written by Adrien Joyce, a.k.a. Carole Eastman, the writer of Five Easy Pieces [review]--to create a nigh-surreal landscape where the lack of reference points leaves his characters exposed. The absence of explanation throughout The Shooting not only keeps you guessing as to what is happening, but also on what exactly Joyce and Hellman mean. Is this a feminist revenge picture, and we are meant to root for the woman to catch up to her quarry? Is it a treatise on violence, rendering the standard shoot-’em-up as a Beckett-like trek through emptiness? Is Oates the last of a dying breed, a good man in a bad world?


It’s kind of all of these things and none of them. Though uncredited, Roger Corman was the executive producer of The Shooting, and it would be easy to see it this western as simply what happens when a couple of young filmmakers take advantage of his indie studio system and spend three weeks playing around with horses and pistols. On that front, The Shooting works rather well. The narrative never pauses long enough to allow for boredom, and the performances are uniformly solid. Hutchins in particular is effective, playing Coley so he is both infuriating and empathetic. You want to throttle him for his dumb innocence, but can’t help but feel for him when his good nature gets taken advantage of. By contrast, Oates is a rock, always looking for the right move, never giving up an inch of intellectual superiority even when forced to go against his own self-interests. There is a classic morality play weaving through here, noirish in construction: the righteous man caught up in the machinations of a femme fatale and her sadistic boyfriend.


In those terms, The Shooting comes to a grand existential conclusion. The consequences suffered aren’t just those of the murder that kicked the whole thing off, but of the frontier lifestyle in general. Gashade is dogged by his past greed, and what lies ahead is directly related to those sins. There’s a cliché that I could attach to this that would give it all way, but like Gashade, you best just get to where it’s all going and find out for yourself.



Friday, September 6, 2019

35 SHOTS OF RUM - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.


"We have everything here. Why go looking elsewhere?"

The latest film from Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum, trains its lens on the tenants of a French apartment building. At the center of the interpersonal drama is the old subway engineer Lionel (Alex Descas, Coffee and Cigarettes), who lives alone with his daughter Jo (Mati Diop) and who has an occasional affair with the upstairs neighbor, a taxi driver named Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué). Gabrielle pines for Lionel, but he is distant and untouchable, in charge of his own space and his emotions. It runs in the family. Another upstairs neighbor, Noé (Grégoire Colin, Nénette et Boni) has a thing for Jo, but she maybe sees a little too much of her dad in him. Ironically, the young drifter would settle down if maybe the girl would just give him the nod.


Of such simple stuff are great dramas often made, and 35 Shots of Rum observes these regular lives with an elegance and insight that ensures every small act assumes great importance. A chance encounter can alter everything, even if just for a day. A thoughtless action can break a heart, a minor gesture can invoke jealousy. The film is regularly compared to Ozu in the way it shows modern living and the schism between young and old, and that comparison couldn't be more justified. At the same time, Denis makes the genre (is Ozu a genre now?) her own by updating it. Her eye is a tad more cynical, and her character situation reversed. Rather than the older generation failing to understand the changes of the newer generation, it's Jo and Noé who are mourning lost values. Lionel may talk about stability, but outside of his homebase, he's a wanderer, tied to no one. For all his freedom, he is trapped.

Denis spent her early career working alongside Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and her films have a similar poetic laziness that draws more out of what is not said than what is. If character is action, then behavior is all that is needed to drive the plot. The way Gabrielle hangs around, nervously knocking at the door even after she has said her good-bye, or the way Lionel stares at another women across the room--these are profound moments, and in the case of the quiet man who forms the film's axis, silence is his greatest tool. As an audience, we are as compelled to watch Alex Descas as the people onscreen are compelled to watch Lionel. Some actors can draw the camera's attention just by their mere presence. Descas owns whatever space he inhabits. He doesn't have to claim it, it's just his. Yet, his most poignant moments come when he is vulnerable, playing the father realizing he could lose his daughter to another man.


Naturally, the actor is aided by the environment Claire Denis and cinematographer Agnès Godard (Golden Door) create for them. The action is staged in real locations, and the pair shoot from within the space provided. The look of 35 Shots of Rum is intimate and authentic, lending the same credibility to the performers and the story.

Keeping in line with the scale of the rest of the picture, the change that Denis and regular co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau map out for Lionel is not a major one. Rather, it's learned and it's subtle. One of his colleagues, René (Julieth Mars Toussaint), retires early in the tale, presumably set free to enjoy life without the endless repetition of the subway routes. He doesn't go anywhere, though, he just hangs around, unsure of what to do with himself. The patterns he has established are all he knows, and he can't make a real change. His lack of purpose serves as a warning for Lionel: if you stay on the same track your entire life, you may never get to switch over to another. These are working-class versions of Ozu's salarymen: if you give your life to the job, what left do you have for yourself? The bigger life change is made by Jo, who assures her father that even though there might be other men in her life, they still will be father and daughter forever. She embraces the absolute even as she gets away from it. (Likewise, she reconnects with the past to wriggle out of its grasp.) To do otherwise is to become like Gabrielle, hung up on something she can never have.


The thirty-five shots of rum of the title is in reference to Lionel's special ritual, something he holds close and only indulges on the most special of occasions. When you consider the effects of alcohol, this too could be seen as an attempt to obliterate memories while also providing a balm that soothes one through a possibly unwanted transition. It's reckless, but so is life. We only see Lionel partake of this once, and he avoids explaining it until then, and so it's special when it happens. In a way, delving back into this drinking game suggests that maybe this is a case that the more things change, the more Lionel stays the same, and while a celebration is underway, he almost looks like he is at a wake rather than a party; at the same time, there is hope in his carriage. Acceptance. A cleansing. His head might be fuzzy in the morning--indeed, we've seen Lionel's hangovers--but once the cobwebs are clear, it's a whole new day.



Monday, September 2, 2019

THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE - #989


I’ve often heard Yasujiro Ozu described as someone whose work you have to “get.” Which I kind of understand. His films often challenge what we consider to be the essentials of drama and cinema alike. Where we expect high emotion, he delivers a careful response; where there would otherwise be histrionics, Ozu works in silence; when others might stage a scene on its feet, the Japanese director has his actors sit down. (Look at the Criterion promo pieces on their site: everyone is sitting!)


In all honesty, even as someone who likes Ozu a whole lot, the full impact of his 1952 domestic drama The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice didn’t hit me until its final act, I wasn’t seeing how all the pieces fit. In those last scenes, the filmmaker works with the quiet of late night, using the stillness that occurs when most everyone is in bed. In this scenario, an older married couple, Satake and Taeko (played by Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kogure), who up until now have not carried on a real conversation, are reunited after a trip Satake was taking is cut short. The surprise of his return disarms his wife, and she offers to make him a snack. In the kitchen, they hunt for food (the servants who know where everything is are asleep) and eventually sit down to share the meal--the titular green tea over rice, an old standby, always reliable. Animosity and disappointment dissipates, and they actually chat. It’s a restrained scene, full of inconsequential small talk, and yet everything said means so much. It’s basically watching a couple remember why they got together in the first place.

Though, the irony is, their union is the result of an arranged marriage, so why they got together was not up to them. One of Ozu’s regular themes is the divide between the old and young, between tradition and modernity, and that is no different in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. The second story of the film is of Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), Taeko’s niece. Setsuko is of the age where social expectation says she should be wed. Her parents are keen to arrange this for her, but Setsuko is not so hot on the idea. In one comical sequence, she ditches out on a date, leaving Taeko behind with the would-be suitor. Even after her uncle brings her back--she and Satake have a strong and tender relationship where they confide in and look out for each other--she escapes again, ultimately joining him and his young friend Noboru (Koji Tsuruta) at the pachinko parlor.


Setsuko and Noboru are of a younger generation who are mindful of their parents’ traditions but eager for more freedom. It’s a pre-War/post-War divide. It’s not that the youngsters are rejecting everything--Noboru is very respectful of the ladder he has to climb in his burgeoning career--but the shift in Japan’s position in the world has opened their eyes to different possibilities. Not to mention the defenders of the old ways deliver a mixed message. Taeko says fixed marriages work, but then why is she so unhappy in her own?


Taeko and her gal pals are a particularly lively pocket of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, resembling a Cukor-esque cadre of women, coming together for some good times out on the town, inventing ridiculous lies to fool their husbands (pre-Google, apparently folks’d make claims to having things like “appendicitis” without knowing what that meant and hope for the best), and generally being catty drunkards. Ozu and screenwriter Kogo Noda don’t particularly judge them, but they certainly throw enough obstacles and juxtapositions in their way to make them question what they are doing, even if they don’t say anything. For instance, when Aya (Chikage Awashima) sees her husband on a date with a younger woman, the script asks for callous denial via the dialogue, but the director asks his actress to deliver something completely different with her face. It hurts, but to admit it would be to put a lie too her carefree demeanor.


The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice isn’t an exciting movie. It’s not a sexy movie. It’s not peppered with pithy quips or energized with shocking violence of either the physical or emotional kind. It is, however, quite exceptional in its restraint. In an Ozu world, the tiniest feelings have the greatest resonance. All moments are important whether or not they are played at full volume, all desires and hurts are of great magnitude even when expressed in the most polite manner possible. The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice creates a feeling of comfort and familiarity that only serves to reinforce the movie’s ultimate affirmations. We get the two outcomes we wanted--old love reinvigorated, new love validated--and we feel it all the deeper for being so much in the movie’s groove.

The high-definition restoration of The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice is really nice, with a clear picture and nuanced values brought forth in the black-and-white photography. If you really want to see the difference between a big upgrade like this and just working with materials available, you can look elsewhere on this Blu-ray for a second Ozu feature, What Did the Lady Forget?



What Did the Lady Forget? was released in 1937, and it was Ozu’s second sound film. The direction is fine, though maybe the pacing is a little slower, and the writing was not as sharp as it was the director collaborated with Noda, his preferred writer (such as on Green Tea). The disc has a short documentary about that relationship that is well worth checking out, as it explains some of their approach and what made their partnership so special.

Yasujiro Ozu and Koga Noda

It’s easy to suss out why Criterion paired What Did the Lady Forget? with The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. The earlier picture also involves a willful niece (Michiko Kuwano), though this one is a drinker who likes to go out to geisha houses. Her presence brings attention to a rift in the household--the wife is pushy and often unpleasant, the husband a passive go-along kind of guy. Except when he sneaks out on his own and lies about it. After a boozy night with the niece and a young colleague (Shuji Sano), his fibs unravel and trouble brews.

Though not as polished as Ozu’s later films, What Did the Lady Forget? is a bit sharper in its satire, with the characters being more forceful in their actions. The niece in particular is a pistol and a troublemaker. The ending is also surprising, hinging on a passionate slap, and a knowing revelation.


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