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.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

DANCE, GIRL, DANCE - CRITERION CHANNEL


Dance, Girl, Dance is a 1940 showbiz drama from director Dorothy Arzner set in the world of New York burlesque. Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man [review]) and Lucille Ball co-star as Judy and Bubbles, two hoofers with opposite artistic goals--which are also reflected in their morals and business acumen. Judy dances for the love of it, Bubbles for the showcase it provides her natural gifts. Not to mention the opportunities to meet a rich husband. Their work lives and love lives will criss-cross, making for some friction, but also for some fun.

The divide between them is evident from the first scenes. Dance, Girl, Dance opens on the night when a speakeasy where they are dancing is shut down by police. Wealthy playboy Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward, House by the River) intervenes before the pair is carted off to jail, but he causes more friction than frolic when he hastily discards Judy for Bubbles, all over the color of their eyes. The night also ends badly for Bubbles, however, when Harris dumps her, panicking over his soon to be ex-wife (she of the blue eyes that scare him so), and leaving her with a stuffed Ferdinand the Bull. It’s a sort of fuzzy Cinderella’s slipper, and will be important later. Can you guess whose hands the toy ends up in?


Eventually, Bubbles lands a regular burlesque gig, and she drags Judy along, allowing the ballerina to be her comic foil. It’s an odd idea. Judy’s serious number is inserted between two salacious performances by Bubbles, the testosterone-fueled audience worked into a frenzy over their wish to get the mopey gal off the stage and bring the hottie back. Unbeknownst to Judy, she has also caught the attention of a show promoter, Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy, The Awful Truth [review]), who books the legitimate theatre. Adams is smitten with her, and he keeps tracking her down, only for the clueless Judy to brand him a creep and brush him off time and again.

Dance, Girl, Dance is a musical about musical theater, and Lucille Ball has a pretty good showcase midway through with a couple of semi-bawdy numbers. There’s also a solid musical number nestled in the center of Dance, Girl, Dance. Judy gets a gander of one of Adams’ productions, and it’s an artful amalgamation of Broadway and Hollywood. It represents high art, whereas everything else the girls do is low.


Because one can otherwise easily pick up on a decidedly feminist streak. It manifests almost from the jump, in Dance, Girl, Dance’s opening scenes. When the cops raid the nightclub and tell the dancing girls to go home, Judy sticks up for her sisters, demanding they get their due wages. The audience all paid their admission to gawk, why should they go home for free? This confrontational moxie will manifest again later when Judy loses her cool onstage; tired of being jeered at and dismissed, she lets loose on the audience. Even if a Hollywood back lot is not the backdrop, Arzner is creating a pretty up-front critique of entertainment and how it’s consumed, particularly when it comes to the exploitation of women. The only bum note is maybe when the horny crowd accepts her screed a little too easily and turns on Bubbles. Given their behavior and intention, it’s doubtful they’d have subjected themselves to such honest self-reflection even in the face of recrimination.


Both O’Hara and Ball at early stages in their careers. Both are crafting the personas that would later make them famous. O’Hara is that fierce fighter that would have no problem going toe to toe with John Wayne, and Ball is all brass and laughs. She is not quite yet as polished in the slapstick as she would later become, nor is she even close to America’s sweetheart in this persona, but that’s more the writing than Ball herself. One gets the sense that if she were allowed to cut loose, she’d show us right quick what she could do.


Overall, Dance, Girl, Dance is an entertaining trifle, full of good performances and driven by a facile script. Arzner’s light touch is appreciated, as it allows her to once again sneak a message into what is otherwise standard Hollywood fare. It’s hard to pinpoint her voice exactly, there aren’t a lot of flourishes that are uniquely hers--or at least, not evident in my quick survey. That said, not many of her male contemporaries were working with the same level of nuance, or daring to explore the social strata of economics and gender--something that is evident in the movies I reviewed previously, Christopher Strong and Craig’s Wife. One assumes that Arzner was not always afforded the freedom her counterparts were and had to play her cards as the table dictated. In which case, the mind boggles at the possibility of what could have transpired had she been dealt from the top of the deck.