Saturday, September 12, 2020

BLU-REDO: BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY


Criterion has always been kind to Jules Dassin, not just keeping many of his best films in print, but consistently upgrading them as new materials and technologies become available. The latest to join the Blu-ray ranks is the 1947-48 double-dose of Brute Force and The Naked City. This aren’t just cursory reissues, however, even if the external packages look the same; these new BDs, coming over a decade after their first editions, have brand-new 4K restorations that are, in a word, exceptional. The black-and-white photography has been fully cleaned-up, utilizing all the best sources, to bring every detail to life in a matter befitting the dark, gritty reality of Dassin’s world.



Burt Lancaster leads Brute Force [original review] as Collins, a desperate convict whose ailing wife has no idea he is in prison and is refusing medical treatment until he returns. This puts pressure on the hoodlum to find a way out, especially since he knows he’s not getting released by any legal means. He is resented and despised by the top guard at the prison, the sadistic Captain Munsey. Hume Cronyn exudes genuine evil as the mean-spirited screw. One scene in particular, where he tortures a man while playing classical music, dressed in only his undershirt, prefigures the greasy malevolence of Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List many decades later. A Nazi connection to this kind of cruelty wasn’t lost on Dassin: the war is very much on the minds of the prisoners, especially the one nicknamed Soldier (Howard Duff), whose tales of combat will provide the blueprint for the breakout.



Soldier isn’t the only other inmate we get to know. Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood [review]) give each of Collins’ cellmates their due. As with The Naked City [original review]), Dassin is interested in all the stories, not just those of his main protagonist. How each man got to prison, and what they left behind, is important to why they want to get out. Especially since the picture morphs into an existential metaphor. As the alcoholic doctor reminds us in the end, all want escape, but it never comes in a manner we expect. 



There is a similar theme present in The Naked City, particularly in the final scenes when the cops are closing in on the criminal, but the message of producer Mark Hellinger’s narration, and the script by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, is one of good over evil. While Brute Force is a dramatic hellscape where order is being imposed on the chaotic, The Naked City is a law-and-order environment where chaos is doggedly stamped out by the forces of justice. The film, famous for its documentary style and pretty much setting the template for television police procedurals--including its own namesake in the 1960s and eventually the entirety of Law & Order--is about solving one murder, because every life matters, even when that life is embroiled in crime.


Except it doesn’t, does it? Not really. Hence the bittersweet closing shots, and the classic declaration “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, this has been one of them.” Just one, of just one person, now ready to be forgotten. Because this is what we really can’t escape, while also being the only escape: oblivion.



These discs were provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Friday, August 28, 2020

TONI - #1040


Toni
is the 1935 drama from revered French director Jean Renoir. By his own admission (as seen in the intro included on this disc), Toni was Renoir’s attempt at Neorealism--though well before such a term existed. A story based in fact, shot in the town where the event happened, using people from the region--it’s not as raw as De Sica or Rossellini, but it is different from your classic Renoir. It’s sharper, less adorned, and more candidly honest about the lives it depicts. 

The titular Toni, as played by Charles Blavette, is an Italian who has come to a remote French community that is home to many migrant workers. Toni works in the quarry, has an affair with the woman running his boarding house (Marie, played by Jenny Hélia), and lusts after the sexy farm girl Josefa (Celia Montlaván). Toni has big romantic notions, but more along the lines of his own success than of the lovemaking kind. Sure, he imagines a future with Josefa, but it’s also part of his bigger plan to take over the quarry and improve his status. This takes on an even more macho cadence when his rival Albert (Max Dalban) also decides to pursue both tgose things. A scant few minutes separate Albert’s encounter with Josefa and Toni’s arrival, enough time for Albert to force his affections on her. Disheartened, Toni marries Marie, leaving Josefa to a less-than-ideal union with Albert. 


But, of course, it doesn’t end there. Josefa’s uncle ties Toni to his niece further by insisting he be the godfather to her child. The twists and tangles this causes marginalizes Marie, exposes Albert’s greed, and basically turns Toni into a weird white-knight stalker.
 
It’s interesting to consider this material and how Renoir might have approached Toni at a different time. This is really a melodrama in Neorealist clothing. Yet, instead of milking the script for the big emotion, Renoir’s mission aesthetic strips the story of its grandiosity and gets down to the nitty gritty of human desire and selfishness. Toni is no hero, and Josefa is no princess waiting to be rescued. If she has any real affection for either man, it’s never stated. And that kid that Toni is so concerned about protecting? You never really see it. 


Renoir seems fascinated by these sordid affairs. It’s like he’s wound up all these toys just to watch them go. And he inserts innocent bystanders like Toni’s older pal Fernand (Édouard Delmont) to play a little bit of devil’s advocate, to probe on behalf of the filmmaker and his audience, and be a voice of reason when Toni offers none; also, there is a Greek chorus of traveling minstrels reminding us of the macabre ballads that told these stories once upon a time. There is an even keel to the proceedings, the laser focus of Toni’s mission not really allowing for bigger swings, he’s all about what he can make his own. Even Marie’s bold decision in the final third is absent of any exaggeration. She is just as determined as the man who spurned her, and Toni’s heart rate only rises after he realizes the truth too late. (Though, really, it’s Fernand, who himself loves Marie, that pieces it together.) 

This seems by design. By going small, somehow things feel big. One love triangle crumbles, workers disappear, and a new train pulls into the station, unloading those that will come next, to either repeat this squalid history or make their own. The human tide beats on. 


 The new 4K restoration on Toni brings Renoir’s intentions to life, delivering a crisp black-and-white picture that gives sharp life to Claude Renoir’s photography. The location shooting looks amazing in this format, adding to the realism that the cameraman’s father was aiming for.


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


Saturday, August 22, 2020

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2008 for DVDTalk.com as part of The Stanley Kramer Collection.



For this early production effort from Stanley Kramer, the pioneering producer enlisted the burgeoning talent Dr. Seuss to pen a surreal children's story about a young boy, Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), who hates playing the piano so much, he dreams of a world where his piano teacher, the nefarious Dr. T (Hans Conreid), is starting an institute where he will enslave 500 young boys and force them to tickle the ivories 24-7. Not only does this dream take on the childhood anxiety of being stuck in a life of boredom, it also addresses Bart's familial loneliness, imagining the nice plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) who has been working in his home as a father figure who will rescue Bart and his widowed mother (Mary Healy) from a life alone.


More of a cult hit than a children's classic, the clunky 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is most remembered for its enormous sets and bizarre villains, which bring Dr. Seuss visions to life in an overtly physical way. Made decades before digital effects, the gigantic locations were all built by hand, and it's fairly obvious. Watching the movie, you feel like you could reach in and pound your fist on the colorful walls. This gives the film a certain quaint charm that makes it possible to look past the barely-there story and wooden acting. Also of note is Hans Conreid, ever so delectable as the villain. He's largely familiar from Disney movies, particularly as the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It's a real treat to see him ham it up as the diabolical piano maestro.



Sunday, July 19, 2020

TASTE OF CHERRY - #45

"And when I'm lying in my bed 

I think about life and I think about death 

And neither one particularly appeals to me.”
 
     - The Smiths, “Nowhere Fast”


People don’t like to talk about suicide. They just don’t. They barely want to talk about death and the afterlife as it is; therefore, you know if you’re bringing up ending your own life, it’s going to get uncomfortable.

So Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) quickly finds in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Cannes-winner Taste of Cherry. Hell, he doesn’t even want to talk about it. He doesn’t wish to share his reasons for getting out, he just needs a practical hand to double-check that he’s carried it through. And thus he drives through Tehran looking to hire someone dependable. He tries three men--a rookie soldier (someone who just does the job), a religious scholar (a man of philosophy and ethics), and a taxidermist (the preservation of the deceased)--all of them immigrants--a Kurd, an Afghani, and a Turk--presumably chosen as such to display Kiarostami’s acknowledgement of a universal experience. We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.


Badii’s proposal is simple. He has picked out a spot and dug a hole to lie down in. As night falls, he will take all the sleeping pills he can swallow and go to sleep in the hole. At dawn, the man he hires shall go there and call his name. If he does not rouse, the fellow just needs to bury him and a good sum of money will be waiting. Seems easy enough, but the proposition causes reactions. The soldier is scared, the scholar concerned, and the older man, the taxidermist, resigned. Through their responses, Kiarostami crafts a debate around the notions of self-determination and our duty to others, both in terms of what Badii’s actions might mean to those around him and  the potential helper’s duty to stop their fellow man from inflicting harm. Ironically, Badii doesn’t recognize the most concrete example of man’s kindness when he drives his truck off the road and nearby workers rush to push him out of danger. Presumably, there could be relief should he choose. Or is his problem truly without solution, as he would suggest?


Though Taste of Cherry is a movie that thrives on conversation, it is also a film of perpetual motion. A vast majority of the picture’s running time takes place in Badii’s truck as he drives around looking for candidates and then pitches them the plan while taking them out to see where his final resting place is intended to be. This, one can assume, is Kiarostami’s metaphor for life, or at least a representation of how Badii feels about it. Life never stops, there is no rest. The closest Badii gets is a poetic scene where he sits down amongst the rubble of a quarry and watches dirt and rock be churned and ground down. Kiarostami stages the sequence as a kind of shadowplay, the dusky image of the rocks covering the shadow of the man, foreshadowing the peace waiting for him in just a few hours. I think it may be the only time we see Badii smile. In truth, he’s kind of a prick, and his secrecy makes it hard to empathize with him; it’s only in these moments, as emotion shows through, that we find an individual we can sympathize with. When roused from this reverie, Badii will not rest again until his deal is made.


Kiarostami has very much crafted a film here. Taste of Cherry is as rich in visual splendor as any other narrative film with a more complicated plot. The story here is small, but the world is expansive, as we are constantly reminded by the camera’s regular positioning outside the truck. We peer down from the mountains, from the godly perch of the audience, and see Badii driving through the hills, see the towns beyond. We aren’t just with him when we are in the truck, but we are observing him as he moves through the day. We are aware of his place in some kind of ecosystem, and privy to his impact on it. When Badii leaves a man, we do not, we get to stop and see their thoughts the moment after he exits their lives. It works just like any other movie, even if its tale is not standard Hollywood fare.

Which almost makes the coda of Taste of Cherry unnecessary. When Kiarostami exposes the crew, shows us the actors and the cameras at work, he reminds us that this is a motion picture, that no one actually lived or died. Which, we are smart people, we know this. Yet, Kiarostami wants us to stop and think about it, to question how and why we engaged. Much like in his experiment with showing reactions and not the movie being reacted to in Shirin [review], the Iranian director refuses to let the audience be passive, or to leave Badii behind when the lights go out...and come back on. 


Sticking to that theme, Criterion has included a short film called The Project that shows Kiarostami’s process, cutting together footage where he acts out scenes with his son followed by clips of him directing those same scenes with his actors. The raw material shows how passionate Kiarostami is about getting to the truth, and is reminiscent of similar films with Ingmar Bergman, particularly The Making of Fanny and Alexander [review]. It’s amazing to see how the auteur finds the spontaneity in repetition. 

A quick note regarding the new Blu-ray of Taste of Cherry: as a Criterion release with a very low spine number, Cherry was overripe for an upgrade. I’m happy to say that the new 4K restoration has done wonders for the picture quality. The image is sharp and vibrant, full of nuance and detail. Viewers in 2020 and beyond can see all the aspects of that wide world Kiarostami is looking to show.



Sunday, July 12, 2020

A SEPARATION - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.


Had I seen A Separation just a month before, in its year of original release, it would have been amongst my top films of 2011. And it's good enough that I might have to bend the rules when it comes time to pick my favorites of 2012. The Online Film Critics Society, of which I had been a member, voted it the best non-English film of last year. If I could, I'd definitely throw my weight behind it now, too. It's really that good.

A Separation is a narrative drama by Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. It begins in a courtroom where an unseen judge officiates divorce proceedings between Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Simin has secured a visa to leave the country, but her husband does not want to go. He feels he must stay and take care of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), whose age and Alzheimer's make it impossible for him to travel. He also doesn't want their eleven-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to be uprooted. The girl doesn't want to go either, though Simin suspects she's digging in her heels thinking it will keep her parents together. It works to a degree: Simin doesn't leave the country, but she does leave the house and moves back in with her mother.


To help around the apartment and take care of his father while he's at work, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She is a devout religious woman who, despite thinking the pay is too low and the commute brutal, must take the job in order to support her family. Her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), lost his job at a cobbler's and has not been able to find another. He would disapprove of his wife working for a "single" man, so she and their young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), take the gig in secret.

This is just the tip of Razieh's iceberg-sized problems. She's over four months pregnant and Hodjat's creditors keep putting him in jail. The woman isn't equipped to deal with all these things, and Nader's father proves to be a bigger handful than she expected. When Nader comes home one afternoon to find Razieh gone and his father on the floor, barely alive, he naturally gets upset. When Razieh appears, they argue, and he physically expels her from the apartment. What happens next--and really, how all of this went down--becomes a bone of great contention. Razieh miscarries, and she blames Nader. The baby was far enough along that, under Iranian law, he is charged with murder. Nader countersues for the abuse to his father. A long and heated battle gets underway.


Asghar Farhadi has created a complex and complicated human drama. The length it takes to describe A Separation's central conflict is indicative of just what a tangled mess these people's lives become. Though the split in Nader and Simin's marriage is the inciting incident in this story, it's not the only separation on display. The separation isn't even limited to being between the two families or their religious ideologies, there is at least one additional separation on each side. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page for either family. There is also a severe separation between perception and the truth, between what each person thinks happened and what really went down.

As the arguments grow heated and the contested facts pile on, our own personal take on what is happening becomes as knotted as the emerging explanations--and my stomach became knotted, as well. Farhadi creates an extreme tension by creating realistic characters and putting them in realistic situations. Both Razieh and Nader could go to jail, and maybe Hodjat, as well, and we fear for all of them equally. Though each participant in this mess can be irritating at different times, it's difficult to take any one side. Farhadi avoids creating any clear heroes or villains. These are all essentially good people trying to keep their lives from falling apart. Nader stubbornly clings to his belief that he's not at fault, even when it might harm his daughter's life, because her image of him is more important than an easy solution. Likewise, Razieh has no other way to deal with her loss, nor much option for how else to see her family through the financial crisis that grips them.


In terms of performances, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble of actors than this one. Each performer, from young to old, and regardless of how many lines they have, is compelling and believable. There is no one overriding emotion that defines their role. Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat, for instance, could have easily been boxed in as a hot-tempered loser, but instead he is shown as a proud man whose life failings have made him vulnerable. On the flipside, we get to see what a good father Nader can be, but that devotion to his family is also responsible for his having to make moral compromises. Or, at least, think he has to. Peyman Maadi portrays him as a man who is losing strength, and the more doubts he allows to be voiced, the harder it is to maintain his self-belief.

As is often the case in life, there is no satisfactory resolution for anyone caught up in A Separation's drama. There is no great victory to be won here, nor any singular, overriding truth. Farhadi stays true to the naturalism of the piece and let's the things that can't be known, that could not be witnessed or proven outright, remain just as ill-defined at the finish as they were at the start of the dispute. These schisms here can't be traversed or closed. This isn't to say A Separation itself is not satisfying, because it is very much the opposite, even if some of the feelings the ending inspires might be mixed. I still can't quite get at what I want to say about it. Is it that there being no winners or losers provides more comfort for the audience because this means that all of these characters that we have become so invested in will be able to carry on somehow? Or is it the universal feeling of disappointment, that regardless of background or philosophy, we all struggle? It could be that it's meant to shake us to our cores, and it's not positive at all. Regardless, one can't leave A Separation without being effected by it. Just as all of the players in its narrative touch one another, the film touches the audience in profound ways that can't be easily resolved.



Saturday, July 4, 2020

THE FUTURE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.


Man, I'm like...what?

There are times when this job is just a pain. When I probably would have stopped a movie before it was done and just walked away. When I can't, and so I have to instead come into my office and try to figure out something to say, and it's just not there.

The Future has inspired one of those times. It's the new film from performance artist/author Miranda July, who made half a good movie back in 2005 called Me and You and Everyone We Know. That movie chronicled the twee romance between two average people and the growing pains of a pair of children, and it had moments of true insight (the kids) and other moments of contrived oddness (the romance). But it was all right, nothing too baffling, nothing too unctuous.

July's sophomore effort is a whole other matter. The ratio of what works to what doesn't has gotten a lot more lopsided, and though I wouldn't call The Future bad, it does lack focus and seasoning.


The script portrays a couple in their mid-30s who have decided to adopt a stray cat they have found. They named it Paw Paw and took it to an animal shelter where it is being treated for its hurt front paw (I guess that's where they got the name) and other health problems. At first they were told that Paw Paw would only live six months, but now the vet says it could be several years if they take care of it. So, instead of six months of adult responsibility followed by a lifetime of freedom, the couple sees the thirty days they have to wait for Paw Paw to be healed enough to come home as their last month to live. Jason (Hamish Linklater from The New Adventures of Old Christine) decides that they need to go nuts now and sow any remaining wild oats before they become parents, so he quits his tech-support job answering distress calls in their apartment and encourages Sophie (July) to give notice at the dance school where she's an instructor. Having loosed the shackles of employment, they can do anything they can dream up.

Except they don't dream big. Jason volunteers for an environmental initiative selling trees door to door; Sophie decides to record a dance a day for the full thirty and upload them to YouTube. As it turns out, Jason isn't cut out for sales and Sophie isn't very creative. So, he pretends to go to work and instead spends the day with an old man (Joe Putterlik) who turns out to be himself from the future while she sneaks out and has an affair with a single dad (David Warshofksy) they randomly met at the vet.


Yeah, you read that right. Jason meets himself from the future. There are funny things with time in this movie. There are also scenes where the cat Paw Paw speaks to the audience, explaining his (her?) changing life, anticipations, and disappointments. Surprisingly, these are the best parts of The Future. The tricks Jason pulls make for a neat pay-off, bringing up questions about fate and how much of our lives we waste and what it might take to wrest control back from the universe. Even the talking cat is endearing, despite the voice Miranda July gives Paw Paw being pretty damn terrible. You can forgive her lack of vocal chops because it's kind of cute and, somehow, the cat ends up being the most emotionally honest character in the whole film.

The rest of The Future, however, is pretty underwhelming and tainted with a forced oddness. July seems desperate to maintain a labored indie cool, which maybe she could do if she were a better actress. The writing is fairly sharp, but her affected screen presence is tiresome. Hamish Linklater spends the entire movie outclassing her, and it gets embarrassing. He is so natural and heartfelt in front of the camera, you can't help but wish he were in a different movie. It's like July keeps trying to push The Future one way and no matter how much her lead actor points her the other way, she refuses to listen. Even the music by Jon Brion (Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees) is overly contrived, nearly spoiling the movie's most surprising scene by spreading a sickly organ underneath.


There's a Pet Shop Boys song called "Being Boring" where, essentially, they play with the old phrase that if you're never boring, you won't be bored. It came to mind a lot while watching The Future. Sophie and Jason are people who don't really do anything because they aren't very interested in what they set out to do. I suppose this is Miranda July's point: they don't know what they want, and the movie represents a divide between their purposeless younger lives and what may possibly be a new beginning. Or not. She goes back to bed, he sits and reads a book, that's not very interesting either. It's ironic, but ennui needs more flair than this. The Future lacks any pronounced style, and its magical moments have the same drab look of the everyday life that makes up the rest of the picture. If you're going to be weird, Ms. July, be weird, don't settle on quirky; if you're going to track your characters crawling out of their boredom, shoot it like you care. Or are at least trying.

Because it makes it hard for me to care or try when you don't. And it makes it not just hard to start reviewing your film, but also hard to finish. I've come up with a lot to say, but no clever way to wrap it up, no cohesion. Call it "giving as good as you get."


Sunday, June 21, 2020

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review as originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.


Happy-Go-Lucky is one of th more lauded filmes from British director Mike Leigh, who is known for telling stories of the working class that chronicle their fancies and their doldrums in a modern style that resembles the Kitchen Sink cinema from the 1960s. In this latest offering, Leigh could have easily adopted Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" as the movie's theme song, as it seems to be what he's encouraging his audience to do: smile, even when it's not that easy to do.

Sally Hawkins, last seen as Colin Farrell's girlfriend in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream [review], stars as Poppy, a kindergarten teacher with a relentlessly upbeat outlook on life. Practically a child herself, she's equally at home in the classroom or on the dancefloor. Like any single young woman at age 30, she still likes to go out drinking with her girlfriends, but she's also slightly adventurous, booking weekly trampoline sessions and joining a co-worker for flamenco lessons because it sounds like fun. At the beginning of the movie, Poppy's bike is stolen, and instead of lamenting over it, she decides to learn to drive instead.


Poppy's driving instructor is one of the first of several challenges to Poppy's worldview. Scott (Eddie Marsan, Hancock [review]) is an angry little man with a lot of pent-up issues. He takes his job way too seriously, and he is easily provoked. Thus, he and Poppy get on like paper and a match, since she seemingly can't take anything seriously. In fact, she's often exhausting to watch, so I can't imagine what it must be like to be around her. Poppy can't let any comment pass without tossing out a silly joke, and she rarely answers a serious question with a serious answer. Honestly, I found her to be extremely annoying at first, and I was dreading spending two hours in her company.

Then came the first flamenco lesson. My whole attitude changed watching her interact with the class. Regardless of how stern the lead dancer's demeanor, Poppy always maintains her smile and her gung-ho attitude. She doesn't necessarily follow instruction, instead looking around the room at the other students and trying to elicit a reaction from them. Watching her pantomime amongst the group, a silly grin on her face and a knowing look in her eyes, it occurred to me that Poppy was like other clowns in motion picture history, characters like Chaplin's Tramp or Tati's Hulot. Though she is clearly more vocal than these mostly silent characters, she is like them in that she realizes that the rest of the world is too uptight and is doing her level best to keep from letting it grind her down.


Happy-Go-Lucky is Mike Leigh's study of this kind of figure. The movie is the writer/director's way of deconstructing the clown in order to see what makes her function. Throughout the film, he continually disarms Poppy, tossing her challenges she can't get out of by cracking wise. Her driving instructor, an abused student in her class, the recriminations of her middle sister (Caroline Martin), the prodding of her long-suffering roommate (Alexis Zegerman)--all of these people pick at the clown's mask and question if her brave face is real. It's to Poppy's credit that she is able to dial it down and prove that she can handle the bad as well as the good. Like all people who make us laugh, she is a caregiver, intent on alleviating the sadness of others even if it means harboring her own. She can be fierce, such as when she witnesses a boyfriend yelling at her youngest sister (Kate O'Flynn), but she can also be extremely empathetic. When she randomly encounters a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) in the middle of a psychotic episode, she sits with him rather than running away, answering all of his half-finished utterances with affirmative responses. It's a beautiful acting moment, centering on a look that Hawkins and Townsend exchange at the end of the scene, the masks clearing away for both of them for one truly honest moment.

Sally Hawkins is actually superb throughout. I don't think I would have wanted to strangle her as much as I sometimes did were she not. She makes Poppy a complete character, not just a collection of catchphrases and nervous ticks. She never once breaks character or appears to be an actress performing a role, every moment is authentic. During much of the joking, there is obviously more going on behind it. The outward expression may be physical, but the true weight of the performance is all mental. Thus, when it's revealed how much strength is really backing up the buffoonery, we can believe it.


Mike Leigh's shooting style is often stark, letting the setting and the actors dictate where he takes his camera. Once or twice, he indulges in a larger shot, pulling back to show us the landscape, but it's not just decoration, it's purposeful. The world these characters live in is just as important to their state of being as anything else. Over the course of the various conflicts, he slowly moves in closer, until in the final confrontation between Poppy and Scott, their heads take up the entire frame, and he rapidly cuts back and forth between them. (Though, such is the gravitational pull of the Poppy character, in all of the conversations, Leigh has no choice but to quickly cut back to Hawkins to catch her rejoinders.) There's a psychology to how Leigh sets up Happy-Go-Lucky, but it's not forceful or overbearing. The characters, their environment, and the greater narrative are all perfectly entwined. The final scene of the film is a little on-the-nose in comparison to the rest, but better to drift out of a story like this than superimpose a false dramatic arc over the top.

I doubt Happy-Go-Lucky is going to make Mike Leigh a household name. If anything, he's like Woody Allen in that he puts out a consistent stream of product that tends to cover a lot of the same ground, and when either of them hits the mark, they hit it quite well. Happy-Go-Lucky is a good movie propped up by excellent actors, and as seems to be its intention, is sure to leave you smiling.



Monday, June 15, 2020

THE CAMERAMAN - #1033


Buster Keaton was an independent producer and director making his own starring vehicles in the silent era when, in 1928, he decided to sign on with MGM and let them foot the bill. This was despite warnings from his friends and peers, who didn’t see why a successful artist would give up his freedom and control. Keaton probably should have listened, as MGM immediately paired him with a director, Edward Sedgwick, and though their collaborations yielded some excellent funny business, it does feel like something is different in the two features offered on Criterion’s release of The Cameraman

Before criticizing things, though, it should be noted that there is much to rejoice about in this new 4K restoration. Though still missing three minutes of footage, this is the most complete version of The Camerman that anyone has seen in quite some time. The picture is clear and beautiful, and it allows for a fresh perspective of this pivotal moment in Keaton’s career. The score is also very good, enhancing the picture as necessary without overplaying the comedic actions or trying to hard to mimic what is onscreen (the same cannot be said for the music on the second film). 


The scenario as devised by Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton sees Buster playing a street portrait photographer who falls for a beautiful girl (Marceline Day), whose picture he takes before she is whisked away by her boyfriend (Harold Goodwin). The fella, Stagg, is a cameraman for MGM newsreels, and Buster decides to get his own movie camera and join the freelance crew as a way to get close to Sally. What follows are plenty of mishaps as Buster tries to figure out the business, finds a monkey to be his pal, and gets tangled in a Chinatown gang war. The latter sequence is incredible for the chaos and mayhem that erupts on the screen. There is a real sense of peril, and we fear for our stone-faced hero. 

This is probably the closest we get to a vintage Buster Keaton situation. His previous comedies all have a sense of danger, as his elaborate set-ups and stunts would consistently put him in harm’s way, only for him to stumble through unharmed. Most of the gags in The Cameraman are dialed way back from what audiences would have expected from Buster. Weirdly, we get more wordplay in the title cards than ever before, which is not really what we signed up for. We also get more romance. If anything replaces the danger, it’s an increased sweetness. Sure, we’ve seen Keaton work the love angle before in pictures like Battling Butler, but there is a dogged earnestness to The Cameraman that is almost less effective because it replaces his trademark cluelessness with confidence. 


In truth, The Cameraman and the second feature on the disc, 1929’s Spite Marriage, also directed by Sedgwick, remind me more of classic Charlie Chaplin than classic Buster Keaton. The relationship of City Lights comes to mind, where we root for the Little Tramp to win the blind girl’s heart. It’s not that we don’t also root for Buster in his other films, but I think we are more inclined to see him take a licking, his famously rigid face keeping us from being nearly as invested in his well-being. Perhaps this was what MGM was hoping to undo, thinking that maybe making him more like Charlie he could start to outpace the other man’s success. 


It’s hard to say. And it’s also still hard not to like both The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Both are very funny. Spite Marriage even features one of Keaton’s most lauded bits, when he has to put his drunk wife to bed. It a routine he would perform live for many years to come. It’s just some of the inventiveness is gone. The precarious situations, the elaborate sets, the prop work, the daredevil stunts--these are all dialed back. 

You know what it is, actually? It’s that Buster Keaton was always the little guy standing up to an indifferent world that consistently outsized him. Just as MGM took away his full control, so too did they shrink the threats. It levels the playing field, it’s not nearly the contest it once was. Buster is still the champ, but fighting in his own weight class, and so the victory is not as sweet. While the performer has the charm to be a rom-com lead, it’s not what he really made his name on, and it’s a classic example of the business side of show business not really understanding the show.


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



Sunday, June 14, 2020

TARNATION - CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally written for my personal blog in 2005. While, were I to write the piece again, much of my initial reaction would stay the same and is perhaps more relevant (sadly) fifteen years later, I would like to note that the comments about the veracity of Renee Caouette's accusations toward her father (marked with a *) were something I should have taken more seriously. While the filmmaker's techniques can be in question as it regards to the older man's portrayal, Renee's claims of abuse deserve to be given their full due.


Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is a puzzling, disturbing film. On one hand, it's arguable that it's like one of Godard or Orson Welles' essay films, updated for a time after music videos have affected how visuals and music are combined, with the whiz-bang editing style familiar to any MTV viewer. On the other, it possibly sidesteps what it wants to say by distracting us with that same style. The film is about one boy's journey into his family's mental history and how he fits into it, but does Caouette obscure his discoveries by over-abstracting? Or is the abstraction just a way for him to continue to avoid the hard answers? 


Caouette is his own worst artistic enemy, it seems. Something about how he presents himself offset me as a viewer, made me inclined to distrust him. All artists are self-obsessed, but most step away from who they are when they deconstruct their lives for their art. Ironically, Caouette is always away from himself: he suffers from a mental disorder that causes him to disassociate from his own reality and view life as a dream. He uses film to try to get back into his own shoes. But I couldn't shake the feeling throughout Tarnation that the exercise was all bullshit. I wasn't witnessing soul searching but a masturbation tool for a man who is in love with his own visage. Caouette started filming himself at age 11, creating disturbingly graphic monologues where he'd play characters like battered wives and drug addicts. While they suggest a natural talent for film, these scenes also begin a pattern of Caouette staging his own life for the sake of the movie of it. In his final confession, when he is alone in his bathroom with the camera, I wanted to believe he was sincere in his epiphany; instead, I was more appalled by how badly he was mugging for the lens.

Caouette begins his history before his birth and carries us all the way through 2002. The way he puts images together, a decade can pass by over the space of a montage set to a single song. Midway through the picture, I was beginning to question what it was I was being shown. I didn't feel like I was getting to know Caouette or his family. The photos seemed random. I could have been looking at any stranger's photo album, purchased in a thrift store or found in the road. When the rush of images would stop, it was rarely to contextualize what had just been presented. Rather, the viewer is given increasingly exploitative, drawn-out sequences of the filmmaker's mother, Renee, losing her grasp on reality. One sequence, when she dances and sings with a pumpkin, feels like it will never go on forever as Caouette milks his audience for every last squirm. Renee believes she is Elizabeth Taylor's daughter and Dolly Partner's sister, and she's going to perform for us just like they do. This is where her son got it from. A former model and actress, mom's mental illness has become an elaborate stage for her to play her part on. Caouette witnessed her being raped and abused when he was four, and Tarnation oftentimes seems like his attempt to recreate that kind of trauma over and over so we can share it with him. 


I couldn't help but feel sorry for Adolph, Renee's father and Caouette's grandfather, for being caught up in all this. He may have done the things his daughter claims (we'll never know)*, and he certainly was misguided when consenting to give her shock treatment, but the character Caouette gives us is of a genial old man who has tried to smile his way through it all, not the monster he'd have us believe. When his grandson moves to New York, he sincerely wishes him well and speaks supportively of the boy's abilities; except Caouette has him say his farewell into a machine that turns the old man's voice robotic. A prescient contrivance so he can suggest the sentiment is false? When Caouette accusingly turns the camera on Adolph near the end of Tarnation, it just feels vicious, and when grandpa declares he has had enough, I frankly felt I had, as well.



It's hard not to think of the famous scene from Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary where Warren Beatty says to the singer, "Why would you do anything off camera? What's the point of living if it's not on camera?" Often in this day and age, it feels like the majority of the population missed that Beatty wasn't saying that like it was a good thing. Technology has put the means of expression into just about everyone's hands. This blog is a perfect example of that. If I wanted to, I could follow the example of many others and record my every waking moment on here as if it were absolutely vital and important. The problem is, self-expression (and its evil twin, self-obsession) in itself is not all there is. We can't simply present what happened to us on our lunch break and expect the fact that it happened to grant it meaning. I like to joke that everyone has a right to an opinion, just not the right to express it...but I'm starting to think it's not so funny. Unless we start to demand that people extract something out of these experiences before they frame them for public consumption, we're going to lose sight of the big picture that is capital-A art. All the little snapshots are going to cover it up. 


It's not an either/or question. One should dare to tell the truth.



Friday, May 15, 2020

THE SNIPER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2005 for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog.'


The Sniper is a 1952 release from director Edward Dmytryk, also known for Murder, My Sweet and The End of the Affair. Dmytryk really has to struggle against some heavy-handed material here. The film stops dead twice as the police psychologist explains his theories about sexual predators and the proper course of treatment, but even as these monologues grate on modern ears, you have to appreciate the progressiveness in even approaching the subject. The titular sniper is a disturbed young man who has developed an obsessive hatred of women, and he is compelled to climb the rooftops of San Francisco and shoot ones he feels have done him wrong. Arthur Franz plays the killer as a lost soul who just wants to belong somewhere, only to find himself barred from the social situations he finds himself in. He goes from placid happiness to rage to self-loathing and guilt all in the course of single scenes, the smallest slight setting him off. It all has an unexplained connection to baseball, stemming from his first violent outburst as a child, and it comes to the fore at a carnival where an obnoxious woman in a dunking tank game taunts customers. Franz buys nine balls, sinking the woman five times in a row before really losing his cool and hurtling the rest of the balls at the tank itself. It's explosive, and makes perfect sense for a character overcome by irrational anger.


The movie truly shines, though, when we focus on the cops (including the amusingly named Lt. Frank Kafka), who approach the crime scenes with a gallows humor and a dogged determination they never quite let show. The best scene is when a parade of sex perverts is led through an open interrogation where they are more ridiculed than questioned, the sort of snarky bad-cop interrogation that has become a staple of police stories. Dmytryk's fantastic location shooting is another high point, adding a realistic touch to the film. The steep San Francisco streets seem to personify the sniper's internal struggle: he can never walk normally on even ground.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

SALOME (1953) - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013. 



I've written some pretty harsh reviews of older Biblical movies in the past, and generally take heat for it whenever I do. It's a genre that hasn't necessarily aged well. The earnestness of movies like The Song of Bernadette [review] has only grown more clunky over the decades, and some dramas like The Robe [review] now come off as more campy than intended. It's not that I am opposed to these kinds of movies, but it seems they need to be of a finer vintage, like DeMille's The King of Kings [review] or the silent version of Ben-Hur.

William Dieterle's 1953 interpretation of Salomé proves to be a solid exception, albeit an imperfect one. Rita Hayworth leads a fine cast as the stepdaughter of King Herod (Charles Laughton, Island of Lost Souls [review]). Herod's marriage to Salomé's mother (Judith Anderson, Rebecca [review]) has brought him unwanted attention from John the Baptist (Alan Bedel), a prophet in a new religion who also preaches sedition against Rome. While Herod is in service to Rome, he is afraid to move against the Baptist due to an old prophecy and his fears that the preacher may be the Messiah.


Salomé herself recently left Rome, tired of being persecuted and rejected by Roman men as an outsider. She is thus understandably upset to hear that her mother is suffering from small-minded bigotry, as well. Travelling with her is Claudius (Stewart Granger, Caesar and Cleopatra), an emissary sent to check up on Herod. Claudius turns out to be sympathetic to Herod's dilemma, sensing that harming the Baptist would turn the King's subjects against him. The soldier also turns out to be susceptible to Salomé's charms.

The gnarled motivations and backstory of Salomé is largely what makes the movie still interesting. At first I thought it odd that Harry Kleiner and Jesse Lasky Jr.'s script was working so hard to humanize the people who are, essentially, the villains of the piece, but this ends up working toward establishing Christianity as a transformative movement. John the Baptist's message appeals to the fundamental humanity in his oppressors, and it offers redemption to all, including Salomé, who ends up joining his cause. It's her mother who will be the one to demand the prophet's head.


No surprise there, really. Anderson is at her best when she is being selfish and shady. Laughton mainly sleepwalks through yet another bored ruler role, while Granger and Bedel play their parts with a stiff reverence. At times, they serve as little more than props on the elaborate sets, clotheshorses for the fancy costumes. The colorful photography of Charles Lane (Charade [review], Summer and Smoke) eclipses just about everyone. Salomé is a Technicolor delight.


Only Rita Hayworth, with the help of her trademark red hair, manages to stand out. As always, she is lovely, and she wears her gowns with elegance. (Her outfits were designed by Jean Louis, who also made Rita's knockout black dress in Gilda [review].) The actress struggles slightly with Salomé's naïveté, overdoing the wide-eyed routine just a tad. This could just be the downside of playing a character who was considerably younger than she was, even if she somehow still manages to look as fresh-faced and youthful as required. It was interesting to watch this film back-to-back with Miss Sadie Thompson [review], released in the same year. In that one, Hayworth plays a woman of some experience, and she is allowed to show her maturity, both in performance and appearance. You'd swear they were shot at least a decade apart.

The climax of Salomé is Hayworth performing the "Dance of the Seven Veils" to distract Herod. It's an excellent number, with both the costumer and the dancer delivering on the choreography's sensual promise. It's too bad that an uncut version of the routine doesn't exist. It's a crime every time Dieterle breaks away from his star to show the backstage shenanigans. It's Salomé's biggest selling point, and makes the more rickety plotting well worth sitting through.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

THE BIG COUNTRY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com.


My first encounter with The Big Country was a couple of years ago. I wasn't familiar with William Wyler's 1958 film until George Clooney was talking about how he borrowed a scene from it for Leatherheads [review]. When Clooney's character goes and gets John Krasinski in the middle of the night and takes him outside to settle their differences without anyone else spying in, that's a direct lift from The Big Country. Gregory Peck does the same with Charlton Heston. They need to fight, that's inevitable, but the score is between them, and there is no need for bragging or showboating.

It's a pretty impressive fist fight, with both men whaling on each other until neither of them can stand up. It's also central to understanding Gregory Peck's character in the film, and really, the whole of Wyler's message. Life's hurdles are for each individual to tackle in his or her own way, and though might may sometimes be required, it may not always make right. This didn't all sink in the first time I watched The Big Country, but seeing it again, I am awed by Wyler's expansive transformation of the cowboy epic into a politically relevant tale of personal responsibility and ethics.


The Big Country is based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, perhaps best known now as the creator of the Matt Helm character (Dean Martin played Helm in four movies in the 1960s). Wyler and a team of writers bring Hamilton's book to the screen as a western that is as grand in scope as the open land allows, but as deeply personal as human drama demands. Peck plays James McKay, an East-coast gentleman and former Navy man who travels West to join his fiancée (Caroll Baker, Baby Doll) at her family home. When he arrives, he is immediately out of place. His bowtie and rounded hat say "dude," and the local roughnecks immediately doubt his suitability as husband for one of their own. In particular, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman on the girl's family ranch, doesn't like this dandy threatening his own place in the scheme of things.

But it's not just McKay's clothes that set him apart, it's also his attitude. Little did he know that by joining with the Terrill family, he was signing on to a long-running feud between the well-to-do Major Terrill (Charles Bickford, Brute Force [review]) and a neighboring rancher, the less successful Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his performance). Their main squabble is over the Big Muddy, the land that separates their properties, a lush spread with a healthy water supply. Since its owner died, leaving the deed to his granddaughter (Jean Simmons, The Robe [review]), each man has fought to get his hands on the property and cut his rival out, even though the woman has every intention of honoring her grandfather's promises and letting both water their cattle on the Big Muddy.


The truth is, neither Terrill nor Hannassey are really fighting over water. Their bitterness goes deep down, and it's indicative of class divides and social ranking. Major Terrill is respected and rich. He calls Hannassey and his boys "the local trash;" Hannassey, in his blistering opening speech, calls Terrill "a high-tone skunk." As McKay learns more about this feud, the murkier the motivations of each man becomes and the obvious first impressions lose their luster. It also becomes harder and harder for McKay to stick to his own principles, as the natural suspicion of outsiders undercuts him at every turn. It would be easy to show up his detractors. When he first arrived on the ranch, Leech tried to haze him by putting him on the farm's most ornery horse. McKay beggared off, though later that day, returned to the corral and kept getting on Old Thunder until it stopped bucking him off. He knew he could do it, he didn't need outside validation.


James McKay is another of Gregory Peck's great screen heroes, a man as philosophically and morally resolute as the progressive reporter he played in Gentleman's Agreement or his career-defining turn as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck is the very embodiment of intelligent masculinity. While watching The Big Country, I texted a friend and said, "Damn, I'd like to have a drink with Gregory Peck." He is stoic and smooth as McKay, displaying plenty of backbone but in a manner that is quietly assertive rather than shouty or violent. He also gets to be funny and romantic, particularly in his scenes with Simmons. There is at least one laugh-out-loud moment when he feigns being queasy during their contest of who has the most gruesome story from their respective adventures.


William Wyler was no stranger to big productions. A decade prior he had made The Best Years of Our Lives, a multi-layered portrait of post-War American life. Though The Big Country doesn't branch out in quite the same way as that film, it is no less impressive in terms of how Wyler handles large themes. He expertly moves from contemporary life to the untouched countryside of America's past, appropriating it as a backdrop where these near-mythic conflicts can play out. The Big Country was photographed by Franz Planer (The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's [review]) using the widescreen Technirama process (a Cinemascope knock-off). Wyler and Franz use the gorgeous mountains and untouched plains of California and Arizona as their canvas, drawing their drama under the blue skies and using the grandeur to show both the smallness of human pettiness and also how majestic individual endeavor can be when placed in the context of the big, beautiful world we live in. Their compositions are fantastic, particularly in the final scenes of conflict. Gunmen dot the landscape as far back as the camera eye will permit.

For western fans expecting quick-draw showdowns and black hat/white hat morality, The Big Country likely won't be your thing. For those who want something a bit more enriching, who want to see complicated men wrestle with maintaining a personal code of honor and maybe get a little romance for good measure, then The Big Country is soon to be one of your new personal favorites. As another friend pointed out, this is like The Quiet Man [review] set in the American West, with all the expansiveness such a transplantation implies.