Saturday, April 30, 2011

#357: The Fallen Idol

(Carol Reed, 1948)

I had mixed feelings about The Fallen Idol. On one hand, I found the little boy at the center of the film to be both annoying as a character and distracting as an actor. It's always difficult for a film to survive placing a young child at the center of the plot, primarily because most children aren't very good actors but also because kids act differently than adults. This is something that is very difficult for filmmakers to imitate - there aren't any child screenwriters after all, and even though we've all been children how quickly we forget what it's actually like. But here even more than usual I found myself looking at the main character as a performer instead of a child caught up in his friend's intrigue. This was exacerbated by the plot's seemingly unlikely twists and turns - there just feels like there are too many moments when this thing should fall apart. Unlike other films with equally ludicrous moments, the richness of the story and its presentation is not enough of a distraction.

On the other hand, there are some truly great moments in the film, both visually and story-wise. The beautiful cinematography by Georges Périnal (who already had a rich career that included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the underrated treat Things to Come) pops especially as it snakes its way through the embassy's endless rooms packed with detail. The film's pivotal scene in which the young boy believes he has seen his hero murder his estranged wife is especially well constructed, and the moment when the police detective throws the all-important telegram off the balcony - though somewhat contrived - rivals the great moments in the contemporary thrillers of Hitchcock.

I'm well aware of the intentional presentation of the child as out of step with his surroundings, unaware of the games being played by his adult counterparts. In many ways, this choice works incredibly well, and the way Reed shoots the film very much allows the viewer to take the perspective of a child - the movie is an ambitious attempt at first person narrative from Phile's perspective. It's just very hard to feel entirely satisfied with the final product. Ultimately, I think future viewings may change my mind about this aspect of the film - once I am used to Phile, I can focus more on the intention of the film. However, what ultimately prevents me from feeling like The Fallen Idol measures up to Reed's next film, the thoroughly entertaining The Third Man, are those unrealistic moments that pull me out of the story. Still, the film is extremely enjoyable, and it brings a unique perspective to Criterion's expanding coming-of-age entries.

#535: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

(Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

I love a lot of movies from the 80s but as a whole the work produced during that decade suffered greatly from the aesthetic of the era. Films weren't necessarily damaged in quality, but the editing, graphic design, cinematography, and most importantly scores were so consciously rejecting previous norms in ways that didn't end up catching on that the work is now extremely dated. This happens even to movies that aren't actually set in the 80s, like this one, the WWII POW drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

The film is best known for its stunt casting. Oshima put British pop icon David Bowie across the battle line from Japanese superstar Ryûichi Sakamoto, who also composed the score. Both the casting and the music are the most difficult aspects of the film - but not because either is subpar. Both Bowie and Sakamoto perform their roles admirably, and the music in the film is quite good. But the awareness of these two elements and how out of place they are in the 1940s POW setting constantly works to take you out of the film. In some ways this makes the movie more interesting, because the fascination Sakamoto's character has for Bowie's works on multiple levels, hammered home by the electronic score that has been made obsolete by evolving technologies.

The film's real strength, however, comes from Oshima's firm iconoclastic hand. The movie is a strong reminder of Oshima's talent and unique voice, and the perspective on both war and its participants is a unique, complex, and entertaining one. Elsewhere, Tom Conti in the titular role and Beat Takeshi - soon to become an accomplished director himself - are the real heart of the film, and both are captivating and intriguing. Still, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence consistently seems more interesting than successful. It's by no means a bad movie, but the pacing is uneven and Oshima seems more interested in getting to all of his points than focusing on one or two that would make the film a more cohesive whole. Having said that, I wish all films were this ambitious, because even the less successful ones are a pleasure to see.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#564: Pale Flower

(Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Pale Flower is a love story where the two characters have no idea how to love. When the gangster Muraki first encounters the mysterious Saeko in an underground gambling den, he has just been released from prison for killing a man. He's immediately infatuated with her, but it's not entirely clear why beyond her obvious beauty and the novelty of her presence in a mostly male world. Like other damaged-love stories, Muraki and Saeko come together through mutual fascination - he is fascinated by her constant search for an adrenaline rush, while she is drawn in by his ability to take a life. But Pale Flower isn't like similar films because at no point during the film does it seem likely that their relationship will be consummated or even fully expressed. When Muraki runs into Saeko in her real life, he seems entirely disappointed with the fact that she exists. It is clear he wishes he had never seen her. Yet he is fascinated by her double life, and the scene takes on an erotic quality that makes the film around it seem all the more sexual.

Masahiro Shinoda made Pale Flower as a direct response to the popular yakuza films of the era, but really Shinoda is channeling Godard and Melville, with a splash of b-movie Hollywood noir. The director uses all manner of cinematic techniques, and while some of them come across as meaningless flash, other elements (particularly the dream sequence) are as mesmerizing as Toru Takemitsu's score, which blends in with the rhythms of the gambling sounds that populate the characters' world. The film's dull nihilism manages to avoid easy traps because of the technique on show.

Shinoda has two other films in the collection: Samurai Spy, which I had mixed feelings about, and Double Suicide, which I have yet to see. Both of those films were made after Pale Flower, and it's clear this is the work of a young director (he was in his early thirties at the time). The story is ambitious where more mature filmmakers would have been intimate, the style is flashy where subtlety would have seemed more impenetrable but also more intense, and the film's freewheeling attitude reminds me of Miike's Ichi the Killer (minus the torture and bisected bodies). I have little doubt that Quentin Taratino loves Pale Flower.

This might all give the sense that I thought Pale Flower was a less successful film. But these choices don't make the film worse, just different than it might have been in other hands - less delicate, perhaps, but more energetic. Furthermore, the anti-love story at the center has left me haunted, and despite the various flourishes I think Melville would approve of Shinoda's work here for this reason. Pale Flower is about these two characters - the warring gang plot is merely a vehicle to get Muraki to kill again, his dalliance with the other woman a counterpoint to his confused and unrealized feelings towards the focus of his affections. In this regard, the film is wholly successful and extremely moving. The final moments of the film could come off as supremely frustrating, but instead they are the key to the whole puzzle: these characters aren't interested in the people who catch their affection but in the thrill of the moment. Once the card is turned over, its spell is broken.

#439: Trafic

(Jacques Tati, 1971)

Trafic is Tati's follow-up to his masterpiece, Playtime. Because that film performed so poorly at the box office, Tati had to make Trafic for much less money and funding issues hounded his production. The end result lacks the big budget sets from Playtime, but it also lacks its sparkle.

The movie is still undeniably charming. Loosely centered around a group of car public relations people (with Hulot at the head) hauling a camping car to a road show on the back of a big truck, the movie is no different than Tati's other Hulot films in that it ties a series of comic adventures into an overarching story that is a commentary on modern life.

It has been said that all humor is inherently angry, but I can think of no better exception than Tati. His work in Trafic focuses on the car culture that by the 1970s had taken hold across the world, but as in his other films, Tati is less interested in criticizing this culture than he is in observing it. The humor comes out of the funny things people do around cars and the gap between this behavior and their natural behavior. Many of these moments aren't even jokes, such as the montages of people picking their nose or yawning, but are instead observations of a culture - as if the film was a National Geographic expose on an undiscovered tribe.

Because the film has longer stretches of observation between its jokes, the pacing can be slow - much slower than in Playtime where, true to its title, there is always something new to distract you. The Hulot character was beside the point in Playtime, but here he seems against it - Tati only used Hulot to get funding for the film, and clearly the character that existed in M. Hulot's Holiday or even Mon Oncle has been mostly eliminated, the cropped trousers and Tati's bumbling walk all that's left of a comedy icon. Not only because of this, Trafic feels like a last film even though it technically isn't. Tati's work here still has the same effortless charm of his earlier films, but the magic seems to be wearing off.

Monday, April 25, 2011

#524: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1936-42)

The two films included in this box set are so similar that they could easily switch titles (of course, The Only Son would have to become There Was a Mother). Both films deal with single parents making difficult sacrifices in order to send their child through school, and each child eventually becomes a teacher. Both feature shots of the mechanics at the factories where the parents work, contrasting the simple, clean lines of the characters' domestic spaces with the bulky, clanging symphony of the new industrial Japan. Both span multiple years, yet deal with the escalating nationalization of the WWII era only tangentially. Most importantly, both deal with the complicated relationships which are inherent to any family in a way unique to Ozu: quiet, meticulous, delicate in its simplicity.

Despite these similarities, the viewer has not seen both if he has seen one. The Only Son is about living your life or someone else's, the pressure of sacrifice, and the burden of disappointment. There Was a Father is about masculinity, social norms, and how these elements play out on an intimate level. I loved both of them, and I think what impressed me most about each was that these themes were so easily explored within the framework of such a straight-forward plot in each film. Ozu somehow manages to tackle big sweeping issues with very little pomp, instead cutting the story down to its bare essentials and allowing the story to play out. Anyone who loves Tokyo Story owes it to themselves to see this set, but even for the Ozu novice, Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu represents a perfect first step.

Links to individual reviews:

The Only Son
There Was a Father

Sunday, April 24, 2011

#245: Port of Shadows

(Marcel Carné, 1938)

Perhaps because of the combination of title and cover, I expected Port of Shadows to be more of a noir prototype than it actually was. Instead, Port of Shadows is more La Bête Humaine than Touchez pas au grisbi - and not just because Jean Gabin made the two films in the same year (working with Carné and Renoir in one year is kind of a staggering achievement itself). Both films center around a man who is a bit of a loner, hurtling towards his personal fate through passion and principle. They are also both fairly melodramatic and aimed squarely at "the people," those huddled masses that - in the 30s especially - wanted to see their own lives on screen, however brighter they seemed to shine up there.

The film owes most of its success to Gabin, a true movie star here playing a soldier who appears to have gone AWOL just before he arrives in a bustling port town and promptly falls in love with the wrong girl. Promises are made, prides are bruised, and as always by the end a hero falls.

The film takes some time to get going, but once it does, it's easy to become invested in Gabin, even though we know very little about his background. The plot of the film and even the characters he encounters seem inconsequential - this is all about legend building, and like Bogart in The Big Sleep, Gabin seems above it all even when he's getting his hands dirty. Port of Shadows clearly went through hell in the years before Criterion's release, and a lot of the picture's grand photography is under the cover of 70 years of neglect, especially when compared to more well-known films of the time. But Carné's work still has moments that equal his star, and the film ends up being quite enjoyable for fans of pathos.

#526: There Was a Father

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1942)

Loved it. There Was a Father belongs to a mini-genre that I am consistently fascinated by: stories about fathers who are unable to compromise their moral integrity, leading to sacrifices for a family or child. In this case, the father is a teacher who feels obligated to resign when through no fault of his own a child under his supervision dies on a school retreat. The decision comes not from pressure from the family or his superiors, but from his own sense of guilt and the self-awareness to know he wouldn't be able to send his own child to be supervised by someone in his position.

Newly unemployed, the widower and father of one looks for work in other towns in order to pay his son's way through school. The only options open to him place him increasingly further away from his son, who is put in boarding school and works his way towards becoming a teacher, just like his father. This is the basic plot of the film, but really the movie is about the father/son relationship, both here and universally. The father in the film means to show his son through example how to live your life, but all the son wants from his father is love and affection. This struggle is a common one in narratives, particularly from the past hundred years, but the way Ozu depicts it is uniquely Japanese.

Conflict in Ozu's films continues to come from within, something that is anathema to Hollywood. The father does not hate the son for loving him above his duties to society, he just intends to guide his son towards a dignified life. The conflict in There Was a Father creeps up on you, avoiding rising drama or climax, much in the way life avoids those things. His work is so gentle that it can sometimes seem as if no one made an Ozu film - like a painting without brush strokes. Yet each film generates similar responses in similar sequence, and each story haunts you long after you finished watching it unfold, and in the end, There Was a Father - like all of Ozu's work - bears his unmistakable mark.

#525: The Only Son

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1936)

There are only a few directors in cinematic history that command the respect of scholars, historians, critics, and lovers of film the way Yasujiro Ozu does. This is in many ways completely understandable to me, and yet I struggle with this hype every time I approach one of his films. The unassuming nature of Ozu's work inevitably clashes with the effusiveness of his supporters' praise. The director created his own cinematic language, molding Eastern cinema the way Griffith had in Hollywood, and he was able to straddle the line between art and commerce remarkably well - particularly in retrospect, when it is difficult to imagine his films being received well by a broad audience. But his work is also deceptively simple. Ozu tells stories about complicated emotions, social dynamics, and the constantly evolving Japanese landscape by stripping his plots down to their bare essentials. It makes his films astonishingly sparse - fitting for their traditional Japanese domestic settings - and teetering on the brink of melodrama.

The Only Son does not stray from the formula - on the contrary, it helped create it. Opening with a young boy's desire to attend middle school, despite his widowed mother's inability to afford his education, the film spans his early years as he grows into adulthood. When his mother comes to visit him in Tokyo, she finds a man who has yet to realize his potential, and both mother and son must come to terms with the sacrifices she made for an investment that does not seem to have paid off.

Even though the film's story stretches over a decade, there are really only four relevant characters in the film: the mother, the son, his wife, and his old teacher who has also moved to Tokyo but found little success. Ozu pauses to poke fun at German cinema briefly, and there are a handful of inside jokes throughout the film, but most of the film is focused in on their simple relationship and its larger allegorical potential. The thing I loved most about this dynamic was how easy it was to identify with each, how desperately they both wanted to do right by each other, and yet how easy it was for them to feel distant from each other because of this pressure. Much like Tokyo Story, there is no evil parent or cruel brother in The Only Son - just people trying to do right by the family they love, weighed down by the pressure of their responsibilities and their economic and social situations.

As an early representation of Ozu's trademark style, The Only Son is perhaps Ozu at his most simplistic, where all of his intentions have been laid bare. I still don't know how I feel about Ozu after watching The Only Son, but I loved every minute of the film. This might mean that viewing his films chronologically is the best way to keep up with his rhythm. Or maybe it takes a few films before you understand his pacing, and I would enjoy the previous Ozu films I've watched even more now. Either way, The Only Son is a great introduction to this most praised - and most foreign - Japanese director.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

#560: White Material

(Claire Denis, 2009)

Despite the fact that Claire Denis has returned to the Africa of her childhood throughout her career, I can't help but group White Material in with other White Protagonist/Black Africa movies, the kind Hollywood seems to churn out every holiday season. This is pretty unfair, because those films are about fundamentally African stories, whether it's the diamond trade in the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Blood Diamond or Idi Amin's rule in the James McAvoy-starring The Last King of Scotland. The genre isn't exclusive to African subjects, with the most notably blatant Windtalkers - in which Nicolas Cage anchors a film that is actually about the role of Navajo marines during WWII - coming to mind first (director John Woo literally said he needed to have a white protagonist in order to get the film bankrolled), closely followed by Oscar-winning films like Glory and Dances with Wolves. All of these films are intended to be both more commercial and more relatable by focusing on a white person usually "discovering" the story or message of the film along with the audience - a method I both understand and generally reject as condescending towards the intelligent viewer.

White Material isn't like those films because it isn't about Africa throwing off the chains of colonization, but is instead specifically about the experience of one white woman in particular who felt just as connected to the land as the Africans that surrounded her. The film takes a rather negative view towards its protagonist, to the point where we actually have to question her sanity quite often as the film careens towards its inevitably pessimistic finish. And yet I had a hard time engaging with the movie because it was so hard to sympathize with this totally misguided dumb white lady who didn't know when to cut her losses and get the fuck out of Dodge. Ultimately, I wanted to know the story of the black Africans in this unnamed country much more than I cared about this woman or her crazy family. In this way alone, the film reminded me of those less admirable films that center on a usually bland and uncomplicated white character meant to be a way in for people who are unwilling to see the world from a different perspective.

Certainly, White Material is both far more technically accomplished and deeply unsettling in its complexity than any of those films. The score of the film, created by the British group Tindersticks, is definitely my favorite element here, but the movie is shot, er, not beautifully - let's say correctly. But having just watched the far-superior Coup de Torchon, I feel the comparison in terms of the relationship between French colonials and their surroundings both socially and politically makes White Material seem like old territory being retread. Having Denis in the collection is worthwhile, but White Material can't measure up to her other work, and falls somewhere in the middle of the pack with regards to the Criterion/IFC releases to date.

Friday, April 22, 2011

#121: Billy Liar

(John Schlesinger, 1963)

Billy Liar is The Graduate four years earlier and set in small-town England. Actually, it's better than The Graduate. The film follows Billy Fisher, a professional underachiever who lives with his parents, sleepwalks his way through a meaningless job, and longs for a showbiz gig in the big city. To avoid sinking into a deep depression, Billy constructs elaborate fictions, some of which he keeps to himself, others which he shares with other people. Billy is engaged to two different girls, hiding a mild embezzlement scheme from his employer, and convincing everyone that his train finally came in and he's going to write for a big comic in London. Naturally, nothing goes as planned.

I'm going to admit a number of embarrassing things in succession: I had no idea John Schlesinger made such a splash in England before making the best picture winning Midnight Cowboy; I initially had thought Alec Guinness was in this movie; and I expected to find it moderately amusing at best. I was way off on all three counts, and the movie turned into one of those most pleasant surprises: the unexpected masterpiece. The film has a wry sense of humor in the most appealingly British way, and it's shot beautifully - this is, by the way, one of Criterion's best early transfers that I've seen, though it is now out of print. But the real appeal of the film is its vivid portrayal of Billy which I became totally invested in and consequently moved by.

Billy Liar, like The Graduate after it, is meant to be relatable to its audience. But despite the early moments when Dustin Hoffman returns from college to face his parents and their friends, Mike Nichols's film seems much more about my parents than about me. Maybe it's too iconic for me to see the film as anything but a representation of its time, whereas I am able to see Billy Liar shed of any baggage the canon might impart. The movie then feels much more universal, and while I can't entirely relate with the degree to which Billy struggles with his fears, I can see in it a fundamental challenge of youth as it slowly melts away and becomes regrets.

I often think about the difference between films made regarding the beginning of life and films regarding the end of it. I think the former are more appealing to viewers for two reasons. The first is that everyone can compare their own experience to the experience of the young people in the film, because everyone has been a young person, but not everyone has yet been in the twilight of their life. The second is that young people are inevitably concerned with the future, creating new realities to shape their world and the world of people in future generations. This makes movies about young people feel fresh when they are created, because the experience of that generation - whether it's depicted in Rebel Without a Cause or Fast Times at Ridgemont High - is unique and immediately relevant. In contrast, movies about old people are almost always looking back to the past, grappling with larger philosophical issues - think Wild Strawberries or On Golden Pond. This makes them timeless, but it also makes them feel less alive: the latter two films I mentioned are certainly quieter, more subtle explorations of humanity than the bombastic teenage melodramas made in relatively contemporary times.

This is all to say that Billy Liar depicts a moment in youth culture to which I have little connection and every connection. The way the characters behave is totally foreign, but why they behave that way is perhaps the most immediately accessible and personal motivations film can represent. When Billy makes mistakes or has the chance to make the right choice for his life, we feel that much stronger because we see our own crossroads and wonder what might have been. On a more universal level, we are able to understand so much more where a generation found themselves in a crumbling empire just after a world war turned their futures upside-down. This combination makes Billy Liar exhilarating viewing for anyone who grew up.

Side note: this is one of the worst Criterion covers ever. It makes the film seem like a Jerry Lewis movie, and the tone doesn't fit at all with the film. Based on a quick search it appears to have been created before Criterion got the rights to the film. As someone who is a self-confessed unquestioning fanboy of Criterion's design aesthetic, I'd like to use this as an excuse for its use here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

#27: Flesh for Frankenstein

(Paul Morrissey, 1973)
While it isn't quite as successful as its follow-up, Blood for Dracula, Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein is still an immensely good time at the movies. Udo Kier once again gives a great, hammy performance, this time as Baron Frankenstein, determined to construct a master Serbian race of zombies bowing to his every whim. As would be expected, there's plenty of sex and gore, all purposefully over the top at the service of Morrissey's sharp satirical take on modern life.

The film's campy pleasures take on another dimension - the third to be precise (cheesy joke ftw). I wouldn't blame the unsuspecting viewer of this DVD to be confused by the random shots of people holding things out to the camera, culminating in an impaled organ at the end of a pole. Knowing the film was intended to be shown in 3D makes these moments possibly more enjoyable than they were in theaters - 3D was so terrible in the 70s that the pleasure of watching people act strangely in order to deliver an effect that never comes is truly amusing.

Elsewhere, the film fails to lift off plot-wise in the clever way its successor does. It's easy to see the whole story coming from a mile away, and the film's final moments - much like the preceding hour - are more appealing for their campy gore than the Hamlet-like finish. Still Flesh for Frankenstein isn't about the characters or story, and it's hard to fault a film for delivering just what it sets out to do. Morrissey's take on the monster story remains totally original and unique, and - though they are currently out of print so Image could put out mediocre releases of their own - both films are deserving of their place in the collection.

Monday, April 11, 2011

#557: The Times of Harvey Milk

(Robert Epstein, 1984)

As its title indicates, The Times of Harvey Milk is not about a man, but about a world. It is a world before I was born, certainly before I was politically conscious. It is a world where the political realities of today seem quaint. Certainly, even in this moment when people vote away the rights of gay people to be married, it is hard for me to imagine a news reporter - anywhere, let alone in San Francisco - asking a man who happened to be gay if he understood why straight people would be afraid he wouldn't represent them in his elected office. It is equally hard for me to fully understand just how important Harvey Milk was to the gay community, particularly in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Fortunately, we have The Times of Harvey Milk to give us the best idea of just what this was like.

Created out of happenstance, the film took shape after Milk's assassination while Epstein was shooting a very different documentary that focused on Milk's work to defeat proposition 6, one of a long list of horrible and embarrassing propositions in California (some of which - prop. 13, prop. 187, prop. 209, prop. 22 - didn't have the good fortune to be defeated). What Epstein stumbled into was nothing less than an invaluable insight into one of the great American stories of freedom deferred. Through careful selection and narrative skill - much of which is so effortlessly carried out as to be invisible - Epstein quickly establishes the climate of San Francisco and America in order to establish the importance of Milk's rise. Just as surely, he shifts into the aftermath of his death in order to play out the impact of his life and the need for meaning in his wake. The film never lingers on Milk himself, and yet we feel we know him more than we do because we care more than we ever thought we could.

I enjoyed Gus Van Sant's Milk. I thought it suffered from a tendency towards Hollywood tropes that seemed forced into the narrative by the inevitable difficulty of getting a film about a gay activist greenlit. I also found Sean Penn's performance to be overly stereotypical (his "gay" lisp is nowhere to be found in the footage of Harvey Milk in this documentary), and I still think Mickey Rourke wuz robbed. But I thought the film was genuinely moving and painted Milk in a humanist light that seemed universally affecting. When I originally heard The Times of Harvey Milk was being released on Criterion, I cynically assumed it was because of Milk that they were releasing the film, and surely they would have preferred to get the rights to that other Oscar winner. Having now seen this documentary, I know better.

The Times of Harvey Milk is a far superior film because it isn't about sympathizing with the victim of a horrible and senseless crime. It's about a human rights movement that began in that most stereotyped of places and ended up moving people all over the world. The film is about something much bigger than Milk - it's about the world we all grew up in and the steps we will have to make to change that world before we leave. In this regard, it takes its place next to arguably the best documentary ever made, Harlan County, U.S.A. Both films depict a world in which human beings are given less and fight for more. They force the viewer to recognize their neutrality and insist that they take a stand. This is what film is for. It is what it does best. Film lovers cannot feel any other way.

#559: The Mikado

(Victor Scherzinger, 1939)

I'm not much of an opera person. I can get down with a musical, and I dig going to some giant opera house and watching talented people belt out some classics, but I'm not going to sit around listening to soundtracks or watching performances on TV. My last Criterion encounter with opera was Bergman's The Magic Flute. It didn't end well. Add on to this the fact that The Mikado is in English, certainly the worst language in which opera can be performed, and it shouldn't be any surprise that I put off watching the film for a few months after Criterion announced its inclusion.

With all this baggage threatening to weigh it down, it's a good thing that The Mikado is one of the lightest confections in the Criterion catalog. Alternating between witty repartee and catchy upbeat songs (all of which is ironically delivered considering the constant threat of execution which is at the heart of the story), the opera is so clearly crafted with a popular audience in mind - and done so well in this regard - that its appeal seems genuinely timeless. My trepidation turned out to be totally unwarranted, and I genuinely enjoyed the film.

The story begins with a prince of Japan fleeing his father's court after being forced to become engaged to an older, unattractive woman. He assumes the identity of a traveling musician and subsequently falls in love with a woman who is a ward of the Lord High Executioner of a small town named Titipu (all of the names in the film are equally ridiculous and vaguely racist). The plot becomes much more complicated from there, but suffice it to say that farce is achieved and fun is had for all. The script is infused with puns, twists of logic, and double talk that is truly funny, and the performances - while extremely broad - are all pitch-perfect (in both ways) and entertaining.

Meant as a companion piece to their release of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, the film stands quite easily on its own as a solid representation of the archived (if slightly adjusted) theatrical performance - much better, of course, than recent examples like The Producers and Hairspray, both of which were far superior films the first time around. I actually wonder if they had intended the film to be a supplement on Leigh's film's DVD rather than a separate release, but subsequently realized that the film was equally deserving of the full treatment. Either way, The Mikado is sure to be a real treat for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, and a pleasant surprise for viewers like me who are less likely to be drawn to such endeavors.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

#154: The Horse's Mouth

(Ronald Neame, 1958)

There are people who believe The Horse's Mouth is the funniest movie Alec Guinness ever made. Assuming these people have seen the divine Kind Hearts and Coronets, I'm left wondering how this could be possible. The Horse's Mouth is a moderate diversion held together by a spectacular performance. But Guinness rarely gave his films any less, which leaves the film as a minor work in his catalog.

Guinness plays Gulley Jimson, a well-established artiste and all-around lout, dedicated to only his craft and unconcerned with things like caring about other people or being a good person. It's so obvious the film could have been named for a different part of the horse's body that I'm probably far from the first person to make that joke. Watching Guinness be carelessly horrible as he flops his way towards simultaneous ignominy and artistic deification makes for an occasionally entertaining moment but an unpleasant overall experience.

I've talked often on this blog about the question of the sympathetic/likable narrator. Ultimately, I don't think you have to like the person at the center of a movie (or anyone in a movie, for that matter), but I do think if you cannot relate or sympathize, you must at least be interested, intrigued, illuminated, or even just confused by their nature or their arc. Jimson is entirely unlikeable, but worse he is simple and easily understood. His intrusions into other people's homes will put you on edge, but his subsequent actions are neither surprising nor entertaining. He is a good notch below Bodu (who was Saved from Drowning) when it comes to highlighting the humor inherent in class interaction, but we are made to believe he is just as interesting because he is uniquely talented. The work he does (made in real life by John Bratby) is indeed appealing in a wildly unhinged sort of way - something, by the way, kept in mind for the memorably striking cover art of this Criterion release. But it hardly makes the character any more appealing to watch.

Ultimately, I think I was let down by The Horse's Mouth because of the expectations I had going in. The film has the tone of a British comedy, but very few of the jokes. Jimson is a very sad character, obsessed with his work but totally unconvinced of its ability to impact anyone else the way it impacts him, which has left him bitter and drunk even when he's not drinking. A second viewing with this knowledge in mind might change my opinion of the film. For now, I'll continue to take Kind Hearts and Coronets out every time I need my Alec Guinness fix.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

#313: Kill!

(Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

While Kill! is based on the same novel that Kurosawa used as the source material for the Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro, the movie of which I was most reminded was Sword of the Beast. The plots of both films revolve around samurai who kill a higher-up as a result of prodding by another samurai, only to be betrayed by that samurai when the deed is done. Both films are, not coincidentally, included in Criterion's Rebel Samurai boxset (which has no spine number).

The difference, of course, is that the earlier film is deeply serious, while Kill! is very much a comedy. The film focuses on two men, one a samurai who gave us his position after becoming disenchanted with the life, the other a lowly farmer attempting to work his way up to the very same perch. They meet briefly, before soon finding themselves on opposite sides of an internal clan battle. Like the confusing Samurai Spy, there are plenty of double crosses and switched allegiances in the film to keep the viewer busy. But unlike that film, these elements are so clearly presented as absurd that they end up being played for laughs. There are brief moments when the material can be too slapstick (including one of the weirder implied sex scenes I've ever seen) but overall Kill! has a dryness to its winking that allows the film to have its cake and eat it, too, like Scream minus the 90s meta edge. It makes for a very entertaining film that can be enjoyed on several levels.

I enjoyed Samurai Rebellion, Sword of the Beast, and Kill! so much that it seems especially disappointing that Samurai Spy - the only other film in the set - failed to move me. But as I slice my way through the Collection and its vast samurai presence, it's becoming increasingly clear that the subgenre has a broad range of styles, tones, and thematic underpinnings to offer.

#327: 3 Films by Louis Malle

(Louis Malle, 1972, 1974, 1987)

Though Criterion (wisely) chose not to title this collection, their intentions are clear: Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe, Lucien, and Au Revoir les Enfants are all Malle films primarily focused on coming of age. The films are not married in style or artistic phase in the way Bergman's Trilogy was, and their stories do not connect in even the roundabout way Kieslowski's Blue, White, and Red do so wonderfully. Instead, they share a filmmaker and his increasing desire to look within himself for his art, specifically himself as a young boy.

There are other superficial connections here. Au Revoir les Enfants and Lacombe, Lucien both feature World War II as a backdrop, while the protagonists of Murmur of the Heart and Au Revoir les Enfants both have unhealthy relationships with their mothers (the former obviously to a larger degree than the latter). But it is the fundamental question of childhood and the transition into adulthood (manhood in these cases - and, let's face it, most cases in cinema) that is most engaging in all three films. Murmur of the Heart is largely a sexual awakening, while Lacombe, Lucien focuses on the banal simplicity of masculinity in all its ugliness. Au Revoir les Enfants is by far my favorite of the three because it feels most engaged with the nature of youth not as a present tense but as a past. The film is an exploration of the inevitable guilt of knowing more - better - than you used to and being unable to change the results. It's also a deeply personal confession that doesn't dwell on its protagonist's potential to become a savior, but instead revels in the brief moments of naïve bliss. All three films in this boxset are worth seeing, but Au Revoir Les Enfants is one for the ages.

Links to individual reviews:

Murmur of the Heart
Lacombe, Lucien
Au Revoir les Enfants

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#109: The Scarlet Empress

(Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

The Scarlet Empress is certainly one of the most dazzling films in history. Created towards the end of Josef von Sternberg's torrid cinematic love affair with Marlene Dietrich's face, the film is at once bizarrely funny and surprisingly intense. It's also dripping with sexuality - code-flaunting, exhilarating, hilarious sexuality, the kind you only hear about in movies. The film charts the course of Catherine the Great of Russia, from little girl to her first moments as Empress after taking the throne from her dimwitted husband. Dietrich plays two roles in the film: first she is the cherubic, wide-eyed young woman who comes to Moscow to be married and honor her husband until she abruptly and effortlessly transitions into the confident sexual predator, enjoying her life and  intent on keeping it that way. Both are infused with their own brand of sexuality, and both are endlessly fun to watch.

Made in the early years of talkies, the film has long stretches which could easily be silent. There are a great number of cards, and whole sequences, most notably the wedding scene, are accomplished without dialogue. But neither element feels out of balance, and visually the film manages to stay interesting regardless of the presence of words. Stylistically, Sternberg's film might best be compared to the beautiful and foreboding first part of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. This earlier film is beautifully shot, with oversized sets and shadows thrown into the unlikeliest of corners. But aside from the royal Russian setting, everything else in the film couldn't be further from that straight-faced epic. Sternberg delivers a tone that seems to be a cross between Max Ophüls at his most flamboyant and the Marx Brothers at their most abstract. His camera has only one purpose - to present Dietrich at her most iconically beautiful - and it seems invented for this sole purpose, seemingly capturing moments without her in equally striking compositions only by chance. He sticks a crass, grumpy old mother out of a Lubitsch or Capra movie into the role of the elder Empress, Dietrich's mother-in-law, while her lover seems to be channeling Clark Gable (who the very same year made the perfect It Happened One Night).

Dietrich plays her part in this tribute to herself masterfully - really, some of the great moments in the first half century of cinema are here. How can you wrong with a line like "Entirely too many man love my hair," really? Dietrich's second half is so outrageous that many viewers will see The Scarlet Empress as camp. There's no denying it works on this level - everyone here is just having too much fun. But the spectacle of the thing, infused into everything from the sets and their towering gargoyles to the music and the sly cards that transition between scenes (let's just say the film has some mean things to say about Russia), is where the true pleasure of the film reveals itself. Obviously movies like this are simply not made anymore, but there isn't even a contemporary equivalent for the film. The Scarlet Empress is everything but the kitchen sink filmmaking at its most exciting and inventive.

#318: Forbidden Games

(René Clément, 1952)

One of the funny things about watching all of these Criterion films in random order - as opposed to other people who are taking a more user-friendly (read: intelligent) approach - is that sometimes without reason a clear connection between two films emerges. At first glance, Forbidden Games and Mafioso have little in common - one is the story of a middle class man being pulled back into the culture of his youth, while the other is the story of a childhood friendship against the backdrop of World War II. However, both films are able to effortlessly balance on the seemingly impenetrable line between humor and tragedy.

Of the two films, Forbidden Games is the more impressive, both because the two tones are so effortlessly blended in virtually every scene and because the film is able to balance its war setting with a universal message about childhood and the power of imagination. Forbidden Games is at once almost unbearably sad and oddly funny, and manages to incorporate a vast range of themes - focusing on everything from religion and childhood to rural culture and war - without descending into academic exercise.

Forbidden Games tells the story of Paulette, a young girl whose parents are randomly killed by a Nazi air attack as they fleed Paris through the countryside. The girl happens upon an older boy named Michel, a country kid who takes her into his family and promptly falls in love with her. What follows are two equally absurd games, one played by the kids, who construct a cemetery out of found animal corpses and stolen crosses, and one played by the adults, Michel's parents and their feuding neighbors, who have a Romeo and Juliet subplot boiling over, threatening to explode in their faces when the two games collide.

The film is essentially a fractured fairy tale - in fact, deleted bookends had Michel reading the story to Paulette, making the comparison closer to reality than metaphor. In the same way that actual fairy tales can be extremely dark and yet somehow have at their core a child-friendly appeal, Forbidden Games isn't so much about the war as it is about the ways in which children can fashion other worlds out of the simplest moments. Clément manages to depict this in such an unbiased way that it seems as if he is simultaneously satirizing his characters and worshipping at the altar of childlike innocence. The cold way in which the two children perform what to many people - particularly in the era and culture in which Forbidden Games was made - would be a horrible offense, to God, to the dead, to their families, ironically makes the film feel much more powerful. Clément seems to be searching for the guilt in all of us, finding innocence (or ignorance, depending upon your cynicism) instead.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

#424: Mafioso

(Alberto Lattuada, 1962)

Mafioso is a supremely interesting movie, a comedy of manners mixed with a unique perspective on the mafia narrative. As a depiction of Sicily in the early 1960s, the film is a fascinating look at the relationship between north and south in Italy, and the social and political climate which allowed the mafia to flourish. It's also a sweetly funny family comedy of culture clash and a moving portrait of an average man caught up in his responsibilities.

The film begins with Nino making the rounds on the factory floor where he manages workers. Nino is middle management and loving it, the kind of guy for whom a beautiful wife, two kids, and a steady slot at a company has given him everything he has ever wanted in life. But when he takes a vacation to his hometown in Sicily, he must contend with his family clashing with his Northern wife and a much more sinister proposal from the local kingpin.

The scenes with Nino and his family are both funny and illuminating. In much the same way that most Americans group all Latinos together - ignoring the fact that international borders, skin color, and socioeconomic background make the political landscape in America south of the US far from unified - it is easy to forget that even a country as small as Italy has enormous cultural variations within its borders. The most significant of these is the division between the lighter, more European northerners and the darker, more Mediterranean southerners. This is especially true of Sicily, where many residents to this day consider themselves Sicilian far before they consider themselves Italian. Despite the fact that we never leave interiors in Nino's Milan, the contrast between his adult home and his childhood one is stark: the modern Nino and his family have been thrown into old Italy. Everyone knows everyone else in old Italy, and Nino's family stares at his wife when she lights up a cigarette - not because it bothers them, but because they have never seen a woman smoke before. As in every high/low cultural showdown, Nino's parents consider his wife a snob, while his wife considers them judgmental and mean. It's not a new dynamic, but seeing it come alive with such vivid characterizations and detail about a place as fascinating as mid-century Sicily makes it feel not just fresh, but wholly unique.

The mafia element of the film is just as interesting. Any depiction of the crime syndicate which originated in Italy has the spectre of The Godfather hanging over its head, so it's impossible to know what it was like to see Mafioso a decade before Marlon Brando stuck cotton balls in his mouth. But Mafioso reminded me less of that film and more of some of the most enjoyable subplots from The Sopranos. Many of the most interesting moments in the show came from characters who were outside of Tony's inner circle, the men and women who struggled to adjust to the inevitability of the mafia invading their lives. It is constantly clear in Mafioso that it would be impossible to avoid the don of Nino's town, that in fact everything that is done is informed by his presence. Despite the fact that (spoiler) we watch Nino kill someone in cold blood, we feel only sympathy for him because the possibility that he could have refused seems by this point of the movie to be almost absurd and completely out of the question.

Much like Gomorrah argued that the Comorra syndicate infiltrated every aspect of life in Naples, Mafioso is a heartfelt depiction of the far reach of the mafia into every element of Sicilian life to the point where their very identity is informed by it. The connection between the two stories - the seemingly antiquated day to day of small town Sicily and the global conspiracy of the island's criminal network - might seem tenuous if it wasn't for the way Lattuada uses humor and ultimately tragedy to inextricably link the two, just as he links the international reach of Nino's mafia past to his industrial present. For Sicilians, and perhaps for everyone, it is impossible to outrun your identity.

#174: Band of Outsiders

(Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Once again, as he had done in his debut classic, Godard gives us a girl and a gun in Band of Outsiders. Coming off perhaps the angriest work of his early period with Contempt, Godard turned back to many of the cinematic references of Breathless and the meta winks toward the audience of A Woman is a Woman. The final product is a borderline masterpiece that ranks just a notch below his best work for me.

The first time I watched Band of Outsiders was about a decade ago, when I was first falling in love with many of the films Godard nods to in the film. It hit me especially hard for two contradictory reasons: Godard was internalizing and then recontextualizing the same elements of cinema which had moved me, and yet he was doing so in a manner that seemed distinctly out of step with my contemporary reality. The director's work is tied to the 60s not only because he defined and shaped cinema in that era (is there anyone who doubts that this film and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player had a significant impact on Bonnie and Clyde?), but because his ideas and aesthetic are constantly looking forward, pushing towards the outer reaches of cinema. There is nothing that dates a film like its perception of the future, and many of Godard's films lack the vibrancy they must have had for a contemporary audience. The fact that his films remain relevant is a testament to his skill, but unlike directors like Ozu and Kurosawa in the East and Bergman and Fellini in the West, Godard often shied away from universal timeless themes in order to tell his stories.

This isn't to say Godard's films are removed. There is loads of emotion in Band of Outsiders, especially romance and melancholy. But the moments I come away from the film with are of a decidedly technical - if totally playful - slant, like the moment of silence where the film follows along with the characters, or the race through the Louvre to beat the American-set record for fastest visit. These moments seem designed to remind you that you are watching a movie - a Godard movie at that! - and you shouldn't get too worked up about any little thing. Godard told stories that were just as relatable as the stories of the other directors mentioned above, but the way he told them was so distinctly of its time - both socially and artistically - that his work can't help but appeal more to the brain than to the heart.