Sunday, January 31, 2016

#735: Ride in the Whirlwind

(Monte Hellman, 1966)

Where The Shooting used simplicity to deliver an existential Western unlike any other in its genre, Ride in the Whirlwind uses simplicity to deliver... a really simple Western. This doesn't automatically render the film ineffective - in fact, this is actually a pretty good movie with a stripped down concept that might be even more entertaining than its companion piece. But it does make this a merely solid low budget genre pic where The Shooting was a unique and borderline classic Western that's unlike anything else.

It should be noted that The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, who would go on to write Five Easy Pieces (and wrote the English dialogue for Model Shop, Demy's American sequel to Lola - Unexpected Criterion Crossover Alert!) while Ride in the Whirlwind was written by Jack Nicholson, famed writer of Drive, He Said (OK, he also wrote Head, which is great, but hardly deep). So it's not necessarily surprising that The Shooting would be more impressive, though it's kind of amazing when you consider the fact that almost everything else about the two films is identical, from location and cast to director and time of production. Hellman certainly does a great job on both, but the significance of his moody style varies with subject and structure.

While The Shooting is significantly more worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection, it makes total sense that the two films would be grouped together - really there's no way to separate them, and it's arguable that The Shooting is less valuable without being attached to the second film Hellman and company made in the desert. That said, Ride in the Whirlwind is a movie to be watched and filed away, whereas The Shooting is one for the ages.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

#721: Love Streams

(John Cassavetes, 1984)

One of the hardest things I had to get over in my initial burst of activity in this journey was making assumptions about a film based on prior films by directors I was less than enthusiastic about. Staring at 10 Ozu or Fassbinder films and assuming they would all be boring or distasteful (respectively) was not going to allow me to open my mind to an individual piece of art and experience it with a fresh perspective. This would inevitably take me down the path to viewing my watching habits as a chore to be completed. Avoiding this pitfall has paid dividends, particularly when looking at the two directors mentioned above - Ozu is now one of my most loved directors, and while I may have a more, ahem, complicated relationship with Fassbinder, a few of his films have been spectacular cinematic experiences I will treasure.

Still, this isn't always easy, and it gets progressively harder the deeper into a filmmaker's Criterion catalog you get. After having a fairly mixed response to the Cassavetes box, when Love Streams popped up as a Criterion release I couldn't help but think "dammit." This is especially true because of the nature of the film. As I mentioned in my post on Une chambre en ville, many Criterion films from the 80s are late-era works by the established masters of 50s and 60s cinema, and many of them are not particularly good when viewed outside the context of their respective director's oeuvre. So knowing that I didn't like Cassavetes too much and seeing that Love Streams was a lesser-known later work from the director made me quite wary. It immediately seemed like a token release only for the fans, a movie that wouldn't belong in the Collection without the name above the title. I sat down to endure it and file it away on the blog.

I was totally wrong. Not only do I think Love Streams is deserving of its place in the Collection, I think it's one of the best Cassavetes films, and it's the one that I loved the most. What's most interesting about my reaction is that this is most definitively A Cassavetes Film, with verite-style camera work, craft-heavy performances, and deliberate pacing. It's also got all the raw drama and broken characters of his more high-profile work from the 60s and 70s. Yet the movie never seems like an exercise in character craft the way even his strongest early films like Faces do. This is a fully formed world Cassavetes reveals, and the fact that the movie is based on a play would be difficult to pull out of what we see (apparently it was heavily rewritten by Cassavetes). Rowlands in particular, one of the great underrated actresses of her generation, inhabits her role so seemingly effortlessly that you hardly remember you are watching a performance. The way Cassavetes shoots her only underscores this impressive feat - look at the shot they used for the cover, the way he frames her in between the composed background and the harsh imposing foreground, squeezed into a folding chair. Her brother is reaching out to her but we can only see his hand - the camera doesn't move to reveal him, but instead lingers in this middle-ground emptiness for the length of the shot. Nothing about the way Cassavetes does this is overbearing or even necessarily prominent, yet it is deliberately present. This is filmmaking of the highest order.

Although it doesn't get to the core of what I loved about the film, the most striking thing about watching the first half hour of the movie was how much it reminded me of Boogie Nights. Despite the fact that this film wasn't available for large stretches of its afterlife, I have little doubt that PTA saw the movie and examined it for style and rhythm. The most obvious comparison is the custody scene, which PTA seems to have lifted almost directly from this movie, but Rowlands in general must have had an impact on Amber, Julianne Moore's character in Boogie Nights, and Cassavetes also seems like a direct influence on the Burt Reynolds character. Similarly, the way Cassavetes pities his characters while following them unflinchingly into their emotional depths and living with them there is the most impressive achievement of Boogie Nights (and PTA's early career in general). The characters that Cassavetes and Rowlands portray here are not good people, but they are people, real and breathing and fighting for life.

Boogie Nights, of course, is packed with flashy cinematic flourishes and modern ideas about editing, music use, and dialog. Love Streams is a much quieter and more confident picture. Part of this contrast is that one film was made at the beginning of a career, the other at the end. But most of it is the way in which the two directors work. I am a big fan of PTA, and I think the last three movies he's made will eventually have a stronger reputation than any of the first four. But he's a director that is constantly crafting a movie. He wants you to know it's a movie, partially because he wants you to see all the things he's doing, but mostly because he really likes movies. Why not make your movie a movie?

Cassavetes doesn't particularly care for movies. He's a filmmaker almost incidentally, because it's the pen he uses to craft his work. Just as he carried on his acting career to support his filmmaking, his filmmaking is there to support his worlds. What's most important to him is his characters and their inner-journeys, and finally how this reflects back onto our own inner-lives. I think this is a big part of why I didn't immediately identify with his films (I'm a movies guy, fyi) but here with his craft so refined and spare it doesn't keep me at so much of a distance. There is plenty of heartbreak in Love Streams, but the way Cassavetes lets his characters breathe assures us that they will live to fight again.

There's always a lot of consternation on the internet about projects like mine. "Gosh darnit, movies shouldn't be a mission to complete!" etc. There's probably something to that, and it certainly isn't for everybody. But with an infinite number of films available (especially these days with streaming), picking a curated set of movies and forcing yourself to take in each and every one means you will inevitably watch a large number of movies you would never otherwise watch. Many of these movies will end up being ones you never should have watched after all (Salo and The Magic Flute come to mind in my own journey, for entirely separate reasons). But a handful will change the way you look at movies, and over the course of a journey it will change the way you look at watching movies. Love Streams reveals for me personally that even after nearly 800 of these films I still have things to discover and learn in the most unexpected places. I'm eternally grateful to Criterion for that, and whether you are doing what I'm doing or pick whatever you're in the mood for tonight, I hope you make an effort somewhere in your artistic consumption to force yourself out of your comfort zone.

Monday, January 25, 2016

#734: The Shooting

(Monte Hellman, 1966)

The Shooting is about the Kennedy assassination, which seems to me to be like saying the fish is about the '88 Olympics. Don't let this mystical analogy bother you, though, because this is a fine, unique Western that fits nicely into the Collection. Monte Hellman (who also made the cult-classic Two-Lane Blacktop) made the two Westerns in this collection back-to-back (they received individual spine numbers, and so will get individual posts) in 1966. Interestingly, neither received a wide theatrical release - they were bought out of festivals by a company that put them on television, which was the only place to see them until home video.

I haven't watched Ride in the Whirlwind yet, but I found The Shooting to be incredibly engrossing. The mystery at the center of it starts slowly and the simplicity of the plot is deceiving (there are only really four characters in the film, and they all maintain more or less the same purpose throughout the film with minimal evolution). But once it gets going it's quite suspenseful and tightly constructed.

The cast is also surprisingly strong for such a small production. Jack Nicholson, who had been working for ten years by then but was still three years away from his breakthrough role in Easy Rider, is the most famous actor in the small cast, and he plays his menacing but removed hitman with a mythic quality. Millie Perkins doesn't get much to do, but she delivers a sort of spoiled obstinance that in retrospect becomes determined obsession. But the film rests on Warren Oates's performance. Though he found reasonable success as a character actor before his early death, Oates had the charisma and screen persona of a Western star. If he had been born a few decades earlier I think he would have been huge, but it's nice to have this film to preserve his potential.

Although I'm ultimately at a loss to make the connection between the film and the Kennedy assassination, I find the surreal existential qualities of the ending (and what it means for the rest of the film) to be appealing in a Waiting for Godot sort of way. The film's deliberate march toward the final showdown turns it into a minimalist Western that transcends the cliches of the genre by consciously avoiding anything resembling a conventional story. It's not the masterpiece that similar deconstructionist Westerns were around the same era like The Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it is a nice complement to those films and deserves its place in the Collection as a crucial facet of the original film genre.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

#767: My Beautiful Laundrette

(Stephen Frears, 1985)

My Beautiful Laundrette has been on my "to-watch" list since I was 14 or so and first fell in love with The Grifters, still my favorite Stephen Frears film. I'm not sure why I never got around to it, although it may have something to do with the fact that I'm not a huge Daniel Day Lewis fan (I know) and the idea of a movie about a laundrette in Thatcher's England doesn't exactly scream "Party!" Regardless, I was pleased to see it pop up on the Criterion release schedule, as I was once again compelled to finally get around to one of those movies you never seem to get around to.

Frears is a craftsman director, someone at his best when the underlying quality - script, performances, source material - is there. He does a great job of not screwing up what shouldn't be screwed up - The Grifters comes from a great book with perfect casting and a tight script, for example. The Queen gets by entirely on the backs of Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen, who are both impeccable in a largely forgettable film. Dangerous Liasons belongs to John Malkovich. But his worst films are bad because he is unable to transcend the mediocre qualities that are already present at conception: Mary Reilly puts Julia Roberts in a Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde alternate telling. The Program takes a true story with Shakespearean potential and turns it into an HBO docudrama. Everything about Lay the Favorite.

My Beautiful Laundrette is one of the good ones because the script puts us in a world that is so fascinating and little seen. 80s London is a setting rich in potential for drama (or comedy for that matter), and the film weaves together a broad range of people to play in that world. The story touches on class, sexuality, crime, politics, family, immigration, and coming of age - there are probably five separate movies in here that have been mashed into one. It holds together, though, because it paints the world so vividly that none of the notes seem false or forced where they don't belong. Frears is the perfect kind of director for this material because he only brings as much style and interpretation to his films as the work demands, and here he mostly lets the two leads grab on and steer us through the storm.

Of course, Daniel Day Lewis is the most notable cast member here, and arguably the most notable thing about the movie. He does well, though the movie is really Omar's, and it's mostly an impressive performance because we know both how he is in real life and how he comes across in other roles. I wish there was less smugness to the way he plays Johnny here, but I appreciate his dedication to the accent.

This is a movie that belongs in the Collection, even if it's not a classic or near classic, because it's unique in both setting and subject and helped trigger a whole host of similar films in the next fifteen years (interestingly, this is the first Working Title film). As a quirky character study, it sits nicely next to the Mike Leigh and Aki Kaurismäki films in the Collection, though both are significantly more of an artist than Frears. But the added political and social context makes it stand alone.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

#713: Essential Jacques Demy

(Jacques Demy, 1961-1982)

Halfway through watching the films from The Essential Jacques Demy this fall, and despite the fact that all six main films in the box are available on Hulu, I bought the set. I did this partially because I got a great deal (40 bucks through a B&N eBay malfunction) but mostly because I wanted to see the rest of the movies in HD, particularly The Young Girls of Roquefort, and I was interested in the Varda extras. As much as I like Demy, I like Varda significantly more, so getting the chance to see a few documentaries by the filmmaker was an added bonus to owning Umbrellas on blu.

After watching the whole set, I'm very glad I made the purchase. I'm looking forward to making my way through the extras on each disc, but most importantly I know I'll revisit at least three of these movies: Lola is an early New Wave masterpiece that balances many of the great forward-thinking concepts at the heart of the movement with an entirely different kind of tone and life philosophy. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which I've seen a handful of times years ago - including once on the big screen!) is one of the great French films of the 1960s and perhaps one of the best musicals of all time. And finally, The Young Girls of Roquefort is a visual and musical delight, a great movie to watch with the subtitles off.

All Criterion boxsets belong to one of three categories: a complete filmography of a director, a trilogy or series of films tied together with one story, style, or theme, or a random assortment of films by one filmmaker. This Demy set belongs to the latter group, but unlike 3 Films by Malle or 4 By Varda, this is the only set to be titled The Essential. Considering the fact that the set contains a little less than half of the director's feature output, it's worth noting this title and wondering about the process by which they decided on these specific films. Obviously, the only glaring omission here is Model Shop, which is a somewhat sequel to Lola. Although the film is likely tied up in rights (it's out of print on DVD at the moment) it's also difficult to see that film's English-language, Los Angeles-set, Hollywood hippie vibe meshing well with the rest of this box, sequel or no. The rest of Demy's catalog lacks a film that would merit any serious objection to the labeling of this box as "essential" - if anything, there are a number of film nerds out there who would argue there are too many movies in this set.

It's very possible that Model Shop or perhaps one of Demy's 70s films could make their way to the Collection someday, but for now this set does seem like truth in advertising and it's nice to have gotten all of the films in one fell swoop instead of parceled out like Chaplin or Lloyd (though there are other obvious reasons - legal or not - for them to be more judicious with those releases). Because Demy's films were light and even in tragedy or melodrama lacked the thematic heft of his fellow Frenchmen (or even his French wife), they were often forgotten. This set feels like it rights that wrong with admirable style and efficiency.

Links to individual reviews:

714. Lola
715. Bay of Angels
716. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
717. The Young Girls of Rochefort
718. Donkey Skin
719. Une chambre en ville

#719: Une chambre en ville

(Jacques Demy, 1982)

Une chambre en ville is yet another wonderful example of the 1980s being unable to stand in for any other time period. Here, the 50s gets run through the 80s warp, but survives nicely enough. After all, this is not a movie you are going to mistake for reality any time soon - unless you and your friends go around singing instead of talking to each other.

I was going to explain my response to the film as it went on in this post, but then I read Aaron West's post on his Criterion Blues site and discovered that he had already had the exact same reaction to the singing and subsequent engrossing plot. There's nothing especially noteworthy about the story here, but it's told with just enough twists and turns to keep even the most violently anti-musical viewer interested. Like Aaron, I think the film loses something without the inclusion of Michel Legrand as composer, though I do think there are some strong recurring melodies here and the music never grates. I was much more involved in the intimate scenes of music, as it was pretty difficult to buy into the singing riot (musicals, amiright?) and casual speak-singing. But after about 30 minutes, I stopped caring too much about the fact that everyone was singing and just enjoyed the ride.

There is a huge gap between Donkey Skin and this movie in real time, easily the largest in the Criterion box. Demy made six features that are not included in the set. His first four films are in the box, but they jump over Model Shop, which is out of print but in English and owned by Sony, likely why it is not included here despite being a sequel of sorts to Lola. After Donkey Skin, the director's sixth film, Demy made three films before Une chambre en ville, one of which was in English and another two that don't get very good reviews (though A Slightly Pregnant Man seems to be considered a slight romp), and two films after, one of which was a documentary of sorts on Yves Montand. So on paper, Une chambre en ville fits together with the other films in this set better than anything else he made in the 70s or 80s. So the question is not why this one and not another, but rather why this one at all?

I think Criterion saw in Une chambre en ville a chance to look at Demy's late career approach to filmmaking that was largely informed by his previous work. The film doesn't just share the musical genre with most of his first run of films. The setting in Nantes is present, as are the technicolor palette (though it's intentionally subdued here) and the chance meetings that find the characters crossing paths (really only present here with Edith and Francois). Criterion has been dedicated to releasing later works by their core auteurs since the beginning, even if they are of lesser quality when compared to the masterpieces from the same directors. And the Ship Sails On, The Last Metro, and Identification of a Woman were all made around the same time as Une chambre en ville, and all are more noteworthy for how they inform earlier works by the same director than for their quality. Unlike those films, I don't think Demy's would have received a standalone release if they did not have enough films for this box available, but Demy is also less significant as a director than Fellini, Truffaut, or Antonioni (which is hardly an insult). As a work that sums up the films that came before it and works as a final standout of the director's career, however, it's a fine addition to the box and worthy of its spine number.

Monday, January 18, 2016

#718: Donkey Skin

(Jacques Demy, 1970)

Demy's career took another quick turn with Donkey Skin, a film that preserved his musical ambitions but settled into a sort of fractured Disney structure, matching a somewhat straightforward telling of a classic French fairy tale with both parody and adult-friendly winks at the camera. Although it doesn't reach the heights of any of the previous films in the Demy boxset - especially not those of Lola or Umbrellas, the two classics - it manages enough charm and visual vibrancy to carry it through its brief running time.

Of course, Donkey Skin can't be discussed without a mention of its rather distasteful main conflict, which revolves around a princess being forced to avoid her father's desire to marry her. Rather than being repulsed by the idea, the princess is dissuaded from the proposal by her fairy godmother, who sings her a happy tune about how fathers and daughters really shouldn't marry. Of course, the godmother has her own reasons for turning her friend off of the whole incest thing, which is a nice distraction from the fact that this is all a bit off, and anyway this is all just a French fantasy so lets just dismiss the whole thing.

Two things won me over during my viewing of Donkey Skin. The first, and most obvious, is the production design. Demy by this point was virtually identified by his technicolor palette, and Donkey Skin would not change anyone's mind about this characteristic. Everything from the impressive way he pulls off the various dresses made for the princess to the blue/red themes of the two major kingdoms in the film (horses, men, and various objects are covered in the respective colors) creates a fantastical universe to explore and get lost in. Demy takes a similarly liberal approach to cinematic tricks, deploying slow motion, rewind, and various other tricks whenever the urge arrives. It matches the film's imaginative story and playful tone nicely.

The second thing that got me wrapped up in the film was the wink Demy turned toward the audience. At one point, the princess's fairy godmother explains that her powers can sometimes run low, "like a battery," to which the princess quickly replies "what's a battery?" In the final moments of the film, the godmother and the princess's father arrive at the wedding in a helicopter Walker-style. In other moments, the film isn't as anachronistic as it is knowing, like in the cake-baking scene where Deneuve's performance nearly bubbles over, threatening to spill out of the pot into the fire of parody. I don't think the film needed these moments to carry it through, but in the same way that a Pixar film is bolstered by jokes that only adults will understand, Donkey Skin is a better movie because of this added layer.

There are definitely parts of the film that don't come off cleanly. The shifts in perspective are a bit frustrating, as the prince lacks any real charisma and even Marais as the king is fairly unlikeable (not only because he wants to sleep with his daughter), though the actor's presence links the film eternally with Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (the director's films are referenced throughout the film, as pointed out in the accompanying essay). So the film doesn't come off as well as the previous four films in the set, but it's nevertheless a fun ride and one that I imagine would reward multiple viewings for the production value alone.

Monday, January 11, 2016

#726: Macbeth

(Roman Polanski, 1971)

I usually know within about five minutes whether or not I'm going to like a Shakespeare adaptation. This might even be true of unconventional Shakespeare adaptations like Throne of Blood or 10 Things I Hate About You (incidentally, this is the only time those two movies have appeared in a sentence together) because you know if the choices the filmmakers made in order to tweak the story are working or not right away. But it's especially true of direct adaptations like Branagh's Hamlet or Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet (yes, it counts as a direct adaptation). Once you dive into a Shakespeare film, the tone, acting style, and directorial choices are almost immediately apparent, and because I know just about all the big Shakespeare plays reasonably well, you often see where it's going pretty quickly.

Polanski's Macbeth made a few impressions on me in the first stretch of the film that didn't change through the next two hours. First, it's remarkably filmed, with stark but oddly beautiful land stretching across the screen. It feels real and dirty in a way that the stage never can and that few film adaptations even attempt. Second, it's kind of just bloody in the way that Macbeth probably should be but that isn't as notable as it might have been in 1971. Third, and perhaps most important, the acting is naturalistic without standing out in any particular way. It didn't grab me the way Macbeth should (this is the only Shakespeare tragedy I really like), but maybe I just wasn't in the mood for Macbeth.

There was one thing I did really like about this film - the music is spectacular. I didn't know Third Ear Band (named after the legendary group Third Eye Blind) before watching the movie but love the progressive folk movement they were loosely affiliated with and plan on checking out more of their music.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

#291: Heaven Can Wait

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)

I recently rewatched one of my favorite movies for (surprisingly) the first time since I began this blog, so I thought I'd put down a few thoughts on what Heaven Can Wait means to me both as a work of cinema and on a purely emotional level.

I came to Ernst Lubitsch through the work of another significant director in my life's journey through cinema, the great Billy Wilder. My first exposure to Wilder came - like many budding cinephiles - from Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, but as I soon graduated to the impeccable The Apartment and Ninotchka, which he wrote for the director he idolized, Ernst Lubitsch. His stories of Lubitsch (including Wilder's famous office sign that read "How would Lubitsch do it?") clued me in to the high stature of the earlier director and gave Wilder a deep connection to early comedy and the original Hollywood. I loved Ninotchka, not so much for the brilliant but dated satire of communism and capitalism alike, but for the small, perfect moments that I would soon find out were examples of the "Lubitsch touch," that ineffable genius that would come to be bastardized but never equaled in screenplay writing through the rest of Hollywood history. Soon after I saw The Shop Around the Corner and To Be Or Not to Be, but in the 90s many of Lubitsch's movies were difficult to find - some, like the best, Trouble in Paradise, weren't even available on VHS.

One late night on TCM I came across Heaven Can Wait, a Lubitsch picture that was well-regarded in its time (Lubitsch and the picture were even nominated for Oscars), but had slipped into his second tier as the director had gone out of fashion and its stars had failed to attain the legendary status of Lubitsch luminaries like Greta Garbo and Jimmy Stewart (Ameche is now much better known for his later career as an older character actor in films like Trading Places and Cocoon, while Tierney - who made the absolute classic Laura right after this film - had a tragic decline in the 50s due to poor treatment for mental health issues). There have only been a handful of movies in my life that I've stumbled upon and loved as much as I loved Heaven Can Wait.

The movie is a sort of unconventional romantic comedy, in that it's a comedy and a romance, though it doesn't follow the typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-becomes-a-gorilla template of a romantic comedy. The entire movie is told from the perspective of Ameche's character after his death, where he makes the case to the devil why he should be in Hell. This is the kind of high concept premise for a movie that Lubitsch often used as a jumping off point, which is to say the movie isn't really about Henry Van Cleve getting into Hell anymore than My Dinner With Andre is about eating food. The Devil does have a few great lines, most notably "Sometimes it looks as if the whole world is coming to Hell." But it quickly transitions to Van Cleve's life story. It never gives up the narration, using it most often to transition from one segment of his life to another, and Lubitsch (and his screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson) uses Van Cleve's birthday as a anchor in each segment to tell the story, most elegantly with the use of ties as birthday presents as Henry gets older.

There are many great things about Heaven Can Wait, but the star of the film is Charles Coburn, who plays Van Cleve's grandfather. Coburn was one of the great character actors of all time and he steals every scene he's in here, even the ones with Eugene Pallett, another legendary actor who plays Van Cleve's father-in-law. Coburn almost never has a line come out of his mouth that is anything less than the best line in any other movie it would find itself in, and his character is the beating heart of the film. I love so many moments from Coburn - and often quote "And so farewell Mr. E.F. Strable, we'll take Martha, you keep Mabel!" - but the one I always come back to is when his son (and Ameche's father) declares that he would never even know where the backdoor of a show would be and he promptly replies "It's around the back, down an alley. You can't miss it." It's a great Lubitsch joke, but the way Coburn delivers the line with a mix of exasperation, condescension, and matter-of-fact honesty sells it so brilliantly that you wonder where talent like that has gone.

Coburn and Pallette (who has a great scene at his breakfast table) are eternally memorable in the film, but the rest of the supporting cast leaves the film with a wealth of riches. Allyn Joslyn as Albert is pitch-perfect as usual, but Signe Hasso as the French maid and Spring Byington, who was another great character actor from the era, have their moments, too. Gene Tierney was beautiful, but she never really had the screen presence of the top tier stars of the 40s. Still, her best scene here is when Ameche convinces her to run away with him (or so he thinks) and she breaks down in tears about the risk of living alone in Kansas and she nails it. Ameche, too, rises to the occasion, with a mile-a-minute delivery that sells his character's sly behavior as lovable and innocent.

It's this sly behavior that makes the film a complicated love story, though. When evaluating Van Cleve's philandering in the context of what is a memorable and moving love affair, two pieces of context need to be taken into account. First, Heaven Can Wait was made in the code era, when clear extramarital affairs needed to have clear consequences (see: Double Indemnity). This means that Van Cleve's indiscretions were destined to be a little vague. It's not entirely clear how far he goes either before or after he is married to Martha, though the implication is certainly there. Second, the film is told from Van Cleve's perspective as he makes his case to the devil, providing us with an unreliable narrator. This means that the way Martha is portrayed (an unflinching angel with the best of intentions) or the way Albert is portrayed (a clueless know-it-all with nothing but the short end of the stick) or really even the way Van Cleve himself is portrayed cannot be fully trusted. Now, of course, the film breaks this rule on multiple occasions, most notably when Martha runs away and we see her parents before her arrival and while Albert helps her return. And, as I mentioned before, Lubitsch is really using this framing device as a way to tell the story rather than as the intended thrust of the narrative. So the influence of both pieces of context are difficult to pin down. Perhaps the code wasn't a conscious barrier to the story Lubitsch wanted to tell, and perhaps Raphaelson never intended to lead the audience to believe Van Cleve was bending the story, and each scene was written without the second-hand nature of the telling in mind.

It's the love story itself that makes you want to believe that the code played no part but Van Cleve's storytelling made him out to be worse than he was. Henry and Martha seem so perfect for each other, so in love and so well-matched in what they want from life and what they can take in the other person, that you can't help but forgive Henry his indiscretions as much as Martha can. The final moment of the couple together dancing as their life together has passed by is one of the beautiful scenes in Lubitsch's career, and it caps off one of the great Hollywood love stories I've ever seen. If Henry is unfaithful to Martha, and if Martha was as perfect as she seems, then she knew it and didn't care, she was willing to accept the bad with the good, and isn't that enough for us to avoid judgement? Surely if Satan himself can do it we can, too.

The rest of the movie manages to balance the light and the deep with similar ease. The movie never stops delivering quick lines and delightful scenarios, but it also has a depth that the average comedy lacked even in the golden age of Hollywood. Lubitsch manages to show the evolution of New York from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century with ease, while the circular nature of the film's family lends weight to Henry's life arc. His son's indiscretions plant the seed for Henry's own realization about his youth, while his own maturing over the course of the film underscores the inevitably of life's forward pull. Like many movies of the era, Henry is a protagonist born into wealth who never has to worry a day in his life, but this is forgiven as another of his mild indiscretions. The concern of both Henry and the film is women, and anything else is merely a distraction.

Heaven Can Wait is one of the few movies I have actually suggested to Criterion - I did so way back in the early 2000s. I suggested it because I felt confident that Lubitsch was enough to get anyone's attention, and if they actually saw the thing it would be impossible to avoid falling in love with it. These many years later it still affects me in ways that are unexpected considering just how little any of it relates to my own life experience or relationship. That speaks to Lubitsch's ability to take something that is essentially a piece of craft and make it breathe. The director made better movies in his career, but none of them are closer to my heart than this one.

Friday, January 8, 2016

#790: Lady Snowblood

(Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Fuck yeah, Criterion!

Obviously one thing Criterion does well is Samurai movies. But they are almost entirely high profile "fancy pants" samurai movies like Yojimbo or Harakiri. Lady Snowblood isn't technically a samurai movie, but it's set during the samurai era, and it is most definitively not fancy pants. This is a film in the tradition of the Blaxploitation films being made concurrently in the US and belongs to the pulpy masses of Japanese films I was initially exposed to by the Wu Tang Clan, though it is far superior to most of those films in technical quality. The film features plenty of spurting blood, an older master training the main character from birth, and a story of revenge that is uniquely Japanese but juicy enough to be at home in any country's genre tradition.

This made its inclusion in the Collection a bit odd to some, since this area of film history is usually covered by genre labels that do a great job with similar movies. But Criterion has never shied away from cult films, whether it's as early as Carnival of Souls or as recent as House. The quality of this film probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two movies, but while I was expecting a fun, tightly constructed thriller from this movie, I didn't expect it to be nearly as freewheeling when it came to filmmaking as it was. There are plenty of stylistic touches here that make the film that much more fun to watch - the photo montages, the freeze frames, the comic, the evocative cuts and poetic framing. The director, Toshiya Fujita, was actually best-known for his films about young people (he also made sex films at Nikkatsu), and these are the only films in this action style that he made. His style is particularly impressive given the film's low budget.

The last thing to mention about Lady Snowblood is the music. "Shura No Hana" is the theme song over the title credits (sung by Lady Snowblood herself), and it's just an incredible pop song. The music throughout the film is excellent, and it ups the film's production value considerably. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel.

Finally, it's virtually impossible at this point to talk about Lady Snowblood and not mention Tarantino's Kill Bill, which was not so much a remake of the film as it was deeply inspired by it. Like Lady Snowblood, Uma Thurman's character is out for revenge, which is accomplished in a series of battles with the people who wronged her. Tarantino took a lot from the film's style as well, from the use of different mediums and a pop soundtrack to the cartoonish violence and chapter headings. He even overtly acknowledges his source material by including the theme song in the film. But only someone intending to dismiss Tarantino would declare Kill Bill merely a ripoff. As in Tarantino's other films (many of which have similarly borrowed concepts or plotlines), the director brings his own storytelling style and post-modern sensibility to the film. This allows anyone watching either movie to enjoy it on its own terms, and I noted the similarities between Snowblood and Kill Bill, which I saw first, only as a fun connection while watching this film, like hearing a song that RZA had sampled for a classic Wu Tang song.

Monday, January 4, 2016

#765: The Black Stallion

(Carroll Ballard, 1979)

The Black Stallion seems like a surprising choice for Criterion on paper. Made in the late 70s by Coppola's short-lived studio and a little-known (but underrated) director, the film is a fairy tale for the 8-12 set. Yet even a cursory viewing makes it clear why this release has a wacky C in the corner of its cover: this is a serious work of cinema, and one of the most beautiful films in the collection.

The story of The Black Stallion is divided into two halves, and while the protagonist of the film is a young boy, the stars of their respective halves are the stallion himself and Mickey Rooney as the trainer. The first half, which opens on a ship off the coast of Africa before a shipwreck leaves the young boy alone on an island with the horse, features a powerful story from the boy's father, a terrifying disaster sequence, and finally a mostly wordless sequence on the beach where the boy and the horse become inseparable. This sequence is obviously the great challenge of the film, and Ballard and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel (Zooey's and Emily's father), rise to the occasion. Although two scenes jump as particularly memorable - the horse saving Alec from a snake and Alec finally mounting the horse - it's the rest of the action that is most impressive because they manage to make small moments and stunning scenery engrossing without a flashy style.

The second half of the film turns into a more typical underdog sports film, which makes it less appealing. It's saved from cliche by Rooney's performance and Ballard's determination to do things different and take his time with the characters. The drama is focused intently on Alec and his horse, leaving little room for the typical melodrama that we're accustomed to in this sort of movie. Furthermore, the visuals stay beautiful and inventive - I love the way the final race is shot and edited, moving back and forth from long side shots where Black appears to be gliding through space and over the shoulder shots moving at breakneck speed with thundering hooves underneath. I'm glad I got to see this on blu-ray, as Criterion's transfer is absolutely stunning, particularly in moments of quick movement like the final race (though I love the colors of the film throughout). There's not much in the way of suspense or significant insight in these final scenes of the film, but the gentle way the story has been told leaves the viewer satisfied anyway.

It doesn't take more than a quick glance at Ballard's IMDB page to see that his career has been a challenging one. With just six films spread over four decades, Ballard saw little commercial success and paid the price with irregular work and a pigeonholing of his talents as a children's movie director with an emphasis on animal stories. The interview Scott Foundas does with Ballard on the Criterion disc is interesting and informative, but Ballard definitely comes off as a little bitter about the way his career went. The three child/animal films that make up half of his feature output (this, Fly Away Home, and Duma) are all superior kids films that depict relationships with animals that are virtually the exact opposite of the anthropomorphic creatures that make up today's "family" film landscape. Ballard treats Duma and Black with a dignity and respect in their films that is the equal of his treatment of his young viewers - these are not movies meant to condescend or cater to adolescents, but are instead challenging, mystical, and wondrous depictions of youth and man's place in nature. This is not an easy thing to do and it is not encouraged in today's family landscape, where movies need to appeal to viewers from 5 to 95. It's what makes Ballard's films so valuable. The Black Stallion is a particularly beautiful example in this regard.

Friday, January 1, 2016

#717: The Young Girls of Rochefort

(Jacques Demy, 1967)

Criterion calls The Young Girls of Rochefort "an effervescent confection" in their description of the film, and it's hard to put it more accurately than that. Visually the film has much in common with its immediate predecessor The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Demy's most famous film and a true classic of French cinema, and it also shares the musical genre with that film. But the themes of The Young Girls of Rochefort are nearly identical to those of Demy's first film, the marvelous Lola. Both films weave multiple romantic and familial threads together on the coast of France to tell a story of chance and fate that delights as often as it surprises. Here, however, the B&W drama has been replaced with technicolor music, and while some of the artistic impact has been lost in transition, the sheer pleasure of the thing remains and perhaps has even improved.

As I've mentioned before on this site, I'm not a huge fan of musicals, though I can pick out the ones I love when I see them. One of the thing that immediately won me over in The Young Girls of Rochefort was the style of the music - any pop nerd like me knows that 60s French pop was one of the peaks of the genre, and artists like Serge Gainsbourg, Francois Hardy, and Jacques Brel (who was technically Belgian but whatever) informed a strand of pop that turned seriously avant and cutting edge in subsequent decades. Michel Legrand was on the outskirts of this movement, with one foot firmly in the jazz world, but his work here has many echoes of the popular music in France of the time, and it's seriously awesome, the kind of stuff that transcends the cheesy reputation of musical theater.

The story of The Young Girls of Rochefort is largely enjoyable, though no one generates the kind of sympathy that Lola does in Demy's earlier film - it's never unclear here that you're watching a movie rather than peeking in on the lives of characters. In fact, the next time I watch The Young Girls of Rochefort I plan on turning off the subtitles, and I recommend anyone reading this do the same at least for one round of viewing - perhaps even the first. Sure there are some great plot threads that get tied together and a few brief stretches of notable dialogue. But the vast majority of the film is enjoyable but inessential lyrics quickly tossed at the viewer to distract them from the wonderful music and striking visuals.

It's funny, I'd only ever seen Umbrellas before watching any of the other films in this set - in fact, I'd only heard of Lola before the box was announced. For one reason or another the former film exists outside of Demy's catalog, the masterpiece that rises above the rest of his presumably pedestrian output. His second most noteworthy claim to fame was being married to the great Agnes Varda, and that was that. Yet this set recasts the director as a forward-thinking auteur who had a particular point of view from the beginning, even as he refined his delivery system throughout the 60s. I'm very much looking forward to the next two films (even though they are considered less effective than the first two thirds of the set) and The Young Girls of Rochefort is an easy recommendation for anyone open to the music and style of the 60s, even if the filmmaking prowess on display is not likely to grab them the way it would anyone who appreciates a professionally and lovingly made film.