Friday, December 17, 2010

Cine-File is taking a break for the holidays. In the meantime, here is a small selection of capsules I wrote for 'em in the last six months.


Accomplices (Frederic Mermoud, 2009)
Frederic Mermoud's Accomplices intercuts a Gilbert Melki/Emmanuelle Devos policier in gray and brown with a mild case of l'amour fou in red and gold. Two sets of partners (the film's English title when it played festivals), one set professional, the other romantic and criminal. The result is something like an unusually arty episode of Law & Order: SVU (complete with hustlers), but anyone familiar with the SVU formula knows that that's not as bad as it sounds. The film's strengths lie in Devos--her relationship with her partner is actually more interesting that the crime they're investigating, and not merely the kind of "character development" window-dressing you usually find in these kinds of mid-budget thrillers--and unlike most actresses cast as police officers, her half-maternal/half-resolved face actually makes her look like a cop.

Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)
Sam Fuller's eccentric second feature is a talky, largely action-less Lippert Western nearly as baroque as his 1989 nightmare-fest Street of No Return. Vincent Price (!) at his most feline plays James Reavis, the 19th century conman who concocted a complicated scheme (which included, amongst other things, becoming a monk) to lay claim to the entirety of Arizona. Co-written by Fuller and novelist Homer Croy (provider of the source material for Frank Borzage's Will-Rogers-as-a-country-bumpkin-on-the-Continent movie They Had to See Paris, home of cinema's most disarming Ku Klux Klan joke), it's probably the only one of Fuller's American movies that could conceivably be called a comedy, though it's much weirder than that. Fuller's brings out the goofiness in Price's creepy charm, pitching Reavis somewhere between anti-hero dreamer and mincing pedophile. The whole thing was shot in two weeks, and it looks like it, though in the best possible ways: Fuller and cinematographer James Wong Howe seem to have decided to work briskly but patiently, with scenes pieced together from carefully lit and framed shots interspersed with a lot of explanatory narration.

Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur, 1948)
The Double RR Rule: movies with railroads are always at the very least interesting and movies with Robert Ryan in them are always good, so a movie with both RRs must, by definition, be great. After starting with one of the director's best-known films (Cat People), the Music Box's Jacques Tourneur matinee series delves deeper into the catalog for its second week and pulls out this excellent though rarely talked about post-war thriller, which happens to be a Double RR. After a bomb explodes aboard a Berlin-bound train, Merle Oberon (visual ace Lucien Ballard's wife and muse at the time) engages the help of four fellow passengers in unraveling the plot: an American who's just arrived in Europe to work for the occupation forces (Robert Ryan), a French businessman and former resistance fighter (Charles Korvin), a talkative British teacher (Robert Coote) and a taciturn Russian war hero (Roman Toporow). As Berlin Express comes squarely in middle of the 40-year period when location shooting was fairly uncommon in American movies (and was in fact the first American production made in Europe after World War II), the movie finds Tourneur and Ballard taking every low angle they can, framing characters against touristy vistas and ruined architecture while also throwing in subtle detailing and narrative expediency via numerous tracking shots. The Wellesian narration by Mercury Theater company player Paul Stewart was RKO's idea, but it gives the movie a hypnotic quality, and much of the train sequence -- including Stewart's second-person monologue, addressed to Ryan's Yankee abroad -- would be borrowed wholesale by Lars Von Trier for Europa.

The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930)
In his first starring role, the slim, young John Wayne (just 23 years old!) is conventionally handsome, almost Elvis-like. The physical characteristics of the Duke's future tough-guy image (a swaggering walk, a careening feline voice) conspire against the youth's slighter build, making him into a gawky pretty-boy with a comically over-pronounced drawl. He's also not yet a great actor, a little too community theater; he hasn't yet learned how to give words weight, only how to make them sound good. But the lead's shortcomings don't drag The Big Trail down; instead, they just become part of the fabric of this strange Oregon Trail Western. One of the earliest Hollywood films to be shot in widescreen, it has a certain anachronistic quality, looking equally 1920s and 1950s (or, even more accurately, like the kind of movie a Silent Era director would make given mid-century technology) while sounding firmly early 30s, the crisp 70mm images contrasting with the muddy mono early-talkie soundtrack. Fox's ad copy of the time billed this as "the most important picture ever produced," and though that's a pretty big exaggeration, there's a lot to be said for a film that marries a story of frontier adventure with an adventure to the frontier of aesthetics. Even in an era marked by unmatched inventiveness (the dawn of sound), The Big Trail stands out; the film speaks a language entirely its own, one with strong emphases on scale and dioramic depth, put to beautiful use in an early scene where Wayne shows off his considerable knife-throwing skills amidst a tableau vivant of onlookers.

Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010)
Neil Marshall's typically termitic new movie pits glum and largely interchangeable Roman men against two infuriatingly independent Pictish women and a lot of grisly gorehound violence. Michael Fassbender's the ostensible lead, getting to do a few weird variations on his Hunger role during the torture scenes, but it's really all about Olga Kurylenko (one facial expression: dismissive anger) as the film's equivalent of the "treacherous Indian scout" and Imogen Poots (a downright lovely face + a surname to make 10-year-olds titter) as the village witch. The writer/director's usual men vs. women dynamics (or, more accurately, characters governed by allegiances and social conventions against characters governed by principles) get a good workout, and there's almost enough ridiculously-hard-boiled dialogue and narration to qualify this as a "Roman noir." While Marshall's last movie, Dommsday, achieved a surprising coherence while trying to be a different movie in every scene (Mad Max, a Daniel Craig-era James Bond, Aliens, V for Vendetta, Excalibur), Centurion goes all over the place while trying to mostly be Gladiator (another point of reference in Doomsday), including some late Studio Era-style establishing shots which look like matte paintings even though they're not and a few handheld sequences that wouldn't look out of place in Un Lac.

Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)
With its precise control of perspective, midway reversal of sympathy, and mordant humor, this thriller about a boy and his psychic car is the John Carpenter movie that most thoroughly shows the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on the director. A bullied teenager (Keith Gordon, a dead ringer for C-F's own Ben Sachs) pours all of his time and money into restoring a sinister 1957 Plymouth Fury that then proceeds to help him realize his repressed urges; Carpenter's use of ironically-placed pop songs, editing, a superb supporting cast (including lifelong old coots Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossom), color, and rain machines turns this Stephen King-originated story of ordinary folks confronting absolute evil (embodied largely by lens flares and the color red) into a battle of formal elements.

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)
The Nazi-run film Continental Films might've taken its production orders from Joseph Goebbels, but it must have had one heck of a lazy oversight committee, considering it let slip three bleak anti-Occupation films in 1943 alone: Maurice Tourneur's Le Val d'Enfer, André Cayatte's blatantly Socialist Zola adaptation Shop Girls of Paris and, most famously, Le Corbeau. Actually, Le Corbeau is so bleak and bitter, it passed for an anti-Resistance film and got lead actor Pierre Fresnay imprisoned for six months after the Liberation. A big ball of Gallic gall, Clouzot's poison-pen drama centers on a series of anonymous letters that implicate the citizens of an anonymous town in all sorts of indiscretions. The director's misanthropic wit treats the thriller characters as something close to comic types and turns the town into a carousel of caricatures; accusations go 'round and 'round against the backdrop of André Andrejew's carefully detailed production design.

Devil (John Erick Dowdle, 2010)
Conceived as something like a PG-13 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, this quickie belongs to a now-rare breed of simple but never pandering American entertainment that flourished in the mid-20th century and has been steadily disappearing since. A few consummate pros (producer M. Night Shyamalan, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto) and a lot of talented unknowns (most of the cast, composer Fernando Velázquez) come together for an 80-minute horror film set mostly in an elevator and an office building's control room. Like Shyamalan's own THE HAPPENING, this is an extended tribute to pre-1970s American horror and science fiction, set in the producer's favorite city (an overcast Philadelphia) and colored by his secular applications of Christian morality and Catholic fear. (It should be noted that, while the allegorical Christian overtones of his films are fairly blatant, Shyamalan was raised Hindu and appears to have remained so into adulthood). An effective horror film and police procedural, Devil's first half would make a surprisingly good double-bill with any of the films in the Music Box's current Jacques Tourneur matinee series. Its final scene, however, would work best with Tourneur's Stars in My Crown.

Experiment Perilous (Jacques Tourneur, 1944)
George Brent, looking and sounding like a cultured bear, turns to the man who is pointing a loaded revolver at him: "I once said you were logical, even brilliant...but you are also mad." A major Tourneur with only a minor reputation, this somewhat labyrinthine RKO production is set in three distinct places at once: (1) at the dawn of psychiatry; (2) in a late-Gothic version of 1903 New York; (3) in a universe where life is the surface formed by an endless series of ambiguities that defer reality. From its bizarre opening, where Brent is approached by a woman (Olive Blakeney) he believes to be crazy, to its multiple narrators and movements through time, Experiment Perilous glides through a world where sanity is always in doubt. As the plot unfolds (or maybe, more accurately, folds in on itself), Brent's easygoing psychiatrist gets wrapped up in the life of a married couple (Hedy Lamarr and Paul "poor man's Adolphe Menjou" Lukas) and the question of Lamarr's sanity, all of which somehow leads to him tumbling down a spiral staircase in a burning house.

The Fearmakers (Jacques Tourner, 1958)
Devious Commies are taking over the PR firms of America! What should be a silly bit of Red Scare fear-mongering--dumb fun, at best--is put through the Tourneur wringer and emerges as lean conspiracy-horror. Dana Andrews (who refused to do the film unless Tourneur directed it) returns from a POW camp to a vaguely-defined, cardboard-looking Washington, DC and begins to suspect that Communist agents have infiltrated the city. The Americanism is even more surreal than in Leo McCarey's somewhat similar My Song John (the final shot frames two people kissing in from of the Lincoln Memorial in such a way that they appear to be jointly fellating Honest Abe's marble head), and Tourneur paradoxically makes the film more ambiguous by making the Communist conspiracy unambiguously real. Unlike in the director's "subtler" films, the fixations on perception here are so literally stated (the first scene post-credits is of Andrews getting an eye exam) that they offer the idea that Tourneur did for the mind what Cronenberg would later do for the body.

Film Ist. A Girl & A Gun (Gustav Deutsch, 2009)
An exemplary entry in the burgeoning subgenre known as The Film That Tells You Things You Already Know About Cinema, in this case "early cinema is haunting," "death is everywhere," "images can be re-contextualized," and "films communicate with/echo one another." Deutsch assembles an hour-and-a-half's worth of footage from the late 19th to the mid-20th century -- some of it recognizable, some obscure -- according to a loose thematic framework. Godard's work from the last 30 or so years is the main point of reference -- right down to the obsession with war and the classical quotations -- but Deutsch's montage and presentation is at once more literal and less complex. The work of a "good student," it's nothing new but also completely right-on, and that's more or less the point.

Killer's Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955)
Stanley Kubrick's arty boxing noir was made on a shoestring budget, with the director also serving as sole screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor. On the one hand, this makes it the most "totally controlled" film of a director who tried to have his hand in every aspect of his movies; on the other, it's also clearly the work of young man still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life (besides imitate Max Ophüls, that is). What comes through most strongly, more than on any of his other films, is Kubrick's background as a magazine photographer. Though the plot, which finds a down-on-his-luck welterweight trying to save a girl from a vicious crook, is ripe for pulp and scuzziness (original tagline: "Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared vengeance!"), Kubrick largely avoids the lurid in favor of a pictorial distance. Rather than giving the impression that he's lived with the characters, as someone like Raoul Walsh would, Kubrick treats every scene like a profile assignment that has tasked him with photographing some local personality he'll never meet again. While this often makes the film feel almost disarmingly reserved, it also gives Killer's Kiss this weird quality of seeming to start over again with every scene, and Kubrick gets at a lot of photo-spread style visual details by treating the characters he's created as total strangers.

The King Steps Out (Josef von Sternberg, 1936)
Josef von Sternberg never took anything lightly, making him the last person anyone would expect to direct a ditzy royal romance about a princess who'd rather milk cows; however, this little-known auteurist oddity demonstrates that the director's harsh compositions and lurid lighting made a good match for breakneck breezy comedy. Operatic soprano Grace Moore was a lot better at singing than she was at acting, but her shortcomings as the lead are more than made up for by an able (and ably-directed--von Sternberg's expressive visuals have long overshadowed his distinctive, sometimes angular direction of actors) cast that includes Franchot Tone as an emperor who talks like a world-weary Depression-era millionaire; she acts like she's on stage, he acts like he's in a screwball comedy. There are the usual mistaken-identity intrigues and a bit of singing--though, as in The Scarlet Empress, the incompatible accents of the actors (ranging from "Mid-Atlantic" to "Southern gentleman" to "cartoon German") form a music of their own.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Shane Black's gimmicky, giddy directorial debut Frankensteins together a mid-period action movie and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? into a lot of smartly-executed dumb fun. Robert Downey, Jr. (in what could be called "the Tony Randall role") plays a New York thief who stumbles into a Hollywood satire and in the process of getting whisked off to LA gets entangled in a thriller plot that involves his childhood crush (Michelle Monaghan) and hard-boiled private eye Gay Perry (Val Kilmer). Black has a grating tendency to "cynically" mock his own crowd-pleasing plot mechanics (before, of course, indulging in them), but he makes up for it with a strong command of formal gags, including Downey's self-aware narration, which would seem post-modern if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the cartoon humor of the 1950s.

The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, 2007)
Georges Bataille: "Paradoxically, intimacy is violence, and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual." Giovanna Mezzogiorno's descent into madness in the second half of Vincere takes that line as a suggestion, but the relationship that accepts it as a rule is the one between The Last Mistress' Ryno and Vellini, which begins as l'amour fou and then plunges into oblivion. It's the first half of the 19th century; Ryno, played by Fu'ad Aït Aattou (Louis Garrel's self-importance + Ashton Kutcher's smugness), is a handsome fop set to marry a wholesome girl from a wealthy family. However, he has a bad reputation, and one evening he sits down with his bride's grandmother to tell the story of the last ten years of his life in an attempt to prove that he's changed his ways. That account is largely the story of his all-consuming, sometimes abusive, eventually insane affair with Vellini (Asia Argento), professional mistress, woman of ill repute, and the love of his life, whether he accepts it or not. An enticing enigma, Vellini, like those characters in Godard's early films that base their entire lives on movie-images, has a head full of paintings, and contorts herself into the shape of an inviting Goya or a tragic Fuseli for the men around her. And it's here that we return to that Bataille line and the paradox of Ryno and Vellini's relationship, which revolves around the two constantly switching places as to which one is incapable of imagining the other as anything but an extension of themselves (as, in essence, an image). Whenever Ryno breaks free (or thinks he has), Vellini is there like a ghost to drag him back into Hell. Argento--with that gap between her teeth and those too-broad shoulders and that deep voice)--is almost as scary as Beatrice Dalle here, and looks a good fifteen years older than the boyish Aattou (in reality, it's only 5); her performance, one of the greatest of the last twenty or so years, is a catalogue of leans, saunters, careful turns of the neck and shoulders that explode into feral fits. You can never tell whether she's going to fuck Aattou or stab him (sometimes it's both). Catherine Breillat's reputation may be that of a "provocateur," but her real vitality as a director/screenwriter lies in the best (or maybe the only good) kind of academicism: she's a subtext-miner and analyst. That's why her two best films, which also happen to be her two most recent ones, are both adaptations of well-established works: Bluebeard (which screened at this year's EU Fest) and this one. Breillat may not have much pure imagination (Anatomy of Hell, Fat Girl and Romance all seem to be self-conscious texts in search of a plot), but she has something almost as good: an imaginative intelligence. That's more or less The Last Mistress in a nutshell: a masterwork of imaginative intelligence, of counter-point, as much on Argento's part as on Breillat's.

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, 2009)
The simplest techniques can often have the most complex results. The Cliff Notes structure and rigid shot-reverse-master approach of Life During Wartime makes it an uncommonly transparent movie: it's always clear not only how the scenes fit together (why the dead boyfriend shows up, why Charlotte Rampling talks to Ciaran Hinds, why the existence of certain characters is ambiguous) and how they relate to previous scenes, but how each was filmed. Since abandoning pretensions to being Woody Allen (Fear, Anxiety & Depression), Todd Solondz has set out to become the American Bertrand Blier instead, producing his own Un, Deux, Trois, Soleil! (Palindromes) as well as films marked by Blierian cleverness (Storytelling), ugliness (Welcome to the Dollhouse), and weary distance (Happiness). But Solondz is too forgiving and too eager to present himself as an uncynical naïf to be blunt and mean; that, in turn, is what makes him Solondz instead of (merely and completely) the American Bertrand Blier. Wartime, which stands with the first part of Storytelling as Solondz's best work, is both his most formally aware and least self-conscious movie; maybe this is because Solondz no longer worries about being accused of "formalism" and because the various conceits (ghosts, changes in lighting, clear statements of theme and purpose, "dialogue" and "monologue" as crisply delineated as "wide shot" and "close-up") are less forced than the relative naturalism of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Through its bullshit-less clarity, through its paring away of everything that doesn't relate to its clearly stated ideas, Wartime becomes both Solondz's most nuanced statement of his artistic intentions (and simple morals) and his most direct and entertaining feature.

Little Big Horn (Charles Marquis Warren, 1951)
Probably best known for its inclusion in Manny Farber's famous/notorious/seminal "'Best Films' of 1951" round-up, this cheapie Lippert Western (was there any other kind?) marked the directorial debut of the vastly-underrated Charles Marquis Warren, a man of wealthy, cultured origins (F. Scott Fitzgerald was his godfather) who realized that he simply preferred to write pulp cowboy and soldier stories. Of course he could never shake those high-brow East Coast origins, and what should have been just a quick Custer's Last Stand retelling instead becomes a languid drama heavy on psychological details; the indoor mise-en-scene is almost Fassbinderian in its careful framing of actors and use of mirrors, while the outdoor scenes have a shadowy naturalism. In many ways, this is the first Late Western, and its sparing use of action paradoxically makes it all the more tense. This is artful filmmaking that never resorts to cheap artiness.

Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934)
Robert Flaherty may not have actually invented the documentary, but he invented Werner Herzog, and as is often the case, the original is better than the copy. Bouregois fantasies of marginalization, all of Flaherty's best films are morally problematic (if not outright reprehensible), and yet every one of them is an enduring work of art, redeemed by what could be called Flaherty's unconscious poetic urge. Flaherty tries to convey the ethnographic fact of his subjects but fails, and in his romanticism is instead guided to a greater basic truth . Flaherty's early fixation with human hardship reaches its apex with Man of Aran, in which the director arranges a villageful of poor Irishmen into fictional families, anachronistic pageants and staged "actualities" (the shark-hunting at the center of the film's most famous sequences hadn't been practiced since the 19th century) that create striking metaphors for his own sense of human smallness. Inauthentic and totally true.

Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920)
Typical Douglas Fairbanks fun. This year's Silent Summer Festival is pretty heavy on the Fred Niblo, and after last week's Ben-Hur they're presenting The Mark of Zorro, a bit of breezy swashbuckling hokum in which costumed Fairbanks fences and leaps his way across a variety of tableaux while dodging an army of endless identical henchmen. In its action scenes, Zorro scampers along with the fervor of a Méliès trick film, though the movie and its multi-level sets still owes more to the idea of spectacle prevalent in late 19th century theater than do, ironically, the theater-influenced films of D.W. Griffith (it's more photographed action than images); Niblo's relentlessly immobile frame gives the movie the entertaining/hypnotic quality of watching someone play the original Prince of Persia at quadruple speed (more correctly, it's the other way around, though then you get into the complicated, possibly tenuous link between 19th century theater and video games).

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (Jean-François Richet, 2008)
First thought after the end of Mesrine: Killer Instinct: "Can't Jean-François Richet do better?" Sure, Killer Instinct was smart, because Richet is a smart guy and smart guys don't make dumb movies. But smart's just what lets you look good in a suit or know the right answer to each (aesthetic) question. Killer Instinct was exciting and sometimes entertaining and usually well acted. It was better than The Expendables and yet somehow less interesting -- a lot of male chauvinist hokum, but without Stallone's hysteria or the usual Richet verve. Public Enemy No. 1, the second part of Richet's bank robber diptych, is a vast improvement. Better action, better pacing, sillier disguises, better direction. But more importantly, the grain of salt with which Richet and lead actor Vincent Cassel seemed to be taking everything their anti-hero said and did in the first film has been upgraded to a pervasive incredulity. Irony has given way to an actual moral stance: they've gotten to the essence of the character, and to what exactly is wrong with Mesrine, a criminal who struggles harder with his own public image than with the police (represented here by Olivier Gourmet, barely recognizable in Captain Ahab make-up). Oddly enough, the result is more self-contained than the first film (it helps that it's more substantial, that it actually has an ending and that it's 15 minutes longer); while it seems hard to take Killer Instinct seriously without Public Enemy No. 1, it's possible to think that Public Enemy No. 1is a great film without having seen the preceding one. The big male supporting role here, instead of a slimy and near-spherical Gerard Depardieu, is Matthieu Amalric. Like the film itself, Depardieu's performance in Killer Instinct was both enjoyable and underwhelming, largely because Depardieu (like his American equivalent Robert De Niro) has become "a real pro"; there's no adventure left in his acting, which can't be said of nervy Amalric, who still acts like he has something to prove.

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (Norman Taurog, 1934)
A classic case of cinematic disruption: two eminent vulgarians of American film--W.C. Fields and Norman Taurog--meet in the final act of a Thanksgiving tearjerker. Alice Hegan Rice's perennially-adapted turn-of-the-century bestseller is the source material, and as usual, it's corny, condescending treacle--though vastly improved, enlivened, etc. by stage star Pauline Lord (who originated the lead in O'Neill's Anna Christie and would only appear in one other film) in the title role, giving a proto-Mike Leigh performance as the impoverished matriarch we're expected to cry with even as we laugh at her pathetic little life and the stupid names she's given her children. For the first hour or so, there's a discomforting tension between Taurog's expertise as a director and the seething contempt he seems to hold much of the plot in; for "heartwarming" fare, this sure has a lot of mean-spirited jokes, with (suspiciously Fields-esque) targets including dogs, sick horses, and drunkards. Fields doesn't show up until the last 20 minutes, but when he does, he punctures the drama, which deflates like a bicycle tire. What follows is a reel or so of concentrated, nasty comedy, which sidelines what should be the film's climax in favor of gags and barbs (literal and figurative).

Nayak (Satyajit Ray, 1966)
Satyajit Ray's famous realism is more literary than pictorial/dramatic, and it manifests itself in the fact that he takes his goddamn time. Robin Wood once rightly called Ray the best director of children, but he also happens to be the best director of the infirm elderly, and the only director in whose cinema they don't seem out of place. Part of that may be that Ray's directing is defined by patience towards his subjects; if it takes a while for someone to stand up, he can wait. The easy thing to say is that Ray made 2 1/2 hour "70-minute films," devoting images, ideas, and details (location, characterization, custom) to the sorts of plots even the most concerned filmmakers wouldn't think warranted the running time (the oft-repeated story is that François Truffaut walked out of Pather Panchali's world premiere). But that only makes his films sound bloated, when in fact they're lean, and it's possible that no other filmmaker hinted better at the complexity of the world without ever pointing it out. Ray's a "problem filmmaker," not a "solution filmmaker," and, like all of his best films, Nayak uses its excess of scenes to complicate what should be a simple story. A train ride undertaken by a famous actor is the launching point for a profusion of dreams, flashbacks, conversations, social miniatures, and interviews through which a group of what at first appear to be one-dimensional characters (the Actor, the Nosy Reporter, the Fan, the Old Crank Who Steals the Show, etc.) become part of a larger framework that explores the way the past shapes present selves.

Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949)
If you're ever wondered what would happen if you combined lurid camp and a profound work of art -- and don't feel like watching Showgirls -- there's Anthony Mann's intensely weird reworking of the French Revolution as a film noir horrorshow, Reign of Terror (appropriately, considering the Verhoeven comparison, it's also known as The Black Book). Made on Poverty Row, this B costume drama eschews the conventions of historical spectacle in favor of nearly abstract backgrounds and harsh low-angle close-ups, inventing a world dominated by monstrous faces; pretty much everyone looks 100 feet tall. The action of the ludicrous plot is expanded upon to such a degree by Mann and cinematographer John Alton's shadow-crisscrossed images that the aesthetics of the film nearly become an Eisensteinian statement about political history in and of themselves--but not before the inevitable Expressionist breakdown, where the actors cease to be characters and become silent-movie primal urges amidst a burning Paris and then, like werewolves, turn back into characters for the jokey final scene.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover (Raoul Walsh, 1956)
Floorshow musical numbers, real estate, World War II, garish color, a woman's inability to escape her past -- yeah, this sounds an awful lot like Fassbinder's Lola, but while the two movies share certain ingredients, the directors make all the difference: Fassbinder's characters are at the mercy of society, while Walsh's are at the mercy of their own shortcomings, and while Lola eventually comes to realize that she's just another cog in some old and very complicated machinery, Mamie fights tooth and nail to get what she wants (part of this might also be the directors' opposing views of the roles harshly imposed by gender: entwined for Fassbinder, eternally opposed for Walsh, equally fatalistic in both cases). The "accepted wisdom" on The Revolt of Mamie Stover has long been that's it's Walsh's male self-damnation/self-redemption dynamics applied to a female character, but the character of Mamie (Jane Russell), the woman-of-ill-repute-turned-war-profiteer "born with nothing and raised with lots more of the same," is too firmly a product of a particularly vicious kind of sexual politics to be a mere transposition. A mean, sometimes lurid movie in which everything--especially the morality--is measured by degrees of ugliness.

A Romance of Happy Valley (D.W. Griffith, 1919)
A prototypical "small" (which is not to say "minor") Griffith, based on a story authored by the director under the pseudonym of "Captain Victor Marier" -- a fake identity so goddamn Griffithian, it borders on self-parody (dead giveaway: one of the film's first intertitles uses "atmosphere" as a verb). Lillian Gish (duh) plays the girl who waits while her foolhardy boy runs off to the city. Griffith is well known for his Victorian density, but like many of the director's largely under-appreciated pastoral films, this is unfettered and direct; though the movie is often described as "nostalgia," the Kentucky setting is presented too critically (and intelligently) to qualify as such.

Sky Without Stars (Helmut Käutner, 1955)
The characters in Helmut Käutner's early films, more pre-war French than Third Reich German, exist in puckish spite of national politics. With the division of Germany after the war, the romantic realist (who owed more to Zola, Maupassant and Renoir than to his Weimar roots) turned into a disappointed humanist observer; his best films from the period directly following the war are about characters who exist either in direct resistance to or at the mercy of political forces. With her eyes stern and sad like Anne Wiazemsky's in Au hasard Balthazar, Eva Kotthaus plays an East German factory worker who kidnaps her son, the product of a wartime tryst with a soldier, from his West German grandparents; a romance develops between her and an affable West German border policeman (Erik Schumann). Käutner's command of interior and exterior spaces allows him to make a film of constantly shifting points-of-view (literally and emotionally); muscular camera movements and pivoting changes in perspective, where a shot may shift from a medium to a close-up in the midst of a dolly, create a world in permanent, controlled flux.

Small Change (François Truffaut, 1976)
It ain't Two English Girls or The Woman Next Door, but Small Change, Truffaut's 1976 Kuleshov Effect showcase, is still the most underrated of the director's most popular films. Even Dave Kehr called this a feature-length version of Kids Say the Darnedest Things, but while gloomy François was less nuanced or wise than his champions would have you believe, he was also more complicated (and frankly better) that his detractors would like you to think. Essentially an episodic comedy of inferences, albeit one structured around a one-dimensional tragedy, with no credits for dialogue but with five for editing, Small Change cuts a large cast of charismatic child performers into danger, lasciviousness, irony, sexual inadequacy, and all sorts of other situations obvious only to its grown-up audience. Though he cameos in the opening scene as a silent parent, Truffaut's (inevitable) alter ego in the movie appears to be a Richet (Jean-François Stévenin), the school teacher who delivers an autobiographical (for the director) monologue about his miserable childhood to the students at the end of the film. The kids probably won't remember a word of it after summer vacation, but that doesn't really matter; the speech, like the improvisatory funny business that precedes it, is addressed to adult viewers. That the Nouvelle Vague's "sentimental favorite" also happened to be its resident misanthrope doesn't help to clear things up, but the movie's sincere even in its shortcomings. The camerawork, appropriate for an underrated film, is by the immensely underrated Pierre-William Glenn (Out 1, Loulou); like his best cinematography, the images of Small Change are paradoxically both drab and colorful.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946)
A reel of childhood Gothic, complete with candelight and an old lady in glovelettes, turns noir when the characters grow up (a transformation represented by a train chugging in and then out of a tunnel -- strange love indeed). The hobo-boy crush object is now Van Heflin, slumming little rich girl Martha becomes Barbara Stanwyck and the weaselly four-eyes has grown up to have it all: he's the district attorney, he's married to Stanwyck and he's Kirk Douglas. Tucked away in the middle of the week and the middle of the day is Lewis Milestone's second best film (after Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, of course). Douglas, in his first film role, is boyish and gawky (he's 30, looks 20 and sounds 40); a nervy puppyishness makes his character (the pitiful, unloved husband who doesn't deserve his position) seem more sympathetic than Robert Rossen's script probably intended. The set-up for the film is proto-Some Came Running (and, by extension, proto-Linklater), with Heflin crashing a car into a tree on his way through the hometown he left behind. More amused than annoyed (as Sinatra was in the Minnelli film), he goes around discovering what the people of Iverstown have been up to since he left 17 years ago; Stanwyck still holds a flame for Heflin, while Douglas becomes paranoid that he'll blackmail them about the childhood accident that is the source of her fortune.

Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine, 1960)
After two weeks that saw screenings of Richard Fleischer films, here's one from another neglected studio Richard: Gerald Ford lookalike/Columbia lifer Richard Quine. Quine had too much of an eye for composition and color to muster Fleischerian aesthetic anonymity, though like R.F., he was pretty firmly rooted in the mindset of cinema as "pictures of acting" instead of "pictures of actors." Though -- especially here -- his mise-en-scene has a Minnellian quality, he never gets enraptured the way Minnelli would; he knows a pretty frame when he sees one (quite a few here: Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas shot from above as they get out of a car; Douglas, Novak and Walter Matthau glancing at each other from different parts of a grocery store), but he's a little more cautious about being obviously beautiful--though he almost lets the self-consciousness slip in two scenes: Novak trying to seduce her husband and the finale, set in a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced house with stained glass windows. Strangers When We Meet is a prime example of the sort of "maturity" (imperfect marriages, compromises, slow-burn structure, post-Method acting, tactful evocations of sexuality) cultivated in the last years of the Studio Era, when large amounts of publicity and money were routinely poured into the kind of projects that, 30 years later, would become the domain of the indies: an architect (Douglas) is hired by an up-and-coming novelist (comic weirdo extraordinaire Ernie Kovacs, having the time of his life in a straight role) to design his new house; as both men struggle creatively, Douglas is drawn to the mother of one of his son's classmates (Novak). These sorts of projects usually yielded dull, self-serious results (see Quine's own The World of Suzie Wong, released the same year), but, like Minnelli's The Sandpiper or the contemporaneous films of Otto Preminger, this is the "new permissiveness" done right: the emotionally expressive filmmaking of classical Hollywood, bound by fewer social rules.

10 Rillington Place (Richard Fleischer, 1971)
Finally, something for the Fleischerites, the most miserable breed of cinephiles, devoted to a director whom Zach Campbell once eloquently summed up as "not an auteur in any commonly held sense, but instead a metteur-en-scène." Now that everybody wants to be an auteur, you start to pine for the days when there were still metteurs-en-scène, directors who were workmanlike in the best possible way--guys like Our Man Fleischer. 10 Rillington Place is a quintessential metteur-en-scène project--a fact-based drama with an emphasis on the facts--directed with a quintessentially Fleischerian sort of erudite bluntness; the director's attention is focused on filming the actors in a pleasingly drab way and realizing the script (by British TV veteran Clive Exton, who'd write for Fleischer again on, uh, Red Sonja) with an unobtuse approach to framing and lighting. Wearing a Playhouse 90 bald cap, Richard Attenborough plays John Christie, a notorious British serial killer of the 1940s and 1950s; a sort-of-young John Hurt plays the man who was initially convicted for Christie's crimes. With its empty streets and emphatic zooms, the whole thing looks suspiciously like a Cold War thriller, and, similarly, it projects a weary dissatisfaction with society through the fates of its characters, which form a kind of doomed geometry.

Under the Cherry Moon (Prince, 1986)
A weird tribute to pre-Code comedies made with the pacing and humor of a 1930s production and the aesthetics of a high-minded 80s music video transposed to some unusually (but beautifully) classical images courtesy of legendary Fassbinder and Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus (he shot this one between After Hours and The Color of Money)--a mixture of new and old that borders on the Caraxian--Under the Cherry Moon is very certainly a vanity project, with special emphases on vanity and the most academic uses of project as a verb and whatever other terms you can think of that bring out the fact that this is an analysis of fantasy played as straight fantasy self-consciously. Shot from a script by No Wave Feminist and Nicholas Ray associate Becky Johnston (who'd eventually end up writing much more "respectable" and less self-aware fare in the 1990s), Under the Cherry Moon stars Prince in the Maurice Chevalier role, playing a good-hearted gigolo out to woo the women of Monaco. As a tiny man who wears a lot of make-up and wallpaper-patterned suits, Prince is inherently funny, and while the Prince of today is known for his apocalyptic self-seriousness, the Prince of mid-1980s realizes this and goes along with it, playing up his charming ridiculousness and shortness when he's not busy throwing in visual references to Jacques Demy's Lola, having Ballhaus carefully frame and light his ass, making Jerry Lewis-like (a good point of comparison for the wackiness to earnestness ratio here) use of a 360° pan or indulging in some gay-panic-free homoerotic humor with Jerome Benton of The Time. An Ernst Lubitsch parody directed as cross-pop-cultural pastiche, the movie's an ornate mirror for a man who's got no problem poking fun at his reflection.

Valhalla Rising (Nicholas Windig Regn, 2009)
Essentially a big-budget remake of Tony Stone's Mini-DV epic Severed Ways (which ran at the Film Center last year), Nicholas Windig Regn's follow-up to Bronson abandons the cabaret metaphors in favor of Michael Mannian intuitiveness and a "Viking Dead Man" vibe. Those three points of reference make it sound more substantial than it really is, but that isn't to say that it's insubstantial. It's more flat than hollow, a lot of very good gestures with no apparent intentions behind them, though sometimes the pungency of the gestures and the consistency of the tone overpower the film's shortcomings: the commitment of Mads Mikkelsen's lead performance, for one, almost makes it seem as if there's more to his character than vague notions. Morten Søborg's 4K Redcode images have a rainy haze that would be visceral if it wasn't the film's main conceit. However, the movie's slow-burn bad-assery has much to recommend it in terms of execution, if not conception.

La Vérité (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1960)
Henri-Georges Clouzot's last film before the personal and aesthetic crisis of L'Enfer is also his finest non-documentary feature, fully and freely realized through the style the director had been developing since the 1930s and would try to ditch soon afterward. Like many Clouzot productions, it's a compulsively perverse undertaking: a story of Paris Bohemians rendered in carefully detailed, classical French studio style. La Vérité opens in a courtroom, where Brigitte Bardot, her hair worn up to indicate her seriousness (it makes her look like Tippi Hedren), is on trial for murder. Soon we're flashing back to the life she led: living in attic apartments, hanging 'round cafes with hapless hepcats, wearing tight sweaters and those awful late '50s bras that make breasts look like knees. Though Bardot's naïve seductress has a picture of Jean-Claude Brialy tacked above her bed, it's frog-voiced conductor Sami Frey that she ends up falling for. Clouzot tackles this Nouvelle Vague milieu with Tradition of Quality resolve, and though La Véritéhas less of the caricaturing that dominates Clouzot's earlier work, it still displays his gift for cartoon characterization, defining bit players through their comb-overs, beards, noses, oversized blazers and tobacco pipes. What emerges from this strange combination of new world and old technique (a film about people born in 1939 that could've been made in 1935!), is a nostalgia for the present, equal parts tragic and comic. Clouzot's underrated sense of editing, with its strong but subtle rhythms, is put to great use in the conducting scenes, which recall the director's excellent collaborations with Herbert von Karajan. These sequences, in which the world seems to take on a hierarchy and furious order through music, make Bardot's attraction to Frey more palpable than any of his haughty banter.

Washington Merry-Go-Round (James Cruze, 1932)
A bit of pre-FDR Depression populism, earnest in its techniques (the hero is introduced reading a letter that begins "So you're a congressman now!") and angry in its politics (that letter-reading scene is preceded by a tellingly passive-aggressive title card). Pre-Code mainstay Lee Tracy—a notorious lush whose career was destroyed by an incident where he urinated on a Mexican army parade while filming a movie about Pancho Villa—is cast very effectively against type as a straight-arrow freshman senator who arrives in Washington, DC only to find corruption running amok. The set-up has shades of Capra and Tracy's performance is almost proto-Stewart, but James Cruze has no stomach for mushy patriotism; in place of over-drawn "ain't democracy grand?" set-pieces, there's a lot of snappy dialogue and a sense of pacing that emphasizes action over grandstanding.

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2009)
Of all the great living directors, I think Alain Resnais is the hardest to write about, because with him it's never the same old song, and every new film is equally inventive and archaic, sometimes baffling, and less a set of obvious decisions (that is, "authorial choices" you can parse out and point to, saying "this is what Resnais is doing!") than a combination of incompatible moods and notions. With the modern Resnais (as opposed to the 1960s Resnais), the movie is no longer the realization of an aesthetic plan--it simply is, with all of its weird asides (imagine that he cut out the psychologist from Mon Oncle d'Amerique but kept Gerard Depardieu walking around in a mouse costume), and must be accepted as such. More intelligent than intellectual (regardless of the "analytical" reputations of his early films), more thoughtful than cerebral and as egalitarian in his tastes (and sometimes as wacky in his ways of expressing them) as Takashi Miike, 88-year-old Resnais, with his red dress shirts, Burberry raincoats and Roy Orbison shades, is, frankly, one strange and impractical cat. I agree with the detractors of Wild Grass (and there are a lot of them out there, and will be more) that the movie's all folly--where I disagree with them is that I think it's a great film, possibly a masterpiece of follies: authorial, dramatic, cinematic, emotional. The movie seems to be either a comedy without many jokes or an unusually light-hearted psychological drama (sans psychology), but more accurately it should be said that it's more ruminative than narrative, a freeform game where purses, shoes, airplanes, and zippers all come into play. In candy-bright soft-focus colors, it presents us with Georges (André Dussollier), who lives surrounded by ticking clocks and intrigues (see also: Rivette's Julien) and musically-named Margaret Muir (Sabine Azéma), who has dyed red hair and a pilot's license. That they're both well past middle age is either besides the point or the whole point, as their tug-of-war romance/non-romance, like the film itself, seems both youthfully foolhardy and the kind of eccentricity only two very grown and settled-in people could muster. Resnais (unlike Francis Ford Coppola, a director with a similar tendency towards follies) is not eager to be treated seriously, and never has been; he only asks that the characters themselves, or rather their emotions (Georges and Margaret are more "emotional forces" than people), be treated with respect.


Trevor said...

I was just thinking the other day that in all the 2010 wrap-ups, I never once heard anyone mention Devil. I'm not exactly inclined to include it on a top 10 of the year, but I really haven't heard anyone talk much about it, which I think is a little odd. I wrote some thoughts on Twitter a while ago that it was a really interesting examination of storytelling. I like how part of the film's language and texture is the role of audience expectations and, more importantly, judgments. The film is almost about how we judge whether a person is guilty (and thus deserves punishment) or not, wrapping this judgment in a narrative designed to prove it correct. And this is something we do all the time, which the film acknowledges, even if it explicitly provokes judgmental thinking in the way it's constructed. I thought it was an unfairly overlooked film. And, of course, very scary on a visceral level at times.

Also, this is pretty much how I felt about Valhalla Rising too, especially the last sentence:

"It's more flat than hollow, a lot of very good gestures with no apparent intentions behind them, though sometimes the pungency of the gestures and the consistency of the tone overpower the film's shortcomings: the commitment of Mads Mikkelsen's lead performance, for one, almost makes it seem as if there's more to his character than vague notions. Morten Søborg's 4K Redcode images have a rainy haze that would be visceral if it wasn't the film's main conceit."

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...



I'm pretty keen on Devil, as is my good friend and colleague Ben Sachs, who gave it a very apt, positive review in the Chicago Reader (those 3 stars at the top aren't his -- they're the average of user ratings, and placed there due to the site's slightly confusing design).

I don't know if the film is intended as an examination of storytelling, but it certainly functions that way -- though I think that's partly Shyamalan, since he's an uncommonly un-self-conscious filmmaker, meaning that his films often end up doing things they aren't intended to do.

Ben said...

I love Prince's Parade deeply--ditto Lubitsch, Ballhaus, and the cote d'azure filmed in b&w-- but I've never been able to make it all the way through Under the Cherry Moon. That capsule pushed me to add it to my queue. (Again.) Thanks. I think.