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|Saturday, April 25th, 2015|
|This role is for someone who is willing to die for the Takeda clan.
Akira Kurosawa made two films in color before 1980's Kagemusha
-- 1970's Dodes'ka-den
and 1975's Dersu Uzala
-- but neither of them were on the scale of this grand epic. Set in the 16th century during a period of great upheaval, the film is not unlike Ivan Reitman's Dave
in that it's about a commoner who's tapped to double for a warlord, only for the charade to become more permanent when the warlord is felled (by a sniper's bullet instead of a heart attack while sleeping with his mistress). The key difference is Kagemusha
is three hours long and Dave
comes nowhere near that. Dave
doesn't have massive battle scenes featuring thousands of extras in brightly colored armor, though. This is Spectacle with a capital S, which Kurosawa's old friend Ishiro Honda -- credited here as production coordinator -- helped him realize.
Tatsuya Nakadai plays the double role of the warlord, Shingen Takeda, and his "shadow warrior" (the English translation of the title), with Tsutomu Yamazaki as Shingen's brother, Nobukado, who's doubled for him in battle and puts his stand-in through his paces, and Ken'ichi Hagiwara as Shingen's ambitious son, Katsuyori, who's still smarting about being passed over in the line of succession. Nakadai delivers the key performance(s), though, with his nameless imposter rising to the occasion in ways Shingen's retainers couldn't have anticipated. After he's found out, though, he's relegated to the sidelines, a mere spectator as the final battle takes its bloody toll on the clan he was the (figure-)head of. Definitely one instance where having a front-row seat is not a plus.
|Friday, April 24th, 2015|
|And you said we'd make a fortune if we went to the war.
It's amazing how thoroughly Toshirô Mifune can dominate a film -- even one where he doesn't appear until 20 minutes in and doesn't spring into any serious action for another hour after that. That's how it is with 1958's The Hidden Fortress
, Akira Kurosawa's first film in Tohoscope and one of his most effortlessly entertaining. In it, Mifune plays a legendary samurai general who's tasked with shepherding 200 kan (gold pieces) and a 16-year-old princess (Misa Uehara) to safety after the total defeat of their clan. The challenge is getting across the border, which the victors have closed off, but the general recruits two unlikely allies -- a pair of bickering peasants played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara -- counting on their naked greed to guide their actions.
A sweeping epic that is equal parts comedy (most of the business with the peasants) and adventure (everything else), The Hidden Fortress
is full of dynamic scenes like the mass uprising that allows the two peasants to escape from their captors and the fire festival that puts everything in perspective. The most exciting one, though, may be Mifune's duel with an enemy general (Susumu Fujita, who previously played the lead in Sanshiro Sugata
) whose respect for him is clearly reciprocated. They just happen to have been on opposing sides of this particular conflict.
|Thursday, April 23rd, 2015|
|Do you get invited to a party like this or do you get committed?
Two years after they made Best Picture-winner Marty
, writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann reconvened to bring another one of their teleplays to the big screen. Released in 1957, The Bachelor Party
is centered on Charlie (Don Murray), a bookkeeper for a big New York firm who's talked into skipping night school (he's studying to become an accountant) and joining the titular celebration, leaving his pregnant wife Helen (Patricia Smith) at home to worry when her sister-in-law (Nancy Marchand, who played the girl in the TV version of Marty
) drops in and puts some ideas into her head about the sorts of things that go on at such gatherings. For his part, Charlie is wary about going along because he knows they "get kind of wild sometimes" and is disgusted by the "barbaric custom" of getting the groom-to-be laid, but with a baby on the way he knows he doesn't have that many nights on the town in his future, either.
In addition to the nervous guest of honor (Philip Abbott), who confesses to Charlie that he doesn't know why he's getting married, the party includes his best man, committed bachelor Eddie (Jack Warden), who tries to keep it going as long as possible, and two other married men: the fatalistic Walter (E.G. Marshall, who kills it), and Kenny (Larry Blyden), who's the first one to cut out (and the only one who does so at a reasonable hour). As the night wears on, they get progressively more drunk and introspective, hopping from bar to nightclub to bar, with pit stops at Eddie's place to watch some stag films and a Greenwich Village party so Charlie can chat up a girl (Carolyn Jones, credited as "The Existentialist") who insists on him saying "I love you" before she'll let him go any further. "You'll like me," she purrs. "I'm supposed to be very amusing." More than anything, though, their interactions convince him that he's better off with the life -- and the wife -- he already knows.
|Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015|
|If you ask one, you're stuck with a bundle.
's successful transition from the television screen
to the silver screen
, Hollywood wanted to stay in the Paddy Chayefsky business. In 1956, it did so by ordering up an adaptation of his teleplay The Catered Affair
with Gore Vidal as the recipient of the marching orders. (A fellow television vet, it was his first screenplay.) In it, Bette Davis stars as Agnes Hurley, the wife of a cab driver who's fully prepared to blow the money her husband Tom (Ernest Borgnine) has been saving up for years to buy his own hack so their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) can have the big wedding she never did. Never mind that the pragmatic Jane and her fiancé Ralph (Rod Taylor) don't want a big to-do, and in actual fact are eager to get the whole thing over with with a minimum of fuss so they can get on with their honeymoon.
Richard Brooks directs with a keen eye for the working-class milieu and gets nicely low-key performances out of his actors. (Davis, in particular, is about as subdued as I've ever seen her.) The one exception is Barry Fitzgerald as Jane's Uncle Jack, who's larger than life, but that's true to the character's outsized personality. (In fact, it's his upset about being excluded from Jane's no-frills wedding -- coupled with a few other factors -- that pushes Agnes to insist on adding all the bells and whistles to it.) A finely wrought kitchen-sink drama.
|How'd you like to spend your last days here?
I have yet to see a René Clair film that wasn't utterly delightful. Happily, 1945's And Then There Were None
-- an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel and play, which also goes by Ten Little Indians
-- keeps up that winning streak. As scripted by Dudley Nichols (who turned out Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street
the same year), the film provides us with a humorous, non-verbal introduction to eight of its characters as they endure a choppy boat ride to the remote Indian Island off the coast of England, where they'll be spending the weekend as the guests of a Mr. U.N. Owen and his wife, Mrs. Owen. Greeted by the servants (Richard Haydn and Queenie Leonard), who are just as bewildered by the circumstances as they are, the guests soon find themselves accused of murder (via gramophone record) and start kicking the bucket according to the verses of the macabre song that gives the story its alternate title.
Among the accused attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery before they gets bumped off are a judge (Barry Fitzgerald), a doctor (Walter Huston), an explorer (Louis Hayward), a private detective (Roland Young), and a secretary (June Duprez). As for the other three, the spinster (Judith Anderson) is content to wait it out, the retired general (Sir C. Aubrey Smith) is both deaf and senile, and the prince (Mischa Auer) isn't given the opportunity to worry since he's the first Indian to go. After a thorough search of the island it becomes clear that the killer is one of them and that nobody is above suspicion -- especially as the cast continues to thin out. That this is played as much for comedy as it is for suspense is a testament to Clair's lightness of touch and the material's sturdy construction. I'll be curious to see if any of its other adaptations measure up. (I expect the strength of the cast has a lot to do with that.)
|Tuesday, April 21st, 2015|
|I was strong enough to commit a crime. I'll be strong enough to live with it.
After making his English-language debut in 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much
and traveling to America to star in 1935's Mad Love
for MGM, Peter Lorre stuck around long enough to play Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment
for Columbia. Billed as "The Celebrated European Star" (in the same way Dostoevsky receives a "story by" credit with a footnote explaining that he, "Russia's foremost author, wrote Crime and Punishment
in 1866"), Lorre calls upon some of the hangdog looks of guilt he had previously worn as the subject of the manhunt in Fritz Lang's M
, but this time he's playing a man who's fully in control of himself when he decides to murder someone. (In this case, it's a mean old pawnbroker who, by his reasoning, deserves to have her head caved in with a fireplace poker.)
Introduced at his graduation from university, where he receives the school's highest honor and his father's watch from his proud mother (Elisabeth Risdon), Raskolnikov soon finds himself in the unenviable position of having to pawn that very watch in order to pay his back rent, but winds up giving the paltry 10 rubles he gets for it to the sweet-natured Sonya (Marian Marsh). A visit from his mother and sister Antonya (Tala Birell) confirms that everyone he knows is in dire financial straits since Antonya is marrying a total prig for his money, leaving Raskolnikov's school chum Dmitri (Robert Allen) out in the cold. Little wonder, then, that he believes he's serving humanity by planning and carrying out the murder of the stingy pawnbroker, which isn't quite the perfect crime since he's interrupted in the middle of it.
That's where the collegial Chief Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) enters the picture, bringing Raskolnikov in to consult on a "brand new murder case" on the basis of a well-regarded article he wrote on criminology. Naturally, it turns out to be his own, which places him in the same position as Edward G. Robinson's character in Lang's The Woman in the Window
one decade later. The difference is Raskolnikov is well aware that Porfiry is toying with him, professing to be amused by his theory about ordinary versus extraordinary men. Come to think of it, that's also echoed in Hitchcock's Rope
. I tell you, this guy Dostoevsky's ideas really got around.
|Monday, April 20th, 2015|
|In consideration of your long service with us, we have found another position for you.
I wonder how the 1924 silent The Last Laugh
would be thought of today if director F.W. Murnau and writer Carl Mayer had stuck to their guns and kept the downbeat ending that was in their original scenario. Without resorting to intertitles to convey any of the dialogue, they lay out the story of a proud doorman (Emil Jannings) who gets knocked down quite a few pegs when the hotel where he works demotes him to lavatory attendant and takes away his fancy uniform on the day of his niece's wedding. Eager to save face, he sneaks into the manager's office after hours to steal back his uniform so he can wear it at the celebration, but has no long-term plan beyond checking it at the train station in the morning and picking it up at night so he can keep up the charade. Even before he can put it into action, though, one of his new in-laws learns his secret and the news spreads like wildfire throughout the neighborhood, making him a laughingstock.
That's where Murnau and Mayer wanted to leave Janning's beaten-down prole, but instead they were compelled to come up with an alternate ending -- what the film's lone intertitle refers to as an "improbable epilogue." It's impossible to quarrel with the first four-fifths of the film, though, which benefit from some terrifically mobile camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Karl Freund and Edgar G. Ulmer's top-notch production design. (Both are shown off to good effect in the doorman's punch-drunk dream of being able to effortlessly handle the kind of trunk that precipitated his downfall.) Heck, it's even possible to imagine that the film's unrealistically upbeat ending is merely a case of wishful thinking on the downtrodden man's part. We already know he's the sort of person who's willing to delude himself.
|Saturday, April 18th, 2015|
|We have the freedom. What we do with it isn't important.
I strongly suspect that a viewer's age will determine how they respond to Noah Baumbach's While We're Young
-- and which character(s) they identify with. (Gender may also have a little something to do with it.) I'm just a couple years younger than Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), the childless couple whose sedentary lifestyle is shaken up by twenty-something hipsters Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who expose them to a completely alien way of living. Josh, in particular, is in need of being extracted from the rut he's in -- a documentarian with one well-regarded film to his name, his follow-up has been a decade in the making and is a formless, six-and-a-half-hour snorefest -- but Cornelia is also frustrated by her inability to have a child.
Enter Jamie, an aspiring filmmaker hoping to pick Josh's brain, and Darby, who makes her own ice cream and takes Cornelia to a hip-hop dance class. Before long, Josh and Cornelia are blowing off their older friends, new parents Fletcher and Marina (Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz and Maria Dizzia), to spend more time with their new young friends, but Josh begins to doubt Jamie's motives when he suspects he's being used as a stepping-stone to Cornelia's father, legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), with whom he has a chilly relationship. For someone my age, it's hard not to relate to Josh's feelings of resentment toward someone who seems to be getting an easier path to success that he was given. "We all want stuff," Jamie says when backed into a corner. "It doesn't mean we're douchebags." Some of us are, though, depending on how we go about getting them.
|Friday, April 17th, 2015|
|We knew why my uncle never let anyone come out to this place. We just didn't believe him.
From Eduardo Sánchez, one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project
, and Jamie Nash, writer of a number of the films he's made in the decade and a half since (including his segment of V/H/S/2
, which gets a callback), comes Exists
, the second found-footage Bigfoot film
I've seen in as many years. In this one, a quintet of dopey kids head into the woods with their bikes and an assload of GoPro cameras to make "the best YouTube video ever," but on the way to their secluded cabin they hit a Sasquatch with their car. Happily, all they have to do is clean the hair and blood off the bumper and they can go on with their carefree, pot-and-sex-infused lives.
I'm kidding, of course. What actually happens is a Sasquatch disables their car and kills them one by one while the GoPros they brought with them capture their death throes for the viewer's edification. Huzzah!
In the interest of keeping the running time down (to about 76 minutes without credits), Sánchez and Nash invest their characters with the absolute bare minimum of character traits. The main camera guy (who needs to be told more than once to put it down) is Brian (Chris Osborn), who's also the fifth wheel since his brother Matt (Samuel Davis) and their black friend Todd (Roger Edwards) are paired off (but not with each other, alas). Damningly, their lady friends are such nonentities that it's ages before we even learn their names -- for the record, Matt's girlfriend is Dora (Dora Madison Burge) and Todd's is Elizabeth (Denise Williamson) -- and when the 'squatch hits the fan the only thing they seem to be good for is screaming and cowering in fear. (Meanwhile, the men respond by shooting it -- with a camera and a gun they find on the premises.)
has anything going for it, it's Sánchez's willingness to show his creature more and more clearly in the back half of the film, starting with the sequence where Matt takes off on a GoPro-laden bike (shades of V/H/S/2
's "A Ride in the Park") in search of cell reception and has an uncomfortably close encounter with it. There's also at least one intentional laugh line when Todd finds the gun and, when asked if he knows how to use it, replies, "I play paintball. How different can it be?" Any and all pluses are canceled out by the number of times the characters say "dude," "man," "yo," and "bro," though. (I counted at least two dozen instances of the last one, making this the most bro-tastic Sasquatch film ever.) At least when they're confronted with Bigfoot, none of them says "Don't kill me, bro!" That would have been grounds for immediate abandonment.
|Thursday, April 16th, 2015|
|Deep within him burned the fires of hate, murder, and revenge.
In the '50s, while the western was gaining psychological depth, it also worked on finding more varied and challenging roles for its womenfolk. Some even got to be nominally in control of their own destinies, as in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar
and Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns
. Marlene Dietrich beat Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck to the punch by a few years, though, by starring in Fritz Lang's Technicolor western Rancho Notorious
in 1952. In it, she plays Altar Keane, former dance-hall girl, living legend, and owner of Chuck-a-Luck, a horse ranch that doubles as a haven for outlaws -- and where no questions are asked.
The man asking the impertinent questions is Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), who's searching for the scoundrel who raped and killed his fiancée during a general-store robbery. (The actual rape is implied thanks to the strictures of the Production Code, but screenwriter Daniel Taradash, who won an Academy Award for writing From Here to Eternity
the very next year, makes plain what happened by having Vern be told when he arrives on the scene that "she wasn't spared anything.") Following the sometimes cryptic clues thrown in his path, Vern eventually finds his way to Chuck-a-Luck -- named after the game of chance Altar won her fortune on -- in the company of gunslinger Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). There he's confronted with any of a number of possible suspects, including the scar-faced Wilson (George Reeves, fresh off playing the Man of Steel in Superman and the Mole Men
) and the Jack Elam-faced Mort Geary. No points for guessing that it doesn't turn out to be either of them, but enough time passes between the heinous crime and Vern's arrival at the ranch that even the most eagle-eyed viewer could be forgiven for not remembering what the culprit looks like.
|Wednesday, April 15th, 2015|
|He's walked away from tougher spills than this.
In 1952, the same year Nicholas Ray subbed in for credited director Josef von Sternberg on Macao
, Ray fell ill while shooting his own film for RKO, The Lusty Men
, and was similarly replaced by Robert Parrish until he recovered. Their sensibilities must have been a perfect match, though, because the end result feels like a Ray film through and through. It also gave Robert Mitchum a role that fit him like a glove as Jeff McCloud, "one of the all-time greats" on the rodeo circuit, who sustains a debilitating leg injury while riding a bull in the opening scene and has to hang up his saddle.
Returning to the house where he was born -- since he has nowhere else to call home -- Jeff takes the briefest of trips down memory lane (which Wim Wenders paid tribute to in his 1976 film Kings of the Road
) before hooking up with ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward), who plan to buy the house as soon as they can scrape together the current owner's $5,000 asking price. Louise is perfectly content to bide her time, but Wes is impatient and, knowing the big money that can be made at the rodeo, convinces Jeff to hit the road with him and a skeptical Louise. It isn't until fairly late in the game, though, that the inevitable love triangle inserts itself into the plot. An unnecessarily melodramatic development, but at least Ray recognizes this and doesn't make a big deal out of it.
|It's better to preach by example than by words.
The flipside of Luis Buñuel's Nazarín
, which was made at the opposite end of the decade, Roberto Rossellini's 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis
takes a decidedly different attitude toward the self-effacement of a humble man of God and his followers. Working with three screenplay collaborators, including Federico Fellini, and the Monks of Nocere Inferiore Monastery, who portray St. Francis and the Thirteen Brothers, Rossellini demonstrates the power of meekness in ten discrete chapters. As one would be right to expect, many of them revolve around the future saint (played by Brother Nazario Gerardi), but some of the more effective episodes involve Brother Ginepro (Brother Severino Pisacane), the overeager Goofus to Francis's Gallant.
Whether he's giving away tunics like they're going out of style (even after being specifically told not to by Francis), chasing down a pig so he can cut off one of its feet (because one of his ailing brothers asked for one), or cooking two weeks' worth of meals at once so he can be freed up to go out and preach, Ginepro's zeal cannot be denied. His resolve comes under fire, though, when he's finally given leave and ends up at the encampment of Nicolaio the Tyrant (Aldo Fabrizi, the only professional actor in the cast, who had previously starred in Rossellini's Rome, Open City
), who's besieging a nearby town. There, he's mistaken for a beggar and is roughly manhandled by Nicolaio's horde of hairy brutes until the Tyrant himself (first seen trapped inside a cumbersome suit of armor) decides to test his willingness to accept whatever comes his way. That he passes is probably as much of a surprise to Ginepro as it is to the flummoxed barbarian.
|Tuesday, April 14th, 2015|
|It's a big price to pay for a little bit of grass.
Where Ride the Pink Horse
is a noir film that sounds like it should be a western, 1948's Blood on the Moon
is a western that sounds like it should be science fiction. Directed by Robert Wise (three years before he made the leap to sci-fi for real with The Day the Earth Stood Still
has a noirish tinge of its own as "loose rider" Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) gets attached to a range war between a group of homesteaders organized by his old friend Tate Riling (a mustachoied Robert Preston) and cattle baron John Lufton (Tom Tully), who's looking to move his herd back onto the land it used to graze. It's a conflict as old as the Old West itself, but it's one Jim probably would have avoided had he known that was what Tate was summoning him for.
Also caught in the middle, but in a different way, are Lufton's two daughters, each of whom falls for different men on "the other side." Tomboyish Amy (second-billed Barbara Bel Geddes) is the sort who shoots first and doesn't even bother asking questions, making her the perfect match for Jim, while the more feminine Carol (Phyllis Thaxter) is secretly in love with Tate and feeds him info about her father's movements. Then there are the homesteaders themselves, the most prominent of which is played by Walter Brennan, an old hand at this sort of role who still invests everything he has in it. This is especially apparent in the scene where he gets word that his son was killed during one of Tate's raids on Lufton's herd. That's the sort of thing that makes a man question just what it is he's fighting for.
|That's the kind of man I like. The man with no place.
For his follow-up to 1947's Lady in the Lake
, director/star Robert Montgomery dropped the point-of-view camera gimmick, and Ride the Pink Horse
is all the better for it. Of a piece with other post-war noirs like Crossfire
and The Blue Dahlia
, Ride the Pink Horse
follows decorated veteran Lucky Gagin (a tight-lipped Montgomery) as he runs down the crime boss responsible for the murder of one of his war buddies. Instead of confronting him in the city, though, Gagin winds up in the border town of San Pablo, New Mexico, where Mr. Hugo (Fred Clark) has gone to take in its annual fiesta, which gives the film a unique backdrop and prefigures the setting of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil
by a full decade.
Another '50s noir it anticipates is Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street
, in particular the scene where federal agent Retz (Art Smith) tries to talk Gagin into turning over a piece of evidence against Hugo that he's holding onto in the hope of a getting big payout, prompting Gagin to say, "Don't wave any flags at me." That's just one of the many snappy comebacks given to him by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer (working from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes), who also provide him with a pair of helpful locals (Wanda Hendrix's timid Pila and Thomas Gomez's gregarious Pancho) and a devious femme fatale (Andrea King's Marjorie) to bounce off of. After she sizes him up, Marjorie tries to sell Gagin on a bigger score -- one that she can also share in, naturally -- but it's only when he gets jumped by two of Hugo's goons that he realizes how far in over his head he is and who's really looking out for his interests.
|Monday, April 13th, 2015|
|Can you write startling tales about these wax figures?
Made at a time when German films were ranging far and wide for their subject matter -- from Joe May's The Indian Tomb
to Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen
-- 1924's Waxworks
provided director Paul Leni with the perfect excuse to hop around from continent to continent (and epoch to epoch) since it's about a poet (future director William Dieterle) who answers an ad seeking an "imaginative writer for publicity work" for a traveling waxworks exhibit. Charged with writing "startling tales" for three of the figures, the poet not only projects himself into them, but also the owner's pretty daughter (Olga Belajeff).
The first place he imagines them is Bagdad under the rule of Caliph Haroun-al-Raschid (Emil Jannings). A mostly comic story, it finds the caliph abusing his power by playing up to Zarah (Belajeff), wife of jealous baker Assad (Dieterle), while her husband sneaks into the palace to steal the Royal Wishing Ring. (To tie this into Haroun's figure, which is missing one of its arms, the poet has his counterpart cut off the arm of the wax dummy the caliph leaves behind in his bedchamber while he goes out on the town.) Combined with the preamble, that take up more than half of the film's 84-minute running time, leaving just 40 minutes for the other two stories, which suits them just fine.
For the next tale, the great Conrad Veidt takes center stage as Ivan the Terrible, the ruthless and justifiably paranoid Czar of Russia. A man who delights in visiting his prisoners in the cellar of the Kremlin so he can watch them expire, Ivan has his poison-maker killed, trades places with a nobleman who invites him to a wedding (a wise move since the nobleman takes an arrow that was intended for him), kidnaps the nobleman's daughter (Belajeff), and has the prince she married (Dieterle) locked away in his torture chamber. No wonder he's such a popular guy.
Lastly, the poet doesn't get to write anything about Spring Heeled Jack a.k.a. Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss), but instead dozes off and dreams of being pursued by the fiend through a deserted fairground. It's a brief sketch compared to the other two (Krauss isn't asked to do anything other than look menacing), but this is the sequence where Leni goes all in on the Expressionistic effects, employing multiple exposures and nightmarish backgrounds. It's the perfect capper for the film and surely must have made for an excellent calling card when Leni was seeking employment in Hollywood.
|Saturday, April 11th, 2015|
|One can always wend one's way through the night.
When Guy Maddin started making his second film, the surreal melodrama Tales from the Gimli Hospital
, he thought it was going to be another short like 1985's The Dead Father
, but when it was cut together it was close enough to feature length that Maddin was persuaded to add a handful of extra scenes to get it across the goal line. (Even so, at 68 minutes it's still a rather short
feature.) Released in 1988, Gimli Hospital
is presented as a story told to two small children by their grandmother (Margaret Anne MacLeod) while their mother lays dying in a hospital bed in modern-day Gimli, Manitoba. All thing being equal, she couldn't have picked a less comforting story if she had tried.
Jumping back to the time of a severe smallpox epidemic that beset the Icelandic settlers of the region, the main body of the film concerns Einar the Lonely (Kyle McCulloch), a fisherman who longs for female companionship and seethes with jealousy when the pretty nurses in the smallpox ward dote on his bed-mate Gunnar (Michael Gottli), who regales them with strange tales of his own. (We're talking stories within stories here.) Eventually, an accord is reached, but this is broken over a dispute concerning Gunnar's late beloved Snjófridur (Angela Heck), which results in Gunnar's hysterical blindness and Einar's incipient madness. Then again, with Maddin behind the camera (acting as his own cinematographer in addition to writing, directing, and editing the film), it's difficult to tell the difference between what's a delusion and what purports to be reality. (The cows that are kept in the infirmary to provide the patients with warmth and fresh milk could go either way.)
Two years later, Guy Maddin was back at it with his second feature, 1990's Archangel
. Written with George Toles, who had previously been a story consultant on The Dead Father
and Tales from the Gimli Hospital
is a war film as only Maddin and Toles could recontextualize it. Set in Russia right after The Great War, it's presented as the dueling dirges of two characters: the one-legged Lt. John Boles (Kyle McCulloch), a veteran of the war who answers the call of duty and finds himself in the titular locale, ready to do battle with the Bolsheviks this time, and local lass Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who's mistaken by Boles for his deceased love Iris. As if she doesn't have enough problems with the return of the amnesiac Capt. Philbin (Ari Cohen), who's convinced it's always their wedding day since that's the last thing he remembers.
For the most part, Maddin and Toles mine Philbin's plight for comedy, just as they do for the dysfunctional family Boles is billeted with. There's the cowardly Jannings (Michael Gottli), who allows his wife Danchuk (Sarah Neville) to go off and fight in his stead, their son Geza (David Falkenburg), who's ashamed of his father, and his grandmother (Margaret Anne MacLeod), who presents Boles with her late husband's wooden leg after some quick thinking on his part saves the boy's life. The surreal touches never stop coming, though, what with the trenches that the combatants can commute to daily, the hares that herald the approach of the Huns, and the unforgettable intertitle "Strangled by an intestine!" Hard to top something like that, but just like nature, Maddin and Toles found a way when they emerged with their next collaboration, Careful
, two years later.
|These days it's harder to sell than steal.
Anybody who believes there's such a thing as honor among thieves would quickly be disabused of that notion by watching 1959's La notte brava
, which ropes in prostitutes for good measure. Directed by Mauro Bolognini and based on a novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who also penned its screenplay, it's a clear antecedent of his directorial debut, Accattone
, which came along just two years later. Instead of one pimp, though, its story is centered on three ne'er-do-wells after a big score and not too particular about how they score it.
Even before we meet the boys, Pasolini gives us an earful of two combative streetwalkers, Anna (Elsa Martinelli) and Supplizia (Antonella Lualdi), who are recruited by the shady Ruggero (Laurent Terzieff) and Scintillone (Jean-Claude Brialy) to ride along with them while they try to find a buyer for the "big stuff" they have in their car. As it happens, the first fence they go to is preoccupied by his wife's funeral, but his opportunistic nephew Gino (Franco Interlenghi) says he knows a guy who'll take whatever it is they're selling. When that doesn't pan out, the girls chip in with a suggestion of their own that takes them out of town to the home of a deaf-mute who exchanges the contraband for another whore, Nicoletta (Anna Maria Ferrero), looking for a lift back to Rome. The boys show their true colors, though, when the first two start making noises about wanting to get paid for services rendered.
That goes double when the trio comes into possession of a stolen wallet and commence fighting over it -- and the wad of lire contained therein. That's when the film's title, which translates to "The Big Night," comes into focus, as the one who winds up with it start flaunting his ill-gotten gains, picks up his girl, Rossana (top-billed Rosanna Schiaffino), and takes her out on the town until he makes enough of a nuisance of himself that he gets arrested. Luckily, one of his co-conspirators is right there to pick up the slack and make sure the rest of the cash is all spent before the sun comes up.
|Friday, April 10th, 2015|
|Only ignorance or bigotry can condemn those who feel differently.
The version of Richard Oswald's Different from the Others
put out by Kino as part of its Gay-Themed Films of the German Silent Era collection is at best a partial reconstruction, but in light of its bold subject matter -- it's about a gay violin virtuoso who's targeted by a blackmailer -- it's rather amazing that is exists in the first place. Released in 1919 and suppressed by the Nazis when they came to power in the '30s, the film was written, produced, and directed by Oswald in association with sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, a tireless crusader against Germany's draconian Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexual acts (and remained on the books in some form until 1994).
What's especially interesting in the case of Different from the Others
is that virtually all of the scenes that have survived are the ones that pertain to violinist Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt) and his interactions with student Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz), to the exclusion of both of their families. (Thankfully, this means modern viewers are spared the scenes of Paul's parents playing matchmaker for him and Kurt's sister nursing her crush on Paul.) The only other character that's left with any significant screen time is blackmailer Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel), who spies Paul and Kurt walking arm in arm in the park one day and believes he's hit the jackpot.
This, as one might expect, leaves Paul in quite a bind. If he charges Franz with blackmail, the crook will report him under Paragraph 175 and they'll both go to prison. When he flat-out refuses to pay, though, Franz destroys his relationship with Kurt, who subsequently disappears, both from his life and from the remainder of the film. Instead, that's given over to flashbacks depicting Paul's time at boarding school (from which he was expelled for getting two chummy with his roommate) and university (where he kept to himself and shunned women), as well as his failed attempt to cure his condition through hypnosis. It's only after he pays a visit to a sexologist (played by Hirschfeld, naturally) that he learns to accept his sexual orientation, but as the denouement of the film bears out, society still had a ways to go before it would.
|Thursday, April 9th, 2015|
|It's just one of mum's stories. It's not real.
Having been forced to make the unenviable choice between Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
and Tomm Moore's Song of the Sea
when I was in New York in December, I'm glad to have finally managed to catch up with the latter courtesy of my library. Moore's first solo directing effort (following 2009's Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells
, which he co-directed with Nora Twomey), Song of the Sea
was also nominated for Best Animated Feature and went home empty-handed, but one can hope the third time will be the charm. And the film has plenty of charm to spare, as well as a strong emotional undertow that can sneak up on you if you're not careful (and even if you are).
Rooted, like The Secret of Kells
, in the folklore of Moore's native Ireland, Song of the Sea
's story ropes in selkies (seals that shed their skin to take human form), fairies, and other assorted supernatural creatures, but its central character is the very human child Ben (voiced by David Rawle), who resents his mute younger sister Saoirse since she came along at the same moment his mother Bronach (Lisa Hannigan) left him. This also had a devastating effect on his father, brooding lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson), who's overprotective with both of them, which may be why he allows their well-meaning Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) to take them away to live in the city. Saoirse isn't prepared to stay put, though, having tried on her seal coat once already and reveled in the freedom it gave her. And reuniting her with it won't be easy, as Ben discovers when he reluctantly takes responsibility for getting her back home.
One of Song of the Sea
's greatest pleasures -- over and above the gorgeous hand-drawn animation and Bruno Coulasis's lovely score -- is Ben's wide-eyed wonder as he gets drawn into the stories his mother used to tell him. Then there's the canny double-casting that draws parallels between characters like his father and Mac Lir, a giant turned to stone by his grief, and Granny and "the old/owl witch" Macha, whose owls rob everyone -- humans and fairies alike -- of their souls. The most charming critter, though, has to be Ben's courageous sheepdog Cú. If I were Ben, I wouldn't want to leave him behind, either.
|Wednesday, April 8th, 2015|
|Our job is not to look away.
There's a scene about 20 minutes into Atom Egoyan's The Captive
-- just before the abduction that kicks its plot into motion -- where a father and his pre-teen daughter discuss the difference between a trick and a gimmick. On the subject of the different-colored ice skates the daughter and her skating partner wear, he says, "It's like a trick you don't need." She giggles and replies that what he's talking about is a gimmick. "That's the proper word." It's also one that could be applied to the jumbled-chronology thing Egoyan's been doing with varying degrees of success for the past two decades. What worked like gangbusters in Exotica
and The Sweet Hereafter
, though, can begin to look like a crutch when applied to a story that could have been told just as effectively in a more linear fashion.
The story of The Captive
, which Egoyan fleshed out with co-writer David Fraser (previously a story consultant on Ararat
), concerns the eight-year search for a missing girl and the toll it takes on the people involved. That includes distraught parents Matthew and Tina Lane (Ryan Reynolds and Mireille Enos), determined police detectives Nicole Dunlap and Jeffrey Cornwall (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman), and the victim herself, Cassandra (played by Peyton Kennedy as a girl and Alexia Fast as a teenager). How they all relate to each other takes time to suss out, though, since -- to give but one example -- Egoyan and Fraser introduce Jeffrey while he's investigating what appears to be an unrelated disappearance before jumping back in time to the moment when he joins Nicole's pedophilia task force.
In many ways, Jeffrey is the key figure in the film since it's his antagonistic attitude toward Matthew that drives the wronged man to conduct his own investigation. (We also see how Jeffrey interrogates a society couple played by Bruce Greenwood and Arsinée Khanjian, so it's abundantly clear that he doesn't treat anybody with kid gloves.) The most enigmatic, though, is Cass's captor (Kevin Durand), whose identity is known to the viewer from the start and who has a way of popping up in some unexpected places. Considering how many people's lives he's disrupted with his activities, it's rather telling that one of this film's working titles was Captives