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|Sunday, November 22nd, 2015|
|It's probably nothing, but I'd like to see you again in a month.
Strictly speaking, 2014's When Animals Dream
isn't a werewolf film, but since it's a coming of age story about a young woman who, like her mother, is genetically disposed to grow thick hair all over her body -- and become short-tempered and aggressive to boot -- it's close enough to count for this month's Full Moon Feature. Set in a provincial fishing village in Denmark, When Animals Dream
opens with 16-year-old protagonist Marie (Sonia Suhl, making an assured screen debut) seeing the doctor about a small rash on her chest. This concerns him enough that he submits her to a full examination of her fingernails, gums, and back, along with a barrage of questions about any other symptoms she may be experiencing. What these may be isn't clear at first, just as there's some mystery about what condition Marie's invalid mother (Sonja Richter) suffers from, but it does require her to be given shots by Marie's rock-steady father (Lars Mikkelsen), who's also seen shaving her back. Then Marie starts having disturbing dreams in which she's transforming into some kind of bestial creature and, well, do the math.
Even if they had eschewed the supernatural angle, director Jonas Alexander Arnby and screenwriter Rasmus Birch would have been on to something since they paint a compelling portrait of a withdrawn young woman struggling to fit in. New to her job working on a fish disassembly line, Marie has the expected locker-room confrontations with the factory's alpha-male bully and undergoes a humiliating initiation where she's pushed headlong into a tank filled with fish heads. (Paging Carrie White.) On the other hand, she also catches the eyes of friendly fisherman Daniel (Jakob Oftebro), whose interest is reciprocated. Heck, he doesn't even bat an eye when she tells him, "I'm transforming into a monster and I really need to get laid before." That's what I call a keeper.
If When Animals Dream
has a fault, it's that once all its cards are on the table, the back half of the film is far too predictable. Still, it's worth sticking with it to see how Marie is emboldened by the changes she's going through, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. When she's leaving home for good and her father's parting words to her are "Don't take any crap," viewers can feel confident she won't.
|Saturday, November 21st, 2015|
|I don't know what it is, but it makes me nervous.
As comprehensive as this spring's Guy Maddin retrospective at the IU Cinema was, one film it was missing was his latest, The Forbidden Room
, co-directed with Evan Johnson, which had its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. A two-hour phantasmagoria of nested stories -- some of which are populated by familiar faces (Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Charlotte Rampling), although most are not -- The Forbidden Room
is nearly indescribable, although that didn't prevent me from taking copious notes throughout. (I look forward to revisiting this and just letting it wash over me next time.)
At the uppermost level of the fever dream that passes for the film's narrative is Maddin regular Louis Negin walking the viewer through a tutorial on "How to Take a Bath," which, like all the other segments, was inspired by a lost film that Maddin and his co-writers Johnson and Robert Kotyk gave themselves license to reimagine however they saw fit. Hence, the parade of preposterous playlets. Of four submarine crewman trapped 50 fathoms deep with a volatile mass of gelignite that could explode if they tried to surface. Of a brave woodsman (named Cesare, after the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
) who steals into the secret den of a pack of thieves called the Red Wolves to rescue the woman he loves. Of a man obsessed with derrieres who repeatedly goes under the knife to have his misfiring synapses surgically removed. And so on.
Each narrative strand features a character who interrupts the flow to start telling a story or one who falls into a dream or reads a newspaper article -- anything at all to jump from one level to the next. (Heck, even a mustache gets to dream of its dead owner visiting with his family one last time, and then a few more times after that.) To say they all start to run together is not a knock since they're intended to intermingle, which Maddin and Johnson emphasize by casting some of the actors in multiple roles, each announced by a title card with the actor's and character's names -- a common practice in early silents that gets a real workout here. Titles are also used for dialogue ("Sleep among us if you will, but not with us."), commentary ("Too much chaos. Too many dancing stars."), and delirious exclamations ("Forced to wear a leotard!"). And it all climaxes, appropriately enough, with an explosion of excerpts from The Book of Climaxes
, allowing Maddin, Johnson, and Kotyk to squeeze in a few more characters glimpsed in life-or-death struggles we can't even begin to comprehend. In The Forbidden Room
, comprehension is beside the point.
|Friday, November 20th, 2015|
|This is enough to make Christmas tolerable to me.
"Move over, Bad Santa
. There's a new raunchy holiday comedy in town and its name is The Night Before
." That's what I would write if I were a quote whore and I reviewed films for a publication that the makers of The Night Before
could potentially see. I am not, though, and do not. Besides, Bad Santa
needn't worry. As much as it tries to revel in alcohol- and drug-fueled debauchery -- and even includes a scene of two belligerent drunks in Santa suits urinating in public -- The Night Before
won't be supplanting Terry Zwigoff's nihilistic opus anytime soon.
Not, as I believed going in, the third feature for the writing and directing team of Seth Rogen and Adam Goldberg (although the latter does receive a screenwriting credit), The Night Before
was actually co-written and directed by Warm Bodies
's Jonathan Levine, who previously worked with Rogen on 50/50
. Here he plays Isaac, a lawyer on the verge of becoming a father who, along with football star Chris (Anthony Mackie), has spent fourteen consecutive Christmas Eves buoying their childhood friend Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, also late of 50/50
), who had the misfortune to lose both of his parents right before the holidays in 2001. They've decided the fifteenth go-round will be their last, though, and hit the town in the Red Bull limo (courtesy of one of Chris's endorsement deals) with the goal of getting into the über-exclusive Nutcracker Ball, a white whale they've been chasing ever since they got wind of it in 2008.
In addition to being gifted with a stash of "every single drug in the whole world" by Isaac's wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) -- which is all the excuse Rogen needs to act super-fucked-up for the bulk of the film's running time -- the boys also pay multiple calls on their friendly neighborhood weed dealer Mr. Green (Michael Shannon, who adds an overtly Dickensian touch to the proceedings). They also have multiple run-ins with a self-styled Grinch (Ilana Glazer), Ethan's ex-girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), and her friend Sarah (Mindy Kaling), whose unintentional phone-swap with Isaac results in one of a number of mini-crises that all come to a head at the Ball, which simultaneously is and isn't all it's cracked up to be. In this way, The Night Before
winds up being more rote than necessary (lessons are learned, relationships are mended), but at least its heart is in the right place.
|Thursday, November 19th, 2015|
|They take enemies very seriously.
A couple years back, I read Lawrence Wright's book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
and was suitably appalled by what I found within its pages. And so it goes with Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
, which aired on HBO this past spring on its way to three Emmy Awards and a possible Academy Award nomination -- that is, if the "Church" doesn't have its way with the Academy's documentary branch. Then again, its threats and protests failed to prevent the film from being screened at Sundance, shown on cable, and released internationally, so its influence clearly isn't as great as it was once believed to be.
Illuminating and infuriating in equal measure, Gibney's film follows up on Wright's research, digging into the sordid history of Scientology, its mercurial founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and Hubbard's power-driven successor, David Miscavige. Since Wright's book was spun off from his New Yorker
profile of writer/director Paul Haggis, it's only natural that Haggis is one of the ex-Scientologists Gibney tapped to be in the film, along with actor Jason Beghe and a number of the organization's former higher-ups who have become its most vocal critics. (In a nice touch, when each subject is introduced, their name appears on a black screen along with how long they were a Scientologist. Later, as each leaves the church, this is indicated by text on a white screen.)
Gibney also includes archival footage of Hubbard, Miscavige, and their most famous converts, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, as well as excerpts from the lavish pageants put on in the years since Hubbard's passing in 1986. The most chilling of these is the one from 1993 in which Miscavige tells the faithful about their newly granted tax-exempt status from the IRS. I say the sooner that gets reversed and Scientology is stripped of its claim of being a legitimate religion, the better.
|Wednesday, November 18th, 2015|
|Once you come out of the kink closet, you really can't go back in again.
For many of the kinky persuasion, San Francisco's Folsom Street Fair is their Mecca. An annual event that attracts hundreds of thousands of kinksters and gawkers alike to the city, which agrees to look the other way while they parade around in their fetish gear -- or nothing at all -- the Fair and its exhibitionist attendees are on full display in the 2014 documentary Folsom Forever
. Filmed around the 2012 event -- the 29th annual -- the doc traces the Fair's roots to the mid-'80s, when it was inaugurated to draw attention to the fight against gentrification in the South of Market area of San Francisco, which was also the heart of its gay male leather scene. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the leather community got involved and made Folsom over in its image.
To place Folsom in historical perspective, director Mike Skiff turns to a range of interview subjects, including performers, activists, BDSM educators, and academics, all of whom have a lot to say about what it means to the community at large. (On this point, Drummer Magazine
editor Jack Fritscher is probably the most impassioned voice.) Skiff also doesn't neglect the local business owners (including S.F. landmark Mr. S Leather) and representatives of the dozens of nonprofits that benefit from its continued success. (In 2012 alone, the Fair raised $324,000 for charity.) Most important, though, is the visibility it gives to a subculture that had previously been kept in the dark, far away from prying eyes. The AIDS crisis hit San Francisco's leather men pretty hard, but thanks to events like Folsom, the leather men have been hitting back for three decades and show no sign of stopping.
|Tuesday, November 17th, 2015|
|There are things that love alone cannot change.
Appropriately enough, the last film in Criterion's Silent Naruse
Eclipse set is also the last silent film Naruse ever made, 1934's Street Without End
. The street in question is in Tokyo's Ginza district and the action revolves around café waitress Sugiko (Setsuko Shinobu), who's entertaining a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Harada (Ichirô Yûki) and an offer from a film company to become an actress when she's hit by a car, sidelining her for a few crucial days. In that brief time, Harada goes home to marry a rich girl his family has set him up with and Sugiko's co-worker Kesako (Chiyoko Katori) takes her place in the acting pool. There are compensations, though, since Hiroshi (Hikaru Yamanouchi), the negligent driver, turns out not only to be rich, but also interested in her in spite of the objections of his tradition-minded mother (Ayako Katsuragi).
Tellingly, these don't cease when Hiroshi's mother becomes Sugiko's mother-in-law, nor does his sister (Nobuko Wakaba) welcome her into the family with open arms. (As a matter of fact, she goes out of her way to be as nasty as possible to the newlyweds, resulting in less-than-blissful domesticity.) In contrast, Sugiko's younger brother Koichi (Akio Isono) tries to be as supportive as possible, even if he does believe she's rushing into marriage without thinking it through and for the wrong reasons. (She claims she's doing it for his benefit, ignoring Koichi's desire to learn how to drive so he can support himself.) "You really have to hustle to find a job these days," Koichi says upon his arrival in Tokyo, but for all their hustling, Sugiko and Kesako wind up right back where they started, as does the lovesick street artist (Shinichi Himori) who follows Kesako around like a puppy dog. I guess you can take the girl out of the Ginza, but you can't take the Ginza out of the girl.
|Monday, November 16th, 2015|
|If you go out that window again, young man, you'll really be sorry.
It makes perfect sense that Cornell Woolrich, the man who wrote the original story Hitchcock's Rear Window
was based on, also wrote one about a nine-year-old boy with an overactive imagination who witnesses a murder and can't get anyone to believe him. The story in question: "The Boy Cried Murder." The film: 1949's The Window
, which stars Bobby Driscoll as Tommy Woodry, whose father (Arthur Kennedy) works the night shift and mother (Barbara Hale) has her work cut out for her keeping young Tommy in line. This becomes especially acute one hot summer night when Tommy takes his bedding out onto the fire escape to escape the suffocating heat and sees upstairs neighbors the Kellersons (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) kill a sailor they were in the process of robbing.
Tautly directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who previously served as director photography on Hitchcock's Notorious
, The Window
proves he picked up a trick or two from the avowed master of suspense. Disbelieved by his parents and humored by the police, Tommy realizes he's in deep doo-doo when his exasperated mother marches him upstairs so he can apologize to the Kellersons, thus tipping them off that their crime did not go as unnoticed as they thought. There follows a diabolical game of cat and mouse when Tommy is left home alone and tries to avoid being done in by the murderous pair. And since no Hollywood film could get away with killing a kid in 1949, it's entirely to Tetzlaff's credit that the climax -- which sees Tommy being pursued through a derelict rooming house -- is as much of a nail-biter as it is.
|Saturday, November 14th, 2015|
|Maybe some guys need a going-over.
For my third Noirvember film, I have returned to the reliable Anthony Mann, who directed Railroaded!
in between his other two 1947 noirs, Desperate
. Here, the person being railroaded is clean-cut ex-serviceman Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), a delivery boy whose laundry truck is used in a heist that goes sour, leaving one cop dead and one robber mortally wounded. That leaves the job of framing the war vet to the crime's hotheaded mastermind, nightclub manager Duke Martin (top-billed John Ireland), whose calling card is his perfumed bullets, which he goes through at a fairly rapid clip as the film wears on. And the job of clearing Steve goes to his sister Rosie (Sheila Ryan), whose attempts to prove his innocence put her at odds with Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), the homicide detective on the case.
What's especially unsettling about a film like Railroaded!
is how thoroughly each character is disbelieved, even when we know they're telling the truth. We know Steve had absolutely nothing to do with the robbery, but the cops lean on him just as hard as if he did. And even when the evidence leads Mickey to believe he may be innocent, Steve thinks it's just a ruse to trip him up. And Duke doesn't trust anybody, least of all Clara (Jane Randolph), his lush of a lady who's the D.A.'s star witness since it was her backroom gambling den that Duke and his partner hit (what "should have been an easy heist"). By the time Duke is pointing a gun at Rosie in a darkened room, he almost doesn't need a reason. It's simply her turn.
|Friday, November 13th, 2015|
|What chance has a Jew against a Roman?
While it may have been eclipsed in the public imagination by the 1959 remake, the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur
(which retains the source novel's subtitle, A Tale of the Christ
) remains the more spectacular film. A true epic that was several years in the making, this Ben-Hur
was the work of multiple directors, only one of whom (Fred Niblo) receives screen credit. For those familiar with Charlton Heston's brawny interpretation of the title character, the journey of Ramon Novarro's Judah, Ben-Hur from Jewish prince to galley slave to adopted Roman to victorious charioteer won't hold many surprises. What does impress is the sheer scale of the enterprise and the volume of feeling Novarro brings to the role, especially when it comes to his betrayal at the hands of childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman), a Roman legionnaire who toes the party line, letting imperial pride rule his emotions.
In terms of grand spectacle, the sequences to watch for and marvel at are the sea battle, in which real ships were rammed into each other for extra verisimilitude, and the chariot race, which is quite literally a nonstop thrill ride. Then there are the scenes with Jesus Christ, who's never directly shown. The most we ever see of him is one of his arms until the film get to the Last Supper, when we're allowed to see both of them, with the rest of his body blocked by one of his disciples. While this was presumably done out of reverence, what it reminded me of was the masked figures that were digitally inserted into the orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut
so it could get an R rating. Probably not the kind of association the producers of Ben-Hur
wanted viewers to make.
|Thursday, November 12th, 2015|
|The blight of war does not end when hostilities cease.
Much like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will
before it, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
is a film I would have been content to go my whole life without seeing had it not been screened at the IU Cinema. Presented as part of a symposium marking the film's centennial, what's most salient about this fact is that Griffith made Birth
50 years after the end of the Civil War, which is half the distance we have from the film today. That makes it doubly a period piece as it reflects the time it was made as much as the time when it's set. It's also crazy racist, but you probably don't need me to tell you that.
What's frustrating is it didn't need to be that way. If Griffith had called it quits at the intermission point -- right after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- The Birth of a Nation
wouldn't have been half-bad. Sure, there would still be objections to its racial politics, its slanted view of history, and its idealization of the antebellum South, but it doesn't really fall apart until it tackles Reconstruction. Then again, the novel Griffith optioned and co-adapted was The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., so it's not like he could get away with not depicting the rise of the Klan in the South. Instead of treating it like the homegrown terrorist group that it was, though, Griffith lionizes them, which is why his film is still demonized today while other racist entertainments have faded into obscurity.
In terms of its story the first half of Birth
is fairly standard as far as Civil War sagas go. We're briskly introduced to two families -- the Stonemans of Pennsylvania and the Camerons of South Carolina -- and watch how they interact when the Stoneman boys pay a visit to the Cameron clain, sending various hearts aflutter. All thoughts of romance go out the window, though, when Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation under the watchful eye of power-hungry Representative Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), repeatedly described as the "radical" leader of the House who's madly in love with his mulatto maid Lydia, the first of the film's many problematic minority characters and characterizations since actress Mary Alden performs the role in blackface. That said, she's a peach compared to the other major mulatto character, Silas Lynch (George Siegmann, also in blackface), Stoneman's point man in the South under Reconstruction who comes to covet his daughter, Elsie (Lilian Gish).
For her part, Elsie seems destined to become Mrs. Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) until she finds out "the little Colonel" is the founder and head of the local chapter of the KKK and quite reasonably breaks their engagement. She changes her tune, though, when Silas holds her against her will and the Klan comes riding to her rescue. In fact, it's no great exaggeration to say Griffith spends the last hour of The Birth of a Nation
depicting the white-hooded "Invisible Empire" performing heroic deed after heroic deed, culminating in a scene of them lined up en masse
on horseback, literally suppressing the black vote, which is unequivocally seen to be a good thing. Shameful is what I call it, and it's actually far down on the list of the film's offenses. It just seems extra egregious in light of the efforts to disenfranchise minority voters that continue to go on today. The difference is the culprits no longer dress up in white robes and pointy hoods while they're doing it.
|Am I to be blamed for everything that 'appens in Limehouse?
For this week's Silent Sunday Night, TCM aired 1926's The Blackbird
, director Tod Browning's fourth collaboration with actor Lon Chaney and the fifth one I've seen. In it, Chaney plays the dual role of Dan Tate, known to his friends and enemies alike as dastardly thief The Blackbird, and his saintly crippled brother, The Bishop. What nobody tumbles to is that The Blackbird and The Bishop are one and the same, as Chaney is able to switch between his personae in a matter of moments -- as long as he has some privacy, that is.
Set in London's rough-and-tumble Limehouse district, where the swells go slumming and the scum decide among themselves who gets to fleece them, the film pits The Blackbird against slick, monocle-wearing gentleman thief Bertram P. Glayde, a.k.a. West End Bertie (Owen Moore). At first, it seems The Blackbird is simply being mindful about protecting his turf, but then they both set their sights on French vaudeville performer Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée), whose accent is charmingly conveyed by her grammatically awkward intertitles. (A similar thing goes for the Cockney dialect used for just about everyone else, but that gets a little tiresome after a while.) Meanwhile, The Blackbird's ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd), watches from the sidelines, still helplessly in love with the lout.
If Browning's story, fleshed out by screenwriter Waldemar Young, has a flaw, it's that Chaney doesn't spend enough time alternating between his two characters, making it hard to believe he could pull off such a deception for so long. Even so, it's delicious the way Browning and Young engineer the plot so Bertie and Fifi go to The Bishop to be married only for him to expose Bertie for the crook he is. And when that doesn't break them up and Bertie is framed for the shooting of a cop, The Bishop is the person Fifi turns to for a place to hide her lover. If The Blackbird thinks this means he has the upper wing, though, he has another think coming.
|Wednesday, November 11th, 2015|
|For his sake, I'd happily slave away in hell.
It's convenient that both of Mikio Naruse's surviving silents from 1933 are variations on the same basic premise -- a woman in a morally compromising profession willingly degrading herself to provide for her son. And they both run about an hour, which makes it easy to pair them up, as Criterion did in its Silent Naruse
Eclipse set and I did today.
First up is Apart from You
, about an aging geisha named Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) working to give her teenage son Yoshio (Akio Isono) a good education which he's blithely throwing away by skipping school and falling in with a bad crowd. The other major character is Terugiku (Sumiko Mizukubo), Kikue's neighbor and co-worker who's like a sister to Yoshio and takes him along on an eye-opening visit with her family, which is already grooming her younger sister to become a geisha like her. By stressing how much she's sacrificing for her loved ones -- an effort she's willing to redouble if it will spare her sister from the indignities she's forced to endure -- Terugiku gets Yoshio to appreciate what his mother's doing for him, but Naruse (who also penned the screenplay) throws in a good old-fashioned health scare -- a common melodramatic flourish in Japanese films of this vintage, apparently -- just in case.
The situation in Every-Night Dreams
is slightly different since the mother, Omitsu (Sumiko Kurishima), is a bar hostess in Ginza and her son, Fumio (Teruko Kojima), is still a child and therefore has yet to develop an opinion about how dear old Mom makes a living. He just expects to get a present whenever she goes on a trip. Accordingly, that means most of the conflict is between Omitsu and her estranged husband, Mizuhara (Tatsuo Saitô), who waltzes back into their lives after three years, is given a second chance, and tries his damnedest to find a job so Omitsu can quit hers. Then comes the good old-fashioned health scare -- here, it's Fumio getting hit by a car -- and a wrap-up that screenwriter Tadao Ikeda shamelessly lifted from the opening of Ozu's That Night's Wife
. Or maybe Naruse lifted it since he's credited with the film's story. Regardless of who did the lifting, it was lifted. A common practice in Japanese films of this vintage, apparently.
|Tuesday, November 10th, 2015|
|I'm coming to you because I'm totally distraught! Tormented by inexplicable fears -- !
Two decades before Hitchcock took a stab at the psychoanalytic thriller with Spellbound
, G.W. Pabst had a go at it and Secrets of a Soul
was the result. Released in 1926, the film employed two practicing psychoanalysts as technical consultants and its story purports to be "taken from an actual medical case history." In the interest of keeping it as general as possible, though, the characters are only identified in the credits as The Husband, The Wife, The Mother, and so on.
The Husband (Werner Krauss) is a chemist who finds himself unable to touch knives -- in fact, he quickly develops an acute fear of all cutting implements -- following a pileup of knife- and blade-related mini-traumas. These coalesce in a series of disturbing dreams that manage to be more effective than the blatantly surreal tableaux later conjured up by Salvador Dalí. The kicker, though, comes when he feels compelled to murder his much younger Wife (Ruth Weyher) -- probably because he subconsciously thinks she's carrying on with her Cousin (Jack Trevor), an explorer just back from Sumatra, but it would take a doctor to make that kind of diagnosis. Luckily, the Husband runs into such a Doctor (Pavel Pavlov, not the Pavlov who did the thing with the dogs) who agrees to treat him pretty much on the spot. But unlike Ingrid Bergman, who can analyze Gregory Peck on the go, this Doctor takes several months to get to the bottom of his patient's psychosis.
"Since we have learned to interpret it," the Doctor says, "the dream has become the most important door to our knowledge of the unconscious!" Unfortunately, his interpretation of the Husband's dreams is the least engaging part of the film, but at least it's over quickly enough, and his patient can go back to his Wife, secure in the knowledge that he won't try to kill her again. Psychoanalysis for the win!
|Saturday, November 7th, 2015|
|You're never slow sticking my neck out, are you?
Noirvember rolls on with Border Incident
, my second Anthony Mann film in as many days. This one is about two federal agents -- one Mexican, one American -- attempting to break up a human trafficking ring by going undercover -- one as a "bracero" eager to find work in the States, the other as a criminal with a stash of forged immigration permits. In many ways, it's as topical today as when it was made in 1949, but what gives the film an extra kick is the Mexican, Pablo Rodriguez, is played by Ricardo Montalban, showing some serious chops in his first drama for M-G-M after supporting turns in a few Esther Williams musicals. As his American counterpart, George Murphy doesn't make as much of an impression, but how could he with Montalban monopolizing all the charisma in the room?
Accompanying Rodriguez as he learns the ins and outs of the organization is migrant Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), who can't be dissuaded from making the illegal crossing. Neither can the sick old man who dies on the journey and gets dumped in the desert by the pitiless traffickers, which should be a wake-up call to Juan and the others that they're commodities first and human beings second. That's certainly the attitude taken by the big boss (Howard Da Silva), who employs a ruthless foreman (noir stalwart Charles McGraw) to do his dirty work. And because the proceedings would otherwise be lacking in overt comic relief, screenwriter John C. Higgins threw in a role for Alfonso Bedoya, fresh off playing Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
. And a real relief it is considering how dark Higgins and Mann were willing to go. (The French didn't dub them film noir
|Friday, November 6th, 2015|
|I'd be careful who you call a crook, mister.
We're nearly a week into Noirvember and I've just watched my first noir of the month. Appropriately enough, it's one that the Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller chose to cap off TCM's Summer of Darkness in July and which I've been saving on my DVR for just such an occasion. Directed by Anthony Mann, 1947's Desperate
is quick to tighten the screws on its hapless protagonist and none too eager to let him wriggle free of them, which is quite a position for a trucker with a bride of four months and a baby on the way to find himself in.
Steve Brodie stars as Steve Randall, a squeaky-clean war vet who regrets being lured by the promise of a $50 payday into taking a rush job on the night of his four-month anniversary when it turns out his truck is being used for a heist by crook Walt Radak (Raymond Burr). Even worse, Steve is framed and pressured into turning himself in to take the heat off Radak's younger brother, who's facing the electric chair for killing a cop during the botched job. Steve manages to escape from Radak and his henchmen, though, and goes on the run with his wife Anne (Audrey Long), who's deliberately kept in the dark, which is why her repeated pleas for Steve to go to the police fall on deaf ears.
As is frequently the case in noir films, some of the more interesting characters (and characterizations) are the ones found in the margins of the story, like shady private dick Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley), who's hired by Radak to track Steve down and chisels all he can out of his impulsive client. Then there are Anne's Czech aunt and uncle, who let them stay at their farm, but only if they have a proper church wedding first. There's even a Ned Ryerson-like insurance salesman who pesters Steve in the waiting room while Anne is giving birth. The most colorful, though, is the laid-back Det. Lt. Ferrari (Jason Robards, Sr.), whose blasé attitude belies his commitment to collaring the whole gang -- whether or not he believes Steve was really part of it.
|Thursday, November 5th, 2015|
|The way of the sword is pitiless.
In the opening minutes of The Assassin
, the title character, "woman in black" Yinniang (Shu Qi), is told to cut down a foe "expertly... as if he were a bird in flight," and does so without hesitation. I suspect co-writer/director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, venturing into the wuxia film after making his name in the art house, included this incident because none of her subsequent assassination attempts go as smoothly. In fact, starting with the provincial governor she declines to kill because he has his son with him, Yinniang continues finding reasons not to eliminate her targets, especially since the next one is her cousin Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen), governor of Weibo Province, which has a complicated relationship with its neighbors and the emperor.
To evaluate The Assassin
based on its byzantine plot, which is full of court intrigue and betrayals large and small, would be a fool's errand. Besides, what one is most apt to admire about it are the exquisite, brightly colored costumes and settings, and the scenes of serene contemplation shattered by sudden jolts of action. This is a film and a world where violence -- which Yinniang personifies -- can strike at any moment, and no one is immune from it. It's also one that is a distinct pleasure to luxuriate in for a couple of hours. Just don't worry too much about understanding everything that's going on at every moment. Not even the characters in the film have that luxury.
|You can't expect a democracy from a society like this.
By necessity, the recent documentary Best of Enemies
had to focus a lot of its attention on Gore Vidal's televised debates with William F. Buckley in 1968, so for those looking for a more general overview of Vidal's life and career, the existence of 2013's Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
is a positive boon. (As far as I can tell, there isn't a comparable documentary about Buckley, which I am perfectly fine with.) Even better, director Nicholas Wrathall was granted plenty of access to Vidal in the last few years of his life, so in addition to looking back on his long career as a novelist, screenwriter, public intellectual, provocateur, and bon vivant
, he's able to share his observations about the state of the union under Bush/Cheney and the true cost of the War on Terror.
Since the film wasn't completed until after Vidal's death in 2012, it's rather eerie that Wrathall opens it in the Washington, D.C., cemetery where he is to be entombed next to his longtime companion, Howard Austen, who passed away in 2003. (None of Wrathall's footage is date-stamped, so there's no way of knowing how close Vidal was to joining Austen when it was shot.) In fact, it's a long time before any of the other interview subjects -- a roll call that includes Tim Robbins (who directed Vidal in Bob Roberts
), Christopher Hitchens (Vidal's intellectual heir apparent, who actually predeceased him), Dick Cavett, Sting, and Mikael Gorbachev -- speak of him in the past tense, which is one way of keeping the film from turning into a 90-minute eulogy. Still, while it's sad to see him in frailer and frailer health, it's heartening to know that his wit continued to be sharp -- at least as long as Wrathall and his camera were about.
|Promise it will be our last job.
The last film in Criterion's Silent Ozu--Three Crime Dramas
Eclipse set is 1933's Dragnet Girl
, for which Ozu also wrote the story under the assumed name James Maki. Leaving scripting duties to Tadao Ikeda, as he had done on Walk Cheerfully
and Passing Fancy
, Ozu was freed up the concentrate on the film's visuals, which paid off handsomely since it's the most sophisticated film in the set. Ensconced in the milieu of the underworld's sweaty boxing clubs and smoky pool halls, Dragnet Girl
is Ozu's proto-noir, about an office girl who supports her ne'er-do-well of a man and chooses to fight for him when a more upstanding woman catches his eye.
At its center is Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who's introduced receiving an expensive ring from the company president's son, who couldn't be barking up a wronger tree if he tried. That's because her heart belongs to former boxer and current hoodlum Joji (Joji Oka, the meddling family friend in Naruse's No Blood Relation
), who makes plain that he's "not a big boss," but that doesn't prevent the admiring Hiroshi (Hideo Mitsui) from joining his gang and becoming a "full-fledged punk." This, naturally, doesn't sit well with Hiroshi's sister Kazuko (Sumiko Mizukubo), who appeals directly to Joji to put her brother back on the straight and narrow. What she doesn't anticipate is that this will inspire Tokiko to do the same with Joji.
Appropriately enough, the pivot point comes halfway through the film when Tokiko confronts Kazuko at the record store where she works, takes her for a walk, and threatens her with a gun. Unable to pull the trigger, Tokiko bashfully puts the gun away, impulsively kisses Kazuko on the cheek (an action Ozu deliberately keeps out of the frame), and returns to Joji, telling him "I've fallen for her, too." What she's actually fallen for, though, is Kazuko's respectable domesticity, which she'd like them to have. Too bad the chances of that are nil when Joji announces his intention to pull the proverbial "one last job" before going straight.
|Wednesday, November 4th, 2015|
|Who among us keep watch from this strange watchtower to warn of the arrival of our new executioners?
The first shock is that it's in color. When one thinks of Holocaust documentaries, that conjures up the grainy, black-and-white footage shot when Allied forces liberated Nazi concentration camps in 1944 and 1945. True, there is some of that in Night and Fog
, but when director Alain Resnais and his crew went to Auschwitz and Majdanek in 1955, they filmed what they found there in color to better contrast it with the stock footage and still photos Resnais knew it would be intercut with. Combined with the matter-of-fact commentary written by survivor Jean Cayrol (sample: "Even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass, even a resort village with a steeple and a country fair can lead to a concentration camp."), it all adds up to one of the most powerful and sobering 32 minutes ever committed to celluloid. The moving shots of the fences, the empty barracks, the latrines, the abandoned observation post, the hospital, the surgical block, the brothel, the prison, the crematorium, the gas chamber -- they would be haunting even without Cayrol's words and Hans Eisler's music. With them, they're a chilling reminder that the most abominable things can happen in the most ordinary-looking places.
|It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.
When Josef von Sternberg brought Marlene Dietrich to the States after The Blue Angel
, she received second billing on their next two collaborations, but that changed on their fourth, 1932's Shanghai Express
, for which she got the star billing she'd always deserved. Introduced alighting from a car in a black veil and an outfit consisting mostly of black feathers, Dietrich plays the notorious "white flower of China" Shanghai Lily, who boards an express train bound for the city from which she got her name. She's not the only curious character making the trip from Peking, though, which proves dicey as China is in the midst of civil war.
The main passenger of interest to Lily is British military surgeon Capt. Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) -- "Doc" to her -- a former lover who broke things off five years earlier over a supposed infidelity. The one she shares her compartment with, though, is fellow lady of ill repute Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), who also shares the derision of the train's resident prigs, doctor of divinity Rev. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) and respectable boardinghouse owner Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), who's more concerned about the well-being of her dog Waffles than anyone else's. That leaves the unassuming Henry Chang (Warner Oland), who turns out to be the leader of the rebellion, and brash Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), who lives up to his boast that he'll bet on anything -- including whether they'll all live through their ordeal when rebels under Chang's command capture the train.
Throughout, von Sternberg and Oscar-winning cinematographer Lee Garmes (aided by an uncredited James Wong Howe) find just the right lighting to highlight Dietrich's singular beauty, as well as her ability to smoke a cigarette. This is especially apparent in the scene where Lily, fully aware of the danger Capt. Harvey is in, sacrifices her freedom in exchange for his. What makes it a particularly selfless act is her insistence on not letting Harvey know she's making it, which is why the film remains engaging even after the Shanghai Express gets underway again with most of the principal cast intact. If those two lovebirds are going to end up together, she's determined to make him work for it.