Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

The Hill – Sidney Lumet film from 1965 about the conditions in a WW2 British army stockade. This one is very good, as a defiant Sean Connery clashes with the camp commander, played beautifully by Lumet regular Harry Andrews. Lumet uses the camera to subtly expose the madness in the camp, starting out in long and medium shots, and then gradually getting right close up to the characters as they come unhinged. Highly recommended.

TopazTopaz is always cited as one of Hitchcocks’ lesser works, but I have to say that I liked it quite a bit. It’s an espionage film, but isn’t quite in the same vein as North By Northwest or Notorious. This is more like a John Le Carre story. There are still a few classic Hitch touches, my favorite being a brazen attempt to steal a briefcase right out from under the nose of the bad guys. Recommended.

Walk on the Wild Side – This one was a bit of a hoot. Laurence Harvey as a love-struck Texas drifter searching for his true love Halley (Capucine), who unbeknownst to him has become a prostitute. Casting Harvey for this role was a bit strange, but he’s actually not bad here – A little more warm and personable than usual. Barbara Stanwyck is a madam who is REALLY attached to Halley, in one of the most visibly lesbian characterizations of the Code era. Clifford Odets had a hand in doctoring the script. A young Jane Fonda also appears (below).

Mayor of The Sunset Strip – A nice doc about LA disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, who managed to be involved with literally everyone in the LA music scene from the sixties till today. God, EVERYBODY shows up in this film, from the Doors and Frank Zappa to X to Coldplay. It’s also a great little encapsulation of the excesses of the time.


From Harold & Maude. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Monday, April 27, 2009

After Life

Two pairs of feet climb a flight of stairs, accompanied by the voices of two men discussing their day at work. The camera cuts to a brightly lit doorway, and we begin to see dark figures trickling in and reporting to a receptionist. This is the Gates of Heaven, as imagined by the brilliant Japanese filmmaker Kore-Eda Hirokazu.

Hirokazu’s 1998 masterpiece After Life presents us with a heaven that occupies an old building (it looks like an abandoned school) with no heat and dire need of a coat of paint. The premise is: The recently deceased stop off here, and indicate the memory that they would like to live with for the rest of eternity. The staff re-creates the memory on film, and then the people go off to Heaven, taking that memory with them, and forgetting everything else.

For a film that tackles such a subject, After Life is surprisingly sweet and quiet. The film’s foundation is in the faces of the men and women who go through this station over the course of one week. The rules are explained in a montage that introduces us to all of the major characters. The deceased have 3 days to choose the one memory that they want to preserve, after which the staff will film it. Every one will meet on the last day to view their film, after which they go off to Heaven.

The dead come in all types, male and female, young and old, and the stories are just as varied as the faces that tell them. An elderly woman recalls dancing in a red dress for her older brother. A WWII survivor speaks of being captured by American troops and being given a cigarette and meal by them. A middle-aged man talks of riding on a bus on a beautiful summer day as a child. A young girl recalls a trip to Disneyland. A man boasts of his sexual conquests. An elderly lady says nothing, just looking off into the distance. The interviews are stark and simplistic – We almost never hear the interviewer speak, and the camera doesn’t leave the subject. It’s remarkably effective in creating an intimacy with the dead.

Hirokazu interviewed over 500 people in preparation for this film, and many of these sessions are included in the film. I couldn’t tell you which are real people and which are actors, and it doesn’t matter anyway. All the “dead” seen onscreen are remarkably natural, and the film doesn’t have a phony note in it.

A couple of the faces stand out. A young man named Iseya says that he won’t choose one memory. An elderly man named Watanabe has problems choosing. His life and marriage were a disappointment to him, leaving no great memories. His counselor, a young man named Mochizuki, tries to help him by providing a video record of his life, and watching the old man see his own memories is fascinating. He sees himself as an idealistic young man, decrying the very life that he would eventually wind up living. He sees himself bumbling in his first contact with the woman would later become his wife, and mutters at the screen “Idiot!”

The counselors, it turns out, are also among the dead. They are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t decide, and thus are held back. Little bits are uncovered about them. One of the men shows a picture of his daughter, saying, “She would be 6 now.” Mochizuki has been dead for decades, but suddenly realizes that he has a link with the old man Watanabe. I won’t reveal the link, but suffice to say that it is a watershed moment for both men. The film stays true to itself in these passages, not degenerating into false sentimentality and fluff.

A counselor named Shoeri is an enigma. She won’t pick a memory, and we’re not sure why. She speaks at one point about remembering riding on her father’s back, and at one point makes a vague statement about missing her father, but the film doesn’t pursue it. It’s her story that ultimately shows another viewpoint on the “One memory for all eternity” idea. She loves Mochizuki, and to choose one memory means that she has to give up all the others. That’s why she won’t choose.

After all the interviews, and glimpses of the counselors starting to produce the memories in a studio, we never get the chance to see the finished product. The film shows them trooping into the theatre and finding a seat, and this is as much as we see. We’ve sat with each of these people and heard their stories, and so to see the actual film would have been superfluous.

The question of what is heaven really like is of course impossible to answer. All we can do is construct one that seems right to us. The makers of After Life have succeeded, because it’s impossible to watch it and not turn its ideas inward on oneself. I think of my wife and I on the first evening of our honeymoon, sitting together in a nearly empty dining room in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, watching white-tailed deer frolic outside…. I think of warm summer days, swimming with my brother and my cousins as a child..…Could I spend eternity with these? You bet.

Note: My January 2007 commentary on Hirokazu’s Maborosi can be read here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

Mon Oncle Antoine – I hadn’t seen Claude Jutra’s 1971 evocation of small-town Quebec after the war. It’s pitch-perfect in its details of the period, and heart-rending in its story of how young Antoine has his eyes opened about the adults in his life. Very highly recommended.

Beat the Devil – Another one that I hadn’t seen. This one showed up on late-night Buffalo TV, so I finally got to check it out. It was missing a sizable chunk, but what the hell. The plot. I gather, had something to do with uranium, but I never did get a handle on it. It had some good fun, though. The high points for me were Robert Morley as one of the crooks, and Jennifer Jones as a ditzy blonde who falls for Humphrey Bogart.

Encounters at the End of the World – Werner Herzog’s examination of the people who live and work in Antarctica. This could have been fine as a straight documentary, but Herzog being Herzog, this one also includes footage from “The Lone Ranger”, and a painting of a monkey riding an antelope. Amazing camerawork, but in my estimation the film suffers somewhat from Herzog’s penchant for zeroing in on the most eccentric individuals. Recommended.

Hard Times – No, not Dickens. This is the 1975 Depression-era street fighting movie with Charles Bronson and James Coburn. A couple of pretty good performances from Coburn and Strother Martin are wasted here because of Bronson’s inability to portray a believable human being onscreen. His character here is much like his character in Once Upon a Time in the West – A monosyllabic zombie. This one never leaves any doubt as to where it’s headed, and thus I can’t quite recommend it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Movies of My Life

I’ve been a fan of the Coen brothers forever. I began with their second feature, Raising Arizona, and then quickly backtracked to their debut, the great “Texas Noir” Blood Simple. It immediately became my favorite of their films, and nothing they’ve done since has dislodged it.

It was well received when it came out, but critics had a hard time pigeon-holing it. For a bloody thriller, it had perhaps a few too many laughs in it…. But to call it a comedy wasn’t right, either….

God, where to start? The plot, on the surface is pretty straightforward. A man hires someone to kill his wife and her lover. That doesn’t begin to tell it, as anyone who has seen the film can tell you. Blood Simple’s plot is at the same time complicated and easy to follow. That sounds crazy, but I swear its true.

It all hinges on a double cross by the hired killer, a sleazy private eye played memorably by M. Emmet Walsh. I did a small feature on this character before, and I’m going to revisit what I wrote then about my favorite moment from the initial conversation between him and the husband.

“I’ve got a job for you.”

“Well, if the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it.”

“It’s not strictly legal.”

“Well, if the pay’s right, I’ll do it.”

Not strictly legal - I love that.

The film is at it’s best when Walsh is onscreen, as he double-crosses the husband, then finds that he needs to go ahead with the original plan, after all.

The two lovers are not quite as interesting in my estimation. The wife, Abby is played by Mrs. Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, and she is fine. The lover, Ray, played by John Getz is the film’s one weak point. One review I read described him as “dry mouthed”, and I thinks that’s a good way of putting it. He’s just way too bland. In my minds eye, I’ve always seen Tommy Lee Jones in this role.

The great joy of watching this film is the fact that nobody in it has a clue what’s going on. The PI kills the husband (at least he thinks he did). The lover finds the body and thinks the wife did it. The PI comes back for a crucial piece of evidence that he’s forgotten, and finds the body gone. The lover finds that the husband wasn't as dead as he thought. The wife knows that something has happened, doesn’t know what, but thinks her lover did it – whatever it was.

This all leads to a climax that is just astounding in its construction. Roger Ebert described it thusly:

“Consider the famous sequence in which a man is in one room and his hand is nailed to the windowsill in another room. How he got into that predicament, and how he tries to get out of it, all makes perfect sense when you see the film. But if you got an assignment in a film class that began with a close-up of that hand snaking in through the window and being nailed down, how easy would it be to write the setup scenes?"

As I said at the top, this is still my favorite Coen film. They certainly went on to bigger things, but not necessarily better. Fargo and No Country for Old Men are likely the brothers’ best known and most well regarded films, and both come from the same template as Blood Simple.

Check it out, if you haven’t already.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Yves Montand

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My Week of Movie Watching

3:10 To Yuma – The original, that is. Liked it quite a bit, too. Glenn Ford is quite good as the smugly confident bad guy trying to talk Van Heflin into not risking his life for $200. Heflin is the antithesis of his Shane role. Here he’s reluctant – VERY reluctant to get involved in this mess, but needs the money. It was also nice to see the rich stagecoach owner (Robert Emhardt) not be a caricature for a change.

Spider Man 3 – This is my least favorite of the three Spidey flicks, but it’s still a hoot. I liked Thomas Haden Churchs’ Sandman, but thought the film could have done with a story line or two less.

Charley Varrick – Walter Matthau as a small time hood who picks the absolute worst bank to rob. The first 15 minutes of this set a pretty high standard, but the film never wavers. A great cast of 70’s icons including Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, and Andy Robinson (He was the psycho in Dirty Harry). I had no idea where this film was going, and I love that.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

On this Date

Ward Bond, born April 9, 1903

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Marquee

Eyes Without a Face, 1960

Monday, April 06, 2009

On Location

Charles Laughton checks out "Brother Left Hand" on the set of Night of the Hunter.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Naked Spur

James Stewart’s most well-known screen persona is of the decent, soft-spoken everyman, as personified by roles like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s only part of the Stewart legacy, however. In the fifties, he collaborated with director Anthony Mann on a series of hard-edged Westerns that changed the genre forever. Stewart’s characters in Mann westerns like Winchester 73 and The Man from Laramie were obsessive, revenge driven men with all the warmth of a fistful of ball bearings. Mann had done a lot of Film Noir in the forties, and he brought a lot of Noir’s morally ambiguous sensibility to the Western. As a result, Mann’s westerns are the jumping off point for stuff like John Ford’s The Searchers, and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

1953’s The Naked Spur is one of the greatest of the Mann-Stewart westerns, and it follows the formula mentioned above. Howard Kemp (Stewart) is on the trail of a killer and when we first meet him, he approaches an elderly prospector (Millard Mitchell) with gun drawn. His first instinct is that this man is not to be trusted, and even after he’s convinced that the guy is OK, he doesn’t let down his guard one iota. He enlists the prospector to help him track the guy, and they meet another stranger on the trail, a Cavalry officer named Roy (Ralph Meeker). The Roy character is interesting. He’s been dishonorably discharged from the army, and gives off a strong vibe that he shouldn’t be trusted.

The three soon encounter and capture the killer (Robert Ryan) and his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh), and the film settles down into its groove. Westerns always gave us a black and white world. Heroes were valiant and true, and villains were black-heated scoundrels. This movie mocks those conventions. Kemp is the ostensible hero, but he is cold and blunt. Ryan is the villain, but he’s jovial. Both the prospector and the Cavalryman have called Kemp “Marshal” early in the film, and when one of them does it again in front of Ryan he says “Did he tell you he was a lawman?” Kemp is simply a bounty hunter, and his not fessing up casts a shadow on his character. Early in the film, Kemp has shown the prospector the wanted poster of the man he is tracking. When Ryan is captured, he shows the same poster to the group, and we notice that there is a sizable reward. Kemp had torn that part off his copy. Again, seeds of mistrust creep in about him.

Ryan’s Ben has murdered a lawman – shot him in the back, but from the beginning, it’s hard to reconcile that act with the man himself. He professes his innocence, and is friendly and engaging, so it’s easy to begin to like him somewhat. Lina is also is still devoted to him, and she doesn’t come across as a na├»ve moll. Is it possible that Kemp is hounding an innocent man for reward money?

A small window into Kemp’s anger is opened one night as he sleeps. He talks in his sleep about “Mary”, and it is revealed that she was a woman that he was going to marry, but she sold his farm out from under him while he was away in the war. He wants the reward in order to buy back his land.

Ben quietly sets to work undermining the trust amongst the others. He slyly suggests that “The reward splits better 2 ways.’ He’s not coming right out and saying that they should murder one another, but there’s no mistaking his intent either. Meeker’s Roy has already been established as a shady womanizer, and the thought of getting all of the reward seems to take a tenuous hold on him. To top it off, he also wants Lina. There’s a marvelous scene in a cave where all the mistrust bubbles to the surface, and the prospector exclaims “I don’t know who I should be pointing the gun at!!!”

The prospector seems at first to be the only wholly good character, but that turns out not to be the case, either. He has mined for gold all around the area, finding nothing. Ben keeps mentioning a friend who struck it rich in these parts, and the prospector finally arrives at the conclusion that Ben himself is the friend. He gets a proposal – Ben’s freedom in exchange for the claim. Had he looked at things with a clear mind, he might have realized he was being duped, but the lure of the gold overcomes him, and he makes a fatal error.

If I have a quibble with this film, it’s over the Janet Leigh character. She is supposed to be Ben’s woman, but we really don’t believe that they belong together. Her role falls into the Hollywood tradition of only being there for the hero to fall in love with. Were they to ever remake this film (and I think it would be a great remake), her character could easily be written out.

The other film I thought about while watching TNS was John Huston’s great Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Both films are meditations on the destructive consequences of unbridled greed. The Huston film takes a harder line on it, as Fred C Dobbs’ avarice leads to his destruction. Stewarts’ Kemp goes right to the precipice, and then thinks better of it. He can have his reward, but it would come at the cost of his soul.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009