Sunday, August 28

Zéro de Conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933)

A depiction of childhood innocence and anarchy, Zéro de conduite is nearly as bold a display of Jean Vigo's capacity for capturing reality and the poetry of motion as his final work, his magnum opus L'Atalante. A film that romanticizes defiance in childhood without pushing into the realm of pure nostalgia, Zéro de conduite never feels like an adult's concept of youth so much as youth itself, a time when bonds are formed without any deeper desire than to have a friend, when even the smallest bit of mischief could relieve days of authoritarian discipline. The movie's subtitle reads "Little Devils at School," but these hellions have too much good in them to be demons. They only seem so because they've not yet integrated into the social values of the system.

As the young lads of a boarding school prepare to return to their studies after holiday break, we see the kids enjoying their last vestiges of freedom on the train. Two boys, Caussat and Bruel, compare the trinkets the received for Christmas, entertaining each other with gags like the old making-your-thumb-disappear act. When they casually light up two cigars, one senses they won't fall back into rigid discipline in school. Sure enough, upon their arrival, they only recruit more lads to their miniature rebellion: Colin, a pipsqueak who can take the fall because he's too young to punish severely, and Tabard, a new kid clearly struggling with being away from home for the first time. They treat the monitors and teachers with indifference bordering on scorn, and the professors are more than happy to respond in kind.

Based on Vigo's own memories of growing up in a boarding school, the film does not spare much fond remembrance for the institutional (in more than one sense) state of education. Long shots of the communal dorm present the room like a prison, rigidly aligned beds giving each child his own complete lack of privacy. And these boys have even less privacy than the ascetic conditions of the room provide, as one of the monitors sleeps in the room with them, though he of course has the luxury of a curtain. Later, Vigo takes the realistic shots of this dorm and distorts them slightly with different lenses, stretching out the vastness of the room even more and paradoxically enhancing the feeling of isolation it evokes. Further emphasizing the totalitarian nature of the school is a brief interlude where a drawing of one the assistant director, mocked as "Beanpole" by the students (and even other teachers), suddenly comes alive animation, morphing from a sketch of the thin man in a bathing suit through various permutations until he finally turns into Napoleon.

These touches of artistry illustrate the harshness of boarding school life in magical, almost fairy-tale terms. The visually distinctive teachers are like Boggis, Bunce and Bean: one fat, one short, one lean. The only teacher who sympathizes with the boys, Huguet, waddles around like Charlie Chaplin, spinning his cane and walking on his feet for the lads' amusement. That cinematic flourish can be seen later when the film flirts with the rebellious propaganda of Battleship Potemkin, though the uprisings in question are relatively less severe.

Beneath these flighty takes on teachers vs. pupils, there are some grimly real visions of the dark side of this oppressive set-up. The teachers, who are perhaps aware of their own socially unacceptable feelings (late in the film, the fat teacher caresses a boy's hand with predatory fondness), crack down on any friendship they deem too close for comfort: when Bruel and Tabard, whose effeminate nature makes him a mark for the monitors anyway, form an "improperly" close friendship despite its Platonic innocence. It's telling that the children rarely seem to learn anything in this school; rather than impart wisdom, the taskmasters simply try to mold them into members of a society that, as seen from the microcosmic, forming center, has little room for the creativity and freedom the kids exhibit.

Ergo, Vigo's depiction of childhood is, broadly speaking, an unhappy one, one where children's lives are micromanaged by strangers. But that is not to say that Zéro de conduite is for one moment dour: it often feels like a silent film, stretches of images unfolding with only music as the boys get up to hijinks. Every time the sound cut back in, I was jolted, as if I forgot it was a talkie. A climactic pillow fight at once clarifies the small stakes of the action even as it takes the film to new heights of beauty. As down flies out of the pillows, Vigo uses slow motion to linger on the action, capturing the full joy on the boys' faces as feathers fall upwards like snow in reverse. It is a scene so gorgeous and affirming that, in many ways, it has a greater impact than the open defiance that the imps unleash upon a commemoration day at the end. Nevertheless, as they run across rooftops brandishing their rebel flag, one can see past the contemporary social fears of Vigo's poetic realist colleague Jean Renoir all the way to the nagging political outrage that would explode with the New Wave. Indeed, watching Zéro de conduite, one can hardly help but look ahead not only to its clearest homage, The 400 Blows, but the student revolt of May '68.

Saturday, August 27

Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Opening on a quick zoom-in on a cop blowing a whistle, a frenzied police shootout and a brutal rounding up of the usual suspects, Knock on Any Door wastes no time exhibiting its maker's gifts. All of this unfolds in no time, with barely a few lines of dialogue scattered among throngs of witnesses and enraged police officers to make sense of things. Only someone like Nick Ray could use this torrid, forceful start to introduce what will eventually become a courtroom drama that uses flashbacks to craft a social study of the role of society in shaping thugs.

Ray frames the cop killing in shadow, enshrouding the face of the killer, but the police confidently charge Nick Romano (John Derek), a local thug with a a rap sheet as long as a medieval tapestry. Nick, like much of the movie, plays as a sort of run-through for the ideas Ray would flesh out further with Rebel Without a Cause. As if working his way up the social ladder, Ray precedes his take on the invasion of bourgeois, suburban values with a decidedly working-class overview of the same broad topic of disaffected youth. But if Nick, like Jim Stark, has no active cause, he is nevertheless the product of causes of a different sort, transformational social influences pointed out in detail by the visualized arguments of lawyer Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).

Bogart, as if prepping for his even more despairing performance in the following year's In a Lonely Place, plays up his hangdog looks to match the anguish of Ray's approach to character. Initially, Morton is reluctant to defend Nick not only because he came from the same rough slums where the crime took place but because the partners of his firm threaten to withholding making him a full partner if he takes such a tawdry case. But after an amusingly one-sided argument with his wife, who merely sits silently with an unmoving, judgmental face that prompts hand-wringing self-defense, Andy finally acquiesces. But that doesn't soften Morton's opinion of Nick one bit; "If he's innocent," Andy drawls, "it'll be the first time."

That fatalistic approach defines the film, even after Bogart builds to a passionate defense in court and melodramatic flashbacks show Nick's fall into a life of petty crime. Visiting Nick in a holding cell, the chain-link fence casts a shadow upon the opposite wall, doubling the sense of being trapped before the trial even begins. In court, Morton openly addresses the various biases of the jury, the penchants for sympathy that led them to be chosen for the trial in the first place. His kind tone to the jury members belies his open acknowledgement of the deck-stacking behind each jury selection. But it is when Morton's attempts to contextualize Nick's life lead to flashbacks of the young man's lurid but unimportant life that Ray's capacity for making visually striking images of ennui and anomie comes alive.

The full-frame width of the screen helps define the different dimensions of the underclass to which Nick belongs as the child of first-generation immigrants growing up in the slums. The 'Scope framing of Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life emphasized the empty space around middle-class families who project fantasies of even bigger wealth into that area, while the tenement housing here is cramped, barely able to fit a meager collection of basic furniture, to say nothing of the considerable progeny filling these sardine-can apartments (recall that both Rebel and Bigger feature families with only children compared to the sizable ones here). The script fashions the botched case of Nick's father—a case Morton handed off to a co-worker because of its perceived ease, only for the other lawyer to let the man go to jail because he didn't want to waste time defending an immigrant facing minimal jail time—as the catalyst for his downfall, but the crucible in which he lived would have wrought its changes at some point even without a freak occurrence.

One of Ray's most consistent themes during his command of the 1950s was his clear disdain for mob mentality and the desire to string up the nearest undesirable whenever anything went wrong. Morton shares that attitude, and the flashbacks that stem from his statements to the court show how criminals are made, not born. Derek plays his younger self with a Beaver-like innocence, his voice high and his face fresh. Confronted by the indifference of the system, however, he begins to harden, that charming, boyish face curling until even his forehead seems to sneer. Arrested for a petty crime, Nick finds himself in a horrid jail cell with a friend dying of pneumonia, which the guards treat with blasts of a fire hose, and the POV shot of water blasting the frame into oblivion makes his outrage all the more deeply felt. You'd be hard-pressed to trust the cops after that, too.

Left without any sense of direction in this awful neighborhood, Nick morphs into a punk, a greaser whose mantra "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" is at once defiant and childishly asinine. But that swagger floats him beyond the truth that he is, ultimately, one piss-poor crook, capable of nothing more impressive than lifting money from registers or causing minor vandalism. His sole attempt at a proper robbery is darkly comic in the anticlimax of its disaster: the robbery is cut short by discovery, and as the men flee one of Nick's cohorts slides out a door, only to fall down the stairs outside, roll under the rail and plummet to his death. Pathetic actions like these cannot dent Nick's reputation, however, and even before he tries a real heist he's the toast of the local misfits.

To add complexity and flecks of actual happiness to Nick's story, Ray shows the boy falling for Emma, a girl so sweet she seems to be spun out of cane sugar. (As is fitting, we meet her as the girl behind the register in a candy shop.) Having gone in there to steal from the register, Nick suddenly blanches at this vision of almost unreal innocence, and even when Emma's alcoholic aunt presents Nick with the opportunity for a clean steal, he cannot bring himself to do it, much to the annoyance of his friend waiting outside beckoning and even storming in later to impatiently and indirectly berate Nick in front of Emma.

Love in Nicholas Ray's movies is always a stabilizing force, but never one strong enough to overpower the crippling effects of fate and the system. Morton, a foil for Nick, grew up in the same areas but pulled himself out of hardship, something that initially makes him cold to the rest who are still stuck there. But as he works with Nick and tries to help the kid out, we see the contrast between the two: Morton realized he couldn't beat the system and joined it, but that simply isn't an option for Nick, no matter how hard he tries. Not even settling down with Emma can cool him for long, as he's passed the point of no return.

While these flashback scenes can get repetitive and try to justify too many conscious choices as being the product of the environment, Knock on Any Door still boasts some poetic images both beautiful and horrifying. The initial tryst between Emma and Nick shows off Ray's melodramatic framing, a gift with which he was apparently born. Light shadows highlight the illicit nature of the virgin's affair with the thug but also its passion, while later their coldness toward each other reaches a haunting nadir when a pregnant Emma reaches her breaking point without any prior foreboding and a static shot placed at waist level shows her turning on the oven's gas to kill herself. Making this even more stunning is the equally troubling, and equally striking, shot of Nick, wanted by the cops, watching her funeral from afar, looking down from a rooftop in acute pain.

"Nobody knows how anybody feels," Nick snaps to Morton in his first flash of cynicism of the flashback. It's a pronouncement that, if true, means the trial going on back in the present is a lost cause, as Morton's case relies entirely on empathy, but that teenage sense of isolation is already belied by Ray's empathetic, perspective-oriented direction. Still, faced with someone like Kerman (George Macready), the prosecuting district attorney and personification of the Establishment, Nick has a reason to feel the mainstream has ignored him without empathy. Morton's argument is passionate, human and convincing, but Kerman dismantles him with almost personal zeal, using base insults and badgering to wear the kid down. Morton, more so than Nick, is the film's tragic hero, a man absorbed by the system who still wants to show people perspectives outside it, but he's in even less a position to change minds than Nick.

Small, human moments tend to directly follow huge explosions of drama in this film, from the horribly serene funeral after the botched robbery to Morton humbly changing his client's plea after Kerman's hounding of Nick gets the intended result. With the truth revealed, Morton's arguments now feel small rather than passionate, Bogart's slumped shoulders as he looks up at the bench making him look even smaller as Ray uses a wide-angle lens to push out the background, further isolating and minimizing the lawyer. Ray's final shots are some of the best in cinema, the (often ironic) visual equivalent of Billy Wilder's gift for summarizing punchlines, and the last image of Knock on Any Door is one of his most troubling. As guards march Nick toward his doom, Morton stands in the foreground, the diagonal slits of light creating a two-dimensional steps to the gallows, as it were. Nick's final look back only punctuates the sense of fatalism and woe, and suddenly the land of opportunity seems as oppressive and unforgiving as the regime it devoted everything to fighting after WWII.

Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though Flying Leathernecks is a solid war movie in terms of its construction, the drama that must have happened behind the camera is infinitely more appealing than the one that unfolded before it. Nicholas Ray and Robert Ryan, both committed liberals (Ray a former Communist and Ryan a pacifist) clashed with John Wayne, an actor whose personal beliefs and professional style could not have put him more at odds with Ray if he'd actively been trying to mess with the emerging director. The film itself is purported to exist primarily as one of RKO head Howard Hughes' patriot cred pictures to defend himself from accusations of Commie ties. Watching the various dealings, spats and good old-fashioned passive-aggression at work on this movie would make for one hell of an experience.

Nevertheless, the film is not quite so stupid as its shallow jingoism. Granted, its use of newsreel combat footage, incessant validation of Wayne's reluctant but dedicated warrior act and push for strict discipline make it a traditional war movie through and through. But Ray, who may not have cared as much as he did for films that more adequately reflected his beliefs, nevertheless finds a few moments of intelligence and character in the conflict between experienced professional Maj. Daniel Kirby (Wayne) and Capt. Carl Griffin (Ryan), the too-chummy officer who values the casual approval of his hotshot pilots over proper military decorum.

Although Hughes clearly wanted the film to support the military, Ray also suggests that Ryan's character, who would be closer to his own, is unfit for command, unable to make the sacrifices necessary to lead successful missions. Where Ray obviously differs from the film's validation of Wayne's character is that he and Ryan would doubtlessly be more than happy not to fit into a war zone. But Wayne's Kirby is not as cold as he seems: he does not send men to their deaths casually and takes every loss personally, writing letters of condolence to the families instead of letting the chaplain handle such matters. The lack of mail Kirby himself receives on a consistent basis may also be a motivating factor in this commitment, one of the few aspects of the film to feel like it belongs in a Nick Ray movie.

Earlier I used the word "solid" to describe the film, and that is chiefly its problem: Ray is not a solid director. He is a filmmaker of passions and politics and romances and dances and existential fights to inevitable deaths. The constant use of newsreel footage denies him full aesthetic control leading to sizable portions of the film in which his mastery of form is not on display, and the irritation he must have felt carries over into the shots that actually are his, few of which even remotely suggest Ray's hand. Compare this, his first film in color, to his next one, Johnny Guitar, and the difference is too vast to be the result of a learning curve. What's more, stack up the glorified battle footage here with the taut, grisly, repellent action shots in Bitter Victory to get an idea of where Ray's true and deeply held opinions on war lied. I'm not saying the director was forcibly stifled, but he clearly felt boxed in by the project.

Wayne and Ray are not an actor-director pair that was ever meant to be, Wayne's style of playing icons wholly at odds with Ray's ability to make icons of humans. Still, the shotgun marriage of their collaboration works a lot better than I would expected, especially as Ryan makes Wayne look even better by venting his frustrations through overacting. In comparison, Wayne is reserved, always resigned and only just capable of holding back his regrets for putting these men in harm's way even as he also conveys steely conviction to doing his duty. Even when he gets sent back home briefly after his tactics prove instrumental to taking Guadalcanal, Kirby never gives into the rousing celebration the film around him perpetually sells with its boisterous music, instead cherishing the moments with his family before his inevitable reassignment.

Ray even builds his most characteristic scene around Wayne when Kirby speaks to a pilot who lost his leg in a crash. Mostly holding on a close-up of the man's sweat-drenched face as he instructs the major on what to write back to his folks about the wound, mixing brave selflessness with bitter irony, is a touching scene, and one that brings out a great deal of humanity and empathy in Wayne. Other shots, such as those of men in foxholes being unheroically blown to bits by artillery fire or a prolonged bit of stock footage that lingers on a plane crash as a fireball silently blossoms into the sky, also feel like Ray moments in a movie that otherwise feels uncomfortably workmanlike.

There is something fascinating in all of Ray's films, but Flying Leathernecks is the first time that most of the intrigue exists outside of the film and in its production, and this is well before Ray fell into deep, deep alcoholism. Buoyed by an unexpectedly affecting performance from John Wayne and an amusingly edgy Ryan, Flying Leathernecks proves that even at his most disinterested and artistically absent, Ray could never be outright terrible. Having said that, this is the first of his films that I've seen where I would freely consider stopping and doing anything else while watching it.

Friday, August 26

Up in the Air: Ordinal Numbers

A. Watch the movie segment and decide which day of that month they are going to be in the places below. Don't forget to write down the ordinal number ( Ex: First, Tenth). Watch the scene twice.

1. Veronica - ................

2. Deston - ....................

3. Oklahoma - ..............

4. Albuquerque - ........

5. Florida - .................

B. Write ordinal numbers to answer the questions below.

1. What day is your birthday?

2. Which day of the month was last Sunday?

3. Which day of the month is today?

4. What day is your mother's birthday?

5. What is the last day of this month?

Answer key:


Veronica - twelfth - 12th

Deston - thirteenth -13th

Oklahoma - fifteenth -15th

Albuquerque - sixteenth - 16th

Florida - twentieth - 20th

The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2011)

For the first five minutes of The Arbor, I assumed that one of the two actresses appearing on-screen was the subject of the movie, Andrea Dunbar, the late UK playwright. But after they detailed the abuses and neglect they suffered in their dingy household, I was horrified to learn that the two characters (I'm not sure if that's the right word, as I'll explain shortly) were Dunbar's daughters, that the tyrannical specter of a drunken, uncaring mother, a stereotypical artistic motivator for the downtrodden yet ambitious, was the artist herself. That realization, even more so than the film's adventurous presentation, kept me riveted for the remaining 90 minutes.

Told through reenactments with actors lip-synching to taped interviews of relatives, neighbors and friends, The Arbor initially seems an arty take on the documentary, a cute gimmick to make the movie stand out among the pack. But Clio Barnard's film proves original not merely in its staging but in the structure of its drama. This is a biography, but one that explores the far-reaching consequences of Andrea's all too brief life and the social significance of her family story. Barnard reaches her death less than halfway into the film, leaving the remaining time to sift through the lives of those she left behind, in the process delving into the perpetuating cycle of the same social ills that Dunbar documented in her realist writing.

In fact, the film's central subject could easily be not Dunbar herself but her daughter, Lorraine (Manjinder Virk). Our first concept of Andrea comes not from the archival footage collected for the movie but in Lorraine's bitter recollections, memories of her mother's alcoholism and blindness to the sexual abuse the girl endured from relatives. We also hear the second daughter, Lisa (Christine Bottomley), chime in, her perspective more optimistic; where she defends Andrea, Lorraine flatly admits that there are some things her mother did she would never forgive. By starting with these conflicting takes, Barnard humanizes his kitchen-sink documentary even as he also sidesteps objective details for gruesome remembrances.

To get at Andrea's life, Barnard mixes the old footage of the real Andrea with acted-out selections of her plays, which drew heavily upon her life in run-down estates. These readings are brilliant, not merely for the staging, which draws upon Dunbar's style (constantly onlooking residents, stagey recreations like some car seats standing in for the full vehicle), but the sheer power of Dunbar's words. She wrote her first play, for which the film is named, at 15, but her gift for capturing the world around her was instantly evident. No line appears to exist between Dunbar's plays and her life, playing out the personal dramas of an alcoholic father, teen pregnancy and the aimlessness of ignored youth through the words that never managed to get Dunbar out of that life.

When the film shifts to focus chiefly on Lorraine after handling Dunbar's death from a brain hemorrhage at 29, one almost gets the sense that the film has restarted. Lorraine, who so deeply despises her mother for her alcoholism, torment and neglect (one can even view her death as the ultimate show of the latter), falls into a life that mirrors her mother's to a disturbing degree. Substance abuse, early motherhood, extreme neglect, all of these become traits for Lorraine just as they did her mother. Both mother and daughter met men who seemed so nice in company but turned into psychotics behind closed doors. But if Andrea carried around the scars from her father, Lorraine's issues are exacerbated by the isolation she felt has a mixed-race child in a racist community, prejudice endured even from her own mother. The real Lorraine speaks like a shellshocked veteran, and Virk conveys her hollow, haunted readings with facial language just animated enough to be heartbreaking in its resignation. Her story dips into unspeakable horrors, but Lorraine pushes on, so ravaged by them that she can no longer even express fear of them. But that tone also suggests an obliviousness to how much she shares with her hated mother, something Lisa subtly establishes in her own interviews.

Indeed, the role of perspective in this film is key. Youssef, the Pakistani who dates and impregnates Andrea, is so nice that even the racist community comes to somewhat accept him. Then, we hear of him trying to force her to get an abortion and considering ways to make her miscarry, and news of his physical abuse changes the view of this nice young man. But when he visits Lorraine one time and one time only, she is left with the memory of a pleasant day dancing in Middle Eastern clothes before returning to the prison of her mother's home. Lorraine speaks of her mother's scarring effects, but Lisa suggests that her sister misses their mom in some strange way, a naïve statement that nevertheless might hold some truth.

Barnard ties all this together with impeccable casting and direction. His camera glides with eerie precision over images of estate life, and at times The Arbor almost feels like a Resnais film. He links past and present with repeat shots that show the positive passage of time: littered fields of the past become cleaner, more communal areas in the present, while the scratched, hardwood stairs of the old Dunbar residence now has soft green carpet. The actors are so invested in their physical performances that I had to remind myself they weren't actually speaking the lines. The actors even insert tics, such as "Lorraine" averting her eyes slightly when she reaches her darkest confessions and "Ann," a kind neighbor who eventually becomes Lorraine's foster parent with her husband Steve, fiddling with a necklace.

A bleak movie, to be sure, The Arbor nevertheless finds hard-won determination in its accounts of personal and social abandonment. One can hear people light up in interviews when they remember acts of kindness that made everything better, even if just for a moment, and the graceful final shot shows community emerging from these areas of loner poverty. With the recent riots in England, uprisings of confused, angry teens at once directly responsible for their own actions and the products of social conditions, The Arbor is even more poignant: blame is exchanged, whether thrown at the system or amoral youths, but the film takes care to show that nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and even in its darkest moments, it always allows for hope.

Tuesday, August 23

Brian De Palma: Mission: Impossible

Though not nearly as deconstructive as De Palma's '80s pastiche and travesty, Mission: Impossible feels like a classical, identifiably "'90s," art-for-art's-sake blockbuster, a bit of formal excess that uses the implausibility of the original TV series as an excuse to make no sense whatsoever. Unburdened from the need for logic, the film unfolds as an incessant series of double-crosses, grandiose setpieces and classical techniques. That coherent aesthetic propels the film long after its narrative becomes a mire of betrayal and intrigue.

Sent to intercept a diplomat selling U.S. secrets, the Impossible Missions Force team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), stakes out an embassy with precision planning. But just as everything seems to be going perfectly, tiny cracks begin to form, and in short order sabotage leaves the entire team dead save for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who looks mighty suspicious when superiors inform him that they are hunting a mole in the organization. Betrayed by the true traitor and now suspected of treason by his bosses, Ethan has no choice but to flee and clear his name. These betrayals, real and imagined, are but the first in a film where the dead return and mirrored shots always reveal different perspectives.

As a work of pure style, Mission: Impossible is a tidy piece of nonsensical formalism. Its shots always work in the moment, such as the POV Steadicam movements through the embassy as characters speak to "Ethan," shots broken up by yet more POV voyeurism of the other agents scoping the floor and exterior. But when those shots are repeated in Ethan's reflections on what went wrong, the attention shifts to the background to reveal watchers of the watchmen. Later, the suspense of a falling knife works on two levels, as its own breathtaking moment of slow-motion tension and as a visual reminder of the blade that felled one of the members of Ethan's team.

Voyeuristic and identity imagery abounds: everyone is always monitoring the action on miniature surveillance cameras that the agents tote, and targets often speak to friends without realizing that it is really Ethan in a perfect face mask. Angles cant in moments of stress, and the multiple meanings of nearly every frame give De Palma's shots a depth of field that transcends the deliberately gnarled narrative.

No stranger to making films that serve as perpetual-motion aesthetic devices, De Palma nevertheless never got to do it with this much Hollywood backing, and watching Tom Cruise scrunch his face and dramatically demand answers for his crumbling life is even more entertaining when one considers that, 20 years earlier, the director would most likely have shoved William Finley out there to give a more unacceptably stiff performance. A solid cast of international heavy-hitters and domestic stars makes so little sense on paper one gets the suspsicion that De Palma grabbed all the actors he liked while peopel were still willing to work with him. I mean, in what other throwaway blockbuster will Tom Cruise rub elbows with a cast as eclectic Vanessa Redgrave, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, Jean Reno and Ving Rhames?

He also uses the sizable budget for some gloriously huge and ludicrous setpieces. When the IMF head (played by Henry Czerny with drawling menace, every word shaped into a missile before being fired) first confronts Ethan in a restaurant, Hunt escapes by using a gadget to blow up an aquarium, an explosion that sends one man flying across the room in clear defiance of gravity and enough water to submerge the Lower Ninth Ward. The climax occurs on-top of a TGV train speeding into blur as Ethan faces down a helicopter with not so much as a spitball, and wins.

But nothing beats he film's centerpiece, the much-parodied and copied break in of CIA headquarters in which Ethan must be lowered from the ceiling while making no noise, keeping the room temperature within acceptable range and not letting so much as a drop of sweat touch the sensored floor. It is a genuinely inspired scene, the black clothes Ethan wears as the stereotypical form of shadow war camouflage rendered almost comically useless in the brilliant white of the computer vault. Adding to the suspense is the good ol' split diopter to show Krieger (Reno) being distracted from keeping Ethan suspended by the presence of a rat crawling toward him in the ventilation duct. Judiciously timed close-ups, cutaways to the poisoned vault worker that obscure spatial and temporal relation to Ethan's hacking only for the repeated sidetracks to clarify the dimensions and a taut grip on editing make the setpiece truly thrilling even after years of overplay.

While it is not a major work in De Palma's filmography, Mission: Impossible nevertheless has aged much better than its successors, films that cater to the modernized, more chaotic action styles. For all its twists and turns, the film manages to deliver a clear message against the spy genre: De Palma and his writers, David Koepp and Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, present the villain's defection as the product of pride and refusal to give up power, of being angry that the nation might lead a more peaceful path in the wake of the Cold War and not need these trained assassins and agents anymore. The traitor actually says the president is running the country "without my permission," an arrogant broadside that suggests the power such agencies used to wield over government and the reluctance of those agencies to cede authority back to lawful bodies. That the actor who utters these lines is one of Hollywood's most prominent conservatives is but another facet of De Palma's sly politics even in this odd but entertaining franchise starter.

Steven Spielberg: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Given that my return to A.I. is what prompted my decision to revisit all of Steven Spielberg's films in the first place, I was afraid I had nothing to add to my original review. However, I think I mostly avoided retreading and if I have no particularly new point to make about the ending, I do at least come at it from a different angle in response to Roger Ebert's recent addition of the film into his Great Movies canon, a move that makes me happy but does not preclude me from disagreeing with his interpretation. I stand by this being Spielberg's finest film, and also one that I think is better for his involvement, not some second-best option to a Kubrick direction (Kubrick likely would have agreed, since he urged Spielberg to take it well before he passed). Perhaps the most philosophical blockbuster ever made, and certainly one of the finest American films of the Aughts.

Check out my new review of the film at Cinelogue.

Monday, August 22

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011)

The Help takes the obliviousness of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 hit novel and magnifies it to the level of the dangerously ignorant. The novel at least had the decency to include a modicum of ambiguity and the suggestion that Stockett could vaguely remember some of her 3rd-grade social studies lessons on the Civil Rights Era. The film, on the other hand, is erected out of pure fantasy, set in a plastic, pastel Jackson, Miss. that has all the authenticity of Lars von Trier's Dogville set. Stockett's novel dropped whiffs of the true reality of 1960s Jackson among her dialect-ridden, charmed view of social prejudice like talismans to ward off criticism, but childhood friend Tate Taylor has to condense 500 pages into two-and-a-half hours. Given the paper-thin characterization of the novel's figures, this means that the obliterated subplots and truncated, blunt dialogue serve to make the material even more farcical.

In fairness, Taylor does try to refashion Stockett's book around the African-American characters instead of a white guilt cipher. But this idea goes no farther than letting Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a maid who becomes the first to tell her stories of life serving whites, narrate the movie. Soon enough, focus is back on Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college grad and sort-of feminist who, despite no clear identity before leaving for school and a blindness to current events (at least in the book), decides to get the black perspective of Jackson life. In the novel, Skeeter is almost jaw-droppingly entitled and never criticized for it. Here, Taylor dispenses with nearly all of her story, which would be a significant improvement if he also cut down her screen time to match. But no, regardless of who had to go in to record ADR, this is still Skeeter's story.

Completely unaware of the risks of such an enterprise despite living in one of the hotbeds of the Civil Rights Movement, Skeeter puts the lives of maids in jeopardy just to please a scabrous New York Jewish elite editor—no commas because Taylor/Stockett seem to use each of these terms as if they all mean the same thing—named Elaine Stein (Mary Steenburgen, who somehow gives the most one-note performance in a film of unambiguous heroes and villains). For some reason, Stein is never shown sitting at her desk like a professional, instead lounging on the thing dangling her legs like a naughty secretary or brashly calling from a restaurant whilst devouring adoring younger men. Mocking the ivory tower insularity of the New England elites, both Stockett and Taylor have her flippantly telling Skeeter to hurry up and get the interviews she needs for a book "before this whole civil rights thing blows over."

The rest of the archetypes are spread out among dignified, frumpy sexless (yet child-inundated) maids and shrieking housewives who put a glossed look on racism so audiences don't have to be reminded that some of their parents (or even friends) used to beat and hang people for the color of their skin. This brigade of over-hairsprayed, overacting harridans is led by Hilly Holbrook, played by a Bryce Dallas Howard with such narrowed eyes there simply must be a gag reel of her walking into furniture by mistake. One never gets any clue as to why Skeeter was ever such close friends with her or Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly), a lab-grown Betty Draper cloned with amphibian DNA to fill the sequence gaps. But then, Skeeter herself is such a blank slate for the author's guilt and wish fulfillment that presumably anyone could find something to project in her.

As for the maids, Aibileen is the chief representative, but she is also joined by Minny, de-sassed from her ludicrous novel form into someone who might conceivably have lived past the age of 13 in a town where lip from a black woman could equal jail time at best. Stockett wrote the character with her actor friend Octavia Spencer in mind, and Spencer plays the role here. Her bug eyes are their own punchline, always bulging in anticipation of reprisal when she can't keep her mouth shut and regarding any and all white people with disbelief, as if unable to comprehend just how ridiculous they are. Minny is the most anachronistic element in this story, modeled after a modern, no-nonsense black woman, but now that Spencer can say the lines instead of Stockett writing in loose dialect, she nearly makes the thin comic relief of the character work. She shares some organic laughs with Aibileen that work far better than the more staged comic pieces, precisely because these smaller, more intimate moments feel like conceivable gallows humor between two people suffering through the same endless torment.

Nevertheless, Minny's neutering makes her extraneous, and the already unnecessary side-plot with her airheaded but sweet new boss, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), only more distracting. I would venture to guess that Stockett intended Celia's character to comment on how much poor whites shared with blacks in their ostracizing from the realm of "classy" whites, but her depiction as a kindhearted, racially blind piece of "white trash" is antithetical to the true, vile nature of racism among poor, which is almost always more vicious for the jealousy and resentment of being in the same financial bracket as minorities. Having said that, Chastain gives as good a performance as the two black leads with her equally limited role: virtually unrecognizable from her turn earlier this year as the embodiment of human spirit in The Tree of Life, Chastain speaks with a squeaky hiss that sounds as if the air for her words came not from her lungs but wind blowing through the empty space between her ears and out her mouth and nostrils. She couldn't be any further from her other breakout role this year, and the sheer range she's shown within releases spaced apart by mere months is, one hopes, a sign of stardom to come.

Much talk has already circulated regarding the awards potential of Davis' performance, and it's true that she makes a startling presence. Confined by Stockett's conception of Aibileen as a loving maid who seemingly exists to raise and cheer up white babies, Davis nevertheless injects steel into the character. She's no more complex a character, but Davis' fearsome visage etches pain on this glorified Mammy figure. If anything, she conveys too much strength to be taken seriously as a humble, submissive domestic: there's more fire in her face than Spencer's. When one looks into those hardened eyes, however, one can also find humor and love, and if she has to play a maid who, in one way or another, always gives of herself to a white person, at least Davis makes that role almost believable on a human level.

I mention all these actresses because there are some genuinely solid performances here. While the Stepford women of Jackson shriek and scream and hiss, depicting racism as a matter of peer pressure instead of an endemic social ill, Spencer, Davis and Chastain elevate a film that doesn't deserve them. But not even they can distract from the shortcuts and stereotypes thrown at the screen for easy identification. Skeeter's mother, an imperious yet unchallenged force in the book, is here softened by Allison Janney. Taylor condenses the gradual progression of Charlotte's illness into a single line, and I must say that "My daughter's upset my cancerous ulcers!" is my favorite non-sequitur, crass exploitation of a terminal disease since "I got the results of the test back, I definitely have breast cancer." Skeeter too finds the shortest distance to her moral awakening, openly sniping Hilly from the start and eroding any plausibility of her supposedly close friendship with Jackson's resident witch. Skeeter's arc revolves around the mystery of what happened to her loving maid Constantine, who disappeared just before the young woman returned from college, and we're meant to track her moral development through this uncooked subplot that serves only to not-really drive a wedge between mother and daughter.

Constantine is the downfall of both the novel and the film. A repository for Stockett's idealized memories of her own maid, Demetrie, Constantine appears in flashbacks that reduce the woman to an utter fabrication, Aibileen without the tangibility. My mouth actually fell open in horror at seeing Cicely Tyson, an icon, simply appear to a teenage Skeeter, so rail-thin, shriveled and toothless that she resembled less a human being with her own life and story than a savior version of Baron Samedi. Constantine exists solely for beatification, despite how little say she gets in literary or cinematic form. All she does is buck up Skeeter, which Stockett interprets as true motherly love. Hilariously, she gave an interview in which she admitted that, when she spoke to white families that used to have a maid, they remembered the workers with fondness and love. But when it came to the maids, well, let's take a look: "When I spoke to black people it was surprising to see how removed they were emotionally from those they worked for. That was not always the case, but it was one of the dynamics that struck me. Sometimes it was a total disregard. It was just a job."

The interviewer, of course, didn't press this, but the question arises: did Demetrie truly love young Kathryn, who incidentally grew up in the '70s and '80s despite people passing this book off as autobiography? I would love to know if, at any moment, Stockett remotely entertained the possibility that the maid she has placed on a pedestal for raising her, for empathizing with her, really just viewed her as a job to make oppressive wages to feed her own children. I think that she did, in some dark recess of her mind, and the result is Constantine, a icon carved out of blessed wood that Stockett uses to chase such life-altering thoughts away like a broom to a raccoon. The resolution of Constantine's fate in the novel is overwrought, but it at least cast Skeeter's mother as a more accurate face of racism than the sparkle-bright young ladies of the Junior League, revealing how nearly three decades of service and invaluable contributions could not stop a white person from acting with cold impersonality. The film, however, recasts the revelation with regret on behalf of Charlotte, and she and Skeeter suffer no fallout or profound change for it. It's just there for another tearjerker in another film that makes so many intervallic leaps between cutesy comedy and shameless manipulation it feels like a bebopification of sentimentality.

And so, the film resolves itself for maximum audience pleasure: Hilly turns into a dozen crows that scatter into the winds, Muggles and wizards learn to live in harmony, and a baby named Barack raises his tiny, large-eared head in Hawaii and coos the word "Change." Stein, who exists to be a hard-ass to Skeeter (and an inconsistent one, first aware of the risks facing maids and then expecting more than a dozen interviews later), somehow lets Skeeter's book be released with the most hysterically dumb cover I've ever seen. The baby blue cover sports only a dove as its centerpiece, halfheartedly justified as being linked to the budding hippie movement. I just found it amusing that even the goddamned object on the book cover is white.

The Help, even in its semi-ambiguous novel form, cocoons open racism as a thing of the past. It doesn't say that racism is over, per se, but it clearly wants us to admire how far we've come. But when Jackson only recently found itself the subject of another high-profile case of race violence—in this case the murder of a black man by racist teens who shouted "White power!" as they beat him and ran over him in a truck—maybe we shouldn't be so aghast at how things "used" to be. But no, we are instead treated to the running joke of Minny's revenge against Hilly, a dastardly deed involving a pie and a mounting sense of dread, not in the reveal but in the dawning realization that this work really will sink so low for a laugh. Naturally, it works as a crowd-pleaser, but it is so insipidly dumb, Stockett writing herself out of the true conclusion to it (and the release of Skeeter's book itself) with the threat of mutually assured social destruction. But do you know how that story really ends? It doesn't end with Minny in prison where she can tell the world of Hilly: it ends with her being killed and her house firebombed. Those might not even be two separate actions. It ends with Aibileen not simply fired but completely stripped of what little she has and possibly the target of violence. It ends with Skeeter mostly likely being raped for being a race traitor and definitely with her family crippled economically. These are not pleasant endings, and I do not "want" to see them, at least in the sense that I would ever like to spend an evening seeing such sights. But if you're going to make a film about '60s Jackson, you should show the truth, not what will only unsettle audiences in the safest way possible.

So what, in the end, are we left with? A movie that hinges its biggest payoff on a flight of pure revisionist fantasy designed to make modern audiences feel good about themselves, complete with emotional moments that are, in almost every occurrence, tied to a black person helping a white. Whether it is Aibileen's insulting "You is kind, you is smart" speech to little Mae Mobley, the maids agreeing to speak after Hilly crosses the line (their assent delivered with a collective "mmm-hmm" that throbs through Aibileen's house like an A/C unit switching on), and finally the dénouement of the two supposedly lead black maids stopping everything to cheerlead Skeeter getting a job. This trivialization of the '60s has been defended for its nonsensical feel-good whimsy by those who feel validated for having a cry over these prop cutouts of suffering. But those looking for a genuinely inspiring story of overcoming hardships associated with the racial serfdom that persists today—a recent Pew Research Center release showed the median net worth of a white household at 20 times that of a black family—should read this account of a conversation the daughter of a maid had with the grown-up child of the family that employed her. It's heartbreaking, enraging, unexpectedly uplifting, defiantly confrontational, and it ends with a punchline that is not only earned but truly hilarious and vindicating. In other words, it's everything The Help isn't.

Saturday, August 20

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

I don't know that a weak documentary could be made about the White Stripes. It Might Get Loud, which boasted the presence of a certifiable guitar god and an alt.icon, was never more alive than when Jack White was front and center; heck, even Jimmy Page and The Edge seemed enthralled by his artistic approach, philosophy and passion. Under Great White Northern Lights, filmed during the band's first-ever Canadian tour in 2007, is as scattershot as any film focusing on such oddball characters as Jack and Meg White must be, but it is also a poignant document of what one critic called "the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world," a pullquote Jack references with a mixture of bitterness and acquiescence.

The performances it captures are incendiary, energetic, and often hilarious. The film opens on the goofy debut of the Stripes in Canada with a self-explanatory "one-note show" that leaves fans hilariously chanting "One more note!" after the pair bangs out a chord and disappears with all the frenzy with which they arrived. For the rest of the film, they behave like a band struggling to get noticed, not multiple-Grammy winners and platinum sellers. By night, they are stars, filling theaters with fans who have been waiting years to see them. By day, however, they play town squares, classrooms, rec center, bowling alleys, a boat that makes the Orca look like a yacht, and anywhere where they can squeeze in a guitar, some drums and a microphone or two. These free side shows make the conquering schedule of every province and every territory more intimate and friendly than domineering, a means of making up for lost time and changing up the usual touring mode.

Emmett Malloy directs the film to the band's quirky white-black-red aesthetic, slipping between black-and-white film and color stock saturated in the red of the duo's gear and garb. A few stylistic flourishes fit his montage assembly of gigs, the visuals slurring through a jump cut as the songs skip around by both editing and the band's lightning-quick transitions, and he wryly captures the drives around Canada with good-natured banality and idyll. But the chilly calm of even the most remote province seems to shatter when the White Stripes arrive and set up in the nearest odd spot.

As they ride around with pleasant chauffeurs who don't always understand who these cats are, a portrait emerges of the band that both confirms and subverts their image. The love of traditional music bridges their focus on Delta blues with the music of an Inuit community center they visit. Jack likes to push the idea that he and Meg are siblings rather than a divorced couple, but damned if they don't behave like brother and sister. They tease each other, jovially bicker but always admire the other. In the film's finest moment (and its last), Jack plays "White Moon" on the piano for Meg, who sits on the stool with him fighting back tears as that high, broken voice of his growls out the lyrics.

That chemistry carries enough sweetness that the film is even more touching now that the White Stripes are, for the time being at least, no more. A few archival clips show the band at their inception, but Malloy wisely sticks to the present, showing the two celebrating their 10th anniversary by trying one last injection of spontaneity into a line of work that all too often feels like just that. Though it neither breaks any rules nor expands any horizons, Under Great White Northern Lights is a funny, touching, revelatory work that probes into one of this fashionably unfashionable outfit and the impact it had on those looking for something different.

Friday, August 19

1408: Reflexive Pronouns

This thriller is based on a Stephen King's short story. As you can tell, it is scary, but it is not a violent movie. This is an exciting scene that I used for practicing reflexive pronouns with my students, because the snippet shows objects moving by themselves inside a hotel room, which number is 1408. This activity makes the grammar point more meaninful, I guess.

I. Work in pairs:

1. Do you believe in supernatural activities? Explain it.

2. Have you ever seen or known someone who has experienced supernatural activities?

3. Would you stay in a hotel which is famous for having ghosts? What about a history of murders? Why (not)?

4. Would you like to make contact with people who have passed away? Why (not)?

II. Watch the segment and complete the blanks with a reflexive pronoun:


1. The main character, Louis, served _________a drink.

2. The radio started playing a song by ________________.

3. The alarm clock reset ________________ to 60:00.

4. Louis recorded _____________ saying what was going on in the room.

5. The window closed by ______________ and hit Louis's fingers.

6. He started washing ____________ when the faucet started doing unexpected things by ______________.

7. The curtains were moving by _________________.

8. What about you? Would you spend the night in this room by ___________.



Answer key:

1. himself

2. itself

3. itself

4. himself

5. itself

6. himself / itself

7. themselves

8. yourself

Wednesday, August 17

Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Made in the same year its director also launched Cary Grant to superstardom, Make Way for Tomorrow was always Leo McCarey's favorite project. He even said as much when he accepted his Oscar the following year The Awful Truth, graciously thanking the Academy but noting they honored "the wrong film." For audiences that increased movie attendance significantly during the Depression for the promise of free air-conditioning and some escapist relief from the bewildering sense of aimlessness outside, however, a film that directly confronted the horrifying realities of the day could not have been more unappealing. Seen today, however, the film is a marvel, a movie that plays within Hollywood convention even as it ignores them at every turn. McCarey certainly has a message in mind, broadcast in an opening bit of text, yet he and his actors never give into histrionics, never try to make this anything other than a human story of pain and separation. The result, as Orson Welles once said, is the saddest movie ever made. I should warn that spoilers follow, though anyone who makes it past the first few scenes will feel the doom falling over the film. Besides, what happens, sad as it is, is not nearly so devastating as how it unfolds.

Preceded with a solemn reminder to "Honor thy father and thy mother," the film soon moves beyond the chastising tone of that text scroll to an idyllic shot of a rural house, glistening in wintertime as grown children arrive at their parents' house. The old couple's home looks comfortable and warm, and Pa is sitting in his leather recliner as the children remember from their youth. But when one son makes a toast to the family home, the father, Barkley (Victor Moore), interrupts the lad and tells the family that the bank repossessed his and Lucy's (Beulah Bondi) house. They had six months to vacate, but before the children can get out their sigh of relief for bought time, Bark informs them that the six months are up in a few days. Flummoxed, the children, insisting they cannot afford housing both parents come up with an impromptu plan: two of them at a time will take a parent until some vaguely hoped-for break allows husband and wife to live together again.

The crew sets the mood quickly. William C. Mellor's cinematography puts gulfs of space between characters, always keeping the parents at arm's length from the children, who betray flashes of selfishness and petulance immediately and only get worse when the parents actually move in with them. The children bemoan their parents' financial straits, yet their faces (and wardrobe) betray conflicting feelings. Nellie, the daughter who married for money, not only does not take in both the parents she could easily house but looks for excuses to shirk any responsibility whatsoever: dressed immaculately and on her way to the theatre, she tells her brother on the phone she simply can't take Ma tonight. George, the only child of the family who at least recognizes how blind they all are to their selfishness, cares for his mother but fakes oblivion to the open mutiny of his wife, Anita, and teenage daughter, Rhoda, who view Lucy as some sort of shameful disruption of social affairs. Anita in particular cools so thoroughly whenever in Lucy's presence one gets the urge to reach for a sweater.

But as insufferable as these people can be, McCarey does not make them mere villains. Rhoda's embarrassment at having her friends accosted by her grandmother's stories is a natural feeling of youth, while Lucy's well-meaning attempts to fix up the house seem to Anita to be a challenge to her own abilities as a homemaker. How would you feel if your mother-in-law showed up and started running the house, or tried to do so in your perception? I know if my mom's mother-in-law came to our house and did anything that could even be lightly interpreted as criticism of her cooking/cleaning/parental abilities, the last thing we'd hear out of that old woman would be the echo of a skillet bouncing off her head. McCarey clearly depicts the selfishness of those who view the old couple's hardship as nothing but an inconvenience, but he subverts his own judgmental framing with dialogue and performance tics that make the meanings of each moment less clear.

Avoiding melodrama, McCarey sets up double meanings in each frame, with Bondi adding to the ambiguity with a performance that perfectly balances sweetness with awkwardness. With no one free (or at least willing) to take Lucy the night that Anita and George teach bridge, she hangs behind and hesitantly walks into the den where the guests pack in to learn the intricacies of some stupid card game. McCarey frames the guests in the foreground curving around Bondi as she timidly introduces herself and finds herself talking with self-conscious loudness to ease the situation. Naturally, this only makes it worse, but Bondi nearly shifts the mood of McCarey's imposing blocking with her disarming presence, and the humoring responses she gets for her weak jokes from the younger guests carries a degree of genuine pleasantness to it. There are no set emotions or tones at work, and even when McCarey aesthetically stacks the deck against his elderly characters, he leaves the final tone up to the actors and their naturalistic responses.

Watch how McCarey handles a scene after Lucy, pawned off onto Rhoda for a night at the movies that was really just an excuse to see a boy, returns to George's home and is told Bark is on the phone for her. The moment starts amusingly, Lucy, being an old woman speaking to an old man, practically screaming into the phone in the den as the bridge-playing guests look on with irritation, followed by a brief, collective intake of breath when she obliviously yells about Anita having guests over and finally an affectionate group exhale of relief when she says that they are "wonderful people."

But then, the scene continues: Lucy, having not heard from her husband in so long, completely forgets where she is and starts talking with heartbreakingly fragile care. She fusses over reminders for Bark, in that overbearing but bottomlessly loving way that always seems so stifling and condescending until one suddenly has to face a world without it. The longer she speaks, the fainter her voice becomes even as its volume only drops a decibel or two. The pain Bondi puts into her doting double-checks of her husband's health and her concern over the amount of money he had to spend on giving her the phone call in the first place send waves of sudden empathy through the group. They can hardly look at each other when Bondi follows up her goodbye with an almost whispered "my dear," said as if Bark has already hung up, and replaces the telephone with ginger delicacy, placing it in the receiver like she was tucking it in for bed. In mere minutes, McCarey, with his rigid static shots and perfectly modulated performances from the leads and extras alike, completely alters the tone of his comically imposing frame and introduces true sorrow that overcomes the slightly "Hollywood" staging of some of the reaction shots.

Indeed, the saving grace of many of these early scenes, the spark of life that betters McCarey's style, which adheres to typical Hollywood fashion more than anyone cares to admit, is Beulah Bondi. Not even 50 at the time of shooting, Bondi nevertheless looks like an archetypal Depression-era mother, prematurely withered, sun-dried into crackly voiced timidity. It seems a great insult to say she looked at least 20 years older than she actually was, but the lines that etch her face make her all the more compelling. Regardless of what prompts them, be it happiness or social awkwardness, her smiles have a bashful spin to them, never seen full-on for she always turns her head in shyness, but her loud intrusion into social situations gets read by others as invasive and tactless. Her tone of voice is so unwaveringly soft that it's never altogether clear when she's being passive-aggressive with her selfish progeny, if she even is at all. But when Anita, already so infuriating in her flagrant passive-aggression, finally steps well over the line by using Rhoda's social life (and therefore Lucy's granddaughter as a whole) as a weapon to shame Lucy, Bondi has the closest she gets to a fully defiant moment, and it comes in the form of a sincere but rightfully defensive apology that throws Anita for not stooping to her level. It's an unorthodox display of strength, but also one that shows Lucy's filial loyalty (the usual dynamics of such relationships reversed by egotistical, demanding children) and how it hampers her, a crucial point later in the film.

On the flip side is Victor Moore's Barkley, who not only finds himself in a different scenario than his wife but plays like an inversion of Bondi's performance. Moore almost looks like he fell out of the silent age: clothes don't hang well on his squat, paunchy body, and his awkwardly bulky garb resembles that of an old silent comedian. Moore plays Bark with loud wit punctuated by soft kindness. Where Lucy has no one to spend her days with save the housemaid who initially views her as yet another chore foisted upon her by her white employers, Bark at least has the pleasure of hanging out with the old immigrant owner of a local general store, Mr. Rubens. Their joking, ornery chats bring out flecks of deep sadness in Bark's rants, and McCarey makes him physically vulnerable by denying the man his glasses, forcing Mr. Rubens to read a letter from Lucy, one so personal he cannot finish speaking it aloud and worriedly calls for his wife when Bark leaves, just to make sure she's still there. (Even 300 miles away, Bondi can still break your heart.)

Like Bondi, Moore plays Bark with enough set-in-his-ways stubbornness to show why his children might be irritated with him. When he comes down with a cold, he is stand-offish about his health and fights back against the visiting doctor, insulting the young man's expertise and refusing even to cooperate with the check-up. Before the doctor can leave, Bark even bites the poor man. His behavior is clear: he doesn't want to be nursed by anyone but his wife, but his daughter is already looking for an excuse to pawn him off on the sister in California, thus separating her parents by an entire continent.

Watching Bark try to find something to bring him and his wife back together is palpably hopeless. He waddles down the street with a gait that betrays his age and those ill-fitting clothes making him look more like a bum than a retiree. His job search is cruelly laughable, and he knows it. So too does Lucy, who responds to her granddaughter's blithe assertion that she should "face facts" about Pa's job hunt. "When you're 70... about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any fact to face," Lucy responds. "So would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?" Even Rhoda's selfishness falters at such a statement. Later, Lucy has to pretend for much darker reasons, realizing Anita's plans to put her in a nursing home and preemptively saying she'd love to go to save George, her favorite child, the agony of telling his mother the news.

But even with such heartbreak, an almost wistful sense of humor hangs over this film: Lucy points out the wasteful expense Anita having sandwiches catered when she can just make some herself ("How fancy can a sandwich be?" asks Bondi with mild, amusing cantankerousness). Mr. Rubens reflecting the cynicism of Depression-era fiscal security by responding to a customer's question on whether she'll pay a subscription weekly or monthly: "If you are honest by the week, I suppose you are honest by the month, too. So we'll make it by the week."

That sense of light, yet relevant, comedy informs the final act, a brief reunion between husband and wife before the children ship one to California and another to an old folks home. When they pass a commercially hollow placard that cheerfully reminds cash-strapped, pre-Social Security Americans to "Save While You Are Young." "What a fine time to tell us," quips Bark, too happy being back with his wife to put any bitterness into the remark. As a nervous tic, Moore keeps reaching into his coat to look at his watch, inadvertently wasting his final seconds with his wife watching them tick away. Lucy chastises Barkley, and when he instinctively reaches for the later he catches himself halfway and self-consciously shifts to rearrange his scarf as Lucy looks at him with amused approval. They spend much of their remaining time together arguing over the details of their honeymoon in New York, the last time they were together in the city. The argument rises and recedes for hours, but it is never spiteful or cranky, only teasing and jovial. After separating them at the beginning into two distinct, uniquely tragic characters, McCarey makes everything even more painful for showing just what an amazing, loving couple the two are.

Bondi and Moore have that special chemistry that comes along even less often than the true sexual compatibility of young stars. They are like Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in Mike Leigh's recent Another Year, capable of fabricating decades of shared history and making it all believable. These two behave like a couple still in love after all these years, Bark still pleasing Lucy with his humor, Lucy still making him feel like the luckiest lad in town. They have such charm together that McCarey suddenly inverts his more domineering framing to show perfect strangers reacting to them with warmth and camaraderie. Separated, they feel small and anxious; together, New York City itself stops to marvel at them. The two have so much fun with the refreshing kindness exhibited toward them that they call and cancel on dinner with their children, who recoil with the knowledge that their parents really do know how awful they are. ("Hello, Nellie, this is your father. Remember me?" Barkley says when he calls, making sure the firm irony hits home.)

The final moments almost feel like an intrusion, something alluded to earlier when the couple eats overlooking the dance floor of the hotel they stayed at for their honeymoon. Content for these pitifully few last hours, Lucy leans in to kiss her husband but looks up and pulls back sheepishly, giving one the impression that she noticed the camera watching them. The final exchange, in which the cliché of a lover departing at the train station is ironically reborn through old age, as the sight of this couple issuing their last, brief, tender farewells adds poignancy that such a scene has lost for those inured to young love breaking up. The speeches aren't epic or florid, nor do the two openly acknowledge they'll almost certainly never see each other again. Barkley and Lucy just take one final moment to remind each other how much their time together has meant. And as the train pulls out with Lucy getting one last peek of her husband through the window, we're left to face a world that makes quite a bit less sense, and certainly one that doesn't look nearly as inviting.

Tuesday, August 16

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)

Tod Browning's freak empathy, honed by a life on the road with all the sundry acts of vaudeville and carnival that his final profession would eventually kill off, may not be openly on display in his chilling 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but it's still the best version of the work ever made, at least of the legit adaptations (Nosferatu, naturally, is still king). Though not as sultrily erotic as the 1979 version with Frank Langella, Browning's version teems with enough atmosphere to show all those years making sympathetic monster movies with Lon Chaney held back a sense of pure horror.

Browning establishes Dracula's castle with ludicrously outsized sets, moody cutaways to hovering bats and crawling vermin and the incessant creak of rotted, dormant wood gasping in horror at the things moving upon it. Its vastness creates a self-contained echo chamber, magnifying the sound but making clear that no matter how loud something might get, no one will ever come for help.

Many note the zombie-like nature of Lugosi's performance, but there's something stately in his carriage, refined. When Van Helsing confronts the count with his lack of reflection in a mirror, Dracula can only compliment the doctor, impressed by a man who knows so much despite not having even "lived one full lifetime." Lugosi draws out his words as if sucking the blood from their necks as well, inserting pauses with near abandon to ensure the camera lingers on his composed but immobile face. Only the look of insatiable hunger in his eyes, frequently illuminated in a strip of light over the rest of his darkened face like a reverse superhero disguise, gives away the monster beneath.

Certain shots, such as the long view of Renfield standing frozen in rictus below the ship deck, paralyzed in a clenched-mouth groan of a laugh like a skipping record, have lost none of their terror all these years later. Though the latter half of the film lacks the level of expressive scares contained in Murnau's copyright-infringing masterpiece, Dracula still brims with Gothic ostentation. The final climax is magnificent pre-epic staging, making its full-frame mise-en-scène, especially on the staircase that looks as if it could stretch up to Heaven (or, more accurately, perhaps, lead down to Hell) as big as a 70mm roadshow.

Monday, August 15

Capsule Reviews: Gentleman Jim, The Roman Orgy, The Killers (1946)

Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942)

Walsh doesn't get nearly enough credit for his technique, but maybe that's because it's all in the service of making good, solid, engaging pictures instead of showing off. He favors the perfect reaction shot over axis rules, and it's always fun (and often funny) to see something as unnecessary as a slightly low-angle shot for a gym trainer talking to customers just to make the squat gym coach look a bit taller. His framing of the boxing scenes is supremely kinetic, the camera darting around the ring to capture spectator agitation, loved ones' concern, coaching and, of course, the fights themselves. Errol Flynn is, as ever, charming to the point of unfairness, capable even of stiffing a waiter without offense. Brash, meaty and frequently hilarious—especially when Jim's Irish family has the spotlight—Gentleman Jim is yet more proof for Walsh as a talent deserving of more recognition than being "merely" a great studio hand. Grade: A-

The Roman Orgy (Louis Feuillade, 1911)

Even in this early one-reeler, Feuillade demonstrates his capacity for sophistication in primitivism, arranging oddities and juxtapositions in long, static takes. As the court watches lions tear apart some hapless servant, Feuillade arranges the scene to have the lions mulling around, backed by a stone wall, and he places the people at the top of the frame, visible through a slatted rail that clashes with the scene. When those lions later crash his titular orgy (which isn't as naughty as you might expect), the vertical arrangement becomes more humorous, the lions capering about the  festivities as terrifed people cling to higher ground. His sense of dense, layered framing and simple direction is the opposite with Griffith's bombastic but typically clean frame and camera innovation, but it's incredible to see how much excitement he can pack into eight simply progressed minutes. Grade: C+

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Steeped in menace from its opening of two hitmen driving by night and engaging in a lengthy intimidation match with a diner owner, The Killers is so skillfully plotted and doused in shadow it gets away with showing its full climax at the beginning with its beat-for-beat recreation of Hemingway's short story. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to this bravura nightmare of macabre, confrontational humor and pitch-black shadowplay, but the less-convincing extensions on the short story is sold earnestly by Siodmak's stylistic flourishes, which use Elwood Bredell's cinematography to search for the tipping point just before shadow plunges into murk. I don't think Burt Lancaster was as tragic again until The Leopard, and Ava Gardner, as ever, puts a pointed heel through the notion that blondes have more fun. It's impossible not to see a young Tarantino gutting this for his own Pulp Fiction, from its broken chronology to its chatty hitmen to its corrupted boxer. Of course, one look at this stark-to-the-point-of-surreal journey to find all kinds of dangerous places to stick one's nosy head in and it's obvious QT was merely the last in a long line of admirers to take something from this archetypal noir. Grade: B

Sunday, August 14

Capsule Reviews: Platinum Blonde, The Mad Monk, The Lodger

Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931)

Now this is more like it. Capra gets it all together with a rip-snorting good time with newspaper idealism, dialogue you just wanna tap with a spoon and peel, and sentimentality that works instead of hinders. Robert Williams is more flirty than Jean Harlow (hilariously playing the straight role as the starched, bossy heiress), and the gender-reversed Pygmalion structure makes for some great comedy with the Eliza in this case being a properly snappy, streetwise paper hack. Not to mention, his gender makes for more interesting resistance to change, as Capra shows how a man reacts to being the less prominent member of a pair and the one actively being molded. Granted, it also encourages the audience to cheer when he demands chauvinistic things like his rich wife taking his name, but this is still a fascinating inversion at times. Also a delight is Louise Closser Hale as the aristocratic matriarch with her affected voice and constant, faint-headed outrage at scandal that truly no one with anything to do cares about. My distrust of Capra has always been balanced by my true admiration for him when he clicks, and this is Capra firing on all cylinders. Grade: A

The Mad Monk (Johnnie To, 1993)

A deliriously ludicrous comedy that has more fun with Eastern religion than an American genre film could ever hope to have with Christianity, The Mad Monk opens in a heaven where the head god has to deal with so many deities he doesn't recognize all of them and only gets odder from there. The Mad Monk tasks a prankster god with altering the life(s) paths of three archetypal individuals with only a trick fan for powers, leading to a whimsically ridiculous farce that To directs to a frenzy. Everything in this movie is funny; To even steps on an emotional death scene by having our Lo Han (played by Stephen Chow) burst into the wrong room (and an embarrassing bit of sexual play) as he hunts for his felled mark. With To's manic camera movement and cutting, inventively staged comic fight scenes and a climax that moves from a kaiju battle with a giant demon to a piss-take on pageantry with a heavenly promotion complete with tiara, The Mad Monk is a bewildering, side-hurting riot. Grade: B

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

This thrilling silent, Hitchcock's fifth feature, while still a bit stiff in the narrative department, shows Hitchcock's rapidly developing talent as a director and his seemingly innate control of the camera and the Expressionistic techniques he observed in Germany. It's somewhat amusing that he still finds a way to be expository in a silent film, using multiple news stories to get across developments in the murder mystery. A 'wrong man' narrative involving murdered blondes, pained romances and the suggestion that a slit throat might always be just around the corner, this almost feels like a preemptive tribute to Hitchcock than an early work. This is a fun showcase for a man whom one can tell even here would deserve the title of "master" thrust upon him, from the use of a glass floor for Hitchcock to stick a camera under to a perfectly framed shot looking straight down a staircase as a man obscured by angle and his black clothes runs down the stairs with his sliding hand as the chief guide to his position. A real treat. Grade: A-