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Archive for October, 2015

400 blows 1

by Sam Juliano

French film titles generally persevere over their English counterparts more than those in any other language, but Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the clear preference over Les Quatre Cents Coup everywhere except in France.  The French to their credit have always been fiercely loyal to their national heritage, especially their language, and translations -English or otherwise- are looked on disdainfully.  To be sure there are instances where the English language is forceful and direct, and The 400 Blows, spare, direct and thematically relevant, is exceedingly effective.  But I won’t hold it over the purists who favor Les Quatre Cents Coup either, especially since nothing is really lost in the translation.  No matter what you opt for the landmark 1959 film is the maiden effort by the French cinematic icon Francois Truffaut, and arguably the film that remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films.  Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians.  Yet the film’s pre-eminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some, as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood, with 1970’s L’Enfant Sauvage and 1976’s L’Argent de Poche as the other two.  Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing.

My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 70’s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas.  The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director.  I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discover critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time.  In the beginning -as should be expected for one so green behind the ears- it was Jean Pierre Laude’s familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased.  It sent shivers down my spine and still, does today though for some more snooty film buffs it has diminished in the vein of familiarity breeds contempt.  It still was a novelty in those days to watch a film with English subtitles, and one with a potent strain of lyricism had a special allure for me.

The plot of The 400 Blows documents the various delinquent exploits of twelve-year-old schoolboy Antoine Doniel (Jean Pierre Leaud), who represents Truffaut’s pre-teen alter ego.  This autobiographical work is also the director’s most personal film.  It should be mentioned here that Truffaut tempered the film’s real-life events with the influence of two previous film classics.  As an active, often controversial film critic, Truffaut was also a passionate advocate of films and directors that affected him emotionally and impressed him artistically.  One of these, Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, also deals with adolescents who rebel against school authority.  A number of elements from that early classic are evident in The 400 Blows.  Then there is Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, a 1947 work, which like Vigo’s evinces a grey, documentary, neo-realist look.  Rossellini employs a number of the moving and panning camera workings adapted by Truffaut, though in the far darker Italian film, the boy commits suicide.  Structurally,  The 400 Blows is straightforward, all pointing to the outcome of this teenager’s crisis.  Truffaut’s main concern is with character, mood and theme, all of which are examined with a magnifying glass as the plots unfolds without complication.  It has been argued that the film is “seriocomic,” and that contention is hard to argue.   While the film straddles the intoxicating line between the lyrical and the documentary, there is a consistent strain of humor, even with the underlying cognizance of the boy’s emotional pain.  Later on after the police are involved, the tone is much more somber.  In any case it seems accurate enough to frame the film as narratively episodic, complete with contrasting scenes.  Word has it that the film was originally intended as a short feature, but that Truffaut kept adding from his childhood remembrances, finally realizing a full feature was wholly warranted. (more…)

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leon-morin-1

 © 2015 by James Clark

      You have to be careful, in general, when endeavouring to track a filmmaker’s understanding of life as brought to us in his or her work. When, in particular, you come to a figure as complicated as Jean-Pierre Melville, you really have to look out for supposing that, given the violent rigors of his narratives, the male protagonists are the big news. Bob (le Flambeur), Gu (the crime idol) and Jef (le samourai) tend to eclipse mere men, not to mention mere women. But some attention to the phenomena making up the entertainments has introduced us to unexpected strengths peeking out in the form of: Bob’s friend, Yvonne (reminding us of good-hearted Claire, in Demy’s Lola); Gu’s old chum, Alban; and Jef’s sometime pet, Valeria (reminding us of Antonioni’s Giuliana, in the film, Red Desert). And if we were to come to another Melville concoction—a church saga, no less, putting some of us, by definition, into a state of malaise not so unlike what happens to others when confronted by an invention like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—with the name of the male lead, Leon Morin (a priest), occupying the title, we would, quite possibly, once again be ushered into that shell game which Melville seems to have concluded to be the best way of communicating his lugubrious and joyously promising gift.

Leon Morin, Priest (1961), having enlisted two of that era’s coolest stars, namely, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva, positions them (in the midst of a plethora of productions from others accentuating cryptic choreography) in what at first glance appears to be a less than startlingly new vehicle concerning a battle of wits and hearts (that being enough for many critics to assume that Melville had succumbed to exigencies of mainstream market profits). But, rather than a disappointing indiscretion by a dynamite crime zealot, we might come to find this bemusing endeavor to be his true masterpiece. This putative “women’s film” under the auspices of a gold-plated iconoclast has in fact all but the obvious makings of exploding (in its own peculiar way) all the touchstones of lady-like domesticity; but making headway within its murky mineshaft is not for the faint of heart and short of breath.

A most important way, in my view, of tempering, right from the first moment, the harshness of this vehicle inheres in the film’s being conjured up as a haunting experience which occurred years ago. A woman’s steady voice, heard as a voice-over, chooses to show the onset of a most remarkable eventuation in her encountering, at sunset, on a solo bicycle ride in the foothills of the French Alps during World War II, a number of Italian soldiers (in fact the so-called Bersagliers, an infantry/marksmen unit most distinctive in the feather decoration of their headgear). Here is the protagonist’s light-hearted introduction to a trek through nearly unprecedented darkness. “I was returning from the next town when I saw a group of strange young men staring at passers-by. They wore funny little felt caps topped with long feathers. I thought they were travelling players until I saw their guns.” From out of a jump-cut she can’t help quietly laughing at the same personnel racing along a street in her town while belting out a military march. “The Occupation weighed lightly on me,” she avers, perhaps marvelling at her having ever been so nonchalant. Would the new bride in Fellini’s The White Sheik (1951), also beholding a jog-past of a Bersagliers band as she and her new husband rush to the Vatican and a blessing by the Pope, also remember bemusedly her own youthful frivolity in the form of a marriage weighing so lightly upon her that she would have to have a little fling with a Roman celebrity before that august moment at the Pope’s Palace? Or would our guide to something she can’t get over be of much sterner mettle than that earlier cream-puff? (more…)

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fanny 8

By Dean Treadway

Just to try something a little different, I offer:

100 Things I Love About Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (in no particular order):  (more…)

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Pather Panchali (1955 India) Directed by Satyajit Ray Shown: Subir Bannerjee

By Richard R.D. Finch

The raw material of the cinema is life itself,” wrote Satyajit Ray in a magazine article in 1948, adding that “the truly Indian film should…look for its material in the more basic aspects of Indian life, where habit in speech, dress and manner, background and foreground, blend into a harmonious whole.” This close examination of the details of Indian life within the context of a story comprehensible even to Westerners, was what Ray set out to do in his first film, Pather Panchali (1955), and as a guiding principle to filmmaking, it’s one he never abandoned for the rest of his more than 35 years as a director.

The film concentrates on one family. The father, a scholar, is the descendant of aristocrats fallen on hard times and has moved back to his ancestral village to find work and try to pay off his many debts. A rather feckless individual who dreams of being a writer, he isn’t a consistent provider for his family. The mother is frustrated by the family’s poverty and their status in the village as debtors, and often behaves in a shrewish and impatient manner. The father’s decrepit elderly aunt also lives with the family. Their daughter, Durga, is a mildly rebellious teenager who often seems to become the automatic focus of her mother’s dissatisfaction when she isn’t being petulant with the aunt. But for the viewer the most important member of the family is young Apu.

Apu is is no way the prime mover of any events in the film—he’s most often a passive watcher observed through numerous reaction shots—yet he is clearly at the center of the film, for nearly everything in the film is seen through his sensibility. This is one of the great films about childhood—perhaps the greatest ever—in the way it shows the viewer its world through the nonjudgmental but keen-eyed gaze of young Apu. To a child like Apu, the natural world is a source of wonder, so the film’s several montages of natural scenes and animals, sometimes used almost like the pillow shots in an Ozu film, convey the ineffable mystery of the natural world from a child’s point of view. (more…)

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the-walk-joseph-gordon-levitt

by Sam Juliano

Columbus Day.  If you’re lucky you’ll get a day off from work.  Otherwise it is business as usual, though it seems the weather is mighty fine all over, and the fall season has set in.  Once the leaves start turning colors then we are really in business.  Yankees fans are crying in their beer, though Mets and Cubs fans are presently singing a more upbeat tune.  The football season is taking shape too, and New York-based teams are performing pretty well at this point.  The movie season still hasn’t arrived at crunch time, but some promising releases are upcoming now that the New York Film Festival has concluded.

We are down to the final three days of the long-running Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown which began all the way back in mid-June.  When all is said and done, we will have had a total of 83 films featured in full reviews by a host of writers.  It has been quite a time-consuming project, and one that suffered a lag in the middle stages.  But it has picked up wonderfully in the past weeks, and there isn’t a single complaint against the consistent and high quality of the reviews.  After Wednesday’s Number 1 post is revealed, I will prepare a wrap-up, and a fun statistical rundown of the Top 10 ‘longest’ reviews in order, as well as the Top 10 reviews with the most comments and the Top 10 most viewed.  Ultimately meaningless for all sorts of reason, but still a way to look back at some of the posts that did receive a lot of attention.  Our very good friend John Grant has recommended we consider reviews of some films that didn’t make the cut but were most worthy.  We certainly will see if we can get that underway if there is interest. (more…)

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conf 2

by Allan Fish

(France/Spain 1955 105m) DVD1/2

Aka. Mr Arkadin

Paying twice for the same thing

p Louis Dolivet, Orson Welles d/w Orson Welles novel “Mr Arkadin” by Orson Welles ph Jean Bourgoin ed Renzo Lucidi m Paul Misraki art Orson Welles

Robert Arden (Guy van Stratten), Paolo Mori (Raina Arkadin), Orson Welles (Gregory Arkadin), Michael Redgrave (Burgomil Trebitsch), Akim Tamiroff (Jakob Zouk), Katina Paxinou (Sophie), Mischa Auer (the professor), Patricia Medina (Mily), Jack Watling (Marquis of Rutleigh), Peter Van Eyck (Thaddeus), Grégoire Aslan (Bracco), Suzanne Flon (Baroness Nagel), Tamara Shayne (woman in apartment), Frederic O’Brady (Oscar),

One could write a doctorate thesis about the incomplete world of Orson Welles. It’s easy to imagine all of his films as incomplete. Kane could easily be longer, with additional titbits and stories surrounding his myriad of objects awaiting the incinerator in that final shot. The bastardisation of Ambersons is almost as mythic as the film itself. His three Shakespeare films could all be seen as fragmentary in some form or another, even if at least one now survives as a masterpiece. The Lady from Shanghai feels like part of a hazily recalled drunken nightmare. The Trial likewise feels somehow abridged, as if cutting from one room in Kafka’s descent into hell and into another while missing others out. The Immortal Story is such a flimsy anecdote it could be part of a portmanteau film that doesn’t survive. Despite heroic efforts no-one can be entirely sure which version of Touch of Evil would be Welles’ own personal choice. Not to mention the abandoned Don Quixote and It’s All True or the legal minefield of surviving footage that is The Other Side of the Wind.

Or maybe they’re all cover stories perpetuated by a criminal mastermind, a Mr Wu figure, a Hagi or Mabuse if your tendencies are towards Fritz Lang, a mythic magnate so paranoid as to make Charles Foster Kane seem avuncular. Some might call him James Moriarty, others Keyser Soze. Here it’s Gregory Arkadin, the name you barely speak and live. Arkadin is a figure shrouded in mystery, and Guy van Stratten, a small-time criminal long in Italy, is told about him by two men, firstly a dying old man and then another at a Naples dockside who also dies. He is intrigued and goes to look into this Arkadin, and on the way becomes enamoured of his daughter, before being hired by the same Arkadin to look into his own past, telling him that he’s suffered from amnesia and can’t remember anything before 1927. The more van Stratten digs into Arkadin’s past the more he becomes aware that he’s being used as a pawn to draw a line under Arkadin’s shady past, the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. (more…)

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kramer 1

by Allan Fish

There’s perhaps only one thing more predictable than the love of Steven Spielberg in modern film buff circles; the deification of Meryl Streep. Or at least maybe there’s something else equally predictable, my thunderous objection to this sanctification. Meryl Streep is a technically gifted actress with a marvellous command of accents, but she’s also the personification of a poison that has inflicted American cinema since the turn of the 1980s.

What’s wrong with her, I can see her millions of worshippers saying? My reply is to look carefully at what she represents. The fact is this, in terms of individual performances Meryl has given at least a dozen that can be seen as just about faultless, taken on their own terms, and many others would say a lot more than a mere dozen. But what do you do when her performance is part of the problem why the films themselves don’t work? (more…)

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tkam

by Brandie Ashe

I’ll start by admitting some pretty heavy bias went into my selection of the top film on my ballot for this countdown. I was born and raised in Alabama, where two texts tend to reign supreme over all others: the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, written by native daughter Nelle Harper Lee and published in 1960. You may think I’m exaggerating, but Mockingbird was on a number of reading lists that were assigned or suggested in school over the years, from middle school onward through college. I have devoured the novel dozens of times, and I continue to watch the 1962 film version year after year (three viewings so far in 2015 alone, thank you very much) just for the sheer pleasure of reliving young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s story over and over again.

And it is Scout’s story, regardless of our tendency to focus the lion’s share of our attention on her father, Atticus Finch, played so memorably by Gregory Peck in the cinematic adaptation. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold, and it is her young, touchingly innocent, yet ultimately wise perception of things that colors our own perception of the characters and the events that occur in the story.

It’s a perspective that is particularly appealing for young readers, who can put themselves in Scout’s shoes—perhaps especially for those of us from Alabama (really, the South in general), for whom these characters and this setting are so very recognizable. For even though I was raised in the suburbs of Birmingham (about as far from Maycomb—or its real-life counterpart, Monroeville—as you can get), I know the rural parts of my home state well, and over the years have met many people who could easily stand in for the characters in the story (some of whom are members of my own extended family, in fact, but I’ll refrain from direct comparisons).

So, yes, I admit some bias in my selection. But I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to label To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best movies ever produced about childhood. Brought to life by a brilliant cast, led by Peck (in what many, myself included, consider the performance of his career) and young Mary Badham as Scout, Mockingbird speaks to all the complexities of that too-short period in our lives: the wonder of discovery, the mystery of the unknown, and that too-familiar death of innocence and the dawning of knowledge about the greater world around us which sparks adulthood. (more…)

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WitD Beehive 01

by Duane Porter

“Once upon a time, somewhere on the Castilian plain, around 1940,” a truck rolls past the signpost for Hoyuelos. Excited children gather around it as it pulls to a stop. “The movie’s coming! The movie’s coming!” Film cans and a projector are unloaded and carried into the town hall. A woman blows on a small horn and announces ticket prices for a showing of Frankenstein (the 1931 film directed by James Whale) to be held at five o’clock that evening.

Inside the makeshift theater, the people gather before a big movie screen hung on the wall opposite the door. Everyone carries in their own chair, the children hurrying to place theirs closest to the screen. The lights go out and the film begins with a friendly word of caution for those of delicate sensibilities. Beware, this movie will be about man’s transgression into God’s domain, the creation of life and its inevitable death. Everyone listens intently, the children wide-eyed, one man lights a cigarette. (more…)

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Night of the Hunter 1

by D. H. Schleicher

The singer in the opening of Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter invites viewers to dream along with its young protagonist, John Harper (Billy Chapin), but what transpires in the film is a pure nightmare where religious fanaticism begs us to treat everyone like children and envision a world where everyone is fair game for evil.  He’s just a poor kid whose dad was just hung for murder (but not before entrusting his son to hide his stash of money), whose mother (Shelly Winters) is helpless, and whose little sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), needs minding.  Into his life steps the world’s most vile step-father, Harry Powell (the magnificently monstrous Robert Mitchum) – a widow-killer and money-hungry would-be preacher who wows the simpletons of the small towns he invades with his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric.  But John is on to him from the get-go (he knows this jack-ass just wants the cash), and John rails against the man and his worldview.

Women are grotesquely marginalized by the faith-based worldview of the characters in The Night of the Hunter as well as by the time period in which the story takes place (1930’s West Virginia).  Ordered to suppress their desires and obey their men, they are treated like children and called stupid and foolish, slapped around, and murdered…the slitting of Willa Harper’s throat depicted in horrifically stylized expressionistic shots, some of the most menacing mise-en-scene in the history of cinema – culminating with the famous “hair in the tangled deep water reeds” scene of her desecrated body “at rest” in the bottom of the river.  Teenage girls are even stupider, and worth only their wombs that shoot out bastard children whom the righteous (be it in the form of evil Harry Powell or goody-goody Rachel Cooper) then must watch over.  Meanwhile, the littlest of girls, Pearl, is just (in the words of Powell) “a miserable little wretch,” depicted without the brains to discern bad men from good (if this is innocence, then innocence must be lost!)

After his mother’s murder, John absconds with Pearl down the river in a skiff in a Grimm’s fairy-tail journey – not a single authentic shot to be found – all hyper-realized imaginings of children on the run for their lives.  It’s creepy and atmospheric, and the water of the river seems to be flowing both ways in just another example of the film’s overt symbolism and weirdness that creates the greatest of unease.  But John is vigilant – and always keeps a step ahead of Harry Powell. (more…)

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