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Archive for the ‘R.D. Finch’s Movie Reviews’ Category

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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shoeshine - Edited

by Richard Finch

We are the people who, in pursuit of our passions, abandon our children to fend for themselves. And our children are alone. All alone.

In the 1940s Vittorio de Sica directed three of the best and most moving films about children ever made—The Children Are Watching Us (1942), Shoeshine (1946), and Bicycle Thieves (1948). In each of these films, children find themselves in a world where the behavior of adults makes little sense to them, where they are powerless to control their own lives, and where they are unable to protect themselves from disappointment and hurt. It’s a sad, mystifying world for children, de Sica seems to be saying, and we adults are too self­ involved to feel their pain and confusion and help them through it.

In Shoeshine two boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, live in poverty just after the end of the Second World War in Italy, shining shoes for American servicemen to finance their dream, to own a horse. They’ve been making payments on the horse for a while but can’t claim him until they make one large final payment. When Giuseppe’s older brother offers them a way to make part of the money they need for that payment, they jump at the opportunity, even though it involves doing something shady, delivering stolen American blankets to an elderly fortune teller for resale on the black market. While at the apartment, Giuseppe’s brother shows up with two men who identify themselves as policemen. The boys appear to have been set up as pawns in a sting operation but are lucky to escape and are able to keep all the money from the transaction as well, enough to make the final payment on their horse.

The boys are so ecstatic that they spend the night in the stable with their horse, only to find the next day that their good fortune has turned sour. Picked up by the police, they are accused of being accomplices in the robbery of the fortune teller, for the two men were not policemen at all. The most damning evidence against them is that large sum of money they used to make the final payment on the horse. The boys cannot explain where they got the money without implicating Giuseppe’s brother, and their sense of honor won’t let them do this. Unable to convince the police that they had no prior knowledge of the robbery, Pasquale and Giuseppe are sent to a juvenile prison to await trial. (more…)

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by R. D. Finch

When making out my ballot for the Comedy Countdown here at Wonders in the Dark, the biggest dilemma I faced was deciding just what was a comedy and what wasn’t. As I worked on the list, several films whose overall tone I was uncertain of fell off the list. A few of these eventually found their way back on. One of the films I went back and forth on was Sullivan’s Travels, which I eventually placed at #5, right after my two favorite silent comedies—one by Chaplin and one by Keaton—and my two favorite screwball comedies. The dilemma I faced in classifying Sullivan’s Travels is that it doesn’t fit comfortably into either the “comedy/ha-ha” or the “comedy/not tragedy” modes of humor. Tonally, the film is a real paradox, a movie where gravity and humor exist side-by-side, a tragicomic picture whose subject is comedy and whose premise is a serious one—that a movie which aims to do no more than make people laugh is as important as one that makes them think.

Joel McCrea plays film director John L. Sullivan, Hollywood’s Caliph of Comedy, who decides that he’s tired of making frivolous movies, no matter how popular they are, and wants to direct a film that makes a serious statement about contemporary socioeconomic conditions. Because Sullivan has no first-hand experience of the grinding poverty he wants to depict onscreen, he decides to research the subject by disguising himself as a tramp and going out on the road. No matter where he heads, though, circumstances invariably take him right back to Hollywood. During one of these false starts he acquires a traveling companion, an aspiring actress who has given up on Hollywood and is on her way back to Kansas when she meets Sullivan at a Hollywood diner. (Called simply The Girl, she is played by Veronica Lake in her first starring role. She was never again this natural or this good.) It’s fully two-thirds of the way through the film before the pair finally manage to get on the road and gather the knowledge Sullivan needs to give his new picture authenticity. When he decides to go back on the road one last time alone, the film’s comic tone, already sobered by what he and The Girl have experienced of life on the skids, turns tragic. (more…)

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by Richard R.D. Finch

“All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people,” millionaire Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) remarks to a friend near the beginning of My Man Godfrey. For the next hour and a half the movie sets out to illustrate that quip, using Bullock’s two daughters, his wife, and their social set as its prime examples. As hard as he tries, Alexander Bullock isn’t ever able to introduce any sanity into his eccentric family, but a mystery man played by William Powell is. Powell is Godfrey Smith, a homeless man living in a packing box at the city dump who is claimed by both Bullock daughters, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and Irene (Carole Lombard), in the film’s famous opening, where the two are competing for the last item they need to win a society scavenger hunt—a real Forgotten Man. Godfrey doesn’t respond to the imperious Cornelia, but he does take an immediate liking to her sweet, slightly ditzy younger sister and allows himself to be claimed by her. Irene, elated at besting her domineering sister for once, in turn takes such a shine to Godfrey that she impulsively hires him as the new family butler. For the rest of the movie we follow along as Godfrey becomes embroiled in the antics of this nutty family that practically embodies the expression “the idle rich.” (more…)

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by R. D. Finch

With the possible exception of Alfred Hitchcock, no film director made as many great movies as Ingmar Bergman. And no director in movie history has more of a reputation for seriousness than Ingmar Bergman. Marital strife, parent-child conflict, childhood trauma, identity confusion, spiritual crisis, madness, war, above all death—think of a somber, disturbing, or depressing subject and chances are Bergman made a movie about it. Yet among all those serious films he is so well known for, in 1955 he made one of the most delightful romantic comedies ever filmed, Smiles of a Summer Night.

In Sweden, the time around the summer solstice, when it stays light nearly all night long as it does in all such northern latitudes, is a special time of year. This is a time for the celebration of fertility and the time when magic is believed to have its greatest power over humans, just as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the film, which takes place sometime early in the twentieth century, we are introduced to four men and four women who come together at a rustic weekend house party in midsummer, a traditional time for losing one’s inhibitions and indulging in emotionally risky behavior. Fredrik Egerman is a self-centered middle-aged lawyer who for two years has been married to Anne, a naive 19-year old. The marriage has never been consummated because of Anne’s fear of sex, and Fredrik, who has resolved to wait until she is ready for sexual relations, is growing restive. When he learns that his former mistress, the actress Desirée Armfeldt, is in town appearing in a play, he can’t resist going to see her. Accidentally learning of her husband’s renewed interest in Desirée, Anne understandable becomes deeply upset. (more…)

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by R. D. Finch

What the hell do you write about a movie directed by Luis Buñuel?  His films don’t deal directly with social, political, or ethical issues, so a discussion of theme isn’t really relevant. Even on the rare occasions he worked with major stars like Simone Signoret or Catherine Deneuve, he used actors essentially as extensions of his imagination, so a discussion of personalities and performances doesn’t hold much promise either. Also out is the topic of style. Though admired by bold film stylists like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Buñuel was himself one of the most straightforward of directors, his style virtually a definition of the expression “invisible technique.” Yet he was in a way the ultimate auteur director, forging a creative identity not through subject or style, but by vividly showing us his own wholly idiosyncratic view of the world, his personal alternate reality, in one film after another. While other directors have also attempted this, I can’t think of one who has used this approach so prolifically, so adroitly, or so intelligibly as Buñuel.

Like a number of Buñuel’s later films, his 1972 comic masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is organized not around a traditional rising and falling arc of action but, like a piece of music, around a theme and a set of variations. Here the theme is six people—three men and three women—trying to sit down for a meal and repeatedly getting interrupted before they can get started. The variations consist of their trying time after time to dine, only to be thwarted again. No matter what the circumstances, they just can’t seem to finish a meal. It’s perpetually delayed gratification, the gastronomic equivalent of involuntary coitus interruptus. (more…)

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by R.D. Finch

When in the late 1920’s the entire film industry raced to embrace the addition of sound to movies, one notable film artist, Charles Chaplin, resisted. Chaplin’s 1931 picture City Lights was made without dialogue, although Chaplin did include sound effects and compose an original music score for the film. His next picture, Modern Times, was not released for another five years, and still Chaplin resisted the pressure to add dialogue to the story. By 1940, he was at last ready to tackle the task of incorporating dialogue in his next project, the political satire The Great Dictator, and to audiences and critics of the time his efforts proved successful. Chaplin received the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle (which he declined). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture, and Chaplin received nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

Today it’s a movie loved by many critics and filmmakers. But when I finally saw The Great Dictator a few years ago, I found it disappointing. Parts of the movie are appealing in the ways Chaplin’s silent movies are, alternately touching and funny, but in the end it simply falls short of Chaplin’s greatest work. Throughout the film one gets the sense that Chaplin believed he could merely graft words onto what he was already doing without rethinking his approach to comedy or screenwriting. The subject might have been daring for its time, but the resulting movie often seems awkward and anachronistic. (more…)

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