Stagecoach (1939)

31 07 2008

Not quite as great as Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, which of course came out in the same year, but a good (if not great) film none the less. I always feel a bit inadequate approaching a film that has been so canonized over the years as it is impossible to address and/or fully comprehend all of the “important” factors of such a film. In this case, it is particularly difficult as this is essentially “ground zero” for all westerns. Thus, it does feel slightly too close to the genre’s elements, but of course, that is because this film created them! It also helps that Ford’s usual technical comprehension is present. If anyone understood how to make a great film, surely it was him.

A group of off-beat characters board a stagecoach headed for Lordsburg, but it must go through the dangerous Apache territory. On board is Dallas – a prostitute who is being driven out of town by the local “moral” police, Doc Boone – an alcoholic doctor, Lucy – a pregnant woman eager to be reunited with her husband, and Samuel Peacock – a whiskey salesman. The town marshal, Curly Wilcox, joins along while searching for Ringo Kid, who is quickly found and proceeds in joining the gang. Hatfield, the local “gambler”, also joins along, mostly due to an infatuation with Lucy.

It is quite alarming, at least to me, how much of a similarity this bears with Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san, which came two years earlier. It is very unlikely that Ford ever saw Shimizu’s film, or even had the opportunity to do so for that matter. Still, the similarity is so striking that I can’t help but bring it up. Most of the things that I like about Shimizu’s film apply here as well. Yes, Ford’s film becomes dramatic where Shimizu’s continues at a leisurely manner, but this is pretty good company for a Hollywood director to be mentioned alongside. Of course, I would never want to imply that Ford was a typical Hollywood director, but more that he was just as in tune with Renoir and Shimizu than any other directors I could think of.

Back to the film in and of itself, like in Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s (seemingly) dated aesthetics capture an oddly poetic tone. That’s a rather strange remark for an action film, but the action sequences, most of which were filmed on location, only add to this sensibility. The relatively hamfisted performances are another contributing factor. John Wayne is thankfully nowhere near as over-the-top as I expected him to be and in fact, has a charming type of low-keyness at times. I’m not sure if this’ll hold true in his later performances, but at this point, he had yet to slip into his iconic persona.

The Milky Way (1969)

30 07 2008

First, a little personal background information: about a year, Luis Buñuel was one of my favorite directors. However, it’s been about the same amount of time since I’ve last seen a film from him. Taking that into account, this probably wasn’t the best place to get re-acquainted considering how specific most of the satire is, but still, I did enjoy it a great deal. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’ve been (re)watching a lot of Mr. Show episodes lately, which definitely displays the same type of absurdism. On a similar note, this seems to have had a direct influence on Monty Python, which would account for the Mr. Show connection. In other words, a wonderful opportunity for Buñuel to flex his comedic muscles, but not quite a masterpiece.

Pierre and Jean are two drifters making their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain to visit the shrine of Saint James. Their pilgrimage is often stopped by many figures, both real (and historically relevant) and fictional. These figures all have their own absurd anecdotes, which are juggled with Pierre and Jean’s pilgrimage as well as scenes from the life of Jesus.

Like the other two films (The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) in Buñuel’s proposed trilogy, The Milky Way rejects a single and straight-forward narrative and instead, branches off into a series of sub-plots that could be seen simply as vignettes. Of course, since this is Buñuel, all of these stories seem to lack common sense, which is also what makes them so great. Perhaps some bits verge of the side of being childish, but one never gets the feeling of “weird for weirdness” sake. In other words, the more “out-there” aspects of the film work because they are not mindlessly inserted. At the same time, Buñuel does not intellectualize the meaning of his sequences. They aren’t stiff chess pieces for metaphors, but natural and believable characters in absurd situations.

What I’m saying is not all that critical or even reflective, but that only speaks to the impenetrable nature of Buñuel’s universe. To classify him simply as a surrealist would overlook some of the best things he has to offer as a filmmaker. There’s something very basic, in a positive sense, about his work. As if he has gone back to the structure of a simple story, and removed most of what is inherently implied in most films. The result is always low-key, but it perfectly compliments the quiet and deadpan humor present in almost all of his films. This is no exception. One of Buñuel’s easiest to enjoy, as well as one of his most outrightly humorous.

7 Women (1966)

29 07 2008

A decent and perfectly harmless movie, but not anything particularly special. There’s a good chance that this is only deemed “relevant” by film cannons because it is John Ford’s last film. In Ford’s defense, it doesn’t even seem like he is attempting to make a remotely serious film. In that sense, it would probably make for a solid double bill with Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. It’s not as outrightly campy and silly as Ray’s film, but it is a feminist western of sorts. Of course, one will have to make a little logical jump as a film that takes place in China isn’t technically a western, but still, this plays out like one anyway.

Dr. D.R. Cartwright arrives at her newest place of employment, a Christian mission in North China, with several skeptics. Her modern ways clash greatly with that of the stiff, conservative Agatha Andrews, who seemingly runs the mission. Cartwright drinks, swears, and most importantly, doesn’t believe in God. Needless to say, she quickly gets under Andrews’ skin, who intends to fire her in a short time. Her plans are thwarted when the mission is taken over by a Mongolian warlord. On top of everything, Mrs. Pethers, the wife of Charles Pether (the mission’s lone male), goes into labor.

Initially, it is (oddly) amusing to see Ford handle so many atypical themes. As mentioned earlier, this is a film largely centered around women and it takes place in North China of all places. In other words, about as far away as one can get from one of Ford’s usual films. Still, it is pretty much standard Ford affair, which is certainly not a problem with me. It does indeed turn into a western, and even then, it is not up to the standards of, say, Anthony Mann and/or Nicholas Ray. My inexperience with westerns clearly shows here, as this is only the second John Ford film I’ve seen (the other being the great Young Mr. Lincoln) so excuse the ignorance.

With that all said, I’m sure there’s a lot more here that the film can offer, if only on a more contextual level. Since Ford was accused of being racist, and most likely, of being sexist, it is pretty interesting to see what is essentially a reaction to such claims. In some ways, all the feminist content can be seen as somewhat of parody on Ford’s part, which isn’t to say that he is an evil misogynist (nor am I) but just nice to see the whole “I am woman hear me roar” taken down a peg by the complications of real life. Of course, the film isn’t exactly “realistic” but the ending, which is where most of my previous statement is drawn from, is open-ended and perplexing where it could have so easily been hokey.

Rat-Trap (1981)

28 07 2008

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s third film is, at least for the most part, a great subtle family drama. Comparisons to fellow countryman Satyajit Ray are inevitable, and rightfully so, as the underlying sense of sadness recalls a similar feeling in Ray’s Pather Panchali. Outside of the general “family” theme, though, Gopalakrishnan crafts his film in a much different manner. In general, he seems like a much more minimalistic filmmaker than Ray is, which is made evident when one considering how many moments of pure silence are present in this film. Perhaps the less-than-stellar shape the film is in damages the overall experience (the colors in particular seem off) but Gopalakrishnan’s craftsmanship still shines through.

Rajamma and Sridevi live with their brother, Unni. Rajamma is the older of the two sisters, but still has yet to find a husband. The younger Sridevi is busy with school, where she seems to greatly struggle. Unni is considered the family’s patriarchal figure, but he hardly acts like it. He sleeps all day, complains often, and does little. In addition, he seems stuck in the past and unable to adapt to changing social and economic climate of modern life. The film is built upon a series of unconnected events that all come back to the slightly overbearing metaphorical motif of a rap-trap.

It would be a bit hyperbolic to say that Gopalakrishnan’s aesthetic approach is unlike any I’ve ever experienced, but still, his style is fairly unique. The set-up of each static shot is a bit theatrical with the expressive lighting and staged objects inside the frame. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but the acting, which is generally inexpressive and deadpan, compliments the style in a positive way. Had the performances been more pronounced, almost all the technical positives would be the lost. The reserved tone of all the characters and the long stretches of silence make the location more in tune with a scene from an Antonioni film than in some Hollywood melodrama.

Oddly enough, the film’s only false step is when it begins to become overwhelmingly dramatic. The first hour is pretty uneventful and slow in a very good way, but things unfortunately begin to pick up. The obligatory death of a family member moment is pretty uninspired and somewhat tacky, but the section which it moves into is even worse. It is here, in the last twenty minutes, that the principle character becomes paranoid to a pathetic extent and then the story eventually teeters out to its conclusion. For a majority of its running time, though, Rat-Trap is really great and if anything, it makes me wish there more films from Adoor Gopalakrishnan readily available.

A Day in the Country (1936)

26 07 2008

Well, obviously, it is a bit difficult to assess what is only a thirty nine minute-long re-assemblage of Renoir’s original film, but still, this is pretty great. Oddly enough, it is almost a complete 180 from the previous year’s Toni, which I still consider my favorite Renoir. However, the different approach is similarly successful. This isn’t a deep character study with lots of psychology and development, but instead a quicker, but equally profound, “poetic” sensibility to the narrative. This is clearly the right route considering the film is so short to begin with, but the choice is given even more support by the poignant feeling underscoring every sequence.

A Parisian ironmonger takes his family on a trip to the country side and it is there that his daughter, Henriette, becomes the object of affection for Rodolphe. He convinces his buddy, Henri, to help mingle with Henriette and her mother, Juliette. Henri remains passive and reserved, while Rodolphe brings out as many charming bits of dialogue as possible. Despite his intentions, his witty manner impresses Juliette rather than Henriette. When the group decides to go boating, Henriette decides to tag along with Henri and the result is a tragedy of two would-be lovers never quite aware of their feelings, let alone how to express them.

There are a few films that Renoir’s short bears a heavy resemblance to. One of the most obvious being Picnic at Hanging Rock if only for the whole “day in the country” (hence the film’s title!) set-up, but thankfully Renoir never indulges in a goofy mystery story, but instead goes the route of a lost love type narrative, which I certainly prefer. This is where the film begins to show shades of Hiroshi Shimizu’s great Kanzashi, which is obviously not a problem at all. It’s good to finally be able to see the connection between Renoir and Shimizu outside of the fact they were both formally experimental. Not only is the story the same, but the way in which Renoir achieves cinematic poetry within such a limited aesthetic is astonishing in the same way the poetic moments in Shimizu’s film are. Really, the only problem with this film is that it is short, which makes it slightly less powerful, but with that said, I actually wouldn’t want it to be any longer.

The Lady Without Camelias (1953)

25 07 2008

Like most of Antonioni’s pre-Il Grido features, this is a curious piece of filmmaking but unfortunately, nothing really special on it’s own. It’s a step up for Antonioni from his overwhelmingly unremarkable debut Story of a Love Affair but that isn’t really saying much. Like that film, one of the few positives is Lucia Bose, who once again, is trapped in a narrative that is far below her acting capabilities. It’s too bad that she had to be Antonioni’s early muse, if you can even call her that, because she would have fit in perfectly with his much more accomplished work.

A young and naive shop clerk named Claire comes to Rome and in the process, inadvertently becomes an Italian movie star. Her newfound stardom is mostly due to the efforts of Gianni, a film producer. He inevitably falls in love with Claire and ultimately, forces her into a marriage. Once they are married, Gianni becomes more and more controlling and it seems to directly effect Claire’s movie career. She appears in a “Joan of Arc”-esque film that is met with a very negative response and now, Gianni doesn’t even want her to appear in any more movies at all. Things begin to look hopeful once she meets and subsequently falls for Nardo, but their affair is still plagued by certain personal obligations.

While the narrative is pretty standard “rise and fall” fare, it is at least a bit more daring than the setup of Antonioni’s previous film, Story of a Love Affair. Some of the “insightful” film making process stuff is a little funny, but saying comedy was Antonioni’s strong suit would be pretty silly. Most of the film’s positive attributes come from Lucia Bose, who is as stunning as ever. Again, her role isn’t even good enough for her, as she breathes life into a character that is otherwise, very one-dimensional. I have a strong feeling I wrote almost the exact same thing about Death of a Cyclist but that just goes to show how many mediocre roles she took. It really is a shame that she was never able to collaborate in a project that could compliment her beauty and grace.

Toni (1935)

25 07 2008

No question, the best Renoir film I’ve seen thus far. It’s probably no coincidence that it is also his most emotionally mature and nuanced work as well. In his defense, La bete humaine and Boudu sauvé des eaux didn’t really attempt to be deep character studies. Still, it is quite impressive to see such a delicate and well-crafted observational film handled with Renoir’s usual technical greatness. In a way, this almost resembles one of Fassbinder’s earlier films, but obviously not as cynical nor quite as accomplished. Towards the end, it becomes downright melodramatic, but even those final moments seem to come off in a rather natural and unforced manner.

An Italian immigrant nicknamed Toni (short for Antonio) moves to the French country side and quickly becomes absorbed in the lifestyle. He seems to have settled down with his landlady and wife, Marie. But as time passes, he quickly grows tired of her and shifts his focus towards an immigrant from Spain, Josefa. However, Josefa is trapped in an unpleasant marriage with Albert, by far the most (physically) brutal character in the story. Toni dreams of escaping with Josefa to a new life but it seems that too many things have to go right, an ironic thought as things begin to go totally wrong for Toni. He is kicked out of his house and forced to make his own makeshift shelter, but his enthusiasm for Josefa never declines.

This is commonly accepted as the forerunner to the neo-realism movement in Italy, which makes considering the origin of the main character and Luchino Visconti’s own involvement in the production. Renoir’s film is free of any political context, though, as he doesn’t seem to be offering any timely or cultural criticism. As a result, his film is also far less dramatic even if it does have dramatic turns located throughout the narrative. Most of these events come off quite naturally under Renoir’s helm, though, as he makes no effort to single out any plot points. The whole experience is a rather breazy experience, which isn’t to say it is fun-loving but just very tender and nuanced.

Things begin to take a turn for the melodramatic towards the end, but not enough to cancel out the much more gentle vibe that comes before it. Even then, there’s enough accomplished in the aesthetic field to warrant plenty of praise. Indeed, the way in which an extended cast of characters exist in their own society anticipates a film like Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher. Perhaps an Ozu connection can also be made, especially since the film maintains the similar proto-gluesniffing genre vibe of Ozu’s silent films. More than that though, I’m glad to see such a warm but complex character-driven drama from Renoir. I already knew he was great in the technical aspects of filmmaking, but it is great to see such talent complimenting a story equal in maturity.