Saraba natsu no hikari (1968)

27 04 2009

Simultaneously one of Yoshida’s lightest works and one of his most consciously “arty.” The color palette here is much more visually appealing than the one in the cringe-worthy Escape From Japan and Yoshida trades in his usual trademark transgressive sex-filled drama in for something more romantic and poetic. The result is one of his most watchable films, a brisk 90 minutes, that somehow manages to come off as one of his most pretentious and stilted pieces to date. Ultimately, it works, but this is one of the few cases where Yoshida’s cast does little to help the cause.

It’s quite a shame that such a solid concept is tainted by subpar performances from otherwise excellent actors. The always dependable Mariko Okada does her best here, but can’t overcome the stilted nature of the dialogue. In all honesty, it’s hard for anyone to give a solid performance with lines like “I am a landscape that passes before you.” Seriously? It’s so odd for a film with a very “quiet” tone to it to feature such overly-wordy and pretentious philosophical dialogue. It makes sense, though, when one takes into account that Yoshida is clearly trying to make some sort of Marienbad and Antonioni hybrid.

The montages take their cues from Resnais’ film. Every couple of minutes of so there’s a collection of faraway shots of the two protagonists, moving around like robots. This part perfectly illustrates what I find so troubling about Marienbad. It has a great premise (just as this film does) but it is executed in a way that depends almost entirely on formal qualities. Thankfully, Yoshida doesn’t let his film fall into the similar “profound” trapping. Every other sequence in the film is much more natural, even if the dialogue isn’t. There’s no way anybody ever talks the way the people in this film do, but at least Yoshida isn’t using them as “deep” symbolic chess pieces.

The result is a very uneven film, with a few lovely moments here and there. It is by no means a failure, but it be a stretch to call it an accomplishment. Yoshida can be hit or miss (especially if one takes into account his earlier work) but I think there’s something positive to take from every film of his that I’ve see. Here, it’s the nice cinematography and the poetic structure, which at best reminds me of A Man Asleep.

Crime Wave (1954)

26 04 2009

I’ve always had a little trouble with film noir, with the exception of a film or two, but there’s something really special going on here that makes me want to completely rethink the genre as a whole. The only other film that fits into this genre (or mood, or whatever noir is actually considered) and sustains a similar type of realism is Jules Dassin’s Naked City, which is formally dazzling, but a little bit exhausting from a narrative standpoint. I guess I simply don’t love crime-driven films as much as most people do, but whatever the case, I did really love this.

If there’s anything “wrong” with the film, it’s that it is a little bit too short. It doesn’t need to be any longer than it is, but its hard to feel a big impact on the strength of only one viewing. On the other hand, it does help that the story, of what little there is, is pretty straight-forward and simple, if not predictable. Ex-con Steve Lacey is trying to start over with his wife, Ellen, but some old criminal buddies drag him into a bank heist. It’s really not at all a surprise where the film goes from here. There’s an obligatory dedicated cop, played surprisingly well by Sterling Hayden.

All these conventions and clichés work in the film’s favor, though, as it manages to squeeze in more atmosphere and inconsequential sequences into its limited running length. A perfect example of the latter would be Timothy Carey’s brilliant uncredited cameo. His absurd performance probably shouldn’t work with the low-key tone of the other actors and the film as a whole, but somehow it does. He’s like the white Stepin Fetchit, which is definitely a compliment. Like Fetchit, he brings this bizarre and beautiful world to the surface, even though the characters of both actors never had much more than a few pages of dialogue.

Carey’s apperance is brief, though, and it’s not like he carries the film or anything. That honor would go to the film’s director of photography, Bert Glennon, who had a stretch of gorgeous films with John Ford during the latter part of the 1930s. Here, he keeps thing brutually cold and precise, nearing an architectural cinematic beauty on par with Antonioni. Needless to say, it fits the film perfectly. I wish I could say more than “it looks really great” but the visuals here cannot be praised enough. This is without a doubt, one of the best looking Hollywood films of the 1950s and the best effort I’ve seen from De Toth so far.

Hataraku ikka (1939)

12 04 2009

Definitely one of Naruse’s most mature and technically impressive early films. While Ginza Gesho is still largely considered the launching point for the style and tone of Naruse’s most famous work, this little film (which clocks in at only 65 minutes) shows more than a few glimpses of the director’s brilliant work of the 1950s and 60s. Unlike all the other Naruse films I’ve seen from the 30s, this is easy to recognize as one of his. On the other hand, it is only 65 minutes long and I think the amount of characters Naruse is trying to juggle (about eleven in total) is just too much. An early blueprint for some of his refined works.

The story revolves around a jobless father, Ishimura, who depends on his nine children for financial support. The mindset of all the children begins to shift as the Sino-Japanese war rages on in the background. His oldest son slowly comes to realization that it’s preposterous for him and his siblings to support their parents, as opposed to the other way around. As it so often does in Naruse’s world, plenty of tension slowly begins to surface causing a rift in what is initially seen as a close family.

Of all the Naruse films I’ve seen, this one boasts one of the least star-studded casts. It might not be that accessible considering the fact that it is devoid of familiar faces, but the performances are still pretty impressive. I was particularly impressed by Takeshi Hirata who plays Eisaku, the scholarly middle child who wants to continue his education following graduation, but is pressured to take a job at a local factory. The parents here aren’t the most likable characters I’ve seen from a Naruse film, but they do avoid the pitfalls of coming off as “evil” parents. Not a masterpiece by any stretch, but still a nice early gem.

Bellissima (1951)

11 04 2009

As of right now, this is definitely my favorite Luchino Visconti film and I don’t think it is a coincidence that it is also his most outright “comedic” effort. Although I’m very fond of everything I’ve seen from him, I have to admit that I get a strong “humorless” feeling from films like Rocco and His Brothers or White Nights. This is almost always a negative attribute for any director to have so it was quite reassuring to see that he was able to make something that didn’t take itself too seriously, but, at the same time, not lose any of his personal touches. This definitely fits that description.

The story is centered around Anna Magnani’s character, Maddalena Cecconi, an overprotective mother that sees a tremendous opportunity for her daughter when legendary director Alessandro Blasetti announces that he is looking for a young girl for his latest film. Magnani’s performance is likely one of the biggest selling points here. She’s not my favorite actress ever, but she is absolutely perfect here. She carries over the tragic tone of her character from Rome, Open City, which could be awkward since the consequences here aren’t nearly as great. But in a way, this tragic acting style works perfectly for a dedicated, gossipy mother who doesn’t have the most worldly of perspectives.

Cecconi is a very naive person, and while Visconti pokes plenty of fun at her delusional viewpoint, he never comes off as condescending. While the comedy here is fairly cynical, it is also nowhere close to being snark. As I already mentioned, it seems like there is no emotional difference between the Magnani in Rome, Open City to the one here. In other words, her performance is completely genuine here. This definitely supports the notion that the film is poking fun at its character, but it is not “above” them.

Visconti’s previous two films, La terra trema and Ossessione, are two of the darkest in the director’s oeuvre, which makes the tone here contrast even more. In a way, this could be marked as something of a turning point is Visconti’s career. Although he would continue making more “serious” films, he began to abandon that exclusively “tragic” arc. It still shows up, especially in Rocco and His Brothers but in that case, the melodrama is personal and not at all social. In a way, he became a more natural filmmaker once he began to break away from the restraints of neo-realism.

The same goes for Rossellini, whose Flowers of St. Francis marked a similar personal turning point a year earlier. Like Rossellini, Visconti has kept the strongest elements of the faux-movement and has expounded upon them. This is one of the most naturalistic films ever made, which only enhances the humor of the situations and the poignancy of the images.

Il Generale della Rovere (1959)

5 04 2009

After a couple viewings of some less than stellar Rossellini efforts (most of which came from his later didactic TV productions) it was nice to finally see something that reminded me why I was so fascinated by him in the first place. On one hand, this is closer to those TV productions than it is to his earlier, more kinetic efforts. Like those films, this is a sometimes theatrical studio-bound work, with very little formal signs of Rossellini’s origins, but the tone and the content is definitely closer to the Rossellini I love (the one of the 40s and early 50s) than the Rossellini I tolerate, i.e all of those TV productions.

I’d never guess that the problem I have with Rossellini’s later films is the acting, but there seems to be strong evidence for such a case. If this shares the form of a work like Blaise Pascal (which by the way, is one of the toughest cinematic chores I’ve had to endure) then the difference lies within the performances. Vittoria De Sica isn’t exactly my kind of actor. Personally, I think he comes off a little theatrical at times and according to Tag Gallagher, Rossellini thought so too. On the other hand, his character is about a hundred times more interesting than the ones in any of the Rossellini films that came afterwords.

De Sica’s Grimaldi is so fascinating because we’re given so little information about him to begin with, while, on the other hand, Blaise Pascal is a non-fictional figure that I’d like to think I know plenty about. Of course, another difference between this and Rossellini’s later films is the director’s own intent. He even admits that his desire in creating those television films was to educate those unaware of significant historical figures. Here, on the other hand, he still seems interested in showing the struggles (internally and externally) of a human being, which obviously leads to a narrative that is far less complicated to “get.”

Another difference, if only a small one, is the cinematography. Again, I still enjoy the energetic camera work in Rossellini’s earlier films, but I think the black and white visuals here underscore the unassuming tone better than the rather blandly color visuals of the television productions. At times, the camera moves with such a unforced pace that, upon capture these small moments of sadness, Rossellini begins to seem like a predecessor to Bela Tarr. The similarity is quite obvious on a visual standpoint, but a bit more difficult in terms of content. One sequence particularly sticks out for me, though: the one in which De Sica’s character first arrives at the Wehrmacht headquarters. The camera manages to rack De Sica with precision, yet also is able to catch these fleeting sideline sequences that immediately inevoke images of Tarr’s strange cinematic universe. That said, this is still very much a Rossellini film and one of his very best at that.