Ten recent reviews

Sorry, I've been slacking. Here's some for today, and I've got a backlog of more, just haven't gotten around to writing and publishing. Soon.

Nayak (dir. Satyajit Ray, 1966)
A superstar of Indian cinema with a drinking problem takes a train ride. Along the way he meets a up-and-coming reporter and is uncharacteristically open is discussions with her, offering up information about his life and past that she could use in a scathing article, should she choose. That's the basic plot, though the film is structured around flashbacks and dreams that flesh out the character (and the running time). It's not my favorite Ray film - has less to say about humanity in general than about the characters involved. However, it does play a nice relationship between the two principals and the other surrounding folks in their interactions with them. And in terms of the writing, the acting, the shooting (though the DVD I saw wasn't a particularly good transfer) - it's all well made across the board. And I suppose the actor looking back on the events of his life can be taken in the meta- as an idea we could potentially all learn from - seemingly small events add up over time to the sum total of your character, your being. But that's taking it a little further than I think the film itself actually goes. A good film, not a great one (and as with several other Ray films, inexplicably packaged as part of a Bollywood series).

The Unforgiven (dir. John Huston, 1960)
The film suffers from an ambiguous and inconsistent attitude toward racism, most likely due to studio cuts and interference. But it still makes it an ultimately frustrating viewing experience, especially with the knowledge that the original version is alleged to have taken a much stronger stance against the racist attitudes that permeate the film before it was ordered to have been softened - a real turnaround in the final chapter rather than simply reinforcing many of the attitudes that have been presented by the Indian attack that closes things. But it's a fascinating look nonetheless, even if not totally successful, as a young woman (Audrey Hepburn) who lives with her white frontier family is accused of being an Indian, a charge which ends up dividing her family and ostracizing them from the community at large, whose ugliest side is shown as the search for the truth of her heritage is underway. A shame that John Saxon's role as a Mexican bronco buster was largely left on the cutting room floor - woulda fleshed out Burt Lancaster's role significantly and helped make his attitudes - and those of the film - clearer.

Fat City (dir. John Huston, 1972)
She: "You're the only sonuvabitch worth a shit in this place."
He: "I appreciate that."
I think that this exchange gets to the heart of the central relationship in this film. Susan Tyrell is, as her boyfriend says, a "juicehead," and pretty hard to take with her incessant whining that still somehow manages to be endearing. Seems like the only reason Stacy Keach's character stays there is because she enables him to keep going as a functional alcoholic - and like the only real reason she keeps him around is because boyfriend #1 is out of the picture. Despite the secondary story, I don't think it's really about boxing, more about one guy trying to pick himself up out of the gutter. Typical of Huston to have a film centered on societal outsiders and their relations to some sort of normalcy, though Jeff Bridges's up-and-comer is the only marker we have for any kind of normal life and his marriage - not quite shotgun, but not too far either - seems more contrived and forced than Tyrell and Keach's relationship, which at least derives from a common interest in drinking. It's got no future though, no room for development. Keach tries to clean up and Tyrell's got no interest in doing so - and resents the fact that he's trying to take her along with him. The whole thing's got a weird energy. There's no big climactic fight, no relationships work out the way they might in other hands than Huston's. Even Keach's boxing victory doesn't seem to mean anything to him: "Did I win?" he has to ask. If the movie doesn't exactly provide the sort of stirring Rocky-styled victories over adversity one might expect, neither does it wallow in the foibles, in the misery of its characters. It's not easy to read on one viewing, so it's probable that I'll be coming back to this before too long.

Force of Evil (dir. Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
John Garfield is great as the sleazy lawyer, protecting the numbers racket in New York City and pretending he's doing some good while things get more and more fucked up. It's not noir, exactly, not with all the daylight and no private dick and no femme fatale, but it's influenced by the depth of ickiness that noir can achieve nonetheless. It's presented here as institutionalized though - corruption running to even the highest offices of the city - rather than the the private depravity of individuals, so maybe it's more your basic crime picture, though the seediness that overruns everything and the way you can feel things going horribly wrong way before the characters do is a page straight out of the noir handbook. And though our central and most sinister character slides deep into the darkness thinking he's doing good in a roundabout way, he's really not and we can see it a mile off even if he can't. Not sure how much the dialogue/little twist of the end of the film satisfies for me the tone that the film started with and worked with up until the end, but I guess with a downer of an ending like this one it pretty much earns it.

Matewan (dir. John Sayles, 1987)
I think I'll have to go about a reassessment of Sayles some time soon. I enjoyed Brother From Another Planet back in the day - quite a progressive work, that one, a real triumph of ideas over budgetary limitations. But when I saw some of his stuff on a larger canvas - Eight Men Out, say, or especially City of Hope - I was not blown away. Made me sorta lose interest in him though the burgeoning indie community was always ga-ga over him, and over this film in particular. So I avoided it for - well, 21 years, to be exact, but now I have no idea why, because I think it's worth all the plaudits it's received. Lots of characters to keep up with, all pretty sharply drawn, though the bad guys are pretty stock.On the other hand, I have no doubt that it's a pretty fair representation of what those kind of muscle men were really like in that time - and later too, seeing as the same type turns up in real life in Harlan County U.S.A., a film that was probably a heavy influence on this one. In brief, it's a brilliantly rendered dramatic account of a real life battle between unionized coal miners and the company men they had to fight in the 1920's. Pretty great all on all counts, totally in sympathy with the workers (me too, so I got no gripe with the politics), and the brutality of the ending is no less shocking for knowing that it's coming. The shit is tense from the second the credits end and never lets up - even scenes with humor and human warmth still carry an undercurrent of menace knowing the circumstances under which they're taking place. Compare and contrast with Barbara Kopple's documentary for your next film school assignment and 4 great hours of film about labor struggles.

Eyes Without A Face (dir. Georges Franju, 1960) -
Gah! As an idea - brilliant surgeon pioneering a new skin grafting technique murders young women to transplant their faces onto his disfigured daughter's face - this could go either way. It could easily have become a total piece of schlock, but for the seriousness with which the participants undertook the project. And then, there's that ghastly scene that even nearly 50 years later and with every graphic advance horror filmmaking has had over the years still made me cringe and cover my face and make the sound I started this review with. But it's a fun little macabre story that's given real gravity by the father-daughter dynamic that powers it much more than the creepy murders - daughter's performance is so good that you can feel the her pain and just enough of the vanity that wants things to work out for her regardless, even through the blank mask she wears for most of the film. Reminds me in a way of Peeping Tom, a totally fucked up dynamic that you're drawn into with some sympathy even while you watch in horror at what's going on on-screen. Not as psychologically acute as Michael Powell's film, maybe, but pretty great regardless.

Look Back in Anger (dir. Tony Richardson, 1958) -
"Anybody who doesn't like jazz has no real feeling for music or for people." - R. Burton
Despite this great line in the film, Richard Burton's character is way less sensitive or likable than it might imply. He (the character, presumably not Burton himself), turns his contempt for the upper class into a contempt for women and for traditional society at large. While there are glimpses of him being a caring, thoughtful individual - as when he tries to encourage an Indian at a market stall to stand up against the racism of other local merchants or in the solitary tender scene with his wife - so much of the film is spent on him railing against first his wife and her place in society, then her girlfriend and hers that glimpses of the warm human being he might be underneath all the gruff and bluster is smothered in the negativity that ends up being all he expresses. While there's no doubt he's had his hard times, it's tough to sympathize with him very far, which in turn makes the film somewhat difficult (for me) to watch. He deserves for his wife to walk out on him, treating her the way he does, as a symbol of class and not a human being. Tony Richardson keeps things visually interesting throughout - the film presents a gorgeously moody ambiance of a cold, rainy London that suits the sour mood that the characters are so often in - but it doesn't help make things go down any easier. I'm not so sure that these Angry Young Men of British Cinema aren't just so many spoiled brats. Much easier to ridicule and hold contempt for the upper class when you're of it. And while there are some valid points brought up as to the emptiness of things, the need for new ways of doing things, it's hard for me to see the AYM path as a particularly well-illuminated way through the problems they decry.

Mamma Roma (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) -
While I understand that Pasolini regretted his choice of the dynamic Anna Magnani in the title role here - her professional flash allegedly detracts from the realism of the character he was trying to create - I think she does a fine job with it, making it easy to sympathize with her as she fights to make a real life for herself and her son. True to Pasolini's form, she fails of course, but it's the struggle to keep things together while her son drifts away from her that makes up the bulk of the film. Maybe the vision he had in his head would've been even better - it's possible that a woman from the poor sector could've made the upwardly mobile aspirations of Mamma Roma come from her heart rather than her actor's training. But the film remains a pretty powerful portrayal of Italy's lower classes, and in particular the figure of Mamma Roma and her struggles with family, with class issues, with trying to stay afloat in a world where everything's stacked against her.

Dallas 362 (dir. Scott Caan, 2003) -
Troubled youth story told from the side of the youth and not the horror of the parents at the youth's behavior. Also in some ways a coming of age for a 20-something working his way through those troubled times. It moves easily between what could be a maudlin rumination on a broken family or an unhealthy friendship and a therapy session and also what could easily turn into another flashy L.A. crime picture. I guess it's to its credit that it never really follows any of the accepted patterns, but it's also to its detriment in that it doesn't feel fully committed to the stories. I guess it's tough for first-time writer director Scott Caan to take his semi-autobiographical material and cut himself enough distance from it to tell it clearly - just casting himself as the fucked up friend opposite his proxy Shawn Hatosy doesn't quite do it. That said, just because it doesn't choose one story and run with it doesn't mean it's bereft of interest. Visually it can get annoying in that quick cut, shaky cam, non-diegetic sound effected way of so many contemporary Hollywood action and horror films, but it settles itself down in the family scenes, especially in those between Hatosy and Jeff Goldblum, and puts something real across. If anything, I wish it had chosen this path to pursue, though that could've turned deadly boring. It's smart enough, it's got humor, I just wish it knew exactly what kind of ride it wanted to take you on.

Isle of the Dead (dir. Mark Robson, 1945) -
Again, a fantastic Boris Karloff performance grounds a solid Val Lewton vehicle. This one's about a group quarantined to an island to keep the plague from spreading. But is it actually amongst their own group, or is an evil spirit dwelling in one of the group and killing the others? That's the question the characters face, and while the sophisticated science-backed, modern Western world citizens scoff at the supposedly backwards traditional belief system that's pushing that idea (and hence, paranoia) among the group, it's typical of Lewton's films that he gives those characters equal credence, not just in the confines of the story, where the problem very well may be caused by an evil spirit, just as it may have been a Cat-Woman, Leopard-Man, or Caribbean Plantation zombie elsewhere, but in the broader sense in which there's a parity between different characters' belief systems and they're given respect. They're never painted as wholly evil or superstitious - nobody in his films is all good or all bad, and superstition is granted a significant amount of power, even when "reality" proves it unfounded - which it rarely is given enough weight to do in the face of the otherworldly and supernatural. In short, it's again an approach that undercuts the supposed superiority of Western knowledge, of science, and approaches other characters and cultures with a respect that's rare in most films, especially those of the horror/suspense variety, where the "other" is almost always the source of evil.

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