Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

[originally published December 28, 2010]

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

“Un Conte De Noel” (“A Christmas Tale”): The Messy Joys of Family

[originally published November 20, 2008]

“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)

In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.

Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.

The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).

“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood – the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years – they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

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Posted in: Essays, Film Reviews

Skolimowski: “Deep End”

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series “Love and Death,” November 15, 1983]

The original poster: hair turns to blood, or maybe just red

Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of The Shout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.

Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrot le fou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Raoul Walsh

Me and My Gal

[Originally published on Straight Shooting at Queen Anne News, September 30, 2012]

Ed. note: republished to mark its availability streaming on Criterion Channel this month.

Just a quick recommend, before it’s too late. One of my very favorite movies is making a rare TV appearance Monday, Oct. 1, at 5 p.m. West Coast time on Turner Classic Movies. To “very favorite” let me add an endorsement from an erstwhile colleague and friend, the late Donald Lyons. When, in the early 1990s, a New York City–area PBS station was about to show Me and My Gal as part of a package of rare Fox Films productions from the 1930s, I urged Donald to catch it. A few minutes after the telecast ended, he phoned to say, “You told me to be sure and watch Me and My Gal. You didn’t tell me it was one of the best movies ever made.”

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Sauve qui peut (la vie) – Jean-Luc Godard begins again

[Originally published in The Weekly, March 11, 1981]

A conversation early in the new film by Jean-Luc Godard:
“Is it a novel, this project you’re working on?”
“No, but maybe it could be.”
“Maybe it should be a new type of serial—how things really are.”
“It wouldn’t work around here.”

The thing about Godard movies is, he’s always talking to us. Talking to us about himself, talking to us about us, talking to us about talking to us. We don’t think about this all the time because movies are seductive, even movies that work to be analytical and disjunctive and Brechtian, and we get drawn along by the beauty of the images and the movement of things via 24 still pictures per second. But every once in a while we snap into recognition that we’re on the other end of a cinematic conversation.

Like that moment in Band of Outsiders (1964), a wacky, funny-sad romantic comedy about three young Parisians who like gangster movies and musicals, and decide they’re going to rob an isolated mansion where one of them, the girl, works. Except of course the movie dithers around a lot while they take English lessons and do a solemn softshoe in a juke bar and break the world’s speed record for touring the Louvre — and suddenly they’re on this train. The girl starts to sing a love song that turns into a ballad of loneliness. The screen fills with luminous nocturnal images of the city, streets, windows, pedestrians, the long glowworm of the train sliding toward the suburbs. Then the girl is onscreen again and she looks right into the camera and sings the last line of the song, something like “My heart goes out to all of you,” and suddenly you feel as big as the night sky and as vulnerable as a newborn child. Part of it is that the whole movie has been building on this theme without getting explicit about it. Part of it is that the girl is beautiful and fragile and brave, and also Anna Karina, the director’s wife, who’s essentially looking at him the same time she’s looking at us. And part of it is that Karina is speaking for Godard, who could never make this declaration of love and caring in person, but makes it and means it, through her and through his glorious film.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Pierrot le Fou – Love, hate, action, violence, death

[Originally published on TCM.com on November 19, 2007]

Jean-Luc Godard, arguably the most important film director of the 1960s, began the decade with his feature debut Breathless, a scrappy, free-spirited, cinematically audacious take on the B-movie crime genre. By the end of the sixties, he had all but rejected commercial cinema for politically pointed commentaries and film essays like Sympathy For the Devil and Le Gai Savoir.

Smack in the middle of the genre goofing and cinematic game-playing of Godard’s earlier sixties film and the consumer satire and cultural deconstructions of his late sixties films lies Pierrot le Fou (1965). Not that there was some sudden turn in direction; Godard embraced both sides throughout and they blur in so many films of this era. But Pierrot feels like a perfect midpoint (whether or not you could even objectively measure such a thing) in the way that it bounces between the flippant play of moviemaking fun and the social commentary on the modern world.

Pierrot le Fou is a road movie, a crime fantasy, a cultural satire, a tale of consumerist alienation and bourgeois apathy, and a femme fatale noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope, shot in the bright sunlit canvas of broad daylight. Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Breathless, plays Ferdinand, a former teacher pushed into an advertising career by a wealthy wife with high-society values: “You’ll do as your told,” she demands as they get ready for a party where she hopes he will be offered a job, and he bristles at the empty life he inhabits, escaping only through his books. Anna Karina, Godard’s one-time muse and wife (their divorce became final before the shoot was over), is Marianne Renoir, niece of Ferdinand’s brother-in-law and the family babysitter.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du Cinema’

Early in the career of Jean-Luc Godard career, when he still the firebrand film critic aspiring to make features, Godard contemplated the “Mystery and fascination of this American cinema” and found himself bedeviled by an unshakable realization: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

Forty years later, he’s still pondering the question in Histoire(s) du cinema (1989), his epic rumination on cinema as industry and art. In eight episodes and four-and-a-half hours, Godard struggles between his conflicting perspectives on cinema: on the one hand an industrialized business that cranks out products designed to sell images, consumer goods and an entire ideology, and on the other, a history of images, stories and experiences that haunt the soul and stand with the great works of art.

Histoire(s) du cinema is not, strictly speaking, a history of cinema, at least not in a traditional documentary sense. The title provides the first hint. In French, “histoire” means both “history” and “story” and the (s) suggests the multiple histories and stories involved in any understanding of cinema, not the least of which is Godard’s complicated personal connection to film history. From passionate young critic staking out his position in the fifties to maverick director who shook up the staid French industry with provocative films to political commentator and social critic exploring the frontiers of expression and representation, he has been nothing if not provocative. The personal and political are constantly in flux in this collection of eight video essays, begun in 1988 and concluded in 1998, where the Nouvelle Vague legend considers the history of the movies with a typically idiosyncratic style and non-linear train of thought.

Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies

Released by Olive Video. Available on DVD from Amazon.

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Jean-Luc Godard

Blu-ray: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘A Married Woman’

marriedwomanBD

A Married Woman (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), subtitled “Fragments of a film shot in 1964,” is Jean-Luc Godard’s modern portrait of love and sex in the media-saturated sixties with Macha Méril in a role that was clearly meant for Godard’s wife and longtime muse Anna Karina (they were separated at the time) and it channels Godard’s feelings at the time. Like Karina, Méril’s Charlotte is beautiful young woman who is married to an older man and having an affair with an actor. The film opens on a montage where Charlotte is reduced to parts—legs, arms, back, lips, midrift, isolated glimpses of the naked female suggesting those erogenous zones that could not be photographed in a mainstream feature film—caressed by her unidentified lover. It’s shot in creamy cool black-and-white by longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard and the strikingly handsome formality is both erotic and removed, suggesting a physical intimacy and an emotional disconnection even in even the most intimate scenes of lovemaking and pillow talk.

Charlotte has no close friends (at least that we see), lives in a sleek modern apartment devoid of lived-in warmth, and shrinks from the touch of her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy). He’s an intellectual with a condescending attitude and she’s more comfortable living in the moment than grappling with history and memory, which becomes all too apparent in their uncomfortable post-dinner dialogue. In between the lovemaking and the conversations, Charlotte discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t know which man is the father

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

Hard Eight

[Originally published in Film Comment, March-April 1997]

Black screen; the sound of a truck starting. Fade in on a drab morning, the parking lot of a roadside diner, and the truck itself, a long freighter that hauls itself into, across, and out of a Super-35 frame that, for one satisfying instant, it perfectly fills. As the engine roar recedes, a trenchcoated back looms in frame right, pauses a beat, then approaches the diner, camera following at elbow level. There is a young man seated on the ground near the diner entrance, head bowed, legs drawn up to his chest, like a fetus that has learned to sit up. The man in the trenchcoat stops and speaks to him—an older man’s voice: “Want a cup of coffee? Want a cigarette?” The young man takes his time looking up, as if he’d been somewhere else, and had already accepted that in that place he would never be spoken to again. He can see the man who’s standing over him; except for a blurred reflection in the nearby door, we still haven’t.

Gaston Monescu once observed that beginnings are always difficult. With movies, just the opposite is often true. The audience is eager to be caught up in something—a story, a vision, a mood—or they wouldn’t be there. It’s child’s play to turn on the engine; riding out the trip is hard. Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature debut, has a classical beaut of a beginning. The better, rarer news is that, having confidently taken the wheel, Anderson never loses his grip or his way. Like its opening shot, Hard Eight keeps us wanting to see more, and is equally satisfying in the ways that it does and doesn’t permit that to happen.

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