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Month: November 2010

Floating Weeds / Drifting Weeds (1959)

Floating Weeds / Drifting Weeds (1959)

“What’s wrong with seeing my son? My own son, mind you!”

Synopsis:
When touring in a seaside village, the manager (Ganjiro Nakamura) of an itinerant acting troupe visits his former lover (Haruko Sugimura) and their grown son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who believes Komajuro (Nakamura) is his uncle. Komajuro’s mistress (Machiko Kyo) becomes jealous when she learns about this, and asks her colleague (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi — much to Komajuro’s distress.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Grown Children
  • Japanese Films
  • Jealousy
  • Mistaken Identities
  • Revenge
  • Yasujiro Ozu Films

Review:
One of the final films made by the prolific Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu before his death in 1963, Floating Weeds remains a critical favorite, with Roger Ebert notoriously placing it among his personal “top 10”. A remake of Ozu’s 1934 silent film The Story of Floating Weeds (which I haven’t seen, and which isn’t listed in Peary’s book), the storyline reveals Ozu’s enduring interest in the drama of familial relations, embedded within the specific context of a struggling Kabuki theatrical troupe (the phrase “floating weeds” is, according to Ebert, a Japanese term for itinerant actors). The actors are all fine in their respective roles, with Kyo — perhaps best known for her role as the violated wife in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) — giving a particularly nuanced performance as Nakamura’s jealous, vulnerable mistress.

Fans of Ozu’s distinctive directorial style — including low, static camera angles; exclusive use of a 50 mm lens; no fades or dissolves between shots; and the steady incorporation of pillow shots between scenes — will find much here to enjoy and admire. The leisurely pace of the film — punctuated by fits of violence and melodrama — allows much time for contemplation and appreciation of the vibrant color scheme and authentic seaside settings. Yet while I was curious to learn how things would resolve between Nakamura and his son, his lover, his former lover, and his son’s lover, the storyline moves awfully slowly, wandering aimlessly at times to focus on numerous (perhaps too many?) side-plots. With that said, most film fanatics will surely want to check out this highly regarded film by Ozu, so I’m strongly recommending it for at least one-time viewing.

Note: Of Ozu’s 54 films, Peary curiously only lists four in his GFTFF. All — Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953) — have now been reviewed on this site.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Haruko Sugimura as Oyoshi
  • Machiko Kyo as Sumiko
  • Ganjiro Nakamura as Komajuro
  • Vibrant cinematography
  • Fine use of authentic seaside locales

Must See?
No, though it’s strongly recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Lower Depths, The / Bas-Fonds, Les (1936)

Lower Depths, The / Bas-Fonds, Les (1936)

“We’re born, we live, we die — it’s nothing to cry over.”

Synopsis:
A destitute baron (Louis Jouvet) befriends a thief (Jean Gabin) living in a flophouse, whose married landlady (Suzy Prim) is jealous about Gabin’s love for her downtrodden sister (Junie Astor).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Films
  • Jean Gabin Films
  • Jean Renoir Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Play Adaptation
  • Thieves and Criminals

Review:
Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 Russian stage play transports the narrative to the slums of Paris, effectively opening up the tale by including a lengthy backstory for one of the characters: Louis Jouvet’s impoverished baron, who remains remarkably unperturbed as he’s forced to give up his palatial residence and adopt a life of itinerant poverty. His friendship with Gabin, and his eventual residence in the flophouse run by Vladimir Sokoloff and Suzy Prim, provide the background context for the film’s central drama — Gabin’s love for Prim’s “Cinderella-like abused sister” (Astor), who is cruelly “sold” to a lascivious, blackmailing suitor (Andre Gabriello). Despite its citation as the best picture of 1936 by a “circle of prestigious French critics”, this bittersweet drama no longer ranks among Renoir’s best work — yet it’s ultimately more enjoyable than Kurosawa’s 1957 reimagining of the play, which (as noted in my review) spreads itself too thinly among the play’s ensemble characters. Jouvet is particularly notable here as the soulful baron: his plight immediately intrigues us, and serves as a welcome counterpart to the storyline’s more blatantly sordid elements.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Louis Jouvet as the Baron

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look, and Renoir fans will certainly want to check it out.

Links:

Lower Depths, The (1957)

Lower Depths, The (1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?”

Synopsis:
Amidst the miseries of a flophouse in Edo-era Japan, a thief (Toshiro Mifune) falls in love with the sister (Kyoko Kagawa) of his married landlady (Isuzu Yamada), who jealously seeks revenge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akira Kurosawa Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Japanese Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Play Adaptations
  • Revenge
  • Toshiro Mifune Films

Review:
The above synopsis of this adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 stage play — transported by writer/director Kurosawa to 19th century Japan — isn’t quite accurate, given that The Lower Depths is actually a classic ensemble tale, one more concerned with representing the miserable lives of its collective cast than with focusing on any particular protagonist’s personal tragedy. To that end, we bear witness to a cynical tinker (Eijiro Tono) waiting impatiently for his sick wife (Eiko Miyoshi) to die; a whiny prostitute (Akemi Negishi) lamenting her fall from grace; an alcoholic actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) complaining about the damage he’s doing to his “bitol organs”; and more.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni’s relatively faithful screenplay — strategically limited to the confines of the sound-stage flophouse — basically consists of the characters sitting around kvetching about their lot in life, and yelling at each other. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who, or to really care about any of their fates, given that so many weakly developed storylines are overlapping. Not even Mifune’s love triangle with Kagawa and Yamada bears much impact — we haven’t been given enough of a chance to know them as individuals. All in all, this is a surprisingly disappointing Kurosawa flick, one that I don’t consider must-see viewing except for his most steadfast fans. If you do decide to watch it, however, wait for a most enjoyable and bizarrely impromptu musical “performance” near the end — my favorite scene by far.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Isuzu Yamada as Mifune’s jealous lover
  • Kazuo Yamasaki’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re a diehard Kurosawa fan.

Links:

Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)

Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)

“Nothing else is going on — it’s the only form of revolution left.

Synopsis:
Punk bands in Los Angeles — including Fear, The Germs, Alice Bag Band, and more — channel their aggression and nihilism through music.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Musicians

Review:
Penelope Spheeris‘s feature debut as a writer-director-producer was this insiders’ look at the punk music scene in L.A., mixing raw concert footage with interviews of band members, managers, fans, club owners, and others.

A former “punk” herself, Spheeris effectively elicits their no-holds-barred thoughts on life, music, drugs, pet tarantulas, haircuts, dead gardeners, and… Well, you get the point. How interesting you find all of this will ultimately depend upon how intrigued you are either by subcultures in general, and/or with the punk movement, which we quickly learn is grounded in nihilism, anger, violence, and bigotry — all on ample display here.

According to this documentary, punk fans and musicians seem to live for the moment when they can enter into a club and begin thrashing their emotions on their sleeve, harming others (and themselves) along the way as applicable. While Decline… is worth a look as an erstwhile cult favorite (and for the cultural footage it provides), it’s not must-see for all film fanatics — though I do recommend it for one-time viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A valuable time-capsule snapshot of L.A. punk in the early 1980s

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss (1982)

“Everything I have belongs to you — all I have left to give you is my death.”

Synopsis:
A morphine-addicted actress (Rosel Zech) in postwar Germany falls in love with a sports journalist (Hilmar Thate) who slowly learns about his new lover’s unhealthy relationship with her doctor (Annemarie Duringer).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Actors and Actresses
  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
  • Fassbinder Films
  • German Films
  • Has-Beens

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary seems less than enthusiastic in his review of this “rare uncomplicated Fassbinder picture”, the “last film in… Fassbinder’s postwar trilogy, following The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola.” Loosely based on the career of UFA actress Sybille Schmitz, it tells an absorbing tale of addiction, dependence, and domination, with Thate’s everyman journalist finding himself unexpectedly lured into Zech’s troubled existence. Peary cites the film as “of interest mainly because of what Veronika Voss represents”: both “the once great, proud Germany that shrinks away in pain, guilt, and humiliation and the victims of the postwar social order.” In addition, he notes that “Fassbinder, who often identified with his heroines, probably related to Veronika Voss’s drug addiction since his own dependency was increasing at the time”, and conjectures that “perhaps Fassbinder sensed [that] his imminent demise… would be similar to Veronika Voss’s”.

I find the film much more enjoyable than the above analysis would indicate. While it’s certainly of interest on a number of historical and thematic levels, it also simply “works” as a compelling, finely acted character drama. Xaver Schwarzenberger’s rich black-and-white cinematography and Rolf Zehetbauer’s stark set designs (note the blindingly white quarters of Dr. Katz’s “office”) help to create an “other-worldly” post-WWII landscape, one which resonates effectively with Voss’s warped existence. Indeed, the film is a fascinating combination of standard melodrama (Fassbinder was heavily influenced by Douglas Sirk) and post-modern surrealism: in one of the movie’s strangest scenes, for instance, Zech openly propositions Thate in front of his girlfriend (Cornelia Froboess), who thus knows about his betrayal yet ends up assisting Thate in his attempt to uncover the truth behind Zech’s mysterious relationship with her doctor (Duringer). Film fanatics — whether fans of Fassbinder’s oeuvre or not — are sure to find this one worth a look.

Note: Parallels are often made between this and Billy Wilder’s masterful Sunset Boulevard, given that both Zech’s Veronika Voss and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond are aging “has beens”, desperate for a resurgence of their failing careers, who lure an impressionable young man into their troubled lives. This is definitely the darker of the two.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss
  • Hilmar Thate as Robert Krohn
  • Cornelia Froboess as Henriette
  • Annemarie Duringer as Dr. Katz
  • Striking b&w cinematography
  • Effectively stark sets

Must See?
Yes, as one of Fassbinder’s most compelling films.

Categories

  • Foreign Gem
  • Important Director

Links:

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)

“Pip! A young gentleman of great expectations.”

Synopsis:
A young orphan (Anthony Wager) who exhibits kindness to an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) is sent to be the playmate of a girl (Jean Simmons) living with an embittered older woman (Martita Hunt). Years later, grown Pip (John Mills) becomes a gentleman through the help of an unknown benefactor, re-encounters the convict, and remains enamored with his childhood crush (now played by Valerie Hobson).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Charles Dickens Films
  • David Lean Films
  • Jean Simmons Films
  • John Mills Films
  • Orphans
  • Social Climbers

Review:
David Lean’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel — listed as number five on the BFI’s list of all-time great British films — is widely acknowledged as its best cinematic rendering, and remains among the top Dickens adaptations ever produced. Upon its release, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times referred to it as “a perfect motion picture”, noting it could “safely be recommended as screen story-telling at its best” — and this lofty sentiment isn’t far from the truth. Lean and his crew manage to take Dickens’ dense, character-rich serial novel and turn it into a gripping, finely acted two-hour drama with a clear story arc and plenty of invigorating twists and turns.

Lean apparently had a very specific vision for how the film should look, and his attention to detail clearly pays off. From its opening scene at the cemetery on the moors, to Miss Havershim’s decaying manse, to Pip’s new living quarters as a “gentleman” in London, each of the carefully crafted sets (the film won an Oscar for best art and set direction) emanate Dickensian authenticity. Guy Green’s Oscar-winning cinematography is truly stunning, and the supporting performances by the ensemble cast are consistently impressive, embodying Dickens’ characters exactly as we likely imagine them. Among the notable stand-outs are Finley Currie as Magwitch the convict (appropriately menacing in his on-screen “debut” on the moors), Bernard Miles as Pip’s humble brother Joe Gargery, and Martita Hunt as the infamous spinster Miss Havisham.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anthony Wager as young Pip
  • John Mills as grown Pip
  • Finlay Currie as Magwitch
  • Bernard Miles as Joe Gargery
  • Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham
  • Francis Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers
  • The incredibly tense opening sequence on the moors
  • Guy Green’s stunning cinematography
  • Fine period sets

Must See?
Yes, as a classic rendering of a classic novel. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Sherlock Holmes (1932)

Sherlock Holmes (1932)

“It is only the obvious that escapes attention.”

Synopsis:
Sherlock Holmes (Clive Brook) finds his wedding to a society girl (Miriam Jordan) postponed when his arch-enemy Moriarty (Ernest Torrence) escapes from jail and begins killing those who sentenced him to death.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Clive Brook Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Fugitives
  • Play Adaptation
  • Sherlock Holmes Films

Review:
Loosely based on William Gillette’s stage play, this cinematic interpretation of literature’s most famous sleuth is an amiable entry in the estimable “genre” of Sherlock Holmes flicks. While Clive Brook (a dull actor, IMHO) isn’t particularly noteworthy in the title role, Ernest Torrence is appropriately menacing as his arch-enemy Moriarty (we genuinely fear for Holmes’s life), and the storyline itself remains quite compelling. At just 68 minutes, the film moves along at a fast clip, aided by clever editing, atmospheric cinematography, and a dark sense of humor. Worth a look.

Note: This may be the only film showing Holmes dressed in drag (looking much like Lionel Barrymore in The Devil Doll).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A clever opening sequence
  • Creative direction, editing, and cinematography

  • Ernest Torrence as Moriarty

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a look if you run across it.

Links:

Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The (1973)

Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The (1973)

“Discipline’s okay as long as you’re having fun.”

Synopsis:
A successful, recently divorced fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) falls for a lovely young model (Hanna Schygulla) and is devastated to learn she’s been unfaithful to her.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Downward Spiral
  • German Films
  • Lesbianism
  • Obsessive Love
  • Play Adaptations
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder Films

Review:
Your reaction to this formative entry in iconic director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s oeuvre will depend largely on two factors: first, how devoted you are to joining Fassbinder on each of his cinematic journeys into the realm of sado-masochistic power dynamics (the central concern of his astonishingly rich career, cut short by a drug overdose when he was just 37 years old), and second, how much tolerance you have for the film’s title character — an unabashedly self-absorbed, narcissistic, petulant fashion designer whose “bitter tears” are caused by her failure to retain ultimate power over all those in her midst. Within the film’s fascinating first half hour, we witness Petra (Carstensen gives an unforgettable leading performance) boldly mistreating her meek, ghostly assistant (Irm Hermann), dissembling to her mother on the phone, avoiding making a payment to Joseph Mankiewicz (!), and generally lolling around in her bedroom before slowly getting dressed and making herself up for the day. When Petra is introduced to an aspiring model named Karin (Schygulla), the film rapidly shifts into a new realm, as Petra’s obsessive love for Karin soon colors her entire existence.

Based upon Fassbinder’s own play, Bitter Tears very much retains its theatrical origins: it’s neatly divided into “acts”, and all takes place within the strategically claustrophobic quarters of Petra’s apartment. This works just fine throughout the first “act”, when viewers are sure to be intrigued (if nothing else) by the direction Fassbinder is taking us in. But by the time the story’s central thesis is finally established — that Petra’s obsession with “owning” Karin will be her undoing — we’ve become a little weary of the film’s slow pacing and patently artificial staging. Fassbinder constructs his film as an elaborate homage to Douglas Sirk’s colorful mid-century melodramas, with a decidedly perverse bent: his lead characters (all female) inhabit a world of outlandishly baroque outfits (complete with wigs and garish make-up) and surreal sets populated by strategically framed female mannequins and an over-sized reproduction of Nicolas Poussin’s 1629 painting “Midas and Bacchus” dominating one of the walls of Petra’s home. It’s all visually arresting, but eventually not compelling enough to keep us invested in watching “poor” Petra’s downward spiral. With that said, Bitter Tears is the kind of dense, wordy film that lends itself to academic deconstruction — so if you’re up for this type of intellectual challenge, definitely check it Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critical essay.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Margit Carstensen as Petra von Kant
  • Visually arresting sets and costumes

Must See?
No, though Fassbinder completists will certainly want to visit it. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links: