Sunday, March 19, 2017

More Capsule Reviews? Indeed, Yes.

The Lovers on the Bridge (d. Leos Carax) - When discussing reclusive, meticulous, and relatively unprolific film directors, like Terence Malick (nine, possibly ten features in 44 years) and Stanley Kubrick (13 features in 46 years), one doesn't often find Leos Carax thrown into the mix. He's made five films since 1984, and his name is a pseudonym! What's he trying to hide, and so forth. The fact is, each of Carax's films since Boy Meets Girl, his first, has been in some way more opulent or radical, culminating thus far in 2012's completely bonkers Holy Motors, and his most financially excessive and difficult movie, in practical terms, turned out also to be his most successful. That would be this one, The Lovers on the Bridge, for a long time the most difficult of Carax's films to get ones hands on, until last Tuesday, when Kino Lorber put it out on Blu-ray.

The film, from 1991, stars Juliette Binoche as Michele, a mysterious woman who is discovered sleeping in the spot on Paris's Pont Neuf (a bridge that in the film has been closed to the public for repair and restoration, but during filming had not been, forcing Carax to recreate portions of the Pont Neuf and its surroundings as a set) favored by Alex. Alex is played by Denis Lavant, an actor who was destined to meet Carax, and an actor whom Carax was destined to meet. Anyway, they're homeless, as is Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber). Michele is an artist who is losing her eyesight, but where exactly she came from, and why she's now homeless is unclear. Alex, falling instantly in love with her, shamelessly paws through her belongings which, however meager, offer several leads (including a loaded gun) that point towards an unhappy romance in her past, and perhaps a quest for revenge.

Which ain't the half of it. There's mystery and betrayal and cruelty and violent death and intense romantic flourishes. In the most famous sequence from Mauvais Sang, his film previous to this, Carax shows us Lavant dancing madly down the street at night, to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love". Carax sort of recreates that here, but goes bigger with everything: instead of one piece of music, it's several; instead of one person, it's too; instead of a street at night, it's a bridge at night; instead of nothing in the sky, it's fireworks. The sequence is astonishing, as is much of the rest of the film. The Lovers on the Bridge is gripping, and wild, and completely unpredictable. In the end, though, Carax is romanticizing something that I don't find romantic. To such a degree that I wonder if Carax even meant to romanticize it (all I'll say is, Michele could do better). If he didn't, then he's at odds with the film he made. Then again, if Carax hadn't made it, no one else would have, and that would be too bad.

The V.I.P.s (d. Anthony Asquith) - This is one of those damn movies in which Orson Welles wears one of his stupid discolored fake noses. The other two I know about (and I'm thinking specifically of the color films, so the hue of the nose stands out; Welles wore many fake noses in black and white movies) are Claude Chabrol's Ten Days' Wonder from 1971, and Welles's own The Immortal Story from 1968. This one, The V.I.P.s, which stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a fiery married couple coming apart in Heathrow airport, hit theaters in 1963, so we're spanning a near decade here. The nose seems somehow most fitting in this picture, since his whole role is a put-on of sorts. He plays Max Buda, a Hungarian film producer who needs to get out of London with a ditzy actress (Gloria Gritti) by midnight to avoid a hit on his taxes. He's a cartoon, and in This is Orson Welles he has little good to say about it, other than to say that Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith are "tremendous" in it, and that director Asquith shouldn't be judged solely on The V.I.P.s as the project, from a director's point of view, was hopeless, it being obviously controlled by the Burton-Taylors from the start.

But the movie ain't that bad! Written by playwright Terence Rattigan (best known through the film adaptations of Asquith's own The Browning Version and David Mamet's badly underrated The Winslow Boy) The V.I.P.s is very much an "it is what it is" kind of movie, in that it probably was never going to be that good, but so what? It follows several stories of various VIPs stranded by fog in Heathrow: the previously described story about Burton and Taylor, which also features Louis Jordan as the man stealing Taylor away; another about a Duchess (Margaret Rutherford) who is in danger of losing her home; the Welles one; and finally, the one with Smith and Taylor. And Welles is right, they're tremendous. Taylor, allowed to speaking with his native Australian accent, plays the young owner of a tractor company, who is about to lose it all in a takeover, and possibly go to prison, because he put his faith in the wrong person. Unless, that is, a very large amount of money can find its way into his bank account by tomorrow morning. The thing is, nobody seemed to actually care all that much about the Rutherford or Welles stories (regarding the latter, least of all Welles himself, I'm assuming), so it's really a movie of two halves (which at a certain point converge). And I liked both. Burton, Taylor, and Jordan, all give exactly the performances they need to give in order to put across their bit -- Burton might be said to be giving more than is necessary, but one also senses that this film might've hit a bit close to home for him in certain ways.

Anyhow, it's Taylor and Smith who are the show. Maggie Smith plays Taylor's personal secretary, who is also in love with him, and it's all one massive Thing Which We've All Seen Before, but the two actors, and Rattigan's very professional script, made me feel quite wrapped up in it all. I started watching the film, thinking I'd probably hate it. The sons of bitches fooled me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Capsule Reviews: More of Them

45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh) - This remarkable 2015 film, writer-director Andrew Haigh's third feature, based on a story by David Constantine, and newly released on home video by Criterion, stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a married couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Just a few minutes after the film begins, Geoff, Courtenay's character, receives a letter informing him that the body of Katya, his girlfriend whom he was going to marry until she died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962, has been found. This causes Geoff to, he believes naturally and quietly and his wife fears obsessively, think back on those days, and his youth, and the sad death of a young woman. For Rampling's Kate, this is terrifying evidence that perhaps her nearly fifty years of marriage to a man she loves was, for him, merely a kind of second-rate consolation after he lost the one woman he truly loved.

Haigh's film moves along at a pace as gentle and natural as the country house and land where Kate and Geoff live. And the performances by Rampling and Courtenay are impeccable. I frankly can't imagine two actors better suited for this film, who could possibly appear on screen and immediately inhabit their roles. Rampling's performance is a slow trip from soft to brittle; she is constantly, inwardly fighting against the fears that she hopes are irrational. Meanwhile, Courtenay's Geoff embodies a kind of intelligent obliviousness: if it turns out that he's been pulling the wool over Kate's eyes for the last half century, he's been doing the same to himself. Otherwise, he'd be better equipped to deal with the news about Katya without shoving it (again, gently) in Kate's face.

One thing about 45 Years that I haven't stopped thinking about since I saw the film is an aspect of the film's plot, such as it is, that I supposed I'd better not spoil. All I'll say is, at first I thought this small but crucial revelation was, and I'll put this word in quotes to highlight the fact that I now believe my reaction was foolish, "unrealistic." The fact is, however, that the thought process, or lack thereof, which led to the moment I'm not telling you about is one that millions of people constantly engage in. Until one day the penny drops. Or doesn't. Usually, when and if it does, the impact is not so great as it is here. At any rate, it's just another example of the dozens of ways that Andrew Haigh captures simple humanity throughout this film.

Her Husband's Affairs (d. S. Sylvan Simon) - So, Bill Weldon (Franchot Tone) works in advertising, writing slogans. He turns to his new wife Margaret (Lucille Ball) for opinions on the slogans he comes up with, but all he really wants from her -- and he openly admits to this -- is her approval. Which she gives. However, after coming up with a top-notch slogan for a new straw hat, Bill's achievement takes a backseat to the praise his bosses (Edward Everett Horton and Gene Lockhart) heap on Margaret, who tricks the mayor into endorsing said straw hat. A bit rankled at first, Bill soon forgets when his friend, the eccentric inventor and professor Emil Glinka (Mikhail Rasumny) comes over and says in effect "Hey Bill and Margaret, will you invest in my life's work: an embalming fluid that turns corpses into glass statues, shaped in a pose of your choosing?" No, they tell him. Well, he continues, if you need a shave, this jar is full of a byproduct of my new embalming fluid that I don't even care about, but if you rub it on your face it gets rid of all your stubble. No more shaving, no more razors. Seeing dollar signs, Bill takes the cream to his bosses, who also flip, though after all the important contracts and et cetera have been signed, it is learned that this cream has a disastrous side effect, which perhaps you can guess. In any case, the person who figures out a way to turn Bill's lemons into lemonade is Margaret.

Which brings us to maybe the half hour mark of this screwball comedy which will eventually take the audience all the way to the courthouse. This loony-toon of a movie, written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer in full-on "fuck it" mode, is a delight. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon is perhaps best-known for The Fuller Brush Man, a Red Skelton vehicle written by Frank Tashlin, Simon would later produce The Fuller Brush Girl, also written by Tashlin and starring Lucille Ball. Sylvan was dead, at just 41, by the time Tashlin started his own career as a director of feature films, but though he wasn't involved in the film, it's not hard to imagine Her Husband's Affairs as one of Tashlin's own wildly Technicolored movies. Simon may not have had Tashlin's visual invention, but the two men seemed to share a sense of the absurd. Simon doesn't ever wink: the plot of this film is so nuts, and it's a no-question screwball comedy, but the characters regard the lunacy as no more or less than another catastrophe that might become an opportunity. Bill is kind of a prick, but I think the film knows that, and it's only because it sorta kinda has to that Hecht, Lederer, and Simon end the film the way they do. There's a more logical ending, and better, ending we'll just have to imagine. Either way, Tone isn't the star, Ball is, and she's terrific. Deathless stardom was right around the corner for her, and you can see why.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Thoughts on Silence

Good evening. Well, enough of that. Over on Paul Clark's blog, which tallies and records the winners and runners-up and other odds and ends for his annual Muriel Awards, I wrote in the neighborhood of 1200 words on what I consider the best film of 2016, and then some, Martin Scorsese's Silence. Please for to go over there and read them!