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It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
Dated, soupy, melodramatic at times. Main story, involving the wife who harbours her ex-lover from the police, is curiously underdeveloped and cannot arouse much interest. The other plot threads seem pretty emotionally irrelevant; the film doesn't tie together very well while we're watching it. Nothing stands out as particularly awful; film plods along so-so. Nice little supporting performance by Edward Chapman as the plain and dependable husband.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Now that the movie has been around for a decade and change, we know all about the seductively suggestive atmosphere and the mystery of the James Spader character. These, then, are no longer the most interesting things about the picture. It's a film about honesty -- honesty in conversation, anyway -- about how the Spader and Giacomo characters, who always say what they mean or ask what they want to know with frankness and clarity, bounce off the repression of MacDowell and the lies of Gallagher.
What's fascinating are the ways characters express themselves as conversation moves to more intense places. The mystery over what makes Spader tick is not quite as interesting, and the conclusion, which needs to investigate him and find some kind of conclusion, cannot be as absorbing as the intensely frank and striking buildup.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
A simple story of a guy winning back his estranged father, told in strong and memorable images. Jolson looks just right, and although it was done for reasons of cost and technological limitations, it's actually pretty cool that this is a traditional silent movie that turns talkie for the performance scenes. It makes the terrific musical numbers come alive, and it gives the plotting no more or less emphasis than it deserves. Not a great film, but an enjoyable one, and obviously a historically significant one.
The film has some hammy acting, and often the editing does a poor job of establishing fundamental narrative details, but this is a strong piece of over-the-top Dario Argento style. Convoluted gore, ugly images like the infestation of maggots, a colour palette of harsh, extreme primary colours and the pounding score of ghoulish Italian rock do a good job of keeping us arrested and impressed. Perhaps not the classic that its hardened fans make out, but surely worth a look.
Du rififi chez les hommes (1955)
Many of the elements in "Rififi" have become familiar parts of the heist picture tradition, but it still plays damn well, for a few big reasons:
1) Noir, baby, noir! The mood is just great, with its dark, well-composed photography and tough, spare dialogue and performances.
2) That silent half-hour heist sequence is legendary for a reason, capturing minute details and tensions through a visual style that is easy to follow and absolutely gripping.
3) The ending, which shows the final death in a manner that is dizzying, dogged and powerful.
This remains a terrific movie.
Cat People (1942)
This movie is so good-looking that our eyes just want to eat it up. Deep, moody patches of blackness abound; Jacques Tourneur and his crew might have been making a noir horror to disguise their B-movie budget and sets, but by God, the tactic paid off. Certain scenes see everything as blackness except for the bars of windows; shadows are everywhere all the time; the use of darkness is sometimes even announced, as with the famous scene in the swimming pool, where the reflections on the wall get darker and darker as Jane Randolph gets more and more worried that something is coming after her.
It's always pointed out that the movie works despite some very simple, perfunctory dialogue, and that's correct. "Cat People" is blunt in some of its characterisations, and the whole idea that Simone Simon will turn into a murderous cat when kissed by a man is a sexual metaphor that goes right to the brink of silliness. But the atmosphere makes the film involving nonetheless.
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
The movie has everything: Satire, comedy based on the rhythms of speech, detailed characterisations of everyone from executives to bums, farce and thought-provoking musings on people's places in the world. All this is relayed to us in style that is funny, energetic and unpretentious. The dialogue is so smart and savvy that it plays as contemporary, and the movie arrests us; it's one of those pictures that we don't have to sit and wait for, but which grab us with their wonderful comic and dramatic spells. Forgive the hyperbole, but "Sullivan's Travels" is and always has been a flat-out classic.
Blonde Venus (1932)
Silly but watchable
Over-the-top study of how Dietrich's character gets sucked into a whirlwind of despair after taking a break from the role of housewife to return to the stage. She becomes involved in a love triangle before going on the run, where she has to beg for food, tell fibs to her little boy, and end up in a 15c-a-night flophouse where her hair is all frizzed up and she's shouting at other women who look like they've been on bourbon since birth. The beginning of this journey is ominously signalled by the now famous scene where Dietrich dresses in an ape suit and sings "Hot Voodoo!"
The shots are perfectly composed, with nicely darkened edges and misty air. Dietrich somehow retains the aura of a starlet despite being in a lot of messy situations; Cary Grant flashes a rough early version of his charming persona; Herbert Marshall gives an amusingly overwrought performance as Dietrich's jilted husband, looking so stiff in his shabby little grey suit that it's as if he is about to literally snap. An altogether trashy film, but not a boring one.
Flat, a disappointment
Stilted and lifeless love triangle picture. Gary Cooper acts a little too gormless; it's not charming, because he's not in a comedy. Adolphe Menjou has an interesting character to play -- the type of rich sugar daddy who we expect to be a simple bad guy, but ends up with more emotion and dimension -- and the actor botches it, never quite communicating tone and seeming nervous for all the wrong reasons. Dietrich, of course, has classic screen presence, but the film hardly lets her use it, and gives her some of the least well-staged musical numbers of the era (the film stops as she sings without musical accompaniment, for the length of whole songs, over rooms full of mumbling).
The picture was a big hit, received Oscar nominations for its cinematography and art direction, and became famous for its exoticism and style. But the production values were eclipsed as Hollywood style developed, and "Morocco" looks like just another old Arabian-set star vehicle today. Films like "Casablanca" do a much better job of showing the chaos of Morocco through shots that are balanced and composed.
Touching, thought-provoking, with surprising moments of wit
At the centre of "Ikiru" are the massive issue of mortality and the thoughtful, poignant performance by Takashi Shimura, but Kurosawa's direction also managed to find moments of humour in the oddest places. The wake sequence is brilliant in the way it gets laughs both sad and pure out of drunkenness and bad logic, satirises bureaucracy and its servants, and also lets us think about the meaning of life, whether a wasted life can secure a legacy by attempting to redeem itself near the end, and whether those attempts at redemption, if successful, actually qualify a life as meaningful.
The film could perhaps do without so much of the voice-over, which at times explains things a little too much, but that's a small complaint.