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Baby Doll (1956)
"First as tragedy, then as farce"
This is what Karl Marx said about history repeating itself in his 1852 essay, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." "Brumaire" is the second month of the French Republican calendar and refers to fog. I think the same concept can be applied to Baby Doll in relation to the 1953 movie that Tennessee Williams also wrote and Elia Kazan also directed, A Streetcar Named Desire. In Streetcar, we grow to identify with and even love the characters played by Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando. In Baby Doll we are more likely to hold the protagonists in contempt.
This does not mean that Baby Doll is badly written, directed, or acted. It is just too much. Everything is extreme and exaggerated. It's hard to take seriously and sometimes appears as grotesque comedy. Yet Williams was intimately familiar with the American South. Maybe farce was a valid way to see it in 1955.
Life of Crime (2013)
An excellent low-key thriller
In Life of Crime, unlike many crime thrillers, the focus is on the characters rather than on achievement of maximum possible violence. All of the major characters have their stories and some of them seem to learn from their foolish and sometimes implausible actions. To me, it's refreshing to watch a crime movie in which things continually go wrong as the limitations of the characters are revealed. There's violence, a natural accompaniment to crime, but it's normal violence, not extreme and glamorous solutions to problems of psychotics. And people respond to it in ways that are sometimes smart and sometimes stupid. This is a genre movie that's far better than most.
A Well-made film with a Serious Limitation
This is a film that's full of Middle-European angst. After decades of totalitarian Nazi, then Soviet, rule, the angst is fully justified. The film's big problem, as I see it, that Ida's role as a Soviet judge who sometimes imposed death sentences, is given no background. Was she a true believer or an ambitious cynic? Or did she go from one role or another? How did she rise to her position? More about her life and development is needed for a full understanding of what's happening.
Despite this big limitation, the acting, direction, and black-and-white cinematography are all excellent. The novice nun's returning to the convent at the end is sad but fully understandable. However, Ida's role as a Soviet judge is not.
The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
All about Acting
I recently saw "The Little Drummer Girl" on DVD and liked it a lot. Diane Keaton is at the heights of her powers and Klaus Kinski is convincing as Martin Kurtz (a possible reference to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), a lead Israeli intelligence operative. All of the acting, direction, and cinematography are competent or better. Roger Ebert and others have downgraded the movie because of the complexity of its plot. To me, the plot is not the true focus, any more than it is in Raymond Chandler novels. What the movie is really about is the power of acting and the ways in which actors love and are consumed by their roles.
The one who loves and becomes consumed is Charlie, the Diane Keaton character. She is a star actress in a British repertory company who overwhelms colleagues and audiences by her ability to bring roles to life. She is also an enthusiastic partisan of the Palestinian cause who we see raising her voice with dramatic intensity at a public meeting. By doing this, she becomes a person of interest to an Israeli intelligence operative who recognizes her potential for his side. The Israelis kidnap her and promise to release her after they've told her what they want and what they can offer.
What they can offer is the acting opportunity of a lifetime, and one that will give her an opportunity to influence events in the real world to a far greater extent than by her flamboyant participation in demonstrations. She says that all she really wants is a just settlement and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Kurtz agrees with her, and says that they want these things as well but that extremists on both sides are hurting the efforts of both reasonable Palestinians and reasonable Israelis. By using her talents to work for them, he says, she can help to make what she wants possible.
The role of a lifetime turns out to have a dual character at which she excels. She is able to adopt both Israeli and Palestinian causes and, after extensive training from both sides, to gain the confidence of a key Palestinian terrorist. Sex plays a significant part although we are spared shots of nude bodies in motion. There's bloody violence and the film's eventual ending can be seen as a comment on the limitations of great acting.
Wolke 9 (2008)
Something New and Wonderful
The people in Cloud Nine are not motivated by middle class psychology, such factors as relationships with parents and emotional deprivations in childhood. Rather, their motivations emerge from their basic characters. To a surprising extent, their characters reflect elemental types. Inga, a sixty-seven year old woman, is a feeling type who works as a seamstress and is a member of a choir. She has been married for thirty years to Werner, a thinking type who likes railroads and timetables. Their daughter, Petra, is a sensate type. She has young children and favors practical solutions. Karl, Inga's lover, is an intuitive type who impulsively makes love to her when he tries on a pair of trousers that she has mended.
These types are not pure or absolute. As in everyday life, aspects of people's characters continually rub against themselves and against aspects of other people's characters. This rubbing is what the movie's about. Inga, a bright, shining, and moderately overweight woman, is delighted by her affair. Contrary to her daughter's advice, she tells her husband about it. He considers their marriage a happy one (we see nothing to contradict this) and finds it incomprehensible that she would want another lover. Inga and Werner separate. Inga moves in with Karl. Werner kills himself.
Cloud Nine's plot is the structure within which its characters interact. All dialog is improvised. The improvisation is by skilled actors who have a full understanding of the relationships among their characters. In terms of naturalness, this approach is highly successful. In a few instances, things that we expect to be there are left out. When Werner says to Inga that he assumes her affair is with a younger man, she does not tell him that Karl is nine years older than her. And no one states explicitly that Werner has killed himself. As would happen in real life, we assume it because of the way people act.
Many comments on this film, both by reviewers and by people I've talked to, involve its portrayal of nudity and sex among people in their sixties and seventies. The many close-up depictions are both graphic and discreet in ways that would be inconceivable in a Hollywood movie. The scenes stay with the viewer. Old and less than perfect bodies can be admired without cosmetic enhancement. Death's sting is unavoidable but can ultimately be accepted. The cloud nine on which Inga lives is not in outer space but is a beautiful part of nature.
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Year that It Was Made Is Significant
The Ghost Ship was made in 1943. That was in the middle of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of American men were aboard military ships and subject to the rule of their captains. The message of The Ghost Ship is that blind obedience to your captain can mean acceptance of murder. When your captain's crazy, you need to resist him. The ending is essentially happy. Resistance works, though there may be some dead people along the way.
Production values are tight and exceptional. The black-and-white cinematography is terrific. Acting is conventional, but not popular front. Only a mute seaman supports the new third mate who sees what's happening. The other sailors, a motley lot, play it safe and don't want to get involved.
The film, produced by Val Newton and directed by Mark Robson, is now available on DVD and is well worth seeing.
Quiet and Powerful Brilliance
For the first half hour of Revanche, I expected something quite different than how it turned out. Initially, the movie reminded me of a Fassbinder film with corrupt and unsavory characters scheming against each other. The scheming ends with a decision by Alex (Johannes Krisch), a middle-aged janitor and go-for at a Vienna brothel, to rob a bank in order to pay off the debts of his girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian prostitute. The robbery goes bad in an unexpected way, with a policeman shooting at the escape vehicle and accidentally killing Tamara. Alex drives the car to the countryside and abandons it near his grandfather's old and dilapidated farm.
Alex moves in with his grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser) and spends his days cutting and chopping wood for fuel. Repeatedly, we see his powerful arms pushing logs against a large, circular power saw. His becomes obsessed with work in an effort to overcome the overwhelming anguish and guilt he feels as a result of his girlfriend's death. Alex tries to become an entirely physical person and is sullen and inarticulate in his dealings with others. Other people, however, refuse to go away. A married woman, who lives nearby, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), visits the grandfather, encourages him to play his accordion, and accompanies him to church.
Now things begin to fall into place, from the perspective of the viewer though not initially from that of the characters. To some extent, director Götz Spielman's approach is similar to that of Atom Egoyan's. Susanne's husband, Robert (Andreas Lust), is the policeman who accidentally shot and killed Tamara. He and Susanne want to have children but she is unable to get pregnant due to his limitations. He is as distraught as Alex over Tamara's death and does not understand how he could have shot through the car's rear window when he aimed at the tires.
Without wanting to be, Alex is brought into contact with both Susanne and Robert and gradually reveals his situation to them. Susanne invites him over for sex when her husband is at work, perhaps hoping that his physical vitality will enable her to conceive. There are explicit, though not pornographic, sex scenes, both between Alex and Susanne on a kitchen table and, earlier in the film and more sweetly, between Alex and Tamara in a shower. Alex also encounters Robert as he goes for his daily run and realizes that the policeman is as upset as he is about Tamara's death. Susanne gets pregnant from Alex and swears him to secrecy. Life goes on. "Revanche" assumes it meaning, in German, of second chance as well as revenge.
This summary does not do justice to the consistent excellence of the film's acting and direction. All of the roles are played in ways that are both believable and continuously revealing. Although there are superficial similarities between Revanche and noir films of the forties and fifties, their points of view are very different. In Revanche, we see and feel the devastating impact a killing has on essentially decent people.
Palermo Shooting (2008)
I liked it a lot
I can't add much to hpark5's fine comments (though I'd encourage him or her to make use of paragraph breaks) so I won't attempt a full review of Palermo Shooting. I will mention, however, that when I saw the film at the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in San Francisco, it was received enthusiastically by an audience of over a thousand people in a packed theater.
Wim Wenders was present and answered questions after the film. The things he said were exceptionally thoughtful and responsive. Although his work may be uneven because of his willingness to take risks, I thought Palermo Shooting a major success. Wender's integration of the death theme with Palermo's ancient and decaying physical environment was especially impressive.
To me, the crucial moment of the film occurs when Finn, the photographer, asks Death what he can do for him. Death says that no one has asked him this before and that the only thing that he can do is to live well for the rest of his life.
Fine Acting, Weak Direction, Not Philip Roth
Maybe the difference in titles between that of Philip Roth's book, The Dying Animal, and the title of this movie says it all. The characters in the film are refined, superficially decent, and intelligent. If the professor and television critic David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) thinks of his student, Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), as an object to be possessed, he does it in a respectful and appreciative manner. And her breasts (we see quite a bit of them) really are beautiful. But Roth's messy, animal intensity is missing. I left the theater feeling as if I'd seen a remake of Claude Lelouch's 1966 romance, A Man and a Woman.
Director Isabel Coixet's (pronounced "quo-set" in an Internet video) greatest talent may be in assembling an excellent crew of actors. In addition to Kingsley and Cruz, they include Patricia Clarkson as Carolyn, Kepesh's long-time lover who is closer to his age than Consuela, and Dennis Hopper as George O'Hearn, a friend with whom Kepesh talks about women. It's a fine ensemble and I long to see these actors face a tougher, more penetrating script. Coixet puts the pieces together but they still seem like pieces. Serious character motivations are weak or absent, as if they don't really matter. As the film stands, maybe they don't.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Woody Allen New and Fresh at 72
Principled monogamists may not like this film. Not only does it show its primary characters in relationships with multiple partners but, with one exception, they are quite open with each other about it. Allen suggests both that romantic happiness is best achieved with more than one person and that it is necessarily ephemeral (I wonder what his young wife, Soon-Yi Previn, thinks). He says in a Los Angeles Times interview with Rachel Abramowitz that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, ultimately, "a very sad film."
If so, it may be the brightest sad film ever made. All of the actors are at their best and make immediate connections with the audience. With the exception of an unnecessary voice-over narration (in which Gaudí is mispronounced with stress on the initial syllable), the self-conscious affectations that haunt some of Allen's films are absent. Fine actors are allowed to speak for themselves. According to the Abramowitz interview, Allen "never talked to the actors, other than to give them stage directions." The resulting feel is often one of brilliant improvisation.
The complex romantic relationships among its four primary characters are what the movie's mostly about and I won't spoil it by going into them. Patricia Clarkson, however, deserves mention for her role as Judy Nash, the middle-aged wife of an American couple who are friends of Vicky's parents and with whom solid Vicky and impetuous Cristina stay in Barcelona (though Cristina soon moves in with the charismatic artist, Juan Antonio). Judy is married to a dull but steady man, somewhat similar to the man that Vicky is about to wed. Vicky confides to Judy about her uncharacteristic fling with Juan Antonio. Judy advises Vicky to reap her passion while she can and arranges another meeting between the two. All of this is low-keyed and entirely believable.
As the movie's title suggests, it's about Barcelona as well as Vicky and Cristina. There are many outdoor shots of the city, especially of Gaudí's Park Güell. They amount to more than a minor travelogue because structures that are usually photographed in isolation appear with everyday crowds of people. Like Bruges in the movie In Bruges, the city is more than scenic background. Though never mentioned explicitly, Barcelona's anarchist past bubbles to the surface.