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The Informer (1935)
King Gypo impressed the hell out of me
One of John Ford's best films 'The Informer' doesn't feature any grand scenery of the American West. Instead the intense drama Ford was known for plays out on the no less rugged terrain of British character actor Victor McLaglen's face. The former prizefighter, who once faced Joe Louis in the ring, delivers an Academy Award-winning portrayal of disgraced IRA soldier Gypo Nolan on the worst night of his life.
The plot is gracefully simple: In 1922 Dublin, a starving and humiliated man who's been thrown out of the IRA for being unable to kill an informant in cold blood, himself becomes an informant. For £20 he betrays a friend to "the Tans" and for the rest of the night he drinks and gives away his blood money in rapidly alternating spasms of guilt, denial, self-pity, and a desperate desire to escape the consequences of his actions.
It is the remarkable complexity given to the character of the seemingly simple Gypo that is the film's most impressive achievement. In most movies a burly lout of Gypo's type would be cast as the heavy, he'd have at best two or three lines and be disposed of quickly so the hero and the villain could have their showdown. In 'The Informer' Gypo himself is both hero and villain, while the showdown is in his inner turmoil, every bit of which is explicitly shared with the audience.
Because Liam O'Flaherty's novel had previously been filmed in 1929, RKO gave Ford a very modest budget. The director and his associates, particularly cinematographer Joseph H. August, turned this to their advantage in creating a claustrophobic masterpiece about a man at war with himself. In addition to McLaglen's Oscar 'The Informer' also won John Ford his first along with wins for Best Screenplay and Best Score.
The Connection (1961)
Staged, grungy, bleak, experimental, and despite it all quite entertaining.
A remarkably tense and anxious little film about a group of junky musicians "waiting for their man" in a New York flophouse loft. They're joined by a documentary film crew (just a director and a cameraman) whose goal seems to be some sort of cinéma vérité about the life of junky musicians who wait in flophouse lofts.
After a few introductions, and comical "act natural" type instructions from the documentary director, the characters take turns addressing the camera. They nervously rant, philosophize, and insult each other, interrupted occasionally by improvised jazz from several legitimate musicians in the cast (most notably pianist Freddie Redd and tenor sax player Jackie McLean). The anxiety they feel as they wait for their fix is brilliantly conveyed by both the actors and the director (this time I mean the real director, Shirley Clarke, not the actor portraying the documentary director, got it?)
Much of this conveyed anxiety comes from the fact that the film is a strange and slightly unsettling mix of stark realism and stage acting (it is a filmed version of a play from the New York theater scene of the day). This is an unusual film and it honestly takes some getting used to, though probably less now taking into account the glut of nauseatingly self-conscious "mockumentaries" and hyper-stylized "reality shows" we are plagued with today.
The Connection is something different, matching edgy subject matter with edgy film-making the producers were working very much without a net. Consequently some might think it ends in disaster, I think it's a highly interesting experiment that's well worth watching.
The Sheltering Sky (1990)
An unequivocally beautiful movie that shouldn't be faulted for not quite living up to the novel, but I can't help it
The Sheltering Sky is frankly a psychological masterpiece and one of the densest books I've ever read, but it has a fairly simple plot. The film adequately reenacts the plot. but can't really convey what it is that makes the novel so exquisite.
That's not to say Bertolucci and his contributors, especially cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, don't deserve a lot of credit for their work. This should probably be accepted as the industry standard for filming the scenery of North Africa. The title alone should tell you you're in for rich cinematography and in my opinion this is absolutely necessary to the telling of the story, but the scenery does tend to overwhelm the story at times.
Malkovich and Winger both give credible performances, but they seemed like strangers to me compared to the characters in the novel. Likewise the casting of the Lyles was excellent, but their role seemed abbreviated. I found Paul Bowles himself to be a captivating screen presence, though he's only on screen briefly as the narrator.
Ultimately the film is worth watching but constantly reminded me of the discrepancy between the two media, which isn't exactly an endearing quality.
A mob of All-American peasants are out to burn Spencer Tracy at the stake (and his little dog too)
A compelling "message picture" with good performances from both Sylvia Sidney and Spencer Tracy and deft direction from Fritz Lang. 'Fury' is tautly dramatic and not without lessons for a modern audience, but it still falls just a little short of masterpiece status.
This was Lang's first American film, the studios were presumably in fierce competition to sign him to a contract and seems clear that MGM was quite proud of itself and thought they could safely fit the Austrian master into their mold while also revisiting some of his past successes. 'Fury' is by no means a remake of 'M' but it does share some key themes. However, the style is a marked departure from the director's German work and the Hollywood treatment keeps this film from being as compelling as its older brother.
Hailing from the Midwest as I do, the Hooterville Junction take on small-town America rankled with me a bit. Gossipy housewives and self-important businessmen are played for laughs and then suddenly turn into a howling mob bent on the death of a man against whom the "evidence" is literally peanuts. It's a serious matter, as we're later reminded by the prosecutor's speech about the number of lynchings in America's then recent history, it should never have been treated lightly.
Do watch it though, and keep an eye out for a very familiar Cairn terrier. Also, early on when Joe and Katherine are looking at bedroom furniture there's a distinct chuckle at the expense of the Hays Code (which was enforced starting in '34).
A great story, a great performance, an average movie.
They'd do well to replace the words 'Director's Cut' with 'Director's Slice'. I was fascinated by Miguel Piñero's life, inspired by his poems, and blown away by Benjamin Bratt's performance, but the director and editor conspired to mug an otherwise good movie.
Put simply, Leon Ichaso tried to use an "edgy" style to mimic Piñero's edgy life and it's agonizing to watch. I've come to accept the conceit of the fractured narrative, but I just can't stomach the unending jump-cuts, unnecessary camera refocusing, and worst of all the switches between professional-looking color film and the sort of push-button, digital, black & white that I associate with low-budget TV shows. If any of this was innovative I'd accept it as the director's prerogative, but even in 2001 it wasn't the least bit innovative.
As I said it is a good story and Bratt exceeded my expectations by a power of ten. I actually recommend 'Piñero' strongly, it's an enjoyable and worthwhile film that deserves to be seen. I just wonder what it could have been if MTV's shadow wasn't looming over it.
Ah Pook Is Here (1994)
A brief but inspired visit to Interzone.
It's maddeningly difficult to represent the work of William Burroughs in any visual medium, though animation definitely has advantages over regular film in this respect, but 'Ah Pook is Here' succeeds to a greater degree than most.
The short is mostly taken up by a grotesque creature, with Burroughs's voice, philosophizing while smoking a hookah. The audio seems to have been cut together from various sources subjects include Ah Pook (the Mayan god of death), Control, politics, and "stupid, greedy, Ugly American deathsuckers."
This line, taken from 'No More Stalins, No More Hitlers' on Dead City Radio, is Burroughs at his prophetical best, "...the rulers of this most insecure of all worlds are rulers by accident. Inept, frightened pilots at the controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push." Now imagine it being said by a demented little creature that looks like a cross between a chicken and your spleen.
Kantô mushuku (1963)
A flavorless yakuza melodrama from Seijun Suzuki. So, he is human after all.
Kanto Wanderer is not a good place to start an exploration of either Seijun Suzuki or yakuza movies in general. For real Suzuki fans it's interesting to see what he was doing during his "salary man" phase, before breaking loose with surreal masterpieces like Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter. If you're looking for a superior, mid-career, yakuza film from Suzuki, watch his action-packed Youth of the Beast (also made in 1963).
The real problem here is the script, calling it soft would be an understatement. Yakuza. Gambling. Women. That's the plot, and though it might sound good, in this case it just fails to gel. If you've seen other Suzuki films you're probably expecting me to say he triumphs over a mediocre script. Sorry, not this time. Though there are definitely a few stylistic flourishes, mostly in the last twenty minutes, overall it's bland and what's worse it *really* drags toward the middle. Ultimately the director is as responsible for this mess as his screenwriter and his star.
Speaking of that star, I don't have any idea if Akira Kobayashi is an icon in Japanese cinema or someone who faded into obscurity immediately after this film, but I'd put my money on the latter. Starring as Katsuta he looks the part of the young yakuza underboss, but he doesn't have half the screen presence of Jo Shishido or some of Suzuki's other leads. The three schoolgirls going giggly over him in the opening scene is all too apropos.
So, that's what's wrong with it. On the other hand the remastered DVD from Homevision looks spectacular. The film is shot in widescreen "TohoScope" and Seijun Suzuki is an unqualified master at filling up that huge rectangular.
Manga-influenced man vs. machine Japanese scifi film with a razor-sharp visual style
It's so visually striking that you could never fully describe Tetsuo in words. But here are a few that apply: Japanese, hyperactive, perverse, industrial, surreal, Faustian bargain, contrasty, black-and-white, Kafkaesque, scifi, stop-motion, manga-influenced, revenge, technology, alienation, supervillains.
Shinya Tsukamoto is an actor (he's the antagonistic "Metals Fetishist" here as well as Jijii in Ichi the Killer) as well as a ground-breaking writer/director/cinematographer. Tetsuo's influence can be seen clearly in directors as diverse as Darren Aronofsky, Takashi Miike, and even David Cronenberg.
There is definitely a plot, but due to the non-linear editing and sparsity of dialogue you'll need to pay close attention on a first viewing or else you'll be overwhelmed by the engrossing visual style (which might be a good thing). It's filmed in contrasty black-and-white. Each frame is cramped and chaotic, much of the time it's filled with wires, pipes, chain-link fences, and all the other incidental debris of life in the late 20th century... which suddenly seems significant and even menacing.
Towards the fifty-minute mark (it's 67 min. total) the willful excess starts to feel a little too excessive, perhaps the manga influence is a bit too strong. But Tetsuo finishes strong, with an end that's at once unexpected and inevitable. Highly recommended.
The meanest eyes in Hollywood.
*** Slight spoiler in fourth paragraph. *** A poverty-row gangster flick that, for much of its 70 minutes, rivals the best Warner Bros. had to offer. The movie plays fast and loose with history, mixing fact and fiction at will, but almost to be expected when dealing with Dillinger and at least this film doesn't masquerade as a documentary like so much of the infotainment on TV these days.
Blessed with matinée idol's looks and an ex-con's temperament Lawrence Tierney was the perfect actor to play Dillinger. I'd seen a couple of his other, lesser, films before checking this one out and I honestly didn't think much of him as an actor. He has screen presence and shoots a furious glance like nobody's business, but beyond that he'd always seemed limited to me. In Dillinger he proved me wrong, obviously his swagger was just right for the character, but he really does give a superb performance. At times he brings to mind James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (which wouldn't be made until 1949).
The rest of the cast is good as well, it's tempting to call the familiar Elisha Cook, Jr. the stand-out but really the members of the gang all fill their roles admirably. Anne Jeffreys plays Dillinger's fictional moll Helen Rogers, unfortunately her character is really just a sketch. If this had been an "A picture" she surely would have gotten more screen-time.
*** Spoiler? *** Is it really a spoiler to say that John Dillinger was shot to death by FBI agents in an alley behind Chicago's Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934? I found the end quite disappointing, it builds to a false climax and then maunders for about ten minutes before unceremoniously disposing of the "hero" at the correct time and place. Of course just about everyone knows it's coming, but in my opinion the editor could have added a little more tension. I suppose in '45 they were still worried about glamourizing Dillinger, but these qualms didn't seem to slow them throughout the rest of the picture.
All in all, a tremendous B-movie that hints at what Lawrence Tierney could have been if his many mis-steps hadn't gotten in the way.
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Weak, very weak.
It's hard to believe Fritz Lang went directly from this obnoxious little waste of time to a masterpiece like The Big Heat, but those are the facts. It would be stretch to call The Blue Gardenia film noir, it's really just a melodramatic morality play indicative of a desperate fear that somewhere there were men and women who might not be settling down together in tract housing.
The Blue Gardenia starts out as a 'slice of life' picture. Three single blondes living together in Los Angeles and working for the phone company. They're under attack by predatory men, like wolfish painter Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) and smooth operator newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). Murder ensues, followed by a tepid investigation.
If it sounds like riveting cinema so far, let me point out the poorly defined characters, unlikeable actors, miserably contrived love story, and modicum of suspense that is totally shot to pieces by a deus ex machina ending. Not recommended.