May 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace
Guarantee: many spoilers
"Le Cercle Rouge" (1970), directed by Jean Pierre Melville, is a competent
but not very distinctive heist movie. Melville's work is a little
cerebral, a little too reliant on coincidence, for me. Here, a newly
paroled thief meets an escaped one when the latter happens to hide in his
trunk. They recruit an elcoholic ex-cop who is a marksman, and whose
interesting job is to disable a jewelry store's security system by firing
a bullet into the lock from a distance. In the end, there is nothing in
this movie that "Rififi", "Asphalt Jungle" and a score of other films
didn't do better.
"The Shipping News" (2001), directed by Lasse Helltsrom, is faithful to
the Annie Proulx novel. Kevin Spacey, as Quoyle, loses his unfaithful
white trash wife in a car accident, aand brings his small daughter to Nova
Scotia, where his people are from. The movie, like the novel, hovers on
the edge of magical realism, and crosses over at the end when a corpse
comes back to life at a wake. The Nova Scotia setting is brutal and
beautiful. as are the people who inhabit it (in one scene, they drunkenly
smash the boat of a man who is planning to leave). There are excellent
performances by Kevin Spacey, Judi Dench as his aunt, Julainne Moore as
Wavey, his quirky love interest, and particularly the very aristocratic
Cate Blanchett, who seems to come to vibrant life in white trash roles.
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" (2008), directed bY Peter Sollett, is
the charming epitome of the geeky, knowing teenage romance practically
patented by John Hughes--the type of movie where teenagers are smarter,
hipper and more cultured than we are, where in an entire high school crowd
there is one geeky boy and one beautiful but geeky girl who belong
together. Nick and NOrah spend a memorable night in New York City,
following clues to the stealth concert of a cult band called "Where's
Fluffy", while a drunk female friend goes astray and must be found, and
both of their exes surge up to make one last claim on them. It is a boy
gets girl movie with relatively little conflict nor much laugh out loud
humor, yet it is completely charming.
"Panic in the Streets" (1950), directed by Elia Kazan, is a find, a
wonderful little noir I had never heard of, directed by a very talented
but controversial director and featuring fine performances by Richard
Widmark, Jack Palance and Zero Mostel (in the early, serious, gangster
part of his career). An illegal immigrant is murdered in New Orleans and
the body is diagnosed with plague, triggering a 48 hour race to find the
killers before they can spread the disease to too many other people and
trigger a nation-wide epidemic. Kazan, whom I personally dislike for
shopping his friends to HUAC, was an extraordinarily talented director,
and coaxed naturalistic performances from everyone involved, set against a
teeming, aurally rich background of city streets. The script, without
forgetting it is a thriller, takes time out for marital stresses between
Health Service doctor Widmark and his long-suffering wife, and even, in a
kind of ironic and funny counterpoint, between Mostel and his moll, who is
much tougher than he is. There is one startling scene where Palance and
Mostel are moving a dying henchman down a flight of stairs on a mattress
when Widmark appears; they simply throw their friend over the side and
"Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1986) directed by Paul Schrader has to
be one of the most unusual labors of love an American director ever
persuaded anyone to finance: a tribute, in Japanese, to an author that
most Americans have never read. The result is an evocative blend of
passages from Mishima's stories and biography, framed by the last day of
his life, when he led some cultish acolytes in holding a general hostage
and addressing his troops. The penultimate scene, when Mishima realizes
the rowdy, angry soldiers are not listening--that the apotheosis of his
life has turned into a cruel joke--is very poignant. There is great Philip
Glass music. The movie also fits into a mini-genre, with "The Conformist",
about the nexus between homosexuality, literature and fascism. Schrader's
interest in Japanese concepts of dignity, duty and redemption are
expressed in a very different way in "Yakuza", whichb he co-wrote with
Robert Towne.
"The Street With No Name" (1948), directed by William Keighley, is a
rather dull entry in a 1940's and '50's mini-genre, the FBI-glorifying
near-documentary made with the help of the agency (and with agents playing
themselves in supporting roles). It contains some mildly interesting
procedural stuff. It is also an interesting historical artifact, a film
about generic non-ethnic U.S. organized crime made before the FBI admitted
the Mafia existed. Richard Widmark walks through his trademarked
crazy-gangster role, which he invented in the much better "Kiss of Death".
"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), directed by Ronald Neame, is a
compelling version of the prior play and novel, about a sui generis
teacher in '30's Edinburgh whose flair, anger and rebelliousness lead to
her downfall. Along with "Remains of the Day", it forms a mini-genre about
people you would admire if they didn't love fascism; Brodie's eyes light
up when she praises Mussolini to her students. One of them, the reserved,
cat-eyed Sandy, blossoms into a sort of counter-Brodie in the course of
the movie, arranging for her old teacher's ruin. Its a fascinating story,
and as someone pointed out when I heard a reading of the play recently,
one of the few full scale tragedies with a woman as the central figure.
"The Bad Sleep Well" (1960), is that rare thing, inferior work by Akira
Kurosawa. Including an hysterical performance by the usually dignified
Toshiro Mifune, the film ratchets down familiar grade B thriller pathways,
as Mifune attempts to avenge his father by manipulating his corporate
bosses into suicide, madness and public humiliation. Nothing here is
believable, and Mifune's character, Hamlet-like, dithers far too much,
giving his adversaries a chance to kill him. The film's ending forecasts
the 1970's American genre epitomized by "The Parallax View", in which
conspiracies always triumph and the heroes are murdered.
Mifune turns in a better, though not surprising, performance in a role he
was born to play, a samurai trainee in "Samurai Trilogy I: Musashi
Miyamoto" (1954), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. He and a friend, both
peasants, go to war to achieve fame and fortune, hook up afterwards with
two women of easy virtue; the friend stays, but Mifune flees their
borderline criminal lifestyle, and his own sexual desires, returning to
the village which no longer wants him. A monk, a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi
prototype, captures him and hangs him from a tree as a first step in the
disciplinary training which will turn Mifune into a true samurai.
"The Kite Runner" (2007), directed by Marc Forster, suffers from the
familiar disease of faithful adaptations of best-selling novels: it is
glossy but somewhat lifeless. A large part of the problem was also present
in the novel: the protagonist is a man struggling with cowardice who it is
hard to like. Though he takes some physical risks, traveling into
Afghanistan to atone to a now dead friend he betrayed in childhood, when
he confronts his former nemesis, he is as passive as ever and must be
saved by a child. The film is worth watching for the assured performances
of the first time child actors in its extended flashbacks--who had to flee
Afghanistan as a result of participating in this film.