Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nobody's Children (1952) / The White Angel (1955) - Directed by Raffaello Matarazzo

Although his films in the late 1940’s were popular hits in his own country of Italy, Raffaello Matarazzo has resided at the fringe of popularity with critics ever since his melodramas were released. His films, of course, completely clashed with the neo-realism movement so prevalent in Italy at the time, but were popular escapist films. Instead of social relevancy and voicing the cry of the impoverished nation, Matarazzo’s films often used social plights to enhance fantasies. In fact, these films are filled with the kind of melodramatic and fantastical flair that Douglas Sirk would develop in Hollywood. In comparison though, Matarazzo makes Sirk look conservative by a long stretch. Criterion’s recent release on their Eclipse label captures four enchanting and thrilling features from Matarazzo, bringing to light the work of a fascinating director, one ready for a discovery.

Two films from the release, Nobody’s Children (1952) and the sequel The White Angel (1955) are together one of the wildest melodramatic stories ever put on film. They are labyrinthine in their approach, loaded with extreme examples of melodramatic panache. In the first film, Nobody’s Children, we’re introduced to a couple in love, Guido (Amadeo Nazzari), a Count and owner of a quarry, and Luisa (Yvonne Sanson). Guido leaves the country for a period of time, promising to write to her. In the meantime, she is pregnant with his child, which he does not know. His letters get stolen by Anselmo, a scheming rival, and his mother in order to push Luisa, a girl from a poor family, out of the picture. Guido returns and thinks Luisa has left him. Luisa feels she has been abandoned by Guido, and thus they are separated…..forever?

In the sequel, The White Angel, our separated lovers have, perhaps, a chance encounter at a train station, where Guido finds a woman who looks just like Luisa, and a la Vertigo (1958) (made 3 years later), becomes obsessed with her, pursues her, woos her, and….I must stop. It’s just too delicious to give away. In both films, there is a sense of suffering for righteous reasons. Thus, it’s clear that Catholicism perhaps plays a deep-rooted role at the core of these films, and this Christ-like suffering for the greater good is rampant, lending the films a passionate sense of duty. One wonders if the films of Bresson hold nothing less than an affinity with the elemental sense of duty and determination that Matarazzo lends to his characters. Bresson of course drained far more emotion from that purpose than Matarazzo does, but there is a kinship somewhere deep inside.

Both films star Amadeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson, who give prescient, if not always restrained performances. However, they seem to embody the clairvoyant religious and symbolic intentions that Matarazzo wants to convey. In viewing these two films, there also appears to be a grand celestial alignment at play in the plot, a design of life if you will that is evidenced by the cosmic connections and coincidences that occur. Although on the surface melodramas like this can appear campy and trashy, I believe that there is a greater truth and substance to the cores of films like Matarazzo’s. This leaning toward the cosmic alignment beckons comparisons to another late, great filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Films like The Double Life of Veronique (1991), or his Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1995) are built upon a framework of coincidences, grand connections, and a reliance upon the magic of chance, or perhaps, God-like intervention. I’ll be damned if Matarazzo didn’t feel a similar pull when he made his grand works. Check out any of Matarazzo’s films you can get your hands on, but especially the twin bill of Nobody’s Children and The White Angel. They are literally loaded with magic.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

War Horse (2011) - Directed by Steven Spielberg

I like to think that movies of all kinds have the potential to be great in their own way if the cards are played right. Sure there are certain types of films that lend themselves the ability to be considered masterpieces because of their audacious approach. Take the sheer scope of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). He obviously shoots for the moon in most of his films and the sheer ambition and scope often lead to astounding results. It’s easier to “see” that films of artistic ambition are great. We point to the cinematography or the film’s concept or themes or color palette or unique editing style etc. It’s easy for critics and bloggers to point out what makes such a film great and one can read into it what one wants. There are other genres or films that of course tend to be less respected by the critical community and many of these are the types of films where the artistic sensibility seems less ambitious or unique. These types could include musicals, melodramas, or various forms of pure entertainment or even family entertainment. My point is, what do we do about films containing tried and true techniques to convey a story or films from genres such as these? Are they of lesser worth because of their type? How do we compare them to other films that are more technically ambitious? Often these films I speak of simply exist to convey a story in an effective way using techniques most appropriate to the story. This is not to say of course that films with “lesser” ambition and objectives are given a pass. In fact, they are often scrutinized even further as each component of the film must work in perfect harmony in order to be effective.

Thus, this is the context in which I must engage Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. Based on the novel from 1982 and the stageplay in 2007 of the same name, this film uses a horse, and the boy that loves him, to encircle the scope and impact of WWI, and to attempt to quantify the impact of this war by engaging in the discovery of humanity in the face of hellish adversity. However, it’s not a realistic or serious examination of the war. It plays more as a fable and mainly as moving family entertainment, using the war to highlight certain aspects of duty, humanity, and spirit in the face of odds, although heartwarming this film is not in my opinion. We meet an English boy, Albert as he sees a young foal born on a nearby farm. This foal is sold at an auction, where Albert’s father buys the horse, instead of the work horse he should buy to till the nearby field at their farm. Albert takes the horse, named Joey, under his wing with love and care, and teaches the horse to till the field against seemingly all odds for a horse of his stature. Sadness befalls this story as the boy must part with the horse, as it is sold to a Captain in the cavalry at the start of WWI to be his trusty steed. Joey ends up in the hands of some young German soldiers, and then winds up in the company of a young girl and her grandfather on a farm. He’s then taken by German soldiers again, eventually winding up between the trenches in no man’s land at the Battle of the Somme, leading to the moving centerpiece of the story and the film’s conclusion.

War Horse really fits in with Spielberg's overall oeuvre. This film is a fantasy of sorts, something that wouldn’t be uncomfortable sitting alongside E.T. (1983). Or even the fact that the film employs a structure hovering around chance and circumstance, which recalls his Saving Private Ryan (1998) in certain terms. I think above all, the film works mainly on the level that films of a bygone era did, even though it's not a strict homage. I’m thinking of mainly the films of John Ford, who tended to employ a spirit of rugged determination and morality along with an abiding feeling for sentiment and the effectiveness of combining these elements. Particularly, I recall How Green Was My Valley (1941) as I watched War Horse. There’s also of course the cinematic context of traditional family entertainment, like of National Velvet (1944) and The Black Stallion (1979). Additionally, films such as Random Harvest (1941), Sergeant York (1941) or even Mrs. Miniver (1942) are recalled in War Horse using the theme of humanity persevering at great odds whilst using sensitive, emotional filmmaking to convey the story. Above all, War Horse is simply a masterful and commanding telling of a moving story. It’s not about the cinematography, even though it’s great. It’s not about the film’s score or acting per se, even though they are uniformly wonderful throughout. It’s the story of the lives that the horse touches and the reminder that humanity is capable of persevering against all odds. That is how the film impacts me and it is a supremely moving film.

If there’s anything worth arguing over in the film, and this is I think the determining factor over how one perceives a structural component in the film, (and beware spoilers) it is the fact that both the boy and the horse survive the war and are able to return home despite the fact that countless untold others do not survive. One may react unfavorably to this point and thus cloud the entire film. This is of course a similar argument raised against Schindler’s List (1993), where the question of how can one portray a story of the saving of the few at the expense of portraying a story of the cost of the millions, or something to this effect. I think often films involving war themes come under fire because they aren’t perceived to be remorseful enough, or respectful enough or fill in the blank. If stories are constantly about the loss or denial of life, is there no one left to tell the story? Is there no one left to remember? Is it perhaps, in the case of certain films, more effective to follow the story of a survivor who's able to remember and share the impact of said events so others can learn from it in the future? I know I’m probably leading into a gray area of film criticism here, but I think there can be an argument made for presenting a story of the survival of the few, and it not be a denigration to the loss of the many, provided the story convey with humility and respect the events themselves, which I think this film does, given its treatment of various angles of the story, the respect toward each character presented etc. I’m not saying these are the only ways of thinking on this subject, but these are MY opinions. I know some others will feel it's rather shallow given the subject matter, but this is a matter of perspective and opinion, and I think there is evidence here to the contrary. Ultimately, I feel Spielberg has made one of his best films here and the sheer propulsion of storytelling and filmmaking is of the highest quality.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Senso (1954) - Directed by Luchino Visconti

At one time forgotten and now ripe for a rediscovery following the recent Criterion release, Luchino Visconti’s Senso is nothing but a non-stop pummeling of gorgeous costumes and sets, wonderful acting, and deeply tragic emotions. This masterpiece is a luscious and most operatic melodrama. I’ve already mentioned my grand appreciation of melodramas in previous essays about Sirk, Fuller, and Cukor. Now we enter the realm of classicism and grand perspective, lending a historical context to a torrid love affair, one which is not only tragically romantic but insatiably lusty, filled with greed, unhealthy yearnings, hang-ups and obsessions.

Alida Valli stars as Countess Livia Serpieri, who is married to a wealthy and stodgy man. It is 1866, and the seeds of Italian unification have begun to surge through the country during the Austrian occupation. Visconti’s film opens with an extended scene in the Teatro La Fenice (Opera House) in Venice, infusing the film with a heavy dose of gilded atmospherics, and foreshadowing the “Opera” that will play out during the course of the film. At the Opera, Livia meets Franz Mahler, an Austrian lieutenant played by Farley Granger. They are immediately smitten with each other, and under the nose of her husband, Livia begins a lustful, reckless and selfish affair with him, one that will ultimately break her body, mind, and soul.

As Countess Livia, Alida Valli gives a tremendous performance and is one of the main reasons for the film’s success. Her dark features and long hair blend terrifically with the gorgeous costumes that were fitted for her, along with the ornately decorated rooms she spends time in. Her projection of longing and tortured melancholy is reminiscent of her work in The Third Man (1949), but here she’s given more screen time and she’s a commanding presence. Her chemistry with Farley Granger really works, especially in the passionate love scenes she has together with him that seem especially heated considering the time in which the film was made. It’s also quite clear that the look of the film, from the sets and costumes to the careful use of color, darkness and light, is a tremendous testament to Visconti’s vision. At around the time of this film's release, Visconti became known for his direction of Operas, something he did throughout the 1950's and 60's. It’s clear that his love of Opera infuses Senso with the emotional flourishes and cinematic framing that makes it so memorable.

As Livia and Franz reach a climactic moment in their relationship, the film ratchets up a darker, more tortured conclusion than something that would be found in the films of Sirk. Visconti knows that an affair of such epic proportions is bound to destroy someone in the end, if not everyone involved. The film’s most memorable moment for me comes very near the last scene, as a distraught, perhaps insane Livia wanders the dark and shadowy streets of Verona, screaming “Franz!”, “Fraannz!!!.” She screams his name with such blood curdling passion, the words echoing off the walls of the buildings, bringing chills to one’s spine. Senso is my favorite Visconti film, containing one of the most torrid and tragic love affairs that cinema has ever brought us.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My 2011 Recap

I'm calling this post My 2011 Recap, as that's what it is. It's not a Best Films of 2011 as I still haven't seen all the new movies I would need to summarize the year in movies, and may not get there for a few months. However, I did want to take some time to do something inspired by Drew’s great post over at The Blue Vial, which is to highlight (out of the over 250 films I saw, with the vast majority of them older releases) several older films that I saw for the first time in 2011 that struck the biggest chord with me, and then also add some other thoughts on my other discoveries throughout the year. Reminder: all the films and performances I highlight in this post were films I saw for the first time.

So, these are the 9 runners-up best pre-2011 films in chronological order:

Magnificent Obsession (1954) – Sirk

Bigger Than Life (1956) – Ray

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – Wise

Kapo (1959) – Pontecorvo

The Naked Kiss (1964) – Fuller

Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) – Makavejev

Shadows in Paradise (1986) – Kaurismaki

Close-Up (1990) - Kiarostami

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Dominik

And the single greatest film that I saw from all the pre-2011 releases was:

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) – Cristian Mungiu

This Romanian film, set during Ceausescu’s reign and about an attempted illegal abortion, was something I watched early in 2011, prior to blogging in March and I didn’t write a piece on it at the time. I hope to correct this in the future after a second viewing. This film approached perfection for me and is a film I’m still grappling with 10 months later.

On the flipside, here are a few renowned films that I, for whatever reason, did not connect with:

Chungking Express (1994) – Kar-Wai
Eraserhead (1977) – Lynch
The Conformist (1970) – Bertolucci
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) - Akerman

Here is a list of the best performances I saw this year:

Best Actress:
Anamaria Marinca – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) – Mungiu

Michelle Williams – Wendy and Lucy (2008) – Reichardt,Blue Valentine (2010) – Cianfrance

Constance Towers – The Naked Kiss (1964) – Fuller

Kati Outinen – The Match Factory Girl (1990) – Kaurismaki

Allida Valli – Senso (1954) – Visconti

Holly Hunter – Broadcast News (1987) – Brooks

Wendy Hiller – Major Barbara (1941) – Pascal

Barbra Streisand – Funny Girl (1968) – Cukor

Best Actor:
Micky Rourke – The Wrestler (2008) – Aronofsky

Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James… (2007) – Dominick

Emil Jannings – The Last Command (1928) – Von Sternberg

Robert Ryan – Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) – Wise

Lino Ventura – Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) – Melville

Hossein Sabzian – Close-Up (1990) – Kiarostami

Volker Spengler – In A Year of 13 Moons (1978) – Fassbinder

James Mason - Bigger Than Life (1956) - Ray

Director I spent the most time with in 2011:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I had seen a few of this German director’s films prior to this year, like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1973) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), but had begun to realize that one of my largest gaps in my viewing knowledge of film was Fassbinder’s output. These were the 6 films that I saw by Fassbinder this year. (ratings are out of 4 stars)

Effi Briest (1974) - Fassbinder ***
Fox and His Friends (1975) - Fassbinder *** 1/2
In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) - Fassbinder *** 1/2
Lola (1981) - Fassbinder *** 1/2
The American Soldier (1970) - Fassbinder ** 1/2
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) - Fassbinder *** 1/2

One of the oddest things about Fassbinder’s output is the fact that his films for me are nearly always on the cusp of masterpiece status, but he has a tendency to somewhat undermine his own brilliance by throwing in an element or a few scenes that just don’t really work for me, almost on purpose maybe? It’s an oddity that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but I feel like there is more to it, because he was clearly capable of brilliance. I still think Maria Braun is his best film and I still need to see Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) among others. After seeing the six films I did, though, I feel more capable of discussing his work with a shred of intelligence. Among Fassbinder’s greatest auteurist elements I have found, is the fact that many of his stories revolve around the tendency of a certain character to try to destroy another character through love, lack of love, manipulation, or brutality. His stories nearly always couple melodrama with a certain social realism aspect.

Genre Explorations:

Musicals! As I noted here following my involvement in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, I spent a great deal of time catching up with both my favorite musicals and many I had never seen before. Over 10% of my total viewing in 2011 was spent watching musicals, 28 films in all.  I now believe to have a much greater appreciation of musicals and consider myself a big fan of the genre.

Some of my new favorites:
On the Town (1949)

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Funny Girl (1968)

In a somewhat related topic, over the last year, I’ve become a huge fan and proponent of artful melodrama. For whatever reason, the films that I saw from Sirk, Fassbinder, Fuller, Ray, Matarazzo, Visconti, Ophuls and many of the musicals themselves spoke to me from their melodramatic elements.

These were the glories of melodrama for me that I watched in 2011:
(Note that some of these films will see essays from me in the coming weeks)

Magnificent Obsession (1954) – Sirk

Nobody’s Children (1952)/The White Angel (1955) – Matarrazzo

Bigger Than Life (1956) - Ray

The Naked Kiss (1964) – Fuller

Senso (1954) – Visconti

Lola (1981) – Fassbinder

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) – Ophuls

That’s basically my summary of my 2011 watching movies. Like I said, I hope to have a best films of 2011 in the future to post on after I catch up with the new releases, but in the meantime, if you have a favorite older film you saw this year please share!