For Reel

Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
July 29, 2016, 6:09 pm
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Director: Grigory Chukhray
4 Stars
Ballad of a SoldierThat Ballad of a Soldier focuses on the farewell tour of a genuinely good person and soldier could have easily played as condescending. Certainly an educated (or simply empathetic) audience was aware of the great devastation and loss of war without this sort of artistic manipulation. But writer/director Grigoriy Chukhray wisely positions the film as not a polemical anti-war story, but a beautifully understated, humanist narrative about earthly beauty. For a story so dire, the picture focuses on the pleasures of a reunited couple, a burgeoning young love, a son’s love for his mother, and so on—that these are all short-lived encounters certainly renders them bittersweet, but their very sweetness is key. Without perverting the chaos of battle for long stretches or arguing against violence, the film makes its most compelling case: war is in direct opposition to everything that makes life beautiful and worth living. Beyond the simple, ingenious narrative, the cinematography of Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva is poetic and graceful, often using super-impositions in a way that remarks on the universality and primacy of the story being told (human empathy, the film suggests, is as natural as the trees or wheat fields). That Ballad of a Soldier goes relatively light on the devastation removes the visceral shock of a violent end, but Chukhray is confident enough to know that the audience can fill in the blanks.

Some Like It Hot (1959)
June 19, 2016, 7:47 pm
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Director: Billy Wilder
5 Stars
Some Like It HotRevisiting Some Like It Hot, one becomes very aware of how precariously balanced the film is—by any standards, the picture should have been an unmitigated disaster. It coasts between genres, does not distinguish between high and low comedy, and nearly every scene plays for a minute or two longer than one would typically expect (in the case of the famous seduction aboard the yacht, the scene feels a good five minutes too long). And yet so few films get the immediate so right. Watching Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe do their thing for two hours feels like a vacation not only because of the Hotel del Coronado, but because they are set free in a film that is structured so brilliantly that it has the feel of moving completely on a whim. A mob hit in a shady garage can seamlessly transition to a shockingly raunchy sex farce on an overnight train. Neither the actors nor the filmmakers take either scene as more valid or emotionally real than the other, and so they each play with their own complicated sense of stakes both within the moment and within the larger picture. Whereas many films feel burdened by their length, Some Like It Hot is so delightfully free and its characters drawn so well that one can’t wait for what comes next—look no further than the sheer exuberance in the cutaways to Lemmon and Joe E. Brown (in what becomes increasingly clear on repeated viewings is a brilliant supporting performance) dancing as Curtis and Monroe exchange their kisses. Together, they assemble a strange montage about the interplay between sex and capitalism.  Regardless of the differences in tone, the game of seduction is the same, and each edit only amplifies the emotional content of the complimentary scene.

The Wasp Woman (1959)
June 12, 2016, 9:58 pm
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Director: Roger Corman
2 Stars
The Wasp WomanLegendary director Roger Corman turned to exploitation films in the mid-1950s, marketing towards a teen audience by quickly and cheaply making films relevant to the day’s trends. The Wasp Woman comes on the heels of the success of The Fly and brings a score of energetic jazz music to keep the action fresh and exciting. If as a horror film it is not particularly monumental, The Wasp Woman represents Corman at his most socially conscious, whether by accident or not. The screenplay by Leo Gordon (from a story by Kinta Zertuche) upends the mad scientist genre altogether in its sympathetic depiction of Janice Starling, the president of a major cosmetics company (played by Corman staple Susan Cabot). Whereas women in similar films might search for a youth serum in order to attract a mate, in The Wasp Woman the serum is almost thrust upon Starling as a means of preserving the financial stability of her company. An early boardroom scene shows complaints that Starling has become too old to continue to be the face of the company, and her aging is to blame for the plummeting sales. Her abuse of the serum that leads to her demise is driven by her desire for power, her empire having been destroyed by the beauty standards of her era. If the film is a key feminist text of the late-1950s, however, it fails as both a horror film in both delivering the scares and in creating a psychological tension in its lead character. Although Starling goes on a killing streak, her amnesia sweeps the consequences under the rug. Had Starling been wrought as being aware of the mayhem she causes, the drama might have amplified the film’s sense of tragedy.

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
June 12, 2016, 11:20 am
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Director: Monte Hellman
2.5 Stars
Beast from Haunted CaveDirector Monte Hellman would make a claim for his status as a major director only five years after the release of this oft-derided low-budget horror picture. Produced by Gene and Roger Corman, the film showcases the quick-and-cheap ethos that one would expect, although Hellman clearly shows that his interests lie more in his doomed characters than in the creature itself. Even if the material sags, there is also an energy in the filmmaking that should not be neglected amongst the schlock—the characters are young, hip, and sexy, and that many of them are brooding antiheroes predicts where American movies were headed in the next year or so. As for the titular beast, it looks like a few rubber tentacles were pasted onto the muck from a clogged drain, and Hellman can’t do much with the creature but have a tentacle or two sweep in from the side of the frame to terrorize the actors. Regardless, there is a smart inclination to focus more on the “feel” of the monster, typified by a woman suspended between trees by a web, or the dark, cold cavern where the beast saves its victims for later. The ski resort location is a nice touch, but of the performers only Frank Wolff leaves much of an impression. If Beast from Haunted Cave is not a classic by any means, it is a worthy object of study for auteurists interested in Hellman’s career.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
January 23, 2016, 7:15 pm
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Director: Alain Resnais
4.5 Stars
Hiroshima Mon AmourThe innovation of Hiroshima Mon Amour was met with both praise and bafflement when it was released in 1959. In a positive review for the New York Times, A.H. Weller reflected that it presents, “a baffling repetition of words and ideas, much like vaguely recurring dreams […]”, which reads as a criticism but actually succinctly gets to the core of the film’s remarkable power. To Alain Resnais, there is little need to segregate the real and the poetic or dreamlike, rather these contrasting modes of expression have a tendency to shift between one another, the lines that impose temporal and spatial order constantly blurred and drifting. It is the appropriate way to tell a story that involves a surplus of incongruities, the most literal of which being the French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and the Japanese architect (Eiji Okada), each with their own ungraspable history of tragedy. Even if Hiroshima Mon Amour involves these two temporary lovers talking directly about their histories (even interfering in or negating each other’s memories), it nonetheless suggests a failure of comprehension not only between cultures, but in human romantic relationships. While I was initially offput by the juxtaposition of a real-life tragedy and the film’s dramatic action (in that the poetics could “cheapen” the real), the contrast ironically doesn’t work inflate the importance of the personal tragedy. In fact, these events truly are, in many ways, incomparable. However, in using both these forms of narrative expression, Resnais seeks to arrive at a more primal truth about how we deal with memory and, in particular, the absolute horror of forgetting.

The World of Apu (1959)
June 17, 2015, 10:39 pm
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Director: Satyajit Ray
5 Stars
The World of ApuPart of the greatness of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is the evolution of the form of each film. As Apu ages, the devices used to tell his story also change. The most immediate difference is that the deaths of the previous installments have left Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) alone, thereby placing the focus on an individual rather than a family. Apu is now free from the burdens of familial responsibilities, yet ironically he finds himself at his most isolated–the cramped apartment is an even more limiting environment than the village of Pather Panchali. Furthermore, whereas Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra attempted to evoke something transcendental in their presentation of nature in earlier installments–consider, for example, the extended shots of insects gliding on water and the dragonflies of Pather PanchaliThe World of Apu is very much removed from the poetics of the natural world in its early-goings. But it also beautifully weaves together the two films that preceded it, suggesting the cyclical nature of the story and how each experience has shaped the man he has become. Ray’s focus on tragedy throughout the trilogy suggests that loss is what makes growing up beautiful, and that only through suffering can one reach their potential.

Pickpocket (1959)
February 15, 2012, 6:09 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

In the back half of Robert Bresson’s relatively meager yet awe-inspiring career, he would directly adapt Fyodor Dostoyevsky with a pair of great films, Une Femme Douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer. His Pickpocket, the revered 1959 classic, is clear to have been inspired by Crime and Punishment, with an intellectual protagonist who steals because he feels that he has a license to. Martin Lassalle, who, like all save two of Bresson’s protagonists (the women of his earliest two pictures), was a nonprofessional actor, and as Michel, the titular pickpocket, he is a compelling, if intentionally evasive presence. Through his relationship with a policeman, it becomes clear that Michel longs to be caught, as if seeking penance. Like A Man Escaped, the film heavily involves first-person narration, and, if not physically so, it deals with a metaphorical imprisonment. Ironically, only in being locked in a cell at the end of the picture does Michel find grace. The sequences of pickpocketing are the ballets of a virtuoso filmmaker, using succinct editing and close-ups of hands to capture the action. Hands, in Bresson, are fate-makers, as if suggesting free will and impulse. Pickpocket‘s final moments – in which the imprisoned Michel substitutes his passion for thievery for an admission of love – don’t ring completely true, perhaps due to the uncharacteristically invasive score.

Floating Weeds (1959)
January 23, 2012, 2:30 am
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Director: Yasujirô Ozu

A remake of his own highly successful silent film A Story of Floating Weeds, Yasujirô Ozu’s Floating Weeds is the more remembered version, though it suffers by comparison in not having the same concision in the storytelling. While the central narrative is largely identical – and, indeed, a number of scenes almost play as direct copies – his world is expanded with even more attention to the kabuki performances and a greater development of the auxiliary members of the troupe. Tonally, the picture is much lighter, which Donald Richie suggests is due to the Daiei studio (Ozu was typically associated with Shochiku), in which, “the chosen audience was young people looking for novelty.” The comedic elements work to the film’s detriment – in particular, an ugly woman in the village becomes a source of frequent comic relief, which today plays as mean-spirited and detracts from the seriousness of the melodrama. Kazuo Miyagawa’s (the famed cinematographer who also shot Rashomon and Ugetsu) color photography is perhaps the best justification for this story’s retelling. He delights in capturing the vibrancy of the colors of the costumes, and in his use of Ozu’s familiar point-of-view shots in which the characters speak almost directly to the camera he heightens the intensity of the confrontations.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
January 4, 2012, 8:54 pm
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Director: Otto Preminger

Otto Preminger was no stranger to controversy. Making a career out of pushing the boundaries of censorship with films such as The Moon is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm, his Anatomy of a Murder is perhaps the most shocking picture released during the Production Code era. Of course, the Code, at this point, was crippled – films like Psycho would follow shortly, and the Code’s death knell would ultimately come with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. Stewart’s performance ranks with his finest, and, as a courtroom drama, the film presents one of the grittiest, most cynical looks at the American judicial system. Without considering the morale implications of the case, Stewart utilizes whatever tactics he can for the benefit of his own self-interest. Atticus Finch he is not. This film is also a nice touchstone in examining the immediate future of Hollywood – Stewart is as classical as it gets, however his persona has transitioned into a much bleaker, cerebral one, and here he stars alongside emerging talents such as Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott, who would play important roles in the coming decades as Hollywood ushered in a new era of filmmaking.