For Reel

Macbeth (1971)
August 16, 2017, 3:31 pm
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Director: Roman Polanski
5 Stars
MacbethIn bringing Shakespeare to film, directors such as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier have hyper-stylized the material in order to visually demonstrate the depths of conflict wracking the characters. In Welles’ highly expressionistic Macbeth, for example, the kingdom is rendered as rubble scattered throughout the hazy landscape. In Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of the same play, on the other hand, he humanizes Shakespeare to the point that few directors have managed. When Macbeth (Jon Finch) and Mcduff (Terence Bayler) have their final duel, they clumsily struggle to maintain balance as they swing their weapons in bulky armor. Similarly, the violence in the film is rendered horrific through its bluntness—when Macduff’s family is slaughtered, the burning village with rape and murder in the streets is genuinely frightening. Beyond taking a grimly realistic approach to the violence, Polanski grounds the film significantly by having the soliloquies delivered in voice over rather than spoken aloud. In previous filmed Shakespeare adaptations, this had often been a problem—that is, the nature of soliloquies is counter-intuitive with what the audience expects of film language. When Macbeth is plagued by self-doubt prior to the murder of the king, however, Polanski allows Finch to convey the emotion of the scene simply through his facial expressions while the voiceover plays on the soundtrack. In bringing the audience further into the character’s heads and by filming violence in a realistic way, Polanski furthers one’s understanding of the gritty, raw heart at the center of the play, bringing greater horror to the story of Macbeth’s figurative descent into hell.

Bananas (1971)
October 10, 2016, 10:42 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
bananasThat Bananas is one of the films that Woody Allen later teased as being one of his, “earlier, funny ones,” doesn’t so much suggest that he regressed as a filmmaker from this point, but that it represents Allen’s purest ambitions as a young artist. Whereas Allen’s philosophical interests would contend with the humor of his later pictures, Bananas is the work of a young comedian who seems in a hurry to throw everything he can at the screen—as a collection of sketches, it barely coheres itself together, instead favoring a madcap pacing that is rendered all the more nutty by Marvin Hamlisch’s score. If Allen was rarely better as a physical comedian, however, Bananas still shows his weaknesses. In the New York subway scene (with a cameo by a young Sylvester Stallone), Allen’s apparent Little Tramp impression feels mechanical and forced. As Allen allowed himself to be more outwardly sad as a performer (beyond the cutesy self-deprecation of his earliest films), he began to register sympathetically enough to get away with this sort of thing. Bananas is frequently brilliant if only for the scenarios it dreams up, but its quality is too inconsistent to rank it alongside Allen’s best.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
March 16, 2016, 9:19 pm
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Director: Robert Altman
4 Stars
McCabe & Mrs. MillerThe oft-repeated sentiment that McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a revisionist western seems an inadequate way of describing the tone of Robert Altman’s achievement. While McCabe (Warren Beatty) could be placed as the last of the frontiersmen–his death signaling a transition from the old west to a world overburdened by corporate interest–the film’s form doesn’t reflect the deconstruction of the genre with the directness that directors like Sam Peckinpah or Monte Hellman had previously demonstrated. Altman has too much on his mind to reduce McCabe & Mrs. Miller to a genre revision, and furthermore the classic downfall structure is perhaps the least interesting thing the picture is doing. In the first half hour of the film, Altman slowly invades a small mining town and lingers around the people within it. Characters speak over each other, Leonard Cohen’s music both drowns out dialogue and creates a ethereal daze, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography doesn’t single out characters, rather it roams the community. There is little sense of an obvious classic narrative construction–if to call the picture an anti-western is a reduction, it is perhaps more appropriate to talk about the way in which it abandons classic filmmaking conventions. Zsigmond’s cinematography predicts the gauzy, paintings-come-to-life aesthetic of John Alcott’s work in Barry Lyndon, but his roaming camera is a huge contrast to the rigorously structured mise en scene of that film. Regardless, it achieves the same elegiac quality, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, if not Altman’s finest achievement, a rigorous exercise in tone.

A New Leaf (1971)
February 17, 2016, 12:13 pm
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Director: Elaine May
4 Stars
A New LeafElaine May’s directorial debut was reportedly butchered by half of its original running time, which would have reportedly involved blackmail and murder. As it exists now, it is still a hugely satisfying satire, an updating of a screwball comedy in a new, decidedly more cynical context. Walter Mathau plays Henry Graham, a trust fund playboy who has burned through all of his riches. His plan to remedy his problem involves marrying the most hapless upper-class woman he can find and murdering her. Enter the bumbling Henrietta (May), a botanist whose passion for ferns is as admirable as it is uncomely. As much as May pokes fun at her own character’s sexlessness, many of the film’s pleasantries involve the couple’s very awkward connection (even if it is tainted by the deadly intentions!) The hysterical sequence in which Mathau helps May fumble around in a toga nightgown is a wonderfully executed bit of physical comedy, but there is also an intimacy to it that is unmistakable. Mathau’s morose persona is used to its best effect in a role that edges on the side of nihilism–even his usual sardonic charms often drift towards cruelty, as in his (hilarious) berating of the young flower girl at his own wedding. May’s gifts as a director are inextricably linked to her history in improv comedy, and as a result there is a great timing and understatement in the throwaway lines. When Mathau meets a socialite with the surname of Hitler, he asks if the man is related to “the Hitlers of Boston.” While other directors might have shot the moment in close up and taken a pause for audience laughter, May allows it to be delivered (as with many other small lines of its kin) in a long shot and as an aside, encouraging the viewer to listen closely for the humor. Some directors assault the audience with their intention to make them laugh, whereas May merely trusts that they will.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
November 15, 2015, 2:24 pm
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Director: Mel Stuart
4 Stars
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryThe reputation of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is inextricably linked to its shockingly dark content. There’s a surreal matter-of-factness to the way that the film approaches scenes that, in another storyteller’s hand, might be treated as tragic, or at least suspenseful. The children in Wonka’s factory drop like flies, and the eponymous chocolate manufacturer (brilliantly played by Gene Wilder) sarcastically illustrates concern and teases about their uncertain fates. But these “horrors” are not a flaw of the film, or even an idiosyncratic element that points towards a certain sense of post-modern irony. Rather, as with the best children’s entertainment, the film understands the delicate balance of amusement and horror that keeps a child’s imagination engaged. Furthermore, the earnestness (and admitted blandness–this is a film visually redeemed almost exclusively by its production design) of Mel Stuart’s direction creates a compelling contrast to these darker elements. This is a sickly-sweet, absolutely sentimental movie that deals nonchalantly with the enigmatic and horrible–very few entertainments of this type manage to straddle that line in achieving both a comforting and slightly off-kilter tone.

The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)
August 10, 2015, 7:26 pm
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Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
4 Stars
The Merchant of Four SeasonsThe Merchant of Four Seasons begins with a brief prologue in which a mother tells her returning legionnaire son that, “The good die young, and people like you return.” It is seemingly Hans’ (Hans Hirschmüller) goal through the rest of the picture to actualize his mother’s scornful fantasy, falling deeper into despair and eventually drinking himself to death in a ritualistic fashion. One of the great things about the picture is that, although Hans is certainly an oppressed victim in his society–by his awful family, by his deceitful wife (Irm Hermann), and by the concerns of capital–he also wears the role of oppressor in several scenes, with his self-hatred manifesting in a violent beating of his wife. Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder reveled in having characters that weren’t easily categorizable, a distinction that very much removes him from his muse Douglas Sirk. The moral complexity of his characters seems attached to his filmic techniques–the long takes, the artificiality in the way his actors are often blocked. They both serve as challenges to an audience’s typical engagement with a melodrama. As much as Fassbinder involves one with a fairly conventional narrative structure and a sympathetic character at its core, he seems just as much bent on distancing audiences by subverting their expectations. In the last scene, Hans’ wife begins a new life with his old comrade (Klaus Löwitsch), but it is not a scene depicted as the fulfillment of a repressed passion, but rather as a business agreement. The icy, detached playing of this fairly typical melodramatic scenario harmonizes Fassbinder’s concern with both Sirkian melodrama and his own brand of hyperrealism.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)
February 8, 2012, 11:29 pm
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Director: Robert Bresson

His second film in color, Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer is an adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella White Nights. The plot is simple: Jacques, a young artist and the titular dreamer, encounters the beautiful Marthe as she readies herself to commit suicide, having been neglected by the man whom she had intended to marry. Both are swept away by romantic delusions – while Marthe is fixated on the lodger that she had lost her virginity to, Jacques attention is erratic, and, as the number of unfinished paintings in his flat suggests, is unlikely to see anything through to the end. The apparent budding romance between them (at least as he visualizes it) is embodied in Paris itself, here an almost utopian setting in which, uncharacteristically, Bresson glamorizes through the hypnotic tonality of North and South American folk music and a dreamlike glimpse of a luxury liner floating down the Seine. In one of the film’s most revealing and sublime images – of which there are many – Jacques and Marthe stand shoulder-to-shoulder, with Jacques’ eyes positioned stubbornly towards the sky and Marthe’s focused street-level at the arrival of her lover, perfectly economizing the nature of both characters within a single frame. The film is tragically unavailable for home viewing in acceptable quality, however it is not to be mistaken as lesser Bresson – it is a masterpiece.