Criterion Sunday 148: Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that f you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai | Writers Valentin Yezhov and Grigori Chukhrai | Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva | Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday

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Criterion Sunday 84: Ohayo (Good Morning, 1959)

A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.

Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu | Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta | Starring Haruko Sugimura, Chishu Ryu | Length 94 minutes || Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 2015

Criterion Sunday 48: Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959)

Black Orpheus occupies an odd little space in the corner of film culture. Primarily a French film, albeit one filmed and set in Rio de Janeiro, it came out in the first flush of excitement around the French nouvelle vague, and went on to win the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (admittedly the Cannes organisers weren’t particularly enamoured about the new young voices threatening to up-end their nation’s cinematic traditions). It’s essentially a one-hit wonder (neither its director nor its stars ever went on to create any other films which are particularly remembered), and gained great success as a colourful piece of exotica enlivening the dour European cinema landscape of the era, and this is probably how it should be contextualised now. It’s certainly not a particularly progressive film, and though it focuses on black characters — itself something worth celebrating — they are portrayed with a somewhat colonialising attitude as simple, brightly-attired and constantly dancing with a joie de vivre in the face of (aestheticised) poverty. That said, it’s also undeniably an enjoyable film for exactly these reasons, reworking the Greek myths with its story of Orfeu (Breno Mello) who is engaged to be married but falls in love with the exotic Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn, herself an American by way of France). Things all get pointedly mythic towards the end, but in the meantime there’s plenty of scenes of their pretty little hilltop favelas, not to mention sequences set at Rio’s carnival. If it’s an odd little dead end of cinema history, it’s at least a rhythmic one.

Criterion Extras: There are short French interviews from the period with director Marcel Camus and, a few years later, star Marpessa Dawn, rare chances to hear them in their own words. There are also featurettes narrated by experts about the history of bossanova music, and the way the film is situated within Brazilian society (it’s not considered particularly reflective, unsurprisingly enough).

More substantial is the feature-length documentary made for French television, À la recherche d’Orfeu Negro (Looking for Black Orpheus, 2005, dir. René Letzgus/Bernard Tournois). It starts out seeming as if it’s going to be a fairly straightforward talking heads number, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, including star Breno Mello. However it soon widens out into more of a look at the film in the context of Brazilian music and musical celebration, settling into a laidback series of song recitations recalling the film and atmospheric shots of Rio preparing for the carnival. Some of the film’s attitudes are critiqued, but mostly there’s a warmth on display, as a number of the original settings are revisited. Without being overly didactic, it’s an interesting companion piece to the movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Camus | Writers Marcel Camus, Vinicius de Moraes and Jacques Viot | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 August 2015

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller is known for his punchy dialogue and scenarios in films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (not to mention a clutch of films based on his World War II experiences), a holdover from his early days as a hard-nosed journalist on the city beat. So any concerns one might have about the social-problem trappings of The Crimson Kimono, with its ready-made racy poster headlines (interracial romance!), are avoided by Fuller’s deft script. Fuller proves himself to be quite far ahead of the times in allowing his Japanese-American cop hero Joe (James Shigeta) to be the lead, to love the girl (Victoria Shaw), and to avoid any narrative punishment for either. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with issues of racism and discrimination, just that they’re handled in a much less muckraking way than you might expect. There’s also plenty of the exploitative thrills from the kind of seedy underworld setting so beloved of Fuller, but with Shigeta’s sensitive characterisation and some fine cinematography, this is a particularly vivid effort.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Sam Leavitt | Starring James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015

The Ranown Cycle of Westerns

Randolph Scott in 'Seven Men from Now' (1956)
“Some things a man can’t ride around.”

Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.

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Criterion Sunday 5: Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)

In the eyes of many people — not least those defiant eyes in the freeze-frame at the end — this film was what kicked off the French New Wave. Certainly its star Jean-Pierre Léaud came to be a poster boy for the movement, reappearing not only as the same character (Antoine Doinel) in subsequent Truffaut films, but as a leading man for a number of other directors who would get their start at the same time (notably Godard in some of his more experimental dissections of film form, for example 1967’s Week End). It tracks the aforementioned Antoine, a troubled youth who rebels against unfeeling teachers and a lumpen proletarian home life. Like many Nouvelle Vague films, there’s little in the plot that’s groundbreaking — it follows familiar coming-of-age paths (though not to the same extent that Godard’s break-out work À bout de souffle cleaved to well-worn generic conventions) — but what remains fresh is the vigour of its vision and its feeling towards its protagonist. It sides with Antoine against establishment forces just as the Nouvelle Vague took on the cinéma de papa of their conservative forebears. I personally prefer Godard’s bold formal provocations, but Truffaut has a warmth of feeling that is of a piece with the other early Criterion selections, many of which exhibit an unflashy generosity and kindness of spirit towards powerless protagonists set apart somewhat from their society. If Renoir is an earlier master of such feeling, then Truffaut is his spiritual heir.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 October 2014)

Some Like It Hot (1959)


FILM REVIEW || Director Billy Wilder | Writers Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe | Length 122 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wednesday 31 July 2013 || My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see


© United Artists

I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.

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