Classic Movie Review: Le Plaisir (1952)

Title: Le Plaisir
Release Date: 14 February 1952
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Compagnie Commerciale Française Cinématographique (CCFC) | Stera Films

Having watched a streak of grim and bleak classic films lately, I looked forward to watching a movie with the title of “Pleasure.”  Unfortunately, I just found it boring.  The film adapts three short stories by Guy de Maupassant that depicts the lives of dandies, prostitutes, and artists in late 1800s France.

  • “Le Masque” is the story of an aging man who tries to recapture his youth by going out to dances wearing a mask that makes him look like a younger man.
  • “Le Maison Tellier” is the story of a madam of a brothel in a village who takes her employees on a journey to her niece’s First Communion, where everyone is impressed by the large group of elegant young women as guests.
  • “Le Modèle” is the story of a painter who falls in love with the life model at his studio.  Their relationship is suitably stormy.

None of these stories seemed all too interesting or had much drama to them.  Sorry, Cahiers du Cinéma, I just have to say that some of your French films don’t do anything for me.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Harakiri (1962)

Title: Harakiri 
Release Date: September 16, 1962
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Production Company: Shochiku

In  1630, in Edo, a ronin, a samurai without a master, arrives the estate of the Iyi clan, requesting to be allowed to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard. Tsugumo Hanshirō (Tatsuya Nakadai) claims that he’d rather die than suffer the humiliation of living in poverty since his own clan was dissolved. The response of the senior counselor of the estate is Saitō Kageyu (Rentarō Mikuni) is “not again.” It had become a shameful practice of ronin to bluff at committing suicide in hopes of getting money or even a position in the palace. Hanshirō insists that he doesn’t intend to leave the estate alive, and as he prepares for seppuku, or harakiri, he tells a story that challenges the honor of the Iyi clan and the samurai code (bushido).

On the surface, Harakiri is a revenge story and an examination of the historical morality of the samurai.  But it is also a metaphor for how the wealthy elite fail in the moral responsibility for the working people.  The samurai who are discarded because they are no longer needed represent the laboring people whose work and lives are often seen as disposable.  Watching this just after Parasite, makes me see a lot of parallels between the two very different movies.

The movie is well-directed and well-acted.  There’s a real slow burn as the details of Hanshirō’s story build upon one another.  And there’s also a long time of building tension before the swords come out for the inevitable samurai battles, which turn out to be very gory.  Harakiri is a powerful, thoughtful, and moving film, and I highly recommend it.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sátántangó (1994)

Title: Sátántangó
Release Date: 8 February 1994
Director: Béla Tarr
Production Company: Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány | Von Vietinghoff Filmproduktion (VVF) | Vega Film | Magyar Televízió | Télévision Suisse-Romande (TSR)

Sátántangó is an epic Hungarian film set at the fall of communism that depicts a series of events that occur when the charismatic Irimiás (Mihály Vig), who had been believed dead, returns to an isolated village.  It also 7 hours and 19 minutes long. The movie consists of 12 parts and is structured like a tango, 6 moves forward and 6 back.  Director Béla Tarr wanted his audience to view the film in entirety with no intermission, but there was no way I was going to do that.  So I turned it into a Netflix series, watching one segment per day over twelve days. I expect that people will hate that I watched the movie this way, but I don’t care.

The film is famed for being made up of various long takes including impressive tracking shots such as the opening sequence when a herd of cows walk through the mud in a desolate village.  There are also long shots where the camera rests on an empty space with no action, a still life of sorts, until at last a person moves into the frame.  This could be considered padding to make up the movie’s length, but I find that the focus on the ordinary, combined with the frequent absence of music and minimal dialogue, make it so you focus on and absorb the mundane details.

One of Sátántangó‘s most notorious sequences depicts an abused child, Estike (Erika Bók), finding a way to find some control over something in her life by torturing and poisoning her cat.  I had to skip ahead through some of this segment, because animal abuse, even when it’s simulated is not something I can bear to watch.  There are also some funny parts of the film, including a gathering in the local bar where the villagers dance sloppily to accordion music while one man walks around with a cheese roll balanced on his forehead.  But most of this film is pretty bleak, and there are many, many, many long shots of people and groups walking down long, muddy roads for extended periods of time.

This movie is universally held in high-regard, and I cannot deny the brilliance of the filmmaking and ambition behind this movie. I suppose anything I’d have to say about why I don’t like it would sound gauche.  So I’ll just say that I feel like this movie should be shown at an art museum, projected on a large wall of an otherwise empty room.  People can wander in and out and experience the film for as long as they like. It’s clearly a work of art.

If you’d like to know what it is like to watch Sátántangó in a single sitting in a cinema experience, you can watch this humorous video I found:

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)

Title: Parasite
Release Date: 30 May 2019
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Production Company: Barunson E&A

The Kim family are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet while living in a semi-basement apartment in a run-down looking part of a South Korean city. Their fortunes start to look up when the college-aged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets the opportunity to substitute for his friend as a tutor of the daughter of the prosperous Park family, despite not having qualified for the university himself. Ki-woo notices the anxiety the Park family’s mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) has for her young son and recommends his artistically-talented sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an art therapist he’s knows named “Jessica.” Ki-jung is able to get the driver of the Park family father fired, and recommends to Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) her own father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as a replacement driver (again in disguise).  Finally, the trio work to get the Park’s long-term housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), and replace her with their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin).

With all four members of the family gainfully employed by the Parks, they take the opportunity of the Parks leaving for a camping trip to celebrate in the Park’s elegant house, designed by a prominent architect who once lived there. Things look good until Moon-gwang arrives claiming that she left something in the basement. She reveals a shocking secret which unleashes a series of events that lead to a tragic final act.

The movie is a dark satire of socially-stratified society. Despite the fact that the Kims do some morally reprehensible things, you still find yourself rooting for them because people as clearly talented and motivated as them should not be living in poverty (of course, no one should live in poverty). The conflict that arises between the Kims and Moon-gwang is also emblematic of how the poor are forced to fight amongst themselves for the scraps thrown by the wealthy. Without going into spoilers, the grim events of the final act are an indication that actual class war would be devastating for all involved, but that inequality is going to have be addressed by other means.

The movie is very cleverly-written and the acting is all-around terrific.  I really felt like I knew all these characters and they were fully-rounded humans, not just types.  I was also impressed by the direction.  One sequence shows the Kim family running from the Park’s house to their own neighborhood by way of descending a series of staircase.  The social stratification between the families is made literal. There’s also a shot where flood waters rise into the frame and everything above the waterline wipes into the next shot, an effect I’ve never seen before.

Parasite is a clever, funny, thoughtful, and disturbing film.  It’s received a lot of awards and accolades, and I guess I’m adding mine to the pile.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Wind (1928)

TitleThe Wind
Release Date:November 23, 1928
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Silent film star Lillian Gish starred in her last silent film as a young woman named Letty Mason, who travels west to live with a cousin who is like a brother, Beverly (Edward Earle).  All is not well in Sweetwater, Texas, though, as two ranchers want marry Letty, the creepy cattle buyer Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) pursues her relentlessly, and Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) is jealous of her.  Worst of all, the relentless wind torments poor Letty.

This movie is a straight-up melodrama to the point where I expected Gish to grab her heart and proclaim “I can’t pay the rent!” Having seen some other late-era silent films, I also don’t think the movie is particularly technically innovative, either. Mostly it’s a movie made on powerful wind machines and Gish flailing around like she’s on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The best sequence is toward the end when in a fever dream Letty deals with the worst wind storm yet and the threat of sexual assault.  But it’s too little, too late in a movie that’s largely Hollywood hokum.

An interesting side note, much later in life, director Victor Sjöström starred in Wild Strawberries.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Title: Aguirre, the Wrath of God
Release Date: December 29, 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
Production Company:  Werner Herzog Filmproduktion | Hessischer Rundfunk

This the first narrative film by Herzog that I’ve watched, and it is as bleak as his reputation.  It tells the story of Spanish conquistadors in 1560 traveling through the Andes in search of the legendary city of El Dorado.  Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is the second in command of a scouting party sent down a river on four rafts.  Kinski portrays Aguirre not only as ambitious but so literally drunk on power that he staggers when he walks.

The movie features some startling shots, including the introduction when hundreds of soldiers, enslaved indigenous people, and two women (carried in sedan chairs) process in a long line on a muddy mountain trail.  It was filmed on location and must’ve required dozens of extras but it’s an impressive scene and serves also to introduce all the main characters.

The sight of armored Spanish soldiers bearing swords and guns against the wilderness is a great satire, because nothing is going to protect them from nature.  Of course the indigenous people are also a threat, but its more likely that the Spaniards will enslave them or kill them for unknowing acts of blasphemy.  Ultimately, though, the greatest threat to the party is one another as power and greed turns them against each other.

It’s a grim film, but an honest depiction of colonialism, exploitation, and in humanity.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Release Date: May 25, 1966
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Cinema Ventures

It’s a movie about the life of donkey, this should be sweet and light!  Or not.  Au Hasard Balthazar needs content warnings not just for animal cruelty but for the repeated abuse and sexual assault of a woman.  That woman is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), one of the children in a rural village in the Pyrenees who baptizes the young donkey Balthazar in the opening scene.

Years pass by and as Balthazar is passed from cruel owner to cruel owner, the teenaged Marie is the main human protagonist and one of the few people who are kind and affectionate to the donkey. Unfortunately for Marie, she’s only able to find escape from her constricted life in an abusive relationship with the film’s main antagonist, the smug and evil criminal Gérard (François Lafarge).

While I don’t believe that movies need a “Hollywood ending,” I also don’t understand why so many “great films” have to be unbearably bleak.  There is no humor or humanity anywhere in this film.  Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review of this movie, and I totally agree that Balthazar’s story is designed to elicit empathy.  I don’t agree with how Breeson handles the human actors who’s dialogue often sounds stilted and as if they’re reciting philosophical treatise.  The way Breeson constructs Marie’s story is basically torture porn (not surprisingly 65-year-old Breeson was sexually pursuing  the 18-year-old Wiazemsky behind-the-scenes) and borderline misogynistic.

Maybe this isn’t a “bad movie” by definition, but it makes me feel bad and I don’t like it.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Tabu (1931)

Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

F.W. Murnau, famed for directing Nosferatu and Sunrise, made this “Story of the South Seas” on Bora Bora as his last film before dying.  The film purports to tell a legend of the indigenous people of Polynesia. This is a silent film in that it has no dialogue, but sound effects and music are synchronized with the film. Like many of the best silent films it doesn’t have frequent intertitles, but when it does they are presented as letters written by the character, which is a clever and attractive effect.

The opening title card also states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”.  But there are also clearly white actors portraying French colonial officials. The film has the feel of Nanook of the North, a docu-fiction that attempts to recreate traditional ways of Polynesian people, but is filtered through a western gaze (and Nanook director Robert J. Flaherty, was in fact co-writer of the film with Murnau).

The story regards a young couple, a Boy (Matahi) and a girl named Reri (Anne Chevalier) whose romance is interrupted by the arrival of The Old Warrior (Hitu). Reri is selected by her royal bloodline to be a maiden scared to the gods, and Hitu declares it tabu for men to form a relationship with her.  Matahi and Reri flee to another island under French colonial control where Matahi becomes a successful pearl diver, but they continue to suffer ill-fate they attribute to the tabu.

The movie is well-filmed and feels unique and sympathetic for a Hollywood production of the era, but nevertheless I think there’s a lack of cultural competence in its production.

Rating: **1/2