Two for the Road (1967)

Two for the Road (1967) movie poster

director Stanley Donen
viewed: 11/26/2016

Neither entirely rosy nor slate black, Two for the Road is a romance film that ranges the breadths and heights from first meeting through ten years of life together.  The broken-up chronology shifts between the years of the lovers Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, bouncing between happy times and miseries, all while on the road in France.

Intended to be a more “realistic” portrayal of romance, rather than the classic Hollywood movie love story, Stanley Donen made a film that is probably going to hit different people in different ways, possibly depending on their own place in relationship(s).

Coming in 1967, it’s not exactly radical or utterly experimental, but for a director who made Hollywood classics, it’s certainly an interesting effort.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but it’s easy to appreciate what Donen is going for.  The bitterness seemed slightly more potent than the sweet to me, not finding the happy romance necessarily happy even.  And the ending, not necessarily your total Hollywood happiness, but heading in a more positive direction…I don’t know.

This was recommended to me years ago by a now former girlfriend.  Apropos, perhaps?

Hepburn’s stylish do’s dictate where you are in time.  Her stylish glasses are something for the ages.

Tampopo (1985)

Tampopo (1985) movie poster

director Juzo Itami
viewed: 11/26/2016

Despite a few decent-looking new movies out there, I took my kids to see Juzo Itami’s terrific comedy Tampopo which is out in a re-release at the moment.  I’d originally seen it in the early 1990’s along with Itami’s A Taxing Woman (1987)  and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988), introduced to them by my girlfriend of the time, a third generation Japanese-American.

I also quite remember Itami’s death in 1997, falling from the top of his office building in a suicide that even back then was suspected as a yakuza killing rather than suicide.  Tampopo doesn’t really rattle the cages of the yakuza, though other films of his had.

I think it’s fair to say that Tampopo is a classic, a playful paean to food and sex and cinema.  The main story concerns a ramen restaurant run by a lady named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) who doesn’t do a very good job of it.  In walks Gorō  (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a truck driver with a particular passion for ramen, who, with the help of a group of other aficionados teaches her to turn her place into a top-notch shop.  Intermittently, throughout a number of comical vignettes play out on topics of food and sensual pleasures.

Itami’s playfulness is very much on the form of cinema and genres as well, breaking the “fourth wall” in the opening scene and breaking the narrative throughout with other cinematic allusions, all in fun.

My kids both liked it, but were still so into Dead Man (1995), which we had watched the night before, that they were a little subdued on it.

Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man (1995) movie poster

director  Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 11/25/2016

Dead Man is 21 years old.  It’s been one of my favorite films for that number of years, and it has aged well.  Or not aged at all.  Though actually it had been at least 15 years since I last saw it.

Dead Man isn’t so much an acid trip as it is a grueling death trip.  Jim Jarmusch’s version of the Old West is as bleak a vision as ever portrayed in the Western genre.  It’s no place for a gentle soul.  Death and violence can erupt suddenly or numbingly slowly as the lead from a bullet leeches into your heart.

The spirituality of the native peoples can appeal to your fading senses, or not make any sense at all. Not that anything really has any sense or meaning in this brutal, brief life.  All moments of comedy are black as soot and even your one friend in the world is eliminated by the world’s most heartless and ruthless in a moment of cruel reciprocation. The harsh strains of Neil Young’s guitar wail and punctuate these passing scenes.

I’d long considered showing Dead Man to my kids (it’s essentially sat in a mental queue of films I want to watch with them).  I was very pleased to find that both of them really liked it, more so than I would have anticipated (I’m not always good at predicting these things.)  Still, very satisfying to my paternal cinéaste curation/education side.

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963) movie poster

director  Luchino Visconti
viewed: 11/24/2016

I’m willing to guess that the average American who goes into Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard probably doesn’t have the historical background with them for context.  Maybe that is true for the average anybody of a non-Italian background and maybe even includes some Italians as well.

It takes place mostly in 1860-1861 and deals with the Italian Risorgimento, a period in which Italy became the unified state of modern times.  It’s an interesting point that I’ve noted in the histories of other European countries that our modern, contemporary sense of European statehood contains false notions that these identities go back centuries.  Rather, the Europe prior to the 19th century was one of smaller principalities with unique character that were only “unified”.

It’s not so much that you need to know this going in, but it would help making some sense of who’s who and what the significance of the story is.  It’s still very engaging, throughout, an epic of 19th century style though crafted in the 20th century.  The  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel upon which it was based was only published in 1958, though you would be forgiven for thinking it a companion of sorts to epics of other 19th century historical novels.  It’s considered one of the most important 20th century Italian novels.

Visconti’s film is vivid, gorgeous, and meticulous.  The details of the period and the space within the rooms of the large sets and mansions offer a sense of depth and a “verity”(?) so amazingly compelling (I question verity only that I don’t know how true it really is, but it’s convincing nonetheless).

Even at this high-budget, much more Hollywood styled drama, we also have the typical Italian post-production sound and so, even watching it in the Italian, you’ve got dubbing.  It’s the kind of flaw you often overlook in a Spaghetti Western or Giallo, and even here over three hours you get used to it.  It’s still odd in a production of this height and quality.  Because this is a seriously beautiful and slick production.

For me, it’s my first Vicsonti film, and it’s one that I’ve been meaning to see for a decade.  As long as I’ve held it in interest, I went in knowing only its length and that it starred Burt Lancaster, little else.

It’s an amazingly well-composed film, and the final third of the film, set during a dance, is really something to see.  Speaking of something to see: Claudia Cardinale (va-va-va-voom!)

Pretty impressive stuff.

The Italian Connection (1972)

The Italian Connection (1972) movie poster

director  Fernando Di Leo
viewed: 11/22/2016

A few months ago, Amazon Prime dumped a bunch of 1970’s Italian genre pictures out on their service, including Spaghetti Westerns, horror, gialli, and Poliziotteschi.  A number of the movies are classics, but most, if not all, appear with generic images featuring the title of the film, rather than a film poster or other image.  This is also with the zero fanfare that Amazon does this.  This is why I say “dumped” even though this dumping is a good thing.

Of all these films and genres, one in particular, Poliziotteschi, is new to me.  I’ve been meaning to watch a couple of the movies for a long while, but never got around to the genre/period.  So many movies, so little time.

Director Fernando Di Leo is a prominent name for Poliziotteschi. The Italian Connection may or may not be the best place to start, but it’s an interesting one.  Mario Adorf plays Luca Canali, a low tier pimp who has been pinned for assassination by American killers Henry Silva and Woody Strode.  Adorf is a rather unusual-looking guy for what is essentially the lead, but that seems to be part of the character of the film, somewhat off-balanced from who the hero and the villains are, opening with the contract and the killers before we meet our anti-hero.

As many have noted, the best sequence is a prolonged chase scene, and it is interesting and cool.  Same can be said about the movie itself.  Not a masterpiece nor perhaps not overly compelling, but possibly an interesting springboard for the genre.

Weiner (2016)

Weiner (2016) movie poster

directors Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
viewed: 11/21/2016

Like a lot of people, I suspect, I felt like I’ve heard enough about Anthony Weiner to last a lifetime.  However, the consistent positive buzz about Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner swayed me enough to watch it.

Wow.  It’s terrific.

Anthony Weiner is another Democratic politician brought down by a sex scandal.  Unlike Eliot Spitzer, it’s not entirely clear if Weiner’s work would have been as noble, and the documentary, at least from the outside, seemed like maybe the story wasn’t actually finished (given his looming presence late in the 2016 election cycle), but that is not the case.

Kriegman and Steinberg originally began shooting the film as “flies on the wall” during Weiner’s comeback run for NYC mayor in 2013.  This comeback was on the tail of his sexting scandal that forced him out of Congress in 2011.  Initially a hopeful document, the story turns deeply sour and absurdly comic as Weiner’s continued sexting, including lots of NSFW selfies (how of the moment is this story?) proved that he’s got problems with self-control and apparently “reality” that would ruin anybody’s chances not just in politics but in other aspects of life.

This is not just the Anthony Weiner show, though.  It’s also time for a close-up on his wife Huma Abedin, noted Hillary Clinton associate whose visibility has always been quite high though she tended to stay just outside of the spotlight.  Here she is caught, not a deer in headlights, but on camera during some very embarrassing moments as she realizes her husband’s secret infidelities on very public stage.  Watching her largely impassive face hold back more extreme expressions is one of the film’s most weird rewards.  That she continued to back him shows either devout love, poor decision making, commitment to a coordinated front and a political face, or maybe some mad mixture of all of those things.

Kriegman and Steinberg wound up with a story and access by starting their documentary with one aim while the world turned critically during filming.  It’s not unlike The Queen of Versailles (2012) in that regard.  And what it captures is perhaps the most vivid slow-motion train wreck imaginable.  One chock-full of absurdities that become brutally comic.  Weiner’s inability to realize how bankrupt his integrity and bankability as a candidate for any political office stuns one.

And as the film comes to a close and the directors question him about why he allowed them this access underscores his megalomania and outright foolishness.

This is one of the best, most hilarious, sublime documentaries I’ve seen in some time.  Highly recommended.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) movie poster

director Luis Buñuel
viewed: 11/17/2016

Considered one of Luis Buñuel’s least surreal (and thus least representative) of his films, Diary of a Chambermaid is a beautifully shot and elegant drama with occasional bits of unexpected verve.

I’ve become a Buñuel aficionado in recent years and have been working slowly through his filmography.  That said, I’m not sure what I think of Diary of a Chambermaid.

The cinematography is elegant and full of intent.  It seems a great deal of the social commentary actually arose from the novel from which the film was adapted,  Le Journal d’une femme de chambre by Octave Mirbeau, a critique of the bourgeoisie from the perspective of a house servant that includes her herself as she marries into the world.

The film’s star is Jeanne Moreau as the titular Célestine, and the film’s most hard to pin down character and representation is Joseph the groom (Georges Géret).  He’s a fascist, proto-Nazi type and even more a child rapist and murderer.  Célestine is in love with him but also wants him to be arrested?’

Diary of a Chambermaid strikes me as a film that expands itself on further viewing.  I guess I am still in contemplation mode.

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991)

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) DVD cover

director Kazuo Komizu
viewed: 11/14/2016

Cutie Suzuki, a Japanese professional wrestler at the time, stars in Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay, a low-budget zombie flick from the earlier 1990’s.  Kazuo Komizu, whose Entrails of a Virgin (1986) and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman (1986) were pinku weirdness, directs Suzuki here in a movie that offers a lot more narrative complexity than you might expect.

It starts with a meteor headed for Tokyo Bay which triggers the zombie apocalypse and a radical military response, a fog cloud containing the greater Tokyo area, and sets the stage for Suzuki to don one of the most ill-fitting action suits ever made to fight the big punkish butch henchladies (who I assume were also culled from Japanese pro wrestling).

On the plus side, this emanates from the earliest of the 1990’s and so features low-fi special effects and not one pixel tweaked.  There is also a battle squad of young people who sell arms to the highest bidder who take up with Battle Girl, especially once they realize how much ass she kicks.  And when she flips down her eyeglass shield.  I laughed almost every time.

On the not so plus side, it’s not quite as horrendously spectacular as you might wish.  It doesn’t push the envelope with sex nor violence, though it has a modicum of the latter.  It might be accused of being almost boring, even with a running time well below 90 minutes.

I could definitely see how this could float somebody’s boat.  Mine only somewhat.

Island of the Fishmen (1979)

Island of the Fishmen (1979) movie poster

director  Sergio Martino
viewed: 11/13/2016

How many gillmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  Well, I don’t know how you get them into a lightbulb but if I do, I’ll get back to you.

While I can’t answer a question like that, I can tell you that I am finding a true appreciation for the vague gillman subgenre.  Children of the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), variant as they are.

Island of the Fishmen is probably best seen for what it mostly is, not nearly such a horror film, not gritty or grimy, but rather a sort of adventure film set in the 19th century involving a wrecked prison ship dumping a guard and some of his prisoners on an uncharted island.  What could have been a zombie film with just a few tweaks, instead winds up a variant of The Island of Dr. Mureau.  That is because villainous Richard Johnson is forcing an aged and ailing Joseph Cotten to do bad things like turning the natives and others into fishpeople to dive below the island for the hidden treasures of lost Atlantis!

This is the kind of adventure you might expect from H. Rider Haggard or Edward Rice Burroughs. And it’s hard to imagine how Roger Corman saw this and thought to market it differently, but then I haven’t seen Screamers so I’ll just assume it is a mess.

This comes from Sergio Martino (Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) The Great Alligator River (1979), 2019, After the Fall of New York (1983), and even a 1995 sequel to this film).

You know, if you go in knowing what to expect you might actually enjoy it.

Final thought: Richard Johnson sports the kind of English accent that comedians are always trying to imitate for arch villains, just such strange and zinging flourish.

Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 11/12/2016

After re-watching William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1974) earlier this year, I was interested in seeking out other film’s of his that I’d never seen.  The notorious 1980 thriller Cruising hadn’t exactly interested me, but it seemed like a significant omission from my viewing history.

There is something of the Exploitation film about it.  Cruising is a crime flick in which a youngish cop (Al Pacino) goes under deep cover into New York City’s gay leather scene to hunt a serial killer targeting gay men.  It isn’t pure Exploitation, there is an aspect of sympathy toward the gay scene, though it’s fistfuls of titillation in the gay bars.

There are aspects of time and place and representation that are somewhat powerful.  I particularly have been interested in the New York of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the grittier pre-Giuliani New York.  I don’t know how many of the extras were locals of the scene or just actors, especially since the controversy around the film and its depictions of gay life even in the days of its production.  But there is something here, something of a time and place and people that is no more.

As a thriller, its effects are somewhat muted.  I’ve always had a problem with Pacino, though he’s quite low-key here.  The edginess of the question of his character’s “descent” into gay life seems the most continuingly problematic aspect of the film.  It’s also kind of bizarre that they just picked a guy to do deep cover because he “fit the look” rather than he had any skills and abilities to blend in or had psychological preparation for the work.

I guess it is curious to wonder how the film would have been with its excised 40 minutes of additional footage of the interior of the leather bar that were cut to escape an X rating.  I think that could have cemented the film one more significantly one way or another.