film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

8-1⁄2  (1963)

So I…think I may need to revisit this later. Apologies for the long silence – I kept meaning to give this film a rewatch, as I kept feeling I had missed some things, but that may take too long to coordinate; best not to leave you hanging.

The plot I understood just fine. Marcello Mastroianni is “Guido Anselmi”, a renowned Italian filmmaker at work on a sci-fi piece. At least, he’s supposed to be – he’s hit a creative wall, and is unable to finish casting the film or writing the screenplay, to the great consternation of the producers and investors on the project. In an effort to dodge them and concentrate to get some work done, he’s escaped to a tony health spa, dragging a movie critic friend (Jean Rougeul) along to help him with the screenplay.

But that plan blows up when the producer also books the whole rest of the production team there so they’ll be “ready” when Anselmi is. And then the critic hates everything about Anselmi’s existing script. And then Anselmi’s mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) turns up, hoping to either hook up with Anselmi or get a part in the film – or both. Soon after Anselmi’s estranged wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) also shows up, with some of her friends, to watch the whole show crash and burn. Anselmi is all too happy to procrastinate on the film with either Carla or Luisa, but he keeps fantasizing about an Ideal Woman – and then meets her, in the form of aspiring actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who turns up towards the end. Anselmi begs her to take a part – but Claudia senses that Anselmi has a lot going on in his personal life, and is uncertain; is Anselmi really trying to make a film, or is he just trying to hide from reality?

It’s an interesting enough story – the part that brought me up short is in the telling. Federico Fellini starts to step away from his prior realistic approach here, and includes a lot of sequences hinting at Anselmi’s inner turmoil – dream sequences, memories, sometimes a mix of both. In the opening sequence, Anselmi is flying through the air above a beach until his producers lasso him and pull him back down to earth. In another lengthy sequence, he is back in his father’s country villa, Lord Of The Manor, and overseeing a harem made up of all the women in his life – Luisa, Clara, Claudia, and a number of other lovers and crushes – who fawn over him for several minutes until one woman leads a sort of revolt and they collectively throw him out.

Some viewers were baffled by these sequences, and found it hard to tell which sequences were “really happening” and which were Anselmi’s fantasy. I could usually figure it out – but the whole film was so visually rich, I feel like those sequences were loaded with nuance that might enhance the story even more if I caught it.

I’ll likely put that rewatch off until later, but I am definitely intrigued enough to do so.

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Shock Corridor (1963)

This one felt weird. Not because of the subject matter itself, and not because it took an experimental approach – quite the opposite, in fact, it was a lower-budget film that stuck so close to earlier conventions it felt like a throwback. But about midway through it went in some different funky directions and felt almost like the director had shoehorned a couple different short documentaries into this piece to fill things out – and made it work.

It starts out in a very film noir style. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist looking for The Story That Will Make Him Big. He hears about an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, and comes up with a scheme to Play Mad so he can get committed, leaving him free to investigate the murder, crack the case, and write a Pulitzer-worthy article. He enlists a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), to coach him in how to sell his case, and enlists his very reluctant girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to play his sister and file a police complaint accusing him of attempted incest. Cathy still sells her case, and so does Johnny, and in short order he is committed to the very psych ward where the murder took place. Spurred on by his Pulitzer dreams, Barrett easily keeps up his act, even when coping with unexpected and baffling hurdles like a roommate who sings opera all night (Larry Tucker) or getting attacked by a ward full of nymphomaniacs.

He also seeks out and bonds with the three witnesses to the murder in question – and this is where the film gets really interesting. The three witnesses are Stuart (James Best), who thinks he’s Confederate Army General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a young black man who thinks he’s in the Ku Klux Klan; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former scientist who has regressed to the mental and emotional age of a kindergartener. In each case, Barrett first tries drawing them into more general conversation, to kind of bring them “back to reality” a bit so he can then ask them about the murder.

And while that did feel facile – Stuart and Trent’s “breakthroughs” seemed awfully convenient – the roots of all three men’s madness became a fascinating window on the anxieties of the 60s. Stuart had been brainwashed into working for the Communists during the Korean War, and was in turn ordered to brainwash another American POW – but was in turn “deprogrammed” by that prisoner, sent home by the Soviets and reviled as a traitor, which triggered his delusions. Trent, meanwhile, had been one of a handful of students sent to desegregate a college in Mississippi and cracked under the relentless pressure. Boden’s own madness seemed strangely deliberate – he had been pivotal to the development of nuclear weapons, and was so horror-struck and guilt-ridden by his contributions that he regressed to a childlike state.

There’s also the usual noir-ish melodramatic stuff going on – Barrett trying to hold on to his own sanity while playing mad, Cathy wringing her hands outside and fretting about her sweetheart’s safety, and the actual murder mystery itself. But compared to the scenes with Stuart, Trent, and Boden, the rest of the film almost feels secondary. The three witnesses’ stories even briefly use color footage to represent their own flashbacks and recollections, while the rest of the film is in moody black and white.

This approach made for a serious shift in my response about midway through – before we met any of the witnesses, I was getting ready to write this film off as a B-movie noir throwback, but now I see it as a scrappy indie filmmaker’s Comment On The Times.

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The Birds (1963)

I have seen bits of this Hitchcock classic before. And then, as now, there is one small detail which still rubs me the wrong way – but I’ll save that for the end. Because there’s a good deal else about the film which is similarly odd, but somehow works.

The script is a weird hybrid – it starts out as a romantic drama, but then takes a hard left into an environmental disaster story. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) are the “lovebirds”, so to speak – ironically meeting when Brenner enters a San Francisco pet shop to get lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels is already there in search of her own pet. Brenner – a prosecuting attorney – has an existing grudge against Daniels, the high-spirited daughter of a media mogul who uses Daddy’s money to buy her way out of trouble (and the public eye) when she does things like break picture windows or jump into the Trevi Fountain. Since Daniels dismisses her hijinks as “pranks”, Brenner decides to pull his own prank on her – pretending to mistake her for a pet store employee and grilling her with questions about bird behavior for a few minutes before calling her out and then leaving.

Instead of being ashamed or confounded, though, Daniels is intrigued – and decides to step up the prank war. Since Brenner left without his lovebirds, Daniels buys them – using Daddy’s connections at the newspaper to find Brenner’s whereabouts – and sets off for the small town of Bodega Bay to the north, where Brenner’s on a visit for his sister’s birthday. She rents a boat so she can sneak in from the back and “mysteriously” leave the lovebirds. But Brennan spots her as she leaves and races to the boathouse in town to meet her there. …So he’s watching as she’s approaching the dock, and sees when a seagull swoops out of the sky and bites her on the head.

Brennan leaps to the rescue, cleaning her up in the local diner and insisting she come to dinner that night and stay in town overnight to recover. Why, she can even stay with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the town schoolteacher. Brennan’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), dazzled by her surprise lovebirds, also asks Daniels if she can stay for Cathy’s birthday party the next day, an impulsive invitation which Mitch and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) grudgingly accept. Daniels is just as dubious as Lydia, but agrees to the invitation; so she’s there when another gull dive-bombs Annie’s front door later that evening, and when a flock of crows starts attacking the kids at Cathy’s party the next day. And when Lydia discovers their neighbor, a chicken farmer, has been pecked to death.

This is where all the really memorable stuff about the film kicks in, as the rest of the town notices the birds are acting really weird and scramble to figure out what to do. And this is where Hitchcock’s work really starts to shine – there’s the slow build of suspense when Daniels, sitting on a park bench, is oblivious to a whole flock of crows gradually building on the fence behind her. Or the fantastic sequence where Daniels and Brennan are crowded in the diner, discussing the latest attack, and everyone present has their own unique reaction – the nervous mother frets over her kids, the birdwatcher tuts about the fuss (“their brain pans are not big enough for a massed attack like you say”), and the town drunk keeps quoting apocalyptic passages from the Book of Ezekiel. Or the chaos when a bunch of birds do attack a group of kids trying to sneak away from school and get to safety.

Again, this film isn’t perfect – but very few of the “flaws” bothered me. Hitchcock leaves it an open question as to the cause of the birds’ sudden attacks, save for a few throwaway comments in that diner scene suggesting that it’s revenge for eons of mistreatment. But…that didn’t bother me, nor did the vague ending, where Daniels joins the Brennans in a drive off to an uncertain future. The special effects fall a bit short, but only when you compare them to 21st-Century technology; in the climactic scene where Daniels is cornered by hordes of gulls and crows, there’s some obvious use of double-exposure work, and it looks like Hedren is being pecked by handpuppets once or twice. But Hitchcock only used those kinds of “action” shots sparingly, preferring to stick to either the aftermath or to the power of suggestion, which always makes things all the creepier. Hitchcock’s masterful use of suspense and his close read of human nature also more than make up for it.

But trying to be “creepy” may have led Hitchcock to make the one choice that nagged at me. Hitchcock did away with music in the film almost entirely and went all-in on the sound effects; but instead of using actual recordings of bird calls, Hitchcock enlisted the German composer Oskar Sala to generate a lot of otherworldly noises on the trautonium, an early synthesizer. And they were indeed otherworldly – so much so that they didn’t sound like they could possibly have been made by birds, and that distracted me from the movie at a couple of pivotal moments. I grant that’s a small nit to pick – but can’t help but think that a little more verisimilitude with the bird sounds would have terrified me so much more.

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O Pagador de Promessas (1962)

In 1960s Brazil, a poor farmer named Zé (Leonardo Villar) is desperate when his favorite donkey falls ill. He makes a vow to his patron saint, Saint Barbara, that if his donkey recovers, he will give half his land to the poor, and then make a cross and donate it to her cathedral in Bahia, thirty miles away. Miraculously, his donkey recovers, and Zé makes good on his word, carrying the cross on foot the whole way with his wife Rosa (Glória Menezes) walking alongside. They reach the steps of the cathedral where Zé explains himself to the pastor (Dionísio Azevedo), adding that he brought the cross to her cathedral because St. Barbara didn’t have a church any closer to where he lived.

But when the bemused pastor asks Zé why he didn’t just bring the cross to the church where he made that promise in the first place, Zé admits that he hadn’t gone to a church. Instead – he went to a local Candomblé meeting, and made that promise to the idol of Yansan there, because he’d heard that Saint Barbara and Yansan were kind of the same thing. So surely that must count, right?….The pastor, scandalized, disagrees strongly, and refuses to let Zé into the church. But Zé is a devotee of Saint Barbara and will not go back on his promise to her. So he sits down to wait, telling anyone in the gathering crowd his story and gathering a lot of attention in the process – and not always from people who understand his mission.

This would make for a good double-feature with Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole. Both stories have a lot to say about what happens when a small misunderstanding goes “viral”, with everyone responding not to the actual facts of the situation, but rather to their own perception of it – and maybe exploiting it for their own ends. A reporter (Othon Bastos) hears that Zé gave some of his land to the poor and dubs him a Communist in favor of land law reform. The local Candomblé practitioners see him as a champion for their own rights. The capoeira team sees the growing crowd as a captive audience for their performances, just like the local café owner who’s making bank off beer and coffee orders. And the local pimp (Geraldo Del Rey) senses that the tired, fed-up Rosa might be easily lured to his side with the promise of a hotel room to stay in, rather than sleeping on the church steps like Zé’s doing.

But where Ace In The Hole focuses on one of the people exploiting the situation, O Pagador de Promessas focuses on the heart of the storm – the innocent and faithful Zé, who’s got a simple and straightforward mission and doesn’t understand why people won’t let him do it. He doesn’t care anything about land reform, he has no opinion either way about Candomblé or capoeira – all he wants to do is bring his cross into the church, because he promised Saint Barbara he would. What’s the big deal?

The screenplay is sharp, but I was particularly impressed by a couple of lovely wordless sequences as well. Zé has timed his mission to coincide with Saint Barbara’s feast day, and the church has already planned a celebratory parade through town, with worshippers carrying their statue of Saint Barbara at the front. After the parade, as they reach the steps and start climbing, Zé picks up his cross and falls in alongside them, gazing up at the statue’s face. And for several seconds we see, in turn, shots of the awestruck Zé gazing up at the statue – alternated with shots of the statue’s own lifeless face. The statue isn’t alive and can’t look back. But Zé still follows her all the way to the door of the church, stopping only when the priest once again angrily turns him back.

Another sequence was even more expertly done. After giving into the pimp for one night, a guilt-stricken Rosa rushes back to Zé’s side and begs him to just give up and take her home. But Zé is stubbornly digging in on his cause – and the pimp has all the time in the world to hover on the edges of the crowd where Rosa can see him, all casual-like, so she can find him if she wants to come have another go. And at one point, she does step away from Zé towards the pimp – but then hesitates, looking back and forth between Zé and the pimp. But instead of just watching Rosa look between them – we also see the café owner and his buddy watching the whole scene, with the shots alternating between them looking at Rosa and then following her gaze as she looks between the two men. Rosa’s having a crisis of conscience – but the café owner sees it as just part of the whole spectacle.

O Pagador de Promessas has thus far been the only Brazilian film to earn the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Jules and Jim (1962)

So, even though I haven’t seen many classic films before this, I’ve heard about several. Some films just become so much of the cultural zeitgeist that even if you haven’t seen them, you might have seen another film reference them, or heard people discuss them; at least you know they exist and are supposed to be good. This 1962 French New Wave film was one such oft-mentioned classic for me. And now that I’ve finally seen it…I’m kind of let down.

Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) meet as students in Paris in 1912, and throughout a breathlessly-paced early montage we watch them becoming friends – they teach each other their respective languages (Jim is French, Jules Austrian), they work out together, they review their studies, they hit the bars. The gregarious Jim often plays wingman for the shy Jules, but even more often the pair just trade girls every so often without either getting fussed about it – until they meet freewheeling Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who’s as much of a bohemian as they are.

Jules is instantly smitten and takes Jim aside to call dibs; out of love for his friend, Jim agrees. (He’s back on-again with his on-again off-again girlfriend Gilberte anyway.) But Catherine loves having both of them on hand to dine with, go for walks with, go to movies with, go on vacations with…so when World War I breaks out, and Jules wants to marry Catherine and bring her back home to Austria, she first asks if she can talk to Jim….to get his advice, she says. But they never have their chat. Catherine heads off to marry Jules anyway, and then war divides the friends for several years.

At their reunion, Jules invites Jim to visit him and Catherine at their cottage in the Black Forest. They have a little girl named Sabine, they have a couple of friendly neighbors…and they have marriage trouble, thanks to Catherine’s infidelity. Marriage never really suited her, it seems, and after putting up with several of her affairs, Jules is pretty much giving up on them staying together. In fact, he takes Jim aside to ask him to marry Catherine, so at least Jules can keep in touch with her. Catherine seems into the idea as well, inviting Jim to move in with them all. She even suggests Jim father a child by her, to go with her daughter fathered by Jules. But even this arrangement gradually sours, and when Jim eventually gets called to Paris on business, he quietly decides to stay. Jules and Catherine return to Paris themselves a few years later, and run into Jim again, and Catherine asks to see Jim privately one afternoon…

….And, yeah, it’s just a love triangle story, pretty much.

It’s not a bad one, mind you. There’s absolutely good work in this – Moreau in particular is excellent as the capricious Catherine, and director Francois Truffaut’s style keeps things fresh and breezy, particularly at the beginning when the three are all young and spunky. In fact, the beginning bits ooze with so much charm that it seems unfair to just call this a “love triangle story”, rather than a story of three friends who can’t handle the fact that they had to grow up.

That would have been a much more interesting story to me, actually. The free-and-easy lives we lead when we’re in our 20s can’t always be sustained, particularly when those lives are on the unconventional side – and not everyone ages with grace. But a sorta-threesome aging into a love triangle is not the only way to tell that story.

This may be a film I appreciate better over time, but for now, it hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.

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What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

I hadn’t ever seen this film before, but hoo boy did I know a lot about it. Anecdotes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s rivalry are legion, as are stories of “aging silent film star gone to seed and living in the past”. Fortunately, actually watching this film carried some surprises.

On the remote chance anyone is unfamiliar: the film deals with the lives of Jane and Blanche Hudson, a pair of sisters we first meet as girls. Jane is a vaudeville regular going by the stage name “Baby Jane”, best known for chirping out popular songs while sporting ringlets and frilly dresses as her proud father plays piano; he joins her for a dance break during her biggest hit, a sentimental ballad about “writing a letter to Daddy” and sending it to heaven. Off stage she is a spoiled brat, lording her fame over her more modest sister Blanche.

However, their mother urges Blanche to still be kind to Jane one day if their fortunes ever turn – which they do, during the classic-movie era of the 1930s. Blanche is now the star, with a number of studios vying for her work – but a clause in her contract forces studios to also give Jane some film work as well, a troubling prospect since the adult Jane can’t quite act and is also a bit fond of booze. But the studios grin and bear it – until one night after a studio party, when the sisters are driving home to their shared Hollywood mansion and get into a car crash, leaving Blanche a paraplegic in Jane’s care.

That’s all prelude to the bits you really want to see, and the bits you probably know about – Joan Crawford as the helpless Blanche, trapped on the second floor of their mansion and under the care of Bette Davis as Jane. But Jane’s care has been desultory, if not abusive – she still drinks to excess, she’s been hiding Blanche’s mail, and she’s been blowing through Blanche’s savings by forging her signature on checks. Jane hatches a scheme to revive her act, hiring down-on-his-luck composer (Victor Buono) to serve as her accompanist, but then learns that Blanche has been working with their housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman) to sell the house, and get Jane some psychological help. Assuming (probably correctly) that this kind of help will require a hospital stay, Jane amps up the abuse – taking away Blanche’s phone, denying her meals, and even tying her up when Jane needs to run errands. And all the while Jane is descending further and further into self-delusion and madness.

Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar with this film – an acknowledgement which reportedly made Crawford seethingly jealous. And, honestly, I kind of think there’s something to Crawford’s complaint – because it’s almost not fair to compare the two. Both do perfectly fine with their roles, but Jane is written as such a larger-than-life character that it’s likely a ficus plant cast in the role would still have scored a nomination. Crawford’s Blanche is confined to showing varying degrees of distress and that’s it, but as Jane, Davis gets to simper and pout and shriek and cackle and rant and generally go full-tilt bugnuts. Davis even did her own makeup when the on-set team balked at giving her the laid-on-with-a-trowel look she wanted.

And yet in my favorite scene, Jane has to show some restraint – and I can see why the glory went to Davis. About midway through the film, Victor Buono’s “Edwin” shows up at the house for his job interview with Jane; he knows nothing of her history, he’s just desperate for a job. So much so that when Jane simperingly tells him that “I used to be Baby Jane Hudson”, he gushes out an instant “Oh, are you really?” and plays along, heaping praise on her singing and eagerly agreeing that yes, the public is just dying to have her back. That whole scene is a dance between Davis and Buono – two cons trying to con each other – and it was a delight.

In the end, the Best Actress Oscar went to Anne Bancroft anyway – but ironically, Crawford had offered herself out as the official Oscar-Accepter for any of the other nominees, and since Bancroft was appearing on Broadway on Oscar Night, Crawford got to sweep onstage (past Davis) and grab some of the spotlight anyway.

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Mondo Cane (1962)

The title of this film translates to “A Dog’s World” – which puzzled me for a long while, since there’s very little about dogs in it. But “Mondo Cane” is an Italian-language curse; somewhat equivalent to “Dammit”. And that….fits a bit better, but still isn’t entirely apt. But I’m not sure any spoken expression would fit as well as a cynical shrug.

Mondo Cane bills itself as a “documentary”, with a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning claiming that they were showing scenes from real life – unvarnished. “What you see will shock you, scare you, and challenge you,” a narrator breathlessly warns us, before pre-emptively absolving the filmmakers from any responsibility. They’re just showing us actual events – they’re just the mirror to society. So if we don’t like what we see, don’t blame the filmmakers.

The rest of the film consists of vignettes from around the world, some of which provide “ironic” contrast – an Italian movie star visits a clothes shop and gets mobbed by female fans, and in the next scene we see women from a New Guinea tribe chasing after the men there. A sequence at a pet cemetery, showing a grieving woman mourning her pet poodle, is followed by a sequence at a butchers’ shop in Taiwan where they have live dogs on hand for meat. A sequence showing Wagyu cattle in Tokyo getting force-fed beer follows a sequence showing geese in France being force-fed to produce foie gras – and then another New Guinea sequence showing some women getting force-fed tapioca to appease a tribal lord follows that. And throughout, the same narrator comments wryly on the action as we watch.

Pretty early on, though, I spotted this as being not quite true-to-life – some of the shots were a little too well-set-up and the action a little too “staged”. The narration also made claims that weren’t entirely supported by the action – one sequence is meant to depict how nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll had so thoroughly disrupted the environment that butterflies were dying in swarms, fish were living in trees, and sea turtles were getting so disoriented after laying their eggs that they got lost trying to find their way back to the sea and died. But…the only evidence we see for any of this is a few fallen butterflies, a couple of mudskippers, and a few shots of a lone sea turtle hauling its way inland on a beach, followed by a shot of a sea turtle flipped upside down and flailing. But mudskippers always have been able to make that jump from water to land. And as for the turtle – it actually looks like several turtles. And – how did it get flipped over anyway?….

So this “documentary” was clearly manipulated. But this kind of manipulation only happens when there’s a specific message the filmmaker really wants to impart. However, the only message I can glean from this film is a world-weary, nihilistic comment that “sometimes people kinda suck.”

Interestingly, though, most of the film’s criticism falls against the Western European mindset and culture. Throughout the film, the people in the United States or in Western Europe come out looking the silliest, meanest, or cruelest. One lengthy bit set on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district shows a whole lot of people drinking themselves legless, getting into drunken brawls, passing out, and then trying to stagger home with hangovers in the early morning. Another sequence depicts a couple dining at the exclusive New York restaurant The Colony, dining on exotic fare like bugs and canned rattlesnake. A lengthy sequence set in Hawaii shows a hula dancer at a hotel, trying to teach the dance to a bunch of tourists. After commenting on the sacred nature the dance held for native Hawaiians, the narrator wryly commented that “this is now the only such dance left in Hawaii” before panning across a crowd of paunchy tourists clumsily trying to follow along and joking amongst themselves.

Now – if the filmmakers had sustained that narrow focus, and made this more about class differences and Western-European cultural biases, this could have been a very different film. But for much of the film, the real watchword seems to have been trying to Freak Out The Squares with lots of gross stuff. And it is that element which had the most impact, leading not only to several sequels but a whole “mondo” film movement with plenty of exploitative content and “shocking” staged footage.

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The Exterminating Angel (1962)

So, it’s another Buñuel film. It’s a little more surreal than his earlier Viridiana, but only just – it hit my sweet spot of “weird enough to catch my attention but not so weird that I can’t figure out the basic plot.” And as plots go it’s pretty simple – a group of Spain’s hoi polloi gather for a dinner party, only to find that they can’t leave afterward. There’s no reason why they can’t leave, they just….can’t.

At first it looks more like the guests are either strangely rude or cripplingly polite – they know it’s late and they should be going, but no one really wants to draw attention to themselves by being the first to leave, so everyone sits around waiting for someone else to make the first move and everyone ends up falling asleep in whatever chair or couch they’re sitting in, even though the hosts have said that they can make up guest bedrooms. In the morning the hostess scrambles to give everyone some dinner leftovers and coffee as a half-assed breakfast, and several guests who’ve said they should leave now hesitate at the offer of coffee – but they really mean to leave after, seriously. Except they can’t. For whatever reason, they get to the threshhold of the drawing room, peer into the next room, and then turn back.

And so they stay. For days. The food runs out, a vase in a storage closet becomes the ad hoc toilet, another storage closet becomes the hookup privacy room. When one guest in frail health dies, still another closet becomes the morgue. The guests become increasingly desperate, hacking a hole in the wall and bursting a pipe to get fresh drinking water or luring some pet sheep into the room for food (why the hosts have pet sheep is unexplained). Someone’s stash of morphine gets confiscated to use to treat another sick guest, until another guest steals it back so he can trip out. And throughout the guests make increasingly desperate and weird efforts to escape – Kabbalah rituals, trying to push each other, holding hands and trying to jump. In time the guests accuse the host of somehow casting a spell over them all and start talking human sacrifice – surely if their hosts die, they will finally be able to leave.

So, we never find out why the guests are trapped. But there’s enough to suggest something supernatural – in the very first scene, before the guests arrive, the hosts’ various butlers and maids and waiters all sneak out one by one – they can’t say why they want to leave, they just have the sense they need to. One says he feels like he needs to take a walk. Another is compelled to visit an ill relative. The two cooks just wanna leave. However, they – like the relatives of the trapped guests – form a curious and concerned crowd outside the house during their captivity, and find themselves also strangely reluctant to go in. One little boy, the son of one of the guests, even tries a daring run up the driveway to the front door – but he stops halfway, uneasy, and turns around and runs right back. However, whatever that strange force is keeping the guests in and others out, we never see it, hear it, or learn of its cause. It’s just there, keeping the guests trapped.

This kind of “just surreal enough” is 100% my jam. It’s almost like the plots of very early X-Files episodes, where there is just enough science to give the supernatural elements a whiff of plausibility (there’s a smart house that’s going rogue and killing people? Well, current A.I. technology isn’t quite there, but we’re getting close… Or, some loggers disappeared after cutting down old-growth timber and disrupting some previously-unknown bugs? Well, we regularly discover new species the further we venture into old-growth forests….). The film even takes a sort of X-Files approach of solving the immediate problem (the guests do finally figure out an escape), only to see the issue crop up again elsewhere in the final scene.

And just like with the X-Files – I am satisfied leaving some questions unanswered. Other critics have speculated that the force keeping everyone in place is just societal conditioning gone haywire, or that the whole film is a Lord Of The Fliesstyle parable about how easily people will descend into anarchy when trapped. Roger Ebert even argued that the whole thing was a discourse on the class structure during the Spanish Civil War. But me, I’m happy with “we don’t know why they couldn’t leave, I’ll just go with it.”

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L’Eclisse (1962)

Yeahhhh, Antonioni lost me with this one.

In a long and nearly-wordless opening scene, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) breaks things off with her fiancé for vague reasons; it’s implied she just isn’t into him any more. But the breakup upsets her enough to want some fussing-over from her Mama (Lilla Brignone). Vittoria heads to Mama’s latest hangout – Rome’s stock market, which Mama treats like a casino, pestering her stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) with frequent questions. In fact, Mama is so focused on stocks that she’s not really that much comfort to Vittoria.

At least Piero was cute, though. In fact, after a girls’ night evening with some of her neighbors, Vittoria drops by the market again to see him. He’s just as interested in her, and they soon start a relationship themselves. Although…neither one of them really seems into it.

And that’s it.

As with his two prior films, L’Avventura and La Notte, Antonioni is being deliberate with his “nothing really happens” approach; he’s attempting to show the inherent hollowness and meaninglessness of his characters’ lives. The “meaning” is all subtext – La Notte isn’t heartbreaking because there’s something poignant about Lidia meandering around her old neighborhood, it’s heartbreaking because she’s doing that right after visiting a dying friend and that’s probably weighing on her mind. L’Avventura isn’t infuriating because the leads are going to parties, it’s infuriating because they’re going to parties instead of continuing their investigation into a friend’s disappearance.

But with this film, I couldn’t get a handle on what the subtext was supposed to be. It’s implied that it might be something about the dreamy Vittoria being a romantic mismatch with the more flashy and superficial Piero; during one of their meetings, someone steals Piero’s car and crashes as he makes his escape, and Vittoria is surprised to hear that Piero cares more about the damage to his car than about the man who died. Antonioni also spends a lot of time following Piero’s “daily business” in the stock market (a bit too much time for my taste), but almost none with Vittoria’s job; instead, we see Vittoria doing dreamy things like cloud gazing at the airport, people watching out windows, or playing with her neighbors’ dog.

So…these are people who are trying to make a connection but they’re too different, and ultimately it doesn’t work. But – that’s much too common a story to my mind, so I’m left wondering why I was supposed to care about this particular instance of that story. There’s not even a dramatic breakup scene – instead, they make a plan to meet one evening “at our usual spot”, but then – as we see in a seven-minute wordless sequence – neither one shows up, and that’s the end of the film.

That sequence is lovely. It’s all scenic shots, showing the empty streetcorner where they are to meet or focusing on the empty bench where they might sit, or the streetlight winking on as it gets later, or another passersby walking past the fence Vittoria once studied. And had I cared one whit about Vittoria or Piero I might have been touched by that sequence – but I only felt detached.

Speaking of sequences – I should warn 21st century readers that the “Vittoria’s girls’ night” sequence has some bits that have not aged well at all; one of the women is from a colonialist family with property in Kenya, and has some less-than-enlightened things to say about the prospect of Kenyan independence. Plus there’s a bit where Vittoria dresses up in blackface and does “tribal dancing” as a goof until the colonialist friend tells her to knock it off; and honestly, if your blackface is so offensive that even the plantation owner says you’ve gone too far, you’ve really gone too far.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

When producer Alan Pakula first proposed a film adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, studio executives asked him what story he was going to tell with it. “Have you read the book?” he asked them. They said yes. “Well, then you know the story,” he said. You likely know the story as well; it’s been assigned reading in United States classrooms for years.

Pakula was wise – when you are working with source material this good, the best approach is a minimal one. So this is a very faithful adaptation of Lee’s work – with the adult Jean “Scout” Finch recalling her Alabama childhood, back when she was six and then seven; when she (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) got into mischief alongside Dill (John Megna), the nephew of one of their neighbors. Most often the three would dare each other into spying on the creepy neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a recluse about whom the kids had spun many a tall tale.

Meanwhile, Scout’s widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck), the town lawyer, was caught up in a case defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating poor (and white) Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), even though the majority of the evidence points to Mayella’s father Bob (James Anderson) doing the beating part. Robinson is found guilty nevertheless, but Bob Ewell still feels slandered by Atticus’ case, and vows revenge – leading to a scary confrontation bringing both stories together.

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that some of the richness of the kids’ lore is missing. But with good reason – Lee simply wrote so much about their shared superstitions, conversations and thoughts that including it all would have made for an impossibly long film. Fortunately what is here is still rich enough, and the kids playing Scout, Jem and Dill are all perfect. Badham is particularly memorable as Scout, a spunky kid who’s just as likely to beat up a classmate for insulting her Pa as she is to snuggle with Atticus on the porch swing for a talk when she’s confused about what Bob Ewell was saying in court. She’s a tomboy, but she’s also fond of her daddy.

And with Atticus as her daddy it’s easy to see why. While at times he’s depicted a bit too rosily, Atticus is patient, fair-minded, nurturing, wise and even-tempered. This was Gregory Peck’s favorite role – reportedly he instantly said “yes” when offered the part – and the role for which he is best known, even today. Pakula, as well as several friends of Peck’s, have speculated that this is because Peck was playing himself; or, at least, an idealized version of himself.

I’m very familiar with both the book and the film, having seen and read them both before. And this time around some of the detail in the Tom Robinson subplot struck me afresh; there’s a moment when Atticus learns that Robinson was “shot while trying to escape” a police escort. I didn’t even remember that scene from earlier viewings, but this time, after years of seeing real-life instances of police brutalizing black men and women – Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – I found myself distrusting the man who’d brought Atticus the news. Harper Lee may not have meant for me to suspect Robinson’s “accidental” shooting was staged, and some years ago I might not have.

But that’s part of the power of the film. It’s ultimately about Scout and Jem growing out of innocence and learning some of the harsher truths of the world; that their Pa wasn’t all-powerful, that sometimes people are unfairly treated, that some people are dangerous. But they also learn that sometimes the creepy neighbor is just shy or that sometimes doing the right thing when no one supports you is its own reward. And that sometimes there are no easy answers, and that growing up is a work in progress – both for a girl and for a country.

There’s a running gag about aspiring writers setting out to write “the Great American Novel”, but arguably I would say that Harper Lee already did, and this is the film made of it.