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Black Sunday (1960)

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A quick housekeeping note first: workload at my day job has gotten a bit heavier than usual, and that’s slowed my movie-watching-and-reviewing pace a bit as a result. Fortunately this will be temporary and I’ll be able to be a bit more prompt in future.

But it’s also why my latest go-round, Black Sunday, was a good choice as opposed to something longer and weightier. Instead this was a short monster/gore film, a bit of easily-digested mind candy that nevertheless lead to some food for thought. …You’ll see.

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Black Sunday is an Italian gothic horror film, but its Italian title La maschera del demonio – or, “The Mask Of Satan” – would have been a bit more descriptive. The mask in question is an iron one which gets nailed to the face of a woman in the opening sequence; Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is being condemned for witchcraft in 1600’s Moldavia, and the mask is one of the tortures being thrust on her, along with branding her and killing her lover and fellow witch Javuto (Arturo Dominici) before finally burning her at the stake. Asa’s brother is running the show, however, so before he nails on the mask – an Iron-Maiden type of thing with icky spikes on the inside – she curses his descendants and vows revenge. A sudden thunderstorm cancels the burning, however, so instead Asa is tucked into a remote corner of the family crypt, buried in a windowed casket with a cross permanently fixed within “eyesight” in case she ever tries to revive herself somehow. Javuto is simply dumped into an unconsecrated grave and left unmourned; and that’s that for them, the Moldavians think.

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But then 200 years later, a traveling pair of doctors run into some trouble with their carriage nearby the Vajda’s mansion, and start snooping around while the coachman fixes things – and discover Asa’s crypt. Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) thinks the mask looks especially cool, so he breaks the window to take it – and then whoops, he cuts himself on the glass. And then yikes, he’s started by a nearby bat and breaks the cross. Meanwhile Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) has run into pretty Katia Vajda (also Barbara Steele), one of the current residents of the mansion. Dr. Kruvajan notices she’s made quite the impression on Dr. Gorobec when he gets out of the crypt; so when the Vajdas summon the doctors at the inn later that evening, Dr. Kruvajan is more than happy to respond. Maybe he can get his younger companion into Katia’s good graces. The only problem is that the blood from Kruvajan’s cut is enough to start reviving Asa, and the broken cross means she is free to use her magic; and after telepathically reviving Javuto, enslaving Kruvajan, and trying to fend off Gorobec and Katia’s brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), Asa’s final goal is to take over Katia’s body and live forever.

So, initially I had a similar reaction to this as I had to The Wolf Man and Things To Come – it had a sort of B-movie, Mystery-Science-Theater feel, with moody gothic castles and ancestral curses and country-yokel villagers with torches and pitchforks. There’s a lightning-quick romance between Gorobec and Katia, there’s spooky music, there’s a wizened priest issuing carefully-worded warnings. There’s also a bit more gore to things than we’ve seen in horror films so far – spurting blood, eye sockets filled with writhing maggots, and such.

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And as I was thinking about that comparison, it hit me – what’s wrong with that?

In earlier reviews I’ve said that the tropes from these films got recycled in lesser films, and it’s these lesser films I ended up seeing first. Which is still very likely the case. But I still had the whole idea that anything you’d have seen on these horror-movie cheese fests would have been somehow less important – lower quality meant lower value. And that was affecting how I saw the higher-quality films later on; they were fluff I could easily dismiss.

But in all honesty, one of my absolute favorite films ever is Blood Freaka film I love precisely because it is so terrible. It will never, ever make it onto this 1001 Movies list; it’s a bit of an obscure thing that didn’t even make it onto MST3K’S radar. And yet I love every single poorly-acted, stupidly-plotted, cheaply-filmed minute of it, to the point that several of my friends have begged me to stop trying to show it to them. The fact that it is terrible by every possible measure is precisely why I love it.

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So….what difference does “quality” make when it comes to the value of a film anyway? At the end of the day, none – you like what you like, and if what you like happens to be a bugnuts movie about of vampire witches in Moldavia, then that’s all that matters, and the fact that it’s badly dubbed into English is probably part of the appeal.

So what I’m saying is that it’s taken this good film that looked like a bad film to revise my value judgement of bad films overall.

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Shoot The Piano Player (1960)

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With his first film The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut crashed onto the scene and established himself as an up-and-coming new filmmaker. But Truffaut suspected that people were kind of hoping for more of the same thing with his second film – something about kids again, perhaps, or something that was perpetuating more of this new “French New Wave” style that was now becoming A Thing. So to avoid setting a pattern, Truffaut did something different – an homage to American-style mob films.

Sort of. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) isn’t in the mob as such; he is the pianist in a seedy Paris bar, living in a cramped flat next door with his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) to a prostitute (Michele Mercier) who babysits Fido and occasionally lets Charlie have a freebie if she doesn’t have any other clients. Charlie’s older brothers are connected to the mob, though – or at least, they run afoul of the mob, tricking them out of the proceeds from a bank heist. They’ve slipped off to the family farm out in the country – so the mob comes after Charlie, hoping to capture either him or Fido, holding them hostage in exchange for the money. Charlie does what he can to dodge them and keep Fido safe – but the mobsters surprise him at the bar one afternoon, strong-arming him into their car. They also kidnap Lena (Marie Dubois), the pretty waitress on whom Charlie has a secret crush. Fortunately Lena is smart as well as pretty, and quickly puts a stop to their plan, dragging Charlie along on her escape. Charlie is further delighted to hear her suggest they should lay low in her own apartment – but then delight turns to shock when they get there, and Charlie sees Lena has a poster with his face on it.

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And featuring his real name. For Lena knows his secret – he is actually Édouard Saroyan, a formerly celebrated concert pianist who suddenly dropped out of the limelight. Lena is also interested in Charlie, but she wants to know the story there first, understandably. Moved by his tale – success drove a wedge between himself and his wife, prompting his wife to suddenly reveal she’d slept with the agent who gave him his big break – Lena kisses Charlie, and the two…er, bond. Later they slip away to Charlie/Édouard’s brother’s hideout to lay low – but the gangsters track them down, forcing the Saroyan brothers into a stakeout to defend their money and Lena.

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It definitely seems more of an “American” plot, as Truffaut hoped – but there’s still a definite “New Wave” feel, with some moments where we hear Charlie’s inner monologue or where the film dives off on a brief tangent unrelated to the plot, like a charming early moment where Charlie is running headlong down a dark street to dodge the gangsters and trips and faceplants on a sidewalk just as another man is passing. The man helps him up and walks with him a short ways, showing Charlie the flowers he’s just bought his wife and talking about how much he loves her before they part. That actually sets up an interesting thematic subtext for the film; Charlie’s quest isn’t just to stay safe, he’s also a bit of a romantic looking for Real Love, who’s half-convinced himself he doesn’t deserve it. Both of the occasions he’s walking down a street with Lena, we hear his inner thoughts as he tries to talk himself into holding her hand or making some other romantic gesture, or kicking himself when he chickens out.

Charlie’s hesitancy is all Truffaut’s own invention, and I actually liked it. The film was inspired by a novel, in which Charlie is a much more assertive character. Truffaut made Charlie more of a hesitant, beaten-down character – and it fits the character much better, and makes his story more poignant. When we meet Charlie he’s on the verge of convincing himself he doesn’t deserve any better than the occasional hookup, and hardly dares hope Lena would reciprocate his interest. Lena’s reaction to his story gives him hope – which eventually is dashed again. Aznavour almost gives a non-performance, barely reacting to the things that happen to Charlie. But instead of coming across as wooden, it comes across as numb – just as numb as Charlie would be, and that is exactly why I find that final scene, with Charlie just sitting and playing piano again, so poignant in context.

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Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

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So, this one got kind of heavy.

Nita (Supriya Choudhury) is the oldest daughter, and second-oldest child, in a formerly-middle-class Bengali family now living as refugees near Calcutta. The family had been enjoying a comfortable existence in their former home until the 1947 Partition of India, when they were forced to move.

Not everyone is coping with the change all that well, however. Father Taran (Bijon Bhattacharya) is trying to run a modest school in the refugee camp where they now live, but since all the students are poor as well, it isn’t that lucrative. Mother (Gita Dey) is still bitter about the family’s diminished circumstances, and takes it out on all the kids. The oldest child Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) is determined to keep up with his singing career, eschewing work because it would cut into his rehearsal time. Younger son Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal) and younger daughter Geeta (Gita Ghatak) are still in college, but have a bit of a taste for bling. And while Nita would also like to keep up with her studies, she seems to be the only breadwinner – and often Shankar, Mantu and Geeta have sponged off what little she makes before she can turn the bulk of it over to her mother. She rarely has any left to spend herself, or to get little cheer-up gifts for her boyfriend Sanat (Niranjan Ray), a similarly-impoverished student himself.

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I could go into detail, but overall, the film is basically the story of how everything else in Nita’s life gradually and relentlessly gets taken away from her, just like her diminishing paycheck every month. First she gets pressured to give up her studies and work full-time. Then Geeta starts flirting with Sanat and turning his head. Then Taran is injured and left too feeble to work. Then Mantu is also injured and needs a costly medication. Then… it’s a relentless parade of one damn thing after another, everyone asking Nita if she wouldn’t mind just doing this one little thing for them, or making this one little sacrifice, for the good of the family. And poor Nita bears it all stoically up until the very end, when it seems that even her life is about to be taken from her – and she finally protests, throwing herself at Shankar and wailing that “I want to live! I want to live!”

Director Ritwik Ghatak gives poor Nita very few options for escape from her fate. But what little option she has, she feels would be even worse – everyone in the camp criticizes Shankar for not working, since he’s the eldest and is supposed to be helping support the family. But Nita herself encourages him to pursue his singing instead – the pair have a close bond, being the more ambitious pair of siblings; more so than dudebro Mantu or boy-crazy Geeta. Nita doesn’t want to give up her studies – but Choudhury lets us see just how much Nita looks up to big brother Shankar, and feels that him giving up his passion would be an even greater tragedy. So, fair enough, she’ll quit school, it’ll be okay. Not like she can do anything about it. Choudhury stays so heartbreakingly stoic through all of Nita’s crappy luck it nearly sends you numb – just as Nita is herself going numb until that very last anguished cry. She still hurts – you can see her privately suffering – but it’s suffering she hides from everyone, never saying anything until she can’t stay silent any more.

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Honestly, my only nit with the film itself is that it’s meant to lay some of the blame for Nita’s fate on their refugee status – but the fact that they are Partition Refugees is more hinted-at than it is flat-out confirmed; it’s possible that an Indian audience from the 1950s would have picked up on way more cues about the family’s status and it just sailed over my head. But it honestly felt more like Nita was just as screwed over by random bad luck and her own selflessness, and you can find that in any family in any part of the world, chipping away at someone until all she has left is a torn photo of her brother, an old love letter from an ex-boyfriend and very little time left.

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Psycho (1960)

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In my review for Rope, I quipped that Hitchcock films were “spoiler-proof”. I believe Psycho is an exception – and, I think that affected my reaction.

I mean, I knew what happens in Psycho. I knew the twist at the end, about the nature of the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother. I knew what befalls Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the secretary whose actions we follow for the first act of the film. I almost didn’t watch this film this past weekend for that very reason – I was trying to choose between this film and one other, and polled friends to see if I should watch “the film that’s so famous I know what happens already” and “the film where it’s a total unknown”. People made their choices, but always asked what films I’d been talking about – and invariably when I told them, I would get a shocked “You’ve never seen Psycho?” and they would immediately insist that I watch it, even if it changed their earlier vote.

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So, I watched Psycho. And….I can’t help but feel that knowing what happens really lessened its impact. It’s a fine film, mind you – I immediately spotted much to admire in how the shots were set up, especially the moody grounds of the Bates Motel or Norman’s eerie “Parlor” where he invites Marion to a simple supper surrounded by a whole aviary of stuffed birds. That scene is also a masterwork for its two leads – both Marion and Norman have their own secrets, and are each desperately trying to keep them concealed, each one watching him or herself like a hawk to make sure they don’t each give anything away. Perkins is especially good as Norman – affable enough at first, and only gradually giving away hints that there’s something going on with him that isn’t quite right and perhaps you should be getting away from him. But all the shocks and surprises fell flat for me – either because I’d known they were coming, or I knew some of the film’s special effects secrets (i.e., chocolate sauce as a stand-in for blood in the shower scene).

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Roommate Russ and I discussed that after I watched. He said that prior to this film, movie theaters were a lot more cavalier about letting latecomers in to see a screening, even letting them stay to watch the beginning of the next screening so they could see what they’d missed. Hitchcock changed that with this film, he said, asking theaters to insist on punctual audiences. Hitchcock also begged people to please not spoil the film for others. That kind of thing can smack of being a hype-building trick – but I definitely feel like my knowing about the film did spoil it for me, and I really feel like I missed out on something.

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Spartacus (1960)

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This film clocks in at over three hours, so I was initially reluctant to watch on a weeknight. “It moves pretty fast,” Roommate Russ reassured me; that wasn’t exactly the reason I was uneasy at the length, but it proved true, and I ended up pleased after all.

Spartacus was in fact a real person – a former gladiator who became co-leader of a massive slave rebellion during Rome’s Republican era. This film was based on a 1950s novel about Spartacus – one which takes a few small liberties with the story, but otherwise is fairly straightforward, covering his origins in Thrace and his training as a gladiator, his strategic prowess, his defeat of several Roman legions, his growing popularity among other Roman slaves, and his eventual defeat. For yes, Spartacus and his men are eventually defeated – but it takes nearly the full strength of Rome to do it, and there’s a sort of Gladiator-meets-Braveheart tone to the end about how Rome has defeated Spartacus but not the idea he represented, and so forth.

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To be fair, some of the details about Spartacus’ life are a little vague – it’s not clear whether he was always a slave, or was captured as a soldier, or was once loyal to Rome but then was imprisoned, or what happened. This left screenwriter Dalton Trumbo free to embellish things a bit – giving Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) a “born-into-slavery” origin story, playing up the foppish cruelty of the Romans, giving Spartacus a girlfriend named Varinia (Jean Simmons). The historic record says Spartacus started their rebellion by arming himself with kitchen tools at his training center and leading the other gladiators in a fight for escape in Trumbo’s account, the incident which touches the rebellion off is Spartacus discovering that Varinia, a kitchen maid (and sometimes prostitute for the gladiators), has just been sold off to the Roman statesman Marcus Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier).

The film points out Rome’s decadence and ill regard for slaves fairly quickly. Early on, Crassus brings himself and a small entourage to the school where Spartacus trains, ordering the trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to entertain them with two fights to the death. When Batiatus desperately says that they don’t fight to the death there because, well, it’s a school, Crassus basically pulls rank and orders him. But Crassus ends up paying so little attention to the fights that later on, when Crassus is trying to defeat the rebellion, he summons Batiatus again to ask him what Spartacus looks like. “But…you saw him, in the ring,” a baffled Batiatus points out, reminding Crassus of his earlier visit. And even here, even though Crassus remembers the fight itself, he still doesn’t remember anything of what Spartacus looked like. He was just a generic slave.

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Trumbo and Olivier also give us a scene hinting at Rome’s sexual decadence; an infamous bathhouse scene which was cut from the film for a while, in which Crassus’ manservant, Antonius (Tony Curtis), is tending to him, and Crassus coyly asks him if he likes eating either oysters or snails. Antonius likes one, he says, but not the other. “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Crassus muses, “and taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals…my taste,” he finishes, glancing significantly at Antonius, “includes both snails and oysters.”

Wisely, though, the script doesn’t suggest that Rome’s entire problem was its decadence and foppishness. Crassus could have been made even more of a camp power-hungry villain; instead, they simply underestimate Spartacus and his army of shepherds, stable boys, cooks, wet nurses, and other low-lifes. The Roman Senate sees Spartacus’ rebellion as a minor internal police matter, dispatching only a couple of legions to put him down at first; the real Roman army was off mopping up a couple of border wars. Only after Spartacus’ army beats the pants off those legions, and three more sent later, does the Roman Senate start taking things seriously – Crassus included, possibly because Antonius has also escaped and is said to be fighting amid Spartacus’ gang.

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What Spartacus and his gang have on their side is determination and fanatical devotion to the idea of freedom. But fortunately, there aren’t any Big Dramatic Speeches to emphasize this; instead, director Stanley Kubrick does this quietly, by following a handful of different extras and showing them in little wordless cameos throughout. I started noticing them more often as the film went on – one white-haired old couple in particular, turning up in one early scene where he was polishing a battered shield while she washed his clothes or something, and then in a later scene they put up a tent in a camp together, and in another scene they danced together to a piper. There was also a young girl who kept on turning up in scenes with an even younger little brother in her care; and a whole family who dressed entirely in rags except for two men who wore bearskin cloaks, complete with the ears; or a young couple with a sickly baby, who sadly have to bury it during one vignette. The same extras turn up over and over, to the point that we start recognizing them, making them “real people” instead of the anonymous nobodies the Romans believed them to be. The night before one of their big final battles with Rome, Spartacus walks through the camp, and we visit each and every one of these now-familiar slaves, each group of them pausing to nod their hello’s to Spartacus as he passes. Spartacus returns their nods; they are free people, worthy of his respect. And later, when we see the battle’s aftermath, we see some of their bodies lying among the dead – and it gives us a start.

The rest of the film has much to recommend it – Roommate Russ was right about the quick pace, the writing is all quite fine, the performances as well. But I was most struck by how instead of bombast, Spartacus used quiet example to get its points across, and for me that was one of the finest bits of the film.

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Breathless (1960)

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I admit it, right up front here, that I am an uneducated philistine sometimes; I don’t always “get” the more experimental or unconventional stuff, and that sometimes keeps me from recognizing some of the more groundbreaking cinematic techniques as I see them. Like with Breathless, for instance – this film is regarded a founding film in the French New Wave, a pioneering example of Jean-Luc Goddard playing with conventions of filmmaking. But for me, all I could think as I watched was “oh my god can something please happen.”

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In my defense, I only caught myself thinking that during a lengthy scene in the middle, where our two leads are holed up in an apartment and having a meandering conversation. Those two leads are Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a French car thief who accidentally shoots a cop early on and goes on the run, and Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American expat working in the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris office as she saves up for tuition for the Sorbonne. Michel over-identifies with American gangster movie culture a little – in one scene, when he sees a photo of Humphrey Bogart, he spends several seconds trying to mimic Bogart’s pose and facial expression. Having a nubile femme américaine as his main squeeze is mostly part of the image – the fact that she’s also unfussy about things like fidelity and sexual purity is a bonus. As for Patricia, part of the appeal is no doubt because Michel is a bit of a “bad boy” – but he knows how to talk pretty, and gets her nice stuff on occasion, so it’s okay. She might be pregnant with him – but it’s not a big deal. Rather, the big deal is that Michel wants the two of them to run off to Italy together to escape the police – and she’s torn between loyalty to Michel and staying put in Paris.

My biggest challenge was that one scene in the middle – Michel comes to Patricia about 20 minutes into the film, seeking first a place to hide. Patricia’s willing to cover for him; and since they’re now both stuck there, Michel starts gunning for Patricia to either come to Italy with him, or just loan him the money to go by himself. Plus, while he’s there in her apartment, maybe they could hook up. But he doesn’t just jump in with his list of demands – he’s playing it cool, starting a lengthy conversation with Patricia about this and that. And Patricia plays things just as cool – asking him how to say different things in French, trying to discuss William Faulkner’s writing, basically anything that comes into her head.

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As a slice-of-life depiction it’s spot-on – this kind of roundabout conversation is the kind of conversation you have with a significant other when you’re both feeling flirty, but one’s feeling a little more libidinous than the other. You draw out the suspense and tease and flirt, but you’re also still into each other so you are curious about what the other person might think about things you’re interested in. But those kinds of conversations are only interesting to the people having them, I fear; for an outsider, they aren’t necessarily as interesting. Especially when they go on for a long time. And this scene does indeed go on for a long time – even Goddard, when the studio demanded he cut the film down by 30 minutes, made most of his cuts in this scene by “cutting out anything he thought boring”. Even with what was left in, I found myself glancing at the clock now and then during that bit, and it was a little bit of a challenge to find my way back into the film when that scene finally ended.

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When I was discussing the film with Roommate Russ later, he said that Goddard and all the other French New Wave directors were really trying to monkey with film’s conventions – how things were shot, how the script was paced, how things ended. Which is intellectually interesting – but sometimes some of those conventions are there for a reason, like “this is how you can avoid boring your audience to the point that they don’t care what happens any more”. My interest did pick back up a bit towards the end, but that lengthy scene came very, very close to losing me.

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Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

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If I’m being honest, this should have been called “Rocco And His One Deadbeat Brother”, but hey.

Rocco (Alain Delon) is one of the Parondi brothers, all of whom once lived on a farm in the south of Italy. Eldest brother Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) has already given up farm life and moved to the city of Milan, so when the family patriarch dies, mother Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) decides they need to pack in farm life, rounds up the kids and follows him, expecting that Vincenzo will do right by the family and get everyone jobs. However, she didn’t exactly tell Vincenzo she was coming – but Vincenzo has a surprise of his own for the family, having literally just gotten engaged that same day. At least, that’s what he tells Mama when she and the family turn up right bang in the middle of his engagement party. A scandalized Mama picks a fight with the future bride’s family, Vincenzo and his fiancée start fighting as well, and Vincenzo is tossed back in with his clan.

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For the first few months, the family can only afford a two-room apartment in a flophouse, with the brothers all working odd jobs where they can find them. The family more or less keeps to themselves, save for one eventful evening when an upstairs neighbor, Nadia (Annie Giradot) is thrown out of her father’s house for “sleeping around”; Vincenzo chivalrously takes her in, persuading Mama to give her some old clothes and food before she hits the road. But in short order, Vincenzo’s girl takes him back and he moves out; brother Ciro (Max Cartier) gets a mechanic job at a car factory; and little Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi) gets into a good school. That leaves Rocco and Simone (Renato Salvatori) – both of whom had some small fame as boxers back in their old town. Rocco was the better boxer, but wasn’t all that interested in continuing that path; as for Simone, he had the potential to be good, if he could keep his temper under control. A second chance meeting with Nadia, during which she gushes about how cool it’d be if he were a boxer, is enough to convince him to give things a go, and he embarks on a volatile boxing career – and an equally volatile relationship with Nadia, as Rocco finally joins the army.

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We then jump ahead a couple years to find Rocco in Turin, wrapping up his tour of duty – where he is surprised to bump into Nadia one day. She’s just been let out of jail, she says, where she’d been doing time for prostitution. She tells him that Simone’s career went into a tailspin at about the same time; he never visited her in prison, either, and as far as she was concerned they were never really a “thing” anyway. But as they catch up, Nadia realizes she’s quite attracted to the quiet, decent Rocco, and he in turn is moved by her sad fate and her determination to go straight; and soon, they become a couple. Unfortunately, Simone does not take this news very well at all, ganging up with friends to attack Nadia and Rocco one night. Rocco is spooked enough that he tries to persuade Nadia to go back to Simone – something which she is not the slightest bit interested in – but when even that doesn’t stop Simone from snapping out of his destructive path, Rocco resorts to more and more desperate attempts to help him.

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It’s something of a soapy plot, and I’ll admit it took me a little while to figure out who everyone was; I wasn’t even sure which brother was Rocco until about a half hour into the film. In the print I saw, a lot of the earlier scenes were dimly lit, so it was a little difficult to tell who was talking anyway. But I’ll admit I was also distracted by the fact that the version I saw was the English-dubbed print, rather than a version with subtitles; some of the voice actors held double-roles, and that also made it a little difficult to follow who was speaking for a bit.

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I also wasn’t all that satisfied with how Rocco and Nadia handled Simone’s jealousy, and what Nadia did with Rocco’s suggestion that she go back to Simone. However, it’s probably telling that I bought this plot thread during the movie – and it wasn’t until a day later that I thought more about it and realized that wait, that was kinda stupid. In fact, it wasn’t until after watching that any of the film’s warts occurred to me – Paxinou falls back on hand-wringing melodrama a little too often, Ciro and Luca and Vincenzo all but disappear from the plot for most of the film, and Rocco’s self-sacrifice is supposed to look noble but sometimes veers close to “enabling”. And yet, none of that occurred to me while I was watching the film – I was going along with the ride wherever it happened to go.

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The Housemaid (1960)

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Roommate Russ was having a videocall in another room when I was watching this. When the film finished, my overwhelmed cry of “Holy rat-fork” was so loud it interrupted his call. (Also…er, “holy rat-fork” were not my exact words.)

I am afraid this was not a cry of admiration. It wasn’t terrible, mind you – there are some good performances and some fine camerawork, and the script ratchets up the tension in the developing plot at a fine and relentless pace. It also makes some comments about class differences that reminded me of Parasite (and it does not surprise me to learn that Bong Joon Ho was inspired by this film, or perhaps by its 2010 remake, when writing his own work). However, it’s not so much about class as it is a twisted love-triangle story, heavy on the melodrama, and director Kim Ki-Young throws in a coda at the end that cancels out nearly all of the film preceding it.

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Our main characters in this instance are the Kim family – father Dong-Sik (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician and composer who has a “day job” giving music lessons at a nearby factory, while his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) warks at home as a seamstress to help pay for their fancy new house and for medical bills for daughter Ae-soon (Lee Yoo-ri) and the various school expenses for son Chang-soon (Ahn Sung-ki). But Mrs. Kim is also pregnant, and the house is a little too big for her to manage in her condition, so Mr. Kim hires a live-in maid, Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim).

But Myung-sook….well, to put it kindly, she might have some issues with impulse control – she picks on the kids by “joking” that the food she makes for the family has rat poison in it, she regularly pokes around everyone’s things, and she is attracted to Mr. Kim. A lot. …. A lot. And one night, after a steady campaign of seduction, Mr. Kim gives into her during a weak moment – and before long, Myung-sook is pregnant as well. But when the family tries to dismiss her, Myung-sook plays her trump card – she knows that another girl at the factory killed herself because of an unrequited crush on Mr. Kim, and the staff already has their eye on him. And if she were to go public about their affair, well, surely it would cost his job…Mrs. Kim decides that she can fight dirty as well, and talks Myung-sook into inducing a miscarriage by throwing herself down the stairs. But after the deed is done, Myung-sook doubles down on her erotomania and her blackmail threats, attacking the kids and even the family pets, and trapping the Kims in a domestic nightmare from which there is very little chance of any kind of escape.

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…Now, if that was all that would already be bat-crap crazy enough, but the performances are credible enough that I would cheerfully have gone along with it. Lee Eun-shim plays Myung-sook as an uncomplicated sort at first – the person referring her to the Kims describes her as “not very smart, but a hard worker”. On her first day at the Kims she raises eyebrows by chainsmoking (and stealing Mr. Kim’s cigarettes to do so) and by catching a rat with her bare hands and smacking it with her shoe. The crazy doesn’t come in until later, with her regularly popping up in doorways to glare menacingly at the kids or at Mrs. Kim, or to leer seductively at Mr. Kim. For his part, Mr. Kim is a mercurial sort who swings between being a loving father and a stern disciplinarian towards his kids (although he only lectures them, there’s no abuse here). One minute he is also gushing over his wife, and the other he is lecturing her about the bills. So it makes sense that his attitude towards Myung-sook could be carnal one moment and violently repulsed the next.

The staging of the “seduction scenes” also manages to stay squarely safe-for-work visually – we only see Myung-sook bare her shoulders instead of any other more salacious body part, and all we see of the “sex” is her slithering her hands around Mr. Kim’s clothed back in one scene, or a closeup of her feet twining around his as he sits in a chair in another. It’s a dodge, but somehow still manages to feel seductive.

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But the script also piles one or two other little details on that pushed things just over the line for me to the point I was rolling my eyes, like the fact that there’s yet another factory girl who has a crush on Mr. Kim and also tries to seduce him. Or the fact that three people all have the same kind of accident in the house, for wholly different reasons. Or how daughter Ae-soon is partially disabled, just enough to make her just slow enough so that she can’t escape one of Myung-soon’s attacks in time…or the very ending, which I will not spoil with details – I will only say that there’s a twist in the final scene which suggests that everything in the preceding movie might not have actually happened anyway. I don’t dislike melodrama – but even with melodrama there’s a point at which things are just too baroque for me to buy, and this film stepped just over that line. But then it made things worse by jumping back with a cheeky grin and a “never mind!” and I felt cheated.

Holy rat-fork indeed.

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The List Grows Again

So: in a month or so, we will be getting yet another edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Which means I will be adding another few films onto my list.

I was curious to see what they would add, considering just how weird the cinematic scene was last year, during the depth of the pandemic. Would they allow in any of the films that went straight to streaming? Would they accept any of the direct-to-video stuff? Or would they keep to the few films that went into theaters?

Advance forecasts say…a little of everything. Here’s the shortlist of possible new additions:

  • Vast of Night
  • The Assistant
  • Rocks
  • Saint Maud
  • Tenet
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • Soul
  • Never Rarely Sometimes Always
  • Lovers Rock!
  • Nomadland

I strangely feel like there was more to choose from last year, but – I just had a look at a couple “2020 in Film” lists online and there…kind of wasn’t? A couple of these options seem like odd choices, but they may have made it on the list simply because it was also a really odd year.

I won’t officially put them in the roster yet until we get a confirmation from someone who actually has the book in their hand.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

L’Avventura (1960)

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So this was not the right film to watch on a lazy, sit-around-the-house Sunday. Not because it was disturbing – at least, not on a gut level – and not because it was gory or got me fired up. On the contrary – it’s a slower-paced, meandering film, and if you’re already in a bit of a drowsy haze you run the risk of falling asleep midway through. I am embarrassed to admit that I did just that.

In my defense, nothing really “happens”, and the characters all seem kind of “meh….” about things as well. L’Avventura is a tale about a group of Italy’s nouveau-riche – Anna (Lea Massari), daughter of a politician and boyfriend to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzeti), an architect who’s just rubber-stamping a diplomat’s ideas these days. Anna and Sandro, along with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), are setting out on a cruise on a private yacht with two other couples, poking around the Aeolian Islands just off Sicily. They drop anchor near one when Anna wants to have a swim and then explore a bit; at some point she slips away with Sandro for a bit of a relationship-status chat, since she’s frustrated with his habit of long business trips. He brushes off her complaints and suggests they have a nap together on the beach. Anna agrees – but when Sandro wakes up a bit later, Anna is gone.

Nor is she anywhere else on the island.

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The party searches the island – Claudia and Sandro are concerned, but the others less so; one woman, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), even seems more bothered by how her husband Corrado (James Addams) has been picking on her all day, and even interrupts Claudia’s sweep of a cave to ask her what she thinks about Corrado. After the friends come up empty, Sandro suggests that he and Corrado keep searching while the others sail back to get help. Claudia spontaneously says she will stay on the island as well. The police don’t show up until the next morning – and they strike out as well. Although, one officer lets slip that they caught a bunch of smugglers in another boat nearby the island the previous night; so Sandro insists on talking to them to see if they saw anything. Claudia insists that she will in turn search the neighboring islands as well.

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As for the others…they actually seem more interested in getting back to the mainland, and a planned weekend at Corrado’s mansion in Palermo. And before Sandro and Claudia part ways, he suddenly tries to kiss her. He tries again when they run into each other on the mainland; Claudia is heading for Palermo to rejoin the others, and Sandro is checking out another lead in the hunt for Anna. But after making out with Claudia a bit, he finds himself suggesting they both give up the search and their weekend plans and run off together themselves. Claudia is torn, to say the least, and pushes him away – only to relent and rejoin Sandro a couple days later. And the longer they look for Anna, and the more time they spend together, the more Claudia is ashamed to realize she doesn’t want to find Anna….

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So, it’s not a spoiler to say that we never find out what happens to Anna. Because the film isn’t really about that so much as it’s about everyone else’s reaction to her disappearance – or, in many cases, everyone else’s lack of reaction. Sandro and Claudia are alarmed at first, and committed to a search, but take up with each other pretty quickly, spending more time hooking up in various hotels where there’s been an “Anna sighting” than actually looking for her. The others act like the whole affair was just an inconvenience in their cruise and move on to the next party or the next reception or the next infidelity, and by the end of the movie, so have Sandro and Claudia, with Anna being almost completely forgotten by everyone.

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This kind of aimless slow fade was part of what lead to L’Avventura getting panned by crowds at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, where it was first screened. And I do mean panned – the audience started snickering, then moved on to outright laughter, and then on to boos and catcalls, prompting both Monica Vitti and director Michelangelo Antonioni to run out of the screening. Vitti was just embarrassed, but Antonioni was incensed – the audience’s major complaint was that he’d included a lot of lengthy sequences where “nothing really happened,” causing Antonioni to protest that number one, the characters being lazy passive schlubs was his whole point, and number two, there actually was a lot going on in those takes. This film was Antonioni’s first major picture in which he used this kind of style, with long takes and seemingly disconnected events instead of a more straightforward plot. It’s a fairly cerebral approach Antonioni used to play up the aimlessness and disconnectedness his characters felt, and the emptiness and pointlesness of their lives. Fortunately, a number of other established filmmakers figured out what he was doing, and sent Antonioni an open letter praising his work and urging the Cannes Jury to give L’Avventura a second chance. And while naysayers did still give the director the nickname “Antoni-ennui“, L’Avventura went on to win the Cannes Special Jury prize, for its innovative approach.

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The fact remains that I did doze off during the film – but I think this has more to do with my own frame of mind, rather than Antonioni’s approach. There are some films that you really shouldn’t watch on a lazy Sunday, it seems.