film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

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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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.

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Le Trou (1960)

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Back when I reviewed A Man Escaped – a French prison escape film, much like Le Trou – I speculated that I might have enjoyed it more if the script had given me even just a tiny bit more character development alongside the lengthy MaGuyver-esque sequences showing what our hero was doing. Le Trou still has the nuts-and-bolts “how they do it” sequences – but it does give me the character development I was missing, and I’m pleased to report that yes, I did like it better.

The film is based on a real attempted escape from France’s La Santé prison, and even casts one of the original inmates involved – Jean Keraudy, who effectively plays himself (almost literally – “Jean Keraudy” is a stage name, and Keraudy’s character’s name of “Roland Darbant” is very similar to Keraudy’s real name of “Roland Barbat”). The film even opens with Keraudy giving a direct address to the camera, stating that “my friend Jacques Becker” has made this film based on his and his fellow inmates’ own story.

After that, Darbant/Keraudy/whoever takes a step back as the story follows another inmate, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel). Gaspard has been in La Santé awaiting trial, and thus far his stint has been pretty uneventful – he’s polite to the guards and wardens, he gets regular care packages from a girlfriend, everything seems to be okay. He’s even apologizing to the warden when we first see him – the warden has caught him with a forbidden lighter, and he apologizes, stating that it’s not even working and he only had it for sentimental reasons. But he still surrenders it to the warden all the same. So when Gaspard’s cell needs repair work, the warden transfers him to another cell for his own comfort instead of forcing him to suffer through it.

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Gaspard’s new roommates are a little miffed when he first shows up, but Gaspard’s a decent enough guy who tries to make nice. In addition to the quiet “Roland Darbant”, there is the jovial Vossellin (Raymond Meunier), the wisecracking Geo (Michel Constantin), and brooding Manu (Phillippe Leroy). All hold Gaspard at arms’ length at first, but Gaspard breaks the ice by sharing the contents of a food parcel recently sent him by a girlfriend on the outside. After treating themselves to Gaspard’s foie gras, and learning he’s been charged with attempted murder, the others decide to trust him – and tell him that he’s caught them in the midst of planning a prison break, and since he’s facing a tough sentence, they’ll bring him in if he wants in.

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Much of the ensuing film shows their progress – Darbant hacking together various tools out of bed parts, Vossellin playing sick to steal some doo-dads to make an hourglass, Manu mapping out their path to the sewer system and thence to the outside world. And that kind of how-they-did-it stuff is indeed clever (I still want to try making the “periscope” Darbant fashions out of a shard of mirror and a toothbrush), but the real drama comes from the interpersonal stuff – Geo’s weird obsession with asking Gaspard about his sex life, Vossellin’s comic-relief instincts diffusing any tension in the ranks, and Gaspard’s growing hero-worship of Manu, cemented when the pair together discover the sewer tunnel that is guaranteed to bring the group to freedom. However, just as they’re about to make their escape, Gaspard learns that his charges have been dropped. So he no longer has anything to gain by escaping – but he could gain something by betraying his new chums…

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Le Trou depicts the exact logistics of the escape plan in very thorough detail, and that still occasionally felt a bit tedious; when the inmates move aside some floorboards to uncover the hole they’re digging out of their cell, I don’t need to see each and every board they move aside, much less seeing that each and every time. But at least here the floorboard-shuffle was occasionally offset by Vossellin making a Dad Joke before shimmying down into the hole, or the digging sequences were offset by Geo taking a break from the digging to confess that he was having second thoughts about joining the others on the outside. In short, we learn more about who these people are – and so in the final sequence, when we see the nasty surprise Darbant sees in his periscope, we’re not only viscerally surprised – we also know the subtext for it, and it’s got more of an impact.

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La Dolce Vita (1960)

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Roommate Russ came home shortly after I started watching this; he couldn’t stay to watch with me, but said he’d seen it before in a film class, and as he left he wished me: “Enjoy the unfiltered cigarettes and ennui.”

There definitely was plenty of both. La Dolce Vita is largely the story of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a gossip columnist meandering his way through Rome’s post-War club scene – both as a writer and as a participant. One minute he is covering a press conference with a curvaceous “Hollywood starlet” (Anita Ekberg) or reporting on a pair of kids who claim they’ve seen the Virgin Mary; the next he is trying to seduce the Hollywood starlet, or hooking up with an heiress ex-girlfriend (Anouk Aimée) in a stranger’s bedroom. Marcello, and the rest of the cast, are kept busy doing a lot of scandalous things – but it doesn’t seem like people are having very much fun doing them.

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But it seems that’s the point. Throughout, Mastroianni plays Marcello as a bit of a bitter cynic – he has a devoted fiancee named Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) but seems tired of her; even when he’s rushed her to the hospital following an injury, he still gets itchy and calls up Maddelena, the heiress ex, while waiting to see Emma. He swears to the starlet that he’s enamored of her, but doesn’t even bother trying to speak to her in English. When his estranged father suddenly turns up for a visit, Marcello can’t think of anything else to do but take his father to a night club, where Dad ends up hooking up with yet another of Marcello’s old conquests and ditching him.

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The only time Marcello seems to really come alive is when he’s hanging out with his friend Steiner (Alain Cuny), an intellectual man of leisure. Steiner seems to be a real confidant of Marcello’s – it is Steiner who knows that Marcello really wants to write a serious book, and it is Steiner who hears Marcello’s complaints about Emma. It is with Steiner that Marcello can talk about things like imagist poetry and Sanskrit grammar and Bach fugues instead of “who’s screwing who”. Marcello attends one of Steiner’s dinner parties mid-film, where Marcello is thrilled to rub elbows with poets and professors and musicians while Emma dotes on Steiner’s two adorable children. Marcello gushes to Steiner that he’s convinced now, he’s going to straighten up and get a respectable job and finally marry Emma and settle down and have kids like Steiner because this seems idyllic. But Steiner strangely discourages him – for reasons which eventually, and sadly, become clear.

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Ultimately Marcello has a choice between following his high-minded aspirations, or selling out. The problem is that selling out comes with a lot of perks that look awfully tempting, and can indeed bring a good deal of comfort and pleasure – for a while. And then you’re left even further away from your old goals than you started, and not even the thrills that thrilled you are within your reach anymore – and then what?

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Eyes Without A Face (1960)

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Side effect first: I’m of a sufficient age to keep getting the old Billy Idol song stuck in my head whenever I see the title of this film; if you are as well, feel free to listen to it at the link above and get it out of your system. Because 1960 French film has absolutely nothing to do with that song.

Instead, this is the tragic tale of a father who’s going to desperate lengths to help his daughter. Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a renowned plastic surgeon, has been guilt-ridden after causing a car crash which disfigured his daughter’s face. But he’d already been conducting experiments in skin grafting, working towards the ability to do a full face transplant – so he steps up his research in a desperate effort to heal Christiane (Edith Scob), who’s been shut away in the house and wearing a plastic full-face mask in the meantime. The only problem is that his research suggests he would need a living donor. And thus far, his donors haven’t been exactly 100% willing…..

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Critics and scholars don’t seem all that sure how to categorize this film. Dr. Génessier’s actions are horrific – he sends his secretary Louise (Allida Valli) to find his victims by befriending students and other young women new to the city and luring them back to Génessier’s house. There’s also some body horror and gore – one mid-film sequence actually shows Dr. Génessier performing the surgery to remove one donor’s face, complete with oozing blood and peeling and lifting the skin off and….well, to be honest I had started covering my eyes when the scalpel came out so I couldn’t really tell you, but from the glimpses I got it sure looked oogy.

But Dr. Génessier’s motivation keeps this from feeling like a straight-up horror film. He doesn’t like that he has to do this; he always hopes each time that this time the surgery will work and he won’t have to put himself or Christiane through this ordeal again. He even intends to care for and look after his donors once the surgery is complete, giving them the sumptuous attic suite and the mask he’s created for Christiane thus far (although, it rarely works out that way….). And Christiane is showing signs that she’s not entirely compliant either – she’d been engaged to her father’s surgical assistant Jacques (François Guérin), but has been kept from contacting him “until the surgery finally works”. And each time it fails. So she’s kept from calling him even longer, and watching her father try to bring in yet another unwilling donor and going through it all again. Christiane is starting to lose faith that this is ever going to work, and when Dr. Génessier and Louise ignore her pleas to just give up, she realizes ultimately she has to act somehow. (There’s more gore in that scene – all I’ll say is that I suspect that the creators of the Game Of Thrones TV adaptation may have been inspired by this film when they were trying to kill off the character Ramsay Bolton.)

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My biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t really flesh Christiane’s character out much further than this; she is nothing more than the pitiful unwilling subject of her father’s work. She wrings her hands a bit wishing her father would stop, she gracefully wanders through her attic suite, once or twice she dares to call Jacques just to hear his voice and then hang up. In one scene she visits the lab to cuddle the stray dogs her father has been using for his early experiments. And that’s kind of it; we’re meant to assume things about her based on “she’s disfigured and ashamed about it, because she’s a girl”. But the film moves at a fast enough clip that I didn’t really catch on to that until after the fact. Even here, though, we could have cut a few minutes out of that surgery scene to give Christiane at least one more monologue, yes?

Nevertheless it’s a complete story. A weird and oogy one, but a complete one.

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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

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While this British film may have been a technical achievement – and the performances are indeed empirically good – I personally may be too old or too jaded, or possibly too American, to have enjoyed it properly.

Based on a 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the story of Arthur (Albert Finney), a working-class nobody with an assembly-line job at a British bicycle factory. Arthur is not the most intellectually aspirational of fellows; he works only to make money to pay his parents some rent, and lives for the partying he does on the weekends, hitting up pubs with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) or fooling around with any woman willing to have him. Lately he’s been canoodling with his neighbor’s wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) – although this is a little risky, since Brenda’s husband Jack (Bryan Pringle) is one of his superiors at the factory. But Arthur doesn’t care – he’s young and he’s clever, and fancies himself smart enough to stay out of trouble. After all, he’s already “smart” enough to avoid the trap of falling in love and getting married in the first place – in his opinion, opting for the conventional life of marriage-and-a-house-and-all-that leaves you “dead from the neck up”.

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However, Arthur soon gets hit with two big curve balls. First is Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a pretty shopgirl he meets one weekend while stopping in at a different pub. Doreen is not a party girl, she’s holding out for a husband thankyouverymuch – but she’s feisty and sassy enough to intrigue Arthur, and pretty enough to make him start to re-think his attitude toward commitment. But not that fast – he still wants to sow his wild oats, and if Doreen isn’t willing he’ll just keep Brenda in the wings, going to chaste movies and dances with Doreen and then hitting up Brenda for some bedroom antics after. But then Brenda hits him with the second problem – she’s pregnant, and Arthur is definitely the father.

This film, and the Alan Stilltoe book which inspired it, were part of a growing literary and film movement in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Instead of the conventional, escapist films and plays from the 1940s and 50s, these “Kitchen Sink Realism” works focused on more working-class folk and their issues – poverty, domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancies (and back-alley abortions), and the lack of any real kind of options in life aside from going to work, going drinking in pubs, and going home. The main characters were usually young men who saw the emptiness and pointlessness of such a life and chafed against society expecting them to comply; it became such a trope that this genre picked up the second nickname, “Angry Young Men,” which in turn was applied to the authors and playwrights as well.

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It’s no surprise that the Angry Young Men were angry – British culture in the 1950s was heavily classist, repressive, and conformist. But then again, so was American culture, and so was much of the world’s culture. In 1960 the world was on the cusp of the Baby Boomer rebellion, which puts the Angry Young Men at the front of a wave which would soon sweep through and shake up society throughout most of the western world.

But the Angry Young Men weren’t alone, and England wasn’t the only place where this questioning was happening. And that was this American’s biggest hurdle – because I kept comparing Arthur and the other Angry Young Men to the Beats, the group of writers who were similarly critical of American’s conformist and repressive society. But instead of just pointing out the flaws of their society, like the Angry Young Men did, the Beats went on to try to carve out different paths for themselves – diving headlong into Eastern religion, jazz, environmental advocacy, racial equality, acceptance of non-heterosexuality, socialism, psychedelic drug use, and a plethora of other countercultural experiments. Not that their experimentation moved the needle much – in fact, many Beat writers ended up worse than they started. But at least they tried things – while the Angry Young Men, from the look of things, just pointed out the problems.

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In fact, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning seems to punish Arthur’s philandering, in a sequence which I found one of the most eye-catching in the film. Arthur has taken Doreen to an amusement park one night, and is surprised to see Brenda also there, with her husband and son – and her brother-in-law in the RAF, there for a visit with one of the guys in his platoon. Arthur manages to slip away from Doreen to have a chat with Brenda, meeting her on one of the rides where they can discuss Brenda’s pregnancy in comparative privacy. Except Brenda wasn’t quite as clandestine as she thought – and as their ride is slowing to a stop, they notice that Brenda’s brother in law is standing just outside the ride and glaring at them, the car they’re in whirling them past his angry glare over and over again. It’s an eerie sequence which bodes ill for Arthur, and shortly after he meets up with them he finds himself willing to give up Brenda and think properly of marrying Doreen (if a bit reluctantly).

So ultimately, instead of coming across as the Humble Everyman Speaking Truth To Power which the film no doubt wanted him to be, to me Arthur just seems immature and spoiled and desperately like he needs to just Grow Up already, and then the film ends when he finally starts to do exactly that. It’s likely meant to be a sad ending – but the only alternatives Arthur explores would be even more disastrous, so it is what it is. Now, if the film was about Arthur heading up into the Lake District to take a job as a fire marshal so he could practice meditation on his downtime, and then coming back to woo Doreen, I might have at least given him some credit for the attempt at bucking convention, followed by the regret that Society wouldn’t leave him be. But this plot just sets Arthur up for being a little…whiny.

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Floating Weeds (1959)

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I couldn’t tell you why, but for me this Japanese film felt French.

Floating Weeds is the story of a washed-up theater troupe and its summer stint in a small Japanese seaside town. By night the troupe runs through the same tired Kabuki shows which won them acclaim in previous years, but which bore modern audiences. And the town is so small that by day there isn’t much for anyone to do except for take naps, go fishing, or try to pick up girls.

That’s what the troupe’s leader Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjiro) did several years ago – in fact, he has a son in town, with an old girlfriend (Haruko Sugimora). Their son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is now a strapping young man working at the local post office to save up for a stint in college. Komajuro is all for it – he knows he’s a bit of a washup and wants his son to aspire to loftier goals. In an effort not to get in the way of his success, he and his old girlfriend Oyoshi have agreed to pretend that he is a distant uncle who just so happens to drop in every few years.

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In fact, it’s been ten years since Komajuro’s troupe has been in town – so his visit to Oyoshi doesn’t sit right with Komajuro’s current girlfriend Sumiko (Machiko Kyo). She stops by Oyoshi’s cafe one afternoon for lunch to snoop around a bit, and thoroughly pissing off Komajuro when he catches her there. They have a huge blow-up of an argument where he accuses her of trying to ruin Kiyoshi’s life, and he warns her to stay out of his business. But Sumiko didn’t even know about Kiyoshi before this, so this gives her the perfect idea for revenge; she takes aside another, younger woman in the troupe, the shy Kayo (Ayako Wakao), and pays her off to seduce Kiyoshi. Kayo is initially lured by the money, but Kiyoshi is easily smitten with her – and soon Kayo is equally smitten with Kiyoshi. So by the time that Komajuro discovers their summer romance, Kayo and Kiyoshi are both in deep, and Komajuro has a big problem…

I’d said that this film felt French in a way – perhaps I was reminded of the seaside town in M. Hulot’s Holiday, where nothing of consequence really happened and the film just followed people around watching them be idle. Despite the soap-y love drama with Kayo and Kiyoshi or with Komajuro and Sumiko, most of the film is really about the lazy boredom you get in small towns in summer; it’s too hot to do anything energetic, and everyone’s too broke to do much of anything else, so everyone mainly just sits around smoking, drinking, and gossiping. There’s a whole running-gag subplot involving three other guys from Komajuro’s troupe who clearly are only interested in women – they half-ass their performances so they can get finished early and go to the bar, they peek out through the curtains during the shows picking who they’re going to try to flirt with later, and when they’ve drunk through their meager stipends, the girls drop them like old laundry and they are stuck with nothing to do during the day but sit around on the beach and complain, or gossip about the unfolding drama with Kiyoshi and Kayo and Komajuro.

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Ironically, showing these three guys undercut the drama for me – and made it all the more realistic. In my theater days I did one show that had a six-month run – and that was long enough for a lot of the elements of the show to become routine, and for everyone to settle into a groove; we’d all heard everyone’s jokes and stories already, there were shifting and morphing and evolving grudges that ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned, sometimes one of us got extra money from our day job and could treat the others to a drink and sometimes we were all flat broke and spent the downtime sitting around the theater doing kind of nothing, watching time pass until it made sense to get up and start getting ready for the show. We also knew that as soon as the show closed we wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in the things that were capturing our attention then. We were broke, we were bored, the “what happens after we close” question loomed large for each of us, and gossip was simply more comfortable to think about.

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Because the troupe knows that the writing is on the wall here – it’s been getting harder and harder for Komajuro to find them bookings, and audiences are getting smaller and smaller and a lot of the troupe knows that their days are numbered. Komajuro seems to have some kind of soap-opera-y thing going on, but all the rest of the cast has is a lackluster summer in a small town, chatting with the locals or hanging out with each other and waiting for time to pass so they can finally get around to figuring out the next phase of their lives.

Hmm. Looks like I identified more with the supporting characters.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

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One of my go-to actions after I see a film is to look up what other critics have said about it. Sometimes it pushes me to notice something I might have overlooked; sometimes it validates my own “hey, that was great” or “wow that was terrible” gut instinct. And then there are the times it just makes me feel like a stupid doof because the critics are waxing rhapsodic about the stunning plot or the complex characters or hey, didn’t you just love the cinematography in the third act? And usually this happens with a film I flat-out hated or thought was trite and dull and predictable, so my reaction to that is “uh….no?”

Like with this – Roger Ebert described this Howard Hawks/John Wayne picture the work of “a master craftsman”. “The film is seamless,” he gushed. “There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water.” He further calls this one of John Wayne’s best performances, raves about the romantic chemistry between Wayne and co-star Angie Dickinson, speaks well of singer Ricky Nelson in his supporting role, and caps that paragraph off with a nod to character actor Walter Brennan providing “comic support that never oversteps”.

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However, I thought the whole thing was predictable, the “romantic chemistry” attributable mostly to that old “will they or won’t they end up together” trope, and thought that Walter Brennan was kinda one-note. Ricky Nelson wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t really have that much to do. But this is Roger Ebert who was raving about the film, so that left me wondering exactly what in the hell was wrong with me for missing what he saw – until I remembered that in matters of taste and aesthetics like this, my own opinion is just as valid as his, so there. (And hey, apparently Ebert hated The Usual Suspects and Gladiator, and loved Home Alone 3, so…grain of salt?)

Tradition has it that Rio Bravo was made in response to High Noon, and that Wayne signed on because he found that earlier film to be an “un-American” critique of McCarthyism. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks also found the plot of High Noon to be far-fetched – Hawks dismissed it as “a good sheriff […] running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help”. So instead, for Rio Bravo, Wayne’s “Sherriff John Chance” is the strong, silent type, bravely preparing to single-handedly defend his small Texas town against some bad characters despite a whole lot of townspeople falling all over themselves to play backup. He does relent and accept help from a few folks, though – “Stumpy” (Walter Brennan), an older and disabled sharpshooter, is left to guard the jail, while the younger “Colorado” (Ricky Nelson) proves himself to be equally capable with a gun but also smart in a crisis. And for sentiment’s sake, Chance re-enlists his old deputy “Dude” (Dean Martin), who’s showing signs of finally being ready to give up the bender he’s been on since getting dumped two years prior.

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The plot is practically non-existent; Dude gets into a scuffle with local bad boy Joe Burdette, a bystander gets killed in the crossfire, witnesses say Joe pulled the trigger and Chance puts him in the klink and sends for a US Marshall – prompting Joe’s big brother Nathan (John Russell) to turn to increasingly violent stunts in an effort to “persuade” Chance to let Joe out while they wait. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it subplot involving Angie Dickinson as a showgirl Chance nicknames “Feathers”, who’s half of a couple wanted for illegal gambling; but when Chance confronts her early on, she protests that she was roped into it, and Chance lets her go – but Feathers decides to stay around anyway, having taken a shine to Chance during that one brief conversation.

Really, the plot is just an excuse for the various characters to Do Random Stuff. Feathers and Chance have several “flirtatious” arguments where he stubbornly insists she should be on the next stagecoach out of town and she just as stubbornly insists that he should admit that he deep down likes her, kinda. Dude struggles with overcoming his craving for booze. Colorado drifts in and out of his various scenes, sauntering in to say he knows he’s not working for Chance or anything, but he may want to hear some of the scuttlebutt he’s heard around the saloon… Stumpy says “colorful” things. There’s even a music break, with Dude and Colorado conveniently starting a singalong so Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson can show off their singing chops. And Chance has ample….chances to look wise, stoic, big-hearted, brave, stern, or whatever random emotion the scene has decided The Big Hero should manifest.

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And, I mean, it’s not that anyone is terrible in their roles. It’s just that the plot points are so transparently nothing more than excuses for characters to show off different character traits, as opposed to being things that organically happen – with the most blatant of the “let’s show off this character” plot points being reserved for Chance, piling on the Heroic Qualities to the point that they are no longer character traits but rather Proofs Of Manliness.

So yeah, I wasn’t all that impressed, it’s safe to say.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The World Of Apu (1959)

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Good Lord Apu can’t catch a break.

The World of Apu is the conclusion to Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” – in which we saw little-boy Apu Roy lose his sister in the first film, then teenage Apu become an orphan in the second film. At least Aparajito softened the blow by ending with Apu embarking on a promising stint as a student in Calcutta.

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But The World of Apu rips all that out from under him right in the first scene – as the now-grown Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is dropping out of school because he’s run out of money. His principal is urging him to find a way to save up and re-enroll somehow; or at least to keep up with his writing, insisting that Apu has a talent for it. And for a while, Apu does live the starving-writer life – trying to write the Great Indian Novel while selling off his books and stringing together occasional tutoring gigs as his “day job”, living in a rented room near a train station and running behind on his rent. It’s not the most lucrative lifestyle, so his buddy Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) occasionally takes him out to dinner or tries to get him work to make sure he doesn’t completely starve. Pulu even invites him along as his “plus-one” for his cousin’s upcoming wedding, so Apu can get a bit of an unorthodox vacation.

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The wedding hits a snag, however – when the groom shows up, the bride’s family discovers that he has a profound mental illness, and the bride’s mother calls a halt to the wedding. The only problem with that is, the family is adheres to the then-common Hindu tradition that there are certain “auspicious times” for weddings – and if you miss your window, you have to stay single. So even though she shouldn’t marry that guy, bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) really ought to marry someone at the appointed hour. And conveniently, Pulu has brought a single dude with him…

Despite the unlikely beginnings, Apu and Aparna’s marriage actually works out quite well for a while – Apu grows up a little, taking a desk job to support them and doting on the pretty Aparna, and Aparna quickly adapts to Apu’s bare-bones lifestyle. They’re also visibly crazy about each other; and before long, Aparna is expecting their first child, and heads home to her parents’ place for a while so she can give birth in a bit more comfort. But tragedy befalls Apu yet again, and this time it looks like he may not bounce back quite as quickly.

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The bits with Aparna and Apu are a sweet, and ultimately poignant, bright spot in the film, largely because of the chemistry between the pair. Remarkably, this was Sharmila Tagore’s first film – and she was only fourteen at the time of filming (although she fortunately looks a bit older). Tagore’s youth may be what gives her turn as Aparna the impish, playful quality that I found so charming – she’s shy and scared in her first couple scenes, and understandably so, but after settling in she is swatting Apu on the butt to wake him up in the morning and teasing him about work. But it’s also clear that this is just their love-language – in a more serious moment, when Apu suggests taking a second job so they can get Aparna a maid, Aparna earnestly says she’d be happier with a husband who isn’t overworked. By the next scene she’s gone right back to teasing Apu about his novel and his day job.

Apu also clearly loves it – he waxes rhapsodic to his landlord at one point about how spunky she is, and during an extended sequence, he spends a commute home from work stealing peeks at a letter she’s written him, smiling indulgently as he reads her mock complaints about how he hasn’t written her often enough, and how he’d better come for a visit this coming weekend like he promised or she will be very cross. …And in a tragic twist of fate, just as Apu is finishing this letter, he gets an unexpected visit from his brother-in-law with some bad news…

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Honestly, the rest of the film pales in comparison to that bright spot for me. I’ve not said much about exactly what other misfortune Apu suffers, but that’s not just me being coy about spoilers. The bits with Aparna are just so vividly alive that everything that comes after – and there’s a good bit that comes after – doesn’t really stand up for me. Apu goes wandering a bit out of grief, and the film felt like it also meandered a bit. This could, though, be a sign that I fell in love with Aparna a little bit as well.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Apartment (1960)

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Welp. Moving sucks. I am still not completely unpacked, I do not have a television and it was only yesterday that I found the box where my coffee maker was stashed. Prior to this I hadn’t changed apartments in 15 years and so this was a massive upheaval that left me shell-shocked, and I’m just now starting to come out of my daze.

Something that helped immediately after the fact was a quick trip to visit my family on Cape Cod (it cut into unpacking time, but I think it was a wise tradeoff). I got to catch up with some aunts and uncles and cousins, played doting aunt myself, and let my parents baby me a bit. Fittingly enough, one habit my parents and I have picked up for when I visit is a movie night – and this time, I suggested something from The List, jumping ahead a little bit to 1960’s The Apartment; something which they’d both already seen, but were happy to watch again.

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I did know generally what happens already. Jack Lemmon stars as “C.C. Baxter”, a quiet clerk at a New York insurance office. Baxter is a bit of a milquetoast, but he has something going for him – a small and private apartment on an out-of-the-way street. It’s a perfect spot for quick trysts – or at least, that’s what Baxter’s superiors all tell him, pressuring him to let them use his place as the arena for their various extramarital affairs. They’ve all promised to help him get a promotion in exchange, but things are slow in coming – and Baxter is starting to chafe a bit, as he’s finally started summoning the courage to ask out Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pretty elevator operator in the office.

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Baxter’s luck turns a bit when his four “tenants” finally press his case with the personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), urging him to take on Baxter as one of his direct associates. Sheldrake accepts – but quietly tells Baxter he’s figured out that such glowing reviews were “paid for” by the use of his apartment. Instead of firing Baxter, though, Sheldrake wants in on the deal himself, effective that night. He offers the reluctant Baxter a pair of Broadway tickets to sweeten the deal, and Baxter finally accepts – it’d be the perfect excuse to ask out Fran. And Fran happily accepts; only she says she already has plans to have a drink with another guy first, and promises to meet Baxter at the theater later. ….What Fran doesn’t tell him, though, is that the other guy is Sheldrake, who’s been stringing her along for months now with unresolved promises that he’s going to leave his wife for her. Fran falls for Sheldrake’s smooth talk yet again, leaving Baxter stood up and heading to Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake.

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For a few weeks, Sheldrake continues to hook up with Fran in Baxter’s place – unbeknownst to Baxter – until the company Christmas party, where Sheldrake’s secretary (Edie Adams) – herself once wooed by Sheldrake – gives Fran a bit of a come-to-Jesus warning about him. Fran drags Sheldrake off to confront him in Baxter’s apartment – but Baxter sees them leave together, and heads off to drown his sorrows at a local bar. He hits on another patron and invites her back to his place, but when they arrive, they find an unconscious Fran; her confrontation went so badly that she downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills she found in Baxter’s bathroom.

Enlisting the help of a neighbor, Baxter saves Fran from immediate danger, and then stays home to look after her for a couple days while she recovers. Fran’s wounded heart is soothed by Baxter’s kindness and empathy, and she’s charmed that instead of wanting to hook up, all he wants is to play gin rummy and cook spaghetti together. But before long another one of Baxter’s “tenants” drops by for his regular Wednesday hookup and discovers Fran there, with Baxter. Rumors start to fly in the office, Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion – on the condition that he leave Fran to Sheldrake – and both Fran and Baxter find they each have a choice to make.

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I’d told my parents that I wanted to have a bit of a quick chat about their reactions to the film after seeing it again – and I was kind of surprised that the one and only thing they wanted to talk about was the sexism. Mom remarked on the “Me Too stuff” almost as soon as we were done with the film, talking about how icky and exploitative it was. Dad agreed it was icky, and wondered aloud “how often that kind of stuff happened in real life?” I suggested that if it was driving the plot of a Billy Wilder comedy, it was probably considered routine enough that Wilder knew he could get away with it being a plot device without his audience getting distracted. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” Dad said.

“It’s crazy, though,” I said, “because at the same time I really like the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. They do a great job.”

“They do,” Mom said. “And Fred MacMurray too. Although he wasn’t playing that great a guy.”

“I guess you’re right, and they thought they could get away with that story,” Dad said again.

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I swear I am not making that up. My parents – two people in their 70s, both of whom had seen The Apartment during its original run and enjoyed it – forwent any discussion of any other element of the film and talked solely about their distaste for the sexual politics. I did make that one attempt to nudge things towards the film itself – but I found that I also was preoccupied by the sexual politics as well. Not that it’s all I noticed – there’s the famous moment where Baxter is attempting to drain spaghetti in a tennis racket, singing Italian gibberish as he works, and another sequence where a last-minute schedule change touches off a complicated scramble on Baxter’s part as he negotiates different reservation times with his various tenants. Lemmon handles both moments perfectly. And he does have some fantastic chemistry with Shirley MacLaine.

But these days the premise of the film was just….oogy, to the point that it overshadowed all else. I’m starting to wonder what other upcoming films I may hold at arms’ length now.