film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Shop On Main Street (1965)

This film ended up somewhere very, very different from where I thought it was going to go, and left me a little punch-drunk.

Set in 1942, this is a story about the impact of the Third Reich’s “Aryanization” program on occupied Slovakia. Henpecked “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is a carpenter, but is no fan of the local fascist government and has had some unemployment issues. His wife Evelina (Hana Slivková) keeps nagging him to get a job on the crew building a fancy monument downtown, but that would force him to work for his brother in law Markuš (František Zvarík), who’s an officer for the government on top of being a generally smarmy jerk. But Evelina convinces her sister, Markuš’ wife, to pull some strings – and Markuš awards Tóno a job as the manager of the local sewing supply store. The current owner is a Jew, Markuš tells Tóno, and the Aryanization program has been confiscating all Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to Slovaks.

But when Tóno heads to the shop to take over, he has a little trouble with the current owner – an elderly widow, Rozália Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Mrs. Lautmannová is very hard-of-hearing, and also a little fuzzy on reality – she knows nothing of the Aryanization programs, hasn’t heard a thing about the Third Reich, and keeps thinking that Tóno is a customer. Fortunately Imrich, a friend of Tóno’s, comes by while he is trying to explain things to Mrs. Lautmannová and steps in to help. Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) quietly clues Tóno in that the shop is actually more a fantasy; the whole thing is being secretly funded by donations from the Jewish community to keep Mrs. Lautmannová comfortable in her old age. They stock it with just enough to serve the community’s needs and give her a modest pension, but the business isn’t profitable in the slightest. However, the town’s Jewish leaders have noticed Tóno might be sympathetic to their plight, and are offering to quietly pay him a weekly “salary” as well if he helps them keep up appearances. It seems like the best possible option, so Tóno agrees.

Most of the film deals with this arrangement, and the growing friendship between Tóno and Mrs. Lautmannová. She still doesn’t quite get what he’s doing there; she thinks he’s come to be her assistant, but he’s so inept that she demotes him to “repairman,” asking him to occasionally fix squeaky doors or errant shelves. Tóno also starts repairing all her own furniture as well, and in gratitude she gives him one of her deceased husband’s suits. They gossip over customers; they talk about the neighbor kids. She feeds him lunch every day. Evelina keeps nagging him to “find out where Mrs. Lautmannová is hiding her gold, because she’s a Jew and must have some”, so he quickly learns to hide the truth from her, spending more time just hanging out with Mrs. Lautmannová instead. But all the while, the noose is slowly tightening around the town’s Jews – until the day Tóno goes to collect his secret weekly salary and is told that the authorities are preparing to gather up all the Jews in town on the following morning and “send them off somewhere in boxcars”. Even worse – Imrich is arrested for being a Jewish sympathizer, with Markuš making a public show of him and warning that any other such sympathizers will meet a dire fate. Tóno rushes back to the store to warn Mrs. Lautmannová and urge her to escape or hide or something – but an uncomprehending Mrs. Lautmannová thinks he’s having a fight with his wife and makes up the guest bedroom for him. Tóno reluctantly agrees – the roundup will be taking place in the town square, just across the street from her shop, and he figures he can keep an eye on her that way and figure out what to do when the time comes.

And….that’s when the film turns. I won’t say that much about it; but the half hour “roundup sequence”, in which Tóno panics over “what to do about Mrs. Lautmannová”, was a complete sea change from how the rest of the film was going, and was in turns heartbreaking, harrowing, shocking, and frustrating. I was anticipating some kind of “escape plan” getting cooked up at the last minute – something hare-brained and loopy involving a makeshift costume, or something heroic and adventurous; but you do not get that at all. Instead you get something far more chaotic as Tóno changes his mind – and, sadly, his loyalty – back and forth again and again, for a harrowing half hour.

It’s easy for people today to speculate about “what I would have done to fight Nazis” – usually claiming that why, of course they would have hidden people in their closet or helped them flee town or suchlike. So all those people who just turned away and let it happen – they must have been Bad People! …But until such a thing is literally happening outside your window, you can’t know what you’d really do – and what you’d really do, or at least consider doing, might be morally questionable. This film ultimately felt like a reminder that this ambiguity is very human – and tragic.

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Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean once again excells with his cinematography and music choices for this adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel; and once again, I’m a bit lukewarm about the story itself.

The “Doctor Zhivago” of the title is Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born in the Ural Mountains but orphaned as a child and taken in by a Moscow family. He grows up to be a doctor, writing poetry in his spare time, and marries his adoptive sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Elsewhere in Moscow, a young woman named Lara (Julie Christie) catches the eye of her mother’s lover, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger), who date-rapes her one night after a ball. Her mother attempts suicide when she finds out, and Komarosky calls on his own doctor to discreetly handle the situation. Coincidentally, Zhivago is his assistant, and Lara catches his eye there as well. But Lara really catches his attention when she later turns up at a Christmas party and shoots Komarosky. Komarosky refuses to press charges, Zhivago patches him up, and someone finds Lara’s boyfriend Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and urges him to marry Lara and get her out of town.

But this isn’t just a soap-y plot – this is all happening just before the First World War, at a time when Bolshevik sentiment is also causing trouble within Russia itself. And soon both the War and the Bolshevik Revolution throw even bigger wrenches into our characters’ lives. Pasha enlists and goes missing in action; Zhivago is drafted into service as a field doctor. Lara volunteers as a nurse to try to find Pasha, and is assigned to work with Zhivago; and while sparks fly for them then, they behave themselves, each returning to their separate homes after the war. Only Zhivago’s palatial home has been taken over by the Soviet government and turned into a block of apartments, and the Soviets have been throwing shade at Zhivago’s poems. He soon sneaks out with his family to his father-in-law’s country home in the Urals – just outside the town where Lara coincidentally now lives. This time the pair finally become lovers – except just when Zhivago realizes he needs to decide between Tonya and Lara, he’s kidnapped by a band of Communist soldiers and press-ganged into their ranks for another two years. When he finally escapes and starts heading home, he has an interesting choice – which “home”? Tonya, or Lara?

When the film came out, several critics grumbled that the film markedly diminished the importance of the Russian Revolution and the resulting political fallout. I’m inclined to agree – Zhivago seems to be able to escape Moscow awfully easily, and we get little to no clarification of who the two warring parties are in the Bolshevik Revolution; we just know that there’s the “Red Soviets” and the “White Russians”, but other than that all we know is that they’re making Zhivago sad and complicating things with him and Lara. I was also frustrated by a character played by Alec Guinness; he claims in the film that he is Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, and helps get them out of Moscow at one point, but…mostly he seems to be a convenient plot device and that’s it. I learned nothing about how he was Zhivago’s half-brother, which bothered me greatly for some reason. Pasternak’s book includes more of Zhivago’s thinking about the political foment, but the overwhelming focus of the film is on the Tragic Doomed Romance between Zhivago and Lara, and giving everything else short shrift got me lost a few times.

Fortunately there’s pretty stuff to look at – the grey of a mine shaft punctuated by a Soviet Red Star, Zhivago’s in-law’s abandoned mansion frozen over into a fairytale ice palace, a rare happy moment where Zhivago contentedly looks out at the country field surrounding the house where he and Tonya live to see it covered in newly-blooming daffodills. There’s also the occasional moment of unexpected comedy – early in the film, Yevgraf is talking to a young woman he suspects may be Yuri Zhivago’s daughter with Lara, who went missing as a child. But when he asks her what her mother’s name was, she says “Mummy”, and when he asks what she looked like, she says only, “She….was big?”

I think it really depends what you’re looking for when you go into this. If you’re looking for a complex analysis of a character struggling to find a place for himself and his family between a pair of warring political ideologies, you may not find that here; but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic epic, you’ve definitely got that.

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Okay, it’s The Beatles. Playing themselves. What’s not to love?

Made at the height of “Beatlemania”, this comedy is a fictional take on “what being a Beatle is like”, following John/Paul/George/Ringo as they dodge screaming fans and then rehearse for and perform on a British TV program before being whisked away to their next performance. Norman Rossington plays “Norm”, standing in for Brian Epstein as the Beatles’ manager, and John Junkin is “Shake”, their hapless road manager. Rounding out the main cast is comedian Wilfrid Brambell as “John McCartney”, Paul’s cantankerous (and fictional) grandfather.

The film tries to get some ongoing plot threads up and running. Grandpa McCartney is a bit of a troublemaker, and Paul is insistent that everyone take a turn “minding” him – but he’s always able to make his escape. The Beatles’ anarchic sensibility and haphazard sense of timing causes the TV show’s director (Vincent Spinetti) frequent headaches. And every so often Norm tries lecturing John about keeping the rest of the band under control; something that baffled me, since everyone in the band seemed to be acting up and it felt like a weirdly forced note. But otherwise the film is just an excuse to let The Beatles jump between singing some of their biggest hits and indulging in surrealist or satiric comedy sketches – Paul flirting with girls on a train, John enacting naval battles in a bathtub, George getting cornered by an ad executive, Ringo sneaking out to play hooky and bonding with some schoolkids on a similar adventure.

And fortunately, the creative team behind the film realized this was likely the best approach. Director Richard Lester was hand-picked by the band themselves; John in particular was a huge fan of Lester’s film Running Jumping Standing Still, a surrealist short he’d made with Peter Sellers. They similarly were fans of screenwriter Alun Owen – Owen’s 1959 play No Trains To Lime Street was set in Liverpool, and they felt he captured their hometown right. But Owen won them over even more by spending a few days just hanging around with them and shooting the breeze; some of the things they told him during their talks actually made it into the script, like when Grandpa McCartney complains that his trip with grandson Paul thus far has just been “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room” – something Paul said the band’s typical tours felt like. Owen also used quips and jokes from actual Beatles press conferences for a similar scene in the film.

The admiration became mutual. Owen was a little more sympathetic, writing something that depicted the band as near prisoners to the machine of fame they’d been thrust into, while Lester came to appreciate their confidence and irreverence; they were unafraid of toppling some of Britain’s older institutions. “[Everything was] still based on privilege,” he recalled later; “privilege by schooling, privilege by birth, privilege by accent, privilege by speech. The Beatles were the first people to attack this… they said if you want something, do it. […] Forget all this talk about talent or ability or money or speech. Just do it.” Lester was also quick to come to the Beatles’ defense when a United Artists executive asked that The Beatles’ dialogue be dubbed in more “proper” English accents before the film was released stateside, sharing McCartney’s angry retort with them – “if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!”

So basically this felt like a mind-meld of Monty Python with a Beatles concert. And that’s a poignant note for this Beatles fan…For yes, I am one. Like many in my generation, I first learned of them as a child, starting with their later works; my father owned most of their albums, and for reasons I’m unable to ascertain, he always selected Abbey Road as the dinner music when we enjoyed special family meals. (I’m probably the only person alive to associate the song Come Together with steak and potatoes.) One of the few albums he didn’t have was Let It Be, but that was okay – our neighbors across the street had it, and they had a better stereo anyway. The Yellow Submarine movie turned up as a TV movie when I was about eleven and caused a mild craze for me and my friends.

But I also shared a birthday with George Harrison, and so throughout my childhood my birthdays often began with hearing the local radio station play Here Comes the Sun in his honor. My church also used his song My Sweet Lord as a hymn once or twice (albeit with some lyrical editing). I followed his solo career as well, and read up more on George the man as I got older, learning more about his friendship and rivalry with the others. When I learned about his fondness for Monty Python, I started to see him as a kindred spirit.

Then I read a bit about why he was a Monty Python fan. Sometime during the band’s tense final days, George went home one night brooding about how it looked like The Beatles were soon going to dissolve. He turned on some television to distract himself…and found himself watching the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He later said it felt like The Beatles’ old spirit of fun and silliness and irreverence had somehow been transferred to the Pythons, and he was tremendously comforted; that spirit was still in the world somewhere. George watched Monty Python constantly, later saying that it “kept him sane” during the Beatles’ breakup, and later befriended many of the Python members. Since the Python members had themselves been inspired by Lester’s work, this isn’t too surprising; but George took so much comfort from that, he felt compelled to return the favor. (But that’s a story best left for when we get to the Python’s own films.)

But this film is a glimpse at that spirit of fun back when it was living with The Beatles. And again – what’s not to love?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Before The Revolution (1964)

Somehow I feel like this was a perfect film for that weird week that comes between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a liminal sort of week where there’s no plan and things just sort of meander; a meme I’ve seen discusses how for most of December you’re feeling “festive”, and then in January you’re feeling you indulged a bit much; but for that one week, you’re “confused, full of cheese, and unsure of the day of the week”. There were a lot of good elements to this film, but somehow they didn’t gel, leaving me confused and unsure what I felt.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man in Parma, Italy in the 1960s; he’s from a mundane middle-class family, but has been spending a lot of time with Cesare (Morando Morandini), a teacher who’s turned him on to the Communist Party. And Fabrizio’s twenty-something zeal gloms onto that to the point that he’s considering renouncing his parents and his entire way of life up to that point – or, at least, that’s what he tells his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) one afternoon. Agostino seems to be troubled himself, but Fabrizio is too caught up in his Grand Life Plan to notice….so he’s taken by surprise when Agostino later drowns himself.

The shock knocks Fabrizio for a loop – which his mother sees as the perfect excuse to Get Fabrizio Some Help. She invites her sister Gina (Adriana Asti) for a visit; Gina is a good deal younger, closer to Fabrizio’s age, and Fabrizio’s parents think that she might be able to get through to him and sort him out. But Gina’s having a hard enough time keeping her own self sorted out. And so, instead of Gina giving Fabrizio some familial advice, the pair start hooking up. It does get Fabrizio’s mind off politics….however, that’s only because now he’s obsessed with Gina. He makes a half-hearted effort to turn her on to politics, introducing her to Cesare and encouraging her to join in their philosophical talk….and he gets jealous when Gina introduces him to an old boyfriend of hers, an older man she calls “Puck” (Cecrope Barilli). Fabrizio causes a scene at their meeting – but it’s unclear whether he’s scornful of Puck’s bourgeoise lifestyle or just jealous over Gina – and ultimately he’s left confused, full of conflicting ideas, and unsure what he believes any more.

So, I could tell that this film was trying to say a lot. And some of those things were indeed thought-provoking; good portions of the film suggest that Fabrizio’s idealism is misplaced and naive, but it’s not clear whether director Bernardo Bertolucci thinks this is a sad happenstance or just the natural way of things. (Although, there’s a late sequence at a Communist Party rally where two girls who are supposed to be handing out leaflets are more caught up in discussing Marilyn Monroe’s recent death, which suggests Bertolucci thinks the latter.) Gina’s situation is also left really frustratingly vague; there’s one scene in which she calls her therapist long-distance, and their emergency one-sided conversation suggests that Gina’s struggling with some fairly intense mental struggles. But – this is the only scene that alludes to that, and we never learn more other than she sometimes feels anxiety and can’t sleep. We never learn why. ….There’s also an uneasy moment right at the end when Gina fawns over Fabrizio’s younger brother in a bit of a creepy way (not that Gina and Fabrizio hooking up was all that fantastic, but at least both were adults).

So ultimately I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It was too good for me to write it off, but too unfocused for me to really sign on; and I simply couldn’t come to grips with it.

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My Fair Lady (1964)

Yeah, you know this story – this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which a phonetics and diction teacher makes a casual bet with a friend that he can pass a Cockney flower girl off as a Duchess simply by giving her a series of elocution lessons – but he does so with little thought to how his pet project will fare after his little experiment is over.

And Audrey Hepburn is perfect as Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl in question; she’s got the sass and spunk Eliza needs before her transformation, and the regal bearing she needs after. I could always totally buy her in both guises. She also overshadows Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, the diction teacher seeking to mold her; he’s fine and all, but he’s got the sort of speak-singing habit that makes me dubious. He’s also playing a thoroughly unpleasant fellow to boot; in the original stage musical, as in Shaw’s play, Higgins is an unpleasant and selfish fellow, whom Eliza walks out on at the end. The musical tries to soften things with a happy ending, bringing Eliza back to Higgins after he’s sung an epiphany about how he misses her; but Shaw was opposed to this kind of ending in his original play, and Higgins is unpleasant enough that I didn’t buy it in the musical either.

I found I had a similar to-and-fro reaction to much of the rest of the film as well; loving some elements, repulsed by others. Some of the songs are delightful – I’ve always been fond of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On The Street Where You Live” (I even sang that latter song to myself one afternoon when a work errand brought me to the block where a new boyfriend lived). And the musical and film both preserve Shaw’s ideas about how providing aid to people needs to be more than just a cosmetic fix-up; and how in some cases it may make them worse off.

That last notion may be the whole point of Eliza’s father, Albert, and his inclusion in the play. But I honestly felt like you could have cut him out entirely without the story suffering at all; he’s absent from much of Eliza’s life, and appears only to sing a couple songs and then wheedle Higgins out of some money. His songs are fine and all, and Stanley Holloway does okay with them, but they could have been cut entirely from the whole thing and I wouldn’t have missed him. This story and this struggle is entirely between Higgins and Eliza, and Albert has little to nothing to do with it.

Also, I simply was bored by everyone’s musical performances save Audrey Hepburn’s – even though, ironically, she wasn’t the one singing; her voice was famously (and unnecessarily) dubbed by Marni Nixon, a singer who often provided the “singing voice” for other actresses in this period (we’ve heard her before in West Side Story as Maria, and we also hear bits of her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). It may be Nixon’s voice we hear, but it is certainly Hepburn’s performance which sells Eliza’s numbers. Compared to Hepburn, though, everyone else felt stagey and affected.

I realize it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise. I didn’t dislike it, though – I was more just lukewarm about it, and felt it went on a little long, with too much time in between Hepburn’s singing. And honestly, that’s one of the biggest reasons I wished they’d cut out Albert’s role – the whole film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes without him, and I think it might have improved; again, not because Holloway does poorly with the role, but rather because I don’t think the story itself needed to hear from him at all.

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Gertrud (1964)

There’s an interesting plot lurking in this film. And, I’ve also been intrigued by director Carl Dreyer’s vision in the past. But here it feels like either a weird mismatch, or Dreyer’s style feels like a bit of a throwback.

In Dreyer’s defense, the film world changed around Dreyer dramatically in the nine years since his previous film Ordet, and he’d also been trying unsuccessfully to launch other films in the interim. When his attempts to adapt works by William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill failed, Dreyer revisited an idea he’d had in the 1940s – adapting a play by Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg. Dreyer settled on Söderberg’s work Gertrud after reading a critic’s analysis pointing out how much of the play was driven by characters settling for trivial conversation instead of genuine communication. Struck by this observation, Dreyer chose to stage his adaptation in such a way that the dialogue was more important than the cinematography.

The problem is that it’s always been Dreyer’s imagery that’s struck me, so in a way he was abandoning his own best quality. The story itself also doesn’t really suit the all-talk approach; it’s a period piece and relationship drama, with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) struggling to balance her younger ideals about love with a disappointing reality. She’s currently married to Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a lawyer and aspiring politician, but previously had lived a more bohemian life as an opera singer and lover to esteemed poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode). Her life with Gustav is calm, but stifling, and Gertrud shocks Gustav one day by asking for a divorce. Gabriel is in town for a visit, and Gustav assumes she wants to return to him – but actually she’s got her eye on a younger man, a pianist and composer named Erland (Baarde Owe). But that goes to pieces and Gabriel tries to lure her back – prompting Gertrud to finally tell him why she left him, and why she then was leaving Gustav, and why Erland also let her down so.

There’s some really heady stuff in this, and Gertrud is ultimately a tragic character – so caught up in an idealistic vision of What Love Really Is Like that nobody was ever going to satisfy her. Dreyer adds an epilogue to the original play that suggests Gertrud found her way to some happiness in a single life; I’m likely to end up that way myself, and I found that a refreshing change from the usual depiction of “tragically lonely older women”. But Dreyer is still pretty frank about how Gertrud’s monomaniacal commitment to those ideals of love is what leads her to this single life in the first place, and that’s also some food for thought.

The problem is that nearly all the scenes are conversations between pairs of people – Gertrud and Gustav, Gertrud and Erland, Gertrud and Gabriel, Gustav and Gabriel, etc. – with very little action. And nearly all of these conversations are strangely passionless, with neither person looking at each other – everyone seems to stare at some point in the middle distance as they speak, rarely reacting to each other. The most gumption we see from Gertrud is when she’s telling Gabriel about a moment from their old love affair, and we skip to a flashback when she discovers Gabriel’s written something that displeases her – but all she does is angrily rip a piece of paper in half and that’s it. Gustav has a similar moment at one point, Gertrud and Erland kiss a few times, and there’s a weird moment at a party in Gabriel’s honor when a college student delivers a lengthy tribute speech – but mostly it’s just people talking about how disappointed they are with their love lives, but in a tone of voice more suited to talking about how you had to settle for a different kind of cheese because your favorite was sold out.

So ultimately this felt like more of an intellectual exercise than a film.

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Onibaba (1964)

Several critics have struggled over the years trying to categorize this film. Is it horror? A period piece? Fantasy? An erotic drama? Some combination? Me, I say – “who cares, just watch it.”

The entire story takes place in medieval Japan, in a reed-filled swamp near Kyoto where an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet during a civil war. All the men have been drafted into battle, and any surrounding farmland has been torn up in all the skirmishes, so all the two women can do is scavenge, prowling the reeds to find bodies of dead samurai so they can strip them and sell the armor on a black market run by a neighbor (Taiji Toyonama) and consistently nixing his suggestion that they try going into prostitution.

Then another neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satō), turns up at their hut one night. Hachi was drafted the same day as Kishi – the younger woman’s husband, and older woman’s son – and he breaks it to them that he and Kishi both deserted the army after several months of ill treatment, but Kishi had been killed. Hachi made it out alive and had every intention of staying that way, returning to his old hut and laying low for the rest of the war. Both women are distraught by Hachi’s news – at least, at first. The older woman feels Hachi was always a slippery fellow and assumes he had something to do with Kishi’s death. But the younger woman can’t help but notice he’s kinda cute. And Hachi thinks she’s kinda cute too. And well, she is single now…and before long, the couple are sneaking off for overnight hookups, causing the older woman great consternation. As the days wear on, she goes to greater and greater lengths to keep the pair apart, first with threats and then spying. Telling the younger woman folk tales about demons who attack adulterous woman seems to work – for a while. But then the older woman meets a lost samurai (Jūkichi Uno) wearing a creepy mask, and tricks him out of it. Maybe if she wears the mask herself and uses it to give the girl a good scare…

There is a rawness to this film, an earthiness that grabs your attention. The women often sleep topless in their hut, and it’s not presented with any kind of hubba-hubba titilation; they’re topless because it’s bloody hot. In one scene, Hachi is following the younger woman from the river towards her own hut; and as he walks, the camera gives us a shot of the younger woman’s backside, which is exactly what Hachi is looking at. And the older woman also gets an intriguing scene where she stumbles upon Hachi and her daughter in law coupling in his hut – but instead of just being scandalized, we realize she’s got some sexual frustration of her own she’s also working through; which may be part of why she’s propositioning Hachi herself a scene later. But most of her motivation is a fear of abandonment – she’s lost her son, she may lose her daughter-in-law, and then she’ll be truly destitute. The war has brought her to this, and that is likely also why she takes out her anger on the masked samurai mid-film – these high-class noblemen dared drag her son into a petty squabble and that just ruined everything.

It’s unlike any other period Japanese drama I’ve seen; it feels more like a folk horror piece, more like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in a way. It also avoids any kind of cliches about the lives of these peasants – they aren’t simple people, nor are they unusual noble or cruel. They’re just desperate and scared and tired and confused and willing to do just about anything to survive and thrive, and if that means putting on a creepy mask or hooking up with the skeevy neighbor, then fair enough.

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Mary Poppins (1964)

So back when I reviewed The Wizard of Oz – another film I’d previously seen as a child – I was surprised that there were several scenes I had totally forgotten about towards the beginning. With Mary Poppins I had the exact opposite reaction – “boy, they are jumping right in with the songs and magic and everything right away, aren’t they?”

By all reports, author P. L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s efforts to make this film for years, and the songs and animation were exactly the reason why. Travers was very protective of her magic nanny (played here by Julie Andrews) who’s turned up to care for the young Banks children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber); Travers had based her depiction of Mary Poppins on people who’d cared for her as a child, and she’d feared Disney would shave off some of Mary’s strictness – a trait which Travers felt did her own family a world of good. She was also afraid Disney wouldn’t get that Mary was there more for the benefit of Jane and Michael’s father, a workaholic banker named George (David Tomlinson). But mainly she was dead-set against the idea of Mary cavorting about with animated characters and singing goofy Disney-studio-penned songs.

And…ultimately she lost that battle. I have actually read Travers’ book, and book Mary is very different – a good deal stricter and unfussy, still magic but much more practical. Book Mary would never dance with chimney sweeps on rooftops or let a chimneysweep like Bert (Dick Van Dyke) serenade her, with or without a backing chorus of penguins.

But I got the sense that this wasn’t so much about Mary Poppins anyway as it was an excuse for Disney to do a British music hall revue. The songs and dancing are front and center right from the first, when we meet Bert cavorting about on a sidewalk in a one-man band getup. And the next song comes just moments later, followed rapid-fire by a second, a third, a fourth…at one point I actually tried tracking how many minutes Disney was giving us between songs. And there ain’t much.

Fortunately there are many good songs in here – Bert’s ode to the life of chimneysweeps, “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, won the Oscar for Best Song, but there’s also rollicking singalongs like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “Step In Time” and “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, ballads and lullabyes like “Feed The Birds” and “Stay Awake”. There are so many songs thrown at you that it’s totally understandable that you forget the weaker ones (I never liked the “I Love to Laugh” scene, not even as a kid; the whole moment where a disapproving Mary demonstrates some different ways people laugh always felt forced).

Surprisingly, this rewatch made me feel like Bert is the real hero in this film. He introduces us to Mary Poppins, he does most of the elaborate dancing – and crucially, he is the one who finally gets through to George Banks about mending his ways. Mary has been bamboozling him and shaking things up, trying to snap him out of his rut, but Bert has the man-to-man talk with him that helps him connect the dots and realize he’s being a jerk.

That felt true of the performances as well. Mary Poppins is held up as the Platonian Ideal of everything – and don’t get me wrong, Julie Andrews is a fine singer and dancer. But Dick Van Dyke blew me away. Yes, his “Cockney” accent is broad enough to sail the QE-2 through and isn’t authentic in the slightest, but – my God can that man ever dance.

In fact, let me show you something. Here’s a clip from when the Kennedy Center did a tribute to Dick Van Dyke last year, with an ensemble into doing their own version of the “Step In Time” number.

They’re all fine… but the actual “Step In Time” number is bigger, faster, more energetic, more….everything. Even if you ignore the special effects and focus just on the dancing.

So, yes – it’s a jolly holiday with you, Dick.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

In some ways, this film is exactly what it says on the tin; it’s a dramatization of the Gospel of St. Matthew, adapted in Italian neorealist style by Pier Paolo Pasolini (who also directs). Pasolini – a lapsed Catholic – had gotten bored in a hotel and read the Bible, and been so captivated by the Gospel of Matthew that he decided to stage it exactly as it was – using exactly the same words and plot points that had caught his eye. But for me – a similarly lapsed Catholic – it was the neorealism bits that resonated the most.

I have to confess to dozing off a time or two during this; but notably, my drowsy moments seemed to happen when there was a lot of talking. After weekly Masses as a child, I am probably wired to associate recitations from the Gospels with boredom and sleepiness, having been woken up early on a Sunday and shepherded to church, and not understanding the priest’s sermons and looking out the windows half-awake and impatiently wanting to go outside and play or go home and sleep. I’ve heard those exact words spoken again and again, have heard those stories again and again.

But I haven’t seen them this way. And it’s the wordless scenes which caught my attention and woke me up, again and again.

One example: the very opening sequence, with Margherita Caruso as Mary and Marcello Morante as Joseph sadly staring back and forth at each other. The camera cuts from shots of one to the other, head-and-shoulders the only things visible, about three or four times – and then we get a wider shot of Mary, hugely pregnant, and understand viscerally the reason Joseph looks so upset. We don’t need words, we get the context.

Or the scene following His Baptism, when Jesus retreats to the desert for 40 days; Enrique Irazoqui, the non-actor who plays Jesus, is kneeling in solitude and stillness; hands raised, his white robe stark against the deep black of the landscape as the camera tracks closer and closer until we can see his face.

But even though Pasolini leans on the visuals for some of the storytelling, he doesn’t give in to elaborate special effects; his imagery is simple, but raw. When Jesus heals a leper, there’s no thunderbolt or light flash; there’s just a man with a disfigured face, and Jesus laying His hand over it – and then removing His hand to reveal a healed face. The Angel (Rossana Di Rocco) just appears now and then, stepping into camera; there’s no thunderbolt or trumpet fanfare, she’s just there suddenly, when before she wasn’t.

Speaking of fanfares – the music Pasolini uses is inspired as well. He chose music from several genres; his only concern was that it be religious or spiritual in some fashion. So the soundtrack jumps from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to the Jewish Kol Nidre, to a passage from the Congolese Missa Luba. The Adoration of the Magi is set to the sound of Odetta Holmes’ singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. A portion of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevesky Cantata scores another scene.

And Pasolini also has a good eye for picking the right face for each part. Irazoqui was an economics student when Pasolini cast him as Jesus; after the film, Irazoqui only had minor roles in three other films and then went back to his studies, going on to become an expert in teaching computers to play chess. Several of the apostles were played by writers and philosophers Pasolini admired. And in a slightly Oedipal move, Pasolini cast his own mother Susanna as the older version of Mary. No one’s performance is groundbreaking; but they don’t really need to be. They all somehow look exactly right for their roles.

The Bible passage about God speaking in a “still small voice” isn’t in Matthew; rather, it’s in the Book of Kings. But it’s a verse I’m thinking of connected to this film; the Gospel isn’t just the words, it’s the things we see. The things we see don’t have to be super-impressive; Jesus can look like a Spanish college student, His mother can look like any Italian nonna. Things can be simple. And – that’s kind of the point.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

This infra-black comedy by Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the best film comedies of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. I’d seen parts of it in the past and agreed that it was indeed good. However – it was in this viewing that I discovered that it was good enough to overcome childhood trauma.

I will explain in a bit. Hang in there.

This razor-sharp satire of the Cold War kicks off when an Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), implements “Wing Attack Plan R” – an immediate air assault on the Soviet Union. Part of the order involves a total shutdown of the base and the confiscation of all personal radios, a task he leaves up to his executive officer Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting RAF officer. Mandrake happens to turn on one such radio and is surprised to hear not a breaking news bulletin, but a routine music broadcast. Alarmed, he rushes to Ripper’s office – only to discover that Ripper has had a psychotic break and has called for the attack in response to some half-baked conspiracy theories about fluoridation in water.

But Ripper’s plan is underway, and dozens of Air Force bombers are now speeding toward their various targets. Word very quickly reaches the Pentagon, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) breaks it to President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) that “Plan R” was only intended to be a last-ditch retaliatory attack, granting senior officers the power of command only if all other superior officers had been killed in earlier missile strikes. And, as such, part of the plan involves the bombers screening out all further communication unless it carried a three-letter code, one known only to the officer issuing the order. So President Muffley can’t override Ripper’s order. Muffley immediately orders the Army to storm the base and arrest Ripper, when they will force him to share the code. But just in case, after a brief consultation with Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), Muffley also calls the Soviet Premier to break the news and offers him a list of the targets – authorizing the USSR to shoot down the bombers if the Pentagon is unable to sort things out in time.

But Sadeski brings up another complication – the USSR has just finished building a “doomsday device” which will automatically detonate if even just one U.S. missile reaches its target. The resulting nuclear fallout would contaminate the entire Earth for 93 years. Muffley and Turgidson are dubious – they haven’t heard anything about it – but Muffley’s science officer, the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), confirms that such a thing is indeed possible; in fact, he had been working on a similar plan for the United States. Muffley re-iterates to the Soviet Premier that the USSR can go ahead and shoot down any of the U.S. Bombers, since four of them are starting to get kinda close to their targets. The Soviets manage to shoot down three – the fourth is only damaged.

However – during the chaos, Mandrake has managed to figure out Ripper’s three-letter code and alerts the Pentagon. And it works! All bombers start returning to their base – except for the damaged plane, which suffered a radio short. So Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is still heading towards a Siberian ICBM site, prepared to complete his mission.

…So, everything about this film is ridiculous in the best possible way, and some of the best parts were nearly accidental. Sellers’ triple-casting was actually a studio idea – he’d played multiple roles in Kubrick’s Lolita, and the executives at Columbia Pictures felt this was a major part of that film’s success. I admit it’s an odd conclusion, but somehow the suits were on to something; Kubrick had already told Sellers he could ad-lib some lines, and three roles just gave him three chances to ad-lib.

Incredibly, Sellers was supposed to play four roles – along with Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, he was also supposed to play Major Kong, pilot of the rogue bomber. But Sellers injured his ankle before they were to shoot all the scenes with Kong and had to drop out. The part was written as a sort of “John Wayne type”, so Kubrick first offered the role to Wayne, and then to Bonanza star Dan Blocker – both of whom said no (Blocker’s agent said he thought the script was “too pinko“). Slim Pickens was hired on such short notice that they had to pause while Pickens secured his U.S. Passport (filming was taking place in England, and Pickens had never left the US).

Kubrick also stacked the deck a bit for Pickens – he only gave Pickens the script to Kong’s scenes, and never told him that the film was a comedy, so Pickens played everything absolutely straight – even the moment when Kong trades his pilot’s helmet for a cowboy hat was 100% serious. James Earl Jones, who made his film debut as Kong’s bombadier, recalled later that Pickens turned up on set with a cowboy hat and fringed jacket, prompting one stagehand to remark that “he’s arrived in costume!” unaware that this was how Pickens dressed all the time. Kubrick also played a similar trick on George C. Scott – asking him to do some larger-than-life takes of each scene “for practice”, as a warm-up before the more restrained takes Scott preferred. But – to Scott’s chagrin, Kubrick used the “warmup” takes in the film. Scott was angry enough to swear never to work with Kubrick again – but honestly, Kubrick was right. Turgidson’s bluster and bravado absolutely makes his scenes.

And that’s just the casting. Everything else about this film just works – the ridiculous trigger for Ripper’s breakdown, the inane standoff Mandrake has with a skeptical Army colonel, the one-sided conversation Muffley has with a clearly inebriated Soviet Premier, Turgidson’s drive to outdo the Soviets at every possible turn, Kong’s monomaniacal commitment to his mission. Even the music is spot-on – the recurring use of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic scoring Kong’s scenes, or the whole film ending with the sentimental Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again”, set to footage of nuclear explosions.

And that’s what I meant by the childhood trauma. Back when I reviewed Animal Farm, I mentioned that one characteristic of “Generation X” was a childhood spent fully aware of the looming threat of nuclear war. I first learned about the nuclear threat by accident at the age of nine – too young to understand the politics involved. The only bit I understood was that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could blow up everyone in the whole world, and they could go off any minute. I was still young enough to be slightly scared of the dark, and for a full year, instead of imagining that the monster under the bed was a big scaley beast, I thought a mushroom cloud was lurking there. Getting older only made things worse, especially after the broadcast of some made-for-TV specials in the 1980s about “what dropping the Bomb would be like”. For a good ten years, from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s, I had unbelievably vivid recurring nightmares about nuclear war.

Those kinds of “what-ifs” actually started in the 1960s, and I’ve been wondering how I would handle revisiting images that scared me so when I was nine. But the rest of Strangelove was so funny, the satire so pointed and the performances so perfect, that I found myself laughing more than cringing, my childhood trauma averted.