film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries 60th anniversary: five films inspired by Ingmar Bergman's  masterpiece | BFI

Apologies, first, for the gap in the reviews. In my defense, my country was going a little haywire and then correcting itself and then we got a new president sworn in and all that was going on while I was doing physical therapy and…. but, actually, the biggest reason for this delay is that I legitimately wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this Ingmar Bergen film. In a good way.

It’s a fairly simple story – a doctor and professor in Stockholm, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), is being honored by his university, and decides to drive himself there. His son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) is due to meet him there, so his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who’s been staying with him due to some marital strife, asks if she can ride along and maybe check in on Evald.

Wild Strawberries | film by Bergman [1957] | Britannica

Isak and Marianne have some heart-to-heart talks as they drive, and the route takes them through many of Isak’s old stomping grounds from his youth; it also leads them to meet some quirky fellow travelers, like the free-spirited Sara (Bibi Andersson), a tomboy who’s trying to hitch her way to Rome along with two of her besotted admirers. Sara is a dead ringer for Isak’s long-lost first love (also named Sara and also played by Andersson) who ran off with Isak’s brother instead. It all prompts a lot of introspection on Isak’s part about the course of his life, the choices he’s made, and where they’ve brought him.

Wild Strawberries (1957) - A Very Unpleasant Dream - Turner Classic Movies

That kind of introspective story can absolutely be affecting – an internal drama is just as compelling as anything active. But filming that kind of story can be tough – you have to have something for an audience to look at; it can’t all be Isak pensively looking out windows with a voiceover describing his thoughts. So it’s probably telling that my own biggest complaint isn’t that Bergman didn’t show me enough; it’s that he staged the story so well that I wanted to hear more.

Bergman said once that this film sprang from an idea he had when driving past his grandmother’s old house – imagining what it would be like if he pulled over and walked through the door, and were transported instantly back to his grandmother’s house circa 20 years earlier, with his grandma in the kitchen and his cousins and parents all bumbling around doing whatever they were doing. Bergman uses that technique a couple times – Isak imagining himself back in his youth, interacting with his first love and his cousins and parents, or Isak remembering an argument with his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) about their unhappy marriage. A couple of highly-symbolic dream sequences also hint at his inner turmoil.

Bergman at 100: Wild Strawberries & The Virgin Spring (Double Feature) |  Detroit Institute of Arts Museum

But I ended up learning more about Isak’s mental journey through the conversations he had with the rest of his little troupe. He and Marianne are icily formal at first – he’s been happy to take her in, but not happy that his son’s marriage is on the rocks – and she’s always found him to be a little too dictatorial and formal, and even a little cruel to Ervald. She straight-up tells him so early on in the trip. But by the end of the film they’ve come to understand each other, and in her last scene, just as Marianne is leaving to meet Ervald for a bit of a peace conference, Marianne stops, turns back to Isak , and fondly says “I like you, you know.” The cheeky Sara and her two swains also undergo some growth – they come across as brash hipsters at first, deliberately saying scandalous things to get a rise out of Marianne and Isak (“I’d better tell you I’m a virgin,” Sara casually mentions when she gets in their car; “that’s why I’m so cheeky”). But Marianne starts mother-henning them, Isak is especially indulgent to Sara, and the road trip is such a bonding experience for them that instead of continuing on their hike, the teens end up hovering in the crowd outside Isak’s ceremony to wave and cheer him on.

Maybe that’s what has me disappointed – Marianne and the kids undergo a more obvious change over the course of the film, but for Isak it’s more of an internal thing. Marianne has come to better understand Isak, which in turn helps her understand Ervald and perhaps start to mend fences. And Sara drops the brash front she’s been using on Isak and lets some genuine sweetness come through. But Isak doesn’t really get as much of an obvious “reward” for his journey, save for some insight about his own past. Which is still a lot, of course; Isak ends the film comforted by old memories instead of tortured by them. But I wanted to see him do something with that insight – have a talk with Ervald himself! go on his own trip to Rome! leave Stockholm for good! – instead of experiencing a moment of inner peace and then going to sleep. One of the final memory/flashbacks in the film was so idyllic and so vivid I was expecting it to lead into a discovery that Isak had died in his sleep, and was a little thrown when it didn’t.

Wild Strawberries (film) - Alchetron, the free social encyclopedia

Ugh – I hate that it sounds like this is a dismissal, because it’s not. On the contrary, I think the very fact that I was able to get such a clear picture of Isak’s mental state to the point that I wanted to see more of it is a sign that Bergman was successful in conveying that state to me in the first place. I’m a little like Marianne – by the end of the film I kind of liked Isak too and wanted to know he was going to be okay.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

12 Angry Men (1957)

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Several years ago, I was talking with friends about how I’d just been dismissed from jury duty; I’d sat in the jury pool for just one day and got called into one voir dire, but that was it. I was complaining that I hadn’t been selected for a jury, as I was curious to take that task on someday. “Oh, I don’t think you’d ever be picked for a jury,” one friend said. “You ask too many questions and think too much.”

“Wait, why is that a bad thing?”

“Put yourself in the lawyers’ shoes,” he went on. “Would you want someone like you poking holes in their cases, or someone who accepts what they say?”

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This classic courtroom drama (or, rather, a jury room drama) is an illustration of what my friend was getting at. The “twelve angry men” of the title are the twelve jury members in a murder trial, charged with deciding the fate of a teenage boy accused of stabbing his father. Eleven of them are ready to convict right away, but one (Henry Fonda) isn’t so sure; he insists they take a more careful look at the evidence. And as they do over the course of 90 minutes, the others find they might have second thoughts.

It’s a simple and straightforward story that’s been told and retold a lot. The original work was a teleplay from 1953 which was so well-received that director Sidney Lumet was able to give it a full cinema treatment. It’s also enjoyed more recent re-stagings for television and on stage, both on the professional circuit and the high-school-drama-club market. It’s so familiar that when I was recounting the plot to my physical therapist the other day, someone across the room overheard and asked, “you’re talking about 12 Angry Men, right?”

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And yet the fact that I knew exactly what was going to happen did not make this any less gripping. The story isn’t so much about the actual verdict itself, but rather about what each of the twelve men on the jury are thinking, why they’re thinking it, and precisely what props up those thoughts – and what perspective makes them change their minds. We only learn the things about them which impact their feelings about the case – one juror (Joseph Sweeney) is an elderly man who realizes a witness, also older, is too feeble to have moved quickly enough for him to have seen the crime at all. Another (Jack Klugman) is a soft-spoken wallflower with a deceptively hard past – one which has given him a familiarity with switchblades, which leads him to realize the evidence about the stab wound is all wrong. Two other jurors (Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley) are influenced by unconscious bias, while another (Jack Warden) just wants to make it to a Yankees game in time and goes along with whatever the current mood of the room might be. And the pivotal juror (Henry Fonda) is a meticulous thinker who simply happens to take jury duty very seriously.

Sidney Lumet uses some subtle camera tricks to play up the tension in the room – gradually filming in tighter and tighter closeups to make scenes feel claustrophobic, or periodically emphasizing the growing heat in the room. But I didn’t even notice these things as I was getting swept up in the unfolding jury deliberation.

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I was also uncomfortably realizing how unique a courtroom drama it is – because it’s a best-case scenario. Most other courtroom dramas focus on the court instead – the lawyers grilling witnesses, the defendant stoically listening to their accusers. The good lawyers are all eloquent and persuasive; the bad lawyers all either make dumb mistakes or are biased themselves. We rarely hear from the jury at all, which is wild considering they are the most critical element of any trial – they are the ones tasked with sorting through the truth of what those eloquent lawyers and witnesses have been saying. And, as this film reminds us, sometimes the truth isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as Jack McCoy or Perry Mason would have us believe.

To be fair, this particular jury room discussion felt a tiny bit scripted once or twice – there were a couple jurors who changed their minds a little too easily, and Henry Fonda had a couple of speeches about the importance of their duties which got a tiny bit florid. But it still gave me a lot of food for thought at what kind of narrative our society tells itself about how “Law and Order” actually works. In the introduction to that famous TV show, the narrator relates that the show is about “two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” But this film reminds me that a third group, “the juries who evaluate their arguments,” are missing from that story.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory movie review & film summary (1957) | Roger Ebert

Roommate Russ has been eager to show this one to me, as it illustrates a theory – that with really good filmmakers, you can often tell everything you need to know about a film from just watching the very first shot. And in retrospect I can indeed see what he means.

Granted, there is a narration that helps set the scene here – drily relating some historical facts about France’s involvement in the First World War, and how much of the battles did nothing more than keep things in a state of gridlock, with French and English armies facing off against German troops, both dug into their trenches with little advances on either side. However, the scene we are watching unfold during this narration is not a scene of pitched battle; rather, it is a much more civilized affair, with the French corps commander General Georges Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) arriving at the chateau serving as headquarters for a division commander, General Paul Mireau (George Macready). General Broulard walks right past a somewhat superfluously large squad of footsoldiers at the gate and starts out making small talk with General Mireau, complimenting what he’s done with the chateau before he even brings up the cause of his visit.

Paths of Glory »

For this is not a war film about bravery in combat; instead, it is a war film about how the generals planning the war are often completely removed from the realities of combat, and how their underlings suffer because of it. In this instance, Broulard has come to ask Mireau to oversee a risky attack on a heavily-fortified German outpost. Mireau balks initially – the risk is so great that the attack could wipe out half his men – but all Broulard has to do is hint that Mireau may win commendation for his efforts, possibly even a promotion, and Mireau is all in.

The regiment’s on-the-ground commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), is more alarmed at the risk than Mireau is; but Mireau is by now all-in on the attack, and insists Colonel Dax take charge and rally the men. And to his credit, Dax does what he can, buying his men as much artillery cover as he can and leading the initial charge himself. But the attack is even more of a bloodbath than everyone thought, and the various squad leaders call hasty retreats to spare as many of their men as possible. The B company even flat-out refuses to leave their trench when the see the massacre – even when Dax tries doubling back and jumping into their trench to urge them on, he is cut off mid-sentence when another soldier takes a shot and falls on him, cementing the company’s decision to stay put.

Paths of Glory Movie Review

Mireau doesn’t like this at all. He insists that 100 of the remaining soldiers be court-martialed for “cowardice” as an example to the others, but Broulard manages to talk him down to trying just three, while Dax insists on serving as their defense counsel out of concern for protocol. Dax’s concerns are justified – not only do the three soldiers on trial seem to have been randomly selected, but the trial is a kangaroo court, with no chance for Dax to submit evidence for the defense, no logic to the charges, and no record being kept of the proceedings. Mireau just wants to punish someone to save face, the leadership seems ready to let him get away with it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything Dax can do about it.

That last bit was the bit that surprised me most. There are more than a few instances where it seems Dax has come upon a way to Save The Day – an impassioned appeal to the jurors, pages of testimonials on their behalf, an account of some shady hijinks from Mireau. His arguments land – you can see the jurors flinch at his attacks, or their distress as evidence of the soldier’s innocence mounts. And yet…his efforts very nearly come to naught. (I am being as vague as I possibly can there.)

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory mixes World War 1's most potent myths with  reality | All About History

The tone of this film felt almost ahead of its time – or, maybe director Stanley Kubrick had more of an impact on film than I thought. For this was one of his earlier works; I’ve seen some of Kubrick’s later works from the 1970s, and this felt like a 1970s film, something that Kubrick might have produced alongside other post-Vietnam films like The Deerhunter or something. But this was well before Vietnam, a full decade before the kind of films I’m thinking of. The source material is even earlier – this film was based on a book from the 1930s by a Canadian-American screenwriter, Humphrey Cobb, a clearly disillusioned World War I veteran. No doubt it was Cobb who included the brief scenes between the soldiers speculating on the upcoming battle or grumbling about their tin-eared superiors. But I suspect Kubrick had a big hand in an early scene where Mireau is strolling through the trenches on his way to speak to Dax, every so often stopping to jovially ask random soldiers “So, are you ready to kill more Germans?”….followed in one case by Mireau indignantly discharging one soldier when it becomes clear the man is shell-shocked.

Paths of Glory (1957) Movie Summary and Film Synopsis on MHM

“War is hell” isn’t the most unique message to be sure. But this was an unusual message for its time – this was also a time when there were many heroic War Movies celebrating battles from World War II, celebrating the General Mireaus of the war – and conveniently overlooking the Colonel Daxes.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Watch The Seventh Seal online - BFI Player

I knew of this film before. I’d never seen it, but knew one of the basic plot points – a medieval knight engaged in an ongoing chess game with Death – because it’s been a frequent subject of parody. What I didn’t expect is for this film itself to have moments of comedy.

The knight in question, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is newly back in Sweden, home from one of the Crusades, and has come to find that the Great Plague is in full force. In fact, Death (Bengt Ekerot) has come to claim him and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand, who we last saw star in Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night) as soon as they’ve landed ashore, and Block’s chess challenge is his effort to save them both. For Block is having a military veteran’s crisis of conscience; the battle was pointless, he feels, and he’s now wondering if his whole life has been similarly pointless. He wants to buy the time to do one “meaningful deed” before he dies.

Ingmar Bergman The Seventh Seal] - YouTube

Block and Jöns encounter some more colorful characters as they travel – a pair of acrobats (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson) traveling with their infant son, a mute girl (Gunnel Lindblom) whom Jöns rescues from an assault, a mad woman (Maud Hansson) condemned to burn for witchcraft, a whole parade of flagellants. Jöns drafts the girl into his own service, and Block offers the acrobats shelter in his castle after they share a simple picnic breakfast with him. But with each new member of their party, Death returns to warn Block that he can just as easily take them too if Block loses their game. Finally, when Block is nearly beaten, he figures out a way to do the “one meaningful deed” he wanted to do – albeit in a much quieter way than he thought he would.

Seven reasons to celebrate The Seventh Seal – Ingmar Bergman's medieval  masterpiece turns 60 | BFI

The worst thing I can think to say about the film is that the characters feel a little “modern” for a medieval period piece. There’s a scene with Block confessing to a figure he thinks is a priest (I’m being vague on purpose), but his confession sounds far more like he’s talking to a therapist about an existential crisis. The acrobats, Jof and Mia, look a little underdressed for medieval Sweden – and I don’t mean in the style sense, either; Mia spends most of the film in a sleeveless top and skirt, which in the Middle Ages would have been underwear. Jöns is the most modern – he’s an atheist cynic, who has a whole extended scene where he takes a muralist in a church to task for feeding into the kind of religious fervor that spurred on the Crusades in the first place. These are not medieval characters – these are modern characters in a sort of existential Renaissance Faire.

The Seventh Seal: There Go the Clowns | The Current | The Criterion  Collection

But honestly, I didn’t care, because the characters are also engaging. Mia and Jof come across as friendly hippies, almost – easily delighted by wild strawberries and happy to share their bounty with the weary Block. They aren’t intimidated by him in the slightest – on the contrary, they’re all too happy to welcome him to their picnic. And Jöns’ cynicism lead to one of the funnier sequences, when he is eavesdropping on a group of people having an argument and ends up coaching one of the quarrelers on how to deliver some particularly juicy insults. Block was possibly the least interesting character – he spent most of the film in a state of angst and seemed boring compared to the lively Mia or Jöns. Granted, he had reason to, but.

The film also just plain looks gorgeous, with several scenes taking place out in the open amid stunningly rocky beaches, sun-dappled meadows, and big open skies. Bergman also borrowed heavily from medieval art for his imagery – the notion of Death playing chess with a victim was based on an image he saw in a Stockholm church, and the film’s final sequence owes an homage to the Danse Macabre, a popular motif in medieval artwork in which Death leads a whole parade of newly-dead in a dance off to the netherworld.

In The Seventh Seal, Von Sydow Did the Danse Macabre - Paste

Speaking of that final dance – there’s a funny story Bergman later shared in his autobiography. They’d just about wrapped filming for the day at a nature preserve, and the actors had all gone home, but a big heavy cloud formed behind a hill that Bergman thought would serve as a perfect backdrop for that scene. So he quickly rounded up a bunch of the tech crew – makeup artists, electricians, his assistant director – and even drafted a couple of bewildered hikers into the fray, shoving them all into costumes and sending them up the hill so he could film that sequence before the cloud broke up. I find myself wondering whether the hikers ever saw this film and learned what that was all about.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

An Affair To Remember (1957)

Throwback Thursday': 'An Affair to Remember' perfected New Year's |

Hello again! I’m hoping everyone had a safe and happy holiday, be that Christmas if that’s what you celebrate, or Hanukkah (belated). Or even Kwanzaa (which is still ongoing). I was just holed up here with Roommate Russ, and we coped with my broken knee and our broken oven by just ordering a bunch of munchy stuff to graze on, and we each had zoom calls with our families and opened a couple of small gifts. We also spent an exciting few days trying to track my parents’ package for me, which went awry in the postal system but seems to be once again on its way here…we’re expecting it to come sometime on Monday…

So are you all good as well? Any New Year’s plans?… haha…

(pause, shuffles feet)

Oh God, please don’t make me write about this film…

Cary Grant stars in "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

Mind you, it wasn’t bad. If it was truly terrible I’d have a much easier time with this, pouring out all kinds of rants and going full-on Dorothy Parker on it. It’s easy to talk about the really good films or the really bad ones. But for the vast, huge sort of meh spot in the middle, you don’t really end up with much to say, and I’m afraid that this fell into the meh spot for me.

Cary Grant's Gray Pinstripe Suit in An Affair to Remember » BAMF Style

It started far more promisingly. Cary Grant is “Nicky Ferante”, a sort of socialite himbo playboy who’s on a steamship from Europe back to New York, where he has finally agreed to marry another wealthy socialite. But while on board, he runs into the similarly-engaged Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a spunky and witty singer. Terry at first tries to insist on keeping Nicky at arms’ length – she’s heard of his reputation, and is trying to preserve her own – but the chemistry is too strong, and they get chummy enough that Nicky invites her along when the ship docks near the little French town where his beloved grandmother lives (Cathleen Nesbit) and he wants to pay a visit. Grandma also fawns over Terry, spotting their mutual attraction and recognizing the strength of their match. By the time the ship arrives in New York, Terry and Nicky are In Love – but agree they should give things a think first before chucking their respective existing relationships. They impulsively make a pact – if they each still feel the same in six months’ time, they’ll meet on the top floor of the Empire State Building.

And lo and behold, they do each feel the same six months later. And Nicky arrives for their meeting. Terry also sets out – but when she’s only one block away, she is hit by a car, suffering serious enough injuries that she is hospitalized with two severely broken legs. Nicky, meanwhile, knows none of this – and after waiting for Terry to show, finally leaves, broken-hearted.

Classic Film Series brings 'An Affair to Remember' to big screen at State  Theatre | Local |

….Now, if the movie had ended there, that’d be one thing. But it doesn’t – we instead have to sit through another several scenes of Nicky trying to get over his heartbreak, and Terry trying to recover from her injuries. Her old fiance Kenneth (Richard Denning) – now content to just be a friend – keeps urging her to contact Nicky and let him know what happened, but Terry keeps refusing – because she doesn’t want Nicky to feel obligated. She will seek Nicky out when she’s better, and that’s that.

And it’s one of the stupidest and most manipulative things I’ve ever heard.

Cary-in-An-Affair-To-Remember-cary-grant-4318874-1024-580 | fab1961

Terry’s hiding from Nicky isn’t even the worst part – it’s not illogical, though, and I guess if I squint I can understand why someone would take that stance. But what’s even worse, for me, is that it totally changes her character, and totally changes the tone of the movie. Pre-accident, shipboard Terry is lively, feisty, and more than able to hold her own against Nicky’s antics. She not only recognizes his early smooth talk as flattery, she calls him out on it, thinking rings around him and poking holes in his act. It’s why Nicky is so enchanted – she’s not just another pretty face who falls for his usual act. Even better, the more he cuts the crap and lets his guard down, the more drawn to him she is – and the more he is drawn to her. They really are well-suited, and their shipboard chemistry is fun to watch. But then that all completely vanishes, and Terry is turned into a maudlin, sentimental martyr, primly taking a job as the childrens’ choir teacher at a church and sadly resisting the impulse to contact Nicky. She will worship him from afar, anonymously cheer him on as his career takes off – and otherwise stay back in the shadows, and if she loses him forever, so be it.

It is such a character shift that it’s obvious the whole post-accident hour is meant to draw out the audience anticipation and manipulate them into fretting about whether Terry and Nicky will ever be reunited. But it’s a romantic comedy from 1957, so I already knew they would – and so it instead came across as an hour of Terry wimping out. Shipboard Terry knew what she wanted and was determined to hang on to it – Post-Accident Terry is ready to give it up for the sake of pride or self-sacrifice. I like to think Shipboard Terry would have shaken Post-Accident Terry and told her to stop being such a wimp.

Review: An Affair to Remember - Slant Magazine

It was honestly the chemistry between Grant and Kerr in the movie’s first half which kept this from being a total loss for me; it’s lively, it has a good deal of chuckles, and it played on Grant’s familiar comic instincts. If only they had sustained it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Throne Of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's 1957 film version of Macbeth, a review and  commentary

I know I’ve slowed down the pace of my reviews these days – the knee rehab is taking a good deal of my focus, and we’re having a spot of technical trouble with the TV, so I have to try to watch all the DVDs on my laptop. But this time, the delay also came from a bit of a research rabbit hole with a detour through a college reunion, of sorts.

Throne of Blood was something of a passion project for director Akira Kurosawa, who read Shakespeare’s play Macbeth as a student and had long sought to film an adaptation. The chaotic world of medieval Scotland, where an ambitious nobleman could seize power in a flash by killing the king, reminded Kurosawa of Japan’s Muromachi period – a time when the Emperors’ own shogun often struggled with the Emperor himself for government control. At times the Emperor was in control, at times the shogunate – and at times both were in control, splitting the island between them and locking horns in a battle for yet more power. And that’s all before we get into the infighting amidst the shogun’s own subordinates for control of one town over another – or who might take over as shogun themselves.

Throne of Blood | The Current | The Criterion Collection

Ironically, this war-torn period also saw the birth of some Japan’s most serene classical arts. Zen Buddhism flourished during this period, influencing art and culture in ways that encouraged minimalism and specificity, and a sort of “mindfulness” (as much as I hate to use that modern buzzword, it really is accurate). The classic Japanese tea ceremony was born during this time, as was ikebana, a specialized form of flower arrangement; kodo, a ritualized exploration of incense; and the tradition of creating Zen rock gardens. It also saw the rise of Noh theater, a heavily stylized form of theater involving elements of dance, mime, and the use of masks; and fittingly, Kurosawa drew heavily on Noh when adapting this work.

I’d learned a bit about Noh back in college, during a single theater history course, and had forgotten a good deal; but even so I was spotting Kurosawa using elements of Noh drama in his adaptation. This particularly stood out with the character of “Lady Asaji” (Isuzu Yamada), our tale’s version of “Lady MacBeth”; Lady Asaji is still a good deal of the time, and when she moves, it is usually with a slow deliberateness, forcing you to pay attention to what she’s doing. During the scene where she discusses a power grab with her husband Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), Washizu is charging about the room, professing his loyalty to their King, but Asaji sits completely still, her face absolutely motionless.

On Throne of Blood – The End of Cinema

I’d expected to be intrigued by Kurosawa’s adaptation. I’ve read Macbeth plenty, and seen it done a handful of times, and in a handful of ways – from straightfoward productions to a Cyberpunk/Mad-Max style to an immersive theater piece; I even saw an adaptation that fused Shakespeare with the book Fast Food Nation (and insane as it sounds, it worked). But in all those cases the “bones” of the original play showed through, along with the words themselves in many cases. Here, it was the Noh that caught my eye – I wanted to know more about that specifically, or at least improve on what I dimly remembered from college.

As luck would have it, a former studio classmate, John Oglevee, went on to specialize in Noh to the point that he moved to Tokyo and co-founded Theatre Nohgaku, an international Noh troupe that performs both classic Noh works and original Noh style pieces in English (their Blue Moon Over Memphis is about an Elvis fan meeting his ghost; here’s a brief bit of it, with John as Elvis). When I wrote John explaining that I was curious about Noh after watching “a Kurosawa film” and asked for a web site he could recommend, he almost instantly wrote back: “oh, I bet you mean Throne of Blood, here’s a whole article on that.”

Familiar Story, Macbethâ•flNew Context, Noh and Kurosawaâ•Žs Throne of Blood

What astonished me is how it seemed many Noh elements were already there in the original play. The structure and pace of a Noh play seemed nearly synchronous with Shakespeare’s work (Kurosawa just had to cut a couple of scenes which Shakespeare likely only threw in for comic relief anyway). The Three Weird Sisters and the ghost of Banquo match up with Noh plays often featuring ghosts or demons. The masks of Noh were the most “novel” element here, and how Kurosawa was able to use their influence without using actual masks – particularly with Asaji’s expressions. During Throne of Blood’s take on Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene, Asaji has her face fixed in a grimace that comes directly from a fukai style mask, which typically is used for a woman mourning some kind of loss. And as for Washizu, his face isn’t just Toshiro Mifune being Toshiro Mifune – several of his own expressions are also inspired by Noh masks, like this arresting reaction to his final mortal wound.

Throne of Blood (1957) - The Sanity Clause

In a way, I wish I’d known even less about Noh when I first saw this, to see if I would have picked up on those elements before watching. But I’m more so intrigued by how well Kurosawa was able to fuse two very different theatrical traditions into a single piece.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

High Society (1956)

Movie Review – “High Society” (1956)

There are some remakes where you wonder why they were made or if the world needed them. I’m not sure whether this is one, but…it’s close to being one.

High Society is a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly standing in for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra taking on Jimmy Stewart’s role. Also, the goings-on are moved from Philadelphia to Newport, Rhode Island, to capitalize on the then-new Newport Jazz Festival; which in turn lets the film bring in Louis Armstrong and his band, playing themselves, to serve as an occasional Greek Chorus.

TCM Diary: High Society

And yet, despite those cast changes and the addition of several songs by Cole Porter, I felt like this remake really didn’t add anything to the story. Even worse, it felt like it took away some of the things that made The Philadelphia Story such a delight. In the original, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn had a delightfully feisty chemistry – Grant was an impish rogue, and Hepburn was…well, Hepburn. Grace Kelly wisely doesn’t play Tracy Lord as a Hepburn homage; her Tracy Lord is still spirited, but it feels more brittle, somehow. Hepburn’s Tracy Lord threw someone out of the house by breaking his golf clubs over her knee; Kelly’s Tracy Lord would stamp her foot and shout a lot, but then storm off into another room and order the butler to take over. And as for Crosby…well, he sings just fine, but he seems perpetually sleepy throughout, and it’s hard to see what any incarnation of Tracy Lord would see in him.

High Society (1956) – Mike's Take On the Movies ………. Rediscovering Cinema's  Past

Crosby is also twice the age of Kelly, as is Sinatra; all of Tracy Lord’s love interests are visibly twice her age, which is a little disconcerting. But even more uncomfortable is a scene between Crosby and Tracy Lord’s kid sister (here renamed “Caroline”, and played by Lydia Reed). In both films, Tracy’s sister makes no bones about the fact that she prefers Tracy’s ex-husband “C. Dexter Haven” to any of her current beaux; but in the original, it’s definitely more of a spunky, big-brother/kid-sister admiration. Dinah Lord likes Dexter Haven because he’s just a cool dude she liked to joke around with. But here, “Caroline Lord” actually has a crush on him, which in one early scene he indulges when she asks him to make up a song for her and he spontaneously composes a love song. She spends most of the song nuzzling him, and then afterward she gushes that “if Tracy doesn’t want to marry you, then can I?” Lydia Reed was barely in her tweens when she said this and Crosby was in his 40s, so it looks really, really icky.

High Society (1956) | The Blonde at the Film

There is one scene, though, which I appreciated from this remake. Sinatra’s Mike Connor makes no bones about his disdain for the lifestyles of the rich and famous, much as Stewart’s did (he even gets a whole duet about it with Celeste Holm, who herself was playing “Liz Imbrie”). But where the original film just saw a few pointed exchanges between Connor and Tracy about classism, this film introduces a whole sequence where Tracy drags Connor around to the various Newport mansions, pointing out how most of them are boarded up and for sale. The tax burden has become too onerous for many of the owners, despite their great wealth, she explains. In several cases the owners can’t even find a buyer and are donating them as schools or landmarks. It doesn’t completely change Connor’s attitude about the upper class, but it does give him a bit more sympathy towards them, which makes his flirtation with Tracy later on make a lot more sense.

Ultimately, though, while the music was pretty and the settings noticeably more lavish, I didn’t feel like it added anything, and kept comparing it to the original and coming up a little short.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

11 Frantic Facts About 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' | Mental Floss

Hitchcock takes on the family vacation gone wrong! This is the only time Hitchcock remade one of his own films – as he famously told Francois Truffaut, the 1934 original was “the work of a talented amateur,” but he was never quite satisfied and re-made the film to get things right.

Week 10: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), John Ford, and Crying at the  Movies – Hitchcock 52

Jimmy Stewart is “Dr. Ben McKenna,” who’s off on a whirlwind vacation with his wife Jo (Doris Day) and their young son Hank (Christopher Olsen); they’d been in Paris for a medical conference, but decided to hit up Morocco while they were there before heading home. While en route to their hotel, they strike up a conversation with Frenchman Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), who seems nice but overly-inquisitive; they also befriend English couple Ed and Lucy Dreyton (Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles), who claim to be fans of former singer Jo. The Dreytons are more familiar with Marrakech than the McKennas, and offer to show the family around the market the following morning. But while they’re there, a scuffle in the crowd ends with a man getting stabbed – and the victim is a disguised Louis Bernard.

Bernard recognizes McKenna, and staggers over, urgently whispering to him that he’s been trying to stop an assassination and begging McKenna to head to London and finish his mission. The police obviously want to talk to McKenna, so the Dreytons offer to babysit Hank back at the hotel. But just as the McKennas arrive at the police station, Ben gets a mysterious call warning him not to say a word – or else Hank would pay for it. Ben calls the hotel to check in on things and is shocked to hear that the Dreytons just checked out. And as for Hank? No sight of him. All they can do, he tells Jo, is head to London and try to save Hank, and maybe stop the assassination themselves.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) | FilmFed - Movies, Ratings, Reviews, and  Trailers

On paper, now that I look at it, that sounds a little ridiculous -but the McKennas don’t do half bad coming up with a plan of attack. Things don’t go perfectly smoothly, but their plan is at least somewhat plausible, and the plot hums along with plenty of moments of suspense. Most excruciating is a twelve-minute sequence at a concert; Jo has learned the victim is attending a concert, and heads to warn him – but meets the assassin, who warns her to back off. Jo then spends the entire length of a twelve-minute cantata standing helplessly in the back of the house looking at both the assassin’s box and the victim’s box, cowering and wondering what on earth she should do.

The Man Who Knew Too Much — JT's Digs

Another thing I liked about this, though, was that along with the suspense there was humor – and not over-the-top comedy either. Early on there’s a scene where the McKennas visit a traditional Moroccan restaurant, and the sight of the tall lanky Jimmy Stewart trying to fold himself up to fit at a tiny low table made me laugh out loud. There’s also a sight gag involving sheet music at the concert, a bizarre sequence at a taxidermist’s, and a delightfully playful conversation between the McKennas as they wander the Marrakech market, speculating on which of Ben’s recent surgeries might have earned enough to pay for the various market wares.

Hill Place: A Mother's Day Tribute to Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock's "The  Man Who Knew Too Much"

I was even more surprised to learn that this was the film where the song “Que Sera, Sera” made its debut. I’d always assumed it came from a more traditional rom-com musical, but it’s instead something of a touchstone for Jo and Hank. It also sets up a brilliant sequence where the McKennas are at a party where they suspect Hank may be hidden, and someone presses Jo to perform for them. She agrees, and “just so happens” to select that song, singing it just a tiny bit louder than necessary in the hopes that maybe Hank, if he’s there, might hear. It’s a brilliant bit of acting – Jo is visibly terrified, but is just as determined to Perform. So she’s got a smile, but it’s just the tiniest bit brittle.

In his talk with Truffaut, Hitchcock said that this remake looked more like it was made by a professional. I certainly felt that I was in good hands.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Giant (1956)

Giant (1956) | The Film Spectrum

I grew up during the heyday of the “TV event” miniseries – those big overwrought TV movies, usually told in four or five one-hour episodes, and usually based on equally-big popular novels. They often followed a single family’s story across several years and a couple generations, or the tragic (always tragic) years-long love story between a doomed couple. Or changes in financial fortune, due to lightning-quick lucky breaks or a vengeful sabotage. The tropes in these series became so consistent that a few years back, a team made a spoof miniseries starting Kristen Wiig and Tobey Maguire, and it was popular enough to inspire a sequel. ….I was usually too young for any of them, but remember the TV ads breathlessly promoting them all, turning up again and again.

Which is why even though I’ve never seen Giant before, it felt strangely familiar. It ticks several of the same trope boxes – the decades-long scope, the focus on a single family and their children, the unrequited love that fuels one man’s greed. Even a final grudge-settling battle between rivals. But where those miniseries seemed bombastic, here they felt…compelling. I joked to Roommate Russ that Giant was to be commended for actually taking those tropes and “doing them right.”

Giant: Revisiting George Stevens Epic, Starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth  Taylor, and James Dean in his Last Role | Emanuel Levy

The family in question is the Benedicts, a wealthy Texas ranch family currently helmed by Jordan Jr. (Rock Hudson). He makes a journey to Maryland to buy a horse, but also discovers Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), the horse owner’s comely daughter, and returns to Texas with both. It’s a bumpy transition for Leslie – Jordan has some, er, archaic views of womens’ roles in society, and has some deep-seated prejudices against the Mexican farmhands working the ranch. But Leslie’s spirited challenges serve to change the status quo (somewhat) and charm Jordan even more.

They also charm Jett (James Dean), a hired-hand on the ranch. Jett is a bit of a slacker when we first meet him, but is under the wing of Jordan’s boss-lady sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) so Jordan can’t fire him. But when Luz is killed in an accident, she leaves a corner of the ranch to Jett in her will. It’s poor grazing ground, and Jordan wants him gone, so he offers to buy it off him in cash instead. But Jett stubbornly stays – and discovers the patch is rich in oil. It’s Jett’s chance to make something of himself – to prove he’s just as good as that fancy Jordan Benedict. And to impress Leslie. Or maybe one of their daughters….

Giant: Epic of American Growth

The plot is super-soapy. But that didn’t bother me as much as it usually would have done. Perhaps because director George Stevens handles them far more subtly than something like The Thorn Birds would have done – the story just unfolds, and Stevens doesn’t weigh scenes down with a lot of Dramatic Significance. The three leads also turn in some top-notch performances, sometimes underplaying big moments; there’s a scene where Leslie and Jordan are going through a rough patch and discuss a trial separation, and it’s a remarkably understated scene. No one screams, no one cries, there are no dramatic shots. Instead it’s quiet and tense, played simply, and lets the inherent drama of the moment speak for itself.

Stevens also sets up the shots really well. We don’t even see Jordan’s ranch until after we’ve seen Leslie’s home in Virginia – the lush green hills, her cozy (and a bit stuffy) old Colonial house a bit overstuffed with toile and antiques. Our first sight of Jordan’s ranch house is when Leslie sees it – a big mansion sitting all alone in the middle of a huge empty field, blasted brown by the hot sun. That mansion also undergoes some subtle changes over the years, reflecting Leslie’s influence – but they just happen, and we never see Leslie pleading with Jordan that “couldn’t we please take down that old portrait of your daddy” or whatever. Stevens also uses several shots that shrink people down in the landscape – or sometimes shrink things down, as in this iconic screenshot with Jett; sometimes they fortell someone’s shift in fortune, as with this clue that Jett’s influence is soon to become very big indeed.

Giant: Epic of American Growth

Also, interestingly, while the characters all grow over the course of the film, they don’t necessarily finish growing. Jordan’s changing attitude towards Mexican-Americans is a subplot throughout, his dismissive prejudice at the top of the film challenged both by Leslie’s outreach to their community and by his grown son (Dennis Hopper) marrying a Mexican woman. A late scene sees Jordan starting a fistfight with a diner cook who refuses to serve his daughter-in-law – but a couple scenes later, he confesses to Leslie that he’s still wrapping his head around the fact that one of his grandkids is Hispanic. Jordan has not had the kind of miraculous shift in mindset a lesser film would have given him, where he’s completely cured of his racism. But – he has changed, and is continuing to change. It’s a process, it’s heading in the right direction, and it’s going to continue after the movie ends.

The miniseries of the 70s and 80s gave me the feeling they would bore me silly. But if they had been filmed like this, I may have watched a few.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man 1956, directed by Alfred Hitchcock | Film review

Roommate Russ told me, as we settled down for this one, that I would find it “an un-Hitchcock Hitchcock film”. Very quickly I spotted exactly what he meant.

It’s definitely in Hitchcock’s style – a carefully unspooled mystery, moodily-lit scenes, and some innovative camera work. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s tales of An Innocent Man Trying To Clear His Name. But instead of being an action thriller starring a vivacious and suave hero, like with The 39 Steps, this is a much more methodical tale about a modest Everyman, trapped and left utterly at the mercy of a legal system.

It’s based on the true story of Christopher “Manny” Balestrero, a jazz musician caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Hitchcock changes very little of Balestrero’s story (as originally told in Life Magazine); Henry Fonda takes on the role of Balestrero, a standing bass player with a wife and two kids and a regular gig at the Stork Club. They live in a tiny apartment in Queens, but they’re happy – his two sons idolize him, as does his wife, and he dotes on them all as well. He also gets on great with his in-laws and pays regular visits to his mother over in New Jersey. Sure, the Stork Club doesn’t pay much and they sometimes struggle to make ends meet because of things like mortgage payments or doctor bills, but somehow they figure out how to make it work out. So when Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles) needs dental work, Manny has the idea to borrow against her life insurance policy, and stops by the insurance agency one afternoon.

Is Robert Durst the Wrong Man? How The Jinx is straight out of Hitchcock |  Robert Durst | The Guardian

However, that branch office had recently been hit by an armed robber, one who’d also hit a handful of other local businesses. And the clerk Manny speaks to thinks he looks a little familiar, and so do a couple of the other clerks across the room…one panicky call to the local precinct later, and Manny is met on his doorstep by three plainclothes detectives, politely but firmly asking if he wouldn’t mind coming down to the precinct right now and just answering some questions?

Beyond The Frame: The Wrong Man - The American Society of Cinematographers

For the next hour, we watch Manny’s through the legal system through his eyes, and in excruciating detail. We see the calm and careful questioning from the detectives about his whereabouts, but we hear the threat in their voices. We watch the circumstantial evidence stack higher and higher. We see all the scary details of Manny’s arrest just after he sees them – the handcuffs, the inkpad on the fingerprint table, the shoes of the men all crammed into the paddy wagon with him, the hard bed in his pitifully small cell. We get excited over every possible alibi, and our hearts sink each time one falls through. Worst of all, we start to worry when the stress starts getting to Rose and she acts more and more erratic.

Big Screen Berkeley: The Wrong Man, Hitchcock's gem

Wisely, even though Rose starts to break down, Manny doesn’t. The real Manny didn’t necessarily break down either; but Hitchcock could have easily gotten away with writing in a scene where a weeping Manny falls to his knees and prays for deliverance (the real Manny apparently did spend his whole night in central booking in prayer). But instead, except for a swoopy camera at one point meant to show Manny is dizzy, most of what we see during Manny’s arrest is Henry Fonda quietly insisting he’s innocent before he lapses into dumbstruck silence, and then the growing cornered-animal fear in his eyes as he’s taken to a prison and shuffled into a cell. He is utterly trapped, and the fear has paralyzed him. Even the one scene where Manny does pray, he just looks at picture of Jesus on the wall and silently mouths the words to a private prayer (to be fair, this is setting up a bit of trickery that I won’t spoil). It’s a beautifully restrained performance befitting a restrained and methodical story, about a genuinely good guy being treated like a criminal and not having any clue how to respond.

Watch The Front Row | "The Wrong Man" | The New Yorker Video | CNE | | The New Yorker

It’s also somehow a very un-Hollywood story, as well as an un-Hitchcock film. I initially wasn’t a fan of the final scene (about which I will keep mum) – I thought it was a little superfluous, and thought it could have skipped straight from the penultimate scene to Hitchcock’s final “where are they now” title card. Roommate Russ and I had a friendly debate about that after – he argued that it lent more emotional weight to Manny’s ordeal to actually see that scene. And I’m realizing he was right – leaving out that scene would have ended things on a much higher note, without letting us finally feel the fear and sorrow and loss that Manny’s panic was keeping him – and us – from feeling. The real Manny didn’t get a nice pat Hollywood ending; it made sense for Hitchcock not to give him one either.