The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity — and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year.Read this review at FilmFreakCentral ...
Philly-based distributor Artsploitation Films has just pulled a Dutch film called Meat (aka Vlees, 2010) out of the freezer, and it’s kind of a doozy. Produced by Amsterdam-based co-directors Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs (she’s the writer, he’s the cinematographer), Meat is a nonlinear murder mystery that starts out as day-in-the-life middle-aged sexual intrigue, morphs briefly into one of those young-people-and-discotheques Euroflicks, and finally turns into a post-modern police procedural. It’s not much of a whodunit, but it’s a pretty good example of a 21st-century grindhouse film, serving up pungent elements of low-budget horror and surrealism with erotic aromatics and a permeating abattoir stench. But I don’t want to oversell it. Just think Luis Buñuel crossed with Jörg Buttgereit. Continue reading
Midnight Special is readily understood as a film about being a parent who loves a child so much — and of course there are plenty of movies about people who love their children, so a common objection is that this one is too humorless and withholds action and who needs that? But there’s something about the way this film depicts the way adults interact with the child in question — not so much a cute kid like you’d see in a Steven Spielberg movie, but a weird kid like you’d read about in a Stephen King novel — that’s as heartening as it is serious and sad. It works as a metaphor for raising an autistic child, or a physically ill child, or a prodigy, or some other young handful. The climactic visualization of the remove between young Alton and his surroundings isn’t tremendously satisfying as an action set piece, but it’s a solid science-fiction metaphor, and it makes better emotional sense here than the same gimmick did in Tomorrowland. But in its presentation of confidence and selflessness as imperatives for parents and parental surrogates, Midnight Special plays like a stoic, even-keeled answer film to the crisis of faith posed by The Babadook. Continue reading
Bitter Rice is a heck of a film. It’s the story of a couple of refugees from an American film noir who stumble into a grindhouse showing an Italian social-issues drama. The beautiful losers are Walter and Francesca (Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling), a pair of small-time crooks on the run following the heist of a lifetime. The social conscience is personified by a class of peasant women who have for hundreds of years traveled from all over the country to work hard days in the rice fields of northern Italy, and also by, to some degree, ethical, committed soldier Marco (Raf Vallone), who lingers in the rice fields after his discharge because he has come to care about the fate of the women there. And the sex appeal is provided, in spades, by Silvana Mangano, a bombshell and a half. When producer Dino de Laurentiis and director Giuseppe De Santis cast the 18-year-old in the role, she had already appeared in a few films and had been the teenaged girlfriend of young Marcello Mastroianni. But her performance in Bitter Rice–a role that had her shaking her tits, swinging her hips, and hiking her skirt up to here–made her an overnight sensation.
Though it shares some characteristics with noir, Bitter Rice comes straight out of the original Italian post-WWII neorealist movement. It’s much pulpier than textbook neorealism, but it also feels earthier and more grounded than your typical noir. It’s definitely more fun than most neorealistic works, pitting its characters against each other as they jockey for power, shelter, and affection. A cadre of laboring mondine in short shorts or with their skirts hitched up above their thighs might not raise the body temperature of young cinephiles raised with access to Rihanna’s Instagram feed, but in 1949 it must have been quite a diversion. At any rate, according to Gregory D. Black’s book The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–1975, the film’s U.S. distributor didn’t even bother running it by the Production Code office for approval before booking it in theatres on both coasts. The code’s enforcer, “Mean” Joe Breen, was no doubt dismayed at reports that the picture’s wanton display of female flesh was at once “flagrant and purposeful.” If Bitter Rice annoyed the censors, it ran into similar trouble with left-wing critics who applauded the political aims of neorealist cinema and thus deplored the introduction of salaciousness and genre-film elements into such a film. “The workers cannot be educated with the bare legs of Silvana,” complained the Marxist critic Guido Aristarco. He had a point: As complete as Bitter Rice‘s commercial success was, its more sensational elements heralded the decline of neorealism, as Italian audiences grew impatient with hard-luck stories and filmmakers began taking more cues from Hollywood cinema, which dominated the local box-office.
I’m not saying De Santis was deliberately moving away from neorealist principles. In fact, he takes pains to balance the movie’s genre pleasures by underscoring the story’s roots in reality. The opening scene features a narrator speaking directly to the audience to bring context to what we’re about to see: a grandly-choreographed tableau of a station where hordes of female laborers are boarding trains bound for the Po Valley rice fields. As the camera pulls back, the fourth wall drops into place as the man assumes the persona of a broadcaster and declares, “This is Radio Turin,” before continuing to describe the scene, which De Santis pans across to establish the grand scale of his production–scores of women walking, a train chugging towards the station, trucks passing by–before the camera alights on a pair of undercover cops scanning the crowd. Another impressive tracking shot, this one moving sideways alongside one of the train cars (we see the passengers inside, framed through their little windows), stops to introduce Silvana (the character shares Mangano’s first name), dancing among a group of women in repose as, in the background of the scene, a line of workers carrying baskets moves purposefully, in counterpoint to her relative abandon.
It’s all the stage-setting the picture needs. Walter dances briefly with Silvana before he is spotted by police. He flees the scene and Francesca boards a train out of town, stolen loot in hand, blending in easily with the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the attentive Silvana quickly deduces that Francesca and Walter were behind a newsmaking jewelry theft. Thus a romantic triangle is created, and the necklace Francesca clutches in a perfumed handkerchief becomes a talisman of sorts that changes hands, rising and falling in significance, over the course of the feature. So that’s the pulpy, noirish storyline. It’s carefully interwoven with a salt-of-the-earth tale of Italian labor, as a group of uncontracted workers (including Francesca) faces off against unionized labor for a share of the rice fields. Bitter Rice shows the adversarial relationship turning to solidarity as a community develops among workers all sharing the same kind of hard-luck stories regardless of their status. And there are metaphors aplenty. Walter’s crass treatment of both Francesca and Silvana suggests the exploitation of the Italian poor by its formerly fascist government, and Silvana’s enthusiasm for tabloids and the boogie-woogie symbolizes the encroaching, hegemonic influence of the U.S., which may have given Jean-Luc Godard some ideas.
What really distinguishes Bitter Rice is De Santis’s commitment to formal dynamics in ways that marry the social drama to the crime drama. The first real indication that De Santis is flirting with something akin to magic realism comes when the farmhands distribute wide-brimmed hats to the women for protection from the sun; the ensuing scene plays out with a plethora of hats spinning endlessly through the air in the background of shots, eternally aloft, as a chorus of women sing in unison about their work in the rice fields. The image has an unreal, almost storybook quality that threatens to sentimentalize hard labor. A scene in the film’s midsection where Walter dances with Silvana a second time, leading to a violent confrontation with Marco, is a master-level study in cinematic choreography, as the camera and the characters together make precisely-executed movements and the editorial rhythm builds to a fevered pace. As the mondine band together to protect themselves by going to work despite heavy rain–missed days in the fields will keep them working longer, putting their harvest contracts back home at risk–Silvana instead sneaks off with Walter, leading to the strongest and most harrowing sequence in Bitter Rice: Silvana teases Walter by poking at him with a long, slender branch; he grabs it away and starts whipping her with it in a scene that descends into a violent rape.
The film cuts immediately to measured, evocative shots of the women working in the downpour, with Otello Martelli’s high-contrast cinematography lending their faces a stark, severe look. The blankets tented over their heads suggest religious drama; as one of their ranks falls ill, the others attend to her in way that, photographed from a crane looking down, resembles the petals of a flower closing gently around the ailing woman. There’s a tremendous sense of beauty and fellowship here that nonetheless alienates the traumatized and needy Silvana, who shows up only when the group is already rallying around one of its own. The sequence culminates in a tracking shot showing Francesca carrying the sick mondina, a group of weeping women falling in line behind her, as Silvana runs clumsily alongside them in parallel, stumbling and falling into a ditch, her isolation and despair complete. The last we see of her in this scene, she is alone in the frame, staggering away from the camera while Walter watches, unperturbed, from the safety of a reverse-shot edit.
The sexual politics are a touch dubious but not out of the ordinary for films of this era. It’s hard to shake the feeling that De Santis and his co-writer Carlo Lizzani are scolding Silvana for her regard for American culture as well as punishing her for licentiousness. Feminist readings center on Francesca, who is intelligent enough to eventually see through Walter’s manipulative, controlling routine–it’s the implication that she is a piece of property that is his to give away that drives her finally to action at the climax. Yet if De Santis is more condescending to Silvana’s character, he is also strongly empathetic with her. The camera evokes sympathy for her even during her humiliation, tracking along with her as she moves through the rice fields, going in close as she begins to comprehend the mess she’s made during the film’s slaughterhouse showdown. Mangano’s performance isn’t technically accomplished, but it is stirring nonetheless; you can read the moral epiphany on her face, and you can see that it absolutely wrecks her. And there’s the key–beyond the sex, the guns, and the jewels, Bitter Rice is anchored by its fierce convictions about right and wrong, justice and injustice. Mangano’s downfall isn’t so much her sexuality as it is her selfishness and avarice. Walter’s real criminality is the scheme he hatches to steal the stored rice that’s meant for distribution to the mondine. And De Santis’s accomplishment isn’t the debasement of neorealism some regarded it as–it’s a combination of humanism, technical skill, and straight-up showmanship serving a timeless story of class- and gender-based exploitation. As a political tract,Bitter Rice lacked purity. As cinema, its head-spinning melange of social commentary, romantic melodrama, heist picture, and, yes, shimmying movie musical is crystalline.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Bitter Rice should go some way towards raising De Santis’s profile in the U.S. (where neorealism is generally taught along the Rossellini-De Sica axis), even though extra features are scanty and the HD transfer is solid but unspectacular. Criterion’s liner notes are unusually vague when it comes to the provenance of this master, averring only that a “new high-definition digital transfer” was created from the “original camera negative.” Criterion’s Lee Kline is credited as the transfer supervisor, though the grading was performed in Rome by the Digital Factory at Cinecittà Studios. The resulting 1.33:1, 1080p presentation is attractively silvery and low-contrast–maybe a mite too low-contrast, as there’s a flatness to some shots that threatens to smooth out details completely, particularly in the highlights. Even with the restricted dynamic range, the picture has a pleasantly filmlike quality and it may underscore an aesthetic distance between the neorealist tradition and the more contrasty films noir out of Hollywood. There are some minor image imperfections (scratches, mainly), and a handful of shots, like one at the end where some of the women sprinkle rice on a body on the ground, exhibit notably less detail than the bulk of the film. The LPCM monaural audio is similarly OK. It’s remastered from an optical track and was substantially cleaned up, although surface noise is still quite audible and there’s an unavoidable brittleness to the sound, especially at higher volumes.
In a seven-minute interview originally recorded in 2002, De Santis’s co-writer Carlo Lizzani remembers the making of Bitter Rice, tracing its genesis to the director’s encounter with a large group of mondine departing for the rice fields at a train station in Turin on his way to Paris. Among other topics, Lizzani describes the film’s reliance on co-writers like Carrado Alvado to maintain the scenario’s working-class authenticity; the discovery and casting of journalist and former soccer player Vallone (who he calls “our Virgil”); and the decision to make Silvana Mangano’s role more prominent than originally planned.
Beefier scholarship can be found in “Giuseppi De Santis”, Lizzani’s 53-minute documentary on the filmmaker from 2008. Like the previous featurette, the image quality is strictly standard definition although it has been upscaled to 1080i, with some of the archival footage–including excerpts from interviews with De Santis himself–cropped on the top and bottom to 16×9. Generally, the program frames the director’s career in the context of Italian neorealism. It discusses neorealism’s political roots in the Italian resistance, the rarity of three-dimensional female characters in Italian cinema of the period, and De Santis’s status as “the Hollywood soul of Italian cinema,” as writer Steve Della Casa puts it in a talking head. De Santis’s childhood in the central Italian city of Fondi is considered, as is the critical re-evaluation he underwent following a neorealist conference/retrospective at the 1974 Pesaro Film Festival and the politically-motivated ostracization from the film industry he faced in the last 20 years of his life. It turns out that De Santis wouldn’t make anything he didn’t believe in–and that’s why he’s seen here on screen, insisting that his unproduced projects should be considered alongside his finished work as crucial elements of his biography.
Richard Widmark is hungry. There’s no better way to describe it. As Night and the City opens, he’s scampering, lean and lithe, through darkened London, avoiding a barely-seen pursuer like a cat trying to make it home with dinner jammed between its jaws. I’m not sure anyone in movie history runs as well as Widmark runs in this film, pulling Donald O’Connor-esque twists and turns that send his limbs flailing about in silhouette, and then ducking around a corner and pressing himself flat against the wall, as though wishing he could disappear into the bricks themselves. He’s got beady eyes that suggest venality and a face that stretches taut over high cheekbones, light and shadow throwing the contours of his skull into sharp relief. As Harry Fabian, an overconfident con artist with a small-time hustle who’s always imagining angles on a big score, Widmark is worse than a loser–he’s a dead man walking. You’d be a fool to trust a man like that, and yet someone always does.
In Night and the City, director Jules Dassin’s cynical meditation on the ruthlessness of capital and the hierarchy of scoundrels, Fabian is a guppy among sharks, aiming to turn his gig as a club tout into a position commanding power and respect. Ambition is no sin, even in film noir, but Fabian is rotten to the core. For one thing, he’s squandering the only real currency in film noir: the love of a good woman (Gene Tierney), whose attention he barely returns and from whom he steals petty cash. (“I just wanna be somebody,” he whines.) For another, he has no honour. When he hatches his plan to become a big-time wrestling promoter, he makes it happen by flat-out betraying everyone who agrees to help him. Eventually, of course, the jig is up, yet Widmark’s shameless series of double-crosses keeps him going long enough that it almost feels like he’s going to get away with it all. Instead, his world comes crashing down. “You’re a dead man,” his old club boss (Francis L. Sullivan) growls at him, with conviction, in the film’s most satisfyingly sinister moment.
Sullivan, who brings Silver Fox owner Philip Nosseross to life as a worldly Kasper Gutman type, is just one of a slate of supporting players to give Night and the City so much flavor. There are also outstanding turns by beefy Stanislaus Zbyszko as the proud old-school wrestler Gregorius, Mike Mazurki as his new-style rival The Strangler, and, maybe best of all, Herbert Lom as Kristo, the gangster who radiates an aura of untouchable ruthlessness. Lom is every bit as calm and magnetic in his unsavoury role as Widmark is desperate and ultimately repellent in his. (As a matter of fact, Fabian’s shenanigans make Kristo’s initial show of restraint in leaving him to his own devices seem all the more impressive as an expression of the character and maturity that Fabian lacks.) The grunting, bruising wrestling sequence that marks the second-act turning point–just Gregorius and The Strangler pushing and pulling at each other for more than four long minutes in a brawl they were hoodwinked into starting–is as effective a metaphor as any for the grappling that goes on among men trying to make money outside the law. As The Strangler’s deliciously-monikered manager, Micky Beer, puts it: “The only way to stop ’em now is to shoot ’em like mad bulls.”
And then there’s the city of London itself. Dassin is sometimes thought of as European thanks in large part to his famous French-language heist picture Rififi, but in reality he’s an American through and through — born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem and the Bronx — who ended up working in France after being blacklisted in his homeland. In fact, Night and the City was born from the blacklist; Dassin says the book was pressed into his hands by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who hustled him off to shoot the film with a warning that it would likely be the last one he would be allowed to make for a studio. Dassin directed his heart out, imbuing the piece with a heady sense of time and place — The New York Times reported during production that 10 out of 12 weeks of shooting took place on location. The result is a handsome but desolate portrait of a city at ground level, from the crowds of Trafalgar Square to the rubble left over from attacks by German bombs. As Fabian runs, distinct London skylines tower above him, and the city takes on dismal, labyrinthine qualities that convey loneliness, corruption, and a certain rot in the soul.
What’s lacking, noir-wise, is a femme fatale. The girlfriend character, Mary (Tierney), is pretty hapless through and through, and Fabian’s sketchy business relationship with Nosseross’s wife, Helen (Googie Withers), is not just utterly sexless but thoroughly depraved, too–he hangs her out to dry without missing a beat. That’s what Widmark’s performance gets so right about the doomed man at the centre of the film. He lacks reflection and self-awareness. He has no sense of shame. He just keeps pushing forward, beat by beat, scheme after scheme, without stopping to take a deep breath or a word of advice, or consider the downward spiral he’s slipping into. Only when he realizes that he is well and truly wrecked is he allowed a moment of redemption, angling to let Mary collect the bounty on his head. The keepers of the Production Code must have been pleased. But Fabian’s comeuppance is a departure from the noir norm. Law enforcement doesn’t catch up with him, nor is he betrayed by the low morals of a lustful woman. Rather, he is executed, by men who are likely even worse than he, but with more power, cooler heads, and a better sense of style. Fabian is brought down not through his personal failings, numerous and significant though they may be, but by his status. He is, for all his effort, at the bottom of the food chain. Dassin understood quite well that in any pecking order, on either side of the law, the small fry is the one that gets screwed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion updates its already impressive and feature-rich 2005 DVD for Blu-ray with a new 4K transfer created (per the liner notes) from a wet-gate scan of the camera negative. The 1.33:1, 1080p image is pretty fantastic, with very fine film grain and a silvery quality that is more suggestive of those first-generation elements than previous, higher-contrast releases, which more closely resembled dupey prints. Though DP Max Greene isn’t well-known these days as a noir cinematographer, his pedigree dated to the German silent era and his work here encompasses generally low-key lighting with occasional strong highlights and expressive chiaroscuro (which is what most people talk about when they talk about noir). Criterion has ably captured his work for further study. The soundtrack, presented as uncompressed PCM mono, is robust for its age and boasts impressive dynamic range. There’s a surprising amount of bass in the mix, and Franz Waxman’s musical score roars over the top in full-throated Hollywood fashion.
Speaking of Waxman, this edition includes a real rarity: a contemporaneously-edited British version of Night and the City that runs five minutes longer than the U.S. one and features a completely different score, by Benjamin Frankel. By the time the film went into post, Dassin had been well and fully blacklisted and was unable to supervise the edit, though he later endorsed the U.S. release. The English version is inessential but fascinating as a glimpse into how a film’s payload can be substantially altered by a few different decisions in the cutting room. Specifically, this alternate cut presents Fabian as a somewhat more sympathetic character, finds time to further develop Mary and her friendly neighbour, Adam (Hugh Marlowe), and finally softens the harshness of the bleak ending. As well, Frankel’s score is considerably more sedate than Waxman’s bombastic orchestrations, making the film play more as a low-key crime drama than as the expressionistic nightmare movie buffs have come to know and love. The British variant’s image quality is lower, with thicker film grain and more visible damage, and Criterion has wisely opted to throw more bits at the U.S. version of the film, which gets an average video bitrate of 27.8 Mbps compared to 18.2 Mbps for the UK cut. Mind you, it still looks pretty good–it merely suffers in comparison.
Extras ported over from the earlier DVD include audio commentary provided by Glenn Erickson, known to readers of his DVDtalk.com column as DVD Savant. Erickson brings a wealth of research to bear on the subject — he refers to the original screenplay, the source novel, additional material from the English version, and reviews from the time of the film’s release — and drops in some of his own notes on the performances, direction, and cinematography. Also retained is Christopher Husted’s 24-minute comparison of the two musical scores, rendered somewhat redundant this time around (since both scores are available on the disc for anyone who cares to audit them), though it does offer additional context for interested listeners. The video has been upscaled to 1080i. Dassin speaks for himself in two supplements. The first is a 25-minute excerpt from a French television interview for “L’invité du dimanche” (in black and white, with a herringbone interference pattern, and upscaled to 1080i) in which the director (speaking in fluent, subtitled French) genially discusses the studio system, working with actors, shooting The Naked City on location in New York, and — as the room seems to get a little chilly — Elia Kazan and “the disease” of Hollywood McCarthyism. In an 18-minute interview conducted by Criterion in 2005 (also upscaled to 1080i), he talks a little bit more about the blacklist era, admitting that he was in such a hurry to get Night and the City underway in London that he never even read the source novel by Gerald Kersh — which was quite different from Jo Eisinger’s screenplay — until long after completing the film. He remembers the unfriendly reception the picture got in the British press, Zanuck’s intervention to have Tierney’s part written into the script at the last minute, and his feeling that Widmark would have been capable of playing Hamlet, given the opportunity. On the film’s status as a key work of noir, he seems both pleased and amused. “I didn’t know there was a ‘film noir’ until I learned the term in France,” he says. It’s a fine and timely piece of work on Criterion’s part, given Dassin’s death a few years later in 2008.
A pleasantly gimmicky movie trailer (presented in 1080p) closes out the video-based bonus material with the promise of “an intimate and intense picture of a city and the intruders in the night who live and love and hate under cover of its darkness,” while a printed essay by the late critic Paul Arthur puts the cherry on top, exhaustively cataloguing the film’s metaphorical and symbolic payloads. The insert unfolds to a poster with a painting depicting Harry Fabian, forever on the run, in London after dark.
Nostalgia is the engine that hums along beneath Brad Bird’s films — the Fantastic Four pastiche of The Incredibles, the secret-agent capers of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the aroused sentimentality of critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, and the animation of The Iron Giant, which combined CG with hand-drawn images. Bird is an old-school kind of filmmaker with old-school kinds of values, and thodr values are expressed as narrative subtext. The disaster ofTomorrowland is that the subtext has become text. Tomorrowland is not just a film about nostalgia; it’s a Very Important Statement on the World We Live In that takes nostalgia as a given. Tomorrowland shows us a gleaming, Oz-like city on the horizon populated by uniformly smiling faces and dressed up with decades-old sci-fi tropes like jetpacks and rocketship launching pads, and Bird looks back longingly on the world that imagined it. Continue reading
Gone Girl is a David Fincher kind of date movie. It begins with a disappearance—pretty wife Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), relocated from New York to the Missouri hometown of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a failed journalist turned career bartender, vanishes from the couple’s home one morning. There are signs of a struggle. The police investigate. As TV newscasts spotlight the mystery, Nick barely seems distraught. His devotion to his wife proves to have been less than complete, if you get my meaning. And it turns out the police consider him not just a grieving widower but also the prime suspect.
The high concept — boot camp at a music conservatory with J.K. Simmons doing a displaced R. Lee Ermey — gets this pretty far right out of the gate. For about 20 or 30 intense, Simmons-driven minutes, Whiplash feels like one of the best films of the year. It’s the rest of the picture that has a problem, with contrivance piled upon story-driving contrivance so high that the film lacks a believable ground-level view of young drummer Andrew’s (Miles Teller) struggle toward expertise and mastery. Instead, we see a few sessions where he works under the sadistic tutelage of bandleader Terence Fletcher, who teases out his students’ weaknesses in order to pounce on them and humiliate them over what he insists are their shortcomings.