Capsule Reviews: May 9 – 12

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947) – 2.5/5

Given the fact that glossy melodramas (or, at least, their trappings) were Sirk’s forte, it should come as no surprise that this early noir fails for the most part to achieve, let alone sustain, any of the mood or tension that otherwise effortlessly exudes from the genre’s masterpieces. One hysterical scene stands out: demented dress designer (and serial killer suspect) Boris Karloff menacing dame detective Lucille Ball with tailor’s shears. Another bit of business has the murderer sending the authorities poems imitating the works of “that fantastical madman, Charles Baudelaire!” For the remainder, the film seems content to lazily telegraph its plot machinations and plod along at a languorous pace.

Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952) – 2.5/5

A mid-period tearjerker that has the good sense to get “meta” with its sentimental accouterments as a “weepie.” Characters favorably refer to romance novels that “put a lump in your throat” or have you “crying rivers,” and in one representative scene the protagonist, her mother and two young siblings attend a film (signified, in a brilliant bit of editing, by an abrupt THE END title card, before cutting to audience response) on the assurance that it will be a “three hankie” feature. The girl and mother dutifully weep into their handkerchiefs as the camera pans to the two children, asleep in their seats. Regrettably, Naruse’s melodrama elicited an identical response in this viewer. It assuredly doesn’t help that this sappy paean to maternity was culled from an anthology of schoolgirl essays…

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010) – 4.5/5

Obvious touchstones for the film readily present themselves – first and foremost, Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (regarding its depiction of the precarious balance of a marriage and, obviously, its setting), as well as Before Sunrise (the exchange of ideas as seduction) and Last Year at Marienbad (the shifting “do they, don’t they?” nature of the central relationship) – but the breathtaking combination of formal rigor and playful post-modernity is entirely Kiarostami’s own. Recurrent contrasts between foreground and background, and the deployment of mirrors or reflections to enhance the significance of off-screen space, allow the director to add further layers of event and referent to his oblique, open-ended narrative.

Last Man Standing (Walter Hill, 1996) – 3/5

Acknowledged remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo works in explicit references to Hong Kong “blood opera,” Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and more than a passing nod at the Coen Brothers’ hardboiled mash-up Miller’s Crossing – placing front and center the gnarled genealogy of its material, going all the way back to Dashiell Hammett’s pulp novels, in particular The Glass Key and Red Harvest. Predominantly filmed with a sepia tone – an overt allusion to the film’s retrofitted (and retrospective) approach – the familiar narrative arc is so stripped-to-the-bone as to approach the archetypal. Bruce Willis – this iteration’s Man with No Name, given the anonymous moniker John Smith – mumbles his laconic retorts and gnaws on his austere philosophizing, while Christopher Walken growls and glares his way through as psychotic henchman Hickey.

Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971) – 4/5

Released the same year as Carnal Knowledge, which was also scripted by cartoonist-turned-playwright Jules Feiffer, Arkin’s blacker-than-black comedy is unfortunately the lesser-known and harder-to-find film. Feiffer delivers a pitiless satire on “modern romance,” urban squalor, indiscriminate violence and the progressive curdling of countercultural political engagement. Arkin elicits fine performances from the ensemble cast – especially the hilariously restrained Elliott Gould and the histrionic fits and incessant, platitudinous moralizing of Vincent Gardenia – and contributes a convulsive cameo as the harried homicide detective investigating the spate of random killings. Uncompromising finale audaciously suggests that the only way to cope with the insanity and chaos of the human condition is to join right in.

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945) – 4.5/5

Remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (aka The Bitch) reunites director Lang and lead actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea one year after The Woman in the Window for one of the most psychologically harrowing noir films ever produced – initially banned in several states for its alleged immorality and obscenity. Milquetoast cashier Robinson comes to the aid of “girl of leisure” Bennett (toning down, but still strongly suggesting, her profession of streetwalker) when she’s accosted by “boyfriend” Duryea. No good deed goes unpunished in Lang’s worldview, however, and soon she lures him into embezzlement and ultimately forges a career (and her name) on his artwork. This is the kind of film wherein guilt and criminal tendencies get exchanged with the casual aplomb of execs swapping business cards. The heavily ironic finale parallels, formally and thematically, the closing scene of the previous film.

Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954) – 4/5

Neorealist-inspired docudrama account of a miner’s strike in New Mexico is remarkable – above and beyond its intrinsic aesthetic merits, which are considerable – not only for being produced by the Mine-Mill labor union (expelled from the CIO in 1950 for refusing to sever its ties to the Communist Party), but also because its writer, director and several professional actors in the cast (the rest of the cast being primarily local non-actors involved in the original strike) were all members of the notorious Hollywood Ten. Studio bosses (in particular, Howard Hughes, at the time head of RKO) did their best to block the film’s lab development and, failing that, its exhibition, effectively blackballing it for over a decade. It’s easy to see why they were so determined: The film is a canny exploration of the political, racial and gender divisions determining the course of the strike. Obviously nobody’s idea of “fair and balanced,” given its provenance, Salt of the Earth remains a potent examination of the solidarity necessary for the advancement of working conditions, as well as the fundamental dignity and perseverance of organized labor movements.

Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) – 4/5

Technicolor fantasia, structured as a series of flashbacks, finds newly deceased codger Don Ameche recounting his life story to His Excellency (aka Old Scratch) in full anticipation of being remanded for eternity to Hell. The expected urbane laughs are to be found aplenty, even if they’re a bit front-loaded and more geared to stereotype-bashing than the typical Production Code-flouting double entendres that earned Ernst his “Lubitsch touch” accolades. But what’s truly remarkable is the film’s mounting mood of mourning and loss, as characters who play key roles in Ameche’s life pass away one by one, providing a tragic counterpoint to the film’s professed levity.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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