Capsule Reviews: June 7 – 9

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, 1947) – 5/5

One of the great exemplars of Technicolor cinematography (provided by Jack Cardiff, who also lensed Powell’s equally ravishing follow-up The Red Shoes [1948]) – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A cohort of Anglican nuns, lead by Mother Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), take up residence in a windswept nunnery in the Himalayas (once home to the raja’s harem, hence its now-ironic designation, House of Women), where a combination of the exotic flora and fauna, the rarefied atmosphere and the eccentric customs of the “primitive” locals begins to exert a baleful, regressive influence on the hapless brides of Christ. These irruptions of repressed sexuality place Black Narcissus in a long tradition (or, more precisely, countertradition) in mainstream cinema of less-than-worshipful portraits of the cloistered life, stretching from Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922) to Ken Russell’s The Devils (1970) – not to mention the bounteous bizarrerie of the “Nunsploitation” subgenre that flourished throughout the 1970s.

Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946) – 4/5

Lean’s streamlined, spectral Gothic adaptation of Dickens’ novel brings his strong visual sensibility to bear on ostensibly melodramatic, contrivance-riddled material. Early scenes set among the fog-shrouded churchyards and moors would not have been out of place in a particularly eerie segment of the Ealing portmanteau horror film Dead of Night (1945). And the goings-on at Miss Havisham’s Satis House (irony!) – the taunting, seductive cruelty of the girl Estella (Jean Simmons), the punishing pugilistic masochism of young Herbert Pocket (played as an adult by Alec Guinness) – emanate a perverse sexuality that finds concrete depiction in the cobweb-festooned wedding banquet Miss Havisham has peevishly preserved since the day of her jilting. On the other hand, the rigmarole surrounding Pip’s inheritance (source of the title’s glad tidings), and his manifold efforts to metamorphose into presentable gentility, lack the sharp satirical eye that would have rendered them more significant than mere window-dressing.

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2008) – 3.5/5

Maddin’s self-professed “docu-fantasia” employs his usual silent-cinema-obsessed aesthetic (tableaux vivant, intertitles, rear projection and freeform whimsy) in the service of a quasi-exposé – probing into the seedy underside of his hometown, covering ground similar to kindred spirit David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), albeit in Maddin’s own inimitable fashion. Many of these sequences can best be summarized as a prolonged lamentation on the architectural devastation wrought by civic leaders under the auspices of modernization (read: economic opportunism). More intriguing are the (assuredly apocryphal) tales that Maddin clearly relishes concerning protoplasmic psychic phenomena, séances attended by eminent citizens and brothel madams alike, the occult labyrinth of unacknowledged byways and alleys that intersect the official cityscape, and a particularly hilarious Maddin family psychodrama, in which the director’s sister strikes and kills a deer with her car, only to have their mother “interpret” the sexual shenanigans underlying this ludicrous cover story. (Maddin concedes that this “hermeneutics of suspicion” was likely well-founded.)

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988) – 4/5

Zwerin’s documentary is conventionally structured (talking head/archival footage/talking head), yet remains compelling; in fact, it’s priceless if for nothing else than the vintage late-60s footage of Monk onstage and off: The maverick bebop composer/performer comes across as some kind of space alien (shades of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie), largely bewildered by the throng and crush of adoring fans and the asinine questions fobbed off on him by uncomprehending journalists. (“Are the piano’s 88 keys too many for you? Or not enough?”) Unfortunately, the performance footage only contains snippets from the roster of Monk classics, but what’s there is as stellar as expected.

Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) – 4/5

Riveting, ruthless home-front film, based on a Graham Greene story, dabbles in alternate history: Though filmed at the height of the Blitz, Day begins with an introductory scene set after the war, the roving camera moving down a dusty thoroughfare, entering a rural hamlet and coming to rest in front of a churchyard memorial inscribed with columns of German names; a flashback then returns us to a summer afternoon in 1942, as the drowsy village of Bramley End finds itself unexpectedly billeting a brace of English soldiers who turn out to be “Jerries” (German paratroopers, to be precise) in disguise. Even worse, the local squire reveals himself as a treacherous fifth columnist. Even more tough-minded and unrelentingly brutal than Cavalcanti’s outstanding postwar noir, They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Day takes the time to establish and explore its quaintly bucolic setting, then spends its second half blasting it to Kingdom Come. Cavalcanti stages the unexpectedly explicit violence unflinchingly – in one memorable sequence, the Germans lob a grenade into a roomful of children; without a moment’s hesitation, a matron grabs it up and barely has time to shut the door behind her, sheltering the youths from the blast, before it detonates. Of course, the propaganda value of the moment is obvious, but the terseness and thrift with which the scene is accomplished counteracts any sense of overt manipulation, rendering it exemplary of the film as a whole.

House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950) – 4/5

Considered “minor” Lang and largely dismissed, even by the director himself, this Gothic-tinged melodrama/noir nevertheless brims over with trademark Langian preoccupations (guilt’s ambivalent nature, the mass media’s (here, book publishing’s) influence on society, sexual compulsion and destructiveness) and indulges in more overtly Expressionistic imagery than many of his American films. In fact, the first fifteen minutes or thereabouts of House by the River ranks with Lang’s finest work: Freed from the (restrictive) presence of his wife Marjorie (in a nod to Lang’s earlier Woman in the Window [1945]), aspiring novelist Stephen Byrne (wonderful, weasel-like Louis Hayward) fails to seduce and then strangles his live-in maid Emily; when his brother John turns up immediately afterwards, Stephen guilt-trips him into helping cover up the crime. The uncanny, dreamlike riverine imagery reminds one of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Shots of water spiraling down a bathtub drain, in close proximity to a sexualized murder, herald Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But the rhythms, and recurring instances of doubling, are all Lang’s own: both Emily and Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) enter the frame in identical fashion, a silhouette against garish wallpaper, their nightgown-clad legs descending a staircase (the Byrne house’s appearance and layout is also decidedly prescient of Psycho); the clumps of floating weeds Stephen spots as he frantically searches the river for Emily’s ineffectually submerged corpse echo her spreading blonde hair once he discovers it. Finally, it’s worth noting that, far from being plagued by guilt for the (at least partially accidental) murder, Stephen seems to thrive on and exploit the attention he gains as a result, going so far as to base his next novel on it, since, after all, a writer should write what he knows.

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008) – 3.5/5

Bearing more than a passing thematic resemblance – in its handling of urban anomie – to Hirokazu Koreeda’s Air Doll (2009), Kurosawa’s latest moves even further away from the J-horror trappings that established his reputation with Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), while maintaining those films’ penetrating philosophical inquest into the dissociative weirdness underlying contemporary Japanese society (in this instance the breakdown of the nuclear family), laced with the social satire and off-kilter antics that have characterized his recent films. When patriarch Ryuhei get laid off from his white-collar job, he decides to withhold the news from his wife Megumi and sons Takashi and Kenji, perpetuating the illusion of employment in order to preserve his authority. Sonata’s first half follows along as Ryuhei runs the gauntlet of humiliation, whether it’s spending hours waiting on a virtually endless queue at the unemployment bureau, or learning the ropes of functional redundancy from a high school chum who’s also jobless (building to a hilarious dinner sequence where Ryuhei’s friend takes a fraudulent phone call – he sets his phone to automatically ring five times an hour – then leverages a fictitious gaffe to berate Ryuhei and earn brownie points with his wife). Eventually, the other three quarters of the family are allowed to develop their own subplots, with varying degrees of interest – Megumi’s run-in with a home invader (Kurorsawa regular Koji Yakusho) feels tacked on, Takashi’s decision to join the American army is clearly a swipe at Japan’s hypocritical support of American militarism, while Kenji’s musical aspirations shade into rebellion against teacher and father alike – building to a (too convenient) dark-night-of-the-soul that forces each character to grapple with their inner demons. Making up for this dramaturgical fumble in a luminous coda, Sonata concludes with the family reuniting for Kenji’s piano recital, a note-perfect performance of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” rendered with Kurosawa’s trademark precision framing and lighting.

The Legacy (Richard Marquand, 1979) – 3/5

Well-constructed, if unexceptional, chiller from the future director of the thrillers Eye of the Needle (1981) and Jagged Edge (1985). An American couple (Katharine Ross, Sam Elliott) traveling in England on business are aided after a car accident by an eccentric millionaire who offers to put them up in his palatial country manor; as it turns out, it’s all part of a vast Satanic conspiracy involving a group of six rival inheritors to their host’s power and influence. This supernatural rendition of Ten Little Indians is no new shakes, straddling the line as it does between the Gothic-influenced Hammer horror tradition (indicated via veteran Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster’s contributions to the script) and the more graphic, kill-centric films of the ascendant slasher cycle (reflected in several overt references to the giallo films of Bava and Argento), yet Marquand manages to puff some new life into things with a smattering of attention-grabbing flourishes, most notably his penchant for overhead and high-angle shots. Meticulous baroque set design and decoration render support as well. Serious points, however, must be deducted for a strident late-70s-jangly soundtrack, beginning with the ineffably awful opening-credits ditty “Another Side of Me,” as performed by Kiki Dee (most noteworthy for “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” her hit duet with Elton John).

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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