Category Archives: Foreign

Jour de fête (1949, Jacques Tati)

It’s about fifteen minutes before lead (and director) Jacques Tati appears in Jour de fête. The film opens with a travelling fair arriving at its destination and starting to set up. Paul Frankeur and Guy Decomble are the two main fair workers–actually they’re the only fair workers with anything to do except Santa Relli as Decomble’s wife. Besides starting to set up the merry-go-round, Decomble has time to make eyes at local girl Maine Vallée. Delcassan plays another resident, an old woman who narrates the goings on for the benefit of the audience–and, presumably, the goat she’s always got with her. The device is rather charming. Tati usually employs long shots, letting the action play out gradually, individual elements building until they intersect–for example, Tati, as actor, gets introduced in dialogue when Relli sends Decomble to mail a letter instead of making eyes at Vallée.

Jean Yatove’s music perfectly accompanies the gentle action.

Tati–as actor–arrives as some men are trying to put up a pole for the fair. Decomble and Frankeur are on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary, then draft Tati into action. He’s a bicycle postman, he gets around, he should know how to put up a pole. For most of the film, Jour is a series of intricately connected vingettes. Tati and cowriters Henri Marquet and René Wheeler occasionally pause one vignette to move on to another–Tati’s postman is easily distracted, whether by putting up a pole or getting blasted at the café, making the movements organic.

There’s a lot of physical comedy and callbacks to previous gags. Tati introduces himself biking into town and battling a bee. As he moves, in the distance, across the frame, the bee jumps forward to pester the farmer who’s in the foreground of the shot, before returning to Tati as the bicycle moves past the farmer. There’s a lot of subtle, inventive shots. There are also some obvious sight gags, which usually work–and manage to be charming thanks to the filmmaking and, particularly, the music–but are still kind of cheap.

After introducing Tati’s postman and getting the fair setup on track, the film jumps ahead a bit–with Delcassan offering some more commentary–as the townspeople head to square for the fair, which includes a cinema. The cinema becomes important later. Before it does, however, there’s a lot more with Tati. He can’t refuse the multiple invitations to drink at the café, culminating in Decomble and Frankeur–in a genial malice–getting him incredibly drunk. Sober, Tati’s postman is scatterbrained. Blasted, he’s wholly incompetent.

In between some of the drinking, Tati sees a short film in the cinema showing the U.S. postal service, which implements all the latest technology to deliver the mail. Latest technology like helicopters and skydivers and stunt motorcycles. How can the French compete. Especially since Tati spends the rest of the day in the bar before heading out at night to finish his deliveries. The townspeople have gone to bed, leading to multiple complications, before Tati just passes out drunk.

The next day, however, he’s invigorated and ready to show off how fast he can deliver the post. No surprise, Decomble and Frankeur have given him multiple bad ideas on how he can increase his efficiency.

Tati’s wild ride–which includes some incredible physical comedy and elaborate action direction–happens about an hour into the film’s ninety minute runtime. It doesn’t take the whole last third, but most of it. It’s always inventive, always amusing (or better), but somewhat detached from the rest of the film. Jour’s no longer about the townspeople or the fair, now it’s all Tati and the hyper-speed mail delivery.

Tati, as director, brings it all together for the finish but far less organically than anything else in the picture. The long sequence works–Tati’s hitting familiar places populated by now familiar faces–but it doesn’t fit with the rest. The wrap-up is well-executed, effective, closes all the open threads, but is far from seamless. It treats Tati’s wild ride as a tangent, while the rest of the film built up to the wild ride as though it were the intended result.

So a disjointed–while still more than adequate–finish.

Wonderful direction from Tati throughout. Great composition, great pacing, whether he’s setting up for comedy or narrative–though, really, it’s always both. Mostly excellent cinematography from Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot. The day-for-night is somewhat lacking but the content makes up for it. Similarly, Marcel Morreau’s editing only has any hiccups when they’re trying to get goats and chickens to behave.

Jour de fête is superb. Sure, the last third has its problems, but they’re masterfully, sublimely executed problems.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and René Wheeler; directors of photography, Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot; edited by Marcel Morreau; music by Jean Yatove; produced by Fred Orain and André Paulvé; released by DisCina.

Starring Jacques Tati (François), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Jacques Beauvais (Bondu), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), and Delcassan (Old biddy).


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Autumn Sonata (1978, Ingmar Bergman)

Somewhat recently I read an observation along the following lines–Ingmar Bergman created great roles for actresses by giving them absolutely awful emotions to essay. Whoever said it (I’ve tried, without success to properly credit her) said it a lot better. But at around the hour mark of Autumn Sonata, I couldn’t think of much else. The film just over ninety minutes. An hour into it, everything is forecast.

The film opens with village pastor Halvar Björk introducing his wife, Liv Ullmann. He loves her, a lot, but doesn’t really know how to express it in a way she can process it. She’s writing a letter to her mother, happily inviting her for a visit. The village is rural, their house is tranquil, the colors are soft, warm browns and reds (Autumn).

When mother–Ingrid Bergman–arrives, she and Ullmann have a nice reuniting. It’s been over seven years. Bergman hasn’t been good about staying in touch. She’s managed to miss Ullmann is taking care of her sister (Lena Nyman) now. Nyman is disabled; partially paralyzed and with limited speech. It’s an unidentified (by the dialogue) illness and, the film later reveals, a degenerative one.

Bergman isn’t happy to see Nyman, which is the first hint maybe Bergman isn’t such a great mother. Or person.

There are some more character revelations in the first third–Ullmann and Björk had a son who died, tragically, as a toddler. Bergman apparently never even met her grandson. She’s a famous concert pianist. She was busy.

She wakes that first night from a terrible dream–which is a fantastically done nightmare sequence (easily the best bit of editing in the film)–and goes downstairs to shake it off. Ullmann comes to check on her. That checking on her soon turns into daughter telling mother exactly what she thinks of her.

Their conversation, with occasional flashbacks, takes most of the rest of the film. It’s that night, the two women in the same room. Ullmann hating Bergman, Bergman either begging forgiveness or making excuses.

At that one hour mark I mentioned earlier, as Ullmann’s revealing the laundry list of Bergman’s bad parenting, that observation came to mind and I couldn’t shake it. But not only is Bergman–Ingmar–giving his two stars all this awful emotion to play, it’s not even particularly good awful emotion. It’s affecting and seeing Ullmann stare thin daggers at a collapsing Bergman–Ingrid–is powerful, but… dead toddler? Nyman’s illness? Ullmann being surprised she and mom aren’t having a good visit even though the only reason Ullmann invited her, deep down (but not even particularly deep down), is to rend her? It’s all pretty slight.

The filmmaking slows to a halt too. During the day, there are those beautiful colors from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in the perfectly designed house (Anna Asp’s production design). Night time? It’s nowhere near as effective. And, even though the colors are great and then there’s the interesting way Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist do flashbacks–long shots with muted color so Bergman (Ingrid) always gets to play mom, Ullmann usually gets to play herself, Nyman gets to play herself–for some reason lots of the (albeit occasional) camera movements are jerky and distracting. The camera moves for emphasis on Ullmann or Bergman and instead of informing their performance, it jerks and draws attention away from the performance. You’re wondering how they messed up a simple pan and tilt, when there’s clearly so much professional competence (and excellence) on display.

Like when Bergman has her scene listening to Ullmann play the piano. It’s beautiful. Truly magical acting from Bergman; it’s silent, she’s just watching, reacting to Ullmann playing, her thoughts across her face. A very complicated affection. The two argue for forty-five minutes at least and there’s never anything approaching that complication again in Sonata. Though once Ullmann starts in on Bergman, even when Bergman gets a monologue–the film’s a sequence of them–it’s nowhere near as good as anything she has earlier. Once Ullmann goes into simple hatred mode too… her character becomes a whole lot less interesting. Meanwhile Björk is occasionally around, usually silent. The way Bergman (Ingmar) used Björk as a fourth-wall breaking narrator was cool and all, but utterly pointless as the film progresses. It’s a misdirect to position Ullmann from a particularly angle.

The finale is particularly lackluster, both narratively and visually. Bergman (Ingmar) and Nykvist can’t do a simple composition shot. Ullmann gets a bunch of contrary penultimate character development, which would’ve been a lot better if it had come at the beginning, but then the finale resets it all back to the start anyway.

Somehow, Autumn Sonata–maybe due to the somewhat obvious production constraints–manages to be too misanthropic to be manipulative. It’s exceptionally disappointing, since–until it becomes obvious Bergman (Ingmar) doesn’t have the emotional fodder for Ullmann and Bergman (Ingrid)’s erstwhile showdown, it seems like Sonata is going to be fantastic. The acting is good, the filmmaking is exquisite (save the pans and tilts)… it’s got all the right pieces.

It just doesn’t have the story for it. It’s a shame, given how good Bergman (Ingrid) and Ullmann are when the material’s there.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Sven Nykvist; edited by Sylvia Ingemarsson; production designer, Anna Asp; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Liv Ullmann (Eva), Ingrid Bergman (Charlotte), Halvar Björk (Viktor), and Lena Nyman (Helena).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL INGRID BERGMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Police Story (1985, Jackie Chan)

Much of Police Story operates on charm. If it’s not co-writer, star, and director Jackie Chan’s charm, it’s charm of the scenes. There are some painfully uncharming moments–mostly Chan’s frequent neglective abuse of girlfriend Maggie Cheung–but even when Police Story is in its stunt spectacular mode, there’s charm.

The film doesn’t open with charm, however. It opens with this all-exposition police briefing introduction to drug kingpin Chor Yuen. The cops, including Chan, are getting their assignment. Next scene is execution of that assignment, the cops trying to just Chor and his large gang of gunmen in a shanty town. Things go wrong almost immediately (because the cops assumed the criminals wouldn’t notice a bunch of guys around wearing earpieces?), leading to a big shootout.

Chan, as star, hangs back for most of the shootout proper. He comes in to save the day, chases Chor up the mountain (the shanty town is the side of it), then chases him back down–in cars, destroying the shanty town. The scale of the sequence is amazing, making up for Chan’s middling shot composition. He and editor Peter Cheung are showing off the effects executions in Police Story; they’re sensationalizing, not trying to fit into the film’s tone.

Admittedly, given the tone is genial slapstick, the brutal violence of the action sequences (and fist fights) would be hard to fit into that geniality.

After another great action sequence where Chan boards a moving bus and fights off some henchmen, then gets thrown from said bus and still manages to stop it, he ends up poster boy for the Hong Kong police department. For some reason, his bosses also give him the job of protecting hostile witness Brigitte Lin, who works for drug lord Chor.

Lin doesn’t want protection, leading to a montage sequence of Chan following her around while the peppy, cartoonish score (from Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam) blares. After some narrative diversion, the bad guys strike, leading to Chan bringing Lin back to his place, where they run into Cheung (and a surprise birthday party for Chan). The next fifteen minutes or so is Chan passively and actively abusing Cheung, which is off-putting, though the movie has enough sensitivity for bad girl Lin to immediately (and sincerely) befriend good girl Cheung.

That C plot character relationship is one of the best things in Police Story, at least as narrative goes; it helps Cheung and Lin give the film’s two best performances. Ninety percent of the male cast (Cheung and Lin are the only female cast members, at least of substance) just mug for the camera.

There’s a really funny courtroom scene, there’s a bunch of great action scenes–the strangest thing about Police Story’s action (and its emphasis on the stunts) is how the biggest stunt, despite being an accomplishment for Chan (they show it from three different angles), is narratively inert. Chan knows how to stage a fantastic stunt sequence. He just doesn’t have much sense as for how narratively effective that sequence is going to be. Same goes for the slapstick set pieces. There’s a lengthy one involving Chan and a bunch of telephones ringing and he contorts his way around to answer all of them. It’s charming enough, but runs way too long. Chan and editor Cheung think because they’ve got that peppy music going, a sequence can go forever. It’s not good peppy, cartoonish music. It’s just peppy, cartoonish music.

The second half of the movie is Chan gone rogue, trying to bring down Chor. Its non-action scenes are some of Chan’s better directing. In the first half, despite being an acrobatic, unstoppable supercop, Chan’s a doofus. In the second half, he’s much less a doofus (leading to the film’s most awkward moment, Chan monologuing about being an unappreciated cop). But the scenes work better, direction-wise. Even if Cheung does pop up just to take Chan’s gentle but intentional verbal abuse or, you know, screw things up.

The big finale, despite the three-peated stunt being narratively blasé, is fantastic. Police Story’s stuntwork isn’t just fantastic for the abuse Chan puts himself through for a shot, it’s the abuse he puts the film’s other stuntmen through. And Lin. She’s obviously performing a bunch of her own stunts, even if the action is only there to shock cruelty value.

None of the villains stand out. Chor’s a thin Mr. Big, overshadowed by his henchmen (who are even more shallow but their performances aren’t) and particularly his lawyer, Lau Chi-wing. Bill Tung’s fun as Chan’s supervisor. Lam Kwok-hung is a little much as the straight-edge accountant police commander though. Police Story goes with caricature even when the actors seem capable of more. And the character consistency, script-wise, is always a little questionable. But with Lam… it’s like he’s not in one the joke when he needs to be.

Police Story is a spectacular spectacle of stuntwork. And the rest is a reasonable enough packaging of said spectacle. But a feature-length expansion of the end credits, which show the behind the scenes of the stunts, would probably make for a better film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jackie Chan; written by Chan and Edward Tang; director of photography, Cheung Yiu-Tsou; edited by Peter Cheung; music by Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam; production designer, Oliver Wong; produced by Leonard Ho; released by Golden Harvest Company.

Starring Jackie Chan (Chan Ka Kui), Maggie Cheung (May), Brigitte Lin (Selina Fong), Lam Kwok-Hung (Supt. Raymond Li), Bill Tung (Inspector Bill Wong), Chor Yuen (Chu Tao), Lau Chi-Wing (Cheung, the Lawyer), and Kam Hing-Yin (Inspector Man).


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Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa Akira)

Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.

However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.

After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.

And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.

Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.

Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.

There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.

But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.

Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.

There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.

Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.

Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.

Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE "NON-ENGLISH" BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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