Stalker (1979)

If you give it a chance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker mesmerizes and baffles. Made in the USSR in 1979, the Stalker takes place in a decaying, post-apocalyptic world that’s both repulsive and dripping in sludge yet hypnotic. 

Plot: In a dystopian city, two men, the Writer and the Professor, pay the Stalker to lead them into the forbidden Zone. If they can make it into the Zone into the inner sanctum, the Room the Stalker tells them their deepest desire will be fulfilled. Don’t worry the Writer is sharp enough to call the Stalker into question.

Every step of the way, they face danger. Violence? Imprisonment? It’s unspecified and you never see the who or what is the actual foe, which makes the tension all the higher. 

Thoughts:The dialog is poetic and philosophical. Throughout the story the men bicker, cheat and challenge each other. I did admire them for at least trying for more, for betterment despite being surrounded by the ugly and hopeless.

Writer (left), Stalker, Professor

Drenched, oily, dark, craggy the setting is incredible. Even in the Zone, the paradise they aimed for, the verdant fields are overgrown and look like Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster. There isn’t one inch of space that’s clean or inviting. And this atmosphere will haunt me and intrigue me.

I doubt this film could be remade by any other nationality. Every aspect is just so modern Russian. It visualizes what an oppressive, corrupt kleptocracy is: toxic, neglected, fetid, bleak.  

While the story is oblique and the characters, while sympathetic, are unlikeable, Stalker intrigued me so much that I’m sure I’ll watch it again and again. The visuals get inside your head, but not in a bad way.

Stalker is a challenging film. It often moves slowly, but the camera work of these slow scenes is tremendous. The frame of the story, particularly with Stalker’s mutant daughter who may have paranormal powers, mystifies rather than enlightens, but Tarkovsky makes it work. Few could.

Free and Easy

Free and Easy with Buster Keaton is a talkie with lots of physical humor. Keaton plan Elmer Butts, a nerdy sap, escorts local beauty queen winner Elvira and her overbearing mother to Hollywood. Of course, everything goes awry from the moment they start their journey. Every mix up is blamed on Elmer, some rightly so. 

On the train to California, while Elmer is stuck at the back of the train, Elvira and her mother meet a dashing movie star. Elvira is smitten with this flirtatious actor. 

A series of mishaps befall Elmer. He just doesn’t fit into the Hollywood scene and he knows it. However, he has a chance to play the hero, when he’s mistakenly given a chauffeur uniform and a car and sees Larry canoodling in the back of the car as he took innocent Elvira back to his mansion without a chaperone, he springs into action.

I watched this film almost accidentally. I’d checked out a three film DVD set from the library. The DVD I wanted to watch didn’t work, but the one with Free and Easy did. It’s a comic film and has Keaton’s famed pratfalls and his woebegone demeanor, but it was awfully hokey for a talkie. The story and characters were rather thin. It wasn’t awful, but unless you wind up with a disc that doesn’t work and one that does, I don’t see the need to see this film.

I’ll add that there’s a special feature, So Funny it Hurts, in which an old friend of Keaton’s explains Keaton’s troubled relationship with MGM. 

Ikiru (1952)

In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru dedicated life long bureaucrat Watanabe-san gets stomach cancer, which spurs him to review his life. He soon realizes his dedication to his job has cost him his relationship with his son and marriage. Watanabe-san worked. He didn’t eat, drink and make merry. He didn’t form life-giving friends. He was more of a civil servant robot than anything else. 

What can a heart filled with despair grab on to?

“Ikiru.” Akiro Kurosawa

As was the custom in Japan, the doctor didn’t directly tell Watanabe that he’s going to die, but he could read between the lines and the news profoundly saddens him. He knows his son and daughter-in-law are money-grubbing and can’t wait to 

A group of mothers faces the heartlessness, dare I say low-level evil, of bureaucracy, when they come to Watanabe’s office asking their government to take care of a neighborhood cesspool that’s causing illness and to turn it into a small playground. They’re pushed from department to department as the officials dodge actual work and responsibility. These mothers no doubt represent all the people who visit the office looking for help. 

Kurosawa’s depiction of the inert, soul-sucking system is portrayed with genius in the dark, run down offices with piles of paper towering over the dour workers. The only sign of life is a young office lady who jokes, laughs and brims with life. Of course, her only hope is to succeed in exiting from this choking, albeit safe career.

Watanabe-san knows he’s lost and seeks pleasure in a journey led by a writer he meets at a bar. The writer sees his plight and promises to show him real life in Tokyo’s red light district and dance halls. Watanabe realizes that his real hope to discover life is through the young lady who’s now left the government and works at a toy company, which is monotonous but also allows her to make things that bring people joy. Watanabe becomes like an uncle to her taking her out at night and living vicariously through her. Soon enough she tires of the attention and questions what’s really going on. It’s getting rather creepy. Watanabe explains. She’s the only person who knows the whole truth.

Although the young lady refuses to go out on the town with Watanabe, she does cause him to find a new purpose, which gives him the joy he sought.

The film moves into its second act, with a novel division. We go from Watanabe’s life with cancer to his funeral. Half the film takes place with his colleagues toasting him as his son and daughter-in-law watching on. Puzzled by Watanabe’s dramatic change in his last days, they try to figure out why he pushed himself body and soul into seeing that the cesspool became a park. To see half a 2 hour 23 minutes film told in flashback is likely not to work, but with a genius like Kurosawa it absolutely does. 

Though the theme of death may put some people off, this film, though certainly sad, is very powerful and positive. From the masterful acting to the powerful use of music and scenery, Ikiru is a must-see classic. 

The Criterion Collection DVD I had included a documentary on Kurosawa, which focused on the different aspects (e.g. music, script, storyboard, directing) of his filmmaking. It was full of information on what made him unique and much of it was Kurosawa describing his work and commenting on filmmaking at large. I learned things like Kurosawa would edit each day’s rushes that night so that the actors and crew could see how the film was taking form. This gave them a stronger sense of the film and meant that when shooting wrapped, there was only one day more to edit. I didn’t know that Kurosawa didn’t go to university and was selected from a very large pool of candidates from elite schools to enter Toho Studio’s training program for assistant directors. This program took 5 people the year he started and the other 4 were all from top colleges. Kurosawa also mused that today (

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita follows the decadent Odyssey of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). A gossip columnist, Marcello is steeped in the playboy, celebrity culture. He’s got a suicidal fiancée and a couple lovers. All are beautiful; none are happy. The film follows Marcello as he seeks out scandals to write about and outrageous parties. 

Marcello is looking for meaning, half-heartedly, but he is looking. He’s offended when people point out that he’s sold out by writing sensational stories for tabloids, but he doesn’t exert any effort to change. He’s full of excuses and charm, which serves him well enough.

Fellini offers beautiful people in beautiful scenes, but none has any sort of world view, philosophy or religion that guides them. Their lives are like one long series of college Saturday nights where kids wander about aimlessly looking for the pleasure they thought college nightlife offered. Instead they see emotional break downs, pleas for attention, and melodrama. 

Released in 1960, this film was fresh as it didn’t have the usual plot structure or protagonist who overcomes the typical obstacles. La Dolce Vita was more psychological and existential. It’s worth seeing for its artistic merit, but though I admire it, La Dolce Vita it’s not a film I’d call a favorite I want to see again and again. 

Man of the World (1931)

After a scandal, reporter Michael Trevor (William Powell) left America for Paris where he claims to be writing a novel. Ha! His income actually comes from blackmailing like Mary Kendell’s (Carole Lombard’s) rich Uncle Harry. Though it’s not his custom to prey upon women, Michael’s partner in crime and former lover Irene convinces him to black mail sweet Mary. She’s sure he’ll make so much he’ll be able to afford to have the time to write a novel.

Soon Michael falls for Mary’s charms, but Irene is expecting a windfall. How can he put an end to this con? He’d like to propose to Mary but how can he without revealing what he’s really been up to? Mary’s dilemma is that she’s already engaged. Her feelings grow for Michael and she vacillates between writing her fiancé a Dear John letter or not.

Man of the World, like the other Carole Lombard films I’ve seen, is fine, light entertainment. Michael’s blackmailing isn’t charming, but we like Powell enough to overlook that but only a little. Lombard is elegant and her wardrobe sublime. Yet she had little history. What we see of Mary is superficial until the end. Clearly, they don’t know each other well enough to know whether their feelings will last beyond a holiday romance, but the film does show Michael struggle morally and the ending was realistic, not what I’d expect today. I thought the ending more satisfying than the usual Happily Ever After ones.

Hands Across the Table (1935)

In Hands Across the Table Carole Lombard plays manicurist Regi who’s sworn off love and plans to marry for money. A wealthy customer, Allen Macklyn, who’s confined to a wheelchair, gets Regi to open up. He soon falls for her; he sees the light and strength under the rough exterior. They soon become friends, though Allen hopes for more.

Into Regi’s life hops scion Theodore Drew III who’s playing hopscotch in the hotel where Regi works. Theodore’s smitten when he meets her, but Regi thinks he’s a nincompoop.  She saw him playing hopscotch by himself in the hotel hallway. Theodore goes to the barbershop for a manicure so that he can ask Regi out to dinner. She’s uninterested until she realizes he’s wealthy. Then she becomes so nervous that she cuts or jabs each of his fingers. They do go out and Theodore wines and dines Regi, who’s soon charmed. It isn’t till the wee hours when Theodore’s taking her home that he mentions that he’s getting married. She’s stunned and heartbroken. 

Nonetheless Theodore doesn’t see why Regi’s upset. Can’t things continue in spite of the wedding? After all he’s only marrying for money. It turns out his family’s lost its fortune and as Theodore has no ability to work and earn it, he must marry. Circumstances, flimsy ones, keep Theodore with Regi, who continues to fall for this cad. Meanwhile, Allen decides to propose to Regi. This sterling fellow would surely make Regi a wonderful husband if she can accept his disability.

Hands Across the Table was full of surprises. It was bold to show Theodore as a scoundrel from the start. Lombard was witty, beautiful and down-to-earth. Few actresses today can be both elegant and “of the people” as she was. Fred McMurray played Theodore, who was convincing as the fun guy with the mind of a child, a real Peter Pan. His character had one fact so I don’t fault him for not adding sophistication to this playboy.

While I hoped for a different ending, the film was fun and plot fairly original. It’s a good choice when you’re looking for light entertainment.

Vivacious Lady (1937)

If you’re looking for pure fun and romance, check out Vivacious Lady (1937) starring Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. Straight-laced professor Peter is sent by his father, the president of a small town college, to retrieve his cousin from the big, frivolous city of New York. He finds cousin Keith at a a night club and begins to scold him for his 

Keith ducks and dives around Peter’s sermonizing and asks for some more time to see the woman of his dreams perform her number. Peter agrees and falls head over heals for Francey, a vivacious blonde. 

Before you know it, Francey and Peter get married. Keith wasn’t even able to stop the proceedings. Peter’s father calls and asks Peter to hurry back with Keith. Thus the strangest honeymoon begins. Peter brings Francey back to Old Sharon to introduce his new bride to his stodgy father and lovely mother. 

As with any screwball comedy, every thing that can go wrong does. Peter’s dad assumes Francey is a floosie Keith’s picked up and he charges Peter to put an end of this. Too nervous to set his father straight, Peter winds up just stuttering and promising to do his father’s bidding.  Meanwhile the minute Peter’s former fiancée sets eyes on Francey, she’s out to get her.

Mishaps, cat fights and misunderstandings ensue and it’s all in good fun. Made in 1937, the film still delights, but if you judge it my today’s mores, you won’t be entertained. I loved the energy and innocence. Roger’s Francey is feisty and wise not letting misunderstandings fester or ferment. The film includes lovely scenes not only between the newlyweds but also between  Francey and his new mother-in-law. 

Torn Curtain

Alfred Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966) stars Paul Newman and Julie and kept me engaged from start to finish. Newman plays nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong who’s at an academic conference with his assistant cum fiancée Sarah Sherman. Sarah keeps asking him to commit to a wedding date, but Michael brushes this away. He’s got something else on his mind.

Suddenly Michael tells her he’s going to Sweden and someone else can give his presentation. Sarah’s baffled and later learns that Michael’s going to Berlin. She follows him and he’s furious when he sees her on his plane.

Sarah’s arrival is a surprise to the East Germans who welcome Armstrong. They’re confused about what to do with her. They move forward with their plan and Armstrong announces at a news conference that he’s defecting. Sarah’s shocked.

Now what? She’s come to East Germany and discovered she knows nothing of her fiancé, who’s going to give American military secrets to the enemy.

Little does she know that Michael’s a double agent. Spies give him instructions on where to go to get information on his operation, which soon goes off track.

The film’s a fast-paced thriller which will keep you guessing. Reviewing some other blogs I’ve seen it’s gotten some criticism for not being emotionally convincing, but I was more than satisfied with the twists and turns of Sarah and Michael’s romance just as I was with those of the Cold War enemies’ chases. Great climatic scene in a theater.

Torn Curtain earned a thumbs up from me.

Swearing: None

Violence: A bit, but not so bloody.

Sex scenes: one, nothing too graphic.

 

The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.