Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic brings along with it a considerable amount of baggage, in the form of near-universal acclaim. Along with its official selection into the United States National Film Registry , which recognizes significant film works, it’s a part of several AFI Best Of lists, including the Top 10 Mysteries, where it places ahead of The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon, among others. And yet, my reaction to the film is closer to indifference than anything else. Don’t get me wrong; the film is solid enough. But I can’t help but feel it’s missing certain elements needed to make it truly special. Despite its common labeling as a classic example of noir, it never really felt like one to me. It feels more like a traditional whodunit, with a small cast of suspects and an investigator piecing together the clues to finally determine the true culprit. The closest it comes to the darkness you normally associate with noir is when the detective starts to obsess over the portrait of the dead title character, which is quickly abandoned after a midpoint twist changes the specifics of the initial crime.
The idea of obsession plays a big role in the film, with the three main male characters each falling under the spell of the title character, but as played by Gene Tierney, the viewer is never exactly sure why Laura is so desirable. She lacks the screen presence that someone like Lauren Bacall could have brought to the role. Likewise, Dana Andrews is a whole lot of nothing in the main role of the police investigator. I mentioned recently that one of the pleasures of noir for me is watching the central anti-heroes, and that pleasure is distinctly missing from Laura. Most of the interest comes from the supporting performers instead, especially from Clifton Webb as Laura’s mentor and Vincent Price as the man who wants to take her away from him. They’re both brilliant, but they’re not enough to elevate the film above its weaknesses. In the end, I guess I’m just still unsure as to what all the fuss is all about. 6/10.
Isao Takahata’s contributions to the Studio Ghibli canon will probably always be overshadowed by the works of Hayao Miyazaki, but his comparatively small output cries out for equal appreciation. Films like Grave Of The Fireflies and Pom Poko stand proudly next to Miyazaki’s best, and while 1999’s My Neighbors The Yamadas isn’t quite on the same level as those earlier films, it’s another testament to his talents. It stands completely separate from the rest of the Ghibli canon though, both in its content and art style. The film is constructed as a series of loosely-themed vignettes, each focusing on a particular aspect of family life, only a couple of which lasting more than a few minutes. Some moments are broadly comic, a couple are tragic, most are light and breezy. The most worrisome sequence comes near the start, when the family forgets the youngest girl at a shopping mall, but even that episode ends with smiles.
Keeping with the film’s feather-light tone is the visual presentation. Unlike all the other Ghibli films, which use a traditional, expressive yet detailed animation style, My Neighbors The Yamadas takes a much more minimal approach, with simplified character models interacting in front of loosely-defined backgrounds. It has an intentionally hand-drawn aesthetic, which was why I was surprised to learn that the film was made entirely on computers, the first of its kind for the studio. It all adds up to a whole that would be right at home in the Sunday comics, sitting comfortably next to Family Circus and Peanuts. The early Simpsons shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show are another good comparison. Because of its episodic structure and complete lack of an overarching narrative, I actually found it beneficial to watch the film in little bite-size chunks over a few nights. Like the comics that it resembles, the film offers plenty of quaint insight and wisdom, but it perhaps works best in small doses. 7/10.
Ron Fricke has made a career out of traveling the world and capturing images of breathtaking beauty. Originally the director of photography on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyannisqatsi, he then moved on to direct himself the stylistically similar Baraka (which I’ve yet to see) and now his most recent effort, Samsara. Fricke filmed his images over a course of four years and in 25 different countries, using only 70mm film. And there really is no denying it, the images on display in Samsara are breathtaking. My favorite occurs near the beginning, with an aerial shot of Burmese temples scattered around a luminously green landscape (pictured above), while other sections almost look like they would be right at home among the futuristic settings of Cloud Atlas. It’s awe-inspiring to think that there are such places here on our planet. So as purely a collage of transcendental visuals, the film is a clear success.
Where it runs into trouble is how it combines those images to push forward a central message, a message that isn’t really much different from Koyannisqatsi, which was made over 30 years ago. The film opens with quiet images of natural environments and of the deserted structures of ancient civilizations. It then contrasts these with the hustle and bustle of the modern world, of cars on freeways and people going about their busy lives (usually shown in fast motion). Along with this, the viewer is also bombarded with genuinely disturbing images of robotic technology and animals being unceremoniously slaughtered in factories. The message is clear: somewhere along the line, the world has changed from a primarily natural environment to an artificial one, one dominated by assembly-line habits and an overreliance on technology, where spiritual concerns are more secondary (but crucially not quite dead). I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with this point. In fact, I agree with it completely. It’s just tough to shake the feeling that Fricke has already made this point before, and better, with his past films. Still though, it’s recommended viewing for the spectacular quality of the images alone, and if you’re new to Fricke’s work, there’s a good chance you’re going to come away from it legitimately impressed. 7/10.
Certain films draw you immediately into their worlds, while others take a little while for the viewer to get acclimated to their style and pace. Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film adaptation of the Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is more the latter than the former, but once it starts to gain momentum, it doesn’t let up. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of 1860s Sicily, and I would include myself in that group, the material in the early going, with the introduction of the characters and the focus mainly on the country’s political situation, is somewhat hard work. It isn’t until the second hour that the film settles down and finds its focus. The narrative follows a respected but aging prince who finds his influence diminishing in a world of political revolution. After leaving his estate to journey to his country home with his family, the prince starts to plan a marriage between his handsome nephew and the mayor’s daughter, in the hopes of ensuring his family has a prosperous future. The prince has class and respect but diminishing influence, while the mayor has considerable influence but no class and respect.
This is all fairly melodramatic material, but the film is redeemed through its direction and cinematography, which are exemplary, and the three central performances. It’s nice to see Alain Delon in a role that allows him to traverse a wider range of emotions than the constant poker face he has in Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, and Claudia Cardinale playfully bites her lip a couple times and it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. Really though, it’s Burt Lancaster that dominates this film, even though his voice is dubbed over in Italian. Lancaster called his performance in the film his best ever, and it’s tough to argue with his assessment (although J.J. Hunsecker would probably have something to say about that, and I have a soft spot for his final film appearance as Moonlight Graham in Field Of Dreams). It’s a performance that asserts his natural overpowering screen presence, and yet his character is one who is lamenting his increasing irrelevance. Late in the film, his character muses: “We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.” The prince’s status may be diminishing, but Lancaster himself will always be a leopard, a lion. 8/10.