DVDs for 8/11/09 – Lupino and Sheridan, Cantet and Wajda

Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist
Ida Lupino: a romantic and a realist

Ida Lupino was one of Hollywood’s real tough cookies, a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies. The Man I Love isn’t a crime film per se, but it’s far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh. Set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, it’s a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul. Lupino is the calloused heroine, a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family – a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

The Man I Love
The Man I Love

Lupino may have a weak singing voice but her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret, as if she’s lived the lyrics of her songs of lost loves and bruised romanticism, and her tossed-off delivery of smartly scripted lines gives her an American urban worldliness. The film is best known today for Scorsese’s claims that it was his inspiration for New York, New York, but it’s not the plot that found its way into his film. It’s the shadowy culture of working class folks tangled in the post-war culture of seductive night life, of dive bars and the itinerate musicians and singers and underworld types who frequent them, and in the tough attitude that Walsh and Lupino bring to the film. They made a great pair and she is the perfect Walsh heroine: tough, smart, experienced, and still something of a romantic at heart. This is one of the great “women’s pictures” of the era, never showy but always simmering with complicated relationships, frustrated desires and unfulfilled affections that are more authentic and conflicted than most Hollywood pictures.

This is part of the recent wave of Warner Archive Collection, the no-frills line of DVD-on-demand. Also released are two more Lupino films – The Hard Way (1942) and Deep Valley (1947, with Dane Clark) – and a trio of Ann Sheridan films. She was called “The Oomph Girl” and was a popular pin-up in the war, but behind her all-American looks was an urban girl with a lot of grit. Vincent Sherman directs her in two of her more shadowy melodramas. The Unfaithful (1947) is an uncredited reworking of The Letter with Sheridan as a married woman who kills a prowler who turns out to have been her lover while her husband was in the war. The potential salaciousness of the material is played down as the characters at the center of it – including Eve Arden as a gossipy cousin who becomes protective of Sheridan as the media vultures swoop in for the story – deal with the issues like adults. Sherman also directs her in the noirish melodrama Nora Prentiss (1947). None of the films have been restored for DVD, but the preserved prints from the Warner library are fine for what they are.

The discs in the Warner Archive Collection are available directly from the Warner Archive website.

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New reviews: The Class, Three Monkeys, Ballast

The Class (dir: Laurent Cantet)

Laurent Cantet’s The Class is one of five films up for an Academy Award on Sunday and one of the best films of 2008. Shot like a documentary, structured like a dramatic slice of socio-cultural reality and performed with an authenticity that cuts deep into the fiction, it’s a remarkably observant, effective and affecting portrait of a single group of junior high students over the course of a year in a single classroom. It’s a fictional film based on the memoir of teacher (Francois Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself in the film) and it has a lot to say, but more importantly it has a lot to observe. Set in one of the poorer arrondissements (or suburbs) of Paris with a vibrant cultural mix (kids of African, Middle-Eastern, Carribean and Asian ancestry, some immigrants, many first-generation French), the environment can seem alien and chaotic as we’re thrown into it. But it’s steeped in specificity, thanks to young actors who bring the weight of very different lives to each of the willful characters. Cantet and Bégaudeau worked with 13 and 14-year-old local students, non-actors all, to create the characters and the improvisational environment for the film. It makes its major points but lets the “reality” of its young characters define itself outside of the constructed events, even through the film never leaves the confines of the school. The complex and at times volatile dynamics of the classroom takes on a life all its own.

The classroom
The classroom

(T)his is not your classic tale of an inspiring teacher who wins the trust and respect of his triumphant class. The young cast, all nonactors who developed their characters with Cantet and Bégaudeau, brings the weight of full lives to each of the students.

Some of them take their street culture into the classroom and turn every interaction into a verbal confrontation, a matter of respect they demand without offering in return. The more articulate students make the case that French grammar and language skills have no relevance to their lives. They’re proud, frustrated, at times insolent and often playful. But they all have an integrity that burns with a conviction that can turn volatile.

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Three Monkeys (dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution and the increasing difficulties of small films and foreign language productions to get theatrical releases, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Turkish drama, which won the Best Director award at Cannes 2008, this one-week Seattle engagement at the Varsity Theatre is the film’s American theatrical debut.

It’s a a beautifully observed film about a family unraveling when the father takes the rap (and a nine-month prison term) for a hit-and-run by his boss, a politician running for election. The son drifts into gangs and the mom approaches the politician for money to buy a car for son, so he can get a delivery job and get off the streets. A lot of films would drift into familiar territory – the car gets wrecked or stolen, the boss (who loses the election) refuses to pay, the boy pulls the family into crime, something that would all spiral into tragedy. And spiral it does, but through bad decisions and worse communication between family members who pull into themselves. The dramatic events that would be the focus of most filmmakers – beginning with the hit-and-run that throws off the orbit of the central family – take place off-screen. At times they are just out of the frame. Ceylan is more interested in the reactions and the repercussions, the human story beyond the headline events. There’s a fourth presence in this family as well, seen in visions of a little boy who haunts them all with his absence.

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