Adventures of a Dentist (Klimov, 1965)

At first blush Elem Klimov’s Adventures of a Dentist seems a far cry from his later films, but this is a dark, critical comedy that is right at home with his more famous 1980s output.

Andrey Myagkov plays Sergei Petrovich, a young dentist endowed with the ability to remove teeth without any pain. When he begins a job in a small town (a town where, as his initial colleague tells him, everyone already knows everything about him) his talent leads to suspicion and distrust.

Klimov’s film is comedy, a musical, and very much a product of the 1960s in its breaking of the 4th wall-

-and other bold techniques. I love this one where, in a quick flashback sequence, the director gives us the narration via a backdrop of graphic lettering:

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So much of the blocking and set design is planned to give the feeling of surveillance, or eavesdropping. Below, first: a critical scene where Petrovich is watched by a group of his superiors as he examines a patient. Below, second: the interior of his room, which is at first cozy, and then all too revealing:

The mise-en-scene is also populated with images of Russian men, furthering that feeling of pervasive observation:

Klimov shoots the film in really well-composed 2.35:1. It’s a great aspect ratio for people peering over shoulders, or for someone in the background observing someone in the foreground.

The film’s subtext of how exceptionalism, even the type that provides a necessary, progressive, and painless service, is frowned upon, is a clear critique of the government and times. At one point in the film Petrovich explains how he’s learned how to be happy – you just don’t talk to anyone; it’s that simple! A pretty bleak message couched in this often hilarious film.

 

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Cutting it Short (Menzel, 1981)

Jiří Menzel’s Cutting it Short (or Shortcuts) never got the same reputation in the US as, say, Closely Watched Trains (one of three or four films I think of when I think of movies that got me into cinema), but it’s a funny, sentimental film that reminds of Amarcord, or Tati without the fear of modernism and technology.

As it happens I just read Bohumil Hrabal’s “Too Loud a Solitude;” he wrote Cutting it Short as a sort of nostalgia. The film is certainly not plotless, but it does have the effect of memory, where everything seems to exist in a pleasant, isolated vacuum. Nothing in Cutting it Short is too urgent  – the stakes are relatively low throughout – and in that way the film also feels more literary than screenwriterly.

None of that should detract from what is a tender film that is sometimes surprisingly erotic and also frequently hilarious. Magda Vásáryová is Maryska. She has magnificently long hair – one of the many things referred to in the title – and is the carefree wife of Francin (Jirí Schmitzer), the manager of a local brewery. He’s far less nonchalant, but they still live a happy existence. Even when the owners of the brewery – Francin’s bosses – aren’t happy with the goings-on, his wife makes them forget their troubles by cooking up a huge pig roast and serving beer. As I’ve noted in many a blog post this past year, you’ll be hard pressed to find a (good) Czech film that doesn’t feature drinking in some way. Cutting it Short is no exception. If this doesn’t look refreshing, what does?

I doubt this is the original poster, but regardless, I want it:

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Things change for Francin and Maryska when his brother, Pepin (Jaromír Hanzlík) comes to visit. Pepin is a shouter. That’s what it sounds like. He shouts all the time. It’s amazing that Menzel was able to pull this off without being annoying, because damn, Pepin is loud. But Menzel does it narratively (Pepin doesn’t shout once he’s put to work), and by playing with sound for comedy – Pepin’s voice echoes from ridiculous places throughout the movie.

There are a lot of great set pieces in Cutting it Short. This one, where Maryska and Pepin defy Francin and climb a chimney to the dismay of the local fire department feels pulled from Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton by the angles and the contrast between the bumbling brigade on the ground and the unworried protagonists above. The inept local enforcement also doesn’t feel far from the critiques of many 1960s Czech films (i.e The Firemen’s Ball):

One of the most memorable and somewhat uncomfortable scenes comes towards the end when Francin publicly punishes Maryska in plain view of everyone:

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Perhaps you can tell why it’d be both. To be fair to Menzel, the two characters have showed quite the penchant for some risqué sexuality throughout, so it’s not like this is out of the blue, or pure humiliation But those men standing around watching feels rather awkward.

That said, Maryska is a good character in the film. She’s clever and “runs” the business without ever hinting as much. One of the best moments in the film comes towards the end where, as the title implies, she gets a haircut. The same barber who earlier in the movie so lovingly washed her hair-

-now can barely contain his misery at fulfilling her request:

The title doesn’t refer only to her hair. By the end everything is cut shorter – a table, the workday, worker’s pay, and so on. For me the title seems to refer to progress, which the film is about (Maryska gets a haircut based on a current style; the workday is cut shorter because of new advancements at the brewery), and also to a happier way of living where taking shortcuts don’t matter because the stakes aren’t high.

 

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Placido (Berlanga, 1961)

It’s hard to believe that Luis García Berlanga made a film nearly as good as The Executioner.  Placido isn’t quite there, but it’s also a masterpiece.

The IMDb and FilmStruck summaries do it no favors. Something about “a bunch of old women put together a poor man’s supper…” Yes, that does happen, but it’s really just background for a chaotic, hilarious take on class and a bit of religion in a small Spanish town.

Cassen plays Plácido, owner of a truck who just wants to get paid for his services to Gabino (José Luis López Vázquez) so that he can make a payment on his vehicle and not have it taken away. Vázquez is great as the self-serving Gabino, putting on a sort of auction for Christmas Eve dinners with B-movie stars (the A-movie stars, who were expected, don’t leave home, we learn) and one of the town’s homeless. The whole event is sponsored by Cocinex, a made-up brand, who really just want their cooker publicized.

That latter bit seems like a Berlanga trademark (it was definitely present in La Boutique) – mocking capitalism and advertising (it’s also in Placido in the form of a a contraption to cure Gabino’s cold; I always think of Chaplin and Tati when it comes to these ideas. There’s a sort of fear/mockery of modernism thread).

The main thrust of Placido is saving face. No one wants to look bad in front of anyone else, and so the townspeople all begrudgingly bring a vagabond to dinner. Berlanga’s films aren’t optimistic, though they’re comically dark – and like The Executioner this one gets pretty morbid towards the end.

Religion is also a target: a funeral passes one way as the B-movie star parade passes the other; the town notary is only excited about Christmas Eve mass so that he can get away from the homeless man currently in his apartment; reverence towards a dying man is only so that he can be removed from a family’s flat. Even the could-be-pious star atop Plácido’s car feels more like marketing than the true spirit.

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Placido clocks in at one hour and 28 minutes, and I bet the script was less than the standard page/minute. My guess is that Berlanga times out to closer to page/50 seconds. That’s a significant difference, and it’s something I love about the film. Berlanga uses a lot of expertly blocked long takes and he’s so good at using background characters and extras. There’s chaos throughout the entire film – the type of chaos that you can’t really write and just have to direct in. It’s really difficult to make a film this dynamic. The long takes aren’t showy or impressive in their own right, they layer disorder upon disorder making for a really, really fun and funny film.

I’m looking forward to a second watch of Placido because of the secondary characters and their relationships. There are only a few I really caught on the first viewing: the radio man flirting with a maid, the notary complaining to his wife post-auction. I’m sure there are many more that track throughout.

Here’s a look at Berlanga’s blocking. Like in The Executioner he likes starting scenes with extras, but because so many people in the town are important, most of the time he’s actually starting with someone functional to the film, and not a character who’s a complete aside.

This particular scene starts in a high angle shot of the sound mixer. We tilt up and track back, finding Gabino (frame left), Plácido (center), and the radio man (frame right). The latter walks over to plug his device in and Berlanga pans with him:

We then pull all the way back the length of the table with Gabino, land in a temporary wide-shot as Plácido (for about the 10th time in the film) tries to get his money, and then we push back forward as both men walk back down the table. Notice the maids in the background and the homeless man already seated at the table. They’re literally background in every sense, but a lot of the comedy comes from that idea – that they’re back there doing funny things while all of this foreground activity is happening:

Gabino brings us to the crowd of people entering, and then Berlanga shifts the focus of the scene. Plácido is no longer in frame – we’ve forgotten about his just as Gabino has – and instead we’re following the wealthy people (where Gabino’s attention is):

There’s a long bit at the table, which we pan and track over to. This is some of my favorite blocking in the scene. Berlanga just basically steps people forward (the woman in image 2 below brings us, ultimately to image 4 below), and for a moment we’re back into Plácido pleading his case again:

This doesn’t last long as the radio man takes over and (as he’s trying to do all film, so it makes sense here) regains temporary control. His opening and closing to the camera (open, half open, open, closed) is what really controls these frames, along with the B-movie star who is frame left in image 3 below:

It’s all pretty fast, as noted before, and also filled with a motivated, energetic camera, that switches focus rapidly. We’re with Plácido, then with Gabino, then with the radio man, then back to Plácido and so on. Everyone has something to gain from the evening and the camera and blocking has them fighting for space.

 

 

 

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Sombre (Grandrieux, 1998)

If you were to tell me that you really hate Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre I don’t think I’d really argue. I love it, but about halfway through watching it I wasn’t sure if I loved it or hated it (usually a sure-fire sign that you love it). The film makes you feel a bit disgusting, and is thoroughly uncomfortable. At times I could see some Brakhage (this driving sequence that transitions from road, to a Mothlight-like sequence, to hair)-

-Tarkovsky, Dreyer (this shot that reminded me of The Passion of Joan of Arc in its starkness and framing)-

-and maybe Pasolini influences.

The first thing that’s striking about Sombre is how dark it is. I mean, verging underexposed. It’s all part of Grandrieux’s strategy of getting under your skin – his out of focus images and sound design contribute to that, as does the storyline that starts abruptly, stays really tight for most of the film, and only feels a bit more accessible when Claire (Elina Löwensohn – the reason I watched this film in the first place) enters the narrative.

You get used to the darkness so much that when things become higher key (or maybe just properly exposed) it’s startling.

Grandrieux uses sound so effectively in here. It’s unnerving and omnipresent. The first obvious example is a quick J-cut to screaming kids-

It’s at once joyful and scary. We don’t know what they’re watching until quite a bit later. Grandrieux withholds a lot of information in this way.

Some of the frames in Sombre are just a pleasure to look at. These don’t entirely do the shots justice because of the way the light reflects off of the moving water:

The acting in the film is so good and in really challenging roles. Löwensohn is amazing as Claire. There’s a fantastic shot-reverse towards the end as she watches Jean (Marc Barbé) walk away.

That second frame isn’t black. He’s just disappearing into the blackness. Her quiet performance is so desperate.

Sombre is pretty disturbing, and at times it feels like it’s reaching for a new cinematic language to express its beauty. The images of the Tour de France-

-feel so oddly out of place – perfectly so – the real world going on, loud and happy (the end says as much) alongside this other, quite somber narrative.

 

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Who Wants to Kill Jessie? (Vorlícek, 1966) and Ball of Fire (Hawks, 1941)

Václav Vorlícek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is as madcap as it gets. I watched this and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire in close proximity to one-another. They combine for a pretty interesting look at screwball comedy across decades and oceans.

I haven’t really seen much like Who Wants to Kill Jessie? before. I mean, I’ve seen films that are cartoonish, that are battle-of-the-sexes, etc, but I think it’s rare to find one that is also shot in gorgeous anamorphic. The film also has an instance of backwards talking, which calls to mind Twin Peaks, and, of course, features a great beer sequence.

The basic plot of Jessie is silly. Dr. Rozie (Dana Medrická) creates a method to eliminate bad dreams. Unfortunately, her technique also brings the dreams into reality. Meanwhile, her husband Jindrich (Jirí Sovák) is dreaming of a comic book character Jessie (Olga Schoberová) whose anti-gravitational gloves draw the interest of a villainous superman (Juraj Visny) and cowboy (Karel Effa), though the latter only looks stereotypically evil and the former seems more intent on eating than anything else.

The film isn’t one to mind plot holes (like: why does Jessie ever take the anti-gravitational gloves off, or remove them from her person if they’re so important), but it doesn’t matter. It’s fun, and at times really hilarious, particularly a sequence featuring both main character’s assistants and some classic screwball mixed up identity.

I’d bet that Vorlícek shot in 2.35 because of the word bubbles that factor frequently into the film:

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The aspect ratio really lends itself to them. But as mentioned, the film is also really pretty. Jan Nemecek shot it. He also lensed Black Peter, but I’m surprised that his credits aren’t so prolific. The images are well-composed with beautiful, often natural light:

Here’s another sequence that I quite like, and one that is also straight-up screwball. After Dr. Rozie and her assistants attempt to (pretty brutally) kill superman, he’s accidentally sent upstairs in a lift. Of course above him there’s an active funeral.

The second shot above is one of two punch lines: superman looking very small in the background of the frame behind all of the flowers. The large crowd is the button on the joke.

Ball of Fire

A really, really tiny SPOILER is at the end of this post. But you should really be able to guess the spoiler.

I really love Howard Hawks, but I have to say it: Ball of Fire is outdated. I’d guess that Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Hawks might have anticipated that. I mean it’s based on something so transient: slang.

But that notwithstanding, the film feels like a strong (though not as strong) follow-up to His Girl Friday and it anticipates Monkey Business 11 years later. The latter really demonstrates to me how much of a superior actor Cary Grant was to Gary Cooper. Cooper’s Dr. Bertram Potts is funny and stuffy at once, but Cooper just doesn’t have the comedic timing or charisma that Grant had.

The seven dwarves-esque side characters in Ball of Fire are funny and appropriately adorable, though I think there’s a little too much mileage gotten out of “cute old men.”

You can really see how Wilder would’ve learned from Hawks though. A year later Wilder would make his Hollywood debut, and he’s only 3 years removed from starting his great run with Double Indemnity in 1944. The two have really similar styles in a lot of ways, though Wilder’s films feel forever more cynical.

There are plenty of great sequences in Ball of Fire. One of my favorites is Sugarpuss’ (we could do a blog post just on that name. Played by Barbara Stanwyck) introduction at a night club where she does an a capella encore, supported only by “drums” on a match book. It’s a great performance, and Hawks gets about as arty as Hawks gets with the reflection shot below:

The slang plot is actually still funny in some ways, mostly when we get a look at how desperately Potts wants to chart, categorize, and learn:

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Both films effectively end with the nerdy man getting the sexy woman, while another nerdy woman is either forgotten (Ball of Fire), is shown to be as/more interested in excitement than romance (Ball of Fire), or is cast as obtrusive (Jessie). It’s the old “Hollywood” ending where no one seems at all concerned with the problems that will inevitably arise, and where women are easily changed for the right man (it seems to me that Potts will go back to working on encyclopedias and that Jindrich will continue inventing, but neither Sugarpuss nor Jessie will regain much semblance of their old lives).

 

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Happy End (Haneke, 2017)

Michael Haneke’s films have come up often in recent conversations with my students. I haven’t rewatched any of his since Amour, so it’s been over five years since I’ve seen one of his films. Somehow I remember him as having a much less mobile camera than the one in Happy End, where the camera moves a lot. Though it’s too simplistic, the camera in here does in some ways to move mostly in relation to Eve (Fantine Harduin, who is great in the film). There are plenty of exceptions to this, including a scene that I’ll look at below, but Eve does seem like the most mobile character in the film. She’s also the main character, so there’s that…

But Haneke’s frames still feel so precise. Even in a fairly simple setup when Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) has picked Eve up and is driving her home from school, the shot-reverse-shot in the car feels at once traditional (we cut to reaction shots) and very Haneke-like (no frills, long beats).

I don’t remember much hype surrounding Happy End, but I think it’s a really good film. The family relationships are complex and unfold gradually in a way that I think is rewarding. There’s ambiguity in the film, but I feel like there is less than in his other work. That’s neither here nor there for me – the film is dynamic and complex.

Here’s a look at one of my favorite scenes. Haneke stages expertly. I tend to like (at least to analyze) scenes that have “more” blocking than others. This one starts with a sort of vlog/mashup video on a computer, before we cut out and reveal that it’s Eve watching. She hears someone off-screen, so she stands and walks into the bedroom. Haneke’s camera tracks back with her:

There’s something about her decision to go that feels so appropriate for the film. Haneke’s characters so often do something when they feel like they’re hidden. That’s true in this instance as Eve has just heard Anaïs (Laura Verlinden) walk off.

This section of the scene takes place in the low-key bedroom. Eve holds Anaïs’ baby in a way that feels dangerous and loving. Anaïs’ reactions say as much (she protectively takes the child), as does the mise-en-scene.

When Thomas enters off-screen we pan and push back the way that Eve came, landing in this 3-shot:

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The first cut in the scene comes next, to this wide, which then pulls back and pans left as Thomas enters the kitchen.

The last cut in the scene is back to Anaïs in the doorway. Thomas enters and Eve plays out between them and in the background. It’s nicely observant of her and the frame reflects that. She’s quite observant throughout the film. The over that this lands on feels so full of jealousy and longing (as does the end of the scene):

Two nicely timed exits leave Eve temporarily alone, before she and Anaïs are the only ones left. It’s well thought through, as their relationship is quiet and a bit tense (already established at the beginning of the scene). Haneke plays them as ships passing:

And we end the scene on Anaïs, appropriately quiet, and reflective:

It’s not only some of the character-related moments I’ve noted above, but also the efficiency of the coverage that still leads no beat unturned, that keeps certain reactions off-screen/out of focus, and that prioritizes Anaïs and Eve above Thomas, which helps later in the film when they have another conversation.

Here’s another scene I really liked. Pierre (Franz Rogowski, also excellent. Everyone’s excellent in this, and I haven’t even mentioned Isabelle Huppert or Jean-Louis Trintignant!) pulls up and approaches an apartment building:

We get the sense that we’re in a much less affluent neighborhood. That contrast is another Haneke trademark. As is the conversation that plays out in wide shot and with true sound perspective:

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After a violent encounter Pierre walks back. This time Haneke doesn’t pan him out, but tracks slowly to him, landing in a tighter medium than his opening frame:

I quite like the wide that lingers for so long, without access to the dialogue, but also the track back instead of a pan back. It feels traditional to me: we get more drama in the tighter frame, which is narratively reflected (he’s now bleeding). But it’s also a good example of how a track with things moving in the foreground can really feel more urgent than the initial pan in.

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The Fury of a Patient Man (Arévalo, 2016) and Lowlife (Prows, 2017)

I didn’t know much about The Fury of a Patient Man going in and, aside from the nitpick that the title cards towards the beginning of the film separating this into something like chapters are totally unnecessary, Raúl Arévalo’s feature debut is quite good.

Antonio de la Torre is great in this, but he’s been good in everything I’ve seen him cropping up in recently – The Night Manager and Marshland both come to mind. He plays Jose, who is on some strange quest for revenge.

Arévalo shot this in super16 and blew it up to 35. I love the resulting look – dirty and dusty. His camera at the beginning is frantic and features some elaborate POVs. That settles down thereafter, when we move from prologue into the real story, and gradually towards connecting the threads.

It’s not that The Fury… is full of twists and turns. If you’ve seen enough genre films that fit this bill you get it early-on. It’s that Arévalo controls tension so well (a scene in a basement featuring football jerseys is probably the best, particularly the immediate aftermath), and that he makes Jose such an uncompromising protagonist, but hits perfect beats to somehow make him sympathetic. He also chooses great moments to keep things off-screen.

Lowlife

I’ve heard about Lowlife as it’s made its way on the festival circuit. Ryan Prows debut is really, really fun. There will be (or already have been) inevitable comparisons to Pulp Fiction, but those don’t matter. I’m really impressed with the multifaceted performances that Prows gets and how he balances really off-kilter comedy with some serious violence.

The violence at times in here hinges on the absurd, but it feels so intentional. When El Monstruo (played behind a mask for the entirety of the film by Ricardo Adam Zarate) exits frame and we see the results of his fight with a young quinceañera-celebrator’s father it’s hard to not gasp and laugh at once. There feels like a debt more to Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Verhoeven than anyone else.

Lowlife

I struggled at the beginning of the film with Mark Burnham’s performance as Teddy Haynes. It felt flat and easy. But a testament to actor and director: I think it really comes around and totally works in the end. Teddy seems to be operating on some other scale than the people who really feel the stakes in this film. That’s a risk, I think, but one that pays off.

Lowlife is in the early lead for my favorite score of 2018. Kreng’s score blasts at times – it almost gets too loud in a few scenes, which makes it even better. It’s so diverse and textured. I loved it.

I wonder what the kicking off point was for this script (credited to five writers!). Was it, “how do we bring a guy with a swastika tattoo on his face together with a black motel owner and her pregnant, mixed-race daughter”? Was it, “a luchador’s revenge”? For some reason I think that the initial idea simmered around Randy (Jon Oswald, who is so good in this) more than anyone else. I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because he has a hero arc in such a short amount of time, and because his situation is absurd and sad at once (great dialogue when he talks briefly about his prison past and his unfortunate tattoo: “you think this was an option”?).

Regardless, Lowlife is a lot of fun and really delicately – not a word I think I’d usually associate with smashed in heads – dances between lunacy, high stakes drama, and fresh genre mechanics.

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