Never on Sunday (Dassin, 1960) and V/H/S (Lots of people, 2012)

When doing some cursory Jules Dassin research (cursory research = Googling) I came upon these two quotes:

“The reputation of Jules Dassin rests on five crime thrillers, three of which were made in Hollywood before he was forced to leave the United States for political reasons. An ineffectual mixture of comedies and dramas characterized Jules Dassin’s early films until he made Brute Force (1947), a tough prison drama.” –Rob Edelman

“His early films showed great promise, and include the superb prison drama Brute Force (1947), the cop rite-of-passage movie The Naked City (1948), and two of the very best film noir thrillers ever produced, Thieves’ Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950)…Dassin’s hokum period only began when he arrived in Europe and met Melina Mercouri, and its apogee came with the cheery, teary, weary, Never on Sunday (1960).” –Mario Reading

Ouch.  Five crime thrillers?  I assume Edelman is referring to Brute Force, Night and the City, The Naked City, Riffi, and Thieves Highway.

And then Mario Reading’s quote…I don’t entirely disagree with his assessment of Never on Sunday, but refer to all of his collaborations with Mercouri as his “hokum period” is to overlook several great works.

Have neither of these guys seen Up Tight! or Phaedra?

Never on Sunday isn’t really an entirely successful film.  It concerns an American philosopher Homer (Dassin) who travels to Greece and meets a prostitute Ilya (Mercouri, Dassin’s wife).  Homer endeavors to convince Ilya that her profession is wrong and that she should instead be undertaking academic pursuits.

The first thing that’s wrong with Never on Sunday is Dassin’s performance.  The man can direct, but he can’t really act.  He’s all bug eyes and stereotypes.  It falls totally flat and verges on annoying.

There’s another major problem, and that’s the end of the second act and much of the third.  The film hinges on two critical moments: Homer convincing Ilya and then Homer becoming convinced (learning) that he was wrong.  Classic screenwriting – your conflict and tension.  The issue here is that both of these happen much too easily.  Homer’s education of Ilya takes place over about a one minute montage.

Regardless, there are some bright spots.  Mercouri’s performance is great.  A scene where, though she’s no longer a prostitute and is now “educated,” she gets excited by the arrival of a ship of sailors, is fantastic.  She’s all knees and elbows as she darts around her small flat.  A little kid excited for their friends to arrive.

Dassin also has a few nice motifs.  Here’s one:

This shot, dollying with several women’s legs as they march forward, feels pulled from a Fellini film.  It’s repeated throughout the film – the strong Greek female presence, treading confidently forward.

When Homer and Ilya attend a play of Medea, Dassin uses a purely visual language to capture her idiosyncratic reactions.  The first shot is a dolly down audience members.  The first two are plainly engaged-

The second two are the same-

And then the camera lands on Ilya and Homer.  Her reaction is quite different.  He’s flabbergasted:

The dolly here simply emphasizes proximity, hitting the joke home even further.  That her reaction is so counter to the people sitting right next to her makes it that much more absurd.

The next sequence Dassin gets away with edits rather than one fluid shot.  It’s the same idea though.  The first couple cries:

Ilya laughs.  Homer stares:

Dassin is smart to keep all of these in 2-shots.  The graphic match makes the image rhyme more and further points to the contrast not only of reaction, but also of couple.

Here’s a poster from the film:

It really pushes the sex comedy aspect a little harder than what ends up in the film.  The male hats, the tallies of four across the board.  Is it a stretch to say it has a loose connection with the Greek flag?

V/H/S

The new horror anthology film V/H/S is a collection of short films wrapped into one larger package.  The film succeeds when the horror isn’t just horrifying sophomoric, and, as its name might suggest, when the work also includes a new take on technology and media.  It fails a bit more significantly however, in its inability to scare up many jumps.

Some of the names involved in V/H/S might be familiar to horror fans.  Ti West has become somewhat of an indie darling of late with his masterful throwback The House of the Devil and the less successful The Innkeepers.  Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs put him on the mumblecore map, and David Bruckner was 1/3 of another collective for the three-part Sundance favorite, The Signal.

The collective-within-the-collective is Radio Silence, a group made up of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Justin Martinez, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella.

It’s not easy to make a short film.  An entire narrative, usually taking place over at least 90 minutes, squashed down into a span about 1/5 of that size frequently lacks some kind of punch.  Many of the films in V/H/S suffer from short-film syndrome: underdevelopment.

The biggest offender is Glenn McQuaid’s section, Tuesday the 17th.  McQuaid is smart to rely heavily on horror tropes.  A bunch of kids traipse through an isolated campground where once, years ago, several murders took place.  This is familiar stuff, and McQuaid uses our awareness of this type of material to circumvent the need for any real explanation.  Still, his story falls flat as he relies so heavily on said conventions that he virtually eliminates all character growth and back-story.  Tuesday the 17th becomes a series of random killings with little motivation and no suspense.

Ti West’s section, Second Honeymoon (featuring a strong performance by Swanberg, and an even stronger performance by Sophia Takal) flirts with success.  Itself a simple, recognizable setup – the creepy, roadside motel and a mysterious drifter – has some truly tense moments.  Told all through the point-of-view of a couple’s handicam, the film nearly succeeds on the strength of the first “who’s inside the room?” sequence, but ultimately ends too abruptly and unconvincingly to really warrant its build-up.

The best sequences in V/H/S are Swanberg’s The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger and Radio Silence’s 10/31/98.  Swanberg’s is told all through a video-chat call, using picture-in-a-picture and choppy Internet connections to great effect (David Bruckner has some similar technological fun in his moderately fun, Cat People reference, Amateur Night, where a few guys looking to film one of them having sex using video camera-glasses run into a little trouble).

10/31/98 takes the haunted house film and plays up a believably devilish scenario.  On Halloween night four guys (Radio Silence minus Justin Martinez and plus Paul Natonek) end up at a deserted party.  Thinking it’s a setup for a haunted house and that the strange occurrences inside are all part of the act they walk through it, only to find a horrifying scene in the attic.

Reminiscent of West’s The House of the Devil, 10/31/98 also recalls the best of Robert Wise’s The Haunting, and jams convincing character development, performances, and a nice twist into its short timeframe.

The main story arc, Tape 56 directed by Adam Wingard, sets up each individual film as a group of criminal friends go on a shady mission to uncover a mysterious VHS tape.  The owner of the dark, rundown house where they end up might not be quite as dead as he first appears to be.  Tape 56 capably and simply (sometimes too simply) moves from film-to-film via the VHS setup and provides a few entertainingly, eerie moments (Wingard shows some nice restraint playing up a character disappearing from the background of several shots.  The characters in the film don’t react – that’s up the audience).

The very nature of the anthology film makes it hit or miss and V/H/S is no exception.  Strong sections are offset by weak input.  Ironically, at times the poor entries make one laud the format (get to the next one already!) and the strong entries make one wish that it were feature-length.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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