Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Movie Roundup: Super Capsule Edition

Usually with these roundups I like to devote more than a couple sentences to each film. But once again I've fallen way behind and am playing catchup, so we'll try to speed through this as quickly as possible.

The Immortal Story - Late Orson Welles made for TV movie based on an Isak Dinesen story. Fine performances from Jeanne Moreau and Welles himself, and interesting story and a lack of typical Wellsian flourishes make for a fine, if not necessarily great film. The #7 film of 1968.

Moby Dick - John Huston's adaptation of the Melville classic that I've still only made it halfway through, despite three attempts (the last was a decade ago). Orson Welles is great as the thundering preacher, and Gregory Peck makes a fine Ahab (though he was apparently panned at the time) but otherwise just an above-average literary translation. The #12 film of 1956.

Broken Blossoms - DW Griffith classic about an abused wife who finds refuge with a Chinese storekeeper, which ends in tragedy. Relatively racism-free, for Griffith, and a touching melodrama, actually quite a beautiful film. The world would be a better place if this was the film Griffith was most remembered for.

Little Women - Pedestrian literary adaptation enlivened by the perhaps too on the nose casting of Katherine Hepburn as Jo, her 19th Century doppelganger.

The Man Who Knew Too Much - I'd resisted seeing this Hitchcock remake of his own 1930s British film for such a long time, that it likely couldn't help being surprisingly good. James Stewart is as good as ever, but Doris Day's the real shocker with a fine performance as a mother caught up in international intrigue. The #5 film of 1956.

My Name Is Julia Ross - Very fine psychological noir film about a secretary who gets brainwashed into thinking she's a rich guy's wife. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a B movie auteur worthy of further study (his Gun Crazy is terrific).

Little Miss Sunshine - Generic indie comedy that somehow won a massive audience and a number of Oscar nominations despite its mediocre, cliche-ridden and generally messy script. The #27 film of 2006.

Madame de. . . - Max Ophuls masterpiece about a pair of earrings winding their way through high society infidelity. Gorgeous camera movements, fine performances from Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio Di Sica.

The Kid - Very fine Chaplin comedy/melodrama in which the Little Tramp comes to adopt an orphan. Jackie Cooper gives a tear-inducing performance and Chaplin's in top form both in physical comedy and in his unique ability to sidestep maudlin in even the most sentimental works.

A King In New York - Late Chaplin about a deposed monarch who flees to America and is overwhelmed by modernity. Some very fine setpieces (Chaplin as TV advertiser, and a communist propaganda-spouting child are the funniest bits). The #7 film of 1957.

Blonde Venus - Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg combine for this melodramatic tale of infidelity and a mother on the run. Dietrich's as great as ever as an ex-showgirl who goes back to work to make money for a life-saving operation for her husband. But while he's away, she has an affair with another man. When the husband returns, he chases her all over the country to get his kid back. Overlong, but still good.

The Heroes Of Telemark - Decent enough WW2 action film set in Norway as the Allies try to blow up some Nazi reactors to prevent them from developing heavy water (necessary for an atomic bomb). Entertaining, but I expect better from director Anthony Mann. The #17 film of 1965.

The Train - This is more like it. Burt Lancaster leads a group of French Resistance trying to prevent Paul Scofield's Nazi commander from stealing precious works of art during the last stages of WW2. Lancaster and friends try every means possible to stop Scofield's train, without damaging the art. Lots of train wrecks and some exciting action and a fine supporting cast that includes Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon. Lancaster's really grown on me in the last year or so, I know longer hate him. Directed by John Frankenheimer. The #11 film of 1964.

New Rose Hotel - Ahead of its time noir from director Abel Ferrera stars Christopher Walken (in one of his great wacky performances) and Willem Dafoe as corporate espionage guys who hire Asia Argento to seduce a scientist and get him to move to another company. Has to be seen to be believed, the last 20 minutes are bizarre and wonderful. The #13 film of 1998.

The Quiet American - Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of the Graham Greene story about a cynical Brit and idealistic American (who may be a CIA agent) in Vietnam and the woman they both love. A beautiful film with excellent performances by Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy. I haven't seen the remake yet, but it'd be hard to top. The #6 film of 1958.

Pan's Labyrinth - Quite overrated. Sloppy story construction is totally not excused by the film being a "fairy tale". Del Toro makes it clear in the end that the whole fantastical aspect of it is in the girl's imagination (the objective shot in the climactic scene showing her talking to empty space). Really, I found the whole thing ugly and depressing. The editing is great though, I love the creative use of the wipe and Del Toro uses it a lot, to great effect. The #20 film of 2006.

Man Of The West - Mediocre Western starring the always(?) mediocre Gary Cooper. Anthony Mann made far better films, I was just never into it. Maybe I should give it another shot? The #13 film of 1958.

Some Came Running - Fine combination of Vincente Minnelli and James Jones, as Frank Sinatra plays a writer who returns to his small town after the war only to get himself into trouble along with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. The #11 film of 1958.

Pal Joey - Another Sinatra film, this time as a wanna-be club owner torn between the rich and vicious Rita Hayworth and the poor and honest Kim Novak. The great Rodgers & Hart soundtrack elevates it quite a bit. The #10 film of 1957.

Unknown Pleasures - Probably the most accessible of Jia Zhang-ke's films, as it has a lot in common with a lot of other films, most notably Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye. Young Chinese unemployed, flirting with lives of crime and angst, beautifully filmed with fine performances. The least weighty Jia film I've seen, but still pretty great. The #6 film of 2002.

The Trial - Some flashy Wellesness, great creepy modernist architecture, a very good performance from Anthony Perkins and some weird supporting work from Welles, Jeanne Moreau, and Akim Tamiroff. But, in the end, it's a Kafka adaptation and my enjoyment of it is dependent on how I'm feeling about Kafka. And I like Welles better than Kafka. The #12 film of 1962.

Paisan - Six-part Roberto Rossellini film about the conquest of Italy in World War 2. Unusual for this type of film, I actually really liked every section. Some great action and suspense sequences (the opening story in a castle, the story about a woman attempting to reach her husband) and very moving non-action sequences (the bonding between an African-American soldier and an orphan who steals his shoes, a priest a rabbi and a minister having dinner in a monastery). One of the best war movies I've seen.

Europa 51 - Ingrid Bergman plays a high society housewife so distraught be the tragic death of her son that she dedicates her life to helping the poor. Quite naturally, her family has her declared insane and locks her in an institution. Great performance from Bergman in another terrific Rossellini film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated - Mediocre documentary about the MPAA. The director hires a PI to track down the secret MPAA members for way too much of the film, as if anyone cares what they look like. The stuff about the history of the organization and the examples of their wacky decisions and decision-making processes is interesting though. The #26 film of 2006.

One Week/The High Sign - A pair of Buster Keaton shorts. The High Sign has a great climax as Keaton bests a house full of assassins with some amazing stunts, and One Week is a lot of fun with a build-it-yourself house gone horribly wrong. Not as brilliant as the best Keaton, but still very physically impressive.

Spiderman 3 - An entertaining enough mess of a film. One villain too long, and James Franco doing his best to fight Hayden Christensen for the title of The Worst Actor Of His Generation. The middle section homage to Saturday Night Fever and The Nutty Professor is the funniest part, but Tobey Maguire is generally speaking, pretty bad. Kirsten Dunst does a fine job of looking cute and singing terribly, though,

A Prairie Home Companion - Perhaps the most human of all Robert Altman films, he abandons his steady microscopic zooms for a camera the fluidly moves around the mise-en-scene like recent Hou Hsiao-hsien. A film explicitly about death and the lovable Midwestern existential acceptance of it. A perfect little film from a man who specialized in big messy films. The #4 film of 2006.

Mudhoney - Like Baby Doll on acid. Russ Meyer's Southern Gothic horror film (can I call it that?) about a drifter who gets entangled in an exploitation web of God, sex and violence. Not quite as exhilerating as the first 20 minutes of Meyer's Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!, but a better film on the whole. The #9 film of 1965.

The Reluctant Debutante - Terrifically charming Vincente Minnelli film about a young girl (Sandra Dee), raised in America, who enters British high society at the insistence of her step-mother (Kay Kendall) to upstage her rival (Angela Lansbury). Of course, she falls in love with the wrong guy, and it's up to her father, wonderfully played by Rex Harrison, (who abhors all the nonsense, but goes along with it anyway) to fix things. Fun and entertaining, with some great Minnelli color and compositions (I recall a certain lamp quite particularly). The #7 film of 1958.

Tropical Maladay - Mesmerizing masterpiece from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The first half is a fairly typical gay romance, set in the forests, factories and caves of rural Thailand. The second half reenacts the emotional arc of the first, while resolving its psychological complications with a eerie and suspenseful mythological cat and mouse game between a soldier (one of the men from the first part) and a shadowy panther. The #5 film of 2004.

The Quatermass Xperiment - British sci-fi film that was apparently the first of a whole series of Quatermass films. Astronauts come back to space infected with some kind of alien plant life that threatens to kill us all. The #21 film of 1951.

The Garden Of Allah - The beautiful gold tones of two-strip Technicolor are about the only highlight of this Marlene Dietrich melodrama about a priest on the run who marries a saintly woman (Dietrich, if you can buy that). Also stars Basil Rathbone and Charles Boyer.

The Mating Season - Thelma Ritter (Pickup On South Street, Rear Window) gives yet another standout performance in this Mitchell Leisen comedy about a hamburger stand owning woman who goes to visit his son and his new rich wife (Gene Tierney) and through some mistaken identity, ends up as the maid. Sweet and funny.

Superman Returns - Better than any of the current cycle of superhero films, and the best since Batman Returns.
I had kind of the opposite reaction to it that I've had to the Spiderman trilogy. With those films, the action and effects are great, but the melodrama is dull, repetitive and all-around unbearable. In Superman, though, I really dug the drama and thought the effects were kinda lame, dare I say cartoonish. There's a real dramatic problem with Superman, in that he's essentially perfect and invincible. The Kryptonite plot is OK for one film, but if they make a sequel they need to follow the lead of Superman II and give him some extra-terrestrial villains to fight. I dug the whole Superman as God/Christ motif, I thought it ran through the film at a nice, not quite beating you over the head level. It raises but doesn't really answer some interesting questions about the role of heroes/saints in modern life. The performances were fine all around, with nobody really sticking out, though I think Kate Bosworth had the same problem Katie Holmes had in Batman Begins: namely that she's not really believable as an adult. The #8 film of 2006.

Bienvenue a Cannes - TCM documentary about the Cannes Film Festival has some good anecdotes and gossip, but ultimately isn't very insightful about the history of the festival or the films that have played there. Kind of like that foreign film montage at the Academy Awards last year that reduced the history of non-American cinema to the most boring and maudlin films the US could find.

Mutual Appreciation - A worthy addition to the existential slacker comedy genre that I'm generationally predisposed to be a fan of. Director Andrew Bujalski shows some real skill as he gets surprisingly good (considering how indie the movie is) performances from his actors and keeps an slow, but never boring, pace to the film, creating a believeable reality out of it all. The #5 film of 2005.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley - So much better than I expected. Ken Loach's Palme d'or winner at last year's Cannes film festival is pretty much a perfect historical epic. Cillian Murphy stars as a young doctor who joins the post-World War I IRA, becomes increasingly radical and eventually finds himself on the wrong side of the civil war over the creation of the Irish Free State. Essentially the micro story of Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, except with all the Hollywood touches stripped away leaving a raw core of historical realism and melodrama. The #2 film of 2006, though that may change. I've only seen it one and a half times and I've seen Miami Vice several more, but this may very well be the better film.

The Alamo - John Wayne's directorial effort is a by-the-numbers telling of the fate of the famous mission and its Texican defenders. Wayne plays Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark is Sam Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis. It takes way too long to get going, and Wayne doesn't appear to have much of an eye, though the transfer shown on TCM wasn't particularly good. The #17 film of 1960.

Once More, With Feeling! - Stanley Donen's light comedy stars Yul Brenner as an over-the-top maestro and Kay Kendall as his longtime girlfriend who breaks up with him after an apparent infidelity. Through a variety of plot contrivances, the two have to get married and then get divorced. Pleasant, but unremarkable. The #13 film of 1960.

The Glass Bottom Boat - Zany Frank Tashlin comedy starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor (along with a thin Dom DeLuise and Dick Martin, from Laugh-In). Taylor's a NASA scientist who may or may not suspect Day of being a KGB agent. Wackiness ensues. 60s comedies are very strange, I don't know that I quite understand them. But the most shocking discovery: Doris Day is hot. The #12 film of 1966.

The Edge Of The World - Early Michael Powell film about the last days of a small island north of Scotland. Some fine scenery and decent performances, the story's kind of a poor man's How Green Was My Valley. The editing is out of control though. I'd never noticed such an Eisentstein influence on Powell before, it's a good thing he lost it later, as it's just way too much here. On the meagre evidence of this and Peeping Tom (both very fine films), I'd have to say Powell needed Pressburger.

Where Eagles Dare - Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood star in this mediocre WW2 action film about spies and assassins and a daring assault on a Nazi castle high in the mountains. The plot twists left and right, but the direction (by Brian G. Hutton, who did Kelly's Heroes and the Tom Selleck masterpiece The High Road To China) is pedestrian and clunky. Burton and Eastwood deserved better. The #16 film of 1968.

Still Life - As yet unreleased in the US is Jia Zhangke's most recent film, about a two people from Shanxi each searching for people in and around the town of Fengjie, as it's in the process of being dismantled to make way for the flooding caused by the Three Gorges Dam. Might be Jia's most beautiful film thus far. At least in terms of the colors he gets out of the digital camera, it ranks with Miami Vice as the best digital movie I've seen. The deliberately-paced realism is lifted into the sublime by a few shots I refuse to give away until more people have a chance to see it. The #5 film of 2006.

Where Danger Lives - Decent enough John Farrow noir starring Robert Mitchum as a doctor who gets suckered by a crazy woman. Her husband ends up dead and the two of them try to flee to Mexico, while Mitchum's got a concussion and the girl gets crazier and crazier. Great supporting actors are largely wasted in much too small roles, namely Claude Rains and Farrow's wife, Maureen O'Sullivan.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

At Cinema's End

Ryland's got his review of Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End up at The House Next Door (Warning: There Be Spoilers!), so I'd thought I'd kick in the two cents I wrote last week about the film, in response to complaints that the two sequels are such much messier than the tidy first film (an aspect Ryland touches on as well).

The messiness of it, the sheer crazy incomprehensible insanity of the whole enterprise is exactly what I love about Pirates 2 & 3. I thought the first one was alright, but aside from Depp, it was pretty standard. These last two though, are just all over the map.

So many action/adventure blockbuster movies are straightforward and earnest and linear, full of exposition and tearful Tobeys. The last two Pirates, though, are wholly unique. Avant-garde summer blockbusters that are in every way Anti-Ratners.

I thought of two films while watching At World's End, and the first is Miami Vice, a beautiful, expositionless tone poem of a film in an action movie's clothing. Pirates 3 is a beautiful film, with some fascinating imagery and only tops the intricately complex and deep compositions of the second one, especially in the action sequences. The baroque Looney Tunes stunts within frames of overwhelming detail are always stunning, the only action sequence I've seen equal it is in the opening shots of Revenge Of The Sith.

Which is a nice segue to the second movie I was reminded of . . . Star Wars (oh yeah, I said it). We ran Star Wars at the theatre Tuesday night for the staff (for the anniversary: the original, non-Special Edition one, naturally). I was struck again by just how relentless the last half of the film is, and how little information there is to orient the viewer. It's just one action sequence after another, with the bare minimum of information conveyed as efficiently as possible in a few lines of dialogue to connect the action. Now, the Pirates films aren't as good as Star Wars (I'm not that crazy). But they're clearly following the same model and I think they work for the same reason.

I just find the anti-Pirates camp to be inexplicable. Too me, it's like saying there weren't enough explosions in Citizen Kane. I don't understand what it is they expect . . . a straightforward narrative? Bleh. Give me chaos instead any day.

And all of this is not to mention the fascinating web of ideological explorations in the Pirates films. Many a master's thesis can (and will) be written on the transformations in the sexualities of Depp and Knightly in these movies.