Thursday, October 20, 2011

Movie Roundup: 52 Movies To Go Edition

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs - Ho hum, another great Japanese movie about the miserable life of a woman/prostitute.  The main character of this one, Keiko, played by the great Hideko Takemine, isn't exactly a prostitute, but rather a bar hostess, whose job it is to be charming and entertaining to the male customers, but not actually sleep with them.  She wants to open a bar of her own, but the economics of mid-century Japan make that extremely difficult for women, and director Mikio Naruse examines in great detail the complex maneuvers and moral compromises Keiko must go through to try to realize her dream.  This is my first Naruse film, and he has an elegant visual style that isn't as immediately idiosyncratic as his contemporaries Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, but is quite lovely nonetheless. The jazzy score is pretty great, as are supporting performances from big stars like Tatsuya Nakadai and Masayuki Mori (at least one of the Seven Samurai shows up as well).  Despite its thematic similarity to many a Mizoguchi film, it feels completely fresh and modern, and more humane for the lightness of its touch and story construction relative to the more schematic Mizoguchis like Street of Shame or The Life of Oharu.  The #6 film of 1960.

Midnight Mary - Loretta Young plays a poor orphan girl who gets mixed up with gangsters after spending three years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.  One day, she meets rich lawyer Franchot Tone (who continues to do no wrong in my eyes) who falls in love with her and tries to reform her.  But when she's recognized by a cop, she pretends she never loved him and goes back to the gangsters (after another little stint in jail).  Eventually, the lead gangster tries to kill Tone and Young kills the gangster instead.  This is all told in flashback as Young is awaiting sentencing for murder.  This pre-Code William Wellman film is a solid bit of salacious melodrama and it is brisk and efficient in telling its wildly improbable, coincidence-driven story.  That speed, and the excellent performances, make for a fine, if not revelatory, experience.  The #16 film of 1933.

Mademoiselle Fifi - You know how John Ford's Stagecoach is actually based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant?  Well, this is based on the same story, along with another of his short stories.  A variety of characters are sharing a coach through Occupied France during the Franco-Prussian War.  Each character represents a social type: nobility, businessmen and their wives, a political agitator, a priest and a laundress (played by the Cat Person herself, Simone Simon).  When the coach stops in a town controlled by the German Army (led by the scary Lieutenant with the title nickname), everyone eats with and fraternizes with the Germans except the laundress, who sticks to her patriotism.  The Germans won't let them go until she changes her mind, leading to much in-fighting exposing the cowardice and avarice of the upper classes.  The political message is inescapable, the film being made in 1944, and Simon makes a particularly appealing symbol of Nazi defiance, her halting delivery effectively expressing the laundress' humility and hard-headed simplicity.  Made at RKO under producer Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, it's not as visually interesting as the films made there by Jacques Tourneur, but I suspect it would have been impossible for the Lewton unit to make an ugly movie.  The #13, film of 1944.

Socrates - Another of Roberto Rossellini's fascinating "History Films", albeit one that did not make it into the recent Eclipse box set devoted to them (it's available on Hulu).  Like The Age of the Medici, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV and Cartesius, Socrates recreates in great detail the world of a major historical figure, in this case sticking close to the events of the Socratic Dialogues as recorded by his disciple Plato.  In addition to various philosophical arguments, these follow the course of Socrates's condemnation, trial and execution for the crime of corrupting the youth by trying to lead them away from the gods. Seems he has the audacity to point out that nobody knows anything, prove it by taking apart everyone else's arguments, then claim to be no more knowledgable than they are.  Socrates's real crime was thus being passive-aggressive.  Like the other History Films, Rossellini cuts out all the extraneous things that get in the way of the ideas and the story and the audience: acting, character, fancy directing, etc.  That's not to say the films are boring or ugly, on the contrary, every shot is carefully and classically framed, and Rossellini makes the most of his European TV-level budgets in terms of costume and set design and his actors are competent, if not emotive (they exist somewhere on the Robert Bresson end of the scale, though filtered through a few levels of dubbing).  What is left in the end is the pure expression of information, and in submitting to that we experience a deeper, more engrossing involvement in the events on-screen.  Not one that gives you emotional highs and lows, or that shocks and thrills you, but one that manages to create a sense of. . . well not really reality (it's too obviously composed and performed for that) but of the actuality, almost tangibility of the ideas and the people (not characters) that espouse them.  They tend to make all other historical films or biopics, which invariably alter history for the sake of melodrama and "plot", look silly, if not outright imbecilic.   The #5 film of 1971.

Midnight in Paris - A much more playful approach to history, from a director who, with a few exceptions, enjoys the silly as much as anyone.  Owen Wilson plays a writer with an obnoxious fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and obnoxious future in-laws.  They're all in Paris for some reason, and Wilson, wrapped up in the romance of the city finds himself transported back to the 1920s, where he hangs around with Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Salavador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Marion Cotillard.  Wilson is a great avatar for Allen's dialogue, his laid-back delivery making him seem like less of an impersonator than most of the actors who star in his films.  The movie's a great deal of fun, Allen's most purely entertaining since Mighty Aphrodite (another film that mixed the past and the present to great effect) and its opening sequence, a montage of Parisian sites set to Sidney Bechet, is one of the loveliest sequences of his career (that it is an obvious homage to his own Manhattan makes it no less charming).  The moral of the story is a bit forced, as Wilson learns that there's wonder and romance at every time in history, if you know where to look for it (like used record stalls at flea markets, apparently, though this is wholly counter to my experience of such places).  Things would have been more interesting if the McAdams character was the least bit sympathetic.  As is, we have no doubt that Wilson is better off abandoning his life for the sake of supernatural adventures.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Movie Roundup: 55 Movies To Go Edition

Meek's Cutoff - A group of settlers making their way through the Oregon Territory break off from their main group to follow a mountain man named Meek's shortcut.  When we join them, they appear to be most definitely lost, though Meek, in a well-mumbled performance by Bruce Greenwood, insists he knows exactly where they are and where they are going.  As the settler's distrust of Meek grows, and their water supply dwindles, they come across a lone, silent Indian.  Led by Michelle Williams, they slowly take their faith away from Meek and place it onto the Indian, who claims (wordlessly) to be able to lead them to safety but may very well be leading them to their doom.  A major step up from director Kelly Reichardt's last film, Wendy and Lucy which, despite an excellent performance from Williams I thought was a little lacking in the plot motivation department.  Reichardt films in 1.33, an aspect ratio that not only recalls the classical Western, of which this is in many ways a subversion (there's an interesting compare and contrast to be made here to Ford's Wagon Master) but also mimics the POV of the women in the group, their heads bound by 19th Century bonnets, their blinder-vision making palpable both the claustrophobia of their place in society and the group's limited knowledge of where they are going and the world around them.  It's a movie about faith and feminism, about a group of women learning to reject the authority of their alpha male and place their trust in a despised and mysterious other, with no assurances that their new guide will be any better.  One of those movies whose resonances grow the more I think about it.  The #4 film of 2010.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - The consensus line on this Werner Herzog documentary about cave paintings is that it's the best argument to date for 3D cinema and I'm not going to disagree with that.  The paintings, found in pristine condition in Southern France, are the earliest yet discovered and Herzog examines them in exhaustive detail.  His narration, as always, is a blend of sardonic rationality and breathless cheesiness, but it's the images that are unforgettable.  Because the cave walls and ceilings are contoured and uneven, and because the paintings were made with these surfaces in mind, the 3D camera brings them to life in a way that would be impossible with a conventional film.  We can see the ripples of the limestone and the way the uneven surface serves to almost animate the images on the walls, especially when combined with the flickering shadows that must have accompanied their ceremonial use as religious totems.  Herzog, as usual, doesn't so much have an idea about the paintings as he has a dozen questions to which he poses possible answers.  Who made the paintings and why and what does that say about us, about the urge to create?  His speculations lead him, again as usual, to some strange places, but any film that starts with 30,000 year old cave paintings and ends with albino alligators has to be doing something right.  The #14 film of 2010.

The Tale of Zatoichi - The first of a massive series of films about a blind samurai (charmingly played by Shintaru Katsu) who solves crimes (or something, this is the only one I've seen), its debt to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is obvious.  Like in that film, a wandering ronin comes to a town and is hired by one side of a local gang war.  The ronin here is blind, a masseur (a common profession for the blind in Japan, in the movies if not in reality) who is both jovial and cunning (he repeatedly plays on other people's underestimation of him due to his blindness, not only in swordplay but in everyday tasks like gambling as well).  Unlike in Yojimbo (itself indebted to Dashiell Hammett), the ronin does not play both sides of the war against each other, instead he bonds with the ronin the rival gang has hired (who is dying of tuberculosis) and the two stand apart from the petty criminals who employ them by their samurai codes of honor and dignity.  That doesn't prevent them from fighting, of course.  Zatoichi very much lives in the same world as Yojimbo's Sanjuro, but he's a bit more amoral and a little bit more sentimental.  But the major difference between the two films is in the visual style, where Kurosawa's meticulous genius imbues every shot with meaning and purpose and Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi performs a competent job filming his actors in a noiry, occasionally flashy black and white.  The #16 film of 1962.

The Pajama Game - Doris Day becomes a union leader at a pajama factory and attracts the eye of the company's superintendent John Raitt (looking like Rene Auberjonois as a Lifetime movie villain).  Their romance complicates union negotiations, as the uppity Miss Day won't know her place as a proper 1950s housewife.  Until she does when Raitt proves the company had been ripping off the workers even more than was previously thought.  The workers get their little raise, Day goes home to raise Raitt's kids and everyone lives happily ever after.  The plot manages to combine the glories of capitalist patriarchy with all the excitement of union negotiations.  Ah, but there's music.  A couple of pretty great numbers, choreographed by the man who can do no wrong, Bob Fosse.  The standout is Broadway actress Carol Haney (she danced with Fosse in the memorable number in Kiss Me Kate) and her two big numbers here, "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway", which ends up somewhere between the finale from The Gang's All Here and the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video, are exceptional.  In general though, this was a big disappointment coming from director Stanley Donen.  I'm going to blame his co-director George Abbott.  The #26 film of 1957.

Wait Until Dark - An effective thriller with a somewhat perplexingly out-sized reputation.  Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who's apartment accidentally contains a MacGuffin wanted by a gang of criminals led by Alan Arkin.  The crooks play on her blindness in an attempt to either find the object or get her to give it to them, and there are plenty of solid suspense sequences built by director Terrence Young, the man behind two of the better James Bond films (From Russia with Love and Thunderball).  But other than that, there's not a whole lot to appreciate here.  The plot rests on a card house of contrivances, which wouldn't be too bad if there was more going on underneath.  This is the fundamental difference between Hitchcock and his imitators: with Hitch, the suspense was never enough, there was always another layer, a set of meanings beyond the visceral experiences technique and construction can provide.  Neither of Hepburn's Hitchcockian films (this and Charade, which is much more fun, one of the most charming movies ever made) have the depth of even a middling Hitchcock.  Without that, there's nothing to see here but a very frightened woman.  The #16 film of 1967.