Friday, March 14, 2014

On Oklahoma!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn't the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

The film is incompetently directed by Fred Zinnemann, because if you're going to make a film of the most successful musical of all-time, why hire someone who knows anything about directing a musical? No Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen or even George Sidney for these producers, not even the director of the original stage version, Rouben Mamoulien. Nope, instead they hired the guy who did High Noon and From Here to Eternity, a Less Than Meets the Eye Oscar-generating machine who had never directed a musical before and never would again. Zinnemann shoots the film as if he's entirely uninterested in the dance sequences, the choreography of which, by Agnes DeMille, is reportedly as influential as the play's form. But I can't tell because half the time, when Zinnemann hasn't framed the shot so the dancers are piled on top of each other is indistinguishable clumps) you can't even see the dancers' legs (at least in the Cinemascope version, maybe the Todd-AO version is framed better (the film was shot in two different formats simultaneously, with different takes for each version. Todd-AO was a 70 mm widescreen format developed by the film's producer, Mike Todd)). Instead of using long shots with the head-to-toe framing that Fred Astaire famously insisted upon, framing that emphasizes the formal beauty of dancers in motion (the fundamental pleasure of the art form: what's the point of dancing, after all, if you can't see the body move?), Zinnemann repeatedly moves his camera in on the actors, framing them from the waist up or in 3/4 shots, apparently to heighten the dramatic emotions of the scenario, the way you would film a straight melodrama or comedy (think of Howard Hawks and standard Classical Hollywood film style). Of course, most of the people dancing were chosen for their dancing skills, not their dramatic abilities (especially the background dancers, who often find themselves cut out, not just at the knees of waist, but out of the sides of the frame as Zinnemann is too close to shoot all the choreography).

The film and play's centerpiece sequence is a long dream ballet sequence that closes the first act. I am positive that this would have been amazing on stage in 1943, and the set design in the film is pretty cool, with blazing orange skies and floating frames of buildings (a church, a stairway to nowhere, the outline of a doorway). But by 1955, filmmakers, certainly inspired by the stage Oklahoma!, had been engaged in a decade-long battle of one-upmanship, from the ballet in The Red Shoes to the finale of An American in Paris to the "Broadway Melody" sequence in Singin' in the Rain and beyond, they had been pushing the expressive limits of ballet in cinema. Compared to the Barn Dance sequence in 1954's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which, like Oklahoma! features a scene of a group of girls dancing in their underwear, except in that film you can see their feet), with Stanley Donen's expert shooting of Michael Kidd's ridiculously athletic choreography, nonetheless grounded in popular 19th century dance forms, or even some of the stranger bits of Bob Fosse's choreography in 1953 films like Kiss Me Kate or The Affairs of Dobie Gillis or his dream sequence dance in Donen's Give a Girl a Break (I think it was a dream, it's been awhile since I've seen it), or 1955's My Sister Eileen, the ballet here, as a girl inhales a mysterious Eastern narcotic and imagines herself and her lover replaced by ballet dancing doppelgangers, is dull, cramped, and unimaginative.

Not only that, but the story itself is kind of appalling. Set around the turn of the century (just before Oklahoma achieved statehood, not long after the Oklahoma Territory had been carved out of Indian Territory, not that we'll see or reference any Cherokee here), the plot centers on the parallel love stories of two cowboys. The first, played by Gordon MacRae (think Howard Keel without the charm or self-consciously boisterous pomposity), is in love with Shirley Jones (cute, spunky), who is in love with him, but because of plot they don't just say it and get on with their lives. Instead, Jones agrees to go to the evening's box social with Rod Steiger, who of course is a psychotic weirdo. Steiger works as Jones's "hired help" and is marked in multiple ways as an outsider in the community (one lyric mentions that he has darker skin, if I heard correctly, either a racial reference or an acknowledgement of the fact that because he works all day, his skin is tanned by the sun, in contrasting to the pure white blondness of Jones), a transient laborer, he's the object of all kinds of xenophobic and racist conjecture. (Of course, if he's so horrifying, which everyone seems to agree on, why would Jones ever conceive of going to the dance with him? Ugh.) Repeatedly mocked and insulted (MacRae even goes into his home, apparently threatens to lynch him (playing with a rope Steiger has lying about), and then the two sing a duet about Steiger killing himself (Steiger's singing is a highlight)), Steiger then indeed turns murderous, confirming everyone's suspicions of the menace he represents. He's ultimately vanquished, accidentally of course, absolving MacRae of any guilt, confirmed in a quick trial in which the local federal marshal is threatened and blackmailed into perverting the proper legal process, because why not.

The other story serves as a comical counterweight to the more dramatic central plot. Gloria Grahame plays a girl beloved by cowboy Gene Nelson, just home from Kansas City where he has earned enough money to marry her, per the standard set by her father, James Whitmore. Grahame is also hanging around with Eddie Albert, the local promiscuous Persian peddler (pronounced "Purr-is-ian" in the film's unrelenting Okie idiom), Ali Hakeem. It seems Grahame has a problem with sluttiness, and her singing of this to Jones ("I Can't Say No") is easily the best part of the film. Grahame sings in a thin, high-pitched voice and fills out the number with some hilarious eye and facial expressions, not even Fred Zinnemann could dampen her incandescent lunacy. Almost as great are a pair of girls who float around the margins of the film, showing up in most every dance sequence to add a little ballet and interact, usually wordlessly, with the main characters. When they popped up out of nowhere during a duet between Grahame and Nelson in the middle of the film, I decided they were spectral apparitions, haunting this small town like the twins of the Overlook Hotel.

The succes of Oklahoma! the movie was followed by increasingly long and expensive musicals, as Hollywood kept chasing the next high, but for every My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music there were a half dozen Doctor Doolittle's and the whole thing eventually collapsed. While there were still occasional great musical movies being made in this era (I really like My Fair Lady, for example), after Fosse's Cabaret in 1972, there have been almost zero successful, popular musical films made in Hollywood. The form survives on the margins (Pennies from Heaven, Sita Sings the Blues, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench among other indie films, or experiments like Coppola's One From the Heart) and in Disney cartoons (and even that only barely, having been supplanted by the non-musical Pixar model). And, of course, there was the execrable film version of Fosse's Chicago, which somehow won a Best Picture Oscar when it is, in fact, among the Worst Pictures. I know that for me at least, as a kid, constant exposure to the films of Rodgers and Hammerstein positioned me as decidedly anti- the musical as a genre of film I was at all interested in. It wasn't until my late teens and early twenties when I tentatively moved from Singin' in the Rain to other films starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire that I began to realize that here was a film form as vital, as dynamic, as cinematic as has ever existed. It's just that Rodgers and Hammerstein killed it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark's Seven Swords

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

Tsui Hark's next major film after a CGI-driven remake of his own Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain in 2001, this is a less effects-driven wuxia epic, a riff on Seven Samurai with a Chang Cheh influence (the Northern Chinese medieval warfare of The Heroic Ones comes to mind). A gang of Ching bounty hunters has an Imperial command to kill anyone who knows martial arts, a former Ming minister tries to stop them from wiping out a village (they kill indiscriminately to collect more reward: old people and children too). He goes to a mountain a gets a bunch of swordsmen and fancy swords and they all go to defend the people.

The initial version of the film was apparently four hours long, cut down to two and a half for release, and it feels like it. Most of the characters remain undeveloped or uninteresting, getting by mostly on the charms of the lead actors (who are, to be fair, an impressive group: Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Sun Honglei and Lau Kar-leung (in his last imdb credit as action director and actor) among them) and Tsui's feel for color and composition. Sun, most known now for his masterful performance in Drug War, is terrifically demented as the primary villain, but most of the other characters though feel like they had their personality-building scenes removed in favor of pushing the plot along, their histories aren't particularly compelling and a pair of love triangles seems woefully underdeveloped.

But it's a beautiful looking movie, if perhaps a little overdone with the flickering firelight. The villains have a great medieval biker gang look to them (black leather and painted faces) and they employ an impressive array of head-snatching weaponry (including what appears to be a giant umbrella). The fights are solid, the highlight being a climactic showdown between Donnie and Sun in a narrow hallway, choreographed and shot well, if a bit limited by the lack of serious fighters in the cast (Tsui covers for Sun and Lai fairly well).

The main problem with the film is its seriousness. Even at his darkest, there's a streak of subversive wit in Tsui Hark, but this is all straight epic melodrama. The closest the film gets to reflecting Tsui's impish streak is near the end when quick flashbacks suddenly reveal much of the connective backstory of the various characters' relationships, things that would have dragged the forward momentum of the action down but made the characters more intelligible. Whether that's by design (a rejection of Hollywood story-telling convention in favor of straight-ahead plot movement, not unusual at all for Tsui or Hong Kong in general) or by necessity, a by-product of cutting out 90 minutes of the film's initial running time, is hard to say.

The film was conceived as the first of a six-part series, and though the film did moderately well (it was a big pan-Asian co-production, and it looks like it was filmed on the Mainland to me, with some fantastic locations, purple sunrises and orange steppes and all that) there appears to be little interest in continuing the story (there were a number of spin-offs, a cartoon, a TV series, comic books and such). Tsui seems much more at home in the two Detective Dee films his made over the last few years.

Monday, March 10, 2014

2006 Endy Awards

These are the 2006 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Endy Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I've seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .

Best Picture:

1. Exiled
2. Isabella
3. Miami Vice
4. Still Life
5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley

A bit of an upset from this Johnnie To fan, but I have always been a huge fan of Ken Loach's Cannes-winning IRA epic and remain so almost a decade later.

Best Director:

1. Johnnie To, Exiled
2. Michael Mann, Miami Vice
3. Jia Zhangke, Still Life
4. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century
5. Ken Loach, The Wind that Shakes the Barley

To gets the make-up award here, with one of his best films of the decade. He'll win Best Director again in 2008.

Best Actor:

1. Aaron Kwok, After This Our Exile
2. Michel Piccoli, Belle toujours
3. Denzel Washington, Deja vu
4. Ulrich Mühe, The Lives of Others
5. Cillian Murphy, The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Best Actress:

1. Ebru Ceylan, Climates
2. Laura Dern, Inland Empire
3. Isabella Leong, Isabella
4. Kirsten Dunst, Marie Antoinette
5. Sabine Azéma, Private Fears in Public Places

Supporting Actor:

1. Jack Nicholson, The Departed
2. Mark Cheng, Election 2
3. Anthony Wong, Exiled
4. John Ortiz, Miami Vice
5. Pádraic Delaney, The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Supporting Actress:

1. Gong Li, Miami Vice
2. Vera Farmiga, The Departed
3. Chen Shiang-chiyi, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
4. Margo Martindale, Paris je t'aime
5. Lindsay Lohan, A Prairie Home Companion

Some may say Nicholson's performance is too big, too hammy. I say the more the merrier. This supporting actress group is pretty underwhelming. I'm probably missing some great ones.

Original Screenplay:

1. Szeto Kam-Yuen & Yip Tin-Shing, Exiled
2. Tsai Ming-liang, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
3. Wai Ka-fai & Au Kin-yee, The Shopaholics
4. Apichatpoing Weereasethakul, Syndromes and a Century
5. Paul Laverty, The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Adapted Screenplay:

1. William Monahan, The Departed
2. Yau Nai-hoi & Yip Tin-shing, Election 2
3. Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
4. Jean-Michel Ribes, Private Fears in Public Places
5. Richard Linklater, A Scanner Darkly

Non-English Language Film:

1. Election 2
2. Exiled
3. Isabella
4. Still Life
5. Syndromes and a Century

Documentary Film:

1. This Film is Not Yet Rated
2. Wordplay

Animated Film:

1. Cars
2. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
3. Paprika
4. A Scanner Darkly

This was a tough category, as three of these films are really good. In the end, Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosada split the anime vote and Richard Linklater's rotoscoped Philip K. Dick adaptation sneaks away with the win.

Unseen Film:

1. Black Book (Paul Veerhoeven)
2. Fireworks Wednesday (Asghar Farhadi)
3. I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK (Park Chan-wook)
4. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)
5. Volver (Pedro Almodovar)

As rough as this year seems, there really isn't a whole lot out there I feel I need to see.

Film Editing:

1. The Departed
2. Crank
3. Election 2
4. Exiled
5. Miami Vice


1. Climates
2. Exiled
3. Marie Antoinette
4. Miami Vice
5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley

A watershed year for the digital camera, with Climates and Vice pushing it to its limits.

Art Direction:

1. Exiled
2. The Fall
3. Marie Antoinette
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Costume Design:

1. Curse of the Golden Flower
2. The Fall
3. Marie Antoinette
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley


1. Election 2
2. Exiled
3. Marie Antoinette
4. Pan's Labyrinth
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Original Score:

1. Exiled
2. Isabella
3. Once
4. A Scanner Darkly
5. The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Adapted Score:

1. The Departed
2. Marie Antoinette
3. Miami Vice
4. A Prairie Home Companion
5. Southland Tales

I wish I liked Marie Antoinette more than I do. I dig Coppola's music though.


1. The Departed
2. Exiled
3. Inland Empire
4. Miami Vice
5. Syndromes and a Century

Sound Editing:

1. The Departed
2. Exiled
3. Letters from Iwo Jima
4. Miami Vice
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Visual Effects:

1. Deja vu
2. The Host
3. Pan's Labyrinth
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
5. Superman Returns