Movie Roundup: Fire Hargrove Edition

More movies I’ve seen recently while perfecting my martini recipe:

Café Lumière – I’ve been wanting to watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien movie for years, ever since I read about him in one of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s books in 1998 or so. This was certainly a fine place to start with the Taiwanese director accalaimed as one of the world’s best, despite never getting any real distribution in the US. Yo Hitoto stars as a young journalist just returned from Taiwan to her home in Tokyo. She tells her parents she’s pregnant and enlists her friend, a bookstore owner (Tadanobu Asano, from Last Life In The Universe, #2, 2003) in her efforts to track down a missing composer. Created as a tribute for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yasujiro Ozu, the film is obviously influenced by great director, as apparently Hou is in all his films. Plotwise, the film is ridiculously slow, if anything ever actually happens at all, but it’s a beautiful and always interesting movie, with some beautifully composed shots of trains and the small houses, apartments, restaurants and shops of Tokyo. The #3 film of 2003.

Gaslight – Ingrid Bergman stars as a persecuted wife in this Rebecca-esque film noir. Bergman’s as good as ever, though watching this I realized I’ve only seen her in a few movies: the two Hitchcock’s (Notorious and Spellbound), Casablanca and The Murder On The Orient Express. I really need to see her Rosselini films, and Renoir’s Elena Et Les Hommes sounds good as well. Anyway, Charles Boyer plays her husband who’s slowly trying to drive her crazy by convincing her that she’s crazy. Joseph Cotten plays the man who comes to her rescue. The noir style and Bergman’s performance is what creates the psychological intensity necessary for the film’s suspense to work. Director George Cukor had a long and interesting career, though I don’t think anyone’s ever called him an auteur. His films include: Little Women, Sylvia Scarlett, Holiday, Gone With The Wind, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, A Star Is Born, Lust For Life and My Fair Lady.

The Young Girls Of Rochefort – One of the best and most complicated musicals I’ve ever seen is this highly acclaimed sequel top Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Unlike that film, this is a full-on tribute to Hollywood musicals, complete with elaborately choreographed dance numbers and even a French speaking and singing Gene Kelly (still spry in his old age, by the way). Catherine Deneuve and her real-life half-sister Françoise Dorléac plays a pair of twins in search of true love, as is their mother, Danielle Darrieux, a pair of traveling dancers, George Chakiris and Grover Dale, an artist, Jacques Perrin, and a music shop owner, Michel Piccoli. The various characters keep barely missing their true loves, in a choreography as elaborate as any dance sequence in film history. The film may be the purest expression of the musical idea: that life is so weird and wonderful that the fullness of it can never be expressed in mere prose, but requires poetry, a melody and some bizarre patterns of movements to fully express it. The #3 film of 1967.

Mildred Pierce – You wouldn’t think the world was clamoring for a mash-up of women’s melodrama and film noir, but apparently in the 40s they were. Joan Crawford stars as a typical woman how builds a restaurant empire for the sake of her daughter who is nonetheless rejected by that snobby daughter because she isn’t aristocratic enough for her. A whole new level of irony is added when you consider Crawford’s real-life reputation as a mother. Only the second Crawford movie I’ve ever seen, after Grand Hotel (in which a much younger Joan is quite cute), I haven’t even seen Mommie Dearest. I have been meaning to see Johnny Guitar for almost a decade but have never gotten around to it. Based on the James M. Cain (The Postman Always Ring Twice and Double Indemnity) novel and directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy).

The DaVinci Code – Ron Howard’s adaptation of what A. O. Scott brilliantly dubbed “Dan Brown’s best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence” is the worst movie of his I’ve ever seen. The film combines all the charms of plagiarism, stupidity, wooden acting and pathetically unthrilling thrills. Tom Hanks, an actor who generally can’t help but be charming, despite how bad the material is manages to give his worst performance as a professor of symbology (sic, seriously sic. I can;t tell you how much that word pisses me off) with a total lack of personality. Audrey Tautou, looking cuter than ever, plays the stupidest cryptologist in the history of cryptology. Only Ian McKellen was apparently smart enough to realize this film was a joke and infuses his role with a bit of ironic glee. I’ve read three of the book Dan Brown ripped off for this book, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Leigh, Baigent and Lincoln’s Holy Blood Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy, all of which are more interesting, more insightful and more suspenseful than this dreadfully stupid movie.

Nosferatu – This Werner Herzog version of the familiar story I had seen the first part of several years ago but couldn’t stay awake long enough to finish, I won’t go into detail why I couldn’t. The film exists in a kind of middle-ground between Murnau’s classic Expressionist horror film and Francis Ford Coppola’s camp classic (can it be that already?) that rated #15 in 1992. Like the Murnau but not the Coppola, the movie is only tangentially related to Bram Stoker’s original novel, but also like Murnau, that isn’t exactly a flaw. Herzog manages to make the material his own, as I’m sure he can;t help but do, and adds the best ending for any Dracula movie ever, which has to be the invention of his own brilliant and twisted mind. I just finally got around to reading the New Yorker profile on Herzog yesterday, and man does it make me want to watch all his films. How can you not love that crazy German freak? The #6 film of 1979.

Seven Hundred And Fifteen

I’ve been watching so many movies it seems I have no time for any proper blogging. Here’s some of what I’ve seen recently:

Gun Crazy – Quite a perverse little film noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring John Dall (the actor who wasn’t awful in Hitchcock’s Rope) as a sharpshooter with a gun fetish and Peggy Cummins as one of the most evil femmes fatale in the noir canon. The alternate title is ‘Deadly Is The Female’ which is great, but better might be ‘Guns Don’t Kill People, Women Kill People”.

The Killing – One of the few Kubrick movies I hadn’t seen was this innovative noir heist film about a robbery at a race track. Sterling Hayden stars as the head of the criminal enterprise and the great minor character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays the man whose wife blows the whole operation. Femme fatale indeed. The Out Of The Past podcast did a two-part series comparing this to Reservoir Dogs, in that both are heist films that feature fractured timelines, but that’s about all they have in common. In the Tarantino film, the heist is a minor part of the story, it’s the interactions between characters that’s of interest. The Kubrick film, on the other hand, places the mechanics of the heist itself at the center of the narrative, and uses the complicated structure to heighten the tension of that heist. Anyway, it’s a terrific Kubrick film with one of the better endings in noir history.

Harakiri – Anti-samurai film by director Masaki Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion, #11, 1967; Kwaidan) and starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Sword Of Doom, #3, 1966; Ran, #1, 1985). Nakadai plays a ronin who shows up at a samurai castle asking to be allowed to kill himself in their courtyard. He’s out to avenge the young samurai whom the callously forced to commit seppuku there with a bamboo sword. It’s a nasty and violent, yet slowly paced film about the hypocrisy between the samurai’s professed code of honor and the pragmatic politics necessary to being a ruling class. A very nice looking film, with yet another great performance by Nakadai, but the politics of it all was a bit heavy-handed for me.

How To Marry A Millionaire – Three hot chicks looking for rich husbands in what seems to have been a popular trope in the world of 1950s romantic comedies. An entertaining, if predictable trifle enlivened by the presence of Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. And Betty Grable’s alright too, I guess.

The Seven Year Itch – Another Monroe film, this one unfortunately doesn’t seem to have aged very well. Tom Ewell reprises the role he played on Broadway as a mid-life crisied yuppie daydreaming about having an affair with his upstairs neighbor. Monroe’s terrific, of course, but Ewell is far from it. The conventional line appears to be that he’s too stagy and not enough filmy, which sounds about right. My least favorite Billy Wilder film, thus far.

Freaks – Eh. Circus freaks are abused by an evil and annoying woman who turn on her, get her drunk and, apparently turn her into a chicken lady. An innovative and influential film, I’m sure, but not in a genre I’m particularly a fan of. The tension between the film’s ostensible theme that people should be nicer to freaks and the fact that the main reason anybody ever watches it is to, well, look at the freaks is interesting. But not that interesting.

Ride The High Country – Early Peckinpaugh Western about two old gunfighters trying to adjust to a modern world where their kind aren’t especially useful or welcome. Joel McRea (Sullivan’s Travels) is great as the wizened honorable lawman hired to escort some gold to a bank, and Randolph Scott is alright as his old partner along for the ride (and the hope of stealing the gold). It’s a bit slow in the beginning, some may say elegiac, but the elegy’s a little obvious for me, but picks up when the action gets rolling in the second half: then we get to see the Peckinpaugh that made The Wild Bunch (#4, 1969) and Pat Garret And Billy The Kid (#6, 1973) start to shine.

Just One Punch Away

The Set-Up – I haven’t seen a lot of Robert Wise movies (see the comments on The Sound Of Music in the 1965 list for a list of some of his highlights), but this is easily my favorite. It’s the opposite of The Sound Of Music. Where that was bloated, colorful, sunny and epic this is dark, taught, and efficient. An essential film noir, it tells the real-time story of an overthehill boxer whose wife can’t watch him fight anymore and whose managers have brokered a deal with a gangster for him to throw the fight but haven’t bothered to tell him. Robert Ryan excels as the fighter with an unshakable belief that if he wins just one more fight he’ll finally be on his way to greatness. But it’s the mise en scène that’s the real star here. The film essentially takes place on one corner, where a cheap hotel, the boxing arena, an arcade and a bar lie. The sense of seediness, the dark underbelly of urban life that noir so effectively evokes has never been better exemplified than Wise does here, despite the apparent B-level of the production (it’s only about 70 minutes long and looks about as expensive as a Twilight Zone episode). The fight scenes are impressive, shot, like the rest of the film, in real time, and I never noticed them looking fake. Certainly as good as any boxing scenes until Scorsese’s Raging Bull (#3, 1980), for which this film was a major influence. I’d recommend it for fans of film noir, and fans of sports movies, which must cover two-thirds of the world at least.

Movies Of The Year: 1965

I put this off for awhile because I hoped to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard first, after having owned the very nice Criterion DVD of it for several years. But it doesn’t look like I’m going to get around to it anytime soon, and I can always add it to The Big List when I do finally watch it.

15. That Darn Cat! – One of the greatest movie titles of all time is this live-action Disney film about a crime-solving cat. The cast is remarkable: Disney stalwarts Haley Mills and Dean Jones star along with Elsa Lanchester, William Demarest, Frank Gorshin, Ed Wynn and Roddy McDowell.

14. The Sound Of Music – Julie Andrews stars as a singing nun who abandons God for Christopher Plummer and his obnoxious children. In turn, God sends Nazis after them. Directed by Robert Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, directed The Set-Up, The Day The Earth Stood Still, West Side Story and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. According to imdb, Christopher Plummer “likened working with Julie Andrews to ‘being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.'” Sounds about right.

13. The Sons Of Katie Elder – Remade last year by John Singleton as Four Brothers, starring Marky Mark. John Wayne and Dean Martin reunite 6 years after Rio Bravo in this mediocre Western about some brothers avenging their parents. Also stars Dennis Hopper and George Kennedy. Directed by Henry Hathaway, who made true Grit, Niagara and a series of films noirs in the 40s (Kiss Of Death, Call Northside 777, The House On 92nd Street) that I haven’t seen.

12. Repulsion – One of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie. Roman Polanski’s film stars Catherine Deneuve as a disturbed young room left alone in her sister’s apartment for a weekend who becomes increasingly deranged and terrified as she’s overcome by possible hallucinations of murder and rape. It’s a brilliantly done film, if what Polanski was going for was a cinematic kick to the groin. Ranks this low because I personally don’t like to be kicked there or anywhere else.

11. Dr. Zhivago – For a beautiful woman, Julie Christie does look pretty terrible in a whole lot of movies. This is a prime example. Mostly I blame the lipstick. David Lean’s bloated, dull, painfully melodramatic epic about poetry and infidelity in the time of the Russian Revolution has a tremendous cast and, like you expect from Lean, is a big, beautiful film. But I can’t say I liked any of it. Lawrence of Arabia I can watch over and over again, Zhivago was like a visit to the Cinemascope dentist. I think I may have slept through the middle hour, but I’m not sure. Stars Christie, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Tom Courtney, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Ralph Richardson and, believe it or not, Klaus Kinski.

10. For A Few Dollars More – The ubiquitous Kinski also co-stars in this, the second of Sergio Leone’s so-called Man With No Name trilogy. It’s a transitional film between the Kurosawa ripoff that was A Fistfull of Dollars and the truly epic style that Leone would master in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (#2, 1966), Once Upon A Time In The West (#3, 1968) and once Upon A Time In America (#7, 1984). Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play a pair of bounty hunters on the trail of Gian Maria Volantè.

9. Shenendoah – I reviewed this back in August here on TINAB (which you can read here). It’s an anti-war pseudo-Western starring James Stewart as the head of family that doesn’t want to, but inevitably must get involved in the Civil War. katharine Ross is the only high point among a pretty dreadful supporting cast. Director Andrew V. McLagen had a long career highlighted by generic John Wayne mediocrities and “sequels” to good films (The Dirty Dozen: The Second Mission, Return From The Riv er Kwai).

8. Thunderball – One of the better James Bond films, rather pathetically remade in the 80s as Never Say Never Again ( #22, 1983). SPECTRE steals a bomber loaded with a couple for nuclear weapons and holds the world ransom for 100 million dollars (say it like Dr. Evil). Fortunately, Sean Connery’s around to track them down and save the day, but not before stealing the bad guy’s girlfriend Domino, naturally. Claudine Auger plays Domino (it was the terrible Kim Basinger in the ’83 film), Adolfo Celi plays the villainous Emilio Largo and Luciana Paluzzi plays the wonderfully named Fiona Volpe.

7. A Charlie Brown Christmas – The best remembered of the Peanuts specials, and not just because Robert Schmigel seems to love it (he does the cartoons on Saturday Night Live that have been the best part of the show for the last decade or so). It’s success lies in the fact that while it’s critique of the commercialization of Christmas (and by extension, the secularization of modern life) is unsubtle and simplistic, it’s told with complete honest such that the viewer never feels manipulated. Which is, of course, the best way to manipulate someone. It’s telling that the climactic speech Linus gives at the pageant is not about any of the great Christian values (charity, mercy, compassion, forgiveness) but rather an assertion of that Christmas is merely the celebration of the birth of a God-figure (Jesus, if you didn’t know). Certainly an odd message, if you ask me, that Christmas isn’t about values at all but about the birth of one particular religious group’s deity. The film then is about how good Christians are being corrupted by the technological and capitalistic advances of secular society (pink aluminum Christmas trees, for example). I propose that for next years battle in the Liberal War On Christmas, we expose this piece of non-inclusive propaganda for what it is: a radical combination of Marxist and Fundamentalist Christian critiques of modern American society. Just be sure to ignore the fact that Peanuts is the most successfully merchandised and commercialized comic in history. But the dancing’s real cool.

6. The Cincinnati Kid – This definitive poker movie stars the always cool Steve McQueen as the title gambler who hopes to unseat Edward G. Robinson as the best of the best. It’s a simple plot device that works for any genre film from The Hustler to Enter The Dragon. This being a gambling film, our hero must resist the temptation of gangsters who want to cheat and a overcome a dealer who has been compromised. Not surprisingly, he must also juggle the attentions of two women (a madonna and a whore, of course) played by Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margaret (poor bastard). Karl Malden, Joan Blondell, Jack Weston, Cab Calloway and Rip Torn also star. Norman Jewison directed, Hal Ashby edited and Ring Lardner Jr (Laura, MASH) and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Barabarella) adapted the screenplay.

5. Alphaville – Jean-Luc Godard making a ultra-low budget sci-fi film starring Anna Karina? Sign me up. Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, an American private eye who travels to a futuristic, Orwellian city run by a computer that doesn’t like emotion or self-expression or poetry and all that. Karina’s the daughter of the evil scientist who built the computer, Dr. Von Braun, who Lemmy’s supposed to kill or something. A crazy, mystifying Godardian soup of sci-fi, film noir, in-jokes, puns, overthetop pretentiousness and Akim Tamiroff. This was the second Godard film I saw, after Breathless and it confused the hell out of me a decade ago. I haven’t watched it since, but not because I don’t love it. I’ve a cheap used video copy of it, but I hear the Criterion version is pretty bare bones, it’s on the list of movies to buy.

4. Samurai Spy – Masahiro Shinoda directed this beautiful film about warring gangs of spies in the early days of Tokogawa Japan. The only film I’ve seen that successfully mingles samurai and ninja, two of the coolest things ever. One of the ninjas, a leper, is clearly the influence for the look of Snake Eyes’s arch-enemy, Storm Shadow. The plot’s ridiculously complex, with a Sanada clan spy caught in-between a spy war among the Tokogawa and Toyotomi clans, trying to hunt down a spy named Nojiri, Seven Samurai’s master swordsman Seiji Miyaguchi showing somewhere along with a group of persecuted Christians. It’s a beautiful black and white film, filled with dramatic, thematically appropriate shadows. A perfect example of samurai noir.

3. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – One of those movies that I love and that no one else seems to have seen, let alone really like. In this John Le Carré adaptation, Richard Burton plays burned-out spy Alec Leamas who leaves his agency after his last agent is killed, becomes a librarian, romances Marxist bookworm Claire Bloom all in an elaborate scheme to frame his East German rival, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Burton is brilliant, as always, Peter Van Eyck is very good as the menacing Mundt and Oskar Werner is exceptional as the German agent who interrogates Leamas. Director Martin Ritt brings a seedy noir style to the film that matches perfectly Le Carré’s deglamourized, anti-Bond spy world. One of those rare movies that’s actually better than the book, though I did enjoy the book very much.

2. Chimes At Midnight – Orson Welles took all the parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V and Richard II that involved the character Sir John Falstaff and reedited them into one film about him and his relationship with Prince Hal, later Henry V. Falstaff is one of the more remarkable characters in the history of literature: fat, obnoxious, drunk, boastful, and melancholy. Flastaff is a bit of a joke, we laugh at him and we laugh with him. He’s Hal’s friend when he’s slumming among the common people, and he gets abandoned when Hal has to grow up and become the King. You might recognize the plotline from Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (#12, 1991), in which Keanu Reeves plays the Prince Hal role, abandoning his homeless and gay prostitute friends when he takes his role in society as the son of the mayor of Portland. Anyway, Welles’s film is, like you’d expect, beautiful, with a tremendous performance by Welles and great work from John Gielgud as Henry IV and Jeanne Moreau around somewhere. It’s criminally unavailable in a decent DVD version, there is a crappy Spanish version of it out there. Hopefully Criterion or someone will get around to releasing it. I saw it on video 8 years ago, it was one of the first movies I rented the first day I moved to the big city a couple blocks away from “the best video store in the world”.

1. Pierrot Le Fou – After a party where everyone speaks in advertising slogans except for Samuel Fuller, Jean-Paul Belmondo escapes with the babysitter, Anna Karina, who’s fleeing a group of Algerian gangsters. The two lovers run to the Mediterranean, where they live a life filled with romance, music, poetry, art, movie references, bizarre dialogue and Godardian absurdity until the hit-men catch up with them, Karina leaves with them and Belmondo blows himself up. Like any Godard film, the plot is both impossible to summarize and the least interesting thing about the movie. It’s another beautiful Godard film, with typically great performances from the two leads. This is the peak of a remarkable run for Godard from 1960-68, where he was putting out two or three films a year, most of them masterpieces: Breathless, A Woman Is A Woman, My Life To Live, Le Petit Soldat, Les Carabiniers, Contempt, Band Of Outsiders, A Married Woman, Alphaville, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin-Femenin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Made In USA, La Chinoise, and Week-End. An artistic peak rivaled only by The Beatles from 1965-70 or Bob Dylan 1963-1966.

Red Beard leads the list of Unseen from this year, but there’s some other interesting stuff as well:

Flight Of The Phoenix
Cat Ballou
What’s New, Pussycat
Battle Of The Bulge
Red Beard
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Juliet Of The Spirits
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The Shop On Main Street
The Agony And The Ecstasy
The Loves Of A Blonde
Simon Of The Desert
Lord Jim
The Saragossa Manuscript

Movie Roundup – Last Life In The Universe, Murder My Sweet, Gilda

Last Life In The Universe – A possibly suicidal Japanese librarian (he keeps failing to kill himself) hangs out with a Thai girl after his brother and her sister are killed. He’s an obsessive compulsive neatfreak while she’s a pot-smoking slob. He spends a couple days cleaning up her house (right by the beach), they fall in love and are separated and learn a lot about life and love and all that. Neither one speaks the other’s language, so they spend most of their time communicating in English, and eventually each of them spends some time transformed into their deceased sibling, both of whom are cultural stereotypes (Japanese yakuza and Thai prostitute). It’s Harold & Maude with the gap the lovers overcome being culture instead of age. It’s a beautiful movie, some of Christopher Doyle’s finest cinematography, though it’s totally different than his work with Wong Kar-wai. It looks more like Danny Boyle circa Trainspotting. It’s the only film I’ve seen by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, though his film 6ixtynin9 has gone right into the queue. The #2 film of 2003.

Murder, My Sweet – Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely stars Dick Powell as the detective Philip Marlowe. It’s an odd choice for a hard-boiled film noir, as Powell was mostly known for his work in light musical comedies, and he doesn’t entirely pull off Marlowe, at least not as I imagine him (that’d be Humphrey Bogart in the Big Sleep) but he’s not bad. Marlowe’s hired by a bulky thug to find his missing girlfriend and manages to get himself mixed up with a wealthy family that’s being blackmailed. He gets beat up, a lot, which leads to one of the more unfortunate parts of the film, a cheesy pool of blackness that fills the screen every time Marlowe gets knocked unconscious (this many concussions in such a short period of time can be extremely dangerous, by the way, even if you’re a hockey player) that was apparently greeted with guffaws when the film eventually played in Paris. More successful is a hallucination sequence when Marlowe’s forcibly injected with heroin for some inexplicable reason. But really, the main attraction here is the Chandler dialogue. A nice, summarizing example: “‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

Gilda – Another mediocre film noir, this one featuring a superstar-making performance by Rita Hayworth as the title object of desire. Much like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (#8, 1996), a young gambler is adopted by an older man and shown how to survive. This time it’s Glenn Ford who’s taken in by George Macready’s Buenos Aires casino owner and would-be tungsten magnate. Things fall apart, as they must, when a woman gets involved, Hayworth in this case, Macready’s new bride and Ford’s ex-girlfriend. There’s more than just a hint of a homosexual relationship between Ford and Macready that isn’t exactly minimize by the hostility with which Ford treats Hayworth throughout the entire run of the film. Even after Macready fakes his death and he and Hayworth get married, he proceeds to lock her up in an apartment to punish her for her mistreatment of his “friend”. Of course, they all live heterosexually ever after, but we know what’s really going on. Hayworth, by the way, is as advertised, especially in her famous striptease in which all she manages to remove is a single glove. But I think she looked better in The Lady From Shanghai.

Movie Roundup- After Life, The Producers, Limelight, Gertrud

After Life – In the tradition of Stairway To Heaven and Defending Your Life, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s film has an odd take on what happens when you die. Instead of angels or demons, you get civil servants, who live in a big mansion and make you pick one memory from your life to take with you. After three days of memory picking, the staff makes the memory into a movie. Once you watch the movie, you go off to spend eternity with your favorite memory. It’s a quirky little film, with a light humanistic touch and obvious affection for its characters. It isn’t an especially profound movie: there are hints at a Rashomon-like idea that people can’t tell the truth, even to themselves, as a few characters can’t help but embellish or misremember their own lives, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s also a vaguely translated theme about choosing a single memory from your life as a way to “take responsibility” for that life, but I don’t think I know what that’s supposed to mean, so maybe it’s me that isn’t all that profound. . . . Anyway, despite it’s slow pace and low-key style, the movie never fails to be both interesting and entertaining. The #9 film of 1998.

The Producers – Between the musical, the movie of the musical and the whole season of Curb Your Enthusiasm devoted to it, it was pretty much impossible for me to get anything new out of finally getting around to watching this movie. basically, watching it for the first time was like watching it for the 12th time, I knew all the jokes and the whole plot, so I can’t even say if it was funny or not. I imagine it is though. I enjoyed the hysterical performance by Gene Wilder and the ridiculous cuteness of Lee Meredith and was disturbed by the similarity of Dick Shawn’s performance as the Hitler-playing hippie to Robin Williams, especially in his stand-up. The #9 film of 1968.

Limelight – Charlie Chaplin plays an aging drunk vaudevillian who can’t get work anymore who saves Claire Bloom, a neighboring ballet dancer, from killing herself. Her nurses her back to health, teaches her that life’s worth living, and helps make her a huge star. In turn, she thinks she falls in love with him and tries to revive his career. It all ends with a gala vaudeville show, complete with Chaplin and Buster Keaton combining for a very funny performance. I’ve always been a little put-off by Chaplin’s sentimentality, Modern Times is my favorite of his silent films over City Lights and The Gold Rush for that reason, and I’ve always preferred Keaton (it’s like an Elvis/Beatles thing I guess). But Chaplin is always so honest about his sentimentality that it’s really hard to criticize him for it. He may be a big ball of cheese, but he never tries to hide it, and you’ve got to respect that.

Gertrud – I’ve seen two movies by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and they couldn’t be more different. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc is a silent, highly stylized, visually exciting movie highlighted by a brilliant performance by Maria Falconetti in the lead role. Gertrud, on the other hand, is all talk, fairly static and dull visually (though the camera does move, its movements aren’t exactly exciting, and there is some interesting stuff in the mise-en-scene, specifically a rococo mirror and a dream turned into a tapestry) with some very odd acting by all of the actors. The film seems to consist of long scenes of the actors making monotone speeches while not looking at each other. Gertrud leaves her husband, a successful politician, for a young composer. The next day at a party, her old boyfriend tells her the composer was bragging about sleeping with her the night before at another party at the home of a courtesan. So, she leaves all three men and goes off to Paris to hang out with a gang of psychiatrists. It’s an emotionally intense film, made in such an alienating way that it’d be really easy to make fun of. The style is extreme to that point that it’s almost a parody of the European art movie of the 60s, which is, I assume, the reason it wasn’t particularly well-received when it first came out.

Movie Roundup – King Kong, United 93, Centre Stage

King Kong – Finally got around to watching this as Netflix decided it had been out long enough for a frequent movie watcher like me to be allowed to see it. The special effects are as advertised, it’s a beautiful film, more so than any of the Lord Of The Rings movies in fact. Naomi Watts is terrific and Jack Black’s not too bad either. However, instead of thinking the movie was too long, as most commentators seem to, I think it was actually too short. I dug all the set-up in Act One, especially the idea that this trip to skull island to make this movie is fate, totally out of their control. The little subplots on the boat didn’t work for me at all: the kid and the first mate, the Captain not wanting to got to the island, blah. Once they get on the island, everything’s great again: spooky natives, cool effects, a lot of fun action (though does anyone else wonder why these people never get lost on that island?). It’s Act Three that I have a problem with. None of the interesting themes for Act One are revived or concluded, it all becomes subservient to the (admittedly spectacular) action and the pseudo-love story. The final scenes at the top of the Empire State Building even managed to trigger my fear of heights, which kind of ruined the romance, I guess. A summary of some plot holes: there’s no explanation of why Watts and Adrian Brody are separated at the beginning of Act Three, after he spent the previous hour and a half fighting dangerous computer beasts to rescue her from the giant ape; there’s no explanation for why the cowardly actor came to deus ex machina them back on the island (and where’s his moustache?); there’s no further elaboration, or even mention of the destiny theme. Maybe in a year Peter jackson will release the 5 hour director’s cut and I’ll be satisfied. As is, the movie has everything in common with Titanic but the massive box office gross: it’s big, pretty and simple. The #18 film of 2005.

United 93 – Is this movie any good? The better question is is it possible for this movie to be good? What would a good movie about 9/11 look like? Paul Greengrass seems to think that a verité-style approach is appropriate. We get fly on the wall views of the events on the plane, intercut with scenes in various air traffic and military control centers. This style, and various comments about the film in advertising and some reviews, and the total lack of outside context in the film (no resolution, no mention of anything that happens after the plane goes down) seem to indicate a desire to take no political position on the events in order to avoid offending anyone, to not be seen as exploiting a tragedy for political purposes. However, I don’t think it’s even possible to make a film (certainly not a film like this) without being political, and Greengrass does seem to drive home the unpreparedness and inefficiency of our disaster-response system (“Where is the President?”). The idea that a film should be made of events like this at all is questionable: reducing a very real and very human tragedy to an anecdote, a simple narrative or even worse, and action movie is intrinsically distasteful. But at least when it’s made with a political purpose, such a narrative has some kind of larger purpose. Without that, the narrative is just an action story, the real human tragedy is reduced to, well, a movie. It’s similar to the Schindler’s List argument: the quality of the film as a film necessarily trivializes the real experience of 9/11 or the Holocaust. At least if the narrative has some kind of context or political agenda, the skill in telling it can be seen as a means to education and the prevention of further tragedies. As is, this film, by doing everything it can to be non-political (and necessarily failing) does nothing to further or deepen our understanding of 9/11 and what it means. The best we can take out of it is sympathy and admiration for the collective hero of the airplane’s passengers. But did we really need a movie to show us how heroic those people were? If so, doesn’t that say something horrible about us and the way we deal with reality? Is it not really real until we’ve seen the movie (and wasn’t 9/11 cinematic enough the first time)? Anyway, I don’t think we’ve had a great film about 9/11 yet, but when we do I’m certain it’ll look a lot more than Fahrenheit 911 than United 93.

Centre Stage – A funky biopic about Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu played by Maggie Cheung and directed by Stanley Kwan. Ruan killed herself at age 25 after only a few years of making movies, most of which no longer exist. After reading Jonathan Rosenbaum rave about it in his Essential Cinema book (where it’s called Actress, a much better title), I snagged it from Netflix. Problem is the Region 1 copy of the movie sucks. The subtitles are bad and absent at inconvenient times, the transfer is really bad and apparently 20 minutes have been cut out of the film. As is, there’s enough to see what Rosenbaum dug about the film: Kwan mixes archival footage of the silent films with Cheung reenacting those same film scenes and interviews with actors in the film and some of the people they’re portraying mixed with dramatic recreations of scenes from Ruan’s life. Incoherence is a necessary part of the film because there are so many gaps in what we know of Ruan’s life, but the cuts take it to far (not too mention that a key newspaper headline remains untranslated, not being able to read Chinese, I have no idea what the tabloids were attacking her about right before she killed herself. Seems like whoever subtitled this film would have thought that might be important. . . . Recognizing that it’s incomplete, I’ll rate it the #21 film of 1992.

Movie Roundup – Brick, Young Mr. Lincoln, As Tears Go By, Days Of Being Wild

I had a version of this mostly finished the other day when I accidentally closed Safari and deleted it all. That’s always awesome. Anyway, catching up with some movies I’ve seen recently, in-between baseball games. More to come in a couple of days, as it’s late and I want to watch a movie.

Brick – Is it a film noir set in a high school, or a high school movie set in a film noir? Either way, I don’t think there’s much here beside an interesting conceit and a competent exercise in stylized dialogue. Writer-director Rian Johnson has a clever mastery of the type of hard-boiled dialogue you hear in a noir, but the film lacks any of the feel or visual style of true noir. Pre-dawn grayness just doesn’t work as a substitute for chiaroscuro, at least not in creating a sense of existential fear or dread. Instead, the dullness of palette and general lack of visual flourish creates only a feeling of boredom and disconnection. Perhaps this is intentional, going along with the idea of only being able to viewing high school through the mediation of old movies, the bland real world contrasted with the vividness of artificial, borrowed, dialogue. . .a reflection of post-modernity or something like that. This being Johnson’s first film, it’s too early to say. I rate it the #23 film of 2005.

Young Mr. Lincoln – I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did, considering how disappointed I’ve been by so many biopics I’ve seen recently. But there’s simply no comparison between this kind of mythmaking and such mediocrities as Walk the Line or Ray. To start with, Henry Fonda was better than I expected, amazing how much a little bit of make up can change a man’s appearance (he also seems taller and lankier than in any other Fonda movie, which might just be my imagination). I was most surprised by how beautiful the movie is, it may be John Ford’s best in that sense, and that’s saying something. The many shots framing Lincoln against his environment, especially the river, are my favorites, but the shot of him blocking the jail door from the enraged lynch mob is amazing as well. For a 1930s Hollywood biopic, this film is remarkably strange and poetic. The ending is an obvious example of this, as Lincoln walks up a hill in the face of an oncoming storm, but even better is the scene at the dance, when Mary Todd drags Lincoln to the porch and he just stands there staring off at the river in the distance.

Best movies I’ve seen from 1939:

1. The Rules Of The Game
2. Stagecoach
3. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
4. Young Mr. Lincoln
5. The Wizard Of Oz
6. Gunga Din
7. Destry Rides Again
8. Goodbye Mr. Chips
9. The Four Feathers
10. The Roaring Twenties
11. Gone With The Wind

As Tears Go By – Wong Kar-wai’s first film is essentially a remake of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (#1, 1973), with a little bit of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (#4, 1984) to start things up and a dash of Tony Scott’s Top Gun (#6, 1986) just to keep you on your toes (you’ll know it when you hear it). Andy Lau (House Of Flying Daggers) stars as an experienced, slightly disillusioned triad who has to juggle his burgeoning romance with his cousin (the adorable Maggie Cheung, in one of her first non-girl-in-kung-fu-peril roles) and the increasingly dangerous antics of his irresponsible and incompetent “little brother” played by Jacky Cheung. Visually speaking, all the basic elements of Wong’s style are here for all you who think Christopher Doyle made Wong Kar-wai, you surely see this. By taking Scorsese’s plot but leaving behind all his Catholic guilt and madonna-whore complexes, Wong makes an entertaining genre film that lacks any of the depth or resonance of Scorsese’s masterpiece. Which isn’t so terrible considering one of the three movies Wong wrote this same year was Haunted Cop Shop Of Horrors 2. As a first directorial effort, this certainly isn’t bad, but it’s still the worst film Wong’s made so far. I rate it the #8 film of 1988.

Days Of Being Wild – The first part of a trilogy set in 1960s Hong Kong by Wong Kar-wai that simply gets better as it goes along, though all three (including In The Mood For Love, #4, 2000 and 2046, #2, 2004) are classics. The movie starts with Maggie Cheung’s Su Lizhen (the same name as her character from ITMFL, who is also incarnated twice in 2046, though it’s unclear if any of these four characters are the same woman) who works at a snack counter (think Chungking Express) is picked up by Luddy (the name is translated differently on imdb and my DVD), played by Leslie Cheung (Happy Together). The two have a relationship that ends when she asks to move in with him. He dumps her and starts dating Mimi (Carina Lau, the longtime girlfriend of Tony Leung in real life), a character who turns up on the train in 2046. Su, unable to deal with the breakup, begins hanging around outside Luddy’s apartment where she meets a cop (Andy Lau). Su and the cop spend a long night walking the streets and talking, he tells her about his wish to become a sailor so he can leave Hong Kong and travel (think Faye Wong in Chungking Express). Eventually, Luddy and the cop end up on a train in The Phillipines, Luddy’s sidekick (Jacky Cheung) falls in love with Mimi and Su goes on to break Tony Leung’s heart. Speaking of Leung, his name is prominently displayed on the poster I have from the revival of the film last year, and as he’s one of my favorite current actors, I was waiting all movie for him to show up. Eventually he does, at the end, in one little dialogueless scene that Steven Spielberg may have ripped of a year later for the beginning of Schindler’s List. The movie’s a big step up from As Tears Go By, though it’s not as visually ravishing or as abstract as his more recent films. Quentin Tarantino, in his unintentionally hilarious comments on the Chungking Express DVD compares this to American Graffiti, which I guess makes a kind of sense. Though it’s set in the same time period as Lucas’s film, it has much more in common with the early 90s cycle of mid-to-highbrow coming-of-age movies like Dazed And Confused, Singles, Metropolitan and Kicking And Screaming. I rate it the #6 film of 1991.