RIP Betty Comden

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Movie Roundup: Sacrificial Turkey Edition

As we as a nation prepare to execute millions of large flightless birds in honor of our gods, some thoughts on a few recently seen movies.

Three Times – The latest Hou Hsiao-hsien is three love stories set in three different time periods with the same two actors in each story (Shu Qi, from Millenium Mambo and Chang Chen from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The first, concerning a soldier looking for the girl he loves, a pool hall attendant, is set in 1966 and the mood and quirky humor of the story is reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s trilogy of period films (Days Of Being Wild especially). The second section, set in 1911, concerns a young revolutionary and the prostitute who loves him and hopes to marry him. The whole section is in the style of a silent movie, complete with intertitles, but shot in a vivid color, dominated by purple, brown and gray. The third sequence is set in the present, with the man as a photographer, in love with a singer despite the both of them having girlfriends of their own. Like all Hou films, it’s beautiful, with long, floating takes from a fixed point of view (the camera pans but does not swirl or track). It’s a small film with an epic’s worth of meanings: the changing definitions and codes and styles of love, the transformations in the way men and women relate to each other, the history of Taiwan over the last 100 years, both politically and culturally, and most interestingly (to me) how in the 21st century the past is just another aspect of the present. In the future the past will be ever present. The #2 film of 2005, behind only The New World.

A Night To Remember – This 1958 telling of the story of the sinking of the Titanic was amply ripped off in The Biggest Movie Ever. It manages to avoid all the bad parts about James Cameron’s epic (the generic love story, Paxton and Zane), while telling the always moving, if exceedingly familiar story. Director Roy Ward Baker (who?) shoots in a stark, realistic black and white style that, combined with the relatively non-existent histrionics makes this the stereotypically stiff-upper lipped British reaction to disaster, right down to the ending noting the socially beneficial responses to the tragedy. The #5 film of 1958.

Blowup – Michelangelo Antonioni’s Swinging London mystery about a photographer who thinks he may have accidentally captured a murder on film while shooting in a park one afternoon. He tries to investigate the crime, but keeps getting distracted by the temptations of life in the mid-60s: hot clubs, sex with multiple wanna-be models, Vanessa Redgrave, the need to buy a giant wooden propeller, mimes, and so on. David Hemmings plays the photographer with the same blank, bored cool that one would expect in a film by the director of L’Aventura, the classic icy ode to ennui. I enjoyed this film a lot more than that one, the ideas are the same, but Blowup is more playful. The #4 film of 1966.

The Tao Of Steve – Entertaining, if typical, Gen X indie comedy about a fat slacker with a quirky philosophy and his adventures in search of true love. Donal Logue is very good as the slacker, and the setting (Santa Fe, New Mexico) is new and interesting, and there are some clever lines, but the supporting performances are below par, even for an indie. A slight, but watchable film. The #21 movie of 2000.

The Lost Patrol – Another in the John Ford marathon, this 1934 film stars Victor McLaglen (The Quiet Man, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon) as the leader of a troop of British soldiers in Mesopotamia, surrounded at an oasis by unseen Arabs who snipe them off one by one. The unseen nature of the enemy eventually drives the men nuts. The music, by Max Steiner, is more than a little reminiscent of the score he’d write eight years later for Casablanca. There’s some nice imagery, a shirtless McLaglan mowing down a line of Arabs with a machine gun seems right out of Rambo III, and some good supporting performances (including a histrionic Boris Karloff). An entertaining enough little film, barely over an hour long, but it doesn’t really compare to Ford’s greatest films (unfair, I know).

The Hurricane – Part of the six movie John Ford marathon on TCM yesterday, five I’ve which I hadn’t seen and tivo’d. It’s hurt by weak, ethnically inappropriate, and mediocre, lead actors (Jon Hall and Dorthy Lamour), but gets fine supporting performances from Thomas Mitchell and Raymond Massey. Massey plays the French colonial administrator of a small South Seas Island who unbendingly enforces the law against an unjustly convicted native (a hero to his people, played by Jon Hall). After repeated attmpts at escaoe from prison, Hall finally makes his way home, only to see the entire island wiped away by a massive hurricane. The special effects in the final sequence are amazing for any time, but especially for 1937. There are even echoes of themes Ford would develop fully in The Searchers (and certainly the mileu is something he’d return to in his late light classic Donovan’s Reef). Mary Astor (from The Maltese Falcon) is largely wasted in a supporting role as Massey’s wife.

Marie Antoinette – Some notes on the most controversial film of the year so far:

I thought Kirsten Dunst was very good, but I’ve a weakness for her. Steve Coogan, Danny Huston and Judy Davis are largely wasted. I liked Jason Schwartzman a lot. His Louis XVI is benign, incompetent and amiably clueless and surprisingly understated for Schwartzman, who’s usually pretty broad.

Cinematographically, it was pretty but not all that interesting. I think the film is really overrated visually. It has a lot in common with the similarly overrated Memoirs Of A Geisha. Both films are full of shots of beautiful things shot in a not particularly interesting or innovative style. The costume design was great. the set decoration was ridiculously baroque, I’m not sure if it’s historically accurate or over-the-top or both.

I thought the parallels in the film between the fads Marie Antoinette takes up and contemporary fads of upper class women were potentially very clever (the sequence in Petit Trianon with the herbs and the lambs was hilarious), but I’m unsure if Coppola’s aware of that irony. I’m not sure if the film is satire or tragedy, but I don’t think it can be both.

I liked the improvisational vignette style through the first two-thirds of the film, but as the events of the film became more serious, I found the lack of historical context really annoying. There’s no explanation for why the French people turn against her. We just experience it as a series of seemingly random horrible things happening to her. I don’t believe that Marie Antoinette was as ignorant of the larger context of her life and society as this film is. The fact that we have glimpses (only glimpses) of her larger awareness confounds me. If the point is to show a girl adrift in a world she doesn’t understand, why create scenes where she understands her world perfectly? Radically divorced from social context, the film is not about Marie Antoinette, but about Sofia Coppola. And I really don’t care how difficult Sofia Coppola thinks her life of privilege is. Try as I might, I really don’t think there’s anything to this film other than “aww, look at the poor little rich girl.” At least she’s cute, I guess.

Much like in Lost In Translation, Coppola totally lost it in the last third of the film. She has good taste in the directors she likes to copy (Hou and Wong in particular are obvious stylistic influences), but she has yet to make a truly meaningful statement out of all that style. Without any real meaning, it’s all just a pose, it’s all fashion.

Robert Altman, RIP

Robert Altman died today at age 81. He was one of the great American directors of the last 40 years, creating dozens of idiosyncratic, personal films. He was most well-known for his long takes of large ensemble casts, as well as his habit of overlapping dialogue, with multiple characters talking at the same time, but mixed in such a way that we hear exactly what he wants us to hear. After his first big hit with MASH, he proceeded to make a number of classic films, and wound his way in and out of critical and popular favor, always retaining his independence.

I’ve seen a few Altman films, but not as many as I want to. Here’s what I’ve seen:

1. Nashville
2. MASH
3. The Player
4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
5. Short Cuts
6. Vincent & Theo
7. Popeye
8. Gosford Park

And a top 5 that I need to see:

1. The Long Goodbye
2. A Prairie Home Companion
3. Secret Honor
4. Buffalo Bill & The Indians
5. The Company

Holding Out For A Hero

Reading moviecitynews on Zhang Yimou’s upcoming Curse Of The Golden Flower, I found a link to this review of Zhang’s Hero by Armond White. White’s an interesting writer, but I’ve always seen him as more provocateur than critic, and the bulk of his glowing review is what you’d expect: it looks great, Zhang’s an artist unlike those Hollywood hacks, a dig at Tarantino, praise for Christopher Doyle, some blatant ignorance of Chinese film, but two paragraphs contain the germ of an idea that resolves the tension I’ve always had with the film, namely its seeming pro-fascist political statement (that violent abuses by the state against its people are justified in the name of national unity).

White writes:

Hero is an exercise in what academics call narrativity. Nameless represents the anonymous handing-down of legend, and when his stories are matched by the emperor’s own counter-myths, the film grows into an elaborate—hell, magnificent—demonstration of pop-culture communication. Zhang shows how stories that are eagerly received can also be improved upon—for reasons that are either political, emotional or for sheer creative inspiration.

. . . .

Zhang and Doyle turn love and war—ecstasy and tragedy—into surreal extravagance. It’s not decorative, it’s volatile. And they keep the marvels coming: a showdown amidst golden leaves that change color as if they possessed mood, a resting place on a glistening lake that suggests an Asian Valhalla, as well as the psychic lunarscapes in Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time.

These settings seem heightened (if not created) by each character’s longing. Every one of Jet Li’s tales as Nameless situates a scene in a personal motive, yet, soon, the same imagery is doomed by mankind’s intrigues. No other Jet Li film I’ve seen has been this sophisticated about national myth. Zhang explores the moral complexity of history.

This conception of the film, as a series of competing narratives, each one topping the other in order to create a foundational national myth transforms the film into an investigation into and even an attack on the kind of authoritarianism I (and Senses Of Cinema) saw in the film. Instead of valorizing Jet Li’s assassin sacrificing himself to the murderous Qin Emperor on the altar of national unity, Zhang’s instead showing how the state creates such myths in order to consolidate its own power over the people. It’s therefore a critique of both the state and the large majority of patriotic propaganda films. Such an attack is consistent with Zhang’s other films and his reputation as a Mainland Chinese filmmaker who’s worked for 30 years subverting and obliquely critiquing that country’s bizarre form of government from within.

So, a Yay! and a Thanks! to Armond White!

Addendum: I just watched Hero again, and I think this interpretation works. Not only is Zhang critiquing the use of narrative to support the state, but he’s more specifically attacking the whole idea of Taoist/Buddhist “passivity” in the face of authoritarianism. Tony Leung’s Broken Sword is a Taoist who achieves a kind of enlightenment through calligraphy and renounces fighting in the name of peace. He convinces Jet Li’s Nameless of the correctness of his position: that fighting is pointless and counterproductive to the unity of “Our Land”. Nameless spares the Emperor when the Emperor claims to understand the secret in Broken Sword’s calligraphy (“The ultimate ideal is when the sword disappears altogether. The warrior embraces all around him. The desire to kill no longer exists. Only peace remains.”) In the end, though, the Emperor has Nameless executed (in a scathing attack on the anti-individualist, anti-humanist hive mentality of bureaucracy, when dozens of his advisors, all speaking in one voices, demand Nameless be killed). Thus the Taoist renunciation accomplishes only the death of the “hero” and the elevation of the murderous tyrant.

Borat Eat Brain, Must Play Video Game

Not much time for Not Blogging lately, what with crazy Borat business sucking all the life out of me at work (the movie’s great, by the way. Number 3 on the year so far, after Miami Vice and The Departed.) In addition, i went out and bought the new Final fantasy game, beginning my twice yearly video game binge, so i haven’t been watching any movies at all.

Some interesting stuff going on however. There was the election, of course. And let me sum up my reaction this way: YIPPEE! But I’m still concerned for the future. I anticipate a Clinton-Obama ticket that will probably lose to McCain-Jeb or something. Could be worse, I guess.

David Bordwell’s got his book on Yasujiro Ozu, Ozu and The Poetics Of Cinema available for download here. I haven’t read it yet, but Bordwell’s legit so I imagine it’s pretty good. And Ozu’s always fascinating.

Mike’s got an interesting post at Vinyl Is Heavy about a Wired magazine article on Atheism and sad little anti-prayer atheist groups contrasted with lively Protestant gatherings. It’s an interesting subject, but ultimately my opinion on the whole atheism vs. theism debate is that it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether or not God exists. I have my doubts, but I don’t particularly care. Nor do I really have any interesting in convincing people that what they choose to believe is wrong. People look for all kinds of things to give their lives meaning, to experience some combination of community and transcendence: church, sports, art, atheism groups, whatever. If it works for them, I’m happy for them. Though it’s easy to see, without looking too hard, that not much is really sacred.

All religions are made up of a morality and a mythology. One doesn’t need to believe the myth to agree with the moral: you can have the Golden Rule without the Trinity. The mythologies of various religions are fascinating though, not just in a psychological Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell sense, but also because all of Western Art (music, literature, you name it.) is founded on Judeo-Christian mythology (same with Eastern Art and Religion, as far as I can tell as well). Whether we believe in it or not, much of the way we see and understand the world is shaped by religion and the discourses surrounding it. And the world is richer for having those myths and metaphors. You don’t need to be Catholic to appreciate Martin Scorsese, but you can’t understand his work without understanding Catholicism. So this is the other problem with atheism as a doctrine: a world without religion is much less interesting, we lose many of our most versatile and powerful metaphors. Cinema would be a much poorer place without The Seventh Seal, The Passion Of Jeanne D’Arc, Andrei Rublev, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Au Hasard Balthasar, The Mission and on and on and on.

The problem with religion is not people who believe the myth and the morality, but with people who believe the myth and ignore the morality. This is the basic error in fundamentalist thinking, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. It’s caused, not by religion itself, but by our woeful ability to think critically about ourselves and our world. Bertrand Russell, and many other atheists blame religion itself for this, as organized religion (they assert) discourages doubt and questioning in father of received wisdom and dogma. I can’t disagree with that, but it’s a chicken and egg thing. The fact is that less dogmatic religions have just as much trouble with authoritarianism and lack of self-examination as Western nations have seems to be evidence that the problem lies not with God but with ourselves. It’s that longing for community again, making it so easy for us to sublimate our own judgment to the instruction of charismatic leaders. Is it religion that makes us ripe for exploitation by authoritarians, or our need for community that makes us accept so willingly whatever we’re told religion demands of us? I don’t know, and neither did Russell or any other group, prayer or anti-prayer.

Movie Roundup: All Saints’ Day Edition

Trying to catch up on what’s been a busy month of movie watching and working. So many movies, so little time to not blog.

The Bank Dick – My first W. C. Fields experience is a happy one with this quite hilarious misanthropic fantasy about an old drunk who accidentally foils a bank robbery and gets a job out of it. Complications ensue when he encourages his prospective son-in-law to embezzle some money in order to invest it on the eve of the bank examiner’s inspection. The supporting actors are rather poor, barely above the level of props for Fields’s brilliant combination of laziness, solipsism, alcohol and spite. Definitely a subject for further research.

Nothing Sacred – Fredric March and Carole Lombard star in this screwball comedy about a reporter writing a series of stories on a young girl dying from radium poisoning. Turns out the girl isn’t dying after all, but just pretending to get a free trip to New York. Girl and reporter fall in love and madcap hilarity ensues. Lombard’s terrific, as usual, but March is way too stiff and dull for this genre, lacking the fluidity of Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. It’s an entertaining enough film, though shot in an early version of Technicolor that looks way too green.

Ball Of Fire – This Howard Hawks screwball comedy stars Gary Cooper as the head of an eccentric group of brainy encyclopedists made up of some of the best character actors of the 30s and 40s. their little world is disrupted when they venture into the streets to further their knowledge of contemporary slang (for an encyclopedia entry) and come home with floozy Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck’s on the run from the cops who want her to testify against her boyfriend (Dana Andrews, a gangster). Cooper, of course, falls for the girl, apparently the first on of them those guys have seen in decades. It’s not as anarchic or brilliant as Hawks’s best comedies (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), but it’s a fun film with fine performances all around, especially by Richard Haydn (the guy who was the voice of the caterpillar in Disney’s Alice In Wonderland) as one of the wistful old professors. Even Gary Cooper managed to impress me as an actual human being, a first for him.

Smiles Of A Summer Night – This early Ingmar Bergman film is a little overlabeled as a comedy. It is instead a member of the upper-class partner switching genre, who’s most illustrious example is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules Of The Game. This film plays as a pale imitation of that one, with less characters the love geometry is less complicated, and the film lacks all the social commentary of the other, with it’s intersecting relationships between the various French classes on the eve of World War II and it’s complex nostalgia for a more civilized time. Bergman’s film, by comparison, is set at the turn of the century almost entirely among the upper class. There is a sequence with a maid and a butler in the final third of the film that to some extent works as a comparison to the more complicated lives of the rich characters, but it feels tacked on and simplistic (if not condescending) relative to Renoir’s film.
Anyway, aside from not being as good as one of the five greatest films of all-time, this is a fine film, easily the most pleasant and charming Bergman I’ve seen. the performances are all quite good, though I was surprised not to find Max von Sydow, who i believe is in every other Swedish film I’ve ever seen.

Imitation Of Life – I’ve finally seen my first Douglas Sirk film, despite the fact that I managed to write a short paper on this film in college. It’s a melodrama of the ungrateful daughter variety, with some very impressive examinations of racism, passing and white liberal hypocrisy. Lana turner plays the mom who wants to be an actress and Juanita Moore plays her maid. The two ladies also have daughters (Saundra Dee plays the grown-up white girl and Susan Kohner the grown-up black girl who wishes she wasn’t), and Turner has a love interest, the treelike John Gavin (Psycho, Spartacus). Like all of Sirk’s classics, the drama is uber-melo and the acting is heightened to (past?) the point of hysteria and the colors are vibrant and Techni. There’s a lot going on with Sirk and I really need to see more of his films and watch them a lot more closely. The number 11 film of 1959, a truly terrific year for film.

Ordet – Another Carl Theodor Dreyer classic, this time revolving around a small farming family (one father, three sons) and their religious squabble with a neighboring family as a son from one family wants to marry the daughter of another. Complicating matters is that one of the other sons is crazy (thinks he’s Jesus) and the third has a wonderful wife who faces death while giving birth one night. The film’s generally described as “a profound examination of faith and what it means to believe in God” or something, and that’s true. But the film succeeds not because of the depth of its philosophy, but because of the realism and convincing drama of its scenario and mise en scène (long shots, slow editing, theatrical, yet convincing performances, especially by the actors who play the crazy son and the father).

Bride Of The Monster – Another Ed Wood classic, though it lacks the terrifying autobiography and just plain weirdness of Glen Or Glenda or the let’s put on a show comic bravado of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist who creates radioactive monsters and kidnaps a young female journalist (Loretta King) with the help of his professional wrestling henchman Tor Johnson. The acting is terrible, the props as cheap as they come and the story generic as any sci-fi film of the 50s. It’s Wood’s most successful film in this Hollywood sense, but the least interesting of his work I’ve seen.

The Old Dark House – Refugees from a driving rainstorm find shelter in a creepy house populated by a demented family in this 1932 James Whale creepfest starring Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton. Even more effectively than in Frankenstein, Whale adapts the shadowy darkness of the silent German Expressionist classics to the early sound era, a time when most Hollywood directors had seemingly forgotten everything that had been learned about the creation of mood, atmosphere and meaning through image over the prior 20 years in the struggle to capture the novelty of actors actually talking (By 1932, this phase of film was thankfully on it’s way out, thanks to Whale, Howard Hawks (Scarface) and Busby Berkeley). In this sense, this film is a prototype of the cheap, atmospheric horror films Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur would make in the 40s (Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With A Zombie), which were all shadows and psychology and without much in the way of violence. This film, though, does end with a lengthy fight scene and conflagration as somebody lets the crazy brother out of his cell in the basement and he terrorizes the women, beats up the men and sets the whole dark house on fire.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt – Dana Andrews plays a reporter who conspires with his future father-in-law to frame himself for a murder in order to prove the lunacy of applying the death penalty based on circumstantial evidence. unfortunately for him, but not too surprising, is when the old guy dies, there’s no one around to prove his actual innocence. Director Fritz Lang reportedly hated this film, and it shows in the perfunctory job he did directing it. It has none of the aggressive style and outrage of his classic anti-lynching film Fury, to say nothing of the experimentality of his noir classics (M, Metropolis, The Big Heat, etc). This is Lang going through the motions, and it works as a kind of entertainment. Like an episode of Murder, She Wrote. With Joan Fontaine as the unfortunate fiancée.

I Married A Witch – French director René Clair is responsible for some classic films which I’ve never seen (Le Million, À Nous La Liberté), but I have seen this charmingly titled Hollywood film from 1942. The adorable Veronica Lake plays the eponymous bride, who, along with her witch relatives is trapped in a tree in Puritan New England only to be released and unleashed on the family that captured her 300 years later, where, through the unfortunate application of a love spell, she falls in love with the descendent of the man who tormented her originally. The emergence of Lake and her father from their tree prison as wisps of smoke that float across the land and find themselves watching a party of swells from inside beer bottles is lyrical and lovely, while in keeping with the absurd spirit of the film. It’s just the best of many fine sequences from Clair, a director who I’ll now have to seek out more from (ah, the ever-expanding queue). Lake is wonderful as the witch, and not just because she wears a succession of quite clingy dresses. She has the ethereality necessary for playing a wisp of smoke, and the comic ability to pull off the screwballity of the comedy. Fredric March, on the other hand, is just as stiff as he was in Nothing Sacred five years earlier.