Movie Roundup: Calm Before The Storm Edition

Catching up with some recently seen movies while trying to relax before I have to go back to work during the busiest week of the year.

Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs – Another wacky Guy Maddin film (Archangel, The Heart Of The World), this bizarre fairy tale is notable mostly for the lush colors of its magical mise-en-scène. The plot revolves around a series of love triangles. Ex-convict Peter is in love with Juliana, who’s married to Dr. Solti, who’s in love with a statue of Venus. Zephyr (played by Alice Krige, from Star Trek: First Contact) loves Peter and Peter’s sister, Amelia (played by Shelly Duvall), is in love with Dr. Solti. Amelia is also feuding with Cain (Frank Gorshin, The Riddler from the Adam West Batman), who wants to inherit her ostrich farm. While the plot isn’t as dizzying as Archangel, it doesn’t seem as profound or resonant either. Beautiful, abstract and romantic, it has a lot in common with Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon, the other contender for the strangest movie I’ve seen this year. The #13 film of 1997.

Borat – The funniest movie of the year, and the year’s biggest indie hit. Sacha Baron Cohen gives a brilliant comic performances as a malapropistic TV reporter from Kazakhstan on a quest to discover America and bring back Pamela Anderson. Equally misunderstood, and attacked, by the left and the right, Cohen, who was very good this year in a supporting role in Talladega Nights, plays a misogynist, anti-semitic boorish racist who alternates between offending decent people, pointing out the somewhat hidden prejudices of some less decent people and engaging in some hilarious scatological stunt-based humor (the wrestling sequence is one of the more striking scenes in recent film history, over-the-top, absurd, disgusting, it tiptoes along the line between comic bravado and desperation). Basically, there’s something to entertain and offend just about everyone. Shot in a typically documentary style by Larry Charles, the real auteur is Cohen, who gets my vote for the performance of the year.

Follow The Fleet – A good, but not great, Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical, directed by Mark Sandrich. It isn’t as consistently enjoyable as their best, Top hat and Swing Time, but does contain what may be their best single dance sequence. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Astaire’s sailor trying to win back his old dance partner (Rogers) while his friend, Randolph Scott, of all people, gets romanced by her sister. The typical Astaire-Rogers mix of cheesy light comedy, generally revolving around unfortunate miscommunication punctuated by dance sequences follows. All’s fine and entertaining enough, but the film’s finale, set to Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is nothing short of brilliant. Essentially a film in itself, the dance has a story in which Rogers is rescued from suicide by Astaire, it’s an intensely emotional dance, a perfect combination of movement, mise-en-scène and music. As if knowing that anything after the dance would be anticlimactic, the rest of the film’s plot is resolved in about three lines of dialogue and the movie’s over.

Directed By John Ford – Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary about Ford, in which Ford is a famously uncooperative interviewee was refurbished by Bogdanovich, with new clips and new material, along with interviews with contemporary Ford admirers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. It was shown on TCM a few times during their Ford Month, and on the whole is a fairly standard biography of the director: talking heads mixed with movie clips and familiar anecdotes. Especially notable is an audiotape provided by Ford’s son, who had left the tape running on Ford and Katherine Hepburn when they thought they were alone. Eavesdropping on their conversation feels very uncomfortable, especially when Ford tells her he loves her. One of the more disturbing, and touching things I’ve seen in a documentary. The #8 film of 1971, depending on how you look at it.

The Horse Soldiers – Another in the John Ford TCM series, this 1959 film stars John Wayne and William Holden as the commander and medical officer of a Union cavalry unit sent far behind enemy lines to destroy a Confederate supply route. There’s a bit of the old war movie trope of the anti-violence doctor vs. the professional soldier in the interactions between Wayne and Holden, but it’s not overbearing. And Holden, who I usually can’t stand, isn’t that bad here. Episodic in structure, some of the sequences work brilliantly, while others fall into averageness. Constance Towers’s character, a Southern Belle taken along for the ride because she’ll give away their plans, is introduced at a fancy dinner that features some hilarious cleavage jokes as she tries to flirt with Wayne. But after that, she becomes a rather generic and annoying love interest type. The most celebrated, and moving sequence in the film is a regiment of young boys from a local military academy marching off to war despite barely being taller than their guns. It’s one of the great episodes in Ford’s late career films. The #13 film of 1959.

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Movies Of The Year: 1956

In 1956, Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller, the hydrogen bomb and Elvis Presley exploded for the first time and both Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson were born, “In God We Trust” became the US National Motto and The Wizard Of Oz was shown on television for the first time. As always, previous years’ results and various disclaimers and methodologies can be found on The Big List.

11. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt – I reviewed this mediocre Fritz Lang film here. Dana Andrews (Laura, Ball Of Fire) stars as a journalist who gets himself arrest for a murder he didn’t commit in order to prove the unreliability of circumstantial evidence. Joan Fontaine plays his rich girlfriend who tries to prove his innocence after her father (the one guy who knew about his plan and had his exculpatory evidence) dies in a silly plot twist. The plot gets even sillier and twistier at the end, but I won’t give away exactly how. The schematic and didactic nature of the story undermine any kind of emotional interest the viewer might have, and since Lang admittedly hated the film, I don’t suspect he made up for it with his direction, but I’m far from a Lang expert (I still haven’t seen Metropolis, for one thing).

10. The Ten Commandments – Cecil B. DeMille’s archetypal epic stars Charlton Heston as Moses and follows his efforts to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Blissfully ignorant of history, the film features Yul Brenner as the pharaoh Ramses II, along with Edward G. Robinson, Anne Baxter, Cedric Hardwicke, John Derek and Vincent Price (of course!). While the famous parting of the Red Sea special effect is admittedly magnificent, the rest of the film can only be described as cheesy. At best, there’s a certain camp magnificence to it all, and you have to admire DeMille’s dedication to putting his singular vision on the screen. He’s like Ed Wood with a massive budget and more conventional neuroses.

9. Baby Doll – This Elia Kazan adaption of two Tennessee Williams plays (Williams also wrote the screenplay) lacks the appeal of Kazan’s greatest films, largely, I think, because it doesn’t have the star power of On The Waterfront, East Of Eden or A Streetcar Named Desire. The three actors in this film are pretty good, but are totally lacking in the kind of charisma that neither Brando or James Dean could ever get away from. Karl Malden plays a cotton gin owner with a child bride he hasn’t had sex with yet (she’s 19 in the movie, about to turn 20, I suspect she’s younger in the original). After he burns down a rival’s gin, said rival, an Italian played by Eli Wallach (terrific in his film debut), seduces his wife. The actors are all good, but the movie feels overly theatrical, though it does succeed on those rather limited terms.

8. The King And I – The second Yul Brenner film on the list thus far has his iconic performance as the stuffy King Of Siam whose life is brightened a bit by a unrequited love for an English nanny, played by Deborah Kerr. This is my favorite of all the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, though that’s not really saying much. The reason is essentially Kerr and Brenner, though the “Shall We Dance” sequence is as good as anything in film musicals. Based on a true story, and filmed two other times (most recently in the fine Jodie Foster/Chow Yun-fat film Anna And The King (#41, 1999), there’s a great film waiting to be made out of this story, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe some enterprising Thai director will take a stab at it. Wouldn’t you pa to see Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Anna & The King starring Cate Blanchett and Tony Jaa?

7. Giant – George Stevens’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel, this film is long, rather boring and features some truly terrible performances from Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. But it also stars James Dean, and every time he’s on screen, the film comes alive in a way that few films of the 50s can match. Hudson plays a Texas rancher who picks up a hot young bride (Taylor) while buying horses in Kentucky. He brings her back home where she fights with Hudson’s lesbian sister (Mercedes McCambridge, naturally). She also catches the eye of a young neighboring ranch worker (Dean) who makes no secret of his covetousness of both Hudson’s wife and his wealth. Convinced there’s oil on his small patch of land, Dean eventually strikes it rich (in the film’s one truly great sequence). Eventually Dean’s rivalry with Hudson extends to the next generation, 20 years later, when Hudson’s son, Dennis Hopper, tries to beat him up. Director George Stevens, generally a fine filmmaker (Gunga Din, Swing Time, Woman Of The Year are a few of his several classics), seems to have arrived, at this point in his career, at a style where bombast and melodrama overwhelm any kind of subtlety of expression. His last few films (A Place In The Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary Of Anne Frank, The Greatest Story Ever Told) all appear to suffer from this defect.

6. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers – Don Siegel’s classic of 1950s paranoia stars Kevin McCarthy (UHF, Innerspace) as a small-town doctor who sees all his friends and neighbors replaced by Pod People. Generally seen as anti-Communist, the film’s allegory is far too generic to draw such a specific ideological conclusion. The Pod People can be Communists, or anti-Communists, or victims of Consumerism or Suburbanization, or whatever. They represent the subversion of the individual will to an emotionless automata subject to the will of a collective. The film is simply anti-authoritarian, whether the authority lies on the right or the left. As drama, however, it’s somewhat lacking. The actor’s aren’t especially good, though McCarthey isn’t terrible. But the cleverness of the scenario is much greater than the actual experience of the film, which takes a long time to get going, and even when it does, has little to differentiate it self from any other noirish sci-fi thriller of the era. Still, the solid direction by Siegel and the undoubtedly fascinating allegory do enough to move it to the top of any list of the era’s science-fiction.

5. The Wrong Man – A generally underrated and overlooked film from Alfred Hitchcock. Henry Fonda plays a musician wrongly accused of holding up an insurance office. He’s arrested, indicted and put on trial, and it’s all going quite badly for him. Not only is he certain to go to prison, but the whole ordeal drives his wife, Vera Miles, insane. However, in an ending that’s either entirely out of place, false, and tacked on or profoundly moving and spiritual, things all somehow work out. An odd film that seems to stand out from Hitchcock’s more famous films, but has a lot in common stylistically and thematically with another one of his overlooked films, I Confess. Both films overtly deal with religious issues, in a way that doesn’t fit in with the dominant theory of Hitchcock, that of the perverted voyeur with a thing for blondes.

4. Written On The Wind – A great Douglas Sirk melodrama which I wrote about a couple weeks ago. Rock Hudson, who I normally can’t stand, stars with Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. Hudson’s the poor, moral, friend of Stack’s rich alcoholic. Both of them love Bacall, but she marries Stack. Stack’s sister loves Hudson, but isn’t good enough for him. Everything about the film is outsized, unrealistic and hyperbolic: the vibrant Technicolors, sweeping camera movements, hysterical acting, and every scene is charged with emotion. I need to see more Sirk.

3. Seven Men From Now – Budd Boetticher made a series of low-budget Westerns with Randolph Scott in the 50s, most of which don’t seem to be on DVD, or at least I haven’t seen any of them yet. Combing the dark psychology of Anthony Mann’s Jimmy Stewart Westerns with the broad landscapes of John Ford, this revenge movie is generally considered one of the best Westerns ever. Scott is fine as an ex-sheriff hunting down the seven men responsible for his wife’s death, but he can’t really compare to Stewart or Wayne, two of the best actors in Hollywood history.

2. The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough film is this film noir-caper film starring Sterling Hayden as the leader of a gang of crooks out to rob a race track in broad daylight. Things go wrong when Elisha Cook Jr’s wife, Marie Windsor (Force Of Evil, The Narrow Margin), a femme fatale whose evil is rivaled only by her annoying stupidity, gets her
boyfriend to try to hold up the crooks. Innovative in the way it plays with time, replaying the various elements of the heist from the perspective of the individual perpetrators, the action is as meticulously detailed and planned in advance as the village defense in Seven Samurai. It doesn’t have the throw everything against the wall and see what sticks freewheelin’ visual flair of Kubrick’s previous film, nor does it have the misanthropic restraint of some of his later work. Like Spartacus, it’s Kubrick demonstrating his mastery of a genre more than being his own kind of idiosyncratic genius.

1. The Searchers – By consensus, the greatest of all John Wayne films, John Ford films, Westerns and one of the greatest films of all time. I can’t really argue with any of that. The opening shot, moving through the door of a pioneer ranch house out into a vast Monument Valley landscape, and the final shot, going back through that same doorway, closing Wayne out of civilization and leaving him alone in the wilderness, are pretty much the greatest bookends in film history: profound, beautiful and moving, In between is an intense revenge quest, as Wayne’s Ethan Edwards hunts down the Indians that kidnapped his daughter. Much is made of the racism of Wayne’s character and Ford and Wayne’s opinion of that racism. Less is made of the other narrative thread of the film, the goings on at home while Wayne and Jeffery Hunter are out searching. These scenes, often played for laughs, are an essential counterpoint to the paranoid anti-miscegenation quest. Westerns in general, and Ford’s Westerns in particular are about the transition from chaos to civilization, about that middle stage where the two coexist, how one is both essential and anathema to the other. The Searchers puts this dichotomy into high relief. Edwards is essential to civilization, they can’t fight the chaos without a warrior like him. But he doesn’t fit in civilization, he is the vehicle of his own obsolescence.

Lots of really good Unseen Movies I haven’t seen from this year, including works by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Tashlin, Renoir, Ichikawa and Minnelli.

Early Spring
Street Of Shame
A Man Escpaed
The Girl Can’t Help It
Elena Et Les Hommes
Toute La Memoire Du Monde
Tea And Sympathy
The Burmese Harp
The Red Balloon
. . . And God Created Woman
Forbidden Planet
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Around The World In 80 Days
Moby Dick
High Society
Lust For Life
Samurai III
The Conquerer
The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit
Bigger Than Life
Bhowani Junction
While The City Sleeps
The Eddy Duchin Story

Song Of The Day

Elevate Me Later by Pavement

Well your greed for tokens and stamps
Underneath the fake oil burning lamps
In the city we forgot to name
The concourse is a four-wheeled shame
And the courthouse is double breast
I’d like to check out your public protest
So why you complaining? ta!

Those who sleep with electric guitars
Range roving with the cinema stars
And I wouldn’t want to shake their hand
Cause they’re in such a high-protein land
Because there’s forty different shades of black
So many fortresses and ways to attack
So why you complaining? ta!

Fun With Genre

Came across a well-written essay on House Of Flying Daggers today, by a critic named Ken Chen. He levels the same accusation against Zhang Yimou’s Hero that I argued against here a few weeks ago, that the film is pro-authoritarian and represents an ideological backsliding on Zhang’s part. I see it instead as an examination of national myth and a critique of the passivity in Chinese philosophy (specifically the Taoism and Buddhism prevalent in the martial arts genre) that allows the kind of narrative manipulation propagated by the state to be so successful.

But one interesting thing about the piece is that he lumps a number of recent films into what he calls the “martial arts plus” category:

Daggers, however, is director Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to the callowly beautiful Hero and, like that movie and a number of others (Ashes of Time, Bride with the White Hair, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, Zatoichi, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and, in a way, Goodbye Dragon Inn), it belongs to a martial arts/art-house genre of films by hip young directors upgrading genres they loved as teenagers-“martial arts plus.” . . . .

“Martial arts plus” movies tend to be fun, hysterical, and lifeless: they conflate Hong Kong exoticism, choreography, and zany exploitation flick bloodletting with American production values and the most potent Hollywood commodity of all-rampant sentimentality. But, like many martial arts plus movies, Daggers is also never really touching. It is willing to trade emotions (things so intrinsically ascetic that we cannot even see them) for the aestheticism of production values, spectacle, and homage. Because they quantify lyrical effects, martial arts plus films hoard their art rather then saving them up only for the most crucial, tactical moments. These effects end up micromanaging the movie and, as style-anthologies, films like Kill Bill rarely meld together into larger, mist-like whole. So the martial arts plus movie (like noir, surrealist art films, musicals, and Godard) must answer a rather unromantic question: is mere art enough for art?”

This style over substance critique is nothing new in the film world, nor is it restricted to this particular genre, as Chen hints at in the last sentence above. The martial arts plus movie, like the Spaghetti Western, the neo-noir and the collected works of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers exists as not as a genre in itself but as a response to, subversion of or homage to a previously established genre. Thus, what Chen sees as a defect in the approach to character taken in House Of Flying Daggers and Hero, their supposed “lifelessness”, where “the characters are . . . not really free agents or people but couture furniture items gliding along Zhang Yimou’s pre-assigned tracks.” This is, however, inevitable in all these second generation genres, where the characters and plots exist against a vast backdrop of historical genre knowledge that the audience has and the filmmaker builds upon. The characters in Hero are understood not simply in terms of the single film they’re in, but in relation to the whole history of martial arts films (and perhaps just as significantly for that film, in relation to the careers of its lead actors, Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung).

Taken individually, any of the second generation genre films can be seen as lacking in character, or as a lifeless exercise in puzzle solving, and they offer suffer from that criticism. But despite the efforts of well-meaning critics pointing out the emptiness of these films, audiences still manage to flock to them and they inspire armies of devoted fans. I find these two facts difficult to reconcile. Few directors cause both as much critical animosity and audience love as Tarantino, why should that be? The easy way out is to say the other side, whichever side you don’t happen to live on, simply doesn’t “get” “it”, whatever that means. The easier way is to accuse the other side of spurious motives, either fanboyism or jealous trollism.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I suspect it has something to do with a fundamental conflict in the approaches of auteurists (who examine a director’s work in relation to the whole body of his work) and genre critics (who examine a director’s work in relation to a wider group of films by a variety of directors). Ideally, both approaches should work together to create a full picture of the artist’s work. That’s generally the approach taken to John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, but unfortunately, I see few other directors get that kind of respect.

Poem Of The Day

Your randomly selected poem for today is Shut Not Your Doors, by Walt Whitman.

Shut Not Your Doors

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.

Poem Of The Day

From William Blake, in honor of my newly delivered DVD of Dead Man.

THE VOICE OF THE ANCIENT BARD

Youth of delight! come hither
And see the opening morn,
Image of Truth new-born.
Doubt is fled, and clouds of reason,
Dark disputes and artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze;
Tangled roots perplex her ways;
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead;
And feel—they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others, when they should be led.