Movie Roundup: Quick Catch-Up Edition

I’ve managed to build up a massive backlog of recently seen movies, so I’m going to try to blow through them as quick as I can.

Flowers Of Shanghai – Another Hou Hsiao-hsien masterpiece, this one set in the brothels of 1880s Shanghai. The story follows four or of of the prostitutes and their interactions with each other and their clients, wealthy young men who spend their time at meals, playing drinking games and exploiting women, much like a certain subset of college students. The flower girls alternately fight amongst them selves for power and prestige and try to get the young men to marry them. The whole film is shot in Hou’s trademark tableaux style, with the camera floating up down and side to side along a fixed plane. The whole frame is in focus and highly detailed, with multiple actions occurring simultaneously. Thus despite the length of the shots and often apparent lack of action in them, new details continually emerge (as when a vague immobile shape you think is furniture or something suddenly comes to life as a serving girl). Stars Tony Leung, Jack Kao (Millenium Mambo, Goodbye South, Goodbye), Carina Lau (Days Of Being Wild, 2046), and Michelle Reis (Fong Sai-yuk, Swordsman II, Fallen Angels). The #4 of 1998.

The Tall Target – Anthony Mann film noir set on a train as a detective tries to foil an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, who’s on his way to his inauguration in 1861. Apparently based on a real event, it stars Adolphe Menjou and Dick Powell (who’s a much more successful noir hero here than in Murder, My Sweet). Tight plotting and Mann’s mastery of the expressive noir blacks and whites make this an above average genre film.

Shall We Dance – Totally generic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. The plot is ridiculously complex, there’s too much screen time for the supporting Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton and not enough dancing. It doesn’t have the sublime sequences of the best Astaire-Rogers films, which leaves it closer to lame than great.

The Blue Gardenia – Anne Baxter gets dumped by her long-distance boyfriend on her birthday, she decides to go out with Raymond Burr’s slutty photographer. She gets good a drunk, goes back to his apartment, fights him off as he tries to date rape her and passes out on the floor. When she wakes up, he’s dead. A great film noir setup from director Fritz Lang, it starts to flag in the last two thirds, but is still pretty good. Also stars Ann Southern, Richard Conte, George Reeves and Nat King Cole.

Guys And Dolls – Joseph Mankiewicz’s big film of the Broadway musical about gambling hoodlums stars Frank Sinatra, Marlo Brando and Jean Simmons. I’m generally not a Broadway musical fan, and this is no exception, the songs are mediocre at best, the characters are caricatures and the whole thing is way too silly for me. And it’s two and a half hours long. Bleh,

Stage Door – Classic chick flick with Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in a battle of wills as they share a rooming house with a bunch of aspiring young actresses. Some excellent performances from the leads (and some of the supporting cast as well: Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Adolphe Menjou, and Eve Arden), flashes of brilliant screwball dialogue and Gregory La Cava’s efficient if uninspired direction make for a solid film. Based on a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.

Baby Face – Barbara Stanwyck is incendiary in this pre-Code melodrama about a low-born woman viciously sleeping her way from the mailroom to the top of a big corporation. The first two-thirds of the film are terrific, as Stanwyck escapes from her fathers abuse (she works as a barmaid in his bar and apparently pimps her out on occasion) but the momentum slows towards the end as Stanwyck’s swath becomes more and more destructive.

Angel Face – A mediocre Otto Preminger film noir with Robert Mitchum as an ambulance driver who gets himself ensnared in the evil wiles of Jean Simmons. She wants him to help her commit murder (sound familiar?) but he doesn’t want to go along with it (not so familiar). This, of course, only makes her devilishness more complicated, and Mitchum’s doomed no matter what he does. An intricate noir, with great performances from the leads (Mitchum’s understated resignation is perfect for the role), but the best part is the ending.

You Can’t Take It With You – One of the Frank Capra Best Picture winners, overlong, but pleasant enough. james Stewart plays the son of rich snobs who falls in love with and wants to marry Jean Arthur, the daughter of a bunch of wacky proto-hippy eccentrics. Essentially, it’s Dharma & Greg with better actors, writing and direction. Also stars Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller and Mischa Auer.

Judge Priest – The earliest John Ford movie I’ve seen, and one of the three he made with Will Rogers. Rogers plays the eponymous judge in a small Kentucky town. He dispenses common sense in the face of his blowhard enemies, helps hook his nephew up with the hot girl next door and hangs around with Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel, exploiting and more or less subtly critiquing the racist stereotypes those actors were famous for. It’s a fine little movie, and Rogers is as good as I’d hoped he’d be, but Ford would deal with the same kind of thing to much greater effect later in his career: the film’s an obvious precursor to Young Mr. Lincoln, right down to the folksy conversation with the dead wife. A must-see for Ford fans.

The Nutty Professor – Sometimes you can wait too long to see a movie. This is the first Jerry Lewis film I’ve seen (I’m not counting Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy), but it’s inescapable in pop culture. I’ve read and heard so much about it and him that there’s not much room for surprise when watching the film for the first time, there can only be disappointment. Especially with a performer as controversial, and as parodied as Lewis. Anyway, this adaptation of the Jeckyll and Hyde has Lewis as a nerdy scientist (Professor Kelp) who invents a potion to make himself cooler, in order to woo one of his students. He transforms into a vicious parody of Lewis’s former comedy partner, Dean Martin who goes by the name Buddy Love. Love’s a massive jerk, which of course makes him incredibly popular. An extremely dark film, dense with potential meaning, I can see why thew New Wave era critics liked it and Lewis so much, but I can also understand the common complaint that the biggest problem with Lewis’s comedies is that they simply aren’t funny. Maybe you had to be there. The #8 film of 1963.

Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia – Sam Peckinpaugh at his most nihilistic. A Mexican gangsters daughter is knocked up by the owner of the eponymous cranium. He puts a sizable bounty on his head and Warren Oates (a local piano player) is hired to track him down and kill him. Oates does it for the money, so he and his hooker girlfriend can retire to a life of peace and quiet. Of course, things don’t turn out for the best. Very dark, and occasionally funny, featuring a weird appearance by Kris Kristofferson in a small role and a terrific performance by Oates (Though he’s better in the superior Two-Lane Blacktop). The #6 film of 1974.

Sword Of The Beast – The last in the films of the Criterion Rebel Samurai boxset is also the least. As part of a plot to reform his clan, a samurai kills one of the corrupt leaders, only to discover he’s been setup and has to flee a whole army of samurai out to kill him. He escapes to a mountain where he encounters another swordsman panning for gold as a pawn in another villainous scheme. The two join forces to fight their corrupt leaders. Directed by Hideo Gosha and starring Mikijiro Hira and Go Kato, it lacks the star power and great directing of the other films in the set, though Tatsuya Nakadai and Masaki Kobayashi are a high standard to hold anyone to. A fine and entertaining film, but it really can’t compare to the likes of Samurai Rebellion or Kill! (not to mention Sword Of Doom, Harakiri or Yojimbo). The #9 film of 1965.

It’s Always Fair Weather – Unusually dark and pessimistic musical by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, featuring some terrific songs from Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Three soldiers return from WW2 and agree to meet up again ten years later. Turns out none of their lives have turned out the way they had hoped, and that not only do they not have much in common, they don’t really like each other either. But Cyd Charisse wants them to appear on her TV show, and one simply can’t say ‘no’ to Cyd Charisse. A fine film that entertains while also working as an examination of mid-50s disillusionment. It’s no Singin’ In The Rain, but then, few films are.

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