Been crazy busy what with Metro Classics and Potter and Transformers and the old five year wedding anniversary a few days ago, but here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve been watching over the last few weeks.
Bend Of The River – Much more to my liking as Anthony Mann Westerns go. James Stewart stars as an outlaw trying to make good as a wagon train guide along the Columbia River. Double crossed by badder guys than him, Stewart memorably goes a bit nuts on a mountainside. Lots of action and the kind of moral complexity you look for in a Mann-Stewart film.
The Southerner – The first American Jean Renoir film I’ve seen, it’s the simple story of a sharecropping family trying to survive. It’s got the director’s trademark humanism, but is, perhaps interestingly, an all-white story with an all-white cast(e). Good, but still the worst Renoir I’ve seen.
Early Spring – Part of Criterion Eclipse boxset of Yasujiro Ozu’s late films, possibly he best DVD purchase I’ve made all year. Like all Ozu films (as far as I know) it’s a middle-class melodrama, this time centered around a salaryman’s relationship with is with and the affair he has with a typist at the office. Some may claim Douglas Sirk as the king of the melodrama, but while I like Sirk, I’ll take Ozu every time. The #2 film of 1956.
High Sierra – Mediocre Humphrey Bogart proto-noir about a bad guy on the run from the law. Costars Ida Lupino and directed by Raoul Walsh from a John Huston screenplay. John Ford said he didn’t like Huston because he was a “faker”. I do and don’t know what that means.
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer – Certainly better than the last one. I admire the lack of pretension and running time in a comic book movie, especially after dealing with the bloat that is Spiderman 3. But the ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and the guy who play Dr. Doom is freakin’ terrible.
Tokyo Twilight – As dark and as epic as Ozu gets, this brilliant film follows the melodramatic lives of a middle class Tokyo family. There’s also abortions and suicides and whores and more. The #6 film of 1957.
The Seventh Victim – Another Val Lewton horror film, this one about a girl being hunted by Satanists. Not as good as the two Tourneur classics (Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie) but that’s an unfair standard to hold any film to.
Father Of The Bride – The Vincent Minnelli version, with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Of course it’s better than the Steve Martin one. Tarcy’s always great and Minnelli’s densely-packed black and white photography is often amazing.
The Pit And The Pendulum – Another Roger Corman Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price. While it isn’t quite as good as Masque Of The red Death, it’s pretty great, with some wonderful expressionist sets and reasonably good performances from the non-Price actors. The #9 film of 1961.
Five Fingers Of Death – The original title, apparently of this Shaw brothers classic is King Boxer, but I like the US title better so I’m sticking with it. This was the first kung fu film to breakthrough in the US. Two rival schools fight a martial arts tournament, more or less. Except the bad guys do a lot of killing and eyeball plucking along the way. Great fun. The #5 film of 1972.
The One-Armed Swordsman – A bit less successful, though still very fine, is this earlier Shaw Brothers film about the eponymous maimed hero who overcomes his handicap to save his master and defeat the evildoers. A bit overlong, but the lead performance by Jimmy Wang Yu is pretty good. The #13 film of 1967.
Paris, je t’aime – Omnibus film made for the Cannes film festival is pretty entertaining, containing 18 short films by accomplished directors, each centered on a district of the City Of Lights. Alexander Payne’s bittersweet story of an American tourist having an existential globalist epiphany is easily the best of them. But Vincenzo Natali’s vampire fairy tale with Elijah Wood, Tom Tykwer’s pomo relationship joke with Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche’s performance in Nobohiro Suwa story about overcoming grief with a cowboy Willem Dafoe and Walter Salles’s Hou-esque story about an immigrant nanny. Most of the other shorts were entertaining, though Christopher Doyle’s fantasy of dancing hair stylists was just plain confusing. With a late night Monday audience that was really into it, one of the more enjoyable theatre-going experiences I’ve had in awhile. The #15 film of 2006.
The Tarnished Angels – Based on a William Faulkner novel, this Douglas Sirk film follows the relationship between a journalist and a Depression Era stunt pilot and his family, notably the hot wife he treats like crap. The lead performances are very good (Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, reunited from Written On The Wind) and Sirk’s black and white ‘Scope compositions are stunning. The #5 film of 1958.
Ratatouille – Quite possibly the best Pixar film thus far. Directed by Brad Bird, it’s a simple story of a rat who wants to cook that manages to touch on art and community and family and identity and freedom and corporatism and criticism while masquerading as fun for the whole family slapstick. Most Pixar films have only one idea and that idea gets pounded into the ground until even the slowest kid in the audience understands that life in the fast lane loses some old highway magic, or whatever. Ratatouille overflows with ideas, and for the most part, they fly by: raising questions more than pounding answers.
The Good Shepherd – Very slick looking and surprisingly well-directed by Robert DeNiro, this story of the early days of the CIA fails on the level of plot and structure. A good performance from Matt Damon as the cipher at the center of the film, though his character is burdened with a cheesy Psych 101 backstory and an inexplicable relationship to Angelina Jolie (why does she like him? Why doesn’t he like her??) The kind of film you spend the 20 minutes after watching nitpicking the ridiculous plot holes and contrivances. The #25 film of 2006.
Toy Story 2 – Certainly better than the first one. There’s less sap to this sequel, and the sheer number of sci-fi film references is a lot of fun. But still at 92 minutes, it feels like it’s at least 20 minutes too long. I think it’s a failing of director John Lassiter, both the two Toy Storys and Cars suffer from Repetitive Theme Explication Syndrome. The #27 film of 1999.
Finding Nemo – Great looking Pixar film that’s, I think, the best of the non-Brad Bird films. The story’s a simple quest/coming of age story, but in managing to stick to the story action it avoids the preachiness that some other Pixar films suffer from. Most of the voice actors are pretty good, especially Willem Dafoe (are you ever not happy to discover Willem Dafoe’s in a film you’re watching?) Ellen DeGeneres is generally annoying though. The #14 film of 2003.
Transformers – It’s no Armageddon, unfortunately. The first hour or so of Michael Bay’s movie of a TV series designed to sell a toy is a lot of fun, with Shia LaBeouf playing the inevitable geeky teen who gets caught up in the action adventure (all while trying to impress a girl, naturally). There’s some pleasant comedy with a car stereo and some giant robots in a lawn and John Turturro being really weird, but once the film turned into non-stop action mode, I lost interest. While Bay had slowed down his peripatetic camera for the first half, the second half is so clumsily edited as to be incomprehensible. The CGI is really impressive, but all the robots look the same. And none of them have any interesting personalities (absolutely no character for the giant shape-shifting robots).
Bells Are Ringing – Overlong Vincente Minnelli musical that features some really great music by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ In The Rain, The Band Wagon). Judy Holliday plays a answering service operator who gets involved in her clients lives and manages to fall in love under false pretenses with a writer played by Dean Martin. The actors are fine and Minnelli’s terrific, but the song “The Party’s Over” may be Comden and Green’s best. The #11 film of 1960.
Love Affair – The original version of Leo McCarey’s film that’s been remade three times (as An Affair To Remember, by McCarey himself, as Sleepless In Seattle by Nora Ephron and as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning.) This one stars Irenne Dunne and Charles Boyer, they meet on a boat and even thought they’re engaged to other people, fall in love. They agree to meet 6 months after returning to New York at the Empire State Building, but that doesn’t quite work out. I still prefer McCarey’s remake, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, but very admirable in this film is its efficiency, with just as much plot and emotion as the other film, the film flies by at under 90 minutes. Yet another great film from that year 1939.
Designing Woman – Minor Minnelli? Lauren Bacall and Gregory Peck star as a mismatched pair of newlyweds in this mild comedy. He’s a sportswriter, she’s a fashion designer. Gasp! A woman with a job! Comedy ensues. There are also gangsters and a wholly unattractive ex-girlfriend that for some reason Bacall is threatened by. The #20 film of 1957.
Yankee Doodle Dandy – Well, the AFI’s twice named it one of the best 100 “American” films of all-time, so it must be good, right? Well, Cagney’s great, otherwise its a pretty standard jingoistic biopic.
Equinox Flower – Another film in the Ozu Eclipse box, this pone about the hypocrisies of a businessman father in his attitudes toward arranged marriage. He advises his friends daughters to marry for love, but becomes outraged when his own daughter wants to do exactly that. The most powerful moments, though, are the businessman and his friends reminiscing, drinking and singing over their youth in the war. The #7 film of 1958.
All That Heaven Allows – Douglas Sirk melodrama about a wealthy widow (Jane Wyman) who falls in love with the Thoreuvian tree farmer Rock Hudson, and has to choose between social pressure and the beatnik. Not helping matters are her fickle, flighty children. It’s difficult to tell why Hudson likes Wyman so much, but the beauty of the film (lots of mirrors!) is undeniable. The #9 film of 1955.
This Gun For Hire – Speaking of beauty, Veronica Lake stars in this pseudonoir about a hired killer who gets double-crossed and has to kill the badder guys before the cops kill him. Lake plays the singing magician who gets hired by the FBI (apparently) to get evidence on what secrets the badder guys are selling to the Russians (chemical weapons, it turns out). Alan Ladd’s performance as the killer, nicely named “Raven”, made him a star. Directed by Frank Tuttle (Hell On Frisco Bay, The Glass Key) from a novel by Graham Greene.
Spielberg On Spielberg – Thoroughly mediocre Richard Shickel TCM documentary in which the director comments on a number of his films, but doesn’t really bring up anything new. Notably, he calls Saving Private Ryan a tribute to his father and the Greatest Generation, and doesn’t mention anything about war crimes or wanting to show how horrible war was, but wanted the young people in the audience to respect those who fought the war.
Police Story – On the one hand, this Jackie Chan-directed action film is a prime example of the protofascist cop genre that was so popular in the 70s and 80s (Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Police Academy, etc) as Chan plays a cop who goes completely off the rails, kidnaps his superior officer at gunpoint, proceeds to capture the bad guys and then beat the hell out of them after they’ve surrendered. On the other hand, Jackie Chan is totally insane and this film has some of the most amazing stunt work in any film I’ve ever seen. He’s got at least one great sequence of physical comedy to leaven his irritatingly constant camera mugging, and the film costars Maggie Cheung (very young but still awesome in the generic HK action girlfriend role) and Brigitte Lin. The #4 film of 1985.
A Dog’s Life – Charlie Chaplin adopts a dog, and the two seek love and food in this minor feature. Humorous at times, but nothing special for Chaplin.
Jamaica Inn – Curiously weak Alfred Hitchcock film with a bizarrely made-up Charles Laughton as the lord of a coastal British village who covertly runs a rings of pirates who lure ships onto the rocks, kill the sailors and steal their cargo. When Maureen O’Hara (in her screen debut) comes to town and falls in league with an undercover cop, things start to fall apart and Laughton begins to lose it. There are some fine, emotionally intense scenes, and Hitchcock is always an interesting director, but the film doesn’t really standout. I blame Robert Newton as the bland hero/cop.
Police Story 2 – This sequel has a few good fight scenes, but none of the mania of Chan’s previous film. Maggie Cheung is back, though. in another fine performance with a cliché part. Good, but not as mind-blowing as the first one. The #18 film of 1988.
Night Nurse – Barbara Stanwyck becomes the eponymous health care provider who gets in the way of Clark Gable’s scheme to poison a little girl and run away with her liqueured-up mom. A fine film with a fair amount of pre-Code transgressiveness. Directed by William Wellman.
A Lost Lady – Another early Stanwyck, and though it’s post-code, I liked it a lot better. She plays a depressed woman (her fiancé is killed by a jealous husband moments before their wedding) who meets Frank Morgan in Europe. He teaches her that life’s worth living, and she marries him out of friendship. Then, inevitably, she meets a handsome aviator and has an affair. Stanwyck and Morgan were both terrific actors (even at this early stage of her career) and it’s their performances that makes the melodrama work. Based on a Willa Cather novel.
Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix – I’m still waiting for a great Harry Potter film. The first one had it’s flaws but I was totally charmed by it. The second was just treading water. The third, by Alfonso Cuarón was pretty good, directed with a great deal of style and bringing some darkness and maturity to the series. But the last two films, hampered by the need to adapt massive tomes into two and a half hour films choose to simplify to the point of cheese. Rather than make the films more efficient by cutting out all that’s unnecessary, they make the films more simplistic by ripping all the emotional and narrative complexity out of the stories. The fifth book, on which this film is ostensibly based, is the darkest of any of the Harry Potter books, creating an effective facsimile of the angst and anger known to every 15 year old. There are hints of that anger in the first few minutes of this film, but after Potter begins teaching his classes, that emotional current entirely disappears. All that follows is plot. Someday there will be a good Potter film.
The Big Combo – Joseph H. Lewis’s very black film noir stars Richard Conte as a crime boss being hunted by a persistent cop played by Cornel Wilde. A very taut 84 minutes long, filled with some of the darkest shadows and heartless characters I’ve seen in a noir. Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play two of Conte’s henchmen who are generally thought to be gay, which is why TCM played the movie for the first time ever last month. The #14 film of 1955.
Decision At Sundown – One of the seven Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher westerns. In this one, Scott rides into town and breaks up a wedding so he can declare his intention to kill the groom. It seems the groom slept with Scott’s wife while he was away fighting the Civil War, then killed herself when he came back. But what no one wants to tell Scott is, well, his wife was a slut and slept with any number of men while he was gone. Still, the local townspeople steer Scott into a showdown with the groom, since they don;t like the guy either and would rather get rid of him. Great complexity from a simple setup. The #9 film of 1957.
Comanche Station – The last of the Scott-Boetticher films. In what could almost be a sequel to The Searchers, Scott plays a man whose wife was kidnapped by Comanche and spends 10 years rescuing any white women he can from them (by trading, not shooting). When he rescues the very hot Nancy Gates and is on his way to return her to her husband, Claude Aikens comes along with two young gunmen and schemes to kill Scott and Gates and get the reward money for himself. Boetticher shoots the finale in what appears to be the same location as the end of Seven Men From Now, an alien amphitheater of round rocks surrounding a scrubland plain. Like with all his films, the action is as carefully designed as the character relationships, and out of simple straightforward setups grow profound resonances. The #10 film from 1960.
Rain – This 1932 film, in a great print on TCM has some impressive camera movement and expressiveness for the time from director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet On The Western Front, Ocean’s 11). Joan Crawford plays a wiseguy prostitute on the precipitation-heavy island on Pongo Pongo who becomes the target of a soul saving by raving minister Walter Huston. The local sailors and libertarians to their best to rescue Crawford from morality, but she can take care of herself.
The Man From Planet X – This low budget Edgar G. Ulmer sci-fi film is apparently one of the first alien invasion films. There’s not much good in the way of plot or acting, but Ulmer was a visual genius and the production design is spooky despite the cheapness.
And now playing on TCM, as we’re rounded-up to the minute here at The End: