No, I haven’t seen any more Ozu recently, but instead it’s summer in movie theatre-land as blockbuster season has begun. For the next several weeks, I’ll be watching a bunch of film’s hoping at least a couple of them end up ranked higher than 25th on my eventual Movies Of The Year: 2008 list.
Here’s some of what I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks:
My Blueberry Nights – An egregious victim of critical groupthink, as apparently every critic at Cannes last year decided Wong Kar-wai was no longer “cool” and took this opportunity to whine about the flaws of this film as if they aren’t as prevalent or more in every one of his earlier films. There’s even a nice tinge of racism to the criticism, with repeated references to the “fortune cookie” nature of Wong’s dialogue. They of course, conveniently overlook that this film’s strengths are, again, the same as with Wong’s earlier work: the breathless, dreamlike romanticism of the images first and foremost. The film can be seen as an exploration of what Faye Wong’s character in Chungking Express might have been up to in the year between standing up Tony Leung at the California Restaurant and her return as a flight attendant. Norah Jones, bummed over a bad breakup, takes some time before committing to Perfect Guy Jude Law and walks the Earth for awhile, traveling to Memphis and Nevada, where she encounters a trio of film noir characters (David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz in the first place, Natalie Portman in the second). Of the reviews I’ve seen, only Michael Wilmington’s at moviecitynews.com makes any connection to noir with this film, which is odd, considering Wong’s co-writer is the crime novelist Lawrence Block. Anyway, by witnessing each of these characters noir adventures, Jones gets over her troubles and makes her way back to Law, a nifty analogue of the healing power of movies if ever there was. The actors are all just fine, though only Strathairn and Portman are close to great (Portman’s work here is her most interesting in at least a decade). Chan Marshall (Cat Power) is also terrific in her single scene. The movie’s actually a bit like the Cat Power and Norah Jones songs that dominate the soundtrack: moody, romantic and maybe a little slight. For an antidote to the poor and negative criticism of the film, check out Matt Zoeller Seitz’s review at The House Next Door. The #6 film of 2007.
Monte Carlo – Part of the Criterion Eclipse boxset of Ernst Lubitsch musicals I’ve been slowly working my way through. Jeanette MacDonald stars as a countess on the run from a rich dud of a fiancé who ends up in the ritzy gambling mecca where she’s pursued by a count disguised as her hairdresser. Some decent, if not totally memorable songs and some fun pre-Code wordplay makes for an enjoyable experience. These musicals are still more interesting historically than as movies, halfway through the box. The #6 film of 1930.
I Shot Jesse James – Samuel Fuller’s first film is a solid, but unexceptional debut. It lacks the essential wild nuttiness of his best work and ascribes a conventional romantic motivation for Robert Ford’s betrayal of his friend that leaves no room for the mysteries at the core of last year’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (#6, 2007). Really, it’s hard to think of two films that take such opposite approaches to the same subject matter. I preferred the new version.
Talk Of The Town – Cary Grant stars as a factory whistleblower framed for arson who escapes from prison and hides in the attic of the house Jean Arthur’s renting to a stuffy law professor, played by Ronald Coleman. Not exactly screwball, it’s occasionally funny, but is too long and at times even a little preachy. Coleman actually manages to give a better performance than Grant or Arthur. Not one of my favorite George Cukor films, but not bad at all. The #11 film of 1942.
3:10 To Yuma – A fine attempt at a Western that goes horribly, horribly wrong in the last 30 minutes. Christian Bale is very good as a disabled Civil War vet struggling to make it as a farmer who gets caught up in the capture of Russell Crowe’s famous outlaw. Crowe, however, seems to be coasting, and Gretchen Mol, as Bale’s wife, isn’t in the film nearly enough. The ending is appallingly stupid and undoes almost everything good about the preceding hour and a half. The #33 film of 2007.
Iron Man – Better than any of the X-Men films or Spider-Man sequels, Jon Favreau’s adaptation of the Marvel comic is, somewhat surprisingly, a lot of fun. Robert Downey Jr gives the best lead performance in a superhero movie in a long time, if not ever. Gwynneth Paltrow sparkles more than she has in years and jeff bridges seems to be enjoying the taste of the scenery. The final action sequence, however, is lackluster. Whatever its faults, at least Michael Bay’s Transformers had the guts to film CGI action in daylight.
Casino Royale – This latest reinvention of the James Bonds series is really quite good. I loved the early action sequences (especially the first, parkour, sequence) and thought Daniel Craig was terrific. The last half hour or so was pretty bad, from the terrible dialogue between Craig and Eva Green to the final action sequence which was over the top and poorly cut and shot. Probably better than any of the Bourne movies, though, and certainly a return to form for the Bond series after the unfortunate Pierce Brosnan years. The #26 film of 2006.
The Importance OF Being Earnest – The Michael Redgrave version of Oscar Wilde’s play, directed by Anthony Asquith. Very much a filmed play, but it’s a great play and the actors are great with it. A little confused by the ending though: aren’t they still short an “Ernest”? the Technicolor, at least on the print TCM ran, is pretty ghastly. The #10 film of 1952.
Our Man In Havana – Tonally, a weird mix between The Third Man (Carol Reed and Graham Greene) and the 50s Ealing comedies (Alec Guinness). I like both aspects, and the mixture is unique even if the movie never really comes together, or even makes any kind of emotional sense. Burl Ives and Noel Coward are really great in supporting roles, but Maureen O’Hara is kind of wasted, her character never really works. Would make a great double feature with I Am Cuba, or maybe The Quiet American. The #11 film of 1959.