Movie Roundup: Plumbing Problems Edition

After two weeks of a leaky house, a sick dog and a computer breakdown, let’s get back to the roundup. I’ll try to get through this quickly.

Two Rode Together – Late John Ford Western with a plot rehashed from The Searchers that was forced on him by his bosses. Suffused with the nostalgia that became so dominant in his last films and acted beautifully by Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark. The film makes The Searchers‘s anti-racist message much more explicit (to much lesser effect) as we see exactly what happens when the hero brings back the poor kids who had been kidnapped by Comanche (it ain’t good). Worth watching if only for the now famous long shot of Widmark and Stewart by the river near the beginning of the film. The ending is great as well. The #11 film of 1961.

Tokyo Chorus – I don’t know how he does it, but even in this early silent Yasujiro Ozu manages to combine rather mundane plot elements, decent but unspectacular acting with his distinctive camera style and turn what should be a generic light melodrama into a perfect film, the kind of movie that makes you wonder if there’s anything else a film can possibly say about life. Again and again he does this: his films are all essentially the same, they vary in tonal shade but not in effect. This makes them extremely difficult to differentiate in memory (the generic titles don’t help), and nearly impossible to rank on the Movies Of The Year lists, but I wouldn’t change a single thing about any of them. Ozu, more than even Hou Hsiao-hsien, John Ford, Jean-luc Godard and Powell & Pressburger is the happiest discovery I’ve made since reconnecting with my cinephilia just over three years ago. The #4 film of 1931.

Our Daily Bread – Depression Era collectivist propaganda film from odd director King Vidor (who made The Fountainhead, the politics of which (if taken seriously) are exactly the opposite of this film’s). Filled with mostly non-famous actors and shot in a semi-realistic style, the film nonetheless has a surprising amount of energy: the climax of the building of a canal manages to be almost movingly triumphant. The #8 film of 1934.

Bluebeard – Director Edgar G. Ulmer, as far as I know, preferred to make B movies, wherein he could exercise complete control over his shoddy material. The result as far as I can tell, was a series of pretty lame films enlivened by the director’s expressionist style (Detour excepted). John Carradine plays a painter/serial killer in 19th century Paris. Cheap, fun, and often very cool looking. The #15 film of 1944.

Mother Joan Of The Angels – Interesting, highly stylized Polish New Wave film from director Jerzy Kawalerowicz about a group of nuns who believe they’re possessed by devils. Mieczyslaw Voit plays the priest who’s sent out to help them recover. Shot in a stark black and white, with the actors repeatedly isolated in their own frames, some really creepy images of crazy nuns (the long early sequence wherein the nuns are interrogated and exorcised is a miniature masterpiece) and a series of subjective tracking shots implicating the audience in the chaos, the film reaches a high point when the priest consults the local rabbi (also played by Voit) in a series of head-on medium shots. Either a profoundly moving theological story or a darkly funny joke about the evils of dogma, depending on how you look at it. The #10 film of 1961.

Nightfall – Fine film noir from Jacques Tourneur that was an obvious influence on Fargo. Aldo Ray and his amazing gravel voice star as a hunter who finds a case full of money in the mountains and is pursued by the thugs who own it. More flashily weird than his classic Out Of The Past, but not nearly as twisted as the greatest late 50s noirs like Touch Of Evil or Kiss Me Deadly. The #17 film of 1957.

The Red Balloon – Albert Lamorisse’s classic short film about a boy and his balloon is everything its cracked up to be: funny, sad, technically impressive and ultimately, ahem, uplifting. The #7 film of 1956.

Fantastic Planet – René Laloux’s pastel-pretty animated sci-fi film about humans enslaved by hyper-advanced giant aliens. The animation is surprisingly reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python (the backgrounds, not the cutouts) as well as some of the odder Frank Tashlin Looney Tunes shorts (there’s a surreal Porky Pig short in particular I’m thinking of). The plot’s hippie hokum, but it’s fun nonetheless. The #10 film of 1973.

Speed Racer – The Wachowski Brothers’ biggest bomb yet is this adaptation of the popular cartoon series. The film’s a mess, with a fairly simple plot endlessly repeated and explained in way, way too much exposition. The racing scenes, though, are stunning: a fast-cutting CGI color swirl leading to a critical euphoria of metaphors and similes. For the 45 minutes of car racing, the movie is terrific, for the other 90 minutes the visual style is a lot of fun (the interminable exposition is often filmed in an endless series of wipes) but it all drags on far past the point of enjoyment. Not even the monkey can redeem the scenes focussing on the misadventures of Speed’s mind-numbingly annoying little brother.

Flight Of The Red Balloon – The exact opposite of Speed Racer is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s tribute to Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. Juliette Binoche stars as a puppeteer who hires a Chinese filmmaker (she’s remaking the Lamorisse) as a nanny to her young son. Befitting its inspiration, the film is the most sentimental of Hou’s last decade of work, but his austere, realist approach to plot makes the film anything but melodramatic. Instead, his camera’s implacable, drifting, objective point of view finds a perfect corollary in the eponymous balloon and its countless surrogates which constantly follow the main characters around (reflected out of focus stop lights and such) simply watching their lives unfold for a little while. Another masterpiece from the best director working today. The #2 film of 2007.

Keeper Of The Flame – Tonally misfit Tracy-Hepburn film, directed by George Cukor as almost a film noir. The style doesn’t work for any of them. Tracy plays a reporter investigating the death of Hepburn’s famous husband. It ends with a fun twist, but it’s a hard, strange slog to get there. The #12 film of 1942.

Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s verité chronicle of striking coal miners in Kentucky in the early 70s. The subject matter is certainly honorable, and Kopple’s commitment to her film and subject is very admirable, but frankly, I was bored. I know it sucks to be a coal miner. I know that corporations exploit their workers and the unions are good. The only thing new here is the oldest thing in the film: the recordings of Appalachian songs that litter the soundtrack are a folk music fan’s dream. The #7 film of 1976.

Earth – Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s masterful chronicle of the conflict between collective farmers and rich landowners is never less than visually stunning. The farmers get a tractor, the rich guys get angry and someone gets killed. The plot, such as it is, is of minor importance. Instead, it’s a beautiful combination of Soviet montage style and the kind of stylized imagery of German Expressionism, much like what Eisenstein did 15 years later in Ivan the Terrible. The hero dancing down the street at night is one of the most haunting images I’ve scene in awhile. The #3 film of 1930.

The Baron Of Arizona – Samuel Fuller’s second film is a step forward from his first, with more flashes of his distinctive noir style. Vincent Price gives a restrained (for him) performance as a forger and conman who almost convinces the US government that he’s the rightful owner of Arizona. Fuller shoots in in deep focus, and at least in the beginning shots, he uses it well, with multiple planes of action receding into the frame and objects looming massively in the foreground. It doesn’t consistently keep this style, however, looking much more conventional as the film rolls along. Notable is the film’s lynch mob climax, with the first hints of the antiracist message Fuller would return to again and again in his career. The #14 film of 1950.

Park Row – A vast improvement is this, his fifth film about the rise of the modern newspaper in the 19th century, journalism being a subject much-loved by Fuller (he started his writing career as a reporter). Gene Evans (from The Steel Helmet) stars as the (fictional) journalistic genius who starts his own paper and introduces headlines, bylines, editorial cartoons, and the mechanized printing press and manages to raise enough money to build the pedestal for the Statue Of Liberty while fighting off the attempts of the rich woman owner of the biggest paper in town to destroy him. The film features some of the most elaborate and impressive tracking shots of Fuller’s career, running in and out of buildings and through the crowded street of his elaborate set. The #7 film of 1952.

House Of Bamboo – More conventional is Fuller’s color noir set in post-war Japan. Robert Stack’s infiltrating the criminal gang run by Robert Ryan to investigate the death of an American serviceman. Apparently a remake of The Street With No Name (which I haven’t seen), it’s an entertaining thriller (with the nice touch of a barely concealed homosexual subtext to Ryan’s character), but it lacks the crazy charge of Fuller’s best work. The #12 film of 1955.

Underworld, USA – Another good not great Fuller film, and the final in the mini-marathon I had, watching all the Fuller films that I’d had saved up on DVD or tivo over the last year or so. Cliff Robertson plays an excon out to get the crime bosses who murdered his father. A surprisingly conventional noir. The #16 film of 1961.

Easy Living – Very fine screwball comedy by director Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur plays a working girl (not that kind) who has an expensive fur coat fall on her head. Under the mistaken impression that she’s the mistress of the influential financier who threw said coat from his window, people proceed to shower her with all kinds of expensive gifts, including an audacious art deco hotel suite. Hijinks ensue. More slapsticky than the best of Sturges, but all the chaos is a lot of fun. The #6 film of 1937.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull – There are two things I blame for the decline of Lucas and Spielberg in their entertainment (as opposed to “serious”) films in the wake of their high points with The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark: Lawrence Kasdan and ET. Kasdan wrote both of those films, and helped imbue them with the intelligent, dare I say Hawksian style they both share (frequent Hawks collaborator Leigh Brackett also did an early version of the Empire script). Other than the screenplay for Return Of The Jedi, after those films he focused on his own career as a writer/director. His absence is sorely missed in the childish sunniness of Lucas and Spielberg’s subsequent films. ET was Spielberg’s follow-up to Raiders, and its massive success I believe, convinced them that financial success lied in recapturing that film’s audience: 8 year-old children. Subsequently, all the darkness and edge has gone out of their films, to be replaced by cute animals and annoying children. In Raiders, the cute animal turns out to be an evil Nazi monkey that gets poisoned and killed and there are no kids anywhere to be seen (there’s a drinking contest instead). Temple Of Doom follows with baby elephants and a kid sidekick named after a Samuel Fuller character. The Last Crusade mercifully is animal-free, but John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot see their grown-up characters from the first film reduced to silly comic relief. The Jurassic Park films are largely about children, and the Star Wars prequels provide not only a child lead for the first film, but a CGI abomination and some of the worst dialogue ever committed on celluloid. In Crystal Skull all the darkness and anger is purged from the Indiana Jones character, he wanders through the film passionless and uninspired, his dominant emotion is resigned bemusement. And CGI critters abound, from the opening prairie dogs that seem to think they’re in Caddyshack 3 to some helpful monkeys that teach Shia LeBeouf how to navigate some cartoon treetops. The last act of the film is terrible, totally without tension and making little sense. Great actors like Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone and John Hurt are totally wasted in underdeveloped, pointless and annoying (respectively) parts. And the plot, such as it is, is so full of holes it makes the sloppily constructed, acted and filmed Last Crusade look like a Kubrick film. But still, I found the first 2/3 of the movie enjoyable enough and I had fun with it. My expectations were higher though, if only because Spielberg’s matured so much as a director since Saving Private Ryan I’d hoped he’d put this kind of thing behind him and get back to his roots: make great entertainment films for adults (Jaws and Raiders being two of the best ever examples of that). Instead, it was silly, pointless, money-making trash.

Vera Cruz – Entertaining Technicolor Western by director Robert Aldrich, set during the Mexican revolution as two American mercenaries plot to steal the Emperor’s gold on the way to the title town. Starring Gary Cooper, an actor I’m warming up to as the years go by, and Burt Lancaster and his shiny, shiny teeth, all three of whom give very good performances: Cooper with his quiet confidence and Lancaster one intensity notch down from chewing up the screen. An action movie filmed more in the conventional vein of Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen than his hysterical noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly (the next film he would make, one year later), but the plot’s an entertaining series of twists and double-crossings. The #11 film of 1954.

Bunny Lake Is Missing – A twisted little puzzle film from director Otto Preminger about a woman (Carol Lynley) who loses her daughter on her first day of preschool after moving to London. The detective in charge (played with his usual charm by Laurence Olivier) begins to doubt the existence of the child as all evidence of her existence seems to have disappeared. Keir Dullea plays Lynley’s brother and Noël Coward provides some hilariously perverse comic relief as her flaming BBC radio personality landlord. A fine combination of police procedural and gothic noir, I like this crazy Preminger so much more than the epic Preminger of Exodus and In Harm’s Way. The #6 film of 1965.

Belle Starr: The Bandit Queen – Interesting attempt to make a Gone With The Wind-style epic as a vehicle for Gene Tierney. She plays the title Southern Belle who refuses to give up after the Civil War ends. Caught helping Rebel outlaw Randolph Scott, Union officer Dana Andrews burns her house to the ground. She marries Scott, joins the outlaws and becomes appalled when she learns the bandits are more interested in plunder than restoring the Glory Of Dixie. The plot’s totally ridiculous, and Belle never does anything remotely legendary (as it’s asserted she is in the prologue). The film is interesting though for it’s treatment of race and racism. Either it’s one of the most profoundly racist films I’ve seen since Birth Of A Nation, or it’s a subversive act exposing the racist stereotypes of Hollywood films. All the caricatures are there, there’s even a character called “Mammie”. In one scene after the war ends, there are carpet baggers giving speeches to freed slaves while carrying bags made out of carpet while Belle and her brother look on in horror. During an uncomfortable dinner scene, Belle’s brother (an honorable Southern soldier who accepts the surrender) attempts to break the tension by telling a joke that starts “So there was this old darkie. . .” whereupon he’s interrupted for some plot-related dialogue. The scene concludes with him returning to his joke, saying the line again with the shot fading to black on the slur. Later on, after he’s mistakenly shot by one of Scott’s men, his dying words are the third repetition of this line, cut off by his death. Either the director, Irving Cummings (who I’ve never heard of) is making explicit these characters’ racism, or he’s blatantly indulging in it himself. Besides all of this, the film is terrible. Tierney’s acting is laughably bad and in the final climactic sequence all sense of continuity is thrown out the window as Belle rides in one direction and Scott in the other. In one shot, Belle’s in nighttime, followed by a daytime shot of Scott, the Belle in daytime, Scott in night, Scott in day, Belle in night, etc. I hope it’s intentionally hilarious. The #16 film of 1941.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – My favorite Apatow-related movie, an emotionally honest comedy about a guy trying to get over a breakup while sharing a hotel resort with the woman who dumped him. Jason Segal gives a fine performance as the broken-hearted composer and wanna-be puppeteer, without any of the unrealistic flamboyance of Seth Rogan or Steve Carrell. That kind of restraint is the dominant mode of this film, more reminiscent of Peyton Reed’s melancholy The Break-Up than the zaniness of previous Apatow productions. It’s also the only one of those films that doesn’t feel like it was 15 minutes too long. Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis make fine, adorable leads, Paul Rudd is reasonably funny as a stoned surfing instructor and Jonah Hill is occasionally annoying as a waiter infatuated with Bell’s charmingly vapid rock star boyfriend. The best film I’ve seen from 2008 thus far.

Recount – Dramatization of the events around the 2000 Presidential election in Florida manages to be just as traumatic as it was watching it all unfurl in realtime eight years ago. An all-star cast gives some very fine performances, especially Ed Begley, Jr and Tom Wilkenson, but also Laura Dern, Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary. Directed by Jay Roach, who did the Austin Powers movies and written by Danny Strong, who played Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who both manage to bring a touch of comedy to such a horrific bit of history. I would have liked more emphasis on the awful Supreme Court decision that concluded the election, as the account of David Souter’s reaction to it reported in Jeffrey Toobin’s great book The Nine is very moving. Hell, let’s just have a movie about Souter, he might be the most fascinating person in American politics that no one knows anything about.

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