Movie Roundup: Beat LA Edition

As I start this, Boston’s up two games to one in the NBA Finals. Basketball’s been a lot of fun this year, I’m glad I decided to start watching it again, even if the Sonics are probably going to disappear.

Come Drink With Me – King Hu’s kung fu epic redefined the genre in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was in the casting of a woman (Cheng Pei-pei, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, #1, 2000) in the lead role. Not as expansive or mystical as Hu’s great A Touch Of Zen (#2, 1969), the first half is nonetheless some of the most inspired atmospheric filmmaking in the genre’s history. Things get a bit silly in the second half, and the focus shifts too much away from Cheng (both reportedly the result of interference which led to Hu leaving haw Brothers after this, his only film for them), but the action scenes are always great. The #8 film of 1966.

Heroes Of The East – More on the entertainment-only side of the wuxia world is this Lau Kar-leung film reuniting him with his 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (#2, 1978) star Gordon Liu. Liu marries a Japanese girl, and after the two repeatedly quarrel over who’s martial arts are superior (Japan or China), she runs away and a gang of Japanese experts turn up to show him what’s what. He takes them all on, Shaolin style. Lots of fun with some great fight scenes, the movie isn’t really about anything more than that. The original US title was Shaolin Vs. Ninja, which captures the whole enterprise better, I think. The #9 film of 1979.

Jezebel – Bette Davis’s brilliant performance and William Wyler’s fine direction save what is otherwise a ridiculous film from the realm of only-enjoyable-as-camp. Davis plays an independent-minded Southern Belle who wears a scandalous red dress to a ball despite the protestations of society, her family, and her boyfriend (Henry Fonda). The ball scene has a real masochistic thrill to it as Fonda forces Davis to dance before the outraged crowd after she realizes just how much she’s humiliated herself. After that, the last two-thirds of the movie become a rather tedious account of how Fonda rejects her and she redeems herself by catching yellow fever, or something. It’s all very silly, but that one scene sizzles. The #16 film of 1938.

I Was Born But . . . – Generally regarded as the first great Yasujiro Ozu movie, though I think that distinction should belong to Tokyo Chorus (#4, 1931), it’s also the film he reworked late in his career as Good Morning (#10, 1959). Both films follow a group of suburban children as they become disenchanted with the grownups in their lives and eventually go on a hunger strike. But really, they’re quite different in tone. The latter film is much more comic (Ozu being one of the few Great Auteurs who managed to build a film around fart jokes) and the source of the kid’s disillusionment is both more material (they want to watch a wrestling match on TV) and more abstract (they point out the shallow emptiness of the politeness adults use to mediate their social interactions (the omnipresent “Ohayo” of the title)). In I Was Born But . . . the kids are new in town, and must deal with integrating themselves with the local gang of bullies, eventually becoming the leaders of the gang. Their crisis with with their parents (really their father, the mother is almost absent from the film, whereas she more prominent in the later film) is more concrete: at a gathering with their dad’s co-workers, they see him clowning around on film and realize that the man they had seen as a hero is viewed as a clown by his friends. I Was Born But . . . is therefore more poignant and tragic, while Good Morning is more general and less dramatic. Both films are profound in Ozu’s unique way of transforming specific realities into grand statements about the human condition. The #2 film of 1932.

Passing Fancy – The third, and unfortunately final, film in Criterion’s Silent Ozu Eclipse boxset is apparently one of David Bordwell’s favorite movies, though since I haven’t gotten around to reading his Ozu book (available as a free PDF on his website) I’m not sure why. As I’ve said, with Ozu it’s exceedingly difficult to make distinctions of quality between his works, but as far as I can tell, this was my least favorite of the films. It’s still a great film, of course, following a poor man and his son who eke out life in a tenement. The dad’s got a crush on a much younger woman, the boy isn’t a fan and the two get into a very dramatic fight. These two main characters are terrific, and the film is even closer to Ozu’s mature style than the two before it, but something about it didn’t click with me in the way the other two did. But the ending is wonderful, as joyous as anything I’ve seen in his films. The #6 film of 1933.

Romeo And Juliet – George Cukor’s version of the Shakespeare play, with an absurdly old cast playing the teenaged star-crossed lovers. Trevor Howard plays Romeo, Norma Shearer Juliet, and despite the best efforts of these fine actors, and Cukor’s usual deft camera style, it never, ever works. The #15 film of 1936.

Yang Kwei-fei – Kenji Mizoguchi’s adaptation of the classic Chinese (and Japanese) legend of the Imperial Concubine (Michiko Kyo) who almost lost an empire thanks to who greedy and corrupt family, but instead sacrifices herself for the Emperor (Masayuki Mori) she loves. Mizoguchi gives this, his first color film, a kind of fairy tale staginess, reminiscent of both John Ford’s 7 Women (#4, 1966) and Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon (#9, 2005) that only intensifies the romanticism. The great critic Tony Rayns, in his talk on the film on the Masters Of Cinema DVD seems to hate it, as do, apparently, a lot of other critics, which makes me wonder if I totally wrong, or a sap, or if these guys simply don’t have souls. The #11 film of 1955.

Cheyenne Autumn – John Ford’s farewell to Monument Valley, which gets a little silly as it’s the chronicle of the march the Cheyenne made from their reservation in Oklahoma to their homeland in Montana, all without leaving Arizona. Richard Widmark gives another fine performance as the cavalry officer trailing the nation on the march, and James Stewart is great in a comical interlude as Wyatt Earp. That interlude is one of the wonderful things about the film, so tonally different from the rest of the movie that it caused some degree of critical outrage at the time. Also wonderful is the way the film never really comes to a traditional climax, with possibly the most dramatic part of its conclusion filmed totally in longshot. Unfortunate, though, is that Edward G. Robinson was brought in to replace an ailing Spencer Tracy at the last minute. Not because Robinson’s bad, but because it necessitated filming the conclusion of the Cheyenne’s quest against a comically bad rear-projection, made all the more jarring by the typical beauty of Ford’s location shooing. The #13 film of 1964.

20 Million Miles To Earth – Cheesy B monster movie with great special effects and nothing else to recommend it. An American spaceship crash lands off the coast of Sicily after traveling to Venus. Child unwittingly rescues monster egg from the ship. It grows rapidly and destroys much of Rome. There’s a fantastic fight scene between the monster and an elephant. The #24 film of 1957.

The Mask Of Fu Manchu – Camp classic totally racist adventure film. Boris Karloff is great as the evil titular genius, Myrna Loy is a revelation as his perverse daughter (not as awesome as Gene Tierney in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture(#8, 1941), but a lot of fun nonetheless), but those two seem to be the only ones who know they’re in a terrible movie. Everyone else is really bad. But there’s a convenient laser, which is nice. The #17 film of 1932.

Chikamatsu monogatari – Kenji Mizoguchi’s Tale Of The Crucified Lovers is, like a lot of Mioguchi, terribly depressing. A printer is accused, falsely, of having an affair with his boss’s wife. Since the punishment for adultery is crucifixion, the two run off into the mountains, where they fall in love, with tragic, and predictable, consequences. Mizoguchi’s concern seems to be much more with the society that condones such draconian punishments than with the characters themselves, whose motivations lack any kind of sense for most of the film. This prevents the film, for me, from reaching the transcendent heights of his greatest work. The #12 film of 1954.

Royal Tramp – Totally insane kung fu comedy starring Stephen Chow, from the year in which the top five grossing movies in Hong Kong all starred Stephen Chow. He plays the clownish brother of a brothel owner who gets himself inducted into a secret society and becomes involved in a dizzying array of palace intrigue. A seemingly endless series of puns, double entendres, manic violence and double crossings make the film near-total chaos, but somehow, in the end, everything resolves itself neatly and makes perfect sense. I think. The #28 film of 1992.

The Color Of Pomegranates – Director Sergei Parajanov’s mind-boggling anti-narrative account of the life of medieval Armenian poet Sayat Nova is the most difficult film I’ve had to rank in awhile. How can one possibly compare a film with no dialogue, no camera movement and no plot where only half the images make any kind of logical sense to the other films that make up the best of 1968 list (The Lion In Winter, Once Upon A Time In The West, Night Of The Living Dead, etc)? The closest film in style I’ve seen from that year is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I’ve seen countless times over the past 20 years. But after one viewing of a very subpar Kino DVD of Parajanov’s film, how can I possibly do it justice. It might be one of the greatest films ever made, it might be an incoherent art exercise, I really don’t know. What I do know is that I liked it and I’ll see it again, hopefully in a format that does it justice. For now, I’ll conservatively call it the #7 film of 1968.

The Incredible Hulk – I like Ang Lee’s version a lot, and everything that is great about that film (the visual style, the acting, the devotion to the psychological reality of the comic book characters) is either totally lacking or merely mediocre in this sequel. But there’s more Hulk smash!, which should make the philistines happy. It’s not comically bad like the worst of the Marvel adaptations, but it isn’t the least bit memorable either.

Wings – The film that arguably beat out Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans for the first Best Picture Oscar is a fine WWI movie from director William Wellman. The plot is more or less the same as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (two guys, in love with the same girl, go off to fly planes in war), but even more so than in Bay’s film, the film is hurt by the sheer idiocy of the main character, who prefers the totally bland girl from the city to the totally hot girl next door (Clara Bow). The ground-breaking aerial photography is truly excellent, and a very young Gary Cooper is more cool than ever in a very small role. There’s a none-too-subtle homosexual subtext to the film, the becomes quite obvious by the end of the movie, which is weird, but interesting. The #3 film of 1927.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic – She’s funny. It’s a standard concert film, for the most part, though there are attempts to liven it up with some of the same actors that later costarred on her TV show, and those scenes are funny too, for the most part. The songs, however, are subpar. The #26 film of 2005.

The Happening – The latest victim of critical groupthink, though apparently M. Night Shymalan’s more deserving of it than Wong Kar-wai was. It’s only the second of his films I’ve seen, and it’s not terrible. Very much a 50s B sci-fi film, right down to the stiff acting and overly earnest attitude, and I dug that. I admire the lack of post-modern winkiness and Shyamalan’s longer take style and Zooey Deschanel’s performance has some nice moments, notably two close-ups that bookend the film. It reminded me of Dn Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (#10, 1956), or what the remake of The Birds will be like, you know, the one where the director is going to fix the “flaw” in Hitchcock’s version, which was that he never explains what the birds’ motivation for attacking people is.

Becoming John Ford – The documentary about Ford that accompanies the mammoth (and wonderful) Ford At Fox boxset. It’s got a lot of good content, though focusing mostly on Ford’s relation with Darryl Zanuck and pretty much ignoring any film that doesn’t come in the box. Still, there’s some interesting stuff, despite the artiness of the direction (which you can be sure Ford would have despised). Peter Bogdanovich’s Ford documentary is a lot better, but I’ve yet to see one that fully explores his whole career, which may not be possible. The #31 film of 2007.

The File On Thelma Jordan – Decent film noir with Barbara Stanwyck is terrific as usual as the titular Thelma who may or may not have killed her aunt. Fortunately for her, she’s having an affair with the Asst. District Attorney (Wendell Corey, a capable sap). Robert Siodmak directed, but the film doesn’t have nearly the visual panache of his great The Killers (#7, 1946), with its iconic opening sequence. The #15 film of 1950.

The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father – Light domestic melodrama with Glenn Ford as a widower searching for a new wife that’ll make his son (Ron Howard) happy. Too sweet at times, despite the great Vincente Minnelli directing it feels too much like the sitcom it would ultimately become. Come to think of it, it bears more than a slight resemblance to Ozu’s Passing Fancy. That Ozu was able to make a better film out of it says a lot about him as a director, I think. The #15 film of 1963.

(And as I finish, the Celtics and Lakers are about to tipoff Game 6, which shows either just how slowly I can write or how absurdly long the NBA’s managed to stretch its playoffs.)

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