Movie Roundup: Another Olympiad Edition

Anyone else notice that NBC has taken to covering the Olympics this year as a US-China showdown in the grand Cold War tradition that ended when the USSR collapsed? Except none of the fans or the competitors feel any kind of animosity towards the other country. Kind of like when Major League Baseball tries to create a rivalry between the Mariners and Padres with interleague play every year.

Shanghai Express – Quite possibly my favorite Marlene Dietrich-Jospeh von Sternberg film thus far, though that’s a really tough call (Morocco‘s the main competition right now). An ethnically diverse cast of characters gets waylaid by Chinese rebels on the titular train, an make various sacrifices to free themselves and others. Dietrich alternates between breathtakingly adorable and heartbreakingly stoic, Clive Brook is convincingly stiff as her ex-boyfriend and there’s fine supporting work from Anna May Wong and Eugene Pallette. The film is an interesting amalgam of Stagecoach and 7 Women, made more interesting by the fact that neither of those films were made yet. The #2 film of 1932.

Don’t Look Now – Director Nicholas Roeg’s thriller about a couple haunted by the accidental death of their daughter. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are in Venice, as Sutherland is working to restore a church. Christie meets some nice British ladies who claim to be in psychic communication with her daughter. Meanwhile, Sutherland repeatedly sees a child in his daughter’s jacket running along the canals. The opening sequence is breathtakingly edited, combining past present and future into a coherent narrative that doesn’t follow any kind of logical order. Beautiful to look at, the crumbling swamp city is as alive a character in the film as either of the phenomenal lead actors. I’ve never seen better work from Sutherland or Christie, not even counting their justly famous sex scene. The #3 film of 1973.

I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With – A minor, mildly entertaining film by Jeff Garlin, who, in interviews at least, seems like a genuinely nice guy. He plays a schlub actor who loses his job and juggles a pair of women, Sarah Silverman and Bonnie Hunt while living with his mom. It’s never really as serenely moving as it seems to want to be, and Garlin really isn’t a believable enough actor to pull the character off. he always sounds like he’s reading a cue card. The #37 film of 2006.

Black Magic – Rather silly story of Cagliostro, a hypnotist who causes havoc in pre-revolution France. It’s mostly an excuse for Orson Welles to chew scenery and play around with magic. IMDB claims Welles did some uncredited directing on it, but I don;t think I’ve ever heard that and nothing looked particularly Wellesian to me. The #22 film of 1949.

China Seas – Kind of a rehash of Red Dust, with Clark Gable reteaming with Jean Harlow. Despite the screenplay by Jules Furthman and direction by Tay Garnett, a filmmaker of some repute who I’ve little experience with), the film does have early the spark, or sexiness, of that previous film. Instead it’s a pretty pedestrian light drama. The #12 film of 1935.

Rififi – The first half is terrific, a top-notch noir culminating in an extended, dialogue-free heist sequence that’s justly regarded as one of the greatest ever filmed. Then the whole thing falls apart as the protagonists all behave stupidly out-of-character for the sake of plot expedience. I really hate when that happens. Totally ruins a movie for me. But still, that first half is something. The #15 film of 1955.

The Dark Knight – It’s alright. I’m pretty sure it’s thematically incoherent, if not an exercise in justifying the worst excesses of the Bush Administration’s various wars. Christian Bale is pretty much a non-entity, and Maggie Gyllenhaal improves on Katie Holmes if only because she doesn’t actively destroy the film, but doesn’t really add anything with her underwritten character. Heath Ledger , I think, deserves all the praise he’s been getting though. The film is structured very well, the relentless movement from one action sequence to another only becoming tiresome at the end of the film’s two and a half hours, where, again, we have a superhero film climax with a fight at night. I’m really getting sick of that.

Night Passage – Was supposed to be another Anthony Mann – James Stewart Western, but according to IMDB, Mann quit the project because he didn’t like Audie Murphy, Stewart’s costar. I’m pretty sure I don’t believe that. Anyway, it has a lot of similarities with the other Mann-Stewart films, with Stewart playing an experienced gunfighter who may be out for revenge, or may just want to be left alone but is forced into solving a town’s problems. He’s great, like he always is, and Murphy is particularly bad either. Some nice train sequences, but nothing too spectacular. The #19 film of 1957.

Bedlam – Another film from the Val Lewton boxset stars Boris Karloff as the sadistic ruler of the titular mental hospital who struggles against the reform efforts of a hot socialite played by Anna Lee (who later costarred in a number of John Ford films). There’s a few scenes of genuine creepiness, and all of the actors are quite good. But it’s not nearly in the class of atmospheric Lewton masterpieces like Cat People or I Walked With A Zombie. The #13 film of 1946.

Bird Of Paradise – Appears to be a cheap Hollywood knockoff of FW Murnau’s Tabu, with Dolores Del Rio as the island seductress luring poor white guy Joel McRea to his romantic doom. Inferior in just about every way to the film that “inspired it”, but then Tabu is one truly amazing film. The actors are alright, and King Vidor does a solid job directing, but I really can’t get past the unoriginality of the whole enterprise. The #13 film of 1932.

Man-Proof – Pretty dull romantic comedy that stars the nonetheless wonderful Myrna Loy as a woman who thinks she knows which of Franchot Tone and Walter Pidgeon she loves, but is of course quite obviously wrong. Rosalind Russell plays her rival for Pidgeon with none of the force-of-nature energy she brought to His Girl Friday a year later, and Tone and Pidgeon are almost completely unmemorable. Loy sure is pretty though. The #11 film of 1938.

Jason And The Argonauts – Tremendously entertaining action movie with special effects by the great Ray Harryhausen. Based on the Greek myth of the quest for the Golden Fleece, it’s fast-paced, not particularly campy and the acting really isn’t as terrible as you’d expect. The special effects are the real draw, however, with Harryhausen bringing a hydra, a colossus and an army of skeletons to stop-motion life. The #13 film of 1963.

A Letter To Three Wives – I cant imagine anyone liking this admittedly great movie more than director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s next film, All About Eve, but it’s a big world and people think all kinds of crazy things. Maybe the effect of the film is a bit ruined for me, seeing it for the first time after having experienced a season and a half of Desperate Housewives, the TV show that quite obviously modeled itself after this film (a never-seen narrator describing the lives of her suburban housewife “friends”). The film is split into three sections, as the titular wives have flashbacks wondering which one of their husbands ran off with their unseen pal, who’s written them the letter in the title. We see the poor country girl thrown into the upper middle class (Jeanne Crain), the driven career woman (Ann Southern) fighting with her idealistic teacher husband, and the snarky trophy wife (Linda Darnell) catching herself a rich husband she likes more than she’d admit. the acting is uniformly terrific, with Kirk Douglas in particular standing out as the second husband. The suspense plot is a bit trite, but there’s a surprising depth and humanity Mankiewicz brings to what should be schematic characterizations. He comes perilously close to a comprehensive portrait of post-war suburban life. But Eve has so much more pizzaz. The #10 film of 1949.

Wheel Of Time – I was a little disappointed in this Werner Herzog documentary about Tibetan Buddhism, although not nearly as disappointed as the poor guys who crawled hundreds (thousands) of miles to see the Dalai Lama perform some ceremonies only to have him call in sick at the last minute. The contrasts between the two ceremonies, one held in the Buddhist heartland, the other in suburban Germany, had a lot of potential, but Herzog doesn’t really explore it in any kind of depth. He seems much less curious about the subject than he did with Grizzly Man, which is, as yet, the only other documentary of his I’ve seen. The #18 film of 2003.

In the Mood For Doyle – Mediocre documentary about the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle. We get a bit of how crazy and drunk he is, and some fun bits with him walking around places he shot in various films. But there’s nothing really insightful about Doyle’s life or his visual style. the #43 film of 2007.

Incident At Loch Ness – This mock-documentary about Werner Herzog making a film of the Loch Ness Monster gets off to a good start, with Herzog (and his wife) talking about his ideas for the film and holding parties to drum up interest and financing. But as the filming starts the movie devolves into generic silliness as “producer” Zack Penn (who directed the film) constantly interferes with and undermines Herzog’s work. It’s entertaining enough, but not nearly as interesting as even the most minor Herzog film. The #25 film of 2004.

Mysterious Island – Another Harryhausen film, this one based on a Jules Verne story that appears to be a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and was directed by Cy Endfield (the blacklisted director of Zulu) with a score by Bernard Herrmann. Confederate and Union soldiers wash up on the titular landmass, and get attacked by giant animals (a crab, a chicken, a bee). They find weird genius Captain Nemo, who helps them escape before the island blows up, or sinks, I forget which. Fortunately for the soldiers, a hot girl and her aunt wash up on the island as well, and sew some fantastic dresses for themselves. My question: if you’ve already been attacked by a giant crab and a giant chicken, would you follow the giant trickle of honey back to the hive, even if the hot redhead in the skimpy leather outfit asked you to? I’m terrified of bees, but I’d probably consider it. The #19 film of 1961.

The Iron Horse – Director John Ford’s breakthrough hit, this silent epic about the building of the transcontinental railroad has a surprisingly predictable revenge/love triangle plot grafted onto it. George O’Brien (Sunrise: A Song Of two Humans) plays the son of a surveyor (and Friend Of Lincoln) who dreams of the railroad and goes off to survey for it where he’s murdered by an evil white guy leading a band of Indians. When the building gets underway years later, the son becomes a scout for the railroad, the boss of which just happens to be his old neighbor and the father of his childhood sweetheart, who, of course, is now engaged to a creep who happens to be employed by O’Brien’s father’s murderer, who is now a wealthy landowner trying to become even wealthier by routing the railroad through his land. Make sense? Eh, it really doesn’t matter. The movie is a must see for the iconic imagery, for early examples of Ford’s style, both dramatically (community building, action and high drama mixed with strangely sophisticated lowbrow comedy) and pictorially. Interesting is the positioning of the villain in-between the whites and the Indians. Is he evil because he’s a white man corrupted by Indians? Or is he more viciously evil than the Indians (not to mention more ruthlessly capitalistic) because he’s white? The #4 film of 1924.

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor – Truly, truly terrible. Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh are entirely wasted in parts that are too small, too generic, and too lacking in martial arts. Maria Bello is unrecognizably bad, especially after she was so good in A History Of Violence a couple of years ago. John Hannah might actually be worse. Brendan Fraser is amiable, but completely unbelievable as a father. It just sucks.

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