Movie Roundup: Queen Of The Galaxy Edition

Catching up before tomorrow night’s showing of Barbarella.

Magnificent Obsession – Rock Hudson stars in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama about a rich playboy who not only kills Jane Wyman’s husband (accidentally) but manages to blind her while trying to apologize for it. So he goes to medical school to learn who to cure her blindness, while romancing the poor girl without revealing his identity. There’s some more craziness in the story, but you probably wouldn’t believe it. Of course, since its Sirk, the whole thing manages to be not only beautiful, but absolutely convincing as a story. It ultimately plays as the anti-Fountainhead, with Hudson getting converted to a kind of extreme altruism as the key to spiritual and communal happiness. The #9 film of 1954.

Bombshell – Jean Harlow stars in a screwball comedy about a movie star with a wacky family trying to create a normal life for herself (husband, child, and so on). Never really works, mostly because Harlow, while great as the slutty girl in films like Red-Headed Woman or Red Dust, isn’t a particularly good comedic actress. The film just isn’t that funny. The #15 film of 1933.

Spirited Away – I’ve been very slowly catching up with the films of Hayao Miyazaki, after years and years of people telling me to see them. A few months ago I saw Howl’s Moving Castle and liked it a lot, mostly for its beautiful imagery and clever editing. Spirited Away has more of that, but within a more conventional (or at least, more explicable) fairy tale narrative. The film is more notable for its wildly inventive character designs than anything else: it never really gave me the jolt of awesomeness that some of the cuts in Howl’s did. But it is a more satisfying story than that later film. I’d have a hard time saying which film I liked better. The #6 film of 2001.

Ocean’s Eleven – I’d avoided seeing this for years, mostly because I’d heard they changed the ending. I wish I hadn’t bothered to give it a chance. Not only does the film have none of the wit or coolness of the original (everyone tries way too hard for that), but it fails to fulfill the most basic genre expectations. In a heist film, what we see is a plan being formed, and then carried out, with suspense created as the plan is put into action and circumstances arise which force the characters to deviate from that plan. This film, on the other had, never bothers to explain the plan, draining the actual heist sequences of suspense in favor of shock (allowing the audience to overlook the utter ridiculousness of everything that happens). One might argue that this is Soderbergh “deconstructing” the heist genre. I’d argue that he’s a hack. The #28 film of 2001.

Coraline – Went out to the big airplane hanger of a movie theatre at the Supermall to see this in 3D, but I can’t say it was really worth it. The movie itself is pretty good, a goofy-dark Neil Gaiman twist on Pan’s Labyrinth (and much better than that film, by the way) that inexplicably abandons character for action in the final 20 minutes. The new 3D effects are pretty cool, creating actual depth in the image as opposed to just throwing stuff at the audience to elicit gasps. But the glasses gave me a headache: I don’t think they really work for people who already wear glasses.

Cartesius – Another of Roberto Rossellini’s made for TV films about historical figures, this one about René Descartes, the “I think, therefore I am” guy. Not nearly as engaging as his Medici or Louis XIV films, partly because Descartes literally does nothing for the entire three hours of the film. It’s a major problem with a biopic about a man who saved up his ideas for decades until he was absolutely sure he had them right before telling anyone what they were. The film then becomes a chronicle of Descartes life as he wanders from town to town throughout France and The Netherlands, getting into the occasional impudent philosophical argument and ever so slowly fleshing out his philosophy. The arguments are always fun, but you never get the feeling that they are developing, but rather Descartes seems to have the same ideas at the beginning of the film that he does at the end: it just takes him 40 years (or however long the film covers) to find the words to explain it all. The #12 film of 1974.

A Chinese Odyssey – The first part of Stephen Chow’s epic about the Monkey King. He plays the leader of a run down gang that gets caught up with a couple of immortals searching for Pandora’s Box, a MacGuffin. There’s lots of lowbrow comedy, some crazy action and complicated romances. It’s fun enough, but I still need to see the second half. The #38 film of 1994.

Wagon Master – One of John Ford’s most underrated films, it tends to fall under the radar not having any major stars like John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Instead, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr play cowboys who sign on to lead a Mormon wagon train to their promised land. Along the way they encounter a troupe of drunken actors and a gang of evil gun men. It’s as pure a distillation as you’ll see of Ford’s ideas about family and community. It also might be his most musical film, with the Sons Of The Pioneers punctuating every transition in the story. The #8 film of 1950.

The Glass Key – I’ve got some kind of mental block when it comes to Dashiell Hammett, I think. I’ve read this book at least once, just a year or two ago, yet I honestly couldn’t tell you how much was changed in this film adaptation. I think the time system is all mixed up, with the main character in the book uncovering past events that happen present tense in the film, and I’m not sure that the protagonist is the same (though I may be confusing it with Red Harvest, which I’ve read at least twice and can’t remember). Anyway, this is the book, and even more so the film, that the Coen brothers based Miller’s Crossing on. Alan Ladd plays Ned Beaumont, the chief advisor to the town’s head gangster that gets in a fight with his boss over a woman (Veronica Lake), gets beat up a lot, briefly goes over to the rival gang leader’s side and eventually outsmarts everyone. Notable is William Bendix as the rival gang leader’s tough guy. He seems to enjoy beating up Ladd out of some implied attraction to Ladd’s prettiness, something the Coen Brothers utilize much more explicitly in their film. The #11 film of 1942.

The Blue Dahlia – Another Ladd/Lake noir, this time with a screenplay by Raymond Chandler (though how much he actually wrote is debatable.) Ladd plays a vet who returns home from the war with his three buddies, only to argue with his wife and run out on her. When she turns up dead, he’s the prime suspect. Fortunately, veronica Lake’s there to help him out. Ladd’s army buddies are played by Hugh Beaumont (before he met June, I guess) and William Bendix, who goes a bit over the top on the crazy this time, but still has that great mix of sweetness and menace (despite looking exactly like Jon Faverau). The #12 film of 1946.

Ramrod – This was the third Veronica Lake film I watched in a attempt to stave off a cold last week, and it almost worked. Lake plays a ranch owner determined to stand up to the big evil ranch machine that chased off her fiance, a task for which she recruits her Sullivan’s Travels costar Joel McCrea to help. Director Andre De Toth gives real grit to this fairly grim story, reminding me a lot of Samuel Fuller (the film has a lot in common with Fuller’s Forty Guns, and Lake reminds me a lot of Barbara Stanwyck in that film, though she doesn’t have the range to really pull off this kind of character). De Toth’s one of those auteurs you never really hear about, and I this is the first of his films I’ve managed to see, but I’ll certainly see more. The #9 film of 1947.

Schizopolis – Hated it. The #70 film of 1996.

Age Of Consent – It’s half an old man’s version of paradise: tropical island populated by you and a nubile young girl who really really likes you; and half a touching vision of how art and beauty make life worth living. James Mason plays the old man, a successful artist who’s run out of ideas and can’t stand city life. He runs off to an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to reconnect with nature and meets the young and hot Helen Mirren (her first movie role), who lives with her drunken grandmother gathering seafood and selling it in the town on the mainland. Mason gets Mirren to pose for him: she’s inspirational, especially so when she takes her clothes off. It was essentially director Michael Powell’s last feature film, coming almost ten years after Peeping Tom ruined his career. Both of these films are terrific, but they nonetheless show how necessary both parts of the Powell & Pressburger team were to their string of masterpieces: Powell’s solo films generally have pretty bad scripts, and their stories never reach the kind of magically hypnotic level of even the least of the Pressburger films (like The Small Back Room or The 49th Parallel). One hopes that Emeric would have seen and eliminated the annoyance that is the entire character of Mason’s buddy Nat Kelly (played, again annoyingly, by Jack MacGowran). It’s like an episode of Perfect Strangers shoehorned into the middle of The Red Shoes. The #4 film of 1969.

Woman On The Beach – The first film I’ve seen from celebrated Korean director Hong Sang-soo, it’s in keeping with the dominant minimalist style of contemporary Asian art films, though it’s a more playful film than, say, Hou hsiao-hsien’s films, and not as rigorously restrained as Tsai Ming-liang’s. Kim Seung-woo plays a film director who needs to get out of town for a few days to work on his new script, so he brings his producer (and the producer’s girlfriend) to the beach (which is largely abandoned: it’s the slow season). Kim then, of course, steals the girlfriend from the producer. But when she goes back to town, he hooks up with another vacationer, only to have the first girl return the next day. The lies pile up and get resolved some way or another. Honestly, I can’t remember how the film ended (it’s been a week since I saw it), but I do know I liked it. What struck me more than anything else was the sense of the beach they go to. It reminds me so much of the beaches we vacation at around here: overcast and relatively empty. Last year’s Thai film Wonderful Town similarly charmed me with its sense of place, but Hong manages to avoid the lame and depressing ending that film had (at least, Im sure I would have remembered if it had such a bad ending). The #13 film of 2006.

3 Bad Men – A remarkable John Ford silent film, at least, remarkable for me as I’ve only seen one of his other silents (The Iron Horse). What surprised me so much is just how, well, Fordian it all is, from the visual style, to the narrative about morally questionable guys helping the forces of civilization build a functional society in the wilderness, to the little details of characterization that make even the smallest part seem like recognizable people (or at least movie people). The plot is, more or less, A Night At The Opera, with the titular three men helping a nice young woman stake her claim in the Dakota land rush (there’s a nice prologue with newspaper headlines: “Gold Found On Indian Land” “Indians Move To New Reservation”, the kind of point-making that Ford was too subtle to get credit for) and get married to nice young man George O’Brien. There’s some comic relief involving drunkenness and some great action scenes (horses racing over the camera dug into the ground, another Ford trademark, a harrowing attack on a church). Really a tremendously enjoyable movie. The #1 film of 1926.

City Girl – FW Murnau’s followup to Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans isn’t nearly as successful as that film (a high standard to be sure), but its nonetheless very good. A young farm boy heads to Chicago to sell some wheat (the importance of which is a recurring trope in the film’s first third, where bread references abound, the film was also known as Our Daily Bread). While there, he meets a cute waitress and marries her. When he gets back to the farm, his father is hopping mad (only a low class gold-digging girl would get married that fast), slaps the girl around and prevents the two from sleeping together. It’s chattier than any other Murnau I’ve seen (and not just the ones that eliminate intertitles altogether like The Last Laugh and Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas), which makes it seem a bit less poetic than it really is. The farm scenes in particular (the poor city is reduced to only a few locations (that look like sets actually) and seems much smaller than the town in Sunrise are really stunning: much of the film feels like Days Of Heaven was the film Murnau actually wanted to make (same location: wheat field in the upper midwest, attacked by a natural disaster, though Murnau doesn’t appear to have the budget for his hailstorm whereas Malick could afford locusts). I’d never though of Murnau and Malick together before, but they fit remarkably well, even beyond the simple fact that Murnau influenced everyone. The #4 film of 1930.

Bell, Book And Candle – There’s just a whole 10-15 years of comedy (from the mid fifties to the late sixties) guess I just don’t understand. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, immediately before making Vertigo, star in this comedy about a witch who falls in love with a human (Novak’s the witch, Stewart’s the human). All that’s fine enough, I love the same premise with Veronica Lake and Frederic March in I Married A Witch, but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem funny here. Even Jack Lemmon is a bit dull in a supporting role. Fortunately, the direction by Richard Quine is pretty cool, with some off-kilter high angle shots, a nifty spell casting sequence with Novak and her cat and an establishing shot through a crystal ball. The #21 film of 1958.

The Unsuspected – I had this on while writing this, so I wasn’t really paying much attention. But then, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to pay attention to. Claude Rains plays a radio-theatre host who’s killed a few people, but no one seems to notice. Rains didn’t really seem to be putting much effort into it. Does anyone think I should give this Michael Curtiz film a shot and watch it again?

3 thoughts on “Movie Roundup: Queen Of The Galaxy Edition

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