Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Monday, December 26, 2016
In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong is dealing with characters on the brink of an uncertain future, but with a much lighter touch than the later film. The performances are uniformly fine. Faye Wong, a Hong Kong pop star, brings the quirky character of the young Shirley MacLaine to her role, but with a much greater fragility. Like MacLaine, she has been unfairly labeled with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. The extraordinary cinematography is by Christopher Doyle and Wai-Keung Lau.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Friday, December 23, 2016
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
*MGM did the same thing to Thorold Dickinson's 1940 film of Gaslight when it made its own version, directed by George Cukor, in 1944, but didn't succeed in either case.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Nine Old Men at Disney -- which was also the last film Walt Disney supervised before his death. That version isn't generally regarded as in the first rank of Disney films anyway; it's mostly remembered for the peppy vocal performances of the songs "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" by Phil Harris and Louis Prima respectively. The new version dazzles with its creation of a credible CGI jungle filled with realistic CGI animals, and with some fine voiceover work by Bill Murray as the bear Baloo, Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera, Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa, and especially Idris Elba as the villain, the tiger Shere Khan. It's remarkable to me that Elba, one of the handsomest and most charismatic of actors, has lately done work in which he's heard but not seen: He's also unseen in Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016). But then the same thing is true of the beautiful Lupita Nyong'o, whose voice is heard in The Jungle Book as the mother wolf Raksha, just as it was heard as the gnomelike Maz Kanata in Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015). Neel Sethi, this version's Mowgli, is the only live-action actor we see, and he displays a remarkable talent in a performance that took place mostly before a green screen -- puppets stood in for the animals before CGI replaced them. The screenplay by Justin Marks is darker than the 1967 film, and it successfully generates plausible actions for its realistic animal characters. But I think it was a mistake to carry over the songs from the original film, partly because Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (as King Louie, the Gigantopithecus ruler of the apes) are not the equal of Harris and Prima as singers, but also because the animals for which they provide voices are made to move rhythmically -- as a substitute for dancing -- in ways that don't quite suit realistic animals. Director Jon Favreau has also slipped in an allusion to Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) in his introduction of King Louie, lurking in the shadows of a ruined jungle temple like Marlon Brando's Kurtz.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Friday, December 16, 2016
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
|Striking miners in Salt of the Earth|
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino's film that took down a venerable production force, United Artists, along with its director. Coppola's career, unlike Cimino's, would recover, but he would never again be the director he was in his prime, with the first two Godfather films. And American filmmaking would never again be as prone to take risks as it was in the 1970s. As for the film itself, Apocalypse Now remains one of the essential American movies if only because it epitomizes the nightmare that was the Vietnam War. Coppola deserves much of the credit for this embodiment of Lord Acton's familiar dictum: "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." But there are others who should share the credit with him, including screenwriters John Milius and Michael Herr, who made the connection between Joseph Conrad's tale of imperialism gone wrong, Heart of Darkness, and the war. The ambience of the film is largely the work of Vittorio Storaro, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his cinematography, and Walter Murch and his team , who also won for sound. And while Marlon Brando's Kurtz is a disappointment and Martin Sheen never quite meets the demands of his role as Capt. Willard, they are surrounded by marvelous support from Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Dennis Hopper, and a very young and almost unrecognizable Laurence Fishburne (billed as Larry), among others.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
|Margarete Schön as Kriemhild|
|Hanna Ralph as Brunnhild|
|Paul Richter as Siegfried|
|Hans Adalbert Schlettow as Hagen|
Friday, December 9, 2016
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Although it's often called the greatest of all screwball comedies, to my mind Bringing Up Baby transcends that label: It's the finest example I know of a nonsense comedy. Screwball comedies like My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936) and Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, 1937) usually have one foot in the real world -- the Depression and its Hoovervilles in the case of the former, exploitation journalism in the latter. Bringing Up Baby exists only in a universe where an impossible thing like an "intercostal clavicle"* could exist. Its world is a place where nobody listens to anyone else and everyone seems to be marching to their own drummer. It's what puts Bringing Up Baby in the sublime company of Lewis Carroll's works or James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Fortunately it's more accessible than the latter and at least as much fun as the former. Nonsense is harder to bring off on film than in literature. Cinema by nature is a documentary medium -- one that's assumed to be recording reality -- and has less flexibility than words do. It's also a collaborative medium, which means that everyone involved in writing, directing, and acting in it has to be on the same wave length, or the whole thing will collapse like a soufflé with too many cooks. That's why Bringing Up Baby is almost sui generis: The only other movies that approach the sublimity of its nonsense are some of the ones with the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields. Even Howard Hawks once admitted that he thought he had gone too far in crafting a comedy with "no normal people in it." Nevertheless, the soufflé continues to rise, thanks in very large part to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, whose four movies together -- the other three were directed by George Cukor: Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940) -- seem to me to demonstrate a more potent teaming than the more iconic one of Hepburn with Spencer Tracy. And then there's the sine qua non of the screwball comedy, a supporting cast of character players like Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, and Fritz Feld. The screenplay was put together by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, from a magazine story by Wilde that Hawks bought and then with their help -- and doubtless much ad-libbing from the cast -- revised out of all recognition. I only hope that whoever came up with the phrase "intercostal clavicle," which Grant delivers with such delight in its rhythms, received a bonus.
*In case you've never thought to look it up, "intercostal" means "between the ribs" and usually refers to the muscles and spaces in the ribcage. The clavicle, or collarbone, sits atop the ribs and therefore can't be between them.
Saturday, December 3, 2016
Raising Arizona (1987), and Miller's Crossing (1990) -- shows a certain amount of courage. It's a curious melange of satire, horror movie, comedy, thriller, fantasy, and fable that had many critics singing its praises. It was their first film to receive notice from the Motion Picture Academy, earning three Oscar nominations: supporting actor Michael Lerner, art directors Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Richard Hornung. And it was the unanimous choice for the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival; Joel Coen also won as best director and John Turturro as best actor. Evidently it took everyone by surprise. But I have to admit that although it's a provocative and unsettling movie, I don't much care for it. There's not enough of any one element in the melange to suggest to me that it's anything other than the work of a couple of extraordinarily talented writer-directors riffing on whatever comes to their minds. Barton (Turturro) is a playwright whose hit on Broadway in 1941 gets him a bid to come work in Hollywood. There, studio head Jack Lipnick (Lerner) assigns him to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Stymied in his attempt to come up with a screenplay, Barton decides to pick the brain of a famous novelist who has also come to work in Hollywood, W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney). The playwright, the studio head, and the novelist are all caricatures of Clifford Odets, Louis B. Mayer, and William Faulkner, respectively. To my mind, this real-world reference point throws the film off center. Each caricature is well-done: What we see of Barton's play is a deft parody of the Odets-style leftist "little people" dramas like Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! that Odets was known for. Lipnick is a rich, sentimental vulgarian with a mean streak, who like Mayer was born in Minsk. And Mayhew not only goes by the name "Bill," as Faulkner did among his friends and family, he also has a wife back home named Estelle, just as Faulkner did. Moreover, he is an alcoholic who is looked after in Hollywood by his mistress, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), who is clearly based on Faulkner's Hollywood mistress, Meta Carpenter. But then we have the turns into horror-fantasy when Barton tries to hole up in a Los Angeles hotel and makes friends with his next-door neighbor, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Good-time Charlie is later revealed to be a serial killer named Karl Mundt -- another of the Coens' in-jokes, I think: The real-life Karl Mundt was a right-wing dunce who represented South Dakota (neighbor state to the Coens' Minnesota) in Washington from 1939 to 1973. Clearly, Barton Fink is not without a certain baroque fascination to it. It's the kind of film you can spend hours analyzing and annotating. And this makes it, for me, little more than a fabulous mess.
Friday, December 2, 2016
This is what I watched on election night once it became apparent that the votes might take the depressing direction they eventually did. Better a lovable con man like W.C. Fields than a real-life flamboyant fraud, thought I. Fields is Egbert Sousé (the accent is aigu, not grave, as he insists), ne'er-do-well paterfamilias of a dysfunctional household, who escapes from his nagging wife (Cora Witherspoon) and mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph) and his horrid daughters Myrtle (Una Merkel) and Elsie Mae (Evelyn Del Rio) to the corner saloon as well as a brief stint as a movie director that somehow leads to his employment as a detective in the local bank. (Honestly, never try to summarize the plot of one of Fields's movies.) It's all inspired, slightly surreal nonsense, adorned by characters with names like Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn), and A. Pismo Clam (Jack Norton). All I can say is that it made me laugh when I felt like crying.
A rather muddled and unsatisfactory account of the domestic life of James Joyce (Ewan McGregor) and Nora Barnacle (Susan Lynch), adapted by Murphy and Gerard Stembridge from Brenda Maddox's excellent biography, Nora. There's not enough narrative drive in this account of their lives up to the publication of Dubliners. Mostly the film deals with the squabblings of the pair, who while mismatched intellectually seemed to have a kind of irresistible attraction to each other. The movie seems aimed at viewers with a ready knowledge of Joyce's life and work, especially the cultural and familial pressures that drove him into a life of exile from Ireland, but anyone who already possesses that knowledge is likely to be left frustrated by what appears on screen. Lynch is excellent in the title role, but McGregor never penetrates to the essence of the brilliant, self-tormenting genius of Joyce.
Like his Harakiri (1962), Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion has a theatrical, almost Shakespearean quality and is sharply critical of the samurai code of honor. Toshiro Mifune plays Isaburo, a samurai whose son Yogoro (Go Kato) is ordered to marry the concubine Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) of the daimyo of the clan he serves. Yogoro is reluctant, partly because Ichi has a son by the daimyo, but eventually they fall in love. Unfortunately, the daimyo's older son dies, making Ichi's child the heir, and she is ordered to return to his household. The ensuing rebellion against the daimyo's order proves calamitous for all concerned. The beautifully committed performances by all concerned heighten the story's tragic drive. The film's English title was apparently designed to convince Western audiences that they were going to see a conventional samurai film, whereas it's really a story about the heroism of Ichi, giving a distinctly feminist spin to the genre.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Monday, November 28, 2016
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013), and his work on the first season of the series True Detective (2014) amply demonstrates. But he is, I think, a character lead, terrific in roles full of wit and sass and energy, whereas what's called for in films like The Sea of Trees is a conventional romantic leading man. As hard as he works to make it plausible, his character in this film never rings true. But then not much else in the film does, either.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
The General (Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926) or Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner and Keaton, 1928), but then what is? Keaton plays a sidewalk photographer who is smitten with Sally (Marceline Day), a receptionist in the studios of MGM's newsreel department. To try to win her, he buys an antique movie camera and sets out to get a job with the studio. Of course he screws up his first attempt and is shown the door, but several adventures later he succeeds in getting not only the job but also the girl. Keaton would come to regret signing with MGM, a studio strongly producer-driven, and he fought with producer Lawrence Weingarten over the concept and script for The Cameraman, eventually getting his own way after persuading the studio's creative director, Irving G. Thalberg, to back him. But the relationship with the studio was fated to end, especially when sound arrived and Keaton came to be seen as a relic of a fading era. There are some masterly moments in The Cameraman, such as the scene in which he and a much larger man (Edward Brophy) struggle to change into their swimsuits in a too-small changing cubicle, (The scene, incidentally, gives us a glimpse of a shirtless Keaton, revealing a strikingly toned athletic body, the product of years of doing his own stunts.) There are perhaps too many scenes that Keaton is forced to share with a very cute trained monkey, distracting us from his own work, but this is probably the last of the great Keaton films.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Friday, November 25, 2016
Thursday, November 24, 2016
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Sturges, 1944.) Like so much else in movie history, including the Western, it was killed off by television, by half-hour sitcoms like I Love Lucy that slurped up its essence and made the 90-minute theatrical versions seem like overkill. We can still glimpse some of the heart of the screwball comedy in films like David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) or Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but Peter Bodganovich's What's Up, Doc? is probably the last pure example of the genre as it was in its heyday. Like the masters of the genre -- Hawks and Sturges are the masters, but Gregory La Cava, George Stevens, Mitchell Leisen, and Frank Capra made worthy contributions -- Bogdanovich followed a few rules: One, get stars who usually played it straight to make fools of themselves. Two, make use of as many comic character actors as you can stuff into the film. Three, never pretend that the world the film is taking place in is the "real world." Four, never, ever let the pace slacken -- if your characters have to kiss or confess, make it snappy. On the first point, Bogdanovich found the closest equivalents to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (or Clark Gable, Joel McCrea, James Stewart on the one hand, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur on the other) that he could among the stars of his day. Ryan O'Neal was coming off the huge success of the weepy Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970) and a five-year run on TV's Peyton Place and Barbra Streisand had won an Oscar for Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968). Granted, O'Neal is no Cary Grant: His timing is a little off and he overdoes a single exasperated look, but he makes a suitable patsy. But has Streisand ever been more likable in the movies? She plays the dizzy troublemaker with relish, capturing the essence of Bugs Bunny -- the other inspiration for the movie -- to the point that you almost expect her to turn to the camera and say, "Ain't I a stinker?" As to the second point, we no longer have character actors of the caliber of Eugene Pallette, Franklin Pangborn, or William Demarest, but Bogdanovich recruited some of the best of his day: Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, and others, and introduced moviegoers to the sublime Madeline Kahn. And he set it all in the ever-picturesque San Francisco, while making sure no one would ever confuse the movie version with the real thing, including a chase sequence up and down its hills that follows no possible real-world path. And he kept the pace up with gags involving bit players: the pizza maker so distracted by Streisand that he spins his dough up to the ceiling, the banner-hanger and the guys moving a sheet of glass, the waiter who enters a room with a tray of drinks but takes one look at the chaos there and turns right around, the guy laying a cement sidewalk that's run over so many times by the car chase that he flings down his trowel and jumps up and down on his mutilated handiwork. This is masterly comic direction of a sort we don't often see -- and, sadly, never saw again from Bogdanovich, whose career collapsed disastrously with a string of flops in the mid-1970s. Here, he was working with a terrific team of writers, Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, who turned his story into comedy gold.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
|Renée Jeanne Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc|
*So far, Filmstruck hasn't moved much beyond streaming on the computer, though it's supposed to be included on Roku early next year. In my household, with two others competing for bandwidth, this meant that I had frequent interruptions as the film refreshed itself. Oddly enough, I didn't mind as much as I usually would, because Dreyer's images are so compelling that I was content to pause and study them.
Monday, November 21, 2016
|Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon in Wizard of Oz|
Sunday, November 20, 2016
|Daniel Auteuil and Isabelle Adjani in Queen Margot|
Saturday, November 19, 2016
The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, the director thought Jamaica Inn "completely absurd" and didn't even bother to make his familiar cameo appearance in it. Hitchcock was right: It's a ridiculously plotted and often amateurishly staged film -- although Hitchcock must take some of the blame for the scenes in which characters sneak around talking in stage whispers and pretending they're hidden from their pursuers when they're in plain sight for anyone with average peripheral vision. Much of Hitchcock's attitude toward the film has been ascribed to his clashes with Charles Laughton, who was an uncredited co-producer and resisted any attempts by the director to rein in one of his more ridiculous performances. As Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the county squire and justice of the peace who is secretly raking in a fortune by collaborating with smugglers who loot shipwrecked vessels after murdering their crew, Laughton wears a fake nose and oddly placed eyebrows and hams it up mercilessly. Maureen O'Hara, in her first major film role, struggles with a confusingly written character who sometimes displays fire and initiative and at other times seems alarmingly obtuse. The rest of the cast includes such stalwarts of the British film and stage as Leslie Banks, Emlyn Williams, and Basil Radford, with a surprising performance by Robert Newton as the movie's romantic lead, Jem Traherne, an agent working undercover to expose the smugglers. You look in vain at the young Newton for traces of his terrifying Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948) or his Long John Silver in Treasure Island (Byron Haskin, 1950). The production design is handsome, and the film begins with an exciting storm at sea, but the screenplay, based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel and written by the usually capable Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, quickly falls apart. Hitchcock's last film in England, Jamaica Inn was a critical flop but a commercial success.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Andrei Rublev (1966), and Solaris (1972) -- but I will have to see it again to decide if I want to join the consensus on its greatness: It took 19th place in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics poll of the greatest films of all time, and an astonishing 9th place in the directors' poll. I concede that it is "poetic," including the fact that Arseniy Tarkovsky, the director's father, reads his own poems in the film, and there are scenes of extraordinary beauty, the work of cinematographer Georgi Rerberg. But is that all we should ask of a film?
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Birdman (2014), Babel (2006), and 21 Grams (2003), that in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's films there seems to be less than meets the eye, but what meets the eye, especially when Emmanuel Lubezki is the cinematographer, as he is in The Revenant, is spectacular. The Revenant had a notoriously difficult shoot, owing to the fact that it takes place almost entirely outdoors during harsh weather, and it went wildly over-budget. Leonardo DiCaprio underwent significant hardships in his performance as Hugh Glass, the historical fur trader who became a legend for his story of surviving alone in the wilderness after being mauled by a grizzly bear. In the end, it was a major hit, more than making back its costs and getting strong critical support and 12 Oscar nominations, of which it won three -- for DiCaprio, Lubezki, and Iñárritu. I won't deny that it's an impressive accomplishment, and probably the best of the four Iñárritu films I've seen. It's full of tension and surprises, and fine performances by DiCaprio; Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the man who leaves Glass to die in the wilderness; and the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson as Andrew Henry, the captain of the fur-trapping expedition who aids Glass in his final pursuit of Fitzgerald. Lubezki's cinematography, filled with awe-inspiring scenery and making good use of Iñárritu's characteristic long tracking takes, fully deserves his third Academy Award, making him one of the most honored people in his field. The visual effects blend seamlessly into the action, especially in the harrowing grizzly attack. And yet I have something of a feeling of overkill about the film, which seems to me an expensive and overlavish treatment of a tale of survival and revenge -- great and familiar themes that have here been overlaid with the best that today's money can buy. The film concentrates on Glass's suffering at the expense of giving us insight into his character. It substitutes platitudes -- "Revenge is in God's hands" -- for wisdom. And what wisdom it ventures upon, like Glass's native American wife's saying, "The wind cannot defeat the tree with strong roots," is undercut by the absence of characterization: What, exactly, are Glass's roots?
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski (1998) from goofiest to least goofy. It is, I think, more over-the-top than is absolutely necessary, especially in the idiot hick accents adopted by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson in their roles. Or maybe they just seem that way because of the differently over-the-top performance of George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, a man who thinks he talks more intelligently than he does. Still, I like Clooney in this mode, more than I do when he's playing a serious character, and it's to the Coens' credit that they cast him in the role: His performance gives an odd kind of off-balance stability to that of the other two. The chief glory of the movie, however, is its music, chosen by T Bone Burnett, superbly evoking a time and place. As for that time and place, Depression-era Mississippi, the movie pretty much ignores reality in favor of goofing around. It was the era of Bilbo and Vardaman, politicians of deeply cynical evil, and the rival candidates played by Charles Durning and Wayne Duvall don't even approach their horror, even when lampooning it. I laughed when the Ku Klux Klan performed what looked like a marching band half-time routine with a chant that evokes the parading monkey guards in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), but maybe it's the outcome of the recent presidential election that made me feel a little nauseated at even the notion of a comical Klan. A kind of irresponsibility mars the Coens' approach to the material, brilliantly funny as it often is. That said, the pacing of the movie is lively, and it's filled with ever-watchable performers like Durning, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman at their best. And there's always that music: If I'm inclined to forgive the Coens for their irresponsibility, it's because they introduced a lot of people who went out and bought the soundtrack album to some great music.