Wednesday, May 26, 2010

#487: That Hamilton Woman

(Alexander Korda, 1941)

People like to talk a lot about how great 1939 was (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Jezebel, The Rules of the Game, etc.) , but 1941 was pretty fucking awesome. The Lady Eve, How Green Was My Valley, Ball of Fire, and The Maltese Falcon were all released that year, and that's not even including the 800 lb. gorilla, Citizen Kane. I'll now add That Hamilton Woman to that list. The film is that unique kind of movie only the British seem to be able to get away with, a classy, sophisticated love story/historical epic that rarely leaves its characters' living space but nevertheless seems epic and unapolgetically straight-faced.

Both Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh are really excellent, but it's Leigh who is the revelation for me. Even though I'm not a big Gone with the Wind fan, I've seen the film four or five times, and it's enough to make you hate her if you hate Scarlett the way I do. So it took me a good hour into this film before I started to see her as a separate person and could begin to evaluate both her character's motivations and Leigh's own performance. In the process, I started to feel a genuine sympathy for this woman, caught up in history and her own uneasiness with society. I loved the relationship these two developed, and I believed it was more than just a dalliance, hoping they would somehow find a happy ending but nevertheless knowing that it wasn't meant to be.

Yes, this movie is propaganda (Olivier's Nelson's only weakness is his love for a woman who is not his wife) and perhaps the movie sinks into melodrama in a way that might be off-putting to the typical modern viewer. But for me, this is the kind of movie for which cinema was created.

Monday, May 24, 2010

#435: The Furies

(Anthony Mann, 1950)

Barbara Stanwyck is one of the great movie stars of all time, a uniquely and strikingly beautiful woman that was able to shift between different kinds of roles, all straddling the lines of morality, driven and even at times demented. Her performance here and that of Walter Huston, another legend are what makes The Furies more than just an interesting early Mann western with a dark side and healthy does of Freud.

The point at which I really started to think this movie was doing something different was when Stanwyck throws the scissors at Huston's new fiancee, disfiguring her for life. This is not a happy exploration of the westward expansion, nor is it a Searchers or Wild Bunch deconstruction of the western mythology. It is instead, as the cover might imply, a noir re-imagining of the civilized invasion, and a kind of twisted Citizen Kane without laws. That being said, the ending is a little too pat, much in the same way Bigger Than Life wrapped up everything too quickly and easily. Not surprisingly, Mann and Ray had a common ability to work within the system to produce something entirely outside of it, and both directors are largely undervalued outside of cinephile circles.

But it all comes back to Stanwyck here, who gives one of my favorite performances by her that I have seen. This movie was made the same year Bette Davis made All About Eve, and while that film is a far better one, the performances are similar in that they highlight many of their respective strengths, and typify the kind of character that made them the stars that they were. Too often these days women are written to play off of the male lead, making their characters afterthoughts in both plot and theme. With Stanwyck, that was never a problem.

Friday, May 21, 2010

#484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

(Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Yesterday I woke up, came into my living room, and checked my email. I then read all the posts on my Google reader, took and quick shower, brushed my teeth, grabbed my iPod and Blackberry, and headed to work. I listened to the new Miles Kurosky record on the way, and I didn't hit too much traffic so I got there pretty quick. Once I got to work, I parked down on the lower level of the parking lot because there weren't any spaces up top. I locked my car and went into my office. When I got into my office, I checked my email again, grabbed a granola bar (almond) and made myself some white mango tea. Then I began to work. I wrote a report on a kids movie coming out next year, only stopping to eat a quick lunch of chicken and basil that my co-worker picked up for me (I had to finish my report early since my supervisor was leaving for a weekend vacation). Once I finished the report, I sent it to my supervisor and made a phone call related to moving (which I'm doing next weekend). Then I had a call with a client about the same kids movie, which only lasted about 15 minutes. When I was finished, I packed up my stuff and went out to my car. I drove to Russo's, a great local produce store in my neighborhood, and bought some vegetables, eggs, and milk. I also stopped at the UPS store to pick up a package, which was an herb holder my wife had bought. I came home and opened a bottle of wine and watched  Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. I finished watching Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and then my wife came home. I made dinner, some torn bread, mushrooms, fiddleheads, chorizo, and grapes topped with a fried egg. We then ate the dinner and watched Parks and Recreation, The Office, and 30 Rock. I did some writing on my computer and then went to bed, where I read a script until I fell asleep.

If you found this interesting, you might like Jeanne Dielman, a nearly three and a half hour chore that is certainly one of the least interesting Criterion films I've watched so far. The film is ostensibly about the negative space around cinema, the moments of banality and repetition that surround the big moments in our lives, the ones that get turned into movies. For me, what it was really about was the ultimate question of art theory: is something art simply because we classify it as art and/or we present it as such? Or does the piece of work have to have some intrinsic quality that makes it art? FOr that matter, must the quality be conveyed to everyone, or simply to some? If something moves you, is that art, and if something moves someone else, is that crap?

I've peeled plenty of potatoes in my time, but I have yet to hear anyone call it one of the greatest movies ever made (as Jeanne Dielman has been designated by some). Is that just because I wasn't filming it? Or is context everything? I don't feel like I am in a proper position to decry this film, and I could see how the educated viewer fed up with the designated structure of films could find this film freeing, and even wildly subversive. But I am a true believer in the idea that movies are structured the way they are because it works. Stories were told in the way films are structured since humans began to speak, and they will continue to be told in that way.

I think what failed to excite me about Jeanne Dielman was not so much its lack of narrative thrust (in fact, even that is a charade, as within the first ten minutes there is already a hook of the john arriving at her apartment) but instead its misguided confidence, its insular ambition that ignores the context of narrative cinema and attempts instead to shove experimental constructs into its structure. For me, the whole thing seemed more like an exercise than an insight into a woman's life. I don't know. Maybe I'm just not the audience for a film like this.

#16: Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

(Hiroshi Inagaki, 1956)

Much better. After a pretty good starter and a middle that sagged a bit, the final chapter in the epic Samurai series sends the story out a good note. Mifune's evolution through the three films is the same hero journey made famous 25 years later by Luke Skywalker, from young dreamer to brash adolescent to wise man. The final fight on the beach of Ganryu Island isn't the epic battle that finished the second film, where Mifune plows through dozens of foes, but is instead a meditative exchange of skills, a respectful fight to the death between two competitors who are fighting because they need to rather than because they want to.

As a whole, the trilogy didn't impact me the way Kurosawa's samurai films have. The love triangle wasn't really engaging, and many of Mifune's later performances are stronger. But there's no doubt that the film had a strong impact on later masterpieces, and the movie, like Gone with the Wind which it is often compared to, is essential viewing for understanding movie history, if not to really enjoy it.

One last note: this is the original chopstick catching flies movie! Take that Miyagi.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

#503: Lola Montes

(Max Ophuls, 1955)

Here is another masterpiece from Ophuls, this one entirely misunderstood in its day and only now restored to its original glory (btw, the more I think about Le Plaisir, the more I like it). Lola Montes is Ophuls's full-color epic, a story told through shifting locales, times, and tones, a melancholy anti-biography about the nature of fame and the oppression of social expectations. It's also indescribably entertaining for a cinephile, a continuous progression of sets, camera movements, and narrative twists and turns that never lets up and constantly amazes.

"They don't make movies like they used to" was invented for this film, and I struggle to think of a movie in the last decade that tries so hard to throw you into the narrative stream. The best comparison I can think of is the wholly underrated Barry Lyndon, Kubrick's most ignored masterpiece. Like the later film, Lola Montes features a lead actress that lacks the seemingly essential character traits that would explain her title role's life trajectory. But in both movies this seems to be the very point each director is making. Neither film is about its subject, but instead about society, its limitations and its appeal, and the effortless way in which fate intervenes. Both films also do miraculous things with the camera (Kubrick's film was shot entirely without artificial light), as is typical with Ohpuls.

In fact, examining Lola Montes from a purely cinematic perspective reveals the movie to be a true epic. Cameras rise up to the ceiling and cascade towards the floor with equal grace. Ropes swing in front of the camera, filters cover and uncover acts, the director swoops in and out of rooms so effortlessly that you forget for a moment that you are watching a movie on a set and you are instead truly omniscient. The fact that I had never seen an Ophuls film before last year is a true tragedy, one that should be corrected in every movie lover's life as soon as possible. He is truly one of the great filmmakers of all time.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

#15: Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

(Hiorshi Inagaki, 1955)

These early Criterion DVDs really remind you just how bad VHS was. It's hard to believe while you are struggling to watch some of the scenes in this already naturally dark movie that this was actually a massive step up from the earlier format, when blurry images and vague subtitles reigned supreme (and don't get me started on the color red). In fact, searching around the internet produces some comparison screengrabs that demonstrate that not only was this a step up from VHS, it's also an improvement over non-region and foreign DVD releases of the same film, indicating that we will have to wait until Criterion does a redo or some other company takes up the charge to see the film in a truly magnificent version.

And that's really what the potential is for this trilogy, as this is a visual spectacle of the kind only produced in the early color era. The plot honestly doesn't do much for me, mostly because the females are flopping around moping so much that the movie feels like a Joan Crawford samurai picture. It's just too old-fashioned for me, and the movie as a whole is only saved by the visuals. I preferred the first part, but I'm hoping the conclusion carries on with the spectacle without dwelling too much on the melodrama.

#14: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

(Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954)

It took a minute for me to get who the characters were in this first installment of the Samurai trilogy, but once I did, the film became quite enjoyable. The story is often called the Gone with the Wind of Japan, but that seems a little inaccurate. I'm glad it does, too, as I think Gone with the Wind is one of the most overrated movies ever.

But the movie is definitely Western in its approach to the material. The final scene on the bridge was almost shockingly reminiscent of Hollywood melodrama, and the cinematography is washed in Technicolor to almost Sirkian levels. It's funny to think that people would complain that Kurosawa is too Western when a film like this is out there.

I have two more parts to watch, so I will save my judgments of the storyline. But I will say that it's clear the film (and its source material) were a huge influence on future samurai films, most notably Onibaba and Seven Samurai, so I am happy to have seen it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

#108: The Rock

(Michael Bay, 1996)

The Rock is everything you want it to be and nothing more than you would expect. It's an action movie made in the heart of the 90s, and it typifies the decade's updated tropes for America's broadest genre: unlike similar non-stop testosterone-pumped popcorn garbage (I mean that as a compliment) from the 80s, The Rock is unexpectedly complex. So the villains are more nuanced, the direction flashier but more sophisticated (with the obvious exception of Verhoeven), and the main characters are played by genuinely great actors like Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and Nic Cage (yeah, I said it), fresh off his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, a slightly different film.

But then again, the movie treads over all of the usual ground that has made the genre so often maligned. Here is terrible (great) dialog like "losers are always whining about giving it their best shot. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen." There are ridiculous character traits that are passed off as character development, like Cage receiving a Beatles LP at his office because his girlfriend would be mad he spent so much money on one record. And, of course, everywhere are the ridiculous, never-ending action sequences which pop up in the most inexplicable places in the most absurdly super-sized ways. How great is it that not only was there a hummer for Connery to jump into, but Cage got to find a lamborghini rolling down the street?

Still, there's a reason why people love to complain that Armageddon is part of the Criterion Collection, while few people ever say peep about its older brother The Rock sitting right next to it. The movie succeeds at its end goal better than maybe any other mainstream action film in the decade (only another Cage film, Face/Off, comes to mind as competition), mostly because it plays everything so straight-faced and uses the action sequences in such giddy, inoffensive ways that you can't help but be caught up in it.

Perhaps the only flaw in the film is that, in trying to make Harris a more complex character, the filmmakers made him a much less compelling villain because, well, he's kind of right. How wrong would it be for America to use its illegal funds to pay settlements to families of soldiers who lost their lives in secret missions? So maybe complexity in action films isn't just usually not necessary, but actually detrimental to the enjoyment of the movie. Or maybe the admirable attempt here was just too half-hearted. Either way, when a cable car slides down the streets of San Francisco and bursts into flames as it explodes, who really cares whether we see shades of gray in the baddies?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

#507: Bigger Than Life

(Nicholas Ray, 1956)

There is probably no better introduction to the power of the auteur theory than Criterion's catalog, and Bigger Than Life is a perfect example. Created in the heart of the 1950s, the supposed golden era of the middle class, the film is right in line with director Nicholas Ray's other masterpieces, thematically speaking, the anti-Western Johnny Guitar and the dark exploration of the masculine archetype, In a Lonely Place. And, of course, it's the perfect companion piece to Ray's most famous (and, in my opinion, fairly overrated) film, Rebel Without a Cause.

But Bigger Than Life might be the most subversive of all of them, a suburban horror film that could easily be seen as a nightmare anti-drug parable for the tract-housing set, but is instead an angry, horrifying deconstruction of the American dream. The film has flashes of Sirk in the way that it toys with darkness under the veneer (and certainly the way Ray plays with color here is just as impressive as Sirk's best work), but it owes most of its visual style to noir and even German expressionism. That shot on the cover comes from one of the most terrifying scenes in the movie, where Mason's paranoia and megalomania have made him a totalitarian dictator in his house, lording over his son as he forces him to be better, faster, stronger. When Mason leaves the room, Rush runs to give the boy a glass of milk, then quickly hides the glass from her husband. It's a moment of motherly concern pushed into big-screen territory (and terror) by the looming threat of a patriarch unhinged.

The movie flirts with camp, too, though part of that is inevitably the wink wink way in which the film attempts to shove such powerful and subversive themes into a commercial and melodramatic framework. The moments in which Mason slowly shifts from loving and restrained father into raging, roided maniac tilt towards the ridiculous, but the film is saved by its quiet confidence that this movie is not about drug addiction or abuse or even really the dangers of giving in to pleasure or receding from pain, like so many misguided anti-drug films. It's about us, instead, and our struggle to fit within the boundaries of American freedom.

I'd never seen or even heard of this film before Criterion announced its release (it had never been released on VHS or DVD), and once again I am thankful for the opportunity to see what actually might be my favorite Ray film. But it also makes me want to go back and see his other films and how they fit into the vision this film puts forward. Like the great filmmakers in Criterion's catalog, Bergman, Godard, Melville, Hitchcock, Ray makes films with a specific viewpoint that makes all of his films richer when viewed in the context of the whole.

Friday, May 7, 2010

#444: Le Plaisir

(Max Ophüls, 1952)

Probably my least favorite of the three Ophüls films I have watched so far, Le Plaisir is nevertheless a breezy yet moving exploration of love and lust that fits right in with the director's other films. Occasionally, the movie can be shockingly and effortlessly groundbreaking - most notably when the titular character in the final story, The Model, threatens suicide and the camera seamlessly merges with her POV as she ascends the stairs and jumps out of a window, crashing into the glass ceiling below.

Despite moments like this one of both technical and emotional beauty, the movie didn't pull me in as a whole, mostly because the second story (which makes up the bulk of the film) was not as interesting to me. But the movie is certainly worth seeing, and I'm very much looking forward to Lola Montes, Ophüls's full-color spectacle.

Monday, May 3, 2010

#8: The Killer

(John Woo, 1989)

I had watched The Killer years ago on VHS, and like far too many Chinese films released on the thankfully now-archaic format, the color quality and subtitles were basically shit. And that's all before you take into account the pan-and-scan, which took Woo's best strengths, his framing, lens-usage, and operatic action, and made them almost unrecognizable.

So I was glad to take this opportunity to have another look at the film, this time on blu-ray. Unfortunately, the rights were taken away from Criterion years ago, and it's really a shame, because while this copy is light years beyond what I watched on VHS, it's still a pretty embarrassing showing for the format of the future. The transfer seems to be almost completely untouched. I doubt they did anything but upres the print they already used for DVD, and the thing looks pretty much like it might have in 2000 on a DVD player. I'm not nearly an expert on video quality (and my TV is only 720p), but this looked like junk even to my untrained eye. Why won't these shitty companies have a heart and give the films back to Criterion, where they would be cared for and given the treatment they deserve?

Anyway, the film itself is a masterpiece of Hong Kong action, an almost non-stop array of shootings and car chases that wallows in its own excess in the way only an 80s film can do. I prefer Hard Boiled (which I actually own), but this film clearly sits next to it as the one-two punch that cemented Woo's legacy as one of the great action directors ever (I also love Face/Off, btw, which of course referenced the climactic dove/church shoot out in its own final fight). If you like action movies, this is as essential as it comes.