Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit

True Grit, 2010
Dir: Coen Bros.

I think the Coen Brothers natural proclivity for quirky characters and dialogue really hurts them in a Western because it basically reveals the whole thing to be paper thin at best. All the characters do their thing and that's it. Considering how they bucked the trend in A Serious Man (2009), I had some higher hopes for this. The set-up is pretty Western standard, which is fine, and there are some fun scenes, but only one character reveals himself to be more than meets the eye (possibly?). As I've said about Westerns before, plot and story are pretty irrelevant, and good, complex characters are everything.

There is some debate over whether this is grim or actually pretty light, and honestly, I don't even think the Coens know. Maybe that's the whole point. How funny everything is can get lost in the language, but I think I laughed a few times. In terms of "villains", was Josh Brolin supposed to be laughed at 'cause he actually turned out to be pretty stupid? For a character supposedly known for his deviousness, he turned out to be something a lot less than that. In a different situation it might have been a good thing, but here it's decidedly underwhelming. Everyone else in Barry Pepper's gang has no chance to stand out, and the one guy that did made fucking animal noises.

The three main characters we have to follow offer some good acting, if not a whole lot of character depth (Bridges' ramblings about his ex-wives seems to be the epitome of irrelevant. Is that why you drink, or what? Does it reveal anymore than kicking Indians? Or is that just a funny "that's just how things were" moment). I was actually kind of impressed by Hailee Stanfield as Mattie Ross, but it's hard for a kid to externalize all the emotion a great character has. She only reveals herself to be a kid a few times ("Do we really need him, Marshall?") but it's never really enough to make her something more than just her dialogue suggests. On the other hand, I thought Matt Damon's La Boeuf was great probably because I didn't know what the hell his deal was. He's quick to to defend the honor of himself and the Texas Rangers but it belied a sensitive, uncertain side, and he might have been a closet pedo. I mean, the "sneaking a kiss" line at the beginning could have been a throw away, but then the unnecessary, over-the-top spanking and then some of the looks he gives Mattie sort of sealed it for me. Of course, it's all very ambiguous, but that's why I thought he was a good character.

Roger Deakins is a pretty good cinematographer but I don't know why everyone is flipping out over this. I thought the only really nice canvasy, Western shots were done in traveling montage rendering them pretty pointless. And the whole whole scary snakes ending. What was that? And the epilogue made it out like the whole movie was about how time passes us by, which is not the impression I got at all.

There are better Westerns. Just check earlier in this blog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinski

Woah. Watching this on the gigundo IMAX screen in 3D was a trip, and one hell of an experience. And if it were all about insane, state-of-the-art visuals and electronica scores by Daft Punk, it would be perfect. But as a movie, it's pretty unoriginal in it's execution, and down right predictable. It's The Matrix (1999) by Disney, so a lite version. In fact, the similarities are staggering, not even to mention the same puedo-religious bullshit that's pretty much both their philosophies ("The One"= "The Son of the Maker" in the same messianic vein). This badassery accounts for a lot of dues-ex-machina "wtf" moments, particularly the fact that Sam just comes into "The Grid" and can kick ass, sans training montages, which at least Neo had to do. Even better, during the climax, there is an ultimate "need-to-wrap-this-up" moment, involving none other than TRON ("I fight for the Users!" Oh right. Glad that happened in half a second...), which could take the cake for many an illogical plot device in all the best/worst movies you've ever seen. Also, if you are interested in characters and/or character development, this has very little of it, except that maybe Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn is not only a tech genius but also a hippy-zen master, which was funny for maybe a line or so ("You're really killing my zen thing, man!"). But I'm guessing the target audience of this really doesn't give a shit about any of that. So in conclusion, as an experience this is first rate; as a movie, not so much. But you may have guessed as much just from the trailer.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 2010
Dir: Michael Apted

You really have to have some strong children actors to pull off a movie that revolves around them, and unfortunately, that actors that play Edmund and Lucy are lacking (s0 no real progression from Caspian), even if they try hard enough. The big surprise for me had to be Will Poulter, who plays Eustace as a great British brat, and the writers even give him some witty one-liners which could zing straight out of the BBC. Definitely the bright spot of the film. Dawn Treader's main failing as a story has to be its silly religious undertones (like all Narnia books) and the references in this movie were the most heavy handed in franchise yet. So, I guess I can look forward to The Silver Chair in two years time and give you another half-hearted review, and that will be followed up by The Horse and his Boy, which is probably the best book in the series for its lack of religious nonsense (or so I remember). I like The Magician's Nephew too, obviously not because it's a Genesis metaphor, but because it's the most supremely weird book in the series. The Last Battle kind of blows (though Susan not getting into Heaven always made me laugh). So there's my thought on the film and possible future releases. Personally, I think the BBC with their dwarfs in mouse suits did a better job at capturing the spirit of the book, but that's probably besides the point.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Dir: David Yates

A lot of noise about how this is "the best one yet," but it's really pretty similar to HP6. Which is absolutely fine. I had a good time. There are some interesting added moments I suppose, but the comedy bits are hit or miss, and these really could have been used more. Considering that they broke up the book, I was expecting a bit more of these interesting "movie-only" scenes. The acting hierarchy is pretty much the same as well. Of course, there's also the whole "Three Brothers" sequence, which I'm glad they added, but I'm not sure if that particular style of animation was the right choice. Oh well, enough nitpicking for now. If you've already seen the trailer, you've got a pretty good idea of what you're getting into.

Black Girl

La noire de...(Black Girl), 1966
Dir: Ousmane Sembene

I saw this like two weeks ago, and as you've might have guessed, the holiday and laziness have sort pushed off writing reviews of anything. But I was also put off by some Harvard dill-holes stroking each others dicks as I was leaving the theater. Seriously: shut-up. Just 'cause you're talking loud enough for everyone to hear your pompous opinion doesn't make it valid. It makes you a fucking loudmouth, and probably one of the very people that this film is trying to make the viewer aware of. Anyway, it has given me time to think about about this, as it is the only film of recent viewing which is actually worth thinking about. In hindsight, it may seem like an obvious statement for a black African director to make a film about race relations, but the racism that is explored is specifically about obviousness, and the lack of awareness that some people have with it in this (relatively) modern age.

The French New Wave comparisons are probably a little over blown, but you can tell where people are coming from (language being the most glaring one). The structure of the film is broken up into three parts (present-past-present) and in doing so tries to elaborate on the difficulty that Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) has once she leaves Sengal with the French family that she works for the south of France. She has an idea about what her job is (which is to be a nanny for the children), but once back in France, the family (particularly "Madame") sees fit to stick her with a bunch of other remedial task, and makes a show of using her in front of guests. She becomes bitter and apathetic very quickly in her voice-over monologues (another New Wave device that might have been handled a little better).

When it shifts back to Dakar, before the the move, it centers on Diouana's search for work and a relationship that will be cut short when she decides to leave with her newly found employers. The scene in the bedroom with the frustrated guy is very Breathless (1959), just to throw out another comparison (though I'm sure I'm not the first to do so). It really is the most interesting part of the film, very restless and almost optimistic, as compared to the bracketed sequences in the Riviera, which are apathetic and, to a point, angry. That is the whole point of the film as I see it though. This family thinks that they are helping Diouana, giving her a chance. But in France they cage her, and "put her in her place," seemingly without even realizing it. It is a racism that is barely talked about but is probably the kind that is still most prevalent today: the ennui, the complete intellectual stalemate of being a society boring enough to be racist.

The ending is the most demonstrative thing that I could have expected, and the film loses any of the nice subtlety that it had. Diouana's apathy and anger turn into depression pretty quickly and then everything snowballs in her mind. Luckily, the very end has a redeeming scene where the "Monsieur" is forced to walk through the slums of Dakar looking for Diouana's family, and is followed, to his unease, by a little boy with a native wooden mask on. It hits the spot pretty good. The overall tragedy of Diouana is really about the African, where colonialism put him and how, even in "setting" them free, they are still seen as lesser souls in the eyes of modernity.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Shadows, 1959
Dir: John Cassavetes

This is really good except for the production value. I mean, some thesis films are made better than this. But, I guess that is sort of the DIY tone Cassavetes was going for, and considering this is the birth of American independent cinema, you have it give it that. That most of the film works is because of the "restless 50s" New York atmosphere. I guess you could call it "Beat" or whatever, but at least there's no poetry readings. One of the characters even scoffs at the Beat scene, and even Jazz, though he pretty much is a Beat, not to mention a proto-hipster, and the entire soundtrack is a jazz sax solo.

The film follows three siblings. Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the oldest, is having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that his singing career might be dying, and he is embarrassed to be a show host, such as introducing "girly lines." Ben (Ben Carruthers) is the misfit, wanders around the city with his buddies hitting on girls and what-not, basically being directionless. Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the youngest, is only 20 and is keen to be seen as seen sharp and educated, but also passionate and spontaneous. Hugh is full black, while his two younger siblings are mulatto, with Lelia being especially light-skinned, and can pretty much get away with "passing."

The film never really harps on about the race thing, though of course the main dilemma involves Lelia's ability to naively pass and then be found out, and then the two brothers reactions (or lack there of) to help her cope. Cassavetes isn't just interested in one thing though; we see this in three different parties in the film: a crazy "beat" party where Ben is looking bored, a "literary" party where Lelia "comes of age," and then the party at their apartment where there are mostly black people talkin' about black people problems, Hugh at the forefront. The way it bounces around and never really settles on anyone makes it way ahead of its time, and good.

If the acting has a problem, its that the improvisational style (which Cassavetes insisted on) seems a bit stunted at times; like all these kids and amateur actors know darn well that they are being filmed and that they had better throw some slang and jargon in. This experimental acting style is supposed to flow with the structure of the the film (like jazz I guess). Ben, of course, is the most interesting character to me. At the end he hasn't progressed one bit, though after having some drinks and getting into a fight with his buddies, he vows never to do it again. One of them (the buddies) sort sums up one Ben's arc (or "straight line" maybe) as they nurse their wounds, "We went out on the town and had a ball. If you get beat up, you get beat up. We still had a ball." That's sort of what the film is: mostly a mess but still effective. Defintely a sign of things to come for Cassavetes.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


藪の中の黒猫 (Kuroneko), 1968
Dir: Kaneto Shindo

I'll describe the strange way (actually not so strange, but whatever) in which I came to see this, because if I knew exactly what it was before going to see it, I might not have gone (that being said, I'm still kind of glad I did). Again, there wasn't much going on at the theaters (normal or artsy-fartsy) that I was really interested in going to see (or at least that I thought I wanted to see. I can psyche myself out of going to see anything). However, the last listing for Kendall was this, and I noticed it was from 1968, so obviously I was like, "Japanese classic. That's worth it." What I didn't know when I sat down in the theater is that it was directed by Shindo, who also directed Onibaba (1964), and that it is basically the same type of film, except this time instead of hanging out in reed beds, Shindo heads to a bamboo forest.

Not only does he change location, but he moves on from a woman just pretending to be a demon to actual fucking demons. This is the big leagues. And not just any demons, but evil cat demons who have sworn an oath to the God of Evil to drink the blood of all samurai in revenge for what happened to them (Revenge fantasy?!? Calling Tarantino...). Don’t get me wrong, ghost cats seem like they could be interesting (I guess?) but the mythology and folklore elements are all sort of lost on me due to the silly (if not simplistic) morality complex and just the fact that Shindo just seems to tell the same story over and over again. It would be reductive to call this a rehash of Onibaba but the similarities are staggering.

I’ll give Shindo some credit because he really does manage to make all his movies look really good. It’s kind of fitting then, I guess, that this film is at its best when Shindo decides to focus less on exposition or any dialogue for that matter, and tries to make the film one extended montage. For at least 15 minutes or so, he manages to collide a series of images which repeat the routine of the daughter-in-law, played by Kiwako Taichi. We see her confront samurais, lead them through a forest, and then seduce them once they arrive at the demons secluded place before ripping out their throats in demon mode. It’s a bit repetitive and probably exhausting for the viewer looking for some “J-horror” but represents Shindo at his sharpest. He manages to repeat this exercise but still produce new images. Sure, from a pure narrative standpoint, it’s easy to “get,” but it is one of the few times he is not chiefly concerned with progressing the story. It’s the film’s most self-consciously artistic sequence, and also one of its best.

I’m not saying that the content here is completely boring, in fact, towards the end it actually becomes a little poignant. The encounters the hero has with the ghost version of his wife is heartbreaking despite the fact that it shouldn’t be. It’s weird, I get the impression that Shindo wanted to tell a story about losing loved ones and, based on sequences like the one I mentioned, he would have nailed it. Unfortunately, there’s an excess of the folklore stuff, which really just reinforces the silliest and most negative stereotypes of the genre. The whole bit at the end with the giant cat arm is redonkulous (though I'm sure those looking for standard, exaggerated horror stuff might like it. They might also be into the aerial ghoul dances and the smaurai/ghost duels). It’s really a shame too since it comes off the heels of by far the most emotionally resonant stretch in the entire movie. Oh well, some good stuff here. I think cinema fans and just plain old horror fans could both enjoy this.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959
Dir: Alain Resnais

There are some big ups and big downs in this film. The fact that it was initially supposed to be a documentary about Hiroshima is pretty apparent. The beginning is kind of unbearable; my mind couldn't latch on to anything, even with all the images of mutilated Hiroshima residents. Then the "story" starts, of a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in town who has a one night stand with a Japanese man (Eiji Okada), and then they talk a whole bunch. She says "no" a lot, and he says "I want you to stay in Hiroshima." Oh yeah, like more than 3 times.

I will admit that this film has plenty of power, with beautiful and incredibly profound scenes but it's overshadowed by the fact that the whole thing is one big monologue. Both characters feel such compassion and their feelings are so complex and confusing, and yet they know exactly how to explain it. It's like they're both poets but the novelty wears thin after the first few minutes. I actually think this reminds me a lot of something Wong Kar-Wai would do. With the exception of the tedious and overlong dialogue, it's very much done in a similar tone of pacing. I really enjoyed the visuals though. Some of it is rather stagey, but it actually works. And the slow tracking shots in and out of subjects with the voice-over actually kind of reminded me of Terrence Malick (so maybe he was a Resnais fan).

The performances, in my opinion, really aren't that fantastic. There's a lot of over-acting, and Riva's flashback freak-outs are really annoying. All that being said, this is probably something that I will want to go back to eventually, 'cause like I said there are some great moments in it and it seems like a film that I might change my mind about at some point.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Inside Job

Inside Job, 2010
Dir: Charles Ferguson

The best part about this doc is definitely the interviews with financial industry advocates, whether they start to stumble over their own hypocrisies, or they just get arrogantly indignant. It has a hard time staying objective ("You can't be serious..."), but I suppose it's kind of hard to with this subject. It goes after the entire financial industry culture of amorlism, prostitutes and drugs (stuff everyone already knows about), to the moralistic posers in Washington that support them using garbled language, and then even college business professors who teach reckless economics (which is really interesting). Learning exactly how the financial industry ballooned over the last 30 years was pretty enlightening too. They have nothing to sell you but the hope that you might profit from their "expertise," but they only deepen their own pockets at your expense.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Film Unfnished

A Film Unfinished, 2010
Dir: Yael Hersonski

I've been going to documentaries lately 'cause I'm kind of avoiding going to see some of the fiction films coming out (so maybe I should see The Social Network (2010) asap; true story I hear). They just all look kind of awful. I only read a blurb about this film (not a review) and decided it seemed kind of interesting. And in the end, it is kind of interesting, but pretty annoying as well. The footage being looked at in the doc of the unfinished film, "Das Ghetto," was a film made by the SS in 1942 to portray life in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. A lot of the film has to do with the differences of rich Jews (those who cooperate) and poor, starving Jews (those who don't obviously). And for many years these film were taken as fact, for some strange reason. Anyone one who knew anything about the Nazi propaganda machine knows that they were obsessed with cinema (Geobbels doing) and the way they could use it (the flight of Fritz Lang and many other frightened Weimar directors; or even the accumulation of star writer Thea von Harbou and star actor Emil Jennings to use for their own ends). That the Nazi's could use propaganda scenes for their own insidious version of the future doesn't seem that enlightening, or "eye-opening." I suppose the reasons that I found the film most frustrating is how the film was constructed. Hersonski has her own voice-over going a lot of the time, and I'm just not into it. Also, they have voice actors come in and read diaries and what not of people in the the ghetto or involved with it (like SS officers) over the footage. And lastly, they show people who survived the ghetto watching the clips and giving their own quips about what happened. This sentimental slant kind of ruins the power of the images that are being seen. I know what they are, and I know they are awful. Let the images speak for themselves. So in the end, I kind of just wish I could be given the footage of the unfinished film and watch that, because a lot of it is pretty powerful stuff.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Last Train Home

归途列车 (Last Train Home), 2009
Dir: Lixin Fan

It is pretty remarkable how themes can reassert themselves in a particular people, especially negative ones that are known, have been talked about openly, and then still nothing is done to change it. The cinema of a region seems to be no different. There are so many people in Asia that individuality can be a complex thing, particularity in a place like China. Last Train Home, at first, doesn't seem to be about this struggle. It seems to be more a documentary only concerned with the grand sweep of the huge movement of people that takes place every Chinese New Year, when the nation's 130 million migrant workers go home for the only time that year. The first shot (if I remember correctly) is just of this giant moving mass of people in a train station, fighting, pushing, trying to get on to trains that really don't have enough room for all of them. Fan must have thought however that a more personal level was needed to connect with all audiences, and the introduction of one migrant working couple, on their way home to their rural home to celebrate, comes pretty early. Not everything is so cozy at home though because their two kids, especially the older daughter, has more of a bond with the grandmother who is with them all year long than the parents who only come home once a year. The parents at first seemed pretty boring, if not also tragically stuck in their economic plight. They only have one thing to say to their kids which is "Study hard. Stay in school." Although this is basically the only thing they say, it is overbearing for the daughter who feels trapped in school and is dying to go off to work like the rest of her friends, which is her parents' worst fear. So, of course, she does it. The family dynamic is blown apart at a second gathering, as the daughter, trying to assert her independence, claims that the parents never really cared for them and even says "fuck," after which the usually placid father erupts, smacking her in the face and throwing her to the ground screaming "We've tolerated you!" It gets pretty intense. After this the daughter moves to a bigger city and get a job waiting at night club, and the last we see of her is dancing away on her night off, getting lost in the strobe lights. The parents continue to work until the mother finally decides that she has to go home; the grandmother won't live forever and they can't let what happened to their daughter happen to their son. And that is kind of how the film ends, with the mother on her way back home, separated for the first time in her life from her husband. Like I said before, this is the film within the film, which shows "the largest human migration on earth." Fan capture's everything beautifully, and the results are sad, haunting, and yet pretty inevitable if you have watched even a small amount of Asian cinema. Life is still disappointing for many people in East Asia.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Town

The Town, 2010
Dir: Ben Affleck

So it was beyond me to completely ignore this Beantown flick once the "great" reviews started coming out, and I couldn't just call my brother on the phone and yell, "I'm puttin' this whole town in my rear-view!" So you watch the film, and it's completely understandable why people are so impressed (though the great camerawork raves seem a bit bloated; it does get caught in that floaty, shaky, I-can't-see-what-the-fuck-is-happening nonsense that modern action films like to equate with a visceral experience). Affleck is putting a stamp on Hollywood with his own films that will let him continue to work as a director. The closest thing that I could think of while watching it was Michael Mann. Like Mann, Affleck likes to reveal character through action, but he also can't help but throw in some "actor's moments," and I wasn't that surprised that he wrote the most for himself. And in that respect, he's sort of like a less sentimental (or vomit-inducing) Clint Eastwood, which I'm sure the studios will try to mold him into. All of the action is cool, you know, and learning the mechanization of Boston bank robbing (even in movie terms) was interesting, but that's just trimming. The characters are poorly written, and there's nothing Rebecca Hall can do about the fact that her's is unidimensional. There's some good acting in it (Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively in a Marisa Tomei sort of role, Jon Hamm braking free from Don Draper), but this happens in spite of the script. Ben Affleck seems to know his way around with a camera now (the look of the film is pretty intentional), but given the Oscar, we'd expect he'd know his way around with a pen as well.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise, 1932
Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

If you think about all the ridiculously terrible rom-coms that come out of Hollywood now, you often wonder how the genre came to such prominence, and if it wasn't always filled with fluff. Well, films like The Killers (2010) and every other "criminal couple" movie owe a debt to Trouble in Paradise, though they'd never be able to hold a candle to it. Elliptical in structure and tied to witty romance with suggestive pre-code banter, this film could demolish anything today and definitely stands above all of the screwball comedies that it helped to inspire later in the decade.

Romancing both Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall is the epitome of handsome rakishness, playing a master jewel thief who schemes with his lover (Hopkins) to swindle perfume heiress Francis, falling in love with the sexually aggressive proprietress instead.

Lubitsch’s revered style is surprisingly fluid for a film of the early 30’s, and his collaboration with playwright Samson Raphaelson, his most frequent partner, is filled with the kind of innuendo that would be virtually impossible to get away within the coming code era. Luckily for us, that makes a lot of the comedy very fresh and almost seemingly modern. But most of all it's just funny, and never wacky. Lubitsch was far too sophisticated for that.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop

三枪拍案惊奇 (A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop), 2009
Dir: Zhang Yimou

This is a retelling of the Coen Bros. film Blood Simple (1985) in an Chinese desert saga (I think you know what I mean). And it's completely retarded. I'm mad that I paid to see this. Visual effects simply to have fucked-upped Asian-ness (even when he sets up some nice shots, Zhang does all this time lapse shit, like we couldn't figure out that "some time has passed"), ridiculous, over-the-top slapstick tied to black comedy that is pretty much insulting to anyone watching it. By that, I mean it insults your intelligence. Not one likable character, either. Blood Simple is alright I guess (though if I watch it again I might think less of it simply for inspiring this), but this is just bottom of the the barrel. Steer clear of this turd.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Teorema, 1968
Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini

This blog hasn't had one of these in a while, but I guess I've just been lucky in my picks. Well, this was pretty fucking unbearable. Just another Euro art film trashing "bourgeois" culture and being way too much for me. Somewhere along the way you realize that it is utterly and bombastically silly, so just strip away the 60s Italian sophisticated mystique and let yourself laugh.

At the beginning there's this sort of T.V. reporter/interview rant about bourgeois culture, and it raised my hackles big time. Then it turns into this weird, semi-silent movie where the main family goes about their lives, but you never hear anything they say. It's kind of enjoyable, actually. And then the "stranger" comes and ruins it. Played by Terence Stamp, the film never gives you any answers for why he's there, but all of a sudden everyone in the house is really horny. They all have this big "transformation" by his being there, and when he leaves, the whole household begins to fall apart. The sexually-awakened daughter goes into a coma, the wife who "was never interested in anything" becomes a huge tramp and starts to pick up guys on the street, the son goes all homo-artist, the maid becomes this divine force and can cure chicken pox and levitate, and most importantly (or annoyingly, depending how you look at it), the head of the household, a successful Milanese industrialist, begins to "question it all" while also starting to have some homo leanings as well. An then there's the desert motif. Good grief.

Stamp's character is supposed to be this angel, or maybe even God, and he's "opening up" the eyes of all the characters to real life. But he ruins their lives, so maybe he is the devil? Or maybe I just don't give two shits about any of this? Seriously, I was really only interested when people were making out/humping, and that's just 'cause it's sex. I do know this though: Atonioni did Italian bourgeois malaise a million times better than this.

Judge Priest

Judge Priest, 1934
Dir: John Ford

So apparently John Ford could do "courtroom comedies" just as well as he could do Westerns. Will Rodgers has a great deal to do with why this is so good, but Ford's sense of place had no equal at this point in Hollywood. Even more than Stars in My Crown (1950), Ford establishes a southern, Reconstruction-era Kentucky town that has this amazing sense of cinematic poetry, the kind that only Ford could create.

The film is built around a trial, but it isn't entirely confined to it (though all the scenes in the courthouse are really great). William Priest (Will Rodgers) has been the local judge for quite some time. His unorthodox, laid-back style isn’t exactly professional, but his personality has become woven into the fabric of the town. His nephew, Jerome (Tom Brown), has recently returned home from a "Yankee" law school and now has a job as an attorney. When the local barber and his pals are severely beaten up by the town’s “quiet” character, it is Jerome that takes his case. This, of course, creates a possible conflict of interest, which leads many to question Priest’s fairness as a judge. In the meantime, he also sets up his nephew with a girl who, according to his nephew’s mother, isn’t up to the family standards. Probably the really only uninteresting thing in the whole film is the "relationship" that the two youngsters have.

This is the first Ford film that I've seen with Stephen Fetchit in it, and it's really hard to talk about it without saying outright that it's "disgustingly racist." Fetchit plays a sterotypical "negro," talks in incoherent jigaboo (which Rodger's understands somehow; must be a southern thang), and is constantly chided for being lazy (even if it's mostly by Priest, who is teasing). It is racist. But there is something about the way that it is just out in the open in the film that helps it a lot, and along with Hattie McDaniels, who plays Aunt Dilsey, the maid/servant in the Priest household, helps the segregation/racism seep into the community. It's there, but there isn't anything malicious about it. If the film was about racism (which Stars in My Crown sort of turns into), it wouldn't be very good. This is cinema though, so obviously it's an alt-reality, and Ford was all about perpetuating Americana myths, but most likely Kentucky was probably kind of like this after the Civil War. Perhaps the circumstances are not that pleasant, but sometimes, real life isn’t either.

That’s not to say Ford was actually a forward-thinking genius or anything, but many directors would have never made Priest’s sidekick a remotely important character. It’s also worth mentioning that no one in the film comes off as being particularly smart (the Reverend at the end, maybe). Will Rodger’s whole persona is “dumb…but charming” but he never comes off as being a superior character. He's not stupid, he's just a Good Ol' Boy who doesn't have hateful bone in his body. Most of the characters are Good Ol' Boys actually, and the way the film ends is indicative of this, given the fact the the trial doesn't really end and southern pride trumps all. In fact, I think Ford’s characterization of all the characters is one of the most curious elements in the film. While it is, like many things Fordian, quite simple on the surface, it does ask for deep pondering.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar, 1954
Dir: Nicholas Ray

This is not your typical Western, but then again it really isn't a Western. In Truffaut's original review of the film in 1954 he called it a "phony Western." Ray understands the gestures and symbols that define the genre but he uses them to turn it on its head. At the same time, he also used the film to denounce the blacklisting that was taking place in Hollywood, which took huge balls, but Ray always had those in spades.

A stranger (Sterling Hayden) rides into an Arizona town after witnessing a carriage heist and makes for Vienna's, a saloon owned by woman of the same name (Joan Crawford). We soon found out that she sent for him to play guitar (hence, "Johnny Guitar") in the saloon, and that they have a bit of history. However, the people of the town, mostly cattle ranchers, are furious over her "trampishness" and the fact that Vienna made a deal with the railroad to bring more people in. This enrages the ranchers because they feel it will bring in farmers who will run them out of town. To make things worse, a local gang, led by The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), often frequent Vienna's and are often suspected of any local trouble. The carriage heist, which resulted in the death of the brother of one of the key antagonistic ranchers, Emma Small(Mercedes McCambridge), along with Johnny's arrival in town, kicks of a series of events that will lead to a unavoidable showdown between the two groups and to which Johnny is witness to all.

So you've got the ranchers, led by Emma, who are unmovable in their position and are willing to lay the blame on the Kid's gang just to get to Vienna. McCambridge's performance was probably meant to mimic McCarthy, and in doing that she did a good job for a character that lacks any real depth beyond her strange attraction to The Kid, which enrages her even more. All of the performances are a little over the top, except maybe Hayden who does a great "stranger in town," observer role (probably meant to be Ray himself). The ranchers hatred turns into a posse mentality, and the allegory is complete.

Ray's use of color is just as impressive here (using TruColor) as it will be in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). While most critics say that it's expressionistic, I'd almost say that it's impressionistic, though it's probably just because it's color. From the gang's (including Vienna) colorful garments to the the drab and dark cattle ranchers, it's pretty obvious what Ray was trying to do. I don't know overall though, there is something about Ray that I like, but he's just so full of melodrama and over-the-top theatrics that he uses to demonstrate his points that I doubt any of his films would ever end up on one of my "favorite films" lists.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Spring in a Small Town

小城之春 (Spring in a Small Town), 1948
Dir: Fei Mu

I suppose this is sort of the beginning for a lot of the moody, dreamy, lush, etc. films that come out of east Asia. Which is awesome. Someone could make a 4 hour movie with a wind blowing against a tree and a soft female voice-over in Mandarin and I'd sit through the whole thing. Probably enraptured. The voice-over is very nice in this, too. It's a little awkward at first with Yuwen literally vocalizing every action she is about to make ("I am going to see my husband...") but on the other hand, the whispering tone is just beautiful. When I say dreamy, I think it has something to do with the poor production value actually. A lot of the skies are blown-out because the film was overexposed, but during the scenes on the city wall, you can actually see white wrapping around rocks, which only adds to the dream-like state of Yuwen's dilemna. The film itself is fairly easy to watch in the classic melodramatic sense, though it's obviously more subdued than it's peers in America. That, among other things, make this a pretty awesome find despite the condition of the print.

Thanks for the tip, Alex.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur, 1953
Dir: Anthony Mann

Another great Western from Anthony Mann. And under Mann’s control, Jimmy Stewart delivers another one of his better performances. His blunt, unsympathetic turn as Howie Kemp really helps makes this a winner. He dramatizes the internal duality of thee character in every aspect of his performance; his guilt, indecision, and ethical introspection are practically tangible. It also probably helps that, like many of Mann’s heroes, Stewart doesn’t really have much to say. This bodes well for the film for two reasons, one because the audience doesn’t have to deal with Stewart’s far too familiar voice that often and two, it reinforces the “contemplative” nature of Mann’s cinema as well as the notion that he is pretty much the best genre film director ever.

Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart) captures long time rival and outlaw, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) and plans to turn him in for the $5,000 reward. However, he needed the help of shady ex-cavalryman Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and hard-on-his-luck old prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to do so. The men reluctantly decide that they must split the money three ways. Greed begins to get the best of everyone and to make things worse as Ben sows seeds of discord, making the trip is take much longer than expected. In addition, Howard begins to fall for Ben’s "girlfriend," Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), which only deepens the complications of the scenario.

This is far less subtle than Winchester '73 (1950), and it probably has to do with the fact that we are with the same characters the whole time instead of following around an inanimate object (a gun). The back story of Howard Kemp and his wife’s betrayal is a nice touch, but Mann’s hints at it are pretty obvious. There’s one particularly embarrassing sequence in which a dazed Kemp starts speaking to Lina as though she was his ex-fiancé. I would have greatly preferred for such exposition to end at the little mention that Robert Ryan makes at the very beginning. Other than that, though, this is standard Mann, which is to say it is pretty much amazing. The addition of technicolor provides for some of the most lush visuals moments in the history of Hollywood filmmaking (I mean, seriously, look at these snapshots). Then again, I expect nothing less from Mann.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Steel Helmet

The Steel Helmet, 1951
Dir: Samuel Fuller

This is kind of what I was expecting from Fuller, but I was not expecting to be so underwhelmed. I mean, it's "cool" and everything, but just kind of obvious. I know that the stuff that Fuller was saying was controversial and whatnot, but in cinema it really is about how you say it. Maybe Fuller thought that these issues could only be tackled by aiming his film like a gun at the American public, but that just kind of turns me off.

The Steel Helmet
is basically about Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans) who survives an execution by communist soldiers in the Korean War, is freed by a South Korean orphan (William Chun), who Zach nicknames "Short Round" (so that's where this comes from...), and then teams up with some other GIs to set up an observational post in a buddhist temple. They will see plenty of action along the way, and snappy dialogue will occur.

The beginning of the film, or at least until they get to the temple, is pretty interesting. You don't know what they are doing, just walking around foggy Korean forests trying to stay alive. After that though there is a pretty definitive dramatic thrust, and with Fuller's one dimensional characters each giving their own spiel about war, the entire weight of the film to starts getting pushed on you really hard.

You have to give the film some credit though. It gives major supporting roles to an African-American, a Japanese-American, and a tiny Korean kid. It was one of the first Hollywood films to talk about segregation with a progressive derision, and was probably the first film anywhere to talk openly about the Japanese internment camps during WWII. These things, along with the fact that Sgt. Zach shoots a POW in a fit of emotional rage, got Fuller in a ton of hot water with the Army. It was his intention to show war as it really is, and that deserves at least some respect. It's just the way he went about it that you can pick bones with.

Stars in My Crown

Stars in My Crown, 1950
Dir: Jacques Tourneur

My first encounter with Jacques Tourneur is, for the most part, a pretty good one. He is really proficient in building and establishing an atmosphere and that seems to be the single most important element in this particular film’s success. It is, after all, a story that is largely based within the repercussions surrounding a central community rather than your normal thrusting plot, and his aesthetic precision helps in making the simple observations of a classic rural town so enjoyable. Otherwise, this would probably just be remembered as a really heavy-handed indictment of racism being handed down from 1950s America.

Josiah Gray (Joel McCrea) is a country parson who arrives in the small town of Wellsburg sometime after the Civil War and he quickly alters the community so that it becomes almost his own (in a good way). He has seemingly been a key figure in the town for a while when it is struck with typhoid fever. The town’s new doctor (James Mitchell) is young and, unsurprisingly, not welcomed by the townsfolk. However, typhoid is spreading and Mr. Gray continues to see more of the young doctor, who strongly dislikes Gray based on his own belief that Gray may have spread the disease when he visited the school while his nephew was sick. Meanwhile, Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), one of the town’s black residents, is threatened to have his land taken away from him by greedy residents who are also in the Klu Klux Klan (or some vague resemblance of it).

There are some dramatic flourishes (and such moments are the weakest in the movie) but for the most part, is is essentially plotless and held together by a beautifully crafted sense of Americana. It seems like a small feat, but it is rather impressive how Tourneur creates a sense of community without much exposition to clutter his efforts. The only point where anything seems out of place it at the beginning, where we are given a rapid-fire montage of how Josiah Gray became the single most important person in Wellsburg and Gray’s nephew narrates it. There are plenty of impressive shots in this opening, but that is pretty much the only compliment I can give this essentially meaningless bit of exposition. The film then settles down to the standard 50s Hollywood pace.

Not all is lost, though, as Tourneur’s shots still have a peculiar beauty to them. It’s that beauty that can only be found in Westerns from the early 1950s, a time when greats like Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher were slowly transitioning from Noirs to Westerns. These pictures inadvertently spawned the “noir-western” which probably only become a genre (if one can call it that) in recent years. Stars in My Crown is neither Western nor Noir (a "Southern"?), but it captures the spirit of both and that is probably what counts the most. If there’s really any problem with this film, it’s that it doesn’t seem to be cohesively great. Some fantastic spots here and there, but some dry ones as well. Still, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more from Tourneur when I get the chance. Directors who "lose the plot" are right up my alley.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur Verdoux, 1947
Dir: Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin goes seriously dark and it actually fits him and the style of film that he makes really well. This was originally written by Orson Welles, who wanted Chaplin to play the lead, but Chaplin refused to be directed by anyone else and bought the script and reworked it to suit his own style. It's hard to say what would have been better, but having this is good enough.

Chaplin plays a serial killer (who goes by many aliases) who seduces women (a modern "Bluebeard") and takes all of their money. He had been a respectable banker until a financial meltdown, and when he couldn't find new employment, he decided to start his own "business." He has a wife and son from his previous life, who adore him, but he spends most of his time running around France either meeting (and killing) the women he has already wooed or trying to bag new ones. There are people on his trail though that have to be evaded, not to mention the looming possibility of another economic crisis.

Some of the voice-over is annoyingly expositional, and at the end, when Verdoux is on trial, he gives this big speech about how everyone cares when a single man kills, but when mass killings (war) takes place it is championed. It didn't really need to be said, as there were undertones of it running through the whole film. Other than that though, this is thoroughly enjoyably, and as a fitting dark comedy, Chaplin actually makes murder awkwardly funny.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946
Dir: William Wyler

I totally get why this won the Best Picture Oscar in 1946 (it sort of had to), and I totally get why it's a favorite of cinephiles, but that doesn't necessarily make it a great film. The story of three WWII vets (one navy, one army, one air force...what a coincidence) returning home to deal with their lives and trying to rehabilitate themselves while coming to grips with the fact that the civilians around them who weren't there can never really understand what happened has serious potential. The shifting, multiple-character drama also makes it interesting and right up my alley. But only to a certain point. Some of the dramatic gestures are so obvious that they are eye-rolling, e.g. a war vet can't get a plane ticket home, but the rich business man just has to throw a couple of bones down and he gets a ride (TREAT YR VETS RIGHT AMERICA), and almost patronizing. If you're interested in deep-focus cinematography, this was one of the last films Gregg Toland shot before he died. Not that Wyler does a lot of interesting stuff (in fact, he's kind of a by-the-books, "safe" Hollywood choice director if you ask me). Some interesting stuff, but mostly soup.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible, Pts. 1+2, 1944+1945 (1958)
Dir: Sergei Eisenstein

I had this whole spiel about these two films that I was going to write, but the drunk brigade rolled through my house last night and they were in no mood for my thoughts on Russian montage. These two films (out of a planned trilogy, but Eisenstein died before he finished) are without a doubt the culmination of a lifetime of thought on film for Eisenstein, and his being let loose from the restriction of propaganda (however so marginally) is a God-send (though it is the reason why Pt. 2 wasn't released until 1958). The way the films are constructed is absolutely genius, where you get a sense of beauty that emerges from the setting, the unbelievable close-ups and Sergei Prokofiev's musical score. Watch how every character is framed and presented. There is a specific representation being pushed. The only problem is that all the performances are so theatrical and over-the-top it's pretty much off-putting, at least to me. Stream these on Netflix. They are Russia's Citizen Kane (1941).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Expendables

The Expendables, 2010
Dir: Sylvester Stallone

Is there anything else that you can ask for from a film where Bruce Willis mockingly asks Sly Stallone and Ahnold whether they are going to suck each others dicks? How about throwing in a ton of action-movie stars (in the classic sense, of course, so beat it, Michael Cera) converging in a cluster-fuck of hackneyed non-sequiturs and brutal forced melodrama yet still deliver a heap of entertainment by throwing at you an array of deaths and explosions that includes Steve Austin being set on fire? God dayuuuuuuum!

The whole film follows the action film formula to a tee, and if Sly Stallone didn't also have his hand in the writing of this beauty, I'd think it was a parody instead of an homage. But there's actually a great amount of sincerity in everything about the film, especially in its reverence to a certain stereotypical action film of the past and the manly men who blow shit up in them. No girly men allowed. I was actually kind of mad at the end when Sly restrains himself from "getting" with the girl he saved. Dude, who cares if you are 62. Nothing else in your film makes sense anyway. If you pressed your monstrous mugg down on that chica bonita in an over-blown 10 second make-out it might have pushed this into GREAT territory. Jason Statham's character also has a "love interest" ("Who wrote this line? Oh yeah, me...") of sorts as well, but it's just so he can kick the asses of six dudes who are apparently all for abusing women and playing basketball (the two go hand-in-hand). Gotta' make unnecessary statements.

Statham and Stallone form the core duo of the Expendables, but don't forget Jet Li, who's given a ton of weird changlish one-liners, a small man complex and the name Ying Yang. Not to mention he doesn't even kick ass that much (and kind of loses all of the one-on-ones he in). Also throw in Randy Couture, who basically drops his guns during fire-fights and just starts powerbombing and arm-barring suckas, and Terry Crews (as "Hale Caesar") with a big fuckin' black gun, and you've got yourself a merc team. Conflict? You got it: Eruo-action veteran Dolph Lundgren plays two-timin' Euro-action bad-boy Gunner (good casting choice). But the brains of this baddie brigade is an over-wrought, super smooth Eric Roberts, just looking to make a little money growing cocoa in the tropics. He's followed around by Steve Austin, who is aptly named "Paine." Remember when Austin thought he was going to become an action star? Shit, what happened? The Rock has absolutely been laying the people's elbow on Austin for all those acting jobs these days. I'm wondering exactly where he will end up in the pantheon of professional wrestlers in their quests to convert to "acting": the top or the bottom?

Seriously, though: Where is everyone else? This is one movie where character building could have been cut to zero and just had a bunch of washed up action dudes thrown onto an island to kick dick. Seagal? Norris? THE MUSCLES FROM BRUSSELS?! This could have had it all. It does have Mickey Rourke though. He's an Expendable who doesn't fight (his name is "Tool" strangely enough), so I'm assuming he's there for his acting chops. His monologue about "standing for something" is something else, and the fact that it is the catalyst for Sly to go back to the "action" island is pretty ridiculous. But I guess it's a ridiculous film, which is sometimes entertaining because of it. I'd probably still tell someone to watch Rambo (2007) for better modern Stallone action irreverance though.