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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Seventh Victim

The Seventh Victim, 1943
Dir: Mark Robson

I must say after all my recent viewings, I was pretty interested to watch a horror film, especially one that had more than just a cultish, if somewhat dicey, reputation. One might say that this foreshadows many things in its genre, like Psycho (1960) and Rosemary's Baby (1968), in the way that it brings you into a mood and atmosphere rather than being a straight forward visceral experience. The only problem is that it's pretty retarded.

Val Lewton, the producer, was told, in the spirit of the Production Code, to not to make a film with a message, and he replied that this film did have a message: "Death is good." Well, blow my fuckin' brain open. The way that the film foreshadows Rosemary's Baby is that it involves a group of devil worshipers. By the end though, you realize you are not in the least bit interested in the dark motivations of these Satanists who are ashamed as soon as someone utters a Catholic prayer. Like for real, is it like what a cross does to vampires?! Oh yeah, the "seventh victim" is a throwaway line like three quarters of the way through the movie.

Kim Hunter plays the sister of missing woman (Jean Brooks) who is sort of amateur sleuthing around New York, and her acting miserable. Her love story with her sister's husband (Hugh Beaumont), who she just meets when arriving from England, is furthermore pathetic. The Psycho reference can actaully be seen as the films one redeeming part, for as a B-horror/noir, it looks pretty good. The excellent shower scene has some serious creepiness to it, in which the shadow of a lady with a hat looks very much like a horned satanic figure. It kind of caught me off guard in my auto-pilot harrumphing that I go into during awful films. It's too bad the actors had to actually talk. The film clearly gets looked at for the ending, which ends in the sister's suicide (so sry to blow the ending 4 u), having resolved absolutely nothing else (no, death is GREAT). It's all mindbogglingly nonsensical, and not really in an entertaining way.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait, 1943
Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Hey, color! Woo! Well, anyway...this is the first Lubitsch film I have ever seen, and while not being completely up my alley, this is about as good as a Hollywood comedy (especially from the 40s) can get. The way the film plays out is very elliptical, not only with music queues and the progress of the narrative (from a death to a death), but also the way Lubitsch uses windows and doors over and over again to show and not show. It's really interesting stuff, considering the amount of thought that goes into Hollywood film nowadays, at least in how a film in constructed.

The story concerns Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a man who has just arrived in Hell after figuring that he had been too bad in life to be allowed into Heaven, so he didn't even try. Satan has to review his file first, and they go over the course of his life. Henry is a scoundrel, from his earliest days where he gets drunk with his family's French maid (Signe Hasso), and then to when he elopes with his cousin's finacee (Gene Tierney) at their engagement party after winning her heart. Through all of it, you understand that Henry, who comes from money, has developed into an idle man, a loafer who lives off of his family's money and who is indulged by them. He is not a real hero in any sense of the word, which is probably why this film didn't do so well during the height of WWII.

The presence of time is always present as well, and as Henry recounts his life, it slips by rather quickly and sadly, and his "misdemeanors" add up to a life of petty pleasures without much regard for others. This is why he goes "down." The sadness that builds up towards the end while maintaining the humor walks a thin line the most films can't pull off, but is reminiscent of Ozu in some fashions (he was a big fan of Lubitsch). Henry's womanizing ways also continue well past his marriage, even to the point in his 50s where he propositions a showgirl who happens to be seeing his son without his knowing. It's not like you're rooting for him in anyway to do anything in particular, but waiting for his next indiscretion to take place is oddly satisfying in a I'm- watching-something-naughty way.

This also kind of reminded me of Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939) in the ensemble comedy/deeper level going on department, and the two films have a light structure that makes it all work. They are similar directors as well; Lubitsch’s tight cutting means he never allows his characters to think or ponder on a situation, to reflect on moral positions (most of which are very gray), or to assess their surroundings. Hawks’ characters are too busy doing something for the luxury of self-reflection, while Lubitsch’s characters are too busy doing nothing. Some of the characters here are a little to one dimensional (like all of the parents) but my favorite supporting cast member has to be Grandpa (Charles Coburn) who is the Van Cleve who made all of the family's money and tends to act as a voice of reason throughout, and is Henry's biggest ally. Henry is a layabout, but you can sense in Grandpa that that is the life he had always wanted to live, and he even says later that Henry is the "only Van Cleve that I ever cared about." When they go to get back Henry's wife after she leaves (because of one his indiscretions) Grandpa comes along and is hilarious. While he's bouncing around the house that they've invaded, he tells one of the house servant giddily, "I've always wanted to runaway with a girl!" I can't see anyone not having a smile on their face. I just convinced myself while writing this that it is better than I first thought. Now I'm certain more Lubitsch will occur.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Christmas in July

Christmas in July, 1940
Dir: Preston Sturges

Not all comedies are satires, but all satires are comedies. Right? Sturges is practically Hollywood royalty with cinephiles, and let's face it: he made good films. Sullivan's Travels (1941) impressed me even before I started to think seriously about film, but unconsciously I think once you have taken in a certain amount of films, you have already begun to build an aesthetic of what you like and dislike, and not in a pretentious way. Once you become conscious of it, staying true to it is the only way to be unpretentious. Christmas in July is not dense, nor really funny, and maybe not even witty, but it stands as testament to the Depression that many films in the 30s couldn't even get right because filmmakers were too busy letting people escape reality instead of making people actually think about it.

I think "South Park" is funny, because I love potty humor. But its biting satire is the only reason why it remains relevant. Would people watch if it wasn't "funny?" I mean, shit, dudes: Alexander Pope wrote satires, and ain't he a barrel of laughs?! I am a product of my own time when it comes to comedy (though it's not truly that simple), and I'm guessing if Trey Parker and Matt Stone emphasized brain work over laughs (though "South Park" is clearly much smarter than your average TV show) it would have gone off the air ages ago. Christmas in July never really made me laugh. It has some "smiley" moments, but they are kind of entrenched in Screwball, a form of film comedy that just doesn't make any sense to me. Maybe it is not supposed to make sense, cause it's so ZANNNNNY! But thankfully, I wouldn't say this is a Screwball comedy (though in some reviews I have read have labeled it as such).

Any sort of connection to Screwball surely comes from the events in the film once Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) wins a radio contest that results in him getting $25,000, and he goes out on the town with his girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew) to buy all kinds of stuff! Unbeknownst to him, it was actually the handy work of some of his co-workers that he got a telegraph stating he had won, and once the truth comes out, it comes as a pretty hard blow.

His new "wealth" had gotten him a promotion, a sense of pride and a new direction in life, and once it's stripped away, he is not really prepared for the consequences, especially to be labeled a thief and a "swindler." This is the best part of the film. When Betty pleads with Jimmy's boss to let him keep his promotion, it's most definitely wrapped in some sort of ideal American ingenuity that still pervades most Hollywood films today, but it seems like it was placed at the right moment. Of course, he's given a "chance" to prove he can do it. The satire in the film has a great deal to do with the desperate fantasies of opulence developed during the Depression, and scenes of the dreaming couple on the roof at the beginning, and then the proto-Il Posto (1961) drone work of Jimmy's job only hammer this yearning home. The prevailing sadness in this film definitely makes it interesting as a "comedy," even if I wouldn't say it was really funny.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Story of the Late Crysanthemums

残菊物語 (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), 1939
Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi

People usually point to this as Mizoguchi's finest pre-War effort, but considering that this is only the second of his films that I've seen, I can't really say for sure. This is a slow-burner though, being one of the films that saw Mizoguchi's long-take aesthetic come to fruition, and in the end it's probably too long. At the end, there is a good amount of the Kabuki sequences that he could have cut down. Other than that though it is undeniably very good.

The beginning of the film was really strange and seemed stale with the strict style that Mizoguchi employs. I was sort of blown away by how the decent set up, of how a spoiled, adopted son of a famous actor finally realizes that he himself is no good and must make a name for himself on his own, wasn't interesting me at all. Once the initial confrontation happens, where Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) tells his father that he can't live in his shadow forever and is going to marry the family's nurse (Kakuko Mori), I started to get into it though. Once you've watched enough early Japanese (and Asian) cinema (I guess I've watched "just enough" but not nearly as much as I wish I have), you start to notice the gigantic culture clashes being shown on screen as the main crux of conflict; of how modernity is clashing with the strict cultures of proud people; "our" generation vs. old dudez. Kiku's decision to disrespect his father and his father's reputation is unforgivable and he is thrown out right away. Despite some pleas from other people to stay, it is too late. He must go out on his own.

Kiku finds himself sinking lower and lower in the acting world until he ends up part of a traveling troupe (this device is used a lot in cinema, huh?), where even there he still finds himself with a "bad actor" reputation. All he has is his wife, Otaku, who is a constant crutch, especially when Kiku starts to doubt if he can ever prove that he was right to leave and occaisionally tries to indulge himself with "nights out." Small hints of pride bubble up when Otaku goes to an old friend to ask for help and let Kiku preform in his new play, something Kiku was too ashamed to do. The sacrifice that Otaku partakes in here is reflected later as well, when after Kiku proves to everyone that he is a great actor, can only be reconciled with his father and the higher arts of Tokyo if he takes back the famous name, which cannot be connected to a house maid/nurse. So she leaves him for the sake of his "art," much to his agony.

The ending is melodramatic soup, but not strictly bad. Otaku is succumbing to tuberculosis during the moment of Kiku's artistic triumph, and only then is he given permission by his father to go and "be with his wife" on her death bed. It seems like a bit of a cop out concerning the whole generational clash (he seriously still needs "permission?" But I guess by accepting Otaku's decision to leave for his sake, he had already fallen back into his old way of life without her, which might be even more heartbreaking if you think about it), but in its presentation completely effective in how demoralizing her death will be to Kiku (and thus, you as a viewer). The film's bittersweet ending is reminiscent of the ending of Ugetsu (1953) though I wasn't at all conflicted there. Mizoguchi's style and mis-en-scene are already to the point here that allows for beautiful images and actions to be captured, and that alone, for me, makes his entire body of work, including this, work seeking out.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow

Make Way For Tomorrow, 1937
Dir: Leo McCarey

This film is a brick of sadness to the face. Unavoidable in its relentless degradation of the way we treat old people, even in its slight Old Hollywood, hokey trappings, by the end you are in a downright state. And maybe even more so now because it's sure to be a million times worse in the hustle and bustle of modern life. There are so many squeamish and unbearable moments in this film that are incredibly hard to watch, and even when the brick is starting to feel like a hammer in the obviousness of it all, the overwhelming feeling you are left with just locks your eyes to the screen. Don't let the presentation fool you though. This is anything but your normal Hollywood feature. McCarey got creamed (by audiences and his studio, but not by critics) for making a bummer during the Depression, but sometimes you need that. To be reminded what life really is like. The characters stare past one another rather than really interact. I wouldn't be surprised if Ozu saw this at some point in his life (Did you know that Ozu skipped out on being conscripted in the Imperial Army (for a second time) during WWII and fled to Singapore where he spent his days watching endless amounts of old Hollywood films? What a badass cinephile...) and realized that Japanese people in the 50s needed a similar reminder to "honor your mother and father" as well. While Ozu's Tokyo Story (1955) is a polite, Japanese push out the door, Make Way For Tomorrow is, like I said, an American brick to the face. And it really hurts. I might prefer Ozu's more subtle method, but it is impossible to not be affected by this film. Wet eyes will occur.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett, 1935
Dir: George Cukor

There were certain parts of this that sort of reminded me of Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and it's mostly where the cast works great as an ensemble. Cary Grant being awesome here again probably had something to do with it too. But at the end of the day, this is a Katherine Hepburn vehicle, and you kind of have to like the way she drives it. As for me, it definitely has great moments, but at the end it can't really be called a great film.

Playing up Hepburn's latent androgyny and her inclination to wear men's clothing in public, Sylvia Scarlett is about a father (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Hepburn) who have to leave France for England after he is caught embezzling. So right away there are some character issues with the supporting cast, which continues with slick "gentleman adventurer", aka con-man, Jimmy Monkley (Grant) and a lusty, simple housemaid (Dennie Moore). The cops are looking for man and a girl so Sylvia cuts her hair and becomes Sylvester. Once in England they play some con games but have no luck (in part because Hepburn is so righteous) so they decide to start a traveling performance act and put on pantomime shows. The caravan shots are sort of like The Seventh Seal (1957), but not really. I was reaching for some connection, and this hit the target if only marginally. Sylvia falls for a tall painter (Brian Aherne) but he already has a "lady friend" which causes a lot of hormonal confusion and changes in clothing for young Sylvia.

Hepburn acts her face off in this, but I'm not so sure if that helps a whole. Especially when she's trying to be feminine. She's much more at ease in scenes where there's just "guy" talk going on and she and Grant are bickering. Grant is just a sleazeball here, and at the end, though there's a sort of a wry smile about it, his decision, while not out of character, threw me for a loop. I'd say he gets pretty close to being as great as Geoff Carter in Wings as a role you just don't expect him to have (morally conflicted/ambiguous). The best parts are sort of strange Hawks-esque controlled chaos, like at the mansion where Sylvia gets drunk and Jimmy tries to filch the jewelry, and then the party at the painter's house where everyone is pretty much wasted again and dancing around.

There's just too much Hepburn time though, annoying monologues, crying close-ups and such. I think that stuff was thrown in there as a draw, because all the cross-dressing (and not to mention that scandalous "girl-on-girl" kiss -- wowza!) did not make this a popular film in the 30s and it was a bomb. I think that is why this is on a few cinephile lists; the belief that they found this film that was trashed and now, in retrospect, they can point at how ballsy this was and say, "A half century before Hilary Swank was the obvious choice for boot-cut denims, Hepburn was gallivanting around in suits." Sorry, don't really care. For a romantic comedy, the romance or comedy was not very interesting.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Project A

A 計劃 (Project A), 1983
Dir: Jackie Chan

Jackie wears his old Hollywood influences on his sleeve in Project A more than any other film of his that I've seen. This isn't a bad thing per se, considering that those influences are Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but I think something gets a bit lost in the overall enjoyment because of it, plot wise. But you can't really deny the how insane some of the stunts are. The clock tower scene is bonkers and the outtakes of it at the end are some of the craziest shit I've seen Jackie do.

Like all "Three Brothers" films, Sammo Hung definitely has the best comedic chops in my opinion. His timing and delivery just can't be beaten, and add to that his physical skills he's a dynamic asset to any film. Just watching him walk around with a stove-pipe hat on, gesticulating everywhere is pretty hilarious. Biao Yuen is not a weak link (considering how awesome he is in Wheels on Meals (1984) you'd know) but his role here doesn't really let him flex his best muscles if you as me. Jackie here is pretty great in everything he does, as usual, so no problems there.

The Old Hong Kong and pirates thing I thought would act as a catalyst for something awesome, but by the end you kind of realize how irrelevant it all is compared to all the awesome stunts and fights. I'm only saying this because there are good Jackie movies where they blend pretty well. I suppose I'm being picky, and its pretty much the only gripe I have about this (besides the "comedic" supporting cast not being very funny). All of the other stuff in this is Jackie at his very best.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!

Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!, 1933
Dir: Lewis Milestone

Ugh, another musical? Are you serious? Yeah, yeah. I know. But I have to push on. So another sleeper sensation that only a few cinephile critics know about? Uh, well, this is an Al Jolson vehicle, sans blackface, that is, I'm sorry to say, not very funny. Jolson as an entertainer was not a comedian, and that might be where I can't see eye to eye with this. You can romanticize hobos all you want, but if you're just singing about how sweet it is to be homeless in Central Park, I might not give a shit.

Jolson plays a popular hobo named Bumper, who happens to be good buddies with the Mayor of New York (Frank Morgan), which of course makes no sense. The two plots of Bumper being a jolly good bum and the Mayor's relationship problems meet when Bumper saves a woman (Madge Evans) from killing herself and then falls in love with her. She has some sudden traumatic amnesia from throwing herself off a bridge and can't remember that she got dumped by the Mayor because he thought she was fooling around. I smell conflict!!

There are a bunch of really heavy-handed leftist remarks in this that are pretty pointless, which makes me wonder why they are in there at all. I mean, when Bumper decides to work all the other hobos get pissed and put him on "trial." You can't be a working hobo, duh. Labor blows! Another thing that will pop out at the modern audience is the character of Acorn, who pals around with Bumper, played by Edgar Connor. He is kind of a real life blackface character, always smiling, always doing the "shitty" work. I'm not sure what statement is being made, good or bad, but Jolson was known for his black rights activism. It just seems like the wrong kind of ambiguity if you ask me. This does not have the cool stuff that Love Me Tonight (1933) had, and instead of being funny, it's just corny as hell. The ending is actually pretty interesting, but I'm (usually) just no song-and-dance man.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight, 1933
Dir: Rouben Mamoulian

I guess anybody who reads this blog can tell I'm following some "strict code" to the movies that I watch, but when Love Me Tonight came up I felt a little depressed. This is because it's a musical and I thought that I was going to be wasting my time, 'cause most musicals are made for one reason only and that is to make girls go watch movies who normally wouldn't. That in itself is not a bad thing, but the results usually piss me off. Everyone just starts singing and dancing for no reason and any flow the film had just disappears into lame people mugging for camera time. Or maybe an elaborate dance number that makes you forget what the fuck the film was about in the first place. I was sort of expecting something like this, the 30s musicals that I've seen not really changing my mind about musicals in general (true story: first film in the first film studies class that I took at BU: Gold Diggers of 1933. Didn't quite understand the big deal about Busby Berkely's dreams. Pig Latin. For real?). Hear this though: Love Me Tonight is never annoying (well only occasionally, but that's a huge compliment coming from me) constantly funny and as cool as the underside of a pillow on a hot summer night.

OK, so this is a chick flick, and the basic plot premise involves the pauper and rich girl-princess dynamic where true love prevails. But right from the beginning you can tell that it's different. The songs are all talk-singy ditties that roll right along with the plot, so you're never tapping your foot with frustration for it to start moving along again. So when fashionable Parisian tailor Maurice (Maurice Chevalier) gets gypped by a debtor Count (Charles Ruggles), he decides to go out to the country estate where the skirter resides with his aristocratic family to collect his due. After his ride breaks down on the way, he bumps into a beautiful girl who is out riding and he manically professes his love, not knowing that this is the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who lives in the same estate as her sleazy, if very funny Count cousin. I bet it's really awkward when this commoner tailor shows up!!

There are many really cool things about this film, but I suppose the first thing that you have to talk about is Maurice Chevalier and the unstoppable dynamo that he is in this. His first sort of "going to work" walking-song is laugh-out loud funny, eg. he confronts a woman on the street with another man and says in mock outrage, "Oh what, some other boyfriend?" and the man's real outraged response of "This is my wife!" is prefect, especially when added to Chevalier's "my mistake" face as he saunters away. His devil-may-care attitude throughout the film just adds to the overall enjoyment of the viewing. Like I said earlier, Ruggles is the quick-wit fuck up and slides along in the role quite nicely.

The ladies are pretty decent, but I'm going to talk about a strange thing that I've noticed about some of these old films. Maybe it's just my modern sensibilities, but there is something about a lot of these supporting female roles (usually pre-code stuff) that are way more appealing to me than all of these haughty-bitchy good-girls who finally come to their senses when they realize they might miss out on love or some shitz. The man-crazy, personality disorder floozies that plays the "bad" half of the 30s woman dichotomy, is just, well, hotter. I mean, Jeanette MacDonald has the leading lady looks, but she is also flattered by all those soft light close-ups. But Myrna Loy, who plays the bad-girl cousin, is a smoke-show and all of her lines are about how she wants to get railed (in a polite, clever 1930s way, of course). Maurice man, make the right (wrong) choice!

As far as Mamoulian goes, he just seems like a really cool cat that decided if he wanted to have his films watched he was probably going to have to make musical comedies. The entire film is a smooth ride, and tremendously cinematic, lots of nice fade to interiors after sweeping shots of buildings (many miniatures), and all the editing top-notch, a rarity for a musical. It just oozes style. I'm still kind of shocked at my reaction to this, but yeah, it's really good. Oh yeah, great date movie.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I Was Born, But...

大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど (I Was Born, But...), 1932
Dir: Yasujiro Ozu

Looking up the phrase "I was born, but..." in Japanese, it seems to be some one of their comical whimsies wrapped in existential melancholy, which makes it all the more poignant for this film. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Ozu made the film after thinking about the phrase and its place in Japanese society. Or maybe it was just perfect for the film that he made, but then we're just getting into a whole chicken/egg thing.

I say "its place in Japanese society" because at its heart, this film is a satire of the culture of respect that has always dominated Japan. Being mostly about two boys who have moved to a new town, they have to deal with all the stuff that goes with that: new school, bullies and school work. They decide to play hooky after a while but are caught, and only start to make their way with the local kids after standing up to them finally with the help of an older boy (who sells liquor).

The boys' relationship with their father is really the crux of the film though. After getting to one of their new friend's families get-togethers, they find their father there but are soon extremely embarrassed by his behavior in front of the boss. Back at home they get sulky and even confront their father about it -- "You tell us to be somebody. But you are nobody!" A gigantic power-play and cultural taboo. They get spanked and scolded, but the direction that the film goes from there is what makes it absolutely brilliant. The father doesn't get a raise. He doesn't get a better job. Even at this early point in his career, Ozu's mantra of "Isn't life disappointing?" is already in place and this is something the kids have to accept.

Needless to say, the performances here are all pretty great. Tatsuo Saito, a figure in prewar Japanese cinema, plays the father of the film’s prepubescent protagonists. Tomio Aoki plays one of the boys, and it sounds a little weird, but there is definitely something bizarre and fascinating about his face. Even one of his schoolmates observes this – "he looks like a bug." I'm not quite sure why it was the first thing to come to mind, but it’s easy to think that Harmony Korine probably watched this movie a dozen times before making Gummo (1997) and picked Nick Sutton and Jacob Reynolds to be "two brothers" milling about a town based on their strange looks.

There’s plenty of other things worth mentioning, such as a nearly perfect example of Ozu’s later aesthetic with only a few brilliantly placed tracking shots here and there. In fact, these tracking shots seem to perfectly compliment the whole “kinetic” feeling that is the polar opposite of Tokyo Story (1955). Obviously, both approaches work for me, but it was still interesting to see that when Ozu was younger he at least attempted something slightly different than usual. There’s other things too, like the fact that the film is seriously one of the funniest things ever. It’s a comedy/satire, but in the exact opposite way that a silent film should be a comedy and I say that in the best possible way. There’s some Keaton-inspired gags too, but they are beautifully masked in Ozu’s universe. It all melts into an incredible masterpiece.