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.