Monday, April 28, 2008

Merchants and Menace

118. The character of Shylock has come to dominate the discourse surrounding Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that it tends to obscure a couple of things about the play. First, the merchant of the title isn't Shylock. Second, the play is a comedy. Regardless, it's a weird, ungainly thing. Just as Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy with the structure of a comedy (with it's series of coincidences driving the action), The Merchant of Venice is a comedy with the structure of a tragedy. Were he but a little more sympathetic to Shylock--and given the attitude towards Jews in Elizabethan England, it's amazing that it's as sympathetic as it is--Shakespeare might have transformed the play into an outright tragedy, and none of the fiddling with a cast of largely odious characters. Michael Radford's movie version from 2004 reflects all of this. Al Pacino is an interesting choice for Shylock, and he acquits himself well enough in the role. Neither Jeremy Irons as Antonio (the title character) or Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio are well cast, but they serve well enough for being major characters shoved off the stage by the play's brighter lights. Lynn Collins is a sublime Portia, who acts as a bright, shiny balance to Shylock, especially in the courtroom scene (She's really a Texan? No way!). The "quality of mercy" speech is just as ineffectual as always (Shylock: "screw that, I want my pound of flesh"), but it sounds delightful here. Radford, for his part and like many an interpreter before him, tends to forget that the play is a comedy for long stretches, and punctuates this with a borrowing from The Searchers near the end of the movie. The Bard has fared much worse with far easier plays, so we'll call it good, I guess.

119. Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (1999) is a fairly diagrammatic movie for all its cinematic freak out. A variant on the doppelganger theme, it's constructed out of flashbacks in a fairly conventional manner. What it does indicate, however, is that the influence of Seijun Suzuki on the Japanese horror films of the last decade is deeper and stronger than I had assumed. This movie seems like a lost fourth installment of Suzuki's Taisho trilogy, though it's not nearly as elliptical.

From The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, volume 5, disc one, "Bugs and Daffy":

120. "14-Carrot Rabbit" (1952, directed by Friz Freling)
121. "Ali Baba Bunny" (1957, directed by Chuck Jones)
122. "Buccaneer Bunny" (1948, directed by Friz Freling)
123. "Bugs's Bonnets" (1956, directed by Chuck Jones)
124. "A Star is Bored (1956, directed by Friz Freling)
125. "A Pest in the House" (1947, directed by Chuck Jones)
126. "Transylvania 6-5000" (1963, directed by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble)
127. "Oily Hare" (1952, directed by Robert McKimson)
128. "Stupor Duck" (1956, directed by Robert McKimson)
129. "The Stupor Salesman" (1948, directed by Arthur Davis)
130. "The Abominable Snow Rabbit" (1961, directed by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble)
131. "The Super Snooper" (1952, directed by Robert McKimson)
132. "The Up-Standing Sitter" (1948, directed by Robert McKimson)
133. "Hollywood Daffy" (1946, directed by Friz Freling(???))
134. "You Were Never Duckier" (1948, directed by Chuck Jones)

I don't really have a lot to say about this lot except that this disc seems to be less heavily weighted towards Chuck Jones than previous Bugs discs. Jones gets six cartoons to four each from Freling and McKimson, plus one from Arthur Davis. There's still a slant, but it's not as pronounced as in the past. A couple of the late Jones cartoons show a transformed animation style that barely resembles the cartoons Jones et al. were making a mere ten years earlier. A couple of these are pretty quotable ("Hasan Chop!"), but none are in the first rank of Bugs or Daffy cartoons. "Hollywood Daffy" doesn't have a director listed on either the print or the IMDB, but I'm pretty sure it's a Freling.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Whole Lotta Tunes

84. The Ruins (2008, directed by Carter Smith) is destined to be one of those minor classics that litter the horror genre. It's not ambitious. It doesn't want to overreach its modest premise, nor does it pretend to deep philosophical underpinnings, and its lack of ambition will keep it out of the bright circle of horror's best movies. But for what it DOES want to do, it excels. This is a brutal little movie that distills horror down to a simple survival narrative. It doesn't pull its punches at all, either. The story finds a group of vacationing college kids trapped on an uncharted Mayan pyramid by hostile natives. Are they sacrifices? Is there some more sinister purpose? It all clocks in at about an hour and a half, which is exactly as long as B-Movies oughta run. While there is gore aplenty for those that want it, the most disturbing things in the movie to my mind are the flowers. This movie has the scariest inflorescent landscape this side of Oz.


Regarding my year-long project, I've been wavering on how to treat short films. I just got the fourth and fifth Looney Tunes boxes and working my way through them has seriously curtailed my time for features. And I have the Norman McLaren box waiting in the wings, too. For the time being, I think I'll stick to my guns and count shorts, given the amount of time I'm sinking into them. For the curious, I watched the Bugs Bunny sides of both boxes, the fairy tales and Bob Clampett sides of Box #5, and the Cats side of Box #4. The Cats disc was an unexpected treat. The fourth box was one I've been leery of from the start, actually, because it devotes an entire disc to Speedy Gonzalez. I don't much like Speedy, so the gilding was off that lily. Silly me: the other three sides are well worth the price.

Still heavy on the Chuck Jones, but it's nice to see discs devoted to Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett, and there are more Robert McKimson shorts in these last two boxes than in the past. That's a good thing.

From The Golden Collection, Volume 4, disc one "Bugs Bunny Favorites:"

85. Roman Legion-Hare (1955, d. Friz Freling)
86. The Grey Hounded Hare (1949, d. Robert McKimson)
87. Rabbit Hood (1949, d. Chuck Jones)

It's interesting to compare the animation styles of these three shorts. Freling was always about comic timing rather than animation; his shorts (this one included) always seem cinematically flat, if you know what I mean, though his background artists (particularly Hawley Pratt) occasionally seem like they're out UPA-ing UPA on a larger budget. Jones tends to prefer static shots, too, but he uses them like snapshots of extreme emotions, the dramatic pause if you will. Jones was still wedded to the more traditional animation style of the forties, here, but he's pretty bold in violating that with an insert from The Adventures of Robin Hood at the end of this one. An mid-period example of Jones creating a self-referencing meta-cartoon. McKimson prefered a more "animated" style, in which things were in motion. He inherits the reality stretching tendencies of Avery and Clampett (for whom he animated most of their Warners output). I've always thought that if McKimson had wedded the intellect of Jones with his own aesthetic, he might have been the greatest of the Warners. In fact, I think McKimson's cartoons are the most consistently funny of the Looney Tunes, even if they aren't consistently great. I really like McKimson, and always have, because his delineation of the major characters fixes their overall "look" in my mind more than any of the other Warner directors.

88. Operation: Rabbit (1952, d. Chuck Jones)

Probably the most quoted Looney Tune cartoon. "Wile E. Coyote. SUPER-genius." Heh.

89. Knight-Mare Hare (1955, d. Chuck Jones)

One of the more minor Jones 'toons. Bugs really needs a better foil in this one.

90. Southern Fried Rabbit (1953, d. Friz Freling)
91. Mississippi Hare (1949, d. Chuck Jones)

The opening segment of "Mississippi Hare" is sheer poetry (where Bugs has his cottontail "picked" and he winds up in a bale of cotton on a riverboat in the Old South. Southern Fried Rabbit is another face-off with Yosemite Sam, this time as an unreconstructed Confederate soldier; it has a magnificent punch line. Unfortunately, when Warners disclaims about racist stereotypes on these discs, they might as well talking about these two cartoons. They're pretty obnoxious. Still and all, they're also pretty funny.

92. Hurdy-Gurdy Hare (1950, d. Robert McKimson)

Another McKimson gem. The design and animation of the monkey and the ape in this are terrific.

93. Forward March Hare (1953, d. Chuck Jones)

Jones also specialized in putting Bugs in outlandish situations (even more so than the other directors). Here, he gets drafted by the army.

94. Barbary Coast Bunny (1956, d. Chuck Jones)
95. To Hare Is Human (1956, d. Chuck Jones)

Mid-Period Jones, the first is average. The second re-teams Bugs with Wile E. Coyote, still convinced of his genius, to good effect.

96. 8 Ball Bunny (1950, d. Chuck Jones)

Coming after the cartoons from just six years later, this one is a stark example of what Jones left behind when he began stylizing his cartoons into abstraction. Here, Bugs escorts a lost penguin home. Humphrey Bogart makes a cameo.

97. Knighty Knight Bugs (1958, d. Friz Freling)

Freling was stylizing his cartoons towards abstraction, too, but still managed to make that abstraction look like a version of reality. Jones was an expressionist. Freling was a pragmatist.

98. Rabbit Romeo (1957, d. Robert McKimson)

McKimson seems to have held onto the classic designs of the Looney Tunes characters the longest, but you begin to see the influence of UPA even in his cartoons. You get the feeling with McKimson, though, that he uses that influence by choice rather than practical necessity. June Foray does great work in this one, by the way, doing a vocal prototype for Natasha Fatale. I'm glad that the Golden Collection discs have given...ahem...voice to the other voices that contributed to the Warner cartoons besides Mel Blanc.

99. Black Tight Killers (1966, directed by Yasuhara Hasebe) shows the deepening influence of Seijun Suzuki on Japanese pop cinema, but without Suzuki's talent or lunatic abandon. Girl-gang ninjas take on the criminal element to prevent them from retrieving a fortune in ill-gotten war profits. An amiable photojournalist gets caught in the middle. I like the ninja bubble gum. I like the 45 records used as throwing stars, but, Jesus, director Hasebe hasn't gotten the memo that Japanese film is supposed to aestheticize even its trash. Eh. Enjoyable, but no more than that.

100. All About Eve (1950, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) wouldn't take much tweaking to turn it into a horror movie. Give the pathologically duplicitous Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) a homicidal streak and you have a classic horror movie set-up. Sadly, there's no body count and this is still one of the talkiest "great" movies out there. George Sanders is great, though. As always.

101. La Ceremonie (1995, directed by Claude Chabrol) is another of the director's Hitchcockian exercises. In this film, he adds a strain of class warfare as Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert turn on their bourgeoisie masters. The downside of this is that Chabrol seems to like his bourgeois straw family to the point where the thing turns into a bit of a muddle. I still find Chabrol to be cold fish. He takes the worldview of Hitchcock, but not the wit.

Catching up with the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. From volume four, disc four, "Kitty Korner," on which the Warners have put a bunch of cartoons involving cats. Most of them are stand-alones or feature characters who were only in a handful of cartoons. The line-up:

102. The Night Watchman (1938, directed by Chuck Jones), in which a young kitten fills in for his dad as a mouse catcher. Jones's first film as director(!) finds him emphasizing "cute." Jones would continue in this vein for several years. Historically important, I guess, but not very good compared to the contemporary films made by Clampett and Avery.

103. Conrad the Sailor (1942, directed by Chuck Jones). A dramatic difference, and recognizable as Jones's work. Seems a bit like a Goofy cartoon--certainly the voice of the title character sounds it--if Goofy had ever encountered an early iteration of Daffy Duck.

104. The Sour Puss (1940, directed by Robert Clampett), in which Porky and his cat go fishing and encounter a looney flying fish. In black and white, but closer to the Warners style of ten years later than to, say, Jones's early films. Not Clampett's finest hour; the wackiness seems a bit forced.

105. The Aristo-Cat (1943, directed by Chuck Jones). It's amazing how fast Jones became an expressionist. Though dramatically different in tone and content, this exercise in wild backgrounds is positively Caligarian. A pampered cat is left to fend for himself when his butler walks off. Two mice take advantage. Funny, but it's the visuals that make it.

106. Dough-Ray Me-Ow (1948, directed by Arthur Davis), in which conniving parrot Louie plots to do in "best pal" Heathcliff. Heathcliff takes the cake as the dimmest bulb ever to appear in a Looney Tune. "Breathe, stupid! Ya forgot to breathe!" For sheer comedy, this is one of the best.

107. Pizzicato Pussycat (1955, directed by Friz Freling) is another late cartoon to show the influence of UPA. Here we find a piano playing mouse being exploited by a cat for fame. It's interesting how abstract the backgrounds in this are, but they seem to fit the theme. They remind me of the album covers of certain jazz records from the period (think Brubeck).

108. Kiss Me Cat (1953, directed by Chuck Jones) A variant of the bulldog/cute kitten theme that Jones explored in the 1950s, in which the kitten needs to catch mice to keep his home and the bulldog tries to help. Some arresting shot compositions in this one.

109. Cat Feud (1958, directed by Chuck Jones). Another variant of the bulldog/cute kitten combo, this time on a construction site (yet another Looney Tunes descendant of Harold Lloyd). The character models in this one are drifting away from the classic Warner model sheets towards the kinds of model sheets Jones used for his television work in the 60s and 70s.

110. The Unexpected Pest (1956, directed by Robert McKimson), in which Sylvester has been too successful in catching mice, and has to find a ringer to help him keep his home. McKimson is in fine form, but the material doesn't overreach. Funny.

111. Go Fly a Kit (1957, directed by Chuck Jones). This is the one about the flying cat, who uses his tail as a propeller. Another one more in line with later Jones than with classic Warners.

112. Kiddin' the Kitten (1952, directed by Robert McKimson), in which McKimson channels W. C. Fields. Dodsworth the cat goes to absurd lengths to avoid doing actual work to keep his home free of mice. To this end, he swindles a kitten. Much to his chagrin.

113. A Peck O' Trouble (1953, directed by Robert McKimson). Dodsworth again, this time trying to get a woodpecker for breakfast without expending an effort. Fun.

114. Mouse and Garden (1960, directed by Friz Freling). Sylvester and his rival, Sam, duel over a mouse in a boathouse. Mostly flat. Freling seemed to be making dry runs for television cartooning at this time.

115. Porky's Poor Fish (1940, directed by Robert Clampett). Another reality-stretching Clampett toon. In black and white. Porky manages a fish store and the inhabitants must fend off a cat when Porky goes to lunch. Heavy on the "tune" part of Looney Tunes.

116. Swallow the Leader (1949, directed by Robert McKimson). When the swallows return to Capistrano, one cat tries to take advantage. This one seems like a lot of slapstick just for the sake of it. Characterization is at a minimum, but the gags are rapid fire. Funny and brutal. Or brutally funny.

I'll get back to Looney Tunes next week. That's not all folks...

117. Finally, I sat through Star Wars (1977, directed by George Lucas) for the first time in years. Man, that hasn't aged well. And I'm talking the original Han-shoots-first version. Only Peter Cushing seems to be in his element, but he made far more ridiculous movies than this one. The cinematography in the desert sequences is pretty good, too, come to think of it. And the "used future" production design. It's easy to see why Carrie Fisher thought she was making a turkey. The dialogue is excremental.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Quick and Dirty

I don't have much time this week, so some quick hits:

77. Ong-Bak (2003, directed by Prachya Pinkaew), in which Tony Jaa must retrieve the head of the local goddess from bad guys in the big city. Pretty much a lame plot, and not particularly adventurous as cinema, and none of that matters, because it's packed from the first sequence onward with more "OMFG did I just see that?" moments than any film I from the last ten years that I can name. Those people are amazing. And crazy as hell.

78. The silent comedians used to do crazy stunts, too, and Harold Lloyd's "Never Weaken" (1921, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer) plays like a first draft for his later thrill comedies. This is only a couple of reels, but the finale on an unfinished skyscraper packs in the jaw-dropping moments.

79. This sort of thing is perfected in Lloyd's Girl Shy (1924, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor), in which the final third of the movie is a chase featuring just about every kind of land transportation known to man. For sheer thrills, this is hard to beat. In addition, the movie has a romantic sweetness to it, even when Lloyd's character is being a twit. Lloyd's face was the most expressive of the three kings of silent comedy, a talent put to amazingly good use here.

80. I've tried and I've tried, but I just can't warm up to John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). I still think it talks too damned much and indulges too much in didacticism. Cinematically, I guess it's notable for the way the faces fill the screen in its occasional close-ups, but the heist unfolds with surprisingly little suspense, and the aftermath, in which the crooks go to their various dooms, seems an anti-climax.

81. Ching Sui Tung's A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) seems to be fading into obscurity (it's not currently in print in North America), which is a shame. It's the kind of "inventing cinema on the fly" lunacy that helped Hong Kong action movies re-write the rules of action cinema. Its closest analogue in western cinema is Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, and it blows that comparison out of the water with a delirious romanticism and an unflagging willingness to put its ideas on the screen and damn the consequences. Favorite sequence: our heroes storm the afterlife to save the soul of ghost girl Joey Wang and are attacked by a swarm of flying severed heads that bite like piranhas.

82. I've written about Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972, directed by Chor Yuen) elsewhere, so I'll note in passing that it shares a lot of the characteristic of distaff Asian revenge movies familiar to fans of Lady Snowblood or Female Convict Scorpion, but the gender politics on hand, and the final fate of our lesbian antagonists, sets it apart. And its eroticism. That, too.

83. Watching Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) yet again, I was struck by how the film's most indelible images are divorced from dialogue. I'm thinking specifically of Harry Lime's face illuminated by a stray light, of his fingers clutching through the sewer grate, and Alida Valli walking past Joseph Cotten in utter indifference in the film's last shot. That last shot is one of the best long takes in cinema, and in film known for its expressionist design, it's amazingly subdued. I still hate the zither, though, and that may never change.