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.

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