Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brief Hits

What I saw last week. Minimal reviews. Sorry.

263. A Touch of Zen (1969, directed by King Hu). One of my very favorite movies. I'd recommend it more highly if the DVD didn't suck (and suck HARD). A longer reaction can be found here.

264. Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1920, directed by John S. Robertson). In which the familiar elements of most subsequent movie versions are solidified. John Barrymore is good as Jeckyll, in a relatively restrained performance. He's off the rails as Hyde, though.

265. Black Sunday (La Maschera del demonio, 1960, directed by Mario Bava), another of my very favorite movies. A fever dream of rapturous images. Barbara Steele's eyes sometimes haunt my dreams.

266. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005, directed by George Lucas). You know what bugs me about this movie? When I saw it in the theater, it had that soft focus degredation of image that comes with most films that are converted from a digital negative to film. This movie looks better on television than it did in a theater. That's just WRONG. I kinda like the two movies that came before this one--they've gained in retrospect. I liked this more when I first saw it than I do now. Interesting. But then, I have no vested interest in the Star Wars movies and never really have.

267. The Pit of Bloody Horror (Il Boia scarlatto, 1965, directed by Massimo Pupillo). This is just plain goofy: it's what you get if you throw Feuillade and Bava into a blender and hit puree. Still, it delivers the violence, if that's your bag. For some reason, I wanted to follow this with an El Santo movie for good measure. It's probably best that I didn't have one immediately to hand.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Burning Down the House

258. A couple of years ago, one of my friends tried to get me to watch a horror movie called Cutting Class, a slasher movie. I don't much like slasher movies, so I told my friend that I'd take a pass on it. To which, he replied:

"What? You don't want to see Brad Pitt get his head crushed in a vise?"


If I were unsure of Burn After Reading, all someone would have to say would be "What? You don't want to see Brad Pitt get shot in the face?"

Again. Sold.

I loved Burn After Reading. It's not a laugh a minute. It's actually kinda dark for a farce, even a "black comedy." I think the movie is structured like a shaggy dog joke. Those jokes depend on the punchline, and this movie's punch line--that last scene with Clooney and McDormand in the park, is absolutely magnificent. I was laughing at that for hours after I saw it.

259. Regarding A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991): There's no getting around the fact that the Chinese Ghost Story movies are utterly insane. Completely bonkers. All three of them have more or less the same plot: comely ghost girl Joey Wang falls for some traveling shlub and helps him and his mentor defeat the evil spirit of the haunted temple that holds her soul prisoner. But that really doesn't say anything about what the movies are actually like. This third installment has a certain amount of kink involved in the early going, which is new to the series, and it has some more lunatic set pieces (particularly when it swipes an idea from King Hu's A Touch of Zen near the end), but in the end, it arrives at the same kind of delirium. Great fun.

260. I've probably seen Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973) a dozen times, but I don't think I ever noticed before that the screen play for this version was written by George MacDonald Fraser. That explains a LOT. For the most part, my favorite parts of this movie are the villains: Fay Dunaway's Lady De Winter, Christopher Lee's Rochefort, and Charlton Heston's delightfully sly Cardinal Richelieu. That's in tune with Fraser, I guess. I don't think his Flashman would be out of place in this movie. Fun.

261. I think I'm getting burned out on fantasy movies. While I don't think that there's anything intrinsically wrong with The Golden Compass (2007, directed by Chris Weitz)--and, in fact, I like the idea that it's an atheistic fantasy a lot--I got pretty impatient with its world-building faster than I would have liked. The visuals are finely burnished, but don't seem to admit even the slightest flaw to give them any reality. It does have a pretty good child actress in the lead, which helps. But I was never really engaged.

262. Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1965) might be another unwatchably dour New Wave slice of life without the antic sensibility that runs through it. It LOOKS like a New Wave film, in stark, neo-realist black and white. But then it lets its characters bicker, and the film comes to life. It's lead character makes foolish romantic decisions, it's true, but they are understandable given that there's a ratio of 16 women to each man where she lives. The loves she embarks upon are the stuff that dreams are made of, for the most part, in the same way that the Maltese Falcon is. Likable, but generally slight.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Life of Illusion

253. and 254. Although they are ultimately very different movies (I was led to believe that they are very similar), both The Prestige (2006, directed by Christopher Nolan) and The Illusionist (2006, directed by Neil Burger) share one huge, overwhelming problem: movies about magicians cannot avoid cheating the audience. It's a function of film. Especially nowadays, you can do ANYTHING on film, so any illusion performed for the camera, however "real" it might be will always be suspect. To its credit, The Prestige understands this better than The Illusionist, and it side steps it with the Penn and Teller technique of making the entire process transparent. It gives away the tricks. Nolan's movie is downright brutal about it, too (witness the fate of various birds in cages). But then...the movie veers dangrously into the realm of fantasy towards the end, as Hugh Jackman's magician, attempting to duplicate a trick by his enemy, Christian Bale, receives a machine from Nicola Tesla. And there, the movie drives off the cliff. Oh, it plays fair with the audience. I knew almost all of the film's secrets before it revealed them. For the most part, waiting for them to unfold was mostly make-work. Meh. I was a bit more engaged by The Illusionist, due in large part to Paul Giamatti's engaging role as the police chief under the Crown Prince of Austria. Giamatti is superb, and provides the audience with an "in" for the story. He's fascinated by magic. He wants to know how it's done. Unfortunately for him (and the film), the movie chooses to keep its secrets, and despite its intention to transform into a kind of fairy tale at the end, one can't help but feel cheated.

255. and 256. I don't express a preference between either version of Gaslight (1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson, and 1944, directed by George Cukor). Where the first film exceeds the second through superior direction, the second has better performers. Anton Walbrook is cold fish compared to Charles Boyer--though both are wonderfully loathesome as fortune hunters trying to drive their respective wives insane. Ingrid Bergman trumps Diana Wynyard in almost every possible way. But Cuckor is an actor's director who relied on his production crew to design the "look" of the movie, whereas Dickinson's approach is much more cinematic. Both of them are pretty good movies. So call it a draw.

257. I transferred John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (1982) to DVD from my old laserdisc this weekend. I don't remember the last time I watched it. It's been years. Rob Bottin's special effects are every bit as revolting as they were the last time (I LOVE the spider head scene), but I don't remember grooving to Dean Cundey's panavision camerawork the way I did this time. This is Carpenter's best-looking movie. I'm still trying to figure out why Carpenter hired Ennio Morricone if he wanted the score to sound like one of his own compositions, but that's one of the movie's more endearing mysteries.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Character Studies

250. The Dark Corner (1946, directed by Henry Hathaway) finds Lucille Ball playing against type as a PI's secretary who must pull her boss's chestnuts out of the fire. Ball proves to be a pretty fine dramatic actress, though her leading man, Mark Stevens, is a bit of a stiff. Supporting work by Clifton Webb and William Bendix is pretty good, and the movie has an agreeable veneer of noir style (more than is usual from director Hathaway). It's a minor film, but Lucy makes it worth the effort.

251. The Lookout (2007, directed by Scott Frank) is the crime film as character study, as brain injury victim Joseph Gordon-Levitt is suckered into a bank heist by bad companions Matthew Goode and Isla Fisher. The crime film plot is expertly mounted, but nothing particularly special. The character work is what makes the film tick. Gordon-Levitt provides another superior performance as our memory-impaired lead, adding to his cache as one of the best young actors. Goode is simultaneously charismatic and slimy. The background is populated by interesting actors like Jeff Daniels, Bruce McGill, Carla Gugino, and Alberta Watson. This is one of those movies where, if you like watching people--especially when they're put in the crucible--then you'll groove on the movie. If you're there for the plot, you might be disappointed. I liked it a lot.

252. Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) is another character study masquerading as crime film, though it has an intricate plot to go with its examination of character. Tarantino, already a long-take director, lets the plot decompress (which lengthens the movie considerably) and gives his characters their heads. And the characters that interest him here (provided by novelist Elmore Leonard) are not the kinds of characters you find in most contemporary crime or action movies. I mean, the heroine is a 44 year old black woman. The "hero" is a 56 year old bail bondsman. He's populated it at every level with interesting actors, none moreso than Pam Grier in the title role. Virtually alone among Tarantino's movies, this film feels like it exists in and of itself. The director's penchant for meta-cinematic self-reference is held almost entirely in check (though it's not completely absent: note Sid Haig playing The Man to Pam Grier's jailbird; heh). For my money, it's Tarantino's best film. One scene in particular ices it. At roughly the 2 hour mark, Sam Jackson's villainous arms dealer pauses to think when it's plain that he's been screwed. The movie lets him think. The camera never moves while he works things out in his head. I can't think of another crime film or 'action' film with that kind of patience.