Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Closing in On Year's End

Catching up. Only two weeks to go on my little experiment.

John Adams (2008):
324. Join or Die
325. Independence
326. Don't Tread On Me
327. Reunion
328. Unite or Die

Interesting portrait of the crankiest of America's founders. Terrific production values and the kind of grittiness HBO likes to add to its historical mini-series give value to what could be a dry recitation of facts. Hell, this is downright exciting. But for one small thing: Paul Giamatti seems the wrong actor for Adams. Oh, he's probably historically accurate, but Williams Daniels pretty much owns the role for all time in the musical, 1776 (I saw Daniels in a traveling version of the stage show with my mother sometime in the mid-seventies, so there's a double-reinforcement). Unfair to Giamatti? Probably. He's a capable actor and his performance grows on you as the miniseries unfolds. And fortunately, Laura Linney is amazing as Abigail Adams. She's been knocking them out of the park for a while now, and this is the best I've ever seen her. Did anyone else ever have to read the letters between John and Abigail Adams for school? It's one of my favorite love stories. Other performances are equally good, particularly Danny Huston as Samuel Adams and Tom Wilkinson as a surprisingly unscrupulous Ben Franklin.

I'm listing the episodes as individual films because, for the most part, they feel like individuals--especially the long second episode--with individual dramatic arcs. Two more to go.

The Chronological Donald Duck:
329. "Let's Stick Together" (1952, Directed by Jack Hannah)
330. "Donald's Apple Core" (1952, Directed by Jack Hannah)
331. "Trick or Treat" (1952, Directed by Jack Hannah)
332. "Don's Fountain of Youth" (1953, Directed by Jack Hannah)
333. "The New Neighbor" (1953, Directed by Jack Hannah)
334. "Donald in Mathmagic Land" (1959, Directed by Hamilton Luske)

More Ducks. There are some standouts here. "Trick or Treat" features Disney's take on a benevolent cartoon witch (voiced by the great June Foray), while "The New Neighbor" is practically the same film as Norman McLaren's "Neighbors" from the previous year. I remember seeing "Donald in Mathmagic Land" in a math class when I was in grade school. I was delighted to see it again here. It's deliriously abstract, and is a primer for anyone who wants to excel at billiards. They don't make educational films like this one anymore.

335. An Actor's Revenge (1963, directed by Kon Ichikawa) has been retitled for video as "The Revenge of a Kabuki Actor" by Animeigo, the current distributor. Apart from this, I have no quibbles with the edition. It's not as good a print as the old Criterion laserdisc, but Animeigo's anal-retentive subtitling and cultural notes more than make up for it. And it's not a bad print, either way. The movie itself, about the revenge of an onigatta, and the web of thieves that surround the kabuki theater, is strikingly theatrical to the point where the viewer might not notice how playful it is as cinema. For example, having the same actor play two different characters who appear on screen at the same time is a feat beyond the theater. Mind you, the story is fascinating, but the film that surrounds the story is a tour de force in meta-cinematic legerdemain.

336. M (1931, directed by Fritz Lang). By all accounts, Fritz Lang was a complete bastard to work with, a man who epitomized the sadistic director. By contrast, his wife, Thea Von Harbou, was said to be one of the nicest of people. Lang, of course, fled the Nazis shortly after M was made. Von Harbou remained and joined the Nazi Party. You can never tell about people, I guess, which is part of the point of this film, one of the greatest of all films. This presents a world turned upside down, in which the criminals enforce the law and justice, in which a harmless little man murders children. It's a film in which Lang abandons the grandiosity of his previous productions (Metropolis, Siegfried, The Woman on the Moon) in favor of a stark, reportorial style that prefigures film noir. And it features one of Peter Lorre's greatest performances. Lorre completely steals the film, even though he's really only center stage for the last fifteen minutes. Even so, the movie is subtle. The tune Lorre whistles is "The Hall of the Mountain King" from Peer Gynt, which suggests he's spiritually a troll. He can't help himself. His crimes are what trolls do. It's in his nature. He throws this back at his accusers--and by proxy at the audience--who aren't trolls. What's THEIR excuse? They have a choice to be criminals or not.

It's not a surprise that the Nazis didn't much like this film.

As an aside, this was the last film at our local arthouse's Wild Weimar film series. I LOVED seeing these films with an audience. Watching them on video just doesn't do them justice.

The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

337. The Godfather Part II (1974, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

338. The Godfather Part III (1990, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

So, this time through the entire Godfather Trilogy, I was struck by both the absolute necessity of the third movie, and by it's relative failure. It's necessary from a structural point of view. If, as Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola clearly intend, the Godfather saga is collectively "The Tragedy of Michael Corleone," then leaving things as they stood at the end of the second film with Michael sitting on a bench completely alienated from his family doesn't work. By this time, Michael is such a cold fish that one might wonder what a shark feels for the fish that it eats. At this point, "The Tragedy of Michael Corleone" is that he once had a conscience and he loses it. His lack of a conscience is his tragic flaw. And while that's interesting, it's not very engaging on a gut level.

The major influence on The Godfather films is Luchino Visconti (want an example? Take a hard look at Rocco and his Brothers or The Leopard and see what I mean). From Visconti, Coppola developed a taste for the operatic. This is most evident in the Baptism montage in the first film, which is orchestrated like grand opera. And opera is an idiom of emotion. The end of The Godfather Part II has a dark chill to it, but it's as stoic as the expression on Al Pacino's face.

So the third film is necessary. Why? Because for the kind of tragedy Coppola and Puzo want, it is necessary for an innocent to die. This is the Shakespearean model--which is a model from the first film onward, too, given that Coppola initially viewed the saga as a variant of King Lear. And in order for the full force of the tragedy to take place, Michael Corleone has to thaw. So, in the third film, we find Michael wracked by guilt for the murder of Fredo, desperately trying to enter the legitimate business world, giving huge amounts of money to the Catholic Church as some kind of atonement. But, of course, his previous life won't let him escape. This is a sympathetic Michael. We see the Michael Corleone who volunteered for the Army here, the one who told Kay that he wasn't like his family. It's not completely without precedent in the series, and if one accepts it, the accidental death of Mary Corleone at the end of the movie IS the fulcrum of the collective "Tragedy of Michael Corelone."

I don't have much of an issue with the casting of Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone, really. I don't believe that Sonny's bastard son, Vinnie would find her irresistible, but there's a level of suspension of disbelief in all movies. She's not on stage all that much. Where The Godfather Part III goes wrong is in thawing Michael Corleone too much. This is not recognizable as the same character who was so cold-blooded that he ordered the murder of his brother with a single glance. And that's the structural flaw in the third film. The first time I saw this movie, I bought it completely. These days, I have an uneasy relationship with it.

I think about these things too much.

339. Hero (2002, directed by Zhang Yimou) can be seen as a propaganda film. I suspect that Zhang had to slant the film just so to get it made. If one views it as such, one can still groove on the spectacle. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is still so beautiful that it bids fair to make one's eyes water. But I noticed something strange about it this time: All of the variants on the story told by the film's assassin are color coded, indicating that none of them is true, that all of them are stories. But then, so is the framing sequence! I never noticed it before because the code color for this sequence is black rather than the bright colors of the rest of the film, which is a clever way to hide it. What does this mean? Is the film to be trusted in any measure? Or is the film entirely about storytelling rather than about politics? It might be.

340. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946, directed by Akira Kurosawa). Relieved of the restrictions of wartime censorship, this early film by the great director turns its gaze on censorship itself. This is not the fully formed, robust director of the next decade, but he was already pretty good. The opening sequence, in which lead character Setsuko Hara is chased by her suitors reminds me of Bergman for some reason. Later Kurosawa seems to have no interest in women, so it's a surprise to see that he's fairly deft with a female lead. It doesn't hurt that Setsuko Hara is one of the great actresses in Japanese film, but details.

341. Voice (2005, directed by Ik-hwan Choe) is the fourth in the Korean "Haunted Girls School" series. This one eschews the horror show of the third entry (Wishing Stairs) and goes back to the second (Memento Mori) for its themes, though it approaches them from a fresh perspective. The point of view of the movie is that of the ghost. This might seem an awkward conceit, but it works well enough here, and it enables the filmmakers to examine what death really is in their minds. Mostly, it's loneliness. Oh, there's a big reveal of the plot mechanism at the end of the film, and it's not entirely awful, but the film doesn't really need it. The director, Ik-hwan Choe, was an assistant on Whispering Corridors, the first film in the series, so this brings things full circle, in a way.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Two Faces of The Scarecrow

316. I don't believe I ever saw the full version of Walt Disney's The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964, directed by James Neilson) when I was a kid, but I remember its shorter theatrical version very well. That film was titled Dr. Syn Alias the Scarecrow. In truth, there's not a whole lot of difference between the two versions. Admittedly, the theatrical version is a bit brisker of pace, but at the expense of some characterization. In any event, this is variant of the Zorro myth, set in the England of George III. Patrick McGoohan plays saintly Dr. Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch, who, by night, leads a gang of smugglers as the terrifying Scarecrow to help the locals endure the burden of excess taxation. Of course, the king's men come to town to try to catch him and he outwits them in three separate episodes (or acts). It's rollicking adventure that works because Patrick McGoohan is terrific in the lead. As the Scarecrow, he adopts a terrifying, guttural voice that sounds like a bearing about to go bad. This voice is abetted by a striking character design by the costume department, with its twisted smile. As Dr. Syn, McGoohan is saintly, but with a sly twinkle behind his eyes. And he looks like a man who has and keeps secrets. And, oh, my! He was a looker in his youth (note to self: track down Danger Man). His supporting cast of British stalwarts lends the whole enterprise a gravitas that grounds some of the pulpier aspects of the story. This one was a favorite of mine as a kid. I'm glad to see that it holds up.

317. Hammer's competing version of the Scarecrow story changes a few key details for legal reasons--Disney having sewn up the rights to certain aspects of the story--and is a darker film over-all. Captain Clegg (1962, directed by Peter Graham Scott) was re-titled Night Creatures in the US and finally saw the light of day on Universal's Hammer box a few years ago. It, too, is carried on the strength of its lead performance. Peter Cushing's Dr. Syn (renamed "Dr. Blyss" in this version) has a good deal more menace in him as the vicar, and the movie retains the character's piratical past. The movie is a good deal more violent, too, and shows its hand right from the get-go with a memorable marooning sequence in which a man has his ears slit and tongue cut out before being imprisoned on an island. But the overall arc of the film is the same. Its one of Hammer's more handsome films from the period and the filmmakers have given some of Hammer's stock character actors their heads in this one, notably Michael Ripper as Mr. Mipps, who positively beams at the chance to show an impish sense of humor.

The new Disney Treasures tins include volume four of The Chronological Donald Duck. I love me some Donald Duck (you can blame Carl Barks for this). The current volume features cartoons that were a constant staple of Disney's television empire, so I'm very familiar with all of these:

318. "Dude Duck" (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)
319. "Corn Chips" (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)
320. "Test Pilot" Donald (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)
321. "Lucky Number" (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)
322. "Out of Scale" (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)
323. "Bee on Guard" (1951, directed by Jack Hannah)

In most of these, Donald contends with Chip and Dale, who always seem to cross his path. I always used to think that Chip and Dale were male and female, especially with the way Chip is sometimes drawn as the more effeminate of the two. Lately, I'm convinced that they're gay. But that has nothing to do with what's on screen. It's just my impression. That's all. We also get a Hewey, Dewey, and Louie appearance in a rare depiction of the trio as teenagers. And a bee. Donald has no luck with any of them. The weirdest of these cartoons is "Dude Duck", in which Donald hops off the bus after a gaggle of human women. I've always been able to accept the anthropomorphism in Disney's cartoon so long as it follows Barks's Duckberg model, in which everyone is an anthropomorphized character. Putting human characters in the frame is just weird.

324. There are a lot of things to dislike about the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008, directed by Marc Forster). It's cut too fast. It has no sense of geography in the action scenes. It is fairly lacking in the series' signature humor. It lacks a baroque, comic-opera villain. This is all true. But I came out of the film liking it none the less. I really like the theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, which has a distinction that the last several theme songs have lacked: it actually sounds like a Bond theme. The credit sequence is much improved over Casino Royale--again, it seems like the credit sequence of a Bond film. And it has a pretty good story. An acquaintance of mine thought that the McGuffin--our villain is cornering the market on water--was pretty lame; but I grew up in Colorado where there's a saying that "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting." So it made perfect sense to me. I LOVE that the filmmakers are re-inventing SPECTRE and SMERSH for the 21st Century (and in a way that seems all too plausible). Oh, and Daniel Craig is inhabiting the role of Bond quite nicely. Oh, my, yes. James Bond will return, the credits tell us. I'm looking forward to it.