Monday, May 26, 2008


I've put two new reviews on my main web site. They are:

Iron Man (expanding--to put it mildly--on the comments I made here a couple of weeks ago)


188. The Call of Cthulhu (2005, directed by Andrew Leman), which in abstract wonders about H. P. Lovecraft's relationship with calamari and lauds the D. I. Y. aesthetic that informs this particular vanity project.

During the course of last week, I also watched:

189. The Magic Blade (1976, directed by Chor Yuen), in which Ti Lung plays a wu xia swordmaster who falls in with his rival, played by the ubiquitous Lo Lieh. Both are pursued by the agents of Mr. Yu, who seeks to assert his complete dominance over the world of martial arts by laying his hands on the fabled Peacock Dart and by eliminating his main rival. Much intrigue and swordplay ensues. This is nowhere near as accomplished a film as some of Chor Yuen's other movies, and show signs of editorial tampering by the higher-ups at Shaw, but it's still entertaining as all get-out. In addition to the feature itself, the newish Image disc is festooned with 30-plus trailers for other Shaw films and other HK actioners in general. Many of these look terrible, but they still kinda sorta stoked a dormant appetite for stupid HK action films that I didn't know I still had. We'll see what comes of it.

190. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, directed by Steven Spielberg) doesn't change the essential calculus of the Indiana Jones movies, which is to say that the series still consists of Raiders foremost, and then the other movies in various orders of preference. Personally, I liked this new film. It may actually be the best of the not-Raiders films, but I haven't seen the other two in years, so I may be talking out of my ass. Regardless of what flaws there are--and there are many--the movie is an agreeable entertainment by a director who used to be the best entertainer in the world. There are still sparks. There's an image of Indiana Jones staring up at a mushroom cloud in this film that may be the best shot in the entire series. My main complaint with this film is with Harrison Ford, actually. Not because he's too old for the movie--he's not--but rather that he doesn't seem like the same actor. The Ford of Star Wars and the first Jones movies had an edge of anger that is absent in this movie. I suppose it's reasonable that Ford has mellowed with age, so why not grant Dr. Jones the same license? Sure, but it's still jarring. My favorite part of the movie is how it suggests the adventures we didn't get to see in the intervening years since the last film. "Colonel Jones?" "Consultant at Roswell?" "Mission to Berlin?" Suggestive and tantalizing. I like that.

191. I don't have anything to add to the dialogue about The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), except to note in passing that this is the first time I've really zeroed in on the influence of Luchino Visconti on this movie.

192. It's a strange quirk of fate that placed the classic film libraries of Warner Brothers and MGM in the hands of the same corporation, because they couldn't be more politically and sociologically different. Jack Warner was a New Deal liberal, and his films reflected that. Louis B. Mayer was a conservative plutocrat, and his films reflected that. It's oil and vinegar. I don't have a point here, but it's a thought that occurred to me while watching George Cuckor's The Philadelphia Story (1940), which is firmly set amongst the rich and idle. It also occurred to me that all of my favorite Cary Grant comedies--His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, this--are marriage comedies. Again, I don't have a point, except perhaps that it's a Shakespearean tradition carried forward (all of the comedies end in marriage). This is fun and witty, and the stars (not limited to the film's troika of Grant, James Stewart, and Kate Hepburn) are all charmers.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Look Ma, No Subtitles!

Staying away from the art house and the avant garde this week, I watched three fairly accomplished genre exercises.

185. And Soon the Darkness (1970, directed by Robert Fuest) is the work of several talents from The Avengers television show (Fuest, writer Brian Clemens), but you would never know it from the film itself. Absent are bizarre design excressences like Fuest occasionally used on that show, and later employed in baroque fashion on the Dr. Phibes movies. What you have here is an exercise in tightly controlled dread. And, for that matter, it seems like it was created on a bet. Given the title, you might expect the film to indulge in some kind of expressionist use of light and darkness, but no. There's not a single scene in this movie set after dark. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The filmmakers understand that some sunlit scenes can instill a feeling of existential dread just as effectively as the dark (other films that exploit this: The Hitcher, the first half of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). In its particulars: the movie follows a pair of English girls bicycling through rural France. After a tiff, they separate, with the vivacious blond choosing to sun herself in a clearing while her more sensible friend continues on. Then the blond vanishes, and her friend must trust in increasingly suspicious strangers to help her find her. This is all performed more or less bloodlessly, but there is a pall of menace that makes the movie seem better than it actually is. Pamela Franklin is excellent in the lead.

186. Serenity (2005, directed by Joss Whedon) ties up most of the loose ends from Whedon's ill-fated television series, Firefly. I like Firefly a lot--more than Buffy and Angel, that's for sure--so this was a welcome addition. It hits a lot of stock sci-fi archetypes (the preternaturally gifted child, the warrior woman), but it also borrows the Night of the Living Dead scenario for its climax, as our band of misfits is besieged by the cannibal "Reavers." Entertaining, and it doesn't spare the carnage among the regular characters.

187. The Westerner (1940, directed by William Wyler) won Walter Brennan an Oscar for his portrayal of Judge Roy Bean, who forms a friendship with Gary Cooper's drifter after Cooper convinces the judge that he knows the judge's idol, Lily Langtree, personally. It keeps Cooper from hanging on a false horse-thieving charge. But things turn sour when Cooper finds that the judge is burning out homesteaders, including the girl Cooper is sweet on. This comes to a head at the opera house where the judge buys the house in anticipation of a performance by Ms. Langtree. This is a strange transitional western. Stagecoach blew open the doors a year earlier, and this film follows its lead, but it still has some of the cornier elements of the horse operas of the day. Plus, it hasn't even a passing acquaintance with history, not that I care much. Cooper gives one of his best performances. The new DVD from MGM is a dramatic improvement over the old one, even when one considers the lack of extras.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Begone Dull Care

Just a quick round-up of last weeks movies. I didn't watch much in the way of features, but I worked my way through the second disc of Norman McLaren shorts:

166. Begone Dull Care (1949)
167. Boogie-Doodle (1940)
168. Dots (1940)
169. Fiddle-De-Dee (1947)
170. Hen Hop (1942)
171. Hoppity Pop (1946)
172. Lines Horizontal (1962)
173. Lines Vertical (1960)
174. Loops (1940)
175. Mail Early (1941)
176. Mail Early for Christmas (1959)
177. Le Merle (1958)
178. Mosaic (1965)
179. NBC Valentine Greeting (1939)
180. New York Light Board (1961)
181. New York Light Board Record (1961)
182. Serenal (1959)
183. Short and Suite (1959)
184. Stars and Stripes (1940)

I don't have much to say about this lot except to note my admiration at the experimental nature of all of it and to note, in passing that the filmmaker tends to repeat himself, I have to give a shout out to "Beyond Dull Care" (1949), which is jaw-dropping, a first-class work of genius. The entire thing was painted and drawn directly onto frameless 35mm film stock, and yet, it still manages the not inconsiderable feat of having a cinematic pulse in spite of being completely abstract. This leaps into my own personal pantheon of animated favorites. But don't take my word for it, you can watch yourself, though the quality is pretty crummy. You can still get the gist:

On the whole, these films fall into a few categories in which McLaren is varying the theme (it's not by accident that jazz plays a big role in a lot of these films). You have the animated abstractions drawn directly on the film itself with pen and ink (e. g.: "Boogie-Doodle"), animated abstractions etched onto the film (e. g.: "Blinkity Blank"), formalist experiments with an optical printer (Lines Horizontal, Mosaic), and the pair of deranged shorts painted on frameless film (the other is Fiddle-De-Dee).

It occured to me while I was watching these that my cinemania has drifted pretty far into obsession, because this stuff is way into the realm of esoterica.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Where's Donald Duck?

Mostly short films for me this week.

More Looney Tunes from The Golden Collection, Volume 5, disc 2: Fun-Filled Fairy Tales

135. Bewitched Bunny (1954, directed by Chuck Jones). Hansel? HAN-sel?
136. Paying the Piper (1949, directed by Robert McKimson). The cats of Hamelin are a little irked at Pied Piper Porky for putting them out of work. Droll, even with all the slapstick.
137. The Bear's Tale (1940, directed by Tex Avery). Fun mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Bears.
138. Foney Fables (1942, directed by Friz Freling). A black-out cartoon featuring vignettes from Aesop.
139. Goldimouse and the Three Cats (1960, directed by Friz Freling). Pretty good late cartoon with Sylvester and Son. Sylvester's offspring was, perhaps, his best foil.
140. Holiday for Shoestrings (1946, directed by Friz Freling). Elves. Shoemaker. The potential for scathing social satire in the hands of a less conservative director. Still not bad.
141. Little Red Rodent Hood (1952, directed by Friz Freling). Another transposition. The Warners loved Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Bears almost to the exclusion of other stories. Pretty good mid-period Freling.
142. Little Red Walking Hood (1937, directed by Tex Avery). A precursor to Avery's later dabblings in sexualized fairy tale.
143. Red Riding Hoodwinked (1955, directed by Friz Freling). Sylvester and Tweety parallel the main story of Red and Grandma. Fun.
144. The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941, directed by Friz Freling). The familiar tale told from the point of view of the wolf to a jury of his peers. Dig Grandma's sinister profession. One of Freling's best.
145. The Turn-Tale Wolf (1952, directed by Robert McKimson). Another familiar tale from the Wolf's perspective. This time it's the Three Little Pigs, and damned if they ain't a trio of evil bastards.
146. Tom Thumb in Trouble (1940, directed by Chuck Jones). Jones was still in his "cute" phase for this one.
147. Tweety and the Beanstalk (1957, directed by Friz Freling). "Fe Fi Fo Fat, I tawt I taw a putty tat."
148. A Gander at Mother Goose (1940, directed by Tex Avery). A series of short gags. Not Avery at his best.
149. Señorella and the Glass Huarache (1964, directed by Hawley Pratt). In feel, this is a Speedy Gonzales cartoon, only without Speedy. An ethnic reworking of Cinderella. Meh.

Interesting to note the relative absence of Chuck Jones on this disc (only two shorts). Conversly, Friz Freling is all over this one (and the Pratt short at the end is Freling by proxy).

Also, I waded into the Norman McClaren Masters Edition, disc one:

150. 7 til 5 (1933)
151. A Little Phantasy on a 19th-century Painting (1946)
152. A Phantasy (1952)
153. Blinkity Blank (1955)
154. Book Bargain (1937)
155. Camera Makes Whoopee (1935)
156. C'est l'aviron (1944)
157. Là-haut sur ces montagnes (1946)
158. Love on the Wing (1939)
159. Mony a Pickle (1938)
160. News for the Navy (1937)
161. The Obedient Flame (1939)
162. La Poulette grise (1947)
163. Spheres (1969)

These films are either experimental films or short documentaries commissioned by the British Postal system. The documentaries are fascinating for their detail, occasionally enhanced by animation or slow motion photography. The experimental films, on the other hand, are all over the place in terms of style. McClaren's live action films--at least the ones on this disc--recall Dziga Vertov, while there is no single defining style to the animated films. Many of these are executed with lap-dissolving pastel drawings, occasionally placed on a multi-plane apparatus through which the camera zooms. Sometimes, the the drawing is done on the film itself, without benefit of camera. Sometimes, the intent is to illustrate the folk songs of Quebec. Sometimes the intent is a kind of moving painting. The range from representation to complete non-representation is wide in these films. McLaren's branch of filmmaking is to cinema as a whole as theoretical physics is to science. Leave it to the engineers to find practical applications. It's beautiful in and of itself in the abstract. For the record, I think my favorite among this first batch--the set has 7 discs of this stuff--is probably "Blinkety Blank," which stands out like a fireworks display on the fourth of July.


164. The Dirty Dozen (1967, directed by Robert Aldrich), because after several weeks of doing foreign films and experimental shorts, I wanted something without subtitles. In fact, I wanted something that blows shit up real good. Fortunately, this is chock full of fun characters, including Lee Marvin at his most Lee Marvin-ish, John Cassavetes earning the scratch for his own experiments, Charles Bronson as a bad-ass, and a whole bunch of other interesting faces. It sure is satisfying to see Telly Savalas get his at the end of this movie. Nasty character he plays here. It's odd to see a movie about instilling discipline remain so resolutely anti-authority, but that's Robert Aldrich for you.

165. I'll probably have more to say about Iron Man (2008, directed by Jon Favreau) when I write my review for my web site (I want to see it again before then, which is in itself a compliment). For the present, though, it should suffice to say that it's a terrific popcorn movie, and I mean that as a high compliment, because so many popcorn movies are crap even as junk food. I found myself watching with a certain amount of glee, a lot like the glee the 12 year old me derived from the movies that made me a film fan (and a comic book reader) in the first place. The casting is note perfect. I doubt the movie would work at all without Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead as Tony Stark, which bodes well for the future. The Iron Man of the comics has no Moriarty of his own, no Joker or Green Goblin. His most persistent enemy is himself and, of course, the best stories are those that explore the human heart in conflict with itself. Downey is a great fit for this kind of character arc. Oddly enough, this is the funniest movie I've seen in a while. In a lot of ways, this is a romantic comedy, though not the kind you see these days. It's more akin to the screwball comedies of the 40s than the chick flicks of today. It helps that it blows shit up real good, too, but it's entertaining even when it doesn't.