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Archive for July, 2017

2017 Summer Movies #4

Posted by Gerald on July 26, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #31 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match, or Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973): This is the second of the five films in the Yakuza Papers, or Battles Without Honor and Humanity, series Fukasaku released in 1973-4.  It picks up with the story of the post-war Yakuza gangs in Hiroshima.  Lots of murders and blood.  The point seems to be the de-mythologizing of these gangsters.  There is little in the way of heroism here, not even anti-heroes.  The violence is chaotic, brutal, and de-humanizing.  The aftermath of every fight is a shot of bloody corpses like chopped meat in a “ripped from the headlines” image.  The closest thing to a hero in this is the main character, a gunman named Yamanaka (Kinya Kitaoji), who is rather callously used by a Yakuza boss in his fight with another faction.  Even his eventual death – although we are told he is still remembered as a great yakuza in Hiroshima – is shown as meaningless and ugly.

2017 Summer Movie #32 – The Ship That Died of Shame (Basil Dearden, 1955): What makes this movie interesting is that it deals with post-war England a bit differently than most films of the time.  It shows the sort of heroes of WWII that couldn’t find a way into civilian life.  Richard Attenborough is excellent as a man who willingly embraces corruption.  George Baker is the more stalwart everyman who made a bad decision.  The title refers to a central conceit – that the former navy patrol boat that is being used for smuggling is becoming increasingly unreliable – a moralistic tone that makes the film less interesting.  If something is going to break in a story due to choices, it should probably be a person.  Dearden is competent but not interesting in his direction.

2017 Summer Movie #33 – Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, 1947): Wow.  This is a film to watch – and I mean watch.  The story here is almost secondary to the visual and also somewhat problematic in its depiction of gender and race.  Still, this is an example of when problematic art should be engaged with because of its merits rather than rejected.  This was seen at the time as a technical masterpiece of early Technicolor film, and rightly so.  Powell and noted cinematographer Jack Cardiff construct a film where color, angle, shot composition, and art direction tell a story of growing madness and isolation.  You can see the legacy of this film in everything from David Lean’s famous sequence of flowers in “Doctor Zhivago” to Martin Scorsese’s use of extreme close-ups in “the Color of Money”.  Add to this memorable performances by Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron and you have a masterpiece.  Watch this movie!

2017 Summer Movie #34 – The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, 1948): This is one of the classic dance films and “behind the stage” films.  Another collaboration between director Michael Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, this film is a beautiful example of how color and light create art in films.  An absolute must see for anyone who care about film.

2017 Summer Movie #35 – Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (Craig McCall, 2010): This is a decent documentary about Jack Cardiff released around the time of his death in 2009.  As documentary film goes, this is more interesting for its subject matter than for its film style.  It is mostly interviews with Cardiff himself and commentary by many figures, especially Martin Scorsese who is a huge fan of his work.  Cardiff was the first (and for a long time, only) Technicolor cameraman in Britain and went on to a distinguished career as a cinematographer and director.  His film credits range from classics like “Black Narcissus” and “The African Queen” to less classic films like “Conan the Destroyer” and “Rambo: First Blood, Part 2”.  This film is at its best, for me, when he is discussing the creative and technical issues of his work, but it is also fascinating for his stories about the people he worked with over the years.  Really good.

2017 Summer Movie #36 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973): Number three in the series features battles between underbosses who are associated with higher bosses.  Again, many people die.  I’m not sure I understand why most of the characters in these movies are doing what they do.  I am sure that these crime bosses couldn’t have dealt with Fredo Corleone in a fight, let alone Michael, Sonny, or Vito.

2017 Summer Movie #37 – Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961): In most ways this is a fairly standard suspense film.  There is blackmail which leads to suicide and a murder.  What maks all this stand out is that it deals with homosexuality.  This is the first English language film to actually use that word and is one of the first to deal with the issue openly.  By modern standards the film isn’t particularly “daring” but in 1961 the context was quite different.  Dirk Bogarde gives a great performance as the main character and took on the role of a closeted (even from himself, in many ways) gay man at a time when he was Britain’s biggest male lead – an act that took some professional courage.  Dearden’s work is competent, but not that exciting – which is true of most of his movies.  What makes him interesting as a director is his choice of subject matter, in this and in many of his other films.

2017 Summer Movie #38 – The Captive Heart (Basil Dearden, 1946): This film was one of the first POW films made in Britain after the end of World War II (oddly enough, the British film industry wasn’t big on producing films about British soldiers in captivity while the war was still going on).  This is pretty much a patriotic salute to Britain’s wartime heroes, but is made a bit more interesting due to the fact that one of the writers, Guy Morgan, had spend time as a POW.  The film shows us a bit of the sense of isolation and abandonment these men felt – but then goes back to stiff upper lip and musn’t grumble.  It is also intriguing because they filmed part of it in an actual POW camp in British-occupied Germany.  Outside of these things the film is pretty conventional, but is entertaining is you like 1940s era British films (which I do).

2017 Summer Film #39 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Police Tactics (Kinji Fukasaku, 1974): The fourth film in the series sees a war between large yakuza groups being fought by the local gangs in Hiroshima and Kure (the situation set up in the third film).  Growing violence is contrasted with the booming economy in Japan and increasing public outrage stoked by press coverage pushes government officials and the police to take action.  As near as I can tell from the movie, the dramatic new “tactics” on the part of the police involved watching known yakuza and occasionally arresting them for crimes.  By the end of this film the major violence is over because the instigators are in prison and the police have negotiated a truce between the rival factions.  The lead detective we see in much of this comes across as a Japanese Columbo – messy hair, wrinkled raincoat, and all…

2017 Summer Movie #40 – Frieda (Basil Dearden, 1947): Dearden made “Victim” in 1961, which was an indictment of the laws against homosexuality in Britain.  That makes this film especially interesting.  The titular character is the German bride of an RAF pilot who brings her to his home in England during the waning days of the war.  The movie centers on the intolerance and hatred she finds in that community, on the idea of assigning collective guilt for the war, and on the dehumanizing of an enemy.  Like so many of Dearden’s films, we have a fairly conventional movie, but one that deals with a very interesting subject.

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2017 Summer Movies #3

Posted by Gerald on July 24, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #21 – Letters From Baghdad (Sabine Krayenbühl & Zeva Oelbaum, 2016): This is a documentary about the life of Gertrude Bell, a prominent British Orientalist whose books helped inform British policy in the Middle East after World War I and who played a prominent role in the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq and the establishment of the antiquities museum in Baghdad.  Her story is a fascinating one.  The documentary takes an interesting approach in that it shows Bell through her letters and journals (voiced by Tilda Swinton, who was a producer on the project) and through faux “interviews” with actors playing figures from her life talking about her as if this were an Errol Morris documentary.  The comments seemed to be largely manufactured from the original sources, unlike Bell’s voice which is captured in her actual words.  I’m not sure I think that worked, at least not for me.  Another interesting choice is how the filmmakers remained absolutely focused on Bell as a person – to the extent of providing little context to the huge events she played such an important role in shaping.  Certainly worth watching – if for no other reason than the eerie prescience of some of what she was saying about Iraq in the 1920s.

2017 Summer Movie #22 – Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945): An early film noir that calls to mind “Laura” particularly in that it had the same cinematographer.  Outside of the visual style, this is most interesting as an example of how Preminger kept pushing the envelope of what was permissible in Hollywood movies.  Linda Darnell’s character – sexual and manipulative – casts a spell on all of the men in the film.  Dana Andrews is great, as always, playing a grifter who drops into the middle of this story.  Alice Faye is, frankly, a bit boring – but then she is playing the “good girl” who ultimately is there to redeem Andrews.  Worth checking out if you are interested in either Preminger or film noir.

2017 Summer Movie #23 – A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1945): Filmstruck put this into a collection of early Preminger film, but it is not really his movie.  Preminger took over directing the film after its original producer/director, Ernst Lubitsch, had a heart attack.  He did this at the request of Darryl F. Zannuck.  It is a light comedy set in the court of Catherine the Great and Preminger is not really the man for light comedy.  Despite decent performances, particularly by Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine, it just doesn’t work.  The scenes just aren’t light and quick the way they should be.  Had Lubitsch been able to direct the shooting, I think this might have been a better film.

2017 Summer Movie #24 – Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): I’ve seen and written about this before.  This is one of the great film noir and it is one of Preminger’s best known films.  On this viewing I was struck by the performance of Clifton Webb.  His depiction of seething jealousy and obsession barely masked by a veneer of upper-class arrogance is a bit beautiful.  I was also struck by the similarities between Gene Tierney’s Laura and Linda Darnell’s Stella from “Fallen Angel”.  Both are beautiful women who attract the obsessive interest of men around them, to the point of inspiring murder.  If you love classic films, you’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #25 – Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is a Technicolor costume drama about an ambitious woman in Restoration England.  We get to see Preminger demonstrating his ability to work on a large scale for the first time.  The story and performances are not very memorable.  In line with many of the films Preminger would eventually make, this one was condemned on moral ground – not so much for anything explicit as for the fact that the heroine (played by Linda Darnell) is sexually manipulative, has a child out of wedlock, etc… Preminger hated the film, as did almost everyone involved in it (this is an artifact of the studio system, where everyone from the Producer on down might only be doing the film because they were assigned to do so).  It is a competently made film with a few really nice looking scenes.  That’s about it.

2017 Summer Movie #26 – Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947): This is one of those films that are often mentioned but that I’d never seen before.  This is an example of a “woman’s film” (Hollywood melodramas produced for a female audience, but made by men) featuring one of that genre’s usual tropes – the woman torn between two men.  Making this more interesting than many of these melodramas are the performances.  As the title character, Joan Crawford gives an unusually restrained performance and is excellent.  She is independent even as she obviously wants a relationship.  Henry Fonda plays a somewhat broken WWII vet (one of the coolest things about the film is when it deals with elements of life in post-war America) that becomes one point in the triangle.  Dana Andrews is just fantastic as the cool and manipulative married man Daisy is involved with.  Preminger is at his best making subtle films about nuanced characters.  Despite this being a formulaic melodrama in many respects, it meets those criteria.  Another feature is Leon Shamroy’s cinematography.  This is a melodrama shot loke a film noir (enough so that it is often described as film noir despite having none of the usual trappings of story or setting that make up that genre).  If the ending of this were a bit less conventional, this film could have been a feminist classic.  As it is, it is a well-crafted example of a Hollywood film.

2017 Summer Movie #27 – Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937): The second melodrama today, this one in celebration of Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday, and another TCM perennial that I’ve never seen.  This film is a tearjerker about A Mother’s Love – but with some completely unexamined class overtones.  The way Stanwyck’s Stella shows her Ultimate Maternal Love for her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) is by stepping out of her daughter’s life so Laurel can fully embrace the world of her upper-class father (John Boles) without the taint of her mother’s common manners and lack of fashion-sense.  In other words, we needn’t criticize the class structures that create this social divide, we should just feel moved by the main character giving up her only real relationship in acceptance of them.  One could also ask how coarse and common Stella raised the refined Laurel, but that just must be the genetic superiority of her father expressing itself.  Instead everyone just sniffles as the music swells and Stanwyck walks away in the rain from having secretly observed her daughter’s marriage to an upper-class drone.  Stanwyck was actually quite good in this.  There is a natural quality to her on-screen that one rarely sees in 1930s Hollywood films and she was nominated for Best Actress for this role.  This is something that I can appreciate without really liking it, and I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.

2017 Summer Movie #28 – Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1974): This is the first of a five-film series by Fukasaku that redefined the Yakuza film genre in Japan. Earlier films were set before WWII and were called “chivalry films” that depicted the yakuza as men living by rigid codes of honor – sort of latter-day samurai.  Fukasaku’s films were based on articles and an account by an actual yakuza and began a new type called “actual event” films.  These show the yakuza as brutal criminals who mouth platitudes about honor, but break their oaths when convenient.  This first one begins in Hiroshima province right after WWII as the local crime syndicate is growing out of the refugee camps.  Some of the most interesting parts are the glimpses of life during the occupation of Japan.  The style is frenetic and violent – very suggestive of later Hong Kong action films centering on the Chinese Triads.  Finally, it is impossible to watch this bloody depiction of organized crime in the post-war era without thinking about The Godfather, which Coppola released in 1972 – just before production began on these films.  I’ll be watching the rest.

2017 Summer Movie #29 – The Agony and the Ecstasy (Carol Reed, 1965): This is a big and beautiful spectacle, it just isn’t a very good movie.  Carol Reed was past his prime at this point (yes, Oliver! was yet to come, but really that isn’t a great movie, either).  Most of this film scans like the actual art history lecture that makes up the opening ten minutes.  Rex Harrison is his usual great self as Pope Julius, but Heston is awful as Michelangelo.  The parts as written are a bit too invested in eulogizing the subjects rather than finding some truth about them.  Another problem comes with the work of several Italian actors whose voices were then overdubbed by English-speakers, which just rings false.  Still, it has some visually beautiful scenes and is really nice as a depiction of what went into the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and so was perfect for my purposes in preparing for next year’s trip.

2017 Summer Movie #30 – The Shoes of the Fisherman (Michael Anderson, 1968): This is another movie I re-watched as prep for my upcoming trip to Rome.  On one level this movie is trying to say something about struggles of faith, but on another level it is pure “Vatican porn” – and the latter part works better.  This film is in love with the pomp and spectacle surrounding the Papal Monarchy, with the art and architecture of the Vatican, and with the city of Rome.  I think this is a nice example of where the major studios were by the late 60s – they weren’t sure what movie to make.  There are wonderful scenes of Oskar Werner playing a priest whose teachings are in conflict with orthodoxy discussing what faith means in the 20th century.  There is a major plot element about growing international tensions that the studio (MGM) seems to have latched onto as a way to market the film as a thriller.  Still, the most memorable parts of the film are the depictions of pomp and ceremony – the sort of grand visuals that Hollywood studios kept hoping would save them in the face of television and French New Wave.  Still, this movie has some interesting resonance with the stories of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.  Much like “The Agony and the Ecstasy” I recommend this mostly for the visuals, although both Werner and the redoubtable Anthony Quinn turn in good performances.

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2017 Summer Movies #2

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2017

2017 Summer Movie #11 – On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951): Another of Ray’s noir films.  This time a cop who is turning increasingly sadistic due to isolation and the pressures of the job (Robert Ryan) is sent to a rural area to help in the manhunt for a murderer.  There he encounters the murderer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino – who also directed some scenes, but is not credited) and the vengeful father of the victim (Ward Bond).  Ryan is at his best while portraying the “cop on the edge” but becomes much less interesting as he is redeemed.  This being a 1950s film, the redemption is at the hands of Lupino, who gives as good a performance as a rather mawkish script would allow (she is blind and angelic and her character exists for no reason than to inspire the humanity of Ryan’s character.)  Bond is fine as the revenge driven father, but has little to do except be gruff and angry at these “city-slickers and their fancy trials”.  The contrast between the darkened city at the beginning of the film and the snowy countryside of the main action is interesting.  Worth checking out if you like noir or Ray (as often here, we get a rather sympathetic take from him on society’s losers and outcasts).

2017 Summer Movies #12 – Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956): Wow.  This is a slice of life film, when life goes off the rails.  James Mason plays an ordinary school teacher who suffers and inflammatory disease and is treated with cortisol.  He takes too many pills and the steroids drive him to psychosis.  What is brilliant here is Mason’s portrayal of the deterioration and Ray’s framing of the events.  It is also an almost subversive look at the “Father Knows Best” idea of American life in the 1950s.  His madness takes the form of an increasingly intense version of patriarchalism.  Side observation: there are several scenes here that show how unchanged America is in many ways: the first scene shows a school kid who doesn’t know his basic geography, Mason’s school teacher has to hold a second job just to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, the schools are burdened with bureaucratic nonsense, later in the film Mason – deep in the madness – gives a speech to a PTA meeting about how education “today” (in the mid-1950s) coddles children and America needs to return to traditional ways to save the morality of the youth… and gets much applause.  You’ve got to see this.

2017 Summer Movie #13 – Finders Keepers (Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel, 2015): This is a surprisingly insightful, and even hopeful, documentary about an almost unbelievable story straight from Reality TV America.  Two men get into a dispute about ownership of the severed left leg of one of the men.  What follows is a story about family, addiction, and the obsession with celebrity.  It is funny, touching, and horrifying all at once.

2017 Summer Movie #14 – Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958): While this deals with gangsters, etc… this is so different from the other Ray films I’ve recently written about.  In many ways, this is a pretty formulaic story – mob lawyer (Robert Taylor) falls for show girl (Cyd Charisse) and winds up betraying mob boss (Lee J. Cobb) so justice can triumph.  What makes this worth watching is the beautiful use of CinemaScope by cinematographer Robert J. Bonner (especially in Cyd Charrise’s two big dance numbers), Robert Taylor’s excellent performance (he does a lot with a fairly cliche character), and Lee J. Cobb’s wonderful over-the-top performance as the mob boss (I’d be surprised if someone wasn’t thinking of this with De Niro’s portrayal of Capone in De Palma’s “The Untouchable’s”).  Not fantastic, but still worth watching.

2017 Summer Movie #15 – La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962): This is a short film told almost entirely with still photographs about a time traveler from a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys is heavily based on this, and this film is credited as inspiring it.  It is an interesting movie in its use of still photography, its sound, and it’s themes of time and memory.  Worth checking out if you like the art house stuff like I do.

2017 Summer Movie #16 – Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997): This film is about a British journalist covering the siege of Sarajevo and how he came to adopt a young Bosnian girl.  What could have been sentimental claptrap is made into a compelling story through good performances and a fairly brutal visual style.  Winterbottom shot is Sarajevo and Croatia just months after the war and filmed some of the scenes of reporting with videotape and then also used actual news footage to heighten the sense of reality.  The violence in the film is not action-style, it is just random and brutal.  Very good.

2017 Summer Movie #17 – For the Love of Spock (Adam Nimoy, 2016): This is really for the fans and as one, I loved it.  Although I had backed Adam Nimoy’s Kickstarter campaign and received a digital copy as soon as it was released, I’ve been putting off watching this for some reason.  There isn’t much about Star Trek or even the impact of Spock on the culture that is very surprising here.  The film is at its best when it focuses on Nimoy and his life.  We get to see his family (of course) and insights into his art and career beyond Star Trek.  Much like his professional life, though, the film keeps coming back to that show – which makes sense.  I loved it.

2017 summer Movie #18 – Chaos on the Bridge (William Shatner, 2014): I was much more impressed with this than I expected to be.  I think Shatner did a decent job of navigating between respect for what Star Trek is to so many people and being honest about the making of a TV show.  This is a documentary about the creation and the first few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and particularly about Gene Roddenberry’s role in all of this.  It is a funny and often brutal depiction.  If you weren’t clear on why the first two seasons of the show are (to quote Ronald Moore) “almost unwatchable,” this gives you a good set of answers.  I liked Shatner’s documentary “The Captains” but this is even better. Worth watching both for fans and for anyone who is interested in how TV shows get made.

2017 Summer Movie #19 – Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin, 2016): I don’t get the positive reviews.  I thought Idris Elba was given next to nothing to do, the only real emotional moments were either associated with tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin or were echoes of the original series, and in place of a story we see empty jokes connecting overblown action sequences.  Also –  a note – not every villain is motivated by vengeance and not every Star Trek story needs to be about a battle.  I came to terms with the idea that many of my problems with the last film were that it wasn’t “my” Star Trek, but I think this was just weak movie making.  The performances were fine and the visuals were big, but I just didn’t care about it.

2017 Summer Movie #20 – Hail, Caesar!(Joel & Ethan Coen, 2016): I love the Coen brothers’ movies.  I particularly love how they manage to make comedies that are simultaneously cynical and sentimental.  This is one of my favorites.  It is a love song to post-WWII big studio Hollywood that is also a brutal parody of post WWII big studio Hollywood.  There is so much here I can’t even get started.  If there is one perfect shot, though, it is Eddie Mannix in a moment of profound crisis silhouetted against a Calvary scene on a sound stage.  This is just perfect.  BTW – make sure you know who Eddie Mannix and Nick Schenck really were and brush up on the story of the Hollywood 10.  You don’t have to do this to enjoy the film, but knowing this stuff add many layers.  Watch more movies!

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