Thursday, June 30, 2011

High Noon (1952)

Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane. The time is 11:50.
"Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! ... But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come."
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Fred Zinnemann's High Noon may be one of the most perfectly constructed films ever made. If ever there were a doubt that film was art, high art, in the sense of Da Vinci and Shakespeare, surely films like High Noon must put to rest any such dispersions. Like a tightly constructed sonnet, nothing is missing, and nothing is superfluous.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

A publicity image which, like the film itself, combines realism with expressive
artifice to create a vibrant fantasy world.
The Thief of Bagdad is, by far and away, the most visually impressive of Fairbanks' films. Massive sets, elaborate costumes, state of the art special effects, and a cast of thousands make for one of the biggest and most spectacular films of its day. Visually, it is a veritable feast of loveliness, although its creative effects never for an instant look real. When Fairbanks slays a dragon, flies through the air on a winged horse, or visits mermaids at the ocean floor, it is evident that these feats are achieved through a composite of models and camera tricks. But then, this is fantasy. The point is to look beautiful, not real.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Go, Go Second Time Virgin (1969)

In the 1970's loosening censorship standards brought erotic imagery flooding onto cinema screens around the world.  Throughout North America, Europe and Asia, frank depictions of sex and nudity became normalized as part of the cinematic grammar.  Although the genie could never be put back into the bottle, the coming of widespread home video adoption in the 1980's meant that the prevalence of big-screen sexuality in the 1970's would never be matched in subsequent decades.  Yet even in the context of this global atmosphere of anything goes eroticism, the pinku eiga (or pink film) of Japan stands apart.  Nowhere else was softcore sex as readily embraced by both the mainstream and the avant-garde; nowhere else did one of the oldest studios of a national cinema devote itself entirely to the production of sexually explicit films.  The publication of Jasper Sharp's mammoth tome  Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, one of the most significant works of film history in recent years, is testament to the enduring popularity and critical interest in Japan's erotic cinema.  It would not be an overstatement, however, to say that this unique configuration of mainstream appeal and critical consideration would not have been possible without the daring early work of director Koji Wakamatsu throughout the 1960's. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ball of Fire (1941)

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Ball of Fire, indeed.
I'd love to be a fly on the wall when this script was pitched. "It's kind of a modern day fairy tale," the writer says.  "You know, a take off on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Only the dwarfs are lexicographers, holed up in their brownstone, I mean cottage, writing an encyclopedia. And Snow White is called 'Sugarpuss O'Shea,' a nightclub singer. And the evil stepmother is her fiance, mob leader Joe Lilac." Samuel Goldwyn shakes his head sadly, and asks where Prince Charming fits in. "Oh, there is no prince," the writer says. "Sugarpuss falls for one of the dwarfs." Of course, the writer was Billy Wilder, so presumably Goldwyn knew enough to trust his instincts even if the sense of the thing was not immediately apparent.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Safety Last! (1923)

Harold Lloyd, clinging for dear life above the streets of Los Angeles.
Safety Last! is without question Harold Lloyd's most well-loved film, and although it has thoroughly earned that reputation, there is nothing in it that is fundamentally different than his other features, and even many of his shorts. All share the same sharp humor, and the same meticulous construction of gags; several specific gags in Safety had even appeared previously in other Lloyd films. The big finale in Safety is Lloyd's fantastic climb up the side of a twelve story department store, and even this was not without precedent. A similar high-rise spectacle appeared two years earlier in the short film Never Weaken (minute for minute, probably the funniest thing I have ever seen). Although all the key elements of Safety had appeared in other films before, however, never had they been brought together with such elegance and consistency.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chocolate (2008)

The 2003 release of Ong Bak seemed to signal the emergence of Thailand as the new hot-spot to watch for martial arts cinema.  That film's grounded athleticism was a thrilling alternative to the stylized wuxia "wire-fu" movies that have dominated Hong Kong action cinema for the last several years.  Yet since that time, at least here in the West, it has seemed like Thai martial arts films have largely been a one-man show.  While there have been a handful of other films that have received Western releases, noone has arisen to stand alongside Tony Jaa as a breakout star.  Chocolate, however, makes a good case for Yanin Vismitananda as being the next Thai fighter with the potential to become a genuine phenomenon.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Men We Love: John Wayne

The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken as a less kind, less gentle Johnny Smith

 Despite my love for the works of David Cronenberg, for a long time 1983's The Dead Zone didn't really register on my radar.  I'd seen it when I was a kid, and had it filed away in my brain under "above average Stephen King adaptations."  Given the vast quantity of films based on King's work, that's a file that doesn't exactly beg for reevaluation.   But Cronenberg is a director, like Stanley Kubrick before him, who excels at the peculiar skill of telling other people's stories in a way that enhances rather than diminishes his own authorial voice.  (Indeed, of the twelve films Cronenberg has made from The Dead Zone through next year's Cosmopolis, only two are based on original screenplays.) And so, far from being just another Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone is an essential step in Cronenberg's filmography that sheds light on the obsessions and perspectives that propel his work.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Swing Your Lady (1938)

Penny Singleton and Humphrey Bogart.
Oh my, oh my. I knew I would like this one from the first painful twang of the opening credits, which in addition to Bogie include such luminaries as "The Weaver Brothers and Elviry," all displayed against a background of crude line drawings of hillbillies. If this doesn't promise to deliver a ho-down and somebody named Pappy, I thought to myself, then my name's Mud.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, and a Keystone Kop.
As the first feature-length comedy ever made, Tillie's Punctured Romance is of unquestionable historical significance. On top of this, though, it is surprisingly good, with a nicely articulated plot that, while it may not be interesting on its own dramatic merits, provides plenty of terrain for Keystone's finest to dig out the humor in their respective roles. Although Charlie Chaplin is featured prominently in Tillie, it would be a mistake to view this as a Chaplin film. It bears almost no similarity to Chaplin's later features, all of which he wrote and directed himself, and is very much a piece with the Keystone shorts of the mid 1910's.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mission to Mars (2000)

This NASA landing may have been faked on a California soundstage
In an interview accompanying Criterion's recent release of Brian De Palma's 1981 masterpiece Blow Out, his ex-wife and frequent collaborator Nancy Allen describes the consequences of casting John Travolta in that film.  The three had all greatly enjoyed working together on Carrie, and Travolta was eager to work with Allen and De Palma again.  But between Carrie and Blow Out, he'd gone from being John Travolta, star of TV's Welcome Back Kotter, to John Travolta, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, thanks to Grease and Saturday Night Fever.  Consequently, what had been written as a small political thriller, was now going to be marketed as a major summer thrill-ride.  This meant the script had to be adjusted to include large-scale chases and set-pieces.  While the end result is thrilling, Allen reports with amusement that the process of filming the "big" scenes bored and frustrated De Palma to no end.  It all detracted from the story he wanted to tell and the stylistic flourishes that had so defined his early career.

I couldn't help thinking about that anecdote as I watched 2000's Mission to Mars, a movie so utterly anonymous it might as well have been scrawled on a bathroom wall.  It certainly seems that De Palma hasn't changed nearly as much as his films have, because his boredom with the film's big set-pieces and special effects bleeds into every frame.