Monday, April 12, 2010

A Whole Bunch of Films

I seem to be reduced to review posts, but I suppose if I can keep those up, that will constitute a victory. So then:

I've actually had a decent couple weeks on the movie going front, almost back to normal - though only one of those films turns out to be a new release - Peter Chan's Warlords. (7/15) - which as the number tells you was on the bland side, though watchable. The plot is your basic Chinese war film - 3 men form a blood brotherhood, which is eventually betrayed for various reasons... here, this is tied to an actual historical setting, the Taiping rebellion in the mid-19th century. (A setting that seems to be something of a novelty - I haven't seen too many films set then, at least not acknowledging it.) Jet Li plays a general who has survived the slaughter of his men by less than honorable means; Andy Lau and Takeshi Kinoshiro play bandits he joins and then convinces to join the Imperial army. They fight - they win - they turn on one another, sort of. There appear to be 8 people listed as screenwriters - that must be for numerological significance, because what's on screen looks like it could have been written in a napkin in a restaurant. (IMDB notes that the battle scenes received most of the attention - that I can believe.) It does have a nice gritty look, and the three leads bring their usual charms and competence (though they seem a bit distracted... or maybe I was distracted...) - and it pays closer attention to the ways most of Chinese history is a complete disaster from any perspective - but overall it is still a bit of a drag. The fight scenes are perhaps shot a bit too grittily, somewhat obscuring the choreography, which is by Ching Siu-tung, who is one of my favorite artisans in the entire film business, a genius in his field.

Everything else I've seen, in theaters as well as video, have been older films:

The Sun: 11/15 - Alexander Sukorov's third dictator film, after Molokh and Taurus - this is about Hirohito, becoming a man. Starts in the waning days of the war - he is attended by servants in a bunker; he goes above ground to play at marine biology; he meets his generals. Then he takes a nap, has a vision of hell (his country on fire) - then the Americans arrive (skipping the middle, the end of the war, etc.) He meets MacArthur, who is imperious in his way - the people around him are shocked that he interacts with the Americans - but he is strangely flattered, bragging of his education, happy to be compared to Chaplin, etc. And then - he begins to act human, opening his own doors, making decisions. He is freed - though the rest of the country seems half stuck in the past. Ends neatly - he hears that the engineer who recorded his speech killed himself - he and his wife stare at the chamberlain, then turn and walk away, as if leaving him, and his world, behind. It's a quiet, understated film, elliptical and dreamlike - skipping the middle part is, in fact, a pretty radical move. It jumps over what is, in fact, the defining moment of Hirohito's descent from divinity, his speech calling on Japan to stop fighting. It is a crucial speech - the emperor's voice coming over the radio... it is given prominent play in a great many films, not just Japanese films. (It plays during the opening scene of Hou Hsiao Hsien's City of Sadness, for example.) Here - though it is the moment he becomes human, in a symbolic sense - Sukorov skips it, playing everything around it... A lovely, fascinating film.

The Brattle theater has been showing Kurosawa films, in honor of his centenary - I have been going to the ones I have seen the least - including one I had never seen. Red Beard: 12/15 - A young arrogant samurai doctor finds himself posted to a clinic for the poor - he hates it - but after a bout with a madwoman and her knife, starts to thaw - a variety of educational experiences follow - an old man dies, his daughter tells a tale of woe; one of the patients, a saint, dies, and tells his backstory (love, lost, death, etc...) - all this wins the samurai over, and he becomes a disciple of Red Beard. There are further adventures - Red beard and the samurai rescue a 12 year old girl from a whorehouse - he nurses her, then she nurses him; later, she starts caring for a poor boy who steals food for his family.... And along about here, the samurai's plot kicks in - a woman had jilted him, her father got him posted here (at Red Beard's request) - though she has a sister.... All told, this is Kurosawa at his most sentimental and portentous, though it's still all handled with great strength. Kurosawa lays it on thick - the music cues, the significant staging, things like the girl sitting up into a spotlight that catches her eyes just so... It's a tear jerker all right, but Kurosawa plays it like he means it and he's good enough to make it work.

This played with Throne of Blood: 13/15 - which I have seen. MacBeth on Mr. Fuji - Mifune in full cry, Noh stylings, odd blend of abstraction (those bare sets and broad, gestural performances) and naturalism - the trees and horses and black sand. Odd blend? brilliant blend - Shakespeare purified, stripped down to the plot points and enacted around a series of strange set pieces - Mifune and best friend Miki riding in circles in the fog - 2 meetings with a spirit - his Lady urging him on motionlessly - the ghost at the banquet - the final confrontation...

This week brought a couple of Kurosawa's more downscale dramas - The Lower Depths and Dodesukaden - two films set in slums, a century of so apart. They made a good double bill, covering similar material, in ways that illustrate the changes in Japanese film between the 50s and 70s. Dodesukaden is an interesting project - his comeback after a few years off in the late 60s, which coincided with something like the collapse of the film industry. This was an auteurist attempt to deal with the new economies - 4 major directors (Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kobayashi and Kinoshita) collaborated, supposedly (if I remember the story right) on 4 different films they would develop together and each direct - I think a total of 2 made it to the screen, this and Ichikawa's Dore-Heita some 30 years later. This is also, I think, a fairly direct attempt by these older filmmakers to address and incorporate the Japanese new wave - the setting, look, performances, and use of more artificial, experimental style, links it to filmmakers like Imamura, Shinoda, Oshima, Teshigahara. This is particularly noticeable in this double bill - the films' similar settings tend to highlight their stylistic differences. The Lower Depths is the old fashioned kind of film - a prestigious, foreign adaptation (Gorky), shot in Kurosawa's customary style. Naturalistic sets and costumes, unity of space, strong use of deep space, staging and framing in depth; it uses longer, more unified speeches, ensemble acting, very fluid, and continuous scenes. Dodeskaden's style is post-new wave: shallower space, telephoto lenses (though Kurosawa still exploits depth when useful), flattening effects; more disruptive editing, more fragmentary speeches, a different kind of stylization in the acting - chorus scenes, for all intents and purposes, with the women around the well... and some extremely artificial moments - painted backdrops, extreme lighting effects, and so on (especially for the beggar and his son.) It looks and feels like the work of the new wave directors - it's not always a perfect match, though the fact is, Kurosawa was good enough to absorb anything, and make it work. The truth is - on balance, I don't think this is his forte - either of these films. For me, he is at his best in the action films and thrillers - not necessarily the samurai pictures, but the "Langian" pictures, call it - I think Kurosawa at his best (Seven Samurai, High and Low, Stray Dog, notably) comes as close to being the true heir of Fritz Lang's German films as anyone. Still - even lesser Kurosawa is thrilling, and these two are better than that...

And finally, DVD brought Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharoahs: 9/15 - a bloated cinemascope epic with gorgeous colors and striking sets, in the service of a silly melodrama with some neat twists. Cheops wants to build the greatest pyramid ever - gets a slave to do it - 20 years later - marries a young ambitious princess who plots to kill him, killing the queen first, then the Pharoah... but the priest has a surprise for her - bringing her into the tomb, where she thinks she will get the king's treasure once he is committed to the ground - but wait! how will she get out? for all that, it's a handsome film, a bit off from Hawks' style, though with plenty of decent moments.

And The Sheik: 10/15 - actually, shown in the Orientalism class I am taking - and a notable example of orientalism it is. Valentino plays an Arab sheik - he spots a lively english girl, who sneaks into his casino when she gets annoyed that he bans westerners - he shows her the door, but he likes her, and soon arranges to kidnap her. He thinks she will melt - she resists him (sort of) - he seems a bit surprised, and turns a bit noble, and decides to wait her out rather than simply ravish her. She hangs around his camp, moping, but making the best of it, until a Frenchman arrives - that is too terrible a humiliation, she thinks, and she tries to run away and is almost kidnapped again, by a far less noble bandit. But she is saved, for the moment - she mopes some more, but befriends the Frenchman, and meanwhile, falls genuinely in love with the Sheik - but oh Noes! here comes the bandit Omair again! will Valentino save her in time? In the end - even the Hays code gets a happy ending, as it is revealed that the sheik is actually a foundling, not an Arab at all! Allah be praised! All this is standard fare, but not half bad - Valentino is, after all, gorgeous, and charming, and more than able to carry the film - the lady, Agnes Ayres, nearly holds her own with him - she's a lively presence in the film. There are some nice details - she is a lively character, and doesn't quite get punished for it - amusing that the sign of the Sheik's real love for her is when he gives her back her pistol... she may need to be rescued, but it's not for lack of trying - she empties the pistol into her attackers before they get her... There's no lack of cliches and stereotypes, but they are held fairly lightly, and it's almost believable that these two people are drawn to each other not only by their respective beauty, but because they are both thoroughbreds.

And finally, Sleeper: 13/15 - I'm not, I'm afraid, a big Woody Allen fan - I was once, in college, and he was, in fact, one of the first filmmakers I paid attention to, as a filmmaker. But he lost me somewhere in there - I stopped seeing all his films for a couple years, and when I went back, I found him underwhelming - even to the point of finding films I once loved bland and dull... But Sleeper never lost me. It's as funny now as ever, and may even seem cleverer - and even looks good! It might be a cliche, a joke, to like his early, funny stuff more than the later stuff - but what can I say? I admit that a lot of the early, funny, films are very crudely made - I watched Take the Money and Run (for the first time in a couple decades) a few weeks ago, and though I could imagine he meant some of the crudeness to be funny - it didn't quite cut it. Sleeper is still cheap and slap-dash looking - but now, he has gotten to the point that the cheap sets and special effects are very funny in their own right - those cars; the tin foil cryogenic wrapping - it's fun to watch. I wish he had stayed with this style - it seems to me that when he started making "serious" films, he tried to make them look like serious films - and they come off looking like Bergman impersonations. Flat, drab Bergman at that. Sleeper (and the films he made around it) have the loose, irreverent tone of the new wave (though the French knew how to make films that were loose and casual, but also gorgeous looking - Woody Allen never comes close to the pure cinematic chops of Godard or Rivette or even Luc Moullet) - he's celebrating film history, sending up film conventions, having fun with the process of making films - as well as telling jokes and staging ridiculous bits of physical comedy. This is a damned great film...


Ed Howard said...

Nice reviews. Those blurbs drive home just how much Kurosawa I still have to catch up on, sadly enough.

That Hawks film is an odd one for him, obviously, not the kind of film that's a natural fit for his style, and indeed he seems to be struggling to figure out what to do with this material. It's all very silly and awkward. But there are some amazing sequences, mainly the near-abstract pyramid-building sequences, which really use that wide frame to good effect, exploring the geometry of the pyramid's interiors, the physical processes involved in its construction, the massive crowds of slaves spread out across the whole frame. There's some grand spectacle there, even if the melodrama is pretty substandard and goofy.

I love Sleeper too. I'm one of those who much prefers the later work to the much-vaunted "early, funny ones," many of which (like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...) aren't even that funny. But Sleeper certainly is, and along with Love and Death is my favorite of the early films. It's such a great tribute to, among other things, the silent comedy of Chaplin; Woody doesn't do slapstick very often but this film shows he's as adept at it as he is at his familiar verbal humor.

weepingsam said...

Yes, trying to sum up the Hawks in a short paragraph did make me leave out the good things - it's a sometimes lovely film, with some interesting moments - a lot of the stuff around the building of the pyramid is pretty good, really. (And that's what made me want to see it - the references in Jose Luis Guerin's "Under Construction" - that pushed it up the queue... that and the orientalism class...)

And Woody - I think I tend to like him when he comes closer to the new wave - I've mentioned before, Husbands and Wives is my favorite of his later films; I like those mid-70s films you mention, and Zelig, which might be my second favorite after Sleeper... And there are some moments in the early films where his athleticism comes into play - it's not quite like some of Buster Keaton's films, where he's playing a nerd, but for some reason takes off his shirt and reveals a wrestler's body - but you don't quite expect Woody Allen to be as buff as he was in some of those films, or as graceful a physical performer...