Ten recent reviews (5.29.08)

Butterfly Sword -
A prototype of several U.S. kung fu film hits - both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers borrow liberally from specific scenes - but it retains that incomprehensibility of many imported Hong Kong treats. Fight scenes are fast and furious and sometimes confusing, plot doesn't exactly make sense, though the gist of it is quite fine. Lotsa ridiculous (and fun) flying action, lots of good hand to hand (and foot), basically the quintessential romantic/historic/silly mid-90's Hong Kong costume drama. A lot of fun, and a lot of major stars in the making do exceptional work here.

Detour -
Man, she's crazy! Even by the standards of the femme fatale, Ann Savage's Vera is an exceptionally devious and evil lady. And Tom Neal's Al is a dope, maneuvered by guilt (not desire, really) and duped into the trap she's set for him and keeps modifying to ensnare him further into her plans. As a noir it's excellent, though sometimes its threadbare production values could've been refined slightly with another take, a few more bucks to dress up a set. But they also give us a film that boils down to the essence of noir without any extra dressing to distract from its classic-ness. I'll need to see it again now that I know what I'm in for so I can watch things like the sexual subtext more readily without just zeroing in on Savage and staying stuck there.

Blood Simple -
Not exactly noir, but certainly influenced in that everyone's selfish and sometimes sinister. But I wouldn't call McDormand's character a femme fatale and with the Austin setting, it's hardly the classic dark urban jungle of noir. That said it's typically clever Coen Brothers stylistic mash-up of their favorite things with a typically distanced and non-emotional take on things that happen to their characters. I love their way with a visual, but more and more I find their stuff too academic. They invest very little in their characters emotionally and though the style is sometimes enough to compensate, they don't provide the intellectual framework or thematic interest that might make such a distancing more palatable. I enjoy watching their films but rarely enjoy talking about them.

Gigi -
My TV's rating gave it four stars, as do most of the references I've seen. It won 9 Oscars, including Best Picture in the year of its release, beating out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hitchcock's Vertigo (not even nominated). Automatically my interest is there - French setting and mostly French cast, Lerner and Loewe music, and the aformentioned plaudits. I don't hate musicals, I swear. I got no problem with people expressing themselves in song, really. But this one, wow, I just hated it. I read a defense of the film that went something like: Gigi is not sold off into society but enters on her own terms and instead forces Gaston to change. I don't buy it. Not only is Gigi's goal to find a man - Gaston specifically - rather than existing solely on her terms with or without a man but the techniques she finally uses to do so are those of her allegedly repudiated grandmother, whose ideals don't jibe with Gigi's except when it's convenient for them to do so. I dunno, maybe I'm being too harsh. But even where this could've been redeemed - Lerner & Loewe - I found the music forgettable, less melodic and memorable than simply there. There are plenty of Hollywood films of this era where women's issues are explored more interestingly and progressively. This trite little Cinderella story did nothing except irritate me.

Tokyo Story -
Kyoko - "Life is disappointing, isn't it?"
Noriko - "Yes, it is."
This isn't all the film has to say, but it's certainly the climactic dialogue that it moves towards. Like any great film, this brings up a lot of things that revolve around the central thematic thrust - in this case (as with much Ozu) intergenerational conflict. But it's not just youth contemptuous of their elders and the old ways, the film is sympathetic with the kids - even Shige, who's the hardest to like of the children, has her moment where she tells about having to put up with her drunken dad as a child and now having to do it again. It's not terribly hard to see how they became distanced from their parents. But Kyoko and (especially) Noriko are clearly finding ways to reconcile both their busy lives and maintaining respect for their elders and traditional society. It's a fascinating film loaded with amazing moments too subtle to even be noticed in a typically overdramatic Hollywood film - such as the devastating scene of Tomi weeping in the darkness - but that's Ozu's bag and what makes the film as effective as it is. Every time I see this it takes a little jump on my imaginary list of favorite films.

The Killer Elite -
Sub-par Peckinpah, but I blame the script more than the man. A secret security organization built of assassins that the C.I.A. contracts collides with an Japanese organization filled with samurai - how could it possibly hold together and be good? Well, because Peckinpah's stock in trade is macho bonding fests, and James Caan and Robert Duvall make a classic Peckinpah pair for the first part before Duvall goes to the dark side. Then it's a revenge tale for Caan, who does a great job here. Problem is, the action just doesn't cut it except in one shootout in the middle that I expected to be much bloodier, perhaps reminiscent of the opening of The Wild Bunch, until I remembered that the film was rated PG, not R. Anyway, some interesting ideas going on here so Peckinpah completists will find scenes worth chewing on, but it's not great by any stretch.

Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made -
Jim Jarmusch accompanies Sam Fuller to Brazil to talk about a film Fuller planned in the 50's and never got to complete. It's interesting, especially to see how Fuller ultimately used much of the footage he shot in Brazil in his Shock Corridor (helps flesh out that film's oddly iinserted color footage as well), but I wasn't entranced. Fuller is totally charmismatic though, hard to take your eyes and ears off and hard not to enjoy his reminisces. But second-fiddle Jarmusch and director Mika Kaurismäki don't really push any particular idea into the film, preferring to sit back and let Fuller take charge. I guess that's fine since he's as funny and charming as he is, but despite the title I didn't find myself particuarly interested in "Tigrero," just in Fuller. Which is probably how Kaurismäki and Jarmusch felt making it.

To Catch A Thief -
Hitchcock's enjoyably slight follow-up to his much more intense Rear Window still finds the usual stuff going on - sexual tensions between two characters played out in a crime thriller. And maybe if the crime had more teeth the relationship stuff would aswell. But never mind that - it's still fun, Kelly and Grant are terrific, as is Jessie Royce Landis as Grace Kelly's mother, and the location shooting is absolutely gorgeous. You'll probably guess who "the cat" is early on if you haven't seen it before, but you'll still have fun getting there. Well, I did anyway.

Stranger Than Paradise -
I counted 66 shots total, though the guy who lead the discussion said there were 67. That's fewer than the famous Psycho shower scene by about 9 shots. About half had camera movement, though usually only slight adjustments to follow the characters, not many unmotivated moves like the tracking shot that follows Eva near the beginning. Stylistically, it's pretty damn stark - as extreme as Jarmusch has been yet (with the possible exception of the Coffee & Cigarettes stuff) - but in terms of content it's a typical set of Jarmusch outsiders moving humorously through a world they have no real control over and just observe from the sidelines. I've loved it for a long time, it's a big part of the make-up of my film appreciation, but some of the audience was befuddled which I guess made me love it more.

The Awful Truth -
Terrific little gem from the era of the screwball comedy, though I'd have to put some serious qualifiers on this before I'd call it that. First of all it's got some truly uncomfortable moments between the characters, bits that may have gotten some people laughing but made me feel awkward (as it did the chracters in the situations), as though I was privy to a really intimate, private moment that I shouldn't have been there for. Grant and Dunne are great together, both totally engaging as people and as couple (and split couple). They follow a trajectory that you'd expect, but watching them get there is all the fun. With more exposure to Leo McCarey's supposedly reactionary views I may modify my idea of this but the leads seem equal to each other at all times, never with one subordinate to the other, and the comedy borders on anarchic especially Irene Dunne's behavior in the later scenes, which I totally loved. I'm really interested in McCarey all of a sudden.

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