Even with a big, enthusiastic cult following, King Hu’s Chinese Martial Arts film, overlaid with a schmear of Buddhist philosophy, has been more influential then seen. At least Stateside. (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON/’00 being the best known offspring.) Set in some distant feudal past, the story places a simple portrait painter, with a comic nagging mother, in the midst of a political war between masses of Imperial forces and a beautiful runaway daughter-of-the-court who’s rented the haunted house next door along with a couple of renegade generals. Naive, sentimental, monumental & sometimes too dark to tell what’s going on, the acclaimed film only partially holds up; and earns yawns with a three-hour running time. The big battle scenes, with the usual large forces of darkness against a handful of honorables, feature a lot of creative (and advanced for the time) acrobatic swordplay and wire-work for those impossible trampoline-worthy leaps. (It makes warfare look like a game of badminton played with gyroscoping human shuttlecocks.) Then a mystical finale that’s less Zen enlightenment than moral dodge.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Packaged by Criterion as THE ADVENTURES OF ANTOINE DOINEL, a title that best fits the last three of the four & a half films François Truffaut made with Jean-Pierre Léaud as his quasi alter-ego. The first two, the most autobiographical, are by far the best, with LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS)/’59, one of the great debut features. Right from its opening shots, as if guided by the spirit of Jean Vigo, Truffaut shows himself a natural, with an easy technical facility most filmmakers struggle for decades to achieve. Antoine is already a toughened, yet disarmingly sweet-natured 14-yr-old kid headed for trouble when met, with dicey relationships with mom, step-dad, school & the truth. Yet, what pleasure he takes in all his foibles & failures, even as they escalate toward a punitive military academy. And watch how deftly Truffaut switches gears from the warmth toward his cast of hilarious non-pro kids, to reveal a sudden flair for action & suspense when Antoine steals a typewriter. (And what an image as he navigates sidewalk traffic with the heavy thing.)
The second film, ANTOINE ET COLETTE (it’s a half-hour short culled from LOVE AT TWENTY/’62), picks up with Antoine finding a first job, first apartment, first love. Alas, unreciprocated, though the girl’s parents are encouraging. Such dinners! Truffaut was rightly proud of this one, nailing a tricky cusp-of-adulthood moment. Returning with non-Scope/Eastman Color for BAISERS VOLÉS (STOLEN KISSES)/’68, Doinel is drummed out of his military service and hunts up a series of jobs to botch while lunging at love & domesticity. The story is less interior, presumably less autobiographical, but often very funny in its own way. DOMICILE CONJUGAL (BED & BOARD)/’70 repeats the format to lesser effect with Truffaut & cast forcing comic payoffs as marital problems, infidelity & a baby come into play. If only the film had more magical moments like the unexpected appearance of M. Hulot entering a Metro station, his umbrella handle getting caught on a stairway railing.* By the time we get back to the story in L’AMOUR EN FUITE (LOVE ON THE RUN)/’79, the characters have little to do but reminisce (with many a helpful film clip from the series as illustration) while setting up a resolution with the least interesting character in the entire saga, played none too well by Dorothée. (An actress with neither last name nor character.) Summing up; books one & two: essential; three: delightful in it’s own way; four & five for completists.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Note, showing up like some apparition, it is M. Hulot, but not Jacques Tati. Instead, that’s Tati’s costume designer and occasional double Jacques Cottin as Hulot.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Woody Allen must have looked long & hard at how Truffaut handles action & dialogue in the apartments of the last three films in the series. Heck, he took notes.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Three decades after Frank Capra hit the ‘A’ list (joined at the hip with writing partner Robert Riskin), adapting the wiseguy sentiment of Damon Runyon’s LADY FOR A DAY/’33, he left the arena for good with this thuddingly misconceived flop of a remake. The story is largely unchanged (elderly apple peddler, a lucky charm to raffish NYC mob man, needs his help to keep her engaged daughter from finding out she’s a tramp), but something’s gone missing in the new treatment. Okay, everything’s gone missing. A lot of the loss comes in making the story a period piece (not that Capra had much choice in ‘61). But where the zestful earlier film played as a tough & funny Depression Era fairy tale, the remake seems to run at half-speed. (And its forty-five extra minutes make the cast look like dunderheads.) A few players glean laughs (mostly Peter Falk & Edward Everett Horton), and Bette Davis, a most unlikely Apple Annie, at least keeps her dignity, but others aren’t so much miscast as defeated. Especially Glenn Ford, whose soft attack is like anti-matter, and Arthur O’Connell as a Spanish Count. You know you’re in trouble when you’ve got Arthur O’Connell playing a Spanish Count. With a thirty year retirement ahead of him, Capra seems relieved to throw in the towel.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, Capra’s LADY FOR A DAY, about the best of all possible Damon Runyon adaptations.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Over-stuffed & bloated, POCKETFUL plays like a Hollywood embalming of a B’way musical. Begging the question, why hasn’t someone musicalized this story?
DOUBLE-BILL: Swansong for Capra regular supporting actor Thomas Mitchell following stellar perfs in DEEDS; LOST HORIZON; MR. SMITH and WONDERFUL LIFE.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Capra’s career-long fixation on the erotic nature of water running over glass gets a final workout as debuting young lovers Ann-Margret & Peter Mann bill & coo.
Saturday, October 22, 2016
When people talk about the flat out funny pics Woody Allen use to make, this is what they’re talking about. (Co-scripted with Marshall Brickman, his fourth & final Allen collaboration, MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY/’93, was the last in this carefree comic vein.) The basic idea, RIP VAN WINKLE meets 1984 (but 200 years in the future) is all but foolproof; and if some of the gags are a little too easy (reversed reputation jokes on food, literature & art) or a few dated references need annotation (Teachers’ Union Prez Albert Shanker was pretty obscure even at the time), most still land. Demerit points for undercranked action & lazy moments where Diane Keaton & Allen talk over each other to hide lagging comic invention. But generally, Woody works his material to fine, funny effect. Even when he hasn’t the physical skills & discipline to deliver on his attempts at silent comedy shtick, he pulls it off with just the idea of slapstick, looking back toward Harry Langdon and forward to Peter Sellers. And what a clever (and frugal) decision to craft the future out of ‘found’ modern buildings, as Truffaut & Godard did in FAHRENHEIT 451/’66 (which has a similar look) and ALPHAVILLE/’65 (which doesn’t.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Allen took the leap into legit filmmaking on his next, LOVE AND DEATH/’75, but no one noticed at the time. OR: The two French New Wave films just mentioned.
Friday, October 21, 2016
Where MARVEL pumps out a never-ending stream of SuperHero blockbusters, rival D.C. Comics sweats bullets on each dicey new release. No wonder they keep coming out with BATMAN resets, safe harbor with a variety of demographically designated product, from the ‘camp’ of the old tv series to Christopher Nolan’s darkness trilogy. So too in the myriad of animated BATMANs on offer. (One intriguing idea, a sort of graphic novel sprung to life, should work, but doesn’t.*) This one, a collection of short, medium-dark adventures, features six stories running about a reel each, with different production crews handling the limited animation technique in distinctive styles. The opener is the most fun with three street toughs relating separate encounters with the urban crimefighting legend that literally draw their hero in different lights. One makes him a near-satanic figure, much like the villain in Disney’s NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN from FANTASIA/’40. But none of the six has much room for character development, the conflicted conscience that makes Batman a standout among SuperHeroes; nor proper time for misdirected narrative, everything is too straightforward. But it’s often handsome to look at and marks the return of vet Batman voice-over actor Kevin Conroy who has a cult following of his own.
DOUBLE-BILL: *The animated DVD version of the graphic novels came out in 2009 as BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE.
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Another foreign animated pick up from the good folks at GKIDS, this time from France (with a fine alternate English-language track), directed by Rémi Bezançon & Jean-Christophe Lie. Visually a treat, like a deluxe-edition illustrated storybook, it tells the very tall-tale of how a brave (also clever, also stubborn) African boy runs away from a slave trader only to wind up bringing Paris its very first giraffe. (With many a friend & enemy on his adventures over land, sea & desert.) Drawn with a stylized, elegant hand, it’s a beauty to see, and also to hear in Laurent Perez Del Mar’s witty score with its echoes Maurice Jarre’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. If only the story wasn’t such an episodic mess. Told as a folk tale by the village elder to a group of young African kids, it’s also a bit too violent & intense for the presumed under-10 demographic what with slave trade, murder, alcoholism & traumatic separations. (So, Family Friendly with reservations.) And kids over ten may find the animation technique too traditional & old-fashioned, without the expected hip, ironic/contemporary edge. It’s sincere. Exactly the thing fans of Ghibli Animation will get into. They’ll also note the resemblance of this film’s main comic figure (the balloonist) to various Ghibli Mad Hatter types.
DOUBLE-BILL: The GKIDS DVD comes with a short semi-animated documentary, THE GIRAFFE OF PARIS/’57 which does an excellent job telling the true, rather melancholy story.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
What are the odds? Two films released the same year featuring sexually blocked guys in a confining/confiding relationship with a walkin’/talkin’ best pal of a Teddy Bear. Great minds think alike? (If only.) But where Seth MacFarlane’s TED was a potty-mouthed sex comedy on separation anxiety for an emotionally thwarted man-child, Spanish writer/director Marçal Forés is charting child-man rites-of-puberty. And unlike TED’s corporal bear-toy, here the conceit is more of an angst-driven CALVIN AND HOBBES: The High School Years. It works pretty well for the first half-hour as Pol, our teen protagonist, wrestles with friendships (loner or social animal?); budding romance (boy or girl?); home life (no parents, but older controlling brother to rebel against); school assignments (skip class or study with guest-star/teacher Martin Freeman). But tag-along Teddy quickly slips from clever crutch to conceptual drag; even after Pol ties him to a rock and tosses the toy off a bridge. Then it’s back to pampered, oversensitive ‘emo’-types at his elite English-language High School. (Very hard to give a shit about these rich kids.) Maybe if Forés let his cast pick up their cues without so many pensive pauses, or had the filmmaking chops to handle the brief flurries of modest action. Instead, all that self-defeating teenage behavior turns self-defeating.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Included on the disc, a little, quickly made student film from Forés, also called ANIMALS, which takes the conceit about as far as it needs to go in a sketch of a scene later expanded into the full feature. Happily, without the cast of teen-dream brooders. OR: Many think highly of DONNIE DARKO/’01, an obvious influence.
Monday, October 17, 2016
The fourth & last of the big Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals feels like it’s missing a few pieces. (It runs 2 reels shy of the second & third in the series.) A very loose adaptation of a 1930 Gershwin musical starring Ginger Rogers & a debuting Ethel Merman, Judy takes songs from each, overwhelmed by Busby Berkeley’s messy staging of “I Got Rhythm,’ but knocking the heck out of ‘Embraceable You.’ (Wonderfully staged by Charles Walters, he also partners Garland; so good, he keeps stealing focus.) The story element, such as it is, retains the basic set up (NYC playboy goes West), but adds a struggling college for Mickey to save with a big rodeo we never quite see. (The ‘missing’ 2 reels?) Some of the show’s best songs hide as underscoring via Tommy Dorsey’s band, though June Allyson pops up in the prologue to share ‘Treat Me Rough’ with Mickey while poor Nancy Walker shows up later and gets nada. (She’s briefly heard in a deleted vocal included on the DVD.) No doubt producer Arthur Freed, who’d just paired Garland with up-and-comer Gene Kelly in FOR ME AND MY GAL/’42, saw that the series had run its course.
DOUBLE-BILL: Garland made a guest appearance with Rooney (playing a neutered Lorenz Hart, of Rodgers & Hart fame) in WORDS AND MUSIC/’48 shortly before Mickey left M-G-M. And they might well have reunited on the underrated SUMMER STOCK/’50 if Rooney’s star hadn’t dimmed. (Gene Kelly got the gig.)
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Two years before breaking into the commercial mainstream on A ROOM WITH A VIEW/’85, the writing/directing/producing team of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala/James Ivory/Ismail Merchant (and toss in regular composer Richard Robbins) made this palimpsest of a film about a wayward British wife in 1920s India,
and the grand-niece (two generations on) who returns to the scene of the scandal. Ravishingly colorful in Walter Lassally’s unfiltered lensing, it’s ultimately, like too many other Merchant-Ivory productions, close, but not quite there. Greta Scacchi is lovely as an administrator’s wife who disdains the British colony's clubs & intra-socializing for the exotic/erotic company of a local Prince (an excellent Shashi Kapoor). Even without the dangerous civil/political situation hovering around the crumbling Colonial structure, her relationship is a threat to all parties. Christie, who knows the story from old letters & an elderly survivor who’s already filled her in, uses the trip to India less for research than for personal discovery only to find her own trajectory following her Great Aunt’s in unlikely, but happier ways. If only the film didn’t come out as a series of awkward lurches, with Christie giving a fiercely mannered perf. But it has a charm to it, and certainly holds your attention.