My September movie-viewing (NOT a ten-best list)

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Oct 1, 2005 (Updated Feb 25, 2010)


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The Bottom Line My most delightful cinema experience of the month was watching "Run, Lola, Run" again. Disappointments included films by Cukor, Kurosawa, Linklaeter, Powell, and Tsui.

Since there is still not a general movies category, I am again annexing this one that was nearly empty for my own purposes this month.

I seem to have watched few comedies during September. (A number of documentaries about film directors, though.) The few comedies also contained much melodrama, as did the sort-of-a-western (the awful original, Oscar-winning "Cimarron"), to this is a list of jottings on a lot of melodramas.. The one I watched last month that would contend for a spot on a real ten-best-list spot was De Sica's tear-jerking "Umberto D." (And the one I enjoyed most was also one I'd seen before, "Run, Lola, Run," which was already on my list of best post-WWII German movies.

Jottings on the movies chronologically by their initial release years (with "---" setting off discussions longer than one paragraph):

Dangerous Female (1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth, 3.2 stars) is the first and least of the screen adaptations of The Maltese Falcon, though the one closest to the book. Being pre-Code it is more explicit about sexual dynamics than the subsequent versions. Ricardo Cortez got shot by women in many movies, but played e Sam Spade rather than his partner Miles Archer. Cortez played a smirking womanizer. In the next incarnation Warren Williams played a suave cynic, and then Humphrey Bogart played the part as someone credibly fighting playing the sucker for the treacherous "dame" (as which Bebe Daniels was less convincing than the later turns by Bette Davis and Mary Astor in the role). That Wilmer(Dwight Frye) is the sexual boytoy of the pompous falcon-craver (Dudley Digges) is much more blatant than in the later versions (though in John Huston's 1941 version, Wilmer is referred to as Sidney Greenstreet's "gunsel").

Showing that there were stupid choices in Academy Award voting far in the past, Cimarron (directed by Wesley Ruggles from a big best-seller by Edna Ferber, 1.5 stars) was designated "best picture" of 1931 and its incoherent, mawkish screenplay was also voted the best. I can ignore obvious back projection and impossible marksmanship, but the characters lack interest other than wondering how far the white-hatted Richard Dix will go in overacting of machismo and Edna May Oliver in prissiness. (Dix and Irene Dunne were nominated for Oscars, as was the cinematography.) The movie has a mighty peculiar church service, a timid Jewish tailor, a loyal and watermelon-loving young black retainer, an Osage princess, an outlandish trial, along with land rushes, fallen women, and an unlikely congresswoman. Yancey Cravat (Dix's character) was inspired by Sam Houston's son Temple, supposedly. (And from the pictures nominated, "The Front Page" shoulda won; Josef von Sternberg was nominated for best director for "Morocco," but the movie was not nominated. Neither was "Public Enemy" or "Little Caesar." and Norman Taurog won for "Skippy," which was based on a comic strip and starred Jackie Cooper.)

Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis in the same movie? It happened in 1932, in the second of the three film versions of Edna Ferber's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel So Big (directed by William Wellman, 2.7 stars). They are in a scene together, though they are not introduced to each other. In fact, Davis, who seems to have been cast as a commercial artist several times early in her career, has a closing speech celebrating Stanwyck's character (Selina) as the personification of rural American virtue. It's a speech that probably no one could pull off, though it does summarize the reverence with which the former school teacher turned widow farm operator is treated. Stanwyck manages the part surprisingly well, though it's difficult enough to imagine her a rural school-teacher, let alone marrying the narrow-minded dolt she does and working in the field stretches credulity (Stanwyck running an enterprise is an altogether different matter...). There are a number of major jumps in time (the "DeJong asparagus" is only encountered on ritzy menus, leaving the viewer to guess that it is what Selina's success was based on, and the "so big" is not set up in the brief time in which her son Dirk is a child). The movie condensed a novel of nearly 300 pages in 81 minutes with fairly slack pacing within the scenes. (Wellman had directed Stanwyck in Night Nurse the year before, and based his 1937 "A Star Is Born" heavily on her marriage to her alcoholic and megalomaniacal discoverer, Frank Fay.

Our Betters (1933, directed by George Cukor, 2 stars) is a becalmed record of a Somerset Maugham drawing-room comedy that is remarkably unfunny and not particularly scandalous, starring a brittle Constance Bennett and her then-husband Gilbert Roland. (Cukor made many klunkers! But the gowns were usually impressive.)

The 1934 version of Fannie Hurst's soap opera Imitation of Life (directed by John M. Stahl, 4 stars) lacks the visual panache of the 1959 Douglas Sirk version. Warren William was less wooden than John Gavin (faint praise, that!) but also less plausible as the daughter's infatuation. Claudette Colbert was cheerier than Lana Turner, more the romantic comedy lead (she so often was) than the soap queen (Turner so often was), but in both versions the real drama is the very black mother doting on her the light-skinned daughter who can pass as white only by dissociating herself from her mother, not in the white folks' amours and infatuations. Ned Sparks supplied much needed comic relief.

The major interest in Upper World (1934, directed by Roy Del Ruth, 3.3 stars) is Ginger Rogers's burlesque number, or, rather, the extremely revealing costume. Dickie Moore as the child of Warren William and Mary Astor also enlivens the proceedings. Alas, their parts are clichés of a brittle social-climbing wife who neglects her rich and powerful husband, who befriends the burlesque star (whom he literally fishes out of the ocean). Andy Devine giving Warren William tips on picking up girls is pretty funny and there is an interestingly ambiguous representation of a policeman ((Sidney Toler)) who is obsessed with bringing down the railroad magnate (Alexander Stream, William's part). The unsubtle equation of the child playing with toy trains and the supposed grown up businessman also indicates a populist streak, though in the Depression-era Hollywood comedies about the smart set, neither the plucky have-nots or the flush haves showed much interest in money. (Whose fantasy that was, I don't know, but those buying the movie tickets were not the super-rich.)

Love On The Run (1936, directed by W.S. Van Dyke II, 3.2 stars) has not one but two preposterous plots, as rival newsmen played by Clark Gable, Franchot Tone get embroiled with a runaway heiress (Joan Crawford) and a ring of spies. Crawford and Gable have chemistry (and star wattage) and Tone suffers multiple humiliations.

Based on an 1869 play set in Louisiana sometime after the Louisiana Purchase by the United States, The Toy Wife (1938, directed by Richard Thorpe [Night Must Fall, Double Wedding, Above Suspicion], 3.1 stars) starts as preposterous froth with Luise Rainer as a plantation flibbertigibbet called "Frou-frou." She marries a politically ambitious lawyer played by Melvyn Douglas though her frivolity is better suited for the roué played by Robert Young. The mismatch eventually turns serious (that is, awash in sudsy recriminations and gallant self-sacrifices).

Michael Powell's first independent film, The Edge of the World (1936, 4.2 stars), shot on location on the Shetland islands of Foula, provided, an almost ethnographic record of life on the edge economically as well as geographically. There are some folk-myth-like confrontations, some striking travelogue shots, and not much of a story.

Michael Powell's 1941 WWII propaganda movie 49th Parallel (from a story and a screenplay by Emeric Pressburger for the British Information Ministry) is an episodic portrayal a ruthless Nazi submarine officer, Lieutenant Kuhnecker (Eric Portman) trying to escape across Canada to the US (then not in the war). It had the startling effect of making me root for him to evade capture. The movie has its moments of brilliance, but is a long, propagandistic slog with some very hammy performances (especially those by Raymond Massey and Laurence Olivier).

The Conspirators (1944, directed by Jean Negulesco from a novel by Frederic Prokosch, 3.5 stars) takes place almost entirely at night with enough confusion about who can be trusted to be a film noir, though it is one of the movies celebrating resistance to (and spying on) the occupying Nazis with Paul Henreid again (as in "Casablanca") the indispensable resistance figure (even less convincingly than in "Casablanca" which I dare say no one loves because he was so great in it). Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are also on hand in neutral Lisbon as anti-Nazis. And Hedy Lamarr lent glamour and her breathtaking beauty as the romantic interest. (whose loyalties and trustworthiness are central issues for hero Henreid). Joseph Calleia played another sophisticated local policeman (as in "Algiers"). Negulesco also directed Greenstreet and Lorre (in bigger and more interesting roles) in "The Mask of Dimitrios" in 1944 and won an Oscar directing Jane Wyman to one in "Johnny Belinda" in 1949. The stylishly noir cinematography was the work of Arthur Edeson (who also shot "Casablanca" and, earlier, "The Maltese Falcon," "They Drive by Night," "Frankenstein" and also "Mask of Dimitrios" for Negulesco). And I have to mention the couture on Lamarr, credited to Leah Rhodes (who won an Oscar in 1948 for "Adventures of Don Juan" with Errol Flynn in the title role).

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Call[ing] Northside 777 (1948, directed by Henry Hathaway, 3.9 stars) was a transition from the aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart to the tough and obsessive James Stewart of Hitchcock, Mann, and Preminger films. Stewart played a fairly jaded newspaper reporter, P. J. MacNeal, whose boss (Lee J. Cobb) has him look into a reward for finding who shot a policeman in 1932. Frank Wiecek (a Polish(!) Richard Conte) was convicted for the crime. MacNeal reluctantly takes on the story and even more reluctantly comes to believe that Frank was wrongfully convicted. MacNeal then exhibits the zeal of Mr. Smith and prevails. The 1940s technology is interestingly quaint and official coverups pervasive. With so righteous a hero (working mostly by day) "777" is not a noir, though there is a noir sequence of MacNeal going from bar to bar in the Chicago stockyards area and finally going to confront the witness whose testimony convicted Frank that is totally noir in lighting, framing, and using dimly-lit alleys, corridors, and staircases (shot by Joe MacDonald, one of the masters of black-and-white cinematography, as in Panic in the Streets).

The film was shot in the locations and begins with the claim that it is a true story (not just "based on a true story"). The pace is a little slow, but it allows Stewart to get wound up. He has a formidable opponent in John McIntire (as, later, in The Far Country in which McIntire was a judge similarly unconcerned with justice). The movie's quasi-documentary style was already employed by Hathaway in "The House on 92nd Street" (Hathaway had also directed the famous noir "Kiss of Death" and the less well-known but excellent "Darik Corner," and later directed "Desert Fox," a number of somewhat comic John Wayne vehicles, and the heist film with multiple twists Seven Thieves.) Like too many other documentary-style crime melodramas of the time, "777" is marred by pompous opening and closing voice-overs by Reed Hadley.

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"Shubun" (Scandal, 1950, directed by Akira Kurosawa, 3.2 stars) has a subdued, earnest and genial performance from the young Toshiro Mifune as a pure of heart motorcycle-riding painter, an over-the-top portrayal of weakness by Takahashi Shimura as a self-loathing, corrupt, broken-down lawyer (warming up for "Ikiru"), and a tear-jerking one from Yuko Katsuragi as his tubercular daughter. The ending was no surprise to me, though apparently other viewers who have seen fewer Frank Capra movies than I have don't see it coming. The middle sags, but the portrait of scandal-inventing celebrity journalism has not lost its relevance. The earlier "Drunken Angel" with Shimura as a physician and Mifune as a tubercular young alcoholic yakuza is much better with less histrionics (until the end, at least) along with the later "Stray Dog" and "The High and Low" among Kurosawa's contemporary movies (that have now become historical records, including of a much-less urban Tokyo here).

"Hakucihi," Kurosawa's reverential 1951 attempt to set Dosteovesky's The Idiot in post-WWII Japan, even in its northernmost and most Russian-influenced island did not work. The movie has some amazing images. Although a hundred minutes was hacked from it, which may account for some of the incoherence, some the extant scenes run too long, and the Natasha Filippovna role (Setsuko Hara playing a character called Taeko Nasu) is fundamentally misconceived.

The team of writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica were responsible for the best Italian comedies of the 1960s. Earlier, they were responsible for three of the greatest neorealist tear-jerkers: Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948), and Umberto D. (1952, ). "Umberto D." was De Sica's favorite of his movies. It has a wrenching performance by a non-actor, philology professor Carlo Battisti, as Umberto Domenico Ferrari. His memorable performance is matched by that of his dog Flike. ]4.3 stars for the movie (mostly because of its slow pace and coercively throbbing musical soundtrack by De Sica regular Alessandro Cicognini), 4.8 for the excellent Criterion DVD package of great restored image and interesting bonus features.

The Narrow Margin (1952, directed by: Richard Fleischer, 4.5 stars) is an excellent train-bound thriller with Marie Windsor as a very tough femme fatale and great noir cinematography by George Diskant.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953, directed by John Sturges, 3.7 stars) ends predictably, but has unusually effective humor and military tactics on display along the way, and is a rare western in which the romance is part of the action plot, not tacked on to broaden the appeal (to romantics).

Desert Rats (1953, directed by Robert Wise, who died during the month, 3.8 stars) is a tight dramatization of Richard Burton whipping some Australian recruits in time to save western civilization (at Tobruk in 1941).

The primary interest in House of Bamboo (1955, directed by Samuel Fuller, 3 stars) is in the wide-screen CinemaScope color photography (by Joe MacDonald) of Tokyo ca. 1954 (with lots of fire-engine reds). The final shoot-out has an interesting locale, but it and the rest of the movie lack the drive of the original undercover cop drama The Street with No Name, which had the noir look and a more complicated hero.

I watched the pulpishly luridly-titled The Decks Ran Red (1958, written and directed by Andrew Stone, 3.4 stars) because it starred Dorothy Dandridge. She was OK as a Maori woman reluctantly taken on board a cargo ship in New Zealand after James Mason comes on board in his first command. Already there are Broderick Crawford and Stuart Whitman with a very evil plan. Crawford is quite scary. If there is such a thing as a noir at sea, this is it. The machinery is quite photogenic, the Crawford plot and Crawford himself quite psychotic, and James Mason proves to be quite resourceful in an unusual and obscure thriller that was shockingly violent for a 1950s movie Crawford's get-rich plans remain shockingly demented even for the callous and greedy world of film noir. Mason also starred in the Stones's "Cry Terror" in which Rod Steiger played a land-locked schemer in the Broderick Crawford mould. (In that the movie was filmed in black and white, as any noir must be, it would have been better to title it "The Decks Ran with Blood," since red is not visible in it. Such blood as there is on display is black.)

Heathers (1989, directed by Michael Lehmann, 3.3 stars) might have been more enjoyable at the time—a time before Columbine made disaffected high school students taking out those who annoyed them a reality. I rather like Winona Ryder in a not very challenging role as the nice girl who lost her balance when she was exalted to the snootiest clique in the school (the Heathers) and intrigued by the new loner played by a young Christian Slater channeling an older Jack Nicholson.

The literal translation of the 1990 Hong Kong movie "Die xue jie tou" is "Bloodshed in the Streets." "Bullet in the Head," the title by which it is known in English in America at least seems to me apter in that very little of the very considerable flow of blood in the movie is on the streets. "Bullet in the Head" is one of the most famous ultraviolent, multiple-explosion John Woo movies. The first half hour or so is very difficult to follow—and that's before the setting shifts to the chaos of the Vietnam, circa. 1967. Tony Leung specializes in looking saddened and can also sound saddened, in particular by greed (Paul, overplayed by Lee Waise) destroying the camaraderie of the three musketeers and by what happens to Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Sally (Yolinda Yam). This is the John Woo movie that most reminds me of Sergio Leone movies, though it is far more cartoonish and lacks the supertight Leone closeups (and Ennio Morricone music). It is astonishing to me that a movie can be both so violent and so sentimental. The survival of any of the four main male characters (Simon Yam's Luke is the fourth) is as preposterous as, say, dancing on the ceiling. The final dockside bumper-car duel reminds me of "Itchy and Scratchy" going at each other. (The alternate ending that was filmed should have been used instead.) Although the explosions get boring and much about the plot is unbelievable, it improves upon the wildly overpraised "The Deer Hunter," which obviously influenced the conception of North Vietnamese sadistic captors. I am impressed by how the violence affects the boys who went from Hong Kong to Vietnam. 3.6 stars is my ambivalent rating.

"Wong Fei-Hung" (Once Upon a Time in China,1991, produced, directed, and co-written by Tsui Hark, 2.7 stars) is a long (134-minute), jumpy (and blatantly racist) movie with a whole array of forces arrayed against the simple, virtuous kung-fu master and healer Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li).

I've been listening to a lot of Shostakovich music since enjoying the CanStage production of Gogol's "The Overcoat" with no dialogue and a lot of Shostakovich. This extended to his notorious r-rated 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The 1992 lip-synched film version directed by Petr Weigl cut the running time by one-third, added nudity and a graphic whipping. I was glad to have the chance to see what the fuss (from Stalin on down) was about. 3.8 stars

Akira Kurosawa's last film Madadayo (1993, 2.7 stars) is long and seems largely pointless to me, though knowing that the last scene Kurosawa ever filmed was the one of the old master imagining himself as a child hiding in haystacks, yelling to those who are going to look for him "Madadayo" (not yet) is certainly poignant.

Elia Kazan: A Directors Journey (1995, directed by Richard Schikel, 4 stars) passes over the infamous HUAC testimony in less than a minute and dwells inordinately on "Baby Doll." I was disappointed there was nothing about "Pinky," but good clips and a director articulate about his craft (plus his own screen test) make the documentary worthwhile.

That's Life: Vittorio De Sica (2001, directed by Sandro Lai, 3.2 stars) is enjoyable for someone interested in De Sica's movie. It is devoid of information on his early life and influences, and devotes little attention to his long acting career (IMD lists 177 appearances). The exception is some footage from the making of Rosselini's great "Il Generale della Rovere," which contains De Sica's greatest performance). There is a puzzling abundance of references to the difficulties of getting "The Last Judgment" funded. (It was made in 1961, starring Alberto Sordi.) The shy writer Cesare Zavattini , who worked with De Sica on at least 20 completed movies (and all of the best ones), is included in De Sica's suave self-presentation from a late-1960s television piece. There is no real insight into what De Sica accomplished or sought to accomplish in/with his movies. Watching him direct scenes from "Two Women" and "The Condemned of Altona" are interesting, as it watching Sophia Loren waiting patiently in the background of two 1960s press appearances by De Sica. (It would have been better to ask her to recollect working with the director who helmsed nearly all of her best work.)

I was exhilarated and delighted by Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998, directed by Tom Tykwer, 5 stars) the first time I saw it, and placed it third on my list of best postwar German movies. Although taking me less by surprise seeing it again, I was still delighted by it, and now see how it fits with Tykwer's other films, which are also much fascinated by contingency, like Krzysztof Kieslowski (whose screenplay for Heaven Tykwer filmed after Kieslowski's death). Watching it again, I also better appreciated how much Moritz Bleibtreu (Manni) communicates with looks at Lola (the very red-haired, running Franka Potente) and watched more carefully to see what varied in the three variations of Manni's money crisis.

Whale Rider (2002, directed by Niki Caro, 4.6 stars) has superb performances, impressive special effects, an apt soundtrack, and authentic location shooting. Although I think that the father and son digging and talking scene that is included on the DVD should not have been cut, the middle of the movie does drag just a bit.

It is surprising that a movie with Federico Fellini talking about himself, intercut with footage from "8 1/2" and other movies, and interviews with some of those he worked with could be as dull as Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002, directed by Damian Pettigrew, 2.6 stars) is, particularly the first half hour of it. Other than film clips, the best parts are the interview footage of Terence Stamp and Donald Sutherland. They tell stories (and Stamp hilariously imitates Fellini). Fellini himself (in filmed interviews from 1991-93; Fellini died in 1993) claimed that his movies directed him and said that he did not think introspection was good for an artist and that he did not want to know too much about why he did what he did or how he did it. The footage of him directing, particularly a scene from "Satyricon" is amusing. There is practically nothing about the great films of the 1950s and very little from them. And no interview footage of Marcello Mastroianni (or Claudia Cardinale, who is completely fluent in English and insightful in interviews about working with other directors).

The Aviator (2004, directed by Martin Scorsese, 4.2 stars) is long, visually stunning, leaves out a lot of discrediting information about Hughes, and contains outstanding performances from an interesting cast led by Leonardo di Caprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett imitating Katharine Hepburn. The aerial sequences and the confrontation with inquisitors (first the Breen Office censors, later with TWA's Senator Owen Brewster, played by Alan Alda) are the best parts, though the relationships with Hepburn and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) are very entertaining. The "Rosebud" of the story is obvious and pounded away at. Robert Richardson's Oscar-winning cinematography was superb (though Zhao Xiadong's for "House of Flying Daggers" was even better). Thelma Schoonmaker picked up another one for her editing (albeit in a weak field).
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Before Sunset (2004, directed by Richard Linklater, cowritten by him and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, 2.7 stars) has an interesting premise (meeting again the one who got away) and very good performances by Delpy and Hawke, but seems to me to run nine hours rather than the 80 minutes of clock time? Just the opening bookstore scene feels like it lasts 80 minutes to me. This is the 115th best movie of all time (IMDB raters with male ratings almost as high as female ones)???.38% rated it 10 out of 10? I much prefer the Linklater/Hawke collaboration on "Tape" (2001).

I found No Direction Home (2005, directed by Martin Scorsese, 4.5 stars) fascinating, though, despite the co-operation of Bob Dylan in a ten-hour interview, the performer né Robert Zimmerman remains enigmatic. The 3.5-hour documentary televised in the "American Masters" series cuts off with the 1966 motorcycle accident (which was followed by eight years of not performing in public). The vehemence of the rejection of Dylan going electric is hard to believe. I was considerably less fazed by that than by some of his later turns. The documentary implicitly shows that Dylan's interest in country music went way back (though he recalls that it could not be heard on radio stations in Minnesota's iron range when he was growing up. There is no mention of religion to provide background for his Christian period. What is included is a lot of early performance footage, some interesting interviews (particularly Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow), documentation of the booing of the electronic music, and the idiocy of questions in news conferences that makes Dylan's impatience with being categorized more understandable.


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Wracking my brain to try to recall all the movies that I saw in 2004 led to a resolve to list the ones I see in 2005.

The lists for the movies I watched in previous months this year are: January, February, March, April, May, June, July(I), July(II), and August.

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