Salute! (1929)

27 02 2010

A sweet, simple, warmhearted early talkie from Ford. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it doesn’t really try to be. If anything, I’m glad that Ford kept everything low-key and simplistic (I’m fearing the latter adjective will be used a lot to describe this film) but still managed to add some visual flair to the otherwise predictable proceedings. Maybe I managed to watch it at the right point in time, but I think I got as much out of this as I possibly could. It’s easy to see where it’s going (once you get a grasp on who is who and what is going on) very early on, but still, it is very fun.

A timid Paul Randall is about to be sent out to the Naval Academy, and it is the first true opportunity he’ll get to escape from the shadows of his older brother and West Point cadet, John Randall. John is the outgoing, good-looking, and athletic member of the family and Paul is the antithesis. While in Annapolis, Paul becomes fond of Nancy, but his inexperience with women does anything but work to his advantage. He remains oblivious to her advances and instead, spends most of his time lamenting the upcoming Army-Navy football game.

There’s several selling points here, even if you aren’t a die hard Ford fan. Depending on one’s opinion of Stepin Fetchit, this film is either a great opportunity or an embarrassing showing. I know there’s the issue of racial stereotyping that many hold against Fetchit, but in the eyes of a modern viewer, I think his performances are subversive, arguably brilliant but frustrating reminders of our not so flattering past. It creates this almost unbearable tension between the film and the audience, especially when Fetchit is given as many lines as he is here.

The other great curiosity is the newsreel footage of the Army-Navy game. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover what year it is from, but it is still fascinating to watch. Ford struggles to blend the newsreel footage with his own football footage. It’s probably most evident by the sound, the crowd is ear-piercing during the real footage, but no attempt is made to recreate their cheering during the fictional footage. It probably requires some interest in the history of (American) football to be impressed, but it is one of the earliest examples of Ford providing historical relevance to his art. There’s also a great “pre-code” tone to Ford’s style here, perhaps more in the vein of William A. Wellman than Ford himself. The shaky, free-to-roam handheld camera movements are fun to watch, even as they are capturing events that could be considered mundane. It’s fun movie, though definitely for people who are already familiar with Ford.

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Shameless plug

18 02 2010

I got an email from Joel Anderson, an intern for the Japan Society’s film program in New York. He asked me to spread the word about the upcoming screening on Kenji Misumi’s Destiny’s Son. Apologizes  to Joel for taking so long to make a post about this; the screening is tomorrow at 7:30 PM. You can buy your tickets ahead of time here. I have yet to see the film myself yet, but as a fan of Raizo Ichikawa, I would recommend everybody in the New York area to give it a shot. They’ve got plenty of other screenings forthcoming, which can be viewed on their website’s calendar.

On a similar note, Hulu.com is now showing (via Criterion) some of the films from the original Zatoichi series. The internet sure is great, isn’t it?





Brewster’s Millions (1945)

15 02 2010

The second full feature I’ve seen from Allan Dwan (in addition to his Director’s Playhouse episode, High Air) is another home run. I couldn’t really argue that it is anything unique or that Dwan himself did anything to make this particular film special, but it definitely has an in-explainable and irresistible charm. It’s pretty much an eighty minute long joke (not in the negative sense) that is more silly than it is hilarious, and it all adds up to a punchline sure to give many a smirk. Nothing overwhelming, really, but its the sort of fast-paced, easy going comedy that just hits me in the right way at the right time.

Monty Brewster returns from his military service with one thing on his mind: marrying his sweetheart, Peggy. His pals from his time overseas accompany him to the big “welcome home” party. Soon after, it is revealed that Monty may inherit up to a million dollars from an uncle. It’s not a hoax, but he can only inherit the will, which he is secretly told to be 8 million dollars if he can spend 1 million dollars by the time he reaches the age of 30. There’s only one problem: he turns 30 in two months. The will checks out completely, not only must Monty spend the 1 million, but he must also do so without revealing to anyone why he is doing so. Oh, and he can’t just give it away to charity.

Brewster meticulously maps out a way to get rid of the million within two months, but from the perspective of his family and friends, he is simply going insane. He buys extravagant amount of stock in unlikely places and places a bet on an equally unlucky horse. However, these attempts at throwing the money away backfire and he soon begins a luck streak – at least that’s how the rest of the world sees it. For Monty, it is the epitome of unluckiness.

I will admit right off the bat that this movie does have its fair share of “hijinx” which is usually something I associate with cartoony, old-time comedies that most often rub me the wrong way. The humor here might be pedestrian, it’s snappy, witty dialogue that isn’t going to force anyone to hit the pause button from extensive laughing, it is most likely just going to force a smile. It’s a silly movie, which is something that I cannot stress enough, but it takes pride in this fact and doesn’t try to slip into an unnecessary “serious” tone.

Take for example, any “screwball comedy” which usually depends on the audience’s ability to imagine that two people can be so completely different and fight to no ends but still somehow, love each other. While I am fond of many directors that dabbled in this genre, I find it a bit too old-fashioned and a bit too hard to believe. Here, though, Monty and Peggy’s relationship is only problematic because of a single legal stipulation.  I’m never for a film explaining/fixing things so easily and quickly as Dwan does here, but it is a special situation.

It’s something that we are aware of, thus no tricks are being pulled and it’s a secret we are desperate to announce. Peggy and Monty’s relationship can really just “pick back up again” because it never really changed. Sure, down the road she may have to ask him if the other women that were involved in his endeavors meant anything, but a minor quibble is the most that will produce, and it’s something that is too lowkey for Dwan to even bother photographing. Many talk about the resourceful and minimalism of cinema’s genre giants during the 30s to 50s, but they usually are referring to noirs and westerns, but the tight, rapid-fire pace of this gem is evident that Dwan could do the same for comedy.





Deep End (1971)

4 02 2010

For the record, I actually watched this before Fish Tank. I only say that because while they are both very different films, they do have a lot in common. Again, we have a coming of age story and again, the protagonist is 15 years old. Aside from that, and the fact that these films are the first and second instances of such a film in which I can’t completely relate to the protagonist, they really couldn’t be more different. If anything, they are fascinating films to compare and contrast. Both reinforce the misconception that a coming of age story must be about a witty, smart, and extremely likable individual that is alienated by his surroundings. If anything, both of these films are likely to alienate the legions of idiots who buy anticipate everyone of these films being a vague adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Nothing against Salinger (it’s one of my favorite books still, in all honesty) but Holden Caulfield has become synonymous with both rebellion and angst.

The protagonist here, Mike, is everything Caulfield isn’t. Mike isn’t clever, he’s not self-conscious, he’s not observant. Mostly, he’s just really clumsy and awkward, which are probably his only similarity with Salinger’s canonized hero. Mike gets his first job at a bathhouse. He is immediately smitten (to say the least) with his co-worker, Susan, an outgoing redhead who, on the surface, anticipates every “pixie girl” of these stories. She uses the job as a host, so to speak, to be a glorified prostitute. She anticipates Mike to do the same, but as he is ever so clumsy (really can’t reinforce this enough) he brushes off the advances of all the customers, no matter how strong they come on.

Meanwhile, when he’s not working, he’s busy strengthening his obsession with Susan by stalking her and her fiance. Perhaps the film’s closest thing to a fault is the fact that Mike seems almost calm and collected when he’s doing his urban sleuthing, but I’d say that’s still a bit of a stretch. His nerves are still visible. Take, for example, the film’s most comedic sequence, in which he waits outside a swinger’s club for Sue and her partner. While waiting he tries to keep his cool by repeatedly buying hot dogs from a local vendor. It sounds merely confusing in words, but it works out perfectly in film, almost to the point that it boasts a Mike Leigh-level of discomfort and awkwardness for both the characters and the audience.

As Mike dives deeper and deeper into Sue’s life, we begins to realize she isn’t all that innocent or charming. Mike resists the evidence, though, and is confident in his original perception of her. Ultimately, he gets what he wants – a physical experience with Sue, but it is short-lived and what follows is one of the most unforgettable finales in all of cinema. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I even like the conclusion, as it, perhaps “goes too far.” If Fish Tank was a film driven by l tragedies redeemed  by concluding in a way that was open-ended and inconsequential, then Deep End is the opposite. It’s built with awkward and personal sequences, which form into one of the loudest climaxes in all of cinema. It can’t really ruin the rest of the movie, since I’m not sure if it is a good or bad ending but I had to stamp an abrupt question mark on the end. It’s a wonderful film, which I can’t recommend highly enough, but I’m not exactly sure if I am willing to embrace it like I have many of my other favorites. For now, it’s like a weird, kitchen-sink forerunner to The Wayward Cloud and that’s definitely a good thing.





Fish Tank (2009)

4 02 2010

Perhaps my strong reaction to this has something to do with the fact that it so narrowly avoids some every looming melodrama. Even if it did lapse into some of the “ultra downbeat poetry of its thematic brethren like Lilya 4-Ever and The Life of Oharu it would still have its unique mixture of poetry and Alan Clarke-inspired social realism to hold it above such films. I can still accuse it of being a bit over the top in how bleak its outlook is, but doing so would disregard the story’s complete arc, as it is one that ultimately is inconsequential. Of course, I mean this in the best possible way.

On paper, the story seems like perfect material for a Lifetime movie of the week. 15 year old Mia is suffocated by her simultaneously controlling and neglectful mother, as well as her foul-mouthed sister. She has no one to talk to, and thus her hopes and dreams, which mostly consist of becoming a hip-hop dancer, fail to come out to the open. Sound tacky yet? Well, it should and admittedly, there are more than a few scenes that could make one cringe, but please bear with me and the film.

Mia finally finds someone worth caring about in her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor. He allows both Mia and her sister to join in on a road trip. For a very fleeting moment, Connor seems to have successfully pulled everyone in the household together into a family. Things are looking up, but Mia is still resistant. Out of nowhere, she becomes extremely irritated with Connor, explaining that he doesn’t “know us” a reference to their “lower” societal status. Still, he is always interested in Mia’s endeavors, and he continues to support her as if he were her father.

Mia’s fierce resistance and Connor’s undying and sincere kindness creates an inevitable tension, though. It’s a tension that is barely noticeable, in fact, I was clearly convinced that I just had my head in the gutter when I thought of a physical relationship between the two. It’s obvious, in retrospect, but their glimpses of happiness together seem like the mushy postcard for finding a father figure on first glance. We feel for Mia and hope that this budding relationship remains fatherly and thus, platonic. Alas, it does not.

Following the awkward manifestation of their feelings, Connor leaves Mia and the rest of the family. As he is the only important thing to Mia, she follows him and discovers that he has already established a functional family of his own. In one what is quite possibly the most difficult and frustrating sequence of the entire film, Mia manages to convince Connor’s daughter (adorned in a corny, symbolic potential dress) to follow her. She wanders around the unoccupied landscapes behind the family house, and does so with seemingly no idea of what to do with this little girl. It’s such a frustrating scene because it plays out like a balancing out that is littered with melodramatic pitfalls everywhere.

I’ll try to explain the specifics of what happens next, as I fear I’ve already gone on far too much about the “plot” but I will say that it dodges all of the obstacles that could have turned it into another self-conscious female martyr art film (see Lars Von Trier) which would completely disobey the strict Alan Clarke-inspired photography. In an unexpected decision, Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan have chosen to go the route of the academic 1.37:1 ratio. At first, it is frustrating, since the camera, which like the one of Clarke’s work, follows around Mia from behind, seems to be missing beautiful peripheral details. It kind of destroys any sense of perspective, but it does that by building up a narrow field of vision. I don’t intend to attach unnecessary symbolism to the film, but perhaps the tight compositions are the visual embodiment of Mia’s chaotic and violent mindset on life.

Needless to say, the movie does look wonderful, even if one can’t help but feel something is missing from each side of every frame. Perhaps it has more in common with Gus Van Sant’s recent work (which also has a heavy Clarke influence) than Clarke. Sure, there’s the whole “social realism” viewpoint, but the sensuous  visuals brings to mind both Christopher Doyle’s revolutionary work in Paranoid Park and his earlier, more saturated photography in Wong Kar-Wai’s films. This is all just a way of saying that this looks beautiful, amazing, and unlike anyother film I’ve ever seen. Seriously, picking screen shots may have been one of the toughest decision(s) I’ve had to make in months. Anyway, everyone should just see this already. It easily gets my vote for best film of 2009.





Po zakonu (1926)

3 02 2010

If I can make one conclusion from the two films I’ve seen of Lev Kuleshov, it’s that he isn’t the least bit afraid to wear the influence of America on his sleeve. Like with Mr. West, no particular director comes to mind, except maybe Griffith here and there. I guess the Americana tone is unavoidable when you base a story off of Jack London’s work, but even then, one can’t deny that Kuleshov had his eye on the west. One substantial difference here is the fact that Kuleshov isn’t attempting something light-hearted or even frivolous, both terms I would use to describe Mr. West, but instead something much more serious. It’s probably downbeat to a fault, in all honesty, but I prefer that to the simple distraction.

While I think very highly of this film, I will also be the first to admit that Kuleshov isn’t close to the great Aleksandr Dovzhenko, but that’s an unfair comparison. Very few directors (of the era or otherwise) would go on to accomplish the fierce and rapid pace of the editing in Arsenal. Kuleshov puts forth a good effort, none the less. The sequence in which Dennin, ahem, “takes out his frustration” on his co-workers is hauntingly beautiful. Following what seems to be a killing spree, the audience is attacked with sensual close-ups of things like an inactive human head planted firmly in a bowl of soup (or beans?) which only builds the tension between those that managed to survive the tragedy.

This is where the story essentially “gets going” as Dennin, along with a surviving couple remain stranded upon a frozen river – one which thaws rather quickly. The tension is palpable and resembles that of a more artificial or constructed chamber melodrama. While Kuleshov does have a few stage-y shots here and there, he mostly keeps his camera close, emphasizing the physical and mental toll that isolation takes on the three survivors. It’s the sort of experience that seems pretty flat on paper, but it definitely works, assuming one is not afraid to live with the rather tragic principle.

The film’s title is translated into English as By the Law, which comes from the moral standards that the film’s lone female, Edith, places on her violent husband. He is more than willing to dispose of Dennin himself, but like countless westerns after the fact (Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide comes to mind) the criminal is preserved by the fact that he cannot properly be punished without the help of the law. It plays out silly here, since I’m not sure what interest Kuleshov must have held in the American judicial system, but I suppose he saw some relevance in it. I can’t question his film as a whole, though, because it is very, very good.