Sunday, December 30, 2018


Orson Welles is the true prototype of a Wes Anderson character. A child prodigy, precocious and intelligent, obsessed with magic, a born entertainer, emerging from a semi-privileged background with a blind self-determination that would hinder as much, if not more, than it helped, he could have been Max Fischer or Steve Zissou or, god help him, in terms of his relationship to Hollywood, Eli Cash.

And I think even Wes Anderson would tell you, he wouldn’t have created his real second feature (Bottle Rocket fans, come at me [review]) without Orson Welles’ 1942 second feature, no The Royal Tenenbaums [review] without The Magnificent Ambersons.

The comparisons are obvious from the jump: the intro for each is a family history played out in a montage using artificially antiquated imagery, explained by a narrator with a soothing voice, somewhat detached, somewhat reverent, but also sardonic and prone to ironic commentary. In the case of The Magnificent Ambersons, it’s Welles himself, his only mask the recording booth, grappling with the stars of his narrative like a proud parent resigned to letting his children make their own mistakes.

Like the Tenenbaums, but with a more pronounced urgency, the Ambersons are a family in decline, even if they can’t see it yet. A family soon to be out of step. As the 19th century nears its close, the Ambersons are top of the heap, but soon they will be as superfluous as the horse-drawn carriage. Indeed, their happiness and prosperity will become inextricably linked to the advancement of the automobile. A onetime suitor of Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello, Little Lord Fauntleroy), Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton, The Third Man [review]) returns to town after years in exile looking to establish his own auto factory, building a model he designed. A widower with a young daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter, All About Eve), Eugene is everything the most recent two generations of Ambersons are not. Namely, he is self-made and self-sufficient. Essentially, he is the Danny Glover character in The Royal Tenenbaums, an example of frugalness and responsibility--and thus an interloper in a clan resigned to doing things their own way.

It only takes one brief encounter for it to become apparent that a torch still burns between Eugene and Isabel. And one also quickly ignites between Lucy and Isabel’s bratty son, George (Tim Holt, Stagecoach [review]). They all come together at a glorious party thrown by the Ambersons and beautifully choreographed by Welles. There is dancing at the soirée, but the affair itself is its own dance, a physical exchange set to social rhythms. Welles favors long, complicated shots with the partygoers circling each other, George trying to disengage from the flow and isolate Lucy, but the crowd consistently coming together, dialogue providing the occasional percussive flourish. It’s a smooth and elegant set piece, establishing the full dynamic of The Magnificent Ambersons, assigning each player their part in the ballet. It’s also effortless, the director’s technique becoming invisible since his first feature; where Citizen Kane dazzled with its constant invention, Ambersonssoothes with its easygoing, imperceptible style.

The Magnificent Ambersons is based on a sprawling book by Booth Tarkington (Alice Adams), a family melodrama informed by historical sea changes. Part of adapting the book to film is paring it down to a manageable narrative, with a focus on George as the central figure. There is an irony to George. As the youngest Amberson, he is the most resistant to change, probably because he is the one who has benefited most from his grandfather’s fortune while contributing absolutely nothing to it. George expects everything to be handed to him and expects nothing to disrupt that. So, why adopt a horseless carriage when he is getting on fine with the dependable horse-drawn version? And when his father passes, if he were to let his mother marry Eugene, who knows what that would mean for the family fortune.

While George succeeds at heading off the romance, the business of making cars is something the remaining Ambersons see as a good investment prospect. Thus George’s two biggest concerns become linked, and if one were to believe in karma, his selfish block against happiness results in professional failure for Eugene and the bankruptcy of the Ambersons. George is a tough part to play. If an actor is too petulant, as was Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the 2002 Alfonso Arau adaptation, the movie becomes unwatchable. No one ends up really liking George, not his family, not even his director, but Tim Holt manages to maintain some glimmer of humanity for the character. There is a sense that his shell could break with the right impact. He can cross over from the side of the family that never worked for anything to the side that pitches in where it counts, leaving his bitter, scornful Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead, Magnificent Obsession [review]) to join the jovial Uncle Jack (Ray Collins, Touch of Evil [review]), as it were. If George has cursed the family, then it will require a sacrifice to undo it.

Sadly, even as Welles had pared down the Tarkington novel, the studio would pare down The Magnificent Ambersons in his absence, gutting the plot by nearly an hour to shorten the running time. The full Welles cut of the film is one of the great holy grails of cinema, though one likely to never come to fruition, as there has been no indication that the missing footage exists anywhere, and up until Criterion recently rescued the film, Warner Bros. had treated it like an unwanted stepchild, only ever releasing it on DVD coupled with its more accomplished sibling, Citizen Kane. It’s a testament to Welles’ skill that the movie is still so damn good, but if you are watching it and get a weird feeling that something is missing or has been glossed over, your instinct could very well be correct. The one spot where it’s most obvious is the hurried conclusion, which was shot without the great director. Georgie’s off-screen redemption and rescue feels rushed. You have to wonder what the true character arc here was, what great moments fell to the editor’s scissors, or how it would have left the audience without the tacked-on finish. The final fade out in The Magnificent Ambersons comes without much warning.

A couple of other quick notes I jotted down on this viewing of The Magnificent Ambersons:

* Joseph Cotton has always had a quiet presence, making him the perfect foil for a blustery actor like Orson Welles, but in movies like Citizen Kane or Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, he also has an angry edge. Not so here. Eugene Morgan is his most gentle performance, and with his kind eyes and somewhat growly voice, it suits him.

* The audio in The Magnificent Ambersons is particularly impressive. Welles mixes the sound to match the location, with voices echoing and fading out in relation to where the actor is to the central focal point within the cavernous halls of the Ambersons mansion. Likewise, the lighting is designed to be natural, befitting the time period, meaning lots of shadows are cast across the rooms, changing to fit the time of day. In some scenes, the aesthetic becomes almost gothic, befitting the stifled passions and secrets that lay behind each door in the Amberson household. (See also: Hitchcock’s Rebecca [review]; Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door [review].)

* I watched The Magnificent Ambersons on Christmas Eve, and there is enough wintery melancholy here to qualify it as a Christmas movie, but I’m posting the write-up closer to New Year’s, a more fitting holiday for The Magnificent Ambersons, as it’s all about the passage of time, and the need for growth and change. Shall we start a new tradition? Maybe pair it with Visconti’s The Leopard?

Monday, December 24, 2018


A rough and tumble western as only Samuel Fuller could make, 1957’s Forty Guns is the most macho feminist cowboy picture you’re likely to see. Opening with a visual manifesto--three men in their plodding wagon overtaken by a storm of horses, led by a black-clad woman astride a pure white beast--it’s clear from the start that a storm is coming, and it’s not going to be any dude marshalling its fury.

The three men are the Bonell brothers, law enforcement heading into Cochise County to arrest an outlaw wanted for federal robbery. Their eldest, Griff (Barry Sullivan), is a legendary gunslinger, known for his propensity to critically wound rather than kill. He’s also a fellow who’ll stay out of a fight if it isn’t his. So, when he reluctantly picks up a pistol to avenge his friend and stop the ornery Brock Drummond (John Ericson) from shooting up the town, you know it means something. Not just to him, but also to Drummond’s sister, Jessica (Barbara Stanwyck), the woman in black--or “the high riding woman with a whip,” as the movie’s ballad dubs her. Jessica runs the area with her forty-man army, and with the previous sheriff dead, she sees an opportunity to reinforce her regime by pinning the tin star to Griff’s chest.

Naturally, he isn’t having it, and so begins a sexual-tension standoff that drives the rest of the movie. The chemistry between Griff and Jessica is instant, and born of mutual respect, even if Griff is a bit too straight-arrow to admit it--or to accept his own infamy. Fuller’s script for Forty Guns is full of sharp innuendo, equating guns and power to sex and manhood. It’s not just knowing puns about “cleaning guns” or choosing the right stock, either; in the first showdown between Griff and Brock, there’s a clear visual commentary going on, as Joseph Biroc’s camera cuts between tight shots on Griff’s righteous, determined eyes and Brock’s limp pistol, drooping by his side, never to be fired. One is a man, and the other...well, not so much.

Fuller had something to prove with Forty Guns. He had seen how westerns discounted the female characters, and he wanted to upend that cart and all the horse apples inside of it. It’s important that no one ever questions Jessica’s ability to lead, or even suggests it’s strange that she’s the boss--outside that ballad, which concludes by wondering if there is any man strong enough to get her to come down off that high horse. (Not to be all spoilery, but the nature of that lyric does lead to the Forty Guns’ single bum note.) Jessica’s undoing is because of a man, but it’s a family tie, not a romantic one. Both she and Griff are challenged by their younger brothers. The middle Bonell, Wes (Gene Barry), has been Griff’s second for his entire career, but neither of them want their youngest, Chico (Robert Dix), to follow in their footsteps. In terms of western mythology, Fuller has put Forty Guns at the tail end of the gunslinger life. The situation the Bonells find themselves in is indicative of the changing times, and Fuller structures his script to encompass three generations. There are the aging lawmen, the nearly blind sheriff that Brock guns down (Hank Worden) and the marshall Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) that sees himself as Jessica’s #2, both of whom don’t want to give up the ghost just yet; there are the middle-aged veterans, Wes and Griff, who see an end to their wild adventures as society shifts towards civility; and then there are Brock and Chico, eager to make their marks, blind to the oncoming obsolescence of their would-be profession.

It’s quite a switch-up. In any other western, you’d have the put-upon damsel begging the hero to lay his weapons to rest and give her some notice. In Forty Guns, it’s Logan who confesses that it’s love that motivates him to run off Griff and put things back to the way they were. It’s a scene that, thanks to Jagger’s performance, can be viewed both as sympathetic and pathetic. What are we to make of an old-time frontiersman who pleads, “Jessica, I’m a man. I’ve a man’s feelings. You can’t buy what I feel”? John Wane would never be so vulnerable. #notallcowboys

But Forty Guns is a western where a woman owns everything. And has more of everything. She has more land and hombres in her employ than any would-be rival, and the biggest dinner table around so she can feed them all at the same time. (What a power move, forcing Griff to pass his message across twenty other men just to deliver it to her!) Perhaps her respect for and attraction to Griff comes from the fact that not only does he not need anything from her, he is not intimidated by her strength. In their first real scene together, she lets him drink her whiskey while she susses him out, and it ends with neither having given up any ground.

For two people like Griff and Jessica, however, it will take an act of God for them to give in to their desires, which is exactly what Fuller delivers. In an astounding tornado scene, the pair end up huddling together behind a brick wall, their backs to the wind, hoping the structure won’t fall before the danger passes. Once the wind has blown itself out, so too has their resistance.

There would have been no better choice for this film than Barbara Stanwyck. She had spent her career playing tough women who managed to maintain their femininity in a world that demanded she could not be both. Think of her turn as the con artist in The Lady Eve [review], the sexy femme fatale who still is a woman and able to feel and be. Stanwyck also pulled cowpoke duty for the Criterion Collection once before in Anthony Mann’s The Furies [review]. She has a commanding presence here, presiding over the men folk as she does, often astride that white horse, which the actress rode herself. No stunt doubles. Fuller uses low angles to give Jessica her proper place as commander, the landscape tilting to accommodate her. (Fuller is far less inclined to pay homage to the mountains and prairies than John Ford, probably convinced that man would end up besting Mother Nature in the end.) The result is more regal than sinister. As a villain, Jessica is never truly evil, she only appears to be doing what she thinks she has to do, and her fall comes from a different necessity.

Were we to call anyone a villain, it should be Brock, who could have commandeered a film of his own. He’s a real mean son of a bitch, with nary a glimmer of moral ambiguity. His betrayal of the sister who tried everything she could to help him could be what drives Jessica to the choice she makes at the end, casting her final scene as some kind of plea for relief rather than a surrender. Griff works as a foil for Brock. He is as unyielding, but he sees nuance in the life he’s lived and accepts the consequences. His confidence is earned. To my eye, Fuller isn’t really condemning the macho lifestyle here--that lip-licking, knowing look the gunmaker’s daughter (Eve Brent) gives Wes when he’s getting things done is no different than how Fuller and his camera look at Griff--he understands the need for decisive action. His ideal is more balanced. It allows for Jessica to have equal power, and for the intelligent, peaceful option to be considered first. Hence, when Brock forces Griff’s hand, Griff sees his worst sin as finally losing control. (Again, it takes a tornado....)

If Jessica’s final decision comes a little too quick, we might forgive it, since Forty Guns is a movie where everything happens quickly. At a lean 80 minutes, Samuel Fuller’s edits are as decisive as his characters’ actions or the violence that results from them. You only have the space between the guy reaching for his gun and his firing it to make your move. Besides, since the very last shot is a long one, we don’t really see what happens. For all we know, this could be the western equivalent of the end of The Graduate [review]. Then again, Fuller fans know he’s got a heart as soft as his gumption is tough, so most likely, we’re looking at some kind of happily ever after.

Monday, December 17, 2018

PANIQUE - #955

A small Parisian neighborhood. A carnival. A dead body. A local outcast. A young hustler. A conflicted femme fatale. Nosy neighbors.

These are the essential ingredients of Julien Duvivier’s 1946 French noir Panique. Season with romantic intentions, double-crosses, and even a little mystical mumbo jumbo, and you have the sort of emotional potboiler Fritz Lang liked to make with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Here instead we have the great Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review], The Two of Us [review]) and Viviane Romance (Any Number Can Win) as, respectively, the older man who lives a life of intellectual isolation and the woman too loyal to her criminal boyfriend (Paul Bernard, Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne) for her own good. It’s a great set up, taken from a novel by Georges Simenon, and one Duvivier plans to milk for all the drama and intrigue he can.

Simon leads the picture as Monsieur Hire, a strange character, dismissive of his neighbors, but nice to children and awkward in courtship. His early contact with Alice (Romance) is borderline stalkerish. Hire is a man of many lives: he works under a different name, peddling astrology as if it were a science, and he has a past he abandoned when his wife ditched him for his best friend. Yet, the more we learn, the less shady he becomes, our suspicions replaced by sadness and even sympathy.

Alice is similarly charmed by Hire--though, initially, she only indulges him because he claims to have evidence implicating Alfred (Bernard) in the killing. Alice just spent three years in jail taking the rap for a robbery Alfred committed, and she’s not prepared to lose her lover just yet. Caught between these two unsavories, the unspoken question becomes: whose affection is more genuine? What does each man stand to gain from maintaining her love?

That nothing comes totally clear, that Duvivier allows for such gray motivations, is what keeps Panique so intriguing from start to finish. Viviane Romance plays Alice as sincerely conflicted all the way to the end, despite Alfred showing himself as having no nuance whatsoever. And how are we not to be drawn in by Michel Simon’s natural charisma, even as he does his best to tamp it down? There is no distinct moment in Panique when M. Hire is shown as being entirely good or sympathetic. When he confesses his greatest pain, he follows it by showing his guiltiest pleasure, the photos he takes of the downtrodden and indigent, a spectator in other people’s misery. In classic Beauty and the Beast fashion, he only presents his nobler intentions after making the basest of threats. Simon’s performance is like one long dare being leveled at the audience. Will you have the guts to side with a man who we know can be a real creep?

Panique is like a melding of American suspense pictures and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s morality plays, particularly the small-town poison-pen drama Le Corbeau. At times, you might also think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Hire taking Alice to his old house) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Panique’s desperate climax). Duvivier’s only true genre is melodrama, even if he sharpens it on crime-fiction tropes or winks at gothic traditions. His construction is artful, relying on shadowy actions and voyeuristic impulses--both ours and that of the extended cast--to keep the plot energized. There are even some visceral action scenes. You’ve never seen as savage a bumper car ride as you’ll see in Panique. And it’s no throwaway scene, either; the memory of these dangerous amusements will come flooding back in the final act when the mob leaps from the carnival rides and takes to the streets.

So Panique has a little bit of everything while always feeling like just one thing. There are no unnecessary digressions, no excess fat. Rather, the film is fine-tuned for maximum effect, ceaselessly entertaining and always surprising. That it comes immediately after the end of World War II, and was the first film that Duvivier made upon returning from Hollywood, it must have also had many personal overtones for the director, a parable of groupthink, collaboration, and individuality vs. the mob. In that, it is also like Le Corbeau in how it despises petty small-town gossip, but even more challenging for pushing us to root for a man who, under many other circumstances, might not deserve it. As with any good story, it’s as relevant as ever, though now the controversy and drama would never spill into the public square, it would just remain online--which, even after seeing how wrong things go in Panique, seems all the more barbaric.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Somewhere on the road between the early ’80s debut of MTV and the post sex, lies, and videotape Sundance revolution of early ’90s cinema, there is a pit stop: David Byrne’s  True Stories. More than just a vehicle for the Talking Heads’ next album--though there are some clips that were repurposed into genuine music videos--but not as fully realized a narrative as other artists’ self-mythologizing star turns (Prince’s Purple Rain or A Hard Day’s Night [review] and Spice World), True Stories is a genuine oddity. All these years later, revived by the Criterion Collection, released to a new audience, it comes off as a curio from another time, strangely innocent and yet indicative of the decade’s sometimes arch and ironic approach to commercial art.

The story goes that David Byrne was inspired by tabloid headlines, and he wanted to both explore the Americana that often fueled these bizarre tales but also celebrate the Americans that devoured them. True Stories is set in the fictional hamlet of Virgil, deep in the heart of Texas, and with Byrne serving as an observant on-camera narrator, the movie tracks the town’s populace over several days leading up to a celebratory parade and talent show. “Altman-esque” could easily be applied to True Stories; with its large criss-crossing cast and focus on at least one character’s attempt to write a song, it could be viewed as a kind of mini Nashville. I’d wager Byrne took more from his buddies Jonathan Demme and Jim Jarmusch, however; True Stories has the same quirkiness the latter would apply to his movies Mystery Train [review] and Coffee & Cigarettes.

Sadly, I fear I am spending more time talking about what the movie is like because that is really more interesting than what it is. There isn’t a lot to hang your hat on here, even with all the intersecting stories and the collection of wonderful character actors. Spalding Gray shows up as a tech baron who is disconnected from his family and neighbors; Swoosie Kurtz is a rich woman who never leaves her bed; and Jo Harvey Allen (The Homesman) regularly gets some chuckles as the living embodiment of a tabloid, a compulsive liar who connects herself to Elvis Presley, JFK, and just about anything else she can think of. (One of Byrne’s co-writers, Stephen Toblowsky, is also a well-known character actor, having appeared in Spaceballs, Groundhog Day, and countless others.) True Stories checks in on factory workers, bar patrons, and even the children of Virgil, and while one might be worried that an arty New Yorker like Byrne would not be able to resist making fun of Middle America, nothing could be further from the truth. His vision of Texas can certainly be unique to him--the music, the fashion, etc.--but he appears to have genuine affection for the small-town values that keep this community a community. He even dresses in western wear to (awkwardly) fit in.

That said, it’s clear that Byrne wants to make fun of something, but the satire is so scattered, it’s hard to tell what that is. Targets include advertising, religion, dating, popular music--all things that didn’t require the Texas setting to get skewered. Or is it that the individual dreams of the Virgil citizenry will carry on despite the invasion of outside ideas? Given that the climactic song is all about how love is more important than material goods or even freedom, such a theory would not be a stretch. It’s even called “People Like Us,” an inclusive statement, and sung in the movie by John Goodman, the saving grace of True Stories.

Only a few years into his career at the age of 34, True Stories was a pretty substantial role for Goodman. The Big Easy and Raising Arizona would soon follow, and John Goodman would become the John Goodman we all know and love, but the part of Louis Fyne shows the performer as an almost naïve neophyte. Louis works at the microchip manufacturer just like everyone else, and at night he turns his attention to finding love. Goodman plays him as both self-assured and meek, one trait masking the other, and there is a sweetness to the performance that makes it impossible to not want Louis to find what he’s looking for (or maybe for the actor to appear in a revival of Marty). Though more fresh-faced than he’d even appear in his first collaboration with the Coens, all the classic Goodman traits are there: the smile that is both endearing and tricksterish, the expert comedic timing and physical precision, the natural line delivery. His presence on the screen is so amiable, it imbues the rest of True Stories with a similar likeability, meaning that even if David Byrne’s threads never weave into a single tapestry, it’s hard not to still feel good about having spent your time taking a tour through his made-up utopia of would-be normalcy.

Monday, December 10, 2018


It’s funny how movies come to you sometimes. For years, the only thing I knew about Some Like It Hot was that it was mentioned on an episode of The Facts of Life. The show’s matriarchal figure, Mrs. Garrett (as played by Charlotte Rae), was comforting the girls in her charge following the death of someone close to them. Mrs. Garrett shared that when her father had passed, the grief was too much to bear, and so she and her siblings went to see Some Like It Hot. They laughed for two hours, forgetting for a brief time that they had previously been crying...and that was okay. Life has to move on.

This stuck in my head for years before I ever saw the film. I don’t know if I finally sought it out because of my teenage obsession with Marilyn Monroe or my Billy Wilder hero worship, it could have been both, but upon first viewing it was immediately apparent why the Facts of Life writers had chosen Some Like It Hot as their example: it was a comedy that was empirically funny, that could be mentioned to any film fan, casual or devoted, and they’d be able to say, “Yes, that’s a good one.”

The slugline of Some Like It Hot is rather simple: two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) inadvertently witness a gangland execution. To escape mob retribution, they dress as women to hide out in an all-girl band. As a result of the close quarters, one of them, Curtis’ Joe/Josephine, falls for the group’s blonde lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), and he woos her under a third alter ego, that of the heir to an oil empire. But once they are in love with each other, how does he reveal who he really is?

It’s not exactly a classic case of mistaken identity, more like misdirected identity. For his part, the other fugitive, Lemmon’s Jerry, a.k.a. Daphne, ends up running interference by letting himself be wined and dined by a legitimate millionaire, a goofy little fellow named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). He’s a persistent Casanova, ready to shower Daphne with diamonds and talk of marriage. Surely no one is going to get hurt when the truth comes out, right?

Actually, that is right, and that’s what allows Some Like It Hot to resonate all these years later. Thematically, it’s about a group of misfits who, for better or worse, being unable to fit in their current situation, create a space where they belong. This can be in the literal sense, with Joe and Jerry remaking themselves to avoid gangsters, or it could be in the more metaphorical sense. Sugar’s foibles and bad decisions with men keep getting her in trouble, so she ostensibly removes the male temptation by joining a band of women who themselves all seem to be a little out of place in polite society. Joe falls for Sugar knowing these things about her, she’s confided her weakness to him woman to woman; he loves her anyway.

More important, however, is Osgood’s acceptance of Daphne in the movie’s famous last scene, and its oft-quoted final lines. As the four of them rush out to sea, Joe and Jerry having ditched the mob at last, Jerry--still dressed as Daphne--tries to let the smitten tycoon down easy. Except he rejects every reason Daphne can come up with to say they can’t be together, until, in exasperation, Jerry rips off his wig and declares he’s a man. To which Osgood simply replies, “Nobody’s perfect.”

And indeed, nobody is, not in this group, not anywhere, and the simple acceptance of that is, well...the simplest perfection. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot was coming at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meaning it was still subject to the morality police that had required the studios to create a homogenized image of American life for several decades running. Homosexuality was considered taboo, and even with more enlightened times to come, it would be many years before the notion of a character in drag would be played for anything but ridicule. It would have been easy for Billy Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond to wring laughs out of scenarios where people were reacting “ewwww, it’s a man in a dress.” That there is not a whiff of that anywhere here is not just commendable, but astounding. Not to mention subversive! Ending the film where they do, Wilder and Diamond are suggesting that Osgood and Jerry could stay together...and that there’s not anything wrong with that. Because they’ve already set up Joe to take Sugar without any judgment for past misdeeds, and her to forgive him for not being on the up-and-up.

Of course, this requires a lot more than good intentions to work. Some Like It Hot is an embarrassment of riches. The sharp dialogue and clever comedic scenarios provide a solid foundation. Just about anybody could have made that script funny, but it’s important that not just anybody did. The pitch perfect casting of Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe--all at the top of their game, all potentially never better--means that we like all three of the characters they portray as much as they like each other, and thus we can also accept them for who they are, even when their actions are, let’s be honest, totally underhanded. We want to see Joe and Jerry get away, we want to see them all find love, we want them to be happy.

Because their happiness makes us happy. And allows us to forget our troubles.

Just like it did for Mrs. Garrett. Laugh instead of crying.

This is not the first time Some Like It Hot has been on Blu-ray, but it is the first time from Criterion, and the black-and-white image is phenomenal. The picture is so sharp, it looks like Some Like It Hot was shot yesterday. This restoration is the best you’ll have seen this movie. It’s pretty much perfection.

Owners of previous editions of the movie are also treated to new supplements, but also some behind-the-scenes featurettes that are holdovers from the MGM packaging (meaning you’ll weigh hanging on to old discs based on what is missing here). The bulk of the extras focus on interviews, with all the principles represented, via archival pieces featuring Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe, and Wilder.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018



This review originally written for in 2008.

Made in 1993, the Chinese comedy Eagle Shooting Heroes (Dong Cheng Xi Jiu) is a parody of the wuxia genre, the flamboyant martial arts movies that years later would become popular in the U.S. through arty takes on the format like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Classically, these historical kung-fu pictures were less high-brow and more mainstream entertainment and were often based on sprawling prose serials featuring larger than life heroes, impossible quests, and eternal love. In this case, Eagle Shooting Heroes is based on a novel by the master Louis Cha, and it's the same novel that provided the story for producer Wong Kar-Wai's more serious directorial effort, Ashes of Time [review], a year later. Apparently Kar-Wai saw a greater opportunity in Cha's convoluted plots and crazy fighters, going forward with two different takes on the same text.

Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who has helmed various incarnations of Chinese Odyssey over the years, and written by no one apparently (there is no credited screenplay), Eagle Shooting Heroes is as nuts as anything that came out of the Zucker factory post-Airplane and generally as hit-and-miss as those low-brow satires, as well. It's only intermittently funny, and even then probably only if you have some passing knowledge of wuxia conventions. Lau and his cast appear to have never met a silly joke they haven't liked, even resorting to Three Stooges-style eye pokes and rubber gorilla suits. When you press play, buckle up and expect anything.

Plot is immaterial in this sprawling movie. I was never entirely sure who was after what mystical book or royal seal, nor could I always tell who hated whom and why. Dastardly master of the bullfrog school of kung-fu Ouyang Feng (Tony Leung Chi Wah, 2046 [review]) and his lover (Veronica Yip) want to take over China (presumably) and must capture the Third Princess (Brigitte Lin, Chungking Express, [review]) to clear the way to the throne. Along the way, they enlist the help of a bumbling sorceress (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love [review]), while the Princess is teamed up with a naïve martial artist named Yaoshi (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together). Yaoshi has a lover, Suqiu (Joey Wang, A Chinese Ghost Story), who jealousy pursues the pair, while also attracting the attention of the king of the beggars, Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung, Days of Being Wild). Hong Qi teams with Feng, Suqiu teams with the Princess' fiancée Duan (Tony Leung Ka Fai, Lost in Beijing), and everyone gets chased by the vengeance seeking, chubby homosexual Zho Botong (2046's Carina Lau playing a man). Most of the characters change allegiances at least once, several do so while hallucinating, and one even becomes a floating head before ascending to Heaven. This should give you a hint of how crazy Eagle Shooting Heroes gets.

In the course of 103 minutes, Eagle Shooting Heroes covers multiple searches for eternal love, musical numbers, gender bending, comic misunderstandings, and at its best, big fight scenes. Most of the cast were also part of Ashes of Time (and also formed a kind of Wong Kar-Wai ensemble troupe over the years), and most of them are extremely skilled in movie martial arts. It helped that the stunts were all coordinated by Sammo Hung, who also worked with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, meaning that the action is both exciting and funny. Really, it's the fights that are the best part of Eagle Shooting Heroes, when the movie can take a break from the headache-inducing script (or lack thereof) and show off a little. Of particular note is an extended duel between Tony Leung Chi Wah and Jacky Cheung. Hong Qi has decided he would rather die than live without Suqiu, and he enlists Feng to do the deed for him; only, he can't hold back his reflexes, and every time Feng goes in for the kill, Hong Qi devastates him, leaving him a bruised and swollen mess. It also features some of the more fun plays on the various martial arts styles. In addition to Feng's bullfrog system, this movie also has a Tsunami Fist, Flirty Eyes Sword Style, and other strangely named attack techniques.

The big finale is also an over-the-top extravaganza, with the entire cast engaging in one massive brawl. The sets and the costumes are incredible to look at throughout the movie (well, except for the gorilla and his friends the eagle and the dinosaur), but they are particularly bright and colorful in the palace. Eagle Shooting Heroes was shot by the awesome Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger; The Promise [review]), which only adds to the incredible roster of talent that threw standards to the wind and made this goofball adventure. It makes it all the more of a waste that Wong Kar-Wai didn't hire a real comedy writer to whip the material into shape. All of his people are ready to totally go for it, just what "it" is seems to confuse them all.


This review originally written for in 2009.

Princess Wushuang (Faye Wong, Chungking Express) and Emperor Zheng De (Chen Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) are the Royal children of the Ming Dynasty, the descendents of the Empress Dowager (Rebecca Pan, In the Mood for Love), who still rules over the land. Not content with courtly existence, the heirs apparent regularly make escape attempts in hopes of breaking out of the palace and seeing life in the real world. At the start of Chinese Odyssey 2002, Wushuang is finally successful, using the distraction of her brother's capture and her Iron Headbutt martial arts technique to bust through the gate of the Forbidden City. Disguising herself as a man, she heads to a nearby village, where she is taken in by Bully the Kid (Tony Leung, Faye Wong's Chungking Express and 2046 co-star), a local thug and restaurateur who thinks he may have found a husband for his sister. Phoenix (Wei Zhao, Shaolin Soccer) has not yet found love thanks to her tomboy style and also the local fear of her brother. Believing he has a psychic bond with her, Bully knows this makes her heart ache.

Except there is no psychic bond. As we discover in voiceover, the deep thoughts Bully believes his sister is having are far more trivial when the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on them. He thinks she is transmitting feelings of deep yearning, she is wondering why he hasn't washed his face. It's a silly joke, and indicative of the kind of broad slapstick style that makes Chinese Odyssey 2002 a lot of fun. Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who also helmed two unrelated Chinese Odyssey movies with Stephen Chow and has a new movie called Kung-Fu Cyborg, wrote and directed this over-the-top send-up of arty wuxia pictures, recreating them for laughs but employing the same exacting (and often very pretty) art direction. Lau mimics and mocks such big budget kung-fu flicks as Hero and Ashes of Time, playing up the metaphysical themes, superpowers, and convoluted plotting. The latter reference is especially pointed, as Lau places Tony Leung in similar shots and situations as ones from Wong Kar-Wai's puzzling deconstruction of the genre. Fittingly, Kar-Wai is a producer on Chinese Odyssey 2002, and he takes his lumps with dignity. References to 2046 and Days of Being Wild pass with a wink, and Lau and cinematographer Peter Ngor (Sex and Zen) play on Kar-Wai's slow-mo style, as well. The jabs are lovingly thrown; in fact, this isn't the first time the director and producer teamed up for this kind of jokefest. In 1993, Kar-Wai produced Eagle Shooting Heroes, Lau's alternate adaptation of the same Louis Cha books that spawned Ashes of Time.

What a difference a decade makes, though. Where I found the slapstick of Eagle Shooting Heroes to be overdone and flat, I found the similarly styled comedy of Chinese Odyssey 2002 to be delightful. A far more sophisticated hand guides us into a script that has much more going on than just an unmannered grasping for yucks.

Once Princess Wushuang gets to the city and we get through the neo-Shakespearean gender-bending set-ups and gags--in one scene, Phoenix, Wushuang, and Bully all cross-dress together, with the other two never realizing that Wushuang is actually revealing her true self--a tender romance starts to develop for real. Bully is drawn to the Princess, mistaking genuine affection for the residue of his perceived sibling bond. When Wushuang is taken back to the palace, she leaves her new friends believing that she is the actual Emperor, allowing them to then be caught unaware when Zheng De comes to town disguised as an actor and inventor who dreams up anachronistic objects like platform shoes and afro wigs. Phoenix falls for the rapscallion, not knowing that to love him fulfills her misconstrued betrothal to the Emperor rather than betraying the person she thought was said Emperor. Sure, it sounds confusing on paper, but trust me, the movie flows along just fine.

Though Zheng De is able to pull rank on his mother and insist Phoenix is the woman for him, Wushuang and Bully aren't so lucky. A superstitious ritual gives the Empress reason to dismiss Bully, who suffered a similar rejection in the past. It's another very Wong Kar-Wai-like subplot, and the movie requires an equally Kar-Wai solution. Things actually get a little heavy as the Princess goes mad and Bully must learn to stop being a Kid and become a man, and the whole theme of switching roles finally pays off in a big romantic way. Of course, what more can you expect from a movie that has Romance itself personified in a metamorphosing rabbit named Solid Gold Love (played by Athena Chu, herself named for a goddess of love)?

It's a surprising turn of events for a film that set itself up as a mere parody of period-piece martial arts dramas--complete with its own well-choreographed action scenes. (I particularly liked the Emperor's fighting style that allows him to draw power from flirting.) Chinese Odyssey 2002, like its many characters, only begins by presenting itself one way in order to have more impact when it throws off its disguise. Though the comedy may be too goofy for some, the love story gives it a good balance. It's light fare, but it's got heart.

It's also got Tony Leung and Faye Wong, a reteaming that should be enough for all the Chungking Express fans out there to give Chinese Odyssey 2002 a look. They are both quite good at comedy, and they are also both gorgeous, which isn't such a bad thing in a film where you are rooting for the two leads to eventually make kissy faces. The scene where they are reunited is as tender as the other scenes are ridiculous, and the exchanges that pass between them are wonderful.

I suppose on one side it's arguable that this film has something for everyone--comedy, action, romance, good acting, a vibrant visual style--but as a bit of fair warning, you should know it's also very much rooted in cultural and cinematic traditions that may not be to everyone's tastes or even completely recognizable. Still, if you enjoyed House of Flying Daggers or maybe even Hot Shots back in the day, there should at least be some access points for you. If you've seen your fair amount of Chinese period pieces or just dig Hong Kong cinema in general, enter safely.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2007.

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain was barely a blip in theatres during its release last year. A willfully challenging art-house picture with the shine and substance of a sci-fi brainteaser, it was a conundrum to some, a yawner to others, and a revelation to many. It's the kind of movie that was made to be debated and argued over, defended and loathed in equal measures.

I missed it at my Cineplex, instead catching it on a transatlantic flight. Not exactly the most ideal of situations to watch a film, particularly one as beautifully shot as The Fountain, but even viewing it on a tiny picture screen on the back of someone else's chair could not dull Aronofsky's fervor. I was instantly enthralled, joining the "loved it" camp without reservation. This was a surprise to me, because I wasn't necessarily predisposed to like it, having mixed feelings about both of Aronofsky's previous efforts, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. It was as if I had been sleeping, unwilling to believe, and The Fountain struck me both intellectually and emotionally, hitting with the force of an awakening slap. The Fountain is a passionate movie, and it moves with the inconstant waves of human feeling. For as much as it tickles the philosophical centers of the viewer's brain, if you try to intellectualize it too much, you'll lose it. You just have to let it happen and accept the irrational flow.  The Fountain is about grief, about life and death, about sacrifice and the act of creation through reduction. Don't try to force the pieces together; the movie will assemble the puzzle for you.

Darren Aronofsky's script, written from a story conceived with Ari Handel, runs on three separate but intersecting timelines. The main line is in the present, where Dr. Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is searching for a cure for cancer. He is driven and obsessed, determined to outrun the tumors that threaten to take his beloved wife away from him. For her part, Izzy (Rachel Weisz), indulges his dream. She yearns to spend more time with her husband, but she understands his compulsion. As a writer, she is trying to solve her own riddles about death. Her work-in-progress is a book called The Fountain, a period piece about a Spanish conquistador named Tomas (Jackman, again) searching for a Mayan temple believed to hold the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, which is, essentially, the Fountain of Youth. Tomas was sent on the mission by Queen Isabela (Weisz), who seeks eternal life for herself and her kingdom. Adding a perilous deadline to Tomas' expedition is the Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie, 300 [review]), a power-mad zealot who is spreading through Spanish society like the cancer that attacks Izzy. He'd have Isabela killed if it meant taking the throne himself.

We see the Spanish storyline played out as Tommy reads the manuscript, its narrative intertwining with his scientific mission. Izzy explains to him the various Mayan creation and afterlife myths she's uncovered in her research, and it inspires Tommy to seek different techniques. All the while, the third timeline, the future, runs its own course over the top of both of the other stories. This story is the most open to debate, possibly being another part of the book, but also possibly more connected to Tommy's consciousness.

In this future, Jackman plays a monastic caretaker for a tree that grows at the center of a star, its similarity to both the Tree of Life and the star that the Mayan's believe houses their souls after they die being immediately apparent. From where I sit, this symbolic plotline is a manifestation of Tommy's thoughts, of his inspiration and his guilt. The answers he seeks (and make no mistake, the questions change, it's not as simple as all that) lie in somehow connecting this future story to the rest, steering the star to the Mayan temple and Izzy's hospital bed and not necessarily halting death, but at least finding some kind of understanding.

A synopsis of The Fountain reads like a recipe for something pretentious and self-important. In Aronofsky's kitchen, the movie is a delicate soufflé. All it would take is a loud rejection from his viewer to make it collapse on itself. Note that I put the survival of the picture in the audience's hands. It's because I think the director has given us all the pieces, all of the information we need to connect everything in his tale. He's perfectly in control of a rather unwieldy narrative, and he gingerly leads his audience from one element to the next. He makes the interweaving of the three lines apparent through repetition of events and dialogue, but he also uses visual rhymes to add resonance. For instance, as both Tommy and Tomas head off on their quest to save their beloved, they enter the shot upside down and exit right-side up, or the hairs on the back of Izzy's neck resemble the living filaments on the tree within the star; there is also similar framing used on the various characters, recurring images of rings and spheres, and design motifs that echo, such as the Mayan dagger and the screen in front of Isabela, brain scans and nebula patterns, and the jewelry worn by Isabela and Izzy.

The art direction in The Fountain is meticulously gorgeous. Aronofsky insisted on hand-crafted, live effects wherever possible, and the end product is more lush than any big-budget CGI-fest. More important than the visual details, though, is the heart that pumps the blood through this picture. Aronofsky never loses sight of the emotional impact that keeps The Fountain from being just an empty mind-bender that's more satisfying to look at than it is to watch. Here is where casting is oh so important. Hugh Jackman had already had a hell of a year with a comedic performance in Scoop [review] and playing the conflicted hero (villain?) in The Prestige [review], and his turn as the lead in The Fountain adds an even greater mark to his resume. He's never had so much passion onscreen, and as bright as his fire burns when he chases the various relics of his quest, the explosion of despair that follows tears everything down and razes the emotional landscape. You'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing more can grow there, but Aronofsky and Jackman still have a few surprises up their sleeves.

Of course, no obsession is complete without its central, driving object, and Weisz is resplendent as the muse. Izzy/Isabel is the less showy role. As much as she is the inspiration that pushes the explorers to action, she is also the finish line. She already knows what they will find, and she is required to provide both sympathy and encouragement even as she disintegrates. Rachel Weisz is more than emotionally able as an actress, and I have no trouble buying that she could be the catalyst for world-spanning expeditions and sleepless nights in search of salvation.

Needless to say, I loved The Fountain. Every defiant, arty minute of it. It took about six years for Aronofsky to bring the film to life, and even the crushing blow of one production being shut down just as it was getting started couldn't stop him. Just like the character in his script, he wasn't going to let anything prevent him from pursuing his journey all the way to the end. I'd say I'd like to know how that felt, what kind of buzz he achieved by fulfilling that dream, but it's all right here  in the final scenes of the movie. The rush of innovation, the joy of understanding, the contentment of spiritual nirvana--author and creation are, for once, occupying the same space. Tommy's fictional discovery is Aronofsky's artistic discovery playing on an endless loop, growing exponentially with each play, like a chain reaction of supernovas. Like the Fountain the characters all seek, The Fountain is Aronofsky's source of eternal life--a motion picture that will endure.