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.

Monday, November 26, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2007.

Chas is a brutal enforcer who is really good at his job. Played with a bluntly arched eyebrow by James Fox (recently seen as Mr. Salt in Tim Burton's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), he works for a homosexual East London crime boss named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas is the guy Harry sends round when he wants to convince other people to his way of thinking, because Chas has a knack for getting his point across. When the thug goes against Harry's instructions and deals with a business matter in a personal way, though, he finds there are some situations he can't talk or shoot his way out of.

On the run, Chas overhears a conversation about a basement apartment that he can con his way into leasing. Things aren't as clear-cut once he is inside the house, however. It turns out that the landlord is a faded pop star named Turner, here played by Mick Jagger. Turner is a recluse, creating a pansexual hideaway with his drugged-up girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, the real-life girlfriend to Mick's guitarist, Keith Richards) and a few other androgynous moppets. Before long, it's not clear who is running a con on whom, as Chas is suddenly on the same psychedelic trip as everyone else in the house, searching for Turner's "demon," the artistic muse that once drove him.

Performance was made in 1968 and held back for two years while Warner Bros. tried to figure out what to do with it. Co-directed by two first-time directors, Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout [review], also the D.P.) and writer Donald Cammell (The Argument), Performance is a classic of the trippy midnight movie genre. I'm not normally a fan of Roeg's, I find his weirdness to be meandering and pointless for the most part, but something about the collaboration with Cammell gave their artistic vision a laser-like precision. Performance is really the clash of several genres. Chas' gangster society has tints of kitchen sink drama while also playing with the conventions of classic British crime pictures. Cammell saw a kindred spirit between the swaggering street toughs of old films and the new outlaws of rock 'n' roll. Performance grows from the thesis that if you pushed these cultural rebels toward one another, you'd suddenly have mirror images in the center.

This is something that the directors make great visual use of. For a drug-fuelled movie of the late '60s (Pallenberg openly disperses chunks of magic mushrooms, and there is no mistaking those funny shaped cigarettes), they avoid the usual pictorial cliché of other hallucinogenic flicks. There are no lava lamps or fish-eye lenses. The surreal journey of Performance is an existential one, it's all about identity. The first act sets up a dicey world. Focusing entirely on Chas' brutal routine and flight from the same, it's edited in a choppy fashion, juxtaposing attacker and victim, and messing with time. This is said to be the uncredited work of editor Frank Mazzola, who would go on to make this his signature style and influence the entire video music genre in the process. In this outing, it keeps the action moving while putting the audience on shaky ground. The blood and the sex and the violence come like a rapid assault we are powerless to stop.

Yet, as Turner's introduction approaches in the story, the filmmakers are already inserting him in the mix, giving us quick tastes of what is to come, already breaking down any separation between gangster and idol. This melding begins in earnest once Chas is in Turner's home. Mirror images, double exposures, and other visual tricks are employed to start to suggest that Chas is Turner and Turner is Chas. They even engage in a bit of dress-up, most notably in the "Memo from Turner" music sequence where Chas' earlier drama with Harry is replayed with Jagger in the lead, instructing his underworld minions through song. Here Jagger moves from slinking panther to something more forceful, just as the events leading up to it show James Fox losing his edge and drifting in a narcotic haze.

Where both men end up is the subject of much debate and probably a matter of personal preference, but suffice to say there are curves on the path to complete fusion. Chas needs Turner's house to protect him from those that would do him harm, whereas Turner needs Chas' visceral lifestyle to break him out of the constipated mental funk that has arrested his creative process. Roeg and Cammell may end the movie by showing a lot of doors being closed, but from a plot standpoint, they leave many open to interpretation. Some of you out there may find the trickery maddening, but if you put yourself in Chas' shoes and let Performance slip you a mickey, you might find the experience...well, I wouldn't go so far as to say transformative, but how about inspiring?

Sunday, November 25, 2018


Nicolas Roeg with Theresa Russell shooting Bad Timing.

Director Nicolas Roeg passed away yesterday. The filmmaker responsible for such films as Don’t Look Now [review], Insignificance [review], The Man Who Fell to Earth [review], and Walkabout [review] was 90 years old.

As you’ll see reading my previous pieces, Roeg and I did not always get along.  Prior to today, I would have said the only movie of his I enjoyed outright was Performance [review]. Even so, his death seemed like a good time to watch the one film of his in the Criterion Collection I hadn’t yet given a spin, and I’m sure glad I did. Bad Timing surprised me with its vigor and its incisiveness, and it perfectly showcases Nicolas Roeg’s sharp editorial eye. The 1980 feature is maybe his most grounded, but its boundaries create an excellent vehicle for Roeg to fully realize his fascination with fractured narratives.

Bad Timing is essentially a love story between two people who are horribly wrong for each other, but the kind of wrong that puts them on a collision course with doomed romance. Theresa Russell plays Milena, the sort of female character that once upon a time would have been dubbed a “free spirit.” This means she acts on every impulse, refusing to be tied down or restrained, less “manic pixie girl” than she is a grown woman demanding her own agency--while potentially being manic. This makes her the perfect sexual fantasy for someone like Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), an academic who is drawn to her wildness but wishes to possess it, as well. As I said, they are all wrong.

Roeg, shooting from a script by Yale Udoff (Eve of Destruction), opens the movie in Vienna, on the night Milena overdoses, placing us in her ambulance alongside a concerned but strangely cold Alex. But we don’t stay with this present state for long; nor do we stay anywhere for long. Roeg and editor Tony Lawson (Barry Lyndon, Straw Dogs [review]) create a chopped-up but never choppy timeline of Milena and Alex’s relationship, jumping back and forth between the here and now and various points along their dalliance. While the current story progresses in what resembles a linear fashion, the past does not, and as the police get involved in figuring out what happened to bring Milena to the brink of death, they start to invade the memories, entering the scene of the crime, reimagining some of what went down. Harvey Keitel rounds out the main cast as Inspector Netusil, someone whom we can surmise becomes nearly as obsessed with this toxic love affair as the couple living it. We don’t really doubt him as one of the narrators, his intrusion on things he could not know is too brief; rather, he is the catalyst to undo lies and denial.

The trope of the ethically compromised professor and the wild child that so intrigues him is not a new one. My suspicion is it largely sticks around as a way for egghead writers to assert that brainiacs can be interesting, too. It can often be a gross paradigm, particularly when it’s a teacher and student, but luckily Roeg and Yudoff avoid that dynamic here (Milena is not a student, in other words). Some of the clichés still persist--particularly Alex’s hesitancy to act, and how that opens him to Milena’s manipulations--but they also sidestep any of the obvious backstory. There is no trauma or abuse that makes Milena behave the way she does; on the contrary, she simply is who she is, and the more we get to know her, the more we realize that despite her self-destructiveness, she is living her most honest life.

And the more we get to know Alex, the less we believe he is either rational or well meaning. There is a genuine power shift going on over the course of Bad Timing. We go from Milena being the girl who won’t take no for an answer, to Alex being the creep that won’t take no for an answer--and Milena is stuck not knowing what exactly a “yes” would mean. While at the end of the movie it’s clear whose side we should take, for most of Bad Timing, it’s tough to say whose contribution is the most combustible. The lovers share responsibility for the fire, but there is good fuel and there is bad fuel. I’d say our allegiance particularly swings toward the girl on their trip to Casablanca when Alex’s jealousy starts to take on a racist overtone--but then, the filmmakers are also guilty in this scene of making men of color the dangerous “other.” The camera eye offers a different point of view than could strictly be Alex’s, and based on what is shown, how the men are portrayed, it’s clear that the audience is expected to feel a threat, as well.

Which is too bad for a film that otherwise manages to create a rather progressive portrayal of male/female dynamics. I don’t know if Udoff structured his script in the same fashion as made it to the screen, but the decision to turn Bad Timing into a kind of “greatest hits” highlight reel of the relationship’s race to rock bottom means that we don’t get stuck in a standard him/her tennis match. And as the police investigation picks up heat, it lends more urgency to the love affair’s disintegration. Roeg avoids any overly symbolic montage, using camera tricks sparingly to move us from one scene to the next, zooming in on an object and then cutting to another scene, but never relying on a strict one-to-one ratio (for instance, when Alex looks at a pipe leaking steam, we don’t go to a tea pot whistling or the like). The editing is the most suggestive in the more intimate scenes, creating a collage of the lovers’ bodies rather than any strict depiction of sex--except maybe when the looking is intended to make us uncomfortable. The most effective moment, though, is in Alex and Milena’s emotional standoff at the university. Director of photography Anthony Richmond (Legally Blonde) chooses to get tighter and tighter on their faces, while the backgrounds fall out of focus and turn into abstract patterns, reminiscent of the Klimt paintings shown in the opening credits. It’s a simple, yet effective, way to show how these two, when they are truly together, inhabit their own world.

Sad to say here is another spot where Roeg missteps, using a terrible piano instrumental to score the scene. It feels mawkish and out of place. Also, what is up with the on-the-nose employment of the Who’s “Who Are You”--not once, but twice--when Alex is trying to uncover someone’s identity? Is this where the CSI producers got the idea?

Luckily for Roeg, his cast is so talented that they can bring Bad Timing back to Earth from just about anything. Who knew Art Garfunkel, the quiet one in Simon and Garfunkel, could be so focused and not just intense, but menacing? In Carnal Knowledge, he is more a foil to Jack Nicholson than a full presence. Not so in Bad Timing. Garfunkel’s performance isn’t showy, but all the better for it. He needs to stand firm against his co-star’s energetic onslaught. Theresa Russell gives the performance of a lifetime, fully possessing Milena, embracing all her flaws while making sure she’s more than just a collection of foibles and male perceptions. She is alternately sexy, infuriating, inspiring, and sad. Just like we all are. Just like love can be. More importantly, though, is how present and alert she is. For as much as Alex, in his capacity as a “research psychoanalyst,” police witness, and man possessed, is always keeping his eye on her, Milena’s gaze is the one that is laser focused. It feels at times predatory or self-serving, but also protective. Too bad she can’t see what Alex will become...or is that part of the fun for her?

It’s all rather intoxicating. Bad Timing has a lot to sift through, but it never feels that the director is obfuscating for no reason. His feints and sleights of hand are there to intrigue...and to reveal. So, cheers to you, Mr. Roeg. I am glad we could part on such kind words, given our own contentious relationship as storyteller and armchair critic. May you rest in peace, wherever you’ve chosen to go.

Saturday, November 24, 2018


There is something dazzling about how softly Louis Malle weaves together all the narratives in his 1957 debut, Elevator to the Gallows. What is seemingly random happenstance, a sorry turn of fate, eventually swirls its way back around to be important, to affect change and create an unavoidable outcome. Elevator to the Gallows is perfect French noir, taking the bleak criminal narratives of American film noir, injecting a touch of politics, and amping the existential irony to degrees that would impress even Sartre. Every well-motivated action will bring about bad results, every attempt to escape just tightens the noose.

The plot is supposed to be simple: army veteran Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet, The Fire Within [review]) is going to kill his boss (Jean Wall), a war profiteer, and make it look like suicide so he can run away with the man’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau, The Lovers [review]). The plan is to do the deed in the boss’ office on Saturday, leaving him to be found when the workweek resumes. After a distraction causes Julien to miss a crucial detail, however, he has to head back to the scene of the crime--where he promptly becomes locked in the elevator when security shuts down the building for the weekend.

With Julien trapped, things begin to unravel. Feeling jilted when he misses their rendezvous, Florence wanders the street looking for him--even after she spots his car leaving town, the young girl from the flower shop (Yori Bertin) riding in the passenger seat. What she doesn’t see, though, is that Julien is not the driver. Rather, it’s the girl’s delinquent boyfriend (Georges Poujouly, Forbidden Games) taking the convertible for a joy ride. And from here we have as series of misadventures and misunderstandings, the night intensifying, becoming more desperate, the narratives growing simultaneously more disparate and more tangled.

Elevator to the Gallows works as a taut crime thriller, but it’s also a story of romantic longing. While on the elevator, Julien worries less about being caught and more about leaving Florence waiting. He tries everything he can to escape, Ronet turning in a quiet, determined performance, showing the soldier thinking through every potential angle. Malle works the tension of the moment via the claustrophobia, putting the camera in tight so as to almost insert the viewer into the scenario. I can’t imagine myself being even close to as resourceful as Julien were I in the same situation. There is also one moment of genuine peril that gets the heart racing in a movie that otherwise takes its time.

It’s really Jeanne Moreau who carries the film, however. A seemingly simple role, the part of Florence mostly involves walking the streets, peering in doorways, and conveying a sense of deep longing. Even without her voiceover to give us further insight into her feelings, Moreau’s performance is so compelling, her sadness so electric, one can’t take one’s eyes off her. Indeed, as she passes pedestrians, they all stare, proving how magnetic Jeanne Moreau truly is. It’s not the camera they peer into or that draws their attention, it’s her. And her true strength is how expertly she blocks them all out. Watch her in the one shot where she crosses the street, never looking at the cars, but yet passing perfectly through traffic. How did they choreograph that? It looks more dangerous than Julien’s elevator shaft stunt!

There is a contrast to be seen here between the two sets of lovers, between the dedicated and deeply felt adults, willing to take any chance to be together, to the more impulsive and superficial bond between Louis and the flower girl. The troubles that befall Julien and Florence are unforeseen consequences of considered decisions; the trouble Louis causes is a product of adolescent chaos, and Véronique’s solutions just the same. In most other stories, the inevitability of tragedy would be reserved for the younger star-crossed lovers. How much more tragic, then, that we never actually see Julien and Florence together, and almost never see Louis and Véronique apart? In noir, there is no young and old; all of us must receive our due comeuppance.

Malle’s approach is a mixture of New Wave realism and Dassin-esque artistry. The grainy exteriors mask the artifice of the plotting, while the naturalistic performances invigorate the carefully constructed story machinations. Moving through all of it is Miles Davis’ famous score, lending a bit of Americana to the very French proceedings, while also emphasizing Elevator to the Gallows’ aimless melancholy. The music seems particularly on point when it shares the screen with Moreau, as if she were the muse teasing every note from Davis’ trumpet.

Beyond the story, Elevator to the Gallows is the meeting of these three singular talents, a chemical formula that would have been impossible to predict, much less replicate. It couldn’t have worked if any of the participants had been swapped out, and yet it’s also so organically magical, it doesn’t feel like it could have been planned. It’s the perfect collision of performance, of visual and audio, resulting in a film that transcends its own genre trappings to be something entirely unforeseen.

Saturday, November 10, 2018


Yes, you’re very smart. Now shut up.

The above line is spoken once in The Princess Bride. It’s said by Peter Falk, who plays a grandfather reading the story of The Princess Bride to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). He says it when the boy thinks he has the plot figured out and insists on interrupting. But it could also be said many other times, by many different characters, as everyone in the story within the story is looking to outsmart someone else. Sometimes to comedic effect, sometimes with more sincere consequence.

This 1987 film by Rob Reiner, directing William Goldman’s screenplay of his own novel, is essentially a storybook come to life. As the grandfather reads, the movie becomes the book (or vice versa?), and the characters of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), her true love Westley (Cary Elwes), and all the rest all take over from there. The tale is a basic one: thinking Westley dead, Buttercup is to marry the prince (Chris Sarandon) of the kingdom, but on her engagement day, she is kidnapped by a political saboteur (Wallace Shawn) and his henchmen (Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant). That’s when a mysterious figure in black shows up to save the day. Three guesses who that is.

It’s all pretty straightforward. The Princess Bride is a family fantasy movie with a slight metafictional bend. The success of the film is largely dependent on Reiner’s balance of genre and comedy. The Princess Bride doesn’t take itself so seriously that it can’t mock the fairy tale tropes that fuel its romantic fantasy, but just seriously enough that the story still works at being the exact thing it’s sort of making fun of. The Princess Bride is charming as hell, and beloved by many, but I  wish it were wittier, honestly. The jokes come easy, and they don’t linger. There’s nothing in this movie that I’ll chuckle to think about tomorrow. The humor lacks the sharpness that Reiner achieves in other cinematic efforts--including This is Spinal Tap, a collaboration with Christopher Guest, who shines in a villainous role here--but that might just be down to demographics. Again, this is a family picture, so The Princess Bride is meant to be a movie for all people, tame enough to please the kiddies, but with enough of a knowing wink to entrance adults.

And for the true smarty pantses amongst us--who need to probably shut up the most--Goldman is having fun with the whole tradition of storytelling. The framing device exists to compel audiences to take The Princess Bride in the manner intended, but also doubles as a commentary on the relationship between a viewer and art. Fred Savage’s character at first resists the story, demanding it be more to his tastes, but surprisingly, when it takes him over, he becomes no less demanding, insisting the narrative stick to the clichés The Princess Bride is otherwise set up to mock. Moviegoers often want their say in all things: entertain me in special ways that will delight me, but don’t disappoint me by denying me what I want.

Which is where The Princess Bride succeeds the most. The movie should satisfy every romantic desire, every adventurous impulse, that you’re looking for in a feel-good flick. Reiner keeps things moving fast, and he pulls excellent performances out of all his cast. Patinkin and Andre steal the show most of the time, but everyone here holds their own. Even a Billy Crystal cameo works, the actor getting in and out before he wears out his welcome or otherwise derails everything. Likewise the whole of The Princess Bride. Clocking in at just 98 minutes, it’ll wile away a lazy afternoon, leaving plenty of time for whatever else you’re after, but also going by quick enough you won’t find yourself checking your phone in the final act.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


Katharine Hepburn is the lead Star of the Week for Filmstruck's final month. In honor of that, I am adapting my review for a 2007 boxed set celebrating her 100th birthday to focus on film's currently featured on the streaming service.

Katharine Hepburn is one of those rare individuals who can truly be said to have come from a different time. Yes, many historical figures are reflections of the particular social mores of their era, but it's something else altogether to be one of those figures that is so unique, there is no way to repeat the confluence of factors that made them. Surely, Hollywood couldn't come up with a movie star like her today. The way we view our celebrities has changed too much. The Golden Age of American cinema produced icons whose images were a mixture of their own personal quirks and studio spin. One gets the sense that one knows stars like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart from watching their films, but at the same time, the flickering lights of motion pictures allow them to maintain a sense of mystery. For as personal as our connection to them, they have a sense of "otherness" that can never be fully erased. They are one of us, and yet they are something more.

Of the classic female stars, no one may embody this as much as Katharine Hepburn. The accent, the laugh, the strident intelligence, the incredible strength and the equally incredible fragility it keeps in check. She had parts in over fifty movies from 1932 to 1994, establishing one of the greatest legacies in American movies. Though she had her fair share of trouble spots, she always managed to pull out of them, and her pairings with the aforementioned Mr. Grant and the love of her life, Spencer Tracy, resulted in some of the best films ever made. Out of twelve Oscar nominations as Best Actress, she won four. Not bad, eh?

Morning Glory (1933) was directed by Lowell Sherman (She Done Him Wrong) and adapted by Howard J. Green (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) from a play by Zoe Akins (The Greeks Had a Word For It, a.k.a. How to Marry a Millionaire). It features the young actress, appropriately enough, in the role of a young actress, the hopelessly naive but fiercely determined Eva Lovelace (a stage name, as she's quick to point out--do you like it?). Eva has come to New York City from her home in Vermont to try to make her way treading the boards. Walking into the office of Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), one of the most successful producers on Broadway, she talks a blue streak that makes her seem alternately crazy, endearing, or inspiring, depending on who you ask. The other actresses think she's pathetic, but the men around are caught in her spell, particularly the writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

What transpires is a slightly skewed take on the rags to riches rise of a Broadway star. While the title, Morning Glory, refers to the glow of overnight success, it might also refer to the post-coital glow, the dirty curve Easton throws Eva that could only be talked about in a roundabout fashion in the 1930s. Given Eva's precarious mental state, the situation takes on a decidedly dark pallor, and so it's strange when Easton's cruelty is fairly easily bypassed in the climax. In fact, the whole movie has a kind of strangeness about it. It suffers from a staginess that deadened a lot of pictures from the period, making it all the more discomfiting that Fairbanks performs in a loose, naturalistic style that feels out of place next to his colleagues' more demonstrative approach. There is also a jumbled sense of time in the narrative. Part of it is intentional, since at least one character makes a point of how Eva speaks of weeks as if they were years, but it's an incongruity that eventually affects the timeline of the entire script, making it difficult to gauge just how much time has passed by the end.

Really, without Katharine Hepburn, we'd probably not even still be viewing Morning Glory today. Her take on Eva suggests more than a passing knowledge of obsessive-compulsive psychoses. When Eva starts on one of her talking jags, Hepburn freight-trains through it, barely breathing but still hitting the right marks, shifting into the various tangents as if they were the most logical choices for where to go next. The speeches are revelatory, not just as pieces of great acting, but for the character, revealing her vulnerability, her intelligence, and the power of her singular belief. It's the most complicated kind of denial, as Eva believes her own rationalizations even as she betrays them by calling them false. Hepburn never rings a bum note. She's just splendid.

Jumpoing twelve years forward to 1945 and Harold S. Bucquet's Without Love, by this point the Katharine Hepburn persona was pretty well-established, and her romantic comedies were becoming a staple of cinemas. It was her third movie with Spencer Tracy, a most winning combination and perennial exception to the rule that off-screen chemistry is supposed to yield on-screen fizzles. In fact, a kind of repertory had gathered around Hepburn in the intervening years. The screenplay for Without Love was adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart, who had also written the scripts for Holiday [review] and The Philadelphia Story, and all three movies were taken from stage plays by Philip Barry.

The deliciously improbable plot casts Tracy as scientist Patrick Jamieson, a citizen contributing to the wartime effort by secretly working on a high-altitude oxygen mask for pilots in the U.S. army. A chance meeting leads him to the basement in the house of Jamie Rowan (Hepburn), a wealthy widow whose personal loss has made her never want to love again. Pat is of the same mind, but for the opposite reason. Rather than having experienced the greatest love of his life, he's experienced the greatest frustration--a French socialite who keeps him dangling by a heartstring. Another thing the pair has in common is that their late fathers were both scientists, and so they share a hunger for knowledge and discovery. Seeing the perfect opportunity for a coupling, they decide to get married. It will be a union of convenience, built on true friendship without any of that troublesome love stuff mucking up the works.

It wouldn't be a Tracy/Hepburn picture, of course, if this plan didn't go horribly awry. Two people so perfect for each other will perfectly fall in love. Not without their obstacles, of course. Jamie will have to get over hang-ups, and Pat will have to finally let go of his French pastry. Comedy ensues along the way, including gleefully silly montages of the two at work in Pat's lab. There is also some funny business involving Pat's sleepwalking and the little dog he's trained to stop him from wandering too far. Running parallel to the action is another comic couple, played by a young Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn (Royal Wedding). It's nearly a case of the supporting cast running away with the show. Though Ball is more restrained than we'd come to know from her, I've never seen Wynn be funnier. He's marvelous as the perpetually drunken Quentin, equal parts clown and cad.

As a Tracy/Hepburn fan new to Without Love (in fact, I hadn't seen any of the movies in the box before this viewing), the film fits right in with what I like about the acting duo's comedies. Hepburn's character is never any less than her partner's equal, which is not always the case in 1940s romantic comedies. She is always smart and active in her own power, and her specialness is never neutralized. Rather, both lovers usually have to move either up or down to find a common ground that will allow them to be together. For me, what sets Without Love apart from the rest of their team-ups is the final scene, where Jamie and Pat admit their love without ever admitting it out and out. They do a little verbal dance, saying what they feel in a roundabout way. It's both clever and smart, and the two actors come off as remarkably sincere while still keeping it light. (In reality, they weren't stepping too far outside themselves, as they had years of a very public private affair.) Their last embrace is surprisingly sensual. Hepburn looks particularly hungry, like she's just about to bite a chunk of flesh from Tracy's head. It's enough to inspire the vapors.

1946's Undercurrent is a tense thriller that stands out as a kind of oddity in Katharine Hepburn's career. Undercurrent was actually kind of a departure for several of the people involved. Director Vincente Minnelli was known for his frothy musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, and co-star Robert Mitchum was usually the tough guy, not the more sensitive soul he is here.

Hepburn is cast as Anne, the daughter of a widower scientist (Edmund Gwenn). Her father is about to sell his greatest discovery to Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), a famous industrialist who invented a revolutionary navigation system for airplanes. Though Anne is convinced she will live the life of a spinster, when she and Alan meet, it's love at first sight. They are quickly married, and Anne is removed from her safe, academic world and placed amongst Washington politicos. She takes well to high society, but always feels out of step. Part of the problem is that her husband seems to be hiding something. The circumstances of his mother's death and the disappearance of his brother Michael (Mitchum) are closely guarded, and Alan loses his temper at the mere thought of them. Too many coincidences and almost psychic feelings keep bringing Michael to the fore, however, and Anne is convinced she must find out the truth if she's ever to know her spouse.

Undercurrent has started to pick up a bit of a reputation as a film noir. I first heard of the film in 2006 when it played as part of a noir festival at the Northwest Film Center. I'm not really sure it qualifies, however, unless we can establish a subgenre of women's noir. The plot has more in common with Victorian melodramas like Wuthering Heights and the work of Daphne Du Maurier (and her frequent adapter Alfred Hitchcock) than it does the moody expressionism of Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin. Genre hair-splitting aside, however, I found Undercurrent to be absolutely riveting. Minnelli creates a palpable sense of foreboding that lingers over the picture, ratcheting up the suspense each time Anne finds something new to cause her to doubt her husband's story only to be placated by his wily explanations. You just know that eventually one of these things is going to be too large for him to erase, and then Anne is going to be in real trouble.

It's rare to see Katharine Hepburn portray a character that is as lost and confused as Anne. Normally, her characters are merely misguided, blinded by their own hubris or stubbornness. She's quite good in this sudsier role, enough to make me wish she had made more genre pictures. Minnelli also shows a great facility for the style, using what he learned about using his environment from shooting more pastoral pictures to give the couple's ranch a sinister bend.

I'd say my only complaint about Undercurrent is that Robert Mitchum is barely in it. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man [review], Michael Garroway is more of a pervading presence than he is an active participant. When he does show up, it has a much weightier impact. So, this isn't really a fault in the story. I just really like Robert Mitchum.

Katharine Hepburn made ten movies under the direction of George Cukor. He cast her in her first film, Bill of Divorcement, in 1932. They paired for the last time forty-seven years later, in 1979, for The Corn is Green [see original review], a television production of a play by Emlyn Williams. Hepburn was 72, Cukor was 80. The Corn is Green was not a bad showing for two mega talents late in their careers, but a little too safe to have a lasting impact when faced with the grandeur that had come before.

Such as 1935's Sylvia Scarlett. This film has a bit of a checkered reputation, having been a much derided flop on its initial release, leading to Hepburn being labeled "box office poison." Though Cary Grant would emerge from it having proven his skills as a romantic funnyman, it would take years for the movie itself to get a proper reassessment. (In the Cukor documentary on Warner Brothers' 2005 double-disc Philadelphia Story, the director comments that it had become a cult hit and a favorite whenever a retrospective of his career was put together.)

Having finally seen Sylvia Scarlett, I can kind of see why the original audience didn't know what to make of it. It's definitely off-kilter, and it may run a little long, particularly in its screwball turn in the final fifteen minutes. Other than that, though, I found it enchanting.

Hepburn is Sylvia, a dour French-English girl who has just lost her mother. Adding insult to injury, her father (Gwenn again) has gotten into trouble from gambling, and the only cash they have to fund an escape is intended for Sylvia's dowry. Believing she'll never be married anyway, Sylvia cooks up a plan for them to escape to England. Fearing the police will be looking for a father/daughter duo, Sylvia decides to dress as a boy to throw the cops off their scent. The newly dubbed Sylvester takes exceedingly well to his new gender, so much so that his moxy impresses a slick Cockney conman by the name of Jimmy Monkley (Grant). He forms a criminal trio with the Scarletts, igniting Sylvester's sense of adventure. His sense of right and wrong won't let him keep stealing, though, so the three then team up with a chambermaid (Dennie Moore) and become traveling clowns.

And that's just the first half. Cukor packs a lot of story into Sylvia Scarlett. It's more than just a simple cross-dressing-for-comedy picture, however. Sylvia becoming a boy is actually a clever device employed by the writers to show how naïve the character really is. Hepburn is credible as a boy, and so she manages a convincing, athletic performance of a girl pretending to be one. It's almost like some weird version of method acting.

The second half of the film is concerned with the romantic entanglements that come out of this arrangement. Papa Scarlett chases the maid, Monkley's affection toward Sylvia after she reveals the truth is never clear, and Sylvia falls for a rakish artist (Brian Aherne, The Best of Everything) who exposes just how unprepared for womanhood Sylvia really is. A female once more, she's has few defenses to protect herself from his cad-like behavior and the emotional games his girlfriend (Natalie Paley) likes to play. Being a boy was easier for her, because the disguise allowed Sylvester to keep the world at arm's length. The revelation of Sylvia's true sex uncorks everything. Tragedy strikes, and the film's cynical heart is exposed, as well. This is perhaps what makes the final scenes of Sylvia Scarlett a little unconvincing: Sylvia and Monkley have already told us not to believe it.

Even so, it's not enough to fell Sylvia Scarlett. The charms of the rest of the film hold strong. Cary Grant is smart and funny, and when you stop and think about it, Sylvia's predicament is really the Katharine Hepburn image taken to the extreme. A woman fights so hard for her liberation, she neglects the things about herself that are honest and warm, and the lesson she must learn is to somehow have both. It didn't matter how many times we watched Katharine Hepburn go through it, she held us in her thrall. It didn't matter if the material let her down, because she'd always pick the script right back up.