Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Movie List: 70-66

70. “Happiness comes only through effort.”

Late Spring (1949)

In a typically understated work by legendary director Yasujiro Ozu, Setsuko Hara plays Noriko, the 27-year-old only child of widower Shukichi Somiya (played by Chishu Ryu). She feels perfectly content living with and caring for her father, but he wants her to marry, and over the course of the movie contrives to make that happen. The movie was based on a novel by Kazuo Hirotsu, but I wonder how much of it was autobiographical: The always reliable Wikipedia says, “Ozu remained single and childless all of his life, and stayed alone with his mother who died less than two years before his own death.” David Thomson wrote: “Ozu’s most important characteristic is his way of watching the world. While that attitude is modest and unassertive, it is also the source of great tenderness for people. It is as if Ozu’s one personal admission was the faith that the basis of decency and sympathy can only be sustained by the semi-religious effort to observe the world in his style; in other words, contemplation calms anxious activity.” That style does require patience -- especially in the age of nanosecond editing -- but it’s deeply rewarding. Late Spring is slow, but the scene toward the end in which father and daughter discuss her future is among the most touching I’ve ever seen. The love between parent and child (the pure kind; not the headline-grabbing incestuous type) is not a common theme in the movies (or anywhere else), but it’s beautifully handled here.

69. “These aren't the droids you're looking for.”

Star Wars (1977)

I wasn’t going to include this at first, and this is probably much too high. But more than any movie on the list, this is a nod to my childhood, pure and simple. Many young boys see Star Wars -- or read Dune, or whatever -- and it becomes a gateway drug to all things sci-fi and fantasy. That never happened to me. For whatever reason (probably not a healthy one), I started relating to neurotic real-life adults by the time I was 14 or so.

That said, I was a Star Wars goon. There’s a photo of me on a Christmas morning when I’ve just opened the Death Star. Judging from the expression on my face, I will never be that happy again. Not ever. And that leaves room to be very, very happy. I remember walking into Play World, the local toy store, and having to convince my mom that the fact that I “already had” a stormtrooper action figure meant nothing; I needed an army of them. But watching the movie now, I mean, come on. It’s not about the dated effects, or not just about the dated effects, because CGI certainly hasn’t made a better filmmaker of George Lucas (ahem). Look at this original trailer and tell me it doesn’t look like as much like an ad for Mystery Science Theater 3000 as it does for one of the most beloved movies of all time. Mark Hamill was particularly amateurish, and I can only imagine how the great Alec Guinness refrained from punching him in the face during their scenes together.

It’s funny that Pauline Kael could write, “the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset.” Boy, for the last two decades or so of Kael’s life, she must have been pissed. So much of what followed Star Wars makes it look glacial. (That image of the double sunset is lovely.)

But my favorite anecdote about Star Wars comes from Tom Shone’s book Blockbuster. I shared it on the blog four years ago. It occurs at an advance screening of the movie that Lucas organized for his peers in 1977:
(Alan) Ladd hated Harrison Ford's performance -- thought it was too camp -- and resolved to ask Lucas to fix it in the editing, but for the moment he said nothing and simply left. Everyone else headed out to a Chinese restaurant; as soon as they sat down Lucas asked them, “All right, whaddya guys really think?" (Brian) De Palma plowed into it: “It's gibberish,” he said. “The first act, where are we? Who are these fuzzy guys? Who are these guys dressed up like the Tin Man from Oz? What kind of movie are you making here? You've left the audience out. You've vaporized the audience.”
68. “We're gonna get a little place.”

Of Mice and Men (1992)

I don’t suppose this one requires any plot description. This adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1937 novella stars Gary Sinise (who also directed) as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. It has several things going for it, including a strong supporting cast and a beautiful, nostalgic palette of colors. But the two leads carry the story’s weight, and they’re both excellent. Sinise and Malkovich had performed the same roles in a stage version at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1980. Their familiarity with each other combines with their natural talent to make something special. Malkovich is phenomenal. In a role that lends itself to hamming things up, he’s totally believable. Reviewing the movie at the time of its release, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: “The movie's most flamboyant effect is Mr. Malkovich's performance as Lennie. I've no idea how it was done, but Mr. Malkovich does look huge. Everything about the performance has been intelligently thought out, from the physical size he somehow has attained to his manner of speaking, which is slow and tortured without being grotesque. The actor's intelligence, however, shows through.” He goes on to say that the performance probably worked better on stage, but I wouldn’t know about that, having never seen it. I think this rendition is plenty good enough.

67. “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

If Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn don’t do it for you, I’m not sure what to tell you. In 1938, after a few flops and p.r. troubles, Hepburn had been one of several actors voted “box office poison” by a group of movie exhibitors. (It would be great to have an annual vote like that today.) The Philadelphia Story was her comeback movie, and the Oscar nomination she got for it was one of 10 more she would receive. She plays Tracy Lord, a Philly socialite recently divorced from C. K. Dexter Haven (Grant). In order to get up-close coverage of her impending second wedding, a tabloid sends a reporter and photographer (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) to go undercover as friends of the family. (Dexter helps them get in the door.) Tracy isn’t fooled, but plays along anyway. The resulting plot, in which she ends up with three possibilities for love, has screwball action and classic witty dialogue. The movie is considered an example of the “comedy of remarriage” genre (Wikipedia, again), popular in the 1930s and ’40s: “At the time, the Production Code (aka Hays Code) banned any explicit references to or attempts to justify adultery and illicit sex. The comedy of remarriage enabled filmmakers to evade this provision of the Code. The protagonists divorced, flirted with strangers without risking the wrath of censorship, and then got back together.”

66. “The less you know about it the better.”

Blood Simple (1985)

Admittedly, this movie scores a bit higher with me than it otherwise might because it’s the debut of the Coen brothers. They’re among my favorite filmmakers, so their maiden voyage and whatever clues it might hold about their later work is of extra interest to me. Some of their now familiar qualities are certainly present here: An interest in off-kilter characters, a careful attention to visual details and framing. But even though there are a few small, sometimes nervous laughs to be had in Blood Simple, the movie lacks the comedy (both superficial and deep) of the brothers’ work since. It’s a noir tale with a few twists, opening with the voice-over of a P.I. played by the terrific, terrifically talented M. Emmet Walsh: “Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else -- that's the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas . . . and down here . . . you're on your own.” A seedy bar owner played by Dan Hedaya (the very picture of seedy; no offense, Dan) suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of having an affair. So he hires Walsh to get evidence. Walsh ends up telling Hedaya that he killed the lovers, which is a lie. What follows is a whole lot of confusion (on the part of the characters) and not a little bloodshed. There is a bit of slow going throughout, but the Coens were already flashing their chops in a few brilliant, tense scenes, including a roadside burial and a final showdown in a darkened loft.

Now I learn from Wikipedia (good lord) that, “In December 2009, Zhang Yimou released a loose remake of the film as a comedy. A Simple Noodle Story is set in a Chinese noodle shop in a desert, rather than a bar in a Texas town, and revolves around the restaurant owner's plan to murder his adulterous wife and her lover.” That sounds like something I need to rent.



Blogger Dezmond said...

The merits of 'Star Wars' as a film is really beside the point (as you explain). But, as badly as Lucas does so many things, there was something there that caught the imagination of a generation of kids and adults alike.

That is a great version of 'Of Mice and Men.' Malkovich ahd the showier role, but Sinese was my favorite performance.

4:49 PM  

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