directors i have obsessed over

After watching all of those Johnnie To movies, we began to wonder how he stacks up compared to other directors whose movies I have seen in quantity. This was a challenge to my OCD self, so I went to the IMDB, which holds more of my ratings than any other site, and with a little exporting and spreadsheet-fiddling, I came up with a long list. I shortened it to every director where I had seen at least ten of their films. This is imperfect ... there are plenty of movies I've never rated, for example. But it was a relatively easy way to get an eyeball on my taste preferences, if that indeed is what this indicates. Here is the list:

Spielberg 17
Hitchcock 16
Scorsese 15
Ford 14
Coens 13
Woo 13
Allen 12
Kurosawa 11
Eastwood 11
Bergman 11
To 11
Linklater 10

(Whoa, I had no idea it would come out like a table.)

When we guessed, off the top of our heads, who would be atop the list, both Spielberg and Hitchcock came to mind. I'm still surprised we were so accurate. The single biggest surprise to me was Clint Eastwood. And the single most surprising absence to me is Howard Hawks. (He just missed the cut with 9 movies, and I'm sure if I looked more closely, I could find a few that hadn't been rated. The other Nines: De Palma, Godard, Kubrick, and Miyazaki.)

When I posted this list on Facebook, my wife immediately asked to sort those directors by their average ratings. Thus:

Kurosawa (11) 8.6
Bergman (11) 8.5
Spielberg (17) 8.1
Hitchcock (16) 8.0
Woo (13) 7.8
Linklater (10) 7.7
Scorsese (15) 7.6
Ford (14) 7.5
Coens (13) 7.1
To (11) 7.0
Eastwood (11) 6.7
Allen (12) 6.2

I usually think of myself as wishy-washy when it comes to the Coens, but clearly I like them more than I realize. Also, in my mind, when I assign these silly numbered ratings, I tend to start around 6 1/2. If I like a movie but don't love it, that's a 7. If a movie is OK and I don't hate it, that's a 6. This tells me I've seen a lot of movies by Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen without liking them all that much. (For what it's worth, Hawks averages 8.6.)

Finally, since I've gone this far, here's something I post every few years, using MovieLens, which offers better breakdowns of my ratings than the IMDB, and has almost as many of those ratings. They have three categories I find especially interesting. First, there are movies I've rated that others have not. The leaders here are Paju, and Fear. They have only been rated by one other person. (The movie I haven't seen that has been rated more often than any other is Dances with Wolves.)

Then, there are what they call "Unusual Dislikes", movies where my rating is significantly lower than the average. The winner is I Am Sam. (My entire review: "What a revolting piece of shit.") I gave it 1/10 ... the average rating is 3.58.

Of course, there are also "Unusual Likes", movies I liked more than other people did. The top two are The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Rapture. I gave them both 10/10 ... their average ratings were 3.16 and 3.28 respectively.


a place in the sun (george stevens, 1951)

Elizabeth Taylor was 19 years old when A Place in the Sun was released. It was shot in 1949, when Taylor was only 17. This came after a lengthy period as an adolescent star, from National Velvet through Little Women. She was considered an exceptional beauty even then. By the time A Place in the Sun hit the screens, audiences had seen the still-teenaged Taylor in a few films, notably the two "Father of the Bride" movies. She was still known more for her beauty than her acting skills.

Montgomery Clift was a dozen years older than Taylor. He already had an Oscar nomination, along with his appearance in the classic Red River. He came to film after an extensive stage career ... he was more known for his acting than for his beauty. But he was indeed beautiful.

The beauty of the two stars of A Place in the Sun matters, because the audience gets so much pleasure out of their pairing that we gravitate towards them as a couple, which leaves Shelley Winters' Alice, who gets pregnant by Clift's George Eastman, as a third wheel. Winters was Clift's age, and had made a career for herself playing mostly blonde bombshells, a role she wasn't happy with. So when she tried out for Alice, she dyed her hair brown and dressed in nondescript clothes. She was the opposite of her image, and she got the part. But her effectiveness in getting the part, and then in playing the part, meant when she was on the screen, the audience was restless, wanting to see more of that beautiful couple. Not only that, but Clift and Taylor formed a great friendship that lasted until the end of his life ... not only were they good at acting like goony-eyed lovers, they really were close, if not lovers. Winters got her first Oscar nomination for A Place in the Sun (Clift got one, as well), but her character was very hard to like. I was reminded of Ethel Mertz. Vivian Vance was only two years older than Lucille Ball, but the combination of Ethel dressing far less stylishly than Lucy Ricardo, and Ethel being married to a man played by an actor who was 30 years older than the man who played Lucy's husband, meant that Vance was never allowed to have the good looks of Ball. In A Place in the Sun, Winters/Alice was not allowed to have any of the spark of either Taylor as Angela or Clift (or especially the two of them together).

I go into this in a bit of detail because I think it throws the film off a bit. Kael wrote, "The hero's jilted working-class girlfriend (Shelley Winters) is not allowed even to be attractive ... If Elizabeth Taylor had played the working girl in this production, then the poor could at least be shown to have some natural assets. But Shelley Winters makes the victim so horrifyingly, naggingly pathetic that when Clift thinks of killing her he hardly seems to be contemplating a crime: it's more like euthanasia." David Thomson adds, "The Clift-Taylor bond is often cited as an example of screen chemistry. And that leaves the factory girl (Shelley Winters) as not just plain, whining, and awkward but as someone the entire audience wants to see murdered."

This is especially unfortunate to the extent that A Place in the Sun retains any suggestions of class distinctions. However George Eastman's path from leather-jacketed worker to his social climbing was meant to be seen, it comes across as the only move a sane man would make: from dowdy Alice to the wonders of Angela. It's less that George wants to escape his class background than that he wants to get together in perfect harmony with Angela.

A Place in the Sun works, and works well. Taylor and Clift are so great together that we get sucked in. I'm just not sure it plays so well when thinking about it afterwards. #599 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

I might as well post this clip ... everyone else does:

 


music friday: soundtracks

Went to see Johnnie To interviewed last night. It was a bit unwieldy ... he had a translator, so everything had to go through her ... but thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to Mr. To. At the end, they took questions from the audience, and one in particular fits Music Friday, I think. It was hard to hear the question, but it amounted to a request to make some of the great soundtracks from To's movie available ... on vinyl, if possible (half the audience laughed, the other half groaned).

To was a bit confused by the question, because in Hong Kong, soundtrack albums are not a big deal. But his solution was perfect: if you want to hear the soundtrack, go watch the movie again!

Here is a scene they showed last night, one of his most famous: the mall shootout from The Mission.

And here is one of the great moments in movie music history:

 


lifeline (johnnie to, 1997)

I finished my Johnnie To mini-festival with this one, which can be described in shorthand as Backdraft in HK. The thing is, I really hated Backdraft (2/10 ... don't even remember why, and it should get points for providing the soundtrack to the original Japanese Iron Chef).

The first hour of Lifeline presents us with the firefighters who will feature in the story. It's done well enough, I suppose ... some of the characters are interesting. And there are some brief firefighting scenes interspersed with the melodrama. But I was impatient ... this kind of character "development" usually bores me, since it is often shallow, and merely postpones the good stuff.

In fairness, the good stuff, when it finally arrived, was improved by our knowing the various characters, so I should probably leave well enough alone.

Because the good stuff is phenomenal. The last 40 minutes are gripping, like watching one of the better Mad Max movies, only with fire instead of cars. A large building is on fire, and it's one thing after another. The firefighters never get ahead of the game, and even when they stall the fire momentarily, another crisis arises. It's like an alien monster invasion movie, where everything the army tries against the aliens fails, and hope fades to nothingness. I don't know who deserves credit for the excellence here, so I'll just name some of the likely suspects: director Johnnie To, of course; cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung; editor Wong Wing-Ming; and action director Yuen Bun. The music by Raymond Wong adds a lot, as well. There's no point in breaking down the various segments of the fire scene. Just know that you likely will never see any similar scene that matches this one.

Lau Ching-Wan is excellent in the lead role, and everyone else is good enough. It takes a bit of patience to get through the first hour, but that patience is rewarded when the real action starts. 7/10.

 


revisiting jules and jim (françois truffaut, 1962)

I had intended to watch my final Johnnie To movie, but that got postponed with the news that Jeanne Moreau had died, prompting another viewing of Jules and Jim.

This one has been championed by everyone from Jean Renoir to Stephen Hawking. Paul Mazursky made an homage/remake with Willie and Phil, where the title characters meet coming out of a theater showing Jules and Jim (Margot Kidder has the Moreau part in that one). It's my favorite Truffaut movie if you don't count Close Encounters. And it feels as fresh today as it ever did.

The three main characters (Jules, Jim, and Catherine) are not equal, and the title of the film doesn't give a clue to the imbalance. Catherine is the center of their lives ... as Jules says, "She is a queen. Let me be frank. She's not especially beautiful or intelligent or sincere... but she is a real woman. And that is why we love her... and all men desire her. Despite this, why did she make us a gift... of her presence? Because we treated her like a queen." This hints at her power and magnificence, but it also points to a problem with her character. For Catherine is defined by men ... by Henri-Pierre Roché, who wrote the novel on which the film is based; by Truffaut; by the male characters. Why is Catherine a queen? Because Jules and Jim treated her like one.

The reason this works is because of Jeanne Moreau. The men involved both behind and in front of the camera create fantasies out of Catherine, and try, in a gentle way, to define her through their fantasies. Catherine only partially returns their desire ... she is willing to be their fantasy until it no longer interests her, at which point she moves on to another man's fantasy. As many have noted, Catherine is barely a character ... she is an idea. But Moreau brings that idea to life. She demands that we see her (Catherine, and Moreau) as a person, not someone's idea. The character is drawn in a fuzzy enough fashion that we can't always get a handle on it, but we never doubt Jules and Jim's feelings towards her. And by her, I mean Jeanne Moreau. It's not that she is playing herself, but she is filling in the large blanks in the character as written with her own sense of self.

Perhaps because of Moreau's death, I'm focusing on her. I haven't said anything about the brilliant use and subversion of the language of film, or about how Jules and Jim is a crucial part of the French New Wave. All of that is true. But today, I'm thinking about Jeanne Moreau. #82 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

 


johnny guitar (nicholas ray, 1954)

As was occasionally true, this Nicholas Ray movie is famous as much for its backstage drama as for what we see on the screen. Sterling Hayden hated working with Joan Crawford. Crawford hated working with Mercedes McCambridge. Nicholas Ray said, "Quite a few times, I would have to stop the car and vomit before I got to work in the morning."

The movie itself invites multiple interpretations. As the venerable TV Guide wrote, "Johnny Guitar has been called everything from a feminist statement to a gay camp-classic to an anti-McCarthyism allegory." I'm not entirely convinced about the film's feminism ... at the least, I'd argue it's unintended. The film centers more on gender identities, with the men sliding into the background in the face of the indomitable Vienna (Crawford) and the frightening Emma (McCambridge). I've never felt qualified to identify what makes something camp, although I admit I laugh a lot when watching Johnny Guitar (and again, I don't know if those scenes are meant to make us laugh). The McCarthyism angle is clearer. The script was co-written by a blacklisted author, Ben Maddow, and there is one scene, where the mob badgers and threatens a man to give up his friends that is terrifying in that early-50s way.

Crawford's fears were right in one respect: McCambridge blows her and everyone else off the screen. Another piece of trivia from the IMDB:

[T]he crew broke into spontaneous applause after one of Mercedes McCambridge's powerhouse scenes, which infuriated star Joan Crawford. According to Nicholas Ray, he then began shooting the younger actress' scenes in the early morning before Crawford got there. After the star witnessed one of these early shoots she flew into a rage, broke into McCambridge's dressing room and slashed her clothes to shreds.

Since Johnny Guitar is ripe for so many possibilities, it is endlessly watchable. For my money, though, the one thing that lifts it above other films is Mercedes McCambridge. Her love/hate feelings towards The Dancing Kid and, more importantly, towards Vienna, drive an intensity that Crawford admittedly matches. They make a fine team, no matter how much they might have hated each other.

It's all rather loony. If I don't take it as seriously as some, I certainly appreciate the ways it might work on others. #240 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


music friday: women

Earlier this week, NPR posted a list of the 150 greatest albums made by women. It's a discussion starter, and it definitely worked ... people are coming up with "the next 150", "150 albums by men that sucked", and the like.

The list was accompanied by a great essay by Ann Powers, "A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story", which I highly recommend. I was inspired to make a short list of my own. Here are ten songs by women ... according to Last.fm, these are songs I've listened to lately:

Fleetwood Mac, "I Don't Want to Know"

Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi"

Aretha Franklin, "Chain of Fools"

Cowboy Junkies, "Sweet Jane"

Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time"

The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"

Lucinda Williams, "Are You Alright?"

Sleater-Kinney, "Modern Girl"

Ella Fitzgerald, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"

Pink, "Just Give Me a Reason"


the bare-footed kid (johnnie to, 1993)

As far as I can tell, this is Johnnie To's only period martial arts movie. It's a remake of Disciples of Shaolin, a mid-70s film. Not having seen the original, I have nothing to add to that.

On the face of it, there is a lot of appetizing elements to The Bare-Footed Kid, beyond it being a Johnnie To film. The cast includes the legendary Maggie Cheung, Kenneth Tsang (who has been in close to 200 movies), and Ti Lung, a star in many of those 70s martial arts movie (he had the skills) who had a career resurgence in A Better Tomorrow. The title character was played by Aaron Kwok, a huge star who I admit I'd never heard of. The cinematographer was Wing-Hang "Horace" Wong. And the stunts were directed by Liu Chia-Liang.

Yet during the early parts of the movie, I felt a bit unimpressed. The look of the film was gorgeous, especially the vivid colors, and I'm always ready to watch Maggie Cheung. But to my untrained eye, Wong had to work hard to make Aaron Kwok look like he was kicking ass ... lots of cutaway shots and wire-fu.

But The Bare-Footed Kid grew on me. As is usual for me, I had a hard time following the plot, but since everything looked good, I couldn't complain. And Cheung and Lung were acting at the highest level ... they gave the film class. A rather violent ending was a bit surprising, but overall, Maggie Cheung and Ti Lung made me forgive a lot. And did I mention the colors?

One final note. I found this streaming on Amazon, and the only option was dubbing. It was kind of appropriate, like I was watching something from the 70s. Except the dubbing was actually pretty well done. 7/10.

 


rudderless (william h. macy, 2014)

Feature directing debut for Macy, who also co-wrote the screenplay and plays a bit role. Billy Crudup stars (favorite anecdote: when Crudup had trouble calling up the emotions for a particular scene, Macy said, "looks like you have to fake it"). Rudderless played at Sundance, and it has a Sundancey cast, including Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Kate Micucci, Anton Yelchin, and Laurence Fishburne.

The film ambles along, a low-key study of grief, with Crudup as a father whose son dies in a college shooting. It's too low-key ... when Crudup finally breaks down, it feels deserved, but it still plays as too hyped-up compared to the mellow feel of the movie until then. Crudup is fine, and Yelchin is the best thing about the movie as a young, aspiring rocker. But there is a plot twist ... and it is crucial to the movie, but I don't like giving spoilers. Suffice to say that when the twist comes, it is quite startling, even impressive (at least if, like me, you never see these twists coming). But after it happened, I felt abused by a cheap ploy that existed only for the shock value. It doesn't grow organically out of the narrative. Information is kept from the audience until the moment when the emotional impact will be greatest, but I don't like being worked over that way. (Stephen Holden in the New York Times called the film "dishonest, manipulative and ultimately infuriating".)

Rudderless is listed as a musical, but it's a musical the way Almost Famous was a musical: it has musicians playing music, but they don't drive the film. (And, of course, Crudup was in Almost Famous as well. He was more charismatic in that movie, but that isn't really called for here.)

The acting is fine ... Fishburne has a minor role, but I enjoyed seeing him (in fact, he's the reason I watched in the first place ... I wanted to see something of his that was new to me). If it wasn't for that stupid plot twist, Rudderless would have been a decent picture, shallow but tolerable. ("Shallow" compared to, say, The Leftovers, which set the new standard for presenting grief.) It's not an embarrassment, it just rubbed me the wrong way. 6/10