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what i watched last week

Face/Off (John Woo, 1997). This turned up on HBO … we thought to catch a few minutes and ended up watching the whole thing. It’s Woo’s best American movie, although I can think of at least half-a-dozen HK and Chinese Woos I prefer to this one. The plot is ludicrous, and there are times when Woo seems to be going through a checklist of his repertoire of tics (here come the doves in a church!). But John Travolta and Nicolas Cage do wonders with their roles. They are clearly having a blast, and are so good that you have to pinch yourself to remember that Travolta is playing the Cage character and vice versa. The face-exchange plot pretty much ensures there will be some contextual references to identity, but really, the movie is made by the two leads.

Ultimately, Woo’s Hollywood career went about as well as might be expected, which is to say, it was disappointing. It’s a standard story: someone’s talent is recognized, he is signed, and then he’s asked to be something other than the talent that got him signed in the first place. Hard Target wasn’t all that bad, but the studio wanted him to tone down the violence, and he couldn’t get an “R”, so the studio re-edited it without him. Broken Arrow was better, and it made a little money, which led to Face/Off, where Woo had more freedom than he had gotten in his earlier American films. Unsurprisingly, it was the best of the bunch. Then came the dreadful Mission: Impossible II, the boring Windtalkers, and the merely-competent Paycheck. (Happily, Woo hadn’t lost his touch … when he returned to China, it was to make the magnificent Red Cliff.)

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956). I last watched this a little more than three years ago, and wrote about it for one of the very first “what i watched” posts. In that post, I mentioned that when I first saw the film many years ago, I thought it was “about” me and my addiction to caffeine. I then noted that in 2008, it still seemed to be about me, only this time I saw myself in the erratically terrifying dad. In 2012, I found myself identifying with the arthritis-like symptoms of the main character, which proves I’m getting old. #569 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Features Barbara Rush as the female lead … she was last seen in these parts in It Came from Outer Space.

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011). An odd movie, mostly because it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller about a fast-spreading virus, but the action is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that quiets the thrills. It seems ripe for philosophical interludes (I am, after all, the person whose favorite book is The Plague by Albert Camus), but it sidesteps them. It’s got an all-star cast, with three Best Actress Oscar winners and a bunch of guys who have won or been nominated for Oscars of their own, yet it treats them all as actors first and movie stars second. The low-key nature of the film is nice, considering how many similar films crank up the cheap emotion and show lots of things blowing up. And it’s not overlong, and it’s never boring. But neither is it ever great.

Drive, He Said (Jack Nicholson, 1971). This is the kind of film people mean when they speak of the golden age of American movies. Oh, it’s not great itself, but it fits right in with the times, and the filmmaking fits in with the golden age. Nicholson, in his first director’s stint (outside of his uncredited work in The Terror), avoids clichés, and as expected he gets the basketball scenes right. Plus, there’s student unrest and naked actors of both genders. It’s a worthy effort, but it’s not much good.

Circus of Horrors (Sidney Hayers, 1960). This week’s Saturday Creature Feature is a typical British Hammer-inspired B-movie genre flick, with a slightly better-than-average pedigree. Donald Pleasance turns up for awhile. The lead is played by Anton Diffring, who appeared in well over 100 movies, doing everything from Truffaut to Jerry Lewis’ legendary The Day the Clown Cried. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe earned three Oscar nominations in his career. And it was distributed by the same company that released Peeping Tom the same year. I mention the pedigree because it’s more interesting than talking about the movie, which is OK but nothing more.


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