a brighter summer day (edward yang, 1991)

This is more of a placeholder than a review. I watched A Brighter Summer Day under less than ideal circumstances, and don't really feel competent to evaluate it yet. It's just under 4 hours long, and I had figured I'd have to at least invent an intermission. But then the Criterion Channel didn't want to work properly in my browser, and by the time I realized that and switched back to the TV, I'd already lost a day. And I was half asleep for that one. So I ended up watching about 90 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, and the rest of the movie on the third day. Since this is a movie that rewards close attention, I was not giving it the respect it deserved.

I had trouble keeping the characters straight. This might have been a result of my fragmented viewing, I can't say. Also, Paul Dano notes on one of the extras that he thinks it would be useful for viewers to first learn a bit about Taiwanese culture (it takes place in a few years around 1960). I was often confused, and I think Dano is right. I'd just read an essay about how spoilers are actually good for you, and it's possible I'd have had an easier time following the film if I already knew what would be happening. (This makes it a good candidate for a second viewing.)

Finally, I was reminded a bit of the great City of God, one of my favorite movies. Like A Brighter Summer Day, City of God deals with youth gangs. But that movie's characters were a lot like the gangsters I was used to from the U.S., in particular Menace II Society. I lacked a deep understand of life in the favelas, but I felt I knew the characters. The young boys in A Brighter Summer Day are connected to American pop culture as well ... the title comes from the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" But they seem to draw their cues from a different place than what I'm used to as an American. City of God was easier for me to connect to, compared to this film.

In the meantime, I must mention the exquisite visual compositions in the film. I've only seen one other movie by Yang, Yi Yi, which I liked but which I confess I don't remember very much about.

Here is a scene I particularly liked, in part because it makes an American pop culture reference you know I'll love: teens are at the movies, and on the soundtrack, you can hear that they are watching Rio Bravo:

#123 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


revisiting spartacus (stanley kubrick, 1960)

I don't usually include my ratings in my posts anymore ... I still give them, I just don't post them. But in this case, I think my ratings are illuminating. Here are all the Stanley Kubrick movies for which I have assigned a rating:

1956: The Killing 9/10

1957: Paths of Glory 10/10

1960: Spartacus 10/10

1964: Dr. Strangelove 10/10

1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey 7/10

1971: A Clockwork Orange 5/10

1975: Barry Lyndon 5/10

1980: The Shining 6/10

1987: Full Metal Jacket 6/10

1999: Eyes Wide Shut 4/10

I don't have a lot to add to what I have written before, so I'll indulge again in cut-and-paste. I mentioned:

[T]he quality of the acting [in The Killing], with a fine cast of B-level actors like the reliable Elisha Cook ... Marie Windsor, the ever-oddball Timothy Carey, and Vince “Ben Casey” Edwards. Not to mention Sterling Hayden in the lead. At some point (around the time Hal became the most interesting character in 2001), Kubrick seemed to lose interest in actors. Malcolm McDowell was good in Clockwork Orange because he was right for the part, but Jack Nicholson in The Shining was not his finest hour (and Kubrick had no idea what to do with Shelley Duvall), and the stars in Kubrick’s movies varied between extreme overacting and sleepy underacting, with no one resembling an actual human being. None of this was true in Kubrick’s early movies.

On 2001:

Kubrick’s disdain for actors is evident. Actors like Kirk Douglas and Peter Sellers had such strong screen presences that they couldn’t be held down, and Malcolm McDowell dominated A Clockwork Orange. (One reason for that is that the other actors were awful.) In 2001, the most interesting actors are the guy who does the voice of a computer, and the ones who play apes. I understand that Kubrick is emphasizing the banal ... I suppose Keir Dullea is the perfect actor, in that case. The performances we remember most from later Kubrick are the ones where the director allowed the actor to do whatever he wanted ... McDowell, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. There isn’t a lot of subtle acting in Kubrick movies, which may matter more to me than to others.

Kubrick disavowed Spartacus, the only movie he made without full control (he took over for the original director with a script that had already been written). There are things he clearly put himself into ... the mass movement of the Roman armies in the final battle scene are powerfully impressive.

But I can't help thinking the reason there are so many interesting characters in Spartacus is because Howard Fast, who wrote the novel, and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, had already created them before Kubrick got his hands on them. And, as with The Killing and Paths of Glory, the whole cast delivers. Special mention goes to Peter Ustinov, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar, the only person in a Kubrick movie to ever receive an acting Oscar (Peter Sellers was the only other person to even get nominated). Kubrick wasn't done making great movies, but before the end of the decade, the fall had begun. And yes, I am aware that this is a personal preference, that Kubrick is considered one of the all-time greatest film directors, and that many of the movies I didn't like are some people's favorites.

The film's IMDB trivia page includes these items:

  • The movie's line "I am Spartacus" was voted as the #64 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.
  • When Kirk Douglas asked Stanley Kubrick his opinion of the "I am Spartacus" scene, Kubrick (in front of cast and crew) called it "a stupid idea". Douglas promptly chewed Kubrick out.

It's the most famous scene in the entire movie. And Kubrick thought it was stupid. He made sure he never again had to let someone else's stupid idea into one of his movies.


you were never lovelier (william a. seiter, 1942)

There are different versions of the story, but Fred Astaire was often asked who his favorite partner was, and some think he confessed it was Rita Hayworth. They only made two films together, but yes, she was well-matched with him. I'm not an expert on dance, but for me, his partners fall into two basic categories. There were the women who were actresses who danced, with Ginger Rogers being the ultimate example. And there were dancers who ... well, the less said about Cyd Charisse's acting, the better. Eleanor Powell perhaps comes closest to crossing the lines ... she wasn't a great actress, and her name as a dancer was based largely on her excellence at tap dancing, but it's hard to say she was "limited" to tap when she was so good it is rumored Astaire was intimidated by her.

Fred and Ginger movies are a genre of their own, and their on-screen relationship overwhelms all of Astaire's other partners. (Their off-screen relationship was perhaps not so great.) There's no use trying to pick which partner was better than Ginger ... their movies stand alone, in my house, at least.

But the Not Gingers were not all the same, and Rita Hayworth stands out in that field. While she is remembered now as a pin-up queen who led an unhappy life and starred in Gilda, she was always a dancer. Astaire has said that you could show her a new dance in the morning, and by afternoon she had it down. And while Fred and Ginger made it work, Fred and Rita seem to really like each other in their movies together.

Lesley Chow wrote a fine piece in 2006, "Mish-Mash Planet: The Cult of Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier", that I recommend. In the meantime, here's a dance from You Were Never Lovelier:

Here's the most famous Astaire-Powell scene:

Astaire and Charisse:

And the greatest dance from the greatest partnership:


drunken master ii (chia-liang lu, 1994)

Or, as it's known in the U.S. and on Netflix, The Legend of Drunken Master.

It was Jackie Chan's 65th birthday on Sunday, so I took in one of his classics, the sequel to Drunken Master. Age is a funny thing in movies. Given the things Jackie has done to himself over his career, it's amazing that he's still alive. In Drunken Master II, Chan was already 40, although he plays a much younger character (and pulls it off ... when you are a physical marvel like Jackie, age seems less important, at least at 40). His co-stars include a few Hong Kong greats ... Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow and many others) plays his father, although in real life, he's only 8 years older than Jackie. And the magnificent Anita Mui (The Heroic Trio) plays his step-mother, and she was actually 9 years younger than Chan.

And, since I'm listing cast members, Andy Lau has a cameo that points to the numerous alternate versions that we in the States get of HK movies. The copy I watched, on Netflix, was in Cantonese with English subtitles, but Lau's character was a counterintelligence officer, which was supposedly true only in the American dubbed version. Whatever ... it was a good print, and if the soundtrack was different from the original, I couldn't tell (not saying it was different, just that it didn't seem to matter). Here's a look at some of the changes made to the American version ... I like this because you get a brief chance to see what Anita Mui does in Drunken Master. The "Madonna of the East" really shines, stealing scenes left and right. She was a true superstar, and it shows here. She makes every scene better.

As for the movie itself, Chan relies less on crazy stunts than usual. "Drunken Master" refers to a style of martial arts, and this film, like its predecessor Drunken Master, is a martial arts film more than anything else. There are some eye-popping scenes in Drunken Master II, and I don't want to overstate the difference between this and, say, Armour of God II: Operation Condor.

The big finale features a sensational battle between Jackie's drunken master and an imposing villain who is played by Jackie's real-life bodyguard at the time, Ken Lo. Even by Chan standards, it's amazing ... Roger Ebert said,"It may not be possible to film a better fight scene."

If you're thinking of a double-bill, the obvious match is Drunken Master. If you're looking for another Jackie Chan movie to watch, I like to recommend Police Story 3: Supercop with Michelle Yeoh.


double bill: john woo meets jacques demy

(These were suggested as a double-bill at The Criterion Channel.)

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979). I don't entirely buy the pairing of these two movies. But Woo loves musicals, and while there are no songs in Last Hurrah for Chivalry, there is a balletic feel to some of the sword battles. In the end, I just watched it as a Woo fan who hadn't seen this one before. It came seven years before A Better Tomorrow changed everything, and while there is some novelty seeing sword play in place of shootouts, the film is more interesting as an early look at the friendships among men that is one of the themes Woo is most famous for. The film moves along briskly, the characters are detailed enough for us to care about them, and the exploration of male camaraderie, if low-key compared to Woo's heroic bloodshed classics, at least hints at Woo's future. The women in the film are largely irrelevant, despite the attempt in the trailer to make it seem like there is some important heterosexual love. Not up to Woo's classics, but enjoyable just the same. And the Sleeping Wizard is the best.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). Very much of a piece with The Young Girls of Rochefort, which Demy made three years later. The primary common thread is that both movies feature dialogue that is 100% sung. It sounds annoying, but you quickly get used to it. It matters that Cherbourg is such an honest portrait of romantic love ... it would be worth watching without the music (I might say it would be better, but the music is part of the charm, and there's a recognizable-to-this-day song in Michel Legrand's score). David Thomson, writing about this movie, noted, "So often, the realist's complaint about the musical is that awkward moment where the actors take a deep breath, the story goes on hold, and 'it' breaks into song. What better cure for that hesitation, or the nausea that attends it, than having every line of dialogue sung?" Makes sense to me, although I've found it easy to resist more recent attempts at this kind of "complete" musical. Meanwhile, in commenting on the music, we should not lose site of the look of the film, which is full of gorgeous, irresistible colors. It's hard to believe we're looking at a real city, which I mean in this case to be a compliment. #173 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


the fabulous baron munchausen (karel zeman, 1962)

This film is known by various titles ... the most common English-language alternative to the above substitutes "outrageous" for "fabulous". Both are appropriate for this fantastic tale, which was this week's Criterion Movie of the Week. There are several versions of the Munchausen story on film, with the most recent being Terry Gilliam's 1988 movie (which I saw at the time, but don't remember much about it). I want to say that Zeman's movie is unlike any other, but I haven't seen every movie, so I'll just say The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is unique, as fabulous as the titular head. It won me over instantly, even though this is not my usual cup of tea.

It is difficult to describe what Zeman has done here. The film is a combination of live-action and animation, but it's as far from Disney as can be imagined. The most obvious influence is Méliès, but Munchausen benefits from more advanced techniques than that early pioneer had. Zeman's approach is exacting, such that when something is jarring, you assume he made it that way, rather than that the art form failed him. The look is inspired in part by Gustave Doré (disclosure: I had to read this to learn it, not being familiar with Doré, but that's a gap in my knowledge, not a mark of obscurity). Zeman makes great use of color, partly by blending it with black and white ... when a splash of color appears against a grey background, it startles. Not being an expert on animation, I found myself amazed at how Zeman got his effects, i.e. I couldn't figure them out ... he's doing things in 1962 that mystified me.

There is no attempt to hide artifice in The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, which is really the only approach to take. And while the dialogue is frequently witty (and often as unique as what we are seeing, as when the Baron begins speaking and words are replaced by musical tones), the visuals are so captivating that even this trailer entices, despite its lack of subtitles:

 


film fatales #54: shirkers (sandi tan, 2018)

Shirkers is the story of a film that got stolen. Sandi Tan was a 19-year-old who, with two friends and teacher/mentor Georges Cardona, shot the footage for a feature-length movie. The three young women went off to college, leaving the film for Cardona to edit. They never saw him again, and the footage seemed to be lost. Many years later, Cardona's widow contacted Tan, telling her she had found the footage, which Cardona had kept all those years. There was no audio.

Tan does a great job of integrating that footage into a making-of documentary. It gives Tan a chance to regain what was once hers; it's also crippled by the lack of sound. The original Shirkers is lost to the world, but with the perspective that distance provides and the technical skills Tan had picked up over time, she gives us a new feature that is probably better than what she made as a teenager. There is a sense of loss, of course, but in the end, we can only guess at the quality of the original. There is no guess work involved with the documentary, which is intriguing and shines light on the precarious nature of the art we make.

Cardona seems to sneakily become the film's focus, which would be his final triumph if that's what he wanted (he is ultimately a cipher), but eventually it turns back to Tan and her friends, as it should. While Tan includes interviews with critics who make extravagant claims for the lost film, it feels hyperbolic. And unnecessary, since the film she eventually makes stands on its own. And if the original was charmingly amateurish, the grown-up Tan is an accomplished film maker (for one thing, she hides that fact that the footage is silent for most of the film, and I never suspected a thing ... maybe if I watched it a second time I'd see the signs).

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


film fatale: agnès varda, 1928-2019

I've rated and written about five Agnès Varda films here. On a scale of ten, I've given her 8 8 8 9 9. An all-time great film maker.

Cléo from 5 to 7. "Cléo from 5 to 7 isn’t quite as startling now as it must have seemed in 1962, but its essential, existential heart is just as large now as it was then."

Vagabond. Film Fatales #1. "Varda shows us how each individual gets Mona wrong, but she refuses to show us a Mona we can understand. It’s as if such a demonstration would be corrupted by value judgments."

The Gleaners & I. "But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her."

The Beaches of Agnès. "The film feels almost tossed off, as if Varda gathered together some source material, filmed a few transition pieces, and had a movie. But after it’s over, when you start thinking about what you’ve seen, you realize how detailed is the film’s construction."

Faces Places."The themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it."


film fatales #53: captain marvel (anna boden and ryan fleck, 2019)

Captain Marvel is a "film fatale" for more reasons than that it was co-directed by a woman. Two of the three screenwriters are women, the composer is a woman, a woman is co-editor ... none of this would be remarkable if it weren't for the fact that it is still far too rare. There's also the part where this is a Marvel superhero movie with a woman as the lead, although this isn't a first if you include television (say hello to Peggy Carter).

Captain Marvel succeeds in all of the Marvel basics: good action scenes, an enjoyable supporting cast (some, like Gemma Chan and Lee Pace, aren't easily recognized under their makeup, and while Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg are recognizable, that's because of the CGI work that made them younger), even an animal that isn't annoying (Goose the Cat, so much better than that damn fox in the Guardians films). I can barely keep track of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I am a regular viewer of the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so it was fun seeing some of that show's plot integrated into the film (the Kree have been in the series, as has the Tesseract, not to mention Phil Coulson, although the show got better when it mostly detached itself from the MCU).

I've been a fan of Brie Larson since United States of Tara, and she's fine as The Captain, even if she's no Agent Carter (or Wonder Woman, for that matter). I've seen more of these movies than I realize, and for the most part, I like them OK, even if only one has been truly excellent. My rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe items I've seen:

Easily the best: Black Panther

Runner-Up: Agent Carter (TV series, but she's a character in a few of the movies, so I'm counting it)

OK: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Ant-ManThe AvengersAvengers: Infinity WarCaptain America: Civil WarCaptain MarvelDoctor Strange, Iron Man, Venom (not sure why it isn't in the official MCU)

Not so OK: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Worst: Guardians of the Galaxy

As is known by now, Captain Marvel is a huge hit at the box office, and I'm glad for that ... puts to rest the notion that female leads can't do box office. Still, my favorite Brie Larson movie, Short Term 12, cost less than $1 million to make ... it would be nice if Marvel fans checked that movie out some time.

Some 4K trailer action:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


liquid sky (slava tsukerman, 1982)

Some cult movies earn the label over time by an audience that creates the cult status. Others are purposely cult movies, odd, aggressively different. Liquid Sky is the latter. A hit on the festival circuit, Liquid Sky is the story of aliens from outer space who are attracted to heroin, until they find out what they need from the opiate is better supplied by humans having orgasms. Of course, the plot takes a back seat to ambiance, visuals, androgyny, and a punk subculture that listens to experimental synth music. It's something of a kitchen sink approach, but there is always something going on, even if at times that something seems pointless.

Anne Carlisle stars in a dual role, and she does a fine job as both the female lead and a male counterpart who, everyone notices, looks a lot like the female. The rest of the acting, though, is highly variable ... in some cases, I felt like I was watching something headed for MST3K.

Usually, I appreciate the effort in movies like this, without actually liking them very much. And Tsukerman, Carlisle, and Nina V. Kerova, who co-wrote the screenplay, are ambitious and unafraid to put their ideas out there. Truth is, I liked Liquid Sky more than I usually do with obscure cult movies. It's a wonderland for fans of neon.