tabu (f.w. murnau, 1931)

You don't get more highly regarded than Tabu. It was #307 on the most recent Sight and Sound list. It's #254 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Floyd Crosby, David's father). Director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise) is an acknowledged great. I've liked every Murnau movie I've seen, and was looking forward to this one. But Tabu didn't work for me.

The Oscar for cinematography makes sense (beating, among others, Morocco with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich). But the story, of a young couple in Bora Bora whose love is broken up by custom, didn't click. The film is stylish, but the combination of near-documentary footage and the imposed romantic story is clunky. The production was due to a teaming of Murnau and documentary film maker Robert Flaherty, but the two didn't mesh and the resulting film is now credited solely to Murnau. It's one of the last silent movies, although it does have a music score and sound effects. It's something people should see, but that's also true of Murnau's other movies, which are more than just historical oddities. Watch them first, then check out Tabu if you still have a need to see more of his movies.

what i watched last week

The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita, 2002). A Studio Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki, this 2002 film from Hiroyuki Morita is a bit of an oddity. Even though it’s the story of a teenage girl who talks to cats and finds herself in a magical Kingdom of Cats, there is something a bit prosaic about it all … it lacks the flights of fantasy that make Miyazaki’s worlds so enticing. The film is OK, and since I am not a fan of the Disney Musical genre of animated movies (which is to say, I’m not a fan of the music), a movie like The Cat Returns is nice because there are no songs to stretch the running time, which is 75 minutes. A pleasant movie, but nothing more.

A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954). This is the Judy Garland version. She sings great, and mostly avoids the tics and mannerisms that I find bothersome (although I think her fans love them … I could be wrong). James Mason is as good as you’ve heard. The movie works well as a star vehicle for Garland, but it’s not a classic musical, no matter what people think. The damn thing goes on for almost three hours in the restored version … basically, you’ve got a normal-length movie with enough songs attached to make it long enough for two. #245 (!) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 best films of all time.

Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton, 1924). A truly remarkable short feature from Buster Keaton, one that must have been at or near the top of Jackie Chan’s viewing schedule in his formative years. The setup takes a bit of time to get going, but when Keaton, as a movie projectionist, falls asleep in the booth and his dream self enters the theater, anything becomes possible. Keaton climbs into the movie … as with virtually all the stunts, there is a seamless quality that is amazing for a film made in 1924. Whatever trickery is used happens in the camera, or in the mind and body of Keaton. There are several Holy Shit moments, and the scenes are also hilarious, even as they are mind-boggling. This wouldn’t be a bad introduction to Keaton, if you’ve never seen him before. #129 on the TSPDT list.

what i watched last week

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008). Freaks and Geeks remains the greatest work to ever come out of the Judd Apatow universe. James Franco was one of the best things about that show, and he is easily the best thing about Pineapple Express. Apparently Seth Rogen was originally supposed to play the stoner/dealer, but Franco did a read for the part and won it immediately. It’s a bit startling to discover this bit of trivia, since Franco’s dealer here is largely an extension of his character from the TV series … who would have thought to cast him otherwise? There’s a funny bit involving Franco’s foot and a car chase, some amiable stoner humor, and a ridiculous final shootout that removes whatever good feelings you might have had about the film. As usual with this kind of movie, you should add a point or two to the rating if you think modern comedies are hilarious.

Steamboat Bill, Jr (Buster Keaton and Charles Reisner, 1928). What is it about Buster Keaton’s silent classics that I love, esp. compared to modern comedies that often don’t connect for me? I don’t have an answer. There are the moments in Keaton films that fill you with awe … you can imagine Jackie Chan watching them over and over. James Franco’s foot in the Pineapple Express chase scene was funny, in part because it was unpredictable. But most “jokes” today are far too predictable, placing actors into funny situations but then rarely going beyond the most obvious jokes. Adam Sandler and Bob Barker fighting in Happy Gilmore … it’s a funny idea, you can see why they thought it up and why people enjoy talking about it, but it runs for more than a minute, and the entire joke is taken care of in the first ten seconds, when Bob hits back. The rest of the scene isn’t even necessary … it’s a setup for a line that isn’t all that funny (“the price is wrong, bitch”). Keaton’s best movies have no wasted moments. But you have to see Keaton to believe it … reading that he did a stunt that could easily have killed him doesn’t have any impact at all compared to seeing it on the screen. With something like Barker vs. Sandler, you can reproduce the pleasure of the scene while sitting at the dinner table, where it will be funny, to be sure, just about as funny as when you saw it the first time, but a movie with seven funny moments isn’t a funny movie unless it’s only 6 minutes long. Meanwhile, Keaton is my favorite movie comedian because he rarely muddies his movies with sappy crap the way Chaplin does. The father-son relationship in Steamboat Bill, Jr. has resonance, but it’s not milked for the emotion, it never gets in the way, it just augments the story. This one shows up amongst the leaders whenever I try to concoct a Best Movies Ever list. Shot around the Sacramento River. 10/10. #327 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube, but the print sux, as do all of the ones with particular scenes. But I’ll toss this in because I probably should. Yes, the wall was real.

The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982). Although I have a PhD in English, I’m not a big reader of literature, preferring non-fiction when I read, and preferring movies and television for fiction. I was a film major in my first attempts at college, I got my B.A. in American Studies, and I spent one year at Cal teaching Mass Communications. Still, there was a time when I read far more fiction than I do now. If I had to guess why that time has passed, I’d say that I get my genre fix from TV, and my taste in “serious” literature is old-fashioned, that is, I’m almost completely uninterested in postmodern literature. I want a novel to tell a story and to tell it clearly … that quit being fashionable somewhere along the line, and I quit reading fiction. The World According to Garp was an old-fashioned novel, long and full of life and death. It was also almost surreal in places, but the weirdness was held in place by the normalness of the writing. The movie version is rather like reading a synopsis of the book, minus the part where they talk about themes. We see various scenes from the book, and they mostly work on an individual basis, but they don’t fall together the way the book does. The novel has its critics, to be sure, but John Irving has a vision, one full of death and random destruction. In showing only the highlights, the movie demonstrates its own lack of a vision. Amazingly, it ranks #844 on the They Shoot Pictures list.