Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Week of August 18th:

Death Race 2000 (1975): Darkly funny rotgut satire masquerading as just another Corman-branded drive-in smash-em-up. The media-violence-as-pacifier isn't exactly new ground, but director Paul Bartel nails the balance between violence and commentary better than most, so that the film appears more trenchant than it probably is. What came as a genuine surprise to me was the post-script, which says in five minutes what it took Massacre at Central High half a film to say. Makes excellent use of Corman's notorious tight-fistedness -- the sparse, ramshackle art direction, everything pasted together as best as possible, truly gets across the premise of an America dancing on the edge of bankruptcy -- and though legend has it that Bartel intensely disliked directing car-chase films, you wouldn't know it from his sharp, economical eye. Plus it's entertaining as fuck. David Carradine, I'm starting to think, is not a person but a government experiment to isolate cool and give it human form. Grade: B+

Masculin Féminin (1966): "The children of Marx and Coca-Cola" is more than a cute pullquote, it's an unusually clear and handy summation of what Jean-Luc Godard is doing with this playfully knockabout concoction. As the famed phrase suggests, this captures a loose group of young people torn between increasing politicization/dissatisfaction with the Way Things Are and the constant desire for consumption of the capitalistic and ephemeral. The film Godard makes from this is at turns melancholic, hilarious, dull and droll, helped along by a typically winning performance by Jean-Pierre Leaud and the lightest touch Godard ever had and would never have again after his radicalism overwhelmed him. Full of sharp setpieces that may not be meant to add up to anything other than a cultural overview; most fascinating are occasional interludes where characters are peppered with a battery of question by an offscreen interviewer. Here, Godard all but stands up and shouts Do They Know What They Stand For? I Don't Think That They Do. Watching this, you can see how the '68 riots happened, and you can also see why that idealistic fervor collapsed so quickly. Grade: B

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Mostly terrific Hawksian men-being-men drama about mail pilots in South America and the deadly lives they lead. The flight scenes are expertly rendered, crisp and tense (it was a great idea for Hawks to lead us off with a fatal crash, so that we understand that he just might kill any of these sympathetic characters at any time), but I do think the film loses something whenever it switches gears and goes for the push-pull romantic tension between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Arthur's character strikes me as too inconsistent, and the chemistry between the two never quite sparks. I kinda wish that Arthur and Rita Hayworth had switched roles, as Hayworth kills in her small handful of scenes. Still, this is at bottom adventure drama at its most solid. Grade: B+

Return of the Tiger (1979): I wonder where Bruce Li's reputation would be if a cynical producer hadn't rechristened him with that name after the death of Bruce Lee. Because, at least on the evidence of this film, Li doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Bruce Le or Bruce Liang. He has an athletic grace in his movements that is far removed from the clumsy thuggery of Li or the abruptly effective savagery of Sonny Chiba, but more importantly he also has a measure of charm that sets him apart from the other Bruce clones. My perception may also be clouded by the fact that, unlike most Lee cash-ins (i.e. The Dragon Lives Again), this is tantalizingly close to being a good movie. The fight scenes are sharp and well-choreographed, the villains are properly hissable and there's a sense that the filmmakers were, for once, in on the joke. (There's no other excuse for the scene where Li avoids taking on a huge henchman until he can oil himself up.) The problem is, then, is in the story -- it's both overly complex and completely unimportant, with a series of double-and-triple crosses that nobody seems terribly concerned about sorting out. Coulda been a minor classic, but I'll stay satisfied with a ferocious entertainment. Needed more Angela Mao, but the glorious heap of Paul L. Smith in Hulk-smash mode at the end compensates. Grade: B-

Rio Bravo (1959): It's iconic! One could criticize Howard Hawks's now-legendary Western for trading explicitly in well-worn Western tropes right down to its casting, but that would be missing the point. From the beginning, where we're introduced to most of the main characters without a word of dialogue, Hawks uses audience familiarity as an entry point to his project. We know these characters and situations. We know them inside and out, and Hawks does too. He's not interested in telling just another story here but a story within those stories. That's why the siege-narrative structure is necessary -- a whole heap of downtime is the aim, so that we can see what these guys do and how they react in relation to one another when they're not beholden to the average B-plot. Though it has some wonderfully choreographed gunplay (not just the opening and closing scenes but a marvelous bit where Dean Martin has to suss out a shooter in a bar) Rio Bravo is more or less the opposite of what we expect -- the Western as inaction movie. Terrific, at any rate, and helpful for me in that I now understand what the big screaming deal about John Wayne is. Grade: A-


Blogger Adam Ross said...

You pinpointed exactly what I love about "Rio Bravo." The best parts of the movie are when the characters are just "there," and eventually the viewer feels like part of the scenery in this small town. It's the relaxed, natural "inaction" you talked about that I love the most.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Steve C. said...

It's pretty marvelous - Hawks, somehow, made a 130-minute film where every shot, every digression, every detour feels absolutely necessary. The confidence here is remarkable.

8:39 AM  
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