Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chungking Express

Watching films can be a sort of trigger for time travel through memories. If enough time goes by from a viewing, the memories of previous relationships can come flooding back to you. I first saw Chungking Express in 1996 when Lola, an ex, introduced me to it. I remember her sitting me down in her apartment early in our relationship and saying it was something I needed to see. It meant a lot to Lola so I watched it and embraced it too, along with the work of director Wong Kar Wai. Lola's gone but I've been a fan of his ever since.

Chungking Express is actually two stories. The first, and the least interesting to me, concerns a pining for a lost lover cop and a criminal in a blonde wig. The pair barely miss one another before meeting in a bar and spending a strange night together. This part of the film is a feast of frenetic camera movement, kalaidascopes of color and the typical Wong Kar Wai lack of cohesiveness. It's just pure nuance and atmosphere and enjoyment is more certain if you just roll with it, let Wong take you into his Hong Kong and don't worry about it.

The second story is the one that I really love in Chungking Express. Another cop with a departed lover stops every night at a food stand. A quirky girl who likes The Mamas and the Papas (Faye Wong!) who works there takes a shine to him and even though she's too shy to approach him directly, she's not too timid to get a key and sneak into his apartment when he's not there. She likes to just hang out there, clean it and leave little hints that someone was there without being too obvious. The pair begin a slow dance of courtship and it's sweet and romantic. The visual style of second story is different--it's slower (literally; there are a couple of mind blowing, trademark Wong Kar Wai slow motions that are unbelievably beautiful) and more direct than the first part is.

I really like Chungking Express. It's a toss up between this and In the Mood for Love for my favorite Wong Kar Wai film. Chungking Express is typical Wong Kar Wai with stunning visuals, a meandering story and full of overt romanticism of the Hong Kong night wrapped in neon as people wander the streets, alone, dreaming of finding a connection. Seeing this twelve years after I last saw it makes the past come rushing back. Shades of time travel, Lola, what I lost, what I did, where I lived, sticking sharpened memories into my heart.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Me and Preston

I saw five films in my week in New York. I'm surprised it wasn't more but I was quite busy. As I mentioned in a post on 12.17.8, I was looking forward to the Preston Sturges retrospective at the Film Forum and I managed to watch five of them. So, it was nothing but Preston for me in New York.

Watching a group of films by a writer/director in the span of a couple of days gives you a very vivid look into the work of a person. Sturges had a stock company of character actors (like the great William Demarest--who shows up in all five films) for parts large and small. The actors always play their part beautifully, no matter if they are only in a single scene. It's comforting to see these same faces and hear the same voices over and over.

The films I saw were The Great McGinty, Sullivan's Travels, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Lady Eve. All of them from 1940 to 1944, all of them film prints and all of them comic gold. The films are so good that they have aged very well. These films are still original, witty, smart as a tack, romantic and as funny as any film could be. No one, and I mean no one, now, then or ever has made a string of comedies as high quality as Sturges did in his hey day between the late 1930s to 1944. It was an amazing run that I doubt can be duplicated.

Getting to see The Lady Eve (1941) in a theatre full of laughing, appreciative people was a dream come true for me. The Lady Eve is sheer and utter screwball perfection. I wouldn't change a single thing in it--not the actors, not the script, not the editing, not the pacing. Nothing. The film works so incredibly well as a comedy and romance I almost felt as I was watching it (even though I've seen it a half a dozen times before) that The Lady Eve can't be real and I must be dreaming. How can a film be as perfect as The Lady Eve?

I've always had a thing for Sturges but getting to see five of them in a couple of days has endeared me to his style and class even more. He's now firmly in the top three or four of my all time favorites and challenging for the top spot. Heck, by some remote chance I ever have a son, I might name him Preston, such is my admiration and love for his films.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Movie tickets #4

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Book review. Groucho is not my favorite Marx--that would be Harpo or Chico--but he probably lived the most interesting life of the brothers. This biography by Stefan Kanfer from 2000 gives all you might want to know about Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, Zeppo etc etc and makes me want to watch a few of their films again.

Kanfer's book is a very readable biography (a genre that can be dull if in the wrong hands) and covers in detail the early Vaudeville years (I love reading about Vaudeville!), the film heday of the 1930s and Groucho's TV comeback with You Bet Your Life. Groucho had a lot of ups and downs, three bad marriages, off and on feuds with kids and even a court hearing in his 80s to test his competency when we was being possibly abused by a much, much younger female companion. All very interesting.

My favorite part of the book was some of the antics by Groucho, Harpo and Chico when kept waiting by MGM's Irving Thalberg. Kanfer writes:

The trio made an attempt to be punctual, only to find the producer's office shut; he was forever in story conferences on other movies. The Brothers ultimately took matters in their own hands, lighting cigars, blowing gusts of smoke under the door, and loudly yelling "Fire!" between puffs. A distressed Thalberg emerged, saw what the Brothers were up to, and apologized for the delay. But a few weeks later he kept them waiting again--this time inside his office as he went down the hall to consult with Louis B. Mayer on some non-Marxian matter. The negotiation took longer than anticipated, and when he returned he found the Brothers squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace. And still Thalberg could not give the trio his undivided attention. Several weeks later he kept the group waiting once more. On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets. These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room. [page 191]

Imagine stars acting like that now! They'd be arrested, sent off for counseling, plastered all over the gossip rags or the internet and then run out of town. This is a perfect example of the kind of disregard for authority, uprorious hijinks and comic anarchy that peppered their films and that made them such timeless treasures. Groucho was the ringleader of the brothers and this biography is his story.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Let the Right One In

Some films belong to certain seasons of the year. Let the Right One In is a film that should be watched in the winter. Summer viewing would just feel so wrong. It helps hammer home its seasonal appropriateness that the weather in Tulsa has been frigidly cold the past few weeks with temperatures residing in the teens and the wind chill far below that. When the on screen weather matches the outside theatre weather--you've found yourself a seasonal connection.

Let the Right One In is one of my favorites from 2008. It's set in Sweden and based around a twelve year old boy named Oskar. He has no friends, suffers mental and physical abuse by a trio of bullies, is isolated from divorced Mom and Dad, spends his time daydreaming and keeping a secret journal of newspaper cutouts of ghastly deeds. Oskar's world changes when a new neighbor shows up in the same apartment building.

Eli is twelve too, sort of. Eli is a girl, sort of. And she's a vampire. Oskar and Eli form a bond--the only bond of Oskar's life. He is drawn to Eli in ways he can't comprehend. Eli doesn't care about Oskar's social problems he tries to hide--she's a vampire after all. Secrets, abnormal thoughts and the struggle for communication of what she is won't frighten her off from a dysfunctional twelve year old boy. The pair find an unquestioning kind of love for one another that is both tender and touching.

Let the Right One In is drowning in a wonderful atmospheric starkness that reflects its Swedish setting. There's very little to see outside snow, ice and darkness. When director Tomas Alfredson rarely exposes the characters (and us viewers) to the Swedish sunlight, it is so piercing and bright that it reaches deep enough to hurt the eye or make bones brittle. That seasonal winter match again.

This is a great film. Terrifically thought out and constructed. Let the Right One In is pure winter viewing and one of my favorites from 2008.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Talk in a theatre and this might happen to you

I am feisty when it comes to movie noisemakers--talking and texting being the prime culprits--but do NOT interrupt James Cialella of Philadelphia, PA when he is trying to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If you do, you risk getting shot. According to the Associated Press:

A man enraged by a noisy family sitting near him in a movie theatre on Christmas night shot the father of the family in the arm, police said. James Joseph Cialella, 29, of Philadelphia, told the man's family to be quiet, then threw popcorn at the man's son, police said. The victim told police that Cialella was walking toward his family when he stood up and was shot. Detectives called to the United Artists Riverview Stadium theatre in South Philadelphia found Cialella carrying the weapon, a .380-caliber handgun, in his waistband, police said. Cialella faces six charges that include attempted murder and aggravated assault.

Maybe it is just me but he did just get shot in the arm. The man was warned to be quiet and then was peppered with popcorn and he didn't take heed. I know I'm a radical and all, but ignore those warnings and keep making a disturbance--a bullet to the arm seems pretty reasonable.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

2008 stats

Total films seen in 2008: 202

1920-1929: 4
1930-1939: 10
1940-1949: 10
1950-1959: 4
1960-1969: 7
1970-1979: 6
1980-1989: 15
1990-1999: 11
2000+++: 125

Where I saw 'em:

164--Tulsa, Okla.
6--Seattle, WA.; On a jet
5--New York, NY; Pryor Creek, Okla.
3--Barcelona, Spain; Madrid, Spain; Santa Fe, NM
2--Jenks, Okla.
1--Dallas, tx; Lisbon, Portugal; Miami, Okla.; Oklahoma City, Okla.

Who I saw 'em with:

11--Lillian B.
10--Tim S.
7--David N.; Sara Y.
6--Mary Beth B.
5--Nancy C.
4--Fitzhume; Maggie B.
3--Cassie T.; Scott B.
2--Jeff M.; Kelly H.; Peter K.; Sacha W.
1--Angie S.; Bracken K.; Brandi B.; Brandon S.; Donnie B.; Greg Y.; Gunter B.; Jacob B.; Kade B.; Larry H.; Laura W.; Norma S.; Shane D.; Trevor K.

By country

126--US and A!
5--Denmark; Italy; Japan
4--Czech Republic
3--Australia; Hong Kong; South Korea; Spain
2--Germany; Norway
1--Canada; Cuba; Finland; Lebanon; Iran; Ireland; Romania; Russia; Sweden; Thailand

Seen in a theatre: 76
Documentaries: 18
Tearjerkers: 10

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Boycott alert: My Bloody Valentine 3D

As you may recall--I've sworn off all crappy remakes of cult films and have urged everyone to do the same. This month sees another film from the past remade--the Canadian slasher film from 1981 My Bloody Valentine. The producers are trying to up the ante and give us a 3D remake but it's still going to be overblown and full of none of the charm and whimsy that made the original a cult classic from that era. Say no, don't go!

Photo: Replicant in NYC subway voicing displeasure.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Disappointment and surprise. There's nothing like the let down of watching a film I've waited for with high hopes and felt disappointed when it's over because it hasn't lived up to the anticipation (Synecdoche, New York for example). On the fun flip side is seeing a film with no expectations, it may even have the preconception of not being any good--and then get proved wrong. It's a satisfying rarity when that occurs. Cloverfield is one of those times.

Cloverfield was a complete surprise and is just an entertaining genre picture. It takes a Blair Witch gimmick of P.O.V. filmmaking (the entire film consists of footage shot on a video camera) and ratchets up the tension and effects. I'm not keen on this kind of P.O.V. storytelling but in this case it really creates an intimacy between the people on tape and us as viewers as they try to survive the mayhem. A bond is created that might have been lacking in a traditional film/story/camera set up.

The movie begins at a surprise going away party with lots of celebrating and reveling. That is until explosions, power loss and mass chaos in the streets hits them. A group of some kind of giant alien monsters are obliterating Manhattan and its all told on shaky cam as they try to make it out of the city with each other still alive.

Cloverfield is well done. It's tense, gripping, realistic (as realistic as could be considering these are humongous, murderous aliens attacking New York City!), romantic, cohesive, suspenseful and very entertaining. Produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves, I'm going to pay them the ultimate compliment for a film like this--it's the sort of thing I'd imagine Steven Spielberg doing if he was just starting out and in his 20s. In fact, I actually liked this a lot more than Spielberg's recent War of the Worlds.

Cloverfield is a genre film. A very effective one at that. It takes an age old premise--alien attack!--and uses the P.O.V. to create an intimacy that completely pulls you in. When you watch a couple hundred films a year, disappointments are inevitable but surprises and shockers like Cloverfield make it worth all the letdowns.

Friday, January 02, 2009

December movies

December was a good month--thirteen of the twenty films I saw I rated **** or up, including four scores of five. Highlights were rewatching Casino on Blu-Ray and Preston Sturges films in NYC. The big disappointment was Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. I thought it was a failure. An emotional disconnect for me. Oh, well.

After the Wedding
---2007---denmark ****

High Fidelity---2000---usa ****
Charlie Wilson's War---2007---usa ****
Bloody Reunion---2006---south korea **1/2
Synecdoche, New York---2008---usa **1/2
Ashes of Time Redux---2008 (via 1994)---hong kong ***1/2
King of California---2007---usa ***1/2
Dirty Driving---2008---usa ***1/2
Casino---1995---usa ****1/2
Cloverfield---2008---usa ****
Vicky Christina Barcelona---2008---usa ****
Let the Right One In---2008---sweden ****
You Can't Take It With You---1938---usa *****!
Freaky Friday---1977---usa ***
Twentieth Century---1934---usa **
The Great McGinty---1940---usa ****
Sullivan's Travels---1941---usa *****!
The Miracle of Morgaon's Creek---1944---usa *****!
Hail the Conquering Hero---1944---usa ****
The Lady Eve---1941---usa *****!