Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recent viewings (Twilight Samurai, Once, Shop Around the Corner, King of Kings, Casablanca)

Other movies: Yoji Yamada's Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Samurai,2002) is surprisingly enjoyable. Didn't have high hopes from the director of the endless Tora-san series, but goes to show what assuming things does to one's viewing choices. It's not a novel premise (a samurai with a second class reputation and mien so modest everyone assumes he's a loser, including himself) and the film follows a fairly predictable narrative arc (basically the samurai exceeds everyone's low expectations), but the pleasures to be had are so modestly and expertly wrought one hums with pleasure, as if sipping a bowl of comfort noodles. The fight scenes are wonderfully retro--long takes, no fast cuts, and the occasional sidestep off camera to make the outcome all the more tantalizing.

John Carney's Once (2006)--maybe it's just because I don't know much about music but the songs themselves don't seem all that memorable (I responded more to the singing than the lyrics or melody), except perhaps the duet at the piano store, which was lovely, and the number at the bus, that 'Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," which was low-key hilarious.

Beyond that the two actors are perfect for each other, and I love how understated everything was. Not a bad film at all.

From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities:

Looked at Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) again. What's striking isn't so much the romancing (there's actually very little to none onscreen) as it is the bickering, and there Lubitsch catches the essential truth about workplaces, that it's all about cliques and allies, covering your ass, and trying to pull down your fellow worker. It would all be bitter and depressing, if it wasn't so funny.

Ted Fontenot: I, too, have been re-watching some old favorites courtesy of the seasonal marathon on TCM, including The Shop Around the Corner. Sullavan's performance in Shop Around the Corner is pretty damn daring. She really skirts a razors edge. Just a little more and her character becomes unlikable and annoying. She's still got her ideals right up to the ending kiss. Indeed, there's no indication that she's really given them up in an absolute sense. They were just misdirected. Stewart's character finally maneuvers the goings on so he can assert himself, but after all his elaborate finessing, what happens—he still has to show her his calves to prove he isn’t bowlegged. He doesn't, and can't, really put her in her place because (like the later Cluny Brown) she doesn't accept the idea of knowing her place, which is what the men in those films find attractive to begin with, so in a real sense putting up with the downside of that is the price they must pay. But like I said earlier somewhere, he will have his hand's full with her (it's the price you pay for positive of attributes arising from that irrepressibility. One of the nice touches in Stewart's performance is this air of admiration that his face can't help but express at her facility with sticking the knife in him. She's definitely high maintenance. He has to assert himself, confront her, or what is all too likely to be is a recapitulation in some form of the relationship of Matuschek & Wife. Through the parallel relationships, we see how neatly Lubitsch and his screenwriter(s) traverse a precarious tightrope, successfully negotiating a delicate balance between comedy and pathos. Kralik knows his woman (“not too beautiful, just a regular, average lovely girl”). He knows all what he's getting, and he lets her know he knows. Then he relents. All romantic comedies are about the essential Darwinian battle between the sexes, and they aren't successfully resolved, whatever your gender perspective, unless an equilibrium is attained. And successful campaigners know when to stop overtly fighting it. Matuschek doesn’t understand this, and thus never confronts his romantic illusion.

Good call on the parallels between Matuschek and Kralik's high maintenance women. I suspect the difference is that while Matuschek married above his station (he might have been an up-and-coming retailer who managed to impress the daughter of old money), Kralik and Novak are both struggling bourgeoisie--they know the chill breath of loneliness, joblessness, and they'll cling just a little tighter together for comfort. I can't see Klara's eye wandering, in the near future, anyway.

Apparently according to the wiki (for what it's worth), the British comedy Are You Being Served? is based on the film.

I remember Lubitsch insisted on setting it in Budapest. I can believe that's necessary--you don't get this amount or flavor of hypocrisy in America. It actually pretty much captures the flavor of hypocrisy found in the bank I worked in for ten years.

A quick glimpse of Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1951), which I mention briefly in my overview of Christ movies turned up a striking throwaway image, of Christ standing in Pilate's courtyard, the stripe of a red carpet running down the left side, the stripes of black shadows stretching out to the right. A row of obelisk-shapes stand towards the right (I wondered what they were, and eventually guessed that they could be flagellation posts), and to the leftward rear is a massive gate guarded by Roman soldiers.

This could be the cinemascope version of some long-lost Star Trek episode, with the courtyard functioning as some kind of elaborate board game metaphor, red stripe, black stripe and all; the flagellation posts, the soldiers, and Christ himself standing left of center seem to represent game pieces with arcane functions, powers, weaknesses, though I'm guessing the posts and stripes serve another more practical function--they lend a sense of depth to the image, cuing to us just how far away those soldiers and that gate really are. It's a powerful image, suggesting the forces at work (at play?), struggling to determine the fate of the King of Jews. The shot held my eye longer than I intended it to, before I managed--with effort--to switch the channel. Fact is, the shot stayed with me longer than I'd wished; hopefully by writing about it I can finally exorcise it from mind.

And Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942)'s still the onscreen equivalent of a page-turner, 'specially the last fifteen minutes. Couldn't help but notice Curtiz was photographing ceilings, this only a year after Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) was doing it.

Ted Fontenot: Casablanca...indeed, is a real page-turner. The movie just develops and never stops. So much happens, and it all takes place in about a couple days. It's a textbook script on how to plot and tell a story.

Watching it last night again, I was struck about how neatly Rick sticks it to Elsa. It's all high-minded and high sounding, and he may not even be aware of that aspect of it, but, all verbal ritualizing aside, what it comes down to is he gets some of his own back from her for her leaving him flat, and in the dark, like that in Paris. The parallel is all very neatly drawn out. At some level there had to be some psychic release. Everyone gets to be noble, but only he wins and then has the satisfaction of giving it all up for a noble cause, while accruing points that will come in handy later in life I'm sure.

Casablanca's armature, the original play, is a nice little engine to set to humming along while Bogart and Bergman miraculously strike sparks off of each other (what did Kael say--that they wisely didn't push their luck on a second collaboration?), Curtiz makes with his proto-Spielberg trucking and low-angled shots (don't they give you a head rush, zooming in so many times on Bogart's huge forehead?), and Steiner drenches all with his swooning romantic score.


jayclops said...

Yey, you like Once! I absolutely love that film.

Noel Vera said...

I liked it a lot. Hard not to like it, actually--it kind of sidles past one's defenses, like the guy.

Curious Adventurer said...

Hello, Noel! Thanks for inviting me to your blog. Haven't looked thoroughly but have you given your review of Valkyrie or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? I enjoyed both movies.

Noel Vera said...

Hallo cue! Glad to see you here. No, have not seen them--nada dinero. Might want to see Button, as Zodiac was impressive. Would like to see Valkyrie--if it gets uniformly bad or good reviews (Valkyrie got mostly bad), I get curious, to see if I have a different opinion. But not yet.

Dan Harper said...

"Twilight Samurai" is also a kind of corrective for all those slashing-sword films of the '60s (some of which I very much enjoy), since the director makes a point of insisting that one stroke of a sword doesn't necessarily kill a man. The last "duel" in that wrecked house (I can still hear the flies) is splendid. But Rie Miyazawa has always been a favorite of mine. (I'm dedicating my next bull to her.) It's good to see that the years have given her some acting talent.

Noel Vera said...

Yamada accused Kurosawa of doing the kind of samurai films he was reacting against, but this isn't completely true--Rashomon prefigured the kind of realistic action he was striving for by decades.