The Shanghai Gesture
The Shanghai Gesture is an impressively sordid film noir with the gauzy atmospheric haze of an opium induced nightmare. Director Josef von Sternberg went admirably overboard in depicting his idea of an exotic horror show. As in his most famous film and the one that introduced the world to the Teutonic splendor of Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel (1930), Sternberg had a thing for dropping weak-willed characters into dens of iniquity, only to let those poor suckers become enslaved by their obsessions and get taken for every nickel. He seems to enjoy the spectacle of their descent from flawed innocents to vice-addled wrecks. Whereas The Blue Angel was about a priggish professor led into ruination by the low rent charms of Dietrich’s Lola Lola cabaret chanteuse, in The Shanghai Gesture it’s a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who starts out as the privileged daughter of a British developer abroad and ends up a raving gambling and who-knows-what-else-addict. Although the play on which The Shanghai Gesture is based is reportedly far racier and more explicit than the film, Sternberg still finds lots of shadows to explore in the material, resulting in a film slightly less disturbing than The Blue Angel but still a lot stranger than most studio fare of its time.
The Shanghai Gesture takes place in Shanghai but is unmistakably shot on a studio set. The artifice of smoke machines and dimly lit indoor streets create a wonderfully nocturnal atmosphere that is perfect for the material. Realism has no place in this story. Gene Tierney plays Poppy (yes, Poppy) a rich girl who shows up at a Shanghai gambling house run by proprietress ‘Mother’ Gin Sling (Ona Munson). ‘Mother’ Gin Sling’s gambling house is the center of the action for most of the film. It’s circular in shape with multiple levels surrounding the main casino floor and blindingly white. It’s a temple of vice where anything can happen. Poppy takes an almost sexual pleasure in the illicit activities of the tuxedo-clad gamblers—wealthy denizens of a lawless town—and the money and alcohol all around her, and tells her date for the evening, “It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think a place like this existed except in my imagination.” Dialogue like that makes a film easy to love. As it turns out, Poppy’s father is a developer intent on forcing Mother Gin Sling to shut down her casino and vacate the premises. Gin Sling, with her terrifying Medusa hair and vindictive nature, discovers one of her new regulars is the daughter of the man who wants to shut her down and sets to work on destroying her as a way to get back at her father. Victor Mature, playing a cape clad minion to Gin Sling, is assigned with the task of leading Poppy astray. Poppy proves to be easy prey, getting hooked on gambling and losing her father’s money by the thousands while boozing it up night after night. Gin Sling keeps advancing her money to gamble with until she essentially owns her.Continue Reading
The Stunt Man
Not to be confused with the awful swell of stunt man flicks that arose in the late '70s and early '80s (Hooper, Stunts, Stunt Rock, etc), nope, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man is a genre all itself. It's a playful film about the magic of movie making, but its depiction of a film set is closer to the episode of The Flintstones when Fred becomes Stony Curtis's stand-in, then, say, Francois Truffaut's on-set Day For Night. Like a Christopher Nolan film, it's a puzzle in a box, but unlike Inception the characters never stop to explain it to you. What's real and what's make believe is up to the viewer's imagination, like film itself.
Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsback) is on the run from the cops, stumbles onto a film set, and may or may not be responsible for the death of the movie's top stunt man. The film's egomaniacal director, Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole), takes the fugitive under his wing, agreeing to hide him out but Cross will have to replace him as the film's stunt man. While shooting a ridiculous looking WWI flick at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado (the location of Some Like It Hot as well) Cameron's view of reality becomes more blurred (as does the audience's). Cross puts him in more and more dangerous situations (just like that Flintstones episode). Is Cross trying to kill him? Did Cross have Burt, the former stunt man, killed? Besides stepping into Burt's stunt shoes, Cameron also takes up with his girlfriend, Nina (Barbara Hershey), the film's leading lady. And again, a sexual relationship with a self-centered actress can also blur the lines of reality, maybe even more powerfully.Continue Reading
The Talented Mr. Ripley
A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.Continue Reading
The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...Continue Reading
The Woman in the Window
Have you ever had a dream where you committed a horrible crime or just got into some really big trouble and then wake up and for a few moments actually think it really happened? That is a terrible feeling. My first impulse is to make a contingency plan for what I’m going to do next. There is nothing like the relief of realizing it was just a dream. Your sense of identity, your subconscious, and your grasp on reality are all kind of in flux in that momentary state. I find that fascinating—the way our minds play tricks on us.
I remember once seeing an episode of a crime show where real footage was shown of the interrogation of a 13-year old boy after his sister was found murdered. The boy learned of the murder from them. The detectives kept grilling him for hours. All they told him was that his teenage sister was found murdered and they knew he did it. They said they found the murder weapon—a knife with dried blood on it with his fingerprints all over it. At first he pleaded that he didn’t know what they were talking about. He pleaded his innocence loudly and repeatedly; the tears were streaming down his face. But after a few hours he started to question his own memory of things and he became much more subdued. Finally he confessed that he did murder his sister because of some latent resentment over something in their past. They had convinced him of something a few hours before he knew to be untrue and they got a confession out of him. He supplied them with details as to how he did it. As it turns out, the boy didn’t murder his sister and the detectives were sued by the boy’s parents who had no knowledge of what they had planned to say to him.Continue Reading
Director Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) returns to his roots by making a film with a bare-bones look reminiscent of his debut Pi. Aronofsky makes a far less polished film than its predecessors, as far as aesthetic design, focusing on performance above all else. The Wrestler is less plot driven than it is about the nature of desires, regret and one “broken down piece of meat”'s last shot at athletic glory.
Mickey Rourke (Barfly, Angel Heart) headlines the film as the wrestler in question, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Although he did some supporting work in such films as Tony Scott’s Domino and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, it is as the title character of this film that Rourke put himself back on the Hollywood map. As a man fighting against time, desperate for one last shot at life in the spotlight before his body fails him, Rourke plays Robinson with unflinching honesty. It is one of those performances when actor and character become so integrally linked that it feels as if you're watching true life unfold. It is a brave and unabashed performance. One of the year’s finest.Continue Reading
To Kill A Mockingbird
One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.
This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naÃ¯ve still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).Continue Reading
Toy Story 3
All children take their play very seriously, and you might be one of the many adults who look back on playtime as one of the most engaging and memorable aspects of your youth. Children create a world and mimic what they see when they are playing, and this activity is, without a doubt, a fundamental building block for our species. When Toy Story came out in '95 it was a big success. The story of a group of toys who were loyal to their owner and overcame outlandish obstacles was brilliant. Seeing toys that actually felt emotions and had attachment issues helped me understand and define my relationship to my mother. It also urged me to take care of my toys and stop chopping off Barbie's hair. The family featured had a single-mother, which was an interesting dynamic and something that many children can relate to. It also gave me a silly curiosity growing up; I checked on my toys to see if they actually had a life of their own. The documentary The Pixar Story explains the company's success with its animation techniques and its first film, Toy Story. Toy Story 3, made over a decade later than the first, would become one of the highest grossing animated films, and one of three to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
For those of you who haven't seen Toy Story 1 or 2, let me indulge myself with a brief synopsis. The first film is about the anxiety of being replaced. Woody and his preschool-appropriate buddies fear that Andy will get a new toy for his birthday and replace one of them. He gets a Buzz Lightyear action figure and goes through a brief phase of being obsessed with space and the new toy. The quarrels between the delusional Buzz (who thinks he's a real space ranger) and the former favorite, Woody, leads to a huge accident. The two end up outside and in the hands of a kid who likes to torture toys. They decide to work together in order to get home before their family moves to their new house, or the sinister kid across the street blows them up.Continue Reading
John Hodge’s brilliant screenplay, based on the cult novel by the same name written by Irvine Welsh, is the story of a group of young friends, drug addicts, and overall petty criminals from Edinburgh who play hard and fast. The plot is a maturation story about one of these needle lovers, "Renton” (McGregor), who begins to realize that his life could be so much more in normalcy.
The screenplay does a wonderful job of capturing the lifestyle, while not passing judgment on it. Through Renton’s colorful self-actualizing voiceover, we’re given the chance to look into the bare souls of the wild, wayward and lost.Continue Reading
We've all seen the gang leader film a few hundred times. We've seen him in "tha hood" starting fights, we've seen him in a classroom getting into trouble and reporting to the principal's office, we've seen him ride slick cars, and we've seen him lead labor unions into civil uproar.
Place him in South Africa - we have a teenager named Tsotsi (meaning"thug") who doesn't know emotion and lives alone in the ghettos outside of Johannesburg. Place him in a wealthy city, and he steals a woman's Mercedes, as well as shoots her. Riding off, he finds himself not alone - the woman's baby is left in the backseat, and he is left by himself to take care of him. The film follows his journey as he learns how to care for someone other than himself, and the lessons and people that come along the way.Continue Reading