Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Weekend viewing

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai, 1991)
Wong's second film, but only recently released on DVD. I actually haven't seen any of his more well-known films (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), but a friend recommended this and it sounded intriguing. My reaction was mixed - there are some really beautiful moments, but I couldn't quite engage enough with the main character, an angry womanizer searching for his birth parents. This is one of those films where characters behave in extreme ways without a clear motivation, and while it does represent the often capricious nature of love, it can be a little off-putting. I'm still ruminating on this, though, which is generally a good thing, and I'll probably try to see some of Wong's better-known features to get a firmer grasp on his style.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991)
I am such a half-assed Star Trek geek. I never really got into the original series, and have only seen a couple of the original cast's movies (The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home). I was much more dedicated to Next Generation and especially Deep Space Nine, but every once in a while I enjoy the charms of Kirk and his crew. This is generally considered the best Trek movie after Khan, and I agree it was great fun. An interesting political allegory about the end of the Cold War, continuity ties to Next Generation stuff with which I am familiar, some sharp humor and nice character arcs about aging for Kirk and Spock. A much better send-off for Kirk than the mediocre Generations, I think. I should go back and see all the original cast movies again; even Khan I only saw on TV and probably over a decade ago. With Enterprise (of which I watched only the first season) getting cancelled, and no Trek on TV or in immediate development at the movies for the moment, it's a good time to look back and enrich my knowledge of the franchise (which I sometimes find myself liking more in theory than in practice).

A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
I always find it sad when these classic films disappoint me; I wonder if there's something I don't get, or if I'm expecting too much. I've never seen Streetcar on stage or read the play, so I came to it fresh here and I have to say it didn't impress me. Vivien Leigh, who won an Oscar as Blanche and gets effusive praise, is so overwrought and all over the place it made my head spin. I realize that both the character and the general acting style of the time call for it, but there was not a single moment when I believed Blanche as a person in this film. I much preferred Kim Hunter as Stella, who kept with the melodrama but was much more nuanced and effective with it; I believed her even as I thought Blanche was a raving loonie from the get-go. And, after seeing this and The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris I think I have finally figured something out: I can't stand Marlon Brando. Perhaps that's even more blasphemous than not liking Streetcar, but in every role he's just so mumbly and mannered and actorly that I can't buy him as anything other than an actor showing off in an exercise. I breathed a sigh of relief when Don Corleone bit it in Godfather, I could barely stand his rambling in Last Tango, and here I just wanted Stella to up and leave Stanley so I wouldn't have to see him anymore. Granted, part of that is actually an effective performance; we're supposed to find Stanley brutish and discomforting. But I found him more annoying than anything else, and, again, I just didn't buy into any of it, from his fits of rage to Blanche's spells to the tension between them. Only Stella, trying valiantly to hold it all together, made any sense to me as a character.

The Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada, 2002)
It's strange to think of how broad the world of cinema is; this is Yamada's 77th film as director, and I had never heard of him before. A single series he made (Tora-san) is the longest running theatrical series in the world, at 48 installments. And this is just gleaned from the IMDb trivia page. It doesn't really have much bearing on discussing this film, which is a stand-alone piece, although it does deal with aging and being an underappreciated craftsman in one's field. In a way this is the antidote to all those heavily stylized martial arts films like Hero that are all the rage right now, especially in the U.S. The Twilight Samurai is about a warrior who doesn't want to fight, a samurai whose passion is his family, not bloodshed. The drama is so tense and effective that when there finally is a fight scene, it's startling and visceral, not at all balletic or hyper-real like in those Zhang Yimou pictures. This is an interesting examination of the changing mores in Japan in the late 1800s, and in general the conflict between an honor-based code of fighting and the simple demands of family life. A low-key but fascinating film.

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