Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Knight and day

Here are a few short reviews of some films I managed to stare at over the weekend:

La Jetée (1962) – Erich Kuersten at Bright Lights After Dark recommended this one (as well as The Trip [1967] and Psych-Out [1968], two gloriously goofy 60s flicks which I have already seen), calling it “the greatest of all time travel movies.” Because Erich is a known associate of my pal Tom Sutpen, I wouldn’t normally disagree with him but when you leave out The Time Machine (1960), Somewhere in Time (1980) and Back to the Future (1985)—among many others—it’s hard not to accept this without a skeptical squint. (The “time travel” in Jetée is pretty much a guy in a hammock wearing a sleep mask.) The twenty-eight minute French short film was also the inspiration for Twelve Monkeys (1995), and La Jetée itself was inspired by a sequence in Vertigo (1958).

Suffice it to say, I liked La Jetée better than its remake; director Terry Gilliam has made some marvelous films (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) but most of his contributions to cinema are a bit too ponderous for my tastes; frequently all icing and no cake. Monkeys is a perfect example of this; I went to see it with some geek friends of mine (this was during my Jane Goodall living-amongst-the-nerds period) when it came out and while they rhapsodized over the film it personally left me cold. Monkeys’ major malfunction is that it shows the Vertigo sequence (in a scene inside a movie theater), which immediately produced a reaction in me where I say out loud: “I’d rather be watching that movie than this one.” (A similar situation occurs in the 1991 remake of A Kiss Before Dying.)

Day Night Day Night (2006) – Provocative, mesmerizing thriller written and directed by Julia Loktev starring Luisa Williams as a young girl who volunteers to be a suicide bomber for a mission that takes her to Times Square. Admittedly, this movie isn’t for all tastes but I found it impossible to look away from; I like the low-key dramatics of the film, which adopts a sort of semi-documentary feel throughout the proceedings. Day’s most glaring flaw is that it doesn’t let us know why the girl (known as “She”) allows herself to be used for such a cause; considering the way the film concludes (I’ll keep mum about the ending) it would have been nice to have that information. I saw this via Sundance on Demand, immediately after watching Body of War (2007).

Two Arabian Knights (1927) – Considered for many years to be a lost film until a print turned up in a dusty archive at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas in 2004, this jewel (previously shown on TCM) was unspooled Sunday night on the cable channel’s Silent Sunday Nights and I thought it was a refreshingly fun picture. William Boyd (later to be immortalized as “Hopalong Cassidy”) and Louis Wolheim are a pair of feuding soldiers who are captured during World War I and are sent to a German POW camp. They manage to escape and make their way to Constantinople (now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople), then onto a ship where they rescue an Arabian princess (Mary Astor) and accompany back to her kingdom.

Knights pretty much plays like a silent “Road” picture (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and while Astor doesn’t have much to do besides standing around looking drop-dead gorgeous, Boyd is actually engaging as the “brainier” of the two dogfaces, with Wolheim matching him step-for-step (the look on his face when Boyd whispers the definition of a “eunuch” is so hysterical Boyd can’t keep a straight face). The film’s director, Lewis Milestone, later used Wolheim to dramatic effect in the classics The Racket (1928; produced by Howard Hughes…as was Knights) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Character actor Ian Keith is also in Knights, playing a memorable villain who, realizing at the end that fiancée Astor has fallen for Boyd, gives her up with suavity not unlike famed movie cad George Sanders. (For Boris Karloff fans, he, too, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameo as a purser.)

Two Arabian Knights won Milestone an Oscar for Best Direction (Comedy Picture) at the first Academy Awards ceremony—and considering it beat its competition, Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), I’m not surprised they eliminated the award the following year (I’d like to think it was out of shame, but this is Hollywood we’re talking about). Don’t misunderstand—it’s still an engaging film and a must-see for Best Picture completists. It also stands as a good example of how the race to restore old films is an important one; it was rescued in the nick of time although there are still points in the film where severe damage (and near-disintegration) is glaringly noticeable.

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