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Movie Reviews: 12/19/2022 to 12/25/2022

Movies reviewed this week: Ride the High Country, Shame, The Lady Eve, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, A Most Wanted Man, The Platform, The Mighty Peking Man, and Challenge of the Masters.

12/19/2022: Ride the High Country (1962): ***1/2

I know Peckinpah’s famous for the revisionist Western, but was this that? Or was it more an argument that the Old West was better than what came after? Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea are living testament to the idea that there was a moral code, even if it wasn’t always a guide. And if you listen to them — hi, kid — you can follow that code and get the girl too.

Or perhaps I’m giving too little weight to Mariette Hartley’s father, who’s the flip side of the moral coin: morals as chains, and nostalgia for the dead as a trap. It’s hard for me to weight him too much, though, because Hartley doesn’t get to carry any weight herself. Despite the mournful elegance of the movie, it suffers from the trope of woman as a helpless (and mostly hapless) subject.

It’s an elegant, beautiful movie in any case. Peckinpah had done enough television to know how to get the most out of his locations, from the High Sierras to the tawdry tent town. And the pair of old men playing old men were everything you could want.

12/20/2022: Shame (1968): ****1/2

My first Bergman! I guess I shouldn’t assume I could have found something more cheerful. I wouldn’t have wanted to. It was good — slowly establishing character, telling us what we needed to know about Jan and Anna’s relationship by leaving the camera on Liv Ullman’s face while waiting in the car. Older man-child, younger caretaker, a tale as old as time.

And then the world changes and the movie becomes great. No, sorry, the world is that way from the opening sounds. Jan and Anna don’t get to pretend the world isn’t what it is. From there on it’s exposing the flaws in their marriage, which their love had allowed them to ignore, and it’s telling the story of war with bitter anger.

It’s going to stick with me. The shots of Anna in front of burning buildings were perfect. The scene where Jacobi makes it clear that he has all the power is perfectly chilling. (Both of them, but the one in the house particularly.) And, yeah, the final sequence.

12/22/2022: The Lady Eve (1941): ****1/2

I’m a sucker for con artist movies and while Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda make this movie sparkle, I knew I was going to love it as soon as Charles Coburn started showing off his skill with a deck of cards. The subsequent card game is one of the best ever committed to film.

Snake, Eve, ha!

12/23/2022: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985): ****

Austere, formalist, beautiful. It sort of walks the line between glorifying Mishima and criticizing him, which is probably the right place to be in this case. Schrader is clearly drawn to an equally passionate, minimalist artist.

It was fascinating how much of Mishima’s life was lived amidst American trappings in this film. From the moment he settles a Western military cap on his head to the end, with the only extended exception being the Runaway Horses, Western culture is always there.

“Your new uniforms are very handsome. Really splendid. Who designed them? You?”

“Yes – with some help from De Gaulle’s tailor.”

12/24/2022: A Most Wanted Man (2014): ***1/2

There’s a scene about halfway through where Phillip Seymour Hoffman faces off against Rachel McAdams one on one, and she doesn’t have quite enough texture to her performance to hold up her side. It’s an unfair measure in some ways, since he’s perhaps the best actor of his generation. But then Hoffman leaves, and Nina Hoss comes in, and Hoss is a mile ahead of McAdams too. Not that Hoss isn’t also quite good, but.

It’s a good movie but it could have been more. If I don’t get caught up in might have beens, I can say this: Hoffman was born to play Le Carre characters. Corbijn’s Hamburg is a cool, muted dystopic vision; also fitting for Le Carre, who would always want you to know that passion leads to mistakes. Both the tension and the relevations are superb. And despite the flaws, I am sitting with the melancholy sadness that I think Le Carre, Corbjin, and Hoffman would have hoped for.

12/24/2022: The Platform (2019): ***1/2

Secret sequel to The Menu. The social commentary isn’t exactly subtle but for the sake of the set design I can overlook that. Goreng, like nasi goreng, y’all.

12/24/2022: The Mighty Peking Man (1977): ***

I am not going to vouch for the treatment of animals in this film, nor can I say much about Evelyne Kraft’s acting. But the special effects work is every bit as good as it could be for the era, and the editing does a lot to sell the overall mood.

And really, even if Kraft isn’t a good actress, I have to admire her commitment. Can’t have been easy negotiating this shoot using the English she’d only just started to learn. She’s giving it her all and she’s radiating cheer in the weirdest damn situations.

The lesson this movie teaches us: always hire a pet sitter.

12/25/2022: Challenge of the Masters (1976): ***1/2

Little bit sporadic when it comes to story, but great fight scenes and training scenes, especially the one where Gordon Liu faces off with Chen Kuan-tai in the rain. Plus it’s a sharp divergence from the usual fight for vengeance or even the fight for survival narrative: this time out we’re fighting for forgiveness and collective friendship, which is wild.

Since we’ve just finished the Infernal Affairs trilogy, we spent a lot of time yelling “Hon Sam!” whenever Eric Tsang shows up on screen.

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