Sunday, August 14

Capsule Reviews: Platinum Blonde, The Mad Monk, The Lodger

Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra, 1931)

Now this is more like it. Capra gets it all together with a rip-snorting good time with newspaper idealism, dialogue you just wanna tap with a spoon and peel, and sentimentality that works instead of hinders. Robert Williams is more flirty than Jean Harlow (hilariously playing the straight role as the starched, bossy heiress), and the gender-reversed Pygmalion structure makes for some great comedy with the Eliza in this case being a properly snappy, streetwise paper hack. Not to mention, his gender makes for more interesting resistance to change, as Capra shows how a man reacts to being the less prominent member of a pair and the one actively being molded. Granted, it also encourages the audience to cheer when he demands chauvinistic things like his rich wife taking his name, but this is still a fascinating inversion at times. Also a delight is Louise Closser Hale as the aristocratic matriarch with her affected voice and constant, faint-headed outrage at scandal that truly no one with anything to do cares about. My distrust of Capra has always been balanced by my true admiration for him when he clicks, and this is Capra firing on all cylinders. Grade: A

The Mad Monk (Johnnie To, 1993)

A deliriously ludicrous comedy that has more fun with Eastern religion than an American genre film could ever hope to have with Christianity, The Mad Monk opens in a heaven where the head god has to deal with so many deities he doesn't recognize all of them and only gets odder from there. The Mad Monk tasks a prankster god with altering the life(s) paths of three archetypal individuals with only a trick fan for powers, leading to a whimsically ridiculous farce that To directs to a frenzy. Everything in this movie is funny; To even steps on an emotional death scene by having our Lo Han (played by Stephen Chow) burst into the wrong room (and an embarrassing bit of sexual play) as he hunts for his felled mark. With To's manic camera movement and cutting, inventively staged comic fight scenes and a climax that moves from a kaiju battle with a giant demon to a piss-take on pageantry with a heavenly promotion complete with tiara, The Mad Monk is a bewildering, side-hurting riot. Grade: B

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

This thrilling silent, Hitchcock's fifth feature, while still a bit stiff in the narrative department, shows Hitchcock's rapidly developing talent as a director and his seemingly innate control of the camera and the Expressionistic techniques he observed in Germany. It's somewhat amusing that he still finds a way to be expository in a silent film, using multiple news stories to get across developments in the murder mystery. A 'wrong man' narrative involving murdered blondes, pained romances and the suggestion that a slit throat might always be just around the corner, this almost feels like a preemptive tribute to Hitchcock than an early work. This is a fun showcase for a man whom one can tell even here would deserve the title of "master" thrust upon him, from the use of a glass floor for Hitchcock to stick a camera under to a perfectly framed shot looking straight down a staircase as a man obscured by angle and his black clothes runs down the stairs with his sliding hand as the chief guide to his position. A real treat. Grade: A-