“Chungking Express”

We love The Criterion Collection here at Movies Past and Present. We’re a charter subscriber to their upcoming Criterion Channel, which allows us access to the “Movie of the Week” films they are providing early subscribers before their streaming service officially launches on April 8.

This week’s movie of the week is Chungking Express (1994) and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Made in Hong Kong and written and directed by Hong Kong-based director Wong Kar-wai, the film is a unique combination of police drama, film noir, and romantic comedy.

As stated on the film’s page on the Criterion website: “The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘California Dreamin’’ into tokens of romantic longing.”

Here’s a trailer for the U.S. release of the film.

As mentioned, it’s two stories in one, with each story about a broken-hearted policeman. Story one focuses on Cop 233 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) who deals with his girlfriend leaving him by finding and buying a can of pineapple each day with the expiration date of May 1, the one-month anniversary of their breakup (and with the promise that he’s going to eat all 30 cans on May 1). Stating that everything has an expiration date, Cop 223’s sadness lingers on, even in the throws of a big case he is working on with a mysterious woman wearing sunglasses who is involved in a dangerous drug ring.

Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in a frenetic chase in CHUNGKING EXPRESS.

Story two is overall a bit lighter in tone with heartbroken Cop 663 (played by Tony Leung) that has just been dumped by his flight attendant girlfriend. He starts to rebound by falling for a waitress named Faye (played by Faye Wong), who’s got some commitment problems of her own. Still, she is interested enough in Cop 663 to start intervening in his life in a rather unusual way.

Cop 663 (Tony Leung) visits Faye (Faye Wong) at the Midnight Express take-out stand in CHUNGKING EXPRESS.

Chungking Express is challenging, strange, and beautiful—really a unique piece of cinematic art. Many thanks to the Criterion Channel for continually expanding my cinematic horizons.

While the Blu-ray and DVDs of The Criterion Collection’s edition of Chunking Express are presently out of print, let’s hope that the film makes it to the upcoming Criterion Channel streaming service.

All images ©️ The Criterion Collection

Criterion Channel Launches April 8

I love The Criterion Collection. In case you’re not familiar with them, Criterion curates, restores, and releases films for the home video market. Throughout the year, they release important and noteworthy classic and contemporary films on the latest medium (currently Blu-ray and DVD). Working with filmmakers and film scholars, the brilliant folks at Criterion make definitive editions of films with meticulous digital transfers along with fascinating commentary tracks and relevant supplemental features. They work hard to “ensure that each film is presented as its maker would want it seen and published in an edition that will deepen the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the art of cinema” (from the Criterion website FAQ).

Criterion began releasing films in 1984 (Citizen Kane and King Kong were the original two titles receiving Criterion Collection treatment—and on Laserdisc even!). Since then, hundreds of other titles have been released. Recent titles include The Princess Bride, Alfred Hitchcock’s NotoriousSome Like It Hot, and In the Heat of the Night. Titles coming soon include My Brilliant Career, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Police Story 2 (double collector’s set), Japón, A Face in the Crowd, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, among many others. (See the Criterion Collection website for more information.)

(On a side note, Criterion often hosts filmmakers in their New York City headquarters and they let them pick a few films out of their closet. Pictures and videos are recurrently posted on Criterion’s Instagram feed and YouTube channel. A trip to the Criterion closet is definitely a dream of mine. Here are a couple of examples.)

(Lee Unkrich recently announced his retirement from Pixar. Bummer for all of us.)

As far as streaming services go, Criterion recently collaborated with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on the now defunct FilmStruck subscription service. FilmStruck was movie heaven for fans (like me) of classic, international, and art cinema. The loss of FilmStruck was really a devastating blow, both for the teams at TCM and Criterion who worked so hard to make the service great and for the subscribers who loved the service. However, happy days are here again because Criterion has just announced that April 8 will be the official launch of their new, exclusive Criterion Channel streaming service.

The service costs $9.99 a month or $89.99 a year. They are offering special incentives to “Charter Subscribers” (aka subscribers who join before the April 8 launch date). Signing up now will give Charter Subscribers an extended 30-day trial (which will start April 8). Charter Subscribers also get “concierge customer service from the Criterion Collection, a dedicated e-mail address to write to, as well as a holiday gift certificate for use on the Criterion Collection website” (which probably is pretty cool).

Image ©️ Criterion

As an added bonus, Charter Subscribers will get access to a “Movie of the Week” that can be watched exclusively online (access via apps and other platforms will happen on April 8). This week’s movie is the gangster drama Mikey and Nicky (1976) starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes and written and directed by Elaine May. The Criterion Collection version of the film was just released on January 22, 2019. I’m a Charter Subscriber (I signed up the second I saw the tweet from Criterion) so I’ll be checking out these Criterion “Movie of the Week” titles from now until launch and will include reviews and commentary on the blog and podcast starting next week.

To subscribe to The Criterion Channel, go to criterionchannel.com. And make sure to follow Criterion on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

All images ©️ Criterion Collection

Happy 60th Birthday to “Sleeping Beauty”

Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is celebrating its 60th anniversary today.

I have always been a fan of the film’s distinctive look, which is primarily attributed to production designer and artist extraordinaire Eyvind Earle.

Eyvind Earle showing some of the backgrounds from SLEEPING BEAUTY (©️ Disney)
Eyvind Earle working in his office on SLEEPING BEAUTY art (©️ Disney)

The folks at D23, the official Disney fan club, have been posting some cool Sleeping Beauty articles over the past few days to commemorate the film’s 60th anniversary. One of the articles describes Earle’s approach to the film’s unique design:

“Determined to make this new film a Disney animated feature like no other, Walt assigned stylist Eyvind Earle as production designer. Creating a stylized approach that was a radical departure from previous Disney animated features, Earle combined Gothic French, Italian, and pre-Renaissance influences with his own abstract style of realism to create the formalized elegance and stylish design seen in Sleeping Beauty. To create the sumptuously stylized panoramas for this widescreen spectacle, Earle painted dozens of backgrounds in his distinctive style, some of them 15 feet long. Animation artist Tom Oreb skillfully incorporated the strong horizontal and vertical planes of the backgrounds into the character design, so that they had the Earle flair.”

Walt Disney showing Eyvind Earle’s work (©️ Disney)

Also stated in the D23 article is the painstaking work that was required to create the film. “Sequence director Eric Larson recalled the conscious effort to strive for Sleeping Beauty perfection. ‘Walt told me after one story meeting that he didn’t care how long it took, but to do it right,’ he said. Walt challenged the more than 300 Sleeping Beauty artists and technicians to make each frame an independent work of art. Because of the intricate stylization of the characters, the assistant animators had to work carefully with exacting specifications, even down to the exact thickness of the pencil lines. In the case of the carefully designed Briar Rose, it took one full day to create one cleaned-up animation drawing. For the jewel-like colors selected by Eyvind Earle, the Disney Paint Lab developed new hues using additives that gave the pigments a glow on the screen unseen in any animated film that had come before.”

Concept art for SLEEPING BEAUTY (©️ Disney)
Concept art for SLEEPING BEAUTY (©️ Disney)
Concept art for SLEEPING BEAUTY (©️ Disney)

Another interesting item of note is that brilliant animator and artist Marc Davis was assigned to animate both the film’s protagonist (Princess Aurora/Briar Rose) and the antagonist (Maleficent).

Marc Davis along with the voice of Sleeping Beauty, opera singer Mary Costa (©️ Disney)
Character design for Princess Aurora/Briar Rose (©️ Disney)
Love this concept art for Maleficent (©️ Disney)

The film was the first animated movie shot in Super Technirama 70 widescreen (and the second to filmed in widescreen after 1955’s Lady and the Tramp). It was also released in 6-channel stereophonic sound. Here’s a clip (and check out those amazing Eyvind Earle trees).

The great art of Sleeping Beauty lives on today. Princess Aurora even made a stylized appearance, along with all of the other princesses from Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, in last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. Here’s a tribute tweet today from Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Here’s some great art by Walt Disney Animation Studios artist Lorelay Bove, too.

Speaking of D23, I am seeing Sleeping Beauty on the big screen next month as part of special D23 event and I can’t wait (more to come).

All images ©️ Disney

2019 Project: “The Essentials”

For my 2019 movie watching project, I’m going to watch all 52 films listed in the excellent 2016 book from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) called The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter by frequent TCM collaborator Jeremy Arnold. The book was an accompaniment to the series on TCM of the same name which highlighted these outstanding films (and was most recently hosted by actor Alec Baldwin).

The plan is to watch one film a week from the list below (which is taken directly from Jeremy Arnold’s Essentials book), read Jeremy Arnold’s take on what makes the film “essential,” read any other pertinent writings and relevant information about the film, and then blog and/or podcast about my experience and learnings.

I will primarily use TCM, the Watch TCM app, DVD.com, iTunes, and Amazon Prime Video to locate and watch all of these titles. And I’m hoping to catch some of these titles on the big screen at either the TCM Classic Film Festival in April and the TCM Big Screen Classics series, which happens all year long.

(* indicates films I haven’t seen)

  1. Metropolis (1927)
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)*
  3. City Lights (1931)
  4. Grand Hotel (1932)*
  5. King Kong (1933)
  6. Duck Soup (1933)
  7. It Happened One Night (1934)
  8. The Thin Man (1934)
  9. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  10. Swing Time (1936)
  11. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  12. Gone with the Wind (1939)
  13. The Lady Eve (1941)
  14. Citizen Kane (1941)
  15. Now, Voyager (1942)
  16. Casablanca (1942)
  17. Double Indemnity (1944)
  18. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
  19. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)*
  20. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)*
  21. Out of the Past (1947)*
  22. The Red Shoes (1948)*
  23. The Bicycle Thief (1948)
  24. The Third Man (1949)*
  25. White Heat (1949)
  26. Adam’s Rib (1949)
  27. Winchester ’73 (1950)*
  28. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  29. Gun Crazy (1950)
  30. All About Eve (1950)
  31. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  32. Roman Holiday (1953)
  33. Seven Samurai (1954)*
  34. On the Waterfront (1954)
  35. Rear Window (1954)
  36. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  37. The Searchers (1956)
  38. Some Like it Hot (1959)
  39. North by Northwest (1959)
  40. Ben-Hur (1959)
  41. Breathless (1960)
  42. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  43. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
  44. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
  45. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
  46. In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
  47. The Graduate (1967)
  48. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
  49. Jaws (1975)
  50. Rocky (1976)
  51. Annie Hall (1977)
  52. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Stay tuned to the blog and podcast for my progress reports. And let me know if you want to join along!

2019 TCM Big Screen Classics Films Announced

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has announced the 14 films that will be included in their 2019 Big Screen Classics series. TCM screens these films in movie theaters across the U.S.A., giving film lovers the chance to see classic films on the big screen as they were intended to be seen. Also included with each screening is commentary before and after the film from Ben Mankiewicz and other TCM hosts that provides context, insights, and other pertinent details about the film. All in all, it’s always a great time at the movie theater.

Here’s the lineup for 2019.

All images ©️ Turner Classic Movies.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) 80th Anniversary – January 27, 29, and 30, 2019

My Fair Lady (1964) – February 17 and 20, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – March 24 and 27, 2019

Ben-Hur (1959) 60th Anniversary – April 14 and 17, 2019

True Grit (1969) 50th Anniversary – May 5 and 8, 2019

Steel Magnolias (1989) 30th Anniversary – May 19, 21, and 22, 2019

Field of Dreams (1989) 30th Anniversary – June 16 and 18, 2019

Glory (1989) 30th Anniversary – July 21 and 24, 2019

Hello, Dolly! (1969) 50th Anniversary – August 11 and 14, 2019

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – September 1 and 4, 2019

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 25th Anniversary – September 22, 24, and 25, 2019

Alien (1979) 40th Anniversary – October 13, 15, and 16, 2019

The Godfather Part II (1974)- November 10, 12, and 13, 2019

When Harry Met Sally (1989) 30th Anniversary – December 1 and 3, 2019

For the latest scheduling information and to find a theater near you where these films are playing, visit the Fathom Events website.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and the Hope of America

Last month’s Turner Classic MoviesBig Screen Classics film was Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I can’t stop thinking about it, particularly given the current mood in the United States of America. 

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

As you know, the film is about an idealistic man named Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) who is appointed as United States senator by the governor of an unnamed state after one of the state’s senators dies while in office. The state’s governor along with the state’s other U.S. senator, Joseph Harrison “Joe” Paine (played by the great Claude Rains), are actually both rather corrupt and are puppets to business interests in the state, and, with Smith being rather naive, they feel like they can preoccupy his time so he’ll stay out of their way. 

After Smith becomes savvy about what’s really going on, he gets framed and is about to get kicked out of the senate. He decides to return home, but his secretary (played by Jean Arthur), who sees him for the decent and honest man that he is, finds him on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and helps him see a different path (see clip below).

She reminds him that Abraham Lincoln also had his own political foes and vicissitudes. She reminds him about the importance of having faith in “something bigger.” And she reminds him that he has “plain, decent, everyday, common rightness” and that the country “could use some of that.”

I am reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln on the walls of his memorial: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”

I hope I can remember these words of goodness and truth, even in dark and challenging times. The hope of America lives on—in the memorable character of Jefferson Smith, in the words of Abraham Lincoln which we can read and ponder today, and in all of us, if we so choose. 

Images ©️ Columbia Pictures, Turner Classic Movies

“The Old Dark House” and the Simple Pleasures of a Classic Scary Movie

When a buddy asked if I wanted to see the classic, pre-code, James Whale directed haunted house pic The Old Dark House (Universal, 1932) on the big screen, I jumped at the chance. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any of the classic Universal horror films from the 1930s on the big screen, so this was a rare opportunity to see a James Whale pic the way it was intended to be seen.

The film stars Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton among others as hapless voyagers who take shelter in a large and scary looking house for the night after a relentless rain storm washes out the nearby roads. Boris Karloff (in some seriously creepy makeup) terrifyingly answers the door which sets off a 24-hour period of one bizarre event after the other (memo to me–never go up the staircase in one of these haunted houses…better yet, don’t go into the house at all).

The film was released the year after the wildly successful screen retelling of Frankenstein (1931), also directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, and was initially a disappointment at the box office. According to an informative article on TCM.com, “After its mediocre theatrical run, The Old Dark House was put on the shelf at Universal and, until 1968 – unavailable for bookings. That year, Whale’s protégé, director Curtis Harrington, helped find the negative and convinced Kodak to return a print to its original brilliance. When the film was once again viewed in its original form, critics hailed it as a lost masterpiece. That might be overstating the case a little, but it still bears the mark of one of the studio era’s more insistently unique directors.”

One other interesting bit of trivia from the TCM.com article–“When director James Cameron watched a laserdisc release of The Old Dark House, he was so taken with Gloria Stuart’s amusing audio commentary, he wound up casting her in a little film he was planning called Titanic (1997).”

Mostly what was fun for me was seeing an incredibly cheesy yet creepy film in glorious black and white on the big screen. I typically stay away from most modern horror pics, but seeing this film provided an insight at the simple, basic pleasures of watching a scary movie in a theater—the collective jumps, screams, and dread; the wincing when bad things happen or are about to happen; and the cheers and relief when the evil threat has been defeated (or when you think it has been…). James Whale definitely knew how to direct a good horror pic, Boris Karloff definitely knew how to act in one, and The Old Dark House made for some simple, scary Halloween season fun at the movies.

(And I’m still holding out for a big screen double feature of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein…someday.)

A big thanks and shoutout to the Cohen Media Group for the beautiful 4K restoration of the film and to the Salt Lake Film Society for their cool “Tower of Terror” Halloween programming at the Tower Theatre again this year.

And check out this cool poster art (I believe this is the U.S. theatrical release one-sheet, but I’m not 100% certain).

All images ©️ Universal Pictures/Cohen Media Group

“Bullitt” Turns 50

It was a serious thrill to see Warner Bros.’ Bullitt (1968) on the big screen again this past week. The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary. 

While it’s not necessarily my favorite storyline, it’s all about the 15-minute car chase in the middle of the picture. Steve McQueen (along with some fantastic stunt drivers) in the iconic Highland Green 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback and the ominous black Dodge Charger (being driven by the great stunt driver Bill Hickman) chasing each other through the streets of San Francisco still holds up as one of the best, if not the best, car chase scene ever put on film.

Recently, one of the 1968 Mustangs driven in the film resurfaced after having been missing for many years (the blonde woman is Molly McQueen, Steve McQueen’s granddaughter).

With the movie turning 50, the Ford Motor Company also has made available a cool “Bullitt” equipment package on their their latest Mustang GT. Check out this video with Jay Leno as he gets to see both the old and new “Bullitt” Mustangs.

Here’s a fun Bullitt homage put together by Ford to celebrate the new Mustang Bullitt (and making another appearance is Molly McQueen as the driver of the Mustang).

UPDATE 10/17/2018: The official Warner Bros. Studios blog has posted a cool article commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bullitt with some great behind the scenes photos and facts from the film’s production. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a Bullitt fan.

And here’s a cool photo from the Ford Performance Instagram feed with the past and present versions of the Bullitt Mustang:

Image ©️ Warner Bros.

Revisiting “An American in Paris”

As the great Cole Porter song goes, “I love Paris in the springtime…” It’s true — Paris, France is one of my favorite cities in the world. So, you’d think that I’d enjoy the classic film An American in Paris (1951) more. In the past, it’s been a film that I’ve more respected than enjoyed. But that all changed this week when I had the chance to see the film on the big screen for the first time as part of Megaplex Theatres’ wonderful Silver Screen Classics Series.

Watching An American in Paris on the big screen was a revelation, to say the least.  The clear and bright projection of the digital print magnified the film’s incredible production design in ways that I could never distinguish, yet alone appreciate (the film was primarily made in soundstages on the MGM studio lot in Hollywood, which almost makes it even more impressive). Gene Kelly’s phenomenal choreography and dancing were perfectly framed and filmed by director Vincente Minnelli. In fact, the dancing came to life more vividly than I ever remember on TV. And hearing the sublime music by George and Ira Gershwin on the marvelous theater sound system was just icing on the cake.

(L-R) Georges Guetary, Oscar Levant, and Gene Kelly sing about love in their Parisian hang out in An American in Paris (1951)

The 17-minute ballet at the end of the film is something that I even liked on the small screen, and my appreciation for it grew tenfold. Seeing Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance through living representations of the works of famous French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, including Raoul Dufy, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was truly breathtaking. 

Probably my main criticism that still remains is the film’s central love story. I’ve just never been convinced about the depth and sincerity of the love between Jerry (Gene Kelly) and Lise (Leslie Caron), not to mention the unkindness that Jerry shows to his temporary benefactress Milo (Nina Foch). However, I was so overtaken by the beauty of the production design, music, and dancing, that it was something that I decided to let evaporate away along with all of my other criticisms, for better or for worse.

While Singin’ in the Rain (1952) still remains my favorite Gene Kelly film, primarily for its great setting, cast, story, and comedy, An American in Paris has become a new and respected favorite in my Hollywood musical catalog. If you get an offer to see An American in Paris on the big screen, the answer is oui

All Images ©️ MGM/Warner Bros.

“Rebel Without a Cause”

It’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m still thinking about my maiden voyage watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in its entirety. 

I think I started watching it a couple of times when the film played on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), but I just don’t ever remember finishing it. Well, that was a mistake which I’ll never do again now that I’ve seen the film on the big screen courtesy of this year’s TCM Big Screen Classics series (the film screened on September 23 and 26).

I found the film to be a riveting, compelling drama that’s worthy of its reputation. James Dean puts in a stellar, legendary performance as Jim Stark, a high schooler with affluent but out-of-touch parents (pictured above; all images ©️ Warner Bros.). He becomes friends with his neighbor and classmate Judy (played excellently by Natalie Wood) and John “Plato” Crawford (also excellently played by Sal Mineo), who also have serious issues happening at home. And, in a departure from most every film ever, while all of the adults seem dysfunctional, the one steady adult in the film is the neighborhood detective, played perfectly by Edward Platt. 

The tragedy that unfolds is, sadly, inevitable, but still heart-wrenching nonetheless. Director Nicholas Ray does such an excellent job with his storytelling. The visual cues of the families’ dysfunction is obvious, yet artfully brought in as part of the unfolding of the plot. The performances are stellar, as are the Los Angeles locations, particularly the beloved Griffith Observatory which is used so perfectly in the film.

I now get it why people were so crazy about James Dean’s performance and why it remains such a classic today. Sorry to be slow to the party, but I’m grateful that I at least arrived. Thanks again to TCM and their outstanding Big Screen Classics series!

Image ©️ Warner Bros. and TCM