by Bill Hawk

Sony Pictures Classics, 2004, Color, 119 mins. - Sony DVD

Andy Lau: "Don't let beauty blind your judgment."

Hard advice to follow in the universe of this picture, where the natural world is a riot of color, warriors perform superhuman feats, clothing is an art form, and passions rise faster than a thermometer in a heat wave. Lau and his comrade Takeshi Kaneshiro are enforcers for The Establishment- specifically, the Tang Dynasty- in old-time China. Opposing them are the guerilla fighters of the rebellious House of the title, who want to rid the country of its corrupt leadership. Among the rebels is blind dancer and all-around firecracker Ziyi Zhang, who is pretty enough to interest Kaneshiro in the prospect of a Lau-proposed secret mission to track down the Flying Daggers. And so Kaneshiro goes undercover, spiriting Zhang out of jail and off through the countryside, confronting both government troops and the additional danger of his growing attraction to the young lady. Surprises and revelations ensue, and what started out as a historical conflict becomes an intensely personal one....

Writer/director Zhang Yimou continues the approach he took with his previous effort, "Hero," blending Hollywood-style special effects, spectacular visuals and a love triangle into the more traditional elements of the Chinese wuxia genre. You get your gravity-defying, almost ballet-like combat, full of flashing swords, flying daggers, and improvised bamboo spears, and you get your romantic melodrama and heavy breathing. What you don't get is a resolution to the greater conflict, as it gets left behind in favor of the main characters- personal issues- an unconventional tack that some might find frustrating but which basically works for this picture. Indeed, the finale reaches an operatic level of doom-laden conflict, with a sudden snowstorm mirroring the emotions of the main characters- silly, yes, but unabashedly so. And while the end result may not be a complete success, its beauty is still quite capable of blinding your judgment- something that won't bother you a bit if you're into this sort of thing. Extras on the disc include (subtitled) audio commentary with Yimou and Zhang, storyboards, and a making-of featurette.


20th Century Fox, 1944, B&W, 87 mins. - Fox Film Noir DVD

Clifton Webb: " You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll end up in a psychiatric ward. I don't think they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse."

Police detective McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, is another one of those tough eggs who cracked their shells on a gorgeous dame- in this case, one so alluring that her portrait alone is enough to spur sappy thoughts. And the painting is all that Andrews has to look at, as its subject- the titular character, played by Gene Tierney- has run afoul of the business end of a shotgun. As Andrews sticks his nose into the details of the dead girl's life, he finds that she had an even more compelling effect on those who knew her while she was still breathing- including acerbic columnist Webb. Struck by Tierney's spark- and sparkle- Webb used his celebrity to aid her in her career, and the two grew close….close enough for Webb to be miffed when she took up with young wastrel Vincent Price. With a marriage ceremony on the horizon, Tierney decided to take a weekend time out at a country house, but wound up on a slab instead. The question for Andrews is, who wanted this woman dead, and why.…and whether cracking the case will rid him of his obsession with her, or buy him a ticket to that psychiatric ward….

This picture's seemingly pedestrian scenario features a plot twist that ranks high in the listings of cinematic curveballs- not at the end, but halfway through, so that it can really rev things up for the rest of the running time. Not that the first half of the story is lacking, with the snarky Webb and the shady Price doing their thing under the watchful eye of Andrews, who is distinctly out-of-place in the upper-crust environment of the other characters. The ritzy surroundings are complemented by composer David Raksin's title tune, with both elements providing an amusing counterpoint to the flawed nature of everyone involved. Such perverse conflicts were a hallmark of director Otto Preminger, whose helming of this cult classic serves up a tasty stew of twisted romance and homicide. Recommended for mystery fans and students of the more messed-up side of human nature. Disc extras include audio commentaries, a deleted scene, and A&E - Biography - profiles of Tierney and Price.


MGM, 1936, B&W, 98 mins. - Warner Bros. DVD

Spencer Tracy: "She may be his wife, but she's engaged to me!"

Hmm, that sounds like a problem. But when you’re a crack newspaper editor faced with a huge lawsuit from a woman who was mistakenly slandered in the pages of your rag, you do what you have to do. Although Tracy literally stops the presses on the story, a copy leaks out to its subject, society lass Myrna Loy, who naturally resents its implication that she is a marriage-wrecker- and who isn't willing to settle for a simple apology. And so Tracy naturally opens his bag of dirty tricks, whipping up a plan with old co-worker and legal whiz William Powell. Their goal is to make the phony story a real one, with bachelor Powell in the husband role- and Tracy's fiancée Jean Harlow as the wronged wife. Conning the long-suffering Harlow into playing the part is only the beginning of the shenanigans, as Powell tries to get close to the wary Loy, and Tracy tries to keep the plan going despite the fact that he, Powell and Harlow occasionally feel like throttling each other.

This crackerjack screwball comedy has all of the wisecracks, outrageous situations and surprises that you could ask for, propelled by the characterizations of a stellar Golden Age cast. The forceful Tracy is a hoot, whether holding himself back from violently responding to Powell's insults or smooth-talking his gal. The tough-talking Harlow is a Thirties sex symbol who gives as good as she gets, and isn't afraid to look foolish. Powell colors his debonair image with shades of opportunistic heel, and literally dives into some broad physical comedy. And Loy's rich kid turns out to have a good head on her shoulders, outmaneuvering the conspirators at several points. Of course, true romance wins out in the end, but it's the route that the story takes to get there that provides the fun. The picture shows its age with a less-than-pristine print, but it's still recommended for classic comedy fans. Extras are limited to the trailer and a vintage radio promo.


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© Melt Magazine 2005