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Great production values but a hollow core
This is a fascinating movie in many ways, not least for its partially successful elucidation of a particularly dark period in Shanghai's colourful history. However, "Shanghai" comes across all too often as a confused mish-mash of other movies - Casablanca and The Third Man both spring rather too readily to mind - while offering little of its own in the way of an original plot or any intriguing character arcs.
Solid acting work all 'round. Franka Potente is probably the most watchable of the actors here, despite being less toothsome than Gong Li (who looks every bit her age in this movie but is still ravishingly attractive).
There are a few intriguing glimpses of Shanghai as it might have been in the early 40s, including one particularly well-recreated crane shot of the Bund - although I have to say the ships look just a tad too close to the imposing British-built buildings lining that famous boulevard. There's another shot from inside the Cusack character's hotel room showing a few of Shanghai's classic buildings through the window, clearly digitally composited as those particular buildings could never have been viewed that way from the one vantage point.
However, it seems (judging from the credits) that the vast majority of this movie was shot in Thailand, and thus most of the street scenes and interiors are fairly generic and not particularly evocative of Shanghai's history. For a much better rendition of this you need to have a look at Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" which treads similar territory (Shanghai, spies, Japanese occupation etc) with much more style.
Indeed I find myself wondering why this movie was made at all, given that pretty much 100% of its thematic territory had been covered by Lee's movie just a couple of years before, and with considerably more chutzpah.
Nevertheless...if you're a fan of any of these actors, it's worth a look.
The Birthday Party (1968)
A vastly underrated, almost forgotten gem of cinematic menace from William Friedkin
I remember stumbling across this movie on late-night TV many years ago and being utterly enthralled. I was familiar with Robert Shaw, who now rates as one of my favourite character actors - think of his work in "Jaws" and "The Hireling", among others - and I recognised Patrick Magee from Kubrick movies and Dandy Nicols from "Till Death Us Do Part". But I had never heard of Harold Pinter, and I was simply blown away by his script, the acting, and the originality of this movie's overall vision.
Of course, "The Birthday Party" is a fairly straight filming of a stage play, and so it lacks many of the unique pleasures of the cinematic experience. But there is still much here to interest lovers of film. There is terrific use of darkness and light, a sparse yet perfectly judged soundtrack, odd angles, close-ups, and highly effective editing and pacing. Everything adds up to create an unparalleled atmosphere of claustrophobia, menace, and dread. I feel this must have been Pinter's intention for the play, and yet that's probably just because Friedkin's interpretation feels so "right" that I can't imagine it any other way -surely an indication that this is a successful realisation of Pinter's drama.
I can well imagine why this film would be lost on many. There is nothing solid for the viewer to grasp - no background, no real sense of time or place (well, OK, it's set in a British seaside boarding house), no explanation for the sudden intrusion of the two visitors. And there is virtually no plot, just maddeningly circuitous dialogue which only serves to mystify. Yet this is the whole point. Nothing is really explained, any clues thrown our way turn out to be misleading, we know something sinister and complex is happening yet we remain locked out. Thus do the playwright and his director build in us a sense of foreboding and (to borrow a phrase from Bret Easton Ellis) "nameless dread". There is high drama, momentous and awful things are happening before us, yet we cannot begin to understand the why's and wherefores.
Some brilliant touches: the artless snare-drum solo, rising to an insane climax then stopping abruptly (heard at several crucial turning-points in the movie); the newspaper-tearing sequence, so laboured, so pointless, yet perfectly defining the character played by Magee (especially when he snarls "LEAVE THAT!" as Nicols tries to clean up his neatly laid-out strips of torn newsprint); the absurd, unbelievable, yet extraordinarily intense characterisations of the main players. In this respect especially, Sidney Tafler's performance is a revelation.
It's quite a unique cinematic experience, highly original, fascinating and menacing in a way I've never seen before or since in a movie. For this reason I hold "The Birthday Party" in very high esteem and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in experiencing something a little different from any other movie they've watched.
Laughable product placement
My one memory of this appalling movie is of the spaceship's captain extinguishing his cigarette to announce "gentlemen, it's time for us to synchronise our LONGINES watches with the LONGINES master clock." At which point, the screen is filled with a shot of a very large, very ordinary looking wall clock with a prominent LONGINES logo on its dial. The camera lingers....and lingers....meanwhile, the viewer makes a mental note "must buy Omega next time."