Once upon a time, the Oscars used to give out awards for “Dance Direction.” These days the art of choreography goes mostly unnoticed at Academy Award time.
They should revive the award, or invent a new one, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The award wouldn’t be for dancing, per se, but for the beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes in this hugely enjoyable movie. The fight choreographer is Yuen Wo-Ping, who also designed the kung fu action in The Matrix. His work here is literally breathtaking.
The courtyards and compounds on display in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pare elegant yet stifling domains, warmly beautiful but so hushed you can practically see the sounds being absorbed into the darkly lacquered wood. There’s no surprise, in these places, that legendary Wudan warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) can never declare his love for fellow martial-arts expert Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). When Li arrives at the home of his longtime friend and confesses to her that he’s retiring because his efforts to achieve enlightenment failed (his meditations instead leading him only to “a place of deep silence”), he might be describing the very room that holds their conversation, or even the conversation itself—a series of palpable desires and simmering glances whose meanings are left unspoken.
The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)
Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.
There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.