Friday, December 14, 2012
Antoni Gaudi – This doc about the maverick Spanish architect is a stunning piece of visual poetry. Gaudi’s work is unique – it would be impossible to mistake his work for that of anyone else, and this flowing, largely dialogue-free catalogue of his major works was a major rush for me. Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes) simply lets the images do the talking here, and if you are into architecture, this is a must-see.
Each Dawn I Die – Above-average prison drama from 1939 stars James Cagney as a reporter who is framed for murder by a crooked politician, and gets sent to prison. George Raft plays a career hood with whom he strikes up a friendship in the joint. It’s fun to see these two legendary tough guys play off each other, and the plot is interesting and pretty hard-edged for its era. Recommended.
Hells Angels on Wheels – Sorta fun biker flick from 1967 stars a pre-superstardom Jack Nicholson as a bored gas station attendant who hooks up with Hells Angels. The film is truly a product of its times, as there is lots of sex, alcohol, and drugs, but it is to the films credit that there is a somber undercurrent to all the Hedonism onscreen. Nicholson’s Poet is first taken in by the lifestyle, but gradually begins to see how selfish and irresponsible these people are. Some good performances and terrific location photography make up for some of the films weaker points.
Pitfall – Truly strange ghost story from Hiroshi Teshigahara revolves around an itinerant miner who is murdered by a mysterious man in white, and who comes back as a spirit and observes the aftermath. You really, really can’t encapsulate this film in a few sentences. Also included are another man who is the double of the murdered man, a female shopkeeper who also ends up murdered and coming back, and a sub-plot about politics between two rival unions. I do recommend it, however, because it’s such a stylistic free-for-all. Besides the beautiful barren locate, there are fast cuts, backward shots, freeze frames and hand-held-shots – The works.
The Face of Another – Another from Teshigahara, this is the story of a man badly scarred in an accident who gets a new lease on life with a “face transplant”. The man evolves from being a sullen recluse to an amoral blank slate, and the films beauty lies in how it tackles the issue of how we maintain our humanity if all the checks and balances in our lives were to suddenly be gone. It is slow in places, but TFoA is a visual tour-de-force in many of the same ways that Pitfall is. Both films are available from Criterion, and I recommend both.
How The West Was Won – Big budget epic Western from 1962 covers the trials of one American family through settlement, the gold Rush, the Civil War, and the coming of the railways. This was an ensemble bit of filmmaking, with the different segments being directed by such titans as John Ford and Henry Hathaway, and starring the likes of John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark. This is such a huge story, that it's predictable that it doesn’t get everything right, but there are a lot of good things here, like a buffalo stampede through a settlement, and a terrific shoot-out on a moving train. There are also some musical numbers that don’t really belong, however, and a couple of supporting roles that are a bit embarrassing (Karl Maldens’, for instance). Shot in ultra-wide-screen Cinerama format (Example below)
Saturday, December 08, 2012
The Film – Shadow of a Doubt, dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The Set-Up – Serial murderer Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) prepares to flee the law and go hide out with his sisters’ family.
This sequence is here because it is such a great illustration of Hitchs’ command of film language, and how he could manipulate the viewer. The first shot is of Charlie in his room, relaxing. Money is strewn about the place. Somehow, you just know that the reason for it being there is terrible. His landlady comes into the room, and he is icy and distant with her, until she remarks that there were a couple of men asking about him. Without giving us any real detail, Hitchcock has told us a great deal.
Now flash to the idyllic little town of Santa Rosa, and the family of his sister. We visit his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), as she rests in HER room. The thing that is interesting in seeing these two shots is that they are virtually the same, but they are facing in opposite directions. It’s a clever way of establishing that there is a bond between these two people (she is named after him), but that they are different in some fundamental way.
The other portion of the opening passages that I admire is a small sequence regarding a telegram. The family gets a phone call about a telegram. When the phone rings, we can already surmise that it is related to Uncle Charlie. The youngest daughter answers the phone, but only after letting it ring several times. After answering it, she doesn’t take a message. When the mother calls the telegram office for the message, the children pester her and make noise in the foreground. What Hitchcock was doing here is creating discomfort in the viewer. We want to know what is going on, and all the distraction and cacophony makes us a bit uneasy. It’s a sly way of adding tension to a situation that logically should have none.
Saturday, December 01, 2012
Monday, November 19, 2012
High Sierra – Humphrey Bogart as a fresh-out-of-jail hood who decides to pull off one last job before going straight. This one is a mixed bag for me. I liked the interplay between Bogie and the gangster moll played by the great Ida Lupino, and the climax in the mountains is first rate and poignant. I found it hard, however, to reconcile the gangster who jumps at the chance to do an armed robbery with the sensitive teddy bear who pays for the operation of a crippled girl. I recommend this one, but it’s not perfect.
Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) – Outstanding Louis Malle film from 1964 about a former alcoholic playboy struggling to adapt to his new, sober existence. Maurice Ronet plays Alain, who is estranged from his wife and living in a Paris detox center. Although Alain appears to be pretty much cured, he is hesitant to leave, and as we follow him through a series of visits with former colleagues and lovers, we start to see a portrait of a man who feels inadequate and shamed by his previous life. The stand-out scene for me is a swank dinner party where one of his friends recounts a tale of him waking up after a drunken adventure. The scene is a jumble of emotions and attitudes – Self-loathing, pity, bemusement, and unstated smug contempt. A brilliant film, highly recommended.
Monday, October 22, 2012
Dial M for Murder – Dial M is usually regarded as being somewhere in the middle of the pack when one starts ranking the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but I have always considered it one of my favorites. This time, my focus was on Grace Kelly, and Hitch’s treatment of her. Specifically, in his use of color with her. She is in white as the film starts, but when she is finally alone with her lover (Robert Cummins) Hitch puts her in a brilliant scarlet gown. After she is arrested for the murder of her attacker, she is shown in browns and grays. I was also fascinated at the way the film dances around the fact that she is in an adulterous affair. This may also be part of the reason she is photographed so unsexily after the murder - It's her penance. Whenever I watch DMFM, I always try to follow the “clues of the keys” that form the backbone of the investigation by the too-smart-to-be-real detective played by John Williams. After 3 or 4 viewings, I still don’t feel like I completely have it. Still, a great primer in Hitchcockian techniques, and I recommend it.
The Return of Frank James – Tepid fact-based 1940 offering from Fritz Lang tells the story of the quest for revenge by Frank James (Henry Fonda) on the murderers of his brother Jesse. This one portrays Frank as an upright, peaceful sort, and brushes aside his more unsavory past, such as his involvement with Quantrill’s Raiders. The film includes Gene Tierney as probably the most gullible newspaper reporter ever, and has a truly silly courtroom scene which almost made me break my rule about fast-forwarding over sections of movies. Not recommended.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – Underrated caper/comedy from 1974 with a top shelf teaming of Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Bridges is young and full of piss and vinegar. Eastwoods’ character is a veteran thief, and is careful and stoic. The wild card is George Kennedy as Eastwoods former partner, who starts the film trying to kill him, and winds up teaming up to recreate their most famous heist. T&L is at it’s best when Bridges and Eastwood are on screen together, and the older man is trying to pass some hard-earned wisdom down to his wild young friend. Directed by Michael Cimino of Deer Hunter fame. Recommended.
Bullitt – If Steve McQueen defines cool, Bullitt is the film that defines Steve McQueen. It’s great fun, but it’s only a pretty good movie. The plusses are the great car chase, the great shots of San Francisco, and the jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin. The big minuses are twofold: One is the way that plot points are just left hanging. There is no explanation of how the gangster gets the double to take his place, and I still don’t understand why the double unchains the door so his killers can get at him. Secondly, Jacqueline Bisset is pretty much wasted here as Bullitt’s girlfiend. Still, it’s worth a look. Recommended.
Take the Money and Run - Or as Allens’ bank robber character might write “Take the money and gub”. This 1969 Allen take on the bank heist genre has a bit of Allen, and a quite a bit of Abbott & Costello to it, and there are a lot of good laughs. The opening sentence above refers to a robbery note that no one in the bank can read correctly, and leads to the films most memorable bit. My favorite line: When Allens Virgil is talking about falling for an intended purse-snatching target.
“After fifteen minutes I wanted to marry her, and after half an hour I completely gave up the idea of stealing her purse.”
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Easy Rider – First time in about 10 years. It’s a little hard to look at this film objectively now, because of the iconic status it has achieved. Truly, it’s still on a short list of the true sixties landmark films, alongside Bonnie and Clyde, A Hard Days Night, and Blow-Up, but its imperfections are a little more noticeable to me this time. The commune scene runs on a wee bit long without offering much in the way of insight, and the rednecks are too comically drawn. I also wish we had gotten a bit more insight into the obvious melancholy of Peter Fonda’s Captain America. There is also a lot to recommend here, however. Jack Nicholsons alcoholic hayseed lawyer is still a joy. The music (The Byrds, Steppenwolf, Hendrix, The Band, and especially Roger McGuinn doing Dylans “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”) is terrific, and beautifully utilized. The cinematography by Lazlo Kovacs is good, especially the Mardi Gras snippets, and the wonky acid trip in the graveyard. An imperfect film, but one that everybody should see.
Georgy Girl – I'm amazed that it took me this long to see this for the first time. The theme song is literally the first song that I was aware of as being a hit radio song. I can remember it on the radio as I was getting ready for school when I was 6-7 years old. Any thoughts I had about the movie where based on that song, and I guess I thought it was a little zany lightweight comedy. Having seen it, I can see that there’s a lot more going on here. Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is a lonely, frumpy teacher who lives with a glamorous party girl (Charlotte Rampling) and her immature boyfriend (Alan Bates). Also in her orbit is the wealthy older man that her parents work for (James Mason, terrific as always), and who has some fairly creepy romantic designs on her. This film works so well because each of these 4 major players is so well drawn. Rampling , who loves the night life, and reacts with venom when a pregnancy interrupts it. Bates is fun-loving and affectionate, but his immaturity ultimately wears thin. Mason’s character has seen Georgy grow up in his house, and states that she is like a daughter to him, which gives his romantic overtures a bit of a slimy feel. Despite that, in Masons hands, the character still comes across as a good man.
There’s one moment in the film that stopped me in my tracks, and that’s when Ramplings Meredith says to Bates’ Josh about her pregnancy “I’ve already destroyed two of yours”. I was struck by the coldness and cruelty in this line, and that’s when I realized that this film was special. The final passage is beautiful moviemaking, and sublimely bittersweet. Recommended.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Monday, July 23, 2012
Yellow Sky – Better-than-average western stars Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark as leaders of a gang of bank robbers who seek refuge in a desert ghost town. Problem is the town isn’t quite deserted. There’s a woman (Ann Baxter), and her prospector grandfather hanging around, and the gang decides that there must be a cache of gold around, as well. The film is notable for the way that Peck and company are portrayed as opportunists who will have no qualms about taking the old man’s treasure. This one is also worth checking out for its terrific B & W camerawork, courtesy of the great Joe McDonald.
The Woman in the Window – Fritz Lang flick has Edward G Robinson as a mild-mannered university professor who unwisely has a drink with a pretty girl (Joan Bennett), and gets himself enmeshed in a murder. Well, this was sure a strange viewing experience for me. For all but 5 minutes of its running time, I felt I was watching the greatest film Noir ever. Then the film throws an unbelievably ham-handed twist at us at the end, and I wanted to punch something. I will recommend this one, but only by being pig-headed and refusing to acknowledge the last 5 minutes. Because then, you see, this would be the greatest Noir ever.
Cactus Flower – This rom com from 1969 was Goldie Hawn’s first film. She plays the girlfriend of a dentist (Walter Matthau) who has told her he is married to avoid a commitment. When he actually falls in love and wants to marry her, he has to produce his wife. The job of impersonating the wife falls to his reluctant receptionist (Ingrid Bergman). This one has some good laughs,as lies pile on top of lies, and the whole affair gets waaaay out of hand. I was sceptical to see Bergman playing a light comic role, but she is surprisingly good here. She starts out as a bit of an ice queen, but gradually succumbs to the excitement of the role-playing. Recommended.
Broken Arrow – This based-on-fact 1950 offering from Delmer Daves might be one of the first westerns to really present Indians in a sympathetic light. An ex Union soldier played by James Stewart is recruited to try to negotiate with the Apaches, led by Cochise (Jeff Chandler). Stewart encounters mistrust and hatred from both sides, but gradually earns the respect of the great chief. BA is noteworthy for its politics, but it is far from a perfect film. The whites are standard-issue troglodytes and the natives the noble savages – Caricatures which are as simple minded as those that they are replacing. There is even an inter-racial marriage here, which I thought was a distraction, but it is used well in the films powerful climax. Not a great film, but a good and important one, and I recommend it.
Monday, July 09, 2012
Sunday, July 08, 2012
Saturday, June 30, 2012
Alice’s Restaurant –This 1969 Arthur Penn adaptation of the Arlo Guthrie song was surprisingly good. I expected this to be a time capsule snapshot of the hippie era, and it is that, but I was surprised by how hard an edge it takes when viewing the free love era. It has some things to say about heroin, and the climactic wedding sequence is poignant in how it digs beneath the do-your-own-thing-man ethos of the 60’s and reveals loneliness and resignation. Recommended.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World – The granddaddy of extravaganza comedies. An all-star cast (Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, etc) go on a wild chase to recover a hidden stash of money. There’s no question that there are a lot of good laughs here, but it sometimes seems that there’s too much stuff for one movie. There are a couple of instances where it seems like a lot of time lapses between story threads. Still, recommended.
All Through the Night – Humphrey Bogart vehicle from 1941 featured Bogie battling a nest of Nazi spies led by Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre. It’s a bit peculiar that although Hitler is referenced in this film, the world “Nazi” is never uttered. That may be due to the fact that in 1941, the outcome of the war was not a certainty. Also, I couldn’t really get a handle on who or what Bogarts’ character is. He calls himself a promoter, but seems a lot like either a flat-out gambler, or perhaps a mobster. There’s some OK action here, and I recommend it, but it’s far from a perfect film. A young Jackie Gleason is here, as are William Demarest and Phil Silvers, who coincidentally are both also in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
Donovan’s Reef – First time seeing, this, the last teaming of John Wayne and John Ford, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. I expected a brawling comedy with a lot of interplay between the Duke and Lee Marvin. This starts out that way, but DR is really a love story, as Wayne acts as an escort for a somewhat spoiled rich girl played by Elizabeth Allen, and Marvins character blends into the background a bit. Wayne is good in a romantic role that is a little out of his normal vein, and Allen is sexy. There are times when Fords penchant for easy slapstick get in the way, so I only give it a lukewarm recommendation.
Sunday, June 03, 2012
Boomerang – Mainly true story by Elia Kazan about how a straight-arrow attorney (Dana Andrews) tries the case of a man (Arthur Kennedy) accused of murdering a popular priest. Boomerang is promising for a good portion of its running time, as the film lays out the drama about the townspeople pressuring the authorities to find someone – ANYONE – to pin the murder on. However, when the action settles down into the courtroom, things peeter out, because we get all the same cinematic courtroom tricks that we’ve seen a hundred times. Thus, I can’t quite recommend it. Lee J Cobb has a good little role as a hard-bitten police captain, and Karl Malden has an uncredited turn as a detective.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Another “Angry young man” film from Britain, this one from Tony Richardson. Tom Courtenay stars as a youth confined to a tough reform school who finds a salve for his damaged life in cross-country running. The film shuffles scenes of life in the school with flashbacks to life on the outside for Courtenay’s Colin, and we see how his father’s illness and suspicious death and his mother’s taking up with a new man drive him into a poor decision. Colin is a filmic cousin of Albert Finneys’ Arthur from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which was set in Nottingham, like this movie)
Contact – When Roger Ebert wrote about Contact in his Great Movies series, he stated that it took place at the intersection of science, politics, and faith. That assessment is accurate, but it also points up the weak points of what is a pretty good movie. I really liked how the films story of a scientist (Jodie Foster) who receives a signal from another plant evolves into an examination about where God fits into the scientific equation. Fosters Elly is an atheist who lost both parents at a young age. Matthew McConaughey plays a religious writer who falls in love with her, even as they lock horns, and their scenes together are the strength of the film. There is one exchange where he stops her in her tracks with an argument that neither she nor us can see coming. The film sort of alludes to the possibility that Elly really does hope to find a heaven in the hopes of finding peace for her dead parents, and the climatic exchange with the alien race looks as much like heaven as anyone could hope to imagine. That is not lost on Elly, either. The film has faults, notably a supercilious US government official played by James Woods, who is taken directly from the handbook of evil movie bureaucrats. Still, I recommend it, because it tackles subject matter that Hollywood usually won’t touch with a ten foot pole.