Monday, August 25, 2008

Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953) A

My thoughts here.

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1981) C

There's a scene in The Last Metro in which the character of Jean-Loup Cottins, a theatre director, is discussing with the Nazi sympathizing theatre critic Daxiat about his latest play, Disappearance, and Daxiat tells him, something to the effect of, "This wasn't your best work...I couldn't see any of your direction in it." It's funny, because the same could be said to Truffaut about this film. For me, the whole film just felt completely flat and seemed entirely predictable 15 minutes in. Catherine Deneuve, with her ice cold personality, was used to great effect here but I was completely flummoxed by the casting of Gerard Depardieu as the womanizing actor who does a little moonlighting for the resistance. Maybe it's just because I love the way Truffaut works with him, but I kept wondering how Jean-Pierre Leaud would have faired in the role. I'll admit that he would have probably gotten eaten alive by Deneuve-- it's hard not to with an actress as dominating and fierce as she is-- but those early scenes in which the character is trying to pick up women on the street and in the theatre seem almost written for Leaud in mind. Depardieu is fine in the role, I'll give him that. I just wasn't wowed by him or anything. Of the many Truffaut films I've seen, this is by far his weakest (and somewhat ironic since this was his last big hit in France and probably last widely known film). Truffaut on a bad day, however, is 10 times more interesting than most directors at their very best.

Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature: Night Nurse (William Wellman, 1931) B/You Belong to Me (Wesley Ruggles, 1941) C+

Night Nurse and You Belong to Me are two very different types of films from two completely different time periods but have one common link: Barbara Stanwyck. Night Nurse is the better of the two and is actually one of the better Pre-Code films I have due to the fact that it has more going for it than raciness (like good acting and a decent, involving storyline). Stanwyck starts training as a nurse and one night she befriends a shot bootlegger who she doesn't write a mandatory report on. After she completes her training, she starts working at a household with two sick children, a drunken alcoholic mother, a crooked doctor and a scheming chauffeur. She uncovers a dirty secret and its up to her to prevent the death of the children. Night Nurse isn't perfect-- the beginning is filled with a little too much superfluous scenes that didn't add anything-- but it's undeniably sexy and quite a fun, racy time. You Belong to Me has the makings of a good romantic comedy-- a silly Henry Fonda performance, an unconventional (for the time) look at gender roles-- but is ultimate marred by the standards of the time. The only way Barbara Stanwyck believes that her marriage will work is that if she gives up her doctor practice, all of her dreams and goals and stays at home to take care of her needy, jealous husband (Fonda). It's a shame that You Belong To Me (kinda) comes to this conclusions, because, up to this point, Stanwyck had been such a beacon of independence and girl power in a way I hadn't seen in a film since the Pre-Code days.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) A-

Fritz Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, his last before fleeing Nazi Germany after being offered the position of head of film propaganda by Goebbels himself, is an exciting crime thriller that takes some time to get used to but is ultimately worth the effort once you do. The film immediately opens up with a completely silent scene in which one man, to whom we aren't introduced to yet, is eavesdropping on two other men. He listens for awhile and then, suddenly, the two men spot the man's feet sticking out. After playing it cool for awhile, the two men start shooting, prompting a chase down the street before the man breaks away. What I find most interesting about Dr. Mabuse is how we are introduced to three different storylines all in the beginning and it isn't until towards the last 30 minutes that they truly come together (brilliantly, I must add). They stand apart on their own and it's quite fun guessing how exactly they will all connect eventually.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Broadway Melody of 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940) C

Certainly the best of The Broadway Melody series but that's not exactly hard, is it? One hundred minutes is way to long to go on this thin wisp of a mistaken identity story without the ridiculous only-in-the-movies humor of something Top Hat. I must admit that the dancing sequences are spectacular and Astaire and Powell have great dancing chemistry together. I just wish the rest of the movie had the spark that these two share when they are together.

When Ladies Meet (Robert Z. Leonard, 1941) D+

The day and night teaming of Joan Crawford and Greer Garson should have ensured When Ladies Meet greatness, or at the very least watchability. Unfortunately, the film's ridiculously stupid subject matter makes this hardly worth the effort to sit through this. Joan Crawford plays a writer who is loved by Robert Taylor but in love with her married editor Herbert Marshall. She's just finished her new book and begins an affair with Marshall while editing her book. The plot of her book mirrors her situation right now, but the section that needs improvement is the scene when the wife and the other woman meet. Cue Greer Garson, Marshall's wife, whom Taylor meets at a random party and, without either of them knowing the other's connection to Marshall, he gets them to meet and talk about her book. The main problem with When Ladies Meet is that it intellectualizes the issue falling in love with a married man so much that they make it sound like something as grave and serious as nuclear warfare or the war in Iraq. There's no doubt in my mind that the book Crawford is writing is probably nothing more than a trashy melodrama, but everyone in the film treats it as if the situation is unbearably unique and as intellectually stimulating as a new book by Freud. Crawford and Garson are fine in this film, but the sparks between them never ignite and they're too genteel towards each other when they should have been fighting for dominance.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, 1960) B

One of the main ways in which Truffaut differed from Godard, another pioneer of the French New Wave techniques, is that, for the most part, Truffaut liked to stick to telling full and complete stories while Godard loved using situations to really explore something else (like the romance in Breathless or the couple's trip to her parents' house in Week End). Shoot the Piano Player is the first Truffaut I've seen that actually feels like it could have been done by Godard. The editing techniques aren't as jarring as something like Breathless; rather, it's how the plot comes second to the wild tangents that the characters seem to go on for minutes at a time that reminded me of Godard. The opening scene in which Charlie' brother is seen talking with a random stranger about women and love has absolutely no barring on the plot whatsoever (other than the fact that he's avoiding the two men after their share of a robbery) and is never mentioned again in the film, but it's still fascinating stuff. I especially loved the scene in which Charlie and Lena are picked up by the two men and their witty banter in the car. Did it move the forward in any way? Probably not, but it's fun, jazzy and everything we love about the French New Wave (or at least I do). Shoot the Piano Player is a pleasant, tasteful, well-made little film, although I just wish there was a little more to get excited about. The ending was absolutely perfect and a nice contrast to The 400 Blows, but that flashback was a little clumsily done and probably could have been tightened up a bit. All in all another solid little gem from one of my favorite directors.

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) B+

If The Maltese Falcon had been released a year later, in 1942, then I somehow think that we would all be talking about High Sierra as Bogie's breakout performance. Everything we loved about him in subsequent roles is present in this performance: the tough guy in The Big Sleep, the romantic in Casablanca, the slight maniac in The Caine Mutiny and the slightly funny everyman in The African Queen. The rest of the film is quite excellent as well. Bogie plays a recently pardoned gangster who is doing one more job before retiring. There are a couple of bumps along the way, but the robbery seems to go off without a hitch. That is, until someone in on the job snitches on Bogie and he is forced to run while the police heavily pursue him. Raoul Walsh, an old pro from the Golden Age, does a fine job keeping the suspense up. My only complaint is an awkward romance between Bogie and a clubfooted Joan Leslie which is a bit rushed and somewhat forced.

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, 2008) C+

My thoughts soon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cutie Honey (Hideaki Anno, 2004) C-

Cutie Honey is a completely retarded Japanese live-action film based off a popular TV show that I would have never sought out in a million years if my friend Ashley hadn't bought it herself and had me watch it with her. I must say that the opening scenes were fun, if completely ridiculous, and the entrance by Gold Claw (Hairi Katagiri), one of four members of the elite Panther Claw organization trying to retrieve the I-system from superhero/android/slightly lesbianic Cutie Honey (Eriko Sato), was both frightening and divariffic in the extreme. When Hideaki Anno first reveals her in a tight close up, I was in stitches, nearly rolling on the floor, laughing at the layers of thick make up and over the top expressions that she uses. It turns out that she's the most fun of any of the four Panther Claws and the film never tops the moment when she blows up the entire fucking bridge for about 90 seconds straight and still doesn't hit Honey. Eventually, Honey gets the best of Gold Claw and ends up dropping her in the river, presumably killing her. The film never recovers from this great moment because-- and I never thought I would say this about a movie-- it gets too bogged down with uninteresting backstory and narrative and doesn't have enough explosions. It also doesn't help that Gold Claw is the only cool villain and she only returns for two unimportant scenes (present a gift to their leader Sister Jill and then getting killed by Sister Jill for begging for another chance to kill Cutie Honey), leaving the audience wondering why they didn't just kill her in the beginning straight away. I also found it completely strange how random people just broke out in song for absolutely no reason (the random white haired girl introducing Sister Jill and Black Claw right before he battles with Cutie Honey). A completely fucked up movie that's not even good enough to be deemed "so bad it's good."

North Country (Niki Caro, 2005) D+

My thoughts here.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) B

A completely devastating film about the mysterious vanishing of three schoolgirls and a teacher during a completely innocent St. Valentine's Day picnic in 1900 Australia. I loved Weir's style here and the strange and eerie atmosphere he sets up, from the almost Persona-like opening to the Michael's slight obsession with finding the girls after witnessing them go up the rock to the drunken decline of the headmistress (the fabulous Rachel Roberts) at the school the girls came from. My only problem with the film is that it occasionally slips into L'Avventura territory where it just seems to completely forget the fact that we're searching for these women and plays it off like it doesn't matter. Weir only lets this happen twice or so and then immediately draws us back in.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Seven Women (John Ford, 1966) B

Seven Women starts off innocently enough, acting like yet another The Inn of Sixth Happiness ripoff with American missionaries dealing with Chinese uprisings and invasions. Eventually, however, it evolves into an interesting meditation on religion and how far people will go to save others. Margaret Leighton runs a mission in China near the Mongolian border and when Anne Bancroft, a crass, chain smoking doctor, arrives to help a woman with a tough pregnancy, a subtle power struggle erupts between the two over a young innocent orphan living at the mission (Sue Lyon). When a Mongol barbarian invades the mission, the women are pent up together and Bancroft must sacrifice herself for the sake of the others. This sends Leighton off the deep end and she turns into this scary ass zealot, denouncing Bancroft as "the whore of Babylon." This film is no The Searchers or The Grapes of Wrath, but it's fascinating to see Ford work with this fine ensemble of women (Leighton, Bancroft, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, Flora Robson) and direct a type of film he had never done before. A fitting last film if I've ever seen one.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) B

From the minute I heard the Ethel Merman version of "Rose's Turn," I've been in love with the musical of Gypsy, but, somehow, I had never gotten around to hearing the whole soundtrack or seeing the film version (even though I've heard it's inferior to the original stage version). Now that I've seen a full version, I think I feel confident in proclaiming it one of the greatest musicals I've ever seen. Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim have created some of the most beautiful and memorable musical scores I've ever heard, complete with some grandiose, larger-than-life numbers for one of the most important roles in the history of Broadway: Mama Rose. It's been called the "King Lear of musical theater" and all of the greats have played her: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Bette Midler (in a 1993 TV version). Considering the pedigree of the role, it may seem strange that Rosalind Russell, who reportedly only has a two-note range, was cast in this 1962 film version. Indeed, it was strange watching Russell lip sync to most of the songs and then warble through "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" and parts of "Rose's Turn," but, musical gifts aside, I think she gives a great performance, grounding the sometimes larger than life Mama Rose into reality and really getting the stage mother aspect of the role. As much as I like Russell, I just wish that the producers had gotten first choice Judy Garland to star; she could have nailed both the singing and the acting and probably would have won an Oscar for it. Director Mervyn LeRoy is one of the best of the Golden Age "invisible" directors who can do any type of genre and deliver great results. This Gypsy is still a bit too stagy, but LeRoy keeps it much more cinematic and doesn't let the actors fly off the deep end. If Oscar was looking for a musical to nominate for Best Picture in 1962, why did it go for the dreadful The Music Man, which was a complete and utter disgrace and not Gypsy, which had better music, direction and acting? Natalie Wood was also amazing as the untalented Louise (later to become the notorious Gypsy Rose Lee) and, for the first time, I must say that I actually liked a Karl Malden performance. He's a complete doormat to the overbearing Mama Rose, but he isn't as annoying as you would expect from him or this type of role.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Politics (Charles Reisner, 1931) C+

Charles Reisner, the director of this Marie Dressler-Polly Moran vehicle, is listed as the sole director of my favorite Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr., but after this and Reducing, I'm beginning to think that the success of that film has more to do with Keaton than Reisner. I'm not saying that Reisner is necessarily bad or anything, it's just that it is hard to believe the laconic point and shoot method that he uses here can come from the same guy who set up such exquisite and hilarious gags in the Keaton film. This is just another average MGM dramedy that tells a simple story with a couple of jokes and gags thrown in and aims for nothing else. Dressler, as always, is a hoot and either Moran is growing on me or this is another fine, subtle performance (for her, anyways) of hers.

Cassandra's Dream (Woody Allen, 2008) B-

Watching Cassandra's Dream was one of the oddest experiences I've ever had while watching a Woody Allen film. The first act is like some kind of horribly written Mike Leigh drama that left me somewhat bored. The second act was thrilling as the two brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) figure out how to murder a man their beloved uncle tells them to kill and you can see their true personas starting to show through. The third act was a bit stilted and the ending was abrupt as hell. Overall, I don't think Cassandra's Dream has the same type of flow that his much more successful Match Point did. There are a couple of surprises thrown in, but it's still your ordinary Woody drama with his usual themes-- luck, chance, fate, the existence of God-- all randomly and awkwardly thrown in to try to make this thriller more philosophical and introspective. The best thing about this film is Colin Farrell who takes the most showy character and doesn't go overboard with the anxiety and nervous breakdown (you all know he could have just been Woody for the last 30 minutes and who needs to see that yet again). Cassandra's Dream is further proof that, along with the success of In Bruges, 2008 just may be the year of Colin Farrell.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Prosperity (Sam Wood, 1932) B-

Sam Wood's Prosperity has all the makings of a bad MGM B-picture in the vein of Reducing with its cast (Marie Dressler, Polly Moran and Anita Page are all here again), really shoddy look and horrible editing. Somehow, none of these elements work against Prosperity and it becomes one of the finest films about the financial burden of the Depression I've ever seen. Marie Dressler is the owner of a small town bank and on the day her son is going to get married to Polly Moran's daughter, she steps down as president and hands the reins over to her son. After Moran inadvertently starts a bank panic, Dressler finds out that her son has invested the bonds that she held in security for the bank and can't get them back for at least six months, when the government building they were invested in is expected to be finished. Dressler is forced to close the bank but promises that they will reopen and even sells her house and all of her possessions to keep the customers happy until then. Dressler and her son's family is forced to move in with Moran and they all become miserable living there. The son leaves/is forced out and Dressler moves into a small apartment with him and starts working in a grocery store to support herself. Eventually, it looks the building they invested the bonds in won't be finished in time and it's left to Dressler to find a way out of this crisis. The early slapstick scenes are mildly amusing, but it's during the dramatic sections that Dressler truly shines. She rarely oversells the scenes or her reactions, which was her biggest tendency to do onscreen, and handles them like the old pro that she was. Even Polly Moran was tolerable (I'm excluding the scene where she's hollering like a banshee for her money in the bank) and was as subtle as I wager I'll ever see her.

Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943) C+

Sahara is an average, run of the mill WWII morale booster that were churned out nearly every other week by the studios during this time period. Where this one differs from something very similar like Wake Island is the fact that it doesn't take its inherent patriotism too seriously or spend way too much time philosophizing about the nature of humanity during war. Credit the great casting of Humphrey Bogart as the sergeant who leads these 10 or so army stragglers against a brigade of 500 Nazis. Bogart or his character couldn't give two shits about patriotism and his disinterest whenever one of the characters goes off on a tangent every so often is quite refreshing. J. Carrol Naish was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here and I'm not quite sure why. He's not bad or anything, I'm just guessing that the nom had more to do with the fact that his character-- an Italian POW whom Bogart and company take along with them-- isn't a bad guy and actually helps out the Allies than with the fact that it was one of the best of the year.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Divine Lady (Frank Lloyd, 1929) C-

A completely trite and ordinary silent romantic melodrama that probably wouldn't have been nominated for it's Academy Awards if it wasn't a glossy period piece that probably spared no expense. Disputed Best Actress nominee Corinne Griffith plays Emma, the cook's daughter who, through fate and a scheming nephew, manages to marry an older English ambassador in Italy during the French Revolution. She eventually meets, saves and falls in love with naval hero Horatio Nelson. Since they are both married, however, a scandal erupts and they must decide what to do about their relationship. Everything in The Divine Lady borrows from some earlier and greater silent films: the forbidden romance was handled much better in The Big Parade, the naval battle was a lot more spectacular in the 1925 Ben-Hur and the tragedy of the whole situation felt much more tragic in any Greta Garbo vehicle of the 20's. Corrine Griffith was quite good in the early scenes, especially when she freaked the fuck out and started going off on the neighbor lady, and I was disappointed when that same energy and spontaneity all but disappeared by the end of the film.

Reducing (Charles Reisner, 1931) D+

A silly and completely stupid Marie Dressler vehicle that wouldn't be worth mentioning except for Dressler's performance. It's no Min and Bill, but Dressler does her best with the second-rate material and actually manages some laughs. Reducing is about a rich beauty salon owner (Polly Moran) who invites her poor country sister (Dressler) and her family to come live with her in the city. The two families start bickering right from the get go and eventually a love triangle between the daughters of Moran and Dressler and a rich man drives the two families apart. When something "unmentionable" happens to the rich daughter, she runs to Dressler and together they work out a solution that brings the Dressler and Moran back together. My main gripe with this film is that the scene endings feel completely abrupt and don't come to a natural conclusion. Lines are faded out and jokes are introduced but not fully explored or, worse, they cut a joke right in the middle.

Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968) A-

My thoughts over here.

Time for Catch Up

Yes, I realize I haven't posted on here in quite awhile and I'm trying to remedy that situation. I'm ready to get back on track but in order to do that, I need to write about the 12 films I've seen in the past week or so. So, here are my quick thoughts about those films:

Funny Games U.S. (Michael Haneke, 2008): People either love or hate this film and I found it profoundly interesting in the way it played with our expectations. The basic message about it all being "only a movie" is not new, but the way Haneke presents it here is just as fascinating as when we first saw it in Sherlock, Jr. I loved the rewind scene and how Haneke's refusal in letting the audience get the revenge they want to see. Bold and imaginative. B+

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937): Another excursion into overrated John Ford territory. Films about Pacific island natives were in vogue during the 30's, but The Hurricane doesn't have Mutiny on the Bounty's strong narrative and performances or Bird of Paradise's hott, shirtless Joel McCrea. The film's main problem is that it presents the rebellious jailed character played by Jon Hall as the hero; more than anything, he's a hopelessly annoying boy who can't take his minor six month sentence and just move on with his life. Ugh. Even the usually reliable Mary Astor and Thomas Mitchell (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the only reason I watched this film) are boring. D-

(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955): For being considered one of the scariest films ever made, I probably think Diabolique is a tad overrated in that sense. However, I must admit that I was on pins and needles throughout the whole damn film. Just when you think the film is over and you're lulled into a false sense of security, Clouzot finds a new way to jolt you and make you worry for the main characters (a hard-as-nails Simone Signoret and a frail Vera Clouzot). That final scene when Clouzot's character wanders the boarding school in the dark is one of the most intense scenes I've ever seen. B+

The Battle of Algiers
(Gillo Pontecorvo, 1968): The story confused me at certain points, but it's hard not to deny the impact of Pontecorvo's directorial style. It can be seen as both a blessing and a curse since it's influence is felt in both the "cinema verite" style of independent filmmaking and the shaky cam action films. B+

Murder, Inc. (Bob Balaban and Stuart Rosenberg, 1960): Peter Falk is the whole show here as soulless hit man Abe Reles in this middling gangster film that is completely stuck in the Production Code despite being from the 60's. C

The Letter (Jean de Limur, 1929): The first version of Maugham's short story is quite an achievement for an early sound film: de Limur doesn't have too many scenes where the dialogue runs on for an unnecessary amount of time and the he does attempt to tell the story visually at certain points. I'm not familiar with the structure of the source, but I think the way de Limur's The Letter lets us in on the crime right away so we figure out Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels) from scene two eliminates nearly every reason to see this movie (Contrast this with Wyler's version 11 years later which slowly unravels Leslie's story until we realize her ultimate motives at the very end). Eagels was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and God know's why since most of it is a shrilly, over the top mess. She completely unnatural in front of the camera and has the most annoyingly theatrical voice I think I've ever heard. Her only redeeming scene is her final moments when she reveals the truth to her husband and her violent line readings hold the most impact. C-

The Most Dangerous Game
(Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932): A stupid story and incredibly wooden acting dash the hopes of The Most Dangerous Game becoming the great lost classic of horror film. However, the editing is some of the crispest and most fascinating that I've seen in a film from this time period. The hunting sequences were spectacularly done and incredibly suspenseful even though you knew what the outcome was going to be. B-

Miller's Crossing (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990): It's no Fargo or The Big Lebowski and I don't think the dark comedy is as funny or as out in the open as it is in those two masterpieces. As a 30's style gangster film, though, Miller's Crossing is still a pretty damn good film. There are so many characters to keep track of and so many double crossings that it probably needs a couple more viewings to get everything straight, but I still think it's a fun time trying to figure out Gabriel Byrne's character and loving Marcia Gay Harden and her immaculate hair. B+

On the Edge of Innocence
(Peter Werner, 1997): I'll admit that the only reason I watched this film was because James Marsden stars as one-half of the romantic duo in this teenage mental hospital patients in love and on the run TV movie. The film is pretty silly in it's depiction of bipolar disorder (in my experience with my brother, the highs and lows are never that high and low) and the ending is simply stupid, but it's fun cheering on this Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple and Marsden is never bad to look at. C-

(Doug Liman, 2008): What a complete waste of time. From the first voiceover by Hayden Christensen, I was completely over this film. How do you sound that unconvincing and just plain awful in the first 30 seconds? Jamie Bell and Rachel Bilson (whom I loved on The O.C. and actually provoked a couple of seconds of laughter from her reading of "Yeah, I don't speak your language") deserved more than playing second fiddle to Christensen and did the best they could with the completely shitty material. D-

Let Us Be Gay
(Robert Z. Leonard, 1930): The only point of interest in this completely average and horribly edited MGM light comedy is the pairing of Norma Shearer and Marie Dressler, two of the most respected and beloved actresses in their day but now nearly completely forgotten and misunderstood. The interplay between these two actresses was hilarious and silly, exactly what the nature of the film calls for. Dressler proved that she was ready for more challenging work and Shearer gives one of her most delightful early performances (and her best between The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg and Private Lives). C

The Cranes Are Flying
(Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957): Who knew the Soviet's could make a romance this tender, emotionally fragile and completely honest. Possibly the greatest straight war time romance since The Big Parade. The deep focus photography, straight out of Citizen Kane, was impossibly beautiful and the long tracking shots, which had to have been majorly difficult, were pulled off with ease. A