Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)


A gentler, warmer Lubitsch comedy, this must rank as one of his very finest films, and is certainly one of his most beloved, enduring classics. What struck me most in viewing it this time is how creatively Lubitsch uses the screen space; though set largely inside the shop, it never feels claustrophobic or stagy, instead kept visually interesting by Lubitsch's endless cinematic invention and especially adroit (but subtle) editing. Lubitsch also gets a wonderfully understated and low-key performance from Stewart, in what is perhaps his finest comedic turn. A film I admire more each time I see it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Babes in Toyland (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers, 1934)


Charming Laurel and Hardy classic that always makes for fun viewing around this time of the year. The second of their three operettas (coming between THE DEVIL'S BROTHER and THE BOHEMIAN GIRL), it's a little different than the other two in that there are fewer isolated comedy routines and it's less obviously a "Laurel and Hardy vehicle", but the boys are fully integrated into the story, and as a result, it stands as a really fine adaptation of the Victor Herbert operetta, albeit tailored for the team's characters.

I've seen the film more times than I can count, but I am repeatedly struck by just how well it holds up. The musical comedy plotting works quite well here. The songs are all pleasant enough, and there's scarcely a wasted moment (only the "Castle in Spain" number, occurring after the hilarious sham marriage scene, feels like it could be trimmed with little consequence), and each scene builds quite well to the thrilling climax. The finale, with the stop-motion wooden soldiers marching out of the toy shop, is a tour-de-force of special effects that hold up better than those in the Disney remake.

Part of what makes this film so special is its first-rate supporting cast, especially Henry Brandon as the villainous Barnaby. Brandon was clearly having a ball playing the dastardly villain, and he is the perfect foil for Laurel and Hardy -- managing to play the role with both a sense of genuine menace as well as over-the-top fun. Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight are appealing enough as the romantic leads that we genuinely care about the boys' efforts to help them. William Burress, as the toymaker, has a couple of great scenes with the boys that rank among the funniest in the film.

It's a wonder that the film is such a light, fun affair, given the tumultuous production problems behind the scenes. There were fierce creative differences between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel over this film, but the end result is one of the most beloved, enduring classics that Laurel and Hardy ever made.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Scrooge (1935)


Sir Seymour Hicks' interpretation of Scrooge ranks among the finest portrayals of the character (a role that he first essayed on-screen in 1913), so this 1935 adaptation -- the first feature-length sound film version of the story -- is of great interest for his performance alone.

Unlike the MGM version from a few years later, this one is appropriately grim and dark in its tone, which allows for a stronger contrast between the miserable Scrooge and the poor-but-happy Cratchit family, and makes Scrooge's joyous Christmas morning transformation all the more effective. A bit melodramatic at times, and occasionally revealing the limitations of its budget (aside from The Ghost of Christmas Present, all of the spirits are depicted off-screen, or through light and shadow), it is nonetheless finely acted by the entire cast (especially Donald Calthrop as Bob Cratchit), and well-directed by Henry Edwards. This film holds up as a fine screen adaptation of Dickens' story, second perhaps only to Alastair Sim's classic 1951 version

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Carol (1938)


A creditable, if somewhat truncated, adaptation of the Dickens Christmas classic. Reginald Owen gives a fine performance as Scrooge, though he never quite embodies the character so completely in the way that Alastair Sim would later, and as a result his transformation is less effective. This is not helped by the fact that the emphasis of the story here is shifted on to Bob Cratchit (delightfully portrayed by Gene Lockhart) and his family, while moving rather quickly through the past episodes of Scrooge's life (and omitting entirely the subplot of his first, lost love).

It's a typically first-rate MGM production, though sometimes a bit too elaborate in its design (especially the Cratchit home), which detracts from the grim atmosphere that provides a stark and striking contrast with the merrymaking and joy of the holiday. While it may not hold up as well as the classic 1951 Alastair Sim version, this is still a fine filming of the story, and certainly captures the spirit of Dickens' timeless story.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Blackadder's A Christmas Carol (TV, 1988)

A Christmas special, made for British television, that comically turns the Dickens story on its head. Rowan Atkinson reprises his "Blackadder" character, this time as Ebenezer Blackadder, the kindest man in England, visited by a Christmas ghost who shows him how much better off he'd be for treating people badly.

The script, by regular Atkinson collaborators Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, is silly stuff and many of the jokes are pretty predictable, but it's quite funny nonetheless thanks to Atkinson and the fine cast, including Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Bowery (1933)


Boisterous, rowdy and fun pre-Code comedy-drama set against the nostalgic backdrop of New York's Lower East Side during the Gay '90s. Wallace Beery and George Raft star as a couple of rival saloon owners and volunteer fire company chiefs competing to be top dog in the neighborhood. The loose, sprawling story finds room for plenty of amusing and colorful threads: Raft's tender romance with Fay Wray, Beery's fatherly friendship with street kid Jackie Cooper, and Raft's publicity stunt to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's one of the very best films Raoul Walsh made during the decade, stylishly directed with a real flair for the period setting and vivid atmosphere of the Bowery, re-created in authentic detail on the studio backlot and nicely complemented by a musical score that's a virtual songbook of Gay '90s tunes. Tough and frank in its unflinching portrayal of the realities -- including sex, violence and casual racism -- of the rough-and-tumble milieu that it depicts, this is the kind of film that would become impossible to produce after the Production Code took full effect the following year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Out-of-Towners (1999)

An absolutely awful film. It was hard to justify spending 90 minutes on this crap when there are so many other films to watch. 15 minutes in I was ready to turn it off, but figured I should stick it out if I was going to write it up. I disliked it instantly from the opening scene, which uses John Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over" for cheap effect -- something the film has not earned the right to do. It only gets worse from there.

Painfully stupid, predictable, broad, annoyingly overscored (with wall-to-wall orchestrations in typical '90s fashion), awkwardly directed and edited, and not a single laugh in the whole piece. You know it's bad when comic "highlights" include crashing a car into a Chinatown fish market and being chased through the streets by a mad dog.

Despite the credit that reads "based on the screenplay by Neil Simon", this version borrows only the basic plot of his 1970 script. The premise of the fish-out-of-water Midwesterners lost in big, scary New York worked better in the original, with the gritty, naturalistic setting providing an effective backdrop. Here, in 1990s Disneyland NYC, the contrast falls flat, and lacks the bite of the earlier film. Saddest of all is the incredible waste of talent involved -- the usually great Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn are unfunny and unlikable here, overplaying the badly-written dialogue and slapstick. Even John Cleese, as a snobby hotel manager, is wasted in his role. A forgettable mess of a comedy that is most definitely not recommended.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

An intriguing, fun work of historical fiction, set behind-the-scenes of F.W. Murnau's seminal horror film NOSFERATU. The premise is that the film's mysterious and enigmatic star, Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe in a tour-de-force performance), may be an actual vampire, whose appearance in the movie is part of a pact with Murnau (John Malkovich) to procure fresh blood from the unsuspecting leading lady.

From this highly original premise, director E. Elias Merhige crafts an atmospheric tale that is part horror film and part dark satire on filmmaking, with the character of the obsessive artist willing to stop at nothing -- including the death of his cast and crew -- in order to see his vision put on the screen.

The film never quite finds the proper balance between horror and black comedy, though, and the overall result is rather uneven. Still, it's great fun for film enthusiasts and horror movie fans, who will appreciate the attention to detail in re-creating the sets, costumes and memorable shots of Murnau's legendary horror classic, and the strong performances by Dafoe and Malkovich.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Social Network (2010)

I finally got around to seeing this one after having put off watching it for some time. I was skeptical of the hype surrounding it when it opened theatrically (hard to believe that was four years ago already), but I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an intelligently-written character drama about the personalities and dynamics involved in the creation of Facebook, and what happens when that website quickly becomes a bigger cultural phenomenon than anyone could have expected.

Jesse Eisenberg carries the film well with a quiet yet intense performance as the brilliant programmer whose social networking website connects millions of people online, yet struggles with the human connections around him, poignantly conveyed in the final scene when he sends his ex-girlfriend a friend request and anxiously re-loads the page to see if she's accepted it.

Aaron Sorkin's economic and tight script wisely focuses on the larger implications of the story and avoids getting hung up on the minor details of Facebook's creation. David Fincher's direction is subtly effective, building real suspense out of the situations and tensions between the characters without becoming melodramatic.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Bad Santa (2003)

Very funny, very dark and very raunchy comedy about a deadbeat, drunken loser who makes his living by playing a department store Santa and pulling off big heists with his midget friend (who works with him in the guise of Santa's elf). It's hard to imagine anyone other than Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role, because he pulls it off so well, and manages to make the character's foul-mouthed tirades and reprehensible behavior incredibly funny. He transforms the cursing and overall vulgarity into an art form through his skillful performance -- similar in tone to the kind of humor W.C. Fields and Rodney Dangerfield did so well -- never breaking character or softening its edge, even in its more sympathetic moments.

It's a film that, by all rights, should offend virtually everyone, and yet has a surprising heart to it that makes it oddly endearing, even though there's scarcely a single character in the piece that isn't deeply damaged in one way or another. Tony Cox as Thornton's double-crossing partner in crime proves to be an excellent comic foil, displaying a great chemistry with Thornton even as they curse and insult each other mercilessly. Bernie Mac as the crooked store detective is an inspired bit of casting, and John Ritter is wonderfully effective in a brief but memorable turn as the harried, uptight store manager. Newcomer Brett Kelly -- as the hopelessly awkward but sensitive and good-hearted kid through whom Thornton finds a kind of redemption -- delivers an offbeat yet likable performance that requires him to serve as perhaps the only basically good character in the film.

Terry Zwigoff is a director whose work I find consistently interesting. Despite its subject matter, BAD SANTA is probably his most accessible film, which is to say it's probably aimed at the broadest audience, coming as it does between the really quirky, offbeat charm of GHOST WORLD (2001) and the sharp art world satire of ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006). Zwigoff has a knack for working with these kinds of oddball characters and bizarre situations that makes him a great choice for the material. It's doubtful that BAD SANTA will be joining MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET as yearly holiday viewing for families each Christmas, but it provides a nice antidote to the usual holiday fare that holds up well as a good comedy for adults.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Pygmalion (1938)


Audiences familiar only with this classic George Bernard Shaw play through the musical adaptation MY FAIR LADY will probably be surprised by just how sharply funny this earlier 1938 screen version is. Minus the excess weight of the later musical, this adaptation -- directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, who also stars as Higgins -- is a deftly paced, adroit comedy that perfectly captures the dry wit and emotional honesty of Shaw's play (even if it does use the revised, audience-pleasing ending that Shaw despised). With material this strong, it was only logical that the film should remain largely faithful to its celebrated source, though the script -- adapted by a team of writers including Shaw himself, W.P. Lipscomb and Cecil Lewis, with uncredited contributions from Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald and Kay Walsh -- does open the play up a bit for the screen, adding new scenes such as Eliza's debut at the embassy ball, and never feels stagy or static, thanks to the skillful editing of David Lean.

Wendy Hiller does a remarkable job at bringing out the humanity of the Eliza Doolittle character, delivering a surprisingly low-key interpretation of the role rather than slipping into broad caricature as Audrey Hepburn occasionally did in the later screen version. Leslie Howard as Higgins demonstrates again what a fine comic talent he was, a skill that he was not often able to exercise in his best-known Hollywood roles. He manages to make Higgins appropriately sympathetic without ever hitting a false note in his performance of the character. Scott Sunderland as Col. Pickering, Wilfrid Lawson as Doolittle, and Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins all provide fine support.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mr. Mom (1983)

Silly, inconsequential family situation comedy, enlivened only by the strong performance of Michael Keaton in one of his early star turns as the dad who has to take on his wife's responsibilities around the house (with the expected comic ineptitude) when he gets laid off and she gets a job. The screenplay by John Hughes, one of his earliest, is entirely predictable and really quite uninspired stuff. It's certainly one of his least personal projects, feeling instead like a TV sitcom written on autopilot, and surprisingly lacking in the kind of wild slapstick and weird, offbeat supporting characters that show up frequently in Hughes' work and could have added some much-needed reinforcement to the proceedings here.

Teri Garr isn't given much to do with her role, and even the fine supporting players such as Martin Mull (as Garr's sleazy boss), Jeffrey Tambor (as Keaton's sleazy boss) and Christopher Lloyd (as one of Keaton's fellow engineers), are never really on-screen long enough to make much of their scenes. Only Ann Jillian, as the sexy neighbor intent on seducing Keaton while his wife's away, manages to rise above the material. Michael Keaton's performance demonstrates the kind of offbeat comic energy that made him such a unique and interesting actor, but his talent would be better-served in later vehicles. As it is, there's not much in it for adults, and the humor is really aimed primarily at kids, which is probably why the film seems to be most fondly remembered by people who saw it during their own childhood.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cool World (1992)

Sort of a poor cousin to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, this muddled, confused animation-live action crossover stars Brad Pitt as Frank Harris, a returning soldier in 1945 Las Vegas who, following a motorcycle crash, is transported to the "Cool World", an animated universe populated by bizarre cartoon characters, some of whom look like rejects from Joe Dante's "cartoon hell" segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Flash forward to 1992: Las Vegas-based animator Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) has just been released from prison, where his only company was in the form of a sexy cartoon character named Holli Would that he drew in his comic books. Jack is so fixated on this character that he even passes up sex with real women, and one night, he gets transported to Cool World himself where, as luck would have it, he meets Holli in the form of an animated character. Unfortunately for Jack, sex between humans and cartoons is strictly forbidden, and Frank Harris is now working as a detective whose sole task seems to be enforcing this law. But Jack gives in to temptation, which results in Holli becoming human herself and traveling to the real world where she proceeds to unleash cartoon havoc. It's up to Jack to save the world from his own creation.

Even that plot description probably makes it sound more coherent than it actually is. The script is a mess, and filled with really strange twists that exist for no apparent reason (Harris' mother is killed in a motorcycle accident at the beginning of the film, and then this event is never referred to again; similarly, the fact that Jack has spent time in prison for murder is completely arbitrary and has no apparent bearing on the plot at all). The interaction of the live action and animated characters is not terribly convincing. It would have certainly passed muster ten years earlier, but coming as it did after ROGER RABBIT (and clearly owing a good deal to the concept of that film), it had a much higher standard to live up to. Kim Basinger's work as Holli is effective enough, but the character lacks both the personality and the exaggerated physical qualities that the character concept seems to call for. Brad Pitt isn't given much to do with his role besides act tough, and he misses out on the chance to really milk the part of the hardboiled detective for its potential due to the weaknesses in the writing. Gabriel Byrne delivers a good performance under the circumstances, but his character too is weakened by the lack of development (and is completely and inexplicably altered in the ridiculous final sequence).

Indeed, the major problem with the film overall is that it feels seriously underdeveloped, like a rough draft of a concept rather than an idea that has been fully fleshed out. It is almost certainly Ralph Bakshi's weakest film, lacking that immensely talented animator-filmmaker's normally evocative and distinctive sense of design, not to mention the sharp social commentary that is such a crucial component of his best work. As it is, COOL WORLD demonstrates some interesting seeds of ideas that could have been explored and executed to more interesting effect, but ultimately falls far short of its potential.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Nebraska (2013)

An intimate and majestic road picture, directed by Alexander Payne, about an elderly alcoholic who becomes convinced he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes scam, and is determined to get from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to collect his prize. His bemused son finally agrees to drive him there, and during a stay over in their old hometown, learns a great deal about his father that he never knew.

Bruce Dern delivers a fine performance -- one of the best of his prolific career -- as the defeated, broken-down old man who feels life has passed him by. Will Forte is surprisingly effective as his affable if rather timid son who agrees to indulge his fantasy, which he sees as basically harmless. June Squibb's performance as Dern's shrewish wife is undeniably well-played, but the role as written seems rather one-note, lacking the subtlety that would have made the character both more well-rounded and more sympathetic at appropriate moments in the story. Payne bathes the film in grim naturalism, with a real sense of authenticity in the details of the small town and its inhabitants. The atmosphere is greatly enhanced by the sweeping black and white photography of the flat, sprawling Midwestern landscapes. The milieu, themes and approach all recall very strongly the BBS productions of the early '70s. The naturalism of Payne's approach is undercut at times by the melodrama in the storytelling, though thankfully these moments are few and far enough between that they do not detract from the overall tone, which remains sad, wistful and yet unexpectedly optimistic in the end.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986)

Fun, Cold War-era comedy thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as a bank computer operator who crosses wires with a British spy trapped in Soviet Russia and gets involved in helping him make his escape. The premise is interesting enough in itself that it works as a light little thriller, and it provides Goldberg with one of her best screen vehicles. She had a really likable screen presence that always enlivened the films she appeared in, and her talent with both verbal and physical comedy is well-served here. There are some good action set-pieces too, including a chase involving a phone booth being hauled through the streets of New York, and an exciting sequence on the roof of the British embassy.

It's a minor comedy, to be sure, but is also such a good example of the kind of fun, lightweight entertainment that Hollywood just isn't capable of producing anymore in the era of the blockbuster. There's a lightness to the film, and the sense that it doesn't take itself too seriously, that makes it consistently enjoyable even when the humor is rather mild. Penny Marshall's snappy direction keeps the pacing strong and provides Goldberg with the room to make the most of her role.

The fine supporting cast includes Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Tracey Ullman and Jim Belushi, along with Jonathan Pryce in a fun cameo revealed at the end.

Monday, November 24, 2014

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

Very funny third teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, about a deaf man (Wilder) and a blind man (Pryor) who are witnesses to a murder, but through a misunderstanding find themselves wanted by the police as the chief suspects in the case. Together they must escape and track down the real killers in order to clear their names. The premise is fairly routine, but what really sells it are the excellent performances of Wilder and Pryor, and the carefully-constructed humor they get out of their respective disabilities, which is handled extremely well and is never in bad taste. Indeed, the tone of the humor deftly walks a very fine line -- extremely vulgar without ever being mean-spirited or offensive -- thanks to the incredible talent of the two comedians at the heart of the film. An unlikely team, they are remarkable to watch because of how well their contrasting personalities complement each other. They have an excellent sense of timing between them, too, which is put to especially good use in the scene where Pryor knocks out a bar tough by throwing punches based on Wilder's instructions, as Wilder maneuvers Pryor around the bar.

The supporting cast includes Joan Severance as the sexy murderess, and Kevin Spacey in an early role as the smarmy villain, effective enough in what amounts to a rather cartoonish stock "heavy" part. Arthur Hiller's expert direction holds the zaniness together and keeps the pacing strong right up through the action-packed climax, but also manages to find room for leisurely, low-key moments, such as the scene of Wilder and Pryor sharing an ice-cream on a park bench and discussing their life philosophies, which provides the film with some of its warmest laughs.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bedtime Story (1964)


A mildly funny comedy that would probably seem even funnier today if it hadn't been remade so much more effectively as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS two decades later. Marlon Brando and David Niven star in the roles played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, respectively, in the remake. After seeing the later film, one of the best comedies of its decade, it's a rather uncanny experience to see this original version. With the exception of the opening sequences setting up the Freddy Benson character, and the concluding sequence, it matches the plot of the remake virtually scene-for-scene (and often line-for-line). The highlights here are the same as those in the later version: Brando's turn as "Ruprecht", Niven testing the supposedly-paralyzed Brando's legs for any sign of feeling by whipping them mercilessly, their constant scheming to outwit each other, etc.

Yet the best moments from this film can't help feeling like something of a dry run for the remake, where the writers had the benefit of hindsight and were able to mine this earlier film for all of the comic potential that it missed the first time around. A good example of this occurs in the scene where the character of Freddy Benson is jailed on false pretenses and tries to remember the name of Lawrence Jameson, a prominent local resident whom he met earlier on the train. In the original film, Brando (as Benson) recalls the name with only a moment's thought, which serves the plot just fine but completely misses the potential for any laughs. Contrast this with the remake, where Steve Martin turns this scene into one of the comic highlights of the film, as he struggles frantically to remember the name.

Nonetheless, Brando acquits himself surprisingly well in such a silly comic turn, and it's a testament to his versatility that he could so successfully pull off the kind of zany, nutty "jerk" humor that Steve Martin would make so distinctively his own in the coming decades. David Niven was, of course, born to play roles like the suave, elegant gentleman-thief Lawrence Jameson, and practically made a career out of playing such types, especially in these kind of continental comedy capers (see: THE PINK PANTHER). Perhaps because of this, he comes across as rather bored in the role at times, lacking the spirited energy of Michael Caine in the remake. Still, it's a "David Niven role" if ever there was one.

Special mention should be made of Shirley Jones, who shows up about halfway through the film as Janet Walker, the "American Soap Queen" and target of the crooks' scheme. She works quite well with Brando and Niven, bringing the right amount of naivete and charm to the role. Character actress Dody Goodman also has a nice supporting part as "Fanny Eubank of Omaha", one of Niven's unsuspecting victims.

Overall, it's an often amusing and funny little comedy, but is primarily of interest for having inspired a much funnier and successful remake.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hotel Torgo (2004)

Short documentary on the making of the now-infamous 1966 low-budget horror film MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE, which was notable for having been directed by a local El Paso fertilizer salesman and has earned the dubious distinction in many circles as the worst film ever made. The doc, directed by Aaron Allard, James Lafleur, and Marco Pazzano, is a fascinating glimpse into regional filmmaking, and the resources that MANOS' director, Hal Warren, drew on to put his rather bizarre vision on the screen.

The thrust of the documentary are the interviews with historian Richard Brandt, and Bernie Rosenblum, who acted in MANOS as well as pulling double duty on seemingly a dozen other crew positions. Rosenblum's stories about the production are delightfully funny and often quite interesting as an insight into the intentions of the filmmaker. His account of the film's disastrous premiere is especially of interest as an indicator of how audiences -- even the very local audience for whom the film was a major event -- reacted to the film at the time of its release. There are also visits to the locations that were used for the house and the Master's lair, neither of which seem to have changed much in the intervening 40 years. An entertaining and revealing doc about a film that has endured much longer than anyone involved in its creation would have expected.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

One of Spielberg's finest films, encompassing many of his favorite themes. It's one of the few major Hollywood films to deal intelligently (though still, at times, perhaps a bit too sensationally) with the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and alien abduction, and Spielberg wisely focuses on how a chance UFO sighting forever changes a simple Indiana family man's perception of the universe and his place within it. Richard Dreyfuss delivers one of his finest performances as Roy Neary, whose obsession with the UFO he has witnessed and his subsequent efforts to make contact with the aliens erodes his family and personal life, filling him instead with a singular purpose.

Although it is not primarily a special effects picture, much credit has to go to photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, who achieves some really magnificent imagery here. The spaceship is an incredible piece of artistry and design, and Trumbull's effects inspire the requisite amount of awe and wonder, without which the film would fall apart.

It is Spielberg's emphasis on the human condition that make the biggest impression, however. The scenes of Dreyfuss' mundane home life reveals the banality of the existence he has been living, making his character's curiosity about "what's out there" all the more profound. Spielberg does a remarkable job capturing that sense of wonder that keeps people watching the skies. Indeed, the film's rather protracted conclusion reveals perhaps too much detail, removing some of the mystery that comes from things left unseen. Perhaps that's why the ending -- in which the alien beings and the fate of their abductees are revealed -- seems a bit anticlimactic. As well-done as it undoubtedly is, it's simply too literal, and thus a bit of a let-down from the preceding events of the film.

However, the ending does force the viewer to ask themselves if they would leave behind their family, their home, and indeed, their very beliefs, in exchange for the experience of making contact with extraterrestrials and traveling with them to places unknown -- questions we may find ourselves pondering on clear nights under the vast expanse of shining stars, and wondering what's out there.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

One of the real delights to come out of Hollywood screen comedy in the past 30 years has been the collaborations of comedian Steve Martin and director Frank Oz. Their finest film -- certainly my favorite, anyway -- is this 1988 comic crime caper, about two con men: one a dapper English gentleman-thief (played to perfection by Michael Caine), the other a rather loutish and crude American (Martin) who find themselves as rivals working their confidence schemes in the town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. Trying to outwit each other, the men make a bet that whichever one can successfully scam the fortune of a newly-arrived, naive young woman from the Midwest (Glenne Headley) will have complete run of the territory, although this task turns out to be far more complicated than either of them had anticipated.

The film feels like a throwback to those continental heist pictures of the '60s, filled with impossibly sophisticated characters and exotic locations. There are also very funny moments of low humor, especially involving Martin's unforgettable impersonation of "Ruprecht the monkey-boy". Although Martin is at his comic peak here, Michael Caine very nearly steals the film from him, as the suave, elegant crook -- the kind of role that David Niven specialized in years earlier.* It's great fun watching them match wits, trying to one-up each other in surprising and unexpected ways. Oz has to be given much credit for keeping the proceedings reined in enough that they never go too far, never disrupting the tone or style he has achieved so well. His impeccable gift for directing comedy has never been better served than it is here. Certainly one of the best comedies of the decade.

*Upon further research, I learned that this film was indeed a remake of a 1964 Universal comedy, THE BEDTIME STORY, which indeed starred David Niven in the role played by Michael Caine here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Turks & Caicos (TV, 2014)

An offbeat but gripping political thriller produced for British television and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Contemporary" anthology series. Bill Nighy plays Johnnie Worricker, a former MI-5 agent who gets involved with an eccentric and unorthodox CIA agent (Christopher Walken) to bring to justice a group of businessmen who have been defrauding the US government for millions of dollars in the process of building prisoner-of-war camps.

Writer-director David Hare crafts an exciting political mystery around this premise, creating in the process an odd contrast between the contemporary setting and the seemingly-deliberate stylistic throwback to what feels like it could have been a late '80s-early '90s erotic thriller, complete with a moody, saxophone-heavy jazz soundtrack and little touches, such as tape-recorded answering machines, that seem slightly anachronistic. Whether or not this is intentional, I'm not sure, but it undoubtedly contributes to the fun and off-kilter tone of the piece. Hare also successfully implies a much larger and overwhelming sense of political conspiracy that moves well beyond the immediate characters and surroundings, wisely avoiding needlessly-complicated set pieces in favor of emphasizing the tensions and relationships between the characters and the various political organizations involved.

Nighy and Walken are especially fun to watch. Nighy brings just the right amount of "secret agent cool" to the part without losing any of the character's world-weary sadness and sincerity; indeed, one of the most effective aspects of the character is his touching friendship with a local policeman and the native islanders. Walken is clearly having a ball playing the two-faced CIA agent, delivering very much an over-the-top "Christopher Walken performance" that borders on the comical and absurd at times, and yet it fits right in with the off-balance world that Hare has created in this unique thriller. The top-notch supporting cast includes Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Rupert Graves and Ewen Bremner. This was a follow-up to David Hare's earlier "Johnnie Worricker" thriller PAGE EIGHT (2011).

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)


Could this be the crowning achievement of the Hollywood studio system? It's certainly a perfect example of what that system, and especially MGM -- the mightiest of studios -- was capable of producing at its peak. It holds up as a phenomenally entertaining and exceptionally well-mounted production, one that never grows dull even after multiple repeat viewings. Frank Lloyd had purchased the rights to the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, based on the events of the 1787 mutiny on board HMS Bounty, and in turn sold the rights to MGM on condition he could direct. Lloyd and Irving Thalberg produced the film for MGM, pouring the studio's full resources into the production as their big blockbuster film of the year, and the results are nothing less than spectacular. Charles Laughton gives one of his finest performances -- in a career full of fine performances -- as the brutal and sadistic Captain Bligh. Clark Gable's noble, heroic Fletcher Christian rivals his performance as Rhett Butler in GONE WITH THE WIND as his best work. The 132 minute running time flies by -- thanks to the excellent script and editing, there isn't a wasted moment in any of it. Every scene, indeed every shot, achieves its maximum potential. A truly masterful combination of art and entertainment.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Life With Father (1947)


A delightful and charming film, adapted from the Lindsay-Crouse Broadway hit about late-19th century Wall Street broker Clarence Day, whose devoted wife and children slyly but lovingly undermine his authority as the head of the household. A nostalgic look at the past and a richly-developed family comedy, the Broadway show was the longest-running non-musical play at the time, and the film adaptation, produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Michael Curtiz, appears to try very hard to stay true to its theatrical origins. The results work well due to Curtiz' expert direction, which manages to remain visually interesting throughout, achieving some subtly effective camera movements within the limited space of the Madison Ave. house and courtyard set. Indeed, it appears little effort was made to open the play up for the screen at all -- with only a few exterior street scenes taken on the backlot -- but when the source material and performances are this strong, it's hard to argue with the approach. It is more low-key than one might expect from a 1940s Hollywood comedy, trading the fast pace and clever dialogue of the screwball style for a slower, warmer, genteel kind of humor that arises naturally out of the characters.

The production design, costumes, and Technicolor cinematography all evoke a strong period atmosphere, bathed in hazy, pastel tones that conjure up a wistful sense of nostalgia for times gone by. William Powell gives one of the very best performances of his career as the stern but affectionate father, with Irene Dunne equally superb as his wife, and the two create a genuinely touching and rich screen couple. They are ably supported by Elizabeth Taylor in a really sweet and charming performance, as well as the fine character actors ZaSu Pitts and Edmund Gwenn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Call of the Wild (1935)


Rousing good adventure yarn, from the Jack London classic. The combination of director William Wellman and star Clark Gable is an inspired match for the material, bringing out all the rugged, masculine qualities of the story. This is exactly the kind of role Gable could play better than anyone else, and he gives one of his best performances here, achieving a real chemistry with co-star Loretta Young. Jack Oakie is the likable comic support, and he does his usually fine job in that capacity. The script, by Gene Fowler and Leonard Praskins, provides a winning combination of humor and romance between the action, and Wellman balances all of these elements expertly.

It's a handsomely-shot production, too, with location footage combined with indoor sets that convincingly give the impression of the great outdoors, greatly enhanced by Charles Rosher's striking cinematography. Special mention should be made of the excellent direction of the animal actors, too, especially of the expressive and really quite touching performance of the lead dog, Buck. Wellman's eye for expansive scenery and the natural beauty of the wilderness adds immeasurably to the power of this great film, really one of the best of its kind made in Hollywood.

Death Comes to Pemberley (TV, 2014)

Two-part miniseries, produced for British TV and aired on PBS as part of the "Masterpiece Mystery" anthology program. An elaborate yet tasteful adaptation of P.D. James' novel, which incorporates the characters from Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" into a mystery plotline involving the murder of a British soldier in the woods on the Pemberley estate. I have not read the James novel, but it's an interesting concept to watch a murder mystery unfold in the world of Jane Austen with her familiar characters, and the adaptation to the screen appears to  have been served quite well by writer Juliette Towhidi. Director Daniel Percival manages to create real suspense out of the tensions between the characters and situations; his handling of the climax, with its last-minute race to the rescue, is especially effective. The production design is, not surprisingly, first-rate and at times stunning in its opulence. The fine cast includes Matthew Rhys as Darcy, Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, Matthew Goode as Wickham, Tom Ward as Col. Fitzwilliam, and Trevor Eve as Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, who acts as the investigator in the case. Recommended for Austen fans and "whodunit" enthusiasts alike.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)


Haunting character drama, written, directed by and starring Orson Welles as Mr. Clay, an eccentric, wealthy old American living in Macao who elaborately re-creates an old sailor's legend using people he has picked out to play the parts in this little story. Made in 1968 for French television, Welles achieves some remarkable effects even on the obviously tight budget. It's very much a film about its own plot, with Welles, ever the master storyteller, as a kind of puppet master controlling the destinies of his characters. Featuring Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, and Norman Eshley; Welles' script, co-written with Louise de Vilmorin, was based on a novel by Karen Blixen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Benson Murder Case (1930)


Routine entry in the "Philo Vance" series, with William Powell in his third turn as S.S. Van Dine's amateur detective investigating the murder of a ruthless stockbroker. It's a little unusual in that the murder doesn't take place until roughly halfway through the film, and as a result it takes a while to really get going.

This was the third and final of the Vance films produced by Paramount, before the series switched over to Warner Bros. Frank Tuttle's direction here is noticeably less fluid than in the previous two entries he helmed. The fine supporting cast includes series regulars Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath and E.H. Calvert as District Attorney Markham, and Natalie Moorhead, William "Stage" Boyd, Paul Lukas, Richard Tucker, and Mischa Auer. Overall, it is certainly a bit static and creaky, but Powell's typically suave and charming performance is enough to recommend it.

The Curtain Pole (1909)


Early American slapstick comedy, directed by D.W. Griffith and starring future comedy producer Mack Sennett as a French dandy who goes in search of a new curtain pole to replace the one he has broken. Transporting the pole back through the streets, he proceeds to wreck everything in his path, causing the irate townspeople to give chase.

It is an atypical effort for Griffith, and a rather impersonal one, being just one of the many short subjects he directed for Biograph during this time (and shot on the streets of Fort Lee, NJ). While it demonstrates his penchant for rousing chase sequences, the staging and editing feel loose and rather clumsy compared to his best dramatic efforts of the period, though are certainly moments of effective slapstick (mostly involving Sennett in a runaway carriage). Clearly inspired by the French chase comedies of the Pathe company, it is mainly of interest now as a forerunner of the kind of screen comedy that its star would perfect at Keystone a few years later.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frankenstein (1931)

This is a film I have seen many times over the years (including three times with an audience) and a film whose reputation as an influential classic of its genre has always seemed justified to me on the basis of Karloff's iconic performance. He achieves a combination of almost childlike innocence and fear which make his actions and responses to the world around him all the more tragic.

If I have one criticism of the film, it's that Whale's sometimes campy approach to the material too often undercuts the power of Karloff's incredibly poignant and haunting performance for me. There are a number of scenes -- such as the hunchback stealing the wrong brain, the inopportune arrival of Frankenstein's fiancée and company at his laboratory, and the Monster showing up at Frankenstein's wedding -- in which Whale seems to be actively resisting the tragic tone of the story. In my experience, seen with an audience, it unfortunately tends to provoke distracting laughter throughout, in part a reflection of the audience's over-familiarity with the situations through countless imitations and parody over the years, but also disconcerting in how much of the response seems intentional as a result of the direction.

For a long time, I preferred this film over Universal's other landmark horror film of the same year, DRACULA, which I found stagy and creaky in comparison to FRANKENSTEIN's stylish direction and fluid cinematography. Now, I find DRACULA more effective in its dreamlike, almost ethereal atmosphere and the sense of dread that Lugosi's performance produces, but FRANKENSTEIN continues to impress me for the deep humanity Karloff achieves in playing the Monster.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Haunting (1963)

An intelligent, atmospheric gothic horror film, adapted from the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House", about a New England manor that is possessed by the tortured spirits of its past inhabitants. Julie Harris delivers a strong and nuanced performance as the sad, tormented Eleanor Lance, who is called to take part in a paranormal research project at the house, and who gradually descends into hysteria as a result of what she encounters there. Equally effective in their parts are Richard Johnson as the somewhat overzealous paranormal investigator Dr. Markway, Claire Bloom as the mysterious Theo, possessed with ESP abilities, and Russ Tamblyn as Luke, the sarcastic skeptic of the group.

Robert Wise's direction shows the influence of his time spent working with Val Lewton's B-horror unit at RKO in the '40s, leaving the supernatural goings-on entirely to the audience's imagination, and borrowing heavily from Lewton's approach of using shadows and sound to conjure up effects far more horrifying than any on-screen depictions would be. Generally, the choice works here, but is perhaps less powerful than it could be, as it grows increasingly ineffective through repetition as the characters are menaced by off-screen wailing and pounding. Alternately, Wise seems unwilling to explore further the possibilities of the horror being purely psychological, the result of Eleanor's past experiences, rather than something explicitly supernatural.

Still, it's undeniably an expertly-directed and splendidly-mounted production, with a really fine cast and exceptional production design. Wise's endlessly creative and skillful use of the screen space is particularly admirable, moving the characters deftly through the cavernous, looming layout of the manor house in such a way that is both logical and yet disorienting in its perspective, greatly aided by the tight editing and sharp, deep focus photography.

Seen 10/25/14 at Loew's Jersey in a nice 35mm print.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Limousine Love (1928)


Very funny two-reel farce, with Charley Chase -- en route to his wedding -- finding himself stuck in a car with a woman who's lost her clothes, and her jealous husband who would kill them both if he found his wife with another man. The second half of the film, with Chase trying desperately to hide the woman with the help of both her unsuspecting husband and the entire wedding party, is a masterpiece of construction.

Chase milks the comic possibilities of this situation for all their worth, and creates a classic comedy of embarrassment that ranks among the very best of the films he made for Hal Roach. He's expertly directed here by Fred L. Guiol, and supported by a fine ensemble cast including master of the slow-burn Edgar Kennedy as the jealous husband, Viola Richard as the embarrassed wife, and Edna Marion as the suspicious bride-to-be.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thale (2012)

I was in the mood for a break from the usual Hollywood fare tonight, and this Norwegian sci-fi fantasy fit the bill just fine. A pair of young men, who run a cleaning service specializing in bloody crime scenes, are called out on a job at a remote station in the woods. Once there, they discover a young woman with a troubled past who turns out to be a mythical, tailed creature that inhabits the woods, and is being hunted by the ruthless scientists who have been performing experiments on her since childhood.

Shot on a low budget, it is a bit slow going at times, especially toward the end, but it's nonetheless an effective and haunting supernatural flick that lives up to the potential of its unusual premise, and its atmospheric sense of unease and dread is certainly a welcome change from the shock-a-minute torture porn typical of the horror films coming out of Hollywood these days.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

I watched this one for the first time tonight and was not prepared for how it moved me. Bogdanovich's film is set in a small town in Texas, and is an evocative portrait of a group of young people on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to come into their own. Having grown up in a similarly small town myself, it certainly struck a chord with me as one of the best depictions of the sense of malaise and directionlessness endemic to that milieu.

It deals fundamentally with America's present by reflecting on its past -- how did we get here from where we've been? Watching it in 2014, it inspires further reflection on the fact that it's impossible to imagine a film like this being made today.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mammy (1930)


Excellent Al Jolson vehicle and pre-Code musical drama, from the Irving Berlin play, about romance and intrigue behind the scenes of a traveling minstrel show. Al, the troupe's endman and star attraction, is in love with manager's daughter, but finds himself accused of the attempted murder of the company interlocutor after real bullets are substituted in his prop gun during the act one night.

Berlin's hit songs include "Across the Breakfast Table, Looking at You", "Night Boat to Albany", "Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?", and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", all performed with great gusto by Jolson. Louise Dresser turns in a touching performance as Al's mother. Directed with snappy pacing by Michael Curtiz, and featuring sequences shot in 2-color Technicolor, capturing the atmosphere of the minstrel show with a vibrant sense of immediacy and authenticity.

Clarence Cheats at Croquet (1915)

A pleasant and genteel little comedy, produced by the Thanhouser company in New Rochelle, NY -- one of the many films produced by this pioneering studio in the early days of motion pictures. The premise is standard stuff, centering around a croquet match between two opponents squaring off for the affection of a young woman.

Nicely photographed and deliberately paced with mild slapstick and subdued characterizations. Of special interest now as an example of the wide range of short comedy subjects being produced at that time outside of the major comedy "factories" like Keystone.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hatchet Man (1932)


Bizarre, lurid pre-Code melodrama, directed by William Wellman and starring Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, the "hatchet man" (a highly-respected assassin) for the warring Tong factions in San Francisco's Chinatown. When he is dispatched to kill his closest friend, Wong Low takes charge of the man's daughter. Years pass and Wong Low marries the now-grown daughter (Loretta Young), but she is in love with another man, and this discovery causes Wong Low's life to fall apart around him. When he learns that the other man has dishonored his wife and sold her in to sexual slavery, Wong Low sets out to seek revenge.

The absurdity of seeing stars like Robinson and Loretta Young playing Chinese characters in yellowface is worsened by the insensitive, simplistic characterizations and awkward, uncomfortable cultural stereotyping (with characters frequently either speaking in proverbs or engaging in barbaric fighting), and is representative of the inherent racism in the "Yellow Peril" trope so prevalent in Hollywood films -- and American culture in general -- during this time.

One of the lesser films that Wellman made during this prolific and interesting period of his career for Warner Bros., his normally subtle and economic directorial style too often lapses into heavy-handed symbolism and other effects that call unnecessary attention to themselves (such as filming Robinson's murder of his friend in silhouette). Despite the obviously problematic nature of his role, Robinson's performance is otherwise characteristically sensitive and restrained, while the rest of the cast-- which includes Leslie Fenton, Dudley Digges, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall and J. Carrol Naish -- fares far less well in their parts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

English Without Tears (1944)


Dry British romantic farce -- by Terrence Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald -- about a wealthy, eccentric amateur ornithologist (delightfully played by Margaret Rutherford) who travels to the League of Nations on a mission to protect the rights of English birds at home and abroad. Her campaign is interrupted both by the outbreak of war, and a budding, complicated romance between her daughter and the family butler, now an enlisted man in the British army.

Both a comedy of manners and a mild satire on British wartime attitudes, with amusing dialogue and a good performance by Rutherford that showcases her considerable gifts for playing comedy. The cast also includes Michael Wilding, Penelope Dudley-Ward, Lilli Palmer, and Albert Lieven, under the direction of Harold French. AKA HER MAN GILBEY.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Hello, Sister! (1933)


Erich von Stroheim's first talkie -- and final directorial effort -- was this surprisingly frank and grim pre-Code romantic drama, based on an unproduced play by Dawn Powell, about a young couple struggling to find happiness in Depression-era New York. Originally titled WALKING DOWN BROADWAY, Stroheim had his version of the film taken out of his hands by Fox producers Winfield Sheehan and Sol Wurtzel, who re-worked it with new footage shot by a team of directors reported to include Alfred L. Werker, Raoul Walsh and Alan Crosland (though the final film contains no directorial credit), and released it as HELLO SISTER in 1933, which was a commercial failure. That failure, combined with the wild and untrue rumors surrounding the production regarding Stroheim's supposed excesses (in reality, he brought the film in on-budget and ahead of schedule), spelled the end of his career as a filmmaker. Stroheim's original cut of the film was destroyed, and even the theatrical release version was long thought to be lost until a print was recovered by William K. Everson in the 1970s.

Seen today, it's a fascinating and frustrating work. It is disappointing that Stroheim's original cut has not survived, but what remains -- even after the studio tampering -- is an exceptional film in many ways. It is -- despite the multitude of directors involved in its final incarnation -- an astonishingly personal film, too, filled with Stroheim's stylistic and thematic touches that are startlingly powerful and brilliant in their simplicity. James Wong Howe's cinematography is exquisite as usual; there is one camera move in particular -- a slow tracking shot on a mural of "The Last Supper" -- that is breathtaking for its sheer perfection. The fine cast includes earnest and sympathetic James Dunn, the lovely Boots Mallory, tough, sexy Minna Gombell, and most effectively, ZaSu Pitts in an intriguingly offbeat and quirky performance that one wishes there remained more of in the final film. Overall, a flawed but noble end to Stroheim's remarkable filmmaking career.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Outside the Law (1930)


Edward G. Robinson stars in this tough pre-code crime drama -- directed by Tod Browning -- about a crook and his girlfriend who double-cross a local crime boss when they attempt to pull off a high-stakes bank heist in his territory at Christmas. A remake of Browning's 1921 silent film of the same name, this was his second talkie, and his first in a three-picture deal with Universal (the story -- by Browning and Garrett Fort -- would be filmed for a third time, also at Universal, in 1946 under the title INSIDE JOB).

It's interesting to see Robinson playing a gangster a year before his breakout performance in LITTLE CAESAR, and indeed, his "Cobra" Collins here seems like a prototype of Rico Bandello, especially with his distinctive delivery of gangland slang. Robinson is always a delight to watch, as he struts around like a rooster with his cocksure posturing, looking impeccably stylish and puffing on a cigar. It's easy to see the qualities here that brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. and would make him a star. Robinson is one of those actors for whom the sound film medium seemed to be invented; like Cagney, he's endlessly fascinating in how he uses his voice and body in subtle but highly expressive ways, and that is evident even in this early role, where he commands attention every time he is on screen.

Unfortunately, things get deadly dull when he is off-screen, especially in the second half which spends long stretches of time with bickering crooks Mary Nolan and Owen Moore, neither of whom seem particularly at ease in their roles. The plot drags interminably through their scenes together, taking place in a single, claustrophobic apartment set, only picking up a bit at the end during their final confrontation with Cobra, but by this point any tension in the drama has fizzled, and the ending is dramatically unsatisfying as a result.

Still, it's nicely shot by Roy Overbaugh, with some effective high-contrast lighting in the bank heist scenes, and filled with some of Browning's trademark flourishes, especially his emphasis on certain props to reveal character details, and his affinity with sideshows and dime museums (in the form of a bizarre "living art" exhibit). Browning's talkies are frustrating experiences because they are largely stagy, static affairs, yet often contain tantalizing traces of his distinctive visual style that made his silent films so interesting even when the plots were absurd. This one is no exception, but it makes an interesting counterpart to his earlier filming of the same story.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

So This is Love (1928)


An enjoyable if decidedly minor romantic comedy, about a timid dressmaker and a brutish prizefighter battling it out over the affection of a charming delicatessen girl. Pleasantly acted by Shirley Mason, Johnnie Walker and William Collier Jr., and skillfully directed by Capra with characteristic sincerity and verve. His handling of the climactic boxing match -- both well-staged and tightly-edited -- is especially effective.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Singing Fool (1928)


This wildly popular follow-up to THE JAZZ SINGER is probably the best of the Al Jolson vehicles made at Warners. The story -- about a nightclub singer who rises meteorically to the top, loses his wife to another man and his son to illness, and hits rock bottom before finding redemption through his music -- is pure schmaltz, but it undeniably works thanks to Jolson's charismatic performance and energy. The charming Betty Bronson appears opposite Jolson here, and four-year-old Davey Lee is a standout as the tragic "Sonny Boy".

Despite the heavy-handedness of the material (strains of "Vesti la guibba" play on the soundtrack as the broken-hearted Jolson applies his blackface makeup), the film features some of Jolson's best and bounciest tunes, including "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World", though extant prints of the film are missing the delightfully corny "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life", which was cut shortly after release for copyright reasons. The hit song from the film, "Sonny Boy", is sung no fewer than three times, most dramatically at the film's climax, when the melodrama reaches a fever pitch as Jolson is forced to perform the tune before an audience just moments after his son's death.

With its winning combination of Jolson's dynamic screen presence, first-rate songs and the novelty of sound, the film was a wild hit when released  in 1928, and went on to become the highest-grossing American film until GONE WITH THE WIND eleven years later.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Night and the City (1950)


An exceptionally strong film, certainly one of Jules Dassin's most remarkable achievements, and one of the very best post-war crime dramas. Evocatively photographed on location in London (due to 20th Century-Fox having some finances tied up there after the war), the B&W cinematography and settings create a highly stylized yet seedy, gritty and hellishly sinister atmosphere. Dassin maintains a relentlessly bleak and cynical tone throughout, right up to the fatalistic ending.

Richard Widmark is perfectly cast as the desperate hustler Harry Fabian, a maniacal sociopath driven only by self-interest, who has his eyes set on controlling the entire wrestling industry in London. His grand ambitions cause him to stop at nothing to get what he wants, but when his scheme goes fatally awry, he finds himself betrayed by the people whose lives he has destroyed in pursuit of success. Widmark's characteristically intense performance must rank as one of his finest.

Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Hugh Marlowe, and Francis L. Sullivan make up the fine supporting cast, but special mention really should be made of Herbert Lom as the ruthless wrestling kingpin and Mike Mazurki as the murderous prizefighter.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Desert Song (1943)


Lavish Technicolor musical and action-packed adventure story, adapted from the 1926 Romberg operetta -- here updated to take place in the days right before the second World War -- about an American pianist in French Morocco who secretly fights to defend the Arabs against the Nazis.

Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning make for appealing leads, but lack the chemistry to make the most of the film's romantic plot. The good supporting cast includes Bruce Cabot, Gene Lockhart, Faye Emerson, Curt Bois, Marcel Dalio and Nestor Paiva, but none of them are given much to do with their characters. Only Lynne Overman as Morgan's friend, a wise-cracking American journalist eager to get a big scoop, really makes an impression.

Director Robert Florey was always an interesting craftsman, one who was interested in experimentation, but who never seemed to really develop a distinctive visual style of his own. As a result, much of the film is shot flat and conventionally, with occasional visual flourishes and interesting camera angles, especially during the music numbers, that call attention to themselves rather than working as part of the overall style. Still, his skillful handling of the rousing action sequences is admirable.

Long unavailable due to rights issues, it has recently become available again in a restored version that does justice to the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography (by Bert Glennon) which gives the film much of its appeal and heightens its stylized, fantastic qualities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Greene Murder Case (1929)


Second film in the "Philo Vance" series, with William Powell returning after THE CANARY MURDER CASE as S.S. Van Dine's debonair amateur sleuth. Also returning from the previous film in able support are E.H. Calvert as District Attorney Markham and Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath, as well as Jean Arthur, albeit in a different role this time.

The plot is a standard whodunit: when members of the Greene family -- each of whom stand to inherit part of a fortune -- start turning up dead in their own home, Philo Vance is called in to help the police solve the murders.

Worth noting are some moments of especially fluid camerawork for an early talkie such as this, and a well-staged action climax on the roof of the family mansion, featuring an impressive combination of live-action and matte work to suggest the full scale of the house. Powell and Pallette are a great deal of fun to watch together, and keep the proceedings lively with moments of tongue-in-cheek humor. A solid piece of well-crafted, unpretentious entertainment that works perfectly well for what it is.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Ghost Train (1941)


A fun, entertaining little British comedy-mystery, based on the oft-filmed play by Arnold Ridley and updated to a contemporary (World War II) time frame, about a group of passengers who get stranded on a dark and stormy night at a remote train station in the middle of the countryside that is reputedly haunted by a phantom train.

There are plenty of chills and suspenseful moments, though there is also a great deal of silly humor in the form of British music hall comedian Arthur Askey. His good-natured silliness is rather endearing, even if his character is called on by the script to annoy the other characters to no end (and perhaps works a little too well in this regard at times). Much of the fun comes simply from watching the interaction of the colorful cast of characters, especially Kathleen Harrison as the spinsterly Miss Bourne and Herbert Lomas as the ominous stationmaster. Walter Forde's direction does a fine job in balancing the mystery and the comedy, while Jack Cox's shadowy cinematography adds considerably to the suspenseful atmosphere. Recommended viewing for fans of the genre.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Miracles for Sale (1939)


Tod Browning's final film is an entertaining if rather tepid supernatural mystery about a magician who becomes involved in helping the police to solve the murder of a phony spiritualist. Running a brisk 68 minutes, it has the feel of a B programmer, though produced with characteristically high production values by MGM and greatly aided by Browning's distinctive style.

The story (based on Clayton Rawson's book, "Death from a Top Hat") seems tailor made for Browning, given its themes of magic, deception, crime, and the supernatural. Robert Young and Florence Rice make for appealing leads, and they are ably supported by a good cast including the likes of Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Cliff Clark, and William Demarest. There are some good atmospheric thrills but also some moments of cornball humor that work against the macabre tone. It's a minor film, to be sure, but a fine and fitting swan song for this most unique director.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Excellent piece of action-adventure filmmaking combined with historical fiction. Seeing it again for the first time since its initial theatrical run, I was struck by just how well it works. The nearly 2 1/2 hour running time moves briskly from scene to scene without ever lagging, and maintains its energy from the quiet tension of the first sequence to the explosive catharsis of the final shot.

The opening sequence in particular marks a new stylistic maturity for Tarantino. A superb ensemble cast, excellent editing and photography, and a tight script come together under Tarantino's expert direction to create an entertaining pastiche of war pictures and Spaghetti westerns. I'm partial to JACKIE BROWN, but this may be the best film Tarantino has yet directed. All of the elements come together splendidly here.

Ninotchka (1939)


This is the third of four films that Ernst Lubitsch made for MGM (he'd previously directed THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG and THE MERRY WIDOW for the studio, and would direct THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER the following year). MGM was not a studio known for being particularly hospitable to highly personal filmmakers like Lubitsch, but it did excel at producing polished, sophisticated romantic comedies, and the result here is one of Lubitsch's finest films. Though perhaps a little softer around the edges than his earlier films for Paramount, with the sexual innuendos toned down due to the production code, there are still some biting satirical jokes -- mainly about Communism and the Soviet Union -- that deliver a punch thanks to the sharp writing of Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. It's stylistically a bit more restrained than Lubitsch's Paramount comedies, but benefits greatly from the sumptuous Cedric Gibbons art direction and sparkling William Daniels cinematography.

Garbo is quite funny in her rare, highly-publicized comic turn, with a dry, understated delivery that is perfectly suited to the character of the icy Soviet envoy, though it is Melvyn Douglas who delivers some of the film's biggest laughs, demonstrating here what a fine light comedian he was, especially in his failed attempts to get Ninotchka to crack a smile with his corny jokes. The supporting cast is superb, especially Ina Claire as the former Russian aristocrat trying to reclaim her confiscated jewels; Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the trio of Russian agents on official business in Paris who find themselves seduced by capitalism; and Bela Lugosi in a brief but effective turn as the commissar. The final gag is a classic, and one of the funniest moments in Lubitsch's entire filmography.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Napoleon (1909)


Extremely condensed telling of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, covering everything from his schooldays at Brienne to his death in just 15 minutes! Produced by the Pathe company, it necessarily presents only brief tableaux, all shot in largely static compositions.

Of particular interest is the snowball fight that opens the film. Watching this scene, shot in a single take with the boys chaotically hurling the snowballs at eachother, one can't help but compare it with Abel Gance's handling of the same scene in his later film.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)


Middling late-career Lubitsch comedy, with Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas as a couple whose marriage is tested when Oberon begins to question her happiness. The humor in Donald Ogden Stewart and Walter Reisch's script is pretty mild, and Oberon and Douglas lack the chemistry to really make the material work. Burgess Meredith, however, is quite effective as the neurotic, temperamental concert pianist who comes between the couple. Overall it feels less like a film by Lubitsch, and more like a work by a lesser director attempting to make a comedy in the Lubitsch style.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nothing But the Truth (1929)


Roaring '20s farce about an affable and ambitious young stockbroker (Richard Dix) with a penchant for stretching the truth who enters into a bet for $10,000 that he can go 24 hours without telling a single lie, which predictably leads to all sorts of complications.

It's a fine premise for a comedy, with the bet providing a fun plot device reminiscent of BREWSTER'S MILLIONS. However, Victor Schertzinger's direction lacks the energy and quick pacing required of a madcap farce like this, not helped by the primitive qualities of the early sound technology, and Dix seems rather awkward in this rare comic turn. The production is enlivened by some nice art deco set design, pre-code dialogue (by William Collier Sr.), and good supporting cast including Berton Churchill, Helen Kane, Wynne Gibson and Ned Sparks. Produced by Paramount at their Long Island Studio in New York.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Inner Sanctum (1948)


I'm a sucker for old time radio dramas, and one of my favorite of these is "Inner Sanctum". This film borrows only the title from the series; the story is an original, and while the premise -- about a man on the run after accidentally killing his girlfriend and hiding out in a boarding house that just happens to belong to the mother of the boy who witnessed the murder -- would have made an effective half hour episode, it loses tension and the suspense lags even with its short 62 minute running time.

The always-reliable Lew Landers brings his usual craftsmanship to the direction, which is unobtrusive but effective. Charles Russell and Mary Beth Hughes make for bland leads, with the best performances coming from the supporting cast which includes Nana Bryant, Lee Patrick, Billy House and Roscoe Ates (here minus his trademark stutter). An average little suspense thriller; fans should stick to the radio program.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Bohemian Girl (1936)

This comedy version of the Balfe opera starring Laurel and Hardy is not one of the team's best features, but is still quite enjoyable. By this point in their career, they had moved into making features exclusively, and producer Hal Roach was eager to repeat the success of THE DEVIL'S BROTHER from three years earlier by putting them into another lavishly-produced comic operetta.

The result is a funny if uneven film that, despite being based on an established stage property, is ultimately tailored as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy, and thus is mainly of interest to fans of the team. It follows the general story of the opera with the boys as the gypsies who raise a nobleman's kidnapped daughter as their own, but the comic scenes are for the most part isolated sharply from the main "plot" scenes. It's less a parody and more a straight telling of the story with the comedy sandwiched in.

While it is undoubtedly heavy on plot and music, Laurel and Hardy's scenes contain some excellent comic material. Highlights include the boys' attempt at telling fortunes, Oliver's altercations with shrewish wife Mae Busch, and Stan bottling wine and getting increasingly tipsy in the process (a particularly brilliant scene that ranks as one of Laurel's finest moments in any of their films). The funniest moment is also the simplest: Oliver sees Stan eating a banana and tells him to give him part of it, and Stan casually hands him the peel, which Oliver just tosses away with a resigned shrug. A little gag like that is all they need to reduce me to tears of laughter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bohemian Girl (1922)


British silent film adaptation of the Michael W. Balfe opera about the daughter of an Austrian nobleman -- kidnapped in childhood by gypsies -- who, unaware of her royal heritage, falls in love with a young renegade Polish soldier seeking refuge in the gypsies' band from her father's troops. Upon learning her true identity, the girl is torn between her noble background and her love for the young soldier. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Gladys Cooper, Ivor Novello, C. Aubrey Smith, Constance Collier, and celebrated English theater star Ellen Terry in a rare screen appearance.

Harley Knoles' direction is generally unremarkable, favoring wide, static compositions and flat lighting throughout, and relies too heavily on title cards to convey the plot. Still, it's undeniably an elaborately-produced film with its lavish period settings and costumes, and there is one camera move -- a high-angle tracking shot across the length of the ballroom set -- that stands out as a singularly impressive bit of technical flourish. It also reflects the international talent -- both in front of and behind the camera -- that English films of this period frequently employed, and stands as an interesting work in the all-too-often neglected history of British silent cinema. Interestingly, the assistant director was Josef von Sternberg, and it's tempting to consider what he could have done with the material if given the opportunity. Originally released at eight reels, surviving copies are missing the first two reels.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Just Imagine (1930)


Sci-fi musical comedy set in New York City of 1980, where citizens are identified only by their serial number and marriages are arranged by the state. Trying to describe the plot of this zany film is a bit complicated: it involves a young man, J-21 (John Garrick), who volunteers for an experimental mission to Mars after the court rejects his application to marry his true love, LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan). But this set-up is just a pretense for a parade of bouncy Brown-DeSylva-Henderson tunes, neat retro special effects, pre-code sex jokes, and a chorus of scantily-clad Martian dancing girls.

There's also a visitor from the past (1930, that is) played by comedian El Brendel, who is brought back to life as part of a scientific experiment and then unceremoniously left to fend for himself as soon as the doctor is through with him, and one's enjoyment of the film may depend on one's tolerance for Brendel's vaudeville shtick delivered in his trademark "Swedish" accent, a little of which can go a long way. David Butler's direction keeps the show moving at a good pace, and the music numbers benefit from clever choreography by Seymour Felix. However, the main attraction here is the set design by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, a delirious blend of Art Deco and Futurism that is among the very best of its kind and recalls Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. Good, pre-code fun.

The Canary Murder Case (1929)


First of the "Philo Vance" screen adaptations, starring William Powell as S.S. Van Dine's suave, urbane sleuth as he uncovers the murderer of a blackmailing showgirl known as "The Canary". Originally made as a silent film and directed by Malcolm St. Clair, it was re-tooled as a talkie by Paramount, with some of the silent footage dubbed, and new scenes shot with synchronized sound by director Frank Tuttle. The result is a sometimes awkward and static hybrid that is nonetheless a solid and entertaining whodunit.

Powell's remarkably assured and comfortable performance in this early talkie demonstrates the qualities that would soon make him a major star, and he would go on to play Vance again in three more films. The supporting cast includes James Hall as a young man blackmailed by the scheming showgirl, Jean Arthur as his girlfriend, Ned Sparks as the showgirl's gangster husband, Eugene Pallette as sputtering Sgt. Heath, and silent screen icon Louise Brooks in a brief but memorable role as "The Canary" of the title.

Though Brooks filmed her scenes for the silent version, disagreements with Paramount caused her to refuse to come back to dub her lines, so her dialogue is instead spoken by Margaret Livingston. This was Brooks' final film before leaving for a brief but celebrated career in Germany, where she famously made two films with director G.W. Pabst. Though she would return shortly afterward, her career in Hollywood never recovered and she retired in 1938.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Black Hand (1906)

"Ripped from the headlines" crime drama about a group of extortionists who threaten to harm a local businessman's daughter unless he pays them off; when he refuses, they kidnap her and hold her for ransom until the police rescue her.

Photographed by Billy Bitzer with a documentary-like authenticity, especially in the kidnapping scene, which plays out in an extended long take as pedestrians move about in the background until the girl enters the shot and is whisked away by the gangsters in a waiting carriage. The action unfolds like a procedural, depicting in great detail the methods of the police to track and rescue the girl. The direction and photography maintain a realistic style throughout, though the scenes shot on painted sets lack the immediacy of the street scenes.

This was one of the many narrative films directed by Wallace McCutcheon for the Biograph company before Griffith's arrival, and a good argument could be made that it was he, rather than Porter, who played the more significant role in establishing storytelling approaches in early American cinema.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Jackie Brown (1997)

Probably my favorite Tarantino film. I didn't see this one until after I had seen the rest of his filmography, and had heard mixed reactions toward it even from confirmed Tarantino fans, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Coming between his earlier works and the KILL BILL films, it forgoes stylistic excess in favor of plot and character. Working from Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" as his source material, Tarantino creates an interesting cinematic pastiche borrowing from earlier crime dramas and the Blaxploitation genre, and deftly combines the two with his assured direction. Despite its 2 1/2 hour running time, it never lags and the suspenseful climax is particularly well-handled in being presented from the different perspectives of the characters involved.  Great cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda, among others. Reportedly Leonard's own favorite among the many film adaptations of his work.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Medicine Man (1930)


Jack Benny stars in a rare dramatic turn in this odd and rather unpleasant melodrama. A charming but predatory snake oil salesman, in town with his medicine show to bilk the locals, strikes up a romance with a vulnerable young woman who, along with her younger brother, suffers cruel abuse at the hands of her father.

Benny is surprisingly effective as the medicine show huckster, making the character's sympathetic turn at the end believable through his usual affable personality. But the film's attempt at a happy ending is undercut by the relentless cruelty and meanness of many of the scenes, and the overall effect leaves a bad taste.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Informer (1929)


British part-talkie version of the Liam O'Flaherty play -- later famously filmed by John Ford in 1935 -- about an IRA member, Gypo Nolan, who has a crisis of conscience when he informs on a fellow party member, Francis McPhillip, wanted for murder, resulting in McPhillip's death at the hands of the police, and an ill-gotten cash reward for Nolan.

The great Swedish actor Lars Hanson offers an interesting interpretation of Gypo Nolan, quite different from Victor McLaglen's take on the character in the Ford remake. Hanson brings a real intensity to the role, conveying the character's haunted conscience and sense of guilt from the moment he betrays his comrade, and the knowledge of the inevitable fate that awaits him in return for his actions. This was also the final film of Hungarian actress Lya De Putti, who delivers a strong performance as Nolan's girlfriend, who has her own crisis of conscience when the IRA leaders come looking for him.

Made during the transitional period for sound film technology, it is an odd hybrid of silent footage (with music and effects) during the first half, and mostly synchronized dialogue in the second half (both Hanson and De Putti are somewhat distractingly dubbed). Arthur Robison's direction is most distinctive in the silent sequences, aided greatly by the high-contrast cinematography of Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, and marked by a remarkably fluid use of the camera and editing, while the sound sequences are more stagy, too often bringing the action to a halt for the dialogue. The climax in the church is an exceptionally powerful and beautiful scene, with an effective combination of sound and image.