Saturday, May 31, 2014

Brazil (1985)

I finally saw this one for the first time last night, at Loew's Jersey. It's always a treat when you get to see a movie for the first time on the big screen with an audience, but in this case it was especially true, as Terry Gilliam's simultaneously comical and nightmarish vision of the future - or at least, a future - is one of the most overwhelming visual experiences I've yet encountered in a film.

The story involves a low-level bureaucrat's growing desire to escape the hellishly oppressive routine and stability of his station in life, leading to a conclusion so bleak that Universal, who released the film in the US, prepared an alternate version of the film with a more upbeat ending. Thankfully, Gilliam's version was eventually released to much deserving acclaim.

As a satire, it's exceptionally sharp, offering a biting commentary on conformity, commercialism, bureaucracy, state security, and big government, combined with gross-out humor and sight gags -- a Kafkaesque tale imbued with a Pythonesque comic sensibility. What is most impressive is how well Gilliam -- who co-wrote the film with Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard -- maintains the tone while deftly veering between the brilliant moments of comedy and truly terrifying images of torture, terrorism and gore.

The production design by Norman Garwood creates a screen city that is at once claustrophobic and seemingly endless in its sprawl, reminiscent of similarly stylized and expressive cities in films like BLADE RUNNER, METROPOLIS and SUNRISE. Gilliam also creates a disorienting time slip in filling this futuristic world with anachronistically quaint technology, costumes, and moving images (The Marx Bros.' creaky first film, THE COCOANUTS, is seen playing on TV toward the beginning). The atmosphere is enhanced by a soundtrack, scored by Michael Kamen, consisting largely of variations of Ary Barroso's evocative and haunting title song.

Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist give fine performances as the ill-fated protagonists, and are ably supported by such greats as Robert De Niro, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Holm and Jim Broadbent, all of whom create vivid characters that stand out among Gilliam's overwhelming screen world.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Exciting period drama -- adapted from the novel by the Baroness Orczy with a smart script by Lajos Biro, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood and Arthur Wimperis -- about a mysterious avenger, known only as the Scarlet Pimpernel, who saves French aristocrats from the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. One of the better films produced by Alexander Korda in Britain during the '30s, this story of intrigue and espionage during the French Revolution manages to combine a colorful historical flavor with the same kind of bawdy humor that made Korda's earlier THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII so enjoyable.

Leslie Howard is well-cast in the title role, transitioning effectively between his quite funny portrayal of the effete, foppish idler Sir Percy Blakeney, and his alter ego, the heroic and noble Pimpernel. Merle Oberon delivers a fine and touching performance as Blakeney's wife, who - unaware of her husband's heroic deeds - sees only his increasingly foppish pose and finds herself falling out of love with him as a result.

Raymond Massey is an excellent heavy as the dastardly Chauvelin. His understated performance is filled with enough real menace to make him a formidable opponent for the Pimpernel, while still maintaining a sinister charm when matching wits with the foppish Blakeney. The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, especially the always-delightful Nigel Bruce, who provides comic relief as the bumbling Prince of Wales.

Harold Young's direction is perfectly effective, but the necessity of covering a lot of plot in the film's 90 minute running time leaves little room for any deviation from the central plot points. Harold Rosson's black and white cinematography is often drab and devoid of any stylistic flourishes, showing no hint of the consummate artistry demonstrated in his prolific work for MGM during this period on some of that studio's top productions. The production values overall feel rather spare, with even Vincent Korda's period settings appearing rather flat and uninspired.

Still, there's much fun to be had here, especially for fans of historical intrigue, and it strongly benefits from its excellent performances and intelligent screenplay.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Don Jon (2013)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut is an offbeat character study of a young, working-class Italian-American whose life is divided between family, church, and hanging out with his friends, and who also happens to be a porn addict struggling to find a meaningful and lasting relationship among the many women in his life.

Gordon-Levitt turns in a surprisingly effective performance with a nuance that elevates it above the caricature into which it could have easily devolved. Scarlet Johansson delivers a tour-de-force as the controlling and manipulative woman who drives him back to porn, and Julianne Moore strikes the right balance of sadness and sympathy in her role as the older woman with whom he finally begins to find a meaningful relationship.

Stylistically uneven, the film is still a solid directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt, who seems to be willing to take chances with the difficult subject matter. The script (which he also wrote) moves at a good pace, even if the characters aren't as fully developed as they could be. It's very much the kind of material one could imagine Martin Scorsese working well with early in his career. Anchored by the strong performances of the three leads, it's a romantic comedy-drama with an unusual and surprising premise that is worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Good, scary fun from William Castle, with Vincent Price at his best as an eccentric millionaire who invites five guests to spend the night with him in a haunted house -- with the promise of a reward if they make it through the night. With a set-up like that, you know good things are in store.

Price strikes the perfect tone for the film through his impeccable performance: just over-the-top enough that the audience doesn't take the proceedings too seriously, while still containing plenty of genuinely macabre moments that provide genuine chills. Good performances by Carol Ohmart, Carolyn Craig and the always-reliable Elisha Cook Jr., combined with atmospheric lighting and set design, all contribute to the effectiveness of this Gothic horror classic.

The ending famously provided the opportunity for Castle to employ his "Emergo" gimmick on the film's original theatrical run - a skeleton flown above the audience timed with the appearance of the skeleton on screen - which set the standard for similar trademark William Castle gimmicks to follow.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Martin Scorsese's debut feature film is slightly disjointed, as a result of having been shot over a period of several years and on a low budget (it began life as his thesis film at NYU), but contains a raw creative energy and flashes of brilliance that transcend the limitations under which it was produced.

The film takes a loose structural approach to its story of a young guy (Harvey Keitel in a breakout role) who carouses with his buddies in New York's Little Italy, and his relationship with a girl (Zina Bethune) which is complicated by his own Catholic guilt.

Scorsese's distinctive visual style is fully evident here, achieving some particularly striking nocturnal B&W imagery around the streets of Little Italy. The film's penultimate scene - a stirring montage of Catholic iconography (filmed inside St. Patrick's Cathedral) cut together to The Genies' "Who's That Knocking" - perfectly conveys the complementary powers of religion and art. The standout scene, however, is the slow-motion sequence of Keitel and his buddies drunkenly playing around with a gun at a party, accompanied by Ray Barretto's "El Watusi" on the soundtrack - a stylized illustration of restless macho energy and still one of the best things Scorsese has ever done.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Haunted House (1908)

Whimsical little trick film from pioneering Spanish director Segundo de Chomon, filled with his characteristic macabre sense of humor. Three travelers seek refuge from a storm inside a haunted house, in which various spirits and other ghostly occurrences (courtesy of some impressive stop-motion animation and other camera trickery) disturb their rest. De Chomon's use of closeups and advanced stop-motion effects mark his work as more sophisticated than that of Melies in this same period, though he certainly owes much to Melies' earlier films here.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Barton Fink (1991)

The Coen Bros. at their best. It succeeds where I felt that INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS had failed - in presenting an offbeat, quirky protagonist whose efforts and subsequent failures serve some greater purpose than merely setting him up as narrative cannon fodder, and surrounding him with equally distinctive characters that help and hinder his journey.

As the title character, John Turturro creates a truly memorable persona, and he is ably supported by such greats as John Goodman, in full form as a sad-sack insurance salesman who is not at all what he first appears to be, John Mahoney as a washed-up Faulkneresque novelist-turned-screenwriter, Judy Davis as his mysterious love interest, secretary and creative muse, and Michael Lerner as the loud, crass, and mean movie mogul. Steve Buscemi turns up in a supporting role as a bellhop, enlivening the part with his unique delivery in what would have otherwise been a minor role, and even Tony Shalhoub brings the right mix of charm and desperation to his role as a studio producer.

The Coens put us inside Fink's head and never lets us out, even at the end of the film when the entire screen world has been turned topsy-turvy. Their stylized universe is populated by colorful and eccentric characters that follow their own internal logic. They also present us with one of the most nightmarish visions of Tinseltown this side of SUNSET BLVD. and MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

The Virginian (1946)

Fourth version of the oft-filmed Owen Wister tale, this time with Joel McCrea in the title role. Feels claustrophobic and studio-bound, with too many scenes taken in front of process screens or on too-obvious sound stages, thereby lacking the expansiveness found in the best Westerns, where the environment is just as much a character in its own right. The supporting cast is largely forgettable, and even Brian Donlevy's turn as the cattle-rustling heavy feels underplayed. McCrea himself is a bland hero.

The screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich is rather stiff and contains so much exposition that it frequently feels rushed and underdeveloped, reducing much of the mythos of the story to ordinary melodrama. Stuart Gilmore's direction is uninspired and the Technicolor photography feels flat and inhibited by the restrictions of the sound stages. An average effort that is neither particularly bad nor particularly distinctive.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

One of Woody Allen's finest turns as an actor, based on his own Broadway play and directed by Herbert Ross with an assured stylistic evenness missing from many of Allen's own directorial efforts. The premise, about a film-obsessed writer, recently separated from his wife and looking for love in all the wrong places (with a little help from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart), is a lot of fun and provides solid structure for Allen's characteristic one-liners and isolated comic set pieces. He is ably supported by Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts, and Jerry Lacy all but steals his scenes with his spot-on Bogart impersonation.

Under Ross's direction, Allen demonstrates a subtle yet distinct range as an actor not often seen in his self-directed films. Given its theatrical roots, the script - one of the best Allen ever wrote - is much tighter than usual, and the film contains none of the long-drawn, ad-libbed dialogue that Allen never quite seems to know when to cut when he's behind the camera. The result is a sharp, well-paced comedy that holds up quite well after more than forty years.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures by Bosley Crowther

I was talking with a friend recently about film books that had been instrumental in our early interest in the subject. One that we both brought up was Bosley Crowther's "The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures". Especially pre-Internet, but even still today, books like this were a great guide to important films for a budding movie buff to check out, illustrated with a generous selection of tantalizing stills from the films that were being described. I must have borrowed this one from the public library dozens of times.

This particular book is interesting for the 50 films that Crowther singles out as the greatest. My friend and I both agreed that, while there would probably be some changes to the list if it were written today, overall these selections still hold up well. It's also an interesting reflection of some films and filmmakers were highly regarded at the time but have since largely vanished from the critical consciousness (such as Flaherty). With all the debate over a "canon" in film studies, Crowther's book is still a good starting point for novice film buffs to begin exploring further on their own.

Incidentally, I did make it a point to see all 50 films in the book -- some of which I only caught up with in the past few years, such as Clement's FORBIDDEN GAMES.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Ben-Hur (1907)

This first screen version of Lew Wallace's celebrated novel is mainly of historical interest now for an early performance by William S. Hart, reprising his role as Messala from the Broadway production. Made during those wild and woolly early years of cinema, this was an unauthorized adaptation that got its makers sued by the book's publishers. Key scenes from the novel are presented as vignettes, condensing the story considerably to little more than the major highlights. It concludes with the chariot race sequence, a veritable epic of its day, shot on location in New Jersey. Directed by Sidney Olcott for the Kalem company.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Ten Commandments (1956)

A film I've seen many times that always retains its power to impress me with its unforgettable images and epic story. It's a testament to DeMille's art that he pushed himself to create his largest and most ambitious film so late in life and at the end of his illustrious, decades-long career. It's an uneven film in many ways, particularly in its barnstorming theatrical-style performances (sometimes bordering on camp) and florid dialogue, yet these seemappropriate for DeMille's 19th century, Victorian theater sensibility. This is the church pageant as David Belasco might have produced it if he'd had access to VistaVision and Technicolor.

I grew up with the film in its annual broadcasts on ABC on the night before Easter during Passover, and have viewed it on VHS and then on several DVD editions over the years. Watching the film on Blu-ray for the first time, I was blown away by the amount of background detail I hadn't fully appreciated before. Lines of extras stretch far off into the distance, literally disappearing over the horizon. There is one establishing shot of the Hebrew slaves working on the Pharaoh's treasure city in Goshen that contains so many elements that I had to pause the disc for a moment to observe them all.

There is another moment, too, that always chokes me up for its powerful simplicity: it's the moment when Moses is cast out of Egypt, and begins his trek into the desert toward Sinai. He appears as a mere speck on the horizon of the desert sands, distinguishable only by his red robe, a stranger in a strange land.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Animal Crackers (1930)

Of all the wonderful films the Marx Bros. gave us, this may be the one I enjoy the most on repeated screenings, because each viewing yields new surprises, little jokes or references that I missed before, and of course plenty of old favorites. Bursting with madcap energy and a brilliant script (by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman) that easily overcome any of the limitations of the early sound film medium, it gives the team one of their finest showcases and is also of historical interest as a record of their hit 1928 Broadway show.

The Marx Bros. are turned loose during a soirée at the swanky Long Island home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), skewering high society types and pretentious art snobs amid a plot involving a stolen painting. They bring their own bizarre logic to such delightful bits of nonsense as Harpo and Chico stealing a man's birthmark, Harpo's endless supply of stolen silverware falling from his coat, and of course Groucho's stories about big game hunting in Africa.

In many ways their most genuinely surreal film, and so richly packed with references and jokes that it really deserves to be seen several times in order to catch them all.