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.