Monday, March 31, 2014

Amblin' (1968)

The short film that helped bring Steven Spielberg to the attention of Hollywood, AMBLIN' is a solid achievement at one level - well-photographed (Allen Daviau's cinematography of the Southwest locations is stunning at times), technically polished, and a good demonstration of Spielberg's ability to tell a story (about a young man who meets up with a hippie girl while hitch-hiking to the west coast). And yet, it also feels impersonal, lacking the kind of energy and invention that often mark filmmakers' best early works and that is even apparent in the extant clips from Spielberg's previous film, FIRELIGHT. Spielberg seems to lack conviction in the material, and as a result, the film feels empty - a well-made but undistinctive calling-card short.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The African Queen (1951)

This exciting adventure yarn is also a delightful romantic comedy, about a straight-laced missionary and a tough riverboat captain who fall in love while escaping from a war-torn village in East Africa during the early days of WWI.

The stories about the making of this film are almost as legendary as the movie itself. It's a testament to John Huston's direction that he makes the film appear so effortless, indeed so much fun, given the circumstances they were working under much of the time. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn carry the film with two of the best performances either actor ever gave, and are ably supported by the likes of Robert Morley, Peter Bull and Theodore Bikel, who are all effective as secondary characters.

Splendidly shot in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, the film is visually stunning, and contains some innovative location photography for a Technicolor production of that time.

Seen at Loew's Jersey in a gorgeously restored 35mm print from Paramount Pictures.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006)

Fascinating documentary on one of the most significant figures in underground filmmaking and art. It's a refreshing reminder of a time when truly independent and DIY filmmaking was not the purview of dime-a-dozen film school grads with nothing to say, but instead could be an outlet for real personal expression and outrage. Smith's most famous film FLAMING CREATURES is still shocking today, both for its subject matter (it was banned in 22 states and four countries) as well as presenting a vision as bold and intensely personal as the medium has ever seen. A sobering reminder that there was a time when art could be valued for what made it unique, rather than conforming to mediocrity and sameness, and made by artists who truly did not give a damn about commercial success and mainstream approval.

Jack Smith, we need you now more than ever.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Silly, good-natured fun from The Beatles, but certainly less inspired than their previous two films. Originally made for TV, the film is not helped by its low budget, which really shows. The humor is infectiously silly but too often shapeless and underdeveloped to be really effective (several of the scenes feel like rejects from a Monty Python episode). Directed by The Beatles with Bernard Knowles, what it really needed was the assured timing and visual style of Richard Lester to hold it all together. Of course, it's all really a showcase for such Beatles tunes as "Fool on the Hill", "I Am The Walrus", "Your Mother Should Know", and the title song and for that alone it can be recommended to fans.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hearts of Age (1934)

Beyond its historical significance as the first film made by Orson Welles, HEARTS OF AGE shows us a young artist having fun while still taking himself seriously, throwing caution to the wind and indulging his artistic impulses with wild abandon, not giving a damn about convention or rules, experimenting, playing, succeeding and failing, and embracing invention and individuality instead of mediocrity and sameness. That's all the reason I need to love this film.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Frankenstein (1910)

The first screen adaption of Mary Shelley's horror classic, produced by the Edison company, this film achieved legendary status due to being virtually impossible to see for many years. The story is told in a series of tableaux depicting key scenes from the book that make far more sense if you're already familiar with the plot. There's some interesting high-contrast lighting and even some good - albeit primitive - special effects, depicting the monster being created by reversing the film. Charles Ogle is effective as the creature, done up in horrific makeup, and in an unusual twist on both the book and subsequent film versions, it is revealed that the monster is in fact Frankenstein's own inner demons. An interesting historical curio.

Directed by J. Searle Dawley. With Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips, and Mary Fuller.

Monday, March 17, 2014

You Only Live Once (1937)

Fritz Lang's second Hollywood film was this effective psychological crime drama about an ex-con, just released from prison and newly married to his sweetheart who finds his past coming back to haunt him. Lang offers a trenchant social commentary on the justice system, focusing on the societal prejudice against Fonda's criminal past and the corrosive effect it has on him.

Shot with characteristic stylishness by Lang, with atmospheric high-contrast cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Sylvia Sidney is highly effective as the loyal and courageous Joan, and Henry Fonda plays his part with an intensity that brings real humanity to the character which makes all the more tragic his desperation as his life hangs in the balance in the face overwhelming evidence against him. It's also a genuine and sincere love story about real commitment and dedication between two people in the face of trouble, done without the usual cheap and false sentimentality.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This landmark low-budget effort holds up 15 years still later as a model of atmospheric horror. Carefully constructed to give the appearance of haphazardly shot found footage, the film purports to show the film and video that was recovered after three filmmakers went missing in the woods of Maryland while making a doc about the Blair Witch legend.

Ed Sanchez and Dan Myrick combine grim naturalism (the shots of the townspeople at the beginning are unsettling in their ordinariness) with highly stylized, hand-held cinematography (shot on 16mm and video degraded to look like a cheap home movie). The dialogue is largely improvised by the three leading actors, a technique which works well enough but also comes across as a little too mannered in some instances now. It's all undeniably effective, however, and even beyond the supernatural stuff, plays off of our greatest fears of getting lost in the woods.

An unprecedented commercial hit, thanks to its groundbreaking Internet marketing campaign, the film inspired a sequel (which I have not seen) and has influenced countless "found footage" horror film rip-offs to this day, and even prefigures the "mumblecore" style in its use of unpolished technique and improvised dialogue, though to its credit BLAIR WITCH uses these elements far more creatively and to greater purpose.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder's (very) dark comedy about a young shnook working his way up the corporate ladder and the toll it takes on his humanity remains a genuinely fresh and relevant satire half a century later. Wilder and Diamond's script adroitly walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, where romance or suicide seem equally likely outcomes at any given moment (and occasionally very nearly intertwine).

Lemmon gives one of his finest performances, quite possibly his best, playing opposite the wonderful Shirley MacLaine, who manages to be funny, touching and tragic all at the same time. Fred MacMurray is especially effective in a dark turn as the manipulative personnel manager, and Edie Adams, Jack Kruschen, and Ray Walston are all fine in supporting roles. Features stunning black and white cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, perfectly capturing Alexander Trauner's sets which effectively convey both the squalor and character of Lemmon's apartment and the suffocating impersonality of his looming, sprawling office.

Friday, March 07, 2014

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

This pre-code period comedy-drama set in the Bowery during the Gay Nineties is an excellent showcase for Mae West, who wrote this story about a saloon singer and her various romantic entanglements and drama with the men in her life. West’s characterization is still startling and undeniably attractive, not afraid to use her power over the men around her to her advantage, while simultaneously satirizing her own image as a sex symbol with a cutting wit.

Cary Grant is effective in an early appearance as the undercover government agent posing as a missionary. Owen Moore, Noah Beery Sr. and Gilbert Roland are all fine as West's various suitors, and are ably supported by a veritable all-star cast of Hollywood character actors all perfectly suited to the various types they're called on to play, especially Dewey Robinson as West's bodyguard and Tammany Young as a Bowery tough. Shot with characteristic high-gloss cinematography by Charles Lang and featuring a nice selection of period songs that add to the atmosphere, which is nicely established in the opening montage and evoked throughout. It was nominated for Best Picture and includes West’s iconic line, “Why don't you come up sometime and see me?"

Directed by Lowell Sherman. By Mae West, screenplay by Harvey Thew and John Bright. With Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery Sr., Rafaela Ottiano, Dewey Robinson, Rochelle Hudson, Tammany Young, and many others.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

W.C. Fields and Me (1976)

Decided to give this a try tonight on Netflix. It's as bad as its reputation would suggest, an almost totally fictionalized account of Fields' relationship with Carlotta Monti (based on her memoir, which screenwriter Bob Merrill clearly ignored). Leave the re-writing of historical facts aside, this is just a mess, not helped any by the crude attempts at humor throughout, and the grating, unflattering portrayals of Fields and the other characters (many of them fictional, too). Steiger gives an oddly awkward performance, sometimes touching and reaching toward moments of inspiration, but too often devolving into caricature, like a bad impersonation. To be fair, it would be difficult for any actor to pull off, and the script is certainly partly to blame. Its flaws are especially frustrating given the potential of the subject, and the talent involved. Made at a time when Hollywood seemed to be going through a nostalgic phase about its own past (SILENT MOVIE and WON TON TON: THE DOG THAT SAVED HOLLYWOOD were released the same year), this one has all the worst characteristics of this particular subgenre. This is movie-of-the-week material at best. A near-total misfire. Skip it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Stylish whodunit with the incomparable William Powell as Philo Vance. A perfect example of the highly entertaining and expertly-made programmers that the studio system could produce when it was firing on all cylinders.

Vance is called in to investigate the murder of wealthy Long Island dog breeder Archer Coe, found dead in a locked room with a gunshot in his head and a pistol in his hand. Everyone assumes it was a suicide, but Vance suspects otherwise and sets about investigating the various suspects, all of whom have their own motives for killing Archer Coe.

This standard mystery plot (from a story by S.S. Van Dine) rises well above the average programmer thanks to the expert direction of Michael Curtiz, who keeps things moving at a good pace and tells the story with interesting stylistic flourishes, especially in some of the scene transitions, aided by strong cinematography by William Rees. Powell is so naturally stylish and charming that he commands attention every time he's on-screen, making his performance here (and in other films) seem like an extension of his own personality. Excellent cast all around, including Mary Astor, Robert Barrat, Eugene Pallette, Paul Cavanagh, Etienne Girardot and other reliable character actors who all play their parts to perfection.

There's a great moment when Vance whips together a model of Coe's house to demonstrate how the murder took place, and produces a highly-detailed, intricately-designed scale model that appears to have taken weeks to create. Apparently the detective had the prop department of Warner Bros. at his disposal!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Groundhog Day (1993)

The second film of last night's double-feature at Loew's Jersey was shown in tribute to the late Harold Ramis, who co-wrote and directed this offbeat comedy about an arrogant jerk of a weatherman (Bill Murray) who is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he finally undergoes a personal transformation. Ramis makes the most of the unusual premise, and Murray delivers a funny and sincere performance that holds it all together. It's surprisingly restrained and generally subdued and even low-key for a '90s comedy. I had never seen this one before, and was surprised to realize it was released 21 years ago already, but it holds up well and is one of the more genuinely funny comedies to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

Little Miss Marker (1934)

Early Shirley Temple vehicle benefits from great cast and script (from a Damon Runyon story), populated with colorful characters played by top character actors (Lynne Overman, Sam Hardy and Tammany Young among them). This time, Shirley is left by her father as collateral for a debt he owes to racetrack bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou). Her father never comes back to collect her, however, and is eventually found dead, so the reluctant Sorrowful is left to look out for Shirley, warming up to her and eventually changing his ways to become an honest man. Also in the cast is Dorothy Dell as the nightclub singer who comes to consider Shirley as her own daughter, and Charles Bickford as tough gambler Big Steve, who is finally redeemed in the end by an act of selflessness toward Shirley that saves her life.

Produced on loan-out to Paramount, this one is a little darker than her later vehicles for Fox, with its rough Depression-era New York atmosphere. It features only one musical number performed by Temple, "Laugh You Son of a Gun", which was a big hit. The film was also a big hit at the box office, and did much to launch Shirley Temple into the stratosphere of movie stardom.

Growing up, I saw a lot of her films on video (my mom is a big fan who also grew up watching these films on TV) but this is one that I had missed over the years, so when I saw that Loew's Jersey was screening it in 35mm in tribute to its late star, I made a point to go see it. It contains everything I love about 1930s Hollywood movies - the sparkling cinematography, wise-cracking dialogue, great music, fine characters actors who appear to be having so much fun with their roles, and stars who really knew how to transcend the roles they were playing and become real personalities that still pop off the screen 80 years later.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Immensely fun historical drama with Charles Laughton giving one of his very finest performances. He really gets into the character, and it's clear how much fun he's having playing the role. The story of the King's ill-fated marriages is told with a boisterous, bawdy humor. I'm a sucker for these Korda historical biopics and this one is the best.

Laughton is supported here by an impressive cast including Robert Donat as Culpeper, and Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester, Binnie Barnes, and Everley Gregg as his wives. Lanchester in particular stands out as the clever Anne of Cleves, who bargains with Henry to get out of their marriage during a card game on their wedding night, and it's especially fun watching her and Laughton playing off of each other so well in their scenes together.

This film has been a very favorite of mine since seeing it for the first time when I was 10 or 11, when I came across a video copy in the "foreign" section at Blockbuster Video (back when they still existed, and had a "foreign" section). I had read about the movie in Ann Lloyd and David Robinson's "Movies of the Thirties" and it became one of those classics that I knew I had to see. I was only allowed to rent one movie that night, and it came down to a selection between this one or Fellini's I CLOWNS - not an easy choice for a budding film buff - and chose HENRY VIII, which quickly became a favorite (I wouldn't have a chance to finally see the Fellini film until last year).

It became the first British film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and Laughton took home the Best Actor Oscar for his performance -- a well-deserved win.