Monday, April 28, 2014

The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)

Another historical re-enactment from Georges Méliès. Because cameras were not allowed inside Westminster Abbey, producer Charles Urban commissioned Méliès to stage his own version of the ceremony using actors inside his studio at Montreuil.

The resulting film (which was actually completed before the coronation took place, as the ceremony had been postponed) is a meticulous re-enactment of the actual events. Méliès even traveled to Westminster Abbey to obtain precise dimensions of the space to re-create in his studio. It's a good demonstration of Méliès' eye for detail and design and his talent for staging complex action within the frame.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Speedy (1928)

Saw this at Loew's Jersey tonight in a gorgeous 35mm print with excellent accompaniment on the Wonder Morton Organ by Bernie Anderson. This is the third time I've seen this one theatrically, and it just gets funnier each time. I've never been able to watch it all the way through on DVD, because the audience reaction is so essential to the full experience of Lloyd's comedy, and this one in particular just comes to life on the big screen in a way that I can never match watching it at home.

I did notice a stunning shot that had never caught my eye on previous viewings. It occurs as Lloyd and Ann Christy depart Coney Island in a moving van. As they settle into their make-believe, makeshift home among the furniture, there's a reverse shot looking out the back of the van, with the lights of Coney Island fading into the distance as the van drives along back to the city. It's a small moment, but it's the kind of shot that possesses such a simple, lyrical beauty that it took my breath away.

The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin's hard-hitting police thriller about a pair of narcotics detectives on the trail of a French drug smuggler set the standard for future cop movies, and is infused with the grim naturalism that came to define much of early 70s cinema, especially with its gritty New York locations. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are both excellent in their roles, and Fernando Rey, as the impeccably sophisticated and unflappable drug kingpin, is an inspired casting choice.

The highlight is the car chase filmed under the elevated subway tracks, a marvel of editing, cinematography and stunt work (supposedly filmed without the necessary location permits) that is rightfully one of the most celebrated chase sequences in film history.

The film is also filled with little details (both in the writing and execution) of the kind that today's filmmakers can't be bothered with, but which add up to so, so much in creating a vivid atmosphere. The ambiguous ending, which would never fly today, effectively avoids the trappings of the neat-and-tidy conclusion and is a key part of what makes this film so special.

Seen in a good 35mm print at Loew's Jersey.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Dreyfus Affair (L'Affaire Dreyfus, 1899)

One of the most ambitious films made up to its time, this 11-part historical re-creation is a departure for Georges Méliès from the fantasy and special effects films with which he is most often associated.

The film, written and directed by Méliès, depicts the events of Alfred Dreyfus' arrest, court martial and imprisonment, and began production concurrent with the actual proceedings of the Dreyfus trial. As with Méliès' other historical re-creations, such as THE CORONATION OF EDWARD VII (1902), he took advantage of the medium's capability to provide vivid depictions of current events with a documentary-like realism (all filmed on meticulously-designed sets inside Méliès' studio in Montreuil).

The "Fight of the Reporters" sequence, in which a riot erupts among the journalists covering the court martial, is remarkably effective in engulfing the audience in the action, as dozens of reporters scurry toward and around the camera. Méliès' use of screen space here is unusual for its time, and quite a stylistic departure from his usual proscenium staging.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dancing Pig (Le Cochon Danseur, 1907)

Utterly bizarre early film, from the Pathe company, of a popular vaudeville turn featuring a Belle Epoque dancer and a giant pig (rather, a man in a giant pig costume).

The pig costume is a sight to behold. With moving eyes, ears, snout, tongue, and mouth (which opens to reveal a row of sharp teeth!), it's an impressive -- and slightly terrifying -- piece of design. The film ends on a closeup of the pig, demonstrating the full range of its facial motions. One of the delightfully bizarre gems of early cinema.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The President's Mystery (1936)

Neat little B movie based on an idea by none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt, centered around the question of how a man could disappear with his fortune and not be traced. Roosevelt, lacking the time to develop the story himself, mentioned the idea to Liberty Magazine editor Fulton Oursler, who then submitted it to six top writers -- Samuel Hopkins Adams, John Erskine, Rupert Hughes, Anthony Abbot, S.S. Van Dine and Rita Weiman -- each of whom wrote their own piece of the story. The results were serialized in Liberty Magazine in 1935, before being turned into a film by Republic Pictures the following year, from a script by Lester Cole and Nathanael West.

In the film, Henry Wilcoxon plays a Washington lobbyist who helps block passage of a bill that would allow for government relief of depressed industrial towns. Seeing the results of his actions first-hand, he has a crisis of conscience, stages his own suicide, and disappears in order to re-build his life. Less a mystery, and more of a New Deal-era social issue picture, it is very much of its time, hampered by the constraints of its low-budget, notable only for the distinction of being based on a story conceived by FDR.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Zhi Guo Yuan (1922)

Silent slapstick comedy from China, starring Zheng Zhegu as a hapless fruit peddler in love with a doctor's daughter. The doctor (Zheng Zhengqiu) rejects his daughter's suitor -- unless he can drum up some business for his struggling medical practice, so the peddler sets about creating some accidents with his creative carpentry skills and a collapsing staircase.

Considered to be the earliest complete surviving film made in China, the film was written by pioneering Chinese filmmaker Zheng Zhengqiu and directed by Shichuan Zang for their Mingxing Film Company. The plot is reminiscent of some of Harold Lloyd's work, particularly NEVER WEAKEN (1921) in its use of staged accidents to bring in medical patients. There's much fun to be had with the collapsing staircase gag, and the comedy is fast-paced and frenetic, enhanced by moments of furious undercranking that heighten the absurdity of the proceedings.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Lost World (1925)

Thrilling adventure yarn and the prototypical "monster" movie, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story about a group of explorers who head into the uncharted wilds to a world inhabited by dinosaurs. The standard cast of characters are all there: Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery), who is driven by obsession to prove the existence of living dinosaurs; gentleman adventurer Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone); the eager young reporter (Lloyd Hughes); and the plucky daughter (Bessie Love) of the late explorer whose journal holds the key to finding the lost world.

The real stars are Willis O'Brien's stop-motion dinosaurs, which still impress for their meticulous artistry, even if they now appear somewhat quaint and lack the personality found in the characters he would animate just a few years later in KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Both Harry Hoyt's direction and Arthur Edeson's photography are unremarkable but effective.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Loosely adapted from the Doyle story “His Last Bow”, this third entry in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes series is typical of the direction it would take at Universal. More obviously a "B" picture than the two previous entries made at Fox, it nonetheless captures the spirit and tone of the character even while placing him in a contemporary setting. Holmes is brought in to investigate the source of a series of radio broadcasts purporting to depict various acts of terrorism carried out against England by Nazi Germany.

There is a strong patriotic streak for Mother England running throughout the entire film, and it's easy to see how updating the story to the present (1942) day sat well with wartime sensibilities. With this entry in the series, some of the flaws that the Rathbone-Bruce films have been frequently criticized for become apparent, most notably by reducing Bruce's portrayal of Dr. Watson to a bumbling, slow-witted sidekick rather than a loyal friend and colleague. The update to the modern setting works well enough, as the characters fit more or less seamlessly into the contemporary surroundings as written (Holmes substitutes a fedora for his traditional Deerstalker), but one still finds oneself missing the rich period detail of the first two films (though Elwood Bredell's cinematography is quite good, at times looking forward to his fine work on THE KILLERS). The Universal films reduced the Holmes series from superb, elaborately-produced "A" pictures to well-crafted and entertaining "B" programmers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Leon Shamroy, cinematographer (1901-1974)

Watching THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES last night, I noticed that it had been photographed by Leon Shamroy. This caught my attention because Shamroy lensed some of the most gorgeous films for 20th Century-Fox during the 1950s and 60s, and his work for the studio during that time has always struck me as a particularly stunning example of cinematography that ranks among the finest ever put on the screen, so I'm always excited when I see a film that has Shamroy's name in the credits.

I first became aware of Shamroy's work as a kid, watching THE KING AND I (1956) on video with my mother, a film that continues to impress me for its unforgettably rich and elaborate imagery (see the still below for an example). Even watching it on a pan-and-scan VHS copy that did not do full justice to the artistry of Shamroy's eye, I was deeply impressed with what I saw, and his work continues to impress me for its masterful arrangement of the CinemaScope frame and its stunning use of the DeLuxe color palette.

Born in New York in 1901, Shamroy studied engineering at Columbia University but became involved in film production through some family connections, landing a low-level position in the labs of Fox studios in 1920. He began to make a name for himself by shooting some experimental films, and by the end of the decade, he was working as a full-fledged cinematographer on projects for various studios. After a stint shooting documentary footage in Asia in the early 1930s, Shamroy worked for Paramount for much of the decade under producer B.P. Schulberg.

When Schulberg left Paramount, Shamroy followed, and with his solid reputation well established, ended up at 20th Century-Fox in 1943, where he would shoot many of the studio's biggest productions over the next two decades, including THE ROBE, THE KING AND I, SOUTH PACIFIC, CLEOPATRA, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, and PLANET OF THE APES, working regularly up until just a few years before his death in 1974.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

This immediate follow-up to THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (released by Fox earlier the same year) is adapted from William Gillette's stage play from 1899 and directed by Alfred Werker, a competent studio craftsman but not a director known for any particularly distinctive visual style. As a result, it feels more theatrical in its staging than the previous film, but compensates by being bathed in atmospheric, high-contrast lighting by Leon Shamroy.

This second film in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Holmes series finds the master sleuth being called on to protect a woman in trouble (Ida Lupino) whose father and brother have both met mysterious ends, and fears she might be next. This turns out to be an elaborate diversion from the real crime being plotted by Holmes' arch nemesis, Prof. Moriarty (George Zucco), leading to a face-off between the two in a suspenseful climax at the Tower of London.

The effective art direction (especially the foggy, nocturnal London settings), intelligent script, and top-notch supporting cast make it a first-rate production all around. It also includes the fun bonus of seeing Rathbone in a musical turn, performing the music hall ditty "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside", a nice reminder of what a versatile talent he was.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The first of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films is also the best. Exquisitely designed, expertly directed and acted, it is an exercise in atmospheric mystery done in the best old Hollywood style. Made with the full resources of the Fox studio, the miniatures and models of the Moor, Baskerville Manor, and other settings are works of art in themselves that I never tire of looking at, especially after repeat viewings when you know how the mystery ends.

Made in the peak year of Hollywood's golden age, when the studio system was firing on all cylinders, it launched one of the most enduring series of films and gave us what many consider to be the definitive screen portrayal of Doyle's sleuth. Rathbone and Bruce would team up for 13 more Holmes films together (one more at Fox, and then a dozen for Universal, where the series took a slightly different but no less entertaining turn).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Finally caught this one on DVD last weekend, and planned to write it up here but found myself unsure of just how I feel about it. The Coens are the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, and I always find their films worthwhile even if I care for some more than others.

It's much more understated than their films that I enjoy the most. Still it's evocative and reflective, perfectly capturing that moment in many young artist's development when they realize that life has other plans for them. It's also one of the Coens' most assured works.

Still, I was unsure of how I felt about it all, for reasons I'm unable to put my finger on. I plan to re-visit the film in the near future.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ghostbusters (1984)

Not sure just why I enjoy this one so much, but I do, and every time I see it I appreciate the subtleties (yes, subtleties) of the performances and writing more and more. One of the very few big-budget comedies that doesn't sink under the weight of its own production values, it works in the same way that earlier "fright" comedies like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN or THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN worked, by offering up some genuinely spooky stuff which make the comedians' reactions all the more funny.

With strong direction by Ivan Reitman from a script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, combined with an excellent cast, fine special effects, and an effective score by Elmer Bernstein, this one fires on all cylinders. Rick Moranis, in one of his best roles, makes the most of his part as the nerdy neighbor, and William Atherton's uptight EPA official is the perfect foil for Bill Murray's sarcasm.

Besides, you have to love a movie that finds room for a Joe Franklin cameo.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Witches (1990)

Stylish adaptation of the Roald Dahl children's book, directed with understated flourish by Nicolas Roeg, about a boy - turned into a mouse - and his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) who set out to destroy the witches of England while staying at a seaside resort. Some truly nightmarish imagery and makeup effects (courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop) and the intelligent screenplay raise this above the level of the usual children's fare to become a film that adult viewers can appreciate and enjoy on its own terms.

The highlight is Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch, a tour-de-force performance that ranks among the most memorable screen villains. Jasen Fisher, a child actor who only appeared in a few films, is effective in his part, and the cast is ably supported by the likes of Rowan Atkinson as the bewildered hotel manager, Bill Paterson as the wealthy and entitled adult figure (always a target of satire in Dahl's stories), and Jim Carter in a comic turn as the hotel chef.

Friday, April 04, 2014

1776, Or The Hessian Renegades (1910)

One-reel melodrama directed by D.W. Griffith (and featuring an early appearance by Mary Pickford), set during the American Revolutionary War. Not a terribly distinctive effort from this period, nonetheless interesting for its staging of action and Griffith's use of the depth and expansiveness of the frame even in an average work like this. Effective use of locations and creative staging compensate for the limitations of its plot devices.