Monday, June 30, 2014

Dumbo (1941)

Disney's only perfect film, and one of the few perfect films ever made. It's a deceptively brilliant movie, its script a masterpiece of construction, with an economic use of dialogue, flawless animation, inspired character design, memorable songs (aided by Edward Plumb's clever orchestrations), and expert voice acting (particularly by Edward Brophy as the mouse). In its running time of just over an hour, DUMBO packs an incredible emotional wallop, managing to be funny, heartbreaking and devastatingly honest in a way that very few films have the guts to be.

The production process was relatively quick and cheap due to the expensive flop of FANTASIA the previous year, and as a result, the film has a sense of off-the-cuff inventiveness and experimentation missing from the other, more elaborate Disney films of this period. This is most evident in the unforgettable "Pink Elephants on Parade" number, probably the most singularly weird sequence in all of the Disney movies and a tour-de-force of animation.

A masterpiece at every level.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Hyperactive, flippant teen comedy by John Hughes about a high school senior who plays sick in order to spend the day carousing around the city with his girlfriend and his best buddy. The script is funny enough, and Matthew Broderick is sufficiently likable as the title character -- ably supported by Jeffrey Jones as the slimy school principal, Edie McClurg as his secretary, and Ben Stein in a brief but memorable turn as the monotonous economics teacher. Broderick and friends spending their day doing "grown up" things like eating at a fancy restaurant or going to an art museum brings to mind Macaulay Culkin taking on adult responsibilities in Hughes' later HOME ALONE, and the idea makes for some of the most effective scenes in the film for the comical contrast they present

Hughes' "deep" moments of teenage introspection feel forced here, coming across as pretentious and bringing the comedy to a halt, though they do give some heart to the humor. In any case, there are far fewer of those moments here than in his earlier teen comedies. In this way, the film is less dated than SIXTEEN CANDLES or THE BREAKFAST CLUB because it's not as closely linked to a particular moment, with its broad, sometimes cartoonish humor being more timeless in its appeal. But it's also less interesting and less personal overall as a result. Unlike the two previously-mentioned Hughes films, which treated the soul-searching and angst of those awkward years deadly serious and have a certain charm as a result, FERRIS BUELLER is pure comic fantasy, an exaggerated and sometimes surreal vision of playing hooky that is fun but also superficial.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Bronx Morning (1931)

Jay Leyda made this film in the “city symphony” tradition that was so popular in late 1920s. Feature-length examples include Walter Ruttman’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A CITY (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929). The film is a strong example of montage editing within the framework of the American avant garde tradition, and in fact it was on the strength of his work here that Leyda was invited to study under Eisenstein.

Similar to Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's earlier MANHATTA, Leyda's film encapsulates the themes of modernity that were being dealt with in many avant garde and Modernist works at this time. But whereas MANHATTA focuses on large, imposing urban spaces and the concept of alienation and impersonalization, A BRONX MORNING focuses on people, and emphasizes the sense of community among the Bronx residents whose morning routine Leyda captures on film. Leyda also forgoes the prosaic intertitles of MANHATTA, which brings us closer to its subject and takes a participatory approach as opposed to Sheeler and Strand’s observational one.

More than anything else, with its masterful command of film form to create its effects, A BRONX MORNING stands as an artifact of a time when the split between film theory and production was not as pronounced or polemical as it is today.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Great Outdoors (1988)

Funny if formulaic comedy, written (but not directed) by John Hughes, about a man who takes his family on what he hopes will be the perfect vacation, only to have it ruined by the unexpected arrival of his obnoxious in-laws.

John Candy is his usual, affable self. He had a wonderful screen presence and always rose above the material he was given. He stars opposite Dan Aykroyd here, and while the two make a good comic pair, they never quite achieve the chemistry needed to make the most of their scenes together. Hughes' script works in several of his trademark slapstick sequences that border on the painful -- highlights include Candy careening out of control on water skis, and an attack by a rampaging grizzly bear -- but also a heavy dose of sentimentality that drags the pace down at times, particularly in the obligatory "teen summer romance" subplot. Harmless, good-natured fun.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Tight, gripping character drama about a group of utterly ruthless, desperate real estate salesmen who will use any means necessary to get the customer to sign on the dotted line, as they compete for the top seller position in their office in order to receive the coveted leads from corporate that will bring them one step closer to success, or at least one step closer to the next sucker willing to fork over his savings for a piece of worthless investment property.

The film is carried by its really fine ensemble cast - one of the best ever assembled - including Al Pacino as top dog salesman Ricky Roma, whom the other men look up to with a mix of envy and resentment for his success; Jack Lemmon as Shelley Levene, a sad old-timer who's seen better days and is prepared to use drastic measures to ensure his family is provided for; Ed Harris as arrogant and lazy Dave Moss; and Alan Arkin as nervous, underachieving George Aaronow. Kevin Spacey is excellent in an early role as spineless corporate crony Williamson, Jonathan Pryce is good in his understated turn as a timid client who caves under Pacino's high-pressure sales tactics, and Alec Baldwin steals his scene in a role specially written for the film, as the abusive motivational speaker sent by corporate to put the fear of God into the salesmen.

David Mamet's script, based on his own play, is a masterpiece of construction, building the events of the plot to a fever pitch. James Foley's effective and unobtrusive direction belies an invisible style, which never calls attention to itself but maintains a strong pace and expertly stages the action within the limited screen space of the real estate office and the restaurant across the street, creating strong visual atmosphere with the harsh neon light and rainy, nocturnal ambiance. The atmosphere is enhanced by James Newton Howard's plaintive jazz score, with Wayne Shorter's saxophone solos conveying an agitated, nervous energy. One of those films where all of the pieces come together perfectly, and one of the best films of its decade.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Africa Speaks! (1930)

Landmark early sound documentary, though very much of its time, following explorer Paul Hoefler on an expedition into the Serengeti. Despite its obviously dated attitudes, there is actually quite a bit of interesting material here if one can get past the incessant and frequently condescending narration by Lowell Thomas.

Directed by Walter Futter and shot by Hoefler, the film contains some excellent photography, especially in the slow-motion scenes of the giraffes gracefully galloping across the plains, the swarms of locusts that leave the land barren, and the thrilling lion hunt, in which the natives track down and kill one of the beasts responsible for the death of a fellow tribesman. An historical curio, mainly of interest now for its pioneering use of location sound recording in the service of a documentary project, and as a record of the contemporary attitudes and assumptions about its subject.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Scrooged (1988)

Comic updating of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", with Bill Murray as an egocentric, greedy TV network executive who discovers the real meaning of the holiday. It's always hard to take seriously a big-budget Hollywood movie version of the classic Dickens story - even in a comedy like this - and the pathos of the script are quite never sincere or effective enough to overcome this problem here, not helped any by Richard Donner's direction, which feels slick and impersonal. Still, there are some laughs to be had, even if they are too frequently interrupted for the serious moments required of the story.

Murray does a good job in playing the jerk who has an eleventh-hour epiphany, but his performance here lacks the depth to make his transformation really believable, unlike his later, more effective turn in the much better GROUNDHOG DAY. He is at his funniest when he is given a vehicle tailored to his quirky and offbeat persona, allowing his dry, caustic characterization to develop and grow on the audience, but because of the demands of this story, he is never allowed to sustain that tone for too long.

Murray is supported here by a talented cast of players, including Robert Mitchum in a good comic turn, as well as Karen Allen, Carol Kane, John Forsythe, David Johansen, John Houseman and others, though it is difficult to shake the feeling that that these talents are ultimately wasted in a production like this. Michael Chapman's cinematography is serviceable here, never calling attention to itself, while Danny Elfman's score is not one of his best, with the orchestrations too often competing for attention with the comedy.

The funnest parts of the film are probably the show-within-a-show being produced by Murray's TV exec: a crass production of "A Christmas Carol" starring Buddy Hackett as Scrooge and Jamie Farr as Bob Cratchit, which work precisely because they ring all too true as an example of an overproduced Christmas TV special.

It's all enjoyable enough, but Murray has had much better vehicles, and the film ultimately comes across as exactly the kind of slick holiday entertainment that it purports to be skewering.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)

Bill Murray would seem the perfect choice to play Hunter S. Thompson in this crazy, drug-fueled account of the Gonzo journalist's misadventures with his equally unorthodox activist attorney Carl Laszlo (Peter Boyle) in the early '70s. Murray's performance is oddly restrained, acting as a kind of dry, sarcastic observer at the center of the hurricane of insanity he has precipitated, but after a while, the shapelessness of the film wears thin, especially by the time it culminates with a bizarre sequence aboard the press plane on the presidential campaign trail, which never becomes quite as all-out zany as it should be. The problem is that the script places one wild scene after another, yet lacks the structure due to Art Linson's uninspired direction to make them really effective and to realize the full potential of each one.

Still, there are parts of the film that work: the early scenes at the Blast Magazine editorial office and the courthouse have a particular charm in depicting the cultural and political climate of the period, and Murray's sarcastic, casual asides and occasional outbursts in the courtroom are the kind of thing the comedian does so well. The scenes that bookend the film, with Murray delivering his eccentric monologues alone in his cabin -- accompanied only by his dog and a life-size dummy wearing a Nixon mask -- are the highlights of the movie. Murray could play an entire film in this set-up alone and make it entertaining to watch.

Thompson himself reportedly hated the film for its script but had praise only for Murray's performance. Despite its flaws, this is still an important role for Murray, demonstrating not only his obvious comic talents, but also an early example of the interesting directions he would take as an actor in later films.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Amusing if overlong romantic comedy, directed by Howard Hawks with an uncharacteristically unhurried pace. The first half is standard "battle of the sexes" stuff, with sexual tension brewing between Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan as a French Captain and American Lieutenant, respectively, who fall in love while forced to travel together from Heidelberg to Bad Nauheim. The romantic comedy turns to farce in the second half, as the newlyweds attempt to travel back to the U.S., with Grant - as the male war bride - forced to deal with mass confusion from the army bureaucracy, the perpetual inability to find a place to sleep, and the seemingly endless delay of his wedding night.

It's a good premise, but Grant and Sheridan lack the chemistry necessary to really make the most of it, and the energy frequently lags, emphasizing the shapelessness of the script (by Hagar Wilde, Charles Lederer and Leonard Spigelgass). By the time Grant finally shows up in drag in order to board the ship home, the film is nearly over, and it only hints at some of the comic possibilities to be had with the cross-dressing angle. Mining that aspect for further material, along with some judicious trimming, particularly of the first half, could have resulted in a tighter and more solid comedy. As it is, the premise feels dragged out while failing to reach its full potential, and is ultimately too predictable in its execution to provide many surprises at each new turn.

Not one of Hawks' better comedies, but still an entertaining enough diversion.

Monkey Business (1952)

Funny farce, well-directed by Howard Hawks though lacking the madcap energy of his best comedies. Splendidly acted by Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn and Marilyn Monroe, with Grant and Rogers especially fun to watch playing off of eachother and interacting with some great physical comedy.

The premise finds absent-minded chemist Grant, on the search for an anti-aging elixir, accidentally imbibing a concoction mixed by his lab chimp, setting into motion a series of predictable but effective age-regression routines between the scientist and his wife, who has also taken the potion. The script - by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer and I.A.L. Diamond - builds to a strong pace midway, but runs out of steam toward the end, with the zaniness feeling a little tired, and having tapped out the potential of the age-regression gimmick. Hawks' direction is typically assured and seamless. He interjects a cute, interesting moment during the opening titles, admonishing Cary Grant ("Not yet, Cary!") for entering the film before the credits have ended, which has a self-reflexive, almost Tashlinesque quality to it.

Grant is clearly having a ball playing the uptight professor who sporadically morphs into a rambunctious adolescent and a naughty little boy in equal measure. Rogers again demonstrates what a fine and natural talent she had for comedy. Her interpretations of her various youthful incarnations are expertly played -- the highlight being an overnight trip to the couples' old bridal suite where they spent their honeymoon, with Rogers regressing into a reluctant bride on her wedding night, alternating between crying and quarreling with her bewildered husband.

It never quite builds to the inspired manic level of Hawks' finest comedies, but its best moments are still delightfully funny.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Riley the Cop (1928)

Leisurely, minor comedy directed by John Ford, about a kindly and fun-loving old beat cop who is sent to Germany to extradite a neighborhood boy falsely accused of embezzlement after running off to Europe to be reunited with his sweetheart. Riley lives it up on his little whirlwind European adventure, taking in the beer halls, cabarets and nightclubs, even finding romance along the way, as he transports his innocent prisoner back to the States where things end expectedly well for everyone.

Ford stock company regular J. Farrell MacDonald has a nice starring turn in the title role, giving a warm, understated performance, ably supported by the fine comedienne Louise Fazenda as his love interest, along with such familiar faces as Billy Bevan, Dell Henderson, Otto Fries, and Rolfe Sedan in bit parts. Ford demonstrates his skill with comedy here, which feels much more relaxed and natural than the often heavy-handed cornball humor found in his dramatic features. His direction keeps the pace leisurely but never dragging during the course of the six-reel picture. There are a couple of moments that show the distinctive Ford style, particularly Riley's meeting with the boy in his jail cell, with its ethereal overhead beam of light shining down on the young man that brings to mind the final scenes in THE INFORMER seven years later. There is another visually inventive moment in which the camera focuses on the face of the girl's jealous suitor through the shop window, watching the young couple and capturing his changing expressions as we see their actions reflected in the glass.

Charles G. Clarke's cinematography shimmers, employing nice camera moves throughout, as well as some good uses of deep focus, particularly in the early scenes, to keep the background action and characters from getting lost in the frame. The art director is uncredited, which is a shame since the design is quite effective -- particularly the Munich beer gardens re-created on the Fox backlot, which demonstrate the results of the studio resources put in to even a relatively small film such as this.

As an obscure and perhaps undeservedly forgotten film from an important filmmaker, it is still a pleasantly entertaining light comedy.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What About Bob? (1991)

This is the kind of role Bill Murray was born to play, as a good-natured nut who manages to drive his new psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) absolutely crazy when he crashes the doctor's family vacation by the lake. As Bob overcomes his own neuroses and disorders, he also inadvertently proceeds to turn the doctor's life entirely upside down, finally reducing him to a raving lunatic.

Director Frank Oz does a great job with this kind of material (see DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS), and has two fine actors to work with here. Murray delivers a pitch-perfect performance, and Dreyfuss makes a great foil for Murray's antics. Julie Hagerty also does a good job in a sympathetic role as Dreyfuss' wife, offsetting his irate outbursts with her underplayed delivery. The editing, by Anne V. Coates, expertly builds to a frantic pace to keep up with the increasingly zany situations, which are occasionally marred only by the film's busy soundtrack, which -- like many '90s comedies -- is somewhat over-scored (by Miles Goodman), too often emphasizing the craziness of the comic antics rather than allowing them to stand on their own. All in all, a very funny comedy, probably one of the best of the decade. Highly recommended for fans of Bill Murray's offbeat comic sensibility.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Rat Race (1960)

Tough, cynical romantic drama, directed by Robert Mulligan and based on Garson Kanin's play, with Tony Curtis as a young jazz musician from the midwest, newly arrived in New York City, who befriends struggling dancer Debbie Reynolds. The musician is repeatedly taken advantage of by strangers, and robbed of his instruments right before finally landing a paying gig. In order to get the money to help him out, the dancer is forced to degrade herself at the hands of her sleazy manager. Things work out about as well as can be expected, however, as the two characters realize that they have only each other to keep on going. An unrelentingly cynical and acidic story about desperate, unhappy characters just trying to survive, dressed up with Technicolor and Hollywood stars.

Partly shot on location, the vibrant Technicolor photography of early '60s Times Square - with its contrast of emerging seediness and glittering Broadway marquees -- bathes the film in atmosphere. Don Rickles demonstrates his dramatic acting chops with a standout performance as the unsavory dance hall manager/pimp, and Jack Oakie is good in one of the film's few sympathetic roles, as a world-weary bartender.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988)

Quirky and offbeat doc by Mark Lewis about the toads that were introduced into Queensland, Australia in the 1930s to combat the cane beetles that were eating the sugar cane. It was quickly discovered that the toads had no effect on the beetles, however, and the toad population exploded, having a detrimental effect on the native habitat and posing a poisonous threat to animals and people alike.

Lewis interviews a wide variety of experts, scientists, farmers and other individuals who share stories about their encounters with the toads. Between the interview segments are re-enactments employing clever low-angle shots, placing the viewer in the perspective of the cane toad. The unusual subject matter is enlivened with a sense of humor, such as shots of the toads watching a house at night, accompanied by ominous music, or gathering outside on a patio under the porch light, while inside a man obliviously sings in the shower, unaware of the little amphibious predators that are watching him. An illuminating and entertaining look at this controversial pest species that continues to spread throughout Australia.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Smart Money (1931)

The only film to pair Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney on-screen together, this is a tough, wise-cracking pre-code picture from Warner Bros. and directed by Alfred E. Green. Robinson plays a small-time gambler who heads to the city to move in the big leagues. He quickly gets wise to the ways of the city, and uses any underhanded tricks necessary to win big, eventually setting himself up as the head of his own gambling empire, but soon finds himself up against an equally crooked DA who is determined to put an end to the racket before election time.

It's a lot of fun seeing Robinson and Cagney on-screen together, though Robinson's character gets the lion's share of screen time. Robinson, in "tough guy" mode, delivers a deceptively complex performance, confidently strutting around like a rooster when he's on top of the world, but also submissive and susceptible when confronted by his one weakness -- a pretty girl, which proves to be his undoing. Cagney is fascinating to watch, with his graceful movements, agile body and subtle shifts in posture bringing a distinctive physicality to his performance as Robinson's cocky young assistant. There's one sequence in particular, in which he performs a brief pantomime, that is a fine example of his expressive physical capabilities.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Little Caesar (1931)

This is the gangster film that started it all, with Edward G. Robinson in his star-making role as the small-time hood who quickly climbs his way to the top of Chicago's crime racket, and just as quickly falls back into the gutter. It established the "rise and fall" narrative that influenced so many gangster movies to follow. As the first major gangster movie of the sound era, it was as influential in its way as STAGECOACH was to the Western or DRACULA was to the horror film. As others have noted, the gangster film really came into its own with the addition of sound, allowing audiences to hear the rapid-fire of machine gun bullets and the slang dialogue that has become forever associated with the genre.

Although eclipsed by Warner Bros.' own THE PUBLIC ENEMY, directed by William Wellman and released later the same year, and Howard Hawks' SCARFACE the year after, LITTLE CAESAR still packs a powerful punch thanks to Robinson's alternately tough and pathetic performance in the title role that transcends the limitations of the early sound film medium with his masterful delivery of dialogue and his total command of every scene in which he appears.

However, LITTLE CAESAR is so well-remembered for Robinson's iconic performance that it's easy to overlook the film's other strong points, namely its concise script by Robert N. Lee and Francis Edward Faragoh (adapted from W.R. Burnett's novel) that tells the story in just under 80 minutes without sacrificing the character development between Rico and his long-time friend and former partner-in-crime Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), which provides the dramatic crux of the plot. Then there are Anton Grot's sets, re-creating gangland Chicago on the backlot of the Warner Bros. studio, including a particularly elaborate nightclub set infused with Art Deco style.

Finally, Mervyn LeRoy's direction should be singled out for praise. He was not a visual stylist like Wellman or Hawks, and yet he never allows the images to become dull or impoverished even during the lengthier scenes of exposition, expertly blocking the actors' movements in the frame and finding interesting ways of lighting the set and moving the camera. Of particular note are his handling of the nightclub robbery sequence, depicted entirely in montage, and the unceremonious shooting of a young gang member on the steps of a church.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

A classic of late studio-era Hollywood, this delightfully sexy comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is expertly directed by the great Howard Hawks, who once again demonstrates his filmmaking versatility in mastering different genres, this time with the musical. Based on the 1949 Broadway show adapted from Anita Loos' 1925 Jazz Age novel, this 1953 film version explodes with color and energy, its absurd plot merely an excuse for a non-stop parade of sex jokes and fun musical numbers (Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson wrote new songs for the film, adding to the Broadway score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin).

Monroe and Russell do a superb job handling comedy, both demonstrating what immensely talented performers they were. Charles Coburn is perfect in the kind of role he was born to play, as the easily confused, doddering old millionaire, and Tommy Noonan hits the right note as Monroe's long-suffering fiancé, playing the comic foil with just the right amount of sympathy. Elliott Reid is fine as Jane Russell's love interest, but he isn't given much to do with his role as the private detective hired to trail the girls to France. Hawks is the ideal director for this material, keeping the energy high and the jokes flying, and utilizing the lavish production values to full effect.

The highlight is the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, performed by Marilyn Monroe in one of the most glittering, show-stopping numbers ever to come out of a Hollywood musical. It's a splendidly photographed sequence, with Monroe set against a red backdrop that pops off the screen. There is one particular moment during the song- when the backdrop switches from red to black, the action freezes, and a single spotlight shines down on Monroe - that will give you chills for its sheer power.

It's a quintessential Hollywood film of the '50s, and a perfect vehicle for two great screen icons.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Call Northside 777 (1948)

Post-war procedural crime drama with James Stewart as a Chicago reporter who sets about trying to prove the innocence of a man convicted and jailed for the killing of a policeman a decade earlier.

Often described as a film noir, it is instead a procedural similar to other post-war crime films such as THE NAKED CITY and Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN, right down to its use of location filming for authenticity. Director Henry Hathaway takes a largely naturalistic approach to the story, which was based on true events of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned in Chicago for 17 years. He achieves this by shooting largely in the authentic Illinois locations, and showing the process by which Stewart proves the convicted man's innocence with a nearly documentary-like attention to the details, particularly in the lie detector test and the wirephoto technology.

The film is an interesting example of the transitional stylistic approaches of post-war filmmaking, both in the performances, with James Stewart appearing alongside a newer generation of actors such as Richard Conte and Lee J. Cobb, and in the cinematography, alternating between the natural lighting of the location footage with Joe MacDonald's high-contrast photography of the interiors shot on the Fox sound stages.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Cossacks (1928)

High-gloss, late-silent from MGM, re-teaming John Gilbert and Renee Adoree following their success together in THE BIG PARADE a few years earlier. The plot, based on the Tolstoy novel and adapted by Frances Marion, is the stuff of stock melodrama, with Gilbert as the sensitive and peaceful son of the Cossacks' brutally tough clan leader (Ernest Torrence), who must prove himself a man in order to win the heart of the girl he loves (Adoree).

It's leisurely-paced and entertaining enough, despite the absurdities of the plotting and some inconsistencies in the characterizations (Gilbert's transformation into a bloodthirsty fighter occurs far too early). Torrence nearly steals the film with his characteristically scenery-chewing performance, and Nils Asther is effective enough as the rather dandified Russian prince who serves as Gilbert's romantic rival. There is also the usual comic relief from Paul Hurst as Torrence's second-in-command, and Dale Fuller as Adoree's mother.

The film is gorgeously shot, with Percy Hilburn's shimmering cinematography a solid example of the artistic camerawork to be found even in routine films such as this one made toward the end of the silent era. The direction, credited to George Hill but actually co-directed by Clarence Brown (who replaced Hill during the shoot), shows moments of real inspiration, using closeups of the lead actors to great effect in the opening scenes. Two sequences in particular stand out for their vibrant editing: a rousing dance sequence between Gilbert and a gypsy girl, and the thrilling climax, culminating in a violent battle between the Cossacks and the Turks.

A minor film overall, but a good example of the high visual artistry that marked even the average studio pictures of the late '20s before the transition to sound.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Birth of the Living Dead (2013)

Brief, breezy documentary about the making of the landmark horror film that started the modern "zombie" subgenre. There are some interesting tidbits here, especially regarding George Romero's early career producing advertising films and how he translated that experience into making his first feature film (among other things, we learn that many of his clients ended up in the cast of the film playing ghouls!)

There's not too much new information here for serious enthusiasts of the film and the genre, but Romero is a delight to listen to, and his stories of getting the project off the ground and his subsequent efforts at finding distribution for it will be appreciated by independent filmmakers. There are the usual discussions of the film's subtexts in relation to the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, but the makers avoid anything too substantive in this area, which is kept necessarily brief by the doc's short running time.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the discussion of the audience response that greeted the film upon its release in 1968, especially Roger Ebert's contemporary account of seeing it in a theater filled with children, dropped off by their parents for what they thought would be another routine Saturday afternoon monster flick, and who appeared traumatized by the film's shocking content.

Its shocking content was, of course, quickly surpassed by subsequent movies such as THE EXORCIST and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, but NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD retains its power as a film, and this documentary stands as a testament to the interest it still holds for viewers almost a half-century after it first appeared.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Made in Hollywood during the height of WWII by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, this landmark experimental film breaks free from the influence of previous traditions (especially French formalism and the German and Soviet "city symphony" models) that had held sway in the American avant-garde cinema since the 1920s.

Deren and Hammid evoke a dream state through an uncanny sense of screen time and space. Deren is one of the most consistently interesting experimental filmmakers for her masterful use of form and her total command of the screen both as filmmaker and as performer. Her work predates the explosion of interest in underground filmmaking during the late '50s, and she died tragically young in 1961, but her films were, and remain, a profoundly influential part of the American avant-garde tradition.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Lost in La Mancha (2002)

A revealing and often painful documentary look at the making of Terry Gilliam's ill-fated Don Quixote adaptation. We see a production out of control, beset by compromises and problems at every turn, everything from slashed budgets to bad weather to problems with the production insurance (resulting from the lead actor taking ill, and a flash flood that washes away some of the film gear).

At one point, Gilliam says something to the effect that he's made the film so many times in his head that he wonders if it isn't best that it just stays there. One can feel his pain over the struggle to bring his version of Cervantes' classic story to the screen, constantly beset by the persistent realities of making a movie.

It's a sobering look at just how much can go wrong in the making of a movie, made worse by the often chaotic nature of the production. Gilliam seems to be driven by his vision for the film at the expense of the practical concerns, and it's clear, as things spiral further and further out of control, that the project has lost its sense of fun for him.