Monday, July 28, 2014

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938)

Charming adaptation of the Mark Twain classic, elaborately but tastefully produced in Technicolor by David O. Selznick. Director Norman Taurog was the perfect choice for the material, getting fine performances out of the young leads, especially Tommy Kelly in the title role and Ann Gillis as Becky Thatcher. The supporting cast includes stand-out performances by seasoned character actors May Robson as Aunt Polly, Walter Brennan as Muff Potter, and Victor Jory as Injun Joe, among others, bringing Twain's colorful characters to life.

Robson in particular is a delight, as always. Her portrayal of Aunt Polly reveals a real affection and concern for Tom when the boy is in danger, belying her tough and scolding demeanor, and making the character much more than just a foil for Tom's mischief. The script, by John V.A. Weaver, does a superb job of capturing the spirit of Twain's book, skillfully blending the dramatic and comic moments. While the plot is obviously simplified for the film, it contains the most memorable set-pieces. The highlight is the cave sequence, in which Tom and Becky get hopelessly lost in a cavernous underground labyrinth. Lavishly designed by William Cameron Menzies, this claustrophobic and suspenseful sequence still packs a punch.

The story has been filmed numerous times over the years but this version is probably the best thanks to Selznick's characteristically high production values; it holds up quite well and is still a fun piece of entertainment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Crossing Guard (1995)

Intriguing, sometimes powerful, drama, written and directed by Sean Penn, which never quite lives up to the potential hinted at by its premise. Five years after a drunk driving accident has taken his daughter's life, her father -- a self-destructive man with a hair-trigger temper (Jack Nicholson) -- seeks revenge on her killer, a young man just released from jail. The father wrestles with own anger and hatred, his relationship with his estranged family, and his decision to take the young man's life, while the young man in turn struggles to come to terms with the consequences of his past actions and to adjust to his new life after prison.

Penn takes the melodramatic material of this story and treats it as a character study. Nicholson puts in a typically fine performance, and the film lags a bit when he is off-screen. Anjelica Huston has a good but all-too-brief role as Nicholson's ex-wife, who urges him to move on from the grief and anger he feels over their daughter's death. An effective if uneven effort.

Monday, July 21, 2014

To The Wonder (2012)

A sort of cinematic tone poem by Terrence Malick on love and relationships, following the unpleasant disintegration of a marriage between Neil (a miscast Ben Affleck), a environmental inspector working in the oil fields of Oklahoma, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a young woman whom he met while on vacation in France. Re-located to Oklahoma with her daughter, Marina is uncomfortable in her new surroundings, and attempts to find guidance in a local priest (Javier Bardem) who is struggling with his own faith. Having set up this premise early on, Malick explores the themes and ideas with his usually rich visual style, but the approach too often feels unfocused. All the elements are here, but they never quite fall into place. Malick also undercuts his strong visual poetry with the voice-over narration, which distracts from the effects he is already able to convey through the images. The film is further hindered by the leading performances. To be fair, the characters are difficult to do too much with, as they rarely seem to be called on to act as little more than blank slates, but Affleck is simply too one-note, while Kurylenko's performance contains a kind of empty, surface-level charm but lacks the depth to create a fully realized character. Malick is most effective at depicting the regional milieu and how it drives a cultural wedge between the two characters . An interesting if ultimately unsatisfying film.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

One of the best films I have seen in a long time. Robert Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson in one of his finest and most understated performances) is a man who finds his life divided between where he has come from and where he is going, a perfect metaphor for a country divided -- between economic and class barriers, between changing traditions and ways of life, between the old and the new.

As the son of an upper-class family in Washington state, Dupea left a promising career as a concert pianist in order to drop out and work on oil rigs and experience what America had to offer beyond the comfortable but unsatisfying bubble in which he lived. However, by the time we catch up with him, he is starting to become disenchanted with his new life in rural Southern California, strongly questioning his decision after his girlfriend (Karen Black) unexpectedly becomes pregnant and his best friend is arrested for a past crime. This leads him back to re-connect with his family, but he soon finds he is unable to reconcile his new experiences with their ideas and attitudes. Dupea is perpetually rootless, perpetually in search of the experiences that will give his life meaning, in search of answers he may never find.

Bob Rafelson's direction, sensitive and restrained, achieves a totality of style and tone that stands as some of the finest work in American film from this period. Stylistically, the film is rooted in the naturalistic approach prevalent at the time, and remains one of the key works of the American New Wave. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs brings his distinctive eye in capturing the breathtaking Southwestern landscapes and skies at dusk, the subdued atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest, and other locations throughout. Like the previous year's EASY RIDER, also lensed by Kovacs, the choice and presentation of the locations are absolutely essential to understanding the film. FIVE EASY PIECES is a film about America, about the road, the drive resulting from dissatisfaction with our circumstances, the sense of moving forward to an uncertain future and the experiences we encounter along the way.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Witness (1985)

Surprisingly effective thriller, directed by Peter Weir, about a cop (Harrison Ford) who must hide out on an Amish farm after uncovering a potentially scandalous instance of police corruption during a murder investigation in Philadelphia. Weir makes the most of the premise, and Ford turns in a fine performance as the stoical police officer who comes to appreciate the simple ways of life of the Amish community with whom he stays. Lukas Haas gives a remarkable performance as the young boy who witnesses the murder that sets the plot in motion, and the relationship that develops between him and Ford is quite touching. Weir also makes excellent use of the Pennsylvania filming locations, capturing the atmosphere of Dutch Amish country with a real sense of authenticity and regional flavor. The plot is very well-paced, expertly maintaining suspense and building up to the final confrontation between Ford and the dirty cops in a tense shoot-out on the farm. One of those films where everything works, and all of the elements come together effectively. The kind of solidly entertaining movie Hollywood just isn't capable of making anymore.

Honey I Shrunk The Kids (1989)

Inconsequential piece of silliness that inexplicably spawned two sequels. A hapless inventor (Rick Moranis) has created a device capable of shrinking objects to minuscule size, which only works in accidentally shrinking both his and the neighbors' kids. There's much promise in the premise, but it lacks energy and grows tired quickly, and aside from Moranis, most of the performances are decidedly forgettable (even "Max Headroom" himself, Matt Frewer, as Moranis' long-suffering neighbor). The special effects are all top-notch, however, and are expertly employed in the service of a couple of good set-pieces -- including a battle between an ant and a scorpion and a flight on a bumblebee -- that make up the film's most memorable moments.

I Am Divine (2013)

Excellent documentary by Jeffrey Schwartz examining the life of talented character actor Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as drag performer Divine. Tracing his career from his early films with John Waters, to his stage shows in San Francisco and New York, his recording career as a disco performer, and his untimely death immediately following the premiere of HAIRSPRAY, Schwartz's documentary captures Divine's enormous talent, larger-than-life personality, and generosity that earned him equal measures of love and respect from colleagues and audiences alike throughout his career. A highlight are the interviews with Divine's mother, who touchingly recalls her relationship with her son. A fitting tribute to a great talent.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943)

Effective mystery programmer from Monogram Pictures, based on the Armitage Trail story. At a dinner party, a dying man announces that his will is to remain sealed for 13 years, until his granddaughter's 21st birthday, at which time only she is to open it. When the will is finally opened, the surviving guests from the dinner party begin turning up dead, and the original seating arrangements appear to hold the clue as to who the killer is. The film's fairly complex plot is packed into its tight running time of just over an hour. Wisecracking banter from Dick Purcell and Tim Ryan as the police investigators and well-paced direction from the always-reliable William Beaudine make this a solid entertainment. Previously filmed as THE THIRTEENTH GUEST (1932).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Truly creepy supernatural horror film that holds up better than most. Roman Polanski manages to take the familiar New York locations (especially the Dakota on Central Park West) and make them seem genuinely otherworldly. The premise -- about a young mother who begins to suspect that her husband is involved with Satanists that desire her unborn child for a ritual -- could have easily turned ridiculous if not laughable in lesser hands, but Polanski's direction and script, combined with expert acting from a fine cast, make this one a classic of its kind. Mia Farrow brings the perfect combination of vulnerability and strength to her part of the young mother dealing with forces beyond her control, and John Cassavetes does characteristically fine work as her deceptively charming husband. They are ably supported by a superb cast of character actors including Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly and Elisha Cook Jr.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

Lush romantic drama about three young American women, working for the USDA in Rome, as they find love against the backdrop of Italy in all its splendor. Jean Peters, Dorothy McGuire and Maggie McNamara make a charming trio in the lead roles, and are ably supported by Rossano Brazzi, Clifton Webb, and Louis Jourdan as their respective love interests. Webb in particular is a delight to watch, with his understated comic playing and expert timing.

Director Jean Negulesco excelled at this kind of material, and made a number of similar "women's pictures" for 20th Century-Fox during this time. An expert craftsman, he had an invisible style that never calls attention to itself. Here, he deftly handles the screen space of the CinemaScope frame, bathing the film in atmosphere through the evocative use of its locations and vibrant Technicolor cinematography, and benefiting immensely from having the full resources of Fox at his disposal.

However, John Patrick's screenplay, adapted from John H. Secondari's novel, is a largely routine piece of work that contains all the requisite plot points, but fails to move beyond the conventions demanded by the genre. As a result, the characters and situations too often feel flat, and the melodramatic turns are easily anticipated, but it also manages to be surprisingly effective and genuinely moving at times, particularly in the subplot involving Clifton Webb and Dorothy McGuire. It's all charmingly predictable though, and succeeds at what it sets out to do.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

A ludicrous piece of Hollywood filmmaking at its most decadent, this is an expensive soap opera about a trio of girls who get wrapped up in the world of show business, and encounter every contrived triumph and tragedy that the script puts in their path, which they each deal with through the use of prescription pills.

Stylistically, it's very much a throwback to an earlier era, rooted in Fox's high-gloss Scope & Technicolor "women's pictures" of the previous decade, but taking advantage of the greater permissiveness afforded by being made in the late '60s. The tone varies sharply, veering between conventional melodrama to moments bordering on high camp.

Mark Robson's direction is utterly unremarkable throughout, only approaching any kind of distinction in the montage sequences, which eschew the straightforward Classical technique of the rest of the film in favor of some showy double-exposures, slow-motion, and other trippy, psychedelic effects that are very much of their time and ultimately not in keeping with the rest of the film (and were probably largely the work of the visual effects department, in any case). The performances lack any kind of subtlety, and while this admittedly results in some of the film's most unintentionally funny moments, it ultimately has to be chalked up to a failing of Robson's direction.

And yet, despite these issues -- or perhaps because of them -- it's a singularly fascinating film, utterly ridiculous in almost every way, a final gasp from the old studio system, an uneven and problematic film to be sure, but also immensely and undeniably entertaining.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Perhaps the biggest of all Hollywood spectacles produced in the 1950s, and an extremely ambitious undertaking for independent producer Mike Todd, this adaptation of the Jules Verne adventure classic holds up well as an example of epic filmmaking at its most lavish. With engaging performances from the leads (especially the delightful Cantinflas), cameo appearances by an extensive roster of major stars, a fine Victor Young score, and gorgeous cinematography shot in a wide variety of locations, there is much to recommend it.

However, there are some serious pacing problems with the script (by John Farrow, James Poe and S.J. Perelman), not helped by Michael Anderson's impersonal (if generally effective) direction. All too often, the story stops for extended set-pieces that fail to move the plot forward and ultimately go nowhere. Perhaps the most egregious of these occur during the Spanish sequence, with Jose Greco's Flamenco dance number and the interminable bullfight routine with Cantinflas. The latter, in particular, while valuable as a record of the celebrated Mexican comic's talents, brings the film to a grinding halt from which it takes a while to recover.

It's also easy to criticize the film for essentially being little more than a splendidly-photographed travelogue at times, with the balloon ride over the Pyrenees or the train ride across the American west designed to showcase the scope of the Todd-AO frame. However, to their credit, these sequences capture the spirit of Verne's novel and the thrill of travel conveyed in the book.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The House That Shadows Built (1931)

An interesting historical curio, this promotional film was created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Paramount Pictures during the 1931-32 season. After a whirlwind retrospective of highlights from the silent era, and naming seemingly every star to ever work for Paramount in the process, it then moves on to coming attractions from the studio's upcoming season.

There is great historical value in the featured clips from now-lost silent films such as DeMille's 1918 remake of THE SQUAW MAN and THE MIRACLE MAN starring Lon Chaney. There are also intriguing ads for productions that underwent casting changes (A FAREWELL TO ARMS starring Gary Cooper and Eleanor Boardman, instead of Helen Hayes) or that were never produced at all (THE ROUND-UP, starring Eugene Pallette, Stuart Erwin, Skeets Gallagher and Frances Dee, and advertised as "Greater than 'The Virginian'").

The highlight is the Marx Bros. segment promoting MONKEY BUSINESS. Set in a theatrical producer's office, this sequence is of interest for containing entirely new footage shot for this promotional film, and for using material from the Marxes' 1924 Broadway hit "I'll Say She Is", serving as a valuable historical record of what that show must have looked like.

Friday, July 04, 2014

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Lavish Technicolor & CinemaScope comedy about three single girls (Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable) who take up residence at a fancy Sutton Place apartment in order to achieve their dream of marrying a millionaire.

The fun performances of the three leads makes up for the formulaic plot and overly-broad comedy. An exercise in late-studio era style, with assured direction by Jean Negulesco, who seemed to specialize in these types of pictures. The supporting cast includes Rory Calhoun, Cameron Mitchell, David Wayne, and the always-reliable Fred Clark, all of whom are effective enough in their roles. However, the real standout is a late appearance by William Powell as Texas millionaire J.D. Hanley. His characteristically sophisticated, charming performance is so effective, achieving such good chemistry with Bacall, that when she breaks off their engagement at the end, it can't help but be a little disappointing.