Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Big Top Pee-wee (1988)

This follow-up to the 1985 hit PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE is a largely dismal and silly affair, filled with kidstuff humor that lacks the magic and charm of the earlier film. Reubens co-wrote the script, but the pacing and tone feel oddly off here, with moments of adult humor that seem out-of-place and out-of-character for a film that otherwise serves only as harmless entertainment for kids. What was lacking was a strong director like the first film had in Tim Burton. With Randal Kleiser at the helm this time around, the material never becomes quite surreal or cartoonish enough, and feels flat and uninspired as a result. The supporting cast, including Kris Kristofferson as the circus owner, Susan Tyrrell as his two-inch-tall wife, and Valeria Golino and Penelope Ann Miller as Pee-wee's unlikely love interests, are all effective enough but aren't given much to do with their roles. Similarly, there are some interesting characters among the circus troupe (a dog-boy, hermaphrodite, etc.), but not enough is ever made of them for them to register as more than just a series of one-off jokes.

Interestingly, it opens with an elaborate dream sequence with Pee-wee as a Sinatra-style crooner, who takes flight over the nocturnal countryside in order to escape his hordes of fans (shades of Fellini!) Unlike the Grand Prix bicycle race dream that opened the first film and directly foreshadowed the plot, the dream opening here is entirely isolated and has nothing to do with the rest of the film, and yet the premise of Pee-wee as a pop crooner is far more interesting than the film that follows.

Mister Roberts (1955)

Superb comedy-drama, adapted from the Thomas Heggen-Joshua Logan play about loyalty and friendship among the crew of a cargo ship during WWII. Henry Fonda re-creates his Tony-award winning role as Lt. (j.g.) Doug Roberts, supported by a fine ensemble cast including James Cagney as the brutish captain, William Powell as the sardonic, wise "Doc", and Jack Lemmon as the hapless Ensign Pulver. John Ford -- who began directing the film -- was a natural choice for this material, with its themes of male camaraderie and military decorum, but he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy following a falling-out with Fonda. The film betrays its theatrical origins, its locations largely confined to the ship's cabins and deck, but does contain some stunning imagery of the sea and the sky (with some particularly striking shots of the sunlight shining through the clouds over the water) that provide evidence of Ford's impeccable eye for expansive visual details.

Chinatown (1974)

Widely recognized as one of the finest films to come out of the New Hollywood of the early 1970s, modeled on the '40s crime dramas and detective fiction. Jack Nicholson is a private eye in 1930s LA who is hired to investigate the murder of a powerful city official and becomes involved in over his head as he slowly pieces together the puzzle. Faye Dunaway gives one her finest performances as the woman in trouble, and John Huston turns in a chilling performance, embodying corruption in its most evil form.

Though there is much to praise about the film -- Roman Polanski's direction, Robert Towne's script and John A. Alonzo's cinematography chief among them -- there is an underlying problem I have with it: I am too often aware of the expert construction and execution of the individual elements, which I admire individually for their brilliance but which prevent the combined results from achieving a stylistic totality. It is nonetheless a masterful achievement in many ways, even if it perhaps adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

A funny, clever spin on the screwball comedy genre, about a simple, young business school graduate who's installed as the head of a mega-corporation with the expectation that he'll fail and drive their stock value down. Predictably, however, things don't quite go as planned. It's fun to see the Coens taking on this staple of classic Hollywood film, and the film is a sort of hyper-stylized take on the type of story Frank Capra used to do so well, combined with the rapid-fire machine-gun pacing of HIS GIRL FRIDAY. The Coens once again demonstrate their genius for casting, making the most of such enormous talents as Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, and John Mahoney. Not quite as stylistically audacious as some of the Coens' later work, but still highly entertaining in its affectionate homage to screwball comedy and a fine example of what truly great storytellers they are -- telling a familiar story in a most distinctive and personal way.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Funny, delirious dark comedy with a premise that could have been borrowed from one of the classic films noir, but infused with an ironic, post-modern sensibility. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman head a standout cast that also includes Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Huddleston (in the title role). One of the finest examples of the Coen brothers' talent for working outside genre -- or within several genres at once, depending on how you look at it -- while maintaining an entirely original, unique and personal approach to the material.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Bank Robbery (1908)

An early Western subject, directed by US Marshal William Tilghman, and produced by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company. Tilghman, convicted outlaw-turned-actor/filmmaker Al Jennings, and other frontier lawmen and gunfighters appear as themselves in this story of a gang of bank robbers who, following a hold-up, are pursued and finally captured by the law.

Fascinating for its sense of authenticity (both in the casting and locations) and naturalistic touches (such as a horse defecating on camera) that one would not see in later Hollywood westerns. There is also an interesting early use of the panning camera. It is quite unlike anything I've seen in other films of this period, and while the movement of the pan appears quite jerky and crude (with the cameraman often missing the mark of the subject), it is nonetheless quite surprising and effective the first time it is used, and an instance of astonishing technical experimentation in a film that is otherwise stylistically quite straightforward.

Monday, April 20, 2015

His Girl Friday (1940)

I've seen this one numerous times and am convinced that it may be the quintessential Hollywood screen comedy, with its wry observations about love, unmatched breathless pace, and cynical, sharp satire on media and politics, all filtered through the uniquely American genre of the newspaper picture. It is also a triumph of the classical film style, under the masterful guidance of Howard Hawks, who never lets his technique show but instead makes it all look so deceptively simple.  One of those miraculous films where every element comes together flawlessly.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Django Unchained (2012)

Stylish, blood-soaked revenge fantasy, about an ex-slave who teams up with a German bounty hunter to rescue his wife, who's being held in slavery on a large Mississippi plantation. Excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and the always-interesting Christoph Waltz, with Leonard DiCaprio delivering a tour-de-force performance as the plantation owner. They are ably supported by such stalwarts as Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern and Franco Nero. Tarantino certainly knows how to tell a story, and the two and three-quarter hour running time flies by, even though overall the film is a bit less tight than his previous one, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. What strikes me most is his obvious love of the landscape. There are some absolutely stunning shots of the Southern fields, sky, mountains, etc. that could have come straight from the Westerns of Hawks or Leone. Tarantino uses every inch of the frame to maximum effect, and the results are nothing short of breathtaking at times. It's Tarantino's sheer love for the medium that makes his work so compelling.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Policemen's Little Run (1907)

This short comedy by Ferdinand Zecca is a good example of the kind of slapstick comedy that the Pathe company became famous for during the early years of the 20th century. This subject involves a dog leading policemen on a merry chase through the streets of Paris. The chase, and the use of comic policemen, would become staples of American silent comedy as well, demonstrating the international influence that the French Pathe farces had at this time. There are some remarkable trick shots, including the policemen scaling the side of a building through the use of an overhead camera and a painted backdrop over which they climb. This creates an interesting juxtaposition between the use of authentic locations in the streets of Paris intercut with obviously painted backdrops.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M (1951)

Oddly dismal remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang masterpiece, updated to 1950s Los Angeles. Joseph Losey, whose fourth feature film this was, borrows heavily from the look of Lang's original throughout, but combines this with a more naturalistic approach taking advantage of the LA filming locations. The result is stylistically uneven, though Losey does add some interesting touches of his own, particularly in the scenes of the child murderer stalking his victims, which employ creative cutting and sound (most notably the unsettling, cackling howls of the Laffing Sal attraction on the Santa Cruz boardwalk right before little Elsie is killed).

In light of Losey's blacklisting later in 1951, it's tempting to consider the film's conclusion as an indictment of McCarthy-era witchhunts, building on Lang's powerful condemnation of lynch mob justice. David Wayne as the child murderer is effective enough, though he perhaps inevitably lacks the intensity and desperate, pathetic qualities that Peter Lorre brought so memorably to the role in the original, making his final testimony before the mob in the kangaroo court less harrowing.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

The same year that Mack Sennett made the landmark feature-length slapstick comedy TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, Sidney Drew directed and starred in this genteel, gender-bending farce for the Vitagraph company, about a woman (Edith Storey) who discovers some enchanted seeds that have the effect of turning women into men, and vice versa.

Notable for its bold subversion of sexual stereotypes, the humor is marked by Drew's clever sophistication and understated style. Drew and company have fun with the premise, and make the most of the farcical situations involving gender confusion and role reversals, which frequently retain their ability to be fresh and surprising (and which seem to have provided a model for later cross-dressing comedies such as Lubitsch's I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN). The film also boasts some effective photography and a nice use of the Florida locations. With its attention to character and situations, it provides an interesting contrast to the roughhouse, knockabout slapstick most frequently associated with silent comedy, and is a fine example of Sidney Drew's talent as both a comic actor and filmmaker in a career that spanned more than 150 films over the course of a decade.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Tomorrow at Seven (1933)

I was in the mood for watching a light mystery before bedtime, and this little whodunit fit the bill. Chester Morris stars as a crime novelist, researching his latest book by investigating the identity of a killer known as "The Black Ace" (because of his calling card announcing the time of his next murder).

The supporting cast, which feels like it could have been largely borrowed from Warner Bros., includes Vivienne Osbourne, Henry Stephenson, Grant Mitchell, Charles Middleton, and Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins providing the comic relief as a pair of wisecracking detectives. It's a tightly-paced, unpretentious and entertaining little mystery, written by Ralph Spence with a nice blend of suspense and humor, and directed by Ray Enright with a good sense of atmosphere and creative use of the spaces inside the "old dark house" setting.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Locked Door (1929)

This is a rather creaky Pre-Coder, about a young woman whose sister-in-law becomes romantically involved with a womanizing playboy who had attempted to rape her while on a boat cruise a year earlier. When she pays a visit to his apartment to put an end to the affair, the woman ends up being implicated in the shooting of the playboy.

It's notable for an early starring turn by Barbara Stanwyck, who commands attention in each scene, with a real ease and naturalness in her handling of the dialogue, and is the standout in the cast which also includes Rod LaRocque, Betty Bronson, and William ("Stage") Boyd. The talky script, adapted from a play by Channing Pollock, is enlivened by moments of imaginative direction by George Fitzmaurice and some impressive camerawork by Ray June (particularly a long tracking shot down the entire length of the ship's bar).

Movie Miniatures

I recently watched Carol Reed's 1940 British wartime thriller NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH. I love the stylized artifice of these miniatures, which look like they could have come right over from Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES, and have a certain charm and character lacking from slicker, big-budget miniatures or today's CGI models.

THE LADY VANISHES opens with a similarly charming miniature town. A crane shot passes over the model trains (complete with miniature human figures next to it). It then passes in front of a quaint little model house before moving on to a side street, where a model car passes by.

These models, which probably seemed palpably artificial even to contemporary audiences, contain the imagination and skill of the artisans who created them, lending these films a distinctly human touch.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Tusk (2014)

I really like this new direction Kevin Smith has taken with his filmmaking. I always enjoyed his comedies, although there was a tendency toward repetition and the past couple I'd seen had felt perhaps more than a little stale. Having tuned out of his work around the time of JERSEY GIRL and CLERKS 2, I only just recently watched his two most recent movies, and have been completely surprised by the direction he takes them in.

I like the fact that this movie is difficult to nail down. It exists outside convenient focus-group marketing categories. The tone shifts quite sharply between horror and comedy, but it works. There is genuinely nightmarish imagery worthy of Tod Browning, and a detective investigating the case who could be Inspector Clouseau's French-Canadian cousin. As the villain, Michael Parks delivers a truly terrifying and intense performance that equals his fine work in Smith's RED STATE.

This film and RED STATE have renewed my interest in Smith's work. I never thought I'd be saying this again, but I look forward to seeing what he does next.