Monday, December 25, 2017

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This is one of Lubitsch's finest films (in a career full of many fine films). It's also one of his gentlest films, directed with a kind of leisurely pace and repressed energy that only heightens the romantic tension between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Lubitsch makes great use of Stewart in a quiet, understated performance. But as with most Lubitsch films, it's really an ensemble piece that belongs to his entire cast of fine character actors, especially Frank Morgan who brings his comic skills to bear in a flawless performance.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Cabaret (1972)

Given his background in theater, it is remarkable just how cinematic Bob Fosse's directorial efforts in film were. Indeed, he began directing films at a time when the musical genre had largely become passe, ossified by over-produced, stiff and lifeless works that were a far cry from the glory days of the genre a couple decades prior.

Enter Fosse and Cabaret (1972), which re-defined the genre and breathed real vitality and verve into the musical film. What is remarkable about Fosse's direction is how he uses the camera and editing as another part of his choreography -- not through cute or clever gimmicks but rather by integrating them so completely that they are all really of a piece. His style is at once electric and explosive, and yet, somehow, never calls attention to itself in a way that makes anything seem out of place. The performance of Liza Minnelli is central to the film's style, her physicality so perfectly in-tune with Fosse's visual approach that their collaboration achieves a kind of synergy.

Cabaret follows the relationship between Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American cabaret singer in Weimar-era Berlin, and British student Brian Roberts (Michael York), who is in Berlin as part of his doctoral research. The cabaret itself, the Kit Kat Klub, serves as a kind of communal spot in a city that is beginning to become overrun with Nazis, whose rise to power parallels the events in the lives of Sally and Brian over the course of the film.

Although based on the hit Broadway show of the same name, for his film Fosse returned to the original source material (The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood) for inspiration, and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb jettisoned all but one of the tunes from their Broadway score, and wrote new songs for the film. The result is a remarkably rich, poignant, and stylish film that has lost none of its power.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Iron Man (1931)

Tod Browning is so closely associated today with the macabre and often gruesome thrillers for which he achieved his greatest fame (Dracula, Freaks, The Unknown) that it is easy to forget that he worked in a number of different genres. One example is Iron Man (1931), a pre-Code boxing melodrama that was one of three films he made for Universal in the early '30s, sandwiched in between his loose 1930 remake of his 1921 crime drama Outside the Law, and his iconic horror film Dracula.

Iron Man stars Lew Ayres (one year after his star-making performance in All Quiet on the Western Front) as a young prizefighter who bounces back after losing his first fight, but once he achieves some success, his gold-digging wife (Jean Harlow) re-appears in his life, and after convincing him to dump his long-time manager (Robert Armstrong), the boxer's career begins to fall apart.

Browning had a knack for this kind of hard-hitting, gritty, urban material, as evidenced here and in Fast Workers (1933), which makes one curious to see what he would have done had he been able to explore it more frequently in the pre-Code sound film period.

Friday, December 01, 2017

"Le Squelette Joyeux" (1897) -- A Lumiere Trick Film

This is an interesting subject from Louis and Auguste Lumiere, of the kind of subject matter one does not typically associate with them.

It would appear to have been inspired by the early trick films of Melies, whose HAUNTED CASTLE of the previous year features a skeleton (although it doesn't dance). Or it could be a case of the Lumieres borrowing from similar theatrical traditions to branch out into new avenues of filmmaking.

Either way, it's an intriguing little subject. What I find most interesting about it is how, despite its fantastic nature, it actually appears quite drab and plain compared to the strikingly rich photographic compositions of the Lumiere actualities, which breathe with life and vitality.

I wonder which of their cameramen shot this subject, and if he ever did anything else similar to it?