Saturday, October 18, 2014

Anatomy (2000)

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky                             Writers: Peter Engelmann & Stefan Ruzowitzky
Film Score: Marius Rhland                               Cinematography: Peter von Haller
Starring: Franka Potente, Benno Fürmann, Anna Loos and Sebastian Blomberg

Deadfall was director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s first American film, and I thought it was so good that I wanted to seek out more from him. It turned out I had already seen The Inheritors, a fantastic historical comedy-drama, and looking back at his other German films one really stood out, the horror film Anatomy, primarily because it stars Franka Potente. She has been one of my favorite actresses since first seeing her in The Bourne Identity and the German film Run Lola Run. More recently she has appeared on an episode of House, and is currently a regular on the second season of The Bridge. Unfortunately, this is not a great movie. Sort of across between Coma and Re-Animator, it feels about ten years older than it actually is, but it does have some things going for it. Chiefly, because it’s German, it doesn’t fall prey to all of the predictable American slasher film stereotypes. The acting, for the most part, is also decent, and the special effects are somewhat believable.

The film begins in Munich, with Franka Potente in an anatomy class with a professor who is something of a pervert. He lets her know that she has been selected to attend a more prestigious medical school in Heidelberg that both her father and grandfather attended. Her grandfather is sick in the hospital, while her father wants her to work in his local clinic instead of his belief that she is just chasing after money, but she goes anyway. From there the scene shifts to a man, Simon Schwarz, waking up on an operating table, horrified to see that he is being cut apart. On the train Potente runs into Anna Loos, a buxom blonde, also from the med school in Munich, and Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, a young man with a heart problem. Once at the new school she is told to meet in the anatomy lab with the other new students. There she sees a dead body move and while the other women are scared off, she discovers that some of the male students have wired the body in order to scare them. Later, Schwering is kidnapped at a bar and wakes up on the table himself. When the head doctor in Heidelberg, Traugott Buhre, reveals Schwering on the slab, Potente gets suspicious and begins hunting for answers. The audience, however, knows that the anatomy museum at the school is being peopled by unwilling victims, and that Potente doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

The screenplay by Ruzowitzky and Peter Engelmann draws primarily on Coma for influence. Potente is the woman in peril, walking into an ongoing medical nightmare in which a secret society of doctors is breaking the law and killing healthy people. At the same time, however, there is a sterility to the sets, beginning with the dissecting lab in Munich and becoming even more so in the anatomy lab in Heidelberg. That part of the film, and its attendant special effects, feels more like Re-Animator. Still, Franka Potente does as good a job as she can, considering the screenplay. She doesn’t have the depth of character to draw on or a naturalistic setting to work against to pull it off. Sebastian Blomberg, as Potente’s boyfriend does a much better job than Benno Fürmann, the jealous boyfriend of Anna Loos. The one standout scene is Loos and Holger Speckhahn going into the lab at night for a sexual anatomy lesson, but the film lapses back into predictability shortly after and therefore can’t build on that energy. Anatomy is slick and stylish, but short on character development. It’s of interest to fans of Franka Potente, but not something I will probably return to.

Maurice (1987)

Director: James Ivory                                        Writers: Kit Hesketh-Harvey & James Ivory
Film Score: Richard Robbins                            Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Starring: James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Denholm Elliott and Rupert Graves

Though Merchant-Ivory production had been in existence since 1961 when Indian producer Ismael Merchant teamed up with American director James Ivory to produce English-speaking Indian films for the international market, they didn’t really achieve their greatest success until the 1980s when they began filming British stories by Henry James and E.M. Forster. Henry James’ The Bostonians was their first big hit and they followed that up with their most popular film A Room with a View, which was based on the novel by E.M. Forster. For their next film they continued with Forster’s most controversial story Maurice. The novel was about a same-sex relationship between men he knew at Cambridge, and Forster refused to have it published during his lifetime because his perception of the subject matter is that it would be so controversial it could only affect his career and book sales in a negative way. The book only made it’s way to the public in 1971, the year after his death. Despite the film’s critical success, it did not attain the popular success that other films by the production team were able to achieve in the early nineties like Howard’s End.

The film begins with the young Orlando Wells as the title character. He’s leaving his private boarding school to go to a public one, and as he has no male adults in his life one of his instructors, Simon Callow, takes it upon himself to teach the youngster the facts of life. Years later, in college, James Wilby now plays the title character, and he happens across Hugh Grant in the room of one of the other students, Mark Tandy. They strike up a friendship and Wilby, who previously had expressed no interest in music, is suddenly enthralled with Grant’s study of Tchaikovsky. But one summer they become closer than ever but when Grant professes his love for the other, Wilby balks. He’s been brought up Christian and the idea goes against his very nature, or so he thought. Once he decides to return Grant’s advances, the two of them begin a years-long romance. At first Grant is nearly open with his affection, flaunting it in front of the servants, while Wilby is afraid of being caught. But the tables turn after Tandy is arrested and stripped of his position and his title, and ordered to the work farm. Realizing he could lose everything, Grant takes a trip to Greece to sort things out and determines that the two of them should take the traditional course in life, leaving Wilby devastated.

In desperation Wilby turns to the family physician Denholm Elliott, and he in turn sends him to American Ben Kingsley who tries to use psychotherapy to “cure” him. But it’s not until he meets Rupert Graves, the gameskeeper at Grant’s estate, that he is finally able to accept who he is. The heartbreaking thing about this story is something I’m not sure most people pick up on right away. The implication early on is that both Hugh Grant and James Wilby are gay, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. For many of those boys in boarding school or segregated colleges, relationships with those of their own sex is oftentimes the only thing available to them . . . for years. Historian and journalist Richard Rhodes related similar experiences in his book Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey, that sex between boys at boarding school had nothing to do with being gay. Looked at in this light, Hugh Grant’s actions become clear. His dalliance with Wilby after school is over is simply a continuance of the primary intimate relationship he’s had in his life, not a sexual preference.

Hugh Grant’s character receives a lot of negative criticism for the fact that he’s apparently duping his wife, Phoebe Nicholls, as well as deluding himself and abandoning Wilby. But Grant’s ability to get married is not necessarily going against his nature but I would argue that he is actually finding it after being sequestered with men for so long. There’s a line of dialogue with Wilby, where he says as much. Assuming that Wilby has fallen in love with a woman he says, “It’s the greatest thing on earth, perhaps the only one . . . Aren’t women extraordinary?” The sentiment seems genuine in the film and gives much more logic to Grant’s behavior. It also makes the story that much more tragic because Wilby has no such option for the simple fact that he is really gay. Hugh Grant is impossibly young in the film, and does a tremendous job. James Wilby’s performance is much less so, but that’s no doubt due to the screenplay. There is an unfocused quality to his performance and, with the lack of voiceover, an emotional disconnect for the audience. And his willingness to rebound into the arms of a servant is a disturbing in a way that isn’t resolved before the film ends. Rupert Graves, continues the excellent work he began in A Room with a View, and the cameos by Simon Callow and Helena Bonham Carter are fun. Maurice is certainly an interesting film, fascinating in a way, but ultimately too one-dimensional to be considered great.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Director: James Whale                                     Writer: William Hurlbut & John L. Balderston
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester

There have been very few in cinematic history--The Godfather II and Terminator 2 come to mind--but The Bride of Frankenstein is one of those rare sequels that actually managed to surpass the artistry and popularity of the original film. And it’s easy to see why. James Whale had been chafing at the idea of going back to horror films ever since finishing with The Invisible Man, but because Universal was so keen on having him direct the sequel to Frankenstein, he used this as a bargaining chip and cashed it in to do One More River. At the same time, he knew the studio wouldn’t take him off the sequel and so he took full control of the production from the screenplay right down to the makeup and made the film in his image just as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. One way he did this was by taking the elements of humor from his previous films to a new level. The inclusion of actors like Ernest Thesiger and Una O’Connor, and to a lesser extent, Dwight Frye, to undercut the horrific elements of the first film changed the complexion of the sequel completely. The other aspect of the film that separates it so dramatically from the first is the film score by Franz Waxman. It is not only one of the great horror film scores, but one of the great scores of any film from the thirties. But with Waxman seemingly working with Whale to emphasizing the humor, it does tend to push the film toward a more popular taste that leaves it wanting as a true horror film.

The film’s opening is incredibly unique. Going back to the very beginning, it starts on a stormy night with Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron, and Douglas Walton as Percy Shelley, discussing Lanchester’s novel Frankenstein. Gordon’s trilled Rs are almost distracting as he waxes rhapsodic about it, but what’s truly fascinating is how he recounts the story with scenes from the first film, like something from a TV show but nothing I’ve ever seen before in a feature film. Then Lanchester says there is more, and picks up the story from the burning windmill. Where Colin Clive had lived in the original film, he begins this one dead and comes back to life like his monster. Meanwhile Karloff, having fallen through the floor of the windmill, kills the parents of the little girl he drowned in the first film before coming after Clive. The presence of Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorious is so borderline camp that it nearly destroys the film. But Whale simply continues to push forward with a complete lack of shame as the jealous Thesiger steals Clive away from Valerie Hobson as the new Elizabeth and demonstrates the tiny people he has created. The set pieces in the film are extraordinary, from the Christ-like crucifixion scene in the woods, to the scene with O.P. Heggie as the blind hermit which John Carradine stumbles upon, to the underground crypt scene between Karloff and Thesiger, and of course the finale with Lanchester as Karloff’s bride.

The supreme confidence James Whale displays in the film is startling, and that’s saying something considering how skillful he was already. But one has the sense that his acceptance of the assignment meant that he could do whatever he wanted and take whatever chances he desired, and there was nothing anyone would do about it. The moving camera work in the scene where Colin Clive is brought home is absolutely beautiful. And the way Whale brings him back to life, paralleling the same scene in the first film when Karloff moves his hand, is genius. Whale keeps some of the Expressionistic elements of the first film, but uses them sparingly, and the Dutch angles in the laboratory scenes at the end add the perfect touch of menace. Ultimately, however, one has the sense that in creating something so distinctive, that Whale was not only creating a masterpiece but undercutting so completely the ideas that the horror film had been founded on, that he was also attempting to ensuring that he would never be asked to film another one again. To his dismay, however, the Laemmle’s immediately wanted Whale to go to work on Dracula’s Daughter. He had been promised the directorial duties on Showboat, however, and continued to emphasize that production in talks with the owners in the hopes of recreating himself as an A-list director. But after the Laemmle’s lost the studio in 1936 his hopes were dashed when the new ownership simply wanted to get rid of him altogether.

In Richard T. Jameson’s essay for The A List, he first addresses the way the doctor’s name became grafted onto the monster in the wake of the first film’s success. But in the prologue to Bride, Gavin Gordon supports the notion by saying that Frankenstein is the “monster created out of cadavers” and thus transferring the name to the monster for all time. Jameson recognizes Ernest Thesiger’s Pretorious as the pivotal role in the picture, with Valerie Hobson presaging his entrance by devolving into near hysterics at her delusions of the image of death entering the room beforehand, but fails to emphasize the fact. Instead he rehashes the tired old cliché of the film as a gay allegory, referencing Whale’s sexual orientation and obliquely tying the persecution of Karloff to the idea, when it is Thesiger who is the key to understanding the film. He is, as Hobson recognizes, the Angel of Death. He first lures Colin Clive away from his wedding bed, but then coerces him when that isn’t enough. He dines in the crypt with Karloff and at the end brings death down on everyone--though the studio changed the ending you can still see Clive in the laboratory when the walls come crashing down. Lanchester says as much in the prologue when she talks about the hubris of the doctor attempting to usurp god’s authority, and Pretorious is the personification of death in Karloff’s own reading of “Appointment in Samarra” from Targets, with the doctor unable to outrun his fate. The Bride of Frankenstein is, and always will be, one of the great films of the thirties in any genre.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Clock (1945)

Director: Vincente Minnelli                               Writers: Robert Nathan & Joseph Schrank
Film Score: George Bassman                          Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Judy Garland, Robert Walker, James Gleason and Keenan Wynn

In 1943, after appearing as an extra in three films, Robert Walker was finally given a feature role in a war film, Bataan, and that set his career for the rest of war. He appeared in seven war films over the next two years. But it wouldn’t be until the actor appeared in a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Strangers on a Train, that his image would become indelibly etched in the minds of moviegoers. Unfortunately his untimely death the following year ended a career that was on a real upswing. One of Walker’s wartime pictures is The Clock, a frothy romantic comedy set in New York City that is notable for being Judy Garland’s first dramatic starring role in which she didn’t sing. She had become romantically involved with director Vincente Minnelli during their previous film, Meet Me in St. Louis, and when the dailies of the initial director Fred Zinnemann were not very good she suggested he be replaced by Minnelli. The merely average box office for the film had to do with audience expectations for Garland, especially the lack of music, and the fact that audiences were war-weary by the time of the May release date.

The film opens in Penn Station. Robert Walker is a serviceman who has just arrived in New York City for two days of leave. Once out on the street, however, he is confronted with the enormity of the buildings and decides to head back inside. While he’s reading a newspaper Judy Garland trips over his foot and loses a heel. He gets it fixed and tags along with her up Fifth Avenue, still stunned at the scenery. Though she tries to let him down easy and wants to get home to her apartment, Garland winds up taking him to Central Park and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they walk and talk, mostly he does, about what he wants after the war, to settle down in his small hometown. Eventually she does catch her bus, but Walker runs it down and she agrees to see him that night, under the big clock at the Hotel Astor. When Garland finally gets home her roommate, Ruth Brady, grills her about being picked up by a uniform. But Garland is also from a small town and is drawn to Walker’s simple charms. After promising Brady she won’t go out with him, Garland ditches her boyfriend and meets Walker anyway. At the end of the evening they wind up in Central Park again, and have one of the most beautifully simple first kisses ever put on film.

Trying to get Garland home they meet milkman James Gleason who gives them a ride, and later a drunken Keenan Wynn in a lunchroom, and eventually the evening turns into an entire night together. But when they’re accidentally separated on the subway, the clock on Walker’s leave threatens to run out before they can find each other again. Because it’s MGM, there are a number of cameos by familiar character actors. Dick Elliott plays the friendly man in at the train station, and Garry Owen plays the fare collector on the bus. Lucile Gleason plays James Gleason’s wife and silent star Barbara Bedford plays the U.S.O. manager to whom Garland goes to in desperation. The humor in the film isn’t forced and there are some nice comedic moments. One is a fun bit in Garland’s apartment when Alice Brady keeps asking her boyfriend, Marshall Thompson, all kinds of questions and then never gives him time to answer, keeping up a running dialogue nearly every second that she’s onscreen. And there’s another wonderfully funny scene in a diner while Garland and Walker are trying to have a serious conversation and Alfred Sabato stares between them from the table next to theirs.

Director Vincente Minnelli was unhappy with the footage that Fred Zinnemann had shot and scrapped it all. He filmed all of the exteriors and interiors at the studio, even constructing a gigantic Penn Station set. Exterior shots of the city were cut into rear projections shots with the actors because it was decided that location shooting would be prohibitively expensive. He does a terrific job in the closed space of the studio by opening up the film through the use of a crane. The establishing shot in the train station from above is particularly fascinating, with the extras expertly emulating the randomness of a large crowd. When he works around the escalators in the beginning it’s equally arresting how free the camera feels. Minnelli’s camera lovingly caresses Garland, and the effect is not undeserved. She does a terrific job in this straight dramatic role and it makes one wish that she would have been allowed to do more work in this vein. But she wouldn’t have another dramatic role until Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. The Clock is a lightweight, predictable romance that nevertheless still has a lot of artistic value and is well worth seeking out.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kon-Tiki (2012)

Director: Joachim Rønning                              Writer: Petter Skavlan
Film Score: Johan Söderqvist                          Cinematography: Geir Hartly Andreassen
Starring: Pål Sverre Hagen, Anders Christiansen, Tobias Santellman and Gustaf Skarsgård

One of my vivid memories from childhood was watching the exploits of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on the National Geographic specials that were so much a part of the seventies. Heyerdahl singlehandedly proved that ocean voyages could have been made by peoples in pre-Columbian times and radically altered the assumptions about the ethnic makeup of native populations in South America and the Pacific Islands. Of course, in those days he was proving the ability of Africans to cross the Atlantic to South America in boats made of papyrus reeds. But twenty years earlier he had done the same thing in the Pacific, his first voyage captured in the film Kon-Tiki, in a raft made out of balsa wood to prove that South Americans had traveled across the ocean to the Pacific Islands. Appropriately enough for a national icon, this is a Norwegian production. As the most expensive national production ever undertaken, a decision was made to shoot the film both in Norwegian and English in order to ensure a more lucrative international run than a subtitled film was likely to achieve. I watched the English version, but in looking at the Norwegian version there is almost nothing to choose from.

The film opens with Heyerdahl as a child, jumping out onto blocks of ice being cut and falling into the icy water. He is pulled out and told to never take chances like that again. The scene then cuts to him years later with his wife on the island of Fatu Hiva in the South Pacific. Like all scientists of the time, he originally believed that the Polynesian islands had been initially populated by Asians. But after spending years studying the people and writing about them he gradually became convinced that people from South America were the first to reach the islands. After failing to interest a publisher in his work, he was joking told that the only thing that would prove his theory is to actually build a raft and drift all the way from Peru to Polynesia. Joining Pål Sverre Hagen as Heyerdahl are five other men, including Anders Baasmo Christiansen as an engineer looking for adventure in his life, Tobias Santellman as an ex-military man and the only one aboard with sailing experience, and Gustaf Skarsgård as a Swedish photographer who wants to document the voyage.

Though it is a fascinating film in terms of the danger involved, since the men were out on the ocean alone with no support boat trailing them, the film is not without its flaws. The biggest one is not having access to the thoughts of Hagen as Heyerdahl. And there was plenty of space to do this as he kept records of the entire journey and there were several scenes with him at his typewriter. Some voiceover would have been a nice way to heighten the suspense of the journey and allow the audience to become a bit more emotionally invested in the characters. Still, it remains a compelling drama. Even the early scenes with Hagen and Agnes Kittelsen as his wife on the island of Fatu Hiva are nicely done, especially as he accumulates evidence for a new theory of how the islands were populated. The scenes on the ocean were filmed in open water and are breathtaking at times, especially when other forms of life like sharks and whales appear. Liberties were taken with the actual events, which to my mind should never been an issue with historical dramas, as feature films are still a fictional medium despite the source material. Nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, Kon-Tiki is a fitting tribute to a true twentieth-century explorer and a Norwegian hero.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Director: Terry George                                    Writers: Terry George & Keir Pearson
Film Score: Rupert Gregson-Williams             Cinematography: Robert Fraisse
Starring: Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo and Fana Mokoena

Hotel Rwanda is the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda who became an unwitting savior of hundreds of people during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The event was a shameful episode in international diplomacy as the Western world essentially stood by while a civil war in that country killed over a million men, women and children. This was also another example, as if more were needed, of the disastrous effects of European colonialism in Africa. At one point in the hotel bar, news cameraman Joaquin Phoenix asks a Rwandan reporter what the difference between the Hutu and the Tutsi actually is. He’s told that there is none. The Belgian’s, when they controlled the country, selected blacks who were taller, lighter skinned, and had thinner noses to fill the positions in their government and military and called them Tutsi. The Tutsi naturally abused their power against the majority Hutu population during that time. When the Belgians left, however, they inexplicably attempted to atone for their sins by putting the Hutu in charge. This naturally led to reprisals against the Tutsi and fomented a civil war between populations who had no real genetic or cultural differences.

Don Cheadle plays the manager and scrounger for the top hotel in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, procuring gastronomic delicacies, as well as expensive liquor and Cuban cigars for his guests. One of his suppliers is Hakeem Kae-Kazim, a militant Hutu who wants Cheadle, also a Hutu, to join him in the fight. But Cheadle has no politics and has made a point of making friends with the generals and diplomats who stay at the hotel. One night when his neighbor is beaten and dragged away by the police he can do nothing. As he tells his wife, Sophie Okonedo, all of his credit is being saved for his own family, if they should need it, and he can’t afford to spend it on a neighbor, however nice. One night when he comes home from work, he finds half the neighborhood hiding in his house. He makes room for them, but when soldiers break into his house one morning they threaten to kill them all, including his wife and children who happen to be Tutsi, and he manages to save them by opening the safe at the hotel where he used to work. From then on, his family and friends become trapped in his hotel, along with numerous other refugees, protected only by a thin United Nations peacekeeping force led by Nick Nolte. And when even the U.N. decides to pull out, Cheadle must use all his wits to keep himself and his family alive.

There is a natural inclination to make comparisons of the film to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, but the fact is that there are hundreds of stories like this in history, of people who refused to allow people to die when they had the power to prevent it, even if only temporarily. Clearly, this is Don Cheadle’s masterpiece and it’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to find another role equally as dynamic. What makes his performance so brilliant is that he navigates the accent with ease and thus becomes utterly believable, something a lot of American actors have difficulty with. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance and would certainly have won had he not been up against Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Other notable performances in the film are Fana Mokoena as the Hutu general who is friendly with Cheadle but can’t be seen to be protecting the Tutsi people that Cheadle is harboring, Cara Seymour as a Red Cross nurse who is trying to save as many Tutsi children as she can, and finally the great Jean Reno as the owner of the hotel who, surprisingly, calls in every favor he has to buy Cheadle more time.

One of writer-director Terry George’s goals in making the film was to expose the fact that blacks don’t really count in the eyes of the West. And in case the entire film didn’t make the point directly enough, he has Nick Nolte as the U.N. general put it to Cheadle as bluntly as possible. When the U.N. forces finally arrive at the hotel, it turns out they are only there to save the whites who are trapped there, leaving the blacks to fend for themselves. Despite the compelling story, however, there are some problems with the film. While it was partly shot in Kigali itself, during the opening ride in the van with Cheadle and Desmond Dube I was actually shocked that the director resorted to green screen effects to show the passing scenery outside. But this cheapness is indicative of the film as a whole. There is a claustrophobia to the production, not only in the hotel but the neighborhood where Cheadle lives as well, that combined with rather pedestrian lighting and lack of color manipulation severely diminishes the impact of the tremendous acting. While the film has been criticized for not opening up to show more of the horror of the genocide, I don’t think that was really necessary. The glimpses the audience does get--Phoenix’s camera footage, the drive along the river, and the Tutsi women caged to be raped--seems to be enough. Despite its disappointing production values, Hotel Rwanda remains an important film and the best example of Don Cheadle’s prodigious talent.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What's the Matter with Helen (1971)

Director: Curtis Harrington                             Writer: Henry Farrell
Film Score: David Raksin                              Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Dennis Weaver and Agnes Moorehead

In 1971 I was only ten years old, and it was the glory days of movie watching. Even though I grew up in a small town, we had one of those old movie palaces from the twenties that was still in operation--and is still in operation today. Not only that, but the town that bordered ours had two smaller, but just as luxurious, movie theaters. When a bunch of older kids in the neighborhood decided to go to the movies I could always persuade my parents to let me go too, and this is one that I vividly remember attending that summer between third and fourth grade. What’s the Matter with Helen was one of a slew of films that were made in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. They featured older actresses past their prime who had psychological problems and went on killing sprees onscreen, almost as if Norman Bates’ mother hadn’t really died. This one starred Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, and while I remember almost nothing from the film except a scene filmed on cropland with a plow being used as a killing machine, I do remember that it scared the pants off me.

The film has an historical setting and begins with a Depression era newsreel, with Winters and Reynolds leaving the courthouse as the mothers of two convicted murderers. Reynolds runs a dance studio and wants to move to California while Winters is a religious fanatic who can’t bear the thought of leaving her son. After a number of threatening phone calls, however, the two wind up moving to California and start a new dance studio, with Reynolds teaching and Winters playing the piano. The eccentric Micheál MacLiammóir is an elocution teacher who wants to get access to the dance students and Reynolds agrees, much to the disapproval of Winters. Dennis Weaver plays the wealthy father of one of the students and as he becomes increasingly fascinated with Reynolds, she begins using him to get more publicity for the studio. This also greatly disturbs Winters, who doesn’t approve of their extra-marital relationship. What is the matter with Winters is that she saw her husband killed before her eyes in a farming mishap when she couldn’t stop the plow, and now every sharp instrument, from knives to scissors to the blades on a fan, become her obsession. Even so, by the middle of the film it’s difficult to tell which of the women is more psychotic.

Unlike the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis vehicle that began it all, the tension and suspense in this film is diluted at every opportunity by either the dancing of Debbie Reynolds or her students, to the point where the bloody conclusion is almost more satisfying than it is horrific. It’s a shame because the story is basically a good one, and yet Winters’ psychology is never really explored in any meaningful way. Agnes Moorehead plays a radio evangelist who Winters desperately wants to confess to, and when Winters is rejected she really begins to unravel. But ultimately the religious aspect is left just as unexplored. For the most part the film looks like a television movie, which is what director Curtis Harrington primarily made, though there are some atmospheric hand-held shots. But the preponderance of television actors and studio-bound exteriors, in addition to poor production values, really weaken the film. The ending, while chilling, also seems rushed and makes what should have been a powerful conclusion somewhat less than climactic. Even the great film composer David Raksin wasn’t able to raise the artistic level of the film. Still, What’s the Matter with Helen did well with audiences at the time and is a film I remember fondly. Whatever you do, however, don’t go in with high expectations.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Grey (2011)

Director: Joe Carnahan                                  Writers: Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                         Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts

While for some the underlying thematic elements of this movie might seem corny, they ultimately feel ingenious, and it’s one of the better things about it. The Grey is an intense survival film about a group of men lost in the Arctic wilderness. But at the same time that they are fighting off attacks from a pack of wolves, the men themselves are also defining their roles within their own “pack” and must determine who is the natural alpha male of the group. And just like when younger wolves challenge the current alpha in the pack, some of the men want to take the leadership role away from Neeson, but it’s always to their detriment. The other thematic element is an existential nihilism professed by Frank Grillo and agreed with by Neeson. It would be nice to believe in some kind of divine presence in a situation like that, but the reality is it’s exactly the fairy tale that Grillo says it is. The screenplay was written by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers from his story “Ghost Walker,” and assisted by director Joe Carnahan. The director had helmed some fairly pedestrian action films prior to this, but with Jeffers onboard he came up with a terrific story and produced a very good film.

The film begins in the north of Alaska, on an oil company job site maintaining a pipeline. Liam Neeson plays a hired killer . . . of wolves. It’s is job to go out with the teams during the winter, when food is scarce, and protect them from wolf attacks. As the film opens he walks into a rough and rowdy bar at the site, but seems to notice nothing, deep in the world of his own thoughts of his beautiful wife, who has apparently left him. The voice-over is a letter to her. He takes a drink, leaves, and when he gets to a remote place on the site, prepares to shoot himself. But he stops when he hears a wolf howl in the distance. The next day he boards a plane with a group of other men heading for Anchorage. Joe Anderson plops down next to him, his mouth running constantly, and when Neeson tells him he doesn’t want to talk he’s made his first enemy. An hour later, while most of the passengers are asleep, the plane goes down. Neeson, who was thrown out before the crash, awakes from the trauma and walks back to the wreckage to find out who else is left alive. Seven others are, initially, but James Badge Dale dies right away from his wounds. From then on it’s the wolves who pose the biggest threat as they begin to pick off the weakest men one by one.

Frank Grillo is the first to challenge Neeson’s authority, but Neeson simply shrugs and says he’s heading for the trees and if anyone wants to come along they can. Grillo bristles, but stays with the group. That night in the trees, however, he threatens Neeson and gets taken down by the true leader. Others in the group include Dermot Mulroney and Dallas Roberts who struggle to stay one step ahead of the wolves. The setting is bleak, hundreds of miles from any kind of civilization, and one of the vital aspects of the film’s success is the sound effects and sound editing. The sound of the wind as it whistles across landscape, kicking up snow like dust and whiting out everything, is omnipresent. And when the men finally make it to the trees, it’s the sound of the wolves howling in the dark, moving around, and growling that are the real fear producing elements. Visual effects are also important, as there are very few actual wolves in the film in order to avoid difficulties with treatment to the animals. The wolves in long shot are obviously real, but the ones in close up are incredibly good replicas by the effects department and used sparingly. In that context the sound effects are even more important.

Joe Carnahan has a very strong vision and his close work with Jeffers makes for a very good film. It also doesn’t hurt to have Ridley Scott as the producer. The brief scenes with Neeson and his wife, Anne Openshaw, when he is ripped out of his dreams by the plane crash, are really great in the way that they jolt him back to reality. Unlike the Taken films or others of their kind, Liam Neeson displays a real vulnerability here that is refreshing. The rest of the actors are relatively unknown, however, and even those who aren’t are buried under a weeks’ worth of whiskers which sort of masks their identity, and that adds to the realism of the film as well. There’s some debate among fans about the ending, but there’s really nothing controversial about it. The obvious ending is the ending, something confirmed by Carnahan in the audio commentary, and the final shot after the credits are finish doesn’t change that, but only serves to reinforce it. The Grey is a solid character study of men in the wilderness fighting not only against the elements but against predators with overwhelming odds, and has a symbolic subtext that lifts it above the average thriller by a wide margin.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott                                     Writer: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples
Film Score: Vangelis                                      Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young and Edward James Olmos

This is one of those instances--and there are getting to be quite a few now--where the director’s cut just doesn’t work. Blade Runner, in its original theatrical release, was a terrific sci-fi noir film complete with first person narration by Harrison Ford, a cigarette-smoking femme fatale in Sean Young, and even a neo-noir film score by Vangelis. Scott went back to the film later and attempted to turn it into a science-fiction action thriller and in the process gutted everything that was great about the film. In Ridley Scott’s new cut Ford walks around like a zombie and the audience has no idea what he’s thinking. And even though there wasn’t a lot of voiceover to remove, it does make a significant difference in the way that the film is perceived by the audience, especially with his change to the ending. While many people, including the director, want to believe that the changes made to the film imply that Ford’s character is not what the audience thinks he is, the discussions Ford had with Scott on the set at the time of filming and the implication of the original theatrical cut, I believe, are definitive.

The film opens with text telling the audience that early in the twenty-first century genetic androids called Replicants were created to provide labor off planet. But when they rebelled the androids were outlawed and policemen called blade runners were called on to terminate any still on the planet. The visuals open on a futuristic version of Los Angeles in the year 2019. Flying cars dot the sky above the city and buildings like circuit boards fill the land. In one of the buildings Brion James is interrogated by Morgan Paull and winds up killing him, confirming that he’s a Replicant. Next, M. Emmet Walsh has Harrison Ford brought in by Edward James Olmos to go after a group of Replicans that have recently landed on Earth. But Ford has been out of the business for a while and goes to the corporate headquarters where the Replicants are made. There he meets the head scientist, Joe Turkel, and his latest model, Sean Young, who has been implanted with memories in order to keep her from discovering she’s an android. After that, Ford begins tracking James in the hopes that he will lead him to the ringleader of the group, Rutger Hauer.

Hauer’s goal is simple. Replicants have a four-year life span and he needs to get to Turkel in order to extend that. Meanwhile Young has run away after Ford cruelly proved to her that she is, in fact, a Replicant. Harrison Ford had just come off of a hugely successful project in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while there are certain stylistic similarities in his performance here, it also looks forward to his mature period that really begins with Witness. Sean Young is the other lead in the cast and she does a very good job playing the Replicant who desires to live as a human. It’s unfortunate that the rest of her career never lived up to this early promise. Rutger Hauer has always considered this his best film, and for obvious reasons. He really has an outstanding performance, icy and cold, and yet emotionally innocent. The rest of the cast has fairly small roles, including a very odd one by James Edward Olmos as another blade runner who would like Ford to retire, and M. Emmet Walsh whose racist cop is difficult to judge in terms of his trustworthiness.

Ridley Scott’s vision is an interesting one. The film is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, but the title is taken from a different novel, The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse. He begins with the idea that most of the wealthy have left the Earth, leaving L.A. to Asians and Hispanics and those who live in the expensive high-rise buildings above the decay. In fact, Ford takes the job to go after the Replicants in part because Walsh reminds him that if he’s not a cop he’ll be nothing. The philosophical underpinning of the film is the whole question of what it means to be human. There are those who argue that the Replicants are every bit as human as the real thing, but it’s an argument that lacks persuasion. The four-year life span, the lack of emotional depth, and the fact that they have no real life, actually works against the idea. Much more interesting to consider is how humans live their lives in a way that makes them less than human, in a sense wasting what they have been given. In the end, assessing Blade Runner accurately depends upon the version. The original theatrical version from 1982, apparently only available on videotape from that year--I got mine on eBay--is a terrific film. The director’s cut, on the other hand, I really couldn’t recommend.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

FM (1978)

Director: John A. Alonzo                                Writer: Ezra Sacks
Music: Steely Dan                                          Cinematography: David Myers
Starring: Michael Brandon, Cassie Yates, Eileen Brennan and Martin Mull

FM is the quintessential seventies film. It has it all, sex, drugs and rock and roll, and is set to a soundtrack that became the compilation album of the late seventies. The ultimate irony of the film is that it was also the purest example of the exact kind of corporate cynicism that the film purportedly attempted to expose. Even the title song of the film, provided by the anti-corporate duo Steely Dan, is a not-so-subtle dig at the FM airwaves that played “nothing but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favorite song,” free from any kind of controversy, “no static at all,” and yet was one of that radio frequency’s biggest hits that year and made even more money for their corporate patrons. But the ultimate sell-out was that the film became the basis for one of the most popular and insipid sit-coms of the seventies, WKRP in Cincinnati, though the producers claimed otherwise. Still, the film itself evokes a simpler time with simpler music and a clearer distinction between the corporate world that was just beginning to stretch its tentacles into the everyday lives of consumers and a culture that still seemed as if it had a choice about whether or not to submit to the full immersion that was coming down the road.

The film begins in the early morning at an L.A. radio station, QSKY, with DJ Cleavon Little about to head home. However his relief, Michael Brandon, is still at home and Little gives him exactly one song, “Life in the Fast Lane,” to get to the studio before there’s nothing but dead air going out over the airwaves. Of course, he just makes it. At a staff meeting later in the day, he tells the other DJs that the corporation that owns the station is sending in a new sales manager to get big accounts and run lots of commercials. The station has always prided itself on catering to their audience with minimal commercials and sees a conflict coming. Meanwhile their other conflict is with the giant commercial station in town, KLAX, who is putting on a Linda Ronstadt concert. Brandon plans on hijacking the concert and broadcasting it live without the other station knowing. In the meantime he has a DJ, Alex Karas, who isn’t doing a good job, and a studio tech, Jay Fenichel, who wants to be a DJ, and the over sexed DJ Martin Mull who has a nervous breakdown in the studio and barricades himself in. And this is in addition to advertising exec Tom Tarpey who descends on the station to fill the airwaves with commercials from the U.S. Army, the last sponsor the station would want to advertise.

The film is standard seventies fare, but even so there’s a lot to like about it. There is a personal appearance at Tower Records--remember them?-- with REO Speedwagon and an interview in the station with Tom Petty. There are also two concert sections, the first featuring Jimmy Buffet and the second with Linda Ronstadt, including a song that’s not on the soundtrack album. This is Martin Mull’s first film performance and he does a terrific job with the kind of egotistical character he would become associated with throughout his career. The on-air breakdown is brilliant, especially the ending with Michael Brandon. Clevon Little, who opens the film, unfortunately has little else to do for the remainder of the picture. Alex Karas as the cowboy DJ Doc Holiday does a nice job up until he’s forced into the clichéd role of gun toting sad sack. Eileen Brenan is great in her brief appearances as the sultry Mother, tucking everyone into bed on the night shift but unfulfilled in her work. And it’s great to see Tom Tarpey, who would have a brief but memorable role in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. Michael Brandon holds down the center in a film full of eccentrics, and Cassie Yates is solid in support as his fellow DJ and girlfriend.

The best part of the film for most of the running time is the verisimilitude. The station feels like a real radio station and the way that the music is dubbed in with a lot of echo adds to that effect. The exteriors outside the studio in the daylight, like when Brandon is driving to work, are also good. The problem comes at the end of the film, with the standoff. At that point the exteriors become a very obvious studio set and even the presence of the great Norman Lloyd as the owner of the station can’t save it, especially with his fake Southern accent. Director John Alonzo had been a television actor during the sixties before moving into cinematography in the early seventies, where he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Chinatown. This was his first feature film and he only directed a few TV movies after this before returning to the camera. This is not a great film, but it has something that few other later films ever achieved. Films like Dazed and Confused attempt to capture the seventies with limited success. FM is a slice out of time that takes back those of us who lived it in a way that modern recreations could never do. And the music is incomparable.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

City Streets (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian                           Writers: Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett
Music: Karl Hajos                                             Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Starring: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas and William Boyd

City Streets is adapted from a story that the great crime writer Dashiell Hammett wrote for Paramount Pictures, and the first of his works to be filmed. The story seems a bit pedestrian during the first half, but the ending is terrific if a bit unbelievable. Hammett’s original title was “The Kiss-Off” and was about teenagers who get caught up in the rackets and can’t get out. Screenwriters Max Marcin & Oliver H.P. Barrett changed the teens to young adults, and the studio cast Gary Cooper and Clara Bow in the leads. But after Bow’s breakdown director Rouben Mamoulian suggested Sylvia Sidney as he had seen her work in New York. This was only Rouben Mamoulian’s second film as a director, and he went right from this into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Frederick March in his Oscar winning performance. While the studio, as well as critics, had been impressed with his work on his previous film, Applause, the film was not popular with audiences and so the studio was not eager to give him another assignment and waited a year before offering him Hammett’s story.

The film begins, aptly enough, on the streets, with big trucks rolling through the city at night. What they’re moving is alcohol, during Prohibition. Paul Lukas is a mob boss who has set up a brewery in someone else’s territory. That boss pays Lukas in order to take over the brewery, and then Lukas has him killed and stays put. The button men work for one of Lukas’s lieutenants, Stanley Fields, and after his driver and bodyguard, Guy Kibbee, takes them back to Fields’ headquarters, Kibbee winks at Sylvia Sidney who is waiting in a drug store and she gets into the empty car and drives away. The next scene has Sidney at a carnival shooting gallery. The carney is Gary Cooper. He’s a crack shot and Sidney is dating him. She wants him to go into business with her stepfather, Kibbee, so they can have more money but he prefers an honest life even if it means being poor. It’s the only thing that comes between them. Meanwhile Lukas is having a dalliance with Fields’ girl and when he finds out and confronts his boss, Lukas tells Kibbee to kill him and take over his operations himself. Sidney assists by getting rid of Kibbee’s gun, but a cop follows her and she’s arrested.

Kibbee uses the situation to get Cooper to work for him by lying to him that it’s the only way they can get Sidney out, so he goes to work for Kibbee while Sidney goes to prison. Once inside, she learns that the mob doesn’t really protect its own and has a change of heart, but by then Cooper is in deep and she regrets ever getting him mixed up in the rackets. Sylvia Sidney was a tremendous talent, not only beautiful but a powerful actress. This was only her second film after leaving the stage for Hollywood, her first being the interesting Thru Different Eyes, which now exists only in its silent version. She would go to prison again later that year in Ladies of the Big House, and did some of her best work in the early thirties working for some great directors like Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg. Gary Cooper began his career making dozens of silent films, and just the previous year had starred in von Sternberg’s Morocco. Guy Kibbee lends solid support as the gangster’s new lieutenant, though Hungarian Paul Lukas still sounds way too much like Bela Lugosi. While it’s decent acting for the time, Sidney is the real standout.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how Mamoulian emphasizes images of water or liquid. The city streets in the opening are wet with rain, glasses are filled with alcohol, a vat of beer is being filled in the brewery, a mobster drowned in the river, and Sidney and Cooper talking at the beach with the ocean waves breaking behind them. He was assisted behind the camera by one of the most innovative cinematographers in the business at the time, Lee Garmes, and the photography is excellent, whether it’s his lighting at the beach at night or tracking shots along the street following Sylvia Sidney. Mamoulian also uses some strong symbolism in the film, beginning with a canary in a cage to indicate Sidney being trapped by her stepfather. Cat figurines in Stanley Fields’ apartment indicate the ruthless murder of Fields by Kibbee, and the stuffed eagle in Paul Lukas’s apartment symbolizes his predatory behavior toward women. Though Rouben Mamoulian made relatively few films during his career, most of them are excellent. City Streets is a solid, if not terribly compelling, crime drama that benefits tremendously from confident direction and a terrific leady lady.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Director: Robert Benton                                  Writer: Robert Benton
Music: Herb Harris                                          Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry

There’s a memorable moment in the film Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman, as Dorothy, is over at Jessica Lange’s apartment and is offered a glass of wine. He declines, saying he wants to stay sharp. But when the conversation turns to Lange’s daughter Hoffman asks if she is divorced and Lange replies that she’s never been married. Suddenly Hoffman reaches for the wine. It’s a small moment, but a significant one. I can remember feeling a shiver of scandal when I first saw that scene myself, just as Hoffman did. But times have changed and today it has very little impact on audiences. The same can be said for the whole of Kramer vs. Kramer, a film in which a woman leaves her husband and young son just as a man would do. It was something fairly shocking to consider in its day, but has since lost a lot of its moral impact. Nevertheless, it is a powerful film, but the impact has shifted to the courtroom where, despite the fact that the husband and son were abandoned, family courts makes their decisions on blanket recommendations meant to apply to all cases and seem to take none of the circumstances of specific cases into account before rendering their decisions. And that still is a scandal.

The film opens on the classic--though by now clichéd--image of Meryl Streep, red-rimmed eyes and haunted countenance, telling her sleeping boy, Justin Henry, that she loves him. Then she begins packing. At the same time her husband, Dustin Hoffman, is talking with his boss in the advertising office where he works. He knows he needs to get home but gets sidetracked walking home discussing business. Distracted, Hoffman practically ignores Streep when he gets home, that is until she walks out the door. He calls her best friend in the building, Jane Alexander, and then gets mad at her for not letting him know. But she isn’t having any of it. Still, Hoffman can’t believe Streep would leave her own son. The next morning is the iconic French toast scene. And when Hoffman burns his hand and drops the pan he doesn’t curse at the pan, or the situation, he curses Streep. Meanwhile Henry is obviously confused, and Hoffman’s boss is urging him to send his son to stay with relatives so that he can concentrate on work. Jane Alexander, ironically, becomes his best friend during this time, as she is divorced with kids as well. It’s not until over a year later that Streep returns to New York and shocks Hoffman by asking for Henry back, and the legal battle of the title occupies the last third of the film.

The story is really about Dustin Hoffman’s character. He goes from being a clueless career man, to an abandoned husband, and eventually a father. It’s a gradual transformation but one that is freighted with meaning. All along the way he has choices to make, but the one constant is his son. Despite suggestions by others that his life would be simpler without him, he quite simply cannot abandon his son. At first it’s out of spite, out of hatred toward Streep for what she has done. Then it’s out of simple stubbornness. In the office of George Coe he tells his boss that he’s a fighter, a survivor, and keeping Henry is one way to prove it. Eventually, however, the joys of simply being a father provide all of the motivation necessary and the choice he has made becomes about keeping his family together, even if it’s just the two of them. But the films greatness in general comes from the tremendous acting talent. In addition to Hoffman and Streep, Jane Alexander is arresting. She had been doing television work for a decade before this and went from here right into Brubaker with Robert Redford. The other incredible bit of casting was Justin Henry as the son. In the film he is simply one of the most believable child actors on the screen, and while his role is certainly manipulative of the audience it still rings true. George Coe and the venerable Howard Duff are also solid in supporting roles.

There are some very sophisticated touches in the film from writer-director Robert Benton. One is about midway through the film when Hoffman is in the office of Coe and being chewed out for not doing his job. The scene is shot with Hoffman full frame on the couch. Coe is pacing back and forth in front of him but his head is not visible on the screen. The association then, of Hoffman with his own son, is a powerful one and a subliminal foreshadow of what’s to come. The film also has a heavy parallelism, with certain scenes and shots repeated at the beginning and end of the film, including the French toast scene, or the shot of Streep in the elevator as the door closes. Benton has done relatively few films, but many of them have been important ones, including a couple late in Paul Newman’s career. He is also the winner of three Academy Awards, for both writing and direction in this film and for his screenplay for Places in the Heart. Hoffman and Streep both won Oscars and the film was the winner for best picture. In addition, the film earned four more nominations, including ones for Justin Henry and Jane Alexander. Kramer vs. Kramer is a memorable seventies film, a snapshot of the times and the kind of intimate story that you don’t see on the screen anymore.