Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Director: Frank Borzage                                    Writers: Claudine West & Hans Rameau
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                              Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan and Robert Young

Prior to the U.S. entrance into World War Two with the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was felt in bad taste to take sides in the European war that was raging on the continent. It was thought that negative portrayals of Germans or their allies by Hollywood would provoke them while America was still clinging to the illusion of neutrality. It’s ironic then that MGM, the most romantic and “American” of the movie studios, was on the forefront of criticism of Hitler and his Nazi regime with films like The Mortal Storm. Of course these films are often called propaganda and, as a result, all MGM films were banned in Germany at the time. But as I’ve said many times before, when it comes to the Nazis there is very little that can be called propaganda after all that came out about their activities after the war.

The story begins on January 30th, 1933, with the birthday of Professor Roth, played by Frank Morgan. When it is announced that Hitler has been made chancellor during his birthday party, his stepsons as well as his soon to be son-in-law Robert Young are thrilled. Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the Roth family are not so delighted, wondering if the racial prejudices Hitler holds will become national policy. Stewart begins to pull away from his former friends as the weeks pass and Morgan’s daughter, Margaret Sullavan, does as well, knowing that Young’s politics will eventually pit him against her father. Eventually Stewart has to leave Germany to help an old teacher escape to Austria, while Sullavan’s father is arrested by the SS and is held in captivity. In the middle of it all, however, is the love story between Stewart and Sullavan, but even that isn’t enough to warm the chill of Nazi racism that permeates the film.

The film could almost be titled The Moral Storm, dealing as it does with the marginalization and murder of people deemed degenerate by the Nazi state. And, as if a thing were possible, director Frank Borzage was accused in the fifties of being pro-Communist simply because of this one anti-Nazi film. The irony of the American “State” becoming as conservative as the Nazi State has been well documented in history books, and makes it all too clear that the lessons of the past continue to be ignored by people in the present. Borzage was an Oscar winning director who had won honors for the silent classic 7th Heaven from 1927 and Bad Girl from 1931. He does a solid, if not particularly artistic, job here assisted by cinematographer William H. Daniels who had manned the camera on the previous three Stewart-Sullavan MGM films, including their most popular, The Shop Around the Corner.

This would be the last of the four films that Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan would star in, with World War Two interrupting their partnership. Frank Morgan would also return from The Shop Around the Corner. Robert Young appears in one of his early films, and the venerable Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya delivers another brilliant performance. Critics were impressed with the film and found the message powerful. It was an adaptation of the novel by Phyllis Bottome and MGM compared the film to other literary adaptations they had done. But with the German occupation of France coming just two days after the film’s release, fans were a bit more disturbed by its realism than entertained by the love story. The Mortal Storm remains a curiosity in the MGM library but is actually a quite powerful film that dared to tell the world what was really going on in Germany. I can’t recommend it enough.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Director: Gregory La Cava                               Writers: Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch
Film Score: Charles Previn                              Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallatte and Gail Patrick

William Powell is best know for his Thin Man series at MGM and, prior to that, his teaming with Kay Francis at Warner Brothers. But his most famous single role has to be Godfrey “Duke” Parkes, the homeless man cum butler in Universal’s My Man Godfrey. It’s an amusing little screwball comedy with Powell acting as the straight man to a rich family of eccentrics. One night in the dump below the Brooklyn Bridge, a group of socialites comes down and offers Powell five dollars to participate in their scavenger hunt. He would be the “forgotten man” that would win the prize for them. Powell takes offense at this and shoves Gail Patrick into a pile of ashes, much to the delight of her younger sister Carole Lombard. Powell takes a liking to Lombard, however, and helps her win the prize. In return, she hires him as the family’s butler.

Powell’s dry humor serves him well in the Bullock family. Lombard, the youngest daughter, is in love with Powell, but he gently informs her of the rules of propriety in the situation and she promptly has a breakdown and gets engaged to one of her society friends. Meanwhile Gail Patrick, the oldest daughter, is scheming of a way to get Powell fired to pay him back for pushing her down when they first met. Eugene Pallatte, the father, is having a financial crisis that Powell offers to help him with but is promptly rebuffed. And mother Alice Brady is simply wacky, bringing a pianist who can’t stop eating into the family to be her “protégé.” There’s really little else to the plot, until Alan Mowbray shows up and almost spills the beans about Powell’s true identity. At that point it makes a lot more sense to the audience about this incredibly intelligent “bum.”

Powell is his usually urbane and ironic self, just out of his terrific performance in Academy Award winning The Great Ziegfeld. Powell had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in The Thin Man two years earlier, and was given another nomination for this performance. Carole Lombard was not the first choice of Universal or director Gregory La Cava, but Powell made it a condition of his contract that his ex-wife be given the part. It works, to an extent, but I find Lombard’s performance a little over done as the spoiled rich girl. Her histrionics in the film are, of course, faked and it seems to me that takes some of the believability out of her performance as a whole. The supporting cast is solid, if not especially memorable, the one exception being the great Eugene Pallatte. My Man Godfrey is definitely an enjoyable film, and though it’s not one of the finest examples of the genre, it’s pedigree is certainly elevated by the presence of one of the all time greats, William Powell.

In Name Only (1939)

Director: John Cromwell                                 Writer: Richard Sherman
Film Score: Roy Webb                                   Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Starring: Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Kay Francis and Charles Coburn

I have to say it was quite a shock to see Kay Francis as the villain of a film, even if it’s just the domestic kind. Turns out, she makes a great one, and probably would have been tremendous as a femme fatale in the film noir of the forties. At the beginning of In Name Only I couldn’t believe that Cary Grant would choose Carole Lombard over Francis, but as the plot began to unwind it soon made sense. The film is based on the novel Memory of Love by Bessie Brewer, which had been published in 1935. The story begins deceptively, with Grant riding horseback and coming across Lombard fishing. The scene has a nice romantic comedy element to it, and the next day the two meet at the same place again for a picnic, this time with Lombard’s daughter by her deceased husband. The three of them seem to get along wonderfully and it’s clear that the relationship is heading someplace, that is until Grant is seen at home, and met in the front room by his wife, Kay Francis.

There’s an obvious chill between the two of them, and at first it seems clear that it is Grant who is the unhappy one, but it’s not clear why. Meanwhile, Francis’s best friend keeps hitting on Grant, obviously wanting to have an affair. When he drives her home one night they crash the car in front of Lombard’s house and the friend comes out with the whole thing, which is news to Lombard, especially the part about the wife. It’s only the next day, back at Grant’s house, that the audience is let in on what the problem is. Francis had married him under false circumstances. She was in love with another man, but married Grant for his money. She tries to deny it, but he has a letter that she wrote to the man she loved saying as much. Lombard, even when given the explanation, doesn’t want to hear it. Grant promises he’ll divorce, but Francis won’t agree. Things lose their comedic aspect at that point. Grant continues to be charming, but things keep going back and forth in a way that Lombard simply finds too complicated.

The film was originally conceived for Grant and Kate Hepburn, but she had left RKO by the time the project was ready to film. Pandro Berman hired Lombard for an astronomically high salary as part of a four-picture deal that also guaranteed her percentage of the profits. Grant hesitated until the end, but was finally promised a hundred thousand and signed on for the money. The film came at a low point in Kay Francis’s career. Jack Warner was bitter about having to pay her high salary and stuck her in low budget films with bad parts in the hopes that she would quit. She was ready to do exactly that when the opportunity came for her to work at RKO. Lombard lobbied for her to get the part and she did. It wound up reviving her career, leading to even more work when she went back to Warners. In Name Only wasn’t exactly a hit with fans because of the downbeat nature of the story, but it’s an engaging film nonetheless, and worth seeking out for the performances of its stars.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Parkland (2013)

Director: Peter Landesman                             Writer: Peter Landesman
Film Score: James Newton Howard                 Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, Ron Livingston and Zac Efron

Writer-director Peter Landesman has not had a very good record so far, his first film Trade being something of a critical dud though enjoyed by audiences. Parkland occupies a similar space. Its function seems primarily an attempt to widen the scope of Kennedy Assassination films by looking at the effect on ordinary people who were there and had to deal with the aftermath. Though the film is named after the hospital President Kennedy was taken to after being shot, the film really has three different threads that Landesman weaves together. The first is the hospital staff itself, completely surprised and overwhelmed by their part in the tragedy. The second is Abraham Zapruder, who took the only film of the assassination, and thirdly is Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert who couldn’t comprehend how his brother had become involved in all of this.

The film begins well, with actual footage of Kenedy’s Texas trip, beginning in Houston. There is also the breakfast in Ft. Worth that morning where he was given a cowboy hat. From there, a short flight to Dallas and then into the motorcade. Meanwhile, the residents at Parkland Memorial Hospital are being woken up by nurse Marcia Gay Harden, among them Zac Efron. Paul Giamatti as Zapruder comes into the office with his movie camera, excited to film the motorcade just outside his building, and Ron Livingston as Dallas FBI agent James Hosty is being informed that the Secret Service wants no assistance from the FBI for this event. One of the good things the film does is not to dwell on the actual shooting; in fact there is even a disclaimer at the beginning stating that the film’s purpose is not to address the assassination theories. The camera simply stays on Giamatti as he is shooting his film until the limo has disappeared beneath the underpass.

It’s only once the post-shooting story gets underway that the film bogs down and becomes a disappointment. Several films have already dealt, at least in part, with the scene at Parkland Hospital and with the fruitless attempts to keep Kennedy alive. Marcia Gay Hardin does a nice job as the head nurse at attempting to keep order in the emergency room. Colin Hanks also has a nice turn as the attending physician. And what the film had done a very good job with to this point, keeping Kennedy’s face either obscured or out of focus, falls short when Kat Steffens as Jackie Kennedy is given a tremendous amount of screen time. In the first place, she’s not convincing at all. Neither her attempt at conveying shock or grief is believable. Had Landesman made the same choice with both her and Johnson that he made with the president, it would have been a much better film, forcing viewers to stay with the characters emphasized in the story.

The Zapruder sections with Giamatti are also lacking in drama. The scramble to get the film developed by Secret Service man Billy Bob Thornton is interesting, but the angst about selling the film to Life is common knowledge. The most interesting parts of the film are when Ron Livingston is being castigated by his superiors for having Oswald in the office two weeks before and being told to destroy their files on him, and James Badge Dale as Oswald’s brother, and what he went through with his brother’s death and dealing with his crazy mother. Parkland is worth watching as an insight into these people, but as a piece of cinematic art it definitely falls story. There is just so much more that Landesman could have done with this, especially given the depth of knowledge so many viewers have about the subject matter, to make it a better film.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Director: Robert Bresson                               Writer: Robert Bresson
Film Score: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald           Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel
Starring: Claude Laydu, Jean Riveyere, Rachel Bérendt and Nicole Maurey

There’s something both hyper-realistic and at the same time highly stylized about early French Films. I suppose that it’s the combination of the natural sets, especially the exteriors, with the dubbed dialogue and very consciously composed shot selections that give it this split personality. Diary of a Country Priest by the great Robert Bresson is no exception. Bresson is thought of as the father of the French New Wave, not that it was his style, per se, but his films were certainly influential in the direction they predicted, not only in the way they are filmed but also with their specific use of non-actors. Bresson’s screenplay is based on the epistolary novel by Georges Bernanos, and he keeps much of the flavor of the book by using a lot of voice-over narration by his star, Claude Laydu, as well as connecting scenes with the written diary itself.

The story concerns a young priest who is assigned the curate of Ambricourt. As this is his first assignment he naturally feels out of his depth, that the people don’t respect him, and a natural reluctance as a newcomer to challenge them. He frequently relies on the advice of a neighboring curate, Adrien Borel, who has little sympathy for him and whose advice consists mostly of telling him to make his own mistakes and learn from them. All alone in the church, he begins to question his faith, wondering if he’s lost it while at the same time desperately trying to convince himself that he hasn’t. What he finds is that he has become the angel of death. The people he seeks out, the doctor to help him with his physical sickness, the woman he tries to help who has lost her son, all end up dying. It’s a harrowing reality for a priest.

At first glance this would appear to be a film about religion and the loss of faith, but it seems much more primal than that. It feels more like an exploration of what it means to be human and how the religious overlay does nothing in the end to answer the most basic questions of humanity. Bresson does a nice job with the camera as well as his sets. The land is desolate, the roads muddy and the atmosphere stark. It aptly symbolizes the inner world of emptiness that Laydu experiences. The film is a quiet one and, in the French tradition, a small and intimate one, full of reflection and philosophy. And what it might lack in visual power, it more than makes up for in the way that it pulls the viewer into the world that Bresson creates. His later films might be more innovative, but none seem more emotionally naked than this.

In his essay in The A List, Henry Sheehan focuses on Bresson’s artistic qualities, how critics have talked about a flatness, a one-dimensionality to this work that he doesn’t quite have the courage to contradict. There is a Christ-like association with the priest that Sheehan touches on but doesn’t really seem to understand. It’s not that the Laydu is both in the world and of the world, they are actually one and the same. He is right on, however, when he points out the lack of outward emotion, of gesticulation and melodrama. The drama is there, but it is internalized, as it should be. For an audience immersed in reality TV, this might be a difficult thing to understand, but our disappointments in art sometimes only reveals a flaw within ourselves. The priest cannot pray and so the diary becomes his prayer, and in the end we share more with him than his cassock and collar separate him from us. Diary of a Country Priest, like so many European films, is a lot more artistic than their American counterparts with their entertainment imperatives often deliver. It’s not my favorite of Bresson’s work, but it is a great film nonetheless.

Regeneration (1915)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                    Writers: Raoul Walsh & Carl Harbaugh
Film Score: Philip Carli (1990)                        Cinematography: Georges Benoit
Starring: Anna Nilsson, Rockliffe Fellowes, William Sheer and Carl Harbaugh

It’s tempting to want to lump all silent films together into a single category because they have so much in common with each other and are so obviously distinct from sound films. But there is a very perceptible difference between the films of the nineteen tens and the nineteen twenties in terms of style and story and production design. One of the things Raoul Walsh does so brilliantly in Regeneration, is to blur those lines of distinction in the forward looking direction of this film. Walsh, of course, became heavily associated with gangster films in the classic era through his work at Warner Brothers in films like High Sierra and White Heat. This was one of his first feature films after directing a number of shorts for William Fox’s company, and it was also one of the earliest gangster films, using that milieu not for sensationalism but as a morality play, something many films from the period attempted to do.

The story begins with the young Owen played by John McCann. He lives in a tenement and his mother has just died. As a result he’s taken in by the neighbors across the hall, James Marcus and Maggie Weston. Marcus is a drunk and Weston does the best she can with the meager resources she has. It’s a difficult life for the young boy but eventually he can’t take the old man’s beatings and leaves. In one brief scene where Owen is seventeen and played by Harry McCoy, his morality is shown when he is seen coming to the aid of a small hunchback who is being abused. After that the older Owen, Rockliffe Fellowes, becomes inured to a life of crime. It’s not until he meets society girl Anna Nilsson that he thinks about changing. She sets up a settlement house in the neighborhood for the betterment of the people living in the tenements and Fellowes becomes torn in the end between his love for Nilsson and his loyalty to the criminal gang he once belonged to.

The first thing the viewer notices immediately is the artistic quality of Walsh’s setups. Rather than the long static shots that audiences are used to during this period, even in something like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation from the same year, Walsh’s camera pushes in much closer, emphasizing two-shots as well as much more intimate framing. There are also many shots that are placed at an angle, especially during close-ups, that are unlike those from any director I’ve seen from this era. Another effective technique he uses in the second half of the film, is a moving camera. It’s not Sunrise, but it is quite unexpected as characters enter the settlement house to have the camera move in toward them. And in one magnificent shot in the gangster’s hideout, the camera pulls back while all the men assemble in a last supper type tableaux. It really is breathtaking.

Unfortunately the film has suffered extreme deteriorations in a few places, but that does absolutely nothing to diminish the impact of the film. And the piano accompaniment by Philip Carli is especially good at being both atmospheric and suggesting the time period. Production design is also quite good, with the sets all very believable. The actors all give solid performances as well. Fellowes has a great face for the part and does a nice job of not overdoing his pantomime. Nilsson, however, is absolutely radiant. She had a lengthy career in Hollywood that was well deserved. The other great actor in the piece is William Sheer who played the criminal Skinny. While Walsh has reputation for being one of the great directors of all time, this early film shows that his talent was there from the start. Regeneration, despite it’s heavy moral tone, is one of the most impressive silent films from the nineteen tens.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Thirteen Days (2000)

Director: Roger Donaldson                              Writer: David Self
Film Score: Trevor Jones                               Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp and Dylan Baker

In the movie Patton, George C. Scott as the title character makes a remark at the end of World War Two that the U.S. military should simply turn their weapons on the Russians and commence with a battle that was going to come eventually. Though he was fired for saying that then, many in the military thought the same way, a feeling that precipitated the Cold War in the fifties. By nineteen sixty the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned about was itching for a war, but disappointed that Kennedy was in the White House rather than Nixon. Still, they made the effort, promising Kennedy that the Bay of Pigs operation would be a cakewalk. It wasn’t and, as a result, Kennedy began to think seriously about ending the Cold War by attempting to simply opt out. This, of course, was an anathema to the military and intelligence communities and so they conspired to have him killed. This is the theory proposed by the best book I’ve ever read on the assassination, JFK and the Unspeakable by James W. Douglass.

One of the events that no doubt shaped his desire to quit the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. It’s this test of character for the president that is chronicled brilliantly in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days. Taking the title from Robert F. Kennedy’s memoirs about the crisis, the film looks at the events from the viewpoint of Kenny O’Donnell, special assistant to the president. It begins with intelligence photos showing that the Russians were installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. This, of course, was completely unacceptable to the United States, and the ensuing test of wills between the two governments nearly led to the onset of World War Three, a war the world would never have recovered from. The only thing that stopped it was the firm desire of JFK to solve the crisis without using the military option, an option every military officer on his staff was urging him to use. Far from being weak, Kennedy’s determination proved that he deserves to be mentioned alongside the greatest leaders in our history.

Kevin Costner plays Kenny O’Donnell, a good friend of Bobby Kennedy and JFK’s former campaign advisor. Costner has never had an easy time with accents, and his Boston accent is pretty weak at times, but he still does a very credible job conveying the angst of the crisis, continuing to think about Kennedy’s political career as part of the overall picture. The best casting, however, is in the two Kennedys. Bruce Greenwood is tremendous as JFK, not quite a look-alike but conveying his essence it a great way. Steven Culp is the best of the three, completely immersing himself in RFK’s mannerisms and speech patterns. The three of them together are tremendous to watch and it feels like the most realistic representation of these great men on film. The two standout supporting actors are Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara and Michael Fairman as Adlai Stevenson.

Roger Donaldson is an Australian director who has done some interesting work on films like The Bounty and Cocktail, and worked with Costner previously on No Way Out. His style here is quite good, especially in the transitions when he goes to black and white to give a feel of the media from the time, then gradually saturates with color into the dramatic action. It’s a nice touch. The screenplay was based on the book The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow. Screenwriter David Self penned the script and later went on to write Road to Perdition and the remake of The Wolfman. One fascinating aspect of the story is Kennedy having read the new book by Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, about the beginning of the First World War and how that shaped his view of events as they unfolded. Thirteen Days might not be for everyone but history buffs, and especially those interested in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, should find the film compelling. I know I certainly did.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Jezebel (1938)

Director: William Wyler                                  Writers: Clements Ripley & Abem Finkel
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent and Margaret Lindsay

Warner Brothers’ answer to Gone With the Wind, this is the vehicle that really launched Bette Davis into stardom and allowed her to carve out a career path at the studio when they had little interest in women’s pictures or actresses in general. Of course, she had already won an Oscar for Dangerous in 1935, but still found herself mired in low-budget films and playing bit parts. But Jezebel changed all of that. Though the film came out a year before Selznick’s Civil War epic, the novel by Margaret Mitchell had been a huge best seller the year before, and Warners was clearly attempting to capitalize on its success. Based on a 1933 Broadway play, the film was set in the Antebellum South and featured a scheming woman as its protagonist, everything readers had been captivated by in Mitchell’s novel.

The film begins in a saloon for gentleman in New Orleans, 1852. When George Brent overhears a disparaging comment about his former girlfriend, he quickly challenges the gentleman to a duel and wounds him seriously the next day. The next evening Brent appears at a party for Bette Davis, but she shows up late, still in her riding clothes, shocking everyone there. Meanwhile banker Henry Fonda, Davis’s intended, is being manipulated by her when he won’t leave a business meeting to see her fitted for a dress for the upcoming ball. When she buys a red dress out of spite, instead of the expected white, he takes her anyway in order to embarrass and punish her. Then, delivering her back to her house, he breaks off the engagement. It’s a crushing blow to her, but her pride keeps her from apologizing and Fonda goes away for a year. Her machinations upon his return are the real drama in the picture.

Not only did the picture earn Davis an Academy Award, it also solidified the type of characters that she would play for the rest of her career. And while these are not the type of roles that I particularly like watching, she certainly does it well. Her supporting cast was also responsible in large part for the success of the film. Fay Bainter, who was brilliant two years later in Our Town, also won an Oscar for her role as Davis’s aunt. Henry Fonda does a solid job, but there’s little in his part that couldn’t have been played by a number of other young actors at the time. George Brent, of course, is masterful, confident as always and threatens to steal the picture at times. Also good is Donald Crisp as the town doctor and, in a bit part, John Litel as one of the bank officers.

There are further connections with Gone With the Wind than just the subject matter, however. Selznick liked the camera work by Ernest Haller so much that he hired him to shoot his film as well. And the great Max Steiner wrote the score for both films, too. William Wyler was brought in as a freelance director on the project but wound up angering Jack Warner to no end with his methodical ways. Not only did he work more slowly than most of the studio’s regular directors, but he shot nearly four times the footage, doing multiple takes that were nearly indistinguishable from each other and going weeks over schedule. Though it’s a polished production, seen today, it pales in comparison to scope and grandeur of GWTW. Nevertheless, Jezebel is an important film, deserving of its status as a classic.

Three Strangers (1946)

Director: Jean Negulesco                              Writers: John Huston & Howard Koch
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                          Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Alan Napier

Three Strangers is an extremely odd film by Warners, a John Huston project that came on the heels of the successful The Maltese Falcon and the not so successful Across the Pacific. In the end it’s more like a practice run for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While the film would have been great in a modern urban U.S. setting, Huston liked things more exotic and so this story was set in London prior to World War II. It’s an ensemble piece that also stands out because it had no real star. The biggest name in the picture was Sydney Greenstreet, but he certainly doesn’t carry the film. Geraldine Fitzgerald would have been the natural choice as lead, but it’s not really her story either. The film weaves three threads together, characters who are strangers and only meet through chance. But the result is that the story never comes together in a way that makes a unified whole and, despite solid performances, makes for a decidedly lesser John Huston film.

The film begins with Geraldine Fitzgerald leading Sydney Greenstreet along a street in London. When she invites him up to her room, he's quite happy with himself. That is, until he finds Peter Lorre already there. Her goal is to gather two other strangers in order to perform a Chinese ritual that will bring them all a fortune to divide between them. Greenstreet and Lorre go their own way afterward, without giving the episode much thought. Fitzgerald wants to get back with her estranged husband, Alan Napier, but he has already moved on and wants a divorce. Greenstreet, meanwhile, is a lawyer who has been syphoning money from a client's trust fund, and Lorre is mixed up in a murder, for which he acted as lookout while drunk and doesn't remember.

On their own, each of the stories could have made for an interesting film, but together they seem to detract from one another. There’s also the fact that both Greenstreet and Lorre are playing against type here and that gives an unsettling feel to the piece as well. Lorre is a lush who seemingly hasn’t a worry in the world, despite the fact that the police are looking for him. Meanwhile the usually cool Greenstreet positively sweats himself into a heart attack when his client becomes suspicious and asks to look over the books. Fitzgerald is the real star here, exhibiting a flair for the femme fatale role. Had this been the main thrust of the story it would have been much better. Instead, Huston spends far too much time on the Lorre plot, with stock characters and no real suspense at all. The film does end in true John Huston fashion, but the final scene is still something of a let down.

Director Jean Negulesco attempted to wed the three stories by using a bizarre transitional device of the wavering screen, something that usually indicates a dream or the passage of time and only adds to the strangeness of the film. Nevertheless, he was nominated for an Academy Award a couple of years later for Johnny Belinda. Huston was unable to direct as he was still serving in the Signal Corps when it was being filmed in 1945. The emphasis in the script on Lorre’s character only makes sense when the other actors considered for that role, Leslie Howard, Errol Flynn and Robert Montgomery, make it clear that it was actually intended to be a leading man role. Negulesco lobbied to get Lorre in the part, but in doing so it completely changed the complexion of the picture, to the film’s detriment. Huston had originally envisioned Humphrey Bogart in the part, with Greenstreet and Mary Astor from The Maltese Falcon making it a sort of informal sequel. As it stands, however, Three Strangers is little more than a curiosity, interesting for the novel use of the actors, but unsatisfying in its own right.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                   Writers: Earl Baldwin & Joseph Schrank
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                          Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jane Bryan, Allen Jenkins and John Litel

A bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers, with Edward G. Robinson sending up his gangster image in this mobster farce. A Slight Case of Murder began as a Broadway play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay in 1935 and was adapted for film three years later. The film opens with the repeal of Prohibition. Robinson is a gangster who has been selling illegal beer and now has made the decision to go straight. He figures to keep selling beer and make millions legally. The only problem? His beer tastes terrible. During Prohibition people didn’t have a choice, but now they do and stay away from his beer in droves. Robinson, however, doesn’t drink and he won’t allow his boys to either, so they can keep a clear head doing their work, and so none of his people know.

The conflict comes when the bank officer, John Litel, calls Robinson’s loan for four hundred thousand dollars. He doesn’t have it, but pretends he does, and heads with his family, daughter Jane Bryan and wife Ruth Donnelly, up to Saratoga to their summer house. On the way Robinson stops at the orphanage where he grew up and asks headmistress Margaret Hamilton to select a boy to spend the summer with him to provide some real world education. Before Robinson’s men arrive with the baggage, the scene shifts to five men waiting in the house for him. They’ve just robbed an armored car for a half a million dollars and one of them is about to be cut out of the take, so he kills the rest and hides the money under the bed just as Robinson and his boys arrive. Bryan’s fiancé shows up at the door but, since he’s a state patrolman, Robinson’s boys give him the bum’s rush. The climax comes at the big party that Robinson throws.

It’s not knee-slapping hilarity, but it is a nicely done film. Lloyd Bacon was a prolific director at Warners, having helmed projects in nearly every genre. His direction here is fairly tepid, but that’s to be expected as he was never really artistic. Robinson is the real gem, playing his character straight to good comic effect. He even refers to himself in the third person ala Little Caesar. But the supporting cast is just as marvelous. Ruth Donnelly looks as if she stepped straight out of a Marx Brothers film. The great Edward Brophy is on hand as one of Robinson’s gang, but Allen Jenkins steals the show. His rendering of “Little Red Riding Hood” in gangster speak is one of the greatest comic bits of the thirties. It’s not the best film ever, but A Slight Case of Murder is a terrific little comedy that makes fun of the Warner’s gangster pictures in a very entertaining way.

Across 110th Street (1972)

Director: Barry Shear                                   Writer: Luther Davis
Film Score: J.J. Johnson                             Cinematography: Jack Priestley
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Franciosa and Gloria Hendry

In the wake of Sweet Sweetback and Shaft, came a spate of films dealing with blacks and drugs in New York City. Two of the more famous are Superfly and this film, Across 110th Street. Barry Shear had been directing TV shows since the early fifties and this was one of the few feature films he was given. To his credit, he manages to stay away from a static television style and comes up with some interesting camera angles and set ups. Shear would go on to direct in television up until his untimely death in 1979, while for screenwriter Luther Davis, who had also written mostly for television, this would be his final film before retiring from Hollywood. It’s a well-made film for the time, though it lacks the African-American credentials that most of these films boast, with the exception of the great jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson who wrote the film score and Bobby Womack who sang the opening song.

The film begins with a car riding up from Manhattan north into Harlem. Once there it stops in front of an apartment building and two white men get out. When they go upstairs they are greeted by three blacks with a table full of money, and they all begin counting it. In a brief role before he is killed is the recognizable face of Burt Young who would go on to fame in the Rocky films. The roomful of men is killed by a couple of blacks posing as police officers, and who also wind up killing two real police officers making their getaway. Anthony Quinn is the police captain in charge, but the case is given to Yaphet Kotto, a new black lieutenant that city hall wants to run the investigation. There is some conflict between the two, but the real question is who will find the killers first. At the same time the police are looking for them, mob gopher Anthony Franciosa is given the job of cleaning up the mess in Harlem, and he has his own parallel battle going on with the Harlem boss Richard Ward.

The secondary cast of the film is a real who’s who of prison movies. One of the fake cops is Paul Benjamin, who played English in Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz, while both Yaphet Kotto and Richard Ward appeared in Robert Redford’s Brubaker, which would be Ward’s last film. Benjamin is the real star of the picture and his struggle to escape a lifetime of limitations certainly elicits empathy. Playing the part of the getaway driver is Antonio Fargas who would achieve his greatest recognition for his portrayal of Huggy Bear in the Starsky and Hutch series. Gloria Hendry plays Benjamin’s girlfriend and does a good job at conveying strength and yet compassion for him. All of the supporting case, though relatively unknown, is equally good and this is one of the nice things about the film. The most interesting aspect of the film is the dependence of whites on their black underlings in both the police and the mob, especially in Harlem, and how the blacks are the de facto leaders and ultimately control things.

Anthony Quinn produced the film and stars as the aging captain who realizes he’s losing his job to Kotto. At the end of the day, however, this is really a crime drama and the film is probably more heavily influenced by In The Heat of the Night than the Blaxploitation films of the early seventies. Unfortunately Quinn and Kotto never really have the screen time to develop any type of relationship and so that aspect of the film seems rather forced. There is also the question of whether Quinn’s character is a racist, but there isn’t enough evidence to make that decision either. The other disappointment is that while J.J. Johnson’s score uses the right instrumentation, it is ultimately unmemorable. The undoing of the three men who made the score is very predictable but it still manages to hold attention, and the climax is unique enough that it makes Across 110th Street worth seeking out.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

You Can't Take It with You (1938)

Director: Frank Capra                                  Writer: Robert Riskin
Film Score: Dmitri Tiomkin                          Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold

I’m not usually taken in by zany personalities, especially entire families of them, but I found You Can’t Take It with You absolutely charming. Something of a practice run before his artistic triumph in It’s a Wonderful Life, and much more engaging than the non-stop frenetics of Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of the George S. Kaufman play was deservingly awarded the best picture and best director Oscars that year by the Motion Picture Academy. The picture it paints of the Sycamore family is simply marvelous. They are the most accepting, loving, generous people that I can ever remember seeing onscreen. But they aren’t phony and they aren’t sentimental and they aren’t cloying. They simply do what they want and let the world take them as they want, with no apologies. This is a tremendous film.

The story opens on Wall Street, with bank financier Edward Arnold just coming back from Washington D.C. in preparation of closing a big deal. His son, James Stewart, vice president of the company, is bored with the details. He’s much more interested in his beautiful secretary, Jean Arthur. Meanwhile, Arthur’s grandfather, Lionel Barrymore, is being pressured by Arnold’s company to sell his house, but refuses, and even manages to take one of Arnold’s accountants, Donald Meek, with him back home. At home Barrymore’s daughter-in-law writes plays while his son builds fireworks in the basement. His other granddaughter dances the ballet while her husband plays the vibraphone. And in the midst of this craziness Arthur has fallen in love with Stewart and the inevitable meeting of the two families is the highpoint of the film. From there Albert and his wife are pulled into a Capraesque farce that is as enjoyable as it is predictable, with neither aspect diminishing the other

I’m tempted to say that this is Capra’s best film, though the obvious maturity of It’s a Wonderful Life can’t really be bested. And though this is the sort of thing that critics began to call Capra-corn, there is something distinctly American, a celebration of the things that we were supposed to have held dear and somehow forgot, that makes these films much more important than the derogatory label suggests. Coming to this film as I did after the director’s Christmas piece is a little eerie. Actors like H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds and Charles Lane would appear in the later film, and even certain scenes are repeated later, such as when the friends of Barrymore pass the hat in court to pay his fine. About the only thing missing is Clarence the angel. Even with all of that, however, this is a film that stands very much on its own.

Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore are at the center of the film, just as they are in It’s a Wonderful Life, but of course their roles are very different. Barrymore has unfortunately been remembered primarily for his brilliant portrayal of the amoral Mr. Potter, but in many of his films, from Grand Hotel to Key Largo, he plays the protagonist with a lot of charm. Stewart seems almost callow by comparison to his later role, but he still brings so much personality to the screen that it’s forgivable, and in truth his character doesn’t call for more. The post-war bitterness that informs his character in the Christmas film has no place here. As far as Edward Arnold, there is a bit of Scrooge to his character, learning to place the demands of his heart over that of his pocketbook, a timeless theme that would be used much later in films like Pretty Woman and The Family Man. Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You is a masterpiece that, thankfully in this case, was recognized as such at the time and remains a must-see film for every American.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jindabyne (2006)

Director: Ray Lawrence                               Writers: Beatrix Christian & Raymond Carver
Film Score: Paul Kelley                               Cinematography: David Williamson
Starring: Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, John Howard and Deborra-Lee Furness

The brilliant short story writer Raymond Carver has had far too little acclaim for his works. They guy’s talent was incredible, writing seemingly banal stories about men and woman in the seventies that, beneath the surface, were rich in symbolism and greater meaning. Of course Short Cuts by Robert Altman was a valiant attempt at adapting his stories, but it was more of a collection of shorter films strung together by a narrative that Carver never intended. Jindabyne takes Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close To Home” and moves the action to Australia. In many ways it’s a much gentler piece than the original story, with more emphasis put on the moral dilemma rather than the callous behavior of the main characters, as well as a very specific Australian overlay of racial tension.

The story focuses on a family living in the southwest corner of New South Wales, just above Tasmania, in a community surrounding a man-made lake that now covers the former town of Jindabyne. Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne are the parents of six-year-old Sean Rees-Wemyss. The film opens with an aboriginal woman, Tatea Reilly, being abducted on a lonely road by an older white man. Then the scene shifts to Byrne taking his son fishing in the lake, and explaining that there is a town beneath it. Later, things about the characters emerge from everyday goings on, first that Linney is pregnant and is clearly unhappy about it, later it comes out that Byrne had an affair a while back, and there is so much tension with the mother in law it’s almost palpable. Linney hates her while Byrne encourages her continued presence in the home. The central event of the film, however, is when Byrne and his friends hike deep into the woods to go fishing. Byrne finds the body of Reilly, whom we have seen being dumped into the river by her abductor, and he and his friends ultimately decide to leave her in the water and continue the fishing trip. Of course this is incomprehensible to Linney and drives a wedge further between them, but also causes racial violence in town because the men were white.

But this is just the bare bones plot. There is much more going on in the film that makes for an incredibly rich viewing experience. Linney is one of my favorite modern actresses and, though she’s done some real clunkers on occasion, her presence on screen is wonderful. Byrne is also solid as the husband and one of the great choices of director Ray Lawrence was not to make them speak with Australian accents. Byrne, in the film, is a former Irish racecar driver and Linney is an American, both of them using their natural voices. The scenery is gorgeous. Unlike the wasteland of the outback in the north that one usually associates with Australian wilderness, the southern tip of the island is quite beautiful and the juxtaposition of that with death, in several forms, is one of the things Lawrence emphasizes. The film doesn’t have a resolution and all of the plot threads are left hanging at the end, though that doesn’t diminish its worth in the slightest. It’s a European style of storytelling that is satisfactory all on its own, but it’s important to know that going in.

One aspect of the Carver story that couldn’t really translate to the screen was that it was written from the wife’s point of view, and her association with the dead girl came about because she felt that in her life she was equally as dead. The one negative I have for the film is that it seems a bit schizophrenic. I can’t escape the feeling that Beatrix Christian, who adapted the setting of Carver’s story to her native Australia, had the makings of an entirely different film at hand had she chosen to go that way. And it would have been a good one. The city lying beneath the dammed lake is never really explored with any satisfaction and could easily have been. The same goes for the sociopathic young girl who has lost her mother, and the relationships between the supporting characters. It could have been a powerful film on its own if done right. Still, she chose to combine those elements with Carver and the end result is terrific. Jindabyne is a fascinating character study of people trapped in all kinds of moral dilemmas and is a fitting tribute to the late, great Raymond Carver.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday Inn (1942)

Director: Mark Sandrich                                Writers: Claude Binyon & Elmer Rice
Music: Irving Berlin                                      Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale

The precursor to White Christmas, this is actually the first film to contain Crosby’s hit song of the same name. Holiday Inn is the template for the later film with the idea of a nightclub in the country away from New York City but close enough for urban dwellers to drive up and enjoy. For many people, myself included, it’s the more successful of the two. For one thing, it begins as a love triangle rather than a quartet, and then focuses on two separate story lines. The sophistication of Fred Astaire rather than the over-the-top scenery chewing of Danny Kaye is far more enjoyable, as is the lack of the ponderous sentimentality of the later film. This one is actually played for fun and as a result it becomes so.

The film begins with Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Virginia Dale as a nightclub trio, dancing and singing. But Crosby plans on marrying Dale and retiring to the country. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has actually fallen in love with Astaire, and Crosby goes to the country alone. After a year of hard work on the farm, however, Crosby has had enough, and comes upon the idea of having his farmhouse host a variety show on every holiday, making him enough money to live on the rest of the year. Thus, Holiday Inn is born. His first act is newcomer Marjorie Reynolds and they open on New Year’s Eve. But when Astaire loses Dale to a rich Texan and comes out to the Inn drunk, he falls into the arms of Reynolds and they do a great dance routine. Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember who she is and Crosby wants to keep it that way. When Astaire does find her, Crosby thinks he’s going to lose out again and vows to do everything he can to stop it.

The idea for the show came from composer Irving Berlin, who wanted to write a series of songs that corresponded to every holiday. In addition to “White Christmas,” which won him an Oscar for best song that year, he reprised “Easter Parade” from his 1933 show As Thousands Cheer and both songs would eventually go on to have films built around and titled after each. There are some nice comedy bits that bring to mind screwball comedy without completely devolving into that form. And while the songs take on the feeling of a review, the storyline still holds up and the competition between the two leads is well done. Marjorie Reynolds does a great job dancing with Astaire and holds her own in the lead female role. Walter Abel plays the comedic agent of Astaire, and James Bell puts in a brief appearance as a Hollywood studio executive.

It’s pretty clear that the reason for this film’s lack of popularity compared to White Christmas, in addition to the lack of Technicolor, is the racial stereotyping that is prevalent in the film. Crosby has Louise Beavers working for him as a cook, and she has two little children who tag around for comedy relief, sometimes dressed up for the holidays. And if that wasn’t bad enough, when Astaire first comes to look for Reynolds at the Inn on Lincoln’s Birthday, Crosby has the brilliant idea to hide her from Astaire by having them perform in blackface. During the performance the whole band and all of the dancers have blacked up as well. It’s the kiss of death for TV airplay and more than a little embarrassing to watch. That aside, however, it’s an entertaining film, beginning and ending during Christmas, both times featuring Berlin’s signature song. Holiday Inn has a decidedly major flaw, but is a holiday classic nonetheless.

Assassination Tango (2002)

Director: Robert Duvall                                  Writer: Robert Duvall
Film Score: Luis Bacalov                              Cinematography: Félix Monti
Starring: Robert Duvall, Luciana Pedraza, Rubén Blades and Frank Gio

Assassination Tango is an interesting little film, an obvious labor of love as Robert Duvall not only starred in the film, but wrote and directed. And as if that weren’t enough, he married his co-star just two years later. Duvall’s first wife was also a dancer and when he met Luciana Pedraza in 1997 he clearly wanted to create a vehicle for the two of them that also explored his passion for Argentinian tango. As such it’s a curious mixture. Half of the film is an exploration of the dance culture, from the teaching studios to the salons to the performance halls. The other half is a rather quirky crime drama in which Duvall plays an aging hit man who needs to get away and asks to go on what he has decided will be his last mission for New York mobster Frankie Gio.

Duvall is dating Kathy Baker, who has a young daughter that he loves more than her mother. But it’s a good life. In a club one night on an assignment, however, he kills his quarry close up and his skill and instincts allow him to slip out without being caught. But needing to get away for a while he asks his boss, Frank Gio, to get him out of the country for a while and goes to Buenos Aries for one final assignment before he retires. But it quickly becomes clear that this is not just another assignment as the people involved do not appear to be professionals. His contact is the owner of a building that houses not only boxers and a gym, but a tango studio. He gets a gun from Frank Cassavetes, the same tiny .22 that he used in the previous hit. For this hit, however, he keeps asking for a rifle but one never comes. Finally, he takes a room across the street from his room and sees men going in and of his room at all hours. Knowing that he can’t trust them, he takes matters in his own hands with fascinating results.

Meanwhile, he’s told that his target, a retired general, has injured his leg in a horse riding accident and Duvall will have to spend three extra weeks waiting. So he begins to wander around Buenos Aries, drawn to the tango dancing culture there. He sees one particularly elegant dancer, Luciana Pedraza, in a performance hall several times and follows her to a dance salon. He introduces himself to her and they strike up an unusual friendship that leads to her sister’s dance studio as well as a fascinating evening at a dance salon with her aunt and uncle. It’s an interesting look into a particular culture that would seem to have no connection to the crime story that Duvall weaves it into. The script, as it is, is also very odd. Much of it seems improvised, and it’s clear that he is not a good writer. Many scenes that could have been really interesting seem to lack punch that professional writing could have given them.

This is a difficult film for audiences to take, as there isn’t a single thread to hang onto but two. It’s obvious that the crime story and the dancing are two of Duvall’s interests and he manages to do an adequate job of putting them together. But it is difficult to know where the two parts of the story are supposed to fit together and in the end they really don’t. I have a feeling this is a film that would be much more enjoyable on a second or third viewing. Once having absorbed the information about the dance culture it would be a lot easier to simply let that be the background of the story and concentrate on the assassination plot. While Assassination Tango is not a successful film, neither do I think it’s a failure. This would be one case, however, when knowing what to expect going in would have helped tremendously, and I'm actually looking forward to repeat viewings.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Director: Michael Bay                                    Writer: Randall Wallace
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                              Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Starring: Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

The greatest film reviewer I have ever read is Fredrick Barton from New Orleans. His column in the Gambit Weekly during 1997 and 1998 was tremendously insightful, as are the reviews in his novel With Extreme Prejudice and his nonfiction masterpiece Rowing to Sweden. In his review of Titanic he stated, “This movie is way longer than necessary and foolishly wasteful. At times it is also gratingly dumb. But all that said, you ought to go see Titanic. It's chock full of hokum, but it delivers an experience you can only get at the movies.” Though I’m sure he would disagree with me about this film, I feel the same way about Pearl Harbor. It’s not a good film at all, and yet . . . it delivers a certain experience that can only be found in motion pictures, and I find my self compelled to watch it for the same kind of experience as that found in Titanic.

The film begins with a prologue, two farm boys from Tennessee who want to be fighter pilots. The older one is not very smart, but his dad flies a crop duster. The younger boy is smarter and his father, a nice bit part by William Fichtner, doesn’t want him hanging around him. But the two are best friends. Fast-forward to World War II and both the boys, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, are pilots training for war. Affleck volunteers to go to England to fight, before his age causes him to miss out on combat before the U.S. enters the war. Before he leaves, however, he falls in love with a beautiful nurse, Kate Beckinsale, and introduces her to Hartnett. In England Affleck is shot down over the Channel and presumed dead. This naturally brings Beckinsale and Hartnett together with predictable consequences. And all of this happens before the attack on December 7th. When the attack does come, the film does a nice job of showing the complacency, the panic, and the heroics that happened on that day.

It’s difficult to find ways to praise a film that has little to recommend it, and so I’m not going to try. Just as in films like Titanic or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the post-production manipulation of the film is extensive, but the rich backgrounds, the sepia tones and the post-card colors ultimately feel artificial rather than impressive. CGI effects are everywhere, as you might expect in a war film, and for the most part those work. The problem is that the special effects are used even when they don’t need to be, in train stations and airplane hangers, and because of their overuse what might initially seem like sumptuous effects soon begins to feel like laziness. Thirty or forty years ago filmmakers had to find ways to realistically show the things that needed to be in the film and, whatever techniques they had to use in the end, the result was usually something realistic. Today, films like The Lord of the Rings or Pearl Harbor are barely distinguishable from computer animation.

But even the technical deficiencies of the film pale in comparison to the over-ripe script, little more than a Disney film for grownups. As artificial as the special effects seem, so is the love story. And yet, just as in Titanic, the syrupy sentiment works if you let it. The same can be said for the patriotic claptrap. Sure it’s obvious, but if you leave your cynicism in the lobby, it can make you feel proud. But there are a hundred other things to pick on as well. The nurses in the military back then were all evidently gorgeous, the soldiers all good looking, everything was clean and tidy, and people talked like they were in a TV sit-com. In addition, Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in an embarrassing role as a black cook, a legitimate role, but without any backstory it becomes little more than a cliché. Also wasted are Alec Baldwin who acts like a cardboard cutout as James Doolittle, Tom Sizemore as a cigar-chewing sergeant, Jon Voight as a pasty-faced FDR, and Dan Akyroyd as an intelligence officer in Washington, D.C.

What remains, then, are the battle scenes, not only in Hawaii but the British Channel dogfights. They are exciting, impressive, and the centerpiece of the film, though there are still problems with them. To this date, Tora! Tora! Tora! is easily the best film about the attack on Pearl Harbor ever made. When those Japanese Zeros come in flying low and slow across the harbor there is nothing more chilling. Michael Bay’s planes, on the other hand, whiz around like space ships from a sci-fi movie. It’s a spectacle, no doubt, but it can hardly be seen as historically accurate. But where Tora! Tora! Tora! is told from the Japanese perspective, Pearl Harbor is definitely American, and attempts to show all the aspects of the war both before and after the attack. So until another American film comes along, we’re stuck with Pearl Harbor, a bloated, vacuous motion picture that nevertheless still contains some of the most intense recreations of the horror that happened on this day of infamy.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Night Shift (1982)

Director: Ron Howard                                    Writers: Lowell Granz & Babaloo Mandel
Film Score: Burt Bacharach                           Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long and Gina Hecht

This is an early effort by Ron Howard, his first major picture after working on small, independent pictures for Roger Corman and just prior to his breakout film Splash. Of course Howard had worked with Henry Winkler on Happy Days and it was an inspired choice to cast him as the cuckold fiancée of a neurotic woman who completely dominates him and so takes refuge from the world by working nights at the New York City morgue. Naturally, when Winkler read the script he saw himself as the wild and crazy new guy at the morgue. He was disappointed but he did a fantastic job as the nebbish Chuck, as did newcomer Michael Keaton as wild man Bill Blazejowski. Keaton had worked on TV and had bit parts in a couple of films, but after Night Shift he became a breakout star and never looked back.

The film begins with Winkler and his frustrating relationship with Gina Hecht. She hates the way she looks, thinks she’s too fat, is distracted by the silliest things, and insists before bedtime that Winkler check the apartment. Still, he has achieved some measure of success at the city morgue. That is until the coroner’s nephew needs as job and is given Winkler’s day job, sending him back to the night shift. Naturally he takes it like a wimp and agrees. But then Michael Keaton blows into the morgue as the new guy Winkler has to train. He’s a loose cannon who has all sorts of crazy ideas, and the two are obviously complete opposites. One night coming home Winkler rides up the elevator with his neighbor, Shelley Long, who happens to be a prostitute and has been beaten up because her pimp died. Well, Keaton comes to the rescue by convincing Long and her prostitute friends to let he and Winkler run their business out of the morgue at night . . . with attendant comedic results.

The film is yet another variation on The Odd Couple, itself simply a modified buddy picture, but it is definitely inspired. And were it not for the indelicate subject matter at the time, it no doubt would have been picked up as a television series. But in a way, the film has not really aged well. Working primarily with interior sets, the set ups and camera angles reflect the television milieu where Ron Howard learned his craft. In addition you have the television associations of Winkler and Long. Screenwriter Lowell Granz was perfect for the assignment, however, having written for Happy Days as well as The New Odd Couple, and has penned a host of similar comedic film since. Given all of that the pacing is good and there are some nice comedic touches that really work.

There are the natural morgue jokes, especially during the frat party that Keaton hosts. But Winkler’s character was also a financial genius and that aspect of the film is refreshing as he invests the girls’ money, gets them a medical plan, and even manages to pull down a bunch of money for himself. Things get complicated when Winkler falls for Long and being so dominated in the past he can’t bring himself to tell her how he feels. This, in turn, causes his frustration level to rise and when things begin spinning out of control he takes it out on Keaton, and winds up losing both of his partners. While the ending might be predictable, there’s still a sense of enjoyment that accompanies the whole project. Like a lot of young directors, moving away from comedy and into drama has helped Ron Howard’s reputation and has resulted in better films. The final assessment of Night Shift is that it’s an energetic comedy by a young director, not a great film, but definitely entertaining.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Director: Ingmar Bergman                              Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Film Score: Erik Nordgren                              Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Starring: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bibi Andersson

Ingmar Bergman’s allegory of death in the middle ages has become one of the most well respected films in the history of cinema. Unlike a lot of films, The Seventh Seal has earned its reputation over the years for good reasons. For one thing, it’s a beautiful film to watch, rich black and white that, far from diminishing the scenes of nature, actually seems to enhance it. The acting is wonderful as well. Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles, is vibrant and full of life, as is the couple Nils Popi and Bibi Andersson. But in this case the story is the star of the film. Ostensibly about the Black Death in the middle ages, the obvious allegory for all of human existence is undeniable, and the layers of allegory are wonderfully woven together, the knight and his struggle with his inner self, juxtaposed with the squire and his commentary on life as little more than a play, an act, be it comedy or tragedy.

The opening has a knight returning from the Crusades, Max von Sydow going to the water to wash his face while his squire sleeps. When he returns he sees death waiting for him. Unafraid to die, he nevertheless challenges death to a chess match with his life as the prize. They begin to play, but when the squire wakes up it’s as if none of that has happened, the implication being that the match is not part of Sydow’s conscious thoughts, but a struggle within himself to know what is real, if God is real. When the scene shifts to the troupe of players, there is the same scene recreated, with the leader of the troupe playing death and the “fool” playing the human soul. So, in the context of the film the knight playing with death for his life is an allegory of human existence, but only a representation of life, as demonstrated by the troupe’s act. It’s a play-within-a-play worthy of Shakespeare, but going the Bard one better.

The imagery is also incredible. At one point early on the squire enters a church, with the opening of the door from inside the very image of death’s scythe cast in light. Yet another representation of life and death awaits him there in the form of a fresco being painted of the plague. At the church Sydow ponders the existence of God, unknowingly speaking to death the whole time. And in a philosophical end-around I first read in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Sydow asks a condemned woman outside the church if she’s really seen the devil, a way of proving god’s existence by inference. When the flagellators come by, however, it’s simply another allegory of the way religion destroys people rather than helps them, which is also reflected in the way the squire believes their trip to the Holy Land was a complete waste. Once the two groups meet they travel through the forest toward the knight’s castle, implying the path of life, which is in reality a journey that inevitably ends with death.

Peter Keough’s essay in The A List focuses on the black comedy of the piece, death cheating at chess and gleefully cutting down a tree to kill the actor. He also makes a comparison of the film to The Wizard of Oz that is rather thin. What I like best is his emphasis on “life as a game, and death is a player.” But rather than focus on the times he wins, my take on the film is that he can’t win every game. While people take their inevitable journey into the void, life keeps on propagating itself. In the end, death is a very good player but he’s never going to beat the house. This is signified by the escape of the biblical trio of Jof (Joseph) and Mia (Mary) and their son. The blatant religious symbolism is not the takeaway, though, it’s continuation that is the point. Be it life or religion, neither seems to be giving up the ghost any time soon. And in that view The Seventh Seal would seem to be just that, a final unwrapping of layers of meaning that have an infinite variety of interpretation.

Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell                              Writer: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
Film Score: David Arnold                               Cinematography: Phil Meheux
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green

When I watch most series I usually like to start and the beginning, but for some reason I’ve never had much interest in the James Bond films. As a result I’ve really only seen some of the recent ones with Daniel Craig and a while back with Pierce Brosnan. Casino Royale is the film that began the Craig era and it’s a good one. Rather than continuing with an entrenched mythology, the producers wisely chose to begin the series anew, with Bond being given “double-0” status by MI-6 and sent on his first mission. One of the most obvious differences between the new series and what had come before is less of a reliance on gadgetry and more on Bond’s physical strength and training. The audience also gets a prolog that shows Bond in action getting is first two kills, the actual double 0s.

Setting the stage for the new series, the film begins with a chase, this one almost all non-mechanized. Bond is leading a team on the hunt for an African with a secret in his backpack. But once his own man has been spotted, it’s up to Daniel Craig himself to run down the courier. Running, jumping, scaling tall buildings and leaping off them in a single bound, the Bond franchise is in good hands with these kinds of Superman heroics. In this era of the kinder and gentler action hero who doesn’t kill--Salt comes to mind, though there are plenty of others--it’s easy to forget that 007 has a license to kill and he does when he storms an African embassy to catch his man and, just before his escape, he kills him. And that sends Judi Dench--the new M--into a tizzy. When she finds him comfortably broken into her home, leisurely perusing her personal computer, their antagonistic but dependent relationship is set.

The caper this time out is a villain who manipulates the stock market for terrorist groups by taking their money, bombing certain targets to bring about predictable fluctuations in stock prices, and taking a cut of the action. It’s the bombs that Craig gets onto first, tracking backward from his initial quarry, it leads to Simon Abkarian who winds up being the guy who hires the bombers for the villain. In an incredible sequence at the Miami airport in which the bomber attempts to use a fuel truck to blow up a plane, Craig is impressive in close quarters combat and humorous in his dispatching of the bad guy. The film’s climactic third act happens when MI-6 figures out who the villain is, Mads Mikkelsen, and that since his failed attempt at the plane he has resorted to a high stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro to recoup his losses. Of course Craig wants in and with the help of government accountant Eva Green, he attempts to break him financially.

One of the pleasures of the new series is getting to grow into the part along with Craig. His Bond does all sorts of things that we wouldn’t expect from a more experienced Bond. At one point when he has lost a big hand and asks for a martini, the bartender’s query about shaken or stirred is met with, “Do I look like I care?” Another shocker is when Bond falls in love. At first it’s inconceivable, but by the final scene of the film it all makes sense. Judi Dench is terrific as M and she gets more screen time as the Craig series evolves. The one part that didn’t ring true for me was the torture sequence after Craig has been captured by the villain: I’m sorry, but nobody’s that tough. While the gambling sequences are pretty sedate, there are still plenty of thrills and that makes Casino Royale and great first outing for Daniel Craig and a nice opportunity to see Bond from the beginning.