Sunday, January 25, 2015

Expiration Date (2006)

Director: Rick Stevenson                              Writers: Rick Stevenson & Hamish Gunn
Film Score: B.C. Smith                                 Cinematography: Bruce Worrall
Starring: Robert A. Guthrie, Sascha Knopf, Dee Wallace and David Keith

This is a very clever movie, and it’s not hard to see how it won so many awards--thirty three, at last count. That said, it’s just this side of good for me, but perhaps it’s just my taste in comedy, which leans much more toward the dry. Expiration Date by Rick Stevenson manages to weave some very interesting elements together to come up with a zany romantic comedy. The film is set in Seattle and while it is a small, independent feature it nevertheless managed to attract some name stars, including Dee Wallace, David Keith, and Richard Sanders. The film was shot in Seattle and lovingly frames the city in many different lights and times of day. One of the many terrific running gags in the film, however, is that from seemingly every exterior angle in the film you can see the Space Needle in the distance. Writer-director Rick Stevenson isn’t exactly a young filmmaker on the come, but had already tasted some success in Hollywood beginning as a producer back in the eighties before turning to writing and directing. It was through his work with name stars that he was able to call in some favors and probably ensured the financing and distribution that earned him all those film festival awards. It’s a solid film that has a lot to like, but also some pretty big flaws that keep it from being anywhere near great.

The opening draws on two films in particular. The idea of the old man telling the young boy a story--one that is interrupted in the middle--is borrowed directly from The Princess Bride. The other element, the milk bottle in the paper sack instead of booze, was done by Harper Lee in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The old man is played by Ned Romero, and when he sees the young Nakotah LaRance waiting for the bus at the reservation stop, he wants to tell him a story. LaRance doesn’t want to hear any “oral tradition” garbage, but Romero cons him by telling him there’s a part where the girl does this thing with her lips. Waiting anyway, he agrees, and Romero tells him the story of Robert A. Guthrie, whose father and grandfather both died on their twenty-fifth birthday, and were both killed by milk trucks. Guthrie, with only eight days to go until his twenty-fifth birthday, is looking at funeral plots, shopping for caskets, and making a list of the things he wants to do in his remaining days. His mother, Dee Wallace, owns a flower shop and she has already mapped out the milk deliver routes on a map for him. Then one day while picking out a casket he meets Sascha Knopf, inside the casket he wants. They begin by arguing over it because she saw it first and wants it for her dying mother. But he has the money, so he buys it out from under her, starting a feud that includes painting on each other’s front doors.

There’s a definite chemistry between the perky Knopf and the depressed Guthrie, but he refuses to give in to anything like affection because he knows he’s going to die. Eventually, however, he goes to see her mother in the cancer clinic and learns that it is actually Knopf who is dying and suddenly the romance is on. Meanwhile Guthrie works in a coffee shop full of zany customers like the long-haired ex-marine David Keith, and Brandon Whitehead, who can’t get enough caffeine. There are so many running gags in the film it’s difficult to keep up with them all. Knopf has an adopted dog named Roadkill, who has narcolepsy and passes out on the sidewalk where people assume he’s dead. The coffee shop where Guthrie works is owned by Benjamin Ratner, but none of the customers want him to make their coffee as only Guthrie will do. And when Guthrie is dating Knopf she tells him she has a stalker. Unfortunately, he’s a milk delivery driver with a cow figure hanging in a noose from his rearview mirror. When Knopf goes in for her first kiss with Guthrie she tells him that she wants to do it like the old movies where their lips get incredibly close to each other without actually touching. This is another running gag, and it also stops the film when LaRance is outraged that this is the moment he was waiting for. But he’s too far in to stop now, and tells Romero to finish his tale.

As I stated earlier, this is a comedy that is on the exaggerated side, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. This is too bad. All of the actors tend to overact, as though they’re trying to create bigger than life characters, but instead it simply comes off as stilted and affected. Guthrie, in particular, plays his depression too forward and it gets in the way of his performance. Dee Wallace spends most of her time yelling, either in delight or in fear, while David Keith chews the scenery in his trucker hat and bared arms trying to pick up every woman in the coffee shop. Richard Sanders, who is almost exclusively known for his nebbish role on the seventies sit-com WKRP in Cincinnati, is the best of the three as a cemetery manager. The writing is very good, and the surreal nature of the film is definitely inspired. Unfortunately, Stevenson’s ability to handle the actors is not very good, and what could have been a comedy gem had the actors been reined in, allowing the dialogue and situations to provide the humor rather than the characters, instead gets mired in missed opportunities. Even so, Expiration Date is a clever and entertaining film that has pleased a lot of fans over the past decade, and it’s one of the better independent films to come out of Seattle in the past fifteen years.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Last Samurai (2003)

Director: Edward Zwick                                    Writers: John Logan & Edward Zwick
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                Cinematography: John Toll
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada and Koyuki Kato

Tom Cruise is the kind of actor that people either love or hate, and for many the kind of actor they love to hate. Regardless, however, he has made some brilliant films. It’s unfortunate that he has chosen to follow the ludicrous cult of scientology to the point where his personal life has become something of a joke. Of course that shouldn’t effect how audiences judge his onscreen performances, but then they wouldn’t be human it didn’t. The Last Samurai by Edward Zwick is a masterful piece of filmmaking and displays Cruise’s talents to their best. Like some of the director’s previous films, Legends of the Fall and Defiance, this is an historical drama and it is certainly something he does well. In addition he has a terrific script by John Logan, who wrote Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and a very strong supporting cast to help him realize his vision. And though it’s not quite as impressive as Scott’s film in term of scope and story, Zwick manages to walk a fine line between cultures and demonstrates a significant difference between the capitalist zeal that not only has a stranglehold on Euro-American culture but also infected Japanese culture at the end of the nineteenth century, and a more earth-based existence culture that values cooperation with nature rather than dominance over it

The film begins with Tom Cruise as an alcoholic ex-cavalryman who has nightmares about the Indian wars that he participated in under Custer and along side Tony Goldwyn. He has drifted into a position as a demonstrator for the Winchester company for William Atherton. After he’s fired for drunkenness Billy Connolly takes him to see Goldwyn, who makes him an offer to come to Japan and train their soldiers. The offer comes from the acting head of the Emperor’s government, Masato Harada. So he takes the money and goes. There he meets British author, photographer and translator Timothy Spall. In the nineteenth century much of Asia was closed to Euro-American trade and culture. Japan was one of the most ardently against this intrusion into their culture. But they also realized that with modernization comes the need to trade for raw materials they would need to industrialize their nation. With the ascension of a new emperor, Shichinosuke Nakamura, who has allowed Harada to completely open the country to western influence, the samurai, the traditional protectors of the emperor, have rebelled because they feel this change is bad for the people of Japan. Ken Watanabe is the leader of the samurai, and during a failed attempt by Cruise and his Japanese soldiers to attack them his men capture Cruise, but not before Cruise kills one of them.

That first battle scene is beautifully atmospheric, with fog and blue light turning the forest in to a haunted land from a fantasy world, just the conditions the samurai use to frighten their enemy. When Watanabe sees Cruise continue to fight, even when surrounded and wounded and facing certain death, he inexplicably saves him and takes him back to his village. The middle part of the film is the real meat of the story. Cruise winds up living in the house of the man he killed, Watanabe’s brother in law. And there’s a strong parallel between the Native Americans and the samurai that causes Cruise to give up his Western ways in a similar fashion as Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. One of the things that impresses Watanabe most about Cruise is his apparent lack of fear about dying, though he has no idea this has come about from feelings of guilt and futility, the same motivations that cause Costner’s suicide ride in the beginning of his film. Truth be told, there are many similarities between the two films in both story and character. But because of the extreme differences in the culture, it doesn’t feel like a copy or a rip-off.

While Tom Cruise is good, Ken Watanabe is exceptional, as is his angry lieutenant, Hiroyuki Sanada, and grudging respect eventually turns to a bond of brotherhood and love between them. For his performance Watanabe was given an Oscar nomination. Koyuki Kato as the widow, Sôsuke Ikematsu as her son, and Shin Koyamada as Watanabe’s son do a tremendous job as well. But all the Japanese actors are excellent. Ultimately, the situation in Japan at the time portrayed is far less simplistic as the film puts it, and the idealization of a lost way of life and the “noble savages” who live it threatens to undermine the whole story. But once the viewer can move beyond the literal and see in Cruise the ability to understand and immerse himself in an entirely different culture, it is quite inspirational. The film was given four Academy Award nominations but, with the exception of Watanabe, none of them were in major categories, though a Cruise film was never going to do any better. Which probably caused the actor no end of grief when Johnny Depp was nominated the same year for best actor in one of the horrible Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But the truth will out, and Zwick’s film has stood the test of time. Whatever your opinion of Tom Cruise is--and there are certainly moments when he’s not up to the task--The Last Samurai is a compelling piece of filmmaking and a powerful ideological criticism of consumerist culture.

Friday, January 23, 2015

American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O. Russell                            Writers: David O. Russell & Eric W. Singer
Film Score: Danny Elfman                            Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner

Though there has been the occasional 1970s inspired film now and again, the period has been ripe for re-visitation in recent years. American Hustle, dives head first into shag carpets, leisure suits and disco in setting its seriocomic caper in the “me decade,” and comes away with some genuine moments of “the real thing.” The story is loosely based on the Abscam case run by the FBI in the late seventies and early eighties that used a phony Arab front man to entice public figures into taking bribes. The film is something of a comedy, though still fairly serious in the way that it unfolds and the real draw is the acting. Amy Adams gives a bravura performance--as well as exposing a lot of cleavage--with Christian Bale in a beautifully costumed role in a fat suit and long hair. Jennifer Lawrence also does a tremendous job in a supporting role and almost certainly would have won an Oscar had the film not been up against 12 Years a Slave that year. In fact, one of the astounding things about the film is that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and came away with nothing. It is something of a rambling story and the improvisational nature of the dialogue leaves something to be desired, but it is impressive for those standout performances.

The film begins with a sting operation. Christian Bale is in his hotel room putting fake hair on his bald head and doing a monstrous comb-over. He meets up with Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams in the room with the video monitors, and instantly they get into an argument. During the sting the mayor, Jeremy Renner, doesn’t take the bait and leaves, at which point Cooper forces Bale out to get him back. In a flashback Bale tells about how he broke windows so his dad could get business at his glass store, and how he met Amy Adams at a pool party in Long Island and bonded over Duke Ellington. She’s a stripper, and when she discovers his real business is cheating people out of fees for getting them loans they’ll never receive, she walks out, only to walk back in again with a British accent and doubling his take as his assistant, in more ways that one as they begin a sexual relationship. But trouble arrives in the form of Bradley Cooper, who says that he’s desperate for a loan. Bale smells trouble but when Adams takes his check, the world comes down on them. The bottom line is that in order for Bale to get Adams and himself off the hook, he has to use his talents to sting four other big fish and the two of them will walk.

The one quibble I have with the film, and it is a significant one, is the music. After watching the entire movie I still don’t know what the point of the music is. Russell and his people chose a great number of distinctive seventies pop songs to fill the soundtrack, but all of the music in the film--and I mean every song--is from 1974 and earlier. The film is set in 1978, and yet there is nothing from that year on the soundtrack. The most egregious example of this is in the disco scene, when Adams and Cooper go to a discotheque and the song playing in the club is “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Now, Thelma Houston released a version of that song in early 1977, and that would have been perfect for the scene. Instead, however, incomprehensibly, they played the original version by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes from 1975. I’m sure to most people a seventies song is a seventies song, but to set a film smack dab in the middle of the disco era and not use a single disco song on the soundtrack makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It’s too bad, because it’s the one element that rings absolutely false to anyone who lived in the era and paid any attention to popular music at all.

There are several narrative strings that are working here in David Russell’s screenplay. On the one hand there’s a bit of The Wrestler, with Amy Adams acting briefly as a stripper combined with the low class world of Bale. It turns out he is married to Jennifer Lawrence and has adopted her son, and he’s unwilling to leave her to run away with Adams which creates a lot of tension between the three of them. The relationship between Adams and Bale is reminiscent of any number of caper films--Matchstick Men comes to mind--in which the relationship itself seems like a con. But the most blatant comparison comes with Bradley Cooper’s character in his similarity to Gene Hackman in Get Shorty. Where he started out simply to get the couple to help him bag some bigger players, he quickly gets caught up in his own newfound sense of power and keeps biting off more and more. While Bale is urging him with all of his sincerity to slow down and scale back, Cooper can’t help himself. The ending, of course, is classic caper film material and one of the more satisfying elements of the production. American Hustle is not a film that is obviously great, but it does finish with a sense of satisfaction that seems impressive in retrospect.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Tall T (1957)

Director: Budd Boetticher                            Writer: Burt Kennedy
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                       Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maurine O’Sullivan and Arthur Hunnicutt

Another of the mid-fifties westerns that Randolph Scott made for Columbia, The Tall T is notable for the simple fact that the title is never explained, though one presumes this is the brand that Scott uses for his cattle. In actuality, the film had been called The Captives throughout production, but executives discovered that there was another film by that name and changed it. The intent of the new title was that it was the brand of the ranch where Scott intends to by a bull for his ranch. The film also has the distinction of being the first of Elmore Leonard’s works to be adapted for the screen. Primarily known as a writer of humorous crime fiction in later life, Leonard had also written western stories early in his career, including the story that 3:10 to Yuma was based on. This was the second of several films Scott made with director Budd Boetticher, the first of which, Seven Men from Now, being such a commercial success that it led to a total of seven collaborations. The film was also one of Maurine O’Sullivan’s final film performances, after she had moved almost exclusively to television in the fifties.

Randolph Scott plays an Arizona rancher, going into Contention to buy a seed bull for his new ranch. Along the way he stops at a stage depot to water his horse. The place is run by a friend of his, Fred Sherman, and his young son Christopher Olsen. Once in town he meets Arthur Hunnicutt who drives a stagecoach and talks about the train taking over. Meanwhile Maurine O’Sullivan and her husband John Hubbard are going to be chartering Hunnicutt’s stage to Bisbee, and Hunnicutt is convinced that Hubbard only married her to get his hands on her father’s copper mining business. Instead of getting a bull, Scott loses his horse in a bet and winds up walking home with his saddle, flagging down Hunnicutt’s stagecoach. But when they get to the station Sherman and Olsen have been killed, and Richard Boone and his men have taken over the place waiting to rob the regular stagecoach. The weak-willed Hubbard instantly tries to give up O’Sullivan as a hostage to get ransom from her father, so Boone sends a ransom note back to Contention with him and heads toward Scott’s place with O’Sullivan to wait for the money. The bulk of the story takes place a few miles from Scott’s ranch as they wait for the ransom money, giving time for Scott and O’Sullivan to bond and figure out a way to stay alive.

These westerns are little more than stripped down morality tales. Boone becomes sickened by the fact that Hubbard sold out his wife in order to safe himself, and he also talks about how he wants to have a place of his own, a ranch like Scott’s. Scott has a difficult time understanding this. He doesn’t see how killing and robbing to get those things is any different that what Hubbard did, but Boone tells him, “If you can’t see the difference, I ain’t gonna explain it to you.” Boone’s partners are Skip Homeier, a young kid with no family, and Henry Silva, a Chinese killer, and he doesn’t like either one of them. In fact, Boone has never killed a man in his life, though Scott isn’t buying the distinction considering that he consents to allow them to do his dirty work for him. What is so fascinating is that the film almost begins as a comedy, with Scott betting his previous boss, Robert Burton, that he can ride a bull and loses his horse to him after diving in a water trough to escape the bull when he’s thrown off. Then he has to walk fifteen miles back to his ranch with his saddle over his shoulder.

But even during the tense moments waiting for the money there is a bit of comedy relief. When Scott comes out of the opening to the mineshaft where he and O’Sullivan have been sleeping, he hits his head on the beam and sends Boone into a riot of laughter. The relationship between Boone and Scott is the real focal point of the film. Boone is fascinated by this man who tells the truth, even admitting that he’s afraid, and keeps his dignity no matter what happens. This is in stark contrast to Hubbard, a man who cares more about his own life than his wife’s, and it probably bothers Boone so much because he reminds him too much of himself. In fact, at the end of the picture Boone knows Scott so well that he actually walks away from him while Scott holds a gun on him, so sure he is that Scott would never shoot him in the back. The Tall T may be a simple story, but it is told extremely well and acted to perfection. It is one of the better of the Scott-Boetticher films and is as entertaining as westerns get.

No Sad Songs for Me (1950)

Director: Rudolph Maté                              Writer: Howard Koch
Film Score: George Duning                       Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, Wendell Corey, Natalie Wood and John McIntire

Though this is a heart-breaking premise in any era, it is unfortunately all too common today. But in the fifties this was the kind of story that was gaining traction, the kind of thing that was causing conflict amid the suburban perfection of the post-war era. No Sad Songs for Me is the kind of film that Douglas Sirk would begin to make in earnest during that decade. Ironically, Sirk had left Columbia the previous year to return to Germany, and came back a year later to sign a contract with Universal where he made his most well-known films. Rudolph Maté, on the other hand, had only been recently promoted from cameraman to director at Columbia and helmed this tearjerker with a steady hand. Though the trailer for the picture proclaims in large block letters that this was the first time the idea had been filmed, a similar story had been done in a less domestic way before, with Bette Davis at Warner Brothers in 1939 with Dark Victory. Here the setting is updated to modern day Los Angeles and with the family already in place. What’s unique is bringing in the idea of adultery, the only other real crisis in suburbia, and weaving that together with the primary storyline. Miraculously, the usually ham-fisted composer George Duning was the only person to earn an Academy Award nod for his, frankly, rather generic romantic score.

The story begins at the home of Margaret Sullavan, her husband Wendell Corey, and their daughter Natalie Wood. Everyone is excited because Sullavan believes she is pregnant and is going to the doctor for conformation that day. Meanwhile Corey is in the middle of a bit development project and is set to make a ton of money when it’s completed. But when Sullavan goes to see the doctor, John McIntire, he has worse news than the fact she can’t conceive. He tries to hide it from her, but she comes back into his office and demands the truth: she has cancer and only a few months left to live. These were still the days when doctors used to keep that kind of news from the patient, letting the family know but allowing the patients to live in ignorance in the assumption it would make their lives happier. That idea has gone by the wayside since then and, in fact, in the opposite direction. Films like My Life Without Me and the Showtime series The Big C show doctors who are now only allowed to tell the patients, and patients who keep the news to themselves so that they really can enjoy their remaining time without being drowned in pity and patronization. Sullavan gets the news in the late fall, at the same time Corey hires a female draftsman, Viveca Lindfors, to help him complete his project before his spring deadline.

As Sullavan’s constitution gradually weakens, Corey begins to spend more time with Lindfors and feels increasingly guilty about it. But it’s not until Sullavan visits her father in San Francisco and sees an old friend, Harlan Warde--who has lost his wife and is dating a real shrew--that she realizes she needs to engineer a relationship between Corey and Lindfors for when she’s gone. While Margaret Sullavan was extremely popular in the forties at MGM, she had a relatively brief career, appearing in only sixteen films and preferring the stage to the screen. This was her last film before retiring, and she demonstrates why she was so popular. Though not a traditional Hollywood beauty, she exudes strength and, if anything, her performance here is more subtle than in her forties work. Wendell Corey is terrific to see, appearing in only a few dozen films in the late forties and early fifties, before working primarily in television for the remainder of his career. The picture is also notable for the appearance of a young Natalie Wood in her twelfth film. Then there is Viveca Lindfors, a Swedish actress in the mold of Ingrid Bergman. After making several films in Sweden during the war she signed a contract with Warner Brothers and made this film on loan to Columbia.

The film received generally positive reviews on its release, especially for Margaret Sullavan’s performance. But Howard Koch’s lucid screenplay also came in for praise. Koch was, of course, instrumental in the synthesis of the screenplay for Casablanca as well as a number of other great Warner Brothers pictures, and was another tragedy of the communist witch-hunts and blacklisted shortly after this film was made. The other actors of note in the film are Jeanette Nolan, who got her start with Orson Welles and was appearing here in only her fourth film, and Ann Doran as one of Sullavan’s friends. Finally, the great John McIntire plays the family doctor and brings his patented gravitas to the role. The film is a good one, with a fascinating story line that while not so shocking today, is still wonderful to watch in the way it unfolds. No Sad Songs for Me is a vintage slice of fifties culture with enough residual forties flair to make it a terrific film, not the least for exceptional performances by Margaret Sullavan and the rest of the cast.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Director: Robert Aldrich                              Writers: Nunnally Johnson & Lukas Heller
Film Score: Frank De Vol                           Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Starring: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes and Ernest Borgnine

In the late sixties and early seventies there were a number of war films produced that contained a healthy element of comedy as well as drama. Films like Kelley’s Heroes and M*A*S*H were attempts to take some of the edge off of the Vietnam War then in progress and being paraded nightly across television screens. But it was Hollywood veteran Robert Aldrich who made the first entry into the genre with The Dirty Dozen, based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson. It’s a terrific premise, with a clandestine special force made up of army convicts set to die, given one last chance to redeem themselves by going into battle behind the front lines on the evening before the D-Day assault in Normandy. The film sports an all-star cast, many of whom were little known at the time and later went on to distinguished careers. MGM offered the lead role of Major Reisman to John Wayne, but fortunately for Aldrich he turned it down to make The Green Berets instead. Aldrich had his heart set on Lee Marvin from the beginning and the lanky actor, who had alternated between television and motion pictures for most of his career, anchored the cast of this iconic film and became identified with the role for the rest of his life.

The story begins in a U.S. Army prison in England. Lee Marvin has been sent there to observe a hanging. When he reports back to the general, Ernest Borgnine, and his angry subordinate general, Robert Webber, his insolence becomes apparent. He is given an order to train twelve of the convicts for a special mission and has to sell the idea to twelve lucky “volunteers.” The group consists of, among others, Donald Sutherland, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas and John Cassavetes, who was nominated for an Oscar. Once they realize they will be getting out of prison--though they are likely to die during the mission--they gladly agree. The problem for Marvin is that they hate each other almost as much as they hate him, and getting them to work together is nearly impossible. He’s assisted by a sergeant, Richard Jaeckel, and when the men refuse to shave, Marvin takes away their soap and Jaeckel christens them “The Dirty Dozen.” During their training there are several episodes that test their mettle. The parachute training facility is run by Marvin’s sworn enemy, Robert Ryan, and Ryan tries to beat out of the men what their mission is. They, of course, believe that Marvin is responsible, but later when Ryan invades their camp while Marvin isn’t there, they bond even closer with him.

Things finally come to a head when Marvin is dragged before Borgnine by Ryan and threatened with losing the operation. With the help of fellow major George Kennedy, he makes a bet with Borgnine that he can take over Ryan’s headquarters during the war games coming up. The way they manage it is terrific, and cements the bond between the men and paves the way for their ultimate mission. And the mission itself is as suspenseful as they get. Aldrich has a terrific visual style that is apparent in almost every scene. Whether it is shooting from the ground or from directly overhead, there is always some interesting visual angle to go along with the story itself. And the story is a long one. Epic in scope, Aldrich is following on the tails of World War Two films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape in the film’s two hour and ten minute running time. Frank De Vol’s appropriately martial sounding score, while not exactly memorable, provides a perfect background for the action. The allegory for the Vietnam War is obvious. It was the first war where draftees, en mas, ran for cover by staying in college or the national guard or, in extreme case, fleeing to Canada, leaving the ranks of the Army primarily soldiered by low income men or minorities--in many cases both. But when it came time to perform they were as good--if not better because of their backgrounds--than career soldiers.

The other members of “the dozen” are less well known today. Clint Walker becomes pals with Bronson in the picture, while singer Trini López becomes the first to die on the mission. Frank Sinatra apparently pushed him to leave halfway through the production, believing that his singing career would go into decline if he stayed away from the U.S. too long, so his character was simply killed off. Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland and Al Mancini round out the rest of the dozen. At the time it was released, the film was criticized primarily for its portrayal of extreme violence, but Altman was adamant that the realism of war justified its inclusion. In fact, Aldrich was surreptitiously offered an Academy Award nomination if he would cut the final scene in which Jim Brown throws grenades into the air vents at the chateau. Ostensibly it was because of the violent nature of the scene. In reality it was because of the distaste of seeing a black man kill whites--even if they were Nazis. Fortunately, the film survived intact and has become one of the greatest war films ever produced in Hollywood. In addition to Cassavetes, the film was nominated for three other technical awards and won the Oscar for sound effects. It spawned a television sequel starring Lee Marvin, and two others with Telly Savalas leading the group. The Dirty Dozen has it all, sex, violence, action, drama and humor, and puts them all together in one of the most entertaining war films ever made.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Werewolf of London (1935)

Director: Stuart Walker                              Writer: John Colton
Film Score: Karl Hajos                              Cinematography: Charles J. Stumar
Starring: Henry Hull, Valerie Hobson, Warner Oland and Lester Matthews

This film had a long and arduous genesis, beginning first as a story for Boris Karloff to follow up his success in Frankenstein. Eventually the idea passed through the hands of several writers before John Colton’s version was green-lighted. Director Stuart Walker is not a well-known name because he died in 1941 at the age of fifty-three. Werewolf of London was his second to last film and came on the heels of a pair of Charles Dickens adaptations for Universal, Great Expectations with Henry Hull and The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Claude Rains. The commercial failure of the film at the time of release was probably due to its marked similarity to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Less of a monster movie, the story focuses on the scientific research of Henry Hull, whose obsessions are the real cause of his doom. He neglects his wife, nearly pushing her into the arms of her former lover, and yet is furious with them when he thinks about them being together. At the same time his is angry towards his colleague, when if they had worked together they might have been able to invent a cure. In the end, it is the scientist’s own hubris that ends his life, almost identical the Robert Louis Stevenson story.

The film opens in Tibet, in the middle of an expedition. The camera follows two of the crew to the tent of Henry Hull. The natives do not want to go where Hull is heading, and when priest Egon Brecher comes through the pass the natives scatter in fear. Hull is looking for a rare plant that only blooms in the moonlight, and Brecher tells him he should not seek it, but wishes him luck as he goes anyway. Once Hull finds the flower, however, he is attacked by a man who looks like a beast and is bitten before he can fend him off. But he gets his flower and returns it to England safely. There his neglected wife, Valerie Hobson, is throwing a party and one of the guests is the mysterious Warner Oland. After Oland tells him that they are both werewolves, Hull ignores him and goes about his work until he sees his artificial moonlight has a curious effect on him, causing hair to sprout from his hand. The Tibetian flower, however, is the antidote to the symptoms, but Oland steals the blossoms, leaving Hull helpless to the curse. After the change he instinctively heads for his wife, but foiled there he kills an anonymous woman in the streets. This leads to the inevitable battle between the two werewolves over the remaining blossoms of the flower.

The most obvious impediment for the film to overcome is the screenplay. It is full of obvious references to men and beasts and stilted dialogue, especially when it comes to the jealousy of Hull toward Lester Matthews. The thing is, it’s not a bad story, but the execution is poorly done, in particular the way any suspense about Oland being the original werewolf is given away in the beginning of the film. The actor tells Hull that they met briefly in Tibet, in the dark, and turned him into a werewolf. This is one of many aspects of the film that The Wolf Man would greatly improve upon later. Though the screenplay may have failed him, Stuart Walker has a distinctive style and makes full use of the moving camera to great effect, first in the opening as he tracks the men to Hull’s tent, and later throughout the rest of the film. The technique is a vital one for his unique transition scene as Hull turns into a werewolf. Walker tracks the actor as he walks behind a series of columns. When Hull is behind a column the camera stops and makeup is applied, then the camera rolls again. Though it’s obvious on film, it is still a terrific sequence and one of the high points of the film. The other high point is the music by Karl Hajos, which adds another artistic dimension to a somewhat flat film.

What’s fascinating in watching the film is how similar it is to Stevenson’s novel. The overt sexual overtones of Mr. Hyde are nakedly on display in the film, as he attacks only women. While the trigger for Hull’s transformation seems to be the moon, the jealousy he exhibits toward his wife’s former lover appears just as powerful, and his rage propels him forward. And in the same way that Hyde finds himself an outcast in a society with rigid rules of conduct regarding sexual expression, the juxtaposition of Hull’s animal nature with the civilization he is trapped in is presented in the stark visual symbolism of him donning his hat and coat after the transformation. Hull’s performance has been criticized for his seeming distaste for the part, and along with Valerie Hobson’s stereotyped role they combine to weaken the narrative. Ironically, Warner Oland is the actor who appears most invested in the film. The only other actors of note in the picture are the wonderful Spring Byington as Hobson’s aunt, used for comic relief, and Hull’s lab assistant, J.M. Kerrigan. While it lacks the artistry and magic of The Wolf Man from six years later, Werewolf of London nevertheless holds an important place in the pantheon of Universal monster films as the first werewolf film produced in the sound era.

The Blind Side (2009)

Director: John Lee Hancock                            Writer: John Lee Hancock
Film Score: Carter Burwell                              Cinematography: Alar Kivilo
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw and Kim Dickens

There’s something about these kinds of films that doesn’t sit well with me. First of all, I certainly enjoy watching them. After all, who wouldn’t? The true story of a young person who defies the odds and becomes a success with the aid of selfless people helping him is incredibly inspiring. When all is said and done, however, I’m left feeling empty inside. While the story is good, there is an overt sentimentality that makes the plot a little too obvious for this to be a really great film. The Blind Side is a semi-biographical tale of an inner-city boy from Memphis named Michael Oher who went on to play football at the University of Mississippi and eventually the NFL. The film is based on the book by Michael Lewis called The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. In the book he weaves two narrative threads together, the first about Lawrence Taylor, who made the necessity of protecting the quarterback’s blind side a priority after breaking Joe Theismann’s leg. The second is the story of Oher. Sandra Bullock begins the film with a narration of Lewis’s first point, punctuated by the footage of Theismann and Taylor in a Monday night game, the last of Theismann’s career.

Oher is played by Quinton Aaron in his first film role. The story begins with Aaron as a homeless boy living on the couch of his friend’s family. Omar Dorsey visits Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis in order to get his son in because of his sports abilities, but when coach Ray McKinnon sees Aaron’s enormous size and quickness on the basketball court he wants him to attend the school as well. With no continuity in school or academic success, Aaron’s grades are virtually nonexistent, but with McKinnon pushing he gets him enrolled. There he makes friends with the tiny boy, Jae Head, and eventually draws the notice of his mother, a rich Memphis socialite played by Sandra Bullock. She brings the boy into their home and her husband, Tim McGraw, daughter Lily Collins, and Head, make an instant family for Aaron. At first Aaron’s participation in football is simply an obvious one because of his size, but McKinnon notices something different about the boy. While most neglected kids display a repressed anger once they get on the football field, this is utterly absent from Aaron. What Bullock knows, however, is that Aaron is in the ninetieth percentile for protective instinct, and when she gives him the goal of protecting his quarterback, suddenly Aaron becomes great.

The rest of the film, I hate to say, is an obvious progression of attempting to help Aaron become successful and combating racism. He struggles in his first football games, and then gradually becomes an all-state tackle. He needs to get his grades up in order to be eligible to play college ball and Kathy Bates is brought in to tutor him, with obvious results. Later, young Jae Head becomes his virtual agent when the parade of college coaches comes to his door. Through it all the bond between Bullock and Aaron becomes closer and, just to throw in a bit of suspense, the NCAA investigates why he decides to go to Old Miss, suspecting that Bullock is simply using her altruism to field players for her old alma matter. Nevertheless, the film is an obvious favorite for its uplifting message and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. The only other nomination was for Bullock as best actress and she won over an incredibly weak field that year. For anyone who has seen films like Rudy or We Are Marshall, you’ll have a good idea of what this film is. That is not to denigrate the story of Michael Oher, who is still playing professional ball in his home state of Tennessee, but The Blind Side is a film that fits into that inspirational, if predictable, genre of sports stories that has become prevalent in recent years. I very much enjoyed the story, but the film as a film . . . not so much.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bull Durham (1988)

Director: Ron Shelton                                      Writer: Ron Shelton
Film Score: Michael Convertino                      Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Trey Wilson

The first of Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, Bull Durham is a romantic comedy rather than the more serious pictures that followed it, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. But the film is also notable for being the picture in which Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins met and began a relationship that lasted twenty years and produced two children. The film was written and directed by Ron Shelton who had written a couple of films prior to this, but his was his first job as a director. The chemistry with his star worked out well, and in the following decade he would team up with Costner again for another sports-related romantic comedy, Tin Cup. Costner has done particularly well in these films because of his natural athleticism, and that was the primary reason that Shelton cast him. The film was a surprise hit, as sports films in general were not very popular at the time. Shelton had been a minor league baseball player and used his experience when writing the screenplay. But the romantic angle is also very well done and holds up today, as well as the buddy-picture antagonism between Costner and Robbins. The film touches a number of cinematic tropes and does all of them very well, resulting in its continuing popularity.

The film begins with Durham, North Carolina’s triple-A baseball team, the Bulls, getting a new pitcher, Tim Robbins, a hot young prospect who signed a hundred thousand dollar signing bonus. He has a thunderbolt for an arm, but is immature and has no control on the mound. Enter Kevin Costner, a veteran catcher that the team hired to teach Robbins and get him ready for the majors. At the same time local baseball fan Susan Sarandon has her own spring training, which involves selecting a player to have an affair with for the season. She brings both Robbins and Costner over to her house, but when Costner figures out what’s going on he refuses, saying that after ten years in the minor leagues he doesn’t try out any more. But while Sarandon hooks up with Robbins for the season, there is plenty of sexual tension between her and Costner. Meanwhile, the baseball season marches on with its ups and downs, winning and losing streaks, as well as the drama that happens off the field with Sarandon’s best friend, the promiscuous Jenny Robertson who is working her way through the entire team. The late, great Trey Wilson plays the harried manager who relies on Costner to lead the team, and the wonderfully comedic Robert Wuhl plays the goofy pitching coach.

Kevin Costner is a great choice for the lead because of his obvious athletic ability. What’s a little more of a stretch is Tim Robbins. Even though he played hockey when he was younger, he does look a bit awkward on the pitcher’s mound. But it was his breakout role and he plays the part well. The rest of the baseball cast was chosen from actual athletes and director Ron Shelton was a stickler for authenticity on the field by completing plays after the camera stopped rolling. Costner even hit a couple of actual home runs during the filming. Susan Sarandon is lovely as the older woman and, though she and Robbins began their off screen romance during shooting, she works very well with Costner and the two are terrific together. It’s hard to believe that this was Shelton’s first film. His scenes are well composed, and the baseball montages look as if they had been shot by a veteran. One of the other aspects of the film that is tremendous is the music by little known composer Michael Convertino. He does a great job of scoring, and integrates it perfectly with the eclectic mix of soundtrack songs. The comedy in the piece is also very natural and unfolds in an unforced way. There is a lot to like about Bull Durham and it’s popularity with fans through the years and frequent rotation on cable attest to that. It’s a great romantic comedy that does not depend on knowledge of sports to be enjoyed.

Cement Suitcase (2013)

Director: Rick Castañeda                                Writer: Rick Castañeda
Film Score: Nick Jaina                                    Cinematography: Jeffrey Waldron
Starring: Dwayne Bartholomew, Kristina Guerrero, Nathan Sapsford and Shawn Parsons

My interest in Cement Suitcase was twofold. First, I have been so impressed with independent films coming out of Portland, Oregon that I wanted to check out what was happening in the Seattle film scene. The second was the setting. One of my favorite films is Sideways, a comedy set in California’s central coast wine region. Likewise, this film is set in Washington wine country, an area of the state that I am particularly familiar with. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this film as much as I would have liked. Writer-director Rick Castañeda does, however, have some fine moments of comedy in the film and that keeps it from being a complete loss. One of the things he wanted to do with the project was showcase a little-filmed area of Washington State, the Yakima Valley, and that is probably the most impressive aspect of the film. The landscapes are incredibly beautiful. But Castañeda also uses some animated sequences in the film that are interesting and has a nice directorial touch. It’s the director’s first feature film and, in some respects, it shows. And while it fails to impress overall, there are still plenty of good things in it that keep it from being a failure.

The film begins with Dwayne Bartholomew going up onstage in front of an empty house in an auditorium, but before he can speak he wakes up from his dream. In the first-person narrative he tells of his sad life in Granger, Washington as a wine pourer at the Airfield Winery in Prosser. He lives in a modest house that used to be his mother’s. He’s cleared out her room to make room for a boarder so that he can pay the mortgage, which is way overdue, but the only applicant is Australian Nathan Sapsford, whom he takes an instant dislike to. One day at the winery Shawn Parsons strikes up a conversation and asks him to play golf sometime, the only problem is that his girlfriend, Kristina Guerrero, is having an affair with him and he doesn’t know how to feel about it. To say that Dwayne’s life is in a rut is an understatement. In a brief bit of animation his life is compared to a river that erodes into the earth over time, with himself at the bottom of the canyon. Finally he relents to Sapsford because he has money and is willing to pay in advance. All that said, however, it’s only then that things really begin going bad.

While the plot actually sounds pretty interesting, the film as a whole is surprisingly tepid. For one thing, the twenty-something loser who is more interested in playing video games than improving his life, still living at home--albeit his mother is dead—has very little originality to it. Writer-director Rick Castañeda wrings about the most he can from the premise, but being so weak to begin with doesn’t give him a lot of room to maneuver. Dwayne Bartholomew at first seems like a poor choice for the lead, but he warms to the role. And while he is a comic actor, he manages to keep things very believable rather than going overboard the way most Hollywood comedies tend to do. The best actor in the film is, ironically, Shawn Parsons, who is playing a stereotyped character but manages to imbue it with a strong sense of reality as well. Overall, though, the acting throughout the film is pretty good. Castañeda is also a terrific creative force and he definitely has some skills. His work behind the camera is very confident. Some of the running visual gags are a “For Rent” sign that keeps falling down, and Bartholomew’s beat up car, but there are also some very clever moments in the writing as well. The first-person narration is a bit awkward because it feels like it should have been used a bit more or not at all. Cement Suitcase may not be a great film, but it is a valiant effort by a young filmmaker that promises much more in the future.

Shockproof (1949)

Director: Douglas Sirk                                      Writers: Samuel Fuller & Helen Deutsch
Film Score: George Duning                              Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight, John Baragrey and Esther Minicotti

Shockproof is the last film that Sam Fuller would write before striking out on his own to begin directing independent films. The impetus was the direction of the film by Douglas Sirk, though the film’s lack of cohesion and success was probably due more to Columbia’s demand that the screenplay be rewritten by Helen Deutsch. The result is an extremely bipolar film that emphasizes both the lurid film noir aspects that were present in Fuller’s original screenplay and the sentimental rewrite by Deutsch. Cornel Wilde is the nominal lead in the picture, and had earned his film noir credentials two years earlier in Leave Her to Heaven for Fox. The other lead, Patricia Knight, had a brief career in Hollywood, and what films she did appear in were mostly due to the influence of her husband, Wilde, who married her during the shooting of this film. Her initial scenes, it must be pointed out, are quite good, and the femme fatale characterization of her in the screenplay is tremendously suspenseful during the first half of the film. While Shockproof does have its moments, it’s a dim reflection of the work that Cornel Wilde did with Gene Tierney, and with all of the edges softened by the rewrite of Fuller’s script it couldn’t help but be a disappointment.

The film begins with Patricia Knight walking through Hollywood. She buys a new dress, has her hair dyed blonde, and goes into an office building to see Cornel Wilde. It turns out he’s her parole officer, and she’s on parole for murder. Her long list of don’ts include staying away from her former lover, John Baragrey, but of course the first thing she does is meet with him and get picked up in a raid. King Donovan chooses to jump to his death rather than go back to prison and Knight wishes she had the nerve to do the same thing. Wilde’s boss wants him to send her back to prison, but he decides to give her another chance--as long as Baragrey stays away from her. To make it easier, Wilde gives Knight a job in his own home taking care of his blind mother, Esther Minicotti, but all the while Knight is working behind his back with Baragrey to get her transferred to San Francisco. It’s not until Wilde proposes to her that Knight realizes she doesn’t want to be with Baragrey anymore, but her old flame wants to use the marriage--a violation of parole--to control him through extortion by threatening to destroy his career by exposing it.

Up to that point the film has a lot of potential, but the whole thing takes a much more romantic turn for the rest of its running time. Even the dark and gritty ending, which contains the most noirish aspects of the film, is tempered by Douglas Sirk’s penchant for the romantic. But this didn’t have to spell doom for the picture. In many ways the ending is reminiscent of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, the novel rather than any of the filmed versions. While Hollywood was able to adapt Cain for the screen in the forties, they stayed miles away from his original conceptions of the protagonists in his novels, and that would have been the only way to really save this story. Fuller wasn’t the only one unhappy with the film, however, as the final scene wasn’t even shot by him. Sirk left Hollywood and headed to Europe for a year before returning to helm his better-known fifties films. The other low point in the film is the dreary score by George Duning which is more appropriate for the sappy romances that Sirk would film in the following decade than the gritty noir picture that Fuller was aiming for. These days the film is known primarily for its terrific location shooting in Los Angeles and the rich black and white photography by Charles Lawton Jr. who had shot Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai for Columbia. Shockproof, while not a success, is nevertheless an interesting piece of work from two iconic Hollywood filmmakers.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Touchy Feely (2013)

Director: Lynn Shelton                                      Writer: Lynn Shelton
Film Score: Vince Smith                                   Cinematography: Benjamin Kasulke
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Josh Pais, Ellen Page and Allison Janney

Seattle writer-director Lynn Shelton has made a name for herself in independent films circles producing small, personal films that have also managed to gain a popular following. Touchy Feely is one of her later efforts and is something of a love letter to Seattle, taking on the eccentric nature of some of the community in a generous and thoughtful way, one that eschews stereotypes for well-rounded characters who, while a bit nutty, are still very believable. The film opens with massage therapist Rosemarie DeWitt working on a patient while the credits roll. At the end of the session her very satisfied customer says, “Will you marry me?” That evening she attends a dinner party at the home of her brother, Josh Pais, a dentist with a small practice that is slowly dwindling away because he can’t attract new clients. Pais is something of an autistic whose favorite place is in the x-ray lab at his office with the lights out. Living with him is his daughter, Ellen Page, who also works as an assistant at her father’s office and feels trapped into taking care of him rather than going to college and beginning her own life. Also at the dinner is DeWitt’s boyfriend, Scoot McNairy, who owns a bicycle shop in town.

The dinner is incredibly awkward but the characters don’t really react to it that way because it seems expected to them. DeWitt is looking for a new apartment, and when McNairy says she should move in with him, she finally agrees. The next day she visits her Reiki practitioner, Allison Janney, and everything is great. DeWitt, however, is visibly frightened to move in with McNairy and Janney, rather than advocating caution, tells her to go for it. But the next day at work, DeWitt suddenly becomes repulsed by her own skin and that of her clients and finally shuts down her office. Meanwhile Pais, who has almost no bedside manner with his patients, is simply cleaning the teeth of one of Page’s friends and miraculous cures his TMJ. Suddenly, instead of an empty waiting room, word of mouth has filled it up. DeWitt can’t get over her fears, though, and believes she needs to break things off with McNairy. But throughout the shots with her traveling around town Ron Livingston can be seen in the background, adding a mysterious dimension to the film. From there, things evolve in a surprising way that by the end makes perfect sense. While the film’s screenplay seems to revolve around DeWitt, it’s Pais who really commands the attention of the viewer.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about the film has nothing to do with the plot or characters. Lynn Shelton and her cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke inject the film with a tremendous number of shots of Seattle, both at night and in the daylight, that are carefully composed and keep the context of the film forward in the viewer’s mind. There are also a number of nature shots, still within the city, the image of which project the idea of Japanese nature paintings. Once scene in particular, when DeWitt is walking around the neighborhood, is striking in its close-ups of moss and insects and cracks in the sidewalk. There are also some close-ups of skin when DeWitt is going through her crisis that are striking as well. The criticism of the film is a bit incomprehensible to me, especially those who find the ending lacking resolution. It works as a character study, and yet has a compelling plot as well, and the actors are terrific. Perhaps you have to be familiar with the Northwest to completely fall in love with the film, but certainly doesn’t seem as though it should be a prerequisite. Nominated for a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Touchy Feely exhibits a bold confidence from its director that translates into a tremendous viewing experience. I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who loves independent films. It’s one of the best.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Better Than Sex (2000)

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky                             Writer: Jonathan Teplitzky
Film Score: David Hirschfelder                         Cinematography: Garry Phillips
Starring: David Wenham, Susie Porter, Kris McQuade and Catherine McClements

This is one of those unfortunate films that I wanted to like a lot more than I did. It had an interesting premise, and I even thought the actors were pretty good. But it felt flat to me, and was never able to overcome the weight of the expectations I had for it. Better Than Sex is an Australian film by writer-director Jonathan Teplitzky. In essence it is a romantic comedy, but struggles to find its voice throughout its running time and never really does. There’s a lot of sex in the film, but it is tastefully done and doesn’t devolve into awkwardness because of it. Some of the criticism of the film is that it feels like a stage play and, as most film do that originated in that way, it gives a stilted quality to the production. What it mostly reminds me of is a small, independently produced film by local director, but it’s probably the age of the film that makes me feel that way. The cuts to the principals talking to the camera feels a bit like When Harry met Sally, but it’s not horrible. It’s definitely a watchable film, and certainly has its fans. It’s just something that I wouldn’t watch more than once.

The film begins with David Wenham waking up in bed with Susie Porter. His arm is under her head and he wants to move it, but she wakes up anyway. And suddenly he disappears under the covers. The narrative is also injected with the actors talking to the camera about what they were feeling and going through at the time. It’s an interesting idea, and if I had seen the film a decade earlier it might have been more interesting, but as it is it just seemed dated. Afterwards, Wenham begins getting dressed and talks about leaving. He’s only in Sydney for three days and then flying back to London. He walks out of her apartment and down to a phone booth where he calls his friend to ask for Porter’s number. Then both his friends and hers pass the gossip back and forth about them spending the night together. The most interesting part of the film is watching the evolution of two people who know absolutely nothing about each other, but don’t want their time together to end. That much is charming. The screenplay itself, on the other hand, feels a bit forced, and tries too hard to be comedic when the film might have played better--and actually been funnier--if it had been played straight.

As the story takes them from one day to the next, they go through the arc of a relationship, learning their idiosyncrasies, and sort of breaking up when one of Porter’s girlfriends, Catherine McClements, comes over and tries to flirt with Wenham. The Greek chorus in all of this is the cab driver, Kris McQuade, who brought the two home, and she is definitely one of the highlights of the film. When Wenham tries to leave after his argument with Porter, McQuade convinces him--by refusing to take him anywhere--to go back and share something about himself with her. Poor David Wenham, who began his career trajectory by doing some work in interesting films, will forever be associated with his role as the goofy friar in Van Helsing. Susie Porter is really a fascinating actress but she has stayed in Australia, working primarily in television. Both are good in the film, and both the film and its stars and director won numerous awards in Australia. Though the film never really makes it clear, the answer to the title is true love. Better Than Sex is a watchable romantic comedy that will definitely depend on the individual to decide exactly how good it is.

Monday, January 12, 2015

It Happened in Hollywood (1937)

Director: Harry Lachman                                  Writers: Samuel Fuller & Ethel Hill
Music Dept: Morris Stoloff                                Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Richard Dix, Fay Wray, William B. Davidson and Victor Kilian

Before there was The Artist, and before there was Singin’ in the Rain, the idea of a silent film star failing in the talkies was undertaken by Columbia Pictures in It Happened in Hollywood. Based on the story “Once a Hero” by Myles Connolly, this film centers on a cowboy star, Richard Dix, a great casting choice considering that he starred in the first great western of the sound era, Cimarron, an Academy Award winning picture from RKO in which he was also nominated for an Oscar for best actor. This programmer, however, is a huge step down from that. Aside from Dix, the only real star in the film is Fay Wray, but both of them were really past their prime. The screenplay was co-written by Sam Fuller during his studio days, several years before he struck out on his own directing independent features. He was assisted by Ethel Hill, who wrote for Shirley Temple as well as westerns, and novelist Harvey Fergusson, and though the dialogue isn’t half bad, the story is pretty uninspiring.

The film begins in 1928, with Richard Dix at the height of his popularity, attending a special showing of his latest western for a children’s hospital as part of a cross-country publicity tour. The tour is cut short to begin working on a talking picture, but while there’s nothing wrong with his voice, he doesn’t see the point in all of the fancy talk he’s expected to memorize. The result is that his co-star, Fay Wray, is being groomed as the studio’s new star while Dix is unceremoniously let go, forced to move out of his new ranch. While Wray is infatuated with him and continues to try to get him work, Dix is still pleased at the few fan letters he gets from kids, and is not sorry for himself in any way. Seeing a fight Dix has with the real estate man who took his ranch, director William B. Davidson gets him a part in the gangster picture he’s filming with Wray. But Dix is reluctant to ruin his image with the kids when he’s asked to shoot a policeman, and walks off the picture. Eventually he decides to leave Hollywood, but a visit from one of the boys at the hospital, Bill Burrud, gives him an inspiration that nearly destroys him, though a happy ending is requisite for this kind of film.

The inspiration is a party, full of stars that he can introduce to Burrud. But, of course, Dix doesn’t know any stars and comes up with the idea of a giant party attended by celebrity look-alikes. Some of them are pretty good, the Chaplin in particular, and some aren’t, Mae West for example. In terms of actual character actors, the great Victor Kilian is on hand as Dix’s sidekick, Slim, the memorable Charles Williams has a small role as a photographer, and Franklin Pangborn has a brief cameo as an effeminate elocution coach from England. It’s a good role for Dix, a feature performance and he does a good job as the ethical cowboy who doesn’t want to do anything on film that goes against the image of him that his fans, especially the young children, cherished. Fay Wray’s part, as the heroine who is in love with her star but doesn’t know how to tell him, is fairly one-dimensional and is certainly not one of her essential pictures. The direction by Harry Lachman is solid if unexceptional. Probably the best part of the film is the behind-the-scenes aspect, watching the way that William B. Davidson sets up his scenes and shoots the footage for the gangster picture he’s making with Wray. As a low-budget film, It Happened in Hollywood isn’t the worst of its kind, and the stars do bring a certain cache, but ultimately it is what it is and expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000)

Director: Rodrigo Garcia                              Writer: Rodrigo Garcia
Film Score: Edward Shearmur                              Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman and Gregory Hines

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is an exercise. By that I mean that the things that happen in the film are simply put there on purpose, with no other reason that the director wanted to place them there. As I said, it’s not so much a story as it is an exercise. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia puts a group of talented women actors through their paces, as though he was teaching a class on film acting, and then tries to somehow string them together hoping that will provide some semblance of narrative. But it doesn’t. It’s the same effect as the epic failure Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson from the year before. The major difference is that this isn’t such an epic fail, just a marginal project barely deserving of comment. The film has a rather laborious history. Garcia is the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez—one of his books is referenced in the section featuring Cameron Diaz—and the screenplay was “workshopped” at the Sundance Film Festival’s writing lab in 1998. The film was financed in France and while it won awards at Cannes and Sundance it debuted in the U.S. on television, for Showtime, and only afterward did it get a limited release in theaters. Of course reviewers are drawn to this kind of film for film’s sake that doesn’t really do anything but simply exist. They talk about how great the acting is, but there’s really nothing for these women to do but sleepwalk through their roles and call it acting. You actually can’t tell just by looking at them.

The first of the five stories opens with homicide detective Amy Brenneman who is seen briefly on a murder scene. The next concerns Glenn Close, a closed off, frightened physician who lives alone with her aging mother, or perhaps it’s her grandmother. She hires tarot card reader Calista Flockhart to tell her future and gets less than hopeful predictions, with the exception of meeting a new man. From there the story shifts to Holly Hunter as her boyfriend Gregory Hines leaves at two in the morning. She works as a bank manager with Matt Craven. At lunch she goes to visit her doctor, Roma Maffia, as she’s worried she’s pregnant with Hines. She doesn’t want to have the baby because he’s married. She has a similar encounter with mystical insight given to her by bag lady Penelope Allen. Part four is about Kathy Baker, who seems a little too lonely and a little too attached to her teenage son for comfort. Then she meets little man Danny Woodburn who moves in across the street. The final story line is about Calista Flockhart and Valeria Golino, who is dying of cancer. The two are clearly in love, but Golino’s imminent demise is tearing Flockhart apart. They also live next door to Brenneman and her blind sister, Cameron Diaz, who winds up tutoring Craven’s blind daughter and going on a date with him. Meanwhile, Brenneman keeps on investigating the life of the murder victim who was a high school classmate of hers.

Though there may be an earlier precedent, the most obvious influence for these types of films is Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The difference there is that Altman’s film was made by a great director working with the stories of a great writer, Raymond Carver. Garcia’s film does have one significant advantage over something like Magnolia, however, and that’s the fact that he does manage to keep the emotional pitch of the story rather low. And the only misstep in doing that is with the section featuring Holly Hunter where she stumbles down the street after seeing the doctor and begins weeping. It’s the most forced scene in a movie that is forced in every way. That, of course, is the fault of a screenplay that was painfully worked over until there was no life left in it, and an artistic sensibility that is pretentious and prizes self-indulgence. It’s the same type of stuff that gets written at creative writing seminars and fine arts programs all over the country. The photography by Emmanuel Lubezki is beautiful and the set designs are all incredibly sterile in a good way. But to what end? Composer Edward Shearmur tries to make each other stories unique with either a somber jazz trumpet or a new age harp, and his work comes off no more interesting that Garcia’s as a result. This was Garcia’s first film as a director and it shows. Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her is essentially a film school project, and ultimately just as insignificant.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Director: Danny Boyle                                       Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Film Score: A.R. Rahman                                 Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal and Anil Kapoor

The U.S. version of the popular British game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was a huge hit on television when it premiered in 1999, and by the following year was being produced all over the British Commonwealth, including India. The idea for the film Slumdog Millionaire is a simple but ingenious one. What if a young man, just through the sheer act of being alive for eighteen years, happened to be exposed to a random set of information that formed the basis for the questions on one particular episode of the game show? If that was all there was to the film, however, it certainly wouldn’t have become the sensation it did, not only an unexpected hit in the United States and the rest of the world, but winning the Academy Award for best picture over its domestic competition, and winning eight Oscars overall. Technically the film is a British production and not from Bollywood. Director Danny Boyle turned it down at first, but when he found out Simon Beaufoy--who had penned The Full Monty--was the screenwriter, he signed on with Loveleen Tandan as co-director in India.

The film begins with text saying that Dev Patel is one question away from winning the twenty million grand prize. Then he is shown on the game show but juxtaposed with him being interrogated and tortured and remembering Freida Pinto. Irrfan Kahn wants to know how he did it. What he tells them is that he actually knew the answers, and in flashback from when he was a boy he tells the story of how he came to know those exact answers. The first is about the star of a 1973 Indian film. But it turns out the star came to Patel’s village when he was a young boy, so he knew him well. Next is the phrase on the Indian flag, and yet he didn’t know that one and had to ask the audience. From there it is depictions of the god Rama and seeing an image of the god when his mother was killed. The next question is about a song written by an Indian poet. But when he was a child and kidnapped to work as a beggar he was forced to sing the song. After he and his brother escape, they ride the trains until they are thrown off in front of the Taj Mahal. There they stole a lot of money from Americans, including hundred dollar bills, the subject of the next question. The reason he goes on the game show is because he wants to find his long lost love, Pinto, and believes she’ll be watching the show.

The real appeal of the film is actually not about the game show at all, but the way in which the seemingly random chance in his life that led him to know the answers is paralleled by the random chance that actually kept him alive. That part of the story is almost more remarkable, and far more suspenseful. As he tells the story, Patel begins as a young boy and gradually grows up on his journey as homeless orphan in India. He and his brother at first traveled with a girl who wasn’t able to escape with them, but later they find her in the red light district where the leader of the beggar children, Mahesh Manjrekar, planned on selling her as a virgin. They escape with her only to be separated from Patel’s character, who doesn’t find his brother until much later when he begins working for a call center. After the host of the show, Anil Kapoor, turns Patel in to the police for cheating, that’s when he’s interrogated but simply tells the truth and Irrfan Kahn believes him. It’s a good film, but should it have won the Oscar for best picture? Not that year, especially with Benjamin Button--which earned the most nominations that year--and The Reader in the running. Still, Slumdog Millionaire is definitely entertaining, and a real surprise for Westerners who don’t know what life is like in much of India.

The Student of Prague (1913)

Director: Stellan Rye                                          Writer: Hanns Heinz Ewers
Film Score: Josef Weiss                                    Cinematography: Guido Seeber
Starring: Paul Wegener, John Gottowt, Grete Berger and Lyda Salmonova

One of the earliest of the German films to be retroactively deemed the starting point for all supernatural cinema to come, The Student of Prague was, like all supernatural films of the teens and twenties, thought of as simply another literary adaptation at the time. In this case it is something of a combination of the story “William Wilson” by Edgar Alan Poe and the Faust legend. The screenplay was written by the famous German author of horror stories, Hanns Heinz Ewers, and he does a decent job with the limited amount of time he is given in the film. Like all films from this period the different versions vary widely and so I urge everyone to stay well away from the Alpha Video version. As with almost all of their silent films, this is so butchered and truncated and hobbled with bad music that it pales in comparison to the actual film. The fully restored German version is available on YouTube and is, quite literally, the only way to watch the complete film. And there is much in it to be impressed by, Paul Wegener’s performance being foremost among them. But the use of exteriors and very good special effects for the time also make this a film that is well worth seeing.

Paul Wegener plays a popular college student who is disconsolate because he is broke. But when John Gottowt comes to town in his top hat and pointy beard, the two of them strike a bargain. Meanwhile the wealthy countess Grete Berger has been committed to an arranged marriage with a cousin, Fritz Weidemann, but she doesn’t like him and while they are out hunting she rides off in anger and is thrown into the lake by the horse, but Wegener arrives just in time to save her and they fall in love. When Gottowt comes to see him later, he offers the student a hundred thousand dollars for anything in the room that Gottowt wants. Naturally, Wegener agrees. What he wants, however, is Wegener’s reflection in the mirror, and it comes walking out of the glass at his command. Meanwhile, a village girl, Lyda Salmonova, is desperately in love with Wegener and follows him everywhere. Berger later meets Wegener in the graveyard of the church, but suddenly his twin shows up and frightens her away. Salmonova tries to sabotage Wegener’s affair by telling Weidemann, but while Wegener plans to leave town to avoid the duel, his double takes his place instead and kills the fiancé, and so Wegener’s requests to see Berger are then refused. Wegener tries to drown his sorrows in drink and gambling but slowly descends into madness.

What is so fascinating about this film is how the subject matter--the two parts of the same personality being split apart--seems to be reflected by the film itself, and the division between the two parts could not be more stark. The interiors, especially at the estate of the countess, looks very primitive and spare, which is standard for the period, but they look that much worse when juxtaposed with the beautifully filmed exteriors. It wouldn’t be until years later, in Nosferatu, that the quality of the interiors matched those of the outdoor sequences. The other very positive aspect of the film is the special effects. When Wegener’s image walks out of the mirror it looks fantastic, and the trick shots are just as skillfully rendered. In one scene, when Wegener delivers a note to Berger, he spots his twin and it slowly vanishes before his eyes. In other scenes the use of split screen, or double exposure--especially the scene after the duel--is expertly done and makes the illusion incredibly convincing. One of the best scenes is when Wegener is playing cards with himself in front of a black background. While it may not look like it from the stills, Paul Wegener is an incredibly natural actor on the screen at times. And while he does give in to some of the over-gesticulation of the period, he is clearly the best actor on the screen.

While director Stellan Rye doesn’t use any close-ups, and keeps his camera in front of the action at all times, there are actually quite a few memorable exterior scenes in the film that raise it above a lot of the product coming out of the United States at the time, demonstrating how advanced the German film industry was. As stated before, the Munich Film Museum restoration is the only way to watch this film. The speed correction is the most important factor in this type of work and because of that the film unfolds naturally in the way that it was intended. Color tinting of scenes is done in a nicely muted fashion rather than some of the heavy-handed techniques that can make the screen colors garish. In addition, however, one of the delights of this version is the musical score. Bernd Thewes was able to take the original piano score by Josef Weiss and arrange it for the Orchester Jakobsplatz Muenchen under the direction of Daniel Grossmann, and it is wonderful. It may not be the greatest music but, for me, anything that can restore the experience as close as it was to the original conception, is cause for celebration. This restoration is exceptional and, as a result, I unhesitatingly recommend the complete version of The Student of Prague to all film fans.