Monday, December 31, 2012

The Iron Horse (1924)

Director: John Ford                                    Writer: Charles Kenyon
Film Score: Erno Rapee                             Cinematography: George Schneiderman
Starring: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy, Will Walling and Gladys Hulette

A genuinely masterful piece of silent film work by director John Ford, the original Iron Horse draws on narrative techniques worked out by D.W. Griffith as early as Birth of a Nation, and of course became the template for westerns from Cimmaron to How the West was Won, most notably, that of working multiple smaller stories into the larger historical canvas. In this case the historical event is the construction of the trans-continental railroad.

The film stars George O’Brien, whose lengthy career in both silent and sound films included numerous westerns. But he could also be effective in straight dramatic roles as he was as the lead in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Madge Bellamy, who also had a long career extending into the mid forties, is the love interest. Jean Arthur has a small, un-credited role. But one fascinating bit of casting is that of George Waggner as Buffalo Bill Cody. Waggner, of course, would go on to become a fairly well-known producer and director, filling both roles on Universal’s The Wolf Man and directing dozens of television series in the fifties and sixties.

The story has the usual cast of characters, the lovers separated when the young boy goes off with his father to scout for passages through the mountains in the west. His girl, who grows up and gets engaged to her father’s engineer. The beginning of the picture is set in Springfield, Illinois, and features Charles Edward Bull as Abraham Lincoln--to whom the picture is dedicated--who eventually signs the bill that begins the railroad project. And of course there is the villain, a large landowner in Wyoming territory who wants the railroad built through his land (and who also has a powerful connection to the hero). In addition to the love story, Indian wars, and a cattle drive, there are deft moments of comedy as well.

Ford’s not big on moving camera shots, but his static set-ups are quite nice and convey a real flair for the dramatic. The tracking shots he does use, usually following men on horseback, are very well done for the time. To be sure, this is very much a silent film, and the pantomime acting is a style all its own, but there is a sense of realism in many scenes that is breathtaking. The title cards are beautifully done, with gorgeous paintings in the background that mirror the action on the screen. The DVD itself has two versions of the film, the U.S. release, and a slightly shortened European release. Both feature a new film score by Christopher Caliendo that is not quite symphonic enough for my taste, but is certainly better than a lot of public domain silent films with random music fused on. The Iron Horse is a great early western from Ford, and recommended highly for fans of silent film.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Street Scene (1931)

Director: King Vidor                                Writer: Elmer Rice
Film Score: Alfred Newman                     Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Beulah Bondi, William Collier, Jr. and Estelle Taylor

Street Scene is a fascinating film in many respects. In the first place it gives lie to the myth that when sound was introduced into films that the camera stopped moving. While the story is simply a filmed version of the Pulitzer Prize winning hit play by Elmer Rice, the film is anything but a “talkie.” With the brilliant opening theme by Alfred Newman, the picture is more like a filmed version of a Gershwin melody. King Vidor’s dolly shots, crane shots, tracking shots and interesting camera angles all help to liven up what, in lesser hands, could have been a static, talking picture.

But it’s not just tracking shots that make the picture so distinctive from much of the talking films of the period. In one shot, pitched up from street level toward the second floor window, the camera is nearly centered on Beulah Bondi’s backside as she surreptitiously grabs at her dress to pull her underwear free. It's a funny shot, but technically it almost prefigures Alfred Hitchcock’s use of angles when he filmed Dial M for Murder. Another aspect that is reminiscent of Hitchcock is the opening of the second scene, where people are seen sleeping, playing, and shaving on their fire escapes in the morning, all versions of which appear later in Rear Window. There is also the murder scene, which could have been something of a blueprint for a similar scene in 42nd Street, especially with its lengthy series of reaction shots. But the film is much more than a template for later movies.

The story is simply that of a single twenty-four our period in the life of an apartment building in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen on a hot day at the beginning of summer. Vidor’s direction is exceptional, and the way that the film was shot still looks very modern. Sylvia Sidney, in a very early role, is quite natural in what would be the beginning of a very long career as an actress. The crane shot that follows her from the elevated train after the shooting is remarkable. Silent star Estelle Taylor is equally magnificent as Sidney’s mother, and manages to be sympathetic without being cloying. The real treat here is seeing Beulah Bondi in her first screen appearance. A Hollywood veteran for years to come, she is best remembered for her dozens of roles playing a mother, most memorably in Our Town and It’s A Wonderful Life. The cast is rounded out by character actors and walk-ons including John Qualen and David Landau.

It’s hard to know exactly how to assess a film like this. It occupies an awkward space between the classic silent films of the late 1920s and the more confident sound pictures of the late 1930s. Though Rice’s original play was a huge hit at the time, most of the ideas have been absorbed into any number of films since. The same could be said of Alfred Newman’s music for the film, a Gershwinesque piece that has been used in countless other films from Kiss of Death to How To Marry a Millionaire. Still, there’s a vibrance and vitality to the film that is lacking in most talkies of the period. Though perhaps not something you’d want to own, it is available for free on the Internet Archive and well worth the viewing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Director: Quentin Tarantino                           Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Music Supervisor: Mary Ramos                    Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio & Samuel L. Jackson

He’s done it again, folks. Another feel-good movie from Quentin Tarantino. I have to say, as someone who came to Tarantino late, I’m a big admirer. His directorial vision and direction have grown steadily from the brute force of Reservoir Dogs to the much more confident Pulp Fiction, through a low period that included the Kill Bill films and Grindhouse into what can only be called his mature period beginning with Inglourious Basterds. His latest film, Django Unchained, picks right up with his uncompromising directorial vision, this time taking on the western.

The film begins with a great, late-60s style theme song and bold red titles right out of a Clint Eastwood western from the same period. This is important in setting the comic tone early because two things have been happening simultaneously in Tarantino’s recent films. The first is realism. The way that he makes his humor work is that it's almost comedy relief, and the only way THAT works is if the film is very realistic to begin with. The slaves, the old west towns, the plantations and characters, are all so incredibly real that the verisimilitude is almost overwhelming. In doing this, however, the humor injected into the reality is not only welcome, but appreciated that much more. The second thing is the violence. Now, of course Tarantino’s films have always been violent, but he seems to be developing a new sensibility about it. And in the same way he relieves the realism with comedy, the comedy also helps to undercut the extreme violence by going over the top with humor. In the end, this refinement of vision has come together brilliantly in a way that his earlier work didn’t quite achieve.

The story of Django, a freed slave played with masterful restraint by Jamie Foxx, is truly compelling. The film, I’m sure, would have even worked without the humor because Tarantino’s script is that good. Django becomes a bounty hunter and partners with the de facto star of Inglourous Basterds, Christoph Waltz, who never makes a serious threat to steal this show, only because there are just too many other great performances. Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I have never really liked, is the only person I can even imagine doing justice to the role of Calvin Candie, drawing no doubt on his role in The Man in the Iron Mask but vastly improved with age. I think it's his best film work, perhaps ever. Don Johnson is used to great effect in a small part, and his hooded clansmen-ride borders on Mel Brooks territory. In fact, the first time Jamie Foxx is seen in his cowboy garb it brings to mind Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles. But this film is light years away from Brooks in terms of sophistication and subtlety. The confidence Tarantino displays is masterful and worthy of a lot more serious critical attention than he'll probably receive.

To understand the greatness of this film you can start with the fact that there are just way too many analytical aspects to the film than can be discussed here. Christoph Waltz’ role as Dr. King Schultz is particularly pivotal. There is an aspect of acting within the motion picture that is actually Shakespearean. There is an aspect of the undercover cop duality as Django allows a slave to be ripped apart to prove his veracity. There is Schultz’s warning to Django that if he kills someone not a criminal that he will become a criminal himself, wanted dead or alive, which also mirrors the ending in which our own need for revenge as an audience is satisfied in a way that makes us all criminals by implication. It’s a magnificent work and one that demands repeated viewings and is deserving of much more critical acclaim than it will no doubt earn.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sideways (2004)

Director: Alexander Payne                          Writers: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Film Score: Rolfe Kent                               Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church & Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne is my new favorite director. The guy is brilliant, and not in an Orson Welles, boy-genius, comet-plummeting-to-earth kind of way, but in the way that it’s supposed to work. In looking at his few major films, one can see an incredibly confident director, staying true to his vision, but growing that talent into genius that can be recognized by all. From the juvenile, almost over-the-top stories in Citizen Ruth and Election, to the more mature About Schmidt, to his break-out piece Sideways, and finally his critical masterpiece The Descendants, Payne has kept to his vision as a director, developing a sure-handedness in his distinctive style that assures the auteur theory of film is not going away soon.

But as critically successful as The Descendants is, Sideways will always be my favorite Payne film. (Both won Academy Awards for Payne for best adapted screenplay.) It was the film that finally pulled Paul Giamatti out of the mire of stereotyped character roles and into the actor who would go on to play leads in John Adams, Duplicity, and Barney’s Version. The film also rescued the languishing career of Virginia Madsen, who had been so incredibly stunning in Creator, but then completely wasted in B pictures until her revival in The Rainmaker. Sideways also launched Sandra Oh and landed her the role on Grey’s Anatomy, and gave Thomas Haden Church the cache to do a film like Broken Trail before returning to his previously stultifying career.

The story, about two middle-aged college friends on a prenuptial romp through California’s coastal wine country, was adapted by Payne and Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett, but it’s the visual style and the emphasis on character that catapult this film into greatness. Along the way the failed novelist, played by Giamatti, and the has-been actor, Haden Church, imbibe their way into one outrageous predicament after another. But unlike the overplayed innocence of something like Election, Sideways has a maturity that allows the humor to appear more natural, less forced, and to evolve out of the characters rather than being imposed upon them. Those characters, however, are not very likeable sometimes, but that’s what makes them human. And in the end it’s their humanity that we respond to in the film.

There are a couple of things that I have to take exception with in David Denby’s review in the New Yorker from 2004. When he states, “the jazz score, by Rolfe Kent, plunks along uninterestingly” he couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a brilliant score that is not only a perfect accompaniment to the piece, but stands alone as great music and the soundtrack is well worth acquiring. Denby also complains about the camera setups being “too obvious,” but he’s missing the point. The picture-postcard views of the hotel and restaurants are deliberate and masterful in contrasting the touristy setting with the debauchery of the characters. And it is the characters that are finally the point. The contrast between Giamatti and Madsen, the dynamic characters who shift and change and grow from their experiences are contrast beautifully with Haden Church and Oh, the static characters against which our protagonists are measured.

One more thing in closing. For those who watched the film and didn’t like it because of the characters, I always recommend giving it another try. But this time watch the film with the audio commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church. I can honestly say that it’s one of the only commentary tracks I’ve heard that is just as funny as the film itself. The self-deprecating humor is worth it alone, but they also help the audience understand Payne’s vision and that is invaluable. Sideways is a brilliant film by a brilliant director and it would be a shame to let a misunderstanding get in the way of a powerful cinematic experience.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Legend of the Werewolf (1975)

Director: Freddie Francis                                 Writers: Anthony Hinds
Film Score: Harry Robertson                            Cinematography: John Wilcox
Starring: Peter Cushing, Ron Moody, David Rintoul and Lynn Dalby

As I was watching the original Star Wars a few weeks ago, I began to wonder what else Peter Cushing had done in his later years and I stumbled upon Legend of the Werewolf. While deciding which VHS version to purchase on Amazon--there is no DVD release in the US--the one review there stated the film was not very good, but it was a must for Peter Cushing fans. How true. But I would make a small amendment: the film is not great until Cushing appears. When he does, it elevates the film to another level. [As of 2017 the film has been released on DVD in the US by Cheezy Flicks] Legend of the Werewolf was one of three films produced by the British company Tyburn Films in 1975, using mostly talent associated with Hammer Studios. Director Freddie Francis does what he can with the limited production values he has at his disposal.

The first part of the film is rather dismal, wherein Hugh Griffith as Maestro Pamponi stumbles across a wolf-boy and uses him to attract customers to his feeble sideshow. The boy grows up and moves to the city, and is given a job at the zoo owned by Ron Moody. But it’s not until he meets the prostitute Lynn Dalby that his jealousy turns him fully into a werewolf during the full moon. When the murder victims are brought to the morgue, Peter Cushing’s Professor Paul at first believes it’s a wolf and suspicion naturally falls on the zookeeper’s wolves. Though he was 63 at the time, Cushing is magnificent as the French pathologist. His knowing and fearless character that graced so many Hammer films is present in abundance, and with the paucity of acting around him, he completely dominates the proceedings. His skull-like face was even more accentuated later in his career, but rather than making him look weak, it does quite the opposite.

For real fans of Hammer and associated horror films, the British Film Institute--for some reason--published a book called Making Legend of the Werewolf by Edward Buscombe to coincide with the release of the film. There was also a novelization of the film from the same year, by author Robert Black, but much of the screenplay is lifted by Anthony Hinds from his script for Curse of the Werewolf, using the name John Elder. The makeup is similar to that worn by Oliver Reed in the earlier film as well. But David Rintoul is far inferior to Reed, and Ron Moody’s characterization suffers from a lack of direction and pales in comparison to his work on Oliver!. The real draw, though, is Peter Cushing. Again, it’s not a great film and so no one should go into it expecting that. But for anyone who loves Cushing’s work, I would say, it’s a must have.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Where the Sidwalk Ends (1950)

Director: Otto Preminger                                 Writers: Ben Hecht & Victor Trivas
Film Score: Alfred Newman                             Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Starring: Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Karl Malden and Gary Merrill

Something of a Laura reunion, Where the Sidewalk Ends reunites director Otto Preminger with stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney for another film noir outing, this time with somewhat milder results. That said, however, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a good, solid period piece that holds up well against similar films. It certainly doesn’t pack the power of a film like The Big Heat, but then it’s not really meant to. Preminger’s films are more low key overall, like Sidney Lumet of a few decades later.

While it’s difficult to call this an ensemble film, it sort of works that way, the sum of the individual parts actually being greater than the whole. To start with, the leads are perhaps even better than in Laura. Dana Andrews trades in his obsession for rage against criminals, similar to that of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and with great success. Gene Tierney puts in arguably the finest performance of her career, precisely because of the understated performance. Her beauty is radiant, and without the sinister undercurrent of something like Leave Her to Heaven it’s a role that she can really be appreciated in. The photography by Joseph LaShelle is wonderful, deep, dark, and crystal clear black and white, and the script by Ben Hecht is lean and taut. The only oddity on the credits is the film score. Though apparently Cyril J. Mockridge added connecting passages, the main theme and leitmotif of the entire film is lifted directly from Alfred Newman’s "Street Scene."

The story concerns Andrews as police detective Mark Dixon who is regularly disciplined for police brutality, and as the film opens we see him being demoted to detective second grade. The story is fairly generic, from there. A murder happens at a traveling crap game, in which Gene Tierney was in attendance. Unable to pin the murder on the mobster who is obviously responsible, sends Dixon into a rage. When he visits the apartment of the patsy and accidently kills him, Dixon doesn’t think the brass will believe him and so he tries to cover up the murder . . . with predictable noir consequences. But again, what makes the film work is not so much the plot as the characters.

Brilliant as the mobster is Gary Merrill, who has as his noir-bad-guy-tic the use of a nasal inhaler that would be funny if Merrill himself weren’t so palpably dangerous. Karl Malden is the newly appointed police lieutenant, not quite as dominating as he is in his performance in Hitchock’s I Confess a year later, but close. The film also features a wonderful character actor by the name of Tom Tully, who is best know for his role as Captain DeVriess in The Caine Mutiny, playing Tiernney’s father. Not the greatest noir ever made, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is very watchable and enjoyable nonetheless.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Director: Ridley Scott                                 Writers: Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld                     Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender

One of the interesting things about a prequel to a popular film series are the anachronisms that necessarily sneak in. With the Alien franchise having begun in 1979, that’s difficult not to do. As wonderfully steampunk as the Nostromo is, it lacks technology as simple as the computer pads and holographic scanners that are taken as a given on the Prometheus. And even though the Prometheus predates the Nostromo by thirty years--in the story chronology--the earlier ship has far more modern technology. Ok, so the Nostromo was just a mining ship, the space equivalent of a pickup truck, but there still could have been a bit more homage paid to the original in the same way as the remake/prequel to The Thing. But that’s really nitpicking. Prometheus is a great film.

Both a prequel and a genesis story, the film begins with the very von Daniken-like search for the original aliens that populated the earth and evidently communed with ancient civilizations. Like the original series this flight is also financed by a private corporation with ulterior motives, this time for a somewhat misguided search for the fountain of youth for the company’s aging founder; unfortunately these aren’t the aliens from Cocoon. The investigation of a mound on a moon of a Saturn-like planet circling a distant star reveals a race of large humanoid beings that are the descendants of the space jockey from the first Alien. The ingenious way that Ridley Scott is able to spend the remainder of the film before finally bringing forth the first proto-alien is what really makes the film a pleasure to watch. Unlike The Thing prequel, in which the Norwegian scientists essentially deal with alien in a similar fashion as the original, Prometheus attempts to be original to the point of almost being obtuse. Ironically, it seems to work because of that.

Other than a couple of big names, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce, the cast is made up of relative newcomers. Swedish actress Noomi Rapace is the new Ripley, and she does a tremendous job; the scene in which she operates on herself to remove the alien in her uterus is incredibly tense. Logan Marshall-Green plays her scientist boyfriend and does a great job as the first one infected. And the opening scene, with German actor Michael Fassbender as the robot David, is like something straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And there are nods, perhaps unintentional, to other science-fiction films as well. Either that, or they’re all beginning to blend together. Special effects are good, seamless CGI and believable makeup, though the score by Marc Streitenfeld is rather generic, not quite up to his work on Robin Hood or The Grey. It’s certainly possible that on first viewing the film will fail to meet expectations: how could it not? The Alien series is a powerful set of films and spin-offs. But given time and repeated viewing, I think Prometheus will become one of the great films in the series.

Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier                         Writer: William Shakespeare
Film Score: William Walton                      Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney and Terence Morgan

It seems pretty clear that the Best Picture Oscar award of 1948 for Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet marked a subtle turning point for the awards, from simply a popularity contest to one that rewarded real artistry in filmmaking. Prior to this it was mostly box office smashes that won the award, films like Gone With the Wind, or Mutiny on the Bounty. And while plenty of hits won the award after 1948, there were lots of unique winners like On the Waterfront, or All About Eve that were more stylistically or narratively artistic. Hamlet was also the first non-American film to ever win the best picture award. Granted, it was a weak field that year, but for a staged Shakespearean production to win the Oscar at all is something of a feat.

As with many Shakespearean films of the day, it is a shortened production, eliminating certain scenes in order to streamline the action and keep the audience’s attention on Hamlet himself throughout the two and a half hour running time. Production values are good for a British production made so soon after the war, but not quite on par with other Hollywood Shakespearian productions during that era, like John Houseman’s Julius Caesar or Orson Welles’ Macbeth. There’s a stage bound quality to Olivier’s Hamlet that even some fluid camera work can’t overcome. Olivier’s work in the title role is very good, however, and the climax is arresting. There are some quirky readings of the lines, in the “to be or not to be” speech for example, where he suddenly shouts, and the antic “the play’s the thing” even when no one else is there for him to keep up his phony craziness, but overall the interpretation is excellent.

The play itself is one of Shakespeare’s best, probably for the fact that the main character is so enigmatic, so resistant to analysis, so . . . human. The inability to easily categorize Hamlet’s behavior, for the other characters in the play as well as the audience, is one of its great attributes, even amid a body of work as brilliant as Shakespeare’s. And of course there are the dozens of lines that have made their way into the vernacular of everyday speech. In my review of Annie Hall I mentioned how much of Woody Allen’s innovation in that film had been absorbed by modern culture; the same is true for Shakespeare’s writing in Hamlet where, more than any of his other plays, the poetry of his writing has be co-opted by the culture at large for hundreds of years.

Naturally, Hamlet has been remade numerous times, another testament to its genius, as well as being the inspiration for films as diverse as Strange Brew and The Lion King. The remake that has been the most dramatically satisfying is probably the 1996 version by Kenneth Branagh. In not only restored all of the text from Shakespeare’s play, but the amazing cast as well as more modern staging and use of exteriors makes it something of the definitive Hamlet. Still, the best line from Laurence Olivier’s version is one that the director added himself to the introduction and really sums up the genius of the play: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas                         Writer: George Lucas
Film Score: John Williams                    Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Alec Guinness

Dare I say it, but the more I think about the Star Wars franchise, the more I think that Star Wars actually ruined George Lucas’s film career. Oh, he’s made tons of money and all, but if you think about it, the last non-Star Wars film he actually directed was American Graffiti, almost forty years ago. If you make the analogy to other arts, it seems almost ludicrous. Famous musicians complain all the time about having to recreate their “hits” when performing live, but it’s actually more like an author who keeps writing the same book over and over or asking DaVinci to paint the Mona Lisa again. Star Wars, ironically, turned Lucas from a director into a money-making machine and as a result we’ll never really know what kind of a director, or what masterpieces of modern cinema, he would have made.

What’s fascinating about Matt Zoller Seitz’ review in The A List, is that he has almost nothing good to say about the film itself. Aside from an unsubstantiated claim that although “the story and mood were willfully primitive, it’s conception was sophisticated.” In fact, immediately after making that statement Seitz goes on to tell how the film was actually derivative. There’s no denying that the film, in its day, struck a chord with American audiences that has never really been equaled by any other film series, but seen today the cracks in conception really show. While touted as something bold that embraced the ideas of the Western, the war film, the swashbuckler, the adventure serials, and the epic at the time, it now seems more like a 70s TV mini-series than something worthy of being an all-time essential film.

I recently had the opportunity to see the entire series last weekend, when they ran them on the Spike Network in order (of story, not production). But I could only make it halfway through The Phantom Menace before dragging out my DVDs to avoid the commercials. What struck me more than anything else was the simplistic nature of the story, and by the time I had reached episodes four through six it became maddening. Not so much for the films themselves, but for the stunted nature of Lucas’s idea. Seitz brings up the far more successful (artistically in comparison) directors who came up at the same time as Lucas: Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and others who have managed to balance money-making features with more artistic successes, and it’s a telling comparison.

There’s little need to recount the plot or characters in this review, as even Seitz’ own single paragraph summary was tedious. Alec Guinness was already a star at the end of his career, and even though Hamill and Fisher would work steadily thereafter, it was really only Harrison Ford who would go on to superstardom in a way that matched the original success of the films. And that leads to my biggest problem with The A List: the criteria. In my review for 2001: A Space Odyssey I questioned whether technical innovation alone was requisite for greatness, and Start Wars begs the question of whether box-office receipts are as well. My contention, in both cases, would be a resounding no.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                         Writer: Robert E. Sherwood
Film Score: Franz Waxman                       Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders and Reginald Denny

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is a fascinating film, considering its position in the Hitchcock cannon. His first American film, it occupies the space right between his great British films, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage, and the more powerful early American films that came directly after, Suspicion, Saboteur, and Shadow of a Doubt. And it is exactly that, a perfect bridge between the two major periods of his career. In addition, Rebecca was also given the Academy Award for best picture, though not for Hitchcock’s directing. Hitch’s only Oscar was an honorary award given to him in 1968.

There’s a certain filmic quality to the picture that is very reminiscent of Hitchcock’s British period. The microphones of the day muffle the dialog a bit, and coupled with the fast-paced dialog (though not quite Howard Hawks speed) it makes it somewhat of a challenge to keep up with. But there are also very specific Hitchcock touches like the car scenes, Fontaine riding in the car with Olivier, that became trademarks of Hitch’s work from Suspicion and Notorious, on through North by Northwest and Family Plot. And, of course, midway through the film it becomes the classic innocent man accused of murder that really fits into Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

The story concerns Laurence Oliver as the wealthy Max de Winter who contemplates suicide in Monte Carlo after the death of his wife. He’s saved by Joan Fontaine and she becomes the second Mrs. de Winter. As the circumstances surrounding the first Mrs. de Winter’s death come to light, it becomes clear that her husband may be charged for the murder of his first wife. At the same time, the lowly born second wife has to adjust to life at Manderley where the servants, especially Mrs. Danvers, do not appreciate their former mistress’s place being usurped by a commoner.

Of course, Hitchcock’s film was based on the gothic romance novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and that’s probably one of the factors that helped it win the Oscar that year, that and the influence of David O. Selznick, for whose company Hitch made the film, especially since it was going up against films like The Grapes of Wrath and Kitty Foyle. The film also has a great score by Franz Waxman. Suspicion, with Cary Grant, is probably the better Hitchcock film during this period, but with the later firmly in the suspense/mystery category, a genre Hitch would be connected with all his life, he was never again seriously considered for an Academy Award. Still, it’s a great transitional film, and one that would presage Hitchcock’s masterful career in the U.S. for many years to come.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Son of Fury (1942)

Director: John Cromwell                         Writer: Philip Dunne
Film Score: Alfred Newman                    Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Starring: Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, George Sanders and Roddy McDowall

Through sheer happenstance, I happened to have recently watched three early films of Roddy McDowall: How Green Was My Valley, Man Hunt, (both of which starred Walter Pidgeon) and most recently, Son of Fury. Of course I had known of him through his later work, most notably the Planet of the Apes series, The Poseidon Adventure, and a great later film, Fright Night. It is fascinating to see him not as people of the time did, as a child actor, but as the boy who would eventually become Roddy McDowall as an adult. In this film, however, he only plays the young Benjamin Blake for twenty minutes or so, until the adult role is taken over by Tyrone Power.

Rather than a swashbuckler like the Erroll Flynn films for Warner Brothers, the emphasis in Son of Fury was on fist fighting, beginning with Roddy McDowell brawling in the dirt with a stable boy. The opening scene for George Sanders has him bare knuckle boxing, and twice he and Tyrone Power tangle, including the climactic battle in the mansion. One of the more bizarre bits of casting was Gene Tierney as the exotic island girl. Arguably her best scene in the film is a nighttime dancing scene that was choreographed very well. But for the most part her role is difficult to endure.

The story begins as a Dickensian British family drama, the young Benjamin being discovered to be the illegitimate child of Sir Godfrey Blake, cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle, played by George Sanders. After falling in love with Sanders’ daughter, Frances Farmer, he vows to go to sea to find his fortune and return for her. But once in the South Pacific to hunt pearls he falls for the native girl, Gene Tierney, as he and his partner, John Carradine, await the arrival of a ship to take them home so that Power can reclaim his estate. On returning to England, Power enlists the help of an influential lawyer to buy out his home from under his Uncle.

It’s not a particularly riveting story, and much of it is derivative of any number of similar British dramas, as well as a bit of Mutiny on the Bounty thrown in. In addition, composer Alfred Newman seems to have copied Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Captain Blood, especially in its central theme. Still . . . there’s something interesting in the way the story plays out and though the ending is also fairly predictable, it’s no less satisfying for it. Son of Fury has a great cast that also includes Elsa Lanchester, Mae Marsh, and Halliwell Hobbes, and is certainly worth a viewing even it it’s not worth owning.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

Director: Steven Spielberg                      Writer: Tony Kushner
Film Score: John Williams                      Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn & Tommy Lee Jones

It’s curious to me that the most damning negative criticism of recent dramatic films by fans seems to be that they’re boring. This has been the case for films as diverse as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, but was especially disturbing to me after watching the new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. After marveling at his most recent historical tour de force, I couldn’t believe all of the negative criticism online that dealt with the fact that fans thought the film was “boring.” This is a major film about a major event in our history. If all fans want is action, they need to stick to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and save their money on serious dramatic films.

Based nominally on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals, the film deals only with the last few months of Lincoln’s life as he desperately (some might say presciently) attempts to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in Congress before the Civil War ends. It’s masterful on many accounts, although there are still Spielbergian moments that can make one wince, most notably the black and white soldiers in the opening who recite his Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln. At the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Day-Lewis is the supreme Lincoln, alternately grave, folksy, sly, and commanding. His physical presence in the film is convincing and brings a genuine humanity to a legendary figure in American History.

While some of the other acting may seem over-the-top, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field come to mind, anyone who has read significantly on the era can only come to the conclusion that Speilberg expertly reigned in the actors in a way that presented far more subtle performances than the actual characters. And, of course, as with any historical drama there will be the usual spate of historical inaccuracies, the most comical being Spader’s telling Lincoln that they weren’t allowed to use fifty cent pieces because they had Lincoln’s portrait on them--no living figure has ever appeared on U.S currency. But that aside, there is a brilliant sense of period to the proceedings, an immersion into 19th Century politics, and a genuine feeling of intimacy that seems very purposeful and works very well.

The viewer is completely struck--in the same way as in the series John Adams--by what a slower time the world was then. It was a time of letters, a time of horse drawn carriages, a time without television, a time when people read for pleasure and children played with toys on the floor. One such scene comes at the end of the film, while Lincoln is at the White House waiting for word on the passage of the amendment. While the debate concludes and voting begins, he is cut back to in various scenes with his youngest son. Finally, he is simply shown standing in the middle of his office, virtually motionless, sunlight infusing the room through sheer curtains and washing out everything but his silhouette. It captures that period in time brilliantly, but I’m also sure it’s one of the scenes that make film fans think it’s boring. And that’s too bad, because it’s films like these that really show the importance of movie making as an art, and genuinely take us as far as possible in a visual medium, to the place where the written word has always been able to take us: a vicarious experience of another time and place. In Lincoln, Spielberg has succeeded admirably, and I fully expect an Academy Award nomination, if not a victory.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Star Trek (2009)

Director: J.J. Abrams                                    Writers: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Film Score: Michael Giacchino                       Cinematography: Daniel Mindel
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood and Zoe Saldana

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn saw the birth of the Genesis Planet, but this Star Trek prequel could be considered the genesis film. It’s the birth of the franchise, so to speak, the beginning of all that would come afterward. “Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor.” “I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain.” “Highly illogical.” This is where it all started. But the best thing about this film is the premise. The Romulans from the future, who blame Spock for the destruction of their planet, accidentally come back through time travel and await the opportunity to destroy the planet Vulcan in front of Spock’s eyes. By doing so, however, they change the space-time continuum and thereby allow for a different timeline than the one that happened in the television series. This frees future films in the series from strict adherence to the series and allows us all to seek out and explore strange new adventures with the original characters.

The new film begins with the Romulans emerging from the black hole, encountering the Federation star ship Kelvin. Onboard is an officer by the name of Kirk, who we assume to be James T. But as the prologue nears its conclusion we come to understand that this is Kirk’s father, George. His father being lost on that mission, the young James becomes a rebel, but is recognized for his superior intellect by Captain Pike and invited to join Star Fleet. Meanwhile, the young Spock is dealing with his dual identity as half-human half-Vulcan and battling with his emotions. Uhura is already a Star Fleet cadet and is joined by Kirk and McCoy onboard an emergency mission to Vulcan. Of course, this is where the planet is destroyed and the crew members bring their talents to the fore and become the crew of the star ship Enterprise.

Chris Pine is great as the new Kirk, named after his two grandfathers, James and Tiberius. Spock was probably a more difficult casting job, but Zachary Quinto does a great job at emulating Leonard Nimoy. Zoe Saldana, who did a great job in The Terminal, makes a fantastic Uhura. And the rest of the casting is just spot-on. Karl Urban is Bones McCoy, John Cho is Sulu, Anton Yelchin is a wonderful Chekov, and somehow discovered on a desolate planet is first engineer Simon Pegg as Scottie. By far the best part of this film is the ability to hit the reset button and start the series fresh. Infinite variations are available due to the new timeline and the young actors have lots of years ahead of them to recreate the series in their image.

The film won an Academy Award for best makeup, which is the least of its positive attributes. Director J.J. Abrams is a brilliant choice for director of the series, and has now been picked up to do the directing chores for the latest Star Wars film. But the scripts are very well done, totally respectful of the series, using all of the catch phrases, keeping the characters true to their original conceptions and showing them bonding as the crew that we came to know and love in the original series. Being able to pull back from all of the spin-offs and start fresh is a boon to Treckies, and the new Star Trek is a series that is destined for greatness.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wings (1927)

Director: William A. Wellman                              Writer: Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton
Film Score: J.S. Zamecnik                                Cinematography: Harry Perry
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen & Jobyna Ralston

Wings is typically considered the very first film to win an academy award for best motion picture in 1929, when in fact it shared honors with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, also from 1927. That subsequent lists of Oscar winners have excluded Sunrise, even though the first awards were technically for two years, both 1927 and 1928, is unfortunate, especially given the fact that Murnau’s film is clearly the superior film. But while Wings won the award for “Outstanding Picture Production” and Sunrise won for “Unique and Artistic Production” the academy decided the following year to combine the categories and named Wings as the retroactive winner of best overall picture. What's so exasperating is that neither has to be left out, and should both be recognized equally, especially since the first awards were for two years.

The first half of the film is fairly standard Hollywood fare for silent pictures of the day. Production values are good and there is some very nice moving camera work for Harry Perry that holds interest. Clara Bow’s screen work, while not out of the norm for acting at that time, seems to be more animated than necessary and feels a bit over exaggerated. Fortunately, it’s a small role. Where the film really takes off is in the second half with the aerial photography, which is thrilling to watch even in today’s film world of CGI special effects. I would argue it’s almost more thrilling because of that. With the exception of some hand-drawn flames on the long shots as planes fall to their doom, there are no special effects at all. The plane crashes are obviously done on the ground, but the rest of it is the real thing, and the open-air cockpits and the banks of clouds in the background make for some tremendous battle scenes. The plot was no doubt the inspiration for the film Pearl Harbor, which is ironic considering how much special effects work went into the later film.

The story itself is fairly pedestrian: two pilots from a small town are in love with the same girl. Clara Bow is the odd girl out, so to speak, as her love interest is still smitten with the more cosmopolitan girlfriend of the richest boy in town. Both the men join the air force and become friends, and fight in France during the First World War. During their training they meet a young Gary Cooper. What’s interesting is how many sources claim that Wings launched the career of Gary Cooper, which is hard to believe considering he’s on the screen for less than two minutes. I was actually looking forward to seeing him in the film, but he dies in an off-screen plane crash and that’s it. Overall, Wings is a solid production, a good silent film with an excellent recreation of First World War battlefields by William Wellman who was a veteran of the war. Whether or not it was worthy of an Oscar award, considering all of the films to choose from at the end of the classic era of silent film in 1927 and 1928--including Sunrise--is debatable.

Monday, November 5, 2012

L’Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo                                Writers: Jean Vigo & Albert Riéra
Film Score: Maurice Jaubert                   Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Starring: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté and Michel Simon

My prejudice against foreign films is going to show again in my review of one of the A List’s entries, L’Atalante. While there’s nothing exactly bad about it, it certainly failed to capture my imagination in the way it has for numerous critics through the years. There are certain elements of the cinematography that are striking—and very French—but they tend to stand out as aberrations amid the generally static look of the picture. The leads are competent in terms of their ability to hold interest, but it is the incredibly odd looking—and acting—Michel Simon who dominates the screen, and not in a good way.

The story is about a pair of newlyweds, Juliette and Jean, played by Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté, who begin their married life aboard the barge that Jean pilots up and down the Sein. It’s made clear in the opening sequence after their marriage, that Juliette is very different from other girls in the village in her desire to experience more of life. But the barge life is one of monotony and drudgery and quickly pales. When they finally reach Paris and stop for a couple of days, she goes out on her own to see the town and a furious Jean pulls up anchor and leaves her. When he can’t bare life without her it is Michel Simon’s Père Juleswho brings her back to resume their interrupted love. Of course this main plot is heavily laced with the antics of Jules, much to the detriment of the film.

The only other movie that begs comparison with L’Atalante is F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise, which is superior to the French film in almost every way. Both focus on the relationship of a couple, and the lure of the city juxtaposed with the hard working yeoman’s life. But where Murnau’s film is a tour de force, Jean Vigo’s film borders on the tedius. Where Murnau’s city is a living, pulsing temptation that literally pulls its protagonist in against his will, Vigo’s city is merely a picture window full of nick nacks that, while fascinating to a country girl, lacks nearly all of the allure that would justify Jean’s impetuous action.

Terrence Rafferty’s review in The A List is over the top with hyperbole, admitting in the same sentence that director Jean Vigo, who died at age 34 just after the film premiered, created less than three hours of total film but was also somehow “one of the greatest artists in the history of the movies.” On its face it’s patently ridiculous. One of the metaphors that Rafferty uses to explain Vigo’s “genius” is to compare his work to that of a jazz musician. But that’s like saying Dupree Bolton is one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time based on only two albums he recorded in his lifetime. Tantalizing for the possibility of what he might have become--Vigo, as well as Bolton--but hardly the greatest of all time. L’Atalante is interesting for its historical value as Vigo’s only feature film, but no more artistic than many other works of the time and in many ways less so.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1974-1990)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola                           Writers: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
Film Score: Nino Rota & Carmine Coppola         Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro

Since I just recently purchased and watched The Godfather Collection on DVD and then re-watched it with Coppola’s audio commentary, I thought this would be a good time to review this A List entry. I must say, however, that I still prefer watching the story chronologically and thus will always keep my copy of The Godfather Saga on VHS that Coppola, in a moment of financial weakness, was forced to edit together for CBS. I know, it’s sacrilege, but something about seeing the whole thing unfold linearly over time is magnificent.

My first exposure to the films came late, but is something I will be forever thankful for. In 1983 while on tour with a band we found ourselves playing for a week in the unlikely town of Drumheller, Alberta, one of it’s many minor claims to fame being one of the locations where Quest For Fire was shot. We were playing in the bar of a hotel owned by a pair of Italian brothers. One night they had us down to their apartment in the basement of the building that they shared with their mother and she made us a wonderful Italian meal. That Saturday night, after our gig was finished at two in the morning, the brothers closed down the bar while we packed up our gear. Then they proceeded to roll out the big screen television and a number of men began coming back into the bar. The reason: to spend the rest of the night watching the first two Godfather films. I had never seen them before and so I stayed up until dawn, mesmerized by the power of the story, the artistry of the filmmaking, and the perfect atmosphere in which to watch them.

It’s hard to imagine now but, with the exception of Marlon Brando, the entire star-studded cast of The Godfather--including Abe Vigoda--were relative unknowns at the time. Al Pacino’s Michael, of course, is the thread that ties all three films together. There’s certainly little need to rehash the plot of the rise and fall of the Corleone family here. Not only did the first film win an Academy Award, but the sequel, The Godfather Part II, won as well for best picture and both have achieved canonical status. The third . . . well, this came at a time of another of Coppola’s financial downturns, and it shows. Where the first two films use parallel set pieces that mirror each other in a beautiful way (the wedding / christening, and the execution finales) their use in The Godfather Part III seems trite and unimaginative. Still, the death of Mary and the ascension of Vincent Mancini are chilling.

Michael Sragow’s review of the first two films for The A List is straightforward and full of literary allusions, a tone befitting his subject, which he ultimately labels, “a national creative triumph.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s really the expert melding of so many brilliant parts, from Mario Puzo’s original novel, to Coppola’s directing, the acting of Brando, Pacino, De Niro and the rest, the evocative score by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola, and the incredible camera work of Gordon Willis. They are the perfect storm of filmmaking excellence and will be hailed as masterpieces for as long as filmic art is celebrated.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

Director: Jacques Tourneur                             Writers: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Film Score: Roy Webb                                   Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Starring: Frances Dee, Tom Conway and James Ellison

Though the Val Lewton films of the mid 1940s for RKO garnered much critical praise in the latter part of the century in comparison with Universal’s more overt monster movies, time has brought them back to a more realistic appraisal: workmanlike B-picture psychological thrillers with a lot of style. But horror films to rival Universal? Certainly not. As producer of the entire series, Lewton himself was initially responsible for most of the early spin by denigrating the Universal series every chance he could get. But it was mostly sour grapes, as he watched the monster rallies deliver millions at the box office while RKO denied him the opportunity to work on more high-quality pictures that he felt befitted his talent.

I Walked With a Zombie is no exception. Curt Siodmak’s screenplay is half Jane Eyre and half White Zombie, as Frances Dee comes to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian to take care of Tom Conway’s catatonic wife and falls in love with him in the bargain. Siodmak’s time at Universal shows in an early sequence as Dee is traveling to the island with Conway. She thinks to herself that the island is beautiful and Conway interrupts her thoughts to tell her everything she sees about her is really death, a similar conversation to the one in Universal’s Dracula’s Daughter from 1936. Then there is the figurehead from the ship with the arrow in his chest, reminiscent of the door knocker from Most Dangerous Game, and Conway’s wife walking around in the dark like one of Dracula’s wives, all of which makes for a curious mélange.

In the end, however, it’s a disappointing mixture. While Roy Webb's score for the film is excellent, the calypso singer who conveys the family’s tragedy in song borders on the comic, a device used with similar dissonance in the film Brute Force a few years later. More gothic suspense than horror, the only truly frightening scene in the film is when Dee is taking Conway’s wife to see the voodoo doctor, who simply turns out to be Conway’s mother. Any hint of the supernatural is thus dispelled and, along with it, the audience’s enthusiasm. The revelation of the family secret is predictable, and the final resolution melodramatic.

One of the best lines from Carrie Rickey’s review of the film in The B List, is when she calls I Walked With A Zombie “a sixty-nine-minute tone poem scored to the rhythms of calypso and Chopin.” What that visual poetry is attempting to evoke, however, is open for interpretation. For one thing, there is a lot of talking in comparison with the few scenes at the voodoo camp. Also the lack of real fear by Dee and Conway tends to attenuate the suspense. This, I think, is my interpretation of her comment, that the film itself is something of a trance-like experience. Interesting, but not one in the Lewton cannon that merits a repeat viewing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen                                    Writer: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Music Department: Artie Butler                       Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane and Tony Roberts

Now this is more like it. Not only an A List entry, but an academy award winner for best picture. Given that, Annie Hall is obviously a great film. I have to confess, however, that I’m probably one of five people in the country who hadn’t seen the film until recently. As a result, there is more than a little pop culture shock I experienced in seeing it over thirty years since its original release. Everything from the film, it seems, has been recycled through the years in some way.

To begin with, there is Woody Allen’s stand up monologue at the beginning, which was co-opted by Seinfeld. Then there is the fact that the scenes are shown out of sequence; not a new idea but one that was really popularized later by Quentin Tarantino, most famously in Pulp Fiction. Diane Keaton’s distinctive wardrobe was also put on Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally over a decade later. Then there are lines like “those who can't, teach; those who can’t teach, teach gym” which was used verbatim in School of Rock. And finally, even conceptual elements have been stolen, like the lobster scene in which Allen attempts to repeat the magic with a later date, only to have it flop. This idea was also used to good effect in the snowman scene in Groundhog Day, and less so in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

So, all of that was a bit distracting to wade through the first time. What remained was a very good romantic comedy, though not one that we’re typically used to since Sleepless in Seattle. For one thing, the film doesn’t end with the consummation of the relationship, but traces it full circle, from first meeting to reconnection after a bad break-up. Allen’s self-deprecating humor is prominent, of course. The quirky charm of Diane Keaton must have been captivating before it became a cliché. Supporting roles by actors like Tony Roberts who would work for Allen as something of a stock company, and goofy cameos by the likes of Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Paul Simon were put to good use. But finally it’s Allen’s style as a filmmaker that is showcased here, and in that the film is decidedly a success on nearly every level.

In his review of the picture for The A List, Jay Carr focuses on Allen’s envelope pushing in all sorts of areas, from the out of sequence narrative to the first person narration, to Keaton’s wardrobe and the fun-house mirroring of Allen’s life—-all things, ironically, that have made their way in the last thirty years comfortably back into the envelope, absorbed with seeming ease into the culture at large. And that, in the final analysis, is the ultimate praise for any true masterpiece, a label that, in the case of Annie Hall, certainly fits.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick                             Writer: Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke
Music Consultant: Patrick Moore                  Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain

Boooooooooooring. This was only the second time I have ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first time was on TV when I was still in high school, and what I had remembered from that viewing was a slow, pondering film that, except for the scenes with HAL 9000, made little sense and had a finale that was tedious and self-indulgent, providing no real conclusion to the story. Well, it was just the way I remembered it. Fortunately, this time my viewing experience was greatly enhanced by the fast-forward button on my remote control.

One of the things that is becoming clear to me about The A List, is that many of these films seem to be included on the list because of their ground-breaking qualities, not necessarily their entertainment value. That’s a shame. Just because a film does something for the first time, or is experimental in some way, doesn’t make the film itself great. As such, I acquired my copy as part of the Turner Classics Collection, which also includes Soylent Green, Forbidden Planet, and George Pal's The Time Machine.

It’s a curious film that unfolds as slowly as an actual flight to Jupiter. The prolog is overlong, especially with the only payoff being the monolith as the impetus for human evolution of aggression. Then the suspense that is built up at the moon space station is quickly dissipated when the action shifts to the expedition to Jupiter. Easily the best scenes are those where the computer, HAL, kills Pool and intends to do the same to Bowman. There are definite modern expectations at play, as it seems far too easy to disengage the computer, but there can be no doubt about the intensity of the suspense that this section of the film delivers. Unfortunately, the conclusion is something of an anti-climax afterward.

James Verniere’s essay on the film in The A List, does make several good points. In terms of technical replication of space travel, the film was far more realistic than anything that had come before. He calls Kubrick’s vision “authentic” and it is very much that. Except for the groovy lounge chairs in the moon station, the minimalist sets still feel authentic today. There is also the monochromatic acting of Dullea and Lockwood, that manages to allow the computer voice of Douglas Rain to become the central character in the film. Nevertheless, the film can hardly be called entertaining. And while that might not have been Kubrick’s aim, it tends to be important to a viewing audience, and begs the question of it’s inclusion in a list of the essential films of all time.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Director: Andrzej Wajda                               Writer: Jerzy Andrzejewski
Original Music: Filip Nowak & Jan Krenz       Cinematography: Jerzy Wójcik
Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, and Waclaw Zastrzezynski

European filmmaking has suffered through the years in its comparisons with Hollywood, especially in the first half of the Twentieth Century. So, what European filmmakers lacked in terms of a polished visual style they had to make up for in other ways, usually the brutal frankness of their stories, and the realism provided by relatively inexperienced actors and use of actual locations instead of constructed sets. The Polish film Ashes and Diamonds is no exception.

The major downfall of the film in terms of being dated is a 1950s post-production style similar to that of Stanley Kramer, in which all of the sound--everything, voices, birds chirping, footsteps, and gunshots--is dubbed in after the final edit. What this leads to is a very sterile soundtrack similar to those in High Noon or The Defiant Ones, or other European films like The Third Man. For me, this has always been something that turned me off to Kramer’s films, and has had a definite effect on my viewing of the film. Still, its inclusion on The A List makes a lot of sense

Set at the end of World War Two, Zbigniew Cybulski's Maciek is a Polish resistance fighter who has now found himself on the opposite side of the struggle from his liberators. Ordered to kill the leading Communist district leader, he begins to have a crisis of conscience after falling for the beautiful barmaid Krystyna, played by the wonderful Ewa Krzyzewska. Where Cybulski is a bit frenetic on camera, Krzyzewska is utterly believable and the primary impetus for watching the film.

While the first half is interesting in its own way, the real payoff comes at the end of the film. In one of the most beautifully filmed sequences ever, director Andrzej Wajda and Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik set up the end of an all night banquet, with the remaining elite of the society still dancing in the early morning light. The small band, urged on in playing a creaking version of Chopin’s Polonaise when only the pianist really knows it, provides the perfect soundtrack for the end of an era, dancing out its final moments of existence. It’s a truly transcendent moment in film history.

Unfortunately, the essay by Peter Keough in The A List isn’t. His emphasis on Cybulski and his sobriquet as the “Polish James Dean” is hardly the point. He also spends far too much space rehashing the plot instead of telling us why it’s “the seminal masterpiece of Polish cinema and one of the greatest films of all time.” For that, we need to read elsewhere. The motifs and juxtapositions of incidents, combined with iconography and symbolism are a rich mine that Wajda has provided that will produce analytical diamonds for a long time to come.