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.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Detour (1945)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer               Writer: Martin Goldsmith
Film Score: Leo Erdody                   Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, and Edmund MacDonald

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is a difficult film to watch, figuratively and literally. Watching Tom Neal’s Al Roberts dismember his life, one limb at a time, with a rusty knife, is bad enough. But the physical act of watching the film itself is even worse. In a previous review I stated that neither great actors nor the most opulent sets can make up for a poor script, but I also have to state that the obverse is also true: the best script in the world can not make up for poor acting and cheap sets. Detour, despite its inclusion in The B List and its cult reputation, is a poverty row production in which not even an entertaining script and directorial vision can overcome its dearth of resources.

To begin with, Tom Neal and Ann Savage are far inferior as actors, even compared to marginal noir talent like Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy, and as such their performances drag down the entire production. While Neal is a capable onscreen presence, his voice-over narration is so rapid-fire as to come off comical in most instances. Savage is even worse. While the script might have provided her with a certain depth of character had she chosen (or been directed) to modulate her performance, instead she chews the scenery like James Cagney on speed. Her attempt to get Neal to go along with the plan to inherit from Haskell's father, her feeble attempts at seduction in the apartment, and her self-pitying drunken stupor, are all raced over like speed bumps at sixty on the Arizona desert highway and with the same jarring effect on the viewer. She's not a femme fatale, she's a nut job, and in the end the audience experiences more relief that she has died than suspense over what will happen to Neal as a result.

To be fair to Ulmer, however, perhaps that was the point. This is not a typical noir by any stretch. Neal's downward spiral is so precipitous that it is capable of eliciting laughter in much the same way as Steve Martin's depression-era Pennies from Heaven, but without the pathos of Bernadette Peters to slow up his careening descent. Even worse, Neal seems complicit in his own downfall because of his negative attitude. This also serves to ameliorate any sympathy the audience might feel for Neal. Rather than fate determining Neal's future, it is Neal's negative character. And in the end, Savage's line could easily have been the audience's: "I don't like your attitude, Roberts--all you do is bellyache."

But there are minor moments to admire. Ulmer's close-ups on a sweat-drenched Neal, complete with spotlight on his face against a dark background, are effective, especially when he pulls back to reveal the giant, expressionist coffee mug in the diner. In addition, the musical sequences are superb, with the pianist double demonstrating Tatum-like virtuosity that makes Neal's downfall that much more tragic. Among these scenes is the dream sequence where Neal imagines performing with Claudia Drake in a Hollywood nightclub, an element rarely seen in noir, the imagining of an idealized future. Ultimately, however, these moments are not enough to save the picture.

James Hoberman’s review of the picture for The B List is primarily an essay on Ulmer and, as such, a worthy expenditure of time, though the two paragraphs he spends on Detour are not enough to compel viewing. Like any poverty row feature there is simply too much to overcome, most critically the acting. As a cheap, independent film it certainly holds its own against Bowery Boys films on Monogram, Republic serials and John Wayne’s Lone Star westerns, and is miles ahead of PRC’s (Producers Releasing Corporation) usual productions of anti-Nazi propaganda and Rondo Hatton horror flicks. But like the films of Ed Wood, it’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.