Sunday, March 31, 2013

La Femme Nikita (1990)

Director: Luc Besson                                  Writer: Luc Besson
Film Score: Eric Serra                                Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Anne Parillaud, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Jean Reno

As bad as Point of No Return is, that’s how good La Femme Nikita is. What’s weird is that they’re almost identical. The primary difference, for me, is Anne Parillaud’s performance in the French film. Whether it’s the direction or the script or just her way of becoming the part, she has an underlying sense of despair that is absent from Bridget Fonda’s performance in the American version. It gives her character a real depth that is lacking in John Badham’s version. Also, she looks much older, and that has a distinct influence on the reading of the film as well. In addition, there are some subtle differences in the overall story that make a real difference in terms of the French film’s superiority.

The film was written and directed by the great Luc Besson, who has a distinct vision and the ability to take on a wide variety of subject matter and do it brilliantly. In addition to a small but powerful body of work as a director, has also written the Transporter series as well as the Taken films. The only director on par with him that I can think of as far as English speaking films is Ridley Scott. In his original story of the drugged out woman who kills a cop in a drug robbery and then becomes a hit man for the government, he made some good choices that the remake chose to ignore. The first is the amount of time that Parillaud spends in the government program: three years. This makes for a much more believable sense of her own capabilities, as well as the speed in which she launches into the affair with Jean-Hugues Anglade.

The sense that Parillaud never stops grieving for her old life underscores the entire film. But what she doesn’t do is to beg her handler, Tchéky Karyo, to let her go. She continues to work the entire film, until her near breakdown on her final mission. There is no subterfuge about what will happen next. She knows she needs to get out and simply disappears. The romance with Anglade is infinitely believable, and that is certainly due to the French sensibility of the film. He is not clueless, and allows things to play out without jealousy and confrontation. The lack of believability is one of the things that ruins the American version. Finally, Parillaud has tools as an actor that Bridget Fonda can’t even approach, and this is what ultimately sets the original film so decidedly apart from the poor copy.

There are no explosions, car chases, or all out gun battles. In Besson’s vision this is a piece about intensity, not spectacle. The music matches this mood, subdued and thoughtful, and even though the film was made three years earlier than Badham’s the music seems far less dated. Also, where Badham engages a nervous looking cleaner in Harvey Keitel, Besson opts for the infinitely more menacing Jean Reno, who gives the performance of the film in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo. In just a short while I’ve come to admire Luc Besson as a real genius in the film world, and for American audiences, La Femme Nikita was the beginning of what has become a brilliant career.

Ride the High Country (1962)

Director: Sam Peckinpah                            Writer: N.B. Stone Jr.
Film Score: George Bassman                     Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley and Warren Oates

Though capable of playing a variety of roles, Randolph Scott became one of Hollywood’s most durable western stars. Ride the High Country is his last film, before retiring on his investments and turning his back on the movies. The film is also notable for being the feature film debut of the great Sam Peckinpah. In addition, we have one of Joel McCrea’s final roles, as well as the first role for Mariette Hartley. So, it’s a film with distinction and one that delivers for a bunch of reasons.

McCrea plays an over the hill former law man who takes a job transporting gold from a mining camp in the mountains of California down to the bank. While in town he meets an old friend in the form of Scott, who is dressed up as Buffalo Bill Cody and running a carnival shooting gallery. When McCrea tells him he needs a couple of extra hands for the job, Scott volunteers along with youngster Ron Starr. Unknown to McCrea, however, Scott and Starr intend to steal the gold with the hopes that McCrea will go along with them and split the money.

It’s fascinating to see Scott as the antagonist . . . though he's not really that. One of the things that makes the film so great is the script by Norris B. Stone, who wrote primarily for television westerns during his career. At one point Hartley tells McCrea, “My father says there’s only right and wrong, good and evil,” and that’s one of the things Stone does so well with Scott’s character. He really isn’t the protagonist at all, but he does occupy one of those gray areas that Stone writes about in his screenplay. Like so many westerns from the fifties on, it challenges conventions and because of that it has earned the status of a classic.

This is early Peckinpah. Prior to this he had been directing TV westerns, most notably Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, so there’s not a lot here that points to his later work. The one exception would be the wedding scene. He does a nice job of shooting the scene so that we experience things from Hartley’s point of view, distorting, disorienting shots that begin like a funhouse mirror and quickly turn into a chamber of horrors as Hartley is passed around to her newlywed husband’s brothers and father. The other notable thing about the film is the underlying theme of the old gunhands on their last run, which would be repeated later in films like John Wayne’s The Shootist all the way up to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s not a brilliant western, but Ride the High Country is certainly satisfying and has a lot to offer fans of the genre.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Angel-A (2005)

Director: Luc Besson                                 Writer: Luc Besson
Film Score: Anja Garbarek                         Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Rie Rasmussen, Jamel Debbouze, Gilbert Melki and Serge Riaboukine

This is such a great film for so many reasons, not the least of which is because it’s French. Angel-A is like a French version of It’s a Wonderful Life, so instead of a 200-year old clockmaker named Clarence, this George Bailey gets a gorgeous, leggy blond as a guardian angel who will do anything for him. And as a brilliant homage to the original it’s even in black and white. Instead of George Bailey, “the richest man in town,” in Besson’s film we have André Moussah, a con man who is in over his head with no way to pay back the loan sharks he borrowed from. With only twelve hours to come up with the money, he decides to kill himself. That’s when his guardian angel comes in to save him.

The great Luc Besson has injected his script with so much humor, compassion, and drama that it’s almost comparable to a musical piece, full of tension and release. Instantly one notices the magnificent black and white photography from Thierry Arbogast and the perfect casting of French comedic actor Jamel Debbouze as Moussah. His Moroccan background and small stature makes him stand out among the other French actors but most of all provides a wonderfully exaggerated physical difference between him and the much taller Rie Rasmussen as Angela. When Debbouze can’t even get thrown in jail by the police to protect himself, he decides to jump off a bridge into the Seine and end it all. Of course Rasmussen jumps in first and saves him and, just like George Bailey, Debbouze begins his long day of self-discovery and redemption.

Besson, a renaissance man, is known not only for having written and directed the influential La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, but for writing all of the Transporter films as well as the Taken franchise. In addition he has also produced over a hundred films and acted in half a dozen more. This film is one of his best, and among my top five films of all time. While he sets up the film as an homage, it’s light years from Capra. The angel, Rasmussen, has her work cut for her because in order for him to get his confidence back she must help Debbouze realize that the person he's done the biggest con job on is himself. Meanwhile, it takes almost the entire film for him to believe she’s even real and it’s distracting him from what he needs to do to get the money he needs . . . or is it?

Debbouze’s problems have much more to do with than just money, and in the end the film has as little to do with its inspiration. Besson has captured something magical here that transcends genre distinctions. The language also helps it achieve an other-worldly quality--at least to English speakers--as does the black and white imagery. The ending is quite unexpected and yet very much in keeping with the characters. Angel-A is a magnificent film and one that I keep coming back to time and again. I can’t say enough good things about it. It must be seen to be believed. Watch it.

The Help (2011)

Director: Tate Taylor                                 Writers: Tate Taylor
Film Score: Thomas Newman                    Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Starring: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard

I wanted to like this film a lot more than I did. When I first heard about the novel by Kathryn Stockett, I thought it was a great premise and was not surprise when it was turned into a feature film. The Help is the story of the Jim Crow South during the nineteen sixties, as told from the perspective of the black domestic servants of the time. To call them housekeepers or maids would be to vastly euphemize their actual standing in those white households. Of course we’re all familiar with the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but there’s something incredibly chilling about the small battles and subtle humiliations that were an everyday occurrence for these people, and it’s something that needed to be exposed to a wider audience and become part of the tapestry of degradation that defined the South after the Civil War.

Viola Davis is a longtime servant of a couple in the wealthy white neighborhoods of Jackson, Mississippi during the early sixties. When a single and career-minded writer Emma Stone returns home from college to her friends, who want nothing more for her than to marry and join the junior league, she subtly resists and is bothered by the treatment her friends mete out to their domestic “help,” and so she enlists the aid of Davis in order to write an expose. One of the primary indignities of the story is the refusal of the white women to allow their black servants to use the bathrooms in the house. During a hurricane Octavia Spencer is caught in the bathroom inside the house where she works and is immediately fired by Bryce Dallas Howard, so she eventually joins Davis in helping Stone with her book, telling stories of the abuse they have had to endure all their lives.

While Davis is the nominal star of the film, Octavia Spencer clearly dominates the screen and was rewarded for her work by winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress. Emma Stone is great as the feisty rebel, and half of the story is devoted to her own battles with sexism and the expectations for rich Southern women of the time. One of the things that is impossible to avoid in telling these kinds of stories is the dependence of blacks on white patrons in order to produce anything artistic, whether in music, drama, or writing. In many films it can be seen as undermining blacks and their artistic contribution to our society. This is especially true in the majority of films in the twentieth century where it appears that whites are “teaching” the blacks their art. Tate Taylor’s script does a nice job, however, of making sure that Stone gives credit to the women themselves for “writing” the book, and even gives them all of the advance money when it is published. While Stone is the vehicle for getting their stories out, she makes it clear it is their book, and Davis emphasizes on several occasions that she is the writer.

The first half of the film is, by far, my favorite, but there are some problems overall. The two stories, Davis and Stone, don’t seem to mesh well together. Granted, the two women operate in the same worlds and intersect on many occasions, but I think this is one of those instances where it probably works better in the novel than on screen. The ending also bothered me because it seemed too pat, to easy, and too unrealistic. Everything turns out fine for all of the characters. It was a happy ending . . . in a story of racism that still hasn’t ended in this country. We still have battles to fight, and we can’t become complacent in patting ourselves on the back and saying this is all over, because it’s not. That said, it’s still a powerful film with an important message, and a look into a world that is not typically remembered. Even with its flaws, The Help is a solid, entertaining, enlightening film that I would recommend to everyone.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Director: Joe Wright                                 Writers: Deborah Moggach
Film Score: Dario Marianelli                      Cinematography: Roman Osin
Starring: Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench

Jane Austin is an author whose works have been made and remade over the years into any number of films and mini-series. But to my mind, it has taken modern filmmakers to find a way into the soul of her works and capture not only the period, but the spirit of her romances, and her abundant humor. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have certainly done that with Pride and Prejudice. While many might look at the Colin Firth mini-series on the BBC as the definitive version--and I have to agree that I do as well--there’s an undeniable freshness to the liberties that this production takes with Austin’s text. As I wrote about the miniseries Birdsong, what feature films do so well is compression, emphasizing all of the elements that readers love in great storytelling so that they have maximum impact and entertainment value. What Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility did for that story is the same thing that happened here--almost literally. And while for some purists the breathless pace and necessary paring down of the plot robs the story of its depth, if the viewer is able to look at the film as its own separate work of art there is much to be admired.

The classic story of Elizabeth Bennet and her misjudgment of Mr. Darcy, hardly needs to be retold. Donald Sutherland plays the matriarch of a family of five girls, including Keira Knightley, Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan. When he dies, with no male heir to pass on the estate to, the girls will be homeless--unless they can marry. And while Matthew Macfadyen’s excessive pride causes Knightley’s prejudice to keep them apart, unlike the miniseries there is still a sense of their mutual attraction throughout the entire film. What leaps out from the screen in this production is a realism that is lacking by comparison in all others. One only has to look at the first ball scene to see that. Instead of the ultra-choreographed, chorus-line type dancing that we’re used to seeing in these period dramas, this is an actual party, with people actually dancing, having fun. The precision is there, the lockstep moves are there, but characters also carry on conversation and move in and out of the dance at will. It not only looks real, it feels real. And when women go walking outside they come in with their skirts wet and muddy, which Wright actually lingers on in one scene. As with so many recent historical dramas the production design by Sarah Greenwood, who worked on the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, is outstanding, as is the costume design by Jacqueline Durran, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards that year.

Ultimately, however, it’s the acting that makes the film and Keira Knightley carries the production in superb fashion, just as she would later do in The Duchess and Anna Karenina. She brings an elegance to the character of Elizabeth Bennet that is captivating and a fierce independence that lights up the screen. Matthew Macfadyen is equally good in the difficult role of Mr. Darcy, who must convey his utter attraction to Elizabeth to the audience without showing it to the characters surrounding him. Of course Judy Dench is her usual stolid, dependable self in portraying the overbearing matriarch of Darcy’s family. But the real surprise is Donald Sutherland who does a passable job as Mr. Bennett, though it is a pity that they couldn’t have landed someone like Tom Wilkinson for the role. All of the supporting cast are well selected and do a great job of bringing the characters to life in a completely believable way. The real standout is Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins. Where David Bamber was simply an oafish bore in the miniseries, Hollander’s small stature gives him an insect-like insidiousness that is fantastic. Kelly Reilly is also able to outshine Anna Chancellor’s performance as the scheming Caroline Bingley. If there’s a weak spot to the cast it’s probably Rupert Friend as Wickham, who lacks the infectious charm of Adrian Lukis in the miniseries.

Some will argue that this is a “modern” interpretation, that the characters in the book aren’t nearly so animated, and that is true. But as I have often stated in other reviews, a filmmaker doesn’t need to be beholden to the written word. Film is an art form all its own, with an audience that dictates a different type of expression than the audience for the written word, and it is the great director who can tap into that form and make it work the way it’s supposed to. Joe Wright certainly is that. His style isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying that he has a unique vision that is able to look at a story in a fresh way and actually covey it on the screen. He would work with Knightley several more times, on Atonement, The Duchess, and Anna Karenina, the last far more of an acquired taste than the first two. Everybody has their favorite versions of Jane Austin, and mine is without a doubt Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility. Again, as a feature film it is forced to eliminate some of the original novel, but it brings a modern energy and a nuance of character that make the story something new. But I’m also a fan of the film in which Thompson wrote some dialogue for without credit, Pride and Prejudice. It’s a terrific addition to a canon that, centuries later, still has much to say about the human condition.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director: Frank Capra                               Writer: Julius & Philip Epstein
Film Score: Max Steiner                           Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre

A madcap little comedy that was a big hit on Broadway, and in numerous road shows throughout the 1940s, Arsenic and Old Lace is a perfect vehicle for Frank Capra’s brand of family-friendly film. This one revolves around a couple of old ladies who have been “helping” older men to find peace--eternal peace--by slipping a little arsenic into their elderberry wine and burying them in the basement. As usual, Capra is able to command some big stars in his production, most notably Cary Grant in the lead. Grant, however, may not have been the best choice for this film. He’s better with a drier kind of comedy, as in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, or as the controlling force in the chaos, like His Girl Friday. In this production he’s a little too antic, plays his comedy a little too broadly, and is just a little too polished to be believed in the role.

The real treat in this film, as in all of Capra’s productions, are the character actors. Raymond Massey plays the role Karloff did on stage, Grant’s brother returning home after an operation that has him “looking like Boris Karloff.” His sidekick is none other than Peter Lorre, who could never seem to break out of supporting roles other than in his Mr. Moto films. Priscilla Lane has one of the few appearances in her brief career as Grant’s newlywed, but doesn’t get a lot of screen time. And the list goes on: Jack Carson as a rookie cop, Edward Everett Horton as the head of the insane asylum, the great James Gleeson as a police detective, and Gary Owen as the cab driver. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair play the two old aunts and John Alexander has the thankless task of playing the crazy younger brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.

Capra lobbied hard to purchase the rights to the play by Joseph Kesselring, and while he certainly made a hit, he didn’t really make a great film. He did have to wait until the Broadway run of the show was over, and when it was out on the road Hull and Adair were given a six-week leave of absence in order to shoot the picture. The road company needed a star, however, and would not let Boris Karloff go, and so Capra substituted Massey. Unlike certain plays in which the film transcends the theater piece, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder comes to mind, the frantic action of Arsenic and Old Lace was difficult to capture on film in a way that made the material cinematic, and in the end, despite Capra’s genius, it remains a very entertaining filmed play, but only a moderately successful movie.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Phantom Lady (1944)

Director: Robert Siodmak                             Writer: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Film Score: Hans Salter                               Cinematography: Elwood Brendell
Starring: Alan Curtis, Franchot Tone, Ella Raines and Thomas Gomez

One of the films that Robert Siodmak made during his brief tenure at Universal, Phantom Lady is one of the studios few noir films. Though not a studio know for noir, Universal did produce a few great ones, including Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire, and Criss Cross. The story was based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich and features a standard noir setup. A man who had been fighting with his wife, and asked for a divorce, comes home one night to find detectives in his apartment. His wife has been strangled with one of his neckties and the police think he did it. Though he spent the evening with a woman he met in a bar, none of the witnesses seem to remember her.

Alan Curtis plays the man accused and he does a nice job in the first half of the film. But the real detective here is Ella Raines who plays Curtis’s secretary. She won’t give up trying to find out who the phantom lady is. It’s also great to see Thomas Gomez as the police detective who arrests Curtis. He’s one of the great character actors of all time, brilliant in Force of Evil. Fay Helm is the title character, her most well known role next to that of Jenny Williams in The Wolf Man. But the plot doesn’t really pick up until the villain appears, Franchot Tone, and he delivers some of the best lines in the film when he talks about what good and evil that hands can do. It’s chilling.

As a director, Siodmak makes some odd choices, and it’s difficult to know whether they were for artistic or economic reasons. One is during the courtroom scene, where he doesn’t show the court at all. He shows people sitting in the gallery, and alternates those with close up shots of someone’s hand taking down the testimony in shorthand, and thus we only hear what is going on in the court. Obviously this would have saved a lot of money and time shooting, but it’s not very artistically satisfying. Another strange scene has him turning a jazz into a menacing music when Ella Raines is attempting to get information from Elisha Cook, Jr. It’s a similar technique that was used by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (another Universal noir) but with 50s rock and roll music used to torment Janet Leigh.

The story has a nice twist to it but, as with another Universal picture, The Glass Key, it’s only marginally noir. Siodmak has some nice nighttime setups early in the picture, but the second half of the film is mostly shot in daylight. Hans Salter’s score is sparingly used, and fairly forgettable, which is strange after he goes to the trouble of establishing “I’ll Remember April” as part of the opening theme song. The film is available as part of a Universal triple feature from Turner Classics, the only problem with the mastering being that the sound is too brittle. Raines and Tone and Gomez give solid performances and, though not a great noir film by any means, Phantom Lady is infinitely watchable and enjoyable all the same.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Director: John Frankenheimer                       Writer: George Axelrod
Film Score: David Amram                             Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury

In my review of Round Midnight, I talked about how films from the 80s seemed dated, but that’s nothing compared to films from the 60s. If I had to say why I would probably attribute it to the actual film stock itself. Films from the 60s have a crisper, live look, similar to what videotaped television had the past few decades, or digital film has now. Without the softening effect of the older kinds of film stock the sets and consumes look more artificial, cleaner, less real. And, like the 80s, the clothing and hairstyles from the 60s seem more of an aberration that even those from the 70s.

The Manchurian Candidate is no exception. It has that cheap, spare look that you get in black and white television from the period. A continuation of the Communist paranoia that appears in films like Stalag 17 and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is based on the best-selling novel by Richard Condon and concerns a plot by Soviet and Chinese agents to brainwash American soldiers captured during the Korean War and turn them loose as killing machines back in the United States, with no memories or remorse. So far, so good, until the members of the unit who had been brainwashed begin remembering what had actually happened to them. The most interesting thing about the plot is that there is some evidence that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy may have been done the very same way.

I suppose you had to be alive at the time to see someone like Frank Sinatra as a serious actor instead of the caricature of himself that he became in his later years (can anyone forget Joe Piscopo singing “Ebony and Ivory” with Eddie Murphy?). The usual cast of sixties character actors (who would later become 70s sit-com character actors) is onboard, James Gregory, Henry Silva, Lloyd Corrigan, John McGiver and the like. Janet Leigh, fresh out of her success in Hitchcock’s Psycho, makes an improbable love interest for Sinatra, while Angela Lansbury has probably one of her best roles, as the scheming mother of Laurence Harvey, the primary soldier who was brainwashed. But the film really only starts to pick up with the appearance of Leslie Parrish who is absolutely stunning in her brief role as Harvey’s pre-war girlfriend.

While this is a film that many critics have on their list of bests, it’s difficult for me to agree. Even in terms of sixties films it’s certainly nowhere near the brilliance of other 60s films like The Hustler, or The Great Escape. Sinatra is just as bad here as he was in From Here to Eternity and from a distance of sixty years looking back the whole thing looks like any ordinary TV drama of the day. Particularly overdrawn and cliché are the Soviet agent and the Chinese doctor who, never mind the fact that they appear to be working together in complete harmony, really undermine the believability of their scheme by their overblown characterizations. Still, the ending is satisfying and, although the drama was diluted, it finishes strong and is worth watching

Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934)

Director: Armand Schaefer                              Writer: Barry Barringer & Norman Houston
Film Score: Oliver Wallace                              Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Sally O’Neil, George Regis and Jack Kennedy

It’s difficult to know what to do with poverty row films from Monogram or PRC in that, in one sense, they could all be considered bad movies. The limited budgets, outdated equipment, bad acting and short production time guarantee that their quality will be low and they will never achieve what the major studios were able to--even with comparative resources. So I guess there has to be a concession right from the beginning that all of the criticism and praise for these kinds of films come with the caveat, “given the limitations of the production.” Sixteen Fathoms Deep is an early film featuring Lon Chaney, Jr., then still going by his given name of Creighton, and a perfect example of a poverty row film.

It’s a fairly pedestrian adventure story, with Chaney looking to purchase a sponge boat so that he can earn enough money to marry Sally O’Neil. But the only one who will loan him the money to buy the boat is his rival for O’Neil, George Regis, who owns the town and controls most of the fishing. After planting his henchman on Chaney’s boat, once out to sea, predictable perils ensue. In terms of production design, the picture does all right. And unlike the major studios who would have use rear-screen projection for most of the exteriors, the real location shots are a refreshing change. What really brings the film down severely is the lack of any kind of music to underscore the underwater shots and support the drama. There’s also the problem with the print itself. While Alpha Video did a nice job of giving the film a slightly blue tint, there is a terrific amount of extraneous movement, flutter of the picture, and sound dropouts in the first reel. It’s almost unwatchable, but then things settle down.

Chaney’s performance is the real reason for the film’s modern distribution. And Chaney, like the poverty row films themselves, is as difficult to assess. There is no consensus about Chaney’s acting ability. Many think he’s a no-talent hack, who brought the same limited skill set to every picture. If you really think about it, however, that’s what all actors do. Others, especially fans of the Universal horror films of the forties, think he’s great. I fall into the later camp. Whatever role he’s playing, he’s always Lon Chaney, Jr., and I don’t have a problem with that. He’s capable, enthusiastic, and seems to understand the demands of the role and does a great job. The other actors . . . well, they’re a different matter.

O’Neil, who worked for several years in silent films, is a bit too shrill on the microphone. Still, she has a fresh face, like the young Joan Crawford, and seems willing to strip down to her bathing suit on a moment’s notice--not necessarily a bad thing. Jack Kennedy overplays her father, the drunk innkeeper, to the point of sloppiness, and George Regis look as if he forgot to put on his handlebar moustache he’s so clichéd. Si Jenks’ sailor character is unfortunate as he dresses and acts just like Popeye, even down to the corncob pipe. Again, as long as there’s an understanding going in with the limitations of the production, Chaney fans will definitely want to see Sixteen Fathoms Deep. For everyone else, especially if you hate Chaney, you’ll want to take a pass.

Beowulf and Grendel (2005)

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson                              Writer: Andrew Rai Berzins
Film Score: Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson                    Cinematography: Jan Kiesser
Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgård, Ingvar Sigurðsson and Sarah Polley

I did quite a bit of research before selecting a version of the Beowulf story, and in going with Beowulf and Grendel I was not disappointed. It has a great cast of actors, and a wonderful script that, while certainly modern in conception, packs a good deal of entertainment into what could otherwise be a grim story. Gerard Butler, who would later be launched into stardom in 300, plays the hero, Beowulf. And Stellan Skarsgård, best remembered as Gerald Lambeau from Good Will Hunting, is onboard as the king. But almost every other aspect of the film is equally great, from the cinematography, the set design, costumes, makeup, right down to the score. This is a wonderful film.

The screenplay makes a brilliant interpretation of Beowulf myth by moving the story from Beowulf himself to Heorot, Daneland, where a great number of the king’s men have been slaughtered and beheaded by the troll Grendel. When Beowulf hears of the tragedy he comes to help, but is left in the dark, not only about why Grendel is attacking the king’s people, but why the king himself has been left untouched. The prologue to the film tells us why. Grendel’s father is killed by the king, for no reason we can discern, and leaves the young boy Grendel on the side of a cliff to die. But Grendel’s hatred grows until he is old enough to seek his revenge. Rather than telling the life story of Beowulf, the script focuses on the life of Grendel and turns it from a myth/fantasy to a historical drama, much to the film’s benefit and the audience’s satisfaction. Even the documentary on the making of the film, Wrath of Gods, won several film awards.

By far the most negative criticism against the film is for its script, which is far more modern that most critics were comfortable with. It first it was confusing for me, but then I realized that it’s the way they would have talked to each other back then. Of course, from our perspective a millennium and a half later it seems too modern, but miring the production in faux medieval speech would have been too distancing to the spirit of the film. I would argue that the only way a modern audience can really see the relationships between these people in the way they would have been, is to see them relate in a way we can understand: our own modern speech. My only criticism is that Sarah Polley, who was so fantastic in John Adams, was not instructed to attempt some kind of accent. In the midst of all the European actors, her flat, Midwest accent is incredibly jarring.

In the end, it’s a beautiful historical production of a story that hasn’t been told in this way before. It brings to mind the Vikings series on The History Chanel in terms of its ability to make the time period believable and still relevant to a modern audience. Butler and Skarsgård are just fantastic, and the rest of the cast does a nice job as well. My personal favorite part of the whole film is the way Christianity is shown for what it really is, and it makes me happy that more works, Vikings included, are brave enough to demonstrate that Christianity is no different that any of the other dead religions in the world. I can’t recommend Beowuf and Grendel enough. If you see just one Beowulf film, make this the one.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Wolf Blood (1925)

Director: Bruce M. Mitchell                           Writers: Bennett Cohen & Cliff Hill
Film Score: Silent/Stock                              Cinematography: Lesley Selander
Starring: George Chesebro, Roy Watson, Marguerite Clayton and Ray Hanford

Often mistakenly assumed to be an early werewolf film, Wolf Blood is a silent feature about rival logging operations in Canada. It’s an interesting silent film in that it is an independently produced, the only movie made by the Ryan Brothers Production Company, and theatrically distributed at the time by the Lee-Bradford Corporation who distributed films in the early twenties. There are no well-known stars in the film but the acting is pretty good, and since nearly seventy-five percent of all silent films have now been presumed lost, any example of the genre seems worth examining today, and Wolf Blood is no exception.

The film begins by showing the rival logging camps, one a small operation overseen by George Chesebro, who also did some of the directing on the film. The rival camp is run by Roy Watson and they have decided to begin shooting workers from Chesebro’s camp in order to prevent them from working. Fed up with their tactics, Chesebro sends word to the camps owner and asks for a surgeon to take care of the wounded men. The owner, however, is a young woman, Marguerite Clayton, who has inherited the business from her father. Her fiancé is a surgeon so the two go to the logging camp to help out. But immediately Chesebro falls in love with her and this adds more conflict than just the business concerns.

The title of the film comes from the fact that Chesebro becomes seriously injured at one point and the only blood available to the doctor is from a wolf. Soon word spreads around camp that Chesebro is half wolf because of the transfusion, and he eventually becomes convinced that he is part wolf. One great scene is almost exactly like that in The Wolf Man from 1941, when Chesebro wants to leave camp because he’s convinced he’s half beast, and Clayton wants to go with him. It’s almost identical to Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers in the later film. There is also a not-so-subtle anti-drinking message relayed by the film, and this leads me to think that perhaps the whole “wolf” aspect of the picture might also be intended as a symbol for alcoholism by the producers.

It is definitely a better than average silent film, and the restoration work that has been done on it makes it infinitely watchable. The stock music used as a score has been edited in as best it can to support the action, something not always done in public domain products, and though it’s a little overly dramatic at times, it works. The print is very good quality, and the tinting used in the film is tremendous, a light touch rather than the overbearing use that accompanies some better known films like Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. For those who enjoy silent films, Wolf Blood is a fine example of mid-twenties independent filmmaking and well worth watching.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont                                  Writer: Norman Houston & James Gleason
Music: Herb Brown & Arthur Freed                     Cinematography: John Arnold
Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King and James Gleason

As if The Jazz Singer set the template for sound pictures, many of the first talkies were musicals, giving film fans music and dancing along with their comedy and drama. Even though this sound film won the second Academy Award for best picture, there is still a great deal of holdover from the silent era in terms of acting styles--which sort of makes sense. Like a lot of films from the early talkie period, there was a silent version made for small theaters that didn’t have sound equipment yet. As such, there’s a good deal of diminishment from the peak of silent filmmaking that distinguished the previous year’s winner, Wings, to the awkward beginning of sound films that is represented by The Broadway Melody.

The story is the sort of backstage musical comedy/drama that would populate screens for the better part of the thirties. Two sisters, Bessie Love and Anita Page, have finally made it to Broadway, performing in a show for the Ziegfeld stand in, Eddie Kane. The star of the show, Charles King, previously engaged to Love, winds up transferring his affections from Love to Page. Meanwhile the younger sister, Anita Page, is getting a lot of attention from one of Kane’s backers, Kenneth Thompson. The love triangle winds up driving a wedge between the three of them until the truth comes out and each of the sisters makes a sacrifice for the other.

Ultimately the film is hampered by a weak script, featuring a preponderance of wise cracks that must have been trite and overused even in 1929 after decades on vaudeville. Charles King’s performance suffers from an attempt to be something of a cross between Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante, while the music suffers from the heavy reliance on a single song, the title number, used three times in the first forty minutes. All of the other musical performances, however, are incredibly static and stage bound in a way that makes the viewer long for Busby Berkeley to come in and break up the monotony.

It might have been popular in its day, but it simply doesn’t translate very well, if at all, to a modern audience. The music is stuck in the time period and hasn’t transcended it in the way other more popular songs have. Sure it won the Oscar, but while the film is an interesting artifact of the twenties, unlike a lot of films from that era that have maintained their status and grown over the years as works of art, The Broadway Melody is little more than a melodrama set to music.

Les Miserables (1934)

Director: Raymond Bernard                              Writer: Raymond Bernard
Film Score: Arthur Honegger                            Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Harry Baur, Charles Vanel, Florelle Rousseau and Gaby Triquet

This is the first, and arguably the best, version of Les Miserables. It doesn’t hurt that the production is French and that, at four hours and forty minutes, it’s easily the most thorough production that has ever been distributed. (Apparently the six-hour French miniseries with Gerard Depardieu is unavailable in its complete form in the US.) Regardless, this is a powerful film, well executed for the time period, with a great cast, an interesting score, and a reputation that is well deserved.

If there are any negatives, one is the fact that Harry Baur makes a rather incongruous Jean Valjean, as he is extremely rotund. The fact that he could have been working hard labor for fourteen years doesn’t seem likely with his figure. The other is Charles Vanel’s lack of screen time in the production. It doesn’t give him time to develop the same kind of obsession with Valjean that he does in other versions. In fact, in the first section of the film, he rarely comes off as menacing at all. In this, the 1998 version with Geoffrey Rush is far superior. The acting of Florelle, as Fantine, is a bit stylized, though she has some powerful moments. But it’s Gaby Triquet as the young Cosette who is the standout in the first half of the film. While a bit practiced, her performance is captivating and her eyes hypnotic.

Easily the best part of the film is the production itself. The traveling dolly shots are quite good. The lighting, especially in the night scenes, is luminescent. There are also plenty of tilted angle shots as well that identify the film as European. The production design is also very nice. The exteriors are impeccably done, and the studio exteriors mesh seamlessly. Another nice touch is that the interiors have a gritty realism that is absent in a lot of historical dramas. Finally, there is an actual film score by the famed composer Arthur Honegger. Full scores for film were just beginning to be use in this period and the music itself is most welcome, though there are still long sections of the film that are devoid of music in the way of most early talkies. Just a year later, Hollywood attempted their own version with Frederick March, good in it's own way, but probably not on par overall.

One of the considerations facing any screenwriter in attempting to condense Victor Hugo’s lengthy novel, is just what to keep and what to leave out. Because of the length of Bernard’s version, he has more options here. The film is broken into three parts, and the first part is nearly the same as in all the other versions. In part two, however, he makes some interesting stylistic choices that definitely set the film apart from later, shorter, versions. Part three, again, does a nice job with the climax that we all await with anticipation. There is much to admire in this first, French version of Les Miserables, and the restored print available on DVD with English subtitles it is very watchable. In addition, a World War I film by Bernard called Wooden Crosses is included in the set. Both films come highly recommended.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Was a Spy (1933)

Director: Victor Saville                              Writers: Ian Hay & W.P. Lipscomb
Film Score: Louis Levy                             Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Madeleine Carroll, Conrad Veidt, Herbert Marshall and Nigel Bruce

This British production is the first of many between-the-wars era spy movies that came out during the period. I Was a Spy is based on the true story of Martha Cnockaert McKenna, who worked as a spy for the British behind German lines during World War I. She was a Belgian medical student who worked as a nurse during the daytime tending to wounded German and Allied soldiers. At night she delivered messages and carried out mission of sabotage and was awarded both the Belgian and French Legions of Honor awards for her actions. In an ironic twist of fate, she was also awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for her work in the hospital. After the war she wrote numerous spy novels and stories in addition to her autobiography.

The film is set in Belgian city of Roulers in 1915. When Madeleine Carroll’s aunt reappears after they thought she had been killed, she tells her that she is running messages to the British. She quickly enlists the help of Carroll to deliver a message for her and thus begins her work for the Allies. Conrad Viedt is the Komandant in charge of the town, his biggest problem getting enough food for his troops by raiding the houses and farms in and around the town. Nigel Bruce has a small role as a wounded British soldier, and Edmund Gwenn is the hapless mayor of the town, who can do little but follow Veidt’s orders.

Director Victor Saville also directed another well-known World War I spy story a few years later, Dark Journey, with Veidt again and Vivian Leigh in the lead. He and cinematographer Charles Van Enger do a really nice job with the photography for a British picture of the time. Perhaps they were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s example, but the quality of the production is extremely good. The set design is very believable, and there are some extended travelling dolly shots that are quite good for a period known for static cameras. There is no film score, of course, which was only beginning to be used regularly in Hollywood at this time and would have been an unnecessary expense for the British production.

One might think that it would be a bitter irony for Conrad Veidt--who detested the Nazis so much that put “Jewish” as his nationality on his passport before emigrating to England almost the second they took charge--to always wind up playing evil Germans. But another famous German émigré, Curt Siodmak, always used to say, “Thank God for Hitler, because without him I wouldn’t be in this wonderful place.” One suspects Veidt, whose distinguished career in films was cut short prematurely in 1943, would have felt the same way. Madeleine Caroll would, of course, appear in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Secret Agent a few years later, but I Was a Spy is the film that started the genre, and the excellent print by The Rank Collection makes it a definite classic.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino                             Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Music Supervisor: Karyn Rachtman                 Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi

I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan . . . but not indiscriminately. In fact his last two films, like those of Alexander Payne, have been so much better than the rest of his oeuvre, that it has caused me to reconsider all of his earlier films in that light. Tarantino has always been good, inventive, edgy, even reckless at times. But Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained are so absolutely brilliant in conception, execution, and impact, that it’s as if they’re from a different director. So where does that leave a film like Reservoir Dogs? Hailed upon its release as something startlingly new and different, it definitely was that. Seen in the context of his last two films, however, it now looks like the solid product of a fledgling director with a bold vision but lacking the experience to make it something more.

The thing to know about Tarantino’s first film is that it’s not really about the plot. It’s all about character. The majority of the action takes place in an empty warehouse/garage in L.A. among the participants of a failed robbery attempt. Now Reservoir Dogs, like it’s more polished follow-up, Pulp Fiction, has plenty of unrealistic things about it. But the most blatant in the former film is the opening scene around a diner table at breakfast before the heist. Not only are these guys sitting around the coffee shop shooting the bull at breakfast, the majority of them are wearing suits and ties like something out of the early sixties. And, of course, that’s the point.

Character, in this film, is not about the costumes, nor is it about the set, which for the vast majority of the film is a nearly empty warehouse. All that Tarantino has to work with, then, is character. In retrospect, it’s a brilliant way to go for a first film. No location work, no extras, no wardrobe, just half a dozen great actors on a sound stage, trying to help him wring the most out of his script. The story begins after the failed robbery attempt but, unlike the completely disjointed time of Pulp Fiction, everything before the robbery is shown in a series of flashbacks. Tarantino is unafraid of long takes, with interesting setups. The long takes add to the tension inherent in the situation and are not overused.

In the end, as has been the case with all of Tarantino’s films, the genius is in the script. A two-time Academy Award winner, both of Tarantino’s statuettes have been for his screenplays, the first for Pulp Fiction and, most recently, for Django Unchained. The interplay between the characters, especially the tension surrounding the possibility of an informant in their midst, is finally the real draw of the film. Tarantino also throws in a couple of nice twists. While the film certainly isn’t up to the quality of his last two masterpieces, it does have all the elements that he would come to master over the last twenty years and that made him the brilliant director he is today.

In his review of the film for The B List, critic Jami Bernard sort of misses the point. He, of course, emphasizes Tarantino’s love of film, especially B movies and exploitation films, but then makes stupid statements like a crew that doesn’t know each other can’t perform a successful heist. Hell, they do it twice in The Thomas Crown Affair. In the end, as if attempting to mimic Tarantino’s hipness, he’s just a little too glib to accurately articulate just why the film is so good and so it’s left unclear. And quite unlike Reservoir Dogs itself, one leaves the review not knowing why it was in the book in the first place.

Windwalker (1981)

Director: Kieth Merrill                                     Writer: Ray Goldrup
Film Score: Merrill B. Jenson                         Cinematography: Reed Smoot
Starring: Trevor Howard, Nick Ramus, James Remar and Serene Hedin

Ever since Dances with Wolves, it’s almost painful to watch films about Native Americans with Caucasians done up in “redface.” Older black and white films are a little easier to forgive, I guess, but those from the seventies and eighties are almost unwatchable. Windwalker is no exception. In the first place you have Trevor Howard in the role of the aging Indian chief. Really? Howard looks less like a Native American than almost anyone I can think of. And ever since his role in Mutiny on the Bounty, it’s difficult to see him as anything else but British. And speaking of typecasting, his younger alter ego is played by James Remar of The Warriors fame, another vision difficult to get out of the mind when watching the film.

The film tries for authenticity a few ways. First, except for the voice over narration, of which there is little, the actors on screen use the Native American Cheyenne and Crow language exclusively, but again, coming from white actors it almost makes it more insulting than authentic. Secondly, it also tries for a feeling of other-worldliness, in the same way that The New World would attempt decades later, but it isn’t any more successful in that respect than the later film. The problem is with the outdoor settings. While they are pretty good, the low-budget production values drag the whole thing down and make it look like a television movie. The Native American flute in some scenes is a nice touch, but during any action sequence the score reverts to standard film score language and instrumentation. All of which would lead one to believe that it’s a bad film. And it is. Still . . .

There’s something about the film that makes me loathe to dismiss it. It’s a rather intricate family drama that begins in the present with the death of an elderly Cheyenne chief, Howard, who tells his grandchildren the story of his own marriage and the birth of his twin boys, one of whom was stolen by the Crow. After Howard’s death, the Crow run across his family, who stayed behind the rest of the tribe to perform the funeral rites, and attempt to kill and capture them--only to find the job more difficult than they had imagined. One nice symbolic touch is that the scenes from the present, at the end of the Howard’s life, are filmed in the winter, while the flashbacks of his younger self, Remar, are filmed in the summer.

To be fair, all of the cast is Native American with the exception of Howard and Remar, and they are pretty good. Nick Ramus does a terrific job in multiple roles, and the children in the cast are terrific. While I can’t heartily recommend the film, there are things to recommend. Like The New World, the pace is slow and the dialog minimal in order to capture the essence of the Native American way of life at the time. There is no combat with whites, and the story benefits a great deal from that. And the ending is incredibly satisfying. So, if you’re prepared for the dated nature of the film, and understand the other limitations, Windwalker can be a rewarding experience.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Director: Ang Lee                                        Writer: Emma Thompson
Film Score: Patrick Doyle                            Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Starring: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant

Sense and Sensibility is one of those films that comes along once in a great while, a classic piece of literature that is translated into a transcendent film. A large part of the credit must go to Emma Thompson, for adapting the novel into a brilliant screenplay. And I’m not the only one who thinks that; Thompson was awarded the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for 1995. And though she didn’t win, she was also nominated for best actress in a leading role, but inexplicably lost out to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking.

Based on the novel by Jane Austin, the story is beautifully constructed. It begins with the death of gentleman Tom Wilkinson, in a rare cameo appearance. His second wife is left with almost nothing and she must care for her three daughters afterward. Emma Thompson is the oldest, and the most sensible from the title. The second daughter is Kate Winslet, who is a romantic who lives for sensation. They both fall in love, with equally disastrous consequences, and it’s a testament to Austin’s brilliant writing that she makes everything come out happy in the end. She would have been made for Hollywood.

But after Thompson’s script, what really helps the film rise above the many other dramatizations of Austin’s novel is the acting. In addition to Thompson herself, is Kate Winslet, who does a terrific job of throwing herself into an emotional part, and acquits herself well. Alan Rickman, however, is the center on which the entire story revolves. The guy is just a tremendous actor with the skills to play almost any part and be convincing. His Colonel Brandon is exceptional, pursuing Kate Winslet with exquisite patience and gentlemanly respect. Hugh Laurie has a small, but whimsical role. Hugh Grant is the only real miscast. He works . . . but just barely. And even the minor roles are done great, though, so the whole thing works.

Ang Lee’s direction is by no means stellar, but certainly good enough not to get in the way of the story. And it is a great story. What makes this film so great is that it doesn’t just do a good job of retelling the story, it translates it for a modern audience in a way that brings out all of the humor of the novel, without hiding it in the subtlety of Austin’s writing. A great score by Patrick Doyle is true to the era, and of course the production design and costumes are impeccable. The film lost out in the Oscars, but it was a tough competition with Braveheart taking the award. In the end, Sense and Sensibility is one of the best films of the last two decades, romantic, emotional, funny, and rewarding on repeated viewings. It’s just great.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crowd (1928)

Director: King Vidor                                     Writers: King Vidor & John V.A. Weaver
Film Score: Carl Davis (1981)                       Cinematography: Henry Sharp
Starring: Eleanor Boardman, James Murray, Bert Roach and Estelle Clark

King Vidor’s The Crowd is a powerful look at everyday life in the twenties, but unlike the German People on Sunday or the Russian Man With a Movie Camera, the emphasis is not on realism, but on Hollywood’s fictional view of American life. As a child, James Murray’s character was told by his father that he would grow up to be an important man. But life doesn’t always work that way, and in one of the great early shots in the film, the camera pans up a huge office building, then pushes inside the window to row upon row of identical office workers at identical desks, with nothing but numbers on their desks to identify them. Our first view of the adult James Murray is at his desk, impatiently watching the clock for the workday to end.

Later, he goes out on a double date with a fellow worker, falls madly in love with the beautiful Eleanor Boardman, and the two get married. After that there is a great, extended scene on their honeymoon, followed by the mind-numbing routine of married life, including going out for gin and hosting the in-laws. Throughout the film Murray continues to tell himself, and Boardman, that his big success is right around the corner, but life just keeps slipping by. Like a lot of dramas of the day, Vidor manages to inject a healthy dose of humor into the proceedings to take the hard edge off the morality tale. And there is a lot of drama, some of it incredibly heart-wrenching at times.

“The crowd” is Vidor’s symbol for the world, the anonymous mass of people that we live amongst. Like a river, or the ocean, it seems to move of it’s own volition and we either go with it or attempt to swim against it, but it is ever present and a powerful force that has no compassion for us. Seen from our perspective today, the film seems to end without a resolution, but the point of the film isn’t the plot, it’s the philosophy behind the story. The most direct modern reference comes from John Lennon’s line, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” It’s a strong film, but firmly grounded in its time, complete with social mores and attitudes toward women. When viewed as a message film, The Crowd has a lot to say and does it extremely well.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Black Widow (1954)

Director: Nunnally Johnson                               Writer: Nunnally Johnson
Film Score: Leigh Harline                                 Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney and George Raft

One of a series of color films noir produced by 20th Century Fox, the most notable in the series being Leave Her to Heaven, which starred Gene Tierney. Black Widow was written, produced and directed by Nunnally Johnson, who was best known as a screenwriter, penning scripts for films as diverse as The Grapes of Wrath, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Dirty Dozen. He only directed eight films in his career, but they include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Three Faces of Eve. The film benefits tremendously from Johnson the writer, especially in how it defies expectations in such a great way.

The story, which revolves around the New York theater, begins with a whiff of All About Eve to it, especially in the title character played by Peggy Ann Garner. Primarily a television actress, Garner had few film roles in her career but her character here, and even her look, suggest Anne Baxter in the famous Bette Davis film, and she maintains that same kind of coolness throughout. Because of the title, there is an expectation that the film will follow something on the lines of The Bride Wore Black, and the first half-hour goes along fairly predictably. But then Johnson takes quite an unexpected turn, and it’s almost impossible to guess where things are going after that.

Van Heflin plays Garner’s hapless victim in all this, and after what seems like a slow start, he does a great job playing the typical noir hero, whose life is going to hell. Gene Tierney plays Heflin’s wife, a straight role and not very much of one, amounting to little more than a cameo. George Raft’s role is intended to be a detective on the order of John Williams in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder from the same year, but he doesn’t have nearly the charisma or range to pull it off. Ginger Rogers is Tierney’s friend, as well as the lead actress in Heflin’s play. The role of the snobby and nosy neighbor is a bit of a departure for her, but she pulls it off.

In the end, it’s a great piece of fifties filmmaking that is severely underrated. Despite some flaws in casting, the plot itself is enough to recommend it. It’s not as if the mystery is difficult to figure out. Nunnally stays true to the code of mystery writers who leave enough clues along the way to make sure we can. But by the end of the picture it almost seems a shame the thing wasn’t filmed in black and white. The big Cinemascope and Technicolor screen, well lit in the muted tones and pastels of the fifties, sort of diminishes the impact of the plot. Still, Black Widow is an incredibly satisfying film that deserves far wider recognition that it has achieved. It’s available as part of a great set of four Fox noir films and well worth seeking out.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Frankenstein (1931)

Director: James Whale                                 Writer: John L. Balderston
Film Score: Bernhard Kaun                           Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke and Edward Van Sloan

The first thing one notices about James Whale’s Frankenstein is the fingerprints of the director all over the production. Because it was released the same year as Universal’s Dracula, there have always been inevitable comparisons made between the two films, with Dracula always coming out on the short end. The reasons are easy to see. First and foremost is directorial vision. Other than the scenes in Transylvania and the opening exterior shot of the sanatorium--generally credited to cinematographer Karl Freund--Dracula seems director-less, something actor David Manners claims is true, namely that director Todd Browning was rarely on the set. Conversely, it’s clear that James Whale is firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat of Frankenstein from start to finish.

The reason usually given for Whale’s readily apparent vision is his background on the British stage. As such, his influence in his films extends not only to shot selection, but scenery, staging, lighting, costume, makeup, in addition to the guidance of the actors. The gothic/expressionistic opening in the graveyard is the first of many deliberate choices that are quite brilliant. When Mae Clarke meets her childhood friend John Boles in the mansion, Colin Clive is shown only as a photograph strategically placed between them. When Clive makes his first appearance in the laboratory he is dwarfed by the physical space and the equipment, mirroring his position as mere man attempting to usurp god’s power to create. And these are just the first three scenes.

Colin Clive, while known for his histrionics, is somewhat modulated in this role. Sitting down with Edward Van Sloan and casually smoking a cigarette the morning after his experiment, he actually does seem as, “astonishingly sane,” as he says. Karloff, of course, is magnificent in the role of the monster. Though he would have a much more successful career than Lugosi, like the first Dracula, never again would Karloff be so thoroughly convincing in a role, and so perfectly performed a character. Mae Clarke, despite being an American, works better than the nubile Valerie Hobson in the sequel. John Boles assumes the ineffectual male role that Manners played in Dracula, but Edward Van Sloan is equally powerful and commanding in both films.

John L. Balderston's script, of course, bears only a passing resemblance to Mary Shelley's original novel, but in looking at later attempts to be more faithful it's probably for the best in this case. The cult-like following of the Universal monsters by many, myself among them, is interesting considering that the films directed by James Whale are definitely aberrations when looking at all of the horror films produced by the studio, not only the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, but his earlier work as well, The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House. Of all the other films, only The Wolf Man, by George Waggner approaches the stylistic and artistic success of Whale at Universal. The tragedy is that Whale hated the films and longed to do more mainstream work. Despite this, however, Frankenstein remains one of the seminal horror films in history, and it’s largely due to his genius and vision.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Director: Richard Linklater                             Writer: Holly Gent Palmo
Film Score: Michael J. McEvoy                     Cinematography: Dick Pope
Starring: Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Zac Efron and Zoe Kazan

Though it is a fascinating concept and certainly an entertaining film, Me and Orson Welles suffers from its TV-movie acting and production values. It’s too bad, because the film itself is captivating, despite its deficiencies. The fictional account of a teenager who finds himself swept up into Orson Welles 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar had a lot of potential but winds up being only a marginal success. The biggest issue, of course, is the acting itself. Zac Efron, the titular star of the film, has primarily done TV work and it shows. Even though he has moved on to films in recent years, they are of the teen variety and have little to distinguish them from his TV work. He does as well as he can, with the limited talent that he possesses, but it’s not enough to carry a feature film.

The biggest name in the picture is Claire Danes, and her role suffers from a severe lack of direction. While the other characters call her “the ice queen,” that’s not the way her character behaves. Had she been more brooding and introspective it would have made much more sense in the context of the picture and given her much more to do as an actress. Of course, the real draw here is Christian McKay’s work as Orson Welles. His first feature film role, it’s a major accomplishment to take on such an iconic figure as Welles. But he does a nice job. While he’s not always convincing, the voice is spot on, and at times he’s transcendent making us forget for a few moments that we’re not watching the real boy wonder.

The other aspect of the film that is lacking is the production values. The production design is incredibly good, period costumes, cars, and sets are impeccably done. What’s missing, however, is the kind of image manipulation that has become common the past decade, where a sepia or black-and-white tone adjustment has been made to give historic films a look that immerses us more fully into the time period. The vivid colors, while in actuality more realistic, ironically look more artificial to the eye and gives it the look of a TV movie. This is no doubt due to the small budget of the film and in no way is a knock, but it does diminish the overall impact of the film. The film score is also problematic, relying far to heavily on swing tunes of the period, and slighting the romantic orchestral music associated with the films of that time.

So it’s hard to know where to come down in assessing the film as a whole. Most films require a suspension of disbelief to really enjoy them. This film requires a tremendous amount of suspension of Zac Efron. Half the time you’re watching this incredible recreation of 1937 and Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar, and the other half you’re watching an ABC Afterschool Special. In the end, Me and Orson Welles is certainly worth watching. Just be warned. The parts that are good are very, very good. And the parts that are bad are, well . . .