Monday, May 27, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writer: Thornton Wilder & Sally Benson
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                            Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Starring: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Macdonald Carey and Henry Travers

This was one of Hitchcock’s favorite films to make. He not only enjoyed the location, a rarity for Hitch, but the story as well. Having a murderer in the family, a typical American family at that, seemed the ultimate in suspense and someone least likely to be suspected. The original story was written by Thornton Wilder, which really gave it that all-American touch, but it was also worked on by screenwriter Sally Benson and of course Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator. For me, Shadow of a Doubt is a very unique film in Hitch’s oeuvre because of the innocuous nature of the setting. There are always those aspects of Hitchcock films, one thinks of Saboteur or Suspicion, but the presence of a teenager as the innocent who figures out what’s going on and the family focus of the film changes the entire emphasis.

The picture opens on Joseph Cotton, sitting back on bed surrounded my money. He knows two men are tailing him, but they have no proof of his recent scheme: killing a widows for their money. He decides to visit his sister in California and lay low until the police forget about him. Initially the family welcomes him with open arms, especially Teresa Wright, his favorite niece. But quickly she begins to wonder about him, first when he gives her a ring that was obviously engraved for someone else. There is also a newspaper article about the murder that he rips from the paper and won’t tell Wright about, and then he becomes overly paranoid when two newspaper men want to interview the family. Once Cotton realizes she suspects him of something, he begins putting the pressure on Wright to keep quiet and, failing that, figuring out how to kill her.

As always, Hitchcock had assembled a great cast. This was Joseph Cotton’s first film outside of the Orson Welles stock company and he makes a perfect villain, though he never usually played heavies. Teresa Wright is the real star, however. She had first appeared in The Little Foxes with Bette Davis in 1941 and would have a long and popular career. Her change in character from complete adoration of Cotton to hatred is wonderful to watch. Henry Travers, before he became typecast as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, plays the father, and Patricia Collinge is his strangely neurotic wife. Hume Cronyn, in his first film role, is the mystery reader friend of Travers, and Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford play the two newspaper reporters who are really police detectives.

The film is not one of my personal favorites of Hitchcock’s, though it is very good. This is probably due to my dislike of Cotton, whom I find a very one-dimensional actor. In addition you have Dimitri Tiomkin with a rather unmemorable score as well. But in the end it is Hitchcock, and it is ultimately a satisfying film. Shadow of a Doubt was part of a very fruitful period for Hitch that went all the way from Rebecca to the lull after the War that began with The Paradine Case and didn’t end until Strangers on a Train. As such, it’s vintage suspense from the master.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Next Three Days (2010)

Director: Paul Haggis                                    Writer: Paul Haggis
Film Score: Danny Elfman                             Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Starring: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde

This is a great movie that seems to take its sweet time getting to the action of its action/adventure premise. But that is also part of its charm. Unlike my criticism of Salt, where it was all action and no character development, The Next Three Days goes completely the other direction. We learn all about the family, go through Russell Crowe’s frustration and feelings of impotence, and become emboldened along with him when he takes the steps he feels have to be done. It’s not so much a roller coaster ride as it is a pressure cooker, empathizing with Crowe as his former life is squeezed out of existence until, when things finally do break, we rocket to the end: sustained tension followed by a free fall of release.

The film opens at a restaurant one night, Russell Crowe and his wife, Elizabeth Banks, having dinner with some friends. She had a fight with her boss and is a bit on edge, but otherwise seems fine. The next morning, however, the police come into the house and arrest her for the murder of her boss. Crowe takes care of their son, while the trial and appeals go through, but soon it becomes clear that she will not be acquitted. At this point Crowe seeks the advice of Liam Neeson who has broken out of prison numerous times. Then it’s up to the nerve and resolve, in addition to an incredible amount of planning, of Crowe to go through with the plan.

Paul Haggis started his career writing and directing for television, before branching into the big screen. He scored a hit right away with Crash in 2004, which won the Academy Award that year because members were too skittish to vote for Brokeback Mountain. But there was no sophomore slump for Haggis when Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, which he scripted, won the following year. The Next Three Days is a remake of the 2008 French film Pour Elle (Anything for Her) and Haggis does a nice job on the adaptation, not overwriting, but letting the action speak for itself.

Crowe is good playing himself, bringing to the character the kind of intensity needed to sell the plot. Elizabeth Banks doesn’t fare so well, primarily because one of the conceits of the story is that the audience is not supposed to know if she’s guilty or not. There’s also a good supporting cast that includes the vastly underutilized Daniel Stern, a small role for Olivia Wilde coming out of her years on House, and the great Brian Dennehy as Crowe’s father. It’s definitely a different kind of action/adventure film, more a suburban thriller than one with secret agents and spies. And to my mind the film is the better for it. Know what you’re getting into, but if you like suspense films, The Next Three Days is a good one.

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley                      Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Film Score: Howard Shore                            Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, from his play of the same name, Doubt is an interesting character study and a meditation on the power of suspicion. Though it is set in the nineteen sixties, it has clear implications for today with so many Catholic priests being exposed as pedophiles during the past decade, in addition to the long history of such behavior that came to light simultaneously. The title is a good one considering the myriad of issues that come along with the decisions to be made by the characters. It’s a good cast, and though Shanley tried to open things up, it still feels a bit claustrophobic as a film. The extras filling up the church and on the street are just that, extras, and as such the film doesn’t allow us into their homes or heads and so what were left with is the cloister of the church.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a young priest, embracing the new attitudes of the Catholic Church in the sixties. But Meryl Streep is the nun in charge of the school, a strict disciplinarian who clearly embraces the old ways. Amy Adams is a young nun caught in between, believing that the new ways are more humane, and yet seeing through her own experience how necessary the old discipline is. This comes into play when she suspects Hoffman of inappropriate relations with a student, a young black boy played by Joseph Foster, and tells Streep of her suspicions. The proof is tenuous, alcohol on the boy’s breath, a clandestine meeting in the rectory, a t-shirt. Streep is immediately convinced because of past experience. She has a talk with the boy's mother, a brief but powerful performance by Viola Davis, and this brings up even more ethical questions. Adams, however, desperately wants to believe in Hoffman’s innocence. And this is where even more ethical and philosophical questions raise their heads that the audience must sort out for themselves.

For me, there was little ambiguity in the direction of the film. After watching films like Sleepers and The Woodsman, it’s clear that erring on the side of the victim is preferable in cases like this, especially since it is not the victim coming forward to make the accusations. Institutions like church and school--in this case both together--have a greater responsibility and therefore should be held to a higher standard. And I firmly agree with Streep at the end of the film that the end justified the means. But there is also the lingering disappointment that, while she managed to do what was right for her church, nothing had been achieved that was even remotely like a solution to the problem. The film was nominated for five Oscars that year, though nobody won, and in the end that’s the assessment I’d give it: a nicely done drama that gives us something to think about, but not an enduring classic. There are lots of films that are definitely worth seeing once, and Doubt falls squarely into that category

The Far Country (1954)

Director: Anthony Mann                              Writer: Borden Chase
Film Score: Hans Salter                              Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennan and John McIntire

Another entry in the popular western series directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart, The Far Country was the last of their association before Stewart went to work for Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of the least successful of the series, similar in tone to the lightness of Bend of the River rather than the noirish The Naked Spur. And while Borden Chase’s script attempts to wring some drama out of the third act, the humor and irreverence of the first two thirds of the film undermines the conflict. Add to that stock music from the Universal library, and the standard fifties Technicolor sets and there’s not a lot left that’s praiseworthy.

Stewart and Brennan are bringing a shipment of cattle north from Seattle to Alaska. When they arrive they are rudely introduced to frontier law when their cattle are seized by the crooked sheriff to pay for petty violations. Along the way Stewart is given assistance from Ruth Roman, who is one of the major business owners in the town, and apparently supported by the sheriff. When she heads into the Klondike to look for gold, Stewart and Brennan hire on with her. There’s something of a love triangle between Steward and Roman and the young girl, Corinne Calvet that would appear a year later in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, where the young girl gets jealous of the older woman who is obviously more to the man’s liking. Along the way there is plenty of conflict and killing but nothing that really feels menacing.

The one thing the film has going for it is Jimmy Stewart. He manages to keep the audience interested in a very uninteresting premise. Walter Brennan does his usual stalwart job of being Stewart’s conscience and Jay C. Flippen is the third wheel in their party. Ruth Roman is a little hard to figure out. In one way she prefigures Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, seemingly there to help Stewart out of trouble, but apparently on the side of the enemy. The fact that he continues to be attracted to her in spite of her associations is troubling and isn’t really addressed in a satisfactory way in the script. The picture postcard backdrops of the Universal westerns are beautiful at times but in the end it seems more artificial than breathtaking. The Far Country is definitely one of the lesser Stewart-Mann productions, with little to raise it above the standard fifties Universal oaters of the period.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Bounty (1984)

Director: Roger Donaldson                       Writer: Robert Bolt
Film Score: Vangelis                               Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Laurence Oliver and Daniel Day-Lewis

A much maligned version of Mutiny on the Bounty, probably because of the era it was made more than the content, The Bounty is to me the most satisfying filmed version of them all. Unlike Charles Laughton’s crazed and maniacal Bligh from the 1935 version, or Trevor Howard’s more sadistic portrayal from 1962, Anthony Hopkins plays him simply as a bad captain in terms of his inability to lead his men. At the same time, the source material is not Charles Nordhoff’s trilogy, but instead Richard Hough’s book Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, which views the story through the relationship between the two men. And in that respect it makes for a much more well-rounded film.

The story is told in flashback, from Bligh’s point of view during his trial, overseen by Laurence Olivier. They call into question Bligh’s motives and actions, but ultimately acquit him, unfortunately not with the implied disapproval of the other two films. The cast is an all-star extravaganza by today’s standards, but at the time most of the actors were very early in their careers. The worst criticism is usually directed at Mel Gibson, but I think that’s unfair. Personally, I don’t really care for Gibson. But that said, some of his films are among my favorites, primarily the historical ones, Gallipoli, Braveheart and The Patriot. This film fits right into that group with ease. And his youth at the time is perfect for the character. It’s his youth and inexperience that allow him to be so blinded by his love for Tevaite Vernette that it takes very little for him to be turned against the captain.

Unlike the previous two films, the pressure on Bligh seems far more realistic. He is desperate to make a name for himself with the admiralty. The mission to Tahiti for breadfruit seems just the ticket. He enlists the young Fletcher Christian to sail with him, hoping for a confederate onboard to ensure stability. The great thing about the story is how Bligh seems desperate to appease the men, and when this doesn’t earn him the respect he feels entitled to, swings the other way to unreasonable measures in the name of the law. This back and forth between the two extremes is what ultimately undermines his authority. He struggles within himself, but he can’t figure out how to get discipline restored without resorting to violence . . . and so he does, with predictable consequences.

Having been made in the eighties, film is naturally saddled with a synthesized soundtrack by Vangelis, whose score for Chariots of Fire won him an Oscar and was the fashion of the day but has since become little more than a joke. Roger Donaldson is an Australian director who has done some interesting films, including No Way Out and Cocktail in the eighties, and the brilliant Thirteen Days in 2000. His direction of this film is leisurely at times, something that has set him up for criticism, but it really works in this case. There is never a sense of things dragging. And it’s important, to allow the pressure to work not only on Bligh and Christian, but for the audience to want to stay in Tahiti as well. Daniel Day-Lewis is great as the first mate whom Bligh recklessly replaces with Gibson, and Liam Neeson does a nice job as the leader of a small band of rebels. Overall, The Bounty is a very satisfying historical drama that still holds up despite its eighties pedigree.

Horror of Dracula (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher                            Writer: Jimmy Sangster
Film Score: James Bernard                       Cinematography: Jack Asher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling

For all of its reputation as the second greatest horror film studio next to Universal, Hammer films also made quite a few second-rate horror films. Part of the reason for the high esteem that fans hold the studio, is that they solidified that reputation early, just as Universal did, with bold, new versions of Dracula and Frankenstein. In the States, those characters had been relegated to drive-in exploitation pictures that were pale imitations of the once mighty monsters at Universal. One only has to look at the opening of Hammer's Horror of Dracula to understand the new direction these films envisioned.

First of all, the film opens on the image of a very Germanic eagle sculpture, no doubt drawing on subconscious fears from World War II, accompanied by James Bernard’s percussion-heavy film score. That, along with the brilliant Technicolor titles, auger a new beginning. But the story itself is what really grabs the reader’s attention. The camera pans across the front of a castle, down the steps to a basement, almost identical to the one in Nosferatu, and inside to the blood-spattered coffin of Dracula himself. When Jonathan Harker begins his journal you can almost hear the audience thinking, here we go again. But instead, Jimmy Sangster does something great when we eventually hear Harker say, after meeting Dracula, “it only remains for me now, to await the daylight hours when, with God’s help, I will forever end this man’s reign of terror.”

There is no more suspense to be had in the revelation of the vampire himself, so Sangster wisely skips that. Also, the ineffectual resistance due to disbelief is also jettisoned and instead we have a battle of wills with Harker who has the advantage of surprise this time. It’s a brilliant revision of the original story and one that still holds up well today. When the action heads back to England the story becomes fairly conventional, but the return to Dracula’s castle at the end, and the battle with Van Helsing is still one of the great horror film climaxes of all time. The only misstep in Sangster’s script is the fact that he gives Dracula almost no dialogue. It’s a shame. Here they had Christopher Lee, with this wonderfully deep and cultured voice to work with and they leave him mute. Lee was perfectly justified in not revisiting the character until years later.

Peter Cushing, as Van Helsing, is one of the greatest vampire hunters of all time. His supreme confidence, along with his youthful vitality, make him a worthy adversary for the prince of darkness. Michael Gough is not particularly a good choice as Harker’s future brother in law, but he’s palatable enough, and the Hammer girls are, of course, a titillating addition to the formula. But it’s Cushing’s picture, and he is commanding from his first appearance to the last. His confidence and fearlessness in the face of the supernatural are so refreshing it’s easy to see why the series was so popular and continued for so long. Terence Fisher’s directing is taut and quickly paced, the music is bold and gothic, and the results were something new and refreshing. Horror of Dracula, one of the first of Hammer’s new vision of the horror film, is still one of the finest examples of their revolutionary work.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Journey's End (1930)

Director: James Whale                              Writers: Gareth Gundrey & Joseph March
Sound: Buddy Myers                                 Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Starring: Colin Clive, Ian Maclaren, David Manners and Billy Bevan

Not only part of a long line of filmed plays in the early sound era, this is also an example of the fascination the British have with the trench warfare of the First World War. Journey’s End began its history as a popular play by R.C. Sherriff, a character study of a captain on the front lines who turns to drink in order to keep going. Things don’t begin to come to a crisis until the brother of his girlfriend shows up and the captain is terrified that he’ll learn his secret and his girlfriend will abandon him. Though it was made the same year as Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front, there’s a different kind of anti-war sentiment present in this film: what the strain of war can do to good people. Rather than the German fanaticism for honor, it’s the British need to do a man’s duty no matter what that makes the war seem futile.

Of course, the big draw of the film is the directorial debut of James Whale. While he doesn’t have a lot to work with, seeing as how the bulk of the film takes place in an underground bunker, there are still lots of close ups, a Whale trademark, that make it a cut above a lot of similar films where the director is content to shoot most of the story in static setups that show most of the set. Colin Clive stars as the captain, his manic style perfect in its display of shattered nerves. Ian Maclaren is the older officer, though junior in rank. David Manners is probably the least effective in his role--an assessment that is appropriate for his entire career--a little too eager, his acting a bit too broad. And of course the comedy relief comes in the form of Billy Bevan and Charles K Gerrard. Both Gerrard and Manners would appear in Dracula the following year, while Whale and Clive would work on Frankenstein at Universal

There is no film score in the picture, typical of British films from this period to avoid the expense. The film also occasionally suffers from poor editing, similar to that on The Phantom Ship, where the cut from one actor to another is accompanied by too much film afterward, making the dialog seem as if it’s lagging. No such problem is evident when the actors are talking within a single shot, so it’s clearly the fault of editor Claude Berkeley who had worked primarily in silent films and died the next year. The print I watched was pretty murky, though the sound was adequate. I don’t believe it’s been released commercially yet, even on VHS.

The few times when the scene shifts to outside the bunker, during raids and battles, it’s realistic and effective. This makes sense as the subject is one that Whale knew well, having served in the front lines during World War I and captured by the Germans, spending time in a POW camp. The effect of the war on him can be seen in the very good film Gods and Monsters, about the last years of his life. As a film on it’s own, however, Journey’s End starts slowly but gains momentum later on. It’s definitely an interesting World War I film, a lot of talk early on but engaging if one has the time to sit down and be patient.

Kitty Foyle (1940)

Director: Sam Wood                                   Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Film Score: Roy Webb                                Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig and Ernest Cossart

Best known today as the film that won Ginger Rogers an Academy Award for best actress, Kitty Foyle hasn’t really held up through the years. The film is what was known in the trade as a “women’s picture,” something RKO specialized in. Rogers plays a woman who has to decide whether to turn down a proposal from a doctor in order to be with the man she has loved for years, a rich society man. Problem is, he’s already married and has no intention of getting a divorce. But before she can run away with him to South America her conscience, in the form of her reflection in a mirror, reminds her of how she got into this position in the first place.

The film has kind of a corny beginning, going back to 1900 to take a look at courtship--and by that, of course, we mean Hollywood courtship. How little this prolog has to do with reality unfortunately mirrors the rest of the picture as well. The flashbacks that attempt to portray her at fifteen and twenty are a little corny as well. And then there is the attempt at comedy when she goes to New York that causes more winces than chuckles. The later part of the story revolves around the fact that Rogers is from a poor family in Philadelphia and Dennis Morgan’s rich family wants to change her into something she isn’t. James Craig is the hapless doctor who pursues her even though she makes it clear her heart belongs to Morgan.

The direction by Sam Wood is fine, and there is some impressive camera work during the dancing scenes. But the transitions using a snow globe are rather obvious, a device used later in Cary Grant’s Penny Serenade. There’s not really anyone of note in the rest of the picture, except for a bit part by the great Fay Helm in the very beginning. Roy Webb’s score is rather generic, but that’s probably to be expected given the soap opera nature of the story. Based on a popular novel of the time, the film is rather insulting to women today, implying that being a “white collar” woman--their euphemism for working woman--is something to be pitied, and that marriage and family is the only worthwhile desire. Rogers makes an attempt at being a strong woman, but pining after Morgan the entire picture rather undermines her character. As a vehicle for Rogers, Kitty Foyle is a major part for her, and she did win the Oscar for her performance, but as a classic film it is decidedly lacking.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Moneyball (2011)

Director: Bennett Miller                                Writers: Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin
Film Score: Brian Transeau                          Cinematography: Steve Bernstein
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman

A lot of times true stories can be a bit tedious, but this is one that really works. Moneyball is the story of baseball general manager Billy Beane and his dramatic turnaround of the Oakland A’s franchise in 2002. There are a couple of things that the film has going for it. The first is, obviously, Brad Pitt. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like him. Fine. But there’s also no denying that what he does do, he's very good at. If you can’t get past that, well . . . The second thing is the writing. It’s an interesting combination of Steven Zaillian, who is best known for his more serious dramas and Aaron Sorkin who is a master of contemporary dialogue. All of it goes to making a very entertaining film.

The story consists of two parallel narratives. One is the baseball career of Pitt as Beane, which he began as a prodigy. As the years went on, however, he failed to live up to that promise. He never became the star that the scouts predicted, and that fact came into play later on in his decision to hire Jonah Hill, who has a completely different conception of putting together a team. Rather than looking at players who are stars, or who can do a bunch of things, Hill informs Pitt that all they need to be interested in is if players can get on base. Rather than buying players, the A’s need to be buying runs. Runs win games. Of course, his scouts and coaches suddenly hate him for going in a different direction and don’t want to give him the chance to prove that it can work.

The film is really a character study more than anything else. In the current story line Pitt is also dealing with a divorce and parenting his daughter. There’s a kind of unconscious parallel between his being a parent and the managing of the ball club. His employees, including the manager, become petulant and disobedient, just like teenagers. In fact, his daughter displays a lot more maturity that the “boys” on her father’s team. What is so inspiring is Pitt’s determination to see the thing through to the end. In spite of how his coaches attempt to subvert his system, causing losses to pile up early in the season, he refuses to give in to them. He is in charge, and ultimately he is responsible, and if he’s going to go down in flames he’s going to do it by embracing his beliefs, not letting his employees undermine them.

It’s difficult to convey exactly why this makes the film so great. Primarily it’s an allegory for life, for the ability to come up with something new, go against conventional thinking, and above all stick to your belief no matter what the consequences. In fact, some would say that negative consequences teach us more than our success--and this comes into play at the end of the film in a way that might cause some to think the ending is something of a disappointment. In fact, the challenge that Pitt faces at the end of the film is no doubt more satisfying in the long run than the path he could have chosen. Moneyball is satisfying on so many levels, but probably not in a way that most people consciously understand. Watch it again, however, and think about Billy Beane’s determination. From where I sit, THIS is the most inspirational baseball film ever.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Monster (2003)

Director: Patty Jenkins                                Writer: Patty Jenkins
Film Score: Brian Transeau                          Cinematography: Steve Bernstein
Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern and Annie Corley

I really had no expectations going into Monster, as I had no knowledge about the film other than references to the great performance by Charlize Theron. I was a fan, of course, from her breakout role in Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, and other great performances in The Italian Job and The Devil’s Advocate. But even the acknowledgement at the beginning of the film saying it was based on a true story, didn’t prepare me for the powerful but peculiar performance she delivers. It wasn’t until afterward when I watched the documentary on the film that I understood she was emulating a real person, one of the few female serial killers in history: Aileen “Lee” Wuornos.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and the label of serial killer really seems unfair. Patty Jenkins’ screenplay was based on interviews with Lee’s friends, but primarily on the numerous letters that she wrote to her friends from prison. It’s here where the film really hits home, because a lot of the narration and dialog is based on Lee’s actual words. Though she was repeatedly sexually abused as a child and became pregnant at thirteen, the audience doesn’t learn of this until much later in the film, when she’s telling it to another character. Until then, we can only be stunned by the blasé manner in which she talks about turning tricks as a street prostitute. At the same time, while she talks as if it’s nothing, we can see in Theron’s performance an undercurrent of bitterness and shame.

The plot is incredibly odd, primarily because it’s a true story. No one would write a story like this because it would be too unbelievable. Leave it to real life to provide the bizarre. While sitting under a freeway overpass in the rain, Theron decides to kill herself with a gun she has, but can’t do it until she spends the last five dollars she has. At a bar she meets Christina Ricci, who is obviously extremely lonely and she manages to ease Theron’s homophobia long enough to spent time with her at the bar and then offer her a place to sleep. Ricci, we learn, is from an extremely strict religious family and because she is a lesbian has sought refuge in her aunt and uncle’s house. The aunt and the uncle, however, are of a similar religious bent and little better. The two fall in love and, while Theron is out turning tricks she is nearly killed, beginning a long descent into darkness.

Theron’s appearance is dramatically altered and is, at times, eerie. She evidentally gained a good deal of weight for the role and the makeup, a set of false teeth and textured skin, completely transform her. In literary terms, the film is certainly a tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Wuornos would have had any chance at all for a normal life. And in an Academy Award winning performance, Charlize Theron allows us to see that in Wuornos’s own words. It’s a disturbing film, moving but with a deep undercurrent of futility at the same time. We see her try, ala Erin Brockovich, to get a job, but we know it’s never going to happen. And what eventually transpires, while we can’t condone it, we can certainly better understand it thanks to Patty Jenkins. Monster is a powerful film and one that confronts us to wonder who the real monster is, the killer or the society that created her.

Deception (1946)

Director: Irving Rapper                                 Writers: John Collier & Joseph Than
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold            Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and John Abbott

Deception is an interesting post-war film that, at least on the surface, seems to have a lot going for it. First of all a great cast; second, a solid director, and finally a first-class score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. For all that, however, the film itself is rather dull. The story was originally a French, post World War One play called Monsieur Lamberthier, originally purchased by Warner Brothers for Barbara Stanwyck. It centered on a kept woman who believes the man she loved before the war is dead. When he returns she doesn’t know how to tell him of her situation and so she begins a barrage of lies in order to keep him from leaving her.

Bette Davis is a pianist/composter who has been a kept woman in a New York apartment by a famous composer played by Claude Rains. But when cellist Paul Henreid comes to the States on a small concert tour, Davis realizes it’s her long lost love from before the war. They reunite instantly, but Henreid becomes suspicious when he sees her expensive furnishings and clothing. Davis, of course, lies about everything. Rains shows up in time for their wedding and just about comes unglued with jealousy. But then he devises a plan to destroy the new couple, by offering Henreid the opportunity to play his cello concerto. How Rains is going to use the concert to get into both their heads is the real suspense of the film, and he has Davis in a panic throughout most of it.

This is definitely one of Davis’s lesser performances, not as convincing as some of her earlier films. Paul Henreid’s character is just as oblivious here about his leading lady as he was in Casablanca and, as such, is the perfect choice. The star of the show, and the villain, is Claude Rains who does everything but chew the scenery and twirl his moustache. It’s a great role and you can see onscreen how much he relishes it. Not as restrained, perhaps, as it could have been, but it’s still quite entertaining. Irving Rapper, who had worked with all of the principles on Now, Voyager does a good job, but nothing really noteworthy.

The real star of the show is Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Not only did he write a lush, romantic score for the film, but a cello concerto and a bunch of orchestral incidental music. Not coincidentally, some of the best camera angles are during the concert scene at the end of the film. It’s certainly an interesting story, and some of the acting is really good, but it’s not necessarily a great film. In the end it seems a bit stilted, designed as a set-piece for Korngold, and given something of a perfunctory performance from Davis. Still, Korngold wrote a mere seventeen film scores and all of those films are worth seeing just for his music. Deception is no exception.

Sea of Love (1989)

Director: Harold Becker                                Writer: Richard Price
Film Score: Trevor Jones                             Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor
Starring: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman and John Spencer

This is one of those great films that just seems to happen and, for no reason, exceeds all expectations. In the first place you have Harold Becker, a minor director who had done a couple of interesting films in the early eighties. You also have Ellen Barkin who was still at the beginning of her career, though definitely on an upward trajectory. And finally, Al Pacino, who was at quite a low point, not having made a film in five years. Producer Martin Bregman, who had worked with Pacino as far back as 1973 with Serpico, brought him in to star in Sea of Love and hoped for a miracle. And it happened.

The film is a combination murder mystery and police procedural. When several men are found shot in their beds, the only link is that they were dating women through the personal ads. Pacino is a detective who gets the first case, and winds up teaming with John Goodman, a detective from another borough with a similar case. Pacino comes up with the idea to put their own ad in the personals, get the woman’s fingerprints on a glass, and then they’ll have their killer. When Ellen Barkin shows up, however, she has no interest in Pacino and bolts without leaving prints. But they meet later at a neighborhood grocery story and suddenly things click between them. The only problem: she could be the killer.

Above all, Pacino’s performance is stellar, probably because the down-and-out cop role rings so true for where he was in his career at the time. His emotional performance, on so many levels, fear, anger, passion, is a clinic on great film acting. Barkin definitely holds her own, however, and is a powerful presence on the screen as well. Their fiery romance is one for the cinematic ages. The rest of the cast is equally good in supporting roles. John Goodman, before he became a cliché, has a nice turn as Pacino’s partner, bringing equal parts humor and seriousness to his role. John Spencer is Pacino’s lieutenant and has a couple of good one-liners. Also onboard is the great Richard Jenkins, William Hickey, Paul Calderon, and Jacqueline Brooks as Barkin’s mother.

The directing is okay, but what really stands out are the performances of the actors. There is a lot of great tension and suspense in the script and it definitely keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. The music is also an important part of film. The title song, blaring from the soundtrack, is incredibly eerie and unsettling. There is also a great period score by Trevor Jones that utilizes the wailing tenor saxophone of Branford Marsalis. Additionally, there is a lot of humor to go along with the suspense that really works well, and as a result Sea of Love is satisfying on a number of levels. Ultimately it was the comeback that Pacino needed and still remains a classic thriller.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public Enemies (2009)

Director: Michael Mann                                Writers: Ronan Bennett & Michael Mann
Film Score: Elliot Goldenthal                        Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard and Stephen Lang

Yet another telling of the John Dillinger story, which began in 1945 with Lawrence Tierney in the title role of Dillinger, continued with Robert Conrad’s The Lady in Red from 1979, and has now reached Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. In a way, this is a more detailed telling of the last years of Dillinger’s life, and there’s a greater sense of trying to get those details right. For example, unlike the 1979 film, which has Dillinger’s girlfriend going to the movies with him and signaling the FBI agents, in reality she was sitting in a jail cell when he was gunned down. But the new film also gives equal time to Melvin Purvis, who headed up the investigation in Chicago.

The film opens with Johnny Depp as Dillinger, being processed into the Indiana State Prison, where his friends inside have engineered a successful escape. The scene next shifts to Christian Bale as Purvis, gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd in Ohio, thus introducing the two characters who will be playing a deadly game of cat and mouse the rest of the film. Dillinger has great success robbing banks because, as he says, the police can’t be everywhere at once. On the flip side, J. Edgar Hoover has become embarrassed by the success of the bank robbers and sets Purvis up as the point man to take them down. One of the interesting things about historical films like this, where the audience knows the outcome, is what the writers and director do to build suspense. In this case it’s rather easy, as so many myths have been proliferated in older films that by telling the real story it becomes fresh and new.

The most curious thing about this film, however, and simultaneously its biggest downfall, is that there’s very little character development. Most of the blame for that I would probably place at the feet of director Michael Mann as there is a definite vacuous quality to his films, an absence of emotional center. The only time that he has really been able to avoid that is with Collateral. Here, however, it’s a detriment. Much of the action, for all its excitement, seems superficial and doesn’t allow us any type of audience empathy with the characters the way there is in films like The Godfather or The Untouchables.

That’s too bad, because otherwise the film has a lot going for it. The production design is excellent and the period comes alive in the hands of Nathan Crowley. In addition, the acting is very good. I’m not a fan of Johnny Depp, but he does a nice job here. Christian Bale, who was riveting in 3:10 to Yuma, makes a valiant effort but is unable to lift the proceedings either. The real center of the film turns out to be Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s girlfriend. An Oscar award-winning actress, she’s captivating on screen and is able to elicit the most audience identification. Public Enemies is by no means a bad film. It’s great as a period piece, and the historical accuracy is impressive; it just fails to connect with audiences in an emotional way and therefore doesn’t live up to its tremendous promise.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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

As someone who owns the entire original Star Trek television series and all of the feature films, I've had absolutely no interest in the modern spin-offs. I’ve never seen a single episode of Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine or Enterprise and so it's no surprise that I was delighted with the first Star Trek prequel. Finally, Kirk, Spock, Scottie, Bones and the gang--the reason I loved the original series in the first place--were back on the big screen. Star Trek Into Darkness is the latest entry in the franchise, reprising all of the old characters and letting us see them as they develop into the tight-knit crew they would become in the series and films.

This one begins on the planet Nibiru which, of course, is the name of the fictional doomsday planet that conspiracy theorists say is on the other side of the sun paralleling the earth. In the new film it is simply a planet with a primitive population that Kirk and McCoy are attempting to escape from while Spock neutralizes the volcano that threatens to kill all life on the planet. Due to certain “irregularities” during the mission, Kirk is called into Pike’s office and demoted to first officer under Pike himself and Spock reassigned. But events intervene when a rogue Federation officer John Harrison bombs a London archive as a ploy to get the top Starfleet officers together in one place. Eventually Kirk is sent out to track down Harrison and kill him . . . with utterly unexpected consequences.

Chris Pike is just terrific again as the new Kirk and I’m finally beginning to warm to Zachary Quinto as Spock. The fact that Quinto's looks and behavior approximate Nimoy’s slightly more than the other actors resemble the originals has kind of worked against him for me. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is also great casting. In fact, the entire crew does a terrific job of emulating their TV show counterparts, which is not necessarily a fun job for an actor, but is admirable just the same, especially for fans of the original series. And that is the real joy of this film. To see the young James T. Kirk risking life and limb, making gut decisions, the taunting of Spock by Bones McCoy, and the frantic energy of Scottie and Chekov is just so great to see again. One of the added treats in the film is a cameo by Leonard Nemoy. Benedict Cumberbatch is the guest star and plays a great villain that will put a smile on the faces of Trek fans.

Of course there is a lot of action, plenty of great special effects, and a great script that references plenty of the classic phrases from the original series. As a film in its own right, it’s perhaps not a great piece of work. For someone like me, however, who loves the characters, it’s nearly impossible to be objective. And so other Trekkies should be thoroughly pleased by the results. Star Trek Into Darkness is another worthy entry to the series preceding the TV show. We can only hope that the new series will live long and prosper.

Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                            Writer: Joseph Sefano
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                     Cinematography: John L. Russell
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles & John Gavin

Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest period of commercial success was certainly in the fifties. He made a string of hits that are all masterpieces, including Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and North by Northwest. But I would argue that he reached his zenith with Psycho in 1960. Certainly it’s difficult to make comparisons of that film with the big budget Technicolor blockbusters that preceded it, but I still think it’s a cut above. There is an extreme confidence at work in the film, bourn out of the previous decade, that would not survive into the sixties. Psycho, however, is like the Citizen Kane of horror films and yet, unlike Welles’ masterpiece, Hitchcock’s film continues to influence to the present day.

The story is so familiar that it hardly needs reprising here. Based on the original case of serial murderer Ed Gein, author Robert Bloch turned the raw material into a popular novel that was published in 1959. Hitch loved it and thought it would be perfect for his next film, but unfortunately the studio disagreed. One of the myths of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is that his decision to film in black and white was solely to make a brilliant version of the exploitation drive-in films that were so popular at the time. The truth is he owed Paramount one more film and they didn’t want to pay for Psycho. So Hitch decided to finance the film himself, which necessitated the low budget. The production of the film is also the subject matter for the recent biopic on the director, Hitchcock.

Everything about the film is perfect. Janet Leigh was a brilliant human red herring, the apparent star of the film who dies a mere forty five minutes in. Anthony Perkins is so good in the role of Norman Bates that he is thoroughly believable. Vera Miles, who was tragically unable to appear in Vertigo, is really underrated here, taking up the baton from Leigh in the film and carrying the heroine role to the conclusion. Hitchcock’s conception of the story is also spot on, with a wonderful script by Joseph Stefano that emphasizes the psychological aspects of the character of Norman Bates without obsessing on the murders. The shower scene is, of course, a masterpiece of montage, and when you add in Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score it’s obvious why the film has become an all time classics.

Charles Taylor’s essay on Psycho for The A List does a nice job of identifying what makes the film so great, though he doesn’t really present a coherent thesis for hanging his ideas on. The thrust of his argument, and it's a good one, is that this is a film of distances, between the audience and the characters and the characters with each other. The audience identifies with Janet Leigh from the start, as she is in every scene until she dies. When she meets Perkins the two seem light years apart, that is, until their scene in the parlor. Then it becomes clear to her how similar they are, trapped by circumstances that they have allowed to control their lives. But immediately Leigh separates from Perkins and decides to take control and go back home. After her death it’s relatively easy for the audience to switch their allegiance to Perkins because of the circumstances with his mother. Taylor makes a nice observation here. The audience is on Norman’s side as he attempts to erase the evidence of his “mother’s” crime and especially, though not mentioned by Taylor, when he is being grilled by the great Martin Balsam.

When it is finally revealed that Norman is responsible for the deaths the audience obviously pulls back their identification with him and, in Taylor’s words, “the distance between him and ‘mother’ has collapsed just as the distance between Norman and ourselves has suddenly become too wide to traverse.” Another point he makes is with Hitch’s subversion of audience expectations and the way in which a slasher film that is almost sanitary by today’s standards still packs more of an emotional wallop than almost anything that has been filmed since. And that is almost exclusively due to Hitchcock and his writer, Joe Stefano. Psycho is a masterpiece of storytelling, one of Hitchcock’s best films, and still one of the most influential movies in film history.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg                          Writer: Steven Knight
Film Score: Howard Shore                           Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl

You would think that with the advancing years, the technological revolution, the enlightenment of society, that sex slavery would be diminishing. And yet it flourishes. What does that say about our capacity as humans to treat woman in ways that are barbaric? This is a difficult topic for me to get my head around. Very difficult. And like Taken or The Jammed, Eastern Promises exposes what we already know exists, and yet seem helpless to stop. Like the war on drugs, stopping sex trafficking seems fruitless because there is always a market for men who want to rape women in a safe--for the men--environment. It is, in a word, horrifying. But is it entertainment? Should it be entertainment?

The question is almost a moot point given that director David Cronenberg is at the helm, as his vision of entertainment can be pretty extreme. But here he steps back and goes mainstream. What he shows of the sex slavery is tame in comparison with a film like Taken, because that is not his point. It’s more of a philosophical exploration and a character study. A pregnant girl who winds up in Naomi Watts’ emergency room dies giving birth to her child. But Watts also finds her diary, written in Russian. Unfortunately she finds a business card of a Russian restaurant and goes there, little knowing that this is the center of operations of the Russian sex trafficking going on in London. Now that the owner, Armin Mueller-Stahl, knows what she knows, he has targeted her and her family for termination.

Viggo Mortensen plays the driver, and new recruit by Mueller-Stahl’s son, Vincent Cassel. What begins as a possible expose on sex slavery, however, is quickly understood to be something of a British version of The Godfather, with Russians instead of Italians. Mortensen was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, the closest a mid-level actor like him is likely to get to the statuette. Which is not to diminish his performance, but the type of films he appears in are not apt to win him many further nominations. Mueller-Stahl is the real chilling character in the film, the Russian Brando, he runs his mafia family in London and is utterly ruthless. Naomi Watts is the innocent who stumbles upon the truth. I’m not sure she was the right choice here. I mean, it works, sort of, but a more Russian looking actress might have been better.

It’s not a great film, but it is good. It doesn’t dwell on the slavery aspect as much as it does the mafia and that tends to diminish the impact of what these men are doing. It’s as if Coppola elected not to show any murders in The Godfather. Vincent Cassel plays the stereotypical crazed youth wallowing in his father’s wake from any number of films: Sonny in The Godfather, Little Junior in Kiss of Death, etc. Cronenberg has his moments, the Turkish bath scene is especially suspenseful without going over the top into the impossible, but for the most part it’s a workman-like effort. Eastern Promises is probably best enjoyed by Viggo Mortensen fans, as he does deliver an Oscar worthy performance. The rest of the film, for all its promise, burns less brightly.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Director: David Fincher                               Writer: Steven Zaillian
Film Score: Trent Reznor                            Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgård

The last time a film haunted me for days afterward was David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Well, it happened again when I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have to admit I’m developing a real affinity for European films. There is something so different, so real, so . . . grown up about Europe that I can’t help being drawn to it. The film is, of course, based on the best selling novel by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson. It’s very interesting to note that the murder mystery itself is rather conventional but, as I said earlier with The Transporter, what makes it unique is the European setting, and in the end that’s a lot. Once again, Fincher has made a powerful movie that is incredibly commercial and yet incredibly satisfying at the same time.

Daniel Craig is an investigative journalist who has lost a libel suit. At the same time someone is doing an investigation on Craig, and though initially it appears this has something to do with the trial, the investigation is actually a preface to Craig being hired by tycoon Christopher Plummer to find out who killed his niece decades before. The person doing the investigative work on Craig is Rooney Mara, the title character. Her struggle with life as a ward of the state, is a film in itself, and does a lot to explain her character. But when Craig reaches a difficult point in his murder investigation and sees the work she has done on him, he convinces her to help him. Plummer’s family are all suspects. They are the usual highly dysfunctional relatives we see in the super rich, and yet they all live cheek and jowl together on a small island in the north of Sweden.

The actual murder mystery in the story isn’t all that unique, and so it’s the actors who really make this film work. Daniel Craig is so good it makes one sad that he has mired himself in the James Bond films, but that may be coming to an end soon. As an investigator he is very well cast and his maneuvers in the European milieu are wonderful. It’s also fantastic to see Stellan Skarsgård again. He's a commanding character actor who is on his home turf in Sweden and makes the most of it. Robin Wright is a nice addition as well. But at the end of the day this is Rooney Mara’s film. If she hadn’t been going up against Meryl Streep I’m convinced she would have won the Academy Award that year--though I still think she deserved it more than Streep. Mara’s performance is so convincing, so genuine that every movement, every reaction is real and it makes her struggle real as well.

This was not an easy film for me to watch, especially with what happens to Mara. The original title of Larsson’s novel was Men Who Hate Women, and the story is certainly that. I still haven’t been able to shake the images. Despite what happens eventually in the film, there are some acts for which there is no revenge, absolutely no way to even the score. It’s a haunting film. David Fincher is a director with a brilliant touch and a way of telling a story that is incredibly moving: Se7en, The Fight Club, Zodiac, and the list goes on. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is just the latest example of his extraordinary gifts.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012)

Director: Louis Morneau                               Writers: Michael Tabb & Catherine Cyran
Film Score: Michael Wandmacher                Cinematography: Philip Robertson
Starring: Stephen Rea, Ed Quinn, Guy Wilson and Ana Ularu

Okay, this is a direct to video film that deserves all of the negative criticism it has received. Still, there’s something that raises this above the ordinary Z-list horror film. In the first place, it was associated with Universal. Granted, a production company called Universal 1440, whatever that is, but with enough ties to the parent company that they were able to draw on the legacy of The Wolf Man films--not that it did them much good. But as I say, still . . . I measure bad movies by the speed at which I shut them off and go on to something else. Now, maybe I’m a sucker for werewolf films, which I am, but Werewolf: The Beast Among Us wasn’t bad enough to turn off and to me that means it’s not worth not watching.

The story begins with a woman on the run, traps obviously set for the werewolf being tripped by her, but she makes it to an isolated cabin in the woods. While the man in the house bars the door his wife gives an amulet to their son. When the woman on the run reaches the door she pounds and begs for entry, but instead the man begins shooting at her. Suddenly the werewolf arrives and begins tearing shingles off the roof, finally bursting in through the wall. The wolf kills the man, then kills the woman, but before the boy can be killed he drops the chandelier on the werewolf, simultaneously setting the cabin on fire. When the fire begins to kill the wolf and it reverts back to human form, we see at last that it was the woman on the run. Later the boy grows up to be a werewolf hunter and with a group of other like minded individuals, hires themselves out to rid the world of the scourge.

At this point the film assumes something like a cross between Van Helsing and the remake of The Wolfman, but before long it becomes clear the most influential film on the script is actually Jaws. Ed Quinn is the grown up boy, playing the Quint character. He comes into a village that has just experience a number of werewolf attacks and tells the mayor that he needs to double the bounty or they won’t kill the werewolf. The Hooper character is played by Guy Wilson, a young medical apprentice to the town doctor, Stephen Rea, who wants to help with the werewolf hunt. Again, the acting isn’t very good, and the script makes the audience groan at times, but not quite enough to turn it off. Probably the best thing about the structure of the story is that there are so many suspects. Wilson has a love interest whose father keeps a shotgun handy to fire at any man who comes near his daughter. Could he be the werewolf?

The film has everything, save villagers with torches and pitchforks--they’re actually too frightened to go out during the full moon. But they hold classic town meetings and blame the killings on the Gypsies in the woods, one of whom intones Curt Siodmak’s classic, “Even a man who is pure in heart” poem from The Wolf Man. Stephen Rea is the biggest name in the cast, but he doesn’t bring much to the proceedings that another, lesser star could have done. Still, it’s nice to see him. The production design is also a notch above a lot of schlock horror these days. The only real recommendation I can make about Werewolf: The Beast Among Us is that it’s just good enough not to be bad. Certainly not a rousing endorsement but I kind of liked it anyway.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vampyr (1932)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer                      Writers: Christen Jul & Carl Theodor Dreyer
Film Score: Wolfgang Zeller                        Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz

The very first thing one notices about Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is the fluid motion of the camera. I’ve written before that the myth of the stationary camera is just that. All one has to do is look at the two versions of Universal’s Dracula to see that the blame really lies with the director. While the American version with Lugosi is static and stage bound, the Mexican version with Carlos Villarias is fluid and energetic. Perhaps in the late twenties at the beginning of the sound era the myth was true, but by the thirties there was no excuse. Dreyer shows just how expressive the camera itself can be, and how much that movement adds to the supernatural aspect of his vampire thriller. The lens, in Dreyer’s hands, is like an apparition that follows the protagonist through his haunted dreams of death.

Julian West is absolutely perfect as the student of the occult who, on his travels, stops at a small village to spend the night. Awakened by a mysterious visitor, he gets up and goes outside, only to see disembodied shadows walking about on their own, moving backwards, dancing, and sometimes meeting up with their human counterparts. West is the wide-eyed observer off all this, including the death of the man who visited his room earlier. He had two daughters, one of whom has been bitten by a vampire and is confined to her bed, the other stricken with grief. Ostensibly a retelling of the Sheridan LeFanu novella Carmilla, in Dreyer’s hands it is greatly simplified, and yet becomes so much more. Atmospheric, haunting in the very telling, it would be the closest thing to a genuine supernatural experience on film until George C. Scott’s The Changeling.

The film is a curious sort of hybrid between silent and sound. While there is an interesting score by Wolfgang Zeller, there is also very little dialogue. For long stretches it feels like a silent film, until someone starts to speak and suddenly it’s something else. But again, this is part of the effect, whether accidental or on purpose, experiencing the dream-like quality of silent film in which that dream is broken occasionally by the impossible sound of voices or sound effects. It’s a beautiful experience. There are also title cards that tell part of the story, as was done in the silent era. The actual print has large German type lettering for subtitles which were not added by the company producing the video but there are very few of them, and there also appears to be some lost frames between shots as the soundtrack jumps quite a bit in places. Another aspect of the film is the apparently severe damage to parts of the print, some of which was intended by Dreyer, thus intensifying the impact of the film even further.

As with LeFanu’s story, the vampire is a woman. In Dreyer’s conception, however, she is an old woman, helped by a Renfield-like character in the form of a doctor. With the aid of an old book on vampires left by the father, West and a servant attempt to destroy the vampire before the girl dies. In a brilliant sequence, West falls asleep and his spirit sees himself in a coffin, and with the camera in the subjective viewpoint he is taken to the graveyard. Dreyer was simply a genius in his sense of composition and his films, like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, are some of the most powerful pieces of cinematic art in existence. Even in taking on the low-brow supernatural subject of the vampire, his artistic sense is keen and powerful. Vampyr is not just a great horror film, it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking.

Salt (2010)

Director: Phillip Noyce                                Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Film Score: James Newton Howard             Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor and August Diehl

I had a very curious reaction to the film Salt. While I certainly enjoyed it, when it was all over I couldn’t help feeling, “Is that all there is?” There were two reasons for this, I figured out. The first is that, from the beginning, this film was setting itself up for a sequel. I had the same feeling when I reached the end of The Bourne Legacy, but then that was the fourth film in the series and I could forgive it for that. Here it smacks of a pretty huge assumption that, as yet, hasn’t been fulfilled. The other is the script itself. There’s simply no down time in the film, no chance for the characters to catch their breath like there is in say . . . The Bourne Identity, with the long drive in the car or the time in the apartment. Other than that, I really had a good time.

Sort of a combination of No Way Out--itself a remake of The Big Clock--and The Manchurian Candidate, it tells an episode in the life of CIA agent Evelyn Salt that begins with her imprisonment in a North Korean prison for suspicions of being a spy. When her release is finally negotiated by her German husband, who has been able to work all kinds of public channels, she realizes that he is now exposed because, of course, she is a spy. Back at work, a Russian defector tells the agency that she is actually a Russian mole and launches her into the first of her harrowing escapes in order to save her husband from the Russians who would kill him. Why? Because she is, in fact, Russian, raised in complete American immersion in order to be planted in the United States in deep cover since childhood. It’s a convoluted plot, but one that relatively easy to understand as it unfolds in the film.

Angelina Jolie is very good as Salt. She does a nice job with the disguises she wears, something that’s a little different from the Bourne franchise. Throughout the film she is trying to be reeled back in by Liev Schreiber, who is her good friend at the agency and has a difficult time believing she could be a mole, and Chiwetel Ejiofor who doesn’t have any such qualms, knowing only that she’s a rogue agent and they can sort out the details once she’s captured. As I stated up front, there’s a relentless quality to the film that is not in its favor. With absolutely no time to reflect, the audience doesn’t get the opportunity to empathize with Jolie, which is a shame. She has a very engaging presence onscreen and as an audience member I wanted to connect with her even more. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t allow for that. Salt is clearly a film made for action/adventure/spy fans and it definitely delivers on that score. I only hope that if the franchise continues we can spend more time with the character so that she doesn’t become simply another cartoon hero.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Director: Baz Luhrmann                              Writer: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Film Score: Craig Armstrong                       Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton

I have to say I had very low expectations going into this film. I had absolutely hated Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge and so I completely expected another debacle. It turns out it wasn’t that bad, but it definitely did not live up to what The Great Gatsby could have been in more deft hands. This is the classic story by F. Scott Fitzgerald of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire living on Long Island who attempts to get back together with his former love, Daisy. Set in the 1920s, it’s a time of excess in the country, a period of extreme confidence in being a world power and winning World War I, and as a result a time of overconfidence that ended in destruction. Gatsby embodies those attributes perfectly. Unfortunately, Luhrmann does everything he can to subvert that context and take us out of the time period altogether.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gatsby, and it feels as if he was directed rather poorly. He plays the title character as nervous, lacking confidence, and very artificial in terms of his behavior. Now this could, I suppose, be one of the interpretations of the character where his actions on screen serve to expose the truth about him in a not-so-subtle way. But it doesn’t work. The basic artificiality of the character is not what should drive the story, especially in the fist half of the film. He needs to be supremely confident and comfortable in his façade and allow the audience to discover his secret along with Nick. It’s just too forced. Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick is also problematic. He’s a little too wide-eyed and innocent. As he says in the first line of the film, he withholds judgment of people, but that doesn’t mean he's gullible. He’s certainly not in Fitzgerald’s novel. Carey Mulligan is good as Daisy, but in this film it comes off as a rather generic role, something a lot of good actresses could have handled with ease.

The biggest problem I had with the film, however, was the way Luhrmann completely undercut the setting. First there was the use of modern rap and pop songs in the soundtrack. Whatever the purpose, and I can’t think of one, it became an anachronism that the film never escaped from. In that context, “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin becomes little more than a throwaway rather than being the centerpiece of what could have been, say, a Gershwin based score. It’s such a shame because there are a myriad ways that period music could have been used in a modern way and really enhanced the picture. The other thing that destroyed the setting was the overuse of CGI. Almost all of the exteriors, including New York City, were done with computer animation and it destroys whatever sense of the time period that had been attempted. Again, there were actual period inserts early on in the film that, if used as a leitmotif, could have been brilliant but were never used after that.

In the end, the use of technology overwhelms the story, and in the viewer's mind the visual effects replace the emotion that should be the focus of the film. The modern music also undercuts what should be an emphasis on the period, and the acting is misdirected. It’s not a horrible film, but it’s not a good film either. It was a nice attempt at updating a classic, but Luhrmann was probably not the director to do it. His vision is style over substance and that’s definitely not what’s needed when tackling a period piece. The second half of the film is decidedly better than the first, but half a film is not really worth it. Ultimately The Great Gatsby is a disappointment, though one that was expected, and while it’s worth a look it’s not something that I’ll be adding to my collection.