Monday, September 30, 2013

Shooter (2007)

Director: Antoine Fuqua                                   Writer: Jonathan Lemkin
Film Score: Mark Mancina                               Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Danny Glover, Michael Peña and Kate Mara

Shooter is a very nice action film, even though it’s not very original. Based on a novel by Stephen Hunter, a writer who is not very original himself, it’s essentially the same plot as the film F/X though it’s probably been used dozens of times, both before and after that film. Essentially Mark Wahlberg is a man with a skill that an unsanctioned government agency needs to use. They hire him, he does the job, and they attempt to dispose of him to tie up loose ends. But of course his special skills enable him to escape his fate and live to seek revenge upon the very people who hired him and continue to underestimate him. It’s part Rambo, part Bourne, and part Sniper, and even with the derivative nature of the film it’s an entertaining action picture that works well and manages to avoid a lot of impossible situations that would push it into James Bond territory.

Wahlberg is a highly trained Marine sniper who is left to die when the covert mission he’s on does not allow for his extraction. His spotter, Lane Garrison, is killed but Wahlberg makes it out on his own. Years later, military man Danny Glover comes to him in his remote, back-woods cabin and begs him to help the government prevent the assassination of the president by a long-range sniper. If Wahlberg can figure out where the sniper might nest, maybe they can stop him. Wahlberg reluctantly agrees, and when he is in position during the president’s speech, he is shot and falls out the window just as the sniper shot is fired, killing an African bishop on the dais with the president. Wahlberg survives the fall and begins a run for his life, stealing a car from FBI rookie Michael Peña, and eventually making it to the house of his spotter’s widow, Kate Mara.

Of course Glover’s agency is the one who engineered the assassination of the Bishop and are using Wahlberg as their fall guy. They leave his gun at the scene, plaster his name and photo all over the media to flush him out and kill him, and when that doesn’t work they set up a trap. Except that Wahlberg knows that going in. Assisting him are Peña, who has reasons to believe that Wahlberg is being set up, Mara, who patched his wounds up and contacted Peña, and Peña’s colleague at the FBI, Rhona Mitra. After a while, when Glover can’t close the deal, it becomes clear that he is being run by corrupt senator Ned Beaty who is in charge of the illegal activities Glover is carrying out. Again, though not very ingenious, or even suspenseful, it is interesting to see how Wahlberg wiggles out of his troubles.

Mark Wahlberg, ever since his association with George Clooney in Three Kings and The Perfect Storm, has had a positive career trajectory that includes The Italian Job and Academy Award nominations for The Departed and The Fighter. He makes a credible action hero and has a very natural acting style. Danny Glover, of course, is a legend, but he is getting a little long in the tooth since his breakout performance in Witness and soon after becoming a member of Lawrence Kasdan’s stock company. The real gem here is Michael Peña, who has gone from minor roles in films like Million Dollar Baby and The Lincoln Lawyer to starring roles and is quite convincing. Shooter, in the end, is an enjoyable action film that delivers right down the line of genre expectations and succeeds.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Suspicion (1941)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                Writers: Samson Raphaelson & Joan Harrison
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Starring: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Leo G. Carroll

One of Alfred Hitcock’s most confident outings, Suspicion came on the heels of his triumph in Rebecca and starred Joan Fontaine as well, who won an Oscar for her efforts. And also like Rebecca, Hitchock’s film was nominated while the director himself was snubbed, which makes no sense at all. The film is tremendous and to this day remains one of the master’s least predictable and most interesting works. Based on the chilling novel Before the Fact, by Anthony Berkeley, it’s the story of a lonely, spinsterish woman who falls in love with a psychopathic criminal who marries her for her money. Fontaine plays the woman, Lena, who meets the criminal, Cary Grant, on a train back to the village where she lives with her parents.

Grant was one of Hitchcock’s best heroes, but this film is unique in that he is cast as the villain of the picture. The conflict is based on the fact that he is so secretive with Fontaine. When he borrows money for their honeymoon, she doesn’t find out until afterward he has no way of paying it back. When her father gives the couple a pair of antique chairs, Grant immediately sells them for gambling money, but buys them back when he wins big at the racetrack. It’s an up and down existence for Fontaine, who hasn’t really the nerves for his deceptions, and yet at the same time is desperately in love with him. Even the calming influence of Nigel Bruce as Grant’s best friend isn’t enough to quell her suspicions. But when Grant’s interests begin turning to murder, pumping mystery novelist Auriol Lee about poisons, she becomes convinced that he’s going to kill her to get the money he needs.

This was Cary Grant’s first film with Hitch, and he would go on to make Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and one of the greatest films for both men, North by Northwest. For Joan Fontaine and Nigel Bruce it would be the last of their two collaborations with the great director. Sir Cedric Hardwicke appears in his only Hitchcock film, while Hitch also hired one of his most frequent collaborators, Leo G. Carroll, who would appear in more Hitchcock films than any other actor. The direction is wonderful, with the shadow of the window casting a web across the stairway, implying that Fontaine is trapped in her marriage. This is made explicit when Grant as the spider brings up the glowing glass of milk at the end of the picture that may or may not contain poison. The film also benefits from a memorable score by Franz Waxman.

While stories about the difference between the book and the film revolve around the fact that the ending is dramatically changed, it seems pretty clear that this was Hitchcock’s intent from the very beginning. The oft-told story is that RKO was concerned about Grant’s image and refused to have him portrayed as a cold-blooded killer. What Hitch had really wanted was something a bit more nefarious in the end, but nothing like the grimness of the character in the novel. And ultimately the film makes a lot more sense, given the rollercoaster ride the audience takes along with Fontaine, the way it stands. The story, the ending, the music, all make Suspicion an incredibly satisfying film experience.

I Am Love (2009)

Director: Luca Guadagnino                              Writer: Luca Guadagnino
Film Score: John Adams                                 Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini and Alba Rohrwacher

Unlike American films which seem in an awful rush to tell you what they’re about, European films tend to unfold in their own way. They take their time establishing character so that, when something finally happens to them the audience actually cares about what happens. In fact, the first genuine conflict in I Am Love (Lo sono l’amore) doesn’t come until a full hour into it. I came to this film through Alba Rohrwacher after being incredibly impressed with her performance in Come Undone. And in looking for another title of hers I found one with another of my favorite actresses, Tilda Swinton. Writer-director Luca Guadagnino has primarily been a director of short films, including one about Swinton, and she helped finance this feature. There are no car chases, no explosions, no cute dialogue, just real, human drama that is ultimately captivating.

The film begins in winter, with snow covering Milan. Scenes of the gradually darkening city are intercut with a dinner party taking place at a large, modern estate. Tilda Swinton is in charge and soon it becomes clear that she and her husband are hosting a birthday party for her husband’s father. Her three children are in attendance, the eldest Flavio Parenti, the middle daughter Alba Rohrwacher, and the youngest Mattia Zaccaro. The patriarch of the family, owner of a large textile manufacturing company, is ill and he announces he is leaving the company to his son and Parenti. When the scene shifts to the springtime, the patriarch has died and Swinton begins discovering things about her children, the first being that Rohrwacher is gay, a revelation but not something devastating. She also meets Parenti’s best friend, Edoardo Gabbriellini, a chef who wants Parenti to finance a restaurant up in the hills outside of San Remo.

Eventually the audience learns that Swinton is Russian, and married her husband when he was doing business in St. Petersburg. Once living in Italy, however, she allowed herself to become Italian, and never went back. Food is a focal point in the film, but not an obsession. Only two scenes really focus directly on it, the first when Swinton, her mother-in-law, and future daughter-in-law go to eat in the restaurant where Gabbriellini currently works and she has an almost erotic encounter with the food. But it’s not made clear that she is thinking about him in that way, even when she follows him in a chance encounter in San Remo. It’s only when he takes her up to see the place he wants to start his restaurant that he suddenly approaches her from behind and kisses her, the camera wonderfully out of focus. And that, it turns out, is the real conflict, the choice between an increasingly loveless marriage or the thrill of new love with a younger man. The climax of the film is the second scene that obsesses over food.

Tilda Swinton is simply amazing, speaking Italian and Russian and, in one charming scene, unable to understand English. Parenti does well enough, though he’s nothing out of the ordinary, and Rohrwacher’s role was so small that I was really disappointed not to see more of her. Gabbriellini seems an odd choice for the romantic lead, but it works, and his scenes with Swinton are equally odd, and work equally as well. Director Guadagnino makes some odd choices as well, such as the intercutting between the naked couple in a field and the close-ups of insects on flowers. It’s seems as if it should be incredibly trite but, again, it’s somehow forgivable in the context of a beautifully moving film. And the injection of nature and the seasons into the movement of the film is very well done, providing a powerful context within which to frame the story. I Am Love is an incredible film, moving in a subtle way that doesn’t catch up to the viewer until the very end. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Invisible Ray (1936)

Director: Lambert Hillyer                                  Writer: John Colton
Film Score: Franz Waxman                             Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frances Drake and Beulah Bondi

This was the last year of production for Universal under the control of the Laemmles, before bad business decisions and financial downturn forced them to give up control of the company and sell out. It was also one of the last films that Lugosi and Karloff appeared in together during their careers. The Invisible Ray stars Karloff as a crazed scientist who has been able to harness light rays from a distant galaxy and is able to show the images from the past that are captured within the light. It’s a farfetched theory that is cleverly done by the art department at Universal, complete with giant telescope, a monstrous computer, and a globe that transmits the images on the domed ceiling. Of course this leads to an African safari to recover the new atomic element that was shown crashing to Earth “thousands of millions of years ago:” Radium X.

The story is so corny that it seems as if it should be bad. But it’s actually quite charming. Lugosi plays a fellow scientist who has been at odds with Karloff over his theories. The great Beulah Bondi is Lady Stevens, whose husband is another famous scientist. And her nephew is Frank Lawton, who falls in love with Karloff’s young wife, Frances Drake, who only married Karloff because it was her late father’s wish. In Africa Karloff locates the space element only to discover he has been poisoned by the intense radiation from it. Lugosi is able to develop a counteractive treatment to prevent further degeneration of Karloff, but it can’t cure him. When Karloff is under the influence of the radiation sickness his skin glows in the dark and he can kill with a touch of his hand. After his treatment, he naturally rushes off to complete his discovery, leaving Drake in the hands of Lawton, both of them smitten with each other but unable to do anything about it.

Karloff gives a solid performance, as always, but it is Lugosi who dominates the screen in their scenes together. While Karloff is the crazed villain, Lugosi stands as the force for good, the scientist who wants to use the discovery for curing people. As in most Universal thrillers, the couple in love are fairly generic. Frances Drake is good, so far as her part allows her, but little more. And Frank Lawton is the usual interchangeable British love interest. The one highlight in the supporting cast is Beulah Bondi, who would be nominated for an Academy Award that year for The Gorgeous Hussey. She was rarely seen in thrillers and does a great job here, but one wishes she could have played more villainous roles like those played by Judith Anderson. There’s also a nice little cameo appearance by Frank Reicher who played Captain Englehorn in King Kong.

Director Lambert Hillyer does a decent job, though nothing like his atmospheric masterpiece Dracula's Daughter from later that year. The script was written by John Colton who had written The Werewolf of London the previous year, and this film retains the same Jekyll and Hyde theme, with Karloff gradually succumbing to the overwhelming destructive urges caused by the radiation poison. Even the costuming reflects the influence of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, with Karloff sporting a flat hat and cape in the later half of the picture while he wreaks his revenge on those he believes have wronged him. One of the most memorable aspects of the film, however, is the score by the great Franz Waxman, who had recently finished scoring Bride of Frankenstein. It would be nice to see an extended treatment of this score, as it is one of only a handful of horror scores by the great film composers of the era. The Invisible Ray is not a horror film, per se, and it’s not terribly suspenseful, but it is entertaining and certainly recommended for fans of the era, and of Lugosi and Karloff especially.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Used Cars (1980)

Director: Robert Zemeckis                              Writers: Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Film Score: Patrick Williams                           Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Starring: Kurt Russell, Jack Warden, Deborah Harmon and Gerrit Graham

Used Cars is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. I know that in the past twenty years there have been plenty of “dumb” comedies, most of them perpetrated on the public by former cast members of Saturday Night Live, but this is something different. There is an intelligence and wit to this film that is utterly lacking in ninety percent of the moronic comedies foisted on audiences today. This was an early effort by writer-director Robert Zemeckis, filmed between the light-hearted Beatles comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand and his breakout film Romancing the Stone. This film not only has great writing but the considerable talents of Kurt Russell as well as the amazing Jack Warden in a dual role.

Kurt Russell works as a used car salesman in a lot owned by Jack Warden as Luke Fuchs. Russell, however, wants to transition into politics and is saving up money to run for the state senate. Warden offers to loan Russell the money, but before he can do it his twin brother Roy, also played by Warden, learns that a freeway is going to be built over his own lot, which is across the street. Roy knows that his brother has a bad heart, and sends a demolition driver over to test drive a car. When the excitement kills Luke, Roy is sure he’ll inherit the lot, but he doesn’t know that Luke’s daughter has rolled into town looking for him. Russell and his co-workers, however, have already buried Luke on the lot and begin a campaign of jamming network television to put their own illegal commercials on the air to drum up business so Russell can earn the money.

But that’s just the beginning of the mayhem. When Deborah Harmon shows up as Luke’s estranged daughter she thinks that he left because of her. Russell needs her to stay, though, to inherit the lot so Roy can’t get his hands on it. Both David Lander and Michael McKean, after finishing their run on Laverne and Shirley, appear as the TV hackers who hijack the broadcasts to put on their commercials. The other salesman at the lot is Gerrit Graham, a superstitious womanizer who is a great foil for Russell, while Frank McRae plays the mechanic who always falls asleep with a blowtorch in his hand. Across the lot Joe Flaherty plays Roy’s lawyer and the great Al Lewis is hanging Judge Harrison who has to decide if Harmon lied on her legit commercial after she kicked the rest of the guys off the lot. In the end, she has to trust Russell and the two hundred and fifty car race to the end is beautifully done.

Zemeckis has a very distinctive directing style, and the look of this film is very much like that of Back to the Future a few years later. Warden was never onscreen with himself as the brothers, so Zemeckis didn’t have to dip into his special effects bag of tricks, but the idea is the same and seems just as impressive. Russell is the perfect protagonist for the slick, quick-talking salesman, and there are some gut-busting sight gags involved with the broken down cars on the lot. What’s puzzling is that Deborah Harmon didn’t go on to bigger and better things. She’s a terrific comedic talent but became mired in TV work after that. Everyone else in the cast has had fairly successful careers and that’s another great aspect of the film, the star-power that could never be afforded these days. Used Cars is a small film, but incredibly artistic and well-paced comedy, thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Family (2013)

Director: Luc Besson                                     Writers: Luc Besson & Michael Calelo
Film Score: Evgueni & Sacha Galperini           Cinematography: Thierry Arbogast
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron and John D’Leo

I freely admit that I am utterly enthralled by Luc Besson, both as a director and a writer. And yet my knowledge of his work only came about a couple of years ago when I first watched Angel-A. In the documentary on the film Jamel Debbouze kept going on and on about what a legendary director Besson was, and yet I had never heard of him. Well all that changed after diving in to La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, The Transporter franchise, and what I consider his best film ever, the aforementioned Angel-A. So, when I saw the previews on TV for The Family, and Besson’s name flashed in the credits, I knew I couldn’t wait for it to come out on video.

Once again Besson indulges in his passion for mobsters and government agents, this time following a family in the U.S. witness protection program living in France. The film opens on the family around the table eating supper when a knock on the door is suddenly followed by an explosion and the assassination of the entire family. After the gunman cuts off the finger of the father and it makes its way back to Attica, the mob boss in prison compares it to fingerprint records and learns it was the wrong family. The right one has just moved into a house in Normandy. Robert De Niro is the father, a former mobster who turned evidence on his mob family so that he could make a better life for his real family, wife Michelle Pfeiffer, daughter Dianna Agron and son John D’Leo. Across the street live two FBI agents assigned to protection who occasionally get visits from their boss, senior FBI man Tommy Lee Jones.

Playing a gangster has become a cliché for De Niro, but Besson has a specific purpose for using him. De Niro takes the opportunity in Normandy to begin writing his memoirs, tells the neighbor that he is a writer, and soon the local English teacher has him over to a film festival to participate in the discussion afterwards. The film: Goodfellas. It’s a wonderful moment, but the rest of the family is equally entertaining. Pfeiffer blows up the corner grocery store when the proprietor begins making nasty comments about Americans to his customers. D’Leo has the local high school literally working for him in a matter of days, while Agron falls in love for the first time with a student teacher in the math department. All of the family members use their considerable strong-arm skills to put people in the hospital or pay back insults. In the hands of Besson it’s more fantasy than reality and all in good fun, even the massive amounts of blood spilled by the mob hit men still trying to find the family.

As always, Besson’s right-hand man is onboard, cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, and the two of them do some incredibly nice work in the small French village. Of course, what would a Besson film be without a young, virginal woman who looks like an angel and yet can beat an overeager French boy with a tennis racket until it breaks in two. Dianna Agron is perfect for the role, like father like daughter when, in another scene, De Niro reprises his Al Capone baseball bat routine from The Untouchables on a local plumber who tries to gouge him. Tommy Lee Jones plays his usual stoic role as the agent responsible for the family’s cover and is not amused by their antics. I loved the film, but then I’m a huge fan. For most viewers it will be mildly amusing but little more. In the end The Family is not going to win any awards or garner a lot of critical praise, but it’s Luc Besson . . . and that’s Godunov for me.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Director: Richard Lester                                 Writer: Alun Owen
Music: The Beatles                                       Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: The Beatles, Wilfrid Brambell, Norman Rossington and John Junkin

It’s probably not surprising that a pop group like The Beatles would have a very spotty film record, as movies were simply a sideline to their primary profession. It’s equally understandable then that their two most successful films were those that focused primarily on their music: their last, Let It Be, and their first, A Hard Day’s Night. This film catches the mop tops at the height of Beatlemania and in many ways is an extraordinary record of one of the most popular and influential music groups of the twentieth century. For me, the film seems to move from the ridiculous to the sublime. The script is little more than stream of consciousness gags and wordplay that, some fifty years later, doesn’t strike me as all that amusing. But the music is still feels as fresh and inventive as when it was first released.

The story is a day in the life of The Beatles, traveling on a train, giving interviews, playing a concert, and dodging the throngs of fans that await them at every venue. Actor Norman Rossington stands in for the group’s real-life manager Brian Epstein, and John Junkin as Shake fills in for roadie Mal Evans. To my mind that would have been enough, and story lines following each of the lads from Liverpool seem as if they could have had real potential. But the script calls for veteran character actor Wilfrid Brambell to play Paul McCartney’s grandfather, and the bulk of the script involves him getting in and out of trouble. When the film focuses on the musicians, however, it comes alive. The real set piece is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the antics of the four boys being copied by everybody from The Monkees to The Wonders in That Thing You Do.

The real genius behind the film is director Richard Lester who brings a certain surreal comedic eye to the film that isn’t overused and provides it with a real sense of authorship. Lester had primarily done TV work prior to this, but after the film was able to do a number of highly successful films. The black and white style is perfect for the period and many of the images from the film are iconic. None of The Beatles except for Ringo manage to have anything like personalities in the film. They’re essentially interchangeable and while Paul benefits in terms of screen time for having Brambell as his grandfather it does little for the story. In terms of rock and roll films A Hard Day’s Night was something of a breakthrough, more of a film for fans of the music than the typical soap operas that were concocted for Elvis. Ultimately, it’s a slice of early sixties history that is great to have on film, the documentation of a phenomenon that shook the world and continues to reverberate to this day.

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

Director: Robert Wiene                                   Writer: Louis Nerz
Film Score: Paul Mercer (2008)                       Cinematography: Günther Krampf
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner and Hans Homma

Another piece of classic silent cinema from famed German director Robert Wiene that also stars Conrad Veidt, the first, of course, being The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the two films could not be more different. While Caligari was an Expressionist tour de force, filmed entirely in the studio with the lighting painted right onto the sets, Orlac is almost the opposite with an amazing display of exterior location shooting, realistic sets, and some of the most impressive night sequences ever to appear in silent film. The Hands of Orlac was adapted for the screen from the novel by Maurice Renard and was a big hit in Germany at the time. Unfortunately, it took three years for it to be distributed in the U.S. and by then the critical reception wasn’t nearly as positive.

Veidt plays a concert pianist who is injured in a train wreck on his way home one night. His wife pleads with the doctor to save his hands, and when the doctor sees the body of an executed murderer come into the hospital he takes it upon himself to graft the murderer’s hands onto Veidt to replace his damaged ones. As soon as he learns of the switch Veidt becomes terrified, and almost immediately begins hallucinating that he sees the face of the murderer and imagines that the hands are still under his control. Alexandra Sorina, as Veidt’s wife, does an amazing job here, wide-eyed with fear and tortured throughout the film. While her acting style is certainly a product of its time--and I’m not a big fan of histrionic acting in silent films--it is perfect for this picture and is one of the great artistic qualities of the film. Veidt, on the other hand, is so tortured as to border on overacting. His performance makes Colin Clive’s in the 1935 remake seem positively restrained. Still, it is an amazing performance, a demonstration of silent film acting that attempts to wring every bit of emotion from the audience.

Likewise, the direction by Wiene has its ups and downs. There are some incredible shots, like the living room where the piano sits with an overhead spotlight on it casting everything else into darkness. And the nighttime scenes that open the film at the site of the railway accident are stunning. The camera following the car in the night, with just the headlights illuminating the road ahead is like a realistic version of an iris shot. And the flare of the train headlight as it moves past the screen, whether intended or not, is phenomenal. But his direction of the actors seems glacial, with long stretches of slow moving actors shuffling across the screen like Frankenstein’s monster, or Veidt moving his hands to his face with excruciating slowness. The composition of his scenes, however, is brilliant for the time and is a pleasure to see.

Though touted on DVD sleeves and box sets as an Expressionist horror film, it is neither. It is a suspense film that deals with mental instability and murder. It’s very atmospheric and the reconstruction by Kino International uses the two existing prints to make the most complete version available. What seems most fascinating to me, however, is how the film appears to have influenced Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There is a discussion by the doctor about how the heart and head control the hands, Orlac the Elder seems to be a model for Freder, and Fritz Kortner is certainly the prototype for Rottwang. The film was remade several times, the most famous being Mad Love from 1935, directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter Lorre. The one negative I have about the Kino disc is the film score by Paul Mercer, which I did not like at all. But that aside, The Hands of Orlac is yet another superb example of European silent filmmaking.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The English Teacher (2013)

Director: Craig Zisk                                         Writers: Stacy & Dan Chariton
Film Score: Rob Simonsen                              Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul
Starring: Julianne Moore, Greg Kinnear, Nathan Lane and Michael Angarano

Julianne Moore is not one of my favorite actress, ever since she ruined Hannibal. And this film isn’t going to change that. In my review of The Search for John Gissing I talked about the fact that it would have been much better as a Ben Stiller film. In the case of The English Teacher, it would have been much better as an Alexander Payne film. As it stands, there are moments of genuine humor, but for the most part the rest of the film is a miss. For example, there is a very funny narration at the beginning of the film by the wonderful British actress Fiona Shaw . . . and then she completely disappears until the end of the film. A huge missed opportunity. And that’s really a metaphor for the entire film. It’s one gigantic missed opportunity.

Moore plays a high school English teacher who has been so caught up in the romance of novels all her life that she can’t settle for anything less in her real life. She gives bad grades to the men she meets and then runs back to the comfort of her literature as fast as she can. In a great early moment a former student walks up to her at an ATM and, in her fear, she shoots him with her can of pepper spray. But that’s about the last genuine moment she has in the film. The rest of Moore’s performance feels incredibly forced. And then, after she reads her former student’s play and loves it, the show is nearly taken over by Nathan Lane as the drama teacher. Furthermore, the principal and vice-principal parts, by Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz are complete comic book characters even though most of the rest of the characters aren’t really played that way.

And again, we have to sit through another disparaging portrayal of public school teachers. Not that they don’t deserve it, but not every teacher is having sex with students, former or otherwise, and it smacks of the way blacks are overrepresented on TV news as criminals. Once she calls off the “affair” her jealous reactions are equally inappropriate. And unlike the over-the-top plot of Election, which I think is what director Craig Zisk was going for, the half-baked version doesn’t really make it. The biggest problem the film has is that the characters are unbelievable and at the same time striving for verisimilitude which, again, doesn’t work. So, is the film a complete waste of time? Not exactly. There are some moments that resonate and save it from complete failure.

Greg Kinnear is the best thing going in this film. He is nicely realistic as the playwright’s father, and his portrayal seems just right. The star of the play, Lily Collins, also does a terrific job as the high school senior. She is flippant and confident during rehearsals and yet, on opening night, completely dissolves into nerves. It’s a very real moment. Once the ending finally comes, though, it feels tacked on and clichéd, and is ultimately unsatisfying. The English Teacher has not received very good reviews for all the reasons above. Fans of Julianne Moore will probably appreciate the film, but the real reason for watching is Greg Kinnear. Either way, however, casual romantic comedy fans will want to give this one a wide berth.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak                                    Writer: Lucille Fletcher
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards and Wendell Corey

Sorry, Wrong Number began its life as a radio play by Lucille Fletcher and starred the great Agnes Moorehead in the one-woman production. The play was a popular success and was revived several times, all with Morehead, so when it came time to adapt it for the big screen Fletcher was tabbed to write the screenplay as well. The only problem was that the original play ran a mere half an hour and would need to be fleshed out for the film version. Fletcher added a backstory that essentially follows the young couple from their courtship all the way to the moment when the husband decides to kill his wife so that he can pay off the mobsters he is in debt to. And while that aspect of the film seems to derail the suspense for a sizeable chunk of its running time, it has remained a classic of the film noir genre and a favorite among fans.

Like the play, the story begins with Barbara Stanwyck on the phone, trying to reach her husband, Burt Lancaster, at work. She’s an invalid and is alone at the house. But while she’s having the operator attempt to connect her she suddenly finds herself listening to a conversation between two men who can’t hear her. What she hears is horrifying as they are talking about their plans for murdering a woman that very night. It’s then that Fletcher weaves in the phone calls Stanwyck’s character makes in the play with the convoluted backstory that she’s invented. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, but it still manages to make sense. It’s fascinating the way that she plays with the conventions, in this instance having the femme fatale bring about her own death rather than the death of the man she has duped. Also, Lancaster here is playing something just short of a kept man and, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard two years later, is too weak to do anything about it until it’s too late. In that respect it’s difficult to see him as a homme fatale.

The great Anatole Litvak is at the helm, director of films as diverse as All This and Heaven Too with Bette Davis, The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland, and Night of the Generals with Peter O’Toole. Stanwyck is about as shrill and unlikable as she gets onscreen, and that’s saying something, but she gives a bravura performance that is incredibly memorable and earned her an Oscar nomination. Lancaster is playing against type here, but it was early enough in his career that it probably didn’t seem too strange at the time. It’s great to see Wendell Corey in one of his earliest roles before his iconic performance in Hitchock’s Rear Window. Ed Begley has a small role as Stanwyck’s overbearing father, and William Conrad has a nice cameo as a fence. Probably the biggest disappointment of the film is the utterly unmemorable film score by Franz Waxman, a tuneless piece of underscoring that is almost obtrusive in the context of the film.

It’s a fascinating film in that there doesn’t seem to be a lot about it that’s particularly noir. A couple of dark, rainy streets, some night shots on the beach, but mostly Stanwyck at home in bed. It’s not really until the mechanism of the murder begins that the suspense ratchets up beyond belief, and then the film becomes a clinic in shadow and light. In the radio play the narrative arc seems almost vertical, the tension mounts so quickly. But here there are long plateaus while the backstory is filled in. Still, the ending is worth the wait, and the conclusion to Sorry, Wrong Number winds up being a thrill ride that leaves the viewer breathless. It’s one of the all time classics, and comes highly recommended.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner                         Writers: Rod Serling & Michael Wilson
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                            Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans

This is one of the great science-fiction films--from an equally great science-fiction concept--of all time. When it was first released the final reveal was such a great ending that it made the film an instant classic, and it does not fail to satisfy even to this day. Planet of the Apes begins conventionally enough, with Charlton Heston leading a crew of four astronauts into deep space. They’re testing a theory about the curvature of space that results in their traveling for two thousand years while they have physically aged only a year and a half. When the ship crash-lands in water on an unknown planet, it wakes them from their sleeping chambers and three of the crew manage to escape before the ship sinks. Once ashore Heston and the two other men begin hiking to find food before their supplies run out. When they finally reach civilization, that’s when the fun begins.

After the astronauts run into a group of humans who seem uncivilized, gorillas on horseback carrying guns suddenly begin shooting and rounding them up, including Heston. He is shot in the throat during his escape attempt and so it takes a while before he can talk. His first words, however, are cinematic magic. Kim Hunter plays the chimpanzee Zira, who is studying humans, and her boyfriend is played by Roddy McDowall in one of his best-known roles. Edward G. Robinson was originally going to play the orangutan Dr. Zaius--and had worked previously with Heston on another sci-fi classic, Soylent Green--but the makeup was too arduous for him and so Maurice Evans took over the role. The other big star was James Whitmore as the leader of the council. The irony that infuses the entire series is inescapable, with the apes mimicking the ignorance and callousness that humans display all of the time toward animals and those people they consider lesser humans.

The original story was written by the brilliant French novelist Pierre Boulle who also wrote the source novel for The Bridge on the River Kwai a decade earlier. Rod Serling’s screenplay downplayed the racial undertones that would inform the entire series, focusing instead on a cruelty-to-animals motif. The creator of the Twilight Zone also added a sort of communist overlay in the way the ape society was structured. All of these themes are wonderfully explored in Eric Greene’s book Planet of the Apes as American Myth. Of course the film was so unique and hugely popular that it spawned four sequels and two television series, as well as modern remakes of the original series. The reversal of evolution as the result of an atomic catastrophe is simply delightful to contemplate and the original makeup still has yet to be improved upon. The original Planet of the Apes is a fantastic film, of any genre, and shows no sign of diminishing in the decades to come.

Shaft (1971)

Director: Gordon Parks                                  Writers: Ernest Tidyman & John D.F. Black
Film Score: Isaac Hayes                               Cinematography: Urs Furrer
Starring: Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Christopher St. John and Charles Coiffi

Expectations can be brutal things, especially when they don’t measure up to reality. I had been listening to Isaac Hayes’ soundtrack to Shaft since the mid seventies and though I had never seen the film I somehow had the feeling that it must be great. In my mind I always imagined Albert Popwell from the Dirty Harry films in the title role, and the rich music from the Stax soundtrack filling the theater. When I finally did see the film a few years ago I couldn’t believe how bad it was. Even the music. It turns out that after the film was completed in L.A., Isaac Hayes took the Bar-Kays back to Memphis and re-recorded the film music for release as an album. And Richard Roundtree was terrible. The script didn’t help, I’m sure, but I couldn't shake the thought of how much better Albert Popwell would have been.

Well, recently I revisited Shaft and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a great little movie. One of the early blaxploitation films--Sweet Sweetback is generally considered to be the first--it resonates with the same kind of apocryphal reality that informs films like Dirty Harry and The Godfather, and set the stage for the dozens of films that would follow, from Superfly to Jackie Brown. In Isaac Hayes’ opening song he says that Shaft is a complicated man. True enough. He’s a private detective in Manhattan who has relationships with both the white and black worlds in New York City, but belongs to neither. White cops in the city want to pump him for information because they can’t find out what’s going on in Harlem, and Shaft is not shy about showing his contempt for them. But he has little love for black organized crime either, which does not make it a sure thing when crime boss Bumpy Jonas comes to see him about a job.

Richard Roundtree plays John Shaft, who demonstrates his considerable skills in getting around the city, finding out some hoods are after him, and sending one of them out his office window in the first few minutes of the film. The great Moses Gunn plays Bumpy Jonas, the crime boss from Harlem whose daughter has been kidnapped. He needs Roundtree to get her back and will pay any price. Roundtree acquiesces, but it seems clear that it’s more for the daughter than for Gunn. Charles Coiffi plays the police detective Vic Androzzi, who has been hearing rumblings about a battle in Harlem that he’d like to stop before a bloodbath ensues, a situation Roundtree winds up diving headfirst into. Christopher St. John is the Black Panther-type radical who had been a friend of Roundtree’s years ago, and now fate has thrust them together to conclude the investigation.

In the haze of my early disappointment, I didn’t realize how well the script is written. It’s actually better than a lot of film writing for today’s blockbusters because it all makes sense. This isn’t surprising as it’s based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman, who won an Academy Award for best screenplay that same year for The French Connection and would go on to pen High Plains Drifter for Clint Eastwood. The direction by Gordon Parks is good, though some of the studio interiors are less than convincing. The exteriors in New York City are magnificent, however, and one of the highlights of the film. My one criticism of Roundtree is when he makes a wisecrack and laughs hysterically, seemingly out of the blue. It’s a little off-putting, but the rest of his performance is quite good. I’m very glad I went back to the film to reevaluate, because Shaft is a quality production and really demonstrated that serious black filmmakers in the seventies had a vision that was not only artistic but entertaining.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Berlin Express (1948)

Director: Jacques Tourneur                            Writers: Harold Medford & Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                     Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Robert Ryan, Merle Oberon, Paul Lukas and Tom Keene

This is an odd, but slightly interesting film from RKO. Unlike the pained stylization of something like The Third Man, this is a fairly straightforward murder mystery presented in a quasi-documentary format. The most interesting thing about it is the glimpse into post-World War Two Germany and the way in which the occupational forces still held an iron grip on the country three years later. Berlin Express was made in cooperation with the Allied forces and it’s fascinating to see the bombed cities, and the attempt at normalcy that coexists with the suspicions and intrigue that would plague Europe for another thirty years.

When a note is found on the leg of a homing pigeon shot down near the Eifel Tower, the police are unable to decipher it and it’s turned over to the military. Robert Ryan is one of several people who are taking an American transport train from Paris to Berlin. Along the way a famous German who wanted to unify the country is killed. Everyone in that same car is then rounded up by the military police and taken to U.S. military headquarters in Frankfurt to be questioned. The group consists of Ryan, the American, a Frenchman, a Russian soldier and a British businessman. When the German professor from their group disappears, his secretary, Merle Oberon pleads with the four to combine forces and help find him. It’s a fairly prosaic theory to see play out, that if the nationalities can unite in the microcosm that it’s not impossible to imagine them cooperating in the macrocosm. History, however, makes its own judgment.

The story comes from the mind of the great Curt Siodmak, who was working at RKO after a long tenure at Universal. It’s a simplistic story, and one in keeping with Siodmak’s thinking. The McGuffin seems to be a “secret” plan to reunite Germany known only to Paul Lukas. Why this plan is so important, or what monumental change it would cause is, frankly, difficult to fathom, and so the suspense involved is fairly minimal. As near as I can tell, the Germans who are against unification are those who want to continue the war in some fashion. Then the situation itself, of these four men going on a wild goose chase, while Tom Keene and the rest of the military sit back and wait is hard to believe as well. There is, however, a nice twist at the end, as well as the direction of Jacques Tourneur, which sort of rewards the viewer for sticking around.

The principals make a valiant attempt in their roles, but they can’t overcome a bad script. Merle Oberon does a passable French accent, and everyman Ryan acquits himself well in the final battle. The British member of the quartet is played forgettably by Robert Coote, but at least he was actually British. The Frenchman is played by the Hungarian, Charles Korvin while Polish actor Roman Toporow plays the Russian soldier and does perhaps the worst Russian accent I’ve heard in film. It’s not just his acting, but his character, is the weakest of the lot. Learning about the post-war division in Germany is about the only thing this film still has to recommend it. As much as I love Siodmak, it’s not one of his strongest stories. Still, I have an affinity for films set in Germany and for me it was worth watching. For everyone else, Berlin Express is probably one to catch on TCM and call it good.

M (1931)

Director: Fritz Lang                                      Writers: Thea von Harbou & Fritz Lang
Art Dept: Edgar G. Ulmer                              Cinematography: Fritz Arno Wagner
Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Otto Wernicke and Gustaf Gründgens

For all the praise given to Fritz Lang’s silent films, and they are magnificent, I have to say that for me his best film is M, the story of a serial killer of children in Germany. While there’s something to be said for realism, I don’t believe that’s Lang’s intent at all, or at least it’s not in very specific ways. Like Hitchcock, Lang preferred the complete control that studio settings gave him rather than the uncertainties of location shooting. Also, his shots are so thoroughly composed that they could hardly said to be attempts to convey realism. And yet there is something very realistic about the film that comes through the obvious artificiality of the settings, and that’s the characters. Again, like Hitchcock--or is it the other way around--the focal point of all his films are the people and the emotional gauntlet that he puts them through.

The film begins with children at play, cutting back and forth between a mother going about her daily business and her child who is abducted and killed by a shadowy figure. With pressure being put on the police, they start cracking down on all illegal activity in the city in order to show some sort of effort. The problem with that is organized crime in the city is virtually shut down by the raids and their anger turns not toward the police, but toward the child murderer who has been the cause of all the turmoil. The fascinating thing about the plot becomes the seemingly unified effort between the police and the criminals in the city to catch the killer. Peter Lorre, in his first starring role, plays the killer Hans Beckert, one of the most extraordinary roles in all of cinema. He is an obviously repugnant character and Lorre is the perfect choice to play him, especially in the finale when he is finally tracked down, not by the police, but by the criminals of the city and brought before a kangaroo court to be sentenced.

This is an exquisitely filmed story, with Lang using all of the techniques he had at his disposal for this type of film. Many overhead shots, again, stress the unreality, as if the audience is being jolted from their traditional point of view to a place that is above the action. Lang’s camera pushes through windows, moves through rooms, pans up from the street to the rooms above. It really is a masterful use of the camera. Set design by Edgar G. Ulmer is wonderful as well, with dark corridors and wet streets all presaging their iconic use in film noir over a decade later. Lorre is also brilliant, clearly conveying the sense that he cannot control his passions and that his compulsions have free reign over him. At least a third of the film is silent, which only adds to the tension and makes the use of sound all the more powerful. But in the end the social commentary is what drives the film, the idea stated by the police that the average person doesn’t care about the crimes, combined with the fact that it is the criminals who ultimately catch the killer, is extremely telling about modern, Western societies throughout the world.

Social and literary critic Morris Dickstein provides the essay in The A List and would seem the obvious choice, being an expert on the 1930s. But in typical A List fashion he instead gives me much to argue with. Like the commentators on the Criterion Collection’s audio track, he claims that Lorre’s child killer is a victim himself, which from a psychological viewpoint may have some validity, but the killer has not been “created” by society or by the city and clearly belongs in an asylum. And his absolutely ludicrous claim that the desire of the lynch mob to kill him is the same impulse that the killer suffers from in his desire to murder children is insulting and destroys, at least in my mind, the rest of his argument. Where Lang went to great pains to show the similarities between the police and organized crime, Dickstein claims the police are “rational” while the criminals are “intuitive.” In the context of the film, this is just plain wrong. With their surfeit of manpower, the criminals make the more rational pursuers.

I don’t know what film Dickstein watched, but his claim that the audience is manipulated into sympathizing with Lorre is patently false as well. The audience is clearly on the side of the captors--a manipulation that goes uncommented on--and Lorre’s begging is clearly meant to rouse and anger as he pleads his lack of self control. Dickstein doesn’t even mention the allegory with World War One, which the commentators on the Criterion Collection mangled and misunderstood as well. Lorre, in this view, is the embodiment of war. He takes a mother’s child away and she doesn’t know why or where . . . until the child is found dead. And nothing, not even the conviction of the criminal, can make things right. When the black-clad mother at the end of the film admonishes all of us to be vigilant it is not only for the literal predator, but the allegorical serial killer that murders millions: war. M is a brilliant film that, for all its praise, still seeks to be better understood symbolically. As a work of film art, however, it is clearly a masterpiece.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Red Dawn (1984)

Director: John Milius                                     Writers: John Milius & Kevin Reynolds
Film Score: Basil Poledouris                          Cinematography: Ric Waite
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Gray

For me, one of the things that detracts from a lot of eighties films is a lack of realism. Many of them somehow look like TV movies. And while that’s somewhat the case with the original version of Red Dawn, it’s still a very nice piece of work. The actors, as callow as they may have been, all turn in some powerful performances that make this film a pleasure to watch. The production no doubt benefits from the presence of the great John Milius not only behind the camera but in shaping the screenplay. He had worked on the early Dirty Harry films as well as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now while his writing partner, Kevin Reynolds, would go on to direct Robin Hood and Waterworld for Kevin Costner, as well as a fine version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The film is about the impossible scenario of a conventional military action against the United States. On a football field in Colorado, paratroopers land and begin taking over a small town, which sends a group of teenagers into the woods with their family guns as protection. Apparently the Cubans, with Russian backing, came up through Texas with air support in the Rockies, and ground strikes through Canada. But with no way to occupy the entire country, the west coast still remains unoccupied. Patrick Swayze and his brother Charlie Sheen are the leaders of the group of kids who form a resistance group called The Wolverines, after their high school mascot. It’s not until downed fighter pilot Powers Boothe arrives that the partisans get organized and begin really hurting the Russo-Cuban alliance. But with increased military presence comes casualties that the kids are not prepared for.

Patrick Swayze, whom I’ve never really liked, does a credible job as the leader of the group. Sheen does a nice job also, in a supporting role. C. Thomas Howell is the meek friend who becomes so full of hatred for the enemy that he turns into the fiercest of the young fighters. And Lea Thompson and Jennifer Gray play sisters who are every bit the equals of their male counterparts in combat. There are some nice turns in the character department as well, firstly by Lane Smith as the slimy mayor of the town, anxious to do anything to save his skin. Harry Dean Stanton is the father of Swayze and Sheen and is as stalwart as ever as a captured outdoorsman and martyr. And the great Ben Johnson plays a farmer who uses his house as a liaison point for the group to learn information and get supplies.

It’s certainly not the greatest movie in the world, a bit on the predictable side and extremely impossible at times, especially when the small group takes on large companies of men and melts back into the sparsely treed country without a single casualty. But the emotions seem real, in the kind of over the top way you would expect for kids, similar to what was demonstrated in a film like Taps, and it has a bittersweet ending that makes sense in the context of the film. Ultimately it’s the performances, rather than the premise, that is most compelling about Red Dawn, and they make it a film that is certainly worth watching.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Director: Alfred L. Werker                              Writers: Edwin Blum & William A. Drake
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                       Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Ida Lupino and George Zucco

This is the second and final of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films made at 20th Century Fox. It is also the last that would be set in the Victorian age rather than the modern World War II era in which Universal chose to set the rest of the series. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was developed from the stage play by William Gillette and, despite a great supporting cast that includes George Zucco and Ida Lupino, the plot is just a bit too convoluted to be as enjoyable as it should be. The film begins with Zucco as Professor Moriarty on trial for murder. Through some technicality that angers the judge and the jury, he is acquitted. Rathbone comes in at the end with new evidence but is just too late. Though Zucco avoids punishment for his crime, he decides he must do away with Rathbone once and for all to avoid any future mishaps.

Zucco’s plan is where the story puts a little too much on the viewer’s plate. He actually has two plans, one that he is most intent on carrying out and the other that he has set up as a puzzle for Holmes, knowing Rathbone won’t be able to resist trying to figure out the later while paying short shrift to the major plan. The first part of the plan comes in the form of the great Henry Stephenson as the Constable of the Tower of London, where the crown jewels are kept. He has received a letter saying someone is going to steal the Star of Delhi, the largest emerald in the world. Knowing the jewels are heavily guarded Rathbone sends Nigel Bruce to do the babysitting. Far more interesting is Ida Lupino, who is worried about a family curse, similar to the one in The Hound of the Baskervilles, this time based on the receipt of a letter containing a drawing of a man wearing an albatross on his neck, which last time preceded the death of her father. This time it’s her brother who is at risk. Rathbone, of course, finds this little puzzle infinitely more interesting and proceeds apace.

While Zucco makes a terrific Moriarty, a lot of the plot surrounding him is rather odd: an Indian flute player in the background, his obsession with plants, and his rather heavy-handed dealings with his underlings all make him seem rather pedestrian rather than the super-nemesis of Doyle’s stories. Likewise, the part of the plot concerning Lupino is tedious with her fiancé, Alan Marshal, constantly ordering her away from Holmes and to ignore the drawing, all of which seems more suspicious than it should. The jewel heist is rather ingenious, but the plot line involving Ida Lupino’s brother is much less so, and one can see why the studio dropped the series after this film. Universal, probably with an eye to saving money more than anything else, purchased the rights set their films in the modern era. With World War II going on, Holmes was a perfect choice to foil Nazi plots to win the war and the series became tremendously popular. As a result, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is probably the low point in the series, but it still boasts some impressive performances from the lead actors and is worth viewing for that alone.