Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Naked Spur (1953)

Director: Anthony Mann                                Writers: Sam Rolfe & Harold Jack Bloom
Film Score: Bronislau Kaper                          Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Starring: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan and Ralph Meeker

Another in the series of westerns that Anthony Mann made starring Jimmy Stewart, The Naked Spur is perhaps the best of the bunch. No riverboats, no saloons, no frontier towns, just five people riding horseback through the wilderness. It’s small cast, telling an intimate story and packs more raw emotion into a western than most, certainly more than Mann’s usual work with Stewart. This was the third of their collaborations and the success of this film assured there would be three more after. This was also the first teaming of Mann and Robert Ryan, who would go on to film Men in War and God’s Little Acre with the director. Finally, it’s one of Janet Leigh’s better films. She’s still young here, and has a vibrancy that is lacking in her post-Psycho work.

The story begins with Stewart on the trail of a killer. He comes across gold prospector Millard Mitchell and convinces him with a pile of silver to help him get back on the trail of Robert Ryan. When Mitchell calls him a lawman, you can see in Stewart’s face that he’s not. He’s a bounty hunter. After getting Ryan cornered, ex-cavalry officer Ralph Meeker comes along, dishonorably discharged for amoral behavior and the three of them wind up capturing Ryan and his girlfriend Janet Leigh. This is something John Huston would have enjoyed. While Stewart is looking to get the reward for bringing in Ryan, the killer spills the beans about the bounty. Both Mitchell and Meeker want in on the spoils, and Ryan tries turning all of them against each other. And as if the tension between the three men over the reward isn’t enough, they’re also riding through Indian territory.

You couldn’t have asked for a more unlikely western hero in the fifties than Jimmy Stewart, but the actor was bored and wanted to play more versatile and interesting parts. The fifties certainly did that for him. This part in particular has Stewart angry and bitter, wanting only the money that Ryan’s life will earn him and relentless in his pursuit of it. But at the same time he was filming his westerns for Mann, he was also working for Hitchcock in films like Rear Window and starring in The Glenn Miller Story and The Spirit of St. Louis, capping the decade with an Oscar-nominated performance in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. If there’s a flaw in the film it’s with Robert Ryan’s character. He’s playing the wild-eyed killer, but Mann lets him go overboard. A more subtle approach, something like Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma would have played much better and ratcheted up the suspense, especially since Meeker is also playing something of a psycho.

The look is the lush, saturated Technicolor of the time. It was filmed partially in Durango, Colorado and in Lone Pine, California. The screenplay, written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, managed a rarity in Oscar history in being nominated for best screenplay in a western film. Bronislau Kaper’s score, for the most part, is good, but he makes a serious misstep in rehashing “Beautiful Dreamer” yet again, a staple in films as far back as Gone With the Wind. Ralph Meeker had only done a few films prior to this one, and achieved most of his success in television in the fifties and sixties. For Millard Mitchell, on the other hand, this was his second to last film and died of lung cancer the same year the film was released at the age of fifty. The film has been touted by Leonard Maltin, and was also featured in Martin Scorsese’s history of film, A Personal Journey.

The B List review of the film is somewhat scattered, as Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay was not written for the book but for the Chicago Reader about a series of films emphasizing settings. In it he notes the disparity of this film with others of the John Ford ilk that are set in Monument Valley with a quote by Mann himself saying that he wanted to show the whole West, not just the desert. But Rosenbaum also goes on to bemoan the recent influx of revenge films coming out of Hollywood and how these older types of pictures differ. The fact is, while Jimmy Stewart is obsessed with bringing in Ryan it is only as a means to recapture what he has lost, not to enact retribution. And there’s a big difference. While Rosenbaum uses Road to Perdition to make his point in an addendum to the essay, the best explanation of this negative trend comes in Frederick Barton’s novel With Extreme Prejudice in writing about the film Mississippi Burning. While modern films make the audience complicit in their acts of vengeance, films like The Naked Spur emphasize the weakness inherent in seeking revenge rather than the glorification of it. Ultimately The Naked Spur is not only the best of the Mann-Stewart westerns, it’s one of the most satisfying westerns of the period.

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charlie Chaplin                                Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Film Score: Charlie Chaplin                           Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance and Carl Miller

Though I’m much more a fan of Buster Keanton’s character than Chaplin’s little tramp, there’s no denying Chaplin’s visual style as a director is light years beyond any of the other silent comedians. And that is really the area that I appreciate about him most. Another thing that was great about Chaplin was his ability to wring emotion out of his dramatic scenes that were every bit as charged as what D.W. Griffith could do. Chaplin had a deft touch with the camera, especially in his set ups and the way he framed shots. In many ways he was a forward thinking director who most fit the auteur theory in the silent era. He not only wrote and directed and starred in his films, but often wrote the film scores which include memorable melodies that have stood the test of time even today. The Kid, his first feature length film, boasts his most famous composition and is as masterful as silent comedy gets.

The story is a simple one. Edna Purviance leaves the charity hospital with her baby, desperate because she cannot provide for him and not knowing where the father, Carl Miller as a poor artist, has gone. She leaves him in the backseat of a car in front of a mansion in the hopes the wealthy owners will raise her son. But thieves steal the car and instead the boy winds up in Chaplin’s lap. The film jumps ahead five years and has the young Jackie Coogan working him and living a fine life together as tramps. Meanwhile Purviance has become famous as a performer while Miller has equaled her fame as a painter. She does charity work in Chaplin’s neighborhood and, discovering that Coogan is her child, offers a reward in the paper for his return, leading to a tearful reunion in the police station.

As this was Chaplin’s first real feature, he used many actors that had worked for him previously on his series of shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady in all of the Mutuals, plays the woman. Albert Austin, the great character man, plays one of the men in the shelter, while the pickpocket is none other than Coogan’s father. Henry Bergman does double duty as Purviance’s benefactor as well as the man who runs the shelter. And the flirty angel is Lita Gray, who would go on to star in The Gold Rush. Chaplin gives his usual terrific performance, by now having made dozens of shorts featuring his character, but Jackie Coogan is stupendous. His tiny body juxtaposed with his prodigious acting talent must have been a marvel for audiences of the time to watch. He and Chaplin are superb in their scenes together and one wishes they could have done more work together.

The film, of course, was a smash hit with audiences at the time. There are some great comedy sequences, the window repair scam, the fight with the neighbor kid, and especially the rooftop chase. But as in nearly every great comedy feature from the silent era, the story runs out of gas at some point and that’s when the star inserts a lengthy sequence that is really only intended to pad the film to feature length. For Chaplin in this film it is the dream sequence, where everyone in the tenement gets angel wings and the paradise is spoiled by a group of devils. He does, however, make some good transitions into and out of the sequence. Other than that, however, The Kid is a near perfect blend of comedy and drama and remains one of the comedian’s best films.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey                                  Writer: Viña Delmar
Film Score: Victor Young                              Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Starring: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter

Make Way for Tomorrow is an interesting Depression-era film that was the inspiration for the great Japanese film Tokyo Story, by Yasujirô Ozu. In this case, the premise of the generation gap seems sublimated to the realities of the Depression. Where Ozu’s story takes place in the early nineteen fifties and has as it’s undercurrent the end of the war and the changing culture in Japan, Leo McCarey’s film feels like a message of sympathy to all of those suffering and making sacrifices during the economic downturn prior to the war. The film was not popular upon its release, but it was very much a critical success. It was later championed by none other than Orson Welles, but has been largely forgotten among the more popular films that have come down through the years. The Criterion Collection has revived it and it has received significant recognition again with cinefiles for its terrific acting and stark story.

The film begins with Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore bringing their children home for something of a reunion. It turns out, however, that since Moore had lost his job years earlier they have lost the family home because they can no longer pay the mortgage. The children, understandably, are caught off guard. Thomas Mitchell, the oldest, finally comes up with a plan. Until they can find a suitable place for his parents to live, they’ll have to separate and live individually with one of their children for a few months. Mitchell and his wife, Fay Bainter, take Bondi, while one of the sisters, Elisabeth Risdon, takes the father. The problem is the old folks quickly become a major cramp in the younger people’s style. In fact, the oldest sister refuses to have them in her house at all, while the younger sister promptly decides to ship her father off to her other sister in California the minute he gets sick. Meanwhile Bondi, knowing she’s not wanted in Mitchell’s house, acquiesces to going into an old folks home.

One of the most successful things about this film is the brilliance of the cast. Just three years later most of the principals would be reunited for the filmed version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Mitchell and Bainter would play a couple again, while Bondi played the wife of Guy Kibbe. As a matter of fact, Mitchell was only three years younger than Bondi, and they did an incredible job of aging her in this film. But it is her acting style in the picture, playing it as a woman rather than a crone that makes such an impact on the viewer. Victor Moore is probably the weakest of the bunch and seems a little too frail to be believed, playing old rather than simply being old. Maurice Moscovitch has a nice turn as a friend of Moore’s and Louis Jean Heydt, whose most memorable part was probably in The Big Sleep, has a small role as a young doctor. The great Louise Beavers also plays the housekeeper at the Mitchell household, and her relationship with Bondi is terrific.

Leo McCarey is not a well know name today, though he did some great pictures, The Awful Truth and An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant, Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton and Going My Way with Bing Crosby. He won three Oscars and was nominated for four more, and yet most modern audiences have never heard the name. His visual style is fairly ordinary, but it’s his work with actors and the kinds of stories he filmed that are so memorable today. The film is certainly atypical for the period, especially the ending. But the final sequence is also the most memorable and uplifting, when the two parents finally decide that they don’t want to spend time with their children and simply want to be with each other. It’s a story that is certainly relevant for today, perhaps even more so that when it was first released. Make Way for Tomorrow is a unique picture that remains one of the best examples of the genius of a forgotten director.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Director: Joachim Trier                                  Writers: Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier
Film Score: Torgny Amdam                           Cinematography: Jakob Ihre
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner and Johanne Kjellevik Ledang

This is a summer day in Oslo, August 31st, a day in the life of a former drug addict whose twenties are behind him, but who feels as if there is nothing left in front of him either. It’s a small, intimate film of a man going through an existential crisis and reaching out to all those who can help him. He begins his journey by examining the past with his best friend, and gradually makes his way to the present. But the present is not a comforting place. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when he is sitting in a small café listening to people talk with each other. Most of them are woman, talking about children or the men that they are dating. Three teenage girls talk together about a rock star who committed suicide, and two women in their twenties are sharing their profiles on a dating website. We take all of it in with him, not knowing what he thinks about it. But when he emerges from the café, and the streetlight turns green . . . he heads off in a different direction.

After an opening montage of scenes from Oslo with a voiceover by several people reminiscing about the Norwegian capital city, the story begins with the unsuccessful suicide attempt of Anders Danielsen Lie. He tries to drown himself but his body refuses. It’s a tragic moment when he emerges from the water, unable to escape his inner demons and being forced to examine them. Lie is in the last weeks of his stay at a rehabilitation center for drug addiction. He goes into the city for a job interview, but first stops at the apartment of his oldest friend, Hans Olav Brenner, who was into the drug culture with him, but now has a wife and two children. There’s a naked honesty between the two, but it does nothing to resolve Lie’s anguish. At the job interview all goes well until the employer is too curious about the gaps in Lie’s resume and he finally blurts out the truth, grabbing his resume and leaving.

The idea the film revolves around is something spoken by one of the patients at the rehab center, in a meeting before Lie leaves for the day. She says, “It’s like I’m right back to when I started doing drugs. That black void . . . it’s like it’s back. And the relief from shooting up is gone.” The implication here is that the drugs weren’t something that was destroying her life, though her life as most people would have seen it from the outside might have seemed horrific. Instead, she’s saying that it was the drugs that were responsible for allowing her to go on living. This is emphasized by the fact that Lie appears to have had it all. His family was well off, intellectual, and had given him every advantage in life. He’s extremely intelligent, as he shows in the job interview by impressing the editor of the magazine with his insights, and he plays through a piano piece at the end, showing at least some artistic qualities. It’s maddening, then. How can this person feel as if life is not worth living? But that’s the point.

This is not a happy film. The clean, pristine city of Oslo is hiding a lot of misery. Likewise, the happy, vacuous lives of many people are just masks for their own inner misery. Lie’s friend, Hans Olav Brenner, once he realizes his pep talk is not what his friend needs, divulges his own unhappiness with his life and the seeming pointlessness of it all. Lie’s meeting with his sister, which doesn’t happen, leaves him angry and frustrated. Desperate phone calls to his ex-girlfriend, who now lives in New York, are never answered. And even revisiting his former life seems empty and temporal. Director Joachim Trier does a very nice job, as the best directors do, using the camera as a means of showing visually what can’t be seen: internal dialogue. Near the end of the picture, as Lie is watching some people swimming, flash cuts show him walking back to his childhood home, indicating that his mind is elsewhere. Oslo, August 31st is a powerful film in the European tradition, exposing painful realities of life that we, in the fog of our own existence, tend to forget.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writer: Mel Dinelli
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore and Kent Smith

It seems as if this would have made a tremendous Hammer film in the sixties, with the historical setting, the opening exteriors, and the horrific nature of the crimes. A lush, Eastmancolor version with a James Bernard score would have been wonderful. At it is, The Spiral Staircase is a leisurely historical thriller that is something of a cross between a suspense film and an old dark house mystery. Though the great Robert Siodmak does a nice job with the visuals in the film, it definitely lacks the kind of pacing that was evident in his films noir. The story was based on the novel by Ethel Lina White titled Some Must Watch from 1933, though she was also known for penning the novel that Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was based on. The film, however, plods along, even with the threat of murder in the house, and has a difficult time sustaining anything like suspense. Still, it has a great cast and a nice score by RKO composer Roy Webb that gives it some interest.

The film takes place over a single evening in the house of George Brent. He is host to a variety of people, including a sick stepmother played by Ethel Barrymore and a stepbrother played by Gordon Oliver. This rather dysfunctional family has several servants who also live in the house, Elsa Lanchester and her husband Rhys Williams, a nurse, Sara Allgood, an assistant to the professor, Rhonda Flemming, and a personal assistant for Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire. The story is set in the late 1910s and begins with a murder at the local hotel, which also doubles as a movie theater. But this is a serial killer at work and this is his third victim, all of them with some mental or phsycal affliction. Since McGuire can’t speak, there is much speculation that she might be the next victim of the killer and everyone in the house is urged to watch out for her. But Barrymore goes one step further and insists that the local doctor, Kent Smith, take her away from the town forever.

The title comes from the staircase that leads down to the basement, the site of most of the scares in the film. At one point Elsa Lanchester goes down with Brent to get some brandy for Barrymore and she lets the candle go out in order to steal a bottle for herself. Another time Flemming goes down to get her suitcase so that she can leave along with everyone else. And, of course, the finale takes place on said stairs as well. It’s always great to see George Brent. He’s a consistent performer who began film work with the dawn of the sound era and made nearly a hundred films during his career, many at Warner Brothers. Dorothy McGuire, on the other hand, was appearing in in only her fourth feature, taking on this role after a successful performance in A Tree Grows in Booklyn. She has an interesting look, not really beautiful, and has an almost breathless style. My favorite of her performances is in Gentleman’s Agreement. Ultimately I found The Spiral Staircase to be something of a disappointment, though not enough of a disaster to call it a bad film and in the end it probably just comes down to a matter of taste.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Director: Vincente Minnelli                            Writers: Charles Schnee
Film Score: David Raksin                             Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon and Barry Sullivan

Ever since Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and tangentially Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, Hollywood suddenly began to see that audiences were interested in what went on behind the glitz. For decades studios had been going to great lengths to cover up the scandals that involved their stars, though newspapers had different ideas and by the fifties most of it leaked through. So now the studios began making up stories that fulfilled that curiosity for the audience, and none was more naked in it’s portrayal of the greed for studio power than Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Produced by the great John Houseman, the film tells the story, in flashback, of a man who rose from the ranks of B-movie producer to build not only his own production company, but used everyone who ever helped him to get there in the process.

The film begins with Kirk Douglas as the son of a movie mogul who died broke and left him with nothing but a name. Determined to make something of himself in the movie industry and restore his family’s tarnished image. To do this he gathers around himself artists who have been struggling and need a break, first among them director Barry Sullivan. But while the two of them learned their craft together and promises were made about being a team, Douglas turned his back on him the minute he had a chance to move up in the business. Lana Turner plays a lush, the daughter of a famous actor, a Fairbanks/Gilbert type. She’s been doing bit parts, but he makes it a personal project to make her a star. Of course he pretends to fall in love with her to control her, and then casts her aside when he’s done with her. Dick Powell is a writer, and Douglas destroys his marriage to get a script out of him.

It’s a slick, polished production that presents a sanitized version of the type of Hollywood story that looks good on the surface but doesn’t feel very true to life. The faux nature of the stories, screenwriting and films themselves that are portrayed in the film are also vacuous and provide very little for the viewer to hold on to. As a result the story becomes entirely about character. While there is a natural desire to figure out what real life people the characters are based on, this is not Citizen Kane. David Selznick, the obvious model for Douglas’s character, was actually a very different type of person, a family man who thrived within the studio system even though he believed in independent production units. The only character who actually felt like someone else was the director played by Ivan Triesault who was reminiscent of Erich von Stroheim. In the end, though, that’s not really the point.

The basic plot is a good one, and entertaining but only so far as the relationship between the characters is concerned. The stories are told in flashback, with each character narrating how Douglas used them for his own advantage. Walter Pidgeon, who was the producer Douglas and Sullivan started under does a good job. Sullivan, for my money, is the best actor of the lot. Douglas is good, but predictable, and while Turner is much better here than her over the top performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice, she still seems like an odd casting choice, especially alongside the much taller men. One bit of interesting trivia comes when Douglas is in Turner’s room and plays a recording of her famous father. Out of the speaker comes the unmistakable voice of the great Louis Calhern. The Bad and the Beautiful is not a great film, but it is interesting to watch. Like a sweet treat full of empty calories, it tastes good but ultimately fails to be filling.

The Fatal Witness (1945)

Director: Lesley Selander                             Writer: Jerry Sackheim
Music Dir.: Richard Cherwin                         Cinematography: Bud Thackery
Starring: Evelyn Ankers, Richard Fraser, George Leigh and Barbara Everest

This film is a fairly bland English murder mystery, really only interesting for the presence of Evelyn Ankers in a lead role. Universal never really afforded women star vehicles, with the exception of Deanna Durbin. The Fatal Witness is the first film that Ankers did for Republic after leaving Universal in 1945 and working for several years doing low budget features. And while the quality was decidedly below that of working for a major studio, she at least had the satisfaction of receiving staring billing and, perhaps, treated like the star she was instead of just another cog in the wheel of the production line. While it is a treat to see Ankers any time, there is a sense that she is simply earning a paycheck. She is vastly better than any of her costars and it must have seemed that way for her too. But she needed the work while husband Richard Denning made his way back into pictures after the war, and she quit Hollywood once he became established during the science-fiction boom of early fifties.

This story concerns a wealthy old lady, Barbara Everest, who finds her emerald broach missing and naturally suspects her ne’er-do-well nephew George Leigh of stealing it to support his luxurious lifestyle. The two dislike each other intensely and their only go-between is Evelyn Ankers, as Everest’s ward, who is more trusting of Leigh. Everest searches his room and when he shows up, indignant at the intrusion, she threatens to disinherit her nephew. He leaves in a huff, then proceeds to get drunk at the pub. Suspiciously, however, he makes a scene, demanding more alcohol, accosting the waitress and getting into a fight with the bartender, all of which land him in jail. That night, however, Everest is murdered in her bed, strangled, and when Scotland Yard inspector Richard Fraser suspects Leigh he is thwarted by the fact that the man has an airtight alibi. But Fraser has another motive for continuing his investigation. While attempting to catch the wary Leigh, he is also attempting to win the affections of Ankers.

The main thing that determines the success of any actor on screen is their ability to seem natural, and that is the biggest deficiency of B movies. Richard Fraser, for all his cultured voice and good looks, is incredibly wooden and uncomfortable. Likewise, George Leigh is going for a sort of David Niven arrogance, but all he achieves is a poor man’s Zachary Scott and comes off as more of a dandy. Ankers, no surprise, gives an effortless performance, natural and authoritative, and I’m hesitant to say the only real reason for watching the film, because it’s not actually bad in an unwatchable sense. Frederick Worlock does a nice job as the old Scotland Yard inspector and friend of the family. And especially good in a small role is Barry Bernard as a Cockney workingman who suddenly comes into a lot of money. The script is fairly banal, but it does have a clever ending. The Fatal Witness is definitely a low-budget production, but worth seeing for Evelyn Ankers and a fun story.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Taxi (1998)

Director: Gérard Pirès                                  Writer: Luc Besson
Music: Akhenaton                                       Cinematography: Jean-Pierre Sauvaire
Starring: Samy Naceri, Frédéric Diefenthal, Marion Cotillard and Emma Wiklund

Yet another adrenaline rush from the mind of Luc Besson, Taxi is a French film that he wrote four years before the first Transporter film. Those looking for the same kind of vibe as the will probably be disappointed. The film is played much more for laughs and almost borders on farce. As with the Transporter and Taken franchises, Besson deferred the directing chores to someone else, Gérard Pirès, another writer-director who hadn’t really been in the director’s chair for almost twenty years prior to this film. It was something of a renaissance for Pirès who has now done several action films since. It has definitely been a successful series of films but has seemed to run its course with the fourth film which came out back in 2007. The Transporter series, on the other hand, has been greenlighted out through the sixth film.

This film begins with the title credits over the back of a pizza delivery driver on a moped speeding through the streets of Marseille. Turns out it was Samy Naceri just being timed and breaking his previous record. He is leaving the pizza place to get his taxi license and is congratulated with a kiss by Marion Cotillard who has worked with him for several years and the two go home together. As a cabbie he quickly becomes recognized by the cops, however, for the miraculous speeds he drives and their inability to catch him. At the same time the young police inspector Frédéric Diefenthal can’t even pass his driving test and is teased mercilessly by his colleagues, but is most disappointed in being unable to impress the Amazonian Emma Wiklund and get her to go out with him. By coincidence the two meet and Diefenthal threatens to take away Naceri’s drivers license if he doesn’t help him catch a gang of German bank robbers.

As stated earlier, the comedy element is really amped up here, with the bumbling Diefenthal acting as almost a young Inspector Clouseau. During his driving test he smashes right through the front of a butcher shop, and on the first attempt to apprehend the bank robbers, opens his car door which precipitates a giant twenty car pile up. The robbers get away. Naceri has his own comedic moments concerning his new girlfriend. Whenever they plan a romantic evening together something always interrupts them. Wiklund is Besson’s leggy blonde bombshell, a fellow inspector of Diefenthal’s who plays a German unimpressed by his advances. The other great roles are Manuela Gouray as Diefenthal’s mother who is Naceri’s first fare and the way the two of them meet, and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard as Naceri’s girlfriend.

The action elements definitely take second place to the comedy and that is the biggest difference from The Transporter. Naceri has a souped-up Peugeot that he uses to navigate around Marseille and a couple of his drives are fantastic, particularly his first one when he takes a nervous gentleman to the airport in record time. The final chase is good too, but it seems like it takes so long to get there that it lets some of the steam out of it. Naceri is also a solid dramatic actor, making a memorable appearance in Days of Glory (Indigénes) several years later for Jamel Debbouze--who would star himself in one of Besson’s greatest films, Angel-A. Taxi is a typical Luc Besson story that delivers action and comedy in equal doses but is a little uneven in their delivery. For Besson fans, however, any Besson is good Besson.

The Other Man (2008)

Director: Richard Eyre                                  Writers: Richard Eyre & Charles Wood
Film Score: Stephen Warbeck                       Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Antonio Banderas and Romola Garai

This is an odd little film that, at least on paper, shouldn’t work. Liam Neeson in interviews even said that he didn’t feel right for the role, but in the end he makes it his own and he does a nice job. Antonio Banderas, likewise, just seems wrong playing the smooth European gigolo. And I still don’t think he works particularly well, but it doesn’t bring down the film too much. Laura Linney, on the other hand, is one of my favorite actresses of all time and does a tremendous job here. The blurb on the DVD cover from the New York Daily News says “Linney—luminescent as always—is a beguiling center of this triangle.” Adapted from a German short story by Richard Eyre, The Other Man contains a lot of suspense, drama, and no small amount of emotion by all of the principals, and put all together it works. It’s not brilliant, but it does work.

The film opens with a London fashion show at which designer Laura Linney has provided the shoes. Along with her are husband Liam Neeson and daughter Romola Garai. Neeson does a nice job of being out of his element among the clothing designers and models backstage. And later that night Linney questions him about their relationship, about wanting other people and what that would mean for them. Neeson thinks it strange, but isn’t nearly as suspicious about it as he should be. When Linney leaves on a business trip there’s an awkward transition when Neeson is seen attempting to give away his wife’s clothes to their daughter. She has apparently left him. When he sees a new email on her computer, he checks it and discovers it’s from the man she’s having an affair with. Neeson uses his employees at the computer company he owns to find out who he is, and goes to Italy to confront him. But before he does, a chance meeting allows him to meet the man first and his curiosity gets the better of him.

Richard Eyre has been primarily a director of television shows, and had directed both Linney and Neeson in a production of The Crucible on Broadway a few years before. He also wrote the script for this film, along with screenwriting veteran Charles Wood. It’s a strange story, though, and there is a certain surreal quality to the whole production. In fact many people dislike the film, especially the ending and what appears to be not only an unsatisfactory resolution, but a confusing one as well. The thing is, it’s an intricately plotted story and has to be because of the nature of what’s happening, and while there are a lot of things that don’t appear to make sense initially the only real challenge for the viewer is with the motivations of the characters. On the surface they make choices that don’t seem logical, but they are choices, and if you can allow them that it can be an entertaining film. The Other Man is not an ordinary suspense film, but it’s definitely worth a look, for the two leads and the unpredictability of it all.

End of Watch (2012)

Director: David Ayer                                    Writer: David Ayer
Music: David Sardy                                     Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, David Harbour and Anna Kendrick

David Ayer’s End of Watch is more interesting than it is compelling. The conceit is that this is a video project by police officer Jake Gyllenhaal for a class he’s taking. The cinéma vérité style of camera work combined with the rap/hip-hop style of music certainly makes this a film for modern audiences. At the end of the day, however, there is little story involved in Ayer’s script. It is more the experience of the film itself, the look and feel, and the pulse pounding of the soundtrack that seems to be the point of the whole thing. What emerges most from the script is the relationship between the two men, Gyllenhaal and his partner Michael Peña. In addition there is a subtle cultural tension between the two men that their relationship manages to resolve. They are partners first, “brothers” Gyllenhaal calls them, and men second.

The story begins with a high speed chase through South Central Los Angeles, a grim, spare neighborhood of mostly minorities. The point of view is from the car’s camera, with the time and date displayed on the top, like so many reality shows about police officers in the field. When the police car finally moves up alongside the car and spins it out, the occupants jump out and begin firing but are killed by the two officers. Finally, Gyllenhaal and Peña emerge in front of the bullet-riddled windshield of the patrol car. It’s here that the reason for the visual style is established in the locker room, with Gyllenhaal’s video camera and two clip on cameras for he and Peña’s uniforms. The two men have been determined to have acted within the legal bounds for the shooting, but unfortunately have suddenly gained a new vision of themselves as Supercops, an attitude that will result in the tragic ending of the piece.

In addition to the camaraderie between the two men, there are a couple of other threads that entwined themselves in the story. The first is the relationships that the two men have with women. Gyllenhaal is in search of a woman that he can talk to, rather than a bimbo who simply wants to sleep with a policeman, of which there have apparently been many. Peña, on the other hand, has been married to his wife since he graduated high school. This model of what marriage could be like is an inspiration for Gyllenhaal in his relationship with Anna Kendrick. Her secret taping of herself on his camera while he sleeps is incredibly endearing. The second thread is the criminals that the men interact with on a daily basis, including a black crime leader who comes to have incredible respect for Peña and his partner after a confrontation. But there are also Hispanic criminals who are far more ruthless and inhuman that loom over the proceedings like a bad omen.

Jake Gyllenhaal, like a lot of young actors, has a single persona that he trots out for every film he’s in and winds up conforming the material to his own personality rather than the other way around. With his character being a former Marine, this could easily be the sequel to Jarhead. Peña is a bit more versatile. His role as the scared rookie in Shooter is very distinct from his confident patrolman here. At first the two seem like Mutt and Jeff, especially with their cultural differences. But it really works well in the end. Their discussion of the women in each other’s culture, reinforced by vocal imitations, is quite funny, and the picture also wisely ends on just such an episode. End of Watch is an interesting experiment. In some ways it is a clichéd story, but is told in a unique way and does have a lot to recommend it.

Supernatural (1933)

Director: Victor Halperin                                Writers: Harvey F. Thew & Brian Marlow
Film Score: Karl Hajos                                  Cinematography: Arthur Martinelli
Starring: Carole Lombard, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner and Alan Dinehart

An interesting little thriller from Paramount, this was the follow up to Victor Halperin’s artistically successful White Zombie with Bela Lugosi the year before and used much of the same crew. Where the previous film had been an independent production released through United Artists, however, Supernatural was made at Paramount and had to operate within their structure. Halperin and his producer brother Edward had planned on using Madge Bellamy from the previous picture as the star, but the studio forced them to use Carole Lombard whom they had on loan from Fox. She wasn’t happy about the assignment and frequently argued with Halperin on the set. Unfortunately the film wasn’t as successful as the brothers’ first project and the two attempted to recapture their earlier success by making Revolt of the Zombies a few years later, a box-office dud that marked the end of their production company.

In this film Vivienne Osborne plays a murderess who is sentenced to death for strangling three men with her bare hands. Once she’s set to be executed, psychologist H.B. Warner wants to experiment with her body after death to see if he can prevent unexplained copycat murders her death. His theory is that, if left unchecked, her spirit will roam the earth for a while seeking revenge. Alan Dinehart is the man she blames for the deaths, and he is in the process of conning the last victim’s sister, Carole Lombard who has inherited the family fortune, by posing as a spiritualist. Boyfriend Randolph Scott and Warner attempt to warn her away from him, but can’t overcome her natural curiosity. At the same time this obvious fakery is going on, the experiments by Warner are appearing to bear fruit and the inexplicable happenings at his apartments laboratory are the real underpinning of the fantastic in the film.

It’s tempting to say that all early films like this were an attempt to ride the coattails of Universal’s success in the horror field, but that’s because it really seems to be true. The most obvious evidence is the influence of James Whale on the output of the other studios. His infusion of comedy into films like Frankenstein and The Old Dark House are everywhere. In this instance it’s the great Beryl Mercer who is shoehorned into the plot as the Cockney landlady. Why she should be running a rooming house in New York City only makes sense if one realizes she is just a stand in for Una O’Connor. Another connection to Universal’s horror films is the music of Karl Hajos who later penned the score for Werewolf of London.

Carole Lombard does a tremendous job in the film, especially when she is taken over by the spirit of Vivienne Osborne, and it makes her subdued performance prior to that a lot more understandable. It’s also great to see Randolph Scott in a non-western, and he does a good job as Lombard’s boyfriend, the nominal hero in an assertive way that David Manners only wished he could have pulled off. H.B. Warner is also terrific as the old scientist in the Van Helsing role. William Farnum is a bit over the top in his role as the family accountant, but Alan Dinehart’s slimy performance is just right for the part. The dual narrative is what really makes the film, especially when the two threads intertwine and Osborne is set loose in Lombard’s body. Supernatural is not a great film, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as some in the genre. See it for the stars and the offbeat story and I think it will entertain.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rain (1932)

Director: Lewis Milestone                               Writer: Maxwell Anderson
Film Score: Alfred Newman                            Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: Joan Crawford, Walter Houston, Guy Kibbee and Beulah Bondi

As pedestrian a director as Lewis Milestone became later in his career, he was just the opposite in the early 1930s. He had a visual style that was distinctive, fluid, and artistic, a pleasure to watch. After winning two Oscar’s in a row, for Two Arabian Knights and All Quiet on the Western Front, he was nominated again for The Front Page the following year. His next feature was Rain, starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston. In this film he displays all of his considerable talents. The camera is wonderfully fluid as it tracks people walking to and from the ship, or as they move around the table. There’s even a nice shot as Joan Crawford looks for a can of soup, her face framed from the darkness behind the cans as she shops. And surrounding and centering the action of the film is the continuous and oppressive presence of the rain, a blunt symbol but an effective one nonetheless.

The story, from the pen of Somerset Maugham, begins in Pago-Pago on the island of Samoa. There a boat stops but must return to the United States, temporarily stranding it’s passengers. Running the only store and hotel on the island is the happy go lucky Guy Kibbee who offers hospitality to his guests. They are an interesting mix. Beulah Bondi is the sour and disapproving wife of missionary Walter Huston, and they are accompanied by physician Matt Moore and his wife Kendall Lee. Also staying at the hotel, however, is prostitute Joan Crawford. She brings along with her a gramophone, lots of booze, and noisy friends as she parties with a group of soldiers who are stationed at the U.S. naval base there. As such, she incurs the wrath of Bondi and, eventually, Huston himself. While one of the soldiers, William Gargan, issues her what amounts to a proposal, Huston blackmails the governor into having her sent back to the states and a fate she would do anything to avoid.

It’s a powerful film when seen today, and that is no doubt due to the flaunting of the production code that was still in effect at the time. Both Moore and Kibbee--who reads Nietzsche--as well as Gargan later, seem the ones who truly understand reality. Huston, on the other hand, like so many religious nuts, has the arrogance to assume that he and he alone has a monopoly on the truth. The scene on the stairs when Huston is towering over Crawford and reciting the lord’s prayer is as harrowing as any murder or torture on film. The rain itself, which is supposed to symbolize the sin that Huston wants Crawford to escape from, is really the oppression of religion that Huston brings with him to the island, destroying the happy and contented lives of the natives and Crawford alike. When seen in that light, it makes the ending incredibly satisfying and makes me so thankful that there were at least a few years in the sound era when films could tell the truth.

Crawford owns the screen, and while she’s not quite the actress she would become just a few years later, in some ways she’s more interesting because of it. Of the other actors only Kibbee really has the kind of charisma that he was known for. Bondi, while one of my favorite character actresses, seems hampered by the script. Her lines come off rather stilted and the role itself certainly lacks the kind of depth she could normally deliver. Huston is solid, but does nothing many other actors couldn’t do. As with most talkies, there is no film score to speak of, and Alfred Newman handles the chores on the opening and closing titles while Crawford’s records provide a jazz reflection of her sinful nature. Milestone is the other star here, in addition to the moving camera and framing devices, does some nice editing with left-to-right swipes going into close-ups. It’s another great artistic touch. Rain is film worth seeking out and an example of pre-code filmmaking at it’s best.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Countdown (1967)

Director: Robert Altman                                   Writers: Loring Mandel & Hank Searls
Film Score: Leonard Rosenman                       Cinematography: William W. Spencer
Starring: James Caan, Robert Duvall, Charles Aidman and Joanna Moore

In 1969, unknown to the United States, the Soviet Space program effectively ended with a massive explosion during a launch test. The loss of the vehicle wasn’t nearly as damaging to the program as was the destruction of the launch site and the U.S., who was ahead anyway, landed two men on the moon that year. But what if the explosion hadn’t happened, and what if the race had come down to the wire? Released a year before Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Altman’s Countdown examines that very premise. In that way it is not futuristic like Kubrick’s film, but a suspense story about a moon landing two years prior to NASA actually landing a man on the moon. It was based on the novel Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls, a minor writer who nevertheless wrote some very intelligent suspense novels like Overboard and Sounding as well as the novelizations of two of the Jaws sequels.

The story begins with a three-man Apollo crew, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Michael Murphy, preparing for a mission in a few months. When the news comes that the Russians have already orbited the moon--prior to Apollo 8--the space program pulls out an emergency plan to beat them. The program, named Pilgrim, sends a single man up in a Gemini capsule and lands him on the moon. And there he sits, until the first Apollo crew can come up and bring him back. The one snag is mostly due to public relations. The Russian crew is all civilian, and scientist James Caan is the only non-military astronaut in the program. Duvall is the natural choice, but his military background excludes him and Caan accepts the mission with a lot more zest than either his wife or Duvall would like. That’s nothing, however, compared to nervous flight physician Charles Aidman who is in an absolute panic because he thinks Caan is going to die.

While 2001 is concerned with things like long-distance flight, the mechanisms of space travel, and other science-fiction subjects, Countdown is almost exclusively concerned with the human element, the relationships between the major players and their psychological reactions to the mission. The archive film of the Gemini launches is good, but the special effects are nothing compared to Kubrick’s film. But then they don’t have to be as it’s a completely different type of story. Still, having some kind of sound effects in the capsule when boosters are firing and stages are separating would have added some much needed verisimilitude. The “moon” is a typical desert scape doubling for the inert satellite and the mission control is a very scaled down version of what we saw in Apollo 13. But again, that isn’t the film’s emphasis.

This was Robert Altman’s first feature film and while it is watchable, it is little more than that. The ending is incredibly abrupt, and that is another downside. The main draw is probably the actors, some big names but mostly people who would become associated with television rather than feature films: Michael Murphy, Charles Aidman and Ted Knight. There are, however, a couple of interesting items of trivia. Near the beginning when a technician comes out with a chart of the path of the Russian ship, he has the unmistakable voice of Walter Matthau. And during Caan’s flight, when there are some electrical problems, one of the technicians is none other than Mike Farrell from the TV show M*A*S*H interacting with Duvall from Altman’s filmed version. Ultimately the film is merely a curiosity, fascinating more for what it could have been rather than what it did. Countdown is definitely not for dedicated fans of space films but taken for what it is, a glorified TV movie, it doesn’t have to disappoint.

The Big Sleep (1945)

Director: Howard Hawks                                  Writers: William Faulkner & Leigh Brackett
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgley and Martha Vickers

You might think the date is wrong on this, but I’m actually reviewing the pre-release version of The Big Sleep that was cut and printed in 1945 rather than the theatrical version that was released in 1946. There were two reasons for this. The first is that, with World War Two coming to a close, Warner Brothers wanted to get all of their pictures with a war theme released and moved all of them to the front of the line. A detective film like this could wait. The second was the poor reception Lauren Bacall received in her second film, Confidential Agent. Her agent wrote a letter to Jack Warner telling him that if he reshot sections of The Big Sleep in order to replicate the onscreen relationship the two stars shared in her first film, To Have and Have Not, in which critics loved her, it would save her career and make Warners’ investment in her pay off. Warner agreed.

Ultimately, from our point of view nearly seventy years later, the differences are insignificant. Bacall is still a star and in some ways her more subtle performance in the earlier version is quite nice. But it’s a convoluted story and the reshoot did help to streamline the plot and make it a bit more comprehensible. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, Bogart plays Philip Marlowe called in by a rich client to make some blackmail charges against his younger daughter, Martha Vickers, go away. At the same time he meets the younger daughter, Lauren Bacall, and sparks fly. When he tails the blackmailer, a rare bookshop owner, to his house Vickers shows up and the blackmailer winds up dead. In the meantime the family’s chauffeur winds up dead after the car went off the pier. The police know that Bogart is investigating for them and leans on him for information. And that’s just in the first half hour.

The other players are a blackmailer named Joe Brody, a gambler by the name of Eddie Mars, and a missing bootlegger named Sean Regan who apparently ran off with Mars’ wife. How Bacall is mixed up in the whole things is fairly complicated, and even Chandler himself didn’t know who killed the chauffeur. Howard Hawks had filmed the two leads in To Have and Have Not, which had earned tremendous reviews for Bacall, and when Warner wanted to do the retakes the following year she insisted that he be the director or she wouldn’t do them. In the interim she had also become Mrs. Bogart. The script is the real star of the show however, William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett with later additions by Jules Furthman had taken Chandler’s story and made the dialogue quick and witty with some great lines for Bogart and his women in the film, Bacall, Joy Barlow and the wonderful Dorothy Malone.

Hawks’ direction doesn’t seem especially memorable, but that invisible style works well here. Many of the scenes take place at night, or in a dark house, and as such there’s a certain claustrophobia to the proceedings that adds to the atmosphere. Another tremendous aspect of the film is the lush film score by the great Max Steiner. His love theme for Bogart and Bacall is instantly memorable. The revised version of the film features Bacall in a few more scenes and retakes scenes to heighten the relationship between her and Bogart. The final end title with the two smoldering cigarettes is the kind of symbolism that is long gone from film, but one misses its absence. Though the revamped version of The Big Sleep is the most well known, the 1945 version is still worth watching and one of the classic noir films of the forties.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Life is Beautiful (1997)

Director: Roberto Benigni                                Writer: Vincenzo Cerami & Roberto Benigni
Film Score: Nicola Piovani                              Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini and Marisa Paredes

I have been on record in voicing my distaste for the zany in comedy. I prefer my comedies dry and witty. Good writing appeals to me, not slapstick. The first half of the Italian film Life is Beautiful (La vita é bella), therefore, left me cold. Roberto Benigni’s happy go lucky Guido was just a little too wacky for me, acting crazy and having more fun than a normal human should be allowed. But, of course, that’s the point. Benigni also wrote and directed which, in my mind, just adds to the general weakness of the film. His pursuit of the lovely Nicoletta Braschi is also clichéd and at the same time not very realistic. But then the Nazi’s come to town and everything changes. What before was simply zany antics suddenly becomes an absolute necessity for survival of a young family facing the Holocaust together.

For me, the film doesn’t really start until the story jumps from 1939, and Benigni’s pursuit of Braschi, to four years later after they are already married and have a young son, Giorgio Cantarini. The boy is marvelous, natural without seeming coached. When they see a store with a sign reading “No Jews or dogs allowed,” Benigni makes up a wonderful story to account for it to the child. At no time does he allow despair to enter into his son’s world. When he and the boy are taken away by the Nazis to the train station, Braschi is so committed to them that she goes to the train station and asks to get on the train to be taken to her death, as long as she gets to spend her remaining time with the people she loves. It’s at once heart wrenching and inspiring. And when Benigni pretends to translate the German instructions to the new arrivals, I laughed out loud, something that would seem impossible for a Holocaust film.

In fact, the film was so well received that it won three Academy Awards, one for best foreign film and the second for best film score. The film received seven nominations altogether, three alone for all of Benigni’s efforts and the third win overall for his performance as an actor in a leading role, one of only a few times that award has gone to a non-English speaking actor. It’s an extremely idiosyncratic piece of work, and while Benigni seems the least likely actor to win an Oscar, within the context of this particular story it’s easy to see why. In many ways it seems like this film was rewarded more for the story itself rather than the artistic merits of the film itself. The score is good, but with films like Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love in the running that year it certainly isn’t memorable. Life is Beautiful is not one of the all time great films, but the second half is certainly moving and worth the price of admission alone. Definitely recommended, if for nothing else than the experience.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Director: Ben Stiller                                        Writer: Steve Conrad
Film Score: Theodore Shapiro                         Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn and Shirley McLean

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, not unlike its protagonist, is a very quiet movie. And that’s a good thing. After years of making bombastic, over the top comedies, Ben Stiller did one very smart thing in this fantasy adventure comedy: he made it realistic. This was a surprise. I had expected the parts where Stiller was actually on his adventures to be CGI extravaganzas and almost cartoon-like in their artificiality. Instead, he keeps his checkbook with him, writing down his expenses, and everything he does is something a person with the skills he possessed could accomplish. The other expectation is Stiller’s obvious goofiness, and that was another pleasant surprise. He plays the entire piece straight, bringing down his performance to an intimate level of the type glimpsed at in the Night at the Museum films, but kept it there.

The story begins with Stiller at home in the morning, wanting to send a wink to Kristen Wiig on an online dating service, but when he tries it doesn’t work. He calls the help desk and gets Patton Oswalt on the line, misses his train when he fantasizes about saving a barking dog from an exploding building, and is late for work. Turns out he works for Life Magazine, which is ceasing publication and becoming an online magazine only. Stiller works in the basement with the film archives and for the last cover shot they are going to use a photo from their top photographer, Sean Penn. One problem, the picture is not in the roll of film Penn sent and the new executive who is there to fire everyone wants it. At the same time, Wiig happens to work in his office and Stiller manages to enlist her into helping him solve the mystery of where Penn is. Ultimately, Stiller has to take a chance in both realms of his life in order to become the person he was meant to be.

In addition to Stiller, Kristen Wiig also puts in a very thoughtful performance. She has a son in the film and he and Stiller connect over skateboards. Stiller also has a sister, probably the most quirky character in the film, played by Kathryn Hahn. Lastly, the great Shirley McLean plays Stiller’s mother with a subtlety that, again, was quite unexpected. The male roles, on the other hand, were by far the most clichéd, with Adam Scott as the corporate hatchet man in an incredibly bad beard, John Daly and Terence Bernie Hines as his friends at the office, and Adrian Martinez as his co-worker in the film library. Sean Penn, in a small role as a seemingly crazed photographer who still uses film, does a terrific job as something of the Holy Grail for Stiller.

Overall, it was not a great film, but as Stiller’s first really serious effort it shows promise. Unfortunately the realism of the film is actually something that works against him because it destroys the narrative arc. When he sets out on his adventure and gets to Iceland, he sees Sean Penn on an airplane flying into a volcano and then . . . he just gives up and goes home. Not only is it inexplicable but it stops the story dead, and even though he eventually goes back to his quest the narrative momentum is gone. But there are other places where the reality works well. The relationship he develops with Wiig is very believable, and the crazy mother expectation with Shirley McLean never materializes, giving that part of the story more grounding in reality. The three or four fantasy sequences are nicely done, and one wishes for more. But Walter Mitty is a solid effort from Stiller and I hope that he continues to work in a more serious vein.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Flemming                               Writer: Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                           Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger

I firmly believe that it is impossible, literally impossible, to write an objective review of The Wizard of Oz. For anyone my age or older there are so many associations with childhood that those viewings will always color any interpretation or analysis we attempt to make. Indeed, the A List author for this film does exactly that, and placed the film firmly within the context of his childhood. Before the advent of home video tape, this was the one film experience that almost all children had in common, every spring, gathered around the TV set, whether color or black and white, being alternately scared out of our wits and delightfully entertained. It was an event, something to be looked forward to as much as the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials or the preview of the new fall Saturday morning cartoons. The television networks had a captive audience then, and boy were we captivated.

MGM’s making of the film itself was prompted by two events, the first being David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind which made Louis B. Mayer a little less apprehensive about taking on their own color spectacular. The second was Walt Disney’s incredible success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Lacking, however, the promotional creativity that both Selznick and Disney understood as creative studio heads, Mayer’s financial focus caused him to botch both the promotion and distribution and, as a result, Oz did only average business at the box office. It would take television a decade later to demonstrate the artistic genius of the film and make it the classic it has become today. There’s little need to explain the plot, as it’s difficult to imagine that there are people who haven’t seen the film. And while it retains all of the characters and set pieces of L. Frank Baum’s fantastic but grim children’s story, there is a tremendous amount of invention that went into the story from no less that eighteen contributors to the script.

The one analytical theory I would proffer is that the film embraces not just the children’s story, but staples from seemingly every genre and weaves them together in a way that no other film has been able to do before or since. There are comedic elements, with the farm hands during the sepia opening and during the color sequences. The opening is also something of a family drama, not only about Dorothy and the fate of the dog but in the way honest people feel trapped by the law. There is the horror of the cyclone and the kidnapping of Dorothy. There is certainly an element of the western, with Dorothy and her posse tracking down the wicked witch. The wizard’s bait and switch suggests the caper film, while the suicide mission he sends them on mimics the war film. The witch’s organization feels like the mob, with her as the boss and the three characters as cops or private detectives attempting to rescue the kidnapped heroine. Finally, and most obviously, there is the incredible music and dancing that were one of MGM’s specialties.

Beyond that, it’s the personalities that make the film the tremendous entertainment juggernaut that it remains to this day. MGM had been obsessed with obtaining the services of Shirley Temple, but Judy Garland’s performance is what centers the film and makes it something more than just good. Ray Bolger is her second, a terrific actor and dancer. And while Jack Haley and Bert Lahr were certainly replaceable, Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan were not. I don’t believe anyone else had been considered for the role of the wicked witch, but in Morgan’s role there was definitely an attempt to get W.C. Field. While he certainly would have conveyed the humbug aspect of the character, the multiple roles that Morgan takes on are testament to his being the perfect choice. The musical numbers, completely jettisoning anything from the 1903 Broadway production, are classics today and rightly so. Add to that the sepia frame story, the brilliant special effects, the casting of the little people, and it truly becomes a thing of perfection.

Peter Keough’s essay in The A List takes the obvious tact, opening with the terrors of the film for a child, the witch, her flying monkeys, the destruction of the scarecrow, and the transformation of benign Auntie Em with the witch in the crystal ball. All of which, he asserts, made him become a film critic later. Like him, I too watched the film later with my children when released in the theater. Keough makes a nice point that there are different horrors for the adults in the audience as well, but then launches into a disappointing Freudian interpretation . . . honestly, again, must we? The real lesson of the film, entirely missed by Keough, is that experience is our greatest teacher. The scarecrow only becomes smart by having to be smart, the tin man loving by caring, and the lion brave by being brave. Dorothy only learns how important home is after leaving. This is the real lesson of The Wizard of Oz, that however scary the world might seem, it is only by diving in and fully embracing it that we conquer our demons and become who we were meant to be. Yet another thing that makes this film an enduring classic.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujirô Ozu                                    Writers: Kôgo Noda & Yasujirô Ozu
Film Score: Takanobu Saito                            Cinematography: Yûharu Atsuta
Starring: Chishû Ryû, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara and Sô Yamamura

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is the kind of filmmaker that seemed to connect with American audiences because of his emphasis on plot as well as character. In some ways he was inspired by American films and this is evident in his work. Yasujirô Ozu is an entirely different kind of director. If Kurosawa is an American style director, then Ozu is definitely in the European mold. His films are almost entirely about character. Like Tokyo Story, they are an immersion into everyday Japanese life that can seem almost pointless at times, but then the same can be said for many European films. The key is to understand first the relationships between the characters and second, like people from anywhere, understand what their interactions tell us about those people and the culture that they live in.

The story is simply an episode in the life of the Hirayama family. The elder mother and father live forty miles east of Hiroshima and are excited about visiting their children who live in far away Tokyo. When they arrive the conflict, if it can be called that, begins right away. They are staying at the house of their oldest son, and after a few crackers for a meal they are whisked upstairs to bed, even though it’s clear they’d rather visit with their family. The next day is Sunday and the tour of Tokyo they have planned is called off when their son, a doctor, must attend to a patient. Their daughter, who runs a beauty shop with her husband, then calls up her sister-in-law, their younger brother’s wife, and makes her do it. It’s then we learn the younger son died in the war and she is all alone. That night the son and the daughter decide to pack off their parents to a resort, which is noisy at night and quite a disappointment to the parents.

When they return early, there is no place for them to stay. Mother spends the night at her daughter-in-law’s apartment, while the father goes out with some old friends and gets drunk, showing up at the daughter’s door well after midnight. Then the parents leave the next day. Chishû Ryû does a nice job as the father, though he was more like fifty rather than the late sixties he was portraying. Setsuko Hara is the real star, however, a devoted daughter-in-law who seemed the only child, ironically, who really cared about the old couple. If there’s an antagonist in the piece it’s Haruko Sugimura, who is shrill and borderline cruel as the oldest daughter. But the real conflict seems to be the change of culture. This is symbolized wonderfully when the parents arrive in Tokyo at the home of their oldest son. Sugimura is in her kimono, as is the mother, while the father and their daughter in law are wearing Western clothing. And it’s the death of the older culture that not only explains the divide between parents and children, but is also symbolized by the ending of the film.

In his essay on the film for The A List, Kevin Thomas looks at the conflict as a generation gap. It is that, but to my eyes it is more acutely felt because of the cultural shift that has happened. And there is an inevitability to the whole thing as well. In the same way that the children, basically good people, have become so focused on their own lives and survival, societies change as well. It’s significant that, except for the tour bus through Tokyo, the only scenes of the city near the children’s homes are industrial smoke stacks and construction sites. This is in stark contrast to the fishing village that the parents come from. Life is short, and parental expectations don’t count for much as children grow into their own people. Likewise, the evolution of society pays little heed to the past as it rushes forward to meet the future. Tokyo Story is a meditation on life, and a good one, that does not depend on the knowledge of Japanese culture to understand. What Ozu is showing us is that the Hirayama family represents all of us.