Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Criminal Code (1931)

Director: Howard Hawks                               Writers: Fred Niblo Jr. & Seton I. Miller
Music: Sam Perry                                          Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff

Despite his breakout success with Frankenstein at Universal, Boris Karloff always felt that this was the film that made him a star. Working for Columbia on poverty row, the studio had no problem hiring Karloff to reprise the role he had played on Broadway rather than getting an established character actor as a larger studio certainly would have done. It was through his appearance in The Criminal Code that he came to the attention of James Whale and the rest, as they say, is history. But Karloff already had a long history of playing heavies in crime dramas dating back to the silent era because of his distinctive looks. By the time of this film he had been in over sixty films. The play had been written by Martin Flavin and his title has a nice double meaning. It’s not only the legal code by which the criminals are convicted, but it is also the code that the criminals live by in prison. In this case it has to do with a squealer, someone who tells the authorities what other prisoners are doing. The film was the first of four films that Howard Hawks would make for Columbia, though the director would go right from this film into another crime drama, Scarface with Paul Muni, which was released through United Artists.

The film begins with a call to the police and two detectives being sent out to a nightclub. Phillips Holmes is arrested after hitting another man with a bottle and wounding him seriously. Mary Doran is a witness, having danced with both men, and she’s brought before D.A. Walter Huston to be interviewed. She says that Holmes thought the other man was reaching for a gun, and then he dismisses her. When Holmes comes before him, Huston tells him that the man died. And while Huston realizes it was an accident, he’s going to send him to prison because that’s what the law demands. Six years later Holmes is getting stir crazy, but still has four years to go on his sentence. One of his cellmates, Otto Hoffman, is looking at twenty years and wants to break out. Holmes, of course, wants to go too, but his other cellmate, Boris Karloff, tells him the odds are against him, especially with so little time for him to go. The next day the cons learn that Huston is going to be the new warden, after losing a bid for governor, and suddenly no one is anxious to leave just yet, considering how many of them he put away. Now they’re thinking about revenge rather than escape. But Huston’s fearlessness takes the starch out of them, at least momentarily. After Holmes nearly cracks again in the textile mile, he’s brought to Huston’s office and the warden makes him his driver.

Constance Cummings plays Huston’s daughter, who often uses Holmes to drive her to town. He becomes so infatuated with her that it straightens him out to the point where he feels almost normal. Unfortunately, Holmes gets caught up in the politics of the prisoners and winds up just as unlucky as he was on the outside. With the help of the great James Wong Howe, director Howard Hawks does some nice work with the camera, tracking along behind Huston as he strolls through the prison yard, and with interesting use of the shadows of the cell bars and effective close ups. He also makes dramatic use of sound throughout the film. Though there are definite individuals in the prison, like Karloff and Holmes, or Andy Devine, Hawks dehumanizes the prisoners by slowly marching them in and out of the yard or through the prison like Fritz Lang’s extras in Metropolis. Walter Huston puts in one of his solid, early thirties performances but Phillips Holmes, who was tremendous in Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy, is every bit Huston’s equal. And of course Karloff is also good in his supporting role. The film is definitely a plea for prison reform, but things have only become worse in the time since. The Criminal Code isn’t the best crime drama of the era, but it is worth watching for Hawks’ direction and some terrific acting performances.

King Kong (1933)

Director: Ernest B. Shoedsack                      Writers: James A. Creelman & Ruth Rose
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Edward Linden
Starring: Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot and Frank Reicher

During the depression Universal Studios dominated the horror market, and while the other studios tried to cash in on the popularity Universal created, for the most part their efforts were marginal. But there were a few notable exceptions, The Mystery of the Wax Museum at Warner Brothers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Paramount, Freaks at MGM, and one of the most successful of all, RKO’s King Kong. Edgar Wallace wrote the first treatment of the story, but died shortly after. Then screenwriter James A. Creelman was brought in, a studio veteran who had also penned the film’s practice run The Most Dangerous Game a year earlier with Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, but the script was actually completed by Ernest B. Shoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose. It was a “Beauty and the Beast” story of epic proportion that would take the skills of special effects man Willis O’Brien to bring it to life on the screen. Shoedsack and fellow producer Merian C. Cooper were real life adventurers who had made a series of successful documentaries in Africa and, in search of more widespread popular appeal, decided to go into feature film production, combining their location action footage with studio stories that would also feature movie stars and higher quality production values. The result was greater than even they had imagined.

The film begins on the docks of New York, with Robert Armstrong getting together a crew for a secretive film shoot in the Pacific. He’s tried to hire an actress for the picture but is having no luck, and he needs to leave immediately. Desperate, Armstrong slips into the city at night and spots Fay Wray trying to steal an apple. After convincing her that his intentions are honorable, she agrees to star in his film and goes out of the voyage the next morning. First mate Bruce Cabot, a tough-talking seaman, is at first irritated by her presence on the ship but eventually falls for her and becomes her protector against Armstrong, who is a bit cavalier with the lives of the crew. One of the great scenes in the film is the camera test that Armstrong takes of Wray onboard the ship. He directs her to see something amazing and horrible and finally instructs her to throw her arm across her eyes and scream. Bruce Cabot, watching from above, says to the captain “What’s he think she’s really gonna see?” Once the ship is west of Sumatra, Armstrong shows the captain, Frank Reicher, his map of Skull Island. Not on any charts, Reicher begins to doubt of its existence until it suddenly emerges from the fog. The island is said to contain the legendary “Kong,” and when the crew comes ashore the natives are angered at the intrusion of their ceremony. Reicher tries to talk to them, but they want Wray as a bride for Kong, though the crew doesn’t even know what Kong is. The next day, however, they find out when Wray is kidnapped from the ship and they have to take a rescue party beyond the wall to save her.

The Skull Island sequence is the real high point of the film. Special effects man Willis O’Brien had made a name for himself nearly a decade earlier with the Arthur Conan Doyle classic The Lost World. In that film he had brought dinosaurs to life through the use of stop-motion photography and combined it with live actors to create a one of a kind film experience. At this time he had been working on a film at RKO called Creation, that was eventually shelved because of the excessive budgetary requirements, but was immediately put to work on Kong by Cooper. His work on the model of Kong was one of the major reasons for the film’s success. Not only did he imbue the character with some amazing human characteristics but his technical skill at moving the model, from the facial expressions to the rippling of the fur, is near perfect. But all of the special effects are extremely good, not just Kong. The animated sea birds on Skull Island are impressively drawn as they flit across the screen, and the jungle matte paintings are magnificent. Many of the jungle sets were also doing double duty on Kong after having been use on The Most Dangerous Game, and a second unit was dispatched to New York to provide background for the finale.

Fay Wray was a brilliant choice for the heroine of the film. It was her idea to go blonde so that she would stand out against her leading man. She had also done a couple of popular horror films at Warner Brothers the year before, two of the eleven films of hers that would be released that year. Robert Armstrong was already a Hollywood veteran and the role of the fearless filmmaker seems made for him. Frank Reicher is another actor who had been around since the days of the silents and was a great choice as the captain of the ship. Bruce Cabot, on the other hand, was in one of his first featured roles and is probably the weakest of the leads. But the other aspect of the film that has to be equally responsible for its enduring greatness is the score by Max Steiner. Cleverly, the music doesn’t begin until the ship approaches the island and from then on becomes a major part of the film. Distinctive melodies suffuse the score and as a result it stands on its own as some great music of cinema’s golden era. For decades after the film finally appeared on television it could only be seen in a truncated form that eliminated many of the deaths that Kong caused to villagers on the island as well as commuters in New York City. It’s only been recently that it has been completely restored on DVD. King Kong remains one of the most iconic supernatural films of the thirties and a part of the collective popular culture.

The Lost World (1925)

Director: Harry O. Hoyt                                  Writer: Marion Fairfax
Film Score: Cecil Copping                             Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Lewis Stone, Bessie Love, Wallace Beery and Lloyd Hughes

The precursor to decades of stop-motion animation films, The Lost World was a showcase for Willis O’Brien who had toiled for years making short films that proved his techniques with adjustable miniatures could be made realistic in a way that actors in animal suits never could. This film also that showed their inclusion in features films could provide the foundation for stories that couldn’t be told in any other way. It was, in fact, the first feature to include stop-motion animation and eventually led to O’Brien’s iconic work on King Kong. Based on the popular novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, the film has become a classic in its own right. As with so many silent films, legal battles and volatile nitrate stock have led to the disappearance of some of the footage. The best restoration of the film includes sections from eight different copies, some of them foreign releases that have slightly different camera angles or different variations of scenes. The version released by Image Entertainment is the most complete but now out of print and commands high prices. The most economical way to get the second best print is its inclusion in the lamentable 1960 remake by Irwin Allen.

The story begins in the office of the London Record Journal. Wallace Beery is an explorer who claims to have seen real dinosaurs and the newspaper sends Lloyd Hughes to see if he can get an interview with the man they have claimed is a liar. At the Zoological Hall where Beery is speaking that night, Hughes runs into Lewis Stone, a respected hunter and explorer, who gets him in to see Beery. Since no one believes that Beery has actually seen dinosaurs, his attempts to finance another expedition have failed. But when Hughes is introduced to Bessie Love, whose father was abandoned on the plateau where the beasts were seen, he gets the newspaper to finance their return in order to rescue her father rather than look for dinosaurs. Once in the jungles of the Amazon, the expedition makes its way upstream through uncharted rivers back to the plateau where Love’s father was lost. There they see a living Pterodactyl flying with its prey, and an ape-man who is trying to prevent them from reaching the plateau by dropping rocks on the explorers. Eventually they ascend the long slope to the plateau and fell a tree over the chasm to get across. Shortly after, however, a Brontosaurus sends the tree falling down the chasm and traps the explorers just like Love’s father.

Directory Harry Hoyt was primarily a writer, though he did have a brief career directing films in the silent era. His direction of the picture is limited to the actors, while the animation in the jungle sequences was handled by the visual effects department and second unit directors. The frame story is adequately done with standard techniques of the period, but where the film comes alive is when the expedition enters the jungle. The fact that the brilliant Arthur Edeson was behind the camera no doubt adds considerably to the quality of the picture. The acting is pretty good, also standard for the time. Wallace Beery’s technique may be a bit broad it works for his character, as does Bessie Love’s tomboy quality. And both Lewis Stone and Lloyd Hughes do a solid job in support. All of the principals were stars, which must have added to the film’s popularity. Plans for a sound remake a few years later resulted in all rights to the film being purchased from First National, and an agreement to destroy all release prints. This is one reason for the fragmentary nature of the existing copies. Some have even suggested that the remake was just a ruse and that the producers of King Kong were behind the purchase because of the similarity of the story and the effects.

I dislike tremendously being an apologist for older films. So many of them stand on their own that they don’t need to be treated differently than modern films. By that standard, however, the animated sequences with the dinosaurs really suffer. When judged by today’s standards they are crude and obviously miniature. Nevertheless, the effort is impressive. The movements of the dinosaurs as they roam the jungle killing each other lacks the sophistication that would come less than a decade later with King Kong, but it’s a fascinating exercise to watch and delivers its own kind of entertainment that is definitely worthwhile. And the one long shot with dozens of dinosaurs moving at the same time is miraculous. Later in the film, when a Brontosaurus is thrown off the plateau by an Allosaurus and survives by falling into mud, the expedition brings it back to London and its rampage through the streets would be the template for hundreds of similar scenes in monster movies for decades afterward. The quality of The Lost World is going to depend on the print that you acquire. Image is easily the best, but the version on the remake is very good as well. But the special effects are wonderful and a fascinating look at stop-motion techniques in their infancy.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Falls: Testament of Love (2013)

Director: Jon Garcia                                     Writers: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                 Cinematography: Christopher Stephens
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Benjamin Farmer, Thomas Stroppel, and Hannah Barefoot

This sequel to The Falls is another beautiful story by Jon Garcia. Unlike the first film, The Falls: Testament of Love is more of a gay film. The first was really for anyone and everyone, a love story about two people who discover themselves outside of the constraints of their families. It was so well written and filmed it really transcended the idea of gay or straight. The sequel is the continuing story of those two characters who shared a momentous time in their lives and chose very different ways to deal with that experience. And that experience, in this film, is being gay and how that affects the people around them. Also, while the first film was really Nick Ferrucci’s story, the second film focuses on Benjamin Farmer and his challenges. The first film was done on a shoestring, with a total crew of four people, and actors helping out on the technical side when they weren’t on screen. But with the recognition and success of that film, Garcia was able to get more financing and hire enough crew members to handle all of the technical work and allow the actors to simply focus on their craft. The results are stunning.

The film begins with Nick Ferrucci telling the audience very briefly about his experience on his Mormon Mission. There he met Benjamin Farmer and the two fell in love. Ferrucci left the church before he could be formally excommunicated. He moved to Seattle to write for a magazine and has a boyfriend, Thomas Stroppel. In his narrative he tells how he lost touch with Farmer and never heard from him again after a trip they took around the country together. The reason why soon becomes clear. Farmer took a different route after his experience with Ferrucci, confessing to church officials and vowing that he would never give in to such temptations again. He met Hannah Barefoot later and married her, and the two have a daughter who is now three years old by the time of the current narrative. One of the important people in their discovery of themselves from the first film was Brian Allard, an Iraq War veteran who was incredibly accepting of them and became their only real friend during that time. But each of the men receive a call from Allard’s mother telling them that he has died, and this becomes the second time in their lives when they are thrown together. Their meeting after the funeral is, as one would expect, awkward, with Ferrucci desperate for closure and Farmer bent on denial. But what eventually happens between them is as uplifting as one could hope for.

Once again the two leads, Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer are exceptional. In fact, they are so natural and so believable it actually makes the viewer aware that the other actors are just acting. But the supporting cast plays an important role in this film. In the opening sequences Ferrucci is joined by Thomas Stroppel, desperately in love with a man who doesn’t have the same feelings to give back. It’s truly heart rending to see the emotion that both actors are able to access. Benjamin Farmer’s partner onscreen is Hannah Barefoot as the trusting Mormon wife who begins to suspect something when she senses that things aren’t right between them. In fact, unlike the naked emotion of the other pair, Farmer and Barefoot have the more formidable job of keeping their emotions subtextual for the first half of the film. The other great pair, though they don’t work together, are the fathers. Harold Phillips plays Ferrucci’s father and is still disappointed with him after the revelation of the first film. But in one of the most moving scenes in the sequel, Bruce Jennings as Farmer’s father calls to blame the whole thing on Ferrucci after Farmer’s revelation, but Phillips instantly rises to the defense of his son. It’s inspiring how, when faced with the same disapproval from outside, he is finally able to articulate his true feelings about his son.

In addition to the fine acting, the work of Jon Garcia as a director really shines. His use of symbolic imagery in the picture rivals that of the great directors from the golden age of cinema. In the first film Farmer was so consumed by the Mormon religion that he had absolutely no other interests. When he confesses to Ferrucci in this film that he hates his job and Ferrucci suggests he do something else, he has no idea what that would even be. This is symbolized when they meet later in Ferrucci’s hotel room. Sitting near the window, the large red “M” from the motel sign outside in front of his face symbolizes how Farmer’s obsession with his religion has blocked out everything from his life, including who he really is. Ferrucci, on the other hand, has his face reflected in the window showing that he has embraced who he really is and is living his own life. Another wonderful use of a subtle symbol is after Farmer has confessed himself and stands before the window in his house looking out at the rain, symbolizing the cleansing effect that his confession has had for him. The Falls: Testament of Love is a masterful film that perfectly complements and extends the already brilliant work of the first film. It gets my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Night Editor (1946)

Director: Henry Levin                                      Writer: Harold Jacob Smith
Film Score: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco        Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: William Gargan, Janis Carter, Jeff Donnell and Coulter Irwin

Night Editor had an interesting genesis. The story itself came from an episode of a radio drama of the same name called “Inside Story” by Scott Littleton. The radio program was a popular one, a drama series hosted by Hal Burdick which ran from 1934 until 1948. Columbia purchased the rights to the show and was planning on doing their own series of films under the Night Editor banner, something along the lines of the Inner Sanctum series over at Universal. Ultimately, however, this was the only picture the studio ever made under that title. But the series was revived briefly for television in 1954 and Burdick was brought back as the host of that show as well. The film starred Charles D. Brown as the editor of the frame story telling interesting tales of items that had appeared in the paper. In the radio program the stories had run the gamut from crime to war to adventure to the occasional supernatural story. This one is a classic film noir, with a B-list cast and what appears to be a lightning fast shooting schedule. Even so, it is a crisp black and white print that looks great and delivers a corny but enjoyable story of deception and redemption.

The story is set in New York City as Coulter Irwin walks glumly into the offices of the New York Star, the weather approaching ninety. Night editor Charles D. Brown is holding a poker game and tells the other men that Irwin has made some real mistakes in his life. And that reminds Brown of a police lieutenant, William Gargan, who made some equally bad decisions and tells the other men his story in flashback. Gargan works overtime as a homicide detective and feels guilty about not spending more time with his wife, Jeff Donnell, and his son, Michael Chapin. But the reason he’s gone so much is that he’s having an affair with the rich Janis Carter. One night, when they’re out together at the ocean, the two of them see another couple pull in and suddenly the man beats the woman to death in the front seat. Gargan flashes his lights and the man runs. Gargan gives chase but just as he’s about to shoot, Carter stops him by saying their affair will be exposed. So he goes home and the next morning the body is discovered. Like the film The Big Clock, he is now part of an investigation that he realizes he is implicated in when he discovers his own tire tracks at the scene of the crime.

But things get even more complicated when he learns that Carter knew the murdered girl and hated her, and engineered Gargan into being her silent alibi. This was one of Henry Levin’s early films--his first was the wildly bizarre but entertaining Cry of the Werewolf--and he would go on to bigger and better things in the fifties and sixties. He does a decent job of working within the low-budget constraints of a Columbia programmer, creating some fairly convincing exteriors in the studio, the only actual exterior being the scene at the beach the day after the victim’s death. Shot selection is pretty basic, however, giving the impression of a television program. There’s also nothing special about the cast. Gargan plays the sucker as an oaf who doesn’t generate a lot of sympathy, overly angry with his wife and utterly duped by Janis Carter’s femme fatale. The only recognizable stars in the film are Charles D. Brown as the editor, and Anthony Caruso as a reporter assigned to the homicide squad. And Paul E. Burns plays an ethnic Scandinavian detective who tries to look out for Gargan. For a noir film, the ending is beautiful, but the coda on the end undoes it all. Still, Night Editor is a watchable noir on the level of the television dramas that would appear a decade later.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Soylent Green (1973)

Director: Richard Fleischer                             Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg
Film Score: Fred Myrow                                 Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors and Whit Bissell

This classic science-fiction film was Edward G. Robinson’s one hundred and first film and he died of cancer just days after principal photography was completed. Even if the film had been unsuccessful it would be remembered today for Robinson’s powerfully subtle performance. Robinson had worked with Charlton Heston previously on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in 1956, but less well known is that he was originally cast as Dr. Zaius in another science-fiction classic, Planet of the Apes, but after test footage was done for the studio he declined due to the strain of working under the heavy makeup required for the role. His work in this film, however, was one of the reasons it remains so popular, and today the name Soylent Green has become synonymous with the gruesome dystopian needs of a desperate future. The story is based on the sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison which dealt with the consequences of global warming, including overpopulation, pollution, and climate change that results in the destruction of food producing plants. The author was not pleased with the production, however, as he felt the needs of audience in the form of the detective story and the furniture girls were a distraction from the main point of the story.

The film begins in 2022 with an overcrowded world. New York City alone has over forty million people living in cars and in the hallways of buildings. Along with the overcrowding has come the destruction of the food supply. Now people are dependent on science to create synthetic food out of plant proteins and plankton, and the Soylent Corporation is the maker of different food products distinguished by their color, red, yellow and green. Common supplies like soap and paper and pencils, as well as the books that Robinson craves, are non-existent, and of course actual food is worth hundreds of dollars. Charlton Heston is a homicide detective and Edward G. Robinson is his roommate and investigator and they only get paid when they solve a case. The latest one comes when a man hires a homeless young man to kill Joseph Cotton by breaking into his gated apartment building and beating him to death. Before he kills him, he delivers a message from whoever ordered him murdered. After a couple of days, however, Heston’s lieutenant, Brock Peters, is ordered to close the investigation by the office of governor Whit Bissell. Robinson discovers that Cotton was once a business partner of Bissell’s on the board of the Soylent Corporation. Something Cotton knew, he wanted to expose, and Bissell can’t allow that to happen. But Heston refuses to quit the investigation for fear of losing his job.

What is interesting about the construction of the film is that Charlton Heston is less of a star than he is the central character around which the story revolves. He does a fine job of playing Charlton Heston, similar to the character he would play in most of his films. The real star of the piece, even though he’s in a supporting role, is Edward G. Robinson. He is the one who ultimately makes the discovery that is the climax of the film. And his decision to end his life by going “Home,” a euthanasia center for the elderly and disabled, is especially poignant considering he knew his life was nearing its end. It’s a masterful scene and one befitting such a tremendous actor in his final performance. As for the story itself, it’s not particularly gripping. The emphasis is really on the dramatic change in life for the citizens of the country and how the people are dealing with it rather than the mysterious reason for Joseph Cotton’s death. Director Richard Fleischer, son of cartoonist Max Fleischer, was a good choice for the project as he had directed several science-fiction films previously, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 and Fantastic Voyage in 1966. The supporting cast has a lot of big names, but most with very small roles, though it is always nice to see sci-fi / horror veteran Whit Bissell. While Soylent Green has never been a critical success, it remains a fan favorite and a classic of the genre.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie                     Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Film Score: Joe Kraemer                              Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins and Robert Duvall

One of the most surprising things about this film is that it took so long for someone to bring Lee Child’s reclusive protagonist, Jack Reacher, to the big screen. After all, this film is actually based on the ninth book in a series that first began back in 1997. Whether or not the series pans out--like the Bourne franchise--or dies out--like Angelina Jolie’s Salt--remains to be seen, but the good news is a sequel is in development. Like most big stars, Tom Cruise can do some duds along with his great films. This is one of the good ones. Cruise’s production company purchased the rights to the book and it’s a great fit for the star. Instead of the usual panicked, running from danger Cruise we’re all used to, here he’s a calm and confident action hero. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has had a relationship with Tom Cruise for several years now, penning Valkyrie as well as his latest sci-fi hit Edge of Tomorrow, and is set to direct Mission Impossible 5. Whatever else this familiarity does, it also provides a certain consistency of product that promises to make this franchise a very good one.

The opening of the film is impressive, nearly ten minutes with no dialogue while we follow a white van into a parking garage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the same time flashbacks of a gunman with a bruised thumb making his own bullets in his basement are alternated with the shots of him driving with latex gloves on. After he arrives at the top floor of the garage, parks, and puts a quarter in the meter, Jai Courtney gets out of the van with his rifle and begins picking off random people walking in the morning sun by the river. Next, police detective David Oyelowo arrives on the scene, checks out the shooter’s nest, finds a shell casing and the quarter, and once a match is made on the fingerprints the police break into the killer’s house and make the arrest. Everything seems cut and dried for Oyelowo and district attorney Richard Jenkins, as well as for the audience. That is, until the suspect turns out to be Joseph Sikora instead of Courtney. The only thing he’ll say to his captors in his defense is “Get Jack Reacher.” Meanwhile Tom Cruise, as the title character, has already seen Sikora’s face on the news and heads immediately to Pittsburgh. Jenkins and Oyelowo want to know why Sikora requested him, but he won’t tell them. Sikora’s defense attorney, Rosamund Pike, wants to hire him and he agrees, at first just to confirm to her that Sikora is the killer, but eventually to prove his innocence.

One of the best things about the film is the intelligence of the screenplay. Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar back in 1995 for The Usual Suspects, and after nearly a decade with very little activity has returned to write some great feature films. Cruise’s character is smart, but not in the way of most action heroes where he can seemingly get out of any predicament. He uses his brain not to get into predicaments in the first place, and that is incredibly refreshing. Much of that is obviously due to the writing of Lee Childs, but it definitely translates well to the screen. In one terrific fight scene Cruise is called out by a bunch of local toughs. He tries to warn them that they don’t have a chance of winning, but with five against one they believe the odds are in their favor. That’s when Cruise informs them it’s really only three to one, that once he takes out the leader, Josh Helman, a couple brave souls will continue but the rest will run. Then, in a moment right out of The Matrix Reloaded when Keanu Reeves says “Hmm, upgrades,” none of the rest scatter when Cruise puts down the first two men, and suddenly he realizes that the entire fight has been a setup. Another wonderful moment happens after the unique car chase, when Cruise simply steps out of the slowly moving vehicle and walks into the crowd, disappearing with the help of strangers.

Another great aspect of the film is the casting. Many of the principals are British, but they do a solid job here supporting the American stars. Rosamund Pike is a great foil for Cruise, and the fact that her father, Richard Jenkins, is the district attorney is a nice complication. And it’s always wonderful to see the underrated Jenkins, who even played a sniper himself in the Clint Eastwood film Absolute Power. The evil villain in all of this is the great German director Werner Herzog, playing a former Soviet concentration camp victim who has embraced the “opportunities” of capitalism. David Oyelowo is probably the weakest of the principals for my taste. Though he tries to be menacing in the role, his sunny countenance and small stature work against him. Jai Courtney is solid as Herzog’s hit man and his confidence is equal to that of Cruise. Unfortunately for him, his skill set isn’t. And finally, the presence of Robert Duvall in the finale really elevates that part of the film. The screenplay gives him perhaps a bit too much eccentricity, but this also adds some humor to the ending, which is unexpected and works well. Jack Reacher is a solid action film that takes the genre in an intelligent direction, a welcome change for a style of films that tend to do the opposite.

A Walk in the Sun (1945)

Director: Lewis Milestone                              Writers: Robert Rossen & Harry Brown
Film Score: Freddie Rich                               Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Starring: Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Norman Lloyd and John Ireland

Director Lewis Milestone made his name in Hollywood with another war film, All Quiet on the Western Front from 1930. The film was an Academy Award winner and put him in the front ranks of directors during the early sound era, and he continued to assay distinctive films in the war genre throughout his career. At first glance A Walk in the Sun seems a strange picture. Actors like John Ireland, Sterling Holloway and Norman Lloyd hardly seem like action heroes. But the reality is neither were the citizen soldiers of World War Two, and so the casting here seems absolutely appropriate and realistic. But that’s about the only thing that seems realistic. It’s an oddly sanitized war picture in which an isolated squad of men makes its way through enemy territory without really fighting anything. The occasional plane strafes them, or an armored car comes along the road and they have to destroy it, but there’s no real sense that they are fighting other soldiers until the very end. In fact, no German faces are seen in the entire film. The idea, however, seems to be that this represents the blind battle that the soldiers wage, oblivious to the planning and rationale of those higher up in charge of the war.

The film begins with the distinctive voice of Burgess Meredith introducing the viewer to the cast. The action starts on a landing craft heading for Salerno and the invasion of Italy by the allied soldiers, the first strike against the mainland of Europe since the Nazi invasion of France. The company has a new lieutenant and in trying not to appear nervous he looks out over the side of the boat and is fatally wounded before they even land. Once ashore the company heads inland a hundred yards and holds in a ditch waiting for orders. They men talk quietly, complaining or ordering each other around, but when no orders come the company heads into the woods. While the beach is being strafed Dana Andrews muses to Sterling Holloway how much worse the invasion of France is going to be. Isolated from the action, however, the men can see none of it. After learning that their commanding officer is dead, the men look in his map case and find that their objective is a farmhouse six miles inland. Herbert Rudley is the next in command, a weak soldier who doesn’t want the responsibility. Dana Andrews, who probably should be in charge, alternately chides him and gives him suggestions, and eventually they pack up and begin walking toward the farmhouse.

The purpose of the film was to give American audiences a sense of the unity of their diverse population. Of course this still excluded blacks and Asians, the white melting pot including primarily European immigrants and Puerto Rican Richard Conte. The film is also less about war than it is the men and their relationships, the things they talk about with each other, both innocuous and meaningful, a stream of consciousness that attempts to replicate what real soldiers would talk about. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is when Herbert Rudley finally cracks up, and winds up crying on the ground. John Ireland is sent over to watch over him for a while and gives a short monologue saying that his emotional wound is just as real as the physical ones that soldiers get. This is a far cry from scenes that would appear in later war films, like George C. Scott slapping the “battle fatigued” soldier in Patton or the utter lack of compassion for Marc Warren’s Private Blythe in Band of Brothers. The other part of the film that is the most chilling, however, is the discussion between various soldiers about how long the war would continue. Released in December of 1945, the war was already over, but seeing these soldiers in 1943 and knowing they still had two brutal years ahead of them which also included D-Day is harrowing.

One of the unfortunate choices that director Lewis Milestone makes is the use of a ballad sung by baritone Earl Robinson to provide what he felt would be a unifying element to the picture. Instead, it only serves to increase the unreality of the movie in general. This lesson was evidently lost on producer Stanley Kramer when he used a similar ballad in High Noon several years later. Preview screenings of that film actually had the audience laughing whenever the ballad was heard. Milestone’s colleagues urged him to get rid of the song altogether and, while he refused, he did limit the appearance of the song from his originally conceived eleven times to the four that appear in the film. He also wisely omitted the song during the climax of the film. Dana Andrews is the star, and does his normally solid job. Richard Conte’s role is a humorous one, but his relationship with George Tyne is one of the highlights of the film. Norman Lloyd is the dark cloud of pessimism in the story but not overly so, and John Ireland is the scribe, audibly taking down letters to his sister back home. In the end A Walk in the Sun is a very strange war film, an overly artificial look at six hours in the life of soldiers during World War Two.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Deadfall (2012)

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky                          Writer: Zach Dean
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                           Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Starring: Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam and Kate Mara

Deadfall is an extremely effective thriller, primarily because it subverts audience expectations by giving the audience a moral killer . . . sort of. While there can be no doubt that the character played by Eric Bana is a cold blooded killer, there are hints to his humanity that, by the end of the picture, sort of explain why. When he kills the state trooper in the beginning of the film he actually apologizes to him beforehand. And his behavior in the hunting cabin with the family is quite touching. Even so, he is relentless on his path to freedom and will not allow anyone or any thing to stand in his way. It’s a clever story by Zach Dean, thus far his only film, taking a group of disparate people and gradually pulling them all in to one location for the finale. The motivations are, for the most part, believable, and the characterizations are definitely fascinating to watch. Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky is best know to me for an equally fascinating study of people in one of his German films, The Inheritors, as well as the thriller starring Franka Potente called Anatomy. He does a terrific job here in his only American film so far. Some terrific effects, such as the car rolling in the beginning and the whiteout of the storm, are confident and bode well for the future.

The film begins in a car with Eric Bana in the passenger seat and his sister, Olivia Wilde, in the rear seat of a car that is heading north toward Canada in a getaway from a casino robbery. When the driver hits a deer the car overturns in the snow and kills the driver. Bana and Wilde are okay, but a state trooper stops to investigate and Bana is forced to shoot him so the two siblings can split up to make their escape. Meanwhile Charlie Hunnam is released from prison and calls his parents, Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek, to see if he can stay in the family cabin for a while, and Spaceck invites him over for Thanksgiving dinner the next night. But before he goes, he stops at his former trainer’s gym and argues that he should be given the money he made for throwing a fight. An argument ensues and when Hunnam thinks he’s killed the trainer he takes off to his parents’ house. Along the way a storm hits and when he sees Wilde on the side of the road he picks her up. Stranded at a hotel with a bar, the two spend the night with each other, and even though she has feelings for him she tries to leave the next morning so as not to entangle him in her criminal life. At the same time Bana is leaving a swath of death in his wake as he makes his way toward Kristofferson and Spacek’s house, with Hunnam and Wilde on course for the same place.

The underlying thematic element is that of family and the father. The relationship between Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde is odd at first, and only comes into some focus at the hotel when Wilde tells Hunnam the story of her father’s death, how cruel he was to them, and how glad she was that he died. Charlie Hunnam has father issues as well, but of a different sort. Kris Krisofferson had trained him as a boxer but was never satisfied with his son’s success, making Hunnam bitter about their relationship. Hunnam’s jail term only served to deepen the divide. The third such relationship is between local sheriff Treat Williams, who is tracking Bana, and his daughter, Kate Mara. She is one of the officers on his force, and though he alternately protects and ridicules her she is still considering turning down an offer to join the F.B.I. because she can only see his behavior in terms of his reaction to his wife--her mother--leaving them. When Bana comes across a hunting cabin in the woods on his way north, he sees a drunk man running his abused wife and baby out into the snow. It’s clear that this has a meaningful connection to Bana’s past and he doesn’t hesitate to break into the cabin and shoot the abusive man, bringing the wife and children back into the cabin to protect them, just as he did for his sister.

While some might consider the plot to be convoluted, if not outright unbelievable, the incredible star power of the film makes it completely satisfying. Eric Bana is a great choice because of his lack of menace. Granted, he was the evil Romulan in the remake of Star Trek, but that was created primarily through makeup. He has the look of someone like Hart Bochner, disarming but deadly. Kris Kristofferson’s role is small, but his presence adds a lot of gravitas to the picture, while Sissy Spacek has a somewhat larger role and is very good. Charlie Hunnam is new to me, a British actor who doesn’t seem to possess any particularly unique gifts as an actor, but is able to convey his character’s tortured past and ability to love in a convincing way. Olivia Wilde is what brought me to the picture in the first place. Her role in House was quite good and, while her mannered performance here leaves something to be desired, she remained an enigma to me through to the end, which is a considerable achievement. Deadfall is probably most similar to something by the Coen Brothers. And while it lacks their distinctive sense of humor, it is a relentless piece of entertainment that has a very unexpected and satisfying conclusion.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Ambassador Bill (1931)

Director: Sam Taylor                                   Writers: Guy Bolton
Music: Arthur Kay                                       Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Starring: Will Rogers, Marguerite Churchill, Ray Milland and Greta Nissen

Before his untimely death in 1935, Will Rogers was a major figure in American popular culture. His writings and live appearances, as well as his silent films, made him one of the most popular humorists in the country. But his sound films gave him access to an even broader audience and his reputation grew still further. A comedy of diplomacy, Ambassador Bill was made two years before the Marx Brothers took on the same idea--in a radically different fashion--in Duck Soup, even going so far as to use the country of Sylvania from this vehicle. Will Rogers’ function in the film is to demonstrate how the folksy, American way of honesty and respect is so much more useful and practical than the Europe’s forced and mannered behavior. Director Sam Taylor was a silent film veteran who best known for working with Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd, directing his most famous film Safety Last. He has a decent style here, using some moving camera shots where he can to add some interest, and in early thirties fashion there are also a huge number of gun blasts that make use of the new medium of sound.

The film begins in the peaceful Eastern European country of Sylvania, with the American secretary, Edwin Maxwell, going outside to be met by the sounds of gunfire and yet another revolution. As valet Frank Atkinson says, it’s the first one this week. Ray Milland, in only his seventh film after coming to the United States, plays the pilot who flies ambassador Will Rogers into Sylvania just as the army is driving out the revolutionaries from the capitol. That night Rogers meets the king, eight-year-old Tad Alexander, and his mother, Marguerite Churchill. But Rogers also learns that the true king was forced to abdicate by Gustav von Seyfftitz, the prime minister who has given orders not to negotiate with the U.S. It turns out, however, that Milland is the true king of Sylvania, and only abdicated because von Seyfftitz threatened to tell lies about Churchill saying she was unfaithful. When Milland shows up at her window and tells her the truth, he barely manages to get away and hides in the American Embassy. That’s when Rogers begins his real diplomatic mission: getting that royal family back together again. Unknown to Rogers, however, the biggest conflict is not going to be von Seyfftits but Maxwell, who wants to be the real force in the embassy.

There are the obligatory scenes of Rogers doing rope tricks, teaching poker to the dignitaries, and of course getting together a baseball game with kids from the village for Alexander to play with. One of the great--though incredibly corny--running gags is with the aged former ambassador, Tom Ricketts, who thinks the Sylvanians are out to kill him and comes unhinged whenever he sees a uniform or a gun. Ray Milland does a decent job, but it’s not much of a part, and he would toil in similar work until he appeared in his first memorable role, Bulldog Drummond Escapes, six years later. Marguerite Churchill is also good as the longsuffering queen, but she was actually much better in comedic roles, which she showed in Dracula’s Daughter for Universal. The other comic veteran who makes an appearance is the great Ben Turpin as a cross-eyed butcher. Finally, in another small role, is the beautiful Norwegian actress Greta Nissen as von Seyfftitz’s helper. Ambassador Bill is a fun little film. One of a number of such outings by the great humorist, it’s obvious and clichéd but is still full of entertainment from a simpler time.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

One On One (1977)

Director: Lamont Johnson                            Writer: Robby Benson & Jerry Segal
Film Score: Charles Fox                              Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Starring: Robby Benson, Annette O’Toole, G.D. Spradlin and Gail Strickland

Teenage movies have changed a lot in the last thirty years. Sure, there was Kentucky Fried Movie and Porky's back then, but those films weren't the norm. There were also far more intelligent films that dealt with teen issues in a thoughtful and realistic way. Today these films all seem to be about idiot kids but, worse than that, the idiots in today’s juvenile films keep getting older and older, reflecting the pathetic perpetual adolescence that has come to pervade our society. One On One is an inspirational sports story about a teenager that also happens to be good cinema. Robby Benson’s career at the time could not have been better. A teen heartthrob in the seventies, he had just broken out of child roles the year before with the hit film Ode to Billy Joe and a popular television production of Our Town. He used that success to pitch his own project to Warner Brothers with himself as the star as well as screenwriter, along with his father Jerry Segal, and One On One continued his trajectory as a star with films like Ice Castles and The Chosen.

In this film Robby Benson plays a standout high school basketball star from Colorado. He is heavily recruited by coach G.D. Spradlin from the fictional Western University in Los Angeles and signs a four-year scholarship deal with him. Wide-eyed and innocent, once in the city he allows hitchhiker Melanie Griffith--in one of her first films--to take his money and finally makes his way to the campus. Overwhelmed with basketball practice and schoolwork, he also discovers to his dismay that he’s the runt of the team and the coaches begin to question whether or not he is worth the money. Meanwhile he meets tutor Annette O’Toole, who dislikes “jocks” and never misses an opportunity to humiliate him. But he sets out to prove her wrong and studies in order to impress her. O’Toole is dating one of the psychology professors, James G. Richardson, who hates jocks even more than she does, but in a confrontation with Benson she takes Benson’s side and the two gradually become a couple. On the basketball court Benson is helped by his roommate, Cory Faucher, who shows him the ropes and introduces him to big-time college sports. The conflict comes when Spradlin has had enough and wants Benson to give up his scholarship. But Benson can’t do it, not just for his father who will be crushed, but for himself.

The film isn’t all it appears on the surface. In one scene late in the film, after Benson has been abused by Spradlin and confronts him in the hallway of the stadium, Spradlin makes it clear that he believes Benson knew he couldn’t cut it in college and manipulated the school into giving him the scholarship anyway. Of course Benson is stunned by this and his dedication to improving from that moment on is less about keeping his scholarship or even proving Spradlin wrong, it’s about proving to himself that he has what it takes to compete on the college level. Benson is a very convincing basketball player, and that’s one of the major things the film has going for it. The Western basketball team is made up of real players as well and, other than his height, Benson seems to fit right in. It’s a very inspirational film on a number of levels in addition to the basketball, including the academic strides the character makes, as well as Benson’s relationship with O’Toole. Though probably unrealistic in many ways, there is a genuine quality to their interactions and the two of them play against each other very well. G.D. Spradlin is perfect as the stoic coach and was best known for his role as the corrupt Nevada senator in The Godfather: Part II, while TV actress Gail Strickland is solid in a humorous role as the horny secretary.

The scenes at the college were filmed on location at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and while the shots in the buildings and in the gym work well the exteriors are in no way reminiscent of L.A. The utter lack of a skyline and the “big sky” overhead make it pretty clear that the campus is in the mountain west. But the few shots in the city were actually done in Hollywood. Director Lamont Johnson began his career in television and does a terrific job here, with interesting shot selection and use of wide-angle lenses on the exterior of the stadium. He had just done the controversial film Lipstick with the Hemingway sisters prior to his assignment on this film, but thereafter was relegated to television movies. The other impressive aspect of the film is the soundtrack. The music was composed by Charles Fox and the lyrics were written by the great Paul Williams. Singing the songs are seventies pop stars Seals and Crofts. The songs are uniformly excellent and the interspersed with Fox’s fusion-like jazz compositions and provide a definitive seventies soundtrack to this definitive seventies film. One On One is certainly a product of its time, but it also transcends the period to provide an inspiring and sentimental teen story that is equally enjoyable for adults.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Falls (2012)

Director: Jon Garcia                                    Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                Cinematography: Christopher Stephens
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Benjamin Farmer, Brian Allard, and Quinn Allan

I’ve come to a conclusion in my old age, that organized religion is all about hate. The only function it seems to serve these days is to give people a justification for hating other people. Religious people are the most hypocritical on the planet simply because they have the most to lose--but only because their religious delusions tell them so. The reality is that the gods they pray to are no more real than Santa Claus and that all of their posturing and hatred is for nothing. Except for the collateral damage they do, especially to young people who have been brainwashed before they are old enough to decide for themselves if they want to share in their parent’s fantasy life. The Falls deals with Mormonism, but substitute your own intractable, hate-filled religion and there wouldn’t be a lot of difference. Nick Ferrucci plays a twenty-year-old Mormon who is about to go out on his two-year mission. His mom and dad are happily married, and he has a younger sister and a girlfriend. His dad jokes with him about being a “world traveller” because he’s only going six hours away from home for his mission. But, like a dutiful Mormon, he goes believing “god” has a plan for him. Boy is he ever wrong about that.

Ferrucci rooms with Benjamin Farmer at his new residence. The ascetic lifestyle the two lead seems as vacuous as their lives have been up until now. When they’re getting to know each other and Ferrucci asks Farmer what he’s interested in, he can’t think of a single thing. They get up first thing in the morning and pray, then go for a run, then study their bibles, then go on their bikes into town and begin their monotonous routine accosting people on the sidewalk and at home. For fun at night they read through novels and cross out objectionable words. It’s very obvious from the beginning of the picture that Farrucci’s heart isn’t in it. He’s doing all of this because he is supposed to, not because he wants to. One night the two are sandbagged by a guy who had done his homework on Joseph Smith. That’s bad enough, but when they meet an Iraq veteran who lost his brother to a mine explosion while standing right in front of him, covering him in his brother’s blood, the real impotence of religion becomes obvious. In the face of that reality Farmer becomes distracted and distant, and when Ferrucci asks him about it the reason is just as obvious: he is having doubts. He is beginning to think for himself. Unfortunately, in his religion-polluted mind he believes that is a sin. But that’s nothing compared to the attraction the two have for each other, and their inability to stop themselves from acting on it.

This is just a beautiful movie. The boys are not grotesque, or caricatures, they are just boys, and they just happen to fall in love with each other. The two principals are perfect in their roles, and Nick Ferrucci is absolutely perfect. He’s able to convey that goofy, nervous quality of a teenager that is so real it’s eerie. Uptight “Elder” Quinn Allan notices that their numbers are going down since they stopped taking their mission seriously and, while they are a bit nervous about what will happen if they are discovered, it’s not enough to stop them. The ultimate irony, of course, is that the boys are supposed to be out converting people to Mormonism. Instead it is the Marine veteran Brian Allard who converts the boys to reality. But it’s a process that all brainwashed children must go through in order to lead healthy lives. It’s the ones who don’t, who believe in the fairy tales, and buy into the guilt and humiliation and hypocrisy who wind up leading miserable lives where all their true feelings and impulses must be kept on the down low--which is itself another metaphor for the closeting of gays, especially those who are members of the church.

What this film is most of all is honest. There are no histrionics, no drama, and no sensationalism. It’s the story of people being themselves, trying to be honest, and facing up to the consequences for that honesty. As a result, the ending is about as uplifting as a film gets. Writer-director Jon Garcia had no previous knowledge about the LDS religion or community before writing his screenplay and had to do a lot of research once he realized that using the church as the context of the film was a way to really make an impact on audiences. As I stated earlier, what kind of church he elected to use is entirely beside the point. The consequences--namely excommunication--are barely distinguishable. One of the great characters in the film is played by Brian Allard. He not only doesn’t react negatively to the boys’ admission of their relationship, he encourages them to go further, exploring the world and themselves in the process, to find out who they truly are. Given their cloistered upbringing, it is sage advice. The film doesn’t actually bash religion as much as I would have liked, but it is that much stronger for it because it doesn’t have to. The church does that to itself through its behavior. The Falls is a small, quiet film with such a powerful message that it should be required viewing for everyone in this country, if not the world. It receives my highest recommendation.

Monday, August 18, 2014

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Director: Roger Corman                                Writers: Robert Dillon & Ray Russell
Film Score: Les Baxter                                 Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Starring: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt

I never thought Roger Corman was a very good director. But if you define success by box office profits, he never lost a dime. He knew his market, stayed within his means, and always made a profit. In his early days as a filmmaker he had a formula for success that was, and still is, unheard of in the industry. After securing financing from the studio, usually American International Pictures, he would then commission another script using his own money, and make another film using the same cast and crew that the studio paid for. At the end of shooting, then, he’d have the film he made for AIP and another one that cost him next to nothing and wound up being pure profit for him. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes used another method he had of attracting an audience, hiring older actors with fading reputations, like Boris Karloff or in this instance Ray Milland, to draw in curious viewers. Ray Milland had already worked with Corman the year before on an Edgar Allan Poe picture called The Premature Burial. In my estimation Corman’s real genius is that he never hired really bad actors. Unlike most poverty row films that when seen today suffer the most from the acting, Corman’s films always had great talent that was either on the way up or the way down. And either way, the result is that the films still hold up today.

X,” which was the original title of the film, begins with Ray Milland in the office of Harold J. Stone to get his eyes examined. Milland is a doctor conducting research on vision and Stone is afraid he’s experimenting on himself. Diana Van der Vlis plays another doctor. She’s in charge of his research and so he gives her a demonstration. A monkey who is given the eye drops he has developed can see right through things but dies in his cage shortly after. There is no physical damage to his body, but Milland hypothesizes that it’s because the monkey couldn’t comprehend what he saw and it sent him into shock. When the hospital wants a report from him, Milland gets Stone to help him experiment with the drops on himself. Initially they work and he can see through things but, greedy as a mad scientist must be, that’s not enough and he gives himself more drops. Nevertheless, the hospital cancels his project and he returns to being a doctor on staff. When he sees inside patients and catches misdiagnoses, he comes into conflict with the chief of staff, John Hoyt, but it’s not until he accidentally kills Stone that he becomes a fugitive. The experiment, however, is having a cumulative effect and as his vision increases so does the damage to his brain.

The screenplay by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell is quite good. The scientific discussions ring true, and even the scenes with Don Rickles manage to keep him from chewing the scenery. And there are of course the expected gags that result from x-ray vision, like when Milland goes to a party and suddenly sees everyone dancing naked. He also winds up working as a carnival sideshow mind reader with Rickles as his shill, that is until the comedian understands that Milland’s gift is real and sets him up as a mystical healer. But the need for money drives him to the one place his gift will pay off big, Las Vegas. The special effects, though limited, work well for the story, which is another of Corman’s gifts. He doesn’t spend money he doesn’t have too. Using little more than a prism effect for the subjective shots, he relies mostly on Milland’s description of things to convey what he can see. And like many of Corman’s films, the endings are abrupt and give the audience no time for reflection. But ending on the climax itself is effective, especially given the implication before the closing credits, something that writers like Stephen King claim had been written into the script but which is really only implied by the visuals--and is probably more chilling that way. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is a Corman classic, not great cinema but certainly a prime example of a unique directorial vision.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stage Fright (1950)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                              Writers: Whitfield Cook & Alma Reville
Film Score: Leighton Lewis                            Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Starring: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim and Richard Todd

It’s interesting to contemplate what the critical assessment of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser films would have been if they had been taken out of the context of being surrounded by his masterworks. Would they be viewed differently today, looked at as the unique vision of a distinctive auteur instead of dismissed as second-rate suspense films unworthy of a master? Stage Fright falls into Hitchcock’s brief fallow period between the popular success of his early forties films and the stunning brilliance of his mid-fifties work. And yet, like Rope and I Confess, there is a certain charm to the film that, when given a chance, can be very entertaining. Probably the biggest knock against it is that it’s not very scary, and it’s not. The screenplay tips all the way over into the kind of humor that is typically a part of Hitchcock’s films but not the primary emphasis as it is here. But that is its own reward and there are some very clever lines about detection in Whitfield Cook’s screenplay. The other knock is a mistake that Hitchcock himself began to believe he made in the narrative of the film. But I would disagree with that assessment as well and, when looked at in its entirety, the structure of the entire piece depends on that decision and I think it’s a good one.

The film begins in media res, with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd in a car racing away from someone. Wyman wants to know what happened and Todd tells the story of the hour before, when Marlene Dietrich came over to his house, blood on her dress saying she’s sure he’s dead. The “he” is her husband and Todd, who was having an affair with her, goes to Dietrich’s house like a sap and gets caught by the maid. The police come to see him and he runs, winding up in the car with Wyman heading for her father’s boat where he can hide. Father is, of course, the great Alastair Sim, who takes all of seconds to deduce not only that Wyman is in love with Todd, but that somehow Dietrich has framed him for the murder. Wyman, a young actress, goes back to London the next morning and maneuvers herself next to police inspector Michael Wilding to learn what the police know. After that she pays off the maid to fill in for her with Dietrich, who is a famous actress. Thus begins Wyman’s attempt to expose Dietrich and at the same time keeping Todd safe, all the while feeling her romantic allegiances suddenly start shifting. She’s helped by her father and, unwittingly, her mother, and is amateur sleuthing at its finest.

The first thing one notes immediately is the brilliance of the screenplay. The film was based on a short story by Selwyn Jepson called “Man Running,” and adapted by Hitch’s wife Alma and Whitfield Cook, who can be seen working together in their fictional guises in the 2012 biopic Hitchcock. The dialogue has some incredibly witty lines for Alastair Sim and Michael Wilding. Sim is so good, in fact, that it’s fairly disappointing he wasn’t able to do more work for Hitch. The casting of the two female leads, however, is rather odd. This was Hitchcock’s first film made in England since moving to America before the war, and his choice of Jane Wyman is clearly for box office draw rather than esthetics. Marlene Dietrich is also an odd choice, again, for an actress headlining a show in London. There are a couple of examples of very good casting, though, Kay Walsh as the blackmailing maid and Joyce Grenfell as the charity “carny” in the shooting gallery. The deception that Hitchcock is criticized for in the film is patently unfair, as the entire film is a story about deception with nearly all of the characters lying or pretending to be someone else. Though considered to be one of the director’s unsuccessful films, when viewed on its own terms, not as suspense but as black comedy, Stage Fright is marvelous entertainment.

The Perfect Host (2010)

Director: Nick Tomnay                                   Writers: Nick Tomnay & Krishna Jones
Film Score: John Swihart                               Cinematography: John Brawley
Starring: David Hyde Pierce, Clayne Crawford, Helen Reddy and Megahan Perry

This is a fascinating concept. Get the most nebbish guy imaginable, David Hyde Pierce, and have him trapped in his own home by criminal Clayne Crawford, and then turn the tables, the dinner party tables, that is. The Perfect Host, while not a perfect film, is a perfect idea that hosts a lot of hilarity. Director Nick Tomnay is a commercial editor from Australia and made a short film there called The Host, which won several awards including one from the Seattle International Film Festival. Over the next decade, however, he was persuaded to expand the idea and turn it into a feature length film. Tomnay’s primary motivation during the writing and casting was to be able to subvert audience expectations. With audiences so fine-tuned to the conventions of thrillers and police procedurals, he wanted to make a film that would be surprising and still maintain a sense of reality. He was definitely successful as the film is a rollercoaster ride that not only subverts conventions but uses audience expectations against them to create an incredibly satisfying black comedy.

Clayne Crawford has escaped from a bank robbery in which he injured his foot. His elaborate getaway plan is derailed slightly when he’s in a convenience store, trying to buy disinfectant, and it is held up. He sees his face on the TV news and realizes he needs a place to hide for a while. The first house he tries is the home of Jehovah’s Witness Helen Reddy and, ironically, he can’t get in. Eventually he makes his way to the home of David Hyde Pierce, pretends to be a friend of a friend, and manages to get inside. Pierce is in the process of preparing for a dinner party and is friendly, trying to help Crawford, giving him a glass of wine, and serving him hors d’oeuvres. When Crawford finally springs the news, that he’s planning to kill Pierce unless he does exactly what Crawford wants, it’s actually too late. Crawford, it turns out, picked the wrong house. Crawford soon passes out and when he wakes up at the table he’s tied up and the party has started. Sitting around the table are Tyrees Allen, Cooper Barnes and Indira G. Wilson. The thing is, only Pierce can see them. Very soon in becomes apparent to Crawford that Pierce is crazy. And when he shows him his scrapbook of people he has killed, it’s also apparent to Crawford that he’s never going to get out of the house alive.

At the same time that Pierce’s dinner party is going on, Crawford is having flashbacks to what went on before that day. He is dating a woman who is having medical problems and her operation is what motivated the bank robbery. But things are much more complicated than they seem and the film takes a bunch of left turns before the very satisfying finale. David Hyde Pierce, because of the effeminate associations of his role on Frasier, is an absolutely perfect choice for the role. When the façade cracks and we see the vicious side of him, it is completely unexpected. But he carries it off and makes it infinitely believable. It really gets the film going in a specific direction before the rug gets pulled out from under the audience. Clane Crawford, who looks a bit like a young Ray Liota, is a fairly unknown actor, appearing in a few films and television shows. He does a nice job here as the cocky criminal who believes he has a real wimp on his hands. His character is very interesting because he doesn’t just give up. After some initial pleading to spare his life, the wheels start turning and he begins working the problem to figure out a way of escaping.

The other wonderfully unexpected role is seeing Australian Helen Reddy as Pierce’s nosy neighbor. She had only really done one film early in her career and mostly television guest spots during the seventies. Her performance here suggests that she should be doing more work like this in the future. The other principal actress in the film is Megahan Perry. She plays Crawford’s girlfriend and is terrific in the flashbacks. She has a great look and works well with him. Director Nick Tomnay had only seventeen days to shoot the film and it shows, especially in the exteriors. The vast bulk of the film, however, is shot in Pierce’s house and when it comes to scenes in the police station or on the sidewalks, and especially in the bank, they do feel rushed. But the two-man cast is ultimately the focal point and gives the film the feel of something like Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. The Perfect Host is a terrific film from a new filmmaker. It’s fresh and funny and wildly surprising, and well worth checking out.

Evil (2003)

Director: Mikael Håfström                               Writers: Hans Gunnarson & Mikael Håfström
Film Score: Francis Shaw                               Cinematography: Peter Mokrosinski
Starring: Andreas Wilson, Gustaf Skarsgård, Henrik Lundström and Linda Zilliacus

What is evil? It’s a fascinating question when it’s looked at from a very different angle. That’s what Mikael Håfström’s film Evil (Ondskan) attempts to do, and it does it extremely well, good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The film is based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou, a huge bestseller in Sweden when it was first published in 1981. Guillou waited so long to sell the rights because the story was so important to him. Attempts had been made earlier, but didn’t feel right to Guillou, especially a suggestion to make the story into a television series. Once Håfström brought in his writing partner Hans Gunnarson to collaborate, however, the production was green lighted and went right into pre-production. The film was as big a hit in Sweden as the book had been and, in addition to the Oscar nomination, was awarded three Swedish film awards, for best film, best cinematography, and best production.

The film is set in the fifties and begins with Andreas Wilson as a deeply troubled boy. At home his stepfather, Johan Rabaeus, beats him regularly for seemingly inconsequential things, and so Wilson takes it out on other kids at school as the leader of a gang. After beating yet other kid bloody the headmaster of the high school calls him evil and he’s expelled permanently. The only problem is, he doesn’t seem to care. But his mother, Marie Richardson, is unable to leave the stepfather and she sells some family heirlooms in order to send Wilson to boarding school, his one and only chance to finish high school. At the school he meets the rich Gustaf Skarsgård, whose single regret is that the school cannot afford stables for his horses. His roommate is the nerdy Henrik Lundström who likes Charlie Parker and the movies. The only women on the campus are the girls who serve the meals to the boys and the male faculty. When the upper classmen like Skarsgård begin pulling rank and ordering Wilson around, he refuses, and since the punishment is weekend detention that’s fine by him because he doesn’t want to go home anyway. He even has an opportunity to fight back legitimately in “the ring” but refuses because he believes he’ll be expelled from school anyway. For that, he’s called Rat by all of the upper classmen.

What happens next is the most fascinating element of the film. Wilson, who was called “evil” by his former headmaster, turns out to be the good guy in all of this. Granted, it’s because he is desperate not to be expelled, but it’s still a legitimate motivation for him not to give in to violence. But, like the British Empire in the face of Ghandi in India, this only incites the upper classmen to more school-sanctioned violence. And in that context, it is the upper classmen who exhibit true evil in the picture. But there are other layers of evil that are only hinted at. One of the history professors in the school gives regular lectures on eugenics, pulling students up to the front of the room to comment on their physiognomy. He is, we are told, one of the Nazi sympathizers still left over from World War Two which ended just a few years earlier. And when the upper classmen can’t get to Wilson directly, they begin working on Lundström, who has his own issues to work out in confronting the evil of the older students. The other interesting aspect of the film is its relationship to Rebel Without a Cause. Like James Dean, Andreas Wilson’s character is on the side of right and his girlfriend, Linda Zilliacus, is the only lifeline he has left in the world.

Wilson’s hiring came about only after a lengthy casting process in which Håfström could not find a leading man. With only two weeks to go before filming, the director remembered a boy he had seen at a party, contacted him, and gave him the part. Wilson’s brooding countenance is perfect for the role, and his seemingly introspective nature works very well on the screen. His nemesis at the school is Gustaf Skarsgård, son of the great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, and best known today for his role as Floki in the History Chanel series Vikings. Playing the rich upper classman, however, his manner is a bit affected and therefore isn’t as realistic as it might have been, good but not great. Linda Zilliacus as the Finnish servant girl, however, is tremendous. She is so natural and engaging that it’s a shame she didn’t have more screen time. Henrik Lundström as Wilson’s roommate feels a bit like he’s playing a part as well and is also less than convincing, a bit like Frank Whaley in Swing Kids. But the acting is very good overall and Guillou’s story is brought to life effectively by Håfström. Evil isn’t the best film of its type, but it does raise some wonderful philosophical questions and is deserving of much more study and analysis.