Posts Tagged ‘Classic

02
Jan
12

The Sound of Music

We’ve been watching a lot of movies as we pack everything away for the move, mostly old favorites (Dirty Dancing!) or things you can leave playing in the background without losing too much (Mega Piranha!), since moving is a sad, stressful, lonely time when everything fun is getting packed away and the apartment looks terrible and I need all the help I can get. But we’ve also been watching a lot of things in general, including old standards that Vicky or I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet. So: The Sound of Music.

Let me just say right at the beginning that I don’t particularly care for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Neither their lyrics nor their music are anything more than workmanlike, without the complicated, challenging syncopation of Sondheim or the anything-goes lyricism of Menken and Ash. Still, though, they’ve got a knack for putting together beautiful projects that transcend the rumpty-tum material they write: there’s no question that the Sound of Music absolutely deserves its place at the table, despite an opening act so saccharine it causes cancer in lab rats.

It’s such a filmic movie — we watched it on a tiny little laptop screen, and I found myself longing mightily to see it in a proper movie theater, even as I groaned my way through the glurge of My Favorite Things and Do-Re-Mi. Director Robert Wise captures the sheer dazzling space of his mountain vistas in a way I’ve never seen before. And then the script is fantastic, and underplayed magnificently by the supporting cast. Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn especially, as the Baroness and Uncle Max, do amazing things with very small roles. Peggy Wood got the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which doesn’t make any sense to me; her abbess is solid, certainly, but it’s a fairly standard role played in a fairly standard way, while Parker as Julie Andrews’s romantic rival takes a traditionally misogynistic and one-dimensional villain role and makes it immensely human. And not just human, but actually adult: she respects Maria enough to actually talk to her about her intentions and interests in Captain von Trapp, and very visibly understands what it costs Maria to congratulate her on her engagement. She makes the simple line “Thank you,” sad, respectful and triumphant all at once, and by such little gestures makes her character empathetic and even a little tragic (very slightly, since she is, after all, immensely wealthy and self-sufficient).

And everything after the wedding is so absolutely perfect: moving, tense and funny all at the same time, and crammed to the gills with beautiful shots, rotating between German Expressionism, mid-century Impressionism and the very beginnings of that wonderful seventies silence that you never see anymore. Anyway. You’ve probably seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Feel free to roll your eyes at the sentiment that bloats the beginning, but trust that things will settle down at last. If you’re absolutely allergic to sweetness, just jump ahead to the last half hour, and prepare to be schooled.

31
Jul
09

The General

buster_keaton_general

Just a quickie review today. I saw The General yesterday and it is, of course, fantastic. It’s kind of amazing to watch Buster Keaton act, since he actually has a really dour, long face, huge, soulful eyes, and he naturally wears a rather serious expression. Check him out in this close-up for example:

BusterKeaton

He looks more like a poet than a virtuosic, daredevil comedian. But when I really think about it,  I guess this deadpan is actually part of what makes him funny. The true magic of The General comes from the way Buster Keaton floats through the obstacles around him half-unaware, half-blase. Just like his other famed contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, the real dynamite quality of his performance is how effortless he makes pretty unbelievable stunts look. His odd, sullen face sets this off all the more. The other thing I like about The General is how it is a perfect marriage between action and comedy and, as I’d already mentioned in an earlier review, these genres come together all too rarely these days. This one is definitely worth checking out. Particularly, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with an amazing silent movie house with a real working organ like I used to.

19
Jul
09

In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.

dvdlonelyhands

SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.

14
Jul
09

At the Movies

Siskel and Ebert

Since I was a very, very young kid, every single weekend my family and I would go to at least one movie, if not three or four after a marathon Saturday. My parents always went to those movies that got three or more stars in the local paper and occasionally a two star one that was getting some buzz or tickled my mom or dad’s particular interest.

We didn’t always watch “At the Movies,” because it was on at weird times during the weekend, but anytime we did happen to catch it I remember really loving it. I also remember how, whether we watched a particular episode or not, there was always such a huge mystique about Siskel & Ebert and their all-knowing thumbs. There was a time when any movie that managed to get the elusive “Two Thumbs Up” undoubtedly wrote that in huge letters on the box when it was released to video. It’s very weird to me to think of a younger generation growing up now who has no idea who Siskel was and no memory of their show in its glory days, since together they were the most prominent movie critics in America.

Anyway, I happened to Google Ebert recently because I randomly remembered him being very ill with cancer a few months ago and wondered how he was doing. I was pleased to learn not only is he recovering, he has a ridiculously active and extensive blog which not only includes reviews of all the latest movies that have come out, but a lot of feature articles about great movies of the past and a write-in movie trivia column that fans send in questions to. Even better, I learned that all of the old tapes of Siskel & Ebert have now been archived at: http://bventertainment.go.com/tv/buenavista/atm/.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually watch the full episodes. Instead, the reviews are listed by film titles and you can also browse through by year. I have been really enjoying going back and watching some of their old reviews lately, especially considering that when I first watched them I was 14 years old or younger and I have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of their opinions these days.

I love all things nerdy and there’s nothing that scratches that itch in a more intense way than to watch two ridiculously nerdy guys like Siskel and Ebert, who are both ultra opinionated and obsessively into film, spar like maniacs about whether a movie was a total train wreck or just barely worth watching. It’s nice to know that even though Siskel is no longer with us and Ebert has stopped doing the show, you can still go back and see what they thought of a ton of the older movies and enjoy their total vigor for hating it, loving it, even just vehemently meh-ing it.

I was also very touched to find out just how passionately they both went about their job as film critics. Siskel actually did a few shows via telephone while he was hospitalized and apparently, after being put out of commission for a while due to health problems a few years ago, Ebert is now actually going back and reviewing every movie that he missed. For all their often inflammatory debates, both reviewers shared a real zealotry about the art of having a strong opinion about a movie that I still find intensely great.

11
Jul
09

Princes and Princesses & The Adventures of Prince Achmed

princesses_1

I came down with a terrible cold over the 4th of July weekend, which definitely put a damper on my celebration, although it did have the upside of causing me to seek out a good, old-fashioned comfort movie to take my mind off my misery. Whenever I have a bad cold for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, the only positive thing about being sick was getting to stay in bed watching the most charming, soothing movies possible. The Princess Bride, any of the Muppet movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know the kind. This time around I was restricted to what was available via the internets, and since I am a late hold-out against the onslaught that is Netflix (I could write a whole ridiculous, curmudgeonly post about that), I did not have a ton of options with the caveat that I recently found out about the glorious website: The Auteurs, which allows you to watch a ton of old, foreign, arty type movies on the internet for a mere $5 a pop.  Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot was one of the few animated and non-Svankmajer films available on the site, so I gave it a whirl and it was exactly what I needed. Compared to the whizz flash of most modern American animated films, it’s sort of mind-blowing to me that Princes and Princesses was made as recently as 2000. It feels like a much older movie from a more innocent cinematic time, way before 3d and digital color and talking sidekicks, a time when kids were satisfied with straight-forward fairy tales.  The stories in the movies are wonderfully crafted, with fantastic twists and funny dialogue, with a silhouette-visual style which lends an elegance often lacking in animation. I also think the silhouette format is brilliant because in a world of constant  stimuli bombardment, this is one movie where the children watching have space to imagine the details for themselves. They can create the character’s expressions, the colors of the clothes, the fantastic settings in their own minds for once.

Naturally this movie reminded me of one of my favorite animated features of all time, which also happens to be credited by many as the first animated film ever made, The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger:

PrinceAchmed

This movie was also done in the silhouette style, but if you can believe it, each and every character, every set, every frame in the hour-long masterwork was painstakingly cut out by hand by the director back in 1926. On a pure, visual level, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more artistic, stunningly detailed, mindblowingly-intricate piece of film-making. Even if you had to watch the film without any of the dialogue, it would be completely worthwhile to see it. Even better though, it’s based on stringing together various stories in The Arabian Nights into one, long beautiful tale that includes everything you could want in a fantasy movie. Needless to say, I recommend you go rent it if you ever get the chance, although it can be a little tricky to find. If you can’t, Princes and Princesses is a fitting modern tribute 74 years later.

09
Jul
09

The Tales of Hoffmann

Tales of Hoffmann

So, I realize it has been a really long time since anyone posted on this little movie blog and all of the readers are gone. I’m still watching great movies and I’m still wanting to motivate myself to write more often though, so I thought I would try to revive it again. Not sure how sustained the effort will be, but it’s worth a try.

A couple weeks ago I rented The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the best films from their glory period of working together. Apparently it is a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who used to constantly compete to rent the single copy out from their local movie rental shop in Manhattan. For a movie that’s based on an unfinished, nineteenth-century opera, it definitely packs a surprisingly powerful visual punch and draws on a lot of the best elements of the horror, fantasy, and adventure genres in weaving its spell.

The narrative is simple enough, built around a retelling of the romantic exploits of the titular main character and includes a lot of recycled bits and pieces which are suspiciously reminiscent of The Odyssey, Faust, and Dante. You’re drawn in less by the characters and the plot and more by the fantastical dreamscapes Powell and Pressburger created for each story, orchestrated in the old-time movie magic style that similarly captivates us in other, more famous musicals from this era. It’s too bad there aren’t more screencaps floating around online, because the technicolor sets and costumes are truly amazing. Here’s the only other good shot I could find:

Tales of Hoffman Screencap 2

Powell and Pressburger play off the sets through a lot of very clever cinematic tricks which heightens, and sometimes gently satirizes, the melodrama of the story.  For example, the lines on the floor in the photo above create the perfect illusion of stairs when shot from above, but are obviously painted on from the angle in the screencap. It’s certainly a movie that rewards those with sharp eyes who can catch the little details and I can see why Romero was so inspired by it, since it shows you not just the magic trick, but how the trick was done.  And the overall effect created lends the movie a very surreal air and invites the viewer to be more reflective on what’s going on at the edges of the performances and the film.

During the first story, Hoffmann shows us puppets that charmingly fool him into thinking they are alive. While watching, we are simultaneously dazzled by the display and fully aware of the foolishness of being dazzled since it’s all an elaborate illusion. To take it even deeper, while watching the movie we’re aware of how the directors manipulate all the elements before us to effect our thoughts and emotions. For once, we are conscious of the strings and tapes and shadows that allow them to get away with it. Even with that consciousness however, we still somehow take a great melancholy pleasure in the spectacle and perhaps appreciate it more than we would if it was seamless and clean like so many of the other movies we see.

My only critique of the film would be the old, niggling feminist one that seems to always tug at me. All of the female characters in the film are based on not particularly enlightened feminine archetypes. The first woman is literally a living doll (aka virgin) and the second is a courtesan literally in league with the devil (aka whore). The third woman, a frustrated singer, is more complex than the first two, but is ultimately destroyed by the choice between her ambition/career and love/domestic bliss.  And, of course, the real victim at the end of the day is Hoffmann, his hopes for true love crushed by all these goddamn, fundamentally flawed Eve types running around.

Of course, there is one slight counterbalance to all this ho hum patriarchy stuff in the form of Hoffmann’s best friend and the wisest character, Nicklaus. Although the character is obviously supposed to be male, Powell and Pressburger decided to cast the part with a female actor. This is an absolutely brilliant masterstroke in my mind since it further underscores the theme of illusion/reality for the audience, while also building a lovely sense of irony to the gender dynamics in the film.

Through the whole movie, Nicklaus is the one who sees through the women Hoffman swoons over and warns him to seek out the substance underneath the showy exterior. While Hoffman’s stories endlessly blast apart the mystique of the feminine in it’s various  incarnations, the audience’s sympathies stay most in line with Nicklaus, who becomes a true foil to the other female characters when played by a woman. In a convoluted way, the movie establishes her as embodying the hidden feminine and romantic ideal, a true friend who is loyal and wise, not to mention certainly not the kind of woman who is into the overt, performative display of  her gender.  Whether you take the implications as honest-to-god feminist or just vaguely homoerotic, it adds another layer to the film that I found really fascinating.

16
Oct
08

Lady in the Lake & Dark Passage

I saw Lady in the Lake last night, a noir based on the Raymond Chandler novel. I rented it because I saw Dark Passage for the first time a few months ago and thought the use of first person camera work in it was fantastic. Both of these movies use the camera as the main character and the audience sees what he sees, as he sees it. It’s the kind of gimmick I’m a sucker for, because it provides that little special twist that makes a genre movie suddenly feel surprising and new.

Dark Passage was released several months after Lady in the Lake, in the same year, 1947, after Robert Montgomery first pioneered the technique. Unfortunately, Lady in the Lake is clearly the inferior of the two, even though it commits more fully to the technique by adopting it for almost the entire length and was the first to use it. Most importantly, the difference in acting quality and style is dramatic. Admittedly, Bogart and Bacall would be stiff competition for anybody, but the acting in Lady in the Lake drowns on its own merits. Montgomery’s Marlowe is decent enough considering we do not see his face for a good 90% of the film, but Audrey Totter’s Ms. Fromsett is one of the most affected, jumpy, unlikeable performances I’ve ever seen. Just check out this still:

Shooting in the first person means that the actors have to direct their performances straight at the camera and not only do an effective job of portraying their own characters, but also somehow evoke the reactions of the other character they are speaking to. A real dose of nuance and subtlety is required to really pull this off and the hammy, overacted performance of Totter demolishes your ability to sympathize with her at all. This is a serious problem for the movie considering that Totter is supposed to have a significant amount of romantic tension with Montgomery. While the character of Adrianne Fromsett is certainly intended to be ambiguous and not quite trust-worthy, there also has to be something genuinely and obviously alluring about her. The combination of Marlowe’s frosty dialogue giving away little of his true feelings and Totter’s definition-of-harpie performance, adds up to a love story that literally comes out of nowhere. And the romantic subplot is a big enough distraction from the murders which should be the rightful focus of the film, that it basically ruins the whole movie.

In contrast, Dark Passage is a dynamite little noir where everything works just right and the real potential of this unusual camera technique is fully realized. The movie begins with Bogart daringly escaping from prison, getting involved in a violent scuffle, and then having the unbelievably good fortune of getting picked up by Bacall. Daves uses the first-person camera in these scenes to create the same kind of effect we see so commonly now in IMAX movies; it’s like when they put the camera on a roller coaster and your brain is tricked into feeling just like you’re on the ride. The technique must have been mind-blowing for audiences when it first came out and it’s still pretty thrilling.

Daves also understood that since the first-person camera could make the audience feel like they were actually experiencing all of this, there was not the usual need for the audience to identify with the character’s personality or motives. We have no context for Bogart’s character when the movie begins. For all we know, the person whose eyes we see through is a dangerous and evil man and we are committing criminal acts right along with him. But we identify with him because we have to, we literally see through his perspective. This is especially brilliant because of the nature of the noir genre, which is built so heavily around anti-heroes. James M. Cain’s novels are all about playing off the reader’s natural voyeurism and getting you to be sympathetic to the criminals in his books, even if you don’t entirely forgive them. He draws you into an understanding that there is no easy barrier between those who are innocent and those who are guilty. The victims of the murders are almost always unlikeable and the murderers themselves often become entangled in circumstances that they are incapable of resisting.

In Dark Passage, Daves uses the camera to play off the audience’s voyeuristic fascination with crime and refuses to allow the audience to separate themselves from the character in the usual way. The fact that you have such an instant identification with the main character without the usual acting or dialogue clues that he’s really a good guy, challenges the ethical myth that there is a clean line between good people and bad people, us and them. There is a mingled horror and pleasure in taking on the perspective of someone beating another person and you feel the terror of being captured by the police in an extremely visceral way. To me, the moral ambiguity noir creates is the whole essence and appeal of the genre and this is an example of it at it’s best.

Next, Lauren Bacall, isn’t necessarily the most subtle actress of all time, but her chemistry with Bogart is legendary and she uses the first-person camera work in Dark Passage all to her advantage. When she looks at the audience straight on with that devastating sharpness of hers, it’s hard to look away. Indeed, having someone as smoldering and sexy as Bacall looking straight at you and taking care of you is at least as emotionally affecting as feeling like you’re punching someone in the face. There is zero need to see Bogart’s face to know how he must be feeling about Bacall in the film; the audience feels the same way. Admittedly, her character does not have the mingling of good and bad character traits of Totter’s and lacks some complexity, but her motivation for helping this escaped convict is enough of a mystery early in the film to create the necessary tension.

Daves’ other inventive and effective choice is to switch out of the first person camera work after Bogart gets plastic surgery. As Bogart’s face is changed, the audience is pushed out of their ability to have an immediate identification with his character and see as he sees. Suddenly, we are outside and can look to the character’s expression and mannerisms and read the subtler cues underneath the lines he delivers. Yet, since we are aware that the face we see is a false reconstruction, a mask designed to hide the true identity and age of Bogart’s character, our ability to make the kinds of straightforward, basic judgments movies normally encourage remains uncertain.

After the forced, visceral identification of the audience with the violent, criminal main character in the first half of the movie, we are forced outside the character, through the camera work and our knowledge of his facial reconstruction, after we are more reassured of his innocence and goodness. This means a certain sense of unease remains, even when our doubts about the character should be resolved. Having these two mirrored halves in the film is an amazingly masterful way to directly challenge the quick moral assumptions we make on a daily basis. In a very literal way, it undermines the audience’s basic confidence that we know who a person is and what their experience is just by looking at them.

At the time it came out, Dark Passage was a tremendous box office failure- ironically due to the fact that you don’t actually see Bogart’s face for the whole first half of the movie. Sadly, this has obscured what a classic this movie should be. It is certainly one of the most intriguing, complex, and genuinely entertaining noir films I’ve ever seen.

-Vicky Vengeance