Thursday, March 31, 2011

Decision Before Dawn (1951)

In the closing months of World War 2 in Europe, the US Army undertakes a mission to use German POWs to work for them in enemy territory. One of these prisoners is a medic who volunteers because he actually believes that it is the right thing to do, after seeing his fellow prisoners kill his best friend. His journey causes him to bump into different Germans with different feelings towards the war.

Visually, this film is a treat.  This was filmed on location, and you can tell. There are shots of snow-covered mountains, thick woods, and bombed-out buildings that are truly breathtaking. The camerawork is also very impressive: not show-offish, but fluid and smooth, moving from location to location without being distracting. Most of all, the lighting was incredible, with scenes that look like they could have been taken from a film noir of the 40's instead of war film from the 50's.

It amuses me that this this the second Richard Baseheart movie in a row that I have seen that has "treason" as a central theme. Except in the previous film (Time Limit) he himself was the treacherous one  and, but that is another story. Though he is top billed, I do not consider him the "star." That honor goes to Oskar Werner, whom Classic film fans may recognize from Jules and Jim, as the idealistic traveling POW. He gives a very haunting performance, as does Hildegard Knef in a small role as a cynical and sad bar girl.
On the whole, this film is rather slow going, but worth it. It joins the exclusive club of films that have been nominated for Oscars (including Best Picture), and completely forgotten about. And that is a shame, because it is a well put-together thriller. True, there is not too much "thrill" in large amounts, at least until the final half-hour. But don't that deter you from checking this interesting film out.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Ah, the World War 2 propaganda know, there should be a study of propaganda films. It is really fascinating how one can try to persuade the viewer to take their side in a issue. In World War 2, of course there were a bunch of films that showed how evil the Nazis were, in addition to showing that good old USA was on the side of good. This was not unusual: what is unusual is an American anti-Nazi film made before 1941, when the country entered the war. That got it banned in Germany, despite the studio trying its best to make location as vague as necessary (and failing at it).

This is where The Mortal Storm fits into the scheme of things. It takes place in a German town, not too far from the Austrian border. It is about a family with a Jewish---sorry, "non-Ayran" patriarch (Frank Morgan), and how they are is divided by Nazism. While the parents, daughter (Margaret Sullivan), and family friend (James Stewart) are very much outspoken against Hitler, their twin sons (one of which is strangely young Robert Stack) and daughter's fiancĂ© (Robert Young) reveal a strong fidelity to Hitler which literally comes out of nowhere.

And that is the film's greatest flaw: The complete complete 180 that those characters go through. There is no hint before their conversion that they followed Nazisim. They go from "Hi, Jewish step-father/professor, we are so happy to celebrate your birthday!" to "Germany must regain its glory and take over the world!" at the drop of a hat, and that did not ring true for me.

But besides that, this was a very well-made film. The acting is really good all around, with a special shout out to Margret Sullivan and James Stewart. Both of them regain their chemistry from The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and it helps to involve the audience further in their plight and in clinging onto their steadfast beliefs amide the turmoil surrounding them.

Another special shout out has to go towards the cinematography.  There is some really fluid camera work, and some of the shots are beautifully put together. Also, the skiing scenes in the mountains very nicely filmed, though slightly ruined when intercut with shots of the actors leaning forward in front of mattes (seriously, it is possible for someone to ski downhill wearing a fedora, without it being blown off)?

Why is this film not better known? Perhaps because it has been over-shadowed be more prestigious, award-winning films of the same caliber made later (Casablanca, Mr. Miniver, etc). Who knows? What I do know is that this one of the better American WW2 propaganda film that I have seen, and that it deserves more attention.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Wild Party (1929)

Oh, dear, old Fredric March, how I love thee. It seems only yesterday (though it was many years ago), that I first saw you getting woed by the bewitching Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch. Since then, I have continued to see you in varied roles in so many movies that I love: Seven Days in May, A Star is Born, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc. etc. To me, you will always be the best Norman Maine, the best Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and the best ancient Roman prefect (I will get back to review you, Sign of the Cross, mark my words).

But before he was cavorting about ancient Rome in a short tunic and a perm, Mr. March was trying to teach flirtatious females college students about Anthropology. I am of course referring to one of his first staring role, the 20's time capsule that is The Wild Party.

And, boy oh boy is this a product of the Roaring Twenties. There is the Carleston, a speakeasy, never-ending innuendo, and, of course, flappers. And the most flappin' of the flappers is none other that Clara Bow, the "real star" of the picture.

She is a happy-go-lucky student who is popular but a bit on the wild side. She mets cute with the new professor (March's role) on a train, and has a romance with him. Add in a subplot about her studious best friend who is working hard for a scholarship, and you have the film in a nut shell.

Now, considering her well-known mike fright,  Ms. Bow was not half bad. She had a kind of natural perkiness and warmth that was really quite charming. Alas, March is rather dull and does not leave much of an impression, with the exception perhaps of his mustache.

But is this a good movie? Well..... it is a product of its time: remeber when the main reason girls went to college was to party and to find a nice guy to settle down with? This is a really early talkie, so the shots are static and the dialogue is very stilted. I have to give the film kudos, however, for presenting the best friend as an attractive, intelligent girl who is dedicated to her education, but does not let that prevent her from having some fun.

Also worth noting is that this film is a product of Dorothy Arzner, who was a rare successful woman director of the Studio system. I have only previously seen two of her films, Dance, Girl Dance and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932, again with Fredric March), but I plan on seeing more.

Though not necessary viewing, I think that this film is worth a look if you a fan of either star, early talkies, or a cinematic portrait of the "wild party" of the Twenties just before the hangover of the Depression.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Most Mad Scientist Ever?

The Devil Doll (1936) is an odd film. And considering that it is directed by Tod Browning, the man who gave the world The Unknown (1929), Dracula (1930), and Freaks (1931), that is really saying something. Without giving away too much plot, let's just say that it involves revenge, Lionel Barrymore pretending to be a woman, and Rafaela Ottiano.

Ms. Ottiano is Malita, the devoted wife (made widow early in the film) of a scientist, who has created a process that can shrink down animals and humans to 1/6 of their original size, which planed to unleash on to the world to stop world hunger. However, his creation end up having no will of their own, needing a strong mind to telepathically move them.

Stealing the show from Lionel Barrymore in drag is no easy task, but Ms. Ottiano does just that.
With her wide eyes, streak of white hair, and crutch, she is truly an imposing figure. She is 100% devoted to her work, and only helps Mr. Barrymore with his nefarious plans of revenge in order to continue her husbands unfinished work. Considering her amazingness, it is appropriate that she (Spoiler alert go out with a bang.)

It is unusual to find a fully over-the-top insane woman scientist in a horror film from the 1930's, but I am glad that this one is such a memorable crazy. Here's to you, Malita!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Week (plus a few days) in Review: Part 2

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Based on an excellent short story I had to read for my English class, this is a classic example of England's "kitchen sink dramas", which focused on the working class and dealt with more mature themes than its predecessors. The stark black and white cinematography reveal the tale of a young man (Tom Courtenay) sent to a boy's reformatory for robbing a bakery. He is given a chance to make himself an honest citizen when the warden of the prison (Michael Redgrave) gets him to train as a long distance runner. During his solitary practice runs, he musses on his past. The performances are excellent, the script (by the writer of the original story, Alan Sillitoe) is first rate, and the story moves at a steady but quick pace, like the runner of the title.

Children of Men (2006)

I quite enjoyed the the premise of this film: what would happen if everyone in the world suddenly became infertile, so that eventually the youngest person on Earth is 18 years old? As it turns out, everything goes to Hell, and at the center of it all is England, now transformed into a police state. Clive Owen gets involved with protecting a young pregnant woman from harm, which is pretty difficult task, since the government and the rebels would use her to further their own ends if she is discovered. It got a bit too sentimental for my taste near the end, but thanks to a breathtakingly bleak art direction and impressive editing and cinematography (complete with carefully edited together shots that give the appearance of long takes), I found it quite enthralling.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

This is a South Park movie: it is loud, rude, offensive, and immature. It contains incredible amounts of violence, swearing, and crude humor. It has the Devil be the subservient lover of Saddam Husain. It has the US going to war against Canada.  It shows why people should never light their farts on fire. It mocks censorship and parents that worry too much about what their kids are exposed to. You have never seen anything like it. It is one of the funniest cartoons I have seen in a while. And the songs are catchy, too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Week (plus a few days) in Review: Part 1

Since it has been a while, I have decided to simply to do a 2-part collection of mini reviews of all the the films I have seen since my last post.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)
This is the most hard hitting, anti-drug movie I have seen. This makes Trainspotting (1996) look like a Slapstick comedy. The performances were very impressive, the ADD cinematography and editing suited the subject matter (though at times it did feel a bit too much), and the dialogue is not speechy or preachy. Is it a pleasant viewing? No. So I ever want to see this film again? Not for a long time, if ever. Is it worth viewing? I you have the stomach for it, yes.

Hollywood Contra Franco (2008)
Interesting documentary that looks had the Hollywood community's reaction to the Spanish Civil War. It also follows the life of Alvah Bessie, an American writer who fought with the Republicans in the War, and became one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10. There are interviews and plenty of clips, most of which were from the studio era, including Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Fallen Sparrow (the latter I really want to see, if only because it has John Garfield). I saw this at a college screening, and after the film, had a chance to ask the director some questions. There is no DVD available for this film in the States, but if you do manage to hunt down a copy, it is worth a look.

Fright Night (1985)
The 80's were a good time for anti-Twilight vampires in movies. You know, when they were really threatening, and actually burned up in the sun, instead of glittering? Some fine bloodsucking films were produced in this time, such as The Lost Boys (1987), Near Dark (1987), and Fright Night (by the way, together they would make the Best. Box Set. Ever.) But it is the latter film that I will focus on. It is about a teen who discovers that the mysterious stranger that just moved into that creepy house next door is (dun dun dun) a vampire. Of course, nobody believes him, so he enlists the help of a former horror star, Peter Vincent (played by a scene stealing Roddy McDowall). Like the better horror films of the 1980's, it is not perfect, but it does have its own gory charm, and is really fun to watch, from the opening showing a cheesy horror film on TV, to the headbanging title song which plays over the end credits. Thanks additionally to impressive vampire make-up and special effects, this movie is one enjoyable ride.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Putting the "Meh" in Memento (2000)

I have no strong feelings about Memento, not one. I can maybe manage a little respect for its uniqueness in structure and plot, and well as its relatively realistic take on short term memory, but that is about it.

Last Tuesday I viewed this so-called masterpiece for the first time, and after is was all done, I could not for the life of me figure out what the big deal was. It wasn't that I despised or even disliked it: I felt nothing, just a desire to get some homework done.

Considering, there is nothing really wrong with this movie. The acting is....okay, and the plot is....creative, and.....wait, wait, let me back up:

Memento, in case you don't know, is about Leonard Shelby (a bleach-blonde Guy Pearce), who has a form of amnesia that prevents him from keeping new memories. The film's gimmick is that it is told backwards, with segments lasting as long as Shelby's short term memory. On top of that, intercut throughout is a black-and-white sequence of Pearce in a hotel room, talking on the phone. Eventually, it comes together in the end.

Now, I have never had a great interest in seeing this film. There was always some other I could think of that I wanted to see more. But I was invited by a group of friends, and I thought: "Why not? I might as well see what the big deal is."

And after my first viewing, after going through the twists and turns of the plot, do you know what my reaction was? "Meh". Just "meh". As in "I've seen better, I've seen worse. What's for dinner?"

You see, I can usually figure out my true feeling about a movie from how I feel afterwards. If it is something I really like, such as The Set-Up or Re-Animator, I get energetic. I feel like jumping off walls, running through my dorm, calling out to the world that what I watched was amazing. Or, if what I saw was pensive and/or dark, I feel myself grow a bit serious, and mull over what I just watched, piecing together how great it was. As for bad films....I either get really tired or really angry, depending on what remains of energy I have left over from the experience.

But with "meh" movies, I just don't feel anything. Nada. Zip. I have no enthusiasm or even a feeling of nihilism. Even when I can think of numerous positive aspects of the film from the top of my head, I can't bring my self to say that I thought it was really good.

Memento fits this to a tee. Guy Pearce was good, but then again he gives pretty much the same performance as in The Time Machine and L.A. Confidential. The rest of the cast, were good, but then again they were not that memorable, and I continually thought that other actors could have inhabited the roles just as well.

The script was literate, and had a couple of really good lines (my personal favorite being from Pierce: "Oh, I'm chasing this, he's chasing me." It makes sense in context.

The plot was I guess interesting: less of a Who-Dunnit than a Head-Scracher. Some reviews have chosen to call it a Neo-Noir, and I can see where they are coming from: The (really) confused male protagonist with a past, the mysterious woman that helps him, a murder within the first 5 minutes, etc.

In fact, to me, the beginning was the film's highlight. You first see a Polaroid picture being shaken repeatedly, but instead of getting sharper, it fades away to nothingness, a perfect metaphor for the protagonist's memory throughout the film.

The reverse telling of the story is unique, forcing the viewer to put together the plot as if it were pieces of a picture-less puzzle. The end result is clever, but perhaps too clever for its own good. At the end of the film, my first reactions were less of excitement than of frustration, which then quickly ebbed away to nothingness I did not enjoy this film, I survived it. I was shown a cool premise told backwards, and nothing more. So now, if someone asks me what I thought of the great Memento, all I will be able to say is: "Meh, I've seen better, I've seen worse."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Blackmail (1929)

The first British Talkie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has certainly shown its age, dispite moments of inspiration. The plot is relatively simple: a woman kills a man who attempts to rape her, and is not only threatened by a blackmailer, but her subsequent guilt and paranoia of being caught. How could this end? With a climatic chase through the Britsh Museum, of course!

            There is no denying that this film has some memorable moments: the opening montage that covers a the aprending and subsequent imprisonment  of a criminal in five minutes, with no dialogue; the murder itself, hidden by a undulating curtain, and only sigled by the drop of a limp hand; best of all, the heroine sitting at the breakfast table, and hearing the word “knife” ring in hear ears, while the rest of the conversation is muted. There also contains an especially amusing director cameo, with Hitchcock being tormented by a little boy on the train.
 Alas, there are numerous things that tire the modern viewer. The acting is extremely stiff and forced (understandable for the uneasy transition of silents to sound, but still…). The pacing is slow (despite the relatively short running time of 84 minutes). The static camera work of the talking scenes provide a not welcome contrast with the excellent mobile camera work of dialogue-less scenes.

            However, this film is worth a look to anyone interested in Hitchcook, talkies, or early crime films in general.