Archive for the Films 2012 Category

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags , on September 24, 2012 by tom

I don’t care that this 1940 version of  “The Thief of Bagdad” is set in some indeterminate past, nor that it involves Arabian legends, nor does it matter a whit to me who the villain was in the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version. When you see that the 1940 version has THIS GUY as your evil character?

you just know strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

Actually, “The Thief of Bagdad” is a lot of fun. It bounds from start to finish with a cheerful energy. Even when Ahmad (John Justin) is blind, and Abu (Sabu (hand to Siskel, I’m not making this up)) is his dog, they’re happy. There’s a giant genie, who’s kind of a mean bastard for awhile till Abu tricks him. Even when he’s subject to Abu’s commands, he’s still sort of mocking and bullying, though in a nice enough way.

Jaffar (played by Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt)) is an oily, evil presence, a king-exiling, virgin-craving, double-crossing, son-of-a-bitch. Oddly, when he was shot by the Arrow of Truth, I suddenly felt like it was time to go to sleep. (Apparently, it’s not just Major Strasser: whenever Conrad Veidt dies in any film, I’m ready for sleep)) ((note: The Thief of Bagdad preceded Casablanca by a year or two. Some people might have sat in Casablanca, and said, “Holy SHIT! That Nazi is madre-freakin’ JAFFAR!”)

The special effects…well, they didn’t have Industrial Light & Magic back then, and certainly no CGI. There are some times when the onscreen image is almost laughable. The thing is, I was so sufficiently entertained–and so aware that the movie is 72 years old–that I didn’t care. In fact, “The Thief of Bagdad” won three Oscars, for visual effects, set decoration, and its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. The film aims to appeal to families, to provide sheer escapism. There aren’t a lot of “Big Ideas” to discuss.

“The Thief of Bagdad” is a wonderful piece of entertainment. It wasn’t the best picture to come out that year–the Oscar nominees include “The Philadelphia Story,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Rebecca,” and “Foreign Correspondent” (as reviewed yesterday)–but it is a hoot. It’s not too long, definitely not too heavy-handed, and in the end, Major Strasser does NOT get the girl.

What more could you want?

Grade: B

RAWRRR!

I mean…

Grade: B+

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The Crying Game (1992)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags , on September 23, 2012 by tom

Nothing bothers me more about films (or music, or whatever, honestly) than hype. That’s one reason I never owned a copy of “Thriller”: I couldn’t stand the hype. I should note that years later, I still think “Thriller” is a hugely overrated glob of mostly mediocre songs, and I was right to avoid it as much as possible.

When it came out in 1992, there were few films as hyped as “The Crying Game.” It wasn’t the great performances by Stephen Rea, Forrest Whitaker, and Jaye Davidson, nor was it the taut, beautiful script. Everyone was talking about “The Crying Game” because of “the twist,” “the surprise,” or whatever you want to call it. For that reason, I went to the film under duress (my then-GF wanted to see it), and I didn’t really enjoy the film.

Two decades later, I rewatched “The Crying Game,” and I was absolutely surprised at how much I liked it. Essentially, we have two films here: one of Fergus the IRA soldier (Stephen Rea) and his friendship with a kidnapped British soldier, Jody (Forrest Whitaker), and the larger film where Fergus–now renamed “Jimmy”–makes good on his promise to Jody, and seeks out his girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson). Dil is…well, she’s a trip. She has this calm, sultry allure, and a coolly self-assured way of talking. She and Jimmy become closer, and Jimmy is convinced he’s in love with Dil. One night, Dil lets her guard down, and they are about to have sex. That’s sorta where the “twist” arises.

Jimmy has some serious doubts, but is working his way back to Dil, when his old IRA friends catch up with him. He’s selected for–in essence–a suicide mission. The underlying threat is, that if he doesn’t do it, the IRA will kill Dil.

The script and the two principal actors–Rea and Davidson–really make this film remarkable. I imagine it’s hard to write a political violence/sexual boundary-pushing  film, but that’s just what director Neil Jordan has done. The pacing is steady and assured, and I couldn’t help but love the main characters, despite their deceits and subterfuges.

The ending goes back to the beginning. When Fergus is holding Jody prisoner, Jody tells the fable of the frog and the scorpion. In their last scene together, Jimmy is telling it to Dil. Considering all that’s happened on screen, it’s a nice parallelism upon which to end.

In this case, I wish I’d set aside my hype hatred and just enjoyed “The Crying Game” for what it is: an interesting, beautifully crafted film.

Grade: A-

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags , on September 22, 2012 by tom

“Foreign Correspondent” is a lovely example of what I’d call a “rainy afternoon film.” It’s not one of Hitchcock’s best–not like “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” etc–but it’s a neat little thriller set in the waning days of pre-WW2 peace.

Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is a bored reporter for the New York Globe, when his editor-in-chief decides to send him to Europe as a foreign correspondent. Beforehand, his editor decides Johnny Jones is too boring, so he renames Jones “Huntley Haverstock.” He’s introduced to the leader of a peace movement, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who agrees to introduce him one of the most important diplomats in Europe, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann). At a luncheon, Jones meets, and falls in love with, Carol Fisher (Laraine Day). Care to guess who her father is?

Right.

As the story unfolds, there’s an assassination that turned out not to be an assassination, a car that seemingly disappears from a Dutch road, kidnappings, subterfuges, skin-of-the-teeth escapes, and danger lurking around every corner–this during peacetime.

Joel McCrea is a solid lead–handsome, dashing, and resourceful–but my favorite character is named Scott ffolliott (sic). He explains that an ancestor was beheaded by Henry VIII, so his mother removed the capital letter in its honor. ffolliott is played by George Sanders as one of those unflappable Brits we see in WW2 films: he talks quickly and in a lovely accent, and never seems to panic, no matter how many people are shooting at him.

“Foreign Correspondent” has plenty of twists and turns, although it feels overlong to me. Ten different writers worked on the screenplay, which may explain some of the odd segues and tone inconsistencies in the story.

There are some fun images though, including some that would ultimately end up in “North by Northwest.” In one, Johnson spies an airplane flying awfully low near a windmill he’s investigating. I imagined, of course, Cary Grant running from the crop-duster in “NxNW.” Another shot that ends up in “North by Northwest” is when Johnson escapes through the window of  his hotel room, climbing along the ledge. Cary Grant ended up in a strange lady’s room. Johnson ends up in his girlfriend’s powder-room, where a little old lady is powdering her nose. (Nice touch: Johnson climbs along the neon “Hotel Europe” sign. He bumps into it, and the EL cuts out, leaving “HOT EUROPE.”)

If you have a rainy day, and access to it, I highly recommend “Foreign Correspondent.” It’s not what I would call “high-Hitchcock.” It is, however, perfectly entertaining. And who needs to think all the time, right?

Grade: B

My Life as a Dog (1985)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags , on September 18, 2012 by tom

“My Life as a Dog” follows the life of a young boy going through some rough times, and how he uses his imagination and eccentricity to escape. His name is Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius). He’s eleven or so when the film begins. His mother has tuberculosis, as well as some rage issues, and she needs a break from Ingemar and his dickhead older brother. So Ingemar heads off to stay with his aunt and uncle for the summer.

He has an awesome summer. He makes friends, feels loved by his aunt and uncle, and experiences a stable, safe life, far from what he’s accustomed to at home.

He returns home, only to find his mother deteriorating quickly. When she dies, it’s back to his aunt and uncle.

Ingemar’s key friendship turns out to be with Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a tomboy who is the best boxer and soccer player in the village. The two develop a deep-seated trust. When Saga starts growing breasts, she fears that her soccer career is over, since she can no longer pass for a boy. Ingemar gently binds her breasts so that she’s flat again. Sorta.

Throughout “My Life as a Dog,” Ingemar gets into one fix after another, but he has a good heart. In voice-over, he keeps talking about such tragic figures as “the guy who walked across the sports field, only to have a javelin go through his chest.” But most of his narration concerns Laika, the dog launched into space by the Soviet space program. Ingemar also keeps lamenting he should have told his mother everything while she was still well. In these moments, we always see the same snippet of Ingemar and his mother sitting lakeside. Ingemar is clowning around, and his mother laughs. That is how he remembers his mother most of the time.

After Ingemar and Saga have a falling out, Ingemar locks himself in his uncle’s “Summer House,” a sort of roofed gazebo in the back yard. There, it all hits Ingemar at once: that his mother was only rarely that laughing figure–she was more often screaming in violent rage, even without the TB; that his beloved dog, Sicka, was not “at a kennel,” but had been euthanized; and that life is messy, and he’s part of it. This venting gives Ingemar catharsis. He goes back outside to a world where Saga is finally dressing like a girl, and all of Sweden is excited about the boxing match between Ingemar Johansson and American Floyd Patterson. As if to seal their reconciliation, Saga invites Ingemar to her house to listen to the radio broadcast. The fight ends with Johansson winning, and the entire village goes joyfully nuts. On Saga’s living room couch, Saga and Ingemar are asleep together, two young best friends who took comfort together.

“My Life as a Dog” is a wonderful mix of humor, drama, and quirkiness, as eccentric as the small village where Ingemar’s big-hearted aunt and uncle live.

There was a minor controversy (no pun intended), because we actually see maybe ten seconds of  young Saga’s budding breasts when she shows them to Ingemar, so they can figure out how best to hide them for soccer. Some people freak out over absolutely nothing. There was nothing lurid or even remotely sexual about the shots. I managed to control myself, and not become a slavering deviant, and I suspect 99.9999999999% of the audience will also survive intact.

(Honestly, I doubt the people who’d be offended by these brief shots would be caught dead watching a subtitled Swedish film anyway, unless they read about it in “Indignation Weekly,” and watched “My Life as a Dog” just to throw a snit over these innocent images)

I love this movie. The pacing, the mix of joy and pain, and the way it shows humans triumphing over being human–it’s amazing that the film’s tone never grew dark and dreary.

Despite certain tragedies, “My Life as a Dog” is a lot of thought-provoking fun.

Grade: A

The best friends: Ingemar (left) and Saga (right). Two amazing young actors.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Posted in Films 2012, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 13, 2012 by tom

“The Philadelphia Story” is your typical girl is ready to marry boy, but girl’s ex shows up, along with two undercover reporters pretending they’re friends of girl’s brother, but girl’s ex tells girl that reporters are reporters (deep breath) screwball romantic comedy.

It’s also hilarious, and beautifully made. The girl is Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), the product of a tremendously rich, old Mainline Philadelphia society family. She had an early, tempestuous marriage to C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), whose alcohol abuse caused all manner of fighting and, ultimately, the dissolution of the marriage. Haven works for Spy magazine, a trashy tabloid, and concocts a story to get a Spy writer–Macauley Connor (James Stewart)–and a photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) into the Lord house for the wedding.

There’s blackmail at work here, then a reverse blackmail, and…oh, hell. What really matters is that this is a wonderful film. Tracy’s fiancee, George Kittredge (John Howard) is a sort of self-made man, who’s worked his way to the top. He’s also boring as hell, and has a giant stick up his ass. He’s everything that Tracy’s ex, Dexter, isn’t. As the film progresses, we find this may not necessarily be a good thing, especially since C.K. Dexter haven has quit drinking.

The script is wonderful, the dialogue sharp, and the acting (mostly) top shelf. I say “mostly,” because I wasn’t impressed with John Howard. He’s a decent actor, but he didn’t fit in with the rest of the cast. Maybe that was director George Cukor’s intent. I rather doubt it, though. All of these actors were giving funny, natural performances, then here’s this guy, sounding like a radio announcer delivering a newscast.

Katherine Hepburn is wonderful in everything, and “The Philadelphia Story” is no exception. Whether she’s being combative, sarcastic, drunk, or happy, she pulls it off with her usual brilliance. The two male leads, Cary Grant and James Stewart, were also brilliant. James Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar for his role. He’s very good, but I felt like Cary Grant overshadowed him, especially in their scenes together. This was a more serious role for Grant, and a lighter role for Stewart. James Stewart himself said he didn’t deserve the Oscar for this film; he felt like he was being rewarded for the previous year’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

I think he’s right, honestly. He’s still very good, but I don’t know about “Oscar” good. It’s not him: it’s just not an Oscar role.

Ruth Hussey was also nominated, for Best Supporting Actress. She was strong and smart, and did a wonderful job.

Of all the actors, my favorite was Virginia Weidler, who played Tracy’s mischievous younger sister, Dinah Lord.

Miss Weidler steals every scene she’s in, with her precocious wit and humor. She isn’t like a talented kid. She’s a talented screwball comedy actress, who just happened to be 13 years old.

In the picture above, she’s doing her part in the subterfuge, wherein the Lord family tries to act far more eccentric and crazy than they really are, so as to lend credence to the reporters’ preconceived notions. While the reporters relax in one of the parlors, she enters the room en pointe, and introduces herself, speaking rapid-fire French. Then she announces she can play piano and “sing at the same time.” She prances into the adjoining music room, and launches into a raucous version of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

Seriously, I found her scenes to be the absolute funniest. She had some awesome lines, to be sure (“I can tell things are in the air, since I’m being taken away.”)  She is a ham, but in the best possible way.

Sadly, Virginia Weidler had a limited Hollywood career. She was hired as a sort of counterpart to Shirley Temple, and had some good roles in big films. However, she wasn’t especially pretty, and her career was done before her 18th birthday. Sad.

But Virginia Weidler was a little scene-stealer in this film, something hard to do when you have Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn acting alongside you.

The final act drags a wee bit–just in comparison to the rapid-fire rest of the film–but “The Philadelphia Story” is one of my 20 favorite films, and definitely one of the all-time great romantic screwball comedies.

Grade: A

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags on September 7, 2012 by tom

While I watched “The Birth of a Nation,” I thought of many ways to start this review–believe me, the thing is over three hours long, so I had time.

Then I’d see something else, and I’d have to rethink my previous brilliant opening.

For example, I was going to mock that one of the white actors in blackface neglected to paint his upper arms. It’s like he had a really dark farmer’s tan. That was going to lead into how ridiculous it was that there were actual black people in the film, but the truly heinous caricatures–the sex-crazed animal, eating watermelon and chasing white women, e.g. (seriously not making this up)–were all played by whites in blackface. The southern family we follow–Colonel Cameron’s–even have the obligatory large black woman maid, who was played by a highly padded white woman in blackface.

So this was one choice.

Then there was the part where the post-Civil War state government in South Carolina had a huge black majority–only 23 white members were elected. This majority, of course, was due to sinister black men with cartoonishly shifty eyes (again, blackface makeup on a white guy). So anyway, with the new black Legislature, it was a party in the State House. One man took off his shoes, and put his gnarly feet up on his desk. (The chair quickly passed a law requiring shoes during session). Other black representatives were flagrantly drinking from flasks, and one was dancing around in the South Carolina State House of Representative waving a giant piece of fried chicken, from which he took frequent bites.

One of their first laws? “Inter-racial marriages are legal.” I’m fine with interracial marriages. I think two people should be allowed to marry, period. But in “The Birth of a Nation,” this law led to black men turning into animals, trying to hunt down white women for mounting and matrimony. Seriously: they made that eyebrow thing, where you leer at someone, and make your eyebrows go up and down, as if to say, “Let’s head to the cloakroom, and make the two-backed beast,” as Shakespeare described in “Othello.” (I also like “Let’s go heels to Jesus,” from Woody Harrelson in “Zombieland,” but it’s only funny when he says it)

Anyway, my mind flashed to the scene in “Blazing Saddles,” where Cleavon Little comes out from behind a rock and says to a bunch of assembled klansmen, “Hey. Where the white women at?” In “The Birth of a Nation,” it was that kind of awful, just with no humor or parody.

So, I was going to mock that for my big opening.

Then, this happened, and it was too good to pass up. The ruling thug mob of white carpetbaggers and blacks from both north and south, took over the town of Piedmont. They beat up white people, occasionally killed someone, and that was par for the course. So one day, the ruling mob of blacks and yankees was doing their thing, torturing and shooting people, when the accompaniment segued from its current theme to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as the KKK descended en masse to save the day! It was just like Robert Duvall’s Air Cavalry group in “Apocalypse, Now,” flying out of the rising sun to neutralize a hostile Vietnamese village. Only with a few hundred klansmen on horses.

The Reconstruction following the Civil War was truly a difficult period in American history. Many of the things depicted in this film actually happened. It’s the way they’re portrayed that becomes problematic. Roger Ebert has a great quote in his “Great Movies” review of “Birth of a Nation”:

Like (Leni) Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil. (see: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20030330/REVIEWS08/303300301/1023)

“The Triumph of the Will” recorded the Nazi Party’s huge rally at Nuremberg in 1934. The ways Leni Riefenstahl shot the film–the techniques she developed–were revolutionary then, and are still used today. Her film was beautiful–what she recorded was horrible; she didn’t create Hitler’s cult of personality, but she made him look like a god.

To me, this argument is simultaneously relevant and irrelevant for D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” He didn’t create the Civil War, nor did he invent racism in South Carolina. He didn’t create carpetbaggers, freedmen, and scalawags working together to punish the South for daring to secede. He also didn’t write “The Clansmen,” the novel upon which his film was based.

Like Riefenstahl 20 years later, Griffith invented countless film and editing techniques that were brilliant and revolutionary. There’s one shot, for example, where we see the first two riders in the massive KKK force, riding to the rescue. They’re moving at full gallop, as are the literally hundreds of horses behind them. Griffith caught that action, and this earth-shaking column of horses, all in focus, with amazing depth of field. Before this, cameras didn’t move in films. Even today, this shot is remarkable, just for how far back the action goes. No CGI. Hell, I don’t think they had running water then.

So we can draw a few conclusions. First, both Leni Riefenstahl and D.W. Griffiths made films that were technically brilliant, and whose techniques are still in use today. Second, both Riefenstahl and Griffiths were making films about loathsome subjects. Griffiths did because he wanted to; whereas, basically, Hitler told Leni Riefenstahl to make “Triumph of the Will.”

To his credit, D.W. Griffiths spent much of his career trying to make amends for this film. His future projects were more upbeat and full of 1970’s Coke commercial love for mankind.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a great film: technically, and as a story, it is truly epic, telling the tale of two powerful families during Reconstruction. The families have contact before the Civil War; friends meet on the battlefield, and die together, one Union, one Confederate. It is sweeping and beautifully made, with a lovely musical score.

A tweak here and there, and we wouldn’t be flipping out over fried chicken in the State House, and leering, watermelon-eating, sexual animals leering around corners at white girls.

Griffiths had control over those parts of his film. Oh, and Mr. Griffiths? Love your poster.

This movie? A tad racist? Nah!

Grade: B-

The General (1926)

Posted in Films 2012 with tags on September 4, 2012 by tom

Some days are just depressing. You wander around your world, and you just have this cloud over you.

Well, I do. Monday was one of those. I’d been sick all weekend, and missed work again. I was feeling a little better physically, but mentally and emotionally, I was cashed.

Serendipitously, I ended up in my Hulu Plus queue, and there was Buster Keaton’s, “The General.” You can watch it here:

I have an assload of pill bottles on my nightstand, but none of them lifted my spirits like “The General.”

This past year, the Best Picture Oscar went to “The Artist,” a celebration of silent film. “The General” is one of the most-acclaimed films from the silent era, and I can see why.

Buster Keaton’s character, Johnny Gray, is the engineer on “The General,” a locomotive. During the early part of the film, Fort Sumter is fired upon, and the Civil War is at hand. Johnny rushes down to enlist, but he’s not allowed. He’s too valuable as an engineer to waste as a soldier. Nobody tells him this, sadly.

What ends up happening is that he’s piloting The General, when some Union soldiers steal it during a dinner stop. How Keaton regains control of The General, rescues the love of his life, and manages to elude a persistent enemy…these are excellent plot devices. However, the plot is merely a framework upon which action can be draped.

What struck me is how amazingly talented Buster Keaton was. He acted with amazing physicality, taking falls and performing stunts nobody else could do. In addition, he also wrote and directed “The General.” Keaton was the Gene Kelly to Charles Chaplin’s Fred Astaire: he was more athletic and powerful, somehow less-refined (even though Chaplin’s “The Tramp” was a…well, a tramp).

Buster Keaton doesn’t act like a silent movie actor normally acts. He was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” for a reason. In situations where typical silent film stars would go over the top with facial expressions, Keaton remains preternaturally calm. He has the same neutral set to his face, although his eyes convey volumes.

“The General” was a critical and box office flop when it was released. Today, it’s widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. I’m not the biggest silent film fan in the world. Chaplin doesn’t do much for me, and many of the others I’ve seen leave me flat as well. This one was an amazing 78 minutes of film. I can’t believe I had never seen “The General” until last night.

I mean, what the hell have I been doing the past 86 years?

Highly recommended. (Take a chance. You’ll thank me. ;-))
Grade: A

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