Monday, February 28, 2011

Jane Russell, 1921-2011

"I like a man who can run faster than I can." -Jane Russell

Oscar Night is Over....

I went into last night with aspirations of setting an all-time high of twenty correct guesses (breaking my record of nineteen from '08 and '09) and I ended the night matching my career low of sixteen.  I suppose this means it was a bit less predictable this year, although still pretty much so, considering my (somewhat) pipe dream pick of David Fincher finally taking home an Oscar was dashed by the mediocre direction of Tom Hooper in the movie that would also take Best Picture.  After a few years run of more cutting edge winners (The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker) it was kind of sad (though very predictable) to see th Academy go back to the boring old middlebrow ways with The King's Speech (though I am happy with Mr. Firth winning).  Anyway, enough rambling.  The Oscars are over and we finally finished cleaning the cinema after the party.  Time to move on and get back to the business of devouring some cinema - both old and new. New reviews are coming for The Housemaid, Poetry, Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy and some mainstream dreck like Drive Angry and Red Riding Hood (at least they look dreckish).  Also my quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films is going strong (currently at #589 and counting) and reviews of recent additions such as The Lusty Men, Some Came Running, Laura, Red Desert and Guru Dutt's Pyaasa are just around the corner.  So good night and good luck - and all that jazz (how's that for back-to-back movie title references?).

I will leave you with one of those fictional Oscar stories (The Bad and the Beautiful in this case) and the man who was (in my not-so-humble opinion) the most enjoyable thing about last night's Oscar broadcast.

And in case you can't get enough of the Oscars, I will be making my (way in) Advance Oscar Predictions come April 1st (no it is not a joke).  These will invariably include such possibles (for better or for worse) as Spielberg's War Horse, Polanski's Carnage, Fincher's Dragon Tattoo, Crowe's We Built a Zoo, Reitman's Young Adult, Eastwood's J. Edgar, Malick's long-anticipated Tree of Life and Meryl Streep possibly winning her third Oscar (and first since 1983!?) for playing Maggs Thatcher in The Iron Lady and George Clooney possibly receiving nominations for Director, Actor AND Supporting Actor.  That will come in one month and one day, so don't start holding your breath for at least three and a half weeks.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

FINAL Oscar Predictions!!!

Well, it's that time again.  Oscar time.  And time to make my annual predictions.  I have gotten 19 out of 24 two years in a row (my all-time personal best) , so this year I am hoping to crack that seemingly impenetrable 20.  So without further ado, here are my picks.

Best Picture - The King's Speech

When people say it is all in the timing, they are not kidding.  If the Oscars were handed out in early January, my favourite of the bunch, The Social Network would have taken home the top prize, but now this BAFTA and Producer's Guild winner seems to be a certified lock.  Personally it is my least favourite of the bunch, but what are ya gonna do?  

Best Director - David Fincher for The Social Network

This is one of about six categories that are really bugging me (and making me go back and forth).  Perhaps it is just me not being able to let go of The Social Network getting ousted for BP, but I honestly think this will be one of those somewhat rare split years.  Just like when Ang Lee took home the director prize for Brokeback Mountain and yet the quite inferior Crash still won BP, the much superior The Social Network will at least be honoured here.  Of course this is still well up in the air, as Tom Hooper could still win this one. 

Best Actor - Colin Firth in The King's Speech

The man who should have won this award last year for the sublime A Single Man will finally get his due for a lesser film, though his performance was the one (and really only) great thing about The King's Speech.  My personal choice would have been the non-nominated Casey Affleck for the oft-maligned (though wrongly so) The Killer Inside Me.  If I were forced to choose between the actual nominees, I would go with Jesse Eisenberg, slightly over James Franco.

Best Actress - Natalie Portman in Black Swan

Portman, who is wonderful in nearly everything she does will finally win an Oscar for her batshitcrazy performance in Aronofsky's equally batshitcrazy movie.  I would still choose my darling, Michelle Williams over Portrman, but it is still a good choice.

Best Supporting Actor - Christian Bale in The Fighter

Can you believe this guy has never even been nominated before this year?  Crazy.  But the first time will be the charm here.  It would be a tough choice between Bale and John Hawkes for Winter's Bone, but I would pick Hawkes in the end (not that he has a prayer of taking down Bale).  Many do think he is an asshole and that could hurt his vote count, but he is probably so far ahead that those backlash votes (or anti-votes) will not even matter.

Best Supporting Actress - Melissa Leo in The Fighter

This is the one acting race that is not all sewn up, and hence, the one that could get away from me.  In all probability this is a three-way race between Leo, Helena Bonham-Carter and the new kid, Hailee Steinfeld, and it is anyone's guess which one will take home the Oscar.  If Bonham-Carter gets it (and this award is handed out early in the evening) you can expect to see a King's sweep (including Tom Hooper for Best Director).  Anyway, Jacki Weaver deserves the award and that would be quite the pleasant little surprise.

Best Original Screenplay - David Seidler for The King's Speech

Until just recently I was predicting The Kids Are All Right to win this one (and it still could of course), but I think this will be part of a King's rush.  Of course, one must also keep (in the back of their mind) a look out for Chris Nolan's Inception surprising here.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network

Hands down the best screenplay of the year, and probably the one place you will see the most deserving nominee taking home the actual prize.  Never underestimate the power of Toy Story 3 though.

And the rest...

Best Foreign Language Film - In A Better Wold (Denmark)

Best Documentary Feature - Exit Through the Gift Shop

Best Animated Film - Toy Story 3

Best Cinematography - True Grit

Best Art Direction - The King's Speech

Best Film Editing - The Social Network

Best Original Score - The King's Speech

Best Original Song - That thing by Randy Newman from Toy Story 3

Best Costume Design - Alice in Wonderland

Best Make-up - The Wolfman

Best Visual effects - Inception

Best Sound Editing - Inception

Best Sound Mixing - Inception

Best Animated Short - Day and Night

Best Live-Action Short - Na Wewe

Best Documentary Short - The Warriors of Qiugang

Well, that's it.  I think 20 may be in the cards this year.  We will see in a little over 20 hours.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Film Poll #9: The Oscar Results

And our Oscar poll is finished and we declare a tie.  Never has there been a tie for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (some other categories, yes, but never in the top spot), but here a tie there be maties.  Sorry about the pirate speak.  Anyway, here are the results.

The Social Network - 21 votes (27%)
Black Swan - 21 votes (27%)

In third place is the most likely winner at those "real" Academy Awards later this weekend.

The King's Speech - 13 votes (17%)

And then the rest (distantly off).

Winter's Bone - 6 votes (7%)
True Grit - 6 votes (7%)
Inception - 3 votes (3%)
The Fighter - 2 votes (2%)
The Kids Are All Right  - 2 votes (2%)
Toy Story 3 - 2 votes (2%)

And then the poor little film (actually my personal choice for fourth place) with no votes to call its own.

127 Hours - 0 votes (0%)

And that is it for this poll.  Enjoy the Oscars (though they are woefully predictable this year) and come back here for another poll in a few weeks.

For now, enjoy this great moment from (fictional) Oscar history.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
I Am Number Four

Here we go again.  Yet another in what seems an endless succession of teen-oriented franchise movies, all with some sort of supernatural bent, be they sparkling vampires, transforming robot-trucks, Jesus lion-loving precocious children, Olympian teenyboppers or alien runaways.  I suppose this one ain't half bad, all things considered, but when all things are considered, it is probably not all that great either.  In other words, here we go again.

"Oh my God, my hands are glowing.  Is this some sort of puberty metaphor?  That doesn't seem all that cliche, does it?"

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is #577 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 01/28/11 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #137 on TSPDT

Inexplicably retitled Stairway to Heaven for US release (an arrogant irony considering Powell & Pressburger took great aims to never directly refer to the afterlife in the film as Heaven), A Matter of Life and Death is a stunning movie, in both character and form, and easily one of the Archers' greatest collaborative works - second only, in this critic's opinion, to that high watermark of grand cinema The Red Shoes).

It is the story of a World War II British pilot, played by the always congenial David Niven, who is shot down and supposedly killed (ever congenial and ever "English" to the bitter end) - another in a long long long line of casualties of war.  Only thing is, he doesn't die.  Washed ashore, presuming himself in the afterlife, Niven's pilot instead finds himself very much (and very miraculously perhaps?) still among the living - only to run into, and fall in love with, the American radio operator who was the last person he talked to before his untimely, near death experience.

Enter an envoy from that place that is not Heaven (except in the aforementioned US release version) enlisted to take Niven's pilot to where he belongs.  You see, here we find out it was merely a clerical error of sorts that has kept our intrepid hero amongst the living, and he is due in that "other world" immediately - if not sooner.  But our hero refuses to go.  You see, when he was on his dying plane, and was about to meet his maker, he was ready to go - a real proper gentleman about it, but now he has fallen in love and has a reason to go on living.  This brings us to the trial - a matter of life and death as it were - with the whole of human history at its beck and call.

Shot with remarkable beauty (in a roundabout from The Wizard of Oz, the Archers portray the real world in colour - Technicolor at that) and the other world in crisp black and white) and given a sheen of overwhelming sentiment, while at the same time hitting deeper topics (both political and scientific, as well as the obvious religious quandaries) than what merely lie on the sublime surface.  This was Powell & Pressburger at the height of their joint career.  Right in the middle of their remarkable run that also included The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I Am Going, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.  Never has such a six-year run been equaled in the annals of world cinema.

The film also features Kim Hunter in the role of the radio operator, Richard Attenborough as a fellow pilot, Raymond Massey as the prosecuting attorney in the aforementioned trial (Massey, when asked if he would take the part, immediately cabled the response of "For the Archers anytime, this world or the next.") and two of the Powell/Pressburger stable of regulars, Kathleen Byron as an angel who takes an interest in the case and Marius Goring as Cunductor 71 (as a rather fey, and quite hilarious French revolutionary who is the blame for the error that has caused everything to unfold as it has), later seen as mad Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus and Julian Craster in The Red Shoes, respectively.

To toss out just a few adjectives to describe this film, we have astonishing, brilliant, magnificent, breathtaking, majestic, sensational, mind-blowing and utterly sublime.  Perhaps I am gushing like a lovesick schoolgirl, leaving my critical chops in the back pocket as it were, but one cannot help such hyperbole when discussing the works of Powell & Pressburger - especially at the epicenter of their already stunning oeuvre.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The LAMB Devours the Oscars: Best Documentary Short Subject

The fine folks over at The LAMB (the Large Association of Movie Blogs, of which I am a proud member of) have assigned many of its members an Oscar category to write on (one for each Oscar category plus one for each of the ten Best Picture nominees).  Somehow I got assigned, in an ironic twist of fate (and due to my archnemesis that dreaded procrastination), one of my least favourite genres - the Documentary.  Never being much of a doc guy (my wife incidentally claims the doc as her favourite genre, after the Musical) I marched on anyway, and watched and wrote about the five Documentary Short Subject nominees.  In actuality, I enjoyed three of them (for what they are), so I suppose all is not lost.  Anyway, my contribution to the LAMB's annual Oscar event is up and running over at their blog.  Go ahead and read it if you so wish.

Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

ed. note: This was meant to be my contribution to the great For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, co-hosted by those great and lovely dames of classic cinema bloggerdom,  Ferdy on Film and Self-Styled Siren, but a combination of someone else already tackling the same movie for the same Blogathon and just good old fashioned procrastination (my archnemesis and worst bad habit) I come up a day late and a dollar short as they say.  Nonetheless, here is my day late and dollar short contribution anyway.  And no matter the day and time, you can still donate to this very worthy cause HERE.  I will have another donation link at the end of the post (in case you forget), but for now, here is my (unofficial and out-of-competition) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon.

Oh yeah, and there are spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution.
One could (and many have) argue the validity of Stranger on the Third Floor being the ostensible first Film Noir - the Noir Patient X if you will - but its use of chiaroscuro cinematography, German Expressionism (which is where Noir was truly born - visually speaking that is) and psychological self-torture, as well as its being the story of a man wrongly convicted, make a damn fine argument for, rather than against such a claim. 

Directed by Latvian-born (actually the Russian Empire at the time) Boris Ingster, and starring John McGuire as the aforementioned self-tortured, wrongly-convicted man, Stranger on the Third Floor starts out as what appears to be a standard crime drama - a young, recently engaged, aspiring reporter gets his "big break" (and first by-line) by covering a murder trial that he is also the key witness in (really not sure how the whole conflict of interest thing never seems to get in the way) - that quickly deepens into a psychological mind fuck of a movie.  Questions of whether the man on trial (the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr.) is actually innocent or not - he was seen over the dead body but is never seen actually killing the victim - and the ramifications of such possibilities begin to eat away at our main character.
This is where the film takes a sudden turn into Noir territory, as Ingster changes the whole demeanor of the movie.  Beginning an inner dialogue , McGuire's Mike Ward is tortured with the thought that he may have helped put an innocent man in the electric chair.  This is also the place where the titular stranger makes his first appearance.  Played by Peter Lorre, at his disheveled creepiest (and, due to contract specifications at RKO, receiving top billing for a role that is achingly short and consists of only a quick handful of lines), this quiet stranger is seen skulking around Mike's building, where another murder is about to be discovered by our intrepid hero.

Spinning out of control, Mike begins to have nightmares about what could and would happen once the police are notified of his discovery.  Just like poor Elisha Cook Jr. (eternally the hapless loser) earlier on, who was convicted on mere circumstantial evidence, Mike begins to think back on things he has said in the past about his neighbor, the murder victim.  He becomes tortured by these thoughts and dreams and nightmares - all filmed with the most Noirish of flair, shadows and light intermingling to seemingly sever its characters trapped inside the film.  If this ain't Noir baby, I don't know what is.

Climaxing in a lackadaisical flurry of imminent danger - Lorre's unnamed stranger calmly going after Mike's fiancée, played by the striking, though rather bland actress Margaret Tallichet (then wife of William Wyler and less than a year away from early, baby-induced retirement at age twenty-seven) once she finds his secret out - Ingster's film may be a bit on the hurried side (the B-picture coming in at just 64 minutes) and doesn't really have time for much unnecessary plot points, but still manages to get its point across with a certain, shall we say Noirish, flair.
It is really the middle of the film - Mike's nightmares come to life in sharply define shadow and light play (photography heavy in that all-too-important chiaroscuro style) - where Ingster shines.  His beginning is mere middling set-up and his final coda - where a now free Elisha Cook Jr. grins his rather off-putting grin (creepier than Lorre's perhaps) and offers Mike and his soon-to-be bride a ride in his cab, seeming to show no hard feelings toward the man who helped almost electrocute his ass - is pure studio-demanded cheese (though one could make a case for Cook's embittered ex-con driving his passengers off a cliff and ending his and their misery, but that would be mere speculation).

It is this expressionistic centerpiece of Ingster's film that gives it the power (both visually and emotionally) it needs to have to become the thing it has become - the first Film Noir (well, the first American Film Noir) in cinematic history.  Taking the aforementioned German influences and weaving it with early sound crime drama and filming it with as much stylistic dread as one can muster in these dark shadowy moments, Stranger on the Third Floor (one of only three films ever directed by Ingster - he would later be a prominent TV producer), along with other early Noir such as The Maltese Falcon and This Gun For Hire, helped to usher in a whole new genre of cinema.  A genre that, along with the Western, is this cinephile's favourite.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
When We Leave

This German film's biggest fault is its rather conventional storytelling.  A fault made greater by the importance of its subject - that of the so-called honor killings in Muslim communities around the world - and the necessity to get said subject out in the open.  Of course, this very importance may have led to its filmmaker, Austrian born German actress-turned-first time director Feo Aladag, worrying more about getting her message across to as many people as possible than making a film that thinks outside the box - therefore compounding the film's conventionality.  

The film's biggest asset on the other hand, is that of lead actress Sibel Kekilli.  German born, of Turkish decent, Kekilli, most noted for her grand performance in Fatih Akin's Head-On, gives a brilliantly nuanced, bravura performance as a woman running from the patriarchal madness that is her culture.  Does her performance outweigh Adalag's conventional direction?  Perhaps, but only to a point I suppose.  Which in the end, means I do give this movie the proverbial thumbs up (to usurp a copyrighted term from Siskel & Ebert - for just one quick moment) even if I have reservations about certain aspects thereof (though the stunning shot below, one of the few happy moments in the film, is not one of them).  

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
Another Year

Director Mike Leigh has a curious habit of creating films that defy definition.  They are not comedy, yet they are not drama either.  They are some cross between the comically tragic and the tragically comic.  His films at once portray a world that is so realistic we easily find ourselves trapped inside them, yet so alien, we feel we are watching some sort of cosmic experiment run its course.  Drab and squat and gray, and lined with a certain hopelessness, yet also full of some sort of otherworldly eternal hope.  The director's latest, Another Year, is no different in playing around with such contradictions.  Desolate and at the same time, elegant. It's a wonderful little trick Leigh always seems to have up his sleeve.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My 10 Favourite Things About
Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three

*There be spoilers ahead for those who care about such things. 
1. Watching Jimmy Cagney, at 62 and in what would be his final performance (until his slight respite from retirement to put in a cameo in the 1981 film Ragtime) strut, scream and swagger about, with as much vim and vigor as he had in his early gangster roles thirty years prior, and still managing to be, even in the role of an "uncool" businessman, the epitome of cool - even in his senior citizen days.

2. Red Buttons, in a tiny role as an M.P., does a Cagney impression to Cagney's character in the movie.  I just love self-referential cinema.

3. The comic tension between Cagney's Coca-Cola executive and the younger Horst Buchholz, playing a die hard card-carrying communist to Cagney's uptight executive.  In reality, there was actual tension between the two.  In Cagney's autobiography, he says that Buchholz was the only actor he really hated working with because he was uncooperative and tried all kinds of scene-stealing moves, which Cagney depended on director Wilder to correct. Had Wilder not firmly directed Buchholz, Cagney said that he "was going to knock Buchholz on his ass, which at several points I would have been very happy to do."

4. At one point, Cagney threatens to shove a half a grapefruit in Buchholz's face, lampooning the famous scene between Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy.  Like I said, I do love self-referential cinema.
5. Watching Arlene Francis, who was much better known at the time as a TV star, being one of the highest paid women on the small screen while she was a regular panelist on What's My Line, trading barbs with, and quipping acerbic one-liners at Cagney.  These comic bon mots and winking asides, help make this rather unknown actress these days, the funniest person in the movie, even if she isn't in it all that much.

6. Another fun reference in the movie is the introduction of the three Russian commissars, who are an obvious homage to the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film Ninotchka - a film written, or co-written at least, by Billy Wilder.

7. In order to frame Buchholz's crass but cuddly commie and get him arrested by the East German police, Cagney's conniving Coca-Cola exec gives him a cuckoo clock that plays Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Of course, thanks to Cagney's Oscar winning performance as George M. Cohan in the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, we get yet another cinematically referential moment.  Have I mentioned how much I enjoy these?  

8. (ed. note: One would not know this by watching the film, but backstory is always crucial to understanding a film more, so this anecdote should count for something)  Midway through filming of One, Two, Three (and in the dark of night just to make things all that more ominous) the Brandenburg Gate was shut off between East and West Germany and the early construction on that infamous wall would begin.  Wilder, Cagney and the crew were forced to relocate to a Munich studio to finish shooting.  Nothing stops cinema dammit!

9. When Cagney's character finds out the teenage girl he is supposed to keep safe for her father, his boss, is pregnant - to a commie of all things(!?) - he grabs his head and says "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"Of course, this is yet another cinematic reference, quoting Cagney's contemporary "rival" in Hollywood, Edward G. Robinson, from the film Little Caesar.

10. The Coca-Cola connection.  I happen to be a Coke guy (as opposed to those weird Pepsi people) and it is fun seeing the comic corporate happenings going on.  Wilder even received a visit from friend Joan Crawford, then recently widowed and sitting on the board of her late husband's company PepsiCo, asking him to change his film over to the Pepsi side of things.  Of course he did not, but he did add one final injoke (the final shot of the film actually) by having Cagney's Coke man put change into a Coke machine and pulling out a Pepsi to the great man's eternal disgust.

Monday, February 14, 2011

366 Weird Movies Guest Review:
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Here is my latest guest review for the fine folks over at 366 Weird Movies.  It is for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's sublime Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  I saw the film at last year's New York Festival and, at the time, heralded it as at least equal to my favourite Weerasethakul film, Tropical Malady.  Today, I step that up some, by heralding it as the Thai auteur's best work yet.  I will be posting a review of the film over at The Cinematheque a bit closer to its release date, which is March 2nd at Film Forum btw.  That review will more along the extended remix route, but the one over at 366 Weird Movies is nice too.  Anyway, enjoy it now and come back for the director's cut on or around March 1st. 

Next up on my 366 Movies guest reviewing gig will be a review on Zhang Yimou's Coen Brothers remix, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, a new look at Sam Fuller's Naked Kiss (just out in a great new Criterion edition) and a "re-release" of my already published Amer review from a few weeks back.

R.I.P. Mr. Mars

Kenneth Mars 04/19/36 - 02/12/11

Friday, February 11, 2011

The 1000 Greatest Films Update

Well, they've gone and done it again.  The good folks over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? have once again updated their 1000 Greatest Films list.  As far as background goes, the site has a comprehensive list of just about every film list out there, from the famed Sight & Sound Poll to the rather lackluster AFI lists to every critic worth his or her salt - and everything inbetween.  They take these lists and compile one great big master list of the so-called 1000 Greatest Films (of course any such list is open to inevitable debate) and that is where our story begins.  As I am sure many of my regular readers already know, I have taken it upon myself to see all 1000 movies on this same said list.  When I began this quest back in 2007, I had already seen 425 of the films.  Through slow times and fast times (speed-of-watching-wise) I have recently reached number 580 on the list.  This is when the bough broke, so to speak. 

You see, every year or so, these fine list compilers must update the aforementioned great big master list of movies.  New lists to be inputted, and all that jazz.  I have lived through three previous updates.  With each update (of course) films drop off the list and are (of course again) replaced with different films.  This of course inevitably jostles around the number of films on the list that I have seen.  Sometimes it drops me back (the first of these plummeted me from 500 to 477) and other times it shoots me ahead (updates two and three bumped me ahead 14 and 18 slots respectively).  This most recent update unfortunately has slipped me down, but only by four spots.  Just as I reached #580 on my quest, I find my self retroactively placed back at #576 again.

Anyway, here we are at #576 on my quest to watch the 1000 greatest films.  Next up is the Powell/Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death (the highest ranked film by The Archers on the list, one standing above my personal favourite, The Red Shoes).  You can of course follow my quest both over at The Cinematheque, and here as I post critiques of the remaining 424 films (as I have of the last dozen or so already).  I will leave you with an image from what is of course the number one movie on the list - which stays in that top spot through every update (probably) ad infinitum.

The Cinematheque Reviews:
The Mechanic

To prepare myself for seeing this remake, I watched the original 1972 Charles Bronson version the night before. I suppose I would have still thought this quite banal Jason Statham thing was a mess without having first seen the inevitably superior original, but who knows.  If anything it just made this new thing seem worse.  Granted, the 1972 film is not the best of cinema, but it was a rather enjoyable genre piece (directed by the director who also gave us Bronson's Death Wish series).  I will give this new thing kudos for one thing though - Ben Foster does give the film at least a modicum of respectability.  Not enough to save it from its mediocre self, but at least a little bit.  Anyway, my review is up and running, for what it is.  

Oh yeah, and since the original is (of course) better, I've opted for an image from that one instead of the aforementioned new thing.  And to top that, it is a rather esoteric choice of screen shots at that.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. is #579 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 11/17/10 on TCM

Ranked #392 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).
The debate rages.  Chaplin vs. Keaton.  I have always been a steadfast Chaplin man myself, but in no way does that mean I dislike Keaton.  Chaplin has the pathos, the sentimentalism that makes his films work on a much deeper level than those of Keaton.  Keaton on the other hand is a better gag-writer and his films, though never as deep, are straight-up funnier than Chaplin's.  Still, the debate rages.

My favourite Keaton has always been my first Keaton, The General.  I would surely call it one of, if not the funniest movie I have ever seen.  Not a single word is spoken, but it annihilates me every time.  Keaton did not need the added words of the later screwball comedies of Hawks and Lubitsch, he did it all with his brilliant visual audacity.  If I were to compile a Top 5 Keaton List, after his Civil War-set Masterpiece (with a capital M), I would place the oft-forgotten Our Hospitality, followed by Sherlock Jr., The Navigator and then this movie, Steamboat Bill Jr. 

Mostly remembered for its famed falling house gag (where the facade of a house falls on top of Keaton as he stands precariously - and very strategically - in the perfect spot to be saved by an open window, the frame of which falling just around him) and the scary fact that this was no trick photography or body double, but Keaton himself, just inches away from being crushed to (most likely) death, the movie is full of great physical gags - just as Keaton had done in all his previous works, becoming an influence to many future comic actors, most notably Jackie Chan, who has cited Keaton as a big influence on numerous occasions.  

Unfortunately for the world, this was the last film Keaton would ever have control over, leading to eventual obscurity (though with bittersweet roles in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and Chaplin's Limelight in the early fifties) until future critics would one day rediscover the great stone-faced clown of the silent era.

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa is #578 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 11/03/10 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #556 on

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).
I watched this film just a few days after visiting the wonderful Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield N.C. (my lovely wife and I running across it by complete accident on the way home from Myrtle Beach) with little to no prior Ava Gardner viewing in my cinematic databanks (her breakthrough performance as the femme fatale in Robert Siodmak's 1946 The Killers being my only look at the lovely Ms. Gardner before this day).  Sure, I of course knew about her and her romances with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and (of course) Frank Sinatra, but lo and behold, the naive, yet strong-willed and determined girl from Nowheresville North Carolina (sorry to all those fine folks of Smithfield and its surrounding environs - Gardner was actually born in nearby Grabtown - for I was born in Nowheresville PA myself) who would eventually spurn Hollywood (in a combination of frustration and loneliness) had somehow slipped through my cinematic radar until the aforementioned accidental museum visit.  I suppose it is about time to remedy such a slight (I will move on to fellow contemporary slights Joan Fontaine and Lana Turner soon after), but for now, let us concentrate on the movie at hand.

The Barefoot Contessa, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, a director not really known for any certain auteuristic style, is the story of a Maria Vargas, a poor Spanish singer/dancer who is swept up into the Hollywood scene (with the aid of uncomfortable, but enthralled father figure-cum-Hollywood director Harry Dawes, played by Humphrey Bogart), only to spurn it's decadent lifestyle to marry a count - to inevitably tragic circumstances.  Just like Gardner herself, who would go around barefoot all the time, Maria would (metaphorically-speaking) keep herself grounded by having her feet still in the so-called soil of her homeland.  Though full of small moments from Gardner's own life (her relationship with controlling billionaire Kirk Edwards mirrors Gardner's own affair with Howard Hughes), Mankiewicz admits to having based the character on Rita Hayworth, who was really of Latin extraction and who incidentally would also, temporarily at least, spurn Hollywood to marry a prince.

Many consider this to be Gardner's signature role (even though Mogambo, the year before would be the only film to ever garner this underrated actress an Academy Award nomination) probably since it is, Hayworth aside, somewhat autobiographical.  The fact is, Gardner does a superb job in the demanding role (in a film that has its good and bad moments both) as she had done the year before in Mogambo (I did finally catch up on some other Gardner films since my trip to her namesake museum - and this Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner triangulated African romance is one of them).  As I stated above, Gardner was indeed an overlooked actress, remembered mainly for her great beauty (considered one of the most beautiful women in motion pictures at her height of stardom) and not for her raw, fearless acting prowess that should have been very evident in each and every one of her performances - even those in the bad movies the actress did.

Gardner would eventually succumb to the emptiness her life had become filled with inside the stifling studio system of the time (according to her, the studio forced her into two abortions during her marriage with Sinatra which finally fell apart in 1957) and leave not only Hollywood and L.A., but the US altogether.  She lived in Spain for a while, befriending Ernest Hemingway and becoming lovers with one of his bullfighting comrades, before eventually settling in London, where she would die of pneumonia in 1990, at the age of 67.  There are stories of a devastated Sinatra, the man Gardner called the love of her life, and who had remained her close friend until the very end (according to an anecdote learned at the aforementioned  museum - a great place one should visit if ever in the area - a wreath was left at the funeral that simply said "Love Francis").  And like her Maria Vargas character in The Barefoot Contessa, she will be idolized by some, remembered lovingly by others, and forgotten by many.  Now onto more Ava Gardner movies... 
In case you missed the link above, check out the wonderful (and wonderfully informative) Ava Gardner Museum on line - or visit it when in or around Smithfield, North Carolina.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
127 Hours

One arm, no waiting.  The story of Aron Ralston, cocksure spelunker who thought it a smart idea to go off into the wilderness without telling anyone where he was going.  Idiot?  Douchebag?  Typical outdoorsy type (how I hate them)?  Probably all these and more, which is how James Franco portrays Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's highly-anticipated one-man-show blow-out, 127 Hours.  A pretty good movie actually - with Franco's stellar, 176-note performance the number one reason why.   Of course, as we find out in the final post-movie, pre-credit tag, Ralston still goes cave-dwelling, but now he always leaves a note as to where he is going.  Reformed idiot?  Repentant douchebag?  Perhaps.  One arm, no waiting.

The 1000 Greatest Films:
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad is #577 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 09/24/10 on Criterion DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #306 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).
Big and bold and beautiful, this deliciously rapturous eye-candy work of early Technicolor filmmaking, made by a committee of at least five directors (some credited, some not) working under uber-producer-cum-showman Alexander Korda, but seeming to have the strong auteurial stamp of Michael Powell (the only member of this directorial committee to become a name one day - and what a name he will become), The Thief of Bagdad, 1940 style, is a remarkably fun movie to watch (especially on the big screen) even if the misbegotten youth of today would say it was thoroughly outdated and even more thoroughly cheesy.  But then again, this very cheesy nature of the film (and I must succumb to the misbegotten youth on this one, and agree to a great deal of cheese factor) is what helps make it so damned fun to watch.

Borrowing heavily from the 1924 Raoul Walsh version, this Korda spectacular goes beyond the grandeur of that already quite grand film (the special-effected fantasy scenes in the original silent are well ahead of their time to begin with), and gives us something that can be placed among the greats of that early fantasy genre - topping nearly everything in that same said genre, save for The Wizard of Oz and King Kong (though it can certainly be spoken of, agreeably so, in such company).   Yet, no matter how epic and swashbucklery this movie gets, with its visual opulence and stimulating colouring (foreshadowing the work Powell would eventually do with partner Emeric Pressburger over the next two decades), it is the performances of the young Sabu as the titular little thief (seven years before he would work with Powell again in The Archers' stunning Black Narcissus) and especially the perfectly cast and ever-evil-playing Conrad Veidt as the murderous Jaffar.

By this time, the German actor, having made his way out of Germany as part of the anti-Hitler exodus that also included such actors and directors as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Peter Lorre, Douglas Sirk and others, had already made a name for himself playing the reluctant, tragic villains in both The Kabinet of Dr. Kaligari and The Man Who Laughs.  Here though, as the mythic personification of evil Jaffar, that reluctant part would be cast out of his villainous characterizations (just two year later, after making his way from the UK to the US, Veidt would play the Nazi officer, Major Strasser in the classic Casablanca).  Veidt here, even with the grandiose special effects and bigger-than-life djinn steals the show away.

A huge influence on those Disney imagineers when they made Aladdin (the character of Jaffar is drawn as a cartoonish dead ringer for Veidt) Korda's Thief of Bagdad is still as gorgeous now as it must have been on the screen back in 1940 - those misbegotten youths be damned.  A succulent, if not quite cheesy, masterpiece of fantasy cinema.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews:
The King's Speech

Colin Firth should have won the Oscar last year for his devastating performance in A Single Man, but Jeff Bridges won it instead, for a performance that was well below his usual work (more of a we-never-gave-him-one-before Oscar).  Now both Firth and Bridges are up against each other again, but this time it is sure to go the other way, as Firth, though giving a fine performance indeed, will win his own we-never-gave-him-one-before Oscar.  None of this of course has nothing whatsoever to with the supposed quality (or lack thereof) of The King's Speech (as we all know - or should know - the Oscars rarely have anything to do with deserving accolades).  As far as my own personal opinion of the movie goes (the frontrunner for Best Picture as well btw), well, one would have to read my review to find that out (which, for your viewing pleasure, is conveniently linked just below).  For now let us just say it was better than expected but not as good as hoped for.

The Cinematheque Reviews:
The Green Hornet

Stupid and silly indeed, but with a certain Michel Gondry savoir faire giving it a boost out of the mediocre that it would have been mired in if many another director took the reigns.  All that and Seth Rogen was not completely annoying - well, he was annoying but the character was meant to be (it wasn't the normal Rogen-annoyance factor).  Okay, let's face it, the movie is pretty stupid, but still somewhat entertaining - or at least not un-entertaining.  Hmmmm...anyway, juts read the review.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Maria & Lena: R.I.P.

Maria Schneider 03/27/52 - 02/03/11 (for tributes, go here)

Lena Nyman 05/23/44 - 02/04/11 (for tributes, go here)

The LAMB Leaderboard has been updated...and I have dropped to a "career" low of 17th place

The fine folks over at LAMB (The Large Association of Movie Blogs) have updated their monthly leaderboard once again - showing which LAMB members have the most traffic driven back to the aforementioned Large Association of Movie Blogs.  In the six months since becoming a member, my ranking has fluctuated such: August I placed at #5 (with a bullet!), then in September I crept up to #4 (my highest spot thus far), but in November I plummeted waaay down to #16, only to have a resurgence of sorts in December with a #10 placing.  Now, as January ends and we see the totals for that month, I seem to have dropped to a career low at #17.  What does all this mean?  Nothing really, but I sure would like to crack that top three someday.

As for my ranking on Wikio, I have dropped there as well.  From #97 to #107 (which is out of a top 100, so I am not exactly sure how that works!?)  But then Wikio is listing big name blogs like MSN Movies and the ilk, so a ranking of any kind is good.