Sunday, July 31, 2011

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi Films

As you may already know, I now take up weekly residence over at the great film site Anomalous Material.  The fine folks over there have given me a regular weekly gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects (and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor - yes I am a list nerd).  This week's feature piece (my ninth such piece) is on  1950's Science-Fiction (and Monster) Movies.  You may be able to see the wires but they are still fun fun fun indeed.  Anyway, read on true believers.

Below is a shot from a fun film, 20 Million Miles to Earth, which is spotlighted by great creature effects from the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  This film just missed making the list but I still wanted to include it somewhere - so here it is.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Off to the Beach. Be Back Soon.

Well you won't have Kevyn Knox to kick around any more!  Okay, perhaps this Nixonesque quote is a bit on the melodramatic side (oh how I love those melodramas) because in reality I will only be gone for an extended week-end.  The lovely missus and I are off to O.C.M.D. (Ocean City, Maryland for those of you who do not speak "me") early this morning and I will not be blogging until I return.  To be honest I am not even sure if there will be wifi where we are staying (even in this day and age?) but whether there is or not, I will only be using it to surf that there net, not to post any stellar new cinema-related revelations.  Now there will be one post popping up here over the week-end (yeah, go ahead, call me a liar!) so you won't have to live that long without me.  That post will be a link to my weekly 10 Best Feature over at Anomalous Material - this week featuring the 10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi Films.  Otherwise, no news until my return early next week.  This return will include such catch-up reviews as Friends with Benefits, Crazy Stupid Love and Cowboys & Aliens (my trip also means I will have to wait until my return to even see this much-anticipated movie).  Anyway, like I said earlier, we are off to the beach, so I will get off of here and leave you with a lovely image of that classic beach movie The Seventh Seal.  Ah yes, the nostalgic feel of romping along the surf, avoiding the black plague and playing a rousing game of chess with Death.  See ya on the flip side.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Them! Them!! Them!!! or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Giant Mutant Killer Ants

The police find a little girl, just 5 or 6 years old, wandering through the New Mexico desert near White Sands Proving Ground (the testing area for the first nuclear bombs, a piece of historical fact that ends up being the narrative crux of the story).  She is in shock, unable to speak or even react to the officer's pleas.  Later on, this same girl, still in the same state, is visited at the hospital by one of the aforementioned police officers, an FBI agent and a pair of father/daughter scientists.  When she is given a sort of smelling salts by the elder scientist, her eyes open wide and with a look of disturbing horror twisting across her once eerily serene face, she screams "Them! Them! Them!" and runs for the corner of the room.  Until this moment, about twenty minutes in, we are given a feeling of piling dread, after this we are in full-on panic mode.  Who or what are Them!, and why is this little girl so scared of Them!?

Yes, of course we all know just what Them! are - even 1954 moviegoers would have known going in since those gigantic radiated mutant ants are front and center on the poster - but still, knowing or not, the fear in this little girl's face is palpable enough to get even the most jaded of modern hearts a-flutterin'.   The real thrill of watching Them! is as basic as basic primal urges can be - we want to see giant mutant ants eating people.  Seriously though, director Gordon Douglas (he would go on to direct the best of the Rat Pack films, Robin and the 7 Hoods and then direct Sinatra in one of his best films, Detective) takes the idea of nuclear testing (a popular topic at the height of the Cold War) and creates one of the best damn monster movies ever made.

The first in a series of "big bug" films (as paranoia swept across the nation, everyone was afraid of nuclear attack at this point in history and this fear was exploited by those in Hollywood) and certainly the best, Them! tells the story of a small New Mexico community that is besieged by an unknown killer or killers - the high pitched screams and screeches (the film showcases one of the earliest uses of the patented Wilhelm Scream) echo through the desert like mysterious impending doom - and the state trooper, FBI agent, requisite old professor and even more requisite hot professor's daughter who must find and destroy this mysterious assailant(s).   Of course these assailants are giant freakin' ants, cursed mandibles snatching their prey at will, and James Arness (the aforementioned fed) and his gang must stop these creatures before they devour the world.

With surprisingly realistic (and Oscar nominated) special effects for the time period (watch a contemporaneous film like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in comparison) Them! is more than just a fun romp and fodder for the MST3K crowd - it is a giddily disturbing look at the paranoia rampant during this era and the dangers of nuclear warfare on nature (Douglas' film predates the first Godzilla by nearly five months).  Originally meant to cash in on the 3D boom, the film would eventually play as just 2D (some shots, including the titles remain 3D-ready) and be made in black and white (titles are done in colour as was also the original intent of the entire film) and would become a moderate hit at the box office.  Its reputation now is as one of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films (the best in the high point of the genre) and that is a well-deserved reputation indeed.

Another bit of interest can be found at Anomalous Material.  My weekly feature this week is "10 Best 1950's Sci-Fi Films".

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Beginners

When I first saw the trailer for Beginners I figured it was going to be another one of those quirky indie romantic comedies and/or family dramedies that are the proverbial dime-a-dozen and therefore lost interest pretty damn quickly - even with the lovely Melanie Laurent involved.  Well colour me surprised, for the film ended up having a quiet European charm to its non-linear story and was about as far from the typical quirky indie rom-com (or whatever) as one can get.  Perhaps not a great film, but a great surprise indeed.  My review of said film, complete with a surprised look to its rambling, is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

The Cinematheque Reviews: Winnie the Pooh

It may not get the box office of many of its slicker, 3D animated brethren (and to put the nail in even further, it opened the same weekend as the final Harry Potter) and it may not have the adult crossover those aforementioned slicker brethren get with their pop culture referencing, but the mostly hand-drawn animation of the new Winnie the Pooh, along with its inherent nostalgic feel (helped along by a voice cast of dead-on impersonators) make for a thematically simple yet quietly beautiful motion picture.  I suppose what I am trying to say is get over yourselves and see the damn movie - it may not be the most rousing of films but the pure, old school animation is well worth your time.

I'll leave you with a typically problematic moment in the life of my favourite denizen of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Quest to See the 1000 Greatest: From #620 through #629

Here is a look at the latest ten films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  These ten films were seen between June 24th and July 12th.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#620 - The Sign of Leo (1959)
(#994 on TSPDT)  Helping to usher in the Nouvelle Vague, Eric Rohmer's feature directorial debut is a quiet film and, not to sound too cliche, a quite haunting film as well.  The film follows one man's way through good fortune and eventual ruin, as well as eventual possible redemption.  Rohmer would later grow as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, creating more complex moral tales later in his career (his peak was probably the seventies), but this first film, a more-than worthy debut and one that is as rule-breaking as anything else the New Wave was doing (at least thematically speaking if not cinematically), is a Renoir-inspired, matter-of-factly poetic look at the follies and sheer happenstance of life.

#621 - Opening Night (1977)
(#854 on TSPDT)  Indie icon John Cassavetes has always been an actor's director (obvious point, I know) but it comes to an almost nth degree in Opening Night.  The story of an aging stage actress who becomes haunted (figuratively and literally if you believe everything in the film) by her inability to deal with an equally aging character.  Much of the film has an improv feeling to it (which may come from it being improvised which is Cassavetes typical modus operendi) and the interactions between star Gena Rowlands, costar and director (and real life husband) Cassavetes, and regular Cassavetes costar Ben Gazzara is brilliantly worked.  It is also fun to see Joan Blondell in a small but vital role.  The highlight of the film (of which there are many to choose from) is the finale where it is just Rowlands and Cassavetes sparring together on stage.  I would place this film as my second favourite Cassavetes, displacing Woman Under the Influence to third and landing behind just Killing of a Chinese Bookie

#622 - The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)
(#857 on TSPDT)  Yes, the film, made by Mark Donskoi, a slightly younger and decidedly lesser known contemporary of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko, has a strong Soviet feel about (as well it should since it is the story of one the greatest of Russian/Soviet heroic figures) but unlike many of the films by the aforementioned Soviet trio and such iconic films as Battleship Potemkin or Earth, it is not as powerful a cinematic statement as said contemporaries. Still, though to a lesser degree, the film does have its moments and is still a strong story (it is Donskoi's lack of cinematic prowess, not his storytelling ability that makes the film pale in comparison) even if it doesn't hold up to the (possibly impossible) standards of early Soviet cinema.

#623 - Moana (1926)
(#903 on TSPDT)  Having loved Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (the only Flaherty I have seen up until now) I was highly anticipating this film, another look, albeit manipulated in many ways, at a mostly unknown (at least at the time) primitive culture - and incidentally one of the first films to be handled with the term documentary.  Unfortunately I wasn't all that thrilled with Moana, the story of a small Samoan village (as opposed to all those large Samoan villages!?).  A flop at the box office (attributable perhaps to the "West" already showing up before Flaherty and having the village already adopting western clothes and way,  therefore the pure "man vs. nature" aspect so prevalent in Nanook being lessened considerably) Moana ends up being, though visually a well-crafted work, no Nanook.

#624 - The Baker's Wife (1938)
(#980 on TSPDT)  Marcel Pagnol is another one of those directors I was totally unfamiliar with when going into this, the director's sole film on the list, but coming out I wish I knew more.   Taking on the tale of the titular wife and her cuckolded husband searching for her after she runs off with an appropriately musclebound suitor, Pagnol's film plays out as an early sex farce in many ways (censors in France may not have been as strict as in the US, but still it is tame compared to today's standards - or even compared to the pre-code era) and has quite a few hilarious situations within.  With his poetic realism-esque style, Pagnol's film is somewhat akin to contemporaries Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and especially Rene Clair (though not actually in the league of the aforementioned) and is surely worth looking into other films of his oeuvre.

#625 - The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
(#596 on TSPDT)  Vincente Minnelli - how can this not be a great film.  Easily one of my twenty favourite directors, this acerbic look at the film industry, and more specifically one particular egomaniacal cog in such an industry, is one of Minnelli's most engaging films - and that is saying a Hell of a lot considering we are talking about the man who gave us The Band Wagon and An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis and Some Came Running and the oft-overlooked The Cobweb.  Now granted, this film is still below the five I just mentioned, but when you are an auteur the level of Minnelli, even your lesser films are better than many director's better films.  But enough of the Minnelli gushing, there are other aspects to this film - mainly the acting.  The film features Kirk Douglas, who was just becoming a big name at the time, in one of his chewiest roles as the aforementioned egomaniac.  We also get Dick Powell, Lana Turner and the always wonderful Gloria Grahame in the role that would win her an Oscar.

#626 - Forbidden Planet (1956)
(#493 on TSPDT)  Considered one of the best of the 1950's sci-fi films (and the peak of the gorgeous Anne Francis' career - Richard O'Brien even included her in the lyrics of The Rocky Horror Picture Show's opening credits song "Science Fiction/Double Feature") Forbidden Planet, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, stars Leslie Nielsen long before he became the face of parody cinema, and features the film debut of Robby the Robot (later to make guest appearances on many a sci-fi TV show), and of course has Anne Francis in those oh so short short short dresses and acting all come-hither with her burly new friends who have landed their ship on her planet.  You can read more on this film by checking out "The Seductive & Quite Shameless Come-Hitherness of Anne Francis, Robby the Robot & Forbidden Planet" elsewhere on this blog.

#627 - Holiday (1938)
(#616 on TSPDT)  Perhaps I was just too tired to appreciate the film (perhaps unfairly I watched this film late late late one night and was on the verge of dozing off near the end) or perhaps it is just a lesser Screwball than most, but I've got to admit that I wasn't all that thrilled with George Cukor's Holiday.  Granted, there were funny parts throughout, and Grant and Hepburn make for a delightfully manic pair and Jean Dixon and Edward Everett Horton are a blast as Grant's boho pals, but still the film lacked the classic comedy of things like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday that were made around the same time period and are now considered the creme de la creme of the genre.  Okay, perhaps it was just that I was tired - because the film is fun, even if it isn't the best of its genre.

#628 - Douce (1943)
(#895 on TSPDT)  Like many filmmakers on this list (too many probably) this counts as my introduction to French director Claude Autant-Lara.  Also known as Love Story, Douce is the story of class struggle in 1887 Paris, Autant-Lara shows the interweaving, and quite tangled affairs between a governess, her young ward and a hired hand.  With his roving, promiscuous camera that is more than a little indicative of Ophuls, Autant-Lara's film, a lavish spectacle without seeming too opulent, mesmerized this critic from start to finish - something that was quite surprising, though probably would not have been if I were aware of just how Ophulsesque this director happens to be.

#629 - Devil in the Flesh (1947)
(#981 on TSPDT)  Watching back to back Claude Autant-Lara films was certainly a treat for this rabid cinephile.  The second one, Devil in the Flesh, is the story of an affair between an underage student and an older woman engaged to a soldier off fighting during WWI.  With surface similarities to Visconti's Senso (do not know if this was an influence in any way on that later work) and a camera that spins around in (as I said above) the most Max Ophulsesque manner, Devil in the Flesh is a succulent treat of cinematic artistry.  After watching these two films I long for more Autant-Lara (though these are the only two on the list) and will need to seek him out wherever I can find him.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Criterion Critiques w/ Alex DeLarge

What follows is the first in what will be a regular series of reviews on the always wonderful, and quite indispensable Criterion Collection, written by our special guest reviewer Alex DeLarge of the Korova Theatre.

KISS ME DEADLY (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
Released on Criterion blu-ray 6/21/2011, spine #568

Mike Hammer is as hard and lean as a railroad spike driven into concrete, seduced by mystery and a dark poem of remembrance. Director Robert Aldrich's debut is a brutish noir transformed by cloak and dagger thrills, an explosive algorithm of cold war ethics. Aldrich turns the genre upside-down like the opening credits (read from bottom to top!), a cinematic excursion where a femme fatale whispers a nuclear polemic.

Mike Hammer lives in the subconscious, the penumbra of the Id, always racing like a jaguar towards the fulfillment of his pleasure principle. He is the prototypical anti-hero, dressed to kill with a temper to match, raping women with only a sideways glance. But Hammer is soon made impotent, victim of a faceless "they" who seek the great "whats’it", his good deeds never seeming to go unpunished. He is forced to pick up a voluptuous hitchhiker and soon embroiled in a thermonuclear winter of discontent, and stalks the nightmarish truth for his own vengeful purposes, an ignoble purpose of National insecurities. A whispered epitaph becomes a steel key, a violent travelogue that leads to an irradiated treasure locked away, ashes and brimstone of the new atomic age.

Aldrich captures the film with skewed angles and a creeping malaise, as men in black consume the night with a biblical fury, summoned by a government bureaucracy to stand guard like demonic sentinels, harbingers of a world without hope: these are men who are much worse than the petty evils of Mike Hammer. Aldrich utilizes film noir gumshoe tropes but advances a scientific element, a Periodic Chart to fuel this explosive admixture. In this monochrome world, no one is pure but an amalgam of intents and desires, prostituting themselves to the highest bidder. The film ends with Hammer and his moll fleeing into the crashing surf while the world burns down.

Final Grade: (A)

About Alex: "To state things plainly is the function of journalism; Alex writes fugitive reviews, allusive, symbolic, full of imagery and allegory, and by leaving things out, he allows the reader the privilege of creating along with him." Alex can be found hidden deep within the dark confines of his home theatre watching films, organizing his blu-ray and dvd collection and updating his blogs. Please visit the Korova Theatre and Hammer & Thongs to see what’s on his mind.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Cinematheque Reviews: Captain America: The First Avenger

Like any red-blooded, able-bodied (okay, semi-able-bodied) young boy in America, I read comics all throughout my youth.  I still occasionally go back to the well so to speak, now choosing to read (and re-read) the hardback collections and omnibuses of classic Marvel Comics I grew up with.  So one could rightfully assume I was looking forward to the latest in what seems like a never-ending array of comic book adaptations - Captain America: The First Avenger.  Well I was, and for the most part, I was not disappointed.  A rousing, old-fashioned, Indiana Jones-like adventure tale of daring-do and two-fisted (with iconic red, white & blue shield in one) comic book action.  Granted, the film isn't a great work of art (it's no Dark Knight) but it sure is fun - and more than a bit nostalgic for this comic book reader from long ago (and not so long ago too).  My review of said film is now up and running over at my review site The Cinematheque.  I do get a bit long-winded in it (two paragraphs on Jack Kirby and the Golden Age of comics!?) but I think it's well worth the read, just as the movie is well worth the price of admission (well maybe not 3D admission, but then the film has no real reason to even be in 3D anyway).

And Cap even gets to use his original shield, as seen in Captain America #1 back in the spring of 1941.  Yeah, I'm a nerd, what's it to ya.

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Best Movie Supervillains

As you may already know, I now take up weekly residence over at the great film site Anomalous Material.  The fine folks over there have given me a regular weekly gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects (and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor - yes I am a list nerd).  This week's feature piece (my eighth such piece) is on  those wonderful and iconic super bad guys.  I take a look at the best comic book movie supervillains and just how better (and most times cooler) they are than the heroes themselves.  Anyway, read on true believers.

Read my feature article, "10 Best Comic Book Movie Supervillains" at Anomalous Material.

Below is a splash panel from Captain America #16.  It represents the newest entry on my list.  So new in fact, that I had to hand in my feature a day late just so I could see the midnight show of Captain America: The First Avenger in case I wanted to add the Red Skull, as played by Hugo Weaving, into the fray.  Needless to say I did just that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Well Well...Looks Like I'm in a Contest, & a Screwball One at That

It would seem the fine folks over at FilmClassics are holding a review writing contest.  The subject is classic screwball comedy and the prizes are sure to be galore.  Hearing this, loving the screwball genre and being a rather competitive person in nature, yours truly here decided to enter said contest.  Opting to go with a lesser known work of screwball madness (everyone and their brother, sister and second cousin has written on Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve and so forth) I chose the little-seen 1938 classic The Mad Miss Manton - starring the best damn actress ever, the great Barbara Stanwyck.

Now lo and behold, it seems as if there are only two of us in this contest (c'mon people where are all those classic fans with there classic entries!?) and even stranger than that, we both decided to write on The Mad Miss Manton (apparently my competition is a huge Miss Stanwyck fan as well - as well we all should be!).  I suppose our writing on the same subject makes this particular contest a true blue contest indeed - a stone cold stand-off if you will.  Yeah yeah, I know, it's all in fun, but winning is always the most fun.

Anyway, you can read my Review Contest Entry Post and let me know what you think by clicking on the button at the end of said post, which will take you to the contest site where one can then vote.  You can also jump to FilmClassics right now (where you will find links to both mine and my adversary's reviews - and to be fair, please do read both) and vote as well.  I suppose the main point one should take away from this is to vote vote vote.  Vote early and vote often.  Actually you can only vote once per IP address, but you get the idea.

The Cinematheque Reviews: Terence Malick's The Tree of Life

When I caught this remarkable film a second time during a visit to Philadelphia (the first time was in NYC, the film is opening locally in a few days) at the wonderful Ambler Theater in one of the city's suburbs (Glenside to be exact) the place was packed and I just knew there was going to be much grumbling afterwards.  And guess what?  I was right.  Hearing fragmented pieces of conversation as the theater let out (ironically too, since Malick's film is set up in the same manner of fragmented moments) I heard such things as "that was terrible", "thank god it's over", "who gave that four stars?", "next time I pick", "just awful", "who would like that?" et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Now of course this means that I can rightfully call these people philistines and feel better about myself and my love for this movie, the best damned one of 2011 so far (von Trier's Melancholia being the only one in the foreseeable future that I can picture topping it for the best film of the year - we'll see).  Anyway, my review is up and running over at The Cinematheque.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Welcome to Mr. Roman Polanski's Giddily Demented World of Sex and Fangs: The Fearless Vampire Killers

The following is my contribution to The LAMBs in the Director's Chair #18: Roman Polanski.

In reality, or at least in the reality of cinema (which let's face it, is the only reality we truly care about here), they really aren't all the fearless after all.  More like inept but lucky, but then The Inept but Lucky Vampire Killers isn't that great of a title.  And speaking of titles (as I wander off into an aside that will probably happen with a bit of frequency throughout the next few paragraphs) how is this for a title - The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck.  Actually director Roman Polanski was very displeased with the title and subtitle given his film by the studio (his original title was Dance of the Vampires), but its irreverent nature does fit with the style of the movie itself. But enough of the title - let's get to the sex!

Actually the sex, or at least the sexuality comes from Polanski's then wife, the drop dead gorgeous Sharon Tate.  But before we get to the lovely and tragic Miss Tate, perhaps a little background on the film.  Coming on the heels of Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, Polanski was able to procure a large budget for his film and it shows in the lavish costumes and set design of the film.  This would also be the director's first film shot in colour and in the widescreen aspect of 2.35:1.  With its snow-covered, fairy-tale landscapes and textured, Chagall-esque moonlit-winter-blue color scheme, the film is a visual wonder - almost as if one had somehow fallen deep into the interior of a giant snow globe.  Well, a snow globe with vampires of course.  It is this magical looking world that makes the film work on much more than just the farce the studio was marketing it as.

The films stars the director himself as the younger of the titular duo (the elder being played by stage actor Jack MacGowran) who has come to this small remote mountain village in search of...well, you guessed it, vampires.  After checking in to the village inn and getting the proverbial cold shoulder from the villagers when inquiring about any strange behaviour, the innkeeper's beautiful daughter (the aforementioned Miss Tate) is abducted by a vampire, and the hunt is on.  Of course our somewhat bumbling yet intrepid hero Alfred (Polanski) has fallen head over heels for the lovely Sarah (Tate) and he breaches the vampire's castle to get her back.  Meanwhile, Sarah, who may be a lot prettier than she is smart, plays the purring tease as the stakes of their situation grow higher and higher.  And yes, the stake comment was a very much intended pun.

Anyway, without much further ado (other than a few chase scenes through the castle, the vampire's fanged son's futile attempt at seducing the bewildered Alfred and a buttload of visiting vampires) we come to the final set piece of the film - the dance of the vampires (remember that title?).  This finale plays, in a way, like the finale in An American in Paris and showcases an elegant yet giddily terrifying danse macabre minuet.  It is the gorgeous set piece that finishes an already quite visually succulent work of cinematic art.  It is here that Alfred, Sarah and the Professor (MacGowran) must attempt their escape from the dread that awaits them.  Add to this a great trick ending (though one surely sees such a trick coming, it is still a fun trick) and you have Roman Polanski's horror-comedy treat, The Fearless Vampire Killers (no subtitle, no matter how fun, is needed).

With elements of Kafka throughout, and Polanski's unique sense of humour (after a Jewish character is turned into a vampire someone comes at them with a cross and he laughs, saying"Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.") The Fearless Vampire Killers is a great blend of pantomime, dark humour, self-referential moments (the MGM's iconic Leo has been transformed into a greenish fanged ghoul) and Hammer-style horror.  His cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, was quoted by Ivan Butler in his book, The Cinema of Roman Polanski, as saying, "I think he (Roman) put more of himself into Dance of the Vampires than into another film. It brought to light the fairy-tale interest that he has. One was conscious all along when making the picture of a Central European background to the story. Very few of the crew could see anything in it - they thought it old-fashioned nonsense. But I could see this background....I have a French background myself, and could sense the Central European atmosphere that surrounds it. The figure of Alfred is very much like Roman himself - a slight figure, young and a little defenseless - a touch of Kafka. It is very much a personal statement of his own humour. He used to chuckle all the way through."

And then there is Sharon Tate.  Miss Tate gives the film an alluring sex appeal not just with her looks, which were to die for, but with the way she would slink about like an innocent cat ready to pounce.  But it would be just a few years away when tragedy would strike.  More specifically on the night of August 9, 1969.  This would be the night that an eight-month pregnant Sharon Tate, along with her guests, were brutally slaughtered by the Manson Family.  After this, Polanski's films would turn dark (the first film the director made after the murders is considered to be the bloodiest Macbeth ever put on film) and even though he would go on to make one the best films ever, 1974's Chinatown, the rest of career has been all hit or miss.  His own personal life would eventually unravel with an arrest for rape and a guilty verdict in absentia as the director flees back to Europe, but then this is not the time nor the place to discuss such devisive tabloid tales, so let us finish by saying that even with the studio's attempt at turning the film into a kooky farce, The Fearless Vampire Killers remains to this day one of Polanski's best and most colourful cinematic works.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Great Barbara Stanwyck & the Screwball Comedy/Murder Mystery Hybrid The Mad Miss Manton

The following is my humble contribution to Film Classics Screwball Comedy Review Contest.  And as fair warning, there may be spoilers ahead, for those who care about such things - ye have been warned.

Oblivious yet just a bit-too-clever-for-her-own-good society dame who is insufferable to the male lead only to have herself fallen in love with by the end?  Check.  Hapless average Joe who stumbles into path of stubborn heiress only to find himself falling in love despite being walked all over?  Check.   Somewhat incomprehensible and quite madcap hilarity full of trickery and implausible happenstance?  Check.  Bumbling secondary characters who are really only there to make the heiress look even more of a lunatic than she really is?  Check.  Fast talking dialogue full of innuendos and half-truths?  Check.  At least one character (maybe more) who regularly smack their head in frustrated disbelief at what they have gotten themselves into?  Check.

Well that does it.  It looks like we have all the makings for a classic screwball comedy.  But wait, there are some more checks to make.  One can also check check check to this being a tale full of foul play and murder as well as a sometimes dark and dangerous mystery and also a film with several dramatically daring moments at gun point for the aforementioned heroine/heiress.  So I suppose what we have here is not strictly a screwball comedy but also a murder mystery.  What we have is a genre hybrid that manages to keep the comic antics rolling while putting our protagonists in a bit of mortal danger.  What we have here is Leigh Jason's 1938 screwball comedy-cum-murder mystery The Mad Miss Manton.  But still, above all else, gun play or not, multiple murders or not, this is screwball.

Granted, this film cannot hold up to the example given by the top dogs of the screwball genre - films such as Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Lady Eve, Trouble in Paradise or many of the Marx Brothers' movies - nor does its director (ironically this little known film is probably Jason's best known work) play in the same league as some of the genre's best and brightest - auteurs such as Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey - but as one of the (much) lesser known commodities of this once popular genre, it is still a fun ride to watch.  What the film does have going for it more than anything else is its leading couple.

In the first of three romantic comedies the duo would do together, the film stars Barbara Stanwyck (the best damn actress ever!) and Henry Fonda (the man who can do no wrong!) as the oblivious yet just a bit-too-clever-for-her-own-good society dame who is insufferable to the male lead only to have herself fallen in love with by the end and the hapless average Joe who stumbles into path of stubborn heiress only to find himself falling in love despite being walked all over, respectively.  It is the seemingly natural chemistry of these two stars (Missy and Hank were one of the cutest couples in Hollywood at the time) that make this otherwise rather thin film work as well as it does.

As far as the story goes (which I seem to have evaded talking about until now): At 3:00 am, upon returning from a society event, Melsa Manton (not yet deemed mad) takes her three little dogs for a walk. Near a subway construction site, she sees a fellow socialite, playboy Ronnie Belden run out of a house and quickly drive away. The house is for sale by yet another of Miss Manton's circle, Sheila Lane, the wife of George Lane, a wealthy banker.  Inside, Melsa finds a diamond brooch and Mr. Lane's dead body. As she runs for help, her cloak falls off with the brooch inside it. When the police arrive, the body, cloak, and brooch are gone. Melsa and her friends are notorious pranksters, so the detective, Lieutenant Mike Brent, played by the ever exasperated Sam Levene, does nothing to investigate the murder.  

This brings about newspaperman Peter Ames (Fonda) who writes an editorial decrying Melsa's so-called prank, after which she has him served with papers.  Of course, in typical screwball fashion, Peter instantly falls for Melsa (she's a terrible person he tells her but he loves her and is going to marry her) and grows more and more fond of her as each new conniving piece of the puzzle comes about.  Meanwhile, Melsa and her friends decide they must find the murderer in order to defend their reputation - and perhaps just have some fun.  The resulting madcap manhunt includes searches of the Lane house, Belden's apartment, Lane's business office, and all of the local beauty shops; two attempts to intimidate Melsa; two shooting attempts on her life; a charity ball; and a trap set for the murderer using Melsa as bait. Of course this is all par for the course in the genre known as screwball.

In the end, as I more than alluded to earlier, The Mad Miss Manton may not be the creme de la creme of the genre, but thanks to the great Stanwyck and the Fonda and thanks to Leigh Jason's almost film noir look to much of the film (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca worked on many darker films from the original Cat People to Out of the Past) it is a film that more than holds its own.  I mean really, how can one not have fun watching the knockout Stanwyck flit and flutter about on madcap feet and the charming Fonda fall more and more in love with each new trick his wouldbe lover plays on him?  Screwball?  Mystery?  Who cares, let's just call it fun. 


Voting has now ended for this contest.  I would like to thank all those who voted for me and my review of The Mad Miss Manton, and helped me come in first place in the contest.  Woo hoo.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Playing Catch-Up, 584 - 619

Dear oh dear, my film watching has gotten well ahead of my film writing.  Not really a shock mind you, just a rather obvious observation on my part. You see, on my determined Quest to Watch the 1000 Greatest Films, as collected and categorized by the fine folks over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, I have gotten way ahead of my self.  

Making it to 619 films seen from "THE LIST" (as we here in my neck of the woods have taken to ominously calling it) I have alas, only reached #583 in my attempt to write about each film as I see them.  This of course means there are 36 films seen but not written about.  Egads, however will I catch up I asked myself (and yes, I actually said egads to myself).  The only real answer of course, other than pulling several all-nighters and working my fingers to the proverbial bones (and really, who wants to do that!?), is to write up one big post about all 36 films in question and write just small blurbs on each one.  Well by golly that is just what I will do (I said to myself) and here that said post is - in all its squishy goodness.

After this catch-up post, I will post similar pieces every ten films (as in 620-629, 630-639, 640...well you get the picture, you're not a bunch of idiots).   As far as full reviews/critiques/what have you on each individual film, I will still write extended pieces on some of the films on the list (or THE LIST!!) as I progress along my quest (and add links at the proper places).   Anyway, let us get on with the show.

#584 - Red Desert (64)
When asked to describe Antonioni's industrial masterpiece (and first film in colour) in just one line, a close friend of mine said "A woman, disassociated with her surroundings, attempts in vain to FEEL" (the capitalization is his not mine).  There are so many things going on in Antonioni's film(s) (his use of colour here is remarkable) but this feeling of emotional disassociation is first and foremost among them.

#585 - The Big Heat (54)
Usually considered the best of Lang's Hollywood noirs, this Glenn Ford/Gloria Grahame thriller doesn't really live up to the reputation it has so often received.  A fun ride but less daring than other noirs as well as other Fritz Langs.  Still, it is always fun to watch the super-alluring Grahame go at it with fangs blaring.

#586/87 - Bienvenido Mr. Marshall/Placido
These two hilarious social satires were my first looks at Spanish auteur Luis Garcia Berlanga.  The first made in 1953 (Berlanga's debut feature) and the second in 1961, Berlanga's films play near-perfectly with overlapping dialogue and screwball comedy ideas while also showing the stupidity of how bureaucracy works (or doesn't work as the case may be).

#588 - Memories of Underdevelopment (68)
Part of the political propaganda that invariably goes along with communism (from both political directions), this Cuban film works as both a satiric political diatribe as well as a deeper social thesis.  The film is done in a matter-of-factly manner which makes it seem tired at times, but there are specks of Godardian cinematic ideas (if one can call them such) that make the film periodically sparkle as pure cinema.

#589/90 - Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street
A pair of Fritz Lang's, made back-to-back and both starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and co-starring the great Dan Duryea.  Both films are fun film noirs and both are somewhat similar - which I suppose should not come as a surprise.  Robinson is great in both and Bennett is appropriately alluring as the femme fatale, but it is Duryea who steals the show in both films (even though his role is much smaller in the former than it is in the latter).

#591 - The End of St. Petersburg (27)
Part of the Soviet montage school, Pudovkin's pro-proletariat paean may not be in the same power range as Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, but it is still an intriguing film full of the vim and vigor one would expect from early Soviet cinema - even if it never quite reaches the heights it should have..

#592 - Rose Hobart (36)
Experimental filmmaker Joseph Cornell was so obsessed with B-actress Rose Hobart that he took scenes from her film East of Borneo and cut, peeled, layered, recut, manipulated and manhandled them until he had this experimental short - a love letter (albeit in a kinda creepy stalker way) to the lovely but sadly almost completely forgotten Rose Hobart.

#593 - Night Moves (75)
In the same sinister vein as its contemporary Chinatown, Arthur Penn's Night Moves is a film of its time.  This seventies-centric neo-noir is a fun film in the way noir films should be fun.  Gene Hackman, as the appropriately Sam Spade-esque private dick is always fun to watch, and that is no different here.

#594 - An Autumn Afternoon (62)
Yasujiro Ozo's final film, An Autumn Afternoon is also one of the Japanese master's greatest works - and that is saying a lot considering the director's overall oeuvre.  Taking on his usual themes of family and marriage and tradition, this dramatic film (with flares of comedy as is typical of Ozu) mesmerizes the viewer from opening shot to closing.  Shot in colour (one of just three Ozu films to have been done so) and given a vivid palette and a surprisingly flexible camera (at least by the stoic standard of Ozu) this is a fitting finale to one of the finest and most celebrated careers in film history.

#595 - Zero For Conduct (33)
Jean Vigo died at just 29, leaving behind him three shorts and just one feature film (the stunning L'Atalante).  Zero for Conduct is the best known of those aforementioned shorts.  Taking a somewhat surreal look at life in a boarding school, Vigo's poetic filmmaking style comes out in every minute of this enjoyable bon mot of early sound cinema.

#596 - Detour (45)
A quick B-picture from the hey day of the film noir, this Edgar G. Ulmer classic is a perfect example of how they used to make them in the day (for better and for worse).  Concise and never straying from the plot (again, for better and for worse) the film is designed to work at the basest level while still managing to find an artistic bent to wrap itself around.  I do so love these forties quickie noirs - they are so much fun.

#597 - Shoah (85)
My wife, a friend and myself decided on a plan to watch the 9 1/2 hour holocaust documentary in one sitting. So we put it up on the big screen at Midtown Cinema (the arthouse cinema my wife and I run, for those not acquainted with daily life here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World) and began watching it after hours.  Through a blizzard raging outside we finally made it through a little after sunrise (probably around 8ish) and then all went home to bed (having to be back by 2pm to open the cinema for a new day).  What did I think of the film?  Oh yeah, I suppose you want to know that.  Well, it was long (which I never have any qualms over) but it was rather fascinating to see (even in its repetitiveness).  There are still two films on the list that are longer - substantially longer - and they will come in due time.

#598 - While the City Sleeps (56)
Another one of those slightly demented Fritz Lang Hollywood noirs of the fifties, and one of the more underrated ones.  With Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell and Vincent Price (in one of his best non-horror sleazeball roles), this take on the world of media and sensationalism is one of Lang's best Hollywood era films - and both George Sanders and Ida Lupino are fantastic (as always).

#599 - Arsenic and Old Lace (44)
A heee-larious screwball comedy with the exasperated Cary Grant playing the straight man (irony?) amongst a bin of loonies.  From the two sweet old elderly aunties who kill men and bury them in the basement to an uncle who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and loudly charges the San Juan Hill of the staircase to Raymond Massey as the evil brother (with henchman Peter Lorre in homoerotic tow) come back to seek revenge on the family that abandoned him to some of the most inept policemen ever put on film.  It may not be up to the level of Hawks or Sturges when it comes to the great pacing of classic screwball, but the film is still fun fun fun.

#600 - Yesterday Girl (66)
Directed by German auteur Alexander Kluge, and starring the director's sister in the title role, Yesterday Girl is a film about a young East German woman who emigrates to West Germany.  Influenced by the French New Wave going on next door, this work of what was called the New German Cinema is quite fascinating in its make-up.  Using experimental techniques (including montage) Kluge imbues his film with a sense of youthful exuberance (just like in fellow European new waves such as the Czechs and the aforementioned French) and subversive politics (again, just like those other new wavers) and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable film - especially considering I had very little knowledge of Kluge and his cinema beforehand.

#601 - The Shanghai Gesture (41)
It's von Sternberg so of course it has that strangely alluring blend of regal elegance and lurid sexuality that the director made his trademark signature.  The film stars the drop dead gorgeous Gene Tierney, who has an equally strangely alluring regal elegance and lurid sexuality.  Toss in Walter Huston, Ona Munson and the snarky, shinola-like grin of Victor Mature and you've got yourself one fine motion picture.

#602 - The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp (43)
God I love this film!!  Seriously, with each and every new film I see of Powell & Pressburger I fall more and more in love with the filmmaking team known affectionately as The Archers.  Blimp, the story of war and the way a friendship between a German and an Englishman evolves through the trials of WWI and WWII and everything around them, is simply (and gushingly) spectacular.  Did I say I love this film?  Well, I do dammit!!!   In the end it is my second favourite P&P film (The Red Shoes will always remain highest in my heart).

#603 - 12 Angry Men (57)
A stark, amazing film.  Brilliantly choreographed, this directorial debut by Sidney Lumet, takes place (save for a final sixty second or so coda) inside the close confines of an overheated jury deliberation room.  It is in this room where twelve actors get to showcase their individual talents - and surprisingly so, all twelve of these actors (top among them being star Henry Fonda, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden and an incredible Lee J. Cobb - what no Oscar!!?) do just that.  I honestly did not think I would like this film as much as I did.  Colour me surprised.

#604 - Stray Dog (49)
An early Kurosawa concerning a police detective who has his gun stolen, and his search for who did it.  An intensely driven film, this is classic early Kurosawa (after Drunken Angel, just the second film to really "be" a Kurosawa film) and stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura five years before they would be two of a certain group of seven samurais.  Though it does seem a bit dry at times, the film is surely driving toward what Kurosawa would eventually become - a Master.

#605 - Yojimbo (61)
As I said above, Stray Dog shows what Kurosawa would eventually become. With Yojimbo, twelve years later, we see just what that is - a Master.  The story of a samurai for hire (and of course starring Kurosawa muse Toshiro Mifune), Yojimbo is what a samurai film should be (and for that matter what a Western should be - and Sergio Leone knew that as he remade it as A Fistful of Dollars just three years later and helped to usher in the Spaghetti Western age) and this striking (and often surprisingly funny) film now stands as my third favourite AK work (after Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood).

#606 - Portrait of Jennie (48)
Directed by one of my favourite under appreciated directors, William Dieterle, this strangely alluring and quite mysterious film is probably one of the least known American films on this list.  I must admit to never having heard of it before finding it on the list (even with my ever-growing adoration of its director).  With that said though, Portrait of Jennie is a fabulous film and well deserves to be on such a list as this.

#607 - Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (63)
An experimental Japanese film in many ways, this new wave era film plays out as if it were indeed a Kabuki play from long long ago.  Fascinating to watch, if only for its unique visual style and oddly out-of-time performances (in ways it seems a cheap imitation of Keisuke Kinoshita though - and no one messes with the under appreciated Kinoshita while I'm around dammit!!), Kon Ichikawa's film is perhaps style over substance in many ways (the story is indeed quite intriguing even though it gets downplayed by the visualness of the film) and perhaps too has more going for its pieces rather than its whole, but is well worth the time to watch.

#608 - Night and Fog (55)
A short and quite succinct pre-New Wave, New Wavish documentary on the Holocaust.  Playing as sort of a truncated companion piece to the epic Shoah screening I talk about above.  Quite jarring actually.  The images Resnais shows in this film are among the most disturbing images I have ever seen - anywhere.  And I suppose that is what the director was going for.

#609 - Early Summer (51)
In my attempt to get caught up as it were with certain directors I have been woefully lacking in knowledge of, this is another in a semi-slew of Ozu films I have been watching lately.  Granted, many of Ozu's films seem to blend in together (similar themes, same actors, same style) but some do stand out more than others and Early Summer is one of those.  Plus, this could easily be the always wonderful and infinitely lovely Setsuko Hara's best performance - even moreso than Ozu's Tokyo Story.

#610 - El Sur (83)
Spanish auteur Victor Erice's moody, antagonistic yet quite sublime film is probably one of the most melancholy films on this list.  The story of a young girl who becomes fascinated with her father's past (in the titular south of Spain), El Sur is beautifully shot and seems very out of time as it was made in the eighties but seems as if it could be of the art cinema uprising of the 1950's and/or 1960's.

#611 - Touki Bouki (73)
I am deeply intrigued by the cinema of West Africa.  Done in an almost cinema verite kind of way (seemingly influenced by the French New Wave - which makes sense since these are former French colonies) these directors are creating an artistic fingerprint that is not often seen in other parts of the world (outside of festivals and/or cinephilia).  Touki Bouki is one of these fascinating works.  It reminds me greatly of Godard and Breathless and I suppose that is a good thing as long as the filmmaker (the wonderfully named Djibril Diop Mambety) keeps his own essence.  He does.

#612 - Maedchen in Uniform (31)
This proto-lesbian story of pedogogical love in a Prussian boarding school made quite the stir in Germany when it came out.  Becoming a quick cult favourite it was eventually banned when the Nazi's came to power.  It is a very very intense story and immediately became one of my favourites I have seen from the list so far this year. For a longer take on the film, read my piece on Maedchen in Uniform I did in conjunction with Garbo Laugh's Queer Film Blogathon. 

#613 - Rocker (72)
An odd and quite uneasy low-budget made-for-television melodrama by Klaus Lemke, one of Germany’s self-proclaimed bad boys of filmmaking, is a social realism take on the rock and roll ethos and anti-authoritarian ideals.  A strange little picture indeed, but just as strangely intriguing to watch.  In fact it is almost mesmerizing in a "watching the windshield wipers" kinda way - and I mean that in the most complimentary way. 

#614 - Blow Out (81)
I was never much of a De Palma fan in my younger days, but as I grow older (and I'm only 44, so let's not get carried away with the older talk) I am beginning to have a certain admiration for the director.  After watching this homage/remake of Antonioni's Blow-Up starring John Travolta and the director's wife Nancy Allen, that admiration has gone from begrudging (which it probably was in the beginning) to all-out auteurial respect.  In fact I would say this is my favourite De Palma film.  Fellow fan Quentin Tarantino calls this one of the ten best films ever made.

#615 - Il Sorpasso (62)
Yet another director I had not seen any film by.  The Italian mondo director Dino Risi is indeed a fun one to watch.  Reminding one of a more hip Fellini, Risi's Il Sorpasso is considered one of the best Commedie all'Italiana ever and a poignant portrait of Italy in the early 60s when the so-called economic miracle was beginning to transform the country from a traditionally family-centered society into an individualistic, consumeristic one.  Another great find amongst the list.

#616 - Seven Chances (25)
As far as Buster Keaton comedies go, out of the eight or so I have seen, this one is probably my least favourite so far.  Though with moments of Keatonesque comedy, it never lives up to things like The General or Sherlock Jr. or The Navigator.  

#617/18 - The Thing (51) and The Thing (82)
A perfect double feature, we get the Christian Nyby directed, Howard Hawks' produced original, actually titled The Thing From Another World, and the John Carpenter remake.  I suppose the inevitable comparison would lead one to choose the remake over the original (wow!  How often does a thing like that happen!?) but both films have their moments.  The original has the typically Hawksian male camaraderie (and though listed as producer we know Hawks had more than a hand in directing this film) while the remake took the story and created a movie about suspicion and paranoia for a modern time (even though the original was done in a much more paranoia-fueled period).  And the remake also has that grossly delightful scene involving a man's head transforming into some sort of space spider thingee.

#619 - Duel (71)
Steven Spielberg's first film (made for TV originally but later extended and released theatrically) is the story of a man being terrorized by a tractor trailer.  With great chase scenes through the desert highways of California (as close as Spielberg would ever get to a Grindhouse mentality), this is still Spielberg when he was young an unabashed - not afraid to let his cinematic freak flag fly.  Over the years the director has grown more cloying and more emotionally manipulative, but back in these days - well the film is just a blast to watch.   

Well there!  I am finally caught up and where I should be in my Quest to Watch the 1000 Greatest Films.  As I said at the beginning of this post, from now on I will be posting updates like this every ten films (620-629 is next of course) with occasional longer pieces on various films from THE LIST.  To keep up to date you can always check out this page over at The Cinematheque.  So until then.......