Monday, January 28, 2013

Weekly Film Roundup #4: Bollywood, Bubbles and Charlie

Ten Minutes To Live (1932)

Oscar Micheaux was the first significant African-American film director with a long career that stretched from 1919 into the late Forties.  The first film of his I ever saw was one of his late ones. With its clunky acting and cheap sets, it made me write him off as just another bad filmmaker.  After seeing more of his work, especially his silent films I now know better.

In the silent era, without microphones and other sound equipment to worry about, Micheaux was able to do striking camera compositions that gave a sense of space. The best example I've seen of this is Within Our Gates, a 1919 social problem drama that rally uses outside locations well and, by the way, also contains the most frightening depiction of a lynching I've ever seen.  If his later films look cramped and cheap it's partially because the low budgets he had to work with  didn't allow for the kind of sound equipment that would allow outdoor shooting.

Ten Minutes To Live shows the difference between the two looks. Though it was released as late  as 1932, it's still a part-talkie, part-silent movie.  There are actually two parts, both conventional melodramas and set in the same Harlem nightclub.  The first part is all-talking and concerns a conman who seduces young women with the promise of a movie role but is shot by one of his victims.  The second part is the more interesting. It's about a young woman at the club who gets a note telling her she has ten minues left to live. After this, the movie goes into a silent flashback section showing how she got to this point and that's where you see some of Micheaux's eye. Scenes go through a train, Grand Central Station, New York streets, a residential neighborhood and a rooming house, and even though the film itself looks worn and dark, you get a feeling of tension and drama that is not in the talkie parts. Since this is an early talkie there are also a few early 30's specialties to stretch things out, like singers, comedians, scantily-clad dancers and a couple of actresses lounging around in their lingerie.  It's standard Poverty Row work but there is some glimmer of real artistry here.

Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, Volume 2

Essanay Studios was the second stop in Charlie Chaplin's rise to movie fame, after beginning with Mack Sennett at Keystone and before moving on to Mutual to do his most-seen shorts.  The six shorts on this disc show that Essanay was a period of transition for him.  Three of them,  By The Sea, Work and A Woman are standard slapstick farces of the time but two others, The Tramp and The Bank, show the beginnings of his more serious side as in both films, his downtrodden character foils robbers and thinks he gets the girl only to find out at the end she's in love with someone else, leaving Charlie to shuffle alone into the distance.  A Woman is also notable as the only time I've seen so far where Chaplin indulges in the time-honored low comic tradition of dressing up as a woman.

 The sixth short on the disc, His Regeneration, is a "for completists only" inclusion because it isn't really a Chaplin film. It actually stars Essanay's owner, G.W. "Bronco Billy" Anderson, as a thief who turns over a new leaf. Chaplin only appears as a cameo in a dance hall scene, cutting up in his Little Tramp outfit.

Kaajal (1965)

I've only seen a couple of Bollywood films but those have lived up to the standard image of the genre, three hour melodramas with singing, dancing, comedy and lavish sets and costumes.  This one fits the picture as well.  It's about an Indian prince, his family and the people he's grown up with as his virtual siblings.  The plot has enough layers and twists in three hours to last an entire season of Downton Abbey. I won't attempt to describe it all but it includes jealousies, two attempted suicides, one drowning, alcoholism, role reversals, a love affair between two servants and of course delirious song and dance numbers.  Meena Kumari, a big star in Indian film, plays the put upon heroine with the virtuous suffering of a Loretta Young or Greer Garson and the film is entertaining for what it is. Personally though I can take one of these heavy breathing Indian concoctions every few months.

Robot Monster (1953)

For a while I watched this thinking it didn't really deserve its reputation as one of the worst movies of all time. Yes, there's no getting around the fact that its space alien, Ro-Man, is a man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet over his head or that his great population-destroying device is a giant bubble machine. On the other hand there are competent actors in the cast and the opening scene clearly establishes the whole thing as a little boy's dream.  Then the movie went on and Ro-Man started to spout off about wanting to be human and the Earth got invaded by fighting lizards (courtesy of the movie King Dinosaur)  and stop-motion dinosaurs (courtesy of The Lost World) and I thought "God, this is bad." At least it's entertainingly silly and, best of all, short.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Weekly Movie Update #3: The Haneke-Sondheim-Kaye Edition

Amour (2012)

It amazes me that Amour got as many major Oscar nominations as it did. It's not that the honors aren't warranted. The film is incredible and deserves every accolade it gets. It's just that a foreign film about old age and death is not the sort of thing Hollywood usually endorses.

The plot is very simple. Georges and Anna, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are an elderly couple, retired music teachers, living happily in Paris.  One morning Anna has a stroke, paralyzing her right side. The rest of the film charts her slow decline while Georges does all he can to care for her. This film will probably resonate with every person who has ever been involved in taking care of a aging loved one who is slowly wastin away. Watching Anna go from being confined to a wheelchair but alert to having small seizures contort her face and finally in the state of being bedridden and deliriously talking about her childhood, brought up unpleasant memories for me of watching my mother go through similar things when she was slowly succumbing by cancer.

Director Michael Haneke is notorious for films that spotlight the darkest sides of human nature like Cache, Funny Games, and The Piano Teacher.  This time he still deals with an unplesant subject but the emphasis is on true love and devotion, not casual sadism or suicide. Georges uncomplainingly tends to all of Anna's needs whether feeding her, cleaning up after her or exercising her legs.  Eeverything he does he does out of love.Not to be greedy about this award thing but Trintignant deserved as much Oscar consideration as Riva.  His character's tenderness and underlying sorrow are as crucial to the film as Riva's playing of a woman helplessly losing her strength and vitality.  Isabelle Huppert, one of Haneke's favorite collaborators, plays their daughter with a note of bewildered anger and sorrow that is again resonates for those of us who've been there. Haneke's handling of all this is sympathetic but not maudlin and the last couple of scenes end the movie on a note of dreamlike grace. This is a work of remarkable sensitivity and compassion from a director who's shown little of it in the past.

Follies In Concert (1985)

Netflix's synopses of its DVDs can be inaccurate sometimes but in this case, it was downright misleading.  The summary of this disc made it sound like this was a straightforward film of the 1985 concert version of Stephen Sondheim's musical drama, Follies.  Instead this was a documentary whose first half covered the three days of rehearsal leading up to the show and whose second half consisted of excerpts from the actual concert.  A lot of the big numbers were included in rousing versions such as Elaine Stritch belting out "Broadway Baby", Carol Burnett doing "I'm Still Here" Lee Remick vamping through "The Story Of Lucy And Jesse" and Barbara Cook singing "Losing My Mind" but half of the show was nowhere to be found. Still there was enough here to rekindle my appreciation of Sondheim.  After watching this I added Into The Woods, Passion and Sunday In The Park With George to my DVD queue and the next day bought the CD of the full concert.

Danny Kaye 100th Birthday Salute

Yesterday Turner Classic Movies spent the entire day showing Danny Kaye movies in honor of his 100th birthday celebration. (During the broadcast his daughter, Dena, confided that he was actually born in 1911, making this his 102th birthday but since he always said he was born in 1913 they're going along with that.) I was going to do other things yesterday but the thought of watching Kaye for the first time in dog's years sucked me in and I checked out three of the movies.

The Kid From Brooklyn (1946) and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947) both came from the early part of his film career when he was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn.  Both were big, splashy comedies full of physical shtick, pretty chorus girls and garish Technicolor that showed Goldwyn positioning Kaye as the successor to Eddie Cantor who made musical comedies for the studio in the Thirties. Kid From Brooklyn is actually a remake of an earlier Harold Lloyd comedy, The Milky Way, about a milkman who is deluded into think that he's a champion boxer while Walter Mitty starts with the basic James Thurber story about an inveterate daydreamer and tacks on a wild spy plot.  Kaye is very good in these showing off his physical agility and verbal skills, but really any skilled comedian of the period could have done most of this stuff.  The parts where he really shined for me were the language twisting musical numbers written by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, "Pavlova" in Kid and "Symphony For Unstrung Tongue" and "Anatole Of Paris" in Mitty. These are the sort of numbers that no one but Danny Kaye could pull off.

The other Kaye movie I caught was The Inspector General (1949), a post-Goldwyn movie of a more satiric bent. This was based on the Nikolai Gogol story with Kaye playing a vagabond who is mistaken for one of Napoleon's inspector generals by a village's corrupt politicians and plied with bribes and favors. This is a richer movie than the other two with Kaye getting some moments of poignancy as well as craziness, some wonderful physical comic sequences including an extended exercising routine and an overall feel of well-staged comic opera.  There's a fine supporting cast featuring the likes of Walter Slezak, Elsa Lanchester and Gene Lockhart and another excellent Fine-Kaye showcase in the "Gypsy Drinking Song" number.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Weekly Film Roundup #2

Rust And Bone (2012)

It's yet another romantic film about misfits finding each other but this is a very different beast than the two movies I've talked about in previous posts.  This French drama concerns the relationship between a whale trainer who loses her legs in an accident and a brutish but naively direct man who does underground fighting.  From the trailer you get the idea that this is going to be a story about a simple guy who helps a bitter, disabled woman adjust back into society. It;s that way for about ten minutes  but the movie eventually goes to different places.  The relationship between the two develops from friendship to sex into romance and finally love and this is mostly displayed through subtle gestures from the two great leads, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Cotillard is especially wonderful at displaying her changing emotions with her facial and body expressions. You really get a sense of her character's slowly returning confidence and Schoenaerts is great at evoking the mix of violence and innocence in his charatcer.  Director Jacques Audiard does this without ever resorting to the kind of snappish dialogue and big histrionic scenes an American version of this story would probably use. It unfolds with poetic visuals, even in the slow motion scenes of alley fighting and a magical scene where Cotillard returns to the water park where she had her accidents and rebonds with one of the whales she used to train.

The special effects are also standouts, able to create a complete illusion that Cotillard's legs are really amputated at the knees. You see stumps or artificial legs from every angle, even to the point where she is crawling around legless on the floor like Lon Chaney Sr. in one of his "legless cripple" roles.

Some Came Running (1958)

This is one of those films that is widely regarded as a classic but which isn't discussed very much and I can see why. It is a great film but one that is pretty downbeat especially for its time.

It's certainly a different role for Frank Sinatra who plays a disillusioned author and ex-soldier who comes back to his home town and is repulsed by its phony, repressive atmospehte especially as personified by his glad-handing brother played by Arthur Kennedy.  The only bright spots in the place for him are a schoolteacher (Martha Hyer) who he falls in love with and two people from the so-called "wrong side of town", a gambler (Dean Martin) and a bar girl (Shirley MacLaine).

There's no Sinatra swagger in this. He is subdued and does a lot of subtle conveyance of his emotions. Martin's character is complex. The actor's easy-going, hard-living persona acquires a mean edge here. MacLaine whose character carries an unrequited torch for Sinatra, is heartbreaking. Hers is one of the classic "Should Have Won An Oscar" performances.  The real magic is put into this film, though, by director Vincente Minnelli. Usually given to lighter, more optismic fare, he dials down his visual flamboyance until the movie's amazing carnival-set climatic sequence which he fills with quick cuts, garish colors and panoramic camera sweeps.

Cartoon Craze, Vol. 18

I've had a long-standing jones for animated cartoons ever since I was a kid. I enjoy modern work but I also love watching classic studio work with an adult eye, even on grab bag DVD collections like this. 

As usual for these discs, this was a collection of random public domain cartoons from various sources like the Paul Terry studios, Famous Studios, and Warner Brothers.  Some of the prints were washed out and choppy but there were points of interest.  "The Talking Magpies" was the first Heckle and Jeckle cartoon ever made. It's actually a Farmer Al Falfa item where he is menaced by prototypes of the birds, here husband and wife.(!)  The single Warner Brothers item is Friz Freleng's "Jungle Jitters" one of Warners' infamous "Censored 11", cartoons pulled from official circulation because of their racial stereotyping.  This one has a salesman trying to hawk his wares in Africa and winding up on the dinner menu of a tribe of cannibals. Like most of the others on that list I've seen, it really isn't that great a cartoon and the stereotyping is really no worse than in most films of the period. 

The most interesting cartoon here was "Cheese Burglar", a Famous Studios piece starring Herman the Mouse before he was teamed up with Katnip.  It had a pretty nasty plot of Herman scheming to get a buddied-up dog and cat to kill each other so that he can have free hand with the food in their house. The best part of the show is that most of it features the distinctive and exaggerated animation of Jim Tyer.

 In The Valley Of Elah (2007)

Films that have been made about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have a reputation for being box office flops because of their very heavy and downbeat nature although Zero Dark Thirty looks to break away from that cliche.  That applies to this film but it's a shame few people know about it because it is pretty good.  Tommy Lee Jones plays a father who learns his son is missing after coming home from Iraq and goes to his Army base to find out what happened. His son turns up dead and the mystery behind it turns out, of course,to be a very bleak story.  Paul Haggis directs this with a somewhat heavy hand but there is a sad reality to the plot and the acting is uniformly fine.  Tommy Lee Jones is as magnificent as ever, going from flinty and determined to devastated and humble with excellent timing, and Charlize Theron is very good as the determined cop who becomes his ally. There is also nice support from the rest of the cast including James Franco, Susan Sarandon and Barry Corbin.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Weekly Film Roundup #1

I Like Your Nerve (1931)

I said before that I don't rely on Turner Classics Movies a lot. I didn't say I never watched the channel.  That happens to be where I saw this. It was shown as part of their month-long Loretta Young showcase. It's an early 30's trifle with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. starring as a typically cocky young American who wanders around in South America until he meets and is smitten by Young, the daughter of a shady finance minister who is about to be married off to a much older English nobleman. You can guess what happens.  It seems to be a try at putting Fairbanks fils in the same kind of breezy comedy his father made in his early career but without the acrobatics the older Fairbanks was famous for. The most striking things about it now are Young's great beauty (She was 18 when this was made.) and the presence of Boris Karloff in a small part as a palace secretary in the same year when the Frankenstein monster would take him away from bit parts for good.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

You see one quirky comedy about a guy who finds his true love while trying to get back with his old girlfriend and suddenly more show up.  This film has that plot point in common with Silver Linings Playbook but everything else is different.  To begin with it starts when the main character, despondent over breaking up with his girlfriend, commits suicide. Then he ends up in a dilapidated urban limbo populated only by suicides. He finds out that his girlfriend did herself in a few weeks after he did and goes searching for her. Along the way he meets a cute punker chick who keeps saying she's not a suicide and is there by mistake. You can figure out what happens from there.

It's nowhere as charming as Playbook but the film does have a nice consistency to its concept with everyone riding around in junky, rusted out cars and travelling over desolate settings like deserts and a beach full of used needles and condoms.  Cleverly the soundtrack is full of songs either associated with suicide in some way like "Gloomy Sunday", "Telstar" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart".  There's also the welcome presence of Tom Waits as a camp leader.

Battles Without Honor And Humanity: Deadly Fight In Hiroshima (1973)

This is the second film in a Japanese series by genre director Kinju Fukasaku about the bloody rivalries between Yakuza gangs in post-World War II Japan.  The films overall detail the rise of an ex-soldier played by Bunta Sugawara through the mob ranks but he's only a peripheral character in this story. The focus here is on another hood who bounces between two rival gangs until he falls in love with one boss' widowed niece which leads to all sorts of bloodshed breaking out.

Sugawara has a tough, Robert Ryan-like presence and it's a shame he's seen so little in this particular episode.  The actual lead, Kinya Kitaoji, is okay but nothing special. On the other hand martial arts star Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba is a hoot as a crazed, trigger-happy gang boss.

The Story Of A Cheat (1936)

Thanks to Criterion's Eclipse series some of the films of French writer-actor-director Sacha Guitry are available for viewing and this one is really entertaining. It's the whimsical tale of a man who spends his life being tempted to do wrong in various ways and resisting before finally giving in and becoming a successful card cheat.  It's a lighthearted comedy pulled off with grand flourishes like being narration from the main character and the use of newsreel footage and camera tricks in ways that prefigure the Nouvelle Vague gang twenty years later.  Guitry also has the novel notion of introducting the cast at the beginning verbally as they stand around a soundstage, a bit that Orson Welles would do five years later in the trailer for Citizen Kane.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


This is the time of year when many people take stock of themselves and make resolutions about what they want to do over the coming year.  I don't want to commit to anything really specific in print but I have taken some stock of myself the last few days.  I have to face the fact that I'm not getting any younger. I'll turn 58 in two and a half months and I had a potentially life-saving operation last October.  It's time I started really doing some of the things I want to do in life.  I'm pretty certain what that means and hopefully I'll be taking more decisive steps in that direction.

As for this blog I want to be more consistent in updating it than I have been.  I've really fallen off when ir comes to discussing the many movies I see.  I think I get intimidated because I don't follow the viewing patterns of other movie bloggers I read.  I don't simply concentrate on the new stuff that hits theatres or what Turner Classic Movies is showing.  Most of my watching comes from what I get from Netflix and ClassicFlix which covers a wide range of material. I'll be getting the recent documentary The Woodmans in the mail today and the next few things in my Netflix queue include some Charlie Chaplin shorts, classic TV dramas, an Indian film and two very different types of concert movies. It's finally dawning on me that wide range is what might make my opinions valuable to someone. If nothing else I want to spend 2013 keeping a running diary here of the movies I have watched though I'll also be writing my thoughts on music and other things as they come to mind.

I haven't actually seen a feature film yet this year but I'll start with a couple of things by two of my favorite comics I've seen over the last of couple days:

Man On The Flying Trapeze (1935)

"There are burglars singing in the cellar."

That line alone suggests the best of this W. C. Fields comedy.  It's one of the films he did for Paramount that cast him in a domestic setting as a henpecked husband with a nagging wife, a loving older daughter, relatives  who make his life miserable and a plot where he looks foolish for a while but emerges in triumph by the end. It's the same formula he used earlier in It's A Gift and You're Telling Me and would later lampoon brilliantly in The Bank Dick. This film is not as funny as the rest of those.  His final victory, being promoted at his job, is on a smaller scale and, unlike the others, this film does not make room for any of his classic vaudeville routines.  Still the entire sequence where he comes upon the aforementioned singing burglars, played by Walter Brennan and Tammany Young, and ends up singing and drinking his own homebrew with them is as memorable as anyting else in his movie career.

Buster leaps in. From Grand Slam Opera.
 Lost Keaton - Disc 2 (1936-37)

This is part of a Kino set of a very obscure period of Buster Keaton's career, a series of 16 short comedies he made for Educational Pictures in the mid-30's.  I've actually only watched four of the eight comedies on the disc so far. Most of them aren't that great, cheap and goofy with little plot and the only fun coming from Buster's physical gags.  The exception to this is Grand Slam Opera, a film for which Keaton is credited as co-writer.  Its plot, such as it is, has Buster going from Arizona to New York to appear on a radio talent show to compete as a juggler. (Think about that for a minute.)  This two-reeler is hilarious. Buster has almost no dialogue, except to repeatedly ask an irritated young lady "How about dinner and a show?", and does two amazing dance sequneces, one where he is dancing enthusiastically all over his apartment furniture. There's also a but where he and an orchestra conductor repeatedly whack each other to the rhythm of the "Anvil Chorus", something reminiscent of his mentor, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  It certainly isn't Cops or Sherlock Jr. but it's much funnier than you would expect from this low point of Keaton's life.