Friday, March 26, 2010

Gone Fishin'

Spring break has sprung, or will soon enough. Starting Monday the kids are on Spring Break which means the house will be bustling with nervous energy, especially when the teens wake up around two in the afternoon. But seriously, I'll be offline, blogging-wise, most of next week. I'll still be around for comments on blogs, Facebook and Twitter but no update activity here, most likely, until late next week. Besides, I've got at least four CD reviews for Mondo Cult Magazine due in the next two weeks so I should definitely be working on those anyway. If you've got a Spring Break vacation you're taking I hope it's a nice one. Be back with updates late next week. Thanks.

P.S. Here's an old-school Cinema Styles banner for nostalgia's sake. Made it the other day but didn't use it, committed as I am to keeping the look around here clean, crisp and, outside of pics in postings, black and white. This one marks the 398th banner created for Cinema Styles, just two to go to 400. On the 200th I used 1776 (banner bicentenial), for the 300th, you guessed it, 300. But what film should be used for 400? Hmmmm, if only there were a prominent movie in film history with "400" in the title. Oh well, I guess I'll have to improvise. Maybe a good run to the beach will help me think.

CS Spring Morning LC

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Gift of Steve McQueen

I started going to the movies in the seventies and Steve McQueen was one of the first stars I got to know in current releases. When I saw his last film in the theatre, The Hunter, on opening weekend no less, so excited was I to see it, I felt I knew him well. I didn't. Even though I loved movies like The Blob, The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon and, yes, The Hunter, mediocre as it may be, I didn't fully understand Steve McQueen as an actor. I liked him and his movies but never felt he was doing the job I thought others were doing when it came to big screen acting. I certainly didn't think he was bad, I just never gave him much thought as an actor overall. But then, very recently in fact, I watched The Towering Inferno for the first time since childhood. It was a revelation.

Steve McQueen as Fire Chief Michael O'Hallorhan has not one line of dialogue that hints at character depth or development of any kind. Not one. Every single line is technical:

"I need to know the businesses on each floor above the fire."
"If they manufacture polyester, that releases cyanide gas at high temperatures."

And so on. All of his lines are like that. And he's brilliant! And I am being very serious here. Steve McQueen carries that entire film in a walk. He is utterly, completely and absolutely convincing as the fire chief. I did not doubt for a second he was one and if I were in a building on fire and he showed up and started talking like he does in this movie I would do whatever he told me to do. I would trust him implicitly. But more than that, he is compelling and the audience wants to return to him every time he exits the screen.

And that's why Steve McQueen confused me at times as an actor: He was a star but he should've been the guy playing the technical expert in every action film ever made. The roles that McQueen excelled at, like the authority figure here in The Towering Inferno, are few and far between in the world of cinema. Fire chiefs just don't get many starring roles.

In order to explain further I need to make a claim that will seem strange to some but I am betting my fellow actors out there will understand. There is a real talent to being non-expressive in a role. Most people confuse that with being wooden. It's not the same thing. Being wooden is delivering your lines badly and flatly. Being non-expressive is delivering your lines convincingly but without flourish. And the casting in those types of roles usually misses the mark. Burt Lancaster was an actor who "acted" every word of dialogue (and I love him for that, by the way) and I imagine his role as the fire chief would have been as much of a disaster as Steve McQueen playing Elmer Gantry. Each actor had his strength and in the fire chief role, Lancaster's strength would have worked against him. That's because most actors, not just Lancaster, would have instinctively given that fire chief "character" when in real life, in a real fire, all the chief does is give orders. I think it's a high compliment, and a sincere one, to say I can't imagine another actor being smart enough to play the fire chief the way McQueen did. Steve McQueen knew straight-forward, quiet and convincing authority like most people know how to breathe. He used this same style in most of his roles whether it really fit or not. And being non-expressive, but not wooden, means he never came off looking ridiculous in a role because he was trying too hard to nail a moment with the perfect delivery. But it also means he was very misunderstood as an actor and still is.

When I finished watching The Towering Inferno I reassessed Steve McQueen as an actor. We associate great acting with great range but really, expertise in one specific area is quite an achievement. And few actors in movie history could do convincing non-expressive like McQueen. Turns out he was a damn good actor after all, I'd just been looking in the wrong direction the whole time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Opening Credits I Love:
The Astro Zombies

This past weekend while everyone was out of the house going about their weekend duties, activities and errands, the youngest and I sat down with the laptop and took in The Astro Zombies on Netflix Instant. She loved it, especially the opening credits (well, actually, especially the astro zombie running around holding a flashlight to his head but after that, the credits). If you're not familiar with Ted V. Mikels, the writer, producer, director of The Astro Zombies, or his work, you can do no better than reading this wonderful piece penned by Kimberly Lindbergs for my Ed Wood Blogathon last July. In the meantime please enjoy this amazing opening credit sequence which blasts onto the screen without warning after the pre-credit zombie killer sequence. And when I say "blasts" I mean it, audio-wise. It's loud so if you're at work you might want to turn the volume down a tad. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Cinema Styles

And John Ford, who would like to remind you that...

entrances don't get much better than this.

He knew a thing or two about exits as well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Unsupported, Indefensible and
Just. Plain. Rude.

Film writers, critics and bloggers, like myself, spend a lot of time thinking about how a review or essay they've written will be received. I know I've edited and re-edited and re-re-edited a review so as not to come off as too belligerent or condescending, especially when I am aware that my opinion of a given movie runs counter to the general consensus. In those cases I am extra careful to phrase my opinions carefully and do my best to support my opinions with evidence, solid and verifiable, that the reader can examine for him or herself. It can be draining and it is often times much easier to just take an older film, one that everyone likes and give it an excellent write-up. No concerns, no controversy, no disagreements.

But sometimes, the eggshells get harder and harder to walk on and you just want to scream, "Screw it! Here's what I think and I have nothing to back it up. Nothing! But guess what? I'm still going to say it!"

So allow me to present the Cinema Styles Baseless Opinion Dirty Dozen! If you disagree with anything written below, who cares? Really, who cares?! It's baseless! I know that, you know that. Baseless opinion can be a good thing as long as we all acknowledge it is just that, baseless, and don't try and pretend it means anything or has any evidential or factual validity, which is why Jeffrey Wells would never qualify for this little exercise, ever. Let us begin.

1. I think Vivien Leigh did a better job as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire than Jessica Tandy and I've never even seen Jessica Tandy in the role! That's insane! How can I make that judgment? Easy, Leigh had difficult depression issues she had to deal with in real life that I can almost see her bring that to the role when I watch her in the film version. That final scene is heartbreaking the way Leigh plays it and I just can't see Tandy making me feel the same thing. And I can't back that up in any possible way! Fun times! Get ready for more!

2. Hey, speaking of stage to screen roles, know what? I'm glad Audrey Hepburn got cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Ha, ha, that's right, glad! I like her a lot more than Julie Andrews so who cares if they had to dub her singing voice. Go Audrey!

3. Comedy is all relative. What's funny to one person isn't funny to another so who am I to tell you who and what's funny, right? Wrong! Here's the list - memorize it! Groucho Marx, funny. Everybody else, less funny. Sasha Baron Cohen, almost supernaturally unfunny.

4. The best supporting performance in The Godfather, Part II wasn't Robert DeNiro, it was John Cazale, and he wasn't even nominated!

5. I have never really liked Marilyn Monroe in anything. Really. And I find her too caricatured to be sexy, because she is!

6. A while ago me and one other person here expressed the belief that Peter Cushing was the best Sherlock Holmes, better than Basil Rathbone, better than Jeremy Brett, better than all of them. Know what? He is!

7. William Holden - tumbler in one hand, cigarette in the other, Stefani Powers on the couch and a cynical observation rolling off the lips - coolest man ever.

8. Outland is better than High Noon. Seriously, that's baseless and everything, but it's true.

9. Timothy Dalton was the best Bond, Casino Royale doesn't even approach being the best Bond movie ever and all four of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds should be un-movied from existence. They. Never. Happened. Just keep repeating that until it's true.

10. Late Kurosawa is much better than early Kurosawa but early Kurosawa is all anyone ever ranks. This should be corrected. Now!

11. Speaking of which, The Magnificent Seven is better than The Seven Samurai. OOOOOOOH!!!! OH! NO! HE! DIDN'T!!! Oh yes I did.

12. Finally, know what the best selectors of the best movies each year are? The Oscars? The Golden Globes? The National Society of Film Critics? The New York Film Critics? Nope! The Edgar Allen Poe Awards, and they only select in one genre! Seriously, it's not perfect, and there are plenty of stinkers but on the whole I'd rather watch their winners anytime. For your list viewing pleasure, go here.

And that, as they say, is that. We apologize for this interruption in the normal running of Cinema Styles. Back to carefully considered opinions. Sigh.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Foreign Affair
(1948, d. Billy Wilder)

Recently here at Cinema Styles Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair came up in the comment section and having never seen it was excited to find out it was playing at the A.F.I. Silver as a part of the Jean Arthur Retrospective that wraps up this week. My wife and I took advantage the opportunity to see this lesser known Wilder and were more than pleased with the result.

The story takes place in post-war Berlin as a group of United States Senators and Representatives visit the bombed out city to assess the morale of the occupation troops. One of those representatives is Phoebe Frost, played by Jean Arthur, a stalwart Republican from Iowa, clean, prudish and repressed. Obviously, just her read her name again. Upon arriving Frost meets Captain John Pringle, played by John Lund, and quickly makes him her liaison to the seamy side of Berlin so she can blow the roof off of the whole occupation, one she views as being knee deep in black markets and fraternization with ex-Nazi women. And, she's right. Problem is, Captain Pringle is the biggest black market wheeler and dealer out there and happens to be having an affair with a former Nazi seductress, Erika Von Schluetow, played by the magnificent Marlene Dietrich. Trying to keep his illegal activities a secret from Frost while keeping Von Schluetow out of the labor camps becomes the new 24 hour job of Pringle. It's a job made more complicated by his growing feelings for Frost, feelings easier to succumb to when further information is uncovered that Von Schluetow may have fraternized all the way up to Hitler.

Coming into theaters in 1948 this is delicate material to say the least and it's probably true that the only way one could have presented post-war Berlin (much of the movie was actually shot there) so soon after the war was in a romantic comedy so as not to recall too many painful memories for the audiences. It's a tightrope walk at which Wilder succeeds, lightening the mood just when talk of Nazis and Hitler and concentration camps is getting a little too heavy. And what must it have been like for Dietrich doing a scene with actors made up to look like Goebbels and Hitler? Whatever the feelings were during the production, the three leads produce excellent work throughout. Jean Arthur is probably the least of the three only because her character is giving to broader, much broader, strokes while the other two characters are far more grounded in reality. Still, she makes her character strong and sympathetic, not an easy job considering how close to caricature Wilder makes the character.  Fortunately, Arthur has the talent to pull it off.  Nevertheless, had Wilder made her a little less prudish, and a lot less easily bowled over by romance, both the character and the movie would have been much stronger.

John Lund on the other hand is perfectly cast. There was some discussion in the comments here as to whether his casting was a mistake or not and I have to say it was dead-on accurate. Captain John Pringle isn't Clark Gable, Captain John Pringle is an American soldier working the black market and bedding ex-Nazis who likes to think he's Clark Gable. His Gable moustache combined with his average-to-good looks work perfectly in a kind of "big fish in a small pond" way. As far as the bombed out refugees are concerned, especially ex-Nazis like Von Schluetow who needs someone she can use to keep her out of the labor camps, this guy is the best thing going. Back home he'd be just another poser, but here he's a hot property. A Bulova in a display full of Cartier's may not look too impressive but on the counter at the local convenience store next to a row of Timexes, it looks a lot better.

But no matter how good Arthur and Lund are it is Marlene that steals every scene, every frame, hell, the whole movie. Marlene Dietrich is a personal favorite and this movie does nothing to change that. There is an intelligence behind the way Dietrich speaks her lines that always makes me feel like she's the smartest person on the set, even when Orson Welles is hanging around. I'm not saying I think Lund and Arthur were unintelligent people, or anyone else Dietrich worked with, just that Dietrich had something, a knowingness that she couldn't hide. It's on display here in all it's glory and if Billy Wilder ever achieved a moment of perfection in casting, it's here. Von Schluetow needs a mixture of intellect and sexual energy to keep herself out of prison and Dietrich makes you believe that this ex-Nazi could successfully convince an officer in the United States Army to manipulate her files and cover up the truth.

A Foreign Affair is not a well known Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett collaboration and is not available on DVD but it should be better known than it is. It portrays a post-war occupation army in Berlin probably much closer to reality than any serious drama of the time would have done. Showing soldiers taking advantage of desperate locals on the black market, consorting with ex-Nazis and breaking curfew to engage in illicit activities around the clock would most likely have caused an outrage had it been presented in a dramatic, expose kind of a way. But as a comedy, it seems acceptable. And quite enjoyable.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Never Mind the Bollocks,
Here's the Bullock.

Live-blogging is dead. Long live Facebooking the Oscars. Or at least according to me and Bill and Ryan. The three of us Facebooked the Oscars rather than live-blogging them and it was quite enjoyable. We were joined by Pax and Rory and Deidre and Neil and many others and this morning I awoke to 42 notifications from late commenters on each of our many updates. However, don't think this means I'll be reviewing the show because that's what the Facebook updates were all about. We updated throughout, and we're all quite pleased that The Hurt Locker, despite it being none of our first choices for Best Picture, won out over the box office juggernaut Avatar (one of the few cases ever where I can use the term "box office juggernaut" and feel that cliche is completely justified) in both the Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow) and Best Picture categories. But I didn't post anything on that. My last update was about Sandra Bulluck in which I, not so delicately, said I liked her despite her sorry rep around the movie blogosphere. I stand by that (and thank all those who agreed).

I haven't seen The Blind Side and don't know if she deserved Best Actress any more than 90 percent of all Oscar winners have ever "deserved" their Oscars. I just know she is a talented actress who has been in a veritable treasure trove of awful movies and it's all those bad movies that helps sink her reputation. I won't judge an actor for taking the movies that come along to keep her career going especially if that eventually leads to a moment where said actor is accepting an Oscar. Besides, she made Love Potion #9 work, and that's one of the silliest movies ever made. You know what else she made work? Speed. If you've just got Keanu Reeves and his deadpan, no, scratch that, corpse-like delivery, that movie is sunk. Bullock made it work much better than it should have. No, she couldn't save Speed 2 but that's like criticizing an ant for not being able to stop the flow of Mount Vesuvius. Jesus Christ could have stayed on the cross for three years and not saved Speed 2. Humanity, yes, Speed 2, no.

So maybe the problem, or criticism, of Bullock is that people think it says something about someone so willing to appear in so many bad films. Something about her taste or judgment. Well, how many of our favorite character actors from the past have appeared in their fair share of stinkers? We remember the great ones and forget the countless duds. Fact is, I admire someone for accepting what roles come along in an effort to keep working because too many actors find themselves atop a shining hill in which only those roles "suitable to their grand talents" will be entertained. Michael Caine taught the post-studio controlled movie world that a real actor takes what comes along and doesn't complain. And Bullock does too. And bully to that!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oscar Time, Again

And so we are once again at Oscar time. On Sunday, March 7th the awards are handed out. Expect Kathryn Bigelow to win Best Director for the excellent The Hurt Locker and Avatar to win Best Picture. Avatar should win Best Picture because it has the momentum, and has had it for months. Makes no nevermind to me since I'm no fan of that film anyway and will probably nod off somewhere around the fourth musical performance of the night. Still, my indifference to each year's specific Oscars never seems to diminish a misplaced affection I have for the award in general, for reasons I cannot entirely put into words, but will try anyway.

I still credit the Oscars in many ways for pushing my early cinephilia along. You see, I was one of those kids that read encyclopedias religiously. The "Motion Picture" section was my favorite and I read through it again and again and again. At the end of the section was the Oscars listing, going all the way up to the publication date of the encyclopedias, 1968. Yes, 1968. Anyway, I used the Oscars as my first ever guide as to what movies to see. Since there were no video stores, cable tv, Netflix, Amazon or i-tunes it meant I had to get lucky and have one of them air on PBS or network late-night tv but nevertheless, it provided me with a basic list of movies to see.

It didn't take long once I started seeing movies from around the world, movies listed on the Sight and Sound poll and movies from directors with whole books devoted to them to discover that the Academy didn't hold the art of cinema to a very high standard. So many of the movies honored over the years haven't been the Best Picture, haven't had the Best Performances, haven't had the Best Screenplays or haven't had the Best Cinematography that it became a kind of pastime to poke fun at some of the Oscar picks while still, somehow, holding them in a certain esteem. I think it was Pauline Kael who once remarked that the Oscars are extraordinary in that one can use them interchangeably as examples of either the highest standard or the lowest standard of cinema and people will understand the difference. In other words, someone can dismiss a performance by saying its the kind of performance that wins Oscars, meaning sentimental, overdone and filled to the brim with noble posturing. In the next breath someone can extol the virtues of a great performance by declaring it to be "Oscar worthy!" We all understand "the kind of performance that wins Oscars" means "not very good" while an "Oscar worthy performance" means "excellent." We all know what the Academy members do award, but we also know what they should award and therein lies the difference.

Still, with each passing year I find myself mellowing to Oscar's past transgressions as the thought of anything important being associated with them becomes more and more humorous. There was a time when Cimarron or The Greatest Show on Earth or The Sound of Music winning Best Picture would have really bugged me but now, despite not thinking highly of any of them, I actually get nostalgic to see them again. So they won Best Picture, who cares? Are Morocco and The Front Page from 1931, Singin' in the Rain from 1952 or Repulsion from 1965, all from the respective years of those three winners, forgotten now because they didn't get the Oscar? No, of course not. And you know what? How Green Was My Valley is a damn fine movie! I like Chariots of Fire too. And The Sting won Best Picture in the year when Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, The Long Goodbye and Spirit of the Beehive were all eligible but I don't begrudge it that. Quite frankly, if many of these lesser films hadn't won Best Picture I might never have seen them and many of them are a lot of fun even if they're not the most shining examples of the cinematic art form.

So this Sunday watch the Oscars or ignore them completely but whether you're a casual movie fan or a true dyed-in-the-wool cinephile try not to get too upset at the outcome. While the ideal of the award may still be the highest achievement in the art of cinema we all know the real award doesn't mean a thing. And if a movie's greatness, like that of a Citizen Kane or a La R├Ęgle du Jeu, can sustain it in perpetuity without any Oscars for Best Picture, why not let the lesser works go ahead and win it. In many cases, it's the only chance they have of being remembered at all.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Land Before CGI
Hell's Angels

About a year ago I wrote up Hell's Angels here on Cinema Styles and remarked how terrific the action scenes were. That was before I was doing the series In the Land Before CGI and now that I am I'd like to include it. At the time I concentrated only on the Zeppelin sequence but I'd like to expand it here to three action sequences, all masterfully directed by Howard Hughes and cinematographer Elmer Dyer (the dialogue scenes in the film were directed by the uncredited James Whale).

The incredible thing about the action scenes in Hell's Angels is that they utilize full-scale action so much of the time. Miniatures are used as well but even then they're built up so large they're practically half-scale of the objects they're meant to represent. The action sequences in the film are each a good 15 to 20 minutes long so I've truncated them and broken them into three segments for your viewing pleasure.

The first is the munitions depot bombing. In this sequence Hughes uses miniatures interspersed with full-scale. The explosions are no firecrackers either with several being actual dynamite blasts taken from an aerial viewpoint. As our heroes in a stolen German bomber set out to bomb the German munitions depot they find that their bombs set off a chain reaction which quickly eliminates the entire depot. I like the small touch at the end where the two look at each and shrug as if to say, "Damn, that was pretty cool."

The second is the dogfight that occurs shortly after the depot raid. If you've seen The Aviator you will recall Hughes setting up the dogfight sequence near the beginning of the film. Those scenes were not exaggerated as the dogfight scene uses no miniatures and, most importantly, no optical effects. The pilots in the planes are actually in the air in the planes! Even at the end of the sequence, when one of the planes we've been following crashes down it is tempting to think that is a miniature as well but in fact was an actual plane nose-dived into the ground. Check out the soldiers dispersing in the background.

The third and final sequence is the showstopper Zeppelin fight that occurs in the film just before intermission. I recommend watching the entire film to see the whole incredible scene that builds tension for a good twenty minutes before we arrive at the highlighted section here. In this part, the Zeppelin, which has shot down every plane trying to bring it down, is attacked by the final pilot who, out of bullets, flies his plane into the Zeppelin, sending it to a spectacular fiery end.