Friday, December 31, 2010

Cinema Styles Year End Extravaganza!

It's the end of another year and you know what that means for Cinema Styles, right? Yep, pretty much, nothing. No top ten list (I never see enough new movies to make a top ten list comprehensive enough), no recap of the movie year, no cinematic resolutions for the next. Pretty much just a big ole helpin' of nuttin'! And every year I secretly tell myself (although now the secret will be out), "Next year, I'm going to see lots of new movies and do all the year end stuff all those other movie writers and critics do." And then? Yep, you guessed it! Nothing.

So it's time I stopped fooling myself. I'm not going to see a bunch of new movies this year because I tend to want to see the older ones first. Oh, don't get me wrong, I see plenty of new movies, I just don't see them when they come out. After about, say, three years have passed, I've pretty much seen all the big or important or highly praised movies of any given year. I just don't see them soon enough to write about them in the here and now. When they kind of take over the landscape, like an Avatar or Inglourious Basterds, I usually rush out to see them to take part in the conversation but, for the most part, I much prefer my steady diet of classic and foreign films taken in at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland.

One thing that has happened in the last month has been my long-awaited return to regular posting (long-awaited by me, that is; I doubt anyone else was waiting.). After being laid off of work for a year I got a job at an art supply store that turned out to be exhausting and demoralizing and slightly less income than the unemployment was paying but it was a job and I needed to be employed again so I took it. It didn't matter if it paid a little less than unemployment because I knew as long as I worked hard I'd have a steady paycheck and not be left to the whims of congressional political ping-pong.

The real problem was that I had no computer access at work and when I got home I was too tired to write. Before that I was too depressed and anxious being unemployed to do anything either. The constant spectre of the money supply drying up with a house and four kids turned knots in my stomach almost daily. Then, finally, something positive happened. I got a call from the National Archives, with whom I had previously interviewed for another position I didn't get. They had an opening that fit my experience perfectly, asked for an interview the next day and the day after that called me and told me I was hired. The person I was replacing was leaving in less than two weeks so I had to train on my days off from my other job. True, I could have just vacated the art supply store job but that's simply not who I am. I gave them the proper two weeks notice and trained at the National Archives in my off-time. When I took over full time, the person I was replacing was gone and I had all of four days training under my belt. Through the autumn I see-sawed between happy and incredibly anxious. Happy that I had the job, and a very good one at that, anxious that I didn't know what the hell I was doing for a good two months. So, again, my posts slowed.

Finally, sometime around Thanksgiving I got my footing and ever since, posting has been back to normal around here. This month alone saw almost as many posts as I did for the entire summer (16 for June, July and August combined, 15 for December) and it feels good to be back on track after a year and a half of wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what I was doing.

Still, I've got a lot to do at work and a lot I want to do at home so I have to evaluate how much I can do online and when. Right now I'm running Cinema Styles and Unexplained Cinema while posting for the culture blog If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger , conversing with a group of horror dads over at TCM and writing music reviews for Mondo Cult Magazine. I've put Unexplained Cinema on hold for now, awaiting inspiration for another sea change to occur. I got quite a boost earlier in the year when The Lincoln Center and its magazine, Film Comment, listed Unexplained Cinema as among the top film sites on the internet and mentioned Cinema Styles at the top of the piece as well. But I can't keep doing something if I'm not inspired by it and right now it's just not happening. I'll figure out something there, eventually.

Posting for Charlie Parker is always fun but something I don't have as much time for anymore. I used to browse photo archives every day but in the last year that's fallen by the wayside so my posting there has suffered as well. I don't know when, or if, I'll have the same amount of time again to devote to browsing photo archives endlessly so I'm probably safe just doing a pic or two a day there. Fortunately, it's a group effort led by the hardest working man online, Tom Sutpen, so I don't ever feel pressured to do more than comes naturally.

When Richard Harland Smith of the Movie Morlocks at TCM asked me to take part in a series of conversations about horror movies among fathers raising their kids on that very genre, I was a little reluctant at first, thinking this might tip the scales for doing too much online. My fears were unfounded as RHS has made it as malleable as possible, bending and contorting discussion times to fit everyone's schedule and I look forward to the next installment.

Mondo Cult Magazine is a breeze because Paul Gaita, one of the editors, sends out e-mails asking who wants to review what, giving a choice of CDs received by the studios pushing them and then sends them to whoever wants to review them. As a result, I never have to review anything for them I don't want to which is pretty damn convenient. My only problem is deadlines of which I'm notoriously late at meeting.

That leaves Cinema Styles and like I said up top, it's back to regular posting here. About a year ago I whittled all the special features here down to Opening Credits I Love, In the Land Before CGI and, now, The Short List, a collection of favorite supporting performances. Paring everything down has made the last year of anxiety much easier to manage and I've also decided to start reviewing music here as well, although unlike my reviews for Mondo Cult, they will be from my own collection. The first one was Oscar Peterson's Motions and Emotions and I look forward to doing many more.

And that's that. Thanks to everyone for sticking around through the lean months and a Happy New Year to all! See you in the 2011!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

That C.B. Style

So, I was under the impression that the whole riding boots, jodhpurs, cap/beret, look was DeMille's. I was aided in this assumption by lines from DeMille bios stating things like, "In his trademark leather puttees and jodhpurs..." But now, looking at this picture, it seems that either 1)everyone who worked on a movie set wore this combo, this kind of movie-making uniform, if you will, 2)DeMille liked it so much he demanded anyone who worked with him wear the same thing, which seems unlikely because then he wouldn't stand out or 3) everyone just wanted to be like C.B.

Of course, other photos of other directors...

...lend support to the beret/cap being, at the very least, a part of some required director's uniform. But did it come from DeMille or just that everyone on a movie set in the twenties wore them and he was the only one remembered for it? Were you given a dress code violation for not wearing one, or for wearing a baseball cap or fedora instead? And, finally, did the studios provide them or did you have to buy your own?

So many questions, so few answers. All I know is, when I become a big time director, I'm bringing back the Fellini/Frankenheimer look. The beret thing's been so done, you know? Besides, all these years later and still no one does it better than DeMille.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal

The 1985 documentary, Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, provides an overview of the career of the famed animator, producer, director, writer and stop-motion pioneer as simply as it possibly can: It shows archival interviews with Pal, brief snippets of praise from both peers and acolytes and loads of scenes from his movies. In other words, it goals are modest, it's subject straightforward and it has no concerns with breaking new ground in documentary film making. Simply put, it's object is to show a lot of clips while giving the viewer the understanding that much of fantasy and science fiction of the sixties onward was heavily influenced by Mr. Pal. This isn't a documentary for fans of Ken Burns or Errol Morris. Fans of Barbara Kopple, don't bother. This documentary isn't about finding profound meanings hidden in the nooks or exploring the central core of Pal's being. It's about how cool the movies were that he made and how much they changed the landscape of fantasy/science fiction.

The point is made early, as in right in the opening scene, which isn't from a Pal movie at all, but Gremlins. This is followed by shots of E.T.,the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters and the message is immediately clear: Pal paved the way for the fantasy/sci-fi of today. But in watching the documentary one also gets the impression that his legacy may also be that a kind, gentle and generous person can actually succeed in Hollywood.

It's expected in a documentary of this sort that no one interviewed will have anything bad to say ("I hated that bastard!") but the sheer volume of praise from the wide variety of actors (Russ Tamblyn, Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis, Rod Taylor, Janet Leigh, etc) and the sincerity with which they give it makes one feel an immediate affection for Pal. All of them talk about the confidence he had in them, the exuberance, the sheer unswerving optimism, all from a man who fled Nazi Germany (unlike Veit Harlan) and then, seven years later, had to flee again (he had fled to Holland then left for the United States just before Germany invaded). He saw how bad the world could get but always knew it could be better.

And hard working? They don't make 'em as hard working as George Pal anymore. He built his career around the success of his stop-motion animation, later to become his famous Puppetoons, only it wasn't claymation, it was replacement animation! That means every time a character changed expression, or walked, or waved their hand or freaking blinked(!), a new puppet figure had to be inserted. His charts and storyboards for this were so detailed it made the operation schematics for the construction of the atomic bomb look like a recipe for boiling water. This fascination with detail and the nuts and bolts of things is what contributed to his greatest successes in live action when the time came.

Ray Bradbury comments, correctly, that Destination Moon was the first sci-fi film all about the science. It's all about how the rocket works and the journey there that matters, not actually being on the moon. And it was Pal's interest in solving problems that led him to provide efficient ways to communicate the science to the audience, like having the scientists show a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to potential investors to explain how the process of getting to the moon works. This technique was used again years later by Steven Spielberg in Jurassic Park when John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) shows everyone a cartoon to explain how the dinosaurs have been created.

It's true, his movies are not masterpieces. The acting and writing seem unrefined at times and the budgets ran on the low side but, as stated again by Ray Bradbury, he did something very important for science fiction film: He made it respectable. Before Destination Moon, science fiction seemed entirely silly to most of Hollywood and most adult moviegoers but after Destination Moon, it proved it could take itself seriously and rake in the big bucks. It also helped that he hired the best artists and designers in the game, from the great matte artist Chesley Bonestell to model designer Albert Nozaki who created the iconic Martian spaceships for War of the Worlds.

George Pal continued to have success in film, most notably The Time Machine, with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux in 1960, but it's his fifties sci-fi work that is most remembered today and clearly the most influential to future generations of sci-fi film makers. The pacing, style and action of today's sci-fi comes a variety of influences and directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron but the idea that it could be something more than cheap serial fare came from Pal, and it's an idea I'm glad he didn't keep to himself.


This has been a contribution post to the Steven Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Billie Dove Freaks Out for Christmas

And she wishes everyone all the best, just don't touch her stuffed animals. She lived the dream life, that Billie. A Ziegfeld Girl in her teens, starring with Douglas Fairbanks in her twenties and retiring from all of it to live on a ranch at 29. She lived another 65 years after retiring, enjoying her family and free time. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Short List: Charles Grodin

A couple of weeks ago I did a post on supporting performances that stand out, a topic that could easily encompass most of movie history as the character actors, as they're so often known, so regularly outshine the stars in so many movies. I think the reason for that may well be that they're not the star and so, perhaps, they feel freer and looser in their portrayals, knowing they don't have to carry the movie. Whatever the reason, I decided whenever I watched or rewatched a movie or a scene of a supporting player making the most of their allotted screen time, I'd write it up to keep a running tally of such performances. While I'm keeping the official banner headline, The Short List, obviously it won't be very short at all if I keep doing this for the next ten years. And, whenever possible, I'd like to keep my choices to performances not already showered in awards and kudos, but instead choose performances overlooked, usually due to the film in which they appear not having the proper pedigree for the awards show mindset.

All this is to say that the other night I was once again reminded how talented Charles Grodin is when watching the 1976 remake of King Kong. Most people would point to Heaven Can Wait or Midnight Run, and they wouldn't be wrong for doing so, but, for me, Grodin was never better at scene stealing than he was in Kong.

Grodin plays Fred Wilson, a Petrox Oil Company suit who thinks he's on to the biggest discovery in untapped petroleum in the modern age only to discover it's all just a bunch of worthless goop. But, there is this big gorilla on the island...

We all know the story, or at least the basics of which this version is a mild variation. What's brilliant about the creation of Fred Wilson is that, unlike the Carl Denham of the 1933 and 2005 versions, he has no artistic veneer to cover up his pure, unadulterated grab for the cash. But there's more to it than just that: Grodin infuses him with an overwhelming sense of insecurity hiding inside a smug blowhard. Watching Grodin's scenes from this movie are always a pleasure because he let's Fred Wilson look so vulnerable. Seriously, his Fred Wilson gets more pies in the face than a society matron at a Three Stooges dessert buffet.

Here's the thing: Fred Wilson is proven wrong, a lot, but every time he thinks he's right he's still, despite all past experience, as giddy as a tweener at a Justin Bieber concert. And then someone shoots him down and he doesn't even attempt to hide the look of utter confusion and defeat until it's already obvious to everyone.

He'd bet everything there's oil on the island! Jack tells him no. Huh? Whaa?

There is oil, and it's going to be great! Nope, it's worthless. Huh? Whaa?

Don't worry folks, his feet are still chained! Squish.

Really, this guy fails at everything which makes him probably the most sympathetic villain a movie has ever had. Not that Fred Wilson is the villain of the movie but he's as close as it gets and Grodin pulls off the feat of playing him smug, insecure, arrogant and needy all at once. For that, Grodin makes the short list.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Opening Credits I Love: Flight of the Phoenix

On this day, December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright powered a heavier-than-air airplane and made it fly. On December 15, 1965, Flight of the Phoenix (d. Robert Aldrich) premiered, starring a plane that hits the ground before the credits are even finished. And that opening credits sequence is among my favorites in the annals of movie history. The freeze-framing on each actor as his name appears on the screen, the anguished screams from the men as things fall on them, the heightened looks of concern on their faces harking back to the silent era and the musical score punching in a cue for each new action all work in concert to produce a kind of festival of cheese that came to be standard for most of the action movies of the era where the actors in character are shown (either at the start of the movie or its finish) rather than simply scrolling the names up the screen. At some point they stopped doing credits this way, right around the time Burt Reynolds turned credit rolls into blooper reels with the Cannonball Run movies, but I sure wish they'd bring them back.

During the filming, Jimmy Stewart had a birthday and also marked his 70th film appearance with the lead role. The cast and crew made sure Stewart got a party and presents for his trouble.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Harlan - In the Shadow of Jew Süss is a 2008 documentary by Felix Moeller that examines the director of the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda film, Jew Süss, Veit Harlan, by interviewing the many members of his extended family. The documentary is a captivating, incisive look into his life as seen from a distance by family members desperately trying to come to terms with being related to the only German director tried for war crimes, not once, but twice. Both times he was acquitted.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels is enthusiastically greeted by director Veit Harlan

The family tree of Harlan is a large one and director Moeller wisely has Harlan's granddaughter, Alice, map out the family tree on poster board for the audience, lest we fall into utter confusion. Each of the family members, from sons and daughter to grandsons and granddaughters to nieces and nephews, all, understandably revile the film that made the Harlan name infamous in Germany after the war. This is not surprising and had the documentary simply been about their denouncement of Veit Harlan's work it would have been a rather mundane affair. Instead, Moeller has latched onto something quite interesting here and, in the midst of so many talking heads all related in one way or another going on about their familial shame, something perhaps overlooked upon its release. Essentially, what one ends up with is a cross-section of Germany and it's reaction to its own complicity in one of the greatest crimes in human history. Having watched it twice now, I can say this is, I believe, what Moeller is going for and he succeeds.

Harlan married three times, had five children and these five produced more children, from multiple marriages until finally, even Stanley Kubrick's widow, Christiane, is in the mix, being one of the nieces. Some of the children married into Jewish families after the war and one daughter, Susanne, even converted to Judaism after marrying Claude Jacoby, who escaped Germany and fled to America in 1938. Harlan himself married a Jewish woman in the twenties, his first wife, Dora Gershon. In 1943, Gershon perished at Auschwitz. The contradictions and complications of the Harlan family tree allow for a deeper look into their collective psyche and it is not long into the film that we realize that Moeller isn't really interested in Harlan's motivations but, rather, what his family thinks those motivations were. That is to say, and not to belabor the point, it's the reaction and coping of those indirectly involved that provide the insight into the reactions and copings of many Germans after the war.

The youngest of the family members, three granddaughters who appear to be in their teens and twenties, find the film repulsive morally but also dull and, in the words of one, "cheesy." It is in their history classes that they are gaining a fuller understanding of what it all meant. We see them first, and this makes perfect sense, because they represent the Germany of today. They know of the past horrors but it's all second and third hand to them and school provides their primary association with their own familial complicity. Gradually Moeller introduces others, nieces and nephews, who speak of a more direct guilt by association and finally, Harlan's children themselves, who run the gamut from something pretty close to outright dismissal of any wrongdoing by their father to overt guilt and gnawing feelings of responsibility.

One son, Kristian, takes the attitude that any thoughts he has about his father are his alone, understandable enough. But then he goes on to defend his father, using the argument that Harlan was forced to make the film even though he didn't believe in it. Still, he can't understand why his father made it so good. Harlan's other son, Thomas, supported his father when he was a teenager but as he grew older and learned more, he turned against him, something Kristian doesn't understand and feels caused Harlan unnecessary torment until his death in 1964 on the Isle of Capri.

Dorothea (Kristina Söderbaum) commits suicide after sexual coercion by Joseph Suss Oppenheimer.

But Thomas defends his views well, and spent his life making art films and aiding in the hunt for Nazi war criminals. His decision to do so came in 1952, after his father was acquitted a second time for crimes against humanity. Thomas describes Jew Süss, rightfully I think, as a murder weapon and says:

The judge, Dr. Tyrolf, who found him innocent on two occasions had, during the war, had Ukrainian women beheaded for the theft of a headscarf during an air raid. And the thought that my father had been found innocent amongst and by such people was abhorrent to me. That was it! I thought, this is a world I want no further dealings with. I must entirely distance myself from it.

Thomas doesn't believe his father was coerced into making the movie but made it of his own free will. Harlan was undeniably in the service of Goebbels but had he been forced to make something he considered evil, Thomas asks, would he have involved his wife, Kristina Söderbaum, in the production? Of course, she was a big star so Thomas' logic doesn't entirely work. Goebbels would have insisted, most likely, that Kristina be involved. But to the question of why he made the film so well, it could be because he believed in the film or, pulling a Colonel Nicholson, simply felt he should do the best job he could no matter what the subject. That explanation is a little thornier and a lot less believable.

One thing that makes the issue tricky for all involved is the question no one wants to ask and, in fact, never does: Why didn't Harlan leave Germany like the scores of other German filmmakers and actors? And what about his third and final wife, Kristina Söderbaum? In 1935, while others were fleeing Germany, she was moving there from Sweden to try and break into German films . The two, viewed through archival footage, including an interview with her conducted in the sixties, honestly don't ever seem very troubled about being the two biggest names in the Nazi film industry. Her archival interviews are all about the bad rap they got, not, "Oh my God! We made films for Nazis! I was directly involved in propaganda designed to incite the murder of anyone of Jewish descent. My God, my God, what have I done?" Nope, nothing like that. In fact, in what can only be described as extraordinary while fully acknowledging that the word "extraordinary" doesn't even come close to doing it justice, Kristina says in her sixties interview:

It [the film Jew Süss] ruined our lives. That's what it did. Like that. And at that point, you simply couldn't have guessed this. That it could be used in such a way. That it, that it could simply wreck a person's life.

"That it could be used in such a way." Not, in such a way as to incite the murder of Jews. No, that it could be used to wreck her life. And by saying, "used", she implies that, at face value, the film shouldn't wreck anyone's life but they twisted it and used it to stab her in the back. And, oh yeah, I guess some Jews died too but that's nothing compared to having to live out your life on massive German estates and the Isle of Capri knowing people didn't like your hate film. Poor thing.

After that, Thomas' theories gain credibility and the delusions of Kristian seem like nothing more than revisionism.

Veit Harlan and Kristina Söderbaum

Throughout the documentary, Moeller keeps the camera focused on the family, mixing in only occasional footage of Harlan and Söderbaum and the hateful Jew Süss. His intent is getting them to write the history, getting them to accept, deny or revise that which so horribly happened. He does it across generations, with Germans both Jewish and Gentile, directly and indirectly involved and, in the process, gets to the very soul of Germany and it's own tormented and conflicted feelings with its recent past. Jessica Jacoby, daughter of Susanne, gets to the very core of the matter when she notes that her grandfather on her mother's side, Veit Harlan, made films for the Nazis while her other grandparents, on her father's side, were killed by the Nazis in Minsk. What her one grandfather did, she says, her other grandparents "paid for with their lives." It's that bizarre counterpoint that Kristian won't look in the eye and from which Thomas cannot look away. The documentary provides no answers to any one question, one way or the other, but in many ways, examines Nazi Germany more thoroughly than most historic documentaries ever do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bad Science, Good Movie

Let's say it's summer and you're flipping through the channels. Discovery is running Shark Week and you come upon one of their specials. For the 8,357th time you see some marine biologist telling anyone who'll listen that Great White Sharks don't really act the way they do in Jaws. Thanks, professor, I didn't know that.

Okay, maybe it's not his fault, he's a marine biologist and just wants sharks to be better understood. What's bad is when someone takes a piece of fiction, something that is by definition not true, and then dislikes it because it isn't real. In the case of Shark Week, usually, and thankfully, the marine biologist acquits him or herself by saying they love the movie anyway.

On my last post, Bill, Flickhead and myself discussed this very phenomenon in reference to The Core, which I still haven't seen. Bill and Flickhead both commented that it was a decent enough movie but that its most troubling criticisms were that the science in it wasn't accurate. Well, of course it wasn't accurate! It's a movie about setting the suddenly dormant earth's core back in motion. You're looking for accurate science in that? I'm looking for sci-fi entertainment. So sorry to hear about your head injury.

Around three years ago I even wrote a piece about how I really don't care if a movie is filled with inaccuracies and plot holes, as long as it's good (the ensuing comment discussion is lost forever because I was dumb enough to use haloscan for the first two years of this blog. That still chaps my ass). I wrote another piece a few months ago with a different take, imagining what it would be like to be Superman in the real world. I didn't write it for the purpose of deflating any particular Superman comic, cartoon or movie, I just thought it was a fun experiment but I assure you, the dozens of physical unrealities associated with Superman necessitating an extreme suspension of disbelief have never, once, stopped me from enjoying the movies or comics. What stops me is when they're bad. I couldn't care less if the science is wrong.

Here are some other things that have never stood in the way for me:

*Vampires not having reflections. The fact is, of course, that if your eyes can see them, so can a mirror. In order to see something, anything, it has to reflect light. If it does then you and the mirror will see the vampire, if it doesn't, neither will. It's both or nothing. Mirrors don't have some hidden spiritual side that refuses to reflect someone undead. I still think Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula is a garbled mess but not one part of that has to do with Dracula not being visible in a mirror.

*Frankenstein couldn't sew together dead body parts, shoot electricity through them and create a new, living person. If that stops you from enjoying the story of Frankenstein, I must be blunt: You're an idiot.

*I'm pretty sure if you take a sleigh and attach an oversized spinning wooden shield to the back of it, you won't travel through time.

*Your genetic structure cannot change back and forth at will, even if your name is Larry Talbot or Bruce Banner.

*If you're body is flooded with radiation through either insane lab experimentation or bites from radioactive spiders, you're not going to become indestructible. You're going to get cancer and die. It will be horrible for you and all those who love you.

The fact is, I don't go to the movies for lessons in science. That's usually something I'm pretty forgiving about as long as it doesn't cross any kind of "audience respect" threshold. For instance, Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and attaining super powers is fine and thoroughly expected in the superhero universe. Same with Wily Coyote surviving accidents that would do in even the heartiest of mortals. No, as long as something follows its own logic, I think it runs little risk of offending or shocking anyone.

In fact, where I do usually have problems with wrong science or things being generally unrealistic is when I'm watching a drama presented in realistic fashion. In other words, a movie that takes place in a universe where Peter Parker being bit by a radioactive spider would result in him, at the very least, developing a malignant growth. In that universe I expect what's presented on the screen to be generally acceptable as something that could actually happen. But I must admit, even then, it's not a deal breaker if it isn't.

When I watched The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was disappointed, it's true, but not because it contained one of the most unrealistic scenes ever presented in a movie centering itself in a realistic universe. No, I was disappointed for reasons I can only outline once I've seen the third (I haven't yet) and take in the trilogy as a whole and, possibly, review it all here on Cinema Styles.

That scene, by the way, involves our hero, Lisbeth Salander, being shot three times (once in the head), buried under a few feet of dirt and left there, presumably dead. Then, the next morning (this is hours later) we see her hand break through the ground and realize she is digging herself out. Hell, forget the gunshot wounds for now. Get a bag of potting soil, stick your head in it and attempt to breath. Now, not being able to breath, keep your head there for six to eight hours and, well, nice to have known you (by the way, don't actually do that!). But, somehow, Lizbeth is able to breath under smothering conditions while suffering severe torso and head trauma. On top of that, once out, she's able to pick up an axe and hack someone in the leg and then defend herself against another with a gun. She's a hell of a gal but again, and I'm being honest, that's not what disappointed me. It was the lackluster story, forgettable characters and a continuation of formerly interesting characters that took them nowhere that disappointed. The multiple shooting/burial scene? Hell, it's the one thing I seem to remember so more power to it, right?

Bad science, even when presented in realistic drama, should never be a deal-breaker. I understand the temptation to use it for a movie we don't like but the reasons any of us think a movie isn't good should center around the writing, acting, direction, editing and so on. A movie with bad science can be great, just as a movie with good science can be bad. It's not the science that makes Bride of Frankenstein great, it's the acting, direction and writing. It's the set design. It's the cinematography. It's the contributions of every single man and woman working on the crew or for the studio that made it happen. But the science? Hell, if the science in that movie were worth anything I would have long ago created a whole menagerie of little people in jars to keep me entertained when there wasn't a good sci-fi movie on the tube. And when there was? Miniature popcorn tubs for all! Even the king!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jack and Ginger Pretend She's a Horse

I am posting this publicity still for The Groom Wore Spurs (1951) because, after four minutes of vigorous internal debate, I could not produce a compelling reason to not do so. I must, therefore, surrender to the impulse and accept that there are simply some things, like posting pictures of Ginger Rogers pretending to be a horse, with which I am powerless to resist. Apologies, mea culpa and all that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

It occurs to me...

... a big disappointment, movie-wise, doesn't have to necessarily be a movie that had any chance of being good in the first place, or even a sequel to a good movie. Everyone mentions The Godfather, Part III as being a noteworthy disappointment but I'll be honest: I was much more disappointed in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and that wasn't even a sequel to a very good movie to begin with.

After seeing The Towering Inferno, and liking it, I had high hopes for Earthquake. Boy, did that suck, bad!

Here's another one: The Wasp Woman. Yeah, yeah, I know, how could I have expected that to be good but that's missing the point. It's not that I expected it to be good, it's that I expected to be entertained, and I wasn't.

It also occurs to me that a movie that doesn't disappoint doesn't have to be good either. Like At the Earth's Core. Man, that still doesn't disappoint me. And I'm the first to admit, it's no 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Speaking of which, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. That disappointed, hugely. And I did expect it to be good! What a fool I was.

But Logan's Run and Raise the Titanic didn't disappoint, and lordy, that second one really should've but, you know, the ship came up real nice-like and that's all I paid to see anyway. And Logan's Run has all those cats and ivy in the nation's capitol. I mean, really, if I could cover Washington, D.C. in anything, it'd probably be cats and ivy so, kudos to the filmmakers for hitting the nail on the head there.

I should end this by saying big studio Oscar bait movies rarely disappoint because I expect them to be cliche-filled garbage and, sure enough, they usually are. So when you take in one of those and it sucks, it's expected. But a bad movie you expect to entertain you that doesn't? Brother, that can be crushing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jacques Tati and the Playtime Color Palette

Jacques Tati's Playtime famously, and sadly, bankrupted him. He obsessed over every detail for years, created a set so elaborate it was practically a "city" that became known as Tativille and removed all semblance of story or plot. Moviegoers, apparently, were not enthralled. To further complicate the matter, while most movies were still in the throes of full on technicolor rainbow assaults, Tati removed almost all color from his magnum opus. Every wall and floor, every chair or desk, every dress or suit is a variation on black, white, grey and dark blue. Even his ubiquitous character, Monsieur Hulot, seems to have lost most of the color in his argyle socks.

But, occasionally, a red appears:

Or a green:

Or both:

Throughout the movie, the colors are desaturated with only the occasional red or green making its way in front of the camera. As to the meaning of it all, that's up to you to figure out. Personally, I think Tati's idea, or the idea hoisted upon him by critics, of the modern world losing its soul to the homogenized sterility of mechanization is pretty basic and once photographed by Tati, a master of framing, rendered essentially meaningless. That is to say, he creates visuals so fascinating, intriguing and exquisite that any point about anything losing its soul is lost, a casualty to the sheer beauty, and soul, of the image on the screen.

And so, point or no point, I love the fact that there once was a director who obsessed so much about his vision that he went to the trouble of having entire buildings, floors, walls, dresses, suits and cars all play within a few millimeters of each other on the color wheel. Black, white, grey, blue. And then, suddenly, tantalizing glimpses of reds and greens.

All of which is to say, as far as visually obsessive directors go, Tati was one of the best. And someone I wish we had more of now.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Happy 120th, Fritz!

Fritz Lang, the director who first captivated so many cinephiles and non-obsessive moviegoers alike with masterworks such as Metropolis and M, turns 120 today.

Recently I took in Lang's superb Scarlet Street at the AFI in Silver Spring, MD and will give it a full write-up during the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon in February. But Lang is related to our blogathon by more than just directing one of the films I'll be writing up. The film our blogathon is specifically raising money to restore is The Sound of Fury, a remake of Fritz Lang's Fury, with Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney. Fury is a personal favorite of mine, a DVD I own and plan to write-up as well during the blogathon.

So Happy Birthday, Fritz! Your gifts behind the camera have inspired more of us in more ways than you could have possibly imagined.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Short List: The Entertainers

If I had to make a short list of supporting parts that entertain me more than everything else in the movie combined (so it's got to be really entertaining) I just may have to put Raymond Walburn at the top for Riding High. If you've never seen it, it's a Bing Crosby vehicle directed by Frank Capra on his way down Hollywood's "What have you done for me, lately" ladder. Bing's got a horse but not the money to get it into the proper races and Ray Walburn is Professor Pettigrew, a bumbling half-wit con man who's trying to help out with the cause. Problem is, he's inept. So inept he literally cons himself out of money at one point in the movie ("Bilked! By my own chicanery!"). He's amazing and should've been nominated for Best Supporting Actor but wasn't. Of course, another short-lister, George Sanders won that very year for All About Eve so no real complaints here.

Or how about Elsa Lanchester in The Big Clock? With but a few minutes of screen time she steals the whole show as the flighty, judgemental and needy painter, enlisted to identify the killer (falsely accused Ray Milland while really it's her real-life hubby, Charles Laughton).

Or Noel Coward in Bunny Lake is Missing?

Or Barry Fitzgerald in The Catered Affair?

Or Thelma Ritter in anything?

Or Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz?

Or Melvyn Douglas in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House?

Or Nina Foch in An American in Paris?

Or Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax Museum?

Or Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein?

Or Madeline Kahn in Paper Moon? Or Young Frankenstein?

And speaking of Young Frankenstein, how about Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman and Kenneth Mars? Or, hell, Gene Hackman?

Or Gene Wilder in Bonnie and Clyde?

Or Richard Pryor in Silver Streak?

Or Dudley Moore in Foul Play?

Or Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus?

Or Elaine May in Small Time Crooks?

Oh hell, there's so many to list and so little time. Give me some more time and I could knock off the drama list just as easily. One spoiler for that one: Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons? Probably at the top.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Magic of Cinema

While I sorely hate to spoil the climax of The Girls of Pleasure Island (yes, Hester and Jimmy reunite), I thought I'd share it anyway since it displays some of the most extraordinary rear projection work I've ever seen. Sigh, I wish it could go on forever.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oscar Peterson: Motions and Emotions

Oscar Peterson's career as a jazz pianist was always a bit tricky. Unlike a Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock or Victor Feldman, who could control a set through steady use of block chords and minimal melodic adornment, Peterson was all about flourishes. His style was such that the left hand was of only nominal use while the right hand created intricate melodic magic. Which is all to say, Peterson worked best as a front man, not an accompanist. And when accompanying him, best to keep it simple. Too much counter melody, too intricate a bass line and the whole thing could quickly become an incoherent mess. Perhaps that's why Peterson's foray into orchestral jazz turned out so well.

In 1969, Peterson recorded Motions and Emotions, an orchestral jazz album, sometimes derisively referred to as Muzak Jazz due to the lush strings and sonorous piano lines. Certainly those strings, beautifully arranged by Claus Ogerman, sound reminiscent of the type of music those over forty might recall hearing in department stores and elevators in their youth (hence the term, "elevator music"). But just because the unimaginative covers of popular hits for the Muzak corporation used lush strings doesn't mean they're a bad thing, just that they can be used well or poorly. On Motions and Emotions, Peterson and Ogerman use them perfectly.

Motions and Emotions, with its beautifully swirling wave cover, was a clear attempt by Peterson to put out music more tuned in to the new standards, if not more tuned in to the new sound. Peterson was no fool and wasn't about to start playing rock/jazz fusion just because most standard jazz was suddenly passé (to the incredibly short-sighted, that is). No, while other performers in jazz did just that, most notably Miles Davis on Bitches Brew, Peterson stuck to his strength and made nods only to song choice, not style. And those choices serve his style well, until the last cut on the album collapses under the weight of a musical genre gap that simply cannot be overcome.

The album kicks off, wisely, with a Henry Mancini tune, Sally's Tomato, from Breakfast at Tiffany's. If you're going to kick off an orchestral jazz album with any composer, there's probably not another one out there more suited to the task than Mancini. It also gives Peterson and Ogerman the chance to throw in a soft samba undertone, a foreshadowing of not only the album's grandest moment but one which may stand as one of Peterson's finest achievements. More on that in a moment.

After that we get into the more poppy of the new standards Peterson is covering, beginning with Sunny, that old pop hit warhorse covered more times than most other songs ever written combined. It may not be the gold standard of modern music but, by God, Peterson and Ogerman make it work beautifully with Ogerman giving the orchestra a dramatic punch that the original version, and every other pop cover of it, could only hope to replicate. Ironically, when the album collapses later, it will be with source songs infinitely better than Sunny. Go figure.

From here, Peterson breezes through Jimmy Webb's By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Gayle Caldwell's Wandering and Burt Bacharach's This Guy's in Love with You in a way that makes them all of a piece, kind of a trilogy stuck in the middle of the album. The tempos and rhythms of each move perfectly in and out of each other and signals in imagination not just in arrangements but of song order as well.

And then we get Wave. One of my favorite jazz composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim, penned Wave in 1967 and it became an immediate standard among jazz musicians. I have the original version by Jobim as well as four other versions. They are all splendid. Peterson's is majestic! It is not only the high point of the album but one of the high points of Oscar Peterson's recording career. Taking Jobim's original three minute samba song and extending it out to six minutes gives Peterson and Ogerman the time to transform it into an epic piece of modern music, slowly bringing in the low strings, then strumming guitar and horns before Peterson adds a few simple melodic lines, then trades off each verse with the orchestra until the final two minutes when both orchestra and piano build towards a crescendo that never arrives but fades away as Peterson and Ogerman see how many contrasting notes can be played without falling into the realm of cacophony. It is, quite simply, marvelous, and worth the whole damn album on its own.

After that, Mancini's Dreamsville is the perfect song to take the album out, gently serenading us into a hypnotic state of orchestral jazz bliss. And that's where it could have ended. However, there are three more songs and the first two are strong if redundant and the last is a serious misfire threatening to bring the whole enterprise down. Of course, it doesn't because no one song could bring down the greatness that precedes it but still, it's regrettable to say the least.

Two of the final songs are Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby by Paul McCartney and released, of course, by The Beatles (with the usual contractual "Lennon/McCartney" songwriting credit regardless of whether both had a hand in any given song or not). Those may be songs of superb craftsmanship but they don't work as well for jazz. The clash between the opening jazz tempo arranged by Ogerman for the orchestra and the suddenly altered tempo once Peterson starts playing the Yesterday melody is noticeable but Peterson still manages to make the song work splendidly. The two separate sections, the one playing the familiar melody and the one where Peterson riffs, are both well done, and the only real problem the songs suffers is that the melody is simply too familiar. One wishes Peterson had chosen a less iconic song.

Eleanor Rigby's baroque melody clashes with the feel of piano jazz in such as way that Peterson has to reinvent the melody halfway through and does so very well. Ogerman and Peterson do the best job they can and Peterson's flourishes pull out the melody in ways Lennon and McCartney (and producer George Martin) only hinted at. The only regrettable aspect of this is that putting two Beatles' songs back to back suddenly make the album seem like a Beatles tribute. One would have been fine.

Finally, the album reaches its final song with Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billy Joe and shifts abruptly, and I mean abruptly(!), into honky tonk! While Peterson and Ogerman's take on the song isn't half-bad really, it has the unfortunate effect of sounding as if it arrived from another album entirely, or maybe another planet. Imagine watching The Godfather for two and a half hours only to have the final reel replaced with the one from Brian De Palma's Scarface. They're both about gangsters, both star Al Pacino, but they really don't work together and take you in very different directions. This song's arrangement and inclusion on the album is a true head scratcher.

The fact that they weren't comfortable releasing an album with just nine songs is unfortunate because I can tell you that if this album ended after Eleanor Rigby, it would be damn near perfect. As it is, it is a work of orchestral jazz that has some of Oscar Peterson's finest work but crashes and burns within feet of reaching the finish line. Even with the crash and burn of Ode to Billy Joe, it's a masterpiece of piano and strings that can't be recommended highly enough.