Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Godfather (1972)

Well, you see, there’s this family. And they are in business. No, not the Mafia. We don’t use the M word here. Let’s just say they take care of their friends and take care of their enemies. It doesn’t make sense for me to summarize the story as I was the last person on earth past 30 to have seen The Godfather. Goomba mobsters whacking each other? Didn’t interest me.

The Godfather takes place over many years, from the end of World War II into the 1950’s. It covers many events and does not have a consistent central character. It illustrates how characters change over time, and sometimes fail to change. It launched (or solidified) the careers of a great many actors like James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and of course Al Pacino. Even 50 year old and victim of 2016 Abe Vigoda. But mostly it turned director Francis Ford Coppola into a directorial force to be reckoned with. He would go on to direct Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, then a whole pile of shit.

Simonetta Stefanelli plays Michael’s first wife and has a delightful nude scene, if you’re into that sort of thing. If IMDb is to be believed, she was 17 when the film was released. If her scenes were done four months prior, she wouldn’t have been that. Ah, the benefits of shooting in Italy. Hey, look, there's old friend Sterling Hayden! Once again proving he's not afraid to take acting chances. The baby being baptized at the end was director daughter Sofia Coppola, who would prove to be a far better director than actress.

Make no mistake: these are not good people. They are not heroes by any measure, even if some will see them as such. But neither are their victims. It's bad on bad and one cannot feel sorry for any of the deaths. There is no pristine protagonist to rally around and you shouldn't try to find one.

At just under three hours with no singular storyline, The Godfather does not lag, never fails to keep you enthralled. I was totally wrong to ignore it for so long. It is one of those films that everyone says is great, and that is because it is great. Solid cast, great acting, great script, great cinematography, and incredible storytelling. It has crept into popular culture in so many ways, and it forever changed the genre and film making as a whole. I will never doubt a film recommendation from my wife ever again. AMRU 5.
"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

American Graffiti (1973)

While cruising around their town, a young couple (Opie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney) come to terms with college and the direction of their relationship, a geek tries to be cool and score with a hot blond, a dork (Matt Hooper) becomes a criminal while searching for the perfect girl (Chrissy Snow), a thug tries to score with an under-aged girl (Julie Cooper), and an out-of-towner (Han Solo) wants to be top dog, set to a classic soundtrack hosted by Wolfman Jack.

I would go further into the details of the story, but really there isn’t much. This is simply a story of young people doing what young people so often do, and because of that it has a very authentic feel that is not often found. In this way alone it reminds me of Clerks (1994).

Happy Days, which premiered the following year, was not based on or directly inspired by American Graffiti as many people think. A year and a half earlier there was an episode of Love, American Style with a segment called “Love and Happy Days” which featured the Cunningham family and included Ron Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams (Potsie). Fonzie didn’t exist yet. It was a failed TV pilot that nobody wanted to take a chance on, until this nostalgic piece of yesteryear became a box office smash. I remember seeing that rerun of that Love, American Style while Happy Days was still on the air (I’m very old, but you should have known that) and was completely confused by what I was watching.

Likely because of the Happy Days link this film was associated with the 1950’s but it was in fact set in 1962, ten years (or so) before it was released. The Wolfman got a huge career boost from his appearance and I have a memory of hearing his syndicated radio show circa 1980. My dad said it sounded like Wolfman Jack. I said it was, and he replied it couldn’t be. He was on the radio when he was a kid. In fact both my dad and he were born in the same year.

American Graffiti succeeds because it didn’t try to do, or to be too much. It was what it was, and the chord it struck was pitch perfect. It was a moment in time and comes across very sincere. That sounds easy to do, but it is not. The ash bins of Hollywood are filled with cliched and contrived teen comedies. Very watchable, very enjoyable, and worthwhile, even if you weren’t around in the 1960’s. Or 1990’s. AMRU 4.

I leave not with a quote but a YouTube video. It's creator later dismissed it as little more than the rantings of a fanboy, but I felt it summed up the film and it's success very well. Besides, that's more than I even aspire to do.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Modern Times (1936)

A factory worker tweaks out at his menial job, is mistaken for a communist, winds up in jail, then out of work, and finally falls in love with a “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. Roll credits.

Modern Times is definitely the last ever silent film, absolutely, sorda, kinda, not really. Released nine years after the birth of sound cinema, it has a synchronized soundtrack with sound effects, music, and even some spoken words. The principle story, however, unfolds in pantomime with title cards. Just like The Jazz Singer (1927). Go figure.

It’s hard to exaggerate the influence of Modern Times. It was at once forward thinking while also giving cinema goers one last look at the silent era. And doing it in a way that entertained audiences of the day. Chaplin’s comedic bits would be referenced and imitated for decades. The Lucy Chocolate Conveyor Belt bit, itself referenced countless times, owes direct inspiration. And Chaplin appears to have taken inspiration from Metropolis (1927), a much more serious film.

But my modern eyes struggled with a few issues. If we sympathize with him when he cracks up from the monotony and frantic pace of factory work, how do we feel when he desperately tries to find work in the same factory? Also, played for laughs, he essentially screws up at everything he tries to do. But he somehow manages to win the heart of a young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature.

Modern Times lacks a clear point of view. Is the Tramp to be associated with the communist marchers? Does he side with the cruel factory or the strikers who closed it? In the end the Tramp takes no position. He is a leaf in the wind with no direction of his own. All he wants is to be happy, and be with a hot young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. For my purposes, I wasn't amused by the comedic bits and wished there was more of a message other than "Modern life is hard". We knew that. Paulette Goddard was hot.  AMRU 3.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Man who Knew Too Much (1956)

A vacationing couple (Stewart and Day) and their son have a chance encounter with a strange french man in Morocco. Soon he is murdered but delivers a critical message to husband Benjamin. The authorities want to know the message, but the baddies have his little boy. So, the befuddled doctor husband and hottie singer-wife run around amateur sleuthing to save the day, and their boy.

Those familiar with Hitch’s 1934 film of the same name pretty much know the story. Bits were added and things were given to the wife to do, but the basic story line is intact. While the original was somewhat unpolished and suffered from poor audio and video quality, this version suffered from pacing issues and too familiar of a story. I think I’d have liked it better had I not seen the original.

Hitch called the first Man the work of a talented amateur, but preferred it over this, the higher budget and more polished version. My issue here however has to do with certain scenes being dragged out way too long. We see the thing, we understand what might happen, we hear the music build, then stare at my watch. Building suspense, Hitch would say. Just get on with it! I would.

What worked was Doris Day, who is utterly charming in every scene. Her signature song Que Sera, Sera came from here, which Day initially wasn’t very fond of. What didn’t work was Stewart, who is very Jekyll and Hyde with me. Love him in some movies, not so much in others. This one not so much. It's not that he's a poor actor, it's just that he can be so one-note. In so many films he plays exactly the same character in different circumstances, and I don't find it charming.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a serviceable film, but brought little original to the table. Much more watchable than the 1934 version, but simply not that interesting. Especially compared to the other films Hitch was making at the time. AMRU 3.
“If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!”

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Black Cat (1934)

A young, newly married couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) honeymoon in Hungary when they meet up with the creepy Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). They share a carriage ride that crashes in the rain. So, creepy doctor, creepy assistant, and our young couple walk to the creepy house of the creepy Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Our creeps have a backstory that involves a prisoner of war camp that stood exactly where the creepy house now does. Oh, and something about stealing Vitus’ wife and daughter. And there’s this deal where Vitus is terrified of cats. Black cats, specifically.

Based on the title of the Poe story of the same name, The Black Cat bears no resemblance to the source material. Fans may remember Manners as the dashing leading man from Dracula and The Mummy films. He also played supporting characters in better films. His lack of real acting talent encouraged him to leave Hollywood before he reached forty. Fans might not remember Julie Bishop or Jacqueline Wells, or Diane Duval, or whatever other name she acted under. I had never seen her in anything before. This is the first of eight films starring the two biggest names in horror at the time (Boris and Bela, that is), and was a huge commercial success despite, or maybe because of, its controversial, satanic themes.

What a weird-ass film! Not too sure what to make of it. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was becoming recognized for his work when he started seeing the wife of a studio producer, who also happened to be the nephew of Carl Laemmle himself. Maybe it was that, or just being a strange dude, but he walked away from his contract and concentrated on independent projects. He would later do The Man from Planet X and Detour.

Strange tone, ambiguous story elements, and reasonably short. If you are looking for a good, atmospheric early horror film other than the biggies, and before they became parodies of themselves, The Black Cat fits the bill. AMRU 3.5.
“Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like…”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

What, Sherlock again? There’s fourteen of these suckers and I am determined to get through them by years end. So, this time Holmes and Yo-Yo transport a scientist out of Switzerland before he and his Secret Weapon fall into the hands of the Gestapo. This proves difficult because even eccentric scientists need a booty call every now and again. So when man and machine turn up missing, our heroes must track down both before the Evil Moriarty discovers their secrets. Based ever so loosely on The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Ah, the middle section where I find something interesting about an actor or behind-the-scene happening. Yea, this is totally where I do that. It seems this Holmes series was factory production and they click off like clockwork. So …. good job, guys!

Crossing studios and eras, the Sherlock Holmes series is amazingly consistent in quality and tone, which is especially surprising as they don’t yet share writers or directors. In fact, different actors have played Moriarty. The story, humor, and atmosphere are what we come to expect. Chalk another nice watch for Holmes. AMRU 3.5.
“Brilliant man, Sherlock Holmes. Too bad he was honest.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

The inner council requests the help of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) because the citizens of London are being terrorized by radio broadcasts from Nazis. Wait, what?

That’s right, Nazis. Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) are transported about fifty years to the (then) present day to do their part in the war effort. This is possible because “the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging”, so, yea. That. Not sure how a modern day Sherlock played to audiences back then, but since it’s been seventy five years since the movie came out, it still plays somewhat as a period piece.

Anachronisms aside, The Voice of Terror is a better than fair mystery (there's a spy) with all the wit and charm of the earlier films. Given my druthers, I’d prefer it set in Victorian London, but while America escaped the war to the cinemas, England had no such option. We had difficulty getting meat and gasoline, they were eating acorns. Universal did a good job picking up the franchise. AMRU 3.5.
“There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”