Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Uninvited (1944)

Brother and Sisters (Ray Miland and Ruth Hussey) purchase a beautiful mansion on the seacoast for great price. It's cheap because it's haunted.

What follows is a mystery punctuated with some genuinely spooky scenes. The former owner's granddaughter desperately wants to visit the house even though grandpa says it's dangerous. The history of the house, slowly pieced together, helps explain the occurrences and direct the course of action.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that the golden age of Hollywood produced few quality Ghost/Haunted House movies. Most that they did were comedies. The Uninvited stands alone as a quality, serious ghost movie.

Batman's Alfred has a key role. Remember him from The Mole People? The IMDB entry includes the keywords closeted and suspected Lesbian. I presume they are referring to the Ruth Hussey character, but I think they are reading too much into the unmarried sister angle.

What does come off as odd is when 40ish Miland starts hitting on 20ish granddaughter. Pretty-pretty Gail Russell battled a few ghosts of her own. Alcoholism gripped her life and she succumbed to a heart attack at age 36.

Atmospheric, well acted, and a complex story, The Uninvited is a very well crafted film. The story creeps without relying on jump-scares or feeling manipulative. It has the feel of a costume drama-period piece, without actually being one, but I don't hold that against it. I wouldn't object to a second viewing, but I'll settle on AMRU 3.5
"We will do nothing tonight that the priest wouldn't approve of."

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

A young Salvation Army worker is dying on New Year's eve and requests to see the first man to visit the shelter. That man lies drunk in a graveyard. He tells his drinking buddies that whomever dies at the stroke of midnight is fated to drive Death's carriage to collect the souls of the departed. When he is killed in a fight, the carriage arrives and David Holm is then shown the wickedness of his ways.

Slightly Christmas Carol in theme, and very temperance in tone, The Phantom Carriage is a landmark of early Swedish cinema, and of the horror genre. The special effects (mostly double exposure to show the translucent carriage) was groundbreaking for the day.

The story is not easily summed up and the storytelling is quite nonlinear. But the meaning of the glances and the sequence of events is never in doubt. Director Victor Sjostrom was wonderful in the lead role. Ingmar Bergman was strongly influenced by the film, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Victor appeared in Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

There is much to say about this film, but I hate to stray too far from the irreverent. Apparently a homeless shelter in Sweden is called a "Slumstation", and "The End" is written as "Slut". Insert Bevis style giggling here. The Phantom Carriage transcends such nonsense, but sometimes I can't help myself.

An excellent film that isn't diminished by silent cinema, but I do recommend finding a copy with a good score. Great atmosphere, excellent acting, and a rewarding viewing experience. AMRU 4.
"Captive, come forth from thy prison!"

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Peeping Tom (1960)

Would-be film maker works the less glamorous side of cinema while exploring his personal project: filming women's dying expression of terror. Spoiler Alert! He's the killer!

Ok, not much of a spoiler. There isn't any question starting from the opening moments. Peeping Top is a complex, layered film. The script, acting, and dialog are exceptional. Director Michael Powell crafts a wonderful film. We follow Mark Lewis through his career, his attempt of a social life, and his extra curricular activities.

Released the same year as Hitchcock's Psycho, it's hard not to draw comparisons. Both movies follow a socially awkward antagonist (with parent issues). But while Psycho was heralded as Hitchcock's masterpiece, Peeping Tom ruined Powell's career.

The film's reception was harsh and and extreme, and it was a commercial failure. Exactly why mystifies me. Was it more graphic, more sexually explicit, more upsetting than Psycho? Maybe marginally. There are elements of pornography, voyeurism, and prostitution. Maybe Norman Bates was more palatable villain than Mark Lewis. Maybe we liked Lewis, sympathised with him just a little too much. It took a decade for critics to reevaluate the film.

Peeping Tom is a well crafted, innovative film, that would hold up to a second viewing. It is not to be skipped. AMRU 4.
"I don't trust a man who walks quietly."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Public Enemy (1931)

Local thug (James Cagney) earns a living as a thug.

The 30's had many gangster films, some fairly interesting. Like Scarface, we watch the rise and fall of a ruthless thug in the guise of a cautionary tale. Unlike Scarface, the story is only mildly amusing. Rife with clumsy camera work, the clumsy story showcases Cagney's better than fair acting and signature mannerisms (see Johnny Dangerously). Being early in the soundie era, the actors had to over project their voices.

Jean Harlow appears in a very early role. Not sure how she got to be such a sex symbol. For my money, I'd take old friend Joan Blondell. Or even Mae Clarke, whom some may remember as the young ingenue in Frankenstein. She got the pineapple treatment here.

A key film in the genre and definitely worth a viewing. Just don't expect to have your socks knocked off. AMRU 3.
"Why that dirty, no good, yellow-bellied stool. I'm gonna give it to him right in the head the first time I see him."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Moon is Blue (1953)

Donald (William Holden) pursues a chaste and unusually honest young woman. His ex-girlfriend and her father (David Niven) interfere with the evening.

I know this film, as most people do, from the 11th season episode of M*A*S*H. where Hawkeye and Hunnicut are trying to get a copy of this movie, believing it to be a "blue movie". They are disappointed by this RomCom, but I wasn't.

As many movies based on a play, it is rather wordy. The story is focused on the relationships between the characters. Accepting it for what it is, I was quite charmed. Very sharp, witty, clever dialog. Good acting and better photography than you normally get from a play conversion. Controversial in it's time, it's rather tame by today's standards. Patty asks frank questions, discusses her virginity, and the men are left to question their own motivations.

By the time of the M*A*S*H episode, the film was just under 30 years old. The two leads had passed by then, and in four more years every actor with a speaking role, and the director, would be gone. Our virginal lead took her own life. It's been almost 32 years since the episode, and M*A*S*H is doing quite a bit better. Maybe they learned of the dangers of the whiskey and cigarette diet, what with them being doctors and all.

Don't watch this if you expect overt sexuality. Or hate movies with a lot of talking. If what I wrote appeals to you, make a point to find it (won't be easy). I left it on my DVR in hopes of convincing the wife to give it a try. No dice, and it expired. AMRU 4. There was a lot of wonderful dialog in this movie. I can't pick one quote, so I will go with ...
"You talk too much."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On The Waterfront (1954)

The docks are controlled by the union, which is to say, the mob. The few make all the money while doing no work and the many work like dogs and barely scrape out a living. How is this careful balance managed? By throwing the complainers off of buildings.

Terry Malloy (Brando) coulda had class. He coulda been a contender. He coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what he is. The union thugs use him to draw above-referenced rat to the rooftop so that he can be tossed off of it. Malloy thought they were just going to lean on him. Furthering his ambivalence to the status quo, he starts to fall for the rat's hot little sister. Also, there's this rabble-rousing priest.

Man have I a lot to say about this picture.

First, the primary conflict is the pigeons verses the hawks. Malloy is a pigeon who might be able to become a hawk if he plays along. The hawks are exploiting the pigeons and the moral thing is to testify against them. To be a rat. Allow me to introduce Elia Kazan to the audience.

Elia Kazan was a talented director of both stage and screen. His work speaks for itself. And when the House Un-American Activities Committee was looking for rats for their commie witch hunt, Elia raised his hand and said "Me first!" When he was presented with an honorary Oscar many years later, some in the audience conspicuously remained silent.

So, when we compare this film to High Noon, where bad men enter the town and scared men refuse to stand up to them, we see the obverse side of the same coin. Does a hero stand up to outsiders who present a danger or speak out on the danger that is there already? The devil is in the details and may people have their opinions the seriousness of the perceived threats.

That out of the way, let's discuss Brando and his performance. One of the greatest performances or terribly overrated? Depends on if you're a commie or not, I presume. For me, it was an eye-opener. When you see clips of the film he appears awkward and unconvincing. He's acting like Brando. But taken as a whole, it was quite impressive. Conflicted is the key word here. Every day Brando left the set early to see his therapist leaving the rest of the actors to work without the star. Rod Steiger never forgave him.

Oh, here's a pet peeve of mine. Girl locks herself in her apartment and yells to the hero to go away. He breaks down the door and she fights him off. He forces her to kiss her and true love blooms. "But your honor, that worked out great in On the Waterfront!" Yea, let's leave that crap in the last century.

Great script, great acting, wonderfully shot, solid story. The ending, however, suffered from a surplus of sap. The few flaws (Malloy's spidey senses totally fail him late in the movie) were overlooked or invisible to the Academy. It won eight Oscars. AMRU 4. Kazan was an exceptional director. And a rat.
"Conscience... that stuff can drive you nuts!"

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Graduate (1967)

Young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college a track star and academic achiever. His affluent parents want to show him off but he wants to be alone. He is manipulated into a relationship with one of his parents friends (Anne Bancroft) but starts to fall for her daughter. Hilarity ensues.

The Graduate is a study in manipulation. Mrs. Robinson expertly coerces Benjamin into a relationship he clearly is not comfortable with. His parents want nothing more than to show him off like a trained monkey. Benjamin's initial lack of direction and purpose blossoms into full-blown helplessness.

This sometimes cringe-worthy situation is not all the movie has to offer. It sports a wonderfully crisp and poignant script. The advice from Ben's father's well-intentioned friends, his awkwardness at every stage in the affair, all expertly written. Now I know why Buck Henry would host SNL so often way back in the day. The dialog is pitch perfect.

Also noteworthy is the cinematography. Maybe something I wouldn't have noticed a couple years ago, it was quite impressive. Director Mike Nichols expertly filled the frame in a way that told the story as well as the dialog.

I was not familiar with Nichols but looking at his resume, this is an oversight. He has only 22 directorial credits and they range from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Charlie Wilson's War. Take a gander, quite an impressive list.

And I haven't even touched on the acting. Hoffman as bumbling Benjamin was only six years younger than Bancroft, but you'd never know it. You believe the twenty year age gap. Truly a remarkable piece of film making. Pity it took me this long to see it. AMRU 4.5.
"You look to me like the kind of guy who has to fight 'em off. And doesn't he look to you like the kind of guy that has to fight them off?
Yes, he does."