Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jaws (1975)

A NYC cop (Roy Scheider) takes the job of Chief of Police on a small island. A young girl is killed by a shark, but the townspeople are hesitant to close the beaches because the forth of July is coming and they rely on tourist dollars. After several more attacks, they hire an old salt to hunt the fish down.

Before I continue, allow me to confess that Jaws is one of my essential films. I could go on and on (and on AND ON!) about my personal history with Jaws, but that would bore even me. Just let me say that I read the book before they made the film (even did a book report on it), my parents vacationed on Martha's Vinyard during filming, and the local dive cinema played it the entire summer so I went again and again. I started seeing films at Movies on the Block and brought my family to see Jaws.

Seeing it again, and on the big screen, emphasized that every scene is a masterpiece. Nothing was included that wasn't exceptional. If anyone doubts Spielberg's genius, point to Jaws. He's not infallible, mind you, but there is no improving on this film.

Here's what I found interesting: I remembered every nuance of this film. Every turn of phrase, every meaningful glance. Everything. Ingrained permanently in my grey matter. Susan Backlinie played Chrissie, the first victim. Denise Cheshire played Chrissie when swimming. The two would team up the same way again for 1941. There is so much interesting (to me) trivia about this film that I am incapable of editing myself. Go to IMDb and read it for yourself. Better yet, watch the film, then the video included at the bottom.

Wonderful visual storytelling, pitch perfect dialog, incredible acting, and perfect editing. The only thing that could have made it better would be if the two jack-asses didn't get into a fist fight right at Ben Gardner's big scene. AMRU 5.
"Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women!"


Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The good doctor (Peter Cushing) is in prison waiting execution when he tells his story to a priest, and it goes something like this: Young Victor is rich, becomes an rich orphan, is brilliant, hires a tutor, somehow grows older than his tutor, then starts playing with things God did not intend. Then he goes to jail ...

The original took serious liberties with the source material, and Hammer films were threatened with a lawsuit if any of it's story or images were copied. So, we are left with the elements brilliant and privileged scientist, taking science too far, creation of a monster, and bad consequences. Mix elements thoroughly and bake for 45 minutes and you get a new version of Frankenstein. Or Jekyll and Hyde. Same deal.

TCM played a pile of Christopher Lee films a couple weeks after his passing. Because interesting films on TCM come in waves, I had filled my DVR with good stuff and had to be very selective what I saved. This was the lone Lee film that made the cut.

Formal, stilted acting, mostly unoriginal story, and a complete lack of actual scares or surprises is mostly saved by decent set design and photography, and Lee's performance. Very much a Hammer production. AMRU 3.5.
Christopher Lee: "I've got no lines!"
Peter Cushing: "You're lucky. I've read the script."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rashomon (1950)

A travelling Samurai is murdered, his wife is raped, and the man responsible is captured. At the trial, several different versions of how the events unfolded come to light. Exactly, what did happen?

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon is an enigma. Not quite understood in Japan or America, but loved nonetheless. The Academy Award for best foreign language film, maybe, was created specifically for this film. This is what made Kurosawa an international filmmaker. It is marvelous storytelling, wonderfully shot, and edited to perfection. All hallmarks of the director.

Frequently described as telling the same story from different "perspectives", but make no mistake: all but one version (at best) are lies. The viewer must tease out the agenda of each version to maybe piece together some semblance of truth. Once each story is told, and the character's true nature further revealed, then you must reevaluate what you think you know.

It's not quite accurate to say Rashomon would stand up to a second viewing. It absolutely demands one. The story and characters, despite being alien in time and culture, read true to American audiences. I can't say how I would feel off the film after a second time, but for now AMRU 4.
"It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Batman (1943)

Bruce Wayne, posing as a useless playboy, goes under cover as the Batman for Uncle Sam. A Japanese scientist (J. Carrol Naish) uses mind controlling electronics to steal radium so that he can make a big gun to free the enslaved people of America from their corrupt way of life. Or something like that.

Before the Adam West series there was this World War II serial, the first live action depiction of the caped crusader. While I am without any particular affinity for the character, I do like movie serials, and Batman is a particularly good one. Lewis Wilson was cheeky and heroic, and only eight years older than the dad-bodied West even though he came 23 years earlier.

Allow me to summarize just about every episode: "Jap spy" Daka, having recruited various gangster-types, enact various plots for the destruction of America. From his secret lair he tries to steal radium, blow up a bridge, steal a plane, and hijack a mine. Batman interferes, gets into lots of fist fights, and disrupts the plan. Some henchmen are captured, but Daka stays at large. The baddies, along with the more gullible of the audience, believe that Batman is at last killed. Amazingly, he survives each episode. Oh, spoiler alert.

Here's whats interesting: The dynamic duo return from the bat cave by climbing out of a grandfather clock. No bat pole in evidence. Also missing is the Batmobile. Alfred chauffeurs our heroes both in and out of costume. In the first episode the bad guys get away using a color shifting car. Using clever shading, the car appears to transition from white to black. That was fairly cool given the budget. It is unclear why hottie Linda Paige bothered with Wayne, who carefully hid away his heroics. Only in it for the money, apparently. She would later do battle with It! Boy Wonder Douglas Croft did not live to see the Adam West version.

Some of the sillier elements include the Lockheed engineering room resembling a boathouse and their security being nothing more than goon standing outside of a fenced area. In one episode the homeland transmits a message to Daka using the highest tech of all communication devices: a dead guy. Also Daka's lair includes not only radium guns and a mind control device, but also a giant Buddha.

If you are sensitive to racial epitaphs, you may find cause to be offended. The primary antagonist was called a slant-eyed or shifty-eyed Jap from time to time. Most of that comes from the bad guys, however, and they don't get the best of it. I can overlook this because we were at war with Japan at the time, and this sort of thing was a sign of the time.

Batman completionists must see it. Batman purists (if there is such a thing) may be annoyed. Because I enjoy serials, and because this one was a rather well done, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The opening theme was very reminiscent of radio serials which I listened to as a kid (no, I'm not THAT old!) Batman and Robin, made six years later, might be aired later this summer. TCM's schedule is rather vague sometimes. Columbia went with an entirely different cast for that one. AMRU 3.5.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Time Machine (1960)

Victorian inventor George (Rod Taylor) discovers a way to move forward and back in the fourth dimension - time. His friends scoff at the notion, and weary of man using his ingenuity to kill more people, he chooses to move forward into a more enlightened time. He learns from a mannequin across the street the horrors of The Great War, then of WWII, then WWIII in 1966.

Because nuclear war has caused vulcanism, the time machine is trapped underground and our hero must wait until the new mountain is worn away before he can stop. When he does, it's the year 800 thousand something and he finds an idyllic setting where everyone is blond and nobody has a care in the world. In fact, when one is drowning in the river, nobody in the world cares. Except George.

After rescuing her, because she's hot, he soon learns that the pretty, empty headed surface dwellers live in fear of the ugly troll-like people who live deep in underground datacenters. Or whatever. Time for a revolution!

Can't go wrong with George Pal. Visually appealing, family friendly, but with a touch of social commentary. The practical effects may appear slightly cheesy today, but they were state of the art, and quite visionary. It won the Oscar for effects and was nominated for a Hugo. The Twilight Zone won.

There is a panel on the time sled that reads invented by H. George Wells, meaning that the protagonist IS the author of the source material. That's a cool detail. Young hot Yvette Mimieux was underage when filming began and turned 18 during the shoot.

One can quibble about time travel paradoxes and issues with the story, but this is a story about man using his ingenuity for destruction and it's ultimate fate when he turns it's back on learning, so keep your nits! The movie is fairly thin and moralistic, but it is wonderfully crafted, visually interesting, and edited to perfection. Rod Taylor's performance was perfect for the story. AMRU 3.5.
"Which three books would you have taken?"

Monday, June 22, 2015

F for Fake (1973)

F for Fake is Orson Welles' video essay about Elmyr de Hory, a notorious art forger, who successfully passed off his copies as authentic. Along the way, it is discovered that de Hory's chief accuser, writer Clifford Irving, is himself a fraud, having faked documents to pass off a fraudulent biography of recluse Howard Hughes. This fake within a fake spins off more tales, like Welles' own War of the Worlds trick.

Welles' so-called free-form documentary is irritatingly herky-jerky. The fat man looks foolish in the black cape and hat, and appears too much to enjoy filming his girlfriend 26 years his junior and acting all mysterious. The overall theme appears to be that people are not what they seem, art is not what it seems, and Orson Welles is not what he seems.

Even still, there is something compelling about the Wellesian style. Here is the Orson I remember from my youth. Self-important, fat, drunk, and rambling, but somehow charming. It's hard to describe. He tells his story, many stories in fact, in a very non-linear fashion. In the end you learn something about the art world and the people that make it up, and your are entertained. While I have misgivings about the overall viewing experience, it is quite different, and maybe that's what trips me up somewhat.

Now I will point you to an episode of one of my favorite YouTube channels, certainly my favorite on the topic of cinema:

Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting absolutely loves F for Fake, and I love Every Frame a Painting. He reminds me how little I know, and how few good films I have seen. It's both wonderful and disheartening. So if he loves F for Fake, I suppose I shouldn't be quite so hasty. AMRU 3.5.

Friday, June 12, 2015

MASH (1970)

New surgeons at a Korean war MASH unit three miles from the front subvert authority, cause chaos, and manipulate the commanding officer, while performing in extremely hostile conditions. Then they play football.

MASH is a gritty, morally ambiguous, and episodic film that captured the attention of the anti-war counterculture of 1970. Faithful to the source material, it depicted war entirely different from the heroic fantasy. When the studio complained that the soldiers were dirty, director Robert Altman, a veteran of WWII, said soldiers in war were dirty. Execs then told the filmmakers of Patton, also in production at that time, to dirty up their soldiers.

As a kid we watched M*A*S*H regularly. One new year's eve my sister and I stayed up late while my parents were out (people did that back then!) and we watched the movie on network TV (they bleeped out "god" in "god damn"). I could not reconcile this film with the show, and it takes a careful adult eye to see the transition. Each character was groomed for 70's TV audiences, and the protagonists became for family friendly (Hawkeye became unmarried). Tom Skerritt as the slightly racist southerner was cut altogether. Kept was the idea that enemy wounded also deserved care, as well as a general mistreatment of women.

There is definitely an Altman style and few films represent it better than this. The dialog is layered as in real life, and the story is non-linear (both "fixed" for TV). I can't say that I am in love with his style, but I do have respect. And it was fun to see this old friend again with my son. He has been humming the theme ever since. AMRU 4.
"I'd dearly love to see that angry!"