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."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

An attempt on the life of a diplomat has left him in a coma. The area of the brain damaged cannot easily be operated on. It's easier, apparently, to shrink down a submarine and crew to microscopic size to make the repairs.

I was mystified how poorly remembered this sci-fi classic is. Until I watched it, that is. It begins with all the techo-cheese of a 60's sci-fi TV show. White noise, spinning tape drives, and, oh yea, that high-tech typewriter. At one point the General walks from fuzzy CRT to CRT to ask a different person on screen what the patient's heart rate or temperature was. Star Trek had a much better grasp on that sort of thing. Still, it ventured into a new realm and showed us something never before seen in the genre: the miracle of the human body at microscopic scale. And what does that magical realm look like? A little like a low rent carnival funhouse.

We marvel at the cast marveling at the miracle of green screen. We gasp in excitement as Raquel Welch is attacked by white blood cells, and the men frantically try to tear them off, mostly from her ample breasts. Every turn a new unexpected challenge awaits. The script was researched well enough that parts were viewed in college medical classes for years.

Fantastic Voyage, while something of a snoozer, did attempt something new, and there is virtue in that. Even if it appears severely dated to modern eyes. Dated, cheesy, and a bit dull, but innovative and slightly smarter than most. AMRU 3.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Against All Flags (1952)

Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) goes under cover to learn the secret of the pirate republic. Along the way the pirate mistress 'Spitfire' Stevens (Maureen O'Hara) catches his eye. Generic 50's Technicolor RomCom Action/Adventure pirate movie ensues.

The sets were lavish, the costumes anachronistically colorful, the acting terrible. I caught the beginning on TCM while waiting for the wife to get off work, and decided I'd wait it out. Usually when I do this I eventually find myself being drawn in. Here, well, We'll see. Now back to the film.

Flynn played the dashing gentleman/pirate/spy with a dash of smarmy smugness and apparently more booze than a pirate's bachelor party. They had to ban alcohol from the set. He'd be dead in seven years. O'Hara (still living) played the spitfire well with her sharp tongue and piercing stares. But the intentionally bad, dinner-theateresque acting undermines the performance. There is a scene when the pirate Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) strikes her that was laughable at best. Still, total hottie.

Big names, high production value, very genre acting. When Flynn broke an ankle they filmed an entire other movie with the sets. Not a terrible way to spend 90 minutes on a Friday night, however. AMRU 3.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sherlock Jr (1924)

A movie projectionist fantasies about being a detective. When he is framed for stealing a watch by his romantic rival, he does his own investigation. He fails and dejectedly goes back to his hum-drum life as a projectionist. He falls asleep in the projection booth and dreams himself onto the screen, where a similar adventure unfolds, with him as the heroic detective.

My enjoyment of The General emboldened me to try another Keaton silent comedy. Sherlock Jr was just as successful. Short (under 45 minutes), great picture quality, and excellent story telling. Again, Keaton nearly loses his fool head, quite literally as he fractures his neck in one stunt. I'm sure if my boys were willing to invest ten minutes to this film, they would have loved it. The humor and action totally holds up.

Buster's real-life dad was in the film! That's kinda interesting. He also played a Union General in The General. He was a vaudeville performer and later became an angry drunk. Buster displays some nice pool shooting, if accomplished using lots of edits. He practiced for four months with a pool expert.

Amusing, fast paced story. The movie within the movie proved a great technique for telling one story. Keaton used it well to showcase his talents. I am left with the feeling that I liked it slightly less than The General, but don't interpret that as a slight. Both are amazingly entertaining. For a silent film. AMRU 4.

"I did NOT mean it to be surrealistic. I just wanted it to look like a dream."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Gaslight (1940)

Twenty years after the unsolved murder of a singing diva, her hot young nephew (hot young Anton Walbrook) moves back into the stylish London house where it happened, with his new wife (Diana Wynyard). The dashing retired detective (dashing Frank Pettingell), stunned by the the master's resemblance to the dead woman's nephew, snoops around.

Principally we have the same story here, told somewhat differently. Both are based on the same play and this production appears to be truer to the source material. I recommend both movies equally and if you are to see both, I suggest the 1944 Hollywood version first. While Hollywood doesn't keep you in suspense very long, there is no doubt who the bad man is here.So, if you intend on watching either of these films, STOP READING NOW! Spoilers Abound as I compare and contrast.

Ok, then. Here we go.

The first interesting difference is familiar relations. Ingrid's Paula was in the house when her aunt, her legal guardian, was murdered. We see her taken away from the scene, learn a little of her life, then return ten years later. The detective, smitten by the aunt as a young boy, is amazed by the resemblance. We sympathize with her because of the additional details and because, well, she's Ingrid Bergman.

Diana's Bella has no connection to the house and we little to her. We first see her after moving back in and know her only as a frail woman with an angry husband. It's the retired detective who recognizes Anton's Paul Mallen as Louis Barre, who used to live in the same place twenty years prior.

A second change is that we are left to wonder if Paula is crazy. Initially we don't see Boyer manipulate her and can't be sure if she is indeed crazy or not. There is no question with Walbrook. From the onset he is cruel and deceptive. The only mystery is motive.

Also there is an interesting difference in the maid and husband relationship. Hollywood, deep in the throes of Hays Code censorship, hints at an inappropriate relationship. The English production explores that a wee bit more. They go to a burlesque show together. Nudge, nudge.

Apart from these and other minor changes (venue changes from 12 Pemlico Square to 9 Thorton Square, the character name changes, and the Hollywood addition of a society busy-body), there are remarkable similarities. Many key scenes are replicated in both, and the acting, sets, and photography are both top notch. All in all, the only real difference between the two is the Hollywood shine on the latter. Both are very much worth your time. We should be thankful that this film was not lost to us forever. AMRU 4.
"How did you get in here?"
"Interesting things about us ghosts, we don't have to bother with doors."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gaslight (1944)

Ten years after the unsolved murder of a singing diva, her hot young niece (hot young Ingrid Bergman) moves back into the stylish London house where it happened, with her new husband (Charles Boyer). A dashing detective (dashing Joseph Cotten), stunned by the niece's resemblance to her aunt, reopens the cold case.

Gaslight is based on a play (Gas Light, or Angel Street), and had already been made into a movie four years earlier. Under the terms of the agreement, the producers ordered the destruction of all prints of the previous film. They failed to get them all, and the 1940 version has lapsed into the public domain. I saw it next.

Gas lights, that is, the lighting mechanism where natural gas was piped into houses for lighting purposes, certainly plays a large role in the story. Not only do they pepper the screen with shots of men lighting them, they even play into the story. Our protagonist becomes convinced that someone else is in the house because the lights dim, as if someone lit one elsewhere. They also add great ambiance and all gothic horror movies should have had them rather than foolish candelabras and sometimes even electric lights, totally ruining the mood. Had they not been expensive, and occasionally suffocate people, burn down houses, and even blow them up, they'd be a great addition to any home! Act now, supplies are limited!

I learned a few things from watching this movie. First, that I am actually capable of saying the words "Angela Lansbury was hot". What a naughty bit of crumpet, she was! At 17 she quit her job in a local shop and launched her movie career. Secondly, and more importantly, I learned that I apparently have absolutely no friggin' clue what film-noir is. I'm classifying this sucker as a mystery (although not a terribly mysterious one). Melodrama, sure. Entertaining and well made movie, you bet! Film-noir? Doesn't smell like it to me. There is a detective and an element of claustrophobia, but hard boiled, pessimistic, and minimalist? It's set in the fashionable district of Victorian/Edwardian London. You know, the stuff dreams are made of. AMRU 4.
"I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were dangerous to me."
"I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were dangerous to her."