Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Movie Review: Brief Encounter


It is not enough to say that the films of British director David Lean are well realized; they often feel more fully realized than seems possible. His extraordinary command of detail can be felt in every aspect of a production. Sets, locations, costuming, music, lighting, shot compositions, staging, editing, and, of course, dramatic effects--they are thought out and presented with the utmost care and meticulousness. His work sets the standard for storytelling craftsmanship. It's true of the spectacles for which he's most famous, and it's also true of small-scale efforts such as 1945's Brief Encounter. Adapted and expanded from the Noel Coward play Still Life, it tells the story of two married upper-middle-class train commuters (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who meet and, in spite of themselves, fall in love. Lean builds the film around Johnson's extraordinary performance; she fully catches the viewer up in the agonizing conflict between her blossoming affection for the Howard character and her deep sense of commitment to her marriage and children. Every other element of the picture, from the richly atmospheric depiction of the train station to the inspired use of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, serves to enhance the dramatization of the woman's dilemma. This is one of the most powerfully intimate love stories ever filmed. The performances by Howard and the supporting players are uniformly excellent. The screenplay is by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame. Robert Krasker provided the beautifully moody cinematography.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Movie Review: Rome, Open City


This 1945 Italian melodrama, about the World War II underground resistance in Rome, is as pulpy as the gaudiest Hollywood thriller. The director, Roberto Rossellini, shot it in strictly-from-hunger circumstances. The lighting is variable, several of the actors are non-professionals, and since there was no money for sets, the action had to be staged in actual streets, buildings, and apartments. The documentary-like atmosphere Rossellini captured--the style was dubbed Neo-Realism--became a hallmark of the existentialist aesthetic and revolutionized the art of film. Rome, Open City has a fair claim to being the single most influential movie made after World War II. It's such an important part of cinema history that one may feel trepidation about approaching it as an entertainment. But the picture is entertaining. The gritty detail and sense of immediacy largely redeem the hackneyed contrivances of the plotting, which includes resistance fighters on the run from the Nazis, a priest playing a central role in the intrigues, and a resistance hero being betrayed by his lover. If the film were more slickly made, it would seem laughably trashy. Some elements, such as the seductively chic lesbian Gestapo agent, may have one chuckling regardless. Others, like the scene in which a pregnant woman is shot to death in the street, prompt conflicting reactions. One may think this particular moment devastatingly powerful or offensively over the top, or perhaps both. Sergio Amidei is credited with the script. (Federico Fellini contributed some dialogue and other small bits.) The large cast includes Anna Magnani as the ill-fated expecting mother, Aldo Fabrizi as the stealthy priest, and Maria Michi as the treacherous girlfriend. Renzo Rossellini provided the cheesy thriller-style score.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives


Director William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives has a promising subject: the experiences of three World War II servicemen while they readjust to civilian life. Dana Andrews plays a de-commissioned Air Force captain who was a bombardier during the war. Fredric March co-stars as a middle-aged banker who served as an Army infantry sergeant. The third protagonist is a young sailor (Harold Russell) whose hands were replaced with prosthetic hooks following a ship explosion. (Russell, a non-professional actor, was an actual double amputee.) The film deliberately eschews an upbeat treatment of the men's circumstances. The bombardier comes from a working-poor family and has no marketable skills; he can only find work as a drugstore floor associate and food-counter server. The banker struggles with alcohol abuse and doubts about his family and profession. The sailor feels shame over the challenges his disability creates for his loved ones. One wishes the film were better than it is. The dramatic situations, such as the banker’s conflicts with executives over veterans' loans, or the unhappily married bombardier’s growing involvement with another woman, are too simply conceived and too cleanly resolved. The negative aspects of alcohol abuse are downplayed; drunken behavior is tastelessly used for comic relief. The picture actively shies away from leaving the viewer with any moral ambivalence towards the characters. The attempts at allegory, such as the bombardier walking through an airfield filled with idled, stripped warplanes, are generally heavy-handed. But for all the film’s flaws, it’s an affecting piece of work. The men’s alienation is powerfully rendered at times, and this stays with one long after the picture is over. It was an enormous popular success and a multiple Academy Award winner, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fredric March and Harold Russell respectively won the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor prizes. The cast’s standout, though, is Teresa Wright, who gives a richly expressive performance as the banker’s adult daughter. Robert E. Sherwood is credited with the screenplay, which was based on the novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor. Gregg Toland was the cinematographer. Other cast members include Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, and Hoagy Carmichael.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Movie Review: The Southerner


The Southerner, a 1945 Hollywood effort by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, has a gritty beauty. Its sympathetic though unsentimental portrayal of U. S. tenant farmers has much the same tone as Jean-François Millet's paintings of rustic life in France. Zachary Scott stars as a seasonal farm worker who decides to begin a new life as a sharecropper. The house on the plot he rents is a rundown hovel, and the ground is harsh and untilled. But he, his wife (Betty Field), his grandmother (Beulah Bondi), and his two young children make a dedicated go of it. Their travails are many--a hard winter, one child's illness, sabotage from a resentful neighbor (J. Carrol Naish)--but they maintain their determination to see things through. The happy times are there as well, such as the beauty of the blossoming fields, the affectionate hijinks at a relative's wedding reception, and the use of a giant catfish to settle a feud. Many filmmakers would treat this material with a patronizing eye, but not Renoir; his magnanimous sensibility suffuses it all. His cinematic mastery is also on full display. The action is staged to take maximum advantage of the deep-space compositions, and the visuals always keep one aware of the farmers relative to their environment. They're sometimes the land's masters, and sometimes its fools. Zachary Scott, best known for playing cads and scoundrels, embodies the quiet nobility of the farmer protagonist as completely as can be. The screenplay, attributed to Renoir, is based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a 1941 novel by George Sessions Perry. Hugo Butler wrote the preliminary adaptation. William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson made uncredited contributions. The fine cinematography is by Lucien Andriot.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For



Sin City creator Frank Miller first emerged as a comic-book cartoonist and scriptwriter in the early 1980s. He was best known for his work on the Batman and Daredevil characters; those efforts very effectively melded the superhero genre with the tone and atmosphere of urban crime fiction. His synthesis modulated the more extravagant aspects of the superhero material, and made it more palatable to an adult sensibility. His treatments of Batman and Daredevil are considered definitive by many, and one notes that recent high-profile versions of the characters, such as film director Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy", owe Miller an enormous debt.

The Sin City comics found Miller working in the reverse direction. With this project, he was taking urban crime fiction and reimagining it in the fanciful, hyperbolic terms of superhero comics. The results were puerile; the Hammett-like manner of Miller's best superhero work gave way to a vulgar bombast that would have embarrassed Mickey Spillane. The plotting and dialogue were hackneyed enough to make one cringe. The stories often read like a parody of the crime genre, the difference being that Miller didn't seem to have any perspective on how silly his efforts came across. The only saving grace was the artwork. Miller took the chiaroscuro of film noir imagery and heightened the black and white to the verge of abstraction. The approach was a witty take on the visual style of classic Hollywood crime movies; it both evoked and satirized them. The books were groaners to read, but they were fun to look at.

The 2005 film version of Sin City, co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, had the same strengths and weaknesses as the comics. The look of the picture was refreshingly novel. The actors were filmed on green-screen sets, and the settings, lighting, and visual effects were created entirely with computer-generated imagery; the cast was performing the stories (three were featured) in a spectacularly realized film-noir cartoon world. But the plots and dialogue, taken all but verbatim from the comics, were at least as awful as they had been in their published form. If anything, hearing actors deliver Miller's dreadfully cliched dialogue made the material seem worse. But it almost seemed beside the point; the enjoyment of the picture was in watching how the combination of noir and superhero visual conventions were realized in this strikingly stylized on-screen world.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the second film in the franchise, is just more of the same, and with diminishing returns. (Rodriguez and Miller again co-directed.) The stories--two from the comics, and two original--seem even more hackneyed than those in the first picture. The absurdly hyperbolic violence is numbing and ultimately tedious. The actors also seem more inclined towards hamminess this time out; I kept expecting Eva Green's femme fatale (the "dame to kill for" of the title) to reveal vampire fangs and bite someone's neck. The cartoon noir look has largely worn out its welcome as well. Eva Green's seen-from-a-distance nighttime swim provides the only imagery that seems fresh. The depiction of her sleek movement through the darkened water has a near-abstract quality that may well be the two films' visual high point. Overall, though, one watches the picture thinking been-there-done-that and anxious for it to end.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Review: The Bells of St. Mary's


The year 1945 saw the release of The Bells of St. Mary's, director-producer Leo McCarey's sequel to his 1943 Oscar-winning hit Going My Way. Saying The Bells of St. Mary's eclipsed its predecessor at the box office is an understatement; it was the most commercially successful live-action film of the 1940s. Its profile has faded, though, and it's not hard to see why. While amiable, it doesn't have the heft or sophistication of an enduring film. McCarey, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and stars Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were just looking to put together a breezy good time for audiences. Crosby reprises his Going My Way role as Roman Catholic priest Father O'Malley. The film begins as he undertakes his new assignment: he's to be the pastor at St. Mary's, a rundown inner-city parish school. The supervising nun is played by Ingrid Bergman, and the two quickly find themselves at friendly odds about how to run things. The story is mostly a series of vignettes that occur over the school year. The most amusing scenes are those involving the nun's efforts to teach a bullied boy how to box; the most charming is the nativity play put on by the school's first-graders. There are a few storylines that thread through the entire picture, such as the efforts to get a miserly local developer (Henry Travers) to donate his new building to the parish. Bing Crosby performs several songs, although the standout musical scene is probably Bergman's rendition of "Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes)" in her native Swedish. It all goes down quite pleasantly. Ingrid Bergman's smile is especially memorable.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Movie Review: The Naughty Nineties


There aren't many films that deserve classic status for just a single scene. The Naughty Nineties, though, is one of them. This 1945 vehicle for the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy duo features what is perhaps the finest recorded performance of their renowned "Who's on First?" skit. The sketch has the pair talking about baseball players, and the players have commonplace words and phrases for nicknames. (Who's on first base, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third, etc.) The joke is that the Costello character doesn't realize the words and phrases are the names, and he thinks the Abbott character is jerking him around. It's a witty, masterfully sustained piece of extended wordplay, and Costello's handling of his character's mounting exasperation is hilarious. The rest of the film is a better than average Abbott and Costello comedy. The setting is a showboat on the Mississippi River in the 1890s. Abbott plays an actor who oversees the boat's stage shows, and Costello is his sidekick and gofer. In the first act, the captain (Henry Travers) loses most of his equity in the boat in a crooked card game. The gamblers who now have controlling interest turn the boat into a floating casino. The actor, the sidekick, and other ship personnel connive to restore ownership to the captain. The plot is slight, and it has a quick, easy resolution. It doesn't strive to be anything more than a scaffolding for Abbott and Costello's comedy routines. The standout after "Who's on First?" is probably "Eating Catfish," in which the Costello character believes his catfish dinner has been prepared from a (still meowing) housecat. The "Lower/Higher" sketch, which has Costello's character mistaking orders to the stage crew as singing directions, is pretty funny as well. The director, Jean Yarbrough, keeps the pacing brisk.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Poetry Translation: Dante, Inferno, Song XXXIII



My translation of Song XXXIII of Dante's Inferno is now up at Dante's Divine Comedy. Click here to read.


Oscar Nomination Predictions for the Films of 2014

The awards season for 2014 films kicks off tomorrow with the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, so I thought I'd get ahead of the pack and post my reading of the buzz about this year's films. Below are my predictions of what will be nominated for the Academy Awards on January 15th.

Since the number of films that can be nominated for Best Picture isn't set--there can be between five and ten nominees in the category--I'm ranking my Best Picture predictions from one to ten in terms of likelihood to be nominated.

BEST PICTURE

  • 1. The Imitation Game

  • 2. The Theory of Everything

  • 3. Unbroken

  • 4. Birdman

  • 5. Boyhood

  • 6. Gone Girl

  • 7. Foxcatcher

  • 8. Selma

  • 9. Whiplash

  • 10. Interstellar


BEST DIRECTION

  • Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárittu

  • Boyhood, Richard Linklater

  • Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller

  • Gone Girl, David Fincher

  • The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Birdman

  • Boyhood

  • Foxcatcher

  • Selma

  • Whiplash


BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION

  • The Fault in Our Stars

  • Gone Girl

  • The Imitation Game

  • The Theory of Everything

  • Unbroken


BEST ACTOR

  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

  • Michael Keaton, Birdman

  • David Oyelowo, Selma

  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything


BEST ACTRESS

  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything

  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice

  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

  • Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Robert Duvall, The Judge

  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

  • Edward Norton, Birdman

  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher

  • J. K. Simmons, Whiplash


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

  • Laura Dern, Wild

  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game

  • Emma Stone, Birdman

  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Review: Detour



The 1945 film Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, isn't quite the shoe-string effort movie lore has made it out to be. The shooting schedule was four weeks, not six days. The budget was approximately five times the widely reported $20,000. The film isn't conspicuously underproduced, either; apart from the unconvincing treatment of the New York City streets in an early scene, it actually looks better than most television programs from the black-and-white era. What movie lore gets right is that it is one of the best of the 1940s B-pictures--the low-budget second films in a theatrical double-bill. Tom Neal plays a New York nightclub pianist who's making his way across the country to rejoin his singer fiancée (Claudia Drake) in Los Angeles. A man he hitches a ride with in Arizona dies in a roadside accident. Afraid he'll be arrested for murder, he disposes of the man's body and assumes the fellow's identity for the rest of the drive to California. Along the way, he picks up a female hitchhiker (Ann Savage) who knew the dead man and proceeds to blackmail him. Both characters are completely unsympathetic--he's surly and self-pitying, and she's an opportunistic shrew--but Ulmer and the actors get a compelling tension going between the pair. They make no secret of their mutual dislike (although she makes it known she's sexually available), and the suspense comes from seeing how the woman's conniving and bullying play out. Ann Savage's performance is especially striking. She projects a ferocious, almost predatory air that makes the character possibly the most frightening femme fatale ever. Ulmer's staging and camerawork is sleek and economical, and despite the thin plotting, he keeps this noir melodrama crisply paced. Admirably, he avoids playing the moments of death and violence for thrills. He also shows a surprising talent for musical scenes; the two featuring Claudia Drake are probably the best directed in the film. The screenplay is by Martin Goldsmith, from his 1939 novel.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Publication Announcement: All Quacked Up: Steve Gerber, Marvel Comics, and Howard the Duck

The Hooded Utilitarian has published my exhaustively researched and detailed account of Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber's business and legal dealings with Marvel Comics over the decades. Particular attention is paid to the circumstances of Gerber's 1978 termination by the publisher and the specifics of his 1980 lawsuit for ownership of the Howard character. Much of the account comes directly from primary source documents, including the two parties' contracts, business correspondence, and court filings. Click here for the article. An appendix post featuring the source documents can be found here.