Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Wrong Man (1956)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail
Starring: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles

Black & White, 105 minutes

Grade: A

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is considered such a meticulous craftsman and visual stylist that we often lose sight of the fact that he was also one of the most experimental of filmmakers. From the use of Salvador Dali's designs in Spellbound to the theatrical setup and long takes in Rope to the cheap, exploitive look in Psycho to the pioneering sound effects in The Birds, Hitchcock was always pushing audiences and himself to new heights. It was in 1956's The Wrong Man, that his experimentation would hit its zenith. In telling the true story of 'Manny' Balestrero (Fonda), Hitchcock pared his visual style down to the basics, giving the film an almost neorealist, semi-documentary approach. The result is one of Hitchcock's most frightening, and touching, films.

Balestrero is a jazz musician at a night club, a devout Catholic, and a good family man, but he's incredibly unlucky, and he just can't seem to catch a break. Unfortunately, things are only going to get worse. In order to pay for his wife's dental work, Balestrero decides to get the money by borrowing against her life insurance policy. While at the insurance office, an employee mistakes him for the man who has held her up at gunpoint on two separate occasions in the past. The police are contacted, and Balestrero is arrested. Interrogated for hours on end, fingerprinted, and forced to spend the night in jail, Balestrero is at his wits end. After some friends pool enough money together to post bail, Balestrero hires himself a lawyer (Anthony Quayle), and does his best to remember where he was on the days that the robberies took place. His wife Rose (Miles) is faithful, and she does her best to help, but the proceedings eventually begin to take their toll on her sanity. Balestrero is left with a balancing act, trying to juggle his wife's emotional stability while still trying to prove his innocence.

If Notorious is Hitchcock's most romantic film, I Confess his most personal, Vertigo his most subconscious, and Frenzy his most perverse, then The Wrong Man is easily his most realistic accomplishment. Cases of mistaken identity are present in much of his work, but here there are no crop dusters to dodge, no Mt. Rushmore to dangle from, there is only the terrifying realization that, unless a miracle happens, you are being put behind bars. Hitchcock knows that this fact is scary enough on its own, and he makes sure the visuals never call attention away from the story. The direction is simple and matter of fact, and there are only two or three instances (the camera going through a peephole in a jail cell door, a cracked mirror drawing a line through the middle of Fonda's reflection) that make it instantly recognizable as vintage Hitchcock.

Fonda, the great everyman, is fantastic in his performance. You can see the worry in his brow, the shock in his eyes, and the fear deep inside him when his lips tremble. Seeing Fonda play a nice guy is nothing new, but the casting is right, and he gets to the foundations of this character. Vera Miles, the biggest surprise here, is every bit as good as Fonda. We understand she is a loyal wife and mother, but Miles manages to convey something a little darker, and more mysterious. Is she driven mad simply because of the emotional strain, or because she actually begins to believe that her husband is guilty? Miles makes you wonder. While I've appreciated her performances in Psycho and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I've never understood why she was Hitch's first choice for Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo. Now I know.

The Wrong Man is a tense, exciting, and fascinating film. It's not as highly regarded as many of Hitchcock's films, but it is just as essential. It proves, as if we didn't already know, that even though his films may not have always been as "groundbreaking" as some of his contemporaries', he was never to be outdone. He was filmmaker who welcomed change, and thrived on it, and this is precisely why his films are so endlessly fascinating. He may have never received an Oscar, but I defy you to show me a filmmaker whose work holds up as well as his.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day of Wrath (1943)

Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by: Carl Th. Dreyer, based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssens
Starring: Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Thorkild Roose

Black & White, 97 minutes, Danish

Grade: A-

"You asked if I ever wished you were dead. I have wished it hundreds of times."

These are the defining words of Carl Th. Dreyer's 1943 masterpiece Day of Wrath, a film of dark provocations that, like all of Dreyer's work, will haunt you the rest of your days. The story, set in 17th Century Denmark, concerns a very small town in which an elderly woman has been accused of witchcraft. The woman passionately denies the claim, and after hours of torture, she is burned at the stake. Before she dies, she curses her accusers, Reverend Absalon(Thorkild Roose) in particular, and tells them that they will all die for what they have done to her. The Reverend pays no mind to these words, he knows the ways in which people react to being burned alive, but it's what he doesn't know that just might bring the old lady's prophecy to pass. What he doesn't know is that his very young and newly acquired wife (Lisbeth Movin), is having an affair with his son (Preben Lerdorff) from a previous marriage. This affair will have ramifications that no one, except the recently departed old woman, could have predicted.

Carl Dreyer is, quite simply, one of the four or five greatest filmmakers to ever set foot on this planet. The reason for this, besides his masterful technical skill, was that he was utterly and completely uncompromising. During his sixty years as a filmmaker he made only fourteen films, and only five of them were made in sound. In my own personal opinion, I find Dreyer to be responsible for the greatest silent film of all time, 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc (Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. is a close second), one of the strangest and most uniquely atmospheric horror films I've ever seen, 1931's Vampyr, and what just has to be the definitive film ever to deal with the Christian faith, 1955's Ordet. Now, if you can get through these heaping piles of praise, let me say that Day of Wrath is the weakest Dreyer film that I've yet to watch. That being said, and Dreyer being who he is, it's still more powerful than most of the movies you'll ever be likely to come across in your lifetime.

The power in the film lies in the performances. Unlike any typical Hollywood production, Day of Wrath contains nothing resembling "acting." Dreyer was known for doing long takes, multiple times. He wanted to emotionally drain his performers until they were no longer acting, and Wrath follows in this tradition. The acting here is extremely naturalistic, as if these people were truly living out these situations, and Dreyer captures the burning intensity in each and every pair of eyes that comes in front of his camera. This intensity carries over to the audience, raising the level of tension to alarming heights. We aren't simply watching a movie here, we're seeing a filmed record of a terrifying time period in which seemingly no one was safe from persecution, and it all plays out on the faces of the performers. All of the stars of Hollywood out there making $20 million a movie could really learn a thing or two from watching acting like this. This is what acting should be.

There are no glaring flaws here. All of Dreyer's work is filled with exceptional photography, and Day of Wrath is no exception. Karl Andersson is the cinematographer here, and he fills the each frame with layers of shadow, letting only the smallest amount of light, and hope, shine through. Erik Aaes' art direction is spare, (the interior of a house, a torture chamber, the strictest confines of a church), yet entirely believable. The problem I have with the film is not the slow, deliberate pace that's common throughout all of Dreyer's work, but in the ending. Missing is the cathartic, emotional climax that made Joan of Arc and Ordet so special. The ending in Wrath is satisfying, but it doesn't tear at your soul in the trademark Dreyer way, and it is this reason only that the film strays from masterpiece status.

My one complaint aside, this film is still essential. Dreyer's influence can be found in many great filmmakers, but it is in Wrath that I see the foundations for some of Ingmar Bergman's greatest works. The dealings with the Reverend reminded me of Gunnar Bjornstrand's struggles in 1963's Winter Light, and the burning of the old woman had to lend some inspiration to the death of the child witch in 1957's The Seventh Seal, and like those two films, Wrath defies easy convention. It is a demanding, powerful, and thought provoking piece of work. Give in and let the film work you over. You will not regret it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, based on an original
story by Inez Wallace
Produced by: Val Lewton
Starring: Frances Dee, James Ellison, Tom Conway
Black & White, 69 minutes

Grade: B

In the late 1930's, Val Lewton made a name for himself working as a story editor for produce David O. Selznick. Lewton was on the front lines of such productions as Gone With the Wind and Hitchcock's Rebecca. Remember the famous crane shot in Wind that pulls back to show Scarlett walking through hundreds of wounded soldiers? That was Lewton's idea, which he meant as a joke. A few years later, growing tired of Selznick's megalomania, Lewton left to become head of RKO's B-horror unit. RKO was on the verge of ruin, due to the financial failure of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and desperately needed to quickly churn out a few inexpensive hits. Lewton was given a handful of titles to choose from and told to turn them into screenplays. He was given free reign over the films, and when choosing his first director, he turned to old pal Jacques Tourneur. Their first film together(Cat People) was a huge hit, and RKO wanted more.

For their next collaboration they chose an "original" story by Inez Wallace. Now, to be fair, Wallace's story may be completely original, but the screenplay, cooked up by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man), borrows more than a few elements from Jane Eyre, not to mention a voice-over from Rebecca, and mixes in a bit of voodoo for good measure. Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) is a nurse that's still a little wet behind the ears, and more than a bit naive. She is offered a position taking care of Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon), a catatonic woman, referred to as a "zombie," who resides on a sugar plantation in St. Sebastian, an island in the West Indies. Betsy is promised "palm trees, sunbathing, and swimming," but the island holds darker, more terrifying secrets (they always do). In trying to find a cure for Jessica's illness, Betsy falls in love with Paul (Tom Conway), her patients husband. The problem comes in the fact that Paul may or may not have caused Jessica's illness when he found out about the affair she was having with his half-brother Wesley. This all happens in the first ten minutes. After that we get a visit to a voodoo encampment, a creepy looking, bug eyed dude that does nothing but stare, various shots of skulls and hollowed out gourds, and a couple of interesting twists in the third act.

If you can't tell already, this is probably the most plot heavy horror film ever made, and amazingly it lasts just over an hour. The performances are as serviceable as usual for this type of low budget chiller, but it is in the production values that the film excels and Lewton shows his genius. Tourneur, who went on to make Out of the Past, knows how to stage a suspenseful scene, and cinematographer J. Roy Hunt plays with shadow so effectively that he betrays his low budget roots. Roy Webb's music does exactly what a horror film score should, it maintains an eerie atmosphere without ever pointing out the shocks on screen.

The film has an authentic local flavor, those voodoo chants in particular, that seemed to me to be a sort of precursor to Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man. The overall gothic atmosphere of the proceedings also reminded me of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Yet, in the end, I would rather watch The Wicker Man again, or reread Beloved before I give this film another spin. I admire what Lewton and his accomplice were able to accomplish under such restrictions, but regardless of their intelligence and quality, the films are quite dated. What was creepy and effective sixty years ago has unfortunately been squandered away thanks to all the ultra-violent excuses for horror films that we have seen throughout the years (I'm talking about you Hostel). This is more of an admission of my own ignorance than anything. It's certainly not the fault of Lewton or his films, there's no way that he could have possibly had the foresight to know how desensitized we would all become.

All in all, I Walked with a Zombie is not a waste of time in any way. It's a smart film that's competently made, and it's certainly better than anyone could have anticipated at the time, and it's actually much better than it has any justifiable right to be. It's always nice to look back and see what scared the audiences of former generations, but throughout Zombie's 70 minute running time, I couldn't help but wonder what my grandchildren will think of the violence in the films of my generation. Scary thought, no? Certainly scarier than anything in this movie.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Directed by: Frank Borzage
Written by: George Froeschel, Andersen Ellis, Claudine West
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan

Black & White, 100 minutes

Grade: B+

Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm is an admirable little film released right before America's involvement in World War II. Today this film has been forgotten, but it's ripe for rediscovery seeing as how it's themes are still relevant today. Southern Germany in 1933, Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan, the title role in The Wizard of Oz) is celebrating his 60th birthday. His family throws a birthday dinner for him, and they invite two young men, Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and Martin Breitner (Jimmy Stewart). Both of the men are in love with Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), but it is Marberg that gets to her first, and they announce their engagement at the dinner table. Only a few moments later, the family gets another life altering announcement, this time over the radio: "Adolf Hitler has just been appointed Chancellor of Germany."

Roth's stepsons are elated, and so is Fritz. They see Hitler as the guiding light their country needs. Roth, however, realizes what is at stake. His wife and stepsons are of "Aryan" race, while the Professor and his daughter are not. The biggest troublemaker, though, is Breitner, a German (yes, Stewart's Pennsylvania accent is intact) who refuses to support Nazism. "I think peace is better than war," Breitner says to his friends, and his friends aren't happy to hear this. Freya still harbors feelings for Breitner, and tries to keep him around, but Fritz's increasing amount of loyalty to the Reich makes it dangerous. Freya finally realizes Fritz's ignorance and leaves him. When she reveals her feelings to Breitner, he reciprocates, but it's too late. He has to help a friend cross the border to Austria (on skis no less), and Freya's father is taken and put into a concentration camp. Realizing that time is running out, Freya must find a way to escape.

Now, as melodramatic as it may sound, this film is quite remarkable for it's time. It takes a clear, unwavering stance against Nazism, and was one of few Hollywood films at the time that did. The most amazing aspect is that not only does it take a stand, but it clearly shows the ignorance and naivety of Nazi supporters. The film depicts them as individuals who sincerely believe that Germany will be changed for the better, and they stand by that belief no matter what, even when their families are torn apart because of it.

Director Borzage has a keen grip on this production. There are many set pieces (a classroom, a pub, the dining room) that he stages with such great precision that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The cinematography by William H. Daniels takes a few too many cues from Rudolph Mate's work in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc in certain scenes, but he really excels with the exteriors, especially on the slopes, and gives the whole thing a real sense of urgency.

As much as I respected The Mortal Storm, there are many faults that are hard to overlook. Honestly, Jimmy Stewart as a German?! The man is my favorite actor of all time, and I think his talent was unbelievable, but his accent is completely unmistakable. In fact, none of the other actors are believable as Germans either, but the acting in this film is so good, especially by Morgan and Stewart, that after about ten minutes you just go with it. The intentional ambiguity (Roth is never referred to as being Jewish, he is simply "non-Aryan") becomes laughable and makes the film feel more dated than it should be. The biggest complaint I have, however, comes from the climax. Turning an intelligent, mature, and touching story into a routine chase across the Alps reduces the film to high class soap opera.

While it may not be a masterpiece, The Mortal Storm is a so very solid film that still stands as a bit of an anomaly in Hollywood's history. It's a bold film that has a purpose, and that's always something rare, even in today's market. In fact, after seeing this film, Hitler banned all of MGM's films in Germany, which was quite a big deal since MGM had a big market in that country. The film also serves as a nice reminder of Stewart's awesome range as an actor. Right before this film he did Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and right after would be his Oscar winning performance in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story. These are three very different roles, and he excelled in them all, so for Stewart fans this film is essential, and that's a good enough reason for many people. Unfortunately, The Mortal Storm is not available on DVD. For some reason we can get twelve different versions of Saw II on disc, but not a classic Jimmy Stewart movie. However, if you do come across this film, whether it be on television (like me) or VHS, it is definitely worth your while.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

a.k.a. Madame de...

Directed by: Max Ophuls
Written by: Marcel Archard, Max Ophuls, Annete
Starring: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica

Black & White, 105 minutes, French

Grade: A+

Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Madame de... is one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. Andrew Sarris, who used Ophuls as the basis for his "auteur theory," often referred to it as the greatest film of all time, and Dave Kehr went one better by calling it "one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands." It was in the shadow of such high praise that I watched this film, and, surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed in the least. This is a beautiful, multi-layered, and fascinating motion picture that can easily stand with the greats.

The reason for the films success is quite simple: Ophuls was a masterful filmmaker. Practically unknown to the general public, but loved by critics, Ophuls was a bit like The Velvet Underground of cinema. Not everybody has heard of him, but those who have witnessed his work were extremely effected by it. After years of reading his praises and searching for his films (only one of his films, Lola Montes, has been released on DVD, and it's now out of print), I finally found a copy of Madame de... on VHS. The transfer was nothing short of horrible, and the subtitling was even worse, but Ophuls' talent was evident from the first frame.

In 19th century Vienna, we see the Comtesse Louise de... (Danielle Darrieux), whose last name is never given to suggest that she is practically interchangeable with any other female member of the priviliged class, frantically tearing through her bedroom, looking for something she can sell to help pay off her debts. She likes her necklaces, and she sure as hell isn't going to give up her furs, so she settles on a pair of diamond earrings that were a wedding present from her husband, General Andre de...(Charles Boyer). The romance has left their marriage, the nostalgia has faded, and she never really liked the earrings to begin with. At the pawnshop the broker is stunned to see a pair of earrings that he had sold to Andre years before, in happier times.

Later that night at the opera, Louise makes a big spectacle about her missing earrings. Her husband, who has no knowledge of her financial troubles, goes to the trouble of having an article put in the newspaper about the missing jewelry. The pawnbroker sees this and automatically brings the earrings back to Andre. The General is visibly upset, yet he does not confront Louise about it, instead he prefers to subtly ask her questions about them, and the audience discovers that Louise is a compulsive liar. The General eventually gives the earrings to his mistress, who loses them at a roulette table in Constantinople. Eventually they end up in the hands of Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica), who has just ran into the woman of his dreams, a woman that happens to be the Comtesse Louise. From this point on, Ophuls provides us with a love triangle whose actions and ramifications are surprisingly touching.

Ophuls' biggest claim to fame is the way he handles his camera. He was a master of the mobile camera, and Madame de... has some of the most amazing tracking shots put on film. His work may have inspired later masters, such as Kubrick, Scorsese, and Bertolucci, but unlike those directors, Ophuls' style is not there to simply dazzle us, it has a purpose. The fluidity is natural and integral to the plot, as if the story was meant to be filmed this way, and only this particular way.

Aside from these tracking shots, Ophuls peppers his film visual flourishes. In one scene we see a letter torn to shreds and thrown out the window of a moving train, the floating paper quickly turns into falling snow, and we are now in winter. The most stunning accomplishment in the film, however, is the ballroom sequence. Ophuls shows us Donati and Louise spinning around on the dance floor. The camera circles the two of them, and without missing a beat we see their clothes have changed and an entire courtship plays out in a matter of minutes without ever leaving the dance floor, establishing Ophuls as the most economical of filmmakers.

The performances in Madame de... are simply perfection. Darrieux brings the right amount of naivete and elegance to a role that would falter in lesser hands. Boyer is assertive and demanding as Andre, and De Sica, the biggest surprise here, proves that he can act as well as he can direct, and that, my friends, is quite an accomplishment. His Baron is an innocent, hopelessly in love with an impossible woman. Other actors would exploit the ignorance in the character, but De Sica is solid in his sincerity, and we buy into every bit of it.

The General tells his wife that their relationship is "superficially superficial," and so it is, but Ophuls, through all the beautiful costumes and production design, finds a deeper truth in his material. We see the vanity, shallowness, and greed of the upper class, but, nonetheless, we care about these individuals. Madame de... does not deserve the attention of Andre, and she certainly doesn't warrant the fuss made by Donati, but we want a happy ending. The fact that Ophuls refuses to give us that satisfaction proves that he is not a romantic, he is a cynic, plain and simple.

As I mentioned earlier, Ophuls' films are hard to find. Madame de... has just been restored and is being shown in art houses across the country. Hopefully this will revive the recognition that it once received, and we will see some of his releases hit the DVD market. Personally, I've been searching in vain for a copy of his Letter from an Unknown Woman from 1948, mostly because I harbor a secret crush on Joan Fontaine, but a world class filmmaker with such immense talent demands an audience. This is a man whose reputation ranks him alongside the likes of Welles, Hitchcock, and Bergman. If you are lucky enough to find any of his films, I cannot urge you enough to spend the money and the time. Such talent is rare, and it must be cherished.

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman, William Faulkner, based on story by Ernest Hemingway
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan

Black & White, 100 minutes

Grade: A

Think about it. Bogie, Bacall, Hawks, Hemingway, Faulkner. What could go wrong with a line up like that? Honestly, not a whole lot. In the summer of 1940 on the island of Martinique, fisherman Harry Morgan (Bogart) is doing his best to make it. He and his alcoholic pal Eddie (Brennan) are giving fishing lessons to high rollers and they aren't too interested in the local political climate. In a bar, Harry meets Marie (Bacall), a curvaceous pickpocket that can work any man she meets, except Harry of course. During their flirtatious exchanges, a shootout occurs in the bar between Vichy forces and members of the Resistance. Afterwards, the patrons of the bar are interrogated, and Harry is suspected of being a sympathizer of the Resistance. With his money and passport taken from him, Harry does take a job helping the resistance and he develops a conscience, as well as a romance, along the way.

To Have and Have Not is basically Hawks' version of Casablanca. Similar in both story and tone, it's easy to see that Hawks' film is the more stylish of the two, but it doesn't have the grandeur of the Curtiz film. Both films are very laid back in their storytelling approach, and that would be my one complaint about this film. Technically speaking the film is superb, but, unlike Casablanca, the lazy feeling tends to hamper the plot. Now, this is a very minor complaint, and the Furthman and Faulkner layer the film with sharp, biting dialogue that is worthy of Wilder's best work, and the actors eat it up. Bacall practically defines sex appeal when she tells Bogie how to whistle ("put your lips together and... blow").

Although I've unfairly compared this film to Casablanca, there is very little competition for Howard Hawks. Here was a director who was seemingly unstoppable. He had the ability to not only work in any genre he wanted, but to work extremely well in any genre. A list of his masterpieces would consist of gangster films (Scarface), comedies (Bringing up Baby), westerns (Red River), noir (The Big Sleep), and even sci-fi/horror (The Thing from Another World). He may not have been the visionary that John Ford was, and he surely wasn't as groundbreaking as Orson Welles was, but it is no question that his work influenced every filmmaker who followed him. This film could be seen as a minor success for him, but that doesn't make it any less worthy of your time.

Besides being the film that introduced 19 year old Lauren Bacall to audiences, To Have and Have Not is the film that introduced her to Bogart. They would marry soon after, and would work together three more times, most notably in The Big Sleep. Her role here is tailor made for a star. Not only does she gets the best lines in the film, she gets to sing alongside Hoagy Carmichael. This film makes it very easy to see why Bogart fell for her, she is completely magnetic and the chemistry between the two of them practically emanates from the screen. Bogart is his typically reliable self, which is great, and Walter Brennan plays comedic relief like it's second nature. Hawks, aided immensely by editor Christian Nyby, handles the action scenes perfectly, and makes sure that the characters never take a back seat for the sake of the story or locale.

While it would make a great double bill with Casablanca, To Have and Have Not also serves as a nice warm up for what this team would eventually pull of in The Big Sleep. The sparks are there, but it would take another two years before the blaze really caught on. This film doesn't get as much press as some of Bogie's other efforts, but it certainly should. He would push his performances to new heights later in his career with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place, and The African Queen, but he would never be matched on screen the way he is here. Bacall is every bit as sassy and tough as he is, and it's a joy to watch.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Clarence Budington Kellund and Robert Riskin
Starring: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur

Black & White, 115 minutes

Grade: A+

Longfellow Deeds (Cooper) is a simple man who enjoys long walks in the woods. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he has a good job writing poems for postcards, and he is something of a local celebrity in his hometown of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. The serenity of his peaceful existence is thrown off kilter when his uncle passes away and leaves Deeds with a $20 million inheritance. Deeds waves goodbye to Mandrake Falls and heads to his uncle's home in New York. During his stay he is tricked,manipulated, and deceived by nearly everyone around him for a piece of the money. The most notable backstabber is reporter Louise "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur) who seduces Deeds into caring for her only to make him out to be a complete fool on the front page, branding him "The Cinderella Man." Upon realizing Bennett's betrayal, Deeds decides to head back to Vermont. On his way out the door, Deeds is confronted by a farmer who is down on his luck. Seeing this, Deeds decides to give his entire inheritance to a group of local farmers. Of course, once the lawyers of New York hear this, Deeds has his sanity put up on trial. Literally.

Another one of Capra's odes to the common man, Deeds holds up well today because of Cooper's incisive acting and Capra's uncanny ability to pierce the human heart. Not outrageous enough to fit into the category of screwball comedy, and not sentimental enough to be melodrama, Capra is able to find the perfect balance that keeps this material interesting, pleasant, and even fairly suspenseful.

Now, I'm going to be completely honest here. I am of the mind that Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is in the upper echelon of the greatest achievements in world cinema. I'm not going to get into it here, but I will say that no film, with the exception of Vertigo, has the power to effect me as much on repeated viewings as that film. Mr. Deeds is nowhere near as good as that film, but it is still an essential experience., mainly because it's here that Capra plants the seeds that would grow to full bloom in Wonderful Life. The two films are very similar, especially in their lead characters. They are both very nice, genuine, and humble men who find themselves near the end of their rope, trapped in what seems to be an impossible situation. The difference between the two is that Longfellow Deeds isn't afraid to raise some hell when he needs to. It's quite often that you see him in fist fights defending his honor. It's this element that makes Deeds a bit more human that George Bailey. He's a nice guy alright, and maybe even more than a bit naive, but he isn't above putting others in their place, and Gary Cooper lets all that register on his face. From bewilderment to anger to subtle surprise, Cooper has no problem with the range of emotions that Capra throws at him. It's a surprisingly deep performance.

In the end, however, this is Capra's film. This type of material takes a master to steer it home, and Capra is more than up for the challenge. Often overlooked by many snobs because his films lack the style of many of his contemporaries, Capra was nonetheless a true visionary. I believe He had both the courage and the foresight to see the potential impact that his films could have on future audiences. He was willing to be sentimental when many "serious" filmmakers were not, and because of that, he will never be forgotten. His films have a lasting quality because, like Deeds and Bailey, they too are simple. They aren't out to shake us or attack our senses or shove a message down our throats. Capra's films are there to remind us that people can still be good. "He's got goodness," says Babe Bennett when talking about Longfellow Deeds. The same could easily be said of Frank Capra, and his genius was that he believed the same could be said for everyone else.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Written & Directed by: Isao Takahata

Animated, 93 Minutes

Grade: A+

For decades, animation has been one of the most revolutionary tools in cinema. Why is it that so few directors have ever utilized it to the fullest potential? I mean, sure, there are many animated films that can be called great in one way or another, but there is rarely any sort of middle ground. We get all sorts of Disney cuteness (Bambi, Dumbo) that caters to kiddies, we even get post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, cyberpunk thrillers (Akira, Wicked City) for adults, but we rarely ever get any sort of balance between the two. Now, before you start throwing examples from the Shrek movies or the latest Pixar film at me, save it. Sure, they have quick-witted dialogue and even some sly double entendres, but they really aren't challenging to audiences. This is precisely why the films of Studio Ghibli stand far above any other animated films ever made. The Japanese studio is home to two great filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Miyazaki is quite possibly one of the most consistent filmmakers the world has ever seen. From My Neighbor Totoro to Princess Mononoke to the more recent Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki has churned out masterpiece on top of masterpiece. Isao Takahata, however, may be his equal in many ways, but his films are not as well known in America. Grave of the Fireflies is my first experience with Takahata, and if it's the only film of his that I ever see, I will still consider him one of the greats.

Toward the end of World War II, Japan is being firebombed by American forces. After their mother dies in one of the air raids, teenage boy Seita and his younger sister Setsuko are doing their best to survive. With their father serving in the Imperial Navy, the two siblings find refuge with their aunt. Because of food shortages, they are reduced to selling their mother's kimonos to buy rice. After a while, the children's aunt becomes overbearing, yelling at Seita because he doesn't attend school or have a job. Of course, the schools have all been destroyed, and besides the military or government, there are very few options for employment. Eventually the children have enough, and head out to fend for themselves. They turn an old bomb shelter into a living quarters, and they do what they can for food. They eat dried frogs, steal vegetables from local gardens, and even resort to looting other houses during air raids. All of this builds the story to a heartbreaking conclusion that will affect everyone who watches it.

Five minutes into this film, I totally forgot it was animated. The characters of Seita and Setsuko are so well-written, and so richly detailed that you perceive them as real people. You feel for them every step of the way. Like all of Studio Ghibli's films, the animation is extremely well done, but it is the content of this story that is surprising. Working from a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Takahata gives us images of wartime terror and scenes so harrowing that they can easily rival any live action film. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but this film is incredibly emotional, and it's one of the most honest representations of a relationship between siblings that I've ever witnessed, calling to mind the father and son relationship at the center of DeSica's Bicycle Thieves. Not only does it transcend animation, but in terms of emotion it transcends nearly every anti-war film ever made, standing alongside films such as The Deer Hunter, and even Schindler's List.

So, why take such a shattering story and make it animated? Simply because a live action version would be too much for audiences to bear. In fact, there was a live action version made for Japanese television a couple years ago, but the word is that the story was told from the aunt's perspective. Big mistake. The children are the key. Being told from the perspective from two children, the film avoids politics. Not once does any character make any mention of America. We see the planes overhead, burning villages to the ground, but children don't concern themselves with patriotism. They are looking only for safety, and this is what makes the film so great. Fingers are never pointed, blame is never placed, because in war it doesn't matter who started it, it doesn't matter who finishes it, it only matters that it's over.

When it debuted in Japanese theaters, Grave of the Fireflies was the second film in a double feature with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. The two films couldn't be any more different. Totoro is endlessly delightful, where Fireflies is completely devastating. This terrible marketing strategy may have turned off most audience members in 1988, but seeing as how Totoro is my favorite animated film, I would have loved to have been there. That's a double feature that would put Grindhouse to shame.

Upon seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the legendary Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) called it the greatest film ever made. One can only imagine what kind of praise he would have given this film had he lived to see it. I like to imagine that he would have had the same reaction as I did - silently sitting there, heartbroken, with tears in his eyes. This is an extremely powerful film, and it is not to be missed. Young children may be traumatized by it, but older, more mature children will get the message. Either way, I would recommend that parents view the film first. It is available on DVD, and if you haven't seen it then this should be the next film you watch. There are few films that I would recommend higher than this one.

The Last Wave (1977)

Directed by: Peter Weir

Written by: Tony Morphett, Petru Popescu, Peter Weir

Starring: Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil

Color, 106 Minutes

Grade: A-

In the mid 1970's through the early '80's, a small group of filmmakers would emerge from Down Under to create a sort of Australian New Wave. This group consisted of directors like George Miller (Mad Max)and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), and actors such as Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman. All would go on to careers in Hollywood, but it was Peter Weir who paved the way. After stunning audiences with 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir went on to create one of the most unique and consistent pedigrees of any active filmmaker. His films include Gallipoli, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander, but it was in his early work that he proved his worth. The Last Wave was released in 1977, and it is further confirmation of not only Weir's genius, but of how undervalued and overlooked his work has become.

David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) is a young lawyer in Sydney who specializes in corporate taxation. He is fairly successful, living an upper middle class existence with his wife and two young daughters. Lately he has been having trouble sleeping due to wicked dreams about a man standing outside his window. Late one Sunday afternoon, Burton gets a call asking him to defend a group of Aborigines accused of murdering one of their own. He meets with the defendants, only to find them silent and uncooperative. He is intrigued nonetheless, and invites one of the Aborigines named Chris (David Gulpilil) over for dinner. Realizing that Chris is the man from his dreams, Burton begins to suspect something supernatural at work. On top of all this, the city of Sydney is experiencing strange weather patterns with large hail, mud, and black rain falling from the sky at seemingly random times. Both Burton's dreams and Sydney's weather intensify as the weeks go on, driving the film to a haunting, apocalyptic conclusion.

As with all of Weir's films, there is more here than meets the eye. The film works well as a thriller, but it's the clash between two completely different cultures that is the heart of the film. Very few films have accurately portrayed Aboriginal life, Nicolas Roeg's brilliant Walkabout (also starring Gulpilil) is the exception, and Weir manages to show us a deeply fascinating world which we can probably never fully understand. The interaction between Chamberlain and Gulpilil adds to this by showing us a determined man who is struggling to get to the bottom of things, only to find that some mysteries are better left unsolved.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir and his gifted cinematographer Russel Boyd played tricks with our minds, making us see images in the faces of the rocks and cliffs where four girls mysteriously disappeared. Here, they give us frightening, almost surreal images of water that build enormous tension. A bathtub overflows, forcing water to drip down a staircase, water flows from a car radio, water even rushes down the walls of a house. With all of this craziness going on, Chamberlain gives a surprisingly effective performance since his character is as confused and scared as the audience. The eclectic score by Charles Wain heightens the hypnotic effect with some very strange sounds, most of which come from a didgeridoo.

This is a very odd movie that combines genres of thriller, disaster movie, detective story, horror film, and even adds a hint of a fish out of water tale. The film can be somewhat confusing at times, not to mention dated, but it stands tall as a completely unique vision of the Apocalypse. It fits well into Weir's oeuvre, since most of his films have to do with an individual's conflict with outside cultures and the forces of nature. This is a haunting, almost lyrical film that provides more evidence to support Weir's talent and singular vision. It is available on a great DVD released by the Criterion Collection (who also put out Hanging Rock), and it is definitely worth a look, maybe even two.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah, Willis Goldbeck, Dorothy M. Johnson
Starring: John Wayne, James Stewart

Black & White, 123 minutes

Grade: A+

The changing of the guard, the measure of a man, and the need for a hero are all themes running deep through John Ford's classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Tighter and more elegantly confined than most of Ford's westerns, Liberty Valance is the only team-up of two of the cinema's biggest stars. Wayne, the larger than life movie star, and Stewart, the "aw shucks" good old boy who had more range than any of his contemporaries, size each other up in one of Ford's best films, and one of the finest westerns ever made.

In the late 1800's an aging Senator by the name of Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) has just returned to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (Wayne). Everybody in Shinbone has heard of Stoddard, but none remember the recently departed Doniphon. Borrowing flashback elements from Citizen Kane, Ford has Stoddard tell the story of his friend to a local newspaper reporter, and over the course of two hours we are slowly sucked into a tale of two very different men who have enough common interests to coexist.

Stoddard is a young law school graduate with dreams of changing the world. He is traveling by stagecoach to the town of Shinbone when he is violently attacked by a gang of men led by the ruthless hellraiser Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, making sure to leave an impression). Somehow managing to make it into town, Stoddard is cared for by Hallie (Vera Miles), a woman who runs a local restaurant. While recuperating, Stoddard earns his keep as a dishwasher for Hallie. It is here that he meets Doniphon, a cowboy/gunslinger who laughs at the notion of law and order, preferring to let his six shooter do the talking. Of course Stoddard, the bleeding heart, and Doniphon, the old school hardass, are going to butt heads, but they both share a love for Hallie, and a disdain for Valance.

Stoddard eventually begins to find his place, and he starts a small school to teach the townsfolk not only the three R's, but History as well. He begins to instill a sort of civil pride in the citizens of Shinbone, and when delegates are chosen to lobby for statehood, Stoddard is nominated with due praise, much to the chagrin of Valance, who challenges Stoddard to a duel. Although afraid and inexperienced with a gun, Stoddard accepts the challenge and ultimately kills Valance. Or does he? If you don't know, I certainly won't spoil it for you, and don' let anyone else either. Just know that the answer leads the film to one of the most bittersweet and satisfying conclusions to ever come out of Hollywood.

The most amazing thing about this film is that it hasn't become dated in the least. It actually works almost in spite of itself. Every review I have ever read on this movie has given away all the major plot points, yet I was still enveloped in the story. In the first five minutes, we know that Stoddard has went on to a lucrative political career, while Doniphon has died, alone and forgotten. We know that Stoddard gets the girl, and we know from the title that Valance gets what's coming to him, but we are so completely caught up in a tale that on the surface seems incredibly simple.

Why? For one, Wayne was never better than his performance here, not even in The Searchers, and Stewart, who is always great, stands his ground and provides a very interesting contrast to Wayne's roughness. Stewart's character is meant to be the more effeminate of the two, and he even wears an apron through much of the picture, including the shootout with Valance, to prove it. The extremely stark cinematography by William H. Clothier gives the film a harsh, almost noirish atmosphere, and Ford, as always, makes great use of his typical stock company of actors, especially Woody Strode. I think it works, however, because of the contrast between two very different men, one devoted to change, one adamantly against it. Unlike most westerns, Liberty Valance tells us that the west wasn't won with violence, but with a change of ideals, and an acceptance of basic human rights. The gunfighters gave way to the politicians, and democracy began to flourish. Now, I don't know if Ford actually believed this way, but this is basically what we were taught in all of our history textbooks, reinforcing the classic line from this particular film, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Angel Face (1952)

Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Chester Erskine, Oscar Millard, and Frank S. Nugent
Produced by: Otto Preminger and Howard Hughes
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons
Black & White, 91 minutes

Grade: B

The seeds of Film Noir may have been planted by the German Expressionists of the 1920's, but it was Hollywood that wound up reaping the harvest in the following decades. Angel Face may have shown up a few years too late to leave much of an impression, but it does unite three of the key players involved in the shaping of American Noir. Preminger,of course, was responsible for the 1944 classic Laura, Mitchum had starred in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past in 1947, and Hughes was the main driving force behind Howard Hawks' Scarface, all the way back in 1932. The impact left by each of those three films is still being felt today, and comparatively speaking, it's easy to see why Angel Face has been forgotten.

Let me just start out by saying that Robert Mitchum is one of my favorite actors. He created what could be the greatest screen villain ever in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and his work in Out of the Past is the very definition of a heroic noir figure. His work here, while still great, is much more restrained, and the film suffers because of it. On the other hand, however, Jean Simmons is at her very best. Her performance is cold and calculating while being undeniably sexy. Simmons was fortunate enough to work with many of the best filmmakers of her era, from Lean to Powell and Pressburger to Kubrick, but it was in this very minor film that she was given the freedom to cut loose.

Frank Jessup (Mitchum) is a former race car driver who is now making ends meet as an ambulance driver. One night he happens across young Diane Tremayne (Simmons). The two have coffee and go for drive. Jessup tells her about his plans to raise enough money to open his own automotive shop. Diane has already fallen head over heels for Jessup, and she is able to talk her rich stepmother into hiring Jessup as the family chauffeur. After spending a few weeks with the family, Jessup realizes that Diane harbors a grudge against her stepmother, and is waiting for the right moment to permanently dispose of her. Jessup does his best to talk Diane out of murder, and the two make plans to run off together. The next day, Diane's stepmother backs her car off a cliff, killing her and her husband. Jessup and Diane are put on trial for murder, and a bizarre set of circumstances lead to film to a tragic, oddly satisfying conclusion.

Now, I'm not one to give away too many plot points to a film, but it's hard to describe this film in any sort of detail without giving too much away. The story is eloquently paced, but in the end there is about an hour's worth of plot stretched out over 90 minutes. Preminger and his cinematographer Harry Stradling indulge in elaborate tracking shots and carefully placed setups, but style does not make up for the lack of substance here. The more noirish elements play like leftovers of Laura, while the courtroom scenes feel like a dry run for Preminger's 1959 masterpiece, Anatomy of a Murder.

While it isn't anything to write home about, the film does stand as a very interesting curio. For a noir film, Angel Face lacks may of the genre's usual trappings, and it's very nice to see Simmons get a chance to burn up the screen. It is well known that Hughes was obsessed with her, and he forced her to do this film in order to break her contract with him and RKO. Another interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Preminger made Mitchum actually slap Simmons in one scene, and when asked to do a retake, Mitchum turned around and slapped Preminger instead. All in all, though, the back story is much more interesting than what is onscreen.