Monday, August 31, 2009

Sergei M. Eisenstein

There are not many films by Sergei Eisenstein that ARE NOT listed in "The Book" and for good reason. This Soviet director, who's films show great love for his country and it's history , was a true pioneer of the medium, who's technics were still borrowed by film makers. The majority of his films are political in nature especially his earliest which seems meant to justify the need and the justice of the Russian Revolution.

Strike (1924) The first of what could be called his homage to the revolution, Eisenstein shows the cruelty and injustice that would lead to the the strike of a factory in Russia. Full of images of the rich industry owners as fat cats and weasels, and rats, he present the workers in much more flattering images.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) After a series of indignities rained on the men on a navy battleship, one of which is being fed spoiled meat complete with crawling maggots, a rebellion is orchestrated. While not completely successful, the deaths suffered inspire others to rebel against injustice. This rebellion results in an extremely graphic massacre on the Odessa Steps that could well be one of the most copied scene every filmed.

October 1916: Ten Days That Shook the World (1926): All that revolting had to lead somewhere and October is the point where Eisenstein stages the revolution providing glimpses of the leaders and the revolution that broke out in the streets.

Ivan The Terrible Parts I & II (1945): Eisenstein looks back a bit farther into Russian history the present a story of Czar Ivan as he comes to power. Story goes that Stalin really liked Eisenstein and loved the first part of this movie. However, upon viewing the second part, he felt that Ivan was portrayed as extremely paranoid and cruel. With all that government purging going on thanks the Stalin's own plans, he pulled all support for Eisenstein's planned Part III.

Notable exceptions: With WWII close to a starting point and the threat of German invasion very real, Eisenstein filmed "Alexander Nevsky" the story of a 13th century Russian noblemen who lead his people against an invasion by the Teutonic Knights. A true treasure especially for it's battle sequences,

No Man's Land

Written and directed by Danis Tanović in 2001. This was one of those movies that makes your guts twist into knots. When enemies are forces into close quarters together, they eventually learn that they are not that different. This was an excellent story that places a face on the atrocities of warfare. When two Bosnian-Serb soldiers recon a trench, the leader rigs a booby trap (a mine under a corpse) that will explode the minute that the enemy tries to retrieve the body. Unfortunately, the leader is immediately killed leaving his subordinate in a face off with a Bosniak, the friend of the person that they set up. When the "corpse" awakens, they must now deal with his inability to move without being blown to bits. While the balance of power between the two shifts back and forth NATO is called in to assist in the matter in hopes of a resolution. 'Nuff said. This one really requires seeing.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Universal Monsters

For the older generations of movie goers, the monster movies coming from Universal Studios were the best thing around. Although they were not really a product of my generation, (except for their availability on television back in the day when there were only three TV stations) I have a great appreciation for many of them and continue to watch them periodically.

"Frankenstein" (1931) James Whale directed Frankenstein and placed in the role of a monster, Boris Karloff (billed only as "KARLOFF"). No stranger to film making, he had been a supporting player (over 70 films, as early as 1916) but this movie, and Universal Studios, made him the man who's name would be synonymous with the Frankenstein Monster. If asked to name persons that have performed the role many could name a few, some may name one or two, but EVERYONE could name Karloff.

"Bride of Frankenstein" (1934) James Whale returned to the director's chair to finish the saga of Frankenstein. Karloff returned for the last time as the monster, and again in "Son of Frankenstein" but would bow out for the three more times that Universal would write the monster into a monster movie script.

"Dracula" (1931) Tod Browning directed Bela Lugosi. Again, the old movies somehow manage to insert a face into a character that will never be forgotten. It's not blood, gore or special effects that make this movie. Christopher Lee may have been the scariest, Frank Langella was more stylish, Gary Oldman provided the animal magnetism but it was Lugosi's thick Romanian accent and hypnotic delivery that make it unforgettable. While Browning's direction of Lugosi may have produced the best portrayal, the best production of Dracula in 1931 may well go to the Spanish Language version, directed by George Melford. Often filming at night and able to view daily shootings, the production team was able to make many changes that dramatically stand out. Although Carlos Villarias's Dracula is inferior by leaps and bounds, the overall visual affects compensated for lack of a star of Lugosi's intensity. If you have not had the opportunity to see it and appreciate the Browning film, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.

The Wolf Man (1941) directed by George Waggner, stars Lon Chaney, Jr as Lawrence Talbot. While he was the son of "the Man of a Thousand Faces", who made an extraordinary career of creating extensive make-up devices, it was Jack Pierce who was responsible for the wolf man that would be the best ever for decades. It would take a lot of special effects and technology to knock it out of it's ranking. I have just learned that this is slated for a remake to be released in 2010.

Universal would also introduce viewers, to the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. While Universal was an innovator in the field of monster movies of their time, they finally saturated the market producing inferior sequels and allowed their characters to be included in comedy spoofs that finally made them the object of laughs rather than screams.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Once was definitely enough

“King Kong” (1933) Never mind the remakes, the door hadn’t stopped swinging shut from King Kong before RKO released “Son of Kong” in the hopes of riding on it’s success. I have seen the original a number of times. Though I enjoy it as a piece of film making history, I was SO IMPRESSED by Peter Jackson’s remake, I can’t watch the original any more.

“The Thin Man” (1934) Characters taken from a single novel by Dashiell Hammett. Nick and Norah Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) graced the screen 6 times. Although the THIN MAN is actually the character of focus in the original (a "thin man", missing after his girl friend is discovered dead), each following movie was title using “The Thin Man” (as in “After The Thin Man” and The Thin Man Goes Home”) it became the assumption that William Powell was in fact, THE Thin Man.

“Psycho” (1960) Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, Norman Bates is a fictional character patterned after Ed Gein, a serial killer in Wisconsin. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s filming original was so good that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake was a shot by shot recreation utilizing the same shooting script with little deviation from the original. Robert Bloch, wrote a sequel 1982 but the 1983 movie sequel was not an adaptation of his story.

“The Hustler” (1961) The story of “Fast Eddie” Felson a small time pool shark that longs for the big time only to find that the big time was more than he bargained for. Paul Newman would recreate the role for Martin Scorsese’s sequel which follows the hustler as he attempts to train a protege played by Tom Cruise. Not bad as sequels go.

“Shaft” (1971) Where Shaft may have been ground breaking, the sequels were no big deal. “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft In Africa” just did not offer a lot.

Superfly” (1972) Gordon Parks’ film account of a drug dealer attempting to leave the underworld business was meant to illustrate the negative aspects of the drug culture. “Superfly TNT” was a bomb.

“The Sting” (1973) One of the greatest con movies ever. Excellent cast. What could have gotten into a studio that would replace Paul Newman and Robert Redford, with Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis.

“American Graffiti” (1973) George Lucas’ coming-of-age film is all about 50s stereotypes (hot rods, letterman sweaters, drive-in diners) but is set in ’62. Almost as if the 50s were not quite over. “More American Graffiti” would follow much of the original cast as the real 60s come crashing down on them, with Viet Nam, the Kennedy Assassination and adulthood.

“The Exorcist” (1973) William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel was one of the greatest horror films of all-time, and would be followed by “The Exorcist 2: The Heretic” I’ve only seen it once and immediately put it into the “you got to me kidding me”category. Blatty actually wrote a sequel, LEGION that would later be adapted and directed by Blatty himself. A terrific story and great performances by George C. Scott, replacing the deceased Lee J. Cobb as Lt. Kinderman and Jason Miller returns as who we think is Father Karras. Wait, didn’t he die at the end of “The Exorcist”. Blatty’s film is a tightly woven story with some really creepy imagery that is the only worthy sequel for the original.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) The British Rock musical was a cult sensation becoming one of the most viewed midnight movie in history. The creative team of Jim Sharman, Lou Adler and Richard Hartley would follow up with “Shock Treatment” It flopped worse that the original which is really not a good thing (or is it???).

“Rocky” (1976) When it comes to boxing movies, “Rocky” is one of the best. The underdog gets his chance at the title. It’s a classic tale. I could even understand the reason for Rocky 2. But allowing it to continue for 3 more after that bordered on the side of caricature. I’m not really counting “Rocky Balboa”, since is actually paid to see it and kinda liked it as a chance of bringing it to a fitting end. Just, please, end it NOW.

“Saturday Night Fever” (1977) John Badham’s anthem for the disco age was followed much later as John Travolta’s Tony Manero leave the discotheque behind ant tries is luck at broadway. Sylvester Stallone directed “Staying Alive” in 1983, and though it was a financial success, it fell far short of the original in more ways than one.

“Halloween” (1978) John Carpenter’s original was followed by no less than 7 sequels following Michael Myers (not to be confused with Mike Myers) before the decision was made to cease and desist, and start working on remakes. Having seen the first remake directed by Rob Zombie, I am impressed. On a personal note, the first time I got to see “Halloween” it was on a black-and-white television. It was at least 10 years before I would see it in color and I thought that B&W made for a better film.

“Mad Max” (1979) For me, George Miller’s first installment in the Mad Max saga was a little less appealing than “The Road Warrior”. This one really drove home the feeling of total despair in a world where survival of the fittest, unmerciful bands of human monsters are looking for the gas required to keep going.

“Airplane!” (1980) This one ushered in the genre spoofing genre. Might be who we have to blame for “Meet The Spartans”

“The Evil Dead” (1982) Funny, I always thought Army of Darkness was the better of the three movies.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) Freddy Kruger has always appealed to me as a really cool movie monster, the whole “kill you in your dreams” thing was great. Like so many other monsters, the endless supply of sequels diminished the effect.

“Beverly Hills Cop” (1984) Eddie Murphy’s sassy Axel Foley was good. His timing was great for the character, but the interest was lost pretty quickly, making the sequels unmemorable. Another one of those that I don’t think lives up to the “must see” status.

Ghostbusters” (1984) Not sure why the first one is so much better than the second in this case, short of the novelty of the idea. Convincing the characters that they can do it is as funny as convincing the city of New York. When the second one came along, there was no need to convince.

“Back to the Future” (1985) I always liked this one and find all three to be equally enjoyable. Like with “Lord Of The Rings” if I make plans to watch one, I will clear out the calendar to watch them all. See the interlacing of the scenes between Parts 1, 2, and 3 is a big part of the fun.

“The Naked Gun” (1988) The follow up to the “Police Squad” TV series, was responsible for two sequels, each as hilarious as the others. Surely there’s only so far the bumbling Lieutenant can go. Don’t call me Shirley!

“Die Hard” (1988) Though I have yet to see the fourth one, with the first three under my belt, I found the first one to be the best. After the first one, John McLane just seemed to be a super hero that is no affected by explosions, machine gun fire and other objects that would cause serious injury to those not choreographed to deal with crashes, falls and being shot through a cockpit in an ejector seat.

“Batman” (1989) Long before Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, Tim Burton created a Batman and Gotham City that was a fantastic version of the Caped Crusader by Michael Keaton (you got to be kidding me was my first reaction when he was picked, but he pulled it off quite well) and Jack Nicholson’s Joker that was inspiring. While Burton’s “Batman Returns” is on equal footing in the franchise as far as I’m concerned, the ones directed up by Joel Schumacher, though dazzling, fizzled out. Even Jim Carrey’s Riddler (still one of the best portrayal of a Batman villain in my book) could not save them as Bruce Wayne was portrayed by two different actors.

"Scream" (1996) Wes Craven’s film pokes fun at the genre that was his bread and butter, but continuing the franchise is really just poking fun at the audience.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999) The last original, real independent hit of the 20th century. It is raw footage, with so little happening on camera while the audience reacts to the characters and situation rather then a visible horror. Giving the Blair Witch phenomenon a big Hollywood budget is kinda like giving Jack Kerouac a car and a gas card and expecting “On The Road” to be nearly as interesting as it was.

“The Matrix” (1999) After giving us one of the more fascinating special effects movies made for it’s time, the Wachowski Brothers followed up with more than my eyes and brain was able to follow. It took a few viewings for me to get the full gist of the story and it just exhausted me.

“Meet the Parents” (2000) After meeting the parents, “Meet the Fockerswasn’t really necessary. But then I’m not sure I could really classify the original as a “must see” either. Can’t say I didn’t like it but c’mon. I liked “Tropic Thunder" but it has no place on this list either.

Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of those directors that gets my attention IMMEDIATELY upon release of a new film. So basically, there are not many that I have missed and certainly not from "The Book".

Mean Streets (1973) Scorsese's first real film that would feature a signature style. Gritty street-wise characters, bloody-violence, guilt (especially Catholic guilt) and redemption. First of long string of films with Robert DeNiro.
Taxi Driver (1976) DeNiro isTravis Bickle. The anti-hero in this raw story of a confused man looking for an outlet for his disgust with the human race, especially as seen in New York City. Seems to have trouble relating to women. For Travis, the stock piling of an arsenal leads him to contemplating the assassination of a presidential candidate. While that doesn't come to pass, he turns his attention to a more noble cause as he tries to help a young streetwalker out of her situation.

Raging Bull (1980) The story of prize fighter Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro, of course) career. From highest to lowest. It is amazing to see Deniro's transformation from lean, mean punching machine to over-weight, wash up. An early film for Joe Pesci, who would play major roles in a few more Scorsese films.

The King of Comedy (1983) Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro, again) is an aspiring stand-up comic who is willing to kidnap a late night talk show host (played by a no nonsense Jerry Lewis) for a chance at the big time.

Goodfellas (1990) Probably the greatest underworld crime drama ever. Focuses on a character going from his teen years as a valet for the local pizza parlor that serves as the headquarters for the syndicate's operations through the end when he turns states evidence. It follow Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) with retrospective voice over, ending with Henry in the witness chair, who turns to the camera to finish his tale for the audience, not the court. DeNiro and Pesci add to the authenticity by providing tough performances as wise guys.

Casino (1995) Certainly a good film but I felt like it was just a continuation of previous mob film. Could easiliy have been "GoodfellasII, the Further Adventures of Jimmy and Tommy". The story leaves NY behind and focuses on the syndicates involvement in Las Vegas.

Gangs of New York (2002) An amazing period piece showing the rise of gangs in 1800's New York City. First time that Leonardo DiCaprio would work with Scorsese. It seems that DeNiro has passed the torch to Leo. Between portrayal of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting by Daniel Day-Lewis and the costume, setting it feels like some kind of alternate reality fable.

The Aviator (2004) A straight story about the life of Howard Hughes from aviation pioneer through his Hollywood years and his business aviation while shedding light on his germophobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes.

Notable exclusions: In my humble opinion, the absence of "The Last Temptation of Christ" is possibly the biggest flaw in "The Book's" represention of the best of Scorsese's career.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Old Stone Face

For some reason, Buster Keaton has been my favorite when speaking of the BIG THREE of silent comedy, preferring him to Charles Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. “The Book” served to reintroduce me to Keaton, and I have gone whole hog into adding him in one form or another to my DVD library, pre-feature shorts (often an hour worth of laughs packed tightly into a 20 minute show) and even his talkies (the spark of his comic genius is not bright), though I hate to say it nothing is really missed by missing them.

"Our Hospitality" (1923) Buster’s character is introduced to his girl friend’s family. Unfortunately the families’ have been feuding for years (very much like the Hatfields and McCoys) and the brothers of the girl plot to kill the unsuspecting beau. However, their southern hospitality will not allow them to assault an invited guest. The entire movie revolves around the family trying to get him to leave the house so that they can proceed with their plans.

"Sherlock, Jr." (1924) Buster is in competition for the hand of a beautiful girl. When the other suitor accusses him of stealing from the girl’s father, he slips into a dream world where he is a Holmes-esque detective that must find a stolen pearl necklace.

"Seven Chances" (1925) A confirmed bachelor stands to inherit a fortune if he gets married. As Buster attempts to find a willing bride, he is continuously rejected until new gets around about the fortune at stake.

"The General" (1927) When railroad engineer, Johnny Gray (love that name) tries to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress his girl friend, his rejection by the induction board is seen as a spot of shame on his manhood. When the Union Army kidnaps his girlfriend, he uses his locomotive “The General” to chase down , rescue and return her to her beloved hometown. I got the chance to see this one at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall with the accompaniment of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. If you ever get a chance to see a silent movie like this, take it.

"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) Probably my least favorite of the films listed. Buster is the “dandy” son of a Steamboat captain that falls for the daughter of his father’s rival. Junior tries to warm up to the father that wasn’t there for him and bridge the gap between the competitors.
Noteworthy exceptions: "The Cameraman" is another from Keaton's silent era that is just as good if not better than "Steamboat Bill, Jr."