Monday, September 28, 2009

James Cameron

The Terminator (1984) James Cameron would introduce the franchise that would generate 3 sequels and a TV series.  Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cybernetic organism that in sent to the past (present day)to kill the mother (Linda Hamilton) of a rebel leader.  

The Terminator: Judgement Day  T2 (1991)  Cameron follows up with what would be the best of the lot. This one really pushed the boundaries of special effect, often leaving you wondering how the hell that happened.  Schwarzenegger gets to be the good guy in this one.  Same kind of machine with different instruction manual.

Titanic (1997) The ultimate date movie.  A man and woman from different sides of the tracks, come together and fall in love at the worst possible time, in the worst possible place.  Cameron's attention to detail is uncanny.  Although Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett give great performances, the star of this one is the ship.  It is hard to imagine that they are not actually aboard The Titanic on it's doomed maiden voyage. 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Woman Under The Influence

John Cassavettes directs Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in the story of a couple that are going through a bit of strife, accentuated by the wife's manifestations of ODD BEHAVIOR.  Maybe just obssesive-compulsive, with a little nervous exhaustion and manic depression thrown on to boot.  When the wife is institutionalize for her breakdown, we don't get to see what the wife is put through but are left to watch the husband try to carry on.  His love for his wife does not prevent him from chastizing her in public for her OCD like behavior or even striking her.  Unfortunately, the homecoming after her release show that the healing may not be complete, since the brutish husband is unable to show empathy.  The melt down of the nuclear family.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gangsters, Hollywood Style

The 30s ushered in gangsters.  Whether Hollywoods version of organized crime was authentic or not, it helped make stars.

Little Caesar (1930) Mervyn Le Roy directed Edward G. Robinson in his signature role as "Rico" Bandello.  A two-bit hood who rockets to the top of the underworld, only to descend to the lowest depth with equal speed.  Robinson would continue in hundreds of movies, but his work here is the one he is most remembered for.

The Public Enemy (1931) William Wellman directs James Cagney in the role that made him a household name.  Much like "Goodfellas" this film follows Tom Powers, who's life on the streets leads him to a life of crime and easy money.

Scarface, The Shame of a Nation (1932) Howard Hawks directs Paul Muni.  Muni is Tony Camonte, a gangster loosely based on the story of Al Capone.  This one encountered stiff opposition from the review board, requiring censorship.  The final edited product was disowned by producer Howard Hughes, who the took his original version to states without strict censors.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz, follows Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connelly, two kids on the road to nowhere.  Caught in an act of mischief, Rocky is caught while Jerry gets away.  Rocky spends time in reform school returning to the old neighborhood as James Cagney, who has no intention of going straight.  Jerry, seeing the error of his ways, has become the priestly Pat O'Brien who has opened a home for wayward boys.   Humphrey Bogart and George Bancroft launch a failed attempt to "rub out" Rocky which leads to homicide that sends Rocky to Death Row.

Force of Evil (1948) Abraham Polonsky's crime drama stars John Garfield as a lawyer working for a crime boss.  What starts as a spotless reputation is easily marred by association with the bosses numbers rackets that is being managed by his brother.

White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh's brings back Cagney, as Cody Jarrett a cold blooded, gang leader who loves his mother.  Cody is not above killing to get what he wants and actually does go up in a blaze of glory.

Notable Exceptions: The Roaring Twenties (1939) Final team up of Cagney and Bogart.  A look at the rise of criminal element created by the Volstead Act.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Benjamin Christensen's "Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages" (1922)  What starts looking like a documentary about the belief in witchcraft and demons in medieval culture goes on to become a much more revealing story, portraying devils and demons consorting with villagers, tormenting nuns and monks, and rites of the witches sabbath.  Christensen even gets to play the role of Lucifer in a campy way that could only be taken seriously in a silent movie.  This film was actually banned for many years in the US, for graphic violence and sexual perversion.  It's kind of hard to imagine nowaday just how shocking it could have been, retrospectively. It would eventually be allowed for viewing in the 60s when a shorter version would be narrated by William S. Burroughs.  It even does so far as to associate acceptance of demonic possession as a means of dealing with psychological condition that were just not yet understood.  When it comes down to it this movie is pretty darn good even by today's standards.

The Brothers Coen

If anyone is under-represented in "The Book" it would have to be the Coen Brothers.  Their quirky comedies are laugh out loud hilarious while their more serious films explore crime from many different views.  When they find a way of putting them both together, you are in for a wild ride. 

Raising Arizona (1987)  A repeat offender (Nicolas Cage) falls for the police mugshot photographer (Holly Hunter).  Upon release from his latest incarceration, he proposes going straight and marriage.  When they are diagnosed incapable of conceiving a child of their own, they devise a plan to kidnap the one of the sextuplets born to the Arizona family.

Fargo (1995)  A salesman for a Minnesota automobile salesman (William H. Macy) hires a couple of thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, in hopes that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom, that he hopes to use a portion to solve the problems of his embezzlement that is in danger of being discovered. When an investigation is conducted by the pregnant Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) behind the killing of a state trooper, the investigation leads to the kidnapping and beyond ending with a woodchipper.  McDormand's performance justifiable earned her an Oscar.

Notable exceptions: "Blood Simple" Their first film, about an affair that leads to murder and an extortion attempt by a sleazy private eye.

"Miller's Crossing"  A Irish gangland crime drama, with great performances by Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney.

"O Brother Where Art Thou" The Coens retell Homer's "Odyssey" by placing Ulysses in Depression-era American Dust Bowl.

"The Big Lebowski" Jeff Bridges' portrayal of "The Dude", the ultimate slacker who gets caught up in the life of an over-acheiving Lebowski.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

John Ford

Many of the great movies of early Hollywood were directed by John Ford.  He had a great eye for scenery and was very loyal to his troop of actors.  His stable consisted of many great and sometimes underrated performers like Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr, Pedro Armendariz, Linda Darnell, John Carradine just to name a few. 

Judge Priest (1934) Getting a chance to view this one, I was really surprised that it would even be considered a worthy recommendation.  The only thing it seems to have going for it is that it may be one of very few films featuring Will Rogers.  The man who "never met a man he didn't like" contributes a bit of his homespun humor but the film is riddled with stereotypical portrayals of blacks, magnified by Stepin Fetchit who made a fortune playing into the Hollywood system stereotyping.  Not sure he really paved the way for others.
Stagecoach (1939) This one raised John Wayne out of the rut.  His earlier cookie cutter Hollywood westerns that were a dime a dozen.  John Ford taps into characters with depth, exploring good and evil, right and wrong. 

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) One of the great performances for Henry Fonda, as well as John Carradine and Linda Darnell.  The Dust Bowl takes it's toll on the mid west and farmers leave their homes for the beaconing land of plenty, California.  Unfortunately, the welcome mat is pulled out from under them as the number of people making the sojourn bring large shares of problems than prosperity.  Ford actually ended his movie about 3/4 of the way through the book because he wanted a happier ending.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) A family in an English mining town goes through changes.  The family is divided, the sons looking for respect and greater compensation for their labor while the father retains his loyalty to the company in spite of the employer's track record.
My Darling Clementine (1946) Ford portrayal of the Gunfight at the O. K. Corral may not be historically accurate but it is still a great film thanks to performances by Fonda, Walter Brennan and Victor Mature.
Rio Grande (1950) The last feature of John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" along with "Fort Apache" and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" . I found is one to be the least impressive with "Fort Apache" being the best with wonderful performances by John Wayne and especially Henry Fonda.  I bet you are seeing a pattern here. I'm fond of Fonda.  

The Quiet Man (1952) John Wayne plays an ex-boxer returning to Ireland to reclaim his family homestead.Only the Duke Wayne can see a brawl with his girlfriend's father as a necessary part of the courtship ritual. 

The Searchers (1956) Probably Ford's greatest movie.  As with so many of his western's filmed in Monument Valley, Utah.  Ethan (John Wayne) searches for his niece that has been captures and raised by the "injuns".  Ethan is a very complex character who may or may not be planning a "rescue".   

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) James Stewart is a lawyer coming in to town, who recognizes Liberty Valance as one of the bandits that robbed and pistol whipped him as he came into town.  Unfortunately the law in town is pretty relaxed and Liberty has been allowed to run rough-shod.  The only man that Valance will not mess with is John Wayne (of course).  When the law doesn't work Stewart attempts to take the law into his own hands, facing down the bandit.  And the rest is history, actually it's legend.

Notable Exceptions
The Informer: A great story of an IRA member that rats on another member for the £20 reward.  Victor McLaglen's performance is superb.

Tobacco Road: Based on a play based on a book by Erskine Caldwell.  The Lester's are a shiftless, ignorant lot, who would rather save the work for another day and would ruin any good thing that they have then complain about the fact that it didn't last.

Mister Roberts:  The story of a U. S. Naval officer on a freight transfort ship who wants nothing more than to get a reassignment into a combat area.  Great performances by Fonda, William Powell, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney as the Ship's Captain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Man Who Fell To Earth

Nicholas Roeg's 1976 Sci-Fi film stars, David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien that comes to Earth in search of water for his dying planet.  He uses his technology to amass a fortune on earth that will allow him to create a means of returning to his home.  This is not a big special effects movie, coming 8 years after Kubrick's 2001 and preceeding Star Wars by a year, it is quite old school in much of it's visions of another planet.  For the sake of the movie we are asked to believe that assimilation of an alien into our culture would be pretty simple.  However when his ALIEN STATUS becomes known, his plans are thwarted and he is subjected to all manner of testing.  As a whole this was a pretty interesting movie as long as you surrender to the suspension of disbelief.  I found this one on the Independent Film Channel.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Avant-garde cinema

Is Avant-garde another way of saying "apiecea-crappe"?

Flaming Creatures (1962):  .  Watching this one was like watching a train wreck.  If you are into drag-queens, restraints, male genitalia and female mammaries flopping around and half-naked people mixed with awkward silences, show tunes and 50s pop songs, then this one is worth a look.  I guess I am looking for a whole lot more from film as art.  Missing this one is no crime.  I am glad to get it out of the way.  I might look into some of his (Jack Smith) other works that are available without the outlay of money, just to see if he had anything else to offer but I kinda doubt it.

Blonde Cobra (1963): Are you kidding me?  Immediately upon learning that this was somehow related to Jack Smith I wasn't expecting a lot.  This one basically plays out like the story of a few guys with a movie camera, who are stuck in a cabin in the snow with an old Victorola and a bunch of 78rpm records to pass the time, getting drunk while cameras roll, they talk about the weirdest things, one of the narrators sounding amazingly like Miss Piggy.  That's about it.

Meshes of the Evening (1943):  Maya Deren. An experimental film following a woman who may or may not be dreaming.  She walks into an apartment, goes upstair only to look out the window and see herself chasing after a grim reaper who looks a bit like the ghost of Christmas to come in "Scrooged". Plays a little like a very short version of Groundhogs Day.  Was originally silent but later provided with a soundtrack which adds a significant ambiance.

Scorpio Rising (1964) Kenneth Anger's film about guys in leather and chains, motorcycles and a bevy of 50s pop hits. Between the dressing rituals, the partying and motorcycle racing with a mingling of film about Christ and his disciples and Adolph Hitler, I am left wondering about the meaning.

Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966) George Kucher's film that if I hadn't read it somewhere would have never guessed it was about sexual frustration. A small film director's lead actress quits a film because she is tired of performing in all her scenes naked. appears to be a good place to go if you want a sampling of avant-garde films.  Those I found in this post are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are a few more from "The Book" available there as well as SO MANY OTHERS.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has revitalized the film industry.  His work is not really meaningful, but appeals to movie goers on the basest of levels. Recreating the love for cinema by recreating genres to the point of art.  His visual style is spectacular, while his characters are colorful and gritty.  His use of non-linear story telling runs rampant through much of his work.  With his use of popular music, Tarantino has the ability to elevate one hit wonders to the point of classics.

Reservoir Dogs: With characters names immediately disguised, he makes it easy for us to distinguish good guy from bad guy, even when they are all bad guys. No Honor Among Thieves, takes a new meaning in this one with great performances by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen as the sadistic Mr. Blonde.

Pulp Fiction: So many stories to tell, somehow you come out liking everybody, even though no one is a real pillar of society.  Revitalized the stagnant career of John Travolta. My head just spins as I try to imagine how to tell the story chronologically.  The story of the Gold Watch as told by Christopher Walken is a Hoot.

Kill Bill Vol. 1:  An homage to the Martials Arts film, this one about a league of assassins, who set out to kill one of their own, only to fail, leading to an obsessive need for revenge.  Lots of great choreographed fight sequences (hand-to-hand and sword play) elevate genre to amazing spectacle.  The Bride gets her day.
One of my favorite scenes comes from this movie.  When Uma Thurman opens a door looking for Lucy Lui, we see a very peaceful Japanese garden with snow falling.  A clapping is heard as the soundtrack rolls to Santa Esmerelda's Latin disco cover of "Don't let Me Be Misunderstood".

Notable Exceptions:  Of course, my volume of "The Book" was printed prior to the release of "Kill Bill, Vol 2" its inclusion as a notable exception is absolute.  This being said, "Inglourious Basterds" was released in September, where Tarantino recreates the genre of "Secret Mission War Movie" not really popular in a few decades.  It has more in common with the fantasy genres, since it rewrites history with a great big "if only this could have happened".  Brad Pitt's Major Aldo Raine is the kind of role that he is meant to play. The over the top, half prize fighter, half mental patient with a little stand-up comic added for good measure.

Tarantino has collaborated with Robert Rodriguez many times, who's El Mariachi/Desperado movie have been fun, but his filming of "Sin City" was a masterpiece not so much in story or dialog but in the overall look of the production that almost seemed to have been pulled directly from the sourced graphic novel by Frank Miller. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

F. W. Murnau

F. W. Murnau was one of the most influential directors of the early German Expressionist wave that started in the 1920s alongside Robert Weine and Fritz Lang. "The Book" really spurred my interest in Murnau's work since before reading it I was familiar only with Nosferatu.
Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922) Meant to be the first film adaptation of Dracula, negotiations with the estate of Bram Stoker broke down requiring Murnau to rename the characters. Dracula became Count Orlok. As a kid, I was not a big fan of this movie, preferring my vampires as portrayed by Lugosi and Christopher Lee. I would become a bigger fan as my love for silent movies grew, influenced by my older brother Steven.

The Last Laugh (1924) A hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) is given great respect for his position which is prompted by the military style uniform. When the doorman is demoted to the position of washroom attendant, we see his life change as he mourns the respect and position that he used to receive.

Sunrise, A Song Of Two Humans (1927) The first film by Murnau after being lured to Hollywood by William Fox. A story of marriage, infidelity and finally reconciliation when the couple leave the farm for a trip to the city. This trip may have been the time when the man intended to kill the wife to clear the way for the city girl.

Tabu (1931) Murnau's last film. A story of Polynesian culture involving a young pearl diver in love with a girl who is destined by the tribal elders to be the the bride of the god that they worship. They unsuccessfully attempt to run away but the elders have a long reach. Not my favorite of Murnau's films, if I had to pinpoint why I have to say because it is so bright, the darkness and shadows that Murnau is so effective at manipulating, is just not available on the island of Bora Bora. Regardless it is certainly well worth seeing.

Notable Exceptions: Phantom (1922) has come up on TCM a couple of time. It is a story about man's obsession for a woman he sees on the streets, and Faust (1926) with a perfect performance by Emil Jannings and Mr. Scratch himself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Umberto D (1952)

Vittorio De Sica's story of a retired man who tries to get along as his meager pension has reached a point were it will not pay for his basic needs. As an animal lover (I bet you never would have guess if I hadn't come out and said it), I identify with the relationship the title character has with his dog, a terrier named Flike. His pride is not enough to keep his landlady from wanting to kick him out of the room that he rents especially since she has plans for it that exclude a renter. As

SPOILER ALERT: Not sure I really need to say this for a movie made in 1952, but i guess if you haven't seen it yet...

Show me a movie that has a dog that dies for any reason and I am a blubbering blob (I was a mess at the end of "My Dog Skip" and have not seen "Marley and Me" for the same reason). The sentiment does not usually transfer to snarling guard dogs or your basic demon hounds from hell. I actually stopped the movie when it became apparent to me that the dog was going to meet his end. Short of the last 5 minutes, I figured the movie was seen and could be stricken from the list. Imagine my surprise as I looked it up in Wikipedia to refresh my memory for a few details, and I found out the old man and the dog lived.

Victor Sjöström

Victor Sjöström began his film making career in Sweden. As happens so often, especially in the early days of commercial film making, the big money of Hollywood, U.S.A. called out to him and he released some very good movies, using the name Victor Seastorm. We would work with, Lillian Gish, Lon Chaney as well as Greta Garbo before he would quit directing in 1937.

The Phantom Carriage-Körkarlen (1921) What an idea, the last person to die before New Year is required to drove the carriage of death for the coming year. Sjöström presents a haunting story full of saints and sinners. I had first found this on youtube (someone had place it their in it's entirity). Since my first viewing there, it has come up on Turner Classic movies, giving me an opportunity to record it onto dvd for a future viewing pleasures.

Notable Exceptions: TCM has shown several of his Hollywood films and I really liked "He Who Laughs" with Lon Chaney as well as "The Wind" and "The Scarlet Letter" both starring Lillian Gish who, if the story I remember is correct, worked with Swedish actors that DID NOT speak English.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

When Actors Direct

The Bigamist (1953) - Ida Lupino directed a few films and for some reason this is considered "MUST SEE". It is not a great movie, and maybe in the generation to which it was released it may have been a good movie. The best compliment that I can pay it is that it was interesting enough to no feel like a waste of time.

Night of the Hunter (1955) - Charles Laughton's one and only shot as a director. The shady characters are as shady as can be, straight out of a dime novel. This is one of those movies that gains popularity as time passes. Since it was not well received at the box office, Laughton was never given an opportunity to direct again. Night of the Hunter is now considered a film noir classic. It is said, and I certainly can see it, that Laughton was influenced by the early German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and possibly M.

Easy Rider (1969) - Dennis Hopper's fond farewell to the free love generation ushering in the capitalism of the seventies. What child of the sixties HASN'T seen this one?

Dances With Wolves (1990) - Kevin Costner's directed a movie, based on a novel originally an unsellable screenplay. This is one of those lavish, sweeping epics that people just love. Plenty of beautiful scenery providing a backdrop for a story of a soldier's means of coping with his demons after the Civil War.

Braveheart (1995) - Mel Gibson, an Austrailian, playing a Scotsman, at war with the English king with the French wife. Another epic with beautiful scenery and battle sequences that keep your head spinning. Makes me wonder how anyone stayed alive in that kind of warfare.

The Passion of the Christ (2004) -Mel does it again. As if filming the Battle of Stirling wasn't enough, especially in kilts, he takes on the crucifiction of Christ, with actors performing in Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. I am an agnostic and though I may not see it as a spiritual film, I recognize that the feat is something to be admired.

Erich Von Stroheim-Cinematic Genius or Big Cry Baby

Probably the first director to fall victim of a studio's controlling interests. An outstanding director with vision who preferred early retirement to having his artistic integrity compromised.

Foolish Wives (1922): A simple story, not a lot different from the story of one of his earlier films (Blind Husbands). Stroheim plays the part of a womanizing Count Karamzin, who's royal status is questionable and who's intentions are as plain as the nose on his face. In Monte Carlo, the Count latches onto a young married woman of means whom he hopes to take for a trophy as well as an economic windfall. Karamzin proves to be as much a coward as he is a cad.

Greed (1924): One of the truly great early films that the book has introduced me to. Turner Classic Movies airs a very worthy restoration of this film about once a year. The restoration attempts to get as close as possible to the original vision in a four hour run time (still far short of Stroheim's original 10 hour film, what was he thinking?) using production notes and stills where lost footage is unavailable. Though it takes a bit of patience, the final product brings his vision back to life.

Notable exceptions: After "retiring" from film directing, Stroheim would continue to act, most notably in Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" and Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" Seek out "Queen Kelly". This is Stroheim's last directed full length feature and is the source of many of the clips shown, credited to Nora Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard".

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Michael Moore or lesse

Michael Moore as entertainer (if his films and subjects can actually be considered entertainment) has a knack for showing the simplest answers to the most profound question. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if the simple answers that he provides are always practical. They just have to work for the 2 hours while the audience watches the movie.

Roger and Me (1989): Michael Moore started with this film, his first feature where he attempts to save his beloved hometown. Moore never hesitates to show the victims of the devastation as the summary closing of GM plants in Flint, Michigan lead to catasrophic lose of jobs and economy.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004): Moore takes on the runner up in the 2000 Presidential Election. His analysis of events that followed the attack 0f September 11th (often quite meticuliously), from the moment the first plane touched the first World Trade Center tower until the troops are sent to Iraq looking for WMDs. This ends in Moore handing out enlistment papers to congressmen suggesting they are not really vested in the Iraq war since they do not actually have relatives serving there.

Note of interest: Moore is no slouch at editing and is not above finding the most unflattering video and running it in slo-motion for enhanced effect. However, his passion for each subject is unquestionable. I am a bit surprised that though his movie "Bowling For Columbine" is mentioned in both articles for the above listed movies, it did not warrant inclusion itself.