Sunday, September 21, 2008

June 2003

Tod Browning was among the most accomplished directors of the silent era, making a number of Lon Chaney thrillers, but he never seemed very comfortable in the sound era. Even his most famous sound movies--“Dracula” (1931) and “Freaks” (1932)--are filled with uncomfortable pauses, poor camera placement and actors clumsily moving across the set.

“The Thirteenth Chair,” more mystery than horror, has at least four shots of actors sitting silently as they wait for another actor to enter the frame and begin talking. And some of the pauses between lines during conversations are just interminable.

Like so many of the early silents, this film takes place almost entirely in one room and very much plays like the stage adaptation it is. Most of the movie deals with a séance held to determine the culprit of a murder that, oddly, takes place before the film begins. In fact, the opening is so abrupt that I’d almost guess that the studio hacked off the first part of it after Browning was done filming. But at 72 minutes, it’s already as long as it needs to be.

The highlight of the film is a bizarre performance by Margaret Wycherly as the gypsy-like medium, Madame Rosalie La Grange. The British stage actress went on to play many memorable movie mothers in the 1930s and ‘40s, including Gary Cooper’s humble, backwoods mom in “Sergeant York” (1941), which earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination, and James Cagney’s possessive, ruthless mom in “White Heat” (1949). Bela Lugosi plays a police detective, but is given little to do.

I once believed Mel Gibson was going to be an important actor. He was in his mid-20s when he had his Hollywood breakthrough, starring in Peter Weir’s exuberant war film “Gallipoli” (1981) and then recreating his post-apocalyptic survivalist “Mad Max” in the sequel to the 1979 Australian film, “The Road Warrior” (1982).

One of the best action films of the past 20 years, “The Road Warrior” was smart, inventive--looking and sounding like nothing we’d seen before--and showed Gibson as a worthy successor to the silent, efficient hero immortalized by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The next year, he proved himself just as comfortable portraying an intellectual dealing with political and sexual intrigue in Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983).

Even after “Lethal Weapon” (1987) made him a mega-star, Gibson took on the ultimate acting challenge in the title role of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990). Then, after squeezing all the originality out of his character in two more “Lethal Weapons,” his worst instincts were applauded when he was showered with Oscars for the stupidly self-righteous “Braveheart” (1995).

After marking time in heavy-handed actioners (please, no more “Lethal Weapons” Mel!) and a lame gender-bending comedy, “What Women Want” (2000)--all of which made oodles of money--Gibson offered another historical ego trip in “The Patriot” (2000). As in “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers,” Gibson plays the reluctant warrior. A man who savors his life away from the messiness of civilization, but once pulled into the fray becomes an unrelenting killing machine.

“We Were Soldiers” is based on a real-life Vietnam War commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who led the first major helicopter-led assault against North Vietnam regiments, a bloody three-day battle in the Ia Drang Valley. Much of the criticism of the film was over its poorly directed battle scenes (“Braveheart” writer Randall Wallace is behind the camera), which are confusing, especially in discerning which side has the upper hand at any given point. But that works to the extent that it typifies the confusing nature of the Vietnam War. The 1965 battle can be seen as the entire war in miniature: the U.S. troops won the battle, leaving over 2,000 enemy dead, but felt defeated having lost over 300 of its own. Eventually, that “kill ratio” sent protesters into the street and cost LBJ and his lieutenants another four years in the White House.

But this film captures that slice in time when Vietnam was only a concern of the military and their families. Moore, it turns out, is the most perfect soldier, leader, father, husband, Christian and American this great country has yet seen. He prays and kills. He cries and kills. He comforts his wife and kids and kills. As intense and unrelenting as the battle plays (at least 90 minutes of this 2 hour and 18 minute film), the movie still revolves around Moore and in Gibson’s and Wallace’s attempt to paint him heroic they’ve created a very unbelievable character. One is left with the feeling that the filmmakers believe that if more commanders had been like Moore, the war wouldn’t have turned out so badly. But no one is like this version of Moore, at least no one human.

Luckily, Gibson, at 47, is too old to play the obvious follow-up to Col. Moore--Jesus Christ. He’s behind the camera for that project, which already has theologians in a panic in light of Gibson’s conservative Christian beliefs.

Having jumped from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam, Gibson skipped over heroic opportunities in the Civil War, both world wars and the Korean conflict. Sounds like he’s booked up for the next two decades, after, of course, giving us the straight story on that whole Christmas-Easter deal.

SIGNS (2002)
M. Night Shyamalan seems to have run out of ideas. In this film, about an alien invasion of Earth, the director of the inventive “The Sixth Sense” (1999), cobbles together ideas and visuals from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Poltergeist” and most other extraterrestrial movies of the last 20 years (and even throws in a plot device from “The Wizard of Oz” at the end). The results aren’t very convincing. And because it’s difficult to take seriously the horrific events Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and his family face, it’s also hard to swallow the film’s big-statement theme on the importance of faith in a higher authority.

Gibson, once the town’s minister, has lost his belief in God after a car accident left him a widower with two young children. After the long, cliché-riddled buildup, including the discovery of crop circles on their property, the confirmation that aliens have arrived isn’t experienced firsthand by Gibson and his family; they watch it on TV! By the time the slimy creatures actually show up in their farming community I had long lost interest.

The loss and reaffirmation of faith is a great topic for a movie, but when you hitch it to the appearance of E.T.’s evil cousins, it doesn’t leave much of an impact.

This was one of the first movies I ever saw on my own at a movie theater. It was a special matinee showing for children in the early 1960s, a time when parents could safely leave children at a group event without fear of abduction. I don’t remember much about the experience-in fact, for many years I was convinced the film I saw was in color-except that I bought some kind of ice cream treat at the concession stand.

I’m not sure why the film was re-released almost 30 years after its first run or if it was regularly shown as a kids’ Saturday matinee, but it really is more of a kids film than a full-blooded adventure. It can’t match the exuberance of later teamings of director Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940), the greatest of all swashbuckling adventures.

But this is the film that made Flynn a major star and certainly a presage to those later films, as he charismatically romances Olivia DeHavilland, battles imperious governors and traitorous seaman and then returns just in time to save Mother England from a disastrous defeat.

Actually, the film takes a long time to get to the good stuff. Flynn plays an Irish doctor who is sold into slavery when he aids enemies of the crown. Held in Jamaica, but seemingly free to do what he wants, he eventually escapes to the sea and takes up the profitable occupation of piracy. But even when the film gets to the clashing of swords and the business of manning a ship (the parts everyone in the theater almost 40 years ago wanted to see), it features the most cheerful pirates and toothless battles you’re likely to see. Except for the final battle, when Flynn and his men wad into a fight between the Spanish and British navies, nothing feels very serious. But as a Saturday matinee, well, you can’t do much better.


     I watched this Alfred Hitchcock-directed psychological drama just a few weeks before Gregory Peck died. Only Peck’s fourth film, “Spellbound” is one of Hitchcock’s few American failures. It’s not a bad film, just extremely disappointing considering the stars and the director. The main problem with the picture stems from Hitchcock’s total lack of interest in the story. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to complete scenes while characters and relationships are given short shrift. It plays out like Hitch was bored with the story and was only interested in the good-looking stars and the trendy therapy theme.

Peck, playing a young doctor whose memory has been altered by a blow to the head, shows up at a psychiatric hospital not for treatment, but as the new chief administrator. Not much of it makes much sense and on top of that, before he’s barely unpacked, he’s madly in love with a fellow doctor, played by Ingrid Bergman, and accused of killing a man. The doctors fall into each others arms so quick you almost think you missed a scene. Then, once Peck is captured, Hitchcock totally skips the trial, where surely the truth would have emerged, and sends the clueless doctor to death row.

The only thing of interest in this untidy mystery is the dream sequences created by Salvador Dali, he of dripping clocks and distorted realities. At the time, the film was lauded for its focus on Freudian psychology, but it’s all pretty quaint now. Like in many of Hitchcock’s films, the performances are by-the-numbers. Even the luminous Bergman barely registers in this picture. Amazingly, it was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture and best director. It won a well-deserved Oscar for its sweeping score by the great Miklos Rozsa.

I’ve never been much of a Gregory Peck fan, but from about 1946 until 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” he was the perfect antithesis to the Dean-Brando-Lancaster brand of torn-T-shirt acting. Like many actors of his generation, the 1960s and ‘70s weren’t kind to him. His performances in “The Boys from Brazil” (1978) and “MacArthur” (1977) are perfect examples of how sad a talented performer looks when stuck with cardboard characters.

Needless to say, Attica Fitch is a towering performance, but other roles stand out in a very inconsistent career: “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), “The Gunfighter” (1950), “Pork Chop Hill” (1959) and “Cape Fear” (1962).

BOMBAY (1995)
My principal exposure to Indian cinema, the most prolific in the world, has been through the films of that country’s most famous director, Satyajit Ray, who earned acclaim in the 1950s with his “Apu” trilogy. The documentary-like coming-of-age films follow the life of the son of a poor rural family in contemporary India.

“Bombay,” I’m told by those who know better, is a typical Bollywood film, a hybrid genre that intersperses MTV-like music sequences in otherwise traditionally made movies. When the main characters aren’t displaying their amateurish dancing and singing, the film is a compelling look at the struggles of Hindu and Muslim to live side-by-side, brought into focus when a young Hindu journalist marries a Muslim woman from his hometown.

Beyond the typical Romeo and Juliet family fighting, “Bombay” turns serious when rioting between the two groups breaks out in various Bombay neighborhoods. But even in the midst of showing deadly rioting, time is made for a musical number.

I love musicals, but the sequences here bare little resemblance to the singing and dancing that make American musicals so entertaining. At one point, the main character is dancing about while made up to look like Michael Jackson. After that, it was hard to buy into the movie’s seriousness, even when the couples’ young boys get caught up in the rioting.

The film also doesn’t offer much explanation as to why the members of these rival faiths hate each other so much. I should have come away from the film with a better understanding of India, but I didn’t.

Watching a Jerry Lewis film (the early, “brilliant” ones) is like having a tooth pulled while listening to a used car salesman. The only thing that kept my interest was trying to understand why anyone ever thought this stuff was funny and to marvel at how quickly this young comedian turned into an arrogant egotist once he and Dino parted ways.

This gender-switching version of the “Cinderella” legend follows the typical Lewis scenario: he plays a boyish weakling who is subservient to all around him until he finally stands on his own to win the girl. The acting is horrific (only the great Dame Judith Anderson as his wicked step-mother shows some sense of understanding her character, while Henry Silva looks and acts like a wax dummy), the plot has more holes than a doughnut shop and, putting the nail in the coffin, Jerry attempts to sing.

In the most ridiculous plot turn of this mess, we find out that Fella (Jerry’s character) knew all along where his late father’s stash of gold was hidden, meaning that he suffered for years under his step-mother and step-brothers because….he liked it? He felt sorry for them? Doesn’t make any sense. I know what your thinking: He’s looking for sense from a goofy Jerry Lewis comedy? You’re right; I just can’t help myself.

The director, Frank Tashlin, has a cult following for his distinctive use of colors in his live-action comedies (he directed Warner Bros. cartoons early in his career), but cartoonish set design can’t save this mess. Tashlin had better success with the Bob Hope vehicle “Son of Paleface” (1952) and the satire “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (1957).

There is an appearance by Count Basie and his Orchestra at the ball when Cinderfella meets Cinderella (Anna Maria Alberghetti): short relief from the waves of insanity.

I was surprised (it had been awhile since I’ve watched one of these Lewis ego trips) at how much of Jim Carrey’s persona is a direct rip-off of Jerry’s act. Both men are capable of giving superb performances: Carrey in “The Truman Show” (1998) and Lewis, later in his life, in “The King of Comedy” (1983), “Funny Bones” (1995) and in a guest role in a handful of episodes of the 1980s TV series “Wiseguy.” But the masses love them at their most idiotic.

As I wrote last month, Hollywood makes way too many heist movies. This one turns out to be a pleasurable distraction in part because it doesn’t attempt to be ultra hip or take itself too seriously. Based on a 1969 British film of the same name, this update stars Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton as a two of a gang of master thieves who swipe a safe full of gold bars from a Venice apartment.

But just when they think they’ve pulled off the perfect crime, Norton’s character double crosses his friends, taking off with the gold and killing (he thinks) the rest of the gang. Turns out, the only one killed is the group’s mentor, played by Donald Sutherland. But that’s enough to lure into the revenge plot Sutherland’s law-abiding daughter (Charlize Theron), who has inherited her father’s safe-cracking abilities.

The characters and screenplay are both laden down with cliches, but “The Italian Job” is all about the astonishing car (and boat) chases-highlighted by an incredible ride through the Hollywood subway-and the precisely executed maneuverings in their elaborate effort to get the gold and punish Norton.

Director F. Gary Gray, who previously directed “The Negotiator” (1998) with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, shows great skills at staging action, but doesn’t let the stunts become so stunning that you stop believing these characters could pull them off.

Both Wahlberg and Theron are solid young performers who previously worked together (and were excellent) in the underrated “The Yards” (2000). Norton’s role as the turncoat rarely rises above mustache twirling-you almost wonder why he took the role. But the old man, not surprisingly, brings more depth to his character in the 15 minutes he’s on screen than the rest of the cast combined. The 68-year-old Sutherland continues to shine in whatever small role he takes; it’d be great to see him get one last great leading role. While he’s never been considered among the best of his generation (that includes Nicholson, Hackman and Duvall), he is, having created consistently fascinating characters since he first made his mark as the outrageous Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” (1970).


In an otherwise impressive career, director Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man,” “Night Moves” among many excellent films) deserves to lose more than a few points for his failure to reign in Marlon Brando in “The Missouri Breaks.” There is much to like in this leisurely paced tale of horse thieves and the “regulator” brought in to stop them. But Brando turns his role as the hired gun into an incoherent comedy routine, slipping in and out of an Irish brogue, mumbling endlessly to his horses and dressing like a cross-dressing homeless man.

Jack Nicholson plays the thief who takes to farming and domestic life when he falls for the rich land owner’s daughter (played with a woman’s lib attitude by Kathleen Lloyd). He’s perfect in showing his inner struggle when he realizes he’s fed up with his life of crime. Nicholson, unlike Brando, makes good use of the long, often improvised scenes that do little to advance the story, but offer plenty of character building.

Equally excellent is Harry Dean Stanton as Nicholson’s right-hand man. The laconic, understated film persona Stanton has perfected in 46 years of acting matches this film’s style. It’s one of his best performances.

The film’s ending feels somewhat abrupt considering how slowly it progresses up until that point, but that’s a small problem compared to the miscalculated performance of the legendary Brando. It almost seems as if he was so intent on one-upping the young pretender to his acting throne that he turned a colorful character into a joke.

DYNAMITE (1929) No one could turn cloying melodrama into compelling cinema like Cecil B. DeMille. This early talkie is one of his least known but most entertaining films, due mostly to the layered, underplayed acting of the two stars, Charles Bickford and Kay Johnson.

Throughout his career, DeMille seemed to encourage hammy performances and most actors were more than willing to oblige. Probably the best performance in a DeMille picture is James Stewart’s wonderful turn as the moody clown in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). Bickford’s performance in “Dynamite” is in the same league; in fact, it’s among the best early-sound dramatic acting I’ve ever seen. While Bickford is best known his supporting work much later in his career--most notably in “Duel in the Sun” (1946) and “The Big Country” (1958)--he shows himself here completely at ease with sound in just his second film and perfectly cast as a tough-talking coal miner wrongly condemned to death.

In the film’s loony plotline, Johnson pays Bickford to marry her, the day before he’s to be hanged, to collect on an inheritance. But her plans for widowhood-marrying her still-married boyfriend (Conrad Nagel)-fall apart when Bickford is saved from the gallows at the last minute.

Her next desperate act to become rich forces her to live with Bickford in a poor, coal mining town. DeMille manages to toss in the last-minute, life-saving arrival of a doctor from the city and the inevitable mining accident. As Leonard Maltin points out, there’s enough plot for seven films.

Ernst Lubitsch became one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the first years of sound by making frothy, fantasy musical-comedies, usually set in Vienna or some part of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The operettas “The Love Parade” (1929), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931) and “The Merry Widow” (1934), all starring the uber-charming Maurice Chevalier, are delightfully entertaining pictures, but hardly the film masterpieces that many critics would have us believe. I have nothing against Lubitsch, but maybe its time to make room for Dudley Murphy in the directors’ pantheon. Who?

I stumbled upon “The Night Is Young” on TCM recently and while it unquestionably steals liberally from the Lubitsch oeuvre, the end result is just as funny, charming, artful and entertaining as the master’s musicals. Director Murphy previously helmed the Paul Robeson vehicle “The Emperor Jones” (1933), but 90 percent of his career was in long-forgotten B movies.

The star is Evelyn Laye, who gives a charismatic performance as a ballet dancer who pretends to be a prince’s fiance to fool his uncle, the emperor Franz Josef. Watching this film, you’d think she had a bright future in movies, but this was her last film. Primarily a London music hall performer, Laye was a major British singing star during World War II.

Ramon Novarro, a silent star who played the title role in the 1926 version of “Ben Hur,” shows little screen presence as the prince, but wonderful supporting work from Herman Bing as the butler, Edward Everett Horton as the prince’s closest advisor, Una Merkel and Charles Butterworth as Laye’s bickering best friends and Rosalind Russell as the prince’s real, stuck-up fiance more than make up for his dullness.

The songs, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg, are seamlessly integrated into the story and the love story is touching and, at the end, bitter sweet. This may be the only musical comedy from 1930s that doesn’t have a happy ending. That alone is quite an accomplishment.

It’s easy to damn the copycat screenplays that are the basis for most of today’s Hollywood movies. Everyone fondly recalls the clever, witty and truly original scripts that have made movies of the 1930s and ‘40s stand the test of time. But if you watch enough film from that “Golden Era,” you’ll find that studios were no different than they are now: if you find a formula that works, keep doing it.

If I had the patience to do the research, I’m sure I could list about 20 movies from those years that center around mistaken identity, most in romantic comedies.

This ridiculous version of that plot stars Miriam Hopkins as the title character, who pretends to be her own secretary to find out if Joel McCrea will love her for her money or in spite of it. A pre-code picture, “The Richest Girl in the World” features some humorously racy dialogue and accusations of extramarital sex, but otherwise is just another fantasy romance.

What is never mentioned as McCrea wavers between Hopkins and Fay Wray, the real secretary pretending to be the heiress, is that Wray is about 100 times more attractive than Hopkins and just as enchanting. Wray, just back from her romance with “King Kong,” should have been a bigger star. As beautiful as anyone in movies at the time, she was pretty much done by the mid 1930s and retired in 1942 when she married screenwriter Robert Riskin. She was just 35, but had been a star since she was 21, when she played the lead in one of Erich von Stroheim’s unfinished masterpieces, “The Wedding March.” (1928).

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