Monday, February 13, 2017

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is perhaps the first sound masterpiece to be made. The film seems to be another place of existence than most other films of the time, compare it to say Disraeli, one of its best picture competition, and this film seems of later era then. Now it does have a few tendencies, the performances are just tad broad early on yet they become much more comfortable soon afterwards, helped perhaps by the greatest character actor of the period, Louis Wolheim. The film though sets out to present war and its horrors, and it does that. The sounds, the images, the eagerness to present such brutality give an unforgiving portrait of the madness and terror of no man's land. The film presses further though in retaining a small scope of just few school boys from their path of "glory" which ends in a graveyard. Within that though it also conveys the power of propaganda as each is convinced by a speech that propels war as something you should hope to be part. One of the most effective elements of the film is it puts you in their shoes. You don't see the war until they do. You experience the strange shift as they enter war with their old friendly mail man turning into a vicious drill Sergeant, or when they find merely finding a meal to be one of the greatest challenges on the front line. Director Lewis Milestone grants the film the needed muck and grime in every moment. It does not shy away as we witness one man killing another. As grim as it is though Milestone grants respites that make the film all the more powerful. The infamous bayoneting moment is handled with an initial intensity that shifts to a haunting silence, as the man is forced to ponder what it is that he has done. The film captures a real sense of desolation, and what is pivotal is what is lost through it.

The Misfits

The Misfits is a notable film by the virtue of the casting alone. It contains the final performances of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and one of the final performances of Montgomery Clift. The film itself is a curious thing though. It's written by Arthur Miller, a writer who never minded to allow his themes to wag the dog of the story. Miller's work is often easier to describe in terms of what it means than what happens in the story. Here its message is worn on the title of the misfits as we spend time with a group of ill-fitting people, who are ill-fitting to society, who in the end round up mustangs who are ill-fitting horses. John Huston attempts to grant some reality to the theoretical through his direction, yet he never discourages the broader elements of the screenplay. The cast is strong enough to ensure some real humanity to the proceedings, and manages to be more than mere representations for the most part. There are certain moments that are genuinely moving particularly Eli Wallach's Guido discussing his losses, or Clift's cowboy making a distressing call home. They are moments not within the cohesive film which is a mess of attempted thematic gravitas overrides giving a compelling story to begin with. The film particularly falters as it becomes even more outrageous, partially because of how over the top the character of Rosalyn is written, and almost falls of the rails in sheer histrionics. It's a difficult piece that is of interest, but doesn't actually succeed in crafting a compelling narrative.

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein is one of the earliest sequels ever made, and also one of the best. It seems already in corner after the first, the monster dead, the doctor dead, where to go? Well just bring them back, which seems acceptable through the use of the framing device where Mary Shelley, Elsa Lanchester who also plays the titular bride, tells the next chapter of the story. The film easily finds new ground through granting the monster a voice and introducing a strange new doctor played by Ernest Thesiger who prods Doctor Frankenstein to continue its experiments. As with the original film this is steeped in atmosphere with James Whale directing with a vibrancy you'd find in few "prestige" pictures from the time. A key to the style is the sense to be scared is to have fun, which is underlined with some dark comedy always infused with the monster. This film dives further though, and effectively so into examining what it means to be human and find happiness. The monster literally finds his voice which leads to an even more affecting portrait of something that simply was never meant to be yet still lives. The scene between the blind man and the monster resonates particularly well, as the successfully examines these more complex ideas while still maintaining the tone of an entertaining monster picture. It's a brilliant work of art, and there is something so fascinating how Whale's monster movies where some of the most daring films of the period.

Carnal Knowledge

Carnal Knowledge is another foray by Mike Nichols into "romantic" relationship which because it is Nichols it means it's a descent into emotional pain. This film is not nearly intense as say a Closer, or Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it takes a similar approach that presents almost every human as this irritable soul who act in ways only satisfy their own needs without even a base concern with others. We get three acts of a man (Jack Nicholson) and his friend (Art Garfunkle) as they get into various sexual relationships with women. Their college years based mostly on exploration, their middle years based upon their inability to deal with a woman past sex, and the his final years facing their inability to even perform. The film's message may be that men are pigs, right? Not really all the women are shown to be either hollow in a different way, emotional wrecks, as cruel as the men, or just a detached prostitute. The film has nothing to say beyond the a surface examination that sexual relationships can be paradoxically unpleasant affairs. It's execution is mildly intriguing at times, its vaguely amusing in moments. Jack Nicholson is technically at his prime but this is easily one of his least compelling performances from the 70's. A film of some controversy in its days. That feature is long forgotten now, seeming rather tame by today's standards, leaving only a middling film behind.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Nicholas and Alexandra

The 1971 nominees for best picture included one old mainstay of the past, Fiddler on the Roof, but also three films that seem to suggest the new wave of film making with The French Connection, The Last Picture Show and A Clockwork Orange. The fifth nominee though might seem to some to fit the old style historical drama, something for the real old timers in the Academy, with Nicholas and Alexandra about the life of the last Russian Tsar. That wouldn't be quite the right view. It is true this is a historical drama, but as a film it feels very modern, well at least for 1971 anyways. The film offers no revisions or romantic view of the royals, it instead decides to give us the blunt story. It is of course grand in scope, with an expected focus on the production design and costume, but those do not cover the drama of the real story. The film covers the various events yet is careful to examine it closely by showing the titular pair as real people, flaws and all. In fact it actually has a rather compelling approach to show almost how the world outside of the family, makes them worse as they attempt to maintain power. It may not focus on every single detail but it does not simplify the politics. Of course this could just be a stagy, more historically accurate film, but that's not the case either. Franklin J. Schaffner grants the film some of what you may expect but also subverts your expectations as well. There are the occasional moments of style that are very effective particularly the former prime minster Witte(Laurence Olivier)'s somber reflection on the state of Russian or the downright brilliant staging of the assassination of Rasputin. It is largely a captivating film which does not shy away, for the most part, of the brutal truths of the story.

The Homesman

The Homesman is Jones's theatrically released followup to Three Burials, and it follows a somewhat similar formula, though now a "legitimate" western. In that it follows two people as they go upon a journey to deliver something, this time three mad women, in which one imagine they'll have some sort of personal discovery along the way. It also features similar vignettes where we come across some strange western sorts as well. The film is major step down from that film. Jones still has eye for the west, and is well suited as an actor for the genre, but that's all that carries over from his first film. The film seems wholly unaware of what tone it should be and when it shifts to heavy drama or comedy it is excessively jarring. It doesn't help that the film takes so long to reveal the roots of the women's madness even if they are basically props once the journey begins. One would imagine it could at least get by on its main characters. It does not. We are given the seemingly tough old maid played by Hillary Swank whose personal journey that ends with a twist I'll admit I did not see coming. A parallel to the mad women at the end apparently, but her arc seems oddly stilted. We get Jones whose entertaining as the gruff Homesman, also the only vignettes worth mentioning are a couple of sleazy turns by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson. It is not enough to make this film compelling. It is a mess that thematically could be summed up "the west sure was cuhraaazy".

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The Three Burials of Melquiades marked Tommy Lee Jones's directorial debut, and quite the debut. It's neo-western but without quite the hard edge like some other films in the genre. It does deal with a central death, but this film isn't about shootouts. The main thrust of the plot is a revenge of sorts but not the type of revenge you'd usually expect from a western, as it follows Tommy Lee Jones's Pete forcing his friends killer, Norton (Barry Pepper), on a trek to bury his friend where he wanted to be buried.  The focus of the story is on the two men as people, as it examines their personalities, Norton being a general lout and Pete being kind of sad deconstruction of the stoic hero. On their emotional journey though they pass by other people in various vignettes which are a bit more low key than in the traditional western. They are often humorous but always emotional as Jones grants us such a vivid portrait into the unique lives around the border town, beyond even the main story. It's a wonderful atypical western.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur is the very best of the Mann/Stewart western through its particularly tight knit story about a man trying to take an outlaw with a group of men and one woman. Unfortunately for him they all have their own motivations that could lead them to betray him at any time. Stewart as usual is great, but the man who steals the show is Robert Ryan. Ryan, an ace at playing heavies, is in top form offering a great villain that actually makes you able to clearly see cracks in the performances of his villlainous predessors in the Mann westerns. Ryan is just on another level from them, and inturn makes this easily the most tense of all of them. I love the whole set up of this one, that stays in the wilderness the whole time, giving the sense of isolation even while in the open. The film gives you a real sense of all the character, intelligently keeping the character count low, to craft quite the thriller.

Winchester 73

Winchester 73 marked the first western by Anthony Mann where he collaborated with James Stewart. The series of films offer a different kind of west than you might find in most films before it. There's no real comic relief, there's certainly no funny Natives hanging around, it's stark world where most men would rather shoot you in the back just to steal a few coins. The film also offers a different Jimmy Stewart, he's no longer the awshucks charmer of his former years, he's an embittered man living a hard life, though still likable but I suppose that just comes naturally with ole Stewart. The main story represents this style with Stewart playing a hard man hellbent on revenge against an outlaw, unfortunately he's only one of the amoral men he will find on his journey. The film is quite effective in this tone, of dog eat dog, and well anchored by Stewart who proves himself more than capable in dealing in the darker side of mankind. The film is well focused around the straight revenge, depicting a thriller within the western setting, which it uses so well in creating this sense of danger everywhere. It's compelling film though not quite the best Stewart/Mann have to offer.

The Third Man

The Third Man is a downright brilliant film that essentially pulls together so many great ideas into a single compelling story. The use of the burnt out Vienna is not only great idea, but gives such real sense of place in terms of city that is still in shambles. We that we get so many shady character, left and right, but with the king of them all being Orson Welles's smiling devil, Harry Lime. The character though offers more than a cackling villain, he offers a temptation to believe his twisted philosophy that emphasizes one's own gain over all others. In the middle of it all we have Joseph Cotten's Holly, who is truly a hapless hero in that it times him quite awhile before he even knows he is the hero. The film has the right sense of humor in this, having the right fun with the material, even though it has its darker turns. Trevor Howard's Major Calloway's a great example of this dichotomy with his acerbic asides, "Calloway not Callahan", but also a more earnest conviction when revealing to Holly what Harry Lime's crimes do. Unlike a few other films of the period the morality never feels forced, unlike say the unfortunate speech at the Asphalt Jungle, it is brilliantly interlaced through the characters. The film though is one of the best directed films of all time with its stunning cinematography, unforgettable music, and so many sequences that just seem to be pure cinema.

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties is yet another compelling James Cagney lead gangster movie. This one seeking a slightly larger scope, in terms of time frame, than a few of his others depicting a former World War I veteran being forced into crime during the depression. This film I will say has a plenty going for it, another strong turn by Cagney which allows us to sympathize with his downfall, even while being a great tough guy as usual, a more interesting supporting turn by Gladys George as his female cohort, and Humphrey Bogart, still in full heel mode, as a untrustworthy and psychotic partner in crime. Raoul Walsh as usual has a real panache for this type of story. He keeps the pace, except for a few I'm sure contractually obligated Priscilla Lane song numbers, but also keeps a real investment in the story. Walsh makes us truly care about this guy, he never judges Cagney's Eddie, even if the code basically required him to treat him rather poorly. The film never forgets the tragedy of adrift veteran though particularly in the final scenes of the film which carry quite the emotional impact.