Thursday, August 19, 2010

100 years, 100 films metapost: 10 Best Films of the Forties

The Forties were sort of a schizophrenic decade for Hollywood movies in a lot of ways. About half of the films made were super-depressing, super-serious films along the lines of "we're in a war how could anything ever be fun ever again," or, "we've just been through a war how could anything ever be fun ever again". And the other half of the films were ridiculous escapist stuff - intentionally and bull-headedly ignoring everything that was going on around them, reminiscent of John Cleese screaming, "Don't mention the war!"

Actually, now that I think about it, that's pretty much every decade of Hollywood movies. About equal parts sanctimonious b.s. and escapist pap.

Now to the best of them!

10. The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed directed what may well be Orson Welles' best performance. Joseph Cotten doesn't do to badly either. My only problem with the film is how much of a dumbass Cotten's character is. What, he couldn't fake his way through a literary discussion of his own books? What a dumbass!

9. Unfaithfully Yours (1948). For my money, this is the fastest and funniest of all of Preston Sturges' comedies. Generally I find Rex Harrison insufferable, but here his mannered jerkishness is comic gold.

8. Easter Parade (1948). To atone for my grievous sin of not including any Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies in my "best of the thirties" list, I offer Easter Parade, which some people consider "lesser" Astaire. Those people are stupid-heads.

7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). John Huston directs Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston going crazy in the desert. The harshness of untamed America is on display here better than in any mere Western I've ever seen.

6. Great Expectations (1946). Before David Lean became a director, he was an editor, and in his Great Expectations, it shows. His manipulation of the medium for maximum effect is, quite frankly, extraordinary.

5. Beauty and the Beast (1946). Jean Cocteu's dreamlike fantasy is the definitive screen version of the oft-told story. The ending still feels like a cop-out, but at least it's rushed.

4. To Have and Have Not (1944). Howard Hawks riffing on Casablanca, giving Bogie almost exactly the same role, but giving the Ingrid Bergman role to Lauren Bacall. Bacall does it better than Bergman ever could.

3. Double Indemnity (1944). Before Billy Wilder became a director of decent-but-slow fifties comedies, he was one of the most interesting, experimental guys in Hollywood. This quintissential film noir is, for my money, the best crime movie ever made.

2. Dumbo (1941). The best Disney movie. Short, lean, and packing an emotional wallop, this movie doesn't contain any of the tedious flab that drags down other Disney films of the forties.

1. His Girl Friday (1940). What can I say? I have an undying love for Howard Hawks, and undying love for Cary Grant, and an undying love for this movie. And boy, can Rosalind Russell talk. I could listen to that all day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

100 years, 100 films 40: On The Town (1949)

This is one of those perfectly watchable Arthur Freed produced MGM musicals from the forties and fifties. There's nothing particularly good or bad about it. It's fun enough to hold your interest, the dances are good, the girls are pretty, the songs are... amiable... in a way...

That's not to say that the Arthur Freed unit didn't make some great musicals, but this isn't one of them. There's nothing particularly wrong with the film (except for the performance of Jules Munshin, who makes Donald O' Conner in Singin' in the Rain seem postively not annoying), but, well...

Maybe part of the problem is the fact that I have always been, and will always remain, a Fred Astaire man. I can see that Gene Kelly is good and all, but he's just too... all-American-boy-ish for my taste. When Astaire breaks into song and dance, it feels like it's a natural extension of his exuberant charm and class. When Gene Kelly breaks into song, it can sometimes feel like a stupid American hick getting bored and dicking around. There's just something graceless about him. He always looks like he's having a good time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the audience is.

Maybe I'm being a little hard on the film. It isn't bad. Stanley Donen (who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly) is a sometimes-great director, and the fact that this isn't anywhere near his best doesn't mean that you'll feel cheated of your time. It's just that... well... there are certainly better ways to spend your time. Like watching Singin' in the Rain. Or The Pirate. Or any Fred Astaire movie...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

100 years, 100 films 39: The Big Clock (1948)

This is a movie about clockwork. I'm not just talking about the fact that publishing magnate Earl Janoth, played with admirable creepiness by Charles Laughton, is obsessed with the precision of clocks - both in and of themselves, and as a metaphor for the ceaselessly mechanical way he runs his business. And I'm not talking about the fact that every other line uttered in the first thirty minutes of the film is something like, "do you have the time?" or, "what kind of time do you call this?" And I'm not even talking about the fact that the two most pivotal moments in the movie - the murder (this is, after all, a film noir - of course there's a murder) and the movie's climax - both completely revolve around clocks.

What I mean when I say that the movie is "about clockwork" is that the enjoyment one derives from The Big Clock comes from the fact that the film is perfectly timed. It's like a good Agatha Christie story, in that everything that happens, happens exactly when it needs to. Every action of every character leads inevitably to the other actions of the other characters. Nothing happens arbitrarily. Nothing happens accidentally. I don't mean that characters don't have accidents, or do things that they hadn't planned. But every accident any character makes is set in motion by something a previous character has done. Much like the gears in a clock, the characters in this film have preset paths they are forced to follow by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths by the fact that the other characters are forced to follow their preset paths... and all this seeming chaos works together to create one unified effect - the never-ending ticking of the plot.

Mirroring the actions of the obsessive Earl Janoth, director John Farrow never allows The Big Clock to stop ticking. Because as Janoth suspects at the beginning of the film and knows for certain by the end, when the clock stops ticking, chaos reigns. And this chaos might be good for Janoth's tired and belittled workers, but it is bad, bad, bad for the guy at the top. Fortunately, Farrow never looses his cool, never breaks the clock, never sends his world into chaos. The movie just keeps moving inevitably along, unbroken and entertaining.

Also, this movie has what may be the most thematically perfect murder weapon in the history of cinema. I mean, the film's The Big Clock, it's obsessed with clocks, so yeah, it makes sense that the murder weapon is a clock. But it isn't just any clock. It's a sundial. A mechanical clock is perfect as long as it keeps on ticking, but a sundial has all sorts of potential for error. A human has to line it up exactly right for it to work, and humans make mistakes. Earl Janoth (who is the murderer - not really a spoiler as the film never tries to keep it a secret) absolutely despises the idea of human error. To him, the sundial represents everything that was wrong with the pre-industrial world: it wasn't totally controlable. Also, a sundial has to be used outside, and in Janoth's world, the act of going outside is an act of rebellion. The sundial, to Janoth, is like a sick, twisted, abomination version of the one thing he loves - his clocks. And it is the mere presence of the sundial in his mistress' apartment that sets him into a fit of rage. Moreso even than the fact that she was cheating on him.

Monday, August 16, 2010

100 years, 100 films 38: Brute Force (1947)

This is the kind of movie where characters stand around, spouting pop-philosophy garbage at each other. There's not a character in the whole film who doesn't awkwardly "represent" something - the prison guard is the evils of beaurocracy and capitalism; the doctor is the ineffectual intelligentsia, explaining social problems but unable to do anything to stop them; the warden is the problems with democracy - limp wristed and more concerned with the retention of his job than actually doing it competently; the prisoners are "society" - being pushed around by forces beyond their control. And this stupid symbolism is handled so heavy handedly by the director, Jules Dassin, that the movie stops feeling like a movie and starts feeling like a sociology lesson aimed at mentally retarded people. Characters basically just walk around screaming, "THIS IS WHAT I REPRESENT! I AM THE EVILS OF THE CAPITALIST SYSTEM!" for ninty minutes. It's really annoying.

Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a hardened criminal with a heart of gold (you can tell he has a heart of gold, because he's in love with a crippled woman. Goddamn this movie is stupid) who is planning the Communist overthrow of society... whoops... errm... I mean a prison break. Lancaster acts as if he's got a slice of lemon in his mouth, spitting out his lines in between stoic grimaces. He's acting opposite Hume Cronyn as the evil prison guard, who is a walking bundle of allusions to sadism, fascism, capitalism, beaurocracy, homosexuality, anything else Jules Dassin can think of to despise. Both of these actors do the best with what they're given, but what they're given is a huge pile of horse shit, so...

To be fair to the movie, the climactic action set piece is actually quite effective (although the effect is somewhat ruined by the doctor's final line: "Nobody ever escapes! Nobody!"), the cinematography is uniformly excellent, the dirt and the grime and the muck all look suitably disgusting. I just wish the film stopped shouting it's stupid points at me, and just let the characters be themselves, rather than conforming to some dumbassed and highly "symbolic" scheme.

Friday, August 13, 2010

100 years, 100 films 37: The Lady in the Lake (1946)

This is more of an experiment than a movie. It's ostensibly an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, but... it's all shot in first person perspective, and I suppose this was supposed to be analogous to Chandler's first person narration, but it just isn't. What would be analogous to Chandler's first person narration would be, you know, first person narration. Robert Montgomery was both director and star of this movie, so I suppose that the idea might have been that the film would offer one ultra-unified vision. But it doesn't. It just offers a cheap and not particularly well executed gimmick.

Not that the first person perspective gimmick is an inherently bad idea, but it is rarely actually utilised properly in the movie, and it just means that you get a whole lot of actors trying awkwardly to interact with the camera, without really having any idea how to do that convincingly. Also, because the camera is an awkward, clunky, hard-to-maneuver 1940s camera, it always looks weird - like Chandler is walking in perfectly straight lines, standing perfectly still, not moving his head for minutes at a time, keeping his head perfectly straight as he stumbles around drunk. Rather than pulling you into the story by making you feel like you are Chandler (which I assume was the point) the film makes you intensely and constantly aware that you are looking through a camera.

There are moments in this film that use the first person perspective thing properly. There is a car chase sequence, followed by a post-car-crash scramble to a telephone booth, that are surprisingly effective and taut, and where the first person perspective does actually draw you in. But most of the time, when it's just people standing around and talking, the film feels like nothing more than one of those stupid interactive DVD games, where the characters are all trying desperately to make you feel like you're "part of the action!"

And it all moves so slowly. Because there are no editing cheats to speed the movie up. Every scene is one long, uninterrupted take, and the editor can't just cut in the middle of some dialgoue and say, "well, we don't need this thirty seconds". And it's not just the dialogue scenes that aren't edited properly. Because it's all in first person perspective, we get so many agonsizingly pointless shots of Marlowe walking up stairs. Marlowe walking down a hallway. Marlowe openning a door, walking through the doorway, then closing the door behind him. And because these sorts of scenes were difficult to orchestrate from a technical standpoint, the film seems to think that they will be, somehow, inherently interesting to the audience. But no. They're just tedious.

Really the only thing that made this movie interesting for most of the running time was the fact that when you can't see Robert Montgomery's face, he actually sounds quite a bit like Alan Alda. So I just kept imagining Alan Alda as Marlowe. Now that would be a good movie. But then Marlowe would look into a mirror, and Robert Montgomery's face would pop up, and the whole effect was ruined.

If you feel the need to watch something that's shot entirely in first person perspective, go for the British sitcom Peep Show. It's all first person perspective, but there are five things that make it just so much better than The Lady in the Lake:
1. Though every shot is somebody's perspective, they aren't all the same person's perspective, which allows for things like editing, and also visual variation.
2. It's not only all first person perspective, but it also has a lot of first person narration, allowing for some pretty damn hilarious inner monologues.
3. A contemporary digital camera is much easier to handle than a 1940s film camera, meaning that the camera work feels like what the characters would actually see, rather than looking bizarrely staid.
4. It is really, really funny.
5. It's not someone's stupid vanity project.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

100 years, 100 films 36: Open City (1945)

We have been conditioned by thousands of Hollywood movies to think of spies as people with almost superhuman abilities and total emotional detachment. They may enjoy sex, but apart from that, they're pretty much robots. They're always expertly trained in everything, and their motto is always "professionalism". Obviously there are exceptions to these rules, even amongst conventional Hollywood spy movies. But I've never seen a movie that depicts spies like Roberto Rossellini's Open City depicts spies. Open City's spies are real humans - they aren't mythological beings acting out some Kabuki play for the audience's enjoyment. They're average people with average desires and goals, but they're driven to the extremes of heroism by circumstances that seem beyond their control.

The film is set in Italy in 1944. Italy has been bombed ceaselessly by the Americans and the British, and is overrun by Nazis who feel nothing but disdain for the Italians they are forced to deal with. It's this climate of constant fear of death from the Allies, and torture from the Nazis, that forces otherwise regular Italians into working as spies for the Communists, who seem to be the only people not attempting to destroy Italy. These people who become spies don't just abandon all their other problems, they still have to deal with girl troubles, or money troubles, or food troubles. And it's this refusal to abandon their previous lives that make these characters all feel real, and honest, and it gives the film an underlying sense of truth. Sure, some pretty melodramtic stuff happens in Open City, but it never feels fake. It just feels like life is serving up a big hunk of crap to these people, and they've got to deal with it. The overlying sense of realism gives the moments of melodrama a raw emotional power that they just simply would not possess in a Hollywood film.

The film isn't perfect. It's attitude towards women is pretty damn mysoginistic, even for its time (which is a real shame, because the film does have some great female performances). And the subtitling on the copy I watched was, quite frankly, woeful. And while the spies are more realistic here than they would be in a Hollywood film, the Nazis are exactly as two dimensional. But the movie is still really damn powerful.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

100 years, 100 films 35: Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw (1944)

I included this film in my stupid film experiment so that I could talk about the way in which World War 2 was infencting every aspect of Hollywood films during the war years. Normally what happens in these Basil Rathbone - Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, is that Sherlock goes and investigates some crime that relates to the War in some way (the bad guy is a Nazi, some of the suspects are soldiers, the crime involves spies and/or army secrets), and then at the end of the film gives a big speech about how great America or Britain or the Navy or whatever is. But by 1944, it seems that the film makers had, in fact, got bored with this formula, and pretty much jettisoned it entirely.

There is still the obligatory war connection, and the big rousing speech, technically. But the film isn't even pretending to care about either of them. The "war connection" is that... the film is set in Canada, and Canada is... part of the war effort... or something. And the big rousing speech is about how necessary Canada is to the winning of the war, but it makes no real sense, and you can just tell that nobody's heart was in it. It feels like Basil Rathbone is sitting there thinking, "well, better get this over with..."

So I guess this film tells us that, by 1944, everyone had pretty much gotten sick of the war. There's only so much rousing b.s. a person can stomache before he just simply isn't roused any more, and there's only so much rousing b.s. a person can make before they just stop caring, and it stops being rousing. And it makes sense. By this point, audiences had been constantly bombarded with messages about how great soliders are and America is and bla bla bla, and honestly I'm surprised it took them this long to get sick of it.

Of course, the fact that the film doesn't work as propaganda doesn't mean that the film is bad. It isn't. It's actually quite good. At this point in the series, Rathbone and Bruce had become truly comfortable in their roles, and their raport together is rather wonderful. The plot is both baffling and insane, two things I like in my Sherlock Holmes, and the atmosphere is remarkably evocative. The supporting cast are all solid, although there is remarkably little Canadian-ness about any of them. I actually kept forgetting that the film was set in Canada, and it was just the occassional dropping of the word "Quebec" that reminded me that I wasn't in England.

This non-Canadian-ness wasn't really a problem for the film, but it does sort of illustrate the laziness with which this film applied its pro-war stuff. I'm pretty sure the film was only set in Canada because the film makers were running through the list of things that Sherlock Holmes hadn't made speeches about, and the only things left were "Canada" and "the Postal Service". After much deliberation, they decided to go with Canada, but nobody could be bothered putting any effort into the thing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

100 years, 100 films 34: Action in the North Atlantic (1943)

Based on my experiences with The Fighting 69th a couple of days ago, I wasn't really expecting much from Action in the North Atlantic. And it's far from a perfect film - it's very episodic, and the female characters are marginalised to the point of meaninglessness. But apart from that, it's actually surprisingly entertaining.

Humphrey Bogart is in top form as Joe Rossi, a First Mate on a cargo ship during World War 2. He grumbles and growls and grimaces with his usual aplomb. The dialogue he says is often ridiculous in that hyper-macho hyper-stylised Hollywood tough guy vernacular that was so popular in the forties. Or rather, I should say that his dialogue would often be ridiculous, if it wasn't said by Humphrey Bogart, who seems to have an innate ability to pull that stuff off and still look like a total badass.

Most of the other actors are pretty bland (with the notable exception of Alan Hale), but Bogart has enough charisma and soiled charmed for them all. And what the film lacks in ensemble work, it more than makes up for in some really good action sequences, very well handled by the director, Lloyd Bacon.

One interesting element of the film is the way that it totally dehumanises the Nazis. It's not surprising that it does this, but it is interesting how the American Merchant Marines are depicted as all-too-human - slouching, grime on their faces, shirts unbuttoned, hats askew. Whereas the Nazis are all robots - they speak in an incomprehensible (unsubtitled German) monotone, they stand perfectly straight, their uniforms are immaculately clean. The only time the Nazis ever feel any emotions is in moments of violence - either cheering in victory when an American ship is sunk, or screaming in terror as their sub fills with water. What's particularly interesting about this is the way that the film is such a glorification of the US Merchant Marines, that it actually chooses to dehumanise the US Navy in the same way. Our first introduction to the Navy is a clean, Spartan classroom, filled with immaculate uniforms being worn by faceless drones - they have uniformly perfect posture, clean faces, good hair. And it's only when the Merchant Marines teach the Navy boys how to be proper Americans, that they become depicted as humans.

Monday, August 9, 2010

100 years, 100 films 33: Arabian Nights (1942)

This movie makes no sense. And by that, I don't mean that it's filled with plot holes (although it is), or that the dialogue sounds like stuff that no human would ever, under any circumstances, say (although it does), or that the basic plot is a cliche riddled mess with no proper through line (although it is and it hasn't). I don't even mean the fact that they've taken the Arabian Nights name, randomly stolen a bunch of character names from different, completely incongruous, tales, and plopped them all into something with absolutely nothing to do with the Arabian Nights. When I claim that this movie makes no sense, what I mean is, is that there is absolutely no reason why the hero is the hero and the villain is the villain.

By this, I mean that the hero does nothing heroic, and the villain does nothing villainous. In fact, at the start of the film, I had assumed that the villain was the hero, given the fact that his introduction was him being tortured by the film's "hero". And not only was the "villain" being tortured by the "hero," and not only was the "hero" saying absolutely nothing to convince me that this torture was in any way justified, but the guy was being hung on a horizontal pole by his arms in a very obvious Christ-like pose. So naturally, I assumed, "oh, this is just poorly handled, very obvious symbolism." But then, when I (eventually) worked out that he was the villain, I had to reassess my judgement, and I thought to myself, "oh. It's just a really shitty film with absolutely no idea what the hell it is doing."

Something else that didn't help matters any - the hero and the villain looked exactly the fucking same. I mean, they were supposed to be brothers, so I suppose you could argue that their identicalness was to stress the whole family resemblance thing, but it just made it really damn confusing. I kept having to think, "wait. Is this the hero, or the villain? Who is saying these things?" And the fact that neither of these idiots had anything remotely resembling a personality didn't help things any either. Here's a tip for any prospective film makers out there: when casting your movie, don't have the protagonist and the antagonist look exactly the fucking same. It's just confusing.

Other ways in which this film had no idea what it was doing: the "comic relief" was just so goddamn terrible. When the "highlight" of your "comedy relief" is Shemp fucking Howard, you should not be allowed to have any goddamn comedy relief. Shemp plays Sinbad the Sailor and spends the whole time attempting to tell stories of when he was at sea. Everyone around him keeps telling him to shut the hell up, but he never gets the damn message. Other comic "highlights": a fat guy making "boing" sound effects when he hits people with his belly, a fat guy in a dress, a man inexplicably falling in lust with a fat guy in a dress. Oh, and Aladdin is trying to find his magic lamp, so he goes around and rubs every lamp he sees. Ha ha ha? I can tell it was supposed to be a joke, because it made no sense in any other context.

The film looked great - the colours were lush and gorgeous, the set decorations were beautiful. But when any of the walls in any of the buildings are more interesting than any of the actors, there is something wrong with your movie. There is something wrong with this movie.

Friday, August 6, 2010

100 years, 100 films 32: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

A while ago I reviewed the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I claimed that about half the film was great, and half the film was utter garbage. Well, this star-studded Victor Fleming directed version eliminates most of the garbage, and in so doing eliminates a good deal of what made that original film great. It's much smoother than the earlier version - by the early forties Hollywood had learnt to add that protective sheen to everything. And, to be perfectly honest, I think that the gloss here actually does make the film better.

After all, this movie is a love triangle between Spencer Tracy (his usual charmingly charmless self) as Dr. Jekyll, Lana Turner (fiance) and Ingrid Bergman (mistress); both of the women have never looked better. All three of these people are much, much more interesting than the three protagonists of the earlier film. And while the Mr. Hyde stuff is a little less viscerally thrilling in the 1941 film, the Dr. Jekyll stuff is just so much better. It's actually competent, entertaining filmmaking in and of itself. The love scenes between Jekyll and his fiance aren't cloying and horrible, because you actually feel like these are people who legitimately care about each other, rather than two actors who don't give a shit. And Ingrid Bergman's first scene is... well... it's probably the sexiest seduction scene ever put on film. There. I said it.

Another reason this film is better than its 1932 counterpart is that, though the film is less visceral, it is actually more creepy. In the 1932 film, Frederic Marsh's makeup as Hyde was, quite frankly, a little silly looking. Here, Spencer Tracy is wearing hardly any makeup at all - he does it all with a creepy smile and some hair dye. After the first transformation, there is a moment when he looks into the mirror and asks himself, "is this the face of evil?" It's creepy and effective because it's not much different from his regular own face. Evil is in all humans, all the time, and it doesn't need bad sideburns and a monkey face to come out.

The editing also often adds to the overall creepiness of the film. there is a scene where Dr. Jekyll is walking through a park, whistling to himself. He stops, looks around, confused. He continues to walk on, still whistling. He stops again, looks around again, this time visibly scared. He starts to walk on again, but finds himself turning into Mr. Hyde. This scene as described is pretty much identical to a scene that occurs in the 1932 film. But the difference is in the editing. In the 1941 film, Jekyll walks in long shot, whistling. Then, without warning, the sound drops out, and we're on a close up of Jekyll, standing completely still. He then starts to walk away again in longshot, still whistling. Cut to silent close up, he's standing still, looking terrified. The film is dropping small amounts of time, intentionally dislocating us, making us feel as dislocated, confused and creeped out as Dr. Jekyll himself. It's an incredibly well done sequence, and something that the earlier film just did not have the maturity to pull off.

There are things that were great in the early film, that this film doesn't do nearly as well. the transformation sequences in the 1941 film all have an irritating Freudian pop-psychology veneer that makes them seem riduculous and over-thought, whereas the transformation sequences in the 1932 film are just hella cool looking. The 1941 film is also a tad overlong, moreso than the 1932 film. But these minor complaints are basically irrelevant - The 1941 film is just so much better.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

100 years, 100 films 31: The Fighting 69th (1940)

At the beginning of World War 2, before America had joined the fight (lousy bastards, always showing up late, taking all the credit, grumble bunch of jerks mumble mumble...), the Warner Brothers studio made a series of movies designed specifically to encourage America to get in on the action. The films were invariably set in previous wars, when American badassery had been on full display, and they were all heavily laden with monotonous and repetitive patriotic speeches of the "war is tough, but dammit it will make a man out of you" variety. And it is in this cycle of films that William Keighley's The Fighting 69th belongs.

And I guess it was a fine and admirable goal to try to get Americans to join the war against the Nazis, but there's a problem. This movie sucks. I mean, it really, really sucks. Not just in the boring and annoying way I was expecting: I was prepared for the stupid patriotic speeches, I was prepared for the grating religious bullshit, I was prepared for the hammy acting and the weak jokes. I was prepared to put up with all that, because this film had one major asset, something that I thought would cut through the tedium and irritatance. This film has Jimmy Cagney.

But what does this film do with Jimmy Cagney? What does this film do with the toughest, badassest, take-no-prisoners-est dude who ever fired a gun on the big screen? It turns him into a goddamn coward. It says that all of Cagney's bravura, all of his grit and gumption, they're all just an act, masking an underlying cowardice that makes him inherently weak. NO! No no no no no no no no no. NO! Cagney is not weak! You know what Cagney's badassery is masking? It's masking an even more potent underlying level of badassery, that he's having to keep in check, for fear of making the screen literally melt from awesome! He can be crazy, he can have issues, he can be coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, but he CANNOT be NOT a badass!

And this film doesn't just make Cagney into a coward, oh no. It doesn't just stop there. This film goes so far to make Cagney so much of a damn coward, that his cowardice gets about thirty people killed! AND THEN, after he's gotten all those men killed, he goes and acts like a coward AGAIN, getting even MORE people killed! And yeah, okay, at the end he does get his "I have to prove myself" moment, stepping up to the plate and dying nobly for his country, but it really doesn't make up for the fact that his actions lead pretty much directly to the pointless deaths of about fifty people. And when I say that it "doesn't make up for" all those deaths, I mean both that the character isn't properly redeemed in the eyes of the audience (he is, after all, still responsible for all those deaths), and that this one scene of Cagney badassery doesn't excuse the film of all those other scenes of Cagney whimpiness.

Also, I don't understand how the hell this was supposed to encourage people to join the army. I mean, if CAGNEY is shitting his pants with fear, how the hell are us mere mortals supposed to stand the pressure? I guess the idea is to say that it doesn't really matter if you are terrified, because you'll get your moment of inevitable heroism. Except that the film ALSO says that, if you are terrified (which the film claims to be pretty much a certainty) then your fear will lead directly to the deaths of scores of men. Oh good! I think I'll join the army, so I can accidentally kill dozens of men, just like Cagney! And then I can kill myself in the line of duty, to make up for it!

I suppose the idea was that the endless speeches would make the audience swell with pride and long to die for their country, but honestly, who gives a shit? They're so standard and forgettable that I can't really imagine anyone being moved by them.

Also, if you think you'll be able to be entertained by the movie by playing the "gay subtext" game, and snickering every time anyone says "69", you won't. It's funny at first, but there's no challenge to it, and the crushing awfulness of every single aspect of the film will suck the fun right out. Just avoid it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

100 years, 100 films metapost: 10 best films of the thirties

So I've now reached the end of the thirties on my ever-increasingly stupid-seeming "100 years, 100 films" experiment/waste of time. That means it's time for my "10 best films of the thirties" list. Hooray!

10. The Rules of the Game (1939). A bunch of upper middle class French idiots gather at a country house and try to have sex with each other. Jean Renoir's film is a masterpiece of camera movement, social commentary, and gentle anger.

9. It Happened One Night (1934). Frank Capra can be really funny, when he isn't making films about how great America, God and small towns are. Here his funnyness is in full effect, and the small town b.s. is toned down to an absolute minimum.

8. Scarface (1932). The moment when I officially decided I hated Oliver Stone was when he claimed that the dreary 1983 Scarface remake, which Stone had scripted, was better than Howard Hawks' original (which Stone claimed "wasn't that good.") Screw you, Oliver Stone. Paul Muni could beat the shit out of Pacino any day.

7. Holiday (1938). This George Cukor directed gem would be the definitive screen pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, if it wasn't for the existence of film number 2 on this list.

6. Little Caeser (1931). It may not be a "great" film, but Edward G. Robinson's bravura performance rips the film from its standardness, and turns it into something special.

5. The Awful Truth (1937). Leo McCarey and Cary Grant team up and master the screwball comedy. Magic.

4. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Errol Flynn's most lavish and beautiful film is one of the greatest screen spectacles of all time.

3. Horse Feathers (1932). Duck Soup may be crazier, but the Marx Brothers' fourth film, Horse Feathers, was much funnier. It may be standard comedy fodder - dumbasses at college - but, oh, what the Marx Brothers do to that college...

2. Bringing Up Baby (1938). The definitive screwball comedy. Howard Hawks was pretty damn close to perfection with this manic, insane mess.

1. The Invisible Man (1933). I know most people think that James Whale's masterpiece is the excellent Bride of Frankenstein. But for me, nothing beats Claude Rains' voice going crazy and wreaking havoc on the most ridiculous and eccentric English village ever put on film.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

100 years, 100 films 30: Love Affair (1939)

Leo McCarey's Love Affair is a great movie for half an hour, a pretty good movie for the next half an hour, then an abysmal piece of shit for the last half an hour. This is because the film works as three completely tonally and stylistically different short films, haphazardly jammed one after the other. The first short film is a naturalistic character study about a French playboy (played with an abundance of charm by Charles Boyer) and an American chanteusse (played silkily, but with an underlying level of vulnerability, by Irene Dunne) - they meet aboard a ship sailing from France to America, fall in love, and have to work out what that means for their prospective futures. It is funny (sometimes hysterically so), but more importantly, it has a real feeling of authenticity to it. This authenticity was achieved because of Leo McCarey's directorial style. Rather than having all the dialogue and blocking of a scene worked out before the beginning of filming, he preferred to have a loose, improvisational atmosphere, leading to a surprisingly honest tone.

This honest tone is carried over into the second short film, which is a strange little religious tale. This would be terrible if it weren't for the redeeming performances of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, as well as the always marvelous Maria Ouspenskaya, as Boyer's mother. This is a short film about the importance of Christ and... family... or something. It was pointless and message-y, but it still managed to be entertaining enough, and it did nothing to ruin the greatness of the first short film.

The last short film, however, does manage to almost obliterate the greatness of the first. The film just suddenly shifts to infuriating and goddawful melodrama, for no reason except that McCarey needed to pad out the running time. It's not the ridiculous coincidence of what happens that bugs me (Dunne gets in a car accident that leaves her crippled, right before she and Boyer are about to be married), it's the fact that what follows is the biggest and worst example of what Roger Ebert has dubbed the "Idiot Plot" that I have ever seen. Why doesn't Dunne just tell Boyer what happened? Why is she acting like such a goddamn moron? WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS MOVIE?

I don't know why a movie that started out at greatness chose to degenerate into piffle, but it did. It's still worth watching; for that first half an hour; for the performances of Boyer, Dunne and Ouspenskaya; and for Leo McCarey's directorial style. But, yeah, maybe it would be better to just turn the movie off after the scene at the top of the Empire State Building. Seriously, you won't be missing out on anything. Except, I guess, being bored and infuriated.

Monday, August 2, 2010

100 years, 100 films 29: Pygmalion (1938)

I've never fully understood people's obsession with George Bernard Shaw. He's a decent enough writer, but it seems to me that his abilities with dialgoue are somewhat overpraised. Not to say that he's bad at writing dialogue or anything, but to compare him to, say, P.G. Wodehouse, or Oscar Wilde, or Douglas Adams, or Mark Twain... it just seems wrong. He just strikes me as a second tier author, who's been misplaced on the first tier by people who like My Fair Lady more than they should. He can write good dialogue, but it rarely soars. Yes, you do get the occassional gem, like, "I shall make a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe," but most of the time it's just... solid. Each of his characters do have a different and unique voice, but most of the time those different and unique voices aren't really all that interesting.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I dislike Pygmalion, either the original play, or the 1938 film version directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard. I just don't think it's some amazing work of genius. It's a solid piece of romantic fluff, that was thought to be something more by some of its makers. Yes, it works as a criticism of the social class system in England - it points out the injustice of people being placed in different social spheres based on their accents and grammar. Except that the film (or the play) never go so far as to say that people shouldn't be judged based on their accents, just that the poor should be taught to speak properly. So the play (and the film) basically hold the exact same prejudices that they are trying to criticise.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

100 years, 100 films 28: Heidi (1937)

I chose this film for 1937 because, well, I'd never actually seen a whole Shirley Temple film. I'd seen bits and pieces over the years, but I'd never sat down and watched one right the way through. And after watching Heidi, I know why.

God this movie was horrible. The plot made no sense, the characters were all annoying, and ugh, god, did I want to slap Shirley Temple in her stupid fucking face. There was one moment where she gets butted in the arse by a goat. That was the only good part of the film.

I mean, Jesus Christ, there's a point in this film where Shirley Temple uses her powers of cuteness to make a crippled child able to walk again. It was so fucking terrible.

Oh, and there's this one scene where Shirley Temple is reading a picture book with her grandfather, and for no goddamn reason she just imagines herself into the book. Then we get this bizarre and totally out of place dance sequence about how much Shirley Temple loves her shoes. I guess she was reading a book about a girl who loved her shoes so much she started singing about them? Sounds like a pretty terrible book to me. And the only possible explanation for this scene is that Shirley Temple had a "bizarre pointless dance sequence" clause in her contract.

I hated this fucking movie so fucking much.

100 years, 100 films 27: Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is a throwback to the silent movies of old, made at a time when the death of the silent movie was relatively new. There is talking, but you only hear words through technology - radios, records, telecommunication systems. Otherwise, the dialogue is conveyed through silent movie-style interstitials, or is gibberish. Chaplin felt the addition of sound to movies was basically pointless, but by 1936 it was pretty clear that it wasn't going away. But the fact that it had become a necessary part of movies didn't mean that Chaplin had to like it. So Chaplin made a movie that just wanted to be a silent film, but that technology kept forcing in all these spoken words.

And this idea ties nicely into the overall point of the film. The film is about how the overindustrialised and over-technologised world of 1936 destroys people's humanity and turns them into soulless robots. If it wasn't for the advancing technology, all these people would be able to be happy and free - and if it wasn't for the advancing film technology, Chaplin would have been able to make the film a silent, like he so clearly desired.

The problem with all this "technology - bad" moralising is that it doesn't really make sense in the context of the rest of Chaplin's filmography. I mean, in this film, the past is presented as some sort of pre-industrialised wonderland, where if you want some milk, you just went outside and got it straight from the cow. But this view of the past doesn't really make sense if you think about it in terms of Chaplin's films from that "pre-industrialised wonderland". His characters in those films are just as miserable and lonely as the characters in Modern Times. The only real difference is that those characters didn't have technology to blame their unhappiness on.

This problem is illustrated perfectly by the ending of Modern Times. Chaplin's films from the era Chaplin is yearning for always ended unhappily - the Little Tramp would have lost the girl, and would end the film wandering unhappily into the sunset, sad and pathetic and hungry. But in Modern Times, the film ends happily - by spurning the technological world, the Little Tramp manages to win the girl, and wanders into the sunset holding hands with his love and smiling. But if technology was the problem (as it so clearly was in Modern Times) then why weren't his previous protagonists happy and contented? If all one needs is a technology free world, then why are his characters who live in a technology free world intrinsically unhappy?

None of this is to say that the film is bad. It isn't. It's actually pretty damn good - almost as good as The Gold Rush. The ending, with its sweet and happy tone, is actually better than the usual Chaplin ending. Both types of ending are over-sentimental tripe, but with most of the endings, Chaplin seems to be punishing his audience for laughing: "Oh, you thought that was funny, did you? Well here's a downer ending, so you don't leave the cinema feeling happy. I mean, what is this, a comedy?" But at the end of Modern Times you actually do feel happy. But the fact that I liked the movie doesn't mean that I have to like the message of the movie.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

100 years, 100 films 26: David Copperfield (1935)

This is the sort of movie where you can just while away a pleasant two hours playing, "hey, I know that actor." It's a perfectly solid piece of entertainment - it moves at a decent pace, the actors all give solid performances (although the viewer does spend longer thinking, "hey, cool, it's Basil Rathbone," than actually being impressed by the performance of Basil Rathbone,) the cinematography is all good. But there's just nothing impressive, or outstanding, about it as a film. It's good, but at no point does it even begin to strive for greatness. The film mistakes the fact that it's a reasonably faithful adaptation of Dickens for proof of its inherent quality.

I just don't think George Cukor is the right director for this sort of movie. Or, to put it another way, he is all too much the right director for this kind of movie - he doesn't take any risks, he makes everything staid and respectful and terribly, terribly pleasant. Out of all of the A-list directors from Hollywood's Golden Age, Cukor strikes me as the one most content to just put a camera in front of some characters, and have them talk. This works great when the people talking have incredible dialogue to say (The Philadelphia Story), or have amazing on-screen chemistry together (Kathrine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib) or when one of the actors is giving an incredible performance (Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday). But when the film is an adaptation of a literary classic, it should be directed by someone a bit less toothless.

Compare this Dickens adaptation to one made eleven years later - David Lean's Great Expectations. It might surprise some people to know this, but there was a time when David Lean didn't get "elaborate set decorations" and "good films" confused. This was a time when Lean was an actual cinematic artist - he managed to take the book Great Expectations, and rather than just simply transferring it to the screen, he translated the feeling of the book - the atmosphere, the tone - into the language of cinema. This left him with a film that wasn't simply "a faithful literary adaptation," but was also "a great film." Cukor, on the other hand, just transferred the book to the screen, with no real attempt at translation. What he was left with was a hollow and shallow "good film".

Saturday, July 24, 2010

100 years, 100 films 25: L'Atalante (1934)

The great director Howard Hawks once said that for a movie to be good, it must have, "three great scenes, and no bad scenes." By this rule, Jean Vigo's L'Atalante is a good movie. The opening scene wedding procession, where we are introduced to our four characters; the scene in which Juliette (played by Dita Parlo with a sort of vacant charm) and Jules (played by the entertaining and craggly Michel Simon) wander around Jules' room, playing with his toys, before Jean (played by the uninteresting Jean Daste), whom Juliette has just been married to, bursts in and destroys the place; and the scene in the cafe, where Juliette flirts with a fast talking magician/salesman. These three scenes are all great, and L'Atalante is worth seeing because of them.

But while these three scenes are great, and none of the other scenes are bad, the film as a whole never quite manages to rise up to the exalted status in which it is held by so many. This is because the film has a couple of flaws. These flaws aren't enough to destroy the film, but they are enough to stop the film from being "great". The first, and most damaging, flaw, is the fact that the film hinges on the idea that Juliette and Jean share an intense and passionate love - but you never really feel it. At one point Juliette tells Jean that the reason she married him was because she was told that if you put your head underwater, the face that you saw was your true love: "I saw your face before I ever met you." Yep, that sounds about right, to me. She married this guy because she stuck her head in a bucket of water. It certainly wasn't because they have any sort of chemistry together, or because they like each other.

The real reason she married him is because he was from out of town - he offered her an escape from her drab and dreary provincial life. She could just get on his big ol' boat and sail away. So when did it shift from Juliette using Jean as a means of escape, to Juliette and Jean being in love? Was it when he beat her mercilessly? Was it when he acted like a jealous douchebag? When he was a mean and heartless jerk? I just didn't buy this relationship as anything approaching love, which made the ending seem hollow, and some of the "poetry" of the film seem forced.

Another small flaw in L'Atalante is its overuse of accordion music. I love the accordion as much as the next guy - in that I don't love it at all. At first the accordion music seemed sort of silly and charming, but after a while it just became an annoying and persistent screech that the film just sort of assumes you'll be happy to put up with. It wasn't so overused that I began to feel the urge to actually yell at the screen, or anything, but I did wish there was less of it.

Apart from these two problems, though, the film is good. I recommend it, but maybe try not to get swept up in all the crazy hype surrounding the film. It's good, but it's not that good.

100 years, 100 films 24: I'm No Angel (1933)

This Mae West vehicle directed by Wesley Ruggles is basically an incompetently structured romantic comedy with an unusually high count of double entendres. Mae West is fun to watch, but the rest of the movie is, quite frankly, terrible. And it doesn't make any sense as a film, either. Cary Grant is the romantic lead (this is before he was famous, or good, but he still does possess some of that ol' Grant charm), but he only shows up in the last third of the movie. Why? Because we've got a whole heap of completely pointless scenes about other men to get through.

We start with Mae West as a dancer in a carnival show. She spies a rich man in the audience sporting an impressive piece of bling, takes him back to her hotel room, and tries to seduce him. Mid-seduction, some weasley douche walks in, saying that she's Mae West's husband. Mae West says that he isn't. That's all the backstory we ever get about the two of them. The weasley douche knocks out the rich guy. For no discernable reason, the weasley douche thinks the rich guy is dead. His genius plan for dealing with the body is to... put it out in the hallway of the hotel, right in front of West's door. Good thing the rich man wasn't dead after all, or his plan would have seemed pretty fucking retarded!

After this incident, Mae West decides that she wants to be a lion tamer instead. Somehow, this makes her really rich and famous, with a giant mansion and a slew of servants. I don't really think lion taming is all that much more lucrative than dancing, but I'm No Angel begs to differ. While she is busy taming lions, a rich guy sees her, and decides that he is "in love with" (read "wants to boink") her. He decides this while sitting next to his fiance, and basically tells his fiance this. The rich guy and Mae West start dating for a while, he breaks it off with the fiance.

Cary Grant plays the friend of this rich guy. Grant wants his friend to break it off with West and go back to his old fiance because West, "just isn't right for him." The rich guy refuses, so Grant goes over to West's house to confront her. She basically tells him that the rich guy means nothing to her, and that she's seeing like a dozen different men. Cary Grant is cool with this, and then falls in love with West. They get engaged for some reason, and then they break it off for some other reason, neither of which I can remember or care about. There's then a big court case over the "Breach of Promise," even though both parties are super rich and neither of them need the money. But it all works out in the end - Cary Grant says stupid things to his lawyer, and then he and West decide to get married after all.

These three episodes are almost entirely unrelated to each other. Grant and the rich guy who broke it off with his fiance are "friends", but once the Grant storyline starts up, the other guy is pretty much never heard from again. But, okay, I can forgive those two segments for being two seperate elements, because you could argue that one is a set up for the other. But what the hell is the point of the first bit? None of it has any bearing on the rest of the story - why didn't she just start the film as a lion tamer? Why spend a full third of the film on what is basically irrelevant backstory?

I suppose the answer to that question is that the weasley douche has something to do with causing the breakup between Grant and West, and the early stuff is supposed to be establishing him as a character - but he's not established at all. I honestly had no idea what his relationship with West was - where they lovers who's relationship had soured? Was he a creepy stalker? Where they actually engaged at the time? All this stuff could have been covered if the movie had started with the lion taming stuff, but had had a scene where the weasley douche talks to West about how she shouldn't be running around on him. But no, it decided to waste a full thirty minutes of screen time on totally irrelevant crap.

Monday, July 19, 2010

100 years, 100 films 23: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mixes some great moments of cinema with some terrible asinine garbage. The moment where Dr. Jekyll first drinks the formula and turns into Mr. Hyde - great. The moment where Dr. Jekyll convinces a little girl with crutches that she is able to walk - terrible. The scene where Mr. Hyde tortures a woman, forcing her to declare that she loves him, through her tear streaked face - great (I mean as a piece of cinema, obviously. I'm not saying that torturing people against their will is "great"). All the torturous scenes where Dr. Jekyll blathers on endlessly about how much he loves his boring-ass fiance and blah blah blah - terrible.

And I think this gets right to the heart of what makes the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story both so fascinating, and also so annoying. Dr. Jekyll is a virtuous, boring douche bag, and Mr. Hyde is a horrible, entertaining monster. Any time spent developing Dr. Jekyll as a character feels like a complete waste - it's time we could be spending in fascinated horror with Mr. Hyde. But if you don't develop Dr. Jekyll as a character - then why the hell is this virtuous windbag allowing himself to be transformed into a horrible monster? Without spending enough time with Dr. Jekyll, you don't learn the answer to that question. You don't learn that he transforms himself into Mr. Hyde because the monster is inside of him the whole time, and Dr. Jekyll is so virtuous that he hates that fact. He feels the need to be virtuous so badly that he is willing to make himself temporarily monstrous, to get it all out of his system. And we do learn all this from Mamoulian's film, which I guess is a good thing, but I just which it wasn't done so... cloyingly. Can't someone be virtuous without coming off as a stupid prick?

Another problem that a lot of people have with adapting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the fact that people already know the twist. Robert Louis Stevenson's book is written as a detective story - a character sets out to discover who this horrible "Mr. Hyde" is, and at the end, learns that *gasp* Mr. Hyde is the amateur detective's good and virtuous friend, Dr. Jekyll! You couldn't possibly do a film adaptation like that, because everyone already knows the ending. So you have to come up with some other driving narrative force. Mamoulian doesn't really do that, but just uses the fact that everyone already knows what's going on as an excuse to excerise his crazy visuals. This does, in fact, turn out to be enough.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

100 years, 100 films 22: M (1931)

Peter Lorre has such a bizarre and creepy screen pressence. He is sort of like Steve Buscemi, if Steve Buscemi had a thick Austrian accent. And so when I heard that Fritz Lang's M cast Lorre as a pedophile I thought, "that is perfect casting." Not to say that I thought Peter Lorre was a pedophile, but I can't think of anyone who would be able to convincingly play one better. But here's the problem - a good deal of Peter Lorre's creepiness comes from his bizarre accent. M removes that level of creepiness - Lorre speaking German just doesn't sound nearly as disturbing as Lorre speaking English. That is not to say that I think Lorre is bad in the part - he is very good - but, at first, I was disappointed in his voice. I got over it, (the excellence of the film certainly helped with that), but still... I would have liked to see Peter Lorre as an English-speaking pedophile.

With that minor gripe out of the way, I can move on to what I thought of the movie as a whole. It was really good. This was Fritz Lang's first sound film, and he uses sound quite sparingly, but very effectively. Peter Lorre's whistling of In the Hall of the Mountain King is a startlingly effective leitmotif, forcing the audience to experience his presence, even when he is unseen. Lang's command of visuals is in full display as well - it is a rare film that has this many beautiful shots of grotesque people in extreme close up.

The pacing is maybe a little slow in places, but the atmosphere the film evokes is so powerful that the occassional slow spot hardly matters at all. Sometimes it actually works to help the film, by keeping you in suspence. There is an almost totally irrelevant fifteen minute sequence of some policemen trying to interrogate a petty criminal that takes place during the film's climax, and just works to whet the audience's appetite for what is to come. You sit there thinking, "hurry up! Get back to Peter Lorre!" but not in a bored way, in a mood of intense anticipation. Then when Lang finally does move on to the Lorre stuff, he doesn't disappoint, and all the waiting seems worthwhile.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

100 years, 100 films 21: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

I have a confession to make: I don't really like war movies. Or anti-war movies, or whatever All Quiet on the Western Front is. They tend to explore themes and motifs that I'm just not very interested in.Yes, I know war is bad. That's why I'm not going to become a soldier. Why do movies keep thinking I give a shit?

That's not to say All Quiet on the Western Front was bad. Far from it. It was a very good example of a type of film I don't like. It's visuals were powerful and evocative, the performances were solid, the pacing was good. And I know all that, and I appreciate it in an intellectual sort of a way, but I just don't really care.

This isn't the film's fault, it's mine. Lewis Milestone has crafted an excellent movie, and I'm to much of a dipshit to appreciate it properly. And hey, if it was a choice between watching this again and watching, say, Saving Private Ryan, then no contest. All Quiet on the Western Front wins hands down. At least All Quiet on the Western Front isn't just a bunch of tedious douchebags wandering around aimlessly for two hours. At least stuff happens, and the characters are interesting. But yeah, I hated Saving Private Ryan, so I am aware that my opinion on war films is totally irrelevant.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

100 years, 100 films Bonus Features: The Twenties

Welcome to the 100 years, 100 films Bonus Features. This is where I sum up the decade I have just concluded watching, and also give a "Top Ten" list of films from that decade. I didn't do this section when I finished the teens because, quite frankly, I couldn't think of ten films I had seen that were worthy to go on a "Top Ten" list. I could think of ten films that were, "pretty good, I guess," but even then that was only if I included short films. And I didn't think a "Top Ten" list should have shorts, or movies I didn't like all that much.

So, with that out of the way: The Twenties.

This was the decade where the art of the silent film was mastered, perfected, and then ruthlessly tossed aside in favour of a product that was, at the time, significantly worse. Sound films eventually became great, obviously. But at first, well, I can't imagine people not being a little pissed off at the visual tedium, the slower pace, the diminishing of emotional power. Fortunately these problems didn't last too long, but they lasted long enough.

I guess this is my way of saying that you aren't going to find The Jazz Singer on my "Top Ten" list. As influential and important as it may have been to the evolution of cinema, it was just, well, kind of crummy. So, to the list.

10. Metropolis (1927). This isn't my favourite Fritz Lang movie, or even my favourite Fritz Lang movie from the twenties, but it holds a certain level of nostalgia for me, because it was the first silent film I ever saw. Also, you know, it's pretty damn good.

9. The Gold Rush (1925). Charlie Chaplin can be very funny, or cloyingly sentimental, or both. In this, his funniest movie, he manages to largely avoid the cloyingly sentimental side, without actually removing the heart of what made The Tramp such an endearing character.

8. Waxworks (1924). Paul Leni's German Expressionist film is two-thirds of a masterpiece. The movie is three stories linked with a framing device about waxwork dummies. The first two stories (about Caliph of Baghdad and Ivan the Terrible) are incredible. The third one, about Jack the Ripper, is cool-looking, but makes no sense, feels tacked on, and is just generally pointless. It's a shame that this otherwise excellent film ends on such a bum note, because otherwise, this film would be even higher on this list.

7. The Freshman (1925). So, yeah, if you hadn't guessed by now, this list is going to be pretty heavy on the American Comedy and the German Expressionism. But what can I say? These were the two greatest schools of film making at work in the twenties. I can't imagine someone watching The Freshman and not being charmed by Harold Lloyd's little dance of greeting. I also can't imagine someone watching the dance and not thinking that it was one of the most ridiculous and hilarious things they've ever seen.

6. The Three Musketeers (1921). I already reviewed this movie, so I won't say much about it, except to say that in my initial review I complained about the ham-fisted symbolism. With the passage of time, the symbolism has passed from my mind, but what remains is Fairbanks' insane intensity.

5. Sunrise (1927). I couldn't decide whether to put this on the list, or F. W. Murnau's also brilliant Nosferatu. I do like this film better, but then again, I only saw this film recently, and maybe the passage of time will make it seem worse, or something. Then I thought, nah, fuck it, this movie was incredible, and if anything the passage of time will make this film move higher up the list, not lower down.

4. The Battleship Potemkin (otherwise known simply as Potemkin) (1925). Sergei Eisenstein's film is so highly praised that I almost felt the need to leave this film off of this list, as a sort of, "screw you, filmic establishment!" but I decided not to because, well, it's a really damn good movie.

3. Safety Last! (1923). Harold Lloyd's best film features one really elaborate gag (the famous climb up the side of the building) and one gag of such simple brilliance that I laugh every single time I think about it. I won't spoil it for you, but it's Harold's brilliant way of hiding from his landlady. Amazing stuff.

2. Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922). This film is long (almost four hours), but it is also incredible, so it's worth it. Fritz Lang's first "Expressionist" film plays with all the themes and motifs that he would later become so famous for, but does it with such exuberance and energy that it is better than anything else he ever did. Or at least, better than anything else he did that I've seen.

1. Sherlock Jr. (1924). Buster Keaton's bizarre and brilliant surrealist slapstick fantasy doesn't work on the brain like a regular comedy. It lulls you into a dream state, and amazes you with its incredible mastery of visuals. You laugh, but you're not quite sure why, or at what. You just sit there, amazed that this film is allowed to exist. One of my favourite films of all time.

Review: Entourage Season 5

Who knew Adrien Grenier could act? Not I, nor anyone else who had watched the 65 episodes of Entourage before the finale of season five. Oh sure, we knew he could look charmingly handsome, and we knew he could play happy, or laid back, or optimistic, but apart from that, we hadn't really seen him do anything. But in the finale of season five, we get to see some real acting from Adrien Grenier, and he is actually really good at it.

Maybe it was just the fact that we had never seen Grenier's character Vince approach anywhere near the angry meltdown that season five reduces him to. Maybe it was the constant and relentless soul-crushing emotional beatdown that season five unleashes on Vince. Maybe it was the emotionally devestating dialogue he is given to deliver. I think all those things helped, but no, I think Grenier is actually, surprisingly, a really good actor. There is a point in this season where Jeremy Piven's character Ari Gold is asked by Vince whether Ari thinks Vince is a good actor. Ari's reply was, "I think you are a movie star. Are you a good actor? That remains to be seen." That was what I thought about Grenier. Yes, he was a good T.V. star. But I hadn't seen him act yet. Now I have.

But Jesus Christ this season was relentlessly depressing. It was good, but it just wasn't as... fun as Entourage is supposed to be. At one point in this season, Vince is reduced to making a special guest appearance at a girl's Sweet Sixteen Birthday Party. What happened to the show that was basically just four guys yelling in happiness and man-hugging each other? Where did that show go?

Monday, July 12, 2010

100 years, 100 films 20: The Broadway Melody (1929)

I didn't hate this movie because of the corny dialogue. I didn't hate this movie because of the static camera work. I didn't hate this movie because of the wooden acting, the fact that it is riddled with poorly executed cliches, the slow pacing, the fact that this is a musical with maybe fifteen minutes of music, or even the fact that you sometimes really, really feel those non-musical minutes dragging on. All those things would have lead me to disliking the movie, obviously. But none of them would have made me hate the film as much as I do. What made me hate this film was the fact that I hated the characters. They all act like utter shitheads.

Okay, so this is the plot of this movie: two sisters who had moderate success in small town vaudeville move to New York to try and make it on Broadway. One of the sisters, "Hank" Mahoney (played by Bessie Love as the smart, sensible, brunette one) is engaged to Eddie Kearns (played by the unattractive and completely unlikable Charlie King). The other sister, "Queenie" Mahoney (played by Anita Page as the dumb, sexy, blonde one), has serious mental problems, that the rest of the cast proceed to make terrible, corny jokes about. Eddie falls in love with Queenie (because, you know, she's like, super hot, or whatever), and spends the rest of the movie acting like a complete shitheel, constantly trying to cheat on Hank. Queenie has feelings for Hank, but in order to try and diffuse the situation, goes out with the rich (and therefore apparently and inherently evil) Jacques Warriner (played with a certain amount of legitimate charm by Kenneth Thomson), who proceeds to do absolutely nothing wrong. Hank and Eddie flip their shit for no goddamn reason, banning Queenie from seeing Jacques, apparently because he'd never give her a wedding ring. I understand Eddie's attempts to stop Queenie - Jacques is totally getting in the way of his plans to bang his fiance's sister - but what the hell is wrong with Hank? What, someone isn't allowed to have a little fun just because it won't lead to marriage?

So then Eddie confesses in increasingly obvious ways to Queenie that he wants to have sex with her. Queenie finally admits she knows what he's talking about, and would totally be up for it if it wasn't for, you know, her sister and all. Queenie is trying to be noble, here. But Eddie almost immediately fucks up Queenie's attempts at nobility by acting like a COMPLETE asshole and talking about his lust right in front of Hank's face. Hank finally comprehends what's going on, and rather than just throwing Eddie's stupid, attempted-cheating ass to the curb, decides that she will nobly stand aside and let this dickface and her sister get married, because, you know, it's the right thing to do, for some reason. Apparently letting your sister get married to a shithead who tries to cheat on his fiance is fine, but letting her run around with a real rich guy who does nothing but treat her nicely is abhorent.

God I hated Hank and her holier than thou bitchery. And I hated Eddie and his stupid, ugly face, and his stupid, ugly treatment of his fiance. And I hated Queenie for not just bitch slapping Eddie in his stupid face. The only character in this film I didn't hate was the ostensible villain of the movie, Jacuqes Warriner, who I was supposed to hate without even beeing provided any kind of a proper reason. Does this film really want me to think that an innocent little love affair between two unmarried, unattached people is somehow worse than a man trying to cheat on his fiance? What the fuck, movie. What the fuck. Make Jacques Warriner the dashing hero, and Eddie the villain, then maybe I'd like you better. As it is, I find you absolutely abhorent.

Review: Doctor Who episode 5.13: The Big Bang

So Matt Smith's first season as the Doctor comes to a close. As much as I hated some of the individual episodes in it, and as uneven as it all was, I have to say that on the whole the season was pretty good. And it certainly got better as it went along - from episode 10 onwards it was all good.

But to the finale. In my review of the first part of this two parter, I claimed that the episode was good, but not great, and I hoped that the second part was going to be better. Well, this was. Much, much better. The plotting was very, very intricate, very fast paced, but never confusing (unless it was supposed to be). At first I felt a bit cheated, given the fact that the climax of the previous episode had the Doctor being attacked by every single alien he had ever fought against, and this episode almost immediately abandoned all of them. But that feeling of being cheated didn't last long, and had pretty much completely disappeared by the time the Doctor was running around extolling the virtues of the fez.

One problem with the Russel T. Davies seasons of Doctor Who was the overly melodramatic bullshit that filled them. The problem with all that stuff was that it was all exactly the same - the companion was in love with the Doctor, but it was all unrequited. Lather, rinse, repeat. Finally, Steven Moffat has managed to vary it up a little bit by having a deeply melodramatic, insanely romantic relationship between two of the Doctor's Companions. Rory's display of devotion was maybe a little bit cheesy and over the top, but my god was it glorious.

Review: Entourage Season 4

This season opened with a fake-documentary "behind the scenes" episode on the set of Medellin, which was good except for one thing - the inclusion of Ari Gold. Why is Vince's agent being interviewed for a behind the scenes puff piece? He wasn't even on set - the documentary film makers actually would have had to go to his office with the specific intent of interviewing him. And why, when being interviewed for this puff piece, is he actually disparaging of the film? That's a pretty big dick move on the part of an agent - claiming that his client's movie is a total failure. I mean, the Ari stuff was funny, but it just broke the reality that the fake-documentary style was attempting to impart.

After the filming of Medellin, though, not a whole lot actually happens. It's basically just people wandering around trying half-assedly to see Medellin. There are good episodes - mostly involving Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and Drama (Kevin Dillon) acting like dicks to each other - and there aren't that many bad episodes, but not a whole lot actually happens.

For example, there is the two episode arc where E (Kevin Connolly) becomes the manager of Anna Farris, before almost immediately making a whole lot of poor decisions and getting himself fired. What is the point of this storyline? I suppose it's to display E's internal conflict - should he be honest about the quality of the projects he's advising people to take, or should he be trying to maximise profits? And the reason he acts like a dickhead with Anna Farris is the fact that he can't decide which of these things to do, and so flip flops randomly between the two.

But what, exactly, is the point of showing E doing this? Is this legitimate character development, or is it just another pointless diversion? Will E learn from his mistakes and become a better manager, or will this foreshadow E's downward spiral of fucking up, or will this entire pointless plot be almost immediately forgotten, and E go back to being the exact same decent manager he was before hand, who occassionally makes mistakes? My bet is on the last option.

This doesn't make the show bad, but I do wish it would get over its amnesia.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

100 years, 100 films 19: Pandora's Box (1928)

Ah, my last silent film. There were times (watching the by turns interminable and unbearably racist Birth of a Nation, or Queen Elizabeth) when I just wanted to give up. But no. I stuck it through to the end, managing to avoid watching any other films along the way. And so here I arrive, at G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box. Battered and bruised, yes, but unmistably and gloriously alive. And, I think, a little bit wiser.

But to the film. I've only seen one other Pabst movie, 1931's The Threepenny Opera, and I have to say I didn't much care for it. I found the characters bland and uninteresting, and the whole thing just way overlong. There were a few moments of goodness, but a whole lot of nothing much.

And so it was with some trepidation that I started up Pandora's Box. Yes, I know Pabst is supposed to be a master, and Pandora's Box a masterpiece. But that didn't stop me from thinking to myself, "what if it's just another tedious bore-fest, like Threepenny Opera?" Well, fortunately, the film wasn't a tedious bore-fest, although it was hardly the masterpiece some claim it to be. Louise Brooks was really good as the prostitute-turned-singer-turned-disgruntled-housewife-turned-murder-suspect-turned-runaway-turned-gambler-turned-murder-victim. Her lust for life was all encompasing, and devoured everything in her path.

But apart from Louise Brooks, I really don't see anything special about this film at all. I mean, there are a few well directed scenes here and there (the masterfully controlled chaos of the backstage area at the theatre was very well done), but these well directed scenes are matched in about equal number with scenes of just bizarre pointlessness. There was a ten minute sequence on a train. I'm sure something must have been going on, but I couldn't for the life of me work out what.

Also, why is every single male here disgusting looking? Wouldn't someone as vivacious and fun and insatiable as Louise Brooks hang out with the attractive people? I'm not saying that every single guy should be George Clooney, but why do they all have to be Randy Quaid?

Review: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)

I've never been into melodramas. Particularly in book form. The over the top emotions, preposterous coincidence-ridden plotting and ludicrously intense, hyperbolic prose never interested me. But I started reading Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet because, well, lesbians in the Victorian era. What's not to like? Besides, before I started reading it, I didn't realise that it was a melodrama. I thought it was a picaresque.

This is because the book tricked me. It's opening passages are about the preparation of oysters in an oyster-based restaurant. Not exactly the most melodramatic of beginnings. Even when the plot starts moving, when Nancy meets and falls in love with Kitty Butler, the pacing of the book is so slow and deliberate that it still doesn't seem melodramatic. This section of the book, before the first sex scene, is such a well crafted slow burn that you begin to feel the torture of Nancy's unrequited sexual desires. Then, when they finally become requitted, the reader's relief is almost as overwhelming as Nancy's. I was trying to think of a way of writing that previous sentence without it sounding like a masturbation joke, but alas, it is not possible. I'm talking about Nancy's emotional relief, not her, you know, sexual relief.

Even after the dissolution of this relationship, I still wasn't thinking of the book as a melodrama. I mean, sure, there was the often overly dramatic prose. The fact that basically every chapter ended with a line like, "if only I knew the terrible tragedies that awaited me!" The coincidence heavy way the relationship broke up. But these I just dismissed as the flaws of a first time novelist, attempting to engage the reader. "These minor problems will go away once Waters gains confidence in her prose," I thought to myself.

But the opposite happened. As the book went on, as Waters gained confidence in her prose, the coincidences became more overt and improbable, the prose became more overly dramatic. This culminated in one of the most ludicrous finales I have ever read in a book.

And yet, Jesus Christ. The ending, which was so preposterous it actually seems improbable that someone had the (figurative) balls to write it, had me in tears. I finished the book while on a bus, and I was about ten pages before the end when the bus reached my stop. "Fuck it," I thought, "I am physically incapable of stopping reading this book. I'll just get off at the next stop." By the time I got to the end of the book, I was about a half hour walk from my bus stop. But I didn't care - I was so ludicrously elated by the preposterous gibberish I had just read that I felt giddy.

And so now I understand the power of melodrama. Yes, it can be stupid, and preposterous, and annoying to any sense of realism. But it can leave you as a blubbering, giddy mess. It can make it so that you are physically incapable of doing anything else but reading the book. I've never really had that experience before - at least nowhere near as intensely as I did here. Thank you, Sarah Waters. Thank you for this experience.

Oh, and one more thing, just as a little addendum: What the fuck was going on in that bit where Nancy was dressing up in men's clothes and acting as a male prostitute? And, seriously, how the fuck did the Duchess Diana a.) realise that Nancy was, in fact, a woman, when the men she was jerking off didn't, and b.) deduce from all this that Nancy was a lesbian? Is this something that lesbians commonly did during the Victorian era - jerked off men for money? I don't understand the thought process that went through Diana's mind - "this woman gets paid to touch penises. That means that she wouldn't touch penises for free. That means that she must be a lesbian!" I just don't get it.

100 years, 100 films 18: Sunrise (1927)

What a bizarre structure this film has. It's a fairly standard story: a married farmer is having a love affair; he plots to murder his wife and escape to the city with his mistress; he finds himself unable to carry out the deed - he loves his wife too much. We've all seen this plot before. What's bizarre about the structure of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise is the fact that what I just recited is only the first half of the movie. The rest of the movie is a series of vignettes showing a husband and wife reconnecting and re-falling in love.

Don't get me wrong, when I use the word 'bizarre' I don't mean it as an insult. Far from it. This is an amazing film, certainly the best film of 100 years, 100 films so far. The scenes of the husband and wife reconnecting are just as incredible and moving as the murder stuff. It's just, you know, not exactly traditional movie structure, to have the climax of the plot occur half way through.

But then, there's nothing traditional about Sunrise. It may be a black and white, silent film, made in Hollywood, with two of the then-biggest stars in America (George O'Brien as The Man, and Janet Gaynor as the Wife), but it ain't your regular Hollywood movie. For a start, the director was a German. F.W. Murnau was one of the leading exponents of the German Expressionist Film movement, and he infused Sunrise with an Expressionist's flair for achieving a visceral emotional response through visuals. He turned the scenes of attempted murder and adultery into startlingly intense experiences, and the scenes of post-attempted-murder romance into dream-like sequences of glorious lyricism. The visuals are never short of beautiful to look at, always provide an emotional experience, and are all technical marvels, to boot. To explain the greatness of the visual effects used in this movie in terms of contemporary films - imagine if Sam Raimi had taken all his brilliant and hilarious visual trickery from the Evil Dead movies, and applied it, non-ironically, to a Sophia Coppola movie. That is Sunrise.

Another difference between Sunrise and the other Hollywood films being made at about this time - there is absolutely no overacting. Silent Movies are awash with hammy, over the top scenery chewing, mostly because it was felt that that was the only way you could properly convey emotion (no dialogue, doncha know.) But because Murnau's visuals have such forceful emotional impact, the actors don't need to overact. We know exactly what they're thinking and feeling - it's right there on the screen. This means that Gaynor and O'Brien give two exceptionally low-key and naturalistic performances, grounding the slightly over-the-top visuals and story in a certain level of reality, making the emotional impacts that much more heartfelt.

One final difference between Sunrise and the traditional silent film: yes, there is no dialogue, and yes, there are title cards, but because sound had just been introduced to the movies, Sunrise's soundtrack was created by Murnau in post production, and the film was originally released sounding exactly like it does today. This isn't the case with most silent movies, where the score that you're listening to was written sometimes decades after the film was made. Often after well everyone involved with the movie died, meaning that there is no guarantee that what you are listening to is what was wanted from the score at all. But with Sunrise, that score is exactly what Murnau wanted, and it is excellent. The post-production sound work also meant that the film was able to contain a whole slew of sound effects, adding yet another texture to Murnau's already very layered work.

Sunrise is a brilliant film. If anyone ever tells you that they don't like silent movies, or that they're all just boring rubbish, they have obviously never seen Sunrise. When I started watching this movie I knew of its critical reception, and was worried that it was going to be overrated. Now that I have seen the film, I understand: it would be physically impossible to overrate this movie.

Review: Doctor Who episode 5.12: The Pandorica Opens

This was an okay episode. It wasn't great - there weren't very many moments when I thought to myself, "wow. This is awesome." But at the same time, it wasn't terrible - there wasn't very much that made me think, "ugh. This is awful." So, yeah, it was okay. And it was the first of a two parter, so maybe the next episode will actually be good, instead of, you know, not bad.

The central 'twist' of the episode was kind of obvious - that the [spoiler] Pandorica was built to contain the Doctor. But then, on the other hand, the other twist, the fact that [spoiler] everything that was happening was based on Amy's imagination, was pretty well done. I had assumed that the twist was going to be that Amy's knowledge of Romans and Pandora's box was going to help them fight the evil, and then they would go back in time and instill the love of Romans and Pandora's box into Amy as a little child, thus creating a weird paradox, where Amy and the Doctor were only alive because of something they did in their own personal futures, which isn't how Doctor Who time travel works, but it worked because it affected Amy's own personal timeline in her past.If you get my drift. Or if you don't.

So, yeah. Decent episode, with some nice moments in it, and a lack of the utter shit that has plagued much of this season, but it also doesn't reach the heights that some of the good episodes have got to.

Review: Entourage Season 3

I've decided that I'm not going to review television shows that I'm watching on DVD episode by episode any more. I'm just going to review them as seasons. That is the way I watch them, that is the way I'll review them. I will, however, continue to review single episodes of shows that I watch on proper T.V.

So, here we go. Entourage Season 3. This was a pretty good season. There were a few early missteps, such as the Dom storyline, where an old neighbourhood friend of the group's, who had been in prison for the last five years, shows up and makes everyone uncomfortable. This, in turn, makes the audience feel uncomfortable. And this discomfort doesn't really fit in with the tone of the show. If this were The Office, then, yeah, making the audience uncomfortable is what it's all about. But this is Entourage. It's a wish fulfilment show about a bunch of guys who are improbably rich, have no real problems, and have a lot of sex with attractive women. It's the male version of Sex and the City. Stop with these intrusions of real life, already.

But it's all okay: the Dom storyline only lasts two episodes, and then isn't mentioned again until season five. This is actually an example of something this show does a lot of - pick up and drop storylines seemingly at random. For example, Vincent Chase's desire to make Medellin was something mentioned back in, what, the first season? And then never mentioned again until now. Also, the film that Vincent doesn't want to do, Materhorn, is again mentioned this season, before being completely forgotten about. And the fact that Harvey Weinstein hates Vincent was brought up as a big important thing again, but it just never really went anywhere. Maybe it will go somewhere next season, maybe not. You just can't tell with Entourage.

They don't just do it with plots about films, either. They do it with relationships as well. In the first season Eric falls in love with that girl who works in Ari Gold's office, they have sex, she gets fired, the plot never goes anywhere. Then Eric starts dating Sloan, who he dated for two whole seasons, they actually move in together, and then when someone mentions that Sloan might break up with him, he just thinks, "oh well." And the Vincent Chase-Mandy Moore stuff never went anywhere. He almost gets kicked off of Aquaman because of it, then he doesn't. Then we never hear from Mandy Moore again.

It's not a bad thing, really, but I just wish the show was either more or less serialised. If it was more serialised - if events flowed in to one another, and storylines where continued through to their logical conclusion - then that would be fine. And if the show was less serialised - if each episode was a purely stand alone thing, with little to no bearing on any other episode - then that would be fine as well. It's this weird mixture of the two that can sometimes become annoying. You want to know what happened to a particular character, or with a particular plot, and the show just doesn't bother to tell you. Or maybe they do bother to tell you, in three seasons' time. There is no way of knowing. It's the suspense that gets me.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Review: Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse (1917)

How does one go about reviewing a Wodehouse book? Plot description? Useless - his books don't really have plots. Or rather, they do, but they are all: A bunch of people meet in a large Conutry House in England. Through various circumstances, some of these people are required to pretend to be people they are not. There are some young people who are in love with each other. Everything turns out alright in the end. And to go into any more detail would spoil the fun of actually reading the book.

So should I then talk about the jokes? Well, they are the primary attraction of the books, but what does one say about them? That they are good? Well of course they're good, it's a Wodehouse novel. That goes without saying. So, then, what, should I go into detail about the jokes? Recite some of my favourite lines? Well, no. Again, that would just spoil the fun of the book.

So, what, do I talk about the characters, and which ones I liked and disliked? That's a dumb way to review anything. Moving on.

Do I analyse what it is that is funny about Wodehouse? Do I break him down into dry, tedious chunks, taking away all that is good about his work? Do I discuss the meaning of the word "farce," and how, exactly, Wodehouse managed to master it?

No. I don't want to do any of that crap. So here's my review: Piccadilly Jim is a really funny book. It isn't Wodehouse at his best - there are a few slightly slow spots, and there aren't that many actual comic set pieces - but it was really good. There you go. Review over.

100 years, 100 films 17: The Strong Man (1926)

The first half of this movie is brilliant. Harry Langdon, the baby faced silent comedian, plays a Belgian who fought the Germans during World War 1. After the war is over, he goes to America looking for "Mary Brown," a woman he was pen pals with during the war. He wanders around America for a while, trying to find Mary Brown, and this stuff is some of the funniest slapstick comedy I have ever seen. There is a scene where, through a ridiculous set of circumstances, Langdon is forced to take a woman (who is pretending to have fainted) up a long flight of stairs, to the woman's apartment. What Langdon (and the director, Frank Capra) does with those stairs is, frankly, amazing.

But then Langdon winds up in a small town, the film goes through an abrupt tonal shift, and becomes terrible. There are scenes of such utter garbage after the half way mark that it becomes difficult to believe that they are actually the same movie. The small town Langdon winds up in has been (gasp!) infected with sin! There is a (gasp! gasp!) tavern, where people (gasp! gasp! gasp!) drink and dance, because they (gasp! gasp! gasp! gasp!) ENJOY IT! Fortunately, the town preacher hates fun and is determined to stop it at all costs. Also, the preacher's daughter is named Mary Brown, and she is blind. That's right, the woman Langdon was pen pals with in the army was a blind preacher's daughter. How did she write those letters if she's blind? Is her blindness just a horrible and unpardonable attempt to ring the most amount of sympathy for Langdon's character as possible? Why does this film expect me to be on the side of the preacher, when I would obviously much rather hang out in the bar with the people who, you know, enjoy themselves? Is the entire second half of the movie just badly done and infuriatingly sacharine pro-Prohibitonist tripe, and do I like all the characters the movie assumes I hate, and hate, hate, hate, hate all the characters I'm supposed to like? Would I punch the preacher in his stupid goddamn joyless face if given the opportunity? The answer to those questions is as follows: never explained, yes (obviously), because the movie is an idiot, yes, and oh god yes.

Watching this movie was actually an interesting experience. I've never seen a film quite like this before. I've never before seen a film actually deteriate as I was watching it. It went from a hilarious comedy to an awful piece of garbage right before my eyes. I've never before had my love for a movie so harshly and completely trampled by a film's second half. The first half doesn't become less funny because of the fact that the second half was so abysmal, but the second half isn't better just because the first half was so good. So yeah, I don't really know what to say about this film. Is it great, or is it terrible? It's both, I guess.

100 years, 100 films 16: Raffles (1925)

I decided that I would watch two films based on E.W. Hornung's Raffles books so that I would be able to actually see the changing nature of film. A lot happened in the movies in the eight years between this film and 1917's Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, and I was hoping that these two movies, thrown into contrast, would help illuminate what some of those changes were. And, in a way, the film did manage to throw some light on the changing nature of film during the silent era. I said of the earlier film that it was an entertaining if somewhat bizarrely amateur production. Well, the 1925 version removed the bizarre amateurism of the earlier film, but also managed to remove the entertaining parts of the earlier film as well.

It's just such a stodgy mess. The cameras refuses to move, and the actors refuse to allow themselves to be interesting. And oh, how they immasculated Raffles. In the books, Raffles is a totally immoral bad ass, who steals both for the thrill of it, and for personal gain. In the 1917 movie he was depicted as stealing largely for funsies, and because he could. But here, he's stealing for charity. I mean, honestly, what the hell kind of thing is that to do to a guy? "Oh, don't worry about me, you're still perfectly within your rights to like me, because I'm doing all this for charity." Why doesn't this goody-goody Raffles just give his own money to charity, rather than forcing rich people (who are in no way villified, so you're not even supposed to feel joy at their loss) to do it for him? It's never explained, but this action is just as morally ambiguous as his earlier screen version, but much, much, much less fun. And it isn't like you can make some Robin Hood argument for him, because he's shown here as being a wealthy gentleman, not a working class saviour of the people. Robin Hood doesn't give his own money to charity because he doesn't have any money to give. Raffles doesn't give his own money to charity because he's a stupid douche.

If the rest of the movie had been fun or interesting, or if House Peters had played a likable Raffles, then I could probably have excused his immasculation as just a necessity of Hollywood. But because nothing in this movie is interesting, I am forced to sit and wander exactly what the hell everyone involved in this movie was thinking. Why did they think this would be interesting?

Monday, June 28, 2010

100 years, 100 films 15: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

I really wasn't expecting to dislike this movie. I especially wasn't expecting to dislike it as vehemently as I did. The first ten minutes of the film were really good - Douglas Fairbanks playing a lovable asshole thief, using his amazing acrobatic skills to steal stuff from people in inventive and fun ways. "Oh good," I thought to myself, "this is some interesting character development. I assume by the end of the film, he'll have learnt not to be such a dick, he'll have won the hand of a beautiful princess, and he'll have put his fun and inventive acorbatic skills to the cause of the just. This should be a lot of fun." Well, I was right about everything, except the "lot of fun" part.

Most of the problem of the film comes from the fact that, after the good first ten minutes, the film grinds to a screeching halt for about an hour and a half for this unbelievably tedious romance bullshit between Douglas Fairbanks as the thief and I-Don't-Care-What-Her-Name-Was as the princess. This entire hour and a half should have been about ten, maybe fifteen minutes. The Princess has a bunch of suitors she doesn't really like, but her dad's forcing her to marry one of them. When things look at their worst, she spies a handsome rapscallion whoms she takes an instant fancy to. He takes a fancy to her, they fall in love, the father refuses the match, the thief runs off to become a proper Prince. That's what happened. And if it had happened in a reasonable length of time, it would have been fine. But this stuff, this stuff which should be purely setup for the adventures to come, takes up an hour and a goddamn half. This tedious bullcrap is most of the movie.

And once it finally gets to the adventure stuff, well, it's fine, but it certainly isn't good enough to make up for the unbelievably dreary shit that preceded it. Part of the problem with this part is that, yes, we have Fairbanks running around, being all swashbuckle-y, but we also have these stupid pointless scenes of the Princess's suitors, running around like dicks looking for precious items with which to win the Prencess's heart, and my god did I not care about them. Fairbanks would slay a dragon, then it would cut to some idiot buying a rug from a market stall. Cut back to Fairbanks talking to these legitimately awesome looking tree people, cut to some douche stealing a magical gem from some Hindi statue. These are characters who exist solely to be bested by Fairbanks. Why the hell would I want to see their non-Fairbanks related exploits? Why should I care at all? You manifestly failed to make them interesting during the goddawful palace romance stuff, why do you think I'd be interested now?

Even the Fairbanks adventure stuff isn't all that great. I mean, it's fine, but Fairbanks fighting a dragon just isn't as interesting as Fairbanks fighting a man. When he's up against a man, we see his swashbuckling fury, and he leaps and swings his way across the set like a brilliant madman. Here, he sees a dragon, he thinks, "oh shit, a dragon." He pulls out his sword. He stabs the dragon. He puts his sword away. That's all we get. No leaping around. No using crazy props. No real fun. And there's no real sense of danger, either. When Fairbanks swordfights other men, the battles sometimes make it look like Fairbanks might lose, or at least it might take him quite a while to get into a position from where he can win. Because the dragon is a big, cumbersome puppet, there isn't any actual fighting. He sees it, he stabs it, he wins. No back and forth. No tension. But I'll concede that most of my irritation with this stuff was probably because I was already bored out of my skull at this point, and it was going to take one hell of an awesome fight scene to make me not bored. If the film before this had been better, this stuff would have been fine. Not great, but fine.

There is a decent movie buried amongst the tedious muck here. I just wish Raoul Walsh, the director, had allowed his editor to find it. It's a concept that should run for eighty, maybe ninety minutes. But because Walsh was so in love with every single frame of his movie, he let it run on and on and on and on for an interminable two and a half hours. And I can see why. The art direction, set decoration, costumes, they're all glorious. The movie is great to look at. You could take any individual still frame from this film, and it'd be beautiful. But this beauty just doesn't translate into a good film. It just doesn't.