Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


Dir: Robert Wiene (Raskolnikov; Panic in Chicago; A Night in Venice)

At the behest of a reader, I watched this classic of silent horror hoping for more than I had found in Nosferatu. And I did. Not enough to really enjoy the film, mind you (my irrational prejudices and poverty of taste continues to control the silent movie experience). But there was a richness of detail to the production of the film that I can say its high reputation is more deserved.

The set design is the hands down triumph of the film. The expressionist trends in art at the time get faithful adaptation here. The buildings, for example, slant at odd angles, with windows and doors in the shapes of trapezoids and right triangles. Furniture is out of proportion, such as the high stools that government clerks sit on so that they have to lean forward to reach down to their desktops, twisted in tension creating pretzels. The sets feel like they were for a Kafka play, adding an artificiality and discord to every single scene that is very effective. A lot of detail and attention went into creating the environment for this movie, and many of the frames could hang in museums. Think Munch. Really good stuff.

Everything else about the film is dated and silly. The plot has something to do with psychological hysteria, where a shrink takes a guy who sleeps all the time and manipulates his mind to make a killing machine. But the killer is also horny, so he goes after the girl. I am sure this was all too shocking back in the day, but now it is just incoherent. The acting is acceptable, I guess. Caligari is creepy, and the sleeping guy does some nice stuff with his eyes. But there are significant pockets of dead time when the two aren't on the screen.

This really isn't a horror movie. It is an excuse to utilize the fascinating sets that Wiene had built. I could have looked at those for an hour and just skipped the acting, writing, and story.

But at least now I can say that I have seen the thing.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In Memoriam: Gilda


Dir: Charles Vidor (Hans Christian Anderson; The Joker is Wild; Rhapsody)

Glenn Ford passed recently. One of those incredibly prolific character actors with lead talent, Ford was a favorite of mine from Blackboard Jungle. Gilda was cited often at the time of his death as another gem.

The mass media, in this case, was correct. Gilda is great, a very fun and darkly sexual noir that has quite enough banter and flirtation to thoroughly entertain. Ford is a down and out hustler who hooks on with an Argentinian casino owner. When the boss brings how a new wife, who happens to be the bitter ex-lover of Ford, the stage is set for some complicated machinations. The fact that Rita Hayworth plays the bombshell certainly does nothing to detract from the viewing experience. After all, she gave good face, and lots of other good stuff too.

The plot is the weak point of the film, involving some dumb scheme to corner the tungsten market and some ex-Nazis and other weirdness. It makes little sense. But the dialogue is full of good lines and euphemisms. The star of the show is the sexual tension between Hayworth, Ford, and George Macready. Those folks can act, and the dance between them is very fun. The dark turn that the movie takes about 2/3 through provides an interesting twist on what could have been a very trite plot, even if it does get silly at the end.

A movie like this is what American cinema does well. A high entertainment ratio, an accessible set of characters and a sense of mood that is quite satisfying. I really enjoyed Gilda, and am glad to have celebrated the life of Glenn Ford by viewing it.


Thursday, September 21, 2006



Dir: Jean-Luc Godard (Alphaville)

I don't think Godard and I are going to get along. Sure, he's an OK guy and all. I certainly can see where other people would really like him. But there is just something about him that, well, bores me. I am sure it is my fault, that I am not giving him a chance. Too many people like that guy for me to be correct. And yet, I can't say that I would go out of my way to have a beer with the guy.

Breathless is one of those minimalist character studies of the stoic hood that has been done real well before, but here becomes so stripped down and sparse that it failed to grip my attention. A cop killer and otherwise bad guy woos an initally innocent American newspaper girl in Paris. At first just a fling, she soon is wrapped in his dangerous and cold lifestyle, forced to choose between joining his doomed fate or abandoning adventure.

People love this movie. But I found the plodding nature of the unfolding relationship tedious (God, I sound like those people I hate that just can't get into a film unless stuff blows up or some boobs are prominent in the first twenty minutes!). Godard was much more philosophical in Alphaville, where at least aphorisms gave me something to chew on amidst the lean plot. But here, the meaning is supposed to come from thigs like 20 minute scenes of the couple smoking in bed, the theif demanding sex and the girl being coy. I just didn't buy her with him. Now, the seduction of a dangerous lifestyle is easier to buy, and certainly the movie is at its height as she wrestles with her self destructive and youthful desire to live as this cold blooded killer does. But Godard's overall approach to that worthwhile subject is so detached and implied that even a somewhat savvy filmgoer like myself felt ignored by the movie.

I really didn't like Breathless. I wonder if I am flawed, or the others are pretentious. I am sure I will give Godard another look, invite him out for another drink. But I wouldn't be surprised if I walk out in the middle.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Husbands and Wives


Dir: Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)

Yet another masterpiece of drama from one of cinema's true greats. The deep introspection of the man is on full display here, the final film he would make with by that his ex-wife Mia Farrow. When that couple works through its on-screen relationship (permit me the obvious and constant allusion), it is just like Bergman working through his affair with Liv Ullmann. The tragic flaws of Allen's persona in Deconstructing Harry are here in a milder form, but still showing Allen's increasing frankness with himself.

Six characters predominate. Allen and Farrow are a couple who are forced to examine their marriage after the sudden divorce of their friends, played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. Now that man has some talent; he is great as the stifled and lecherous Jack. Davis as well plays her role with gusto, anrgy and vulnerable and neurotic and yet defiant and strong at the same time. Liam Neeson is OK but not particularly noteworthy, unlike Juliette Lewis in what must easily be her best work as a nymphette who stands as the ultimate temptation for the self destructive Allen.

Lewis has one scene in particular that is among the best of Allen's oeuvre. She has read Allen's manuscript, and is getting up the courage to critique his sexual politics. During a cab ride, the conversation is presented in snippets, the camera continually in close up on her face (ahem, Bergman again). The editing shows us the arc of the conversation in fits and starts, drawing our attention to the changes over time. That cab ride could have taken 5 minutes or 1 hour, we do not know, but we do know that Lewis travelled miles as a woman. The scene's courage, technique, writing and acting are exemplary, the sort of thing I would show in a class about film.

In another jarring scene, Pollack feels compelled to leave a party after his young girlfriend embarasses him among his intellectual friends. A fight ensues, and the thing is real and thrilling that it is almost painful to watch. Masters at the top of their craft across the board.

Allen uses a pseudo-documentary device, having a camera crew interview his actors in character about each other and the development of the story. He almost goes overboard with these things at times, but once again his talent is so strong that they still seem natural. Like Bergman before him (hat trick!), the man is inventive but always in the interests of developing story, not gimmicky or for the sake of cleverness alone.

Husbands and Wives often slips through the cracks of the Allen cult. It shouldn't; I loved the film and give it my highest recommendation.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Annie Hall

1978 Oscar Winner Best Picture, Actress, Writing and Direction

Dir: Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors; Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)

I have seen this film many times. It is screamingly funny, piercingly insightful, and above all groundbreaking in technique and storytelling. And yet, compared with some of the later Allen films that I have seen in the last year (see links above), this may be the first time I have seen Annie Hall and been somewhat underwhelmed. Now, this is relative; it went from best romantic comedy ever to just a really, really great film. But this viewing impressed on me the power of tradgedy (or at least more dramatic themes) to move an audience beyond that which more pure comedy can.

The star, far and away, is the script, so innovative in composition, device and storytelling. The asides, the use of irony and transperancy are all now pretty standard humor techniques. But Annie Hall pioneered them. Bergman's deconstruction of the medium is on diplay here, as Allen speaks directly to the audience and features the role of dramatic representation in the story line itself. Allen's acting is great, and Diane Keaton is certainly iconic (if overwrought) as Annie. But when Allen starts to narrate his feelings to passers-by on the street, asking them for advice about his relationship, it is easy to forget just how transgressive that is for a film. Allen is kitchen sinking the script with every device he can think of, and the product is a near perfect feat of writing.

This film was a springboard for Allen to more fully realize his vision in Manhattan, and throughout the 80's his films acheived some startling successes of observation of human relationships. Annie Hall is a transition film between the early screwball comedies and the more adult works to follow. It is the work of a genius, mind you, but a young one.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Crimes and Misdemeanors


Dir: Woddy Allen (Manhattan; Deconstructing Harry; Hannah and Her Sisters)

Allen interprets Crime and Punishment in this dark, funny, and brilliant film. Martin Landau has a dilemma when his mistress (Angelica Huston) becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, Allen plays a jealous documentary maker who resents his brother-in-law's success as a producer of television drivel. Both story lines explore the underbelly of human behavior more directly that Allen had in the past, and the result is in many ways his most mature and profound work.

While Landau underwhelms in his performance, Huston more than makes up for it as the jilted and honest Dolores. We cannot help but simultaneously sympathize with and fear her, just as Landau's character feels guilt and yet yearns for her to just go away. His solution is obvious for those who know their literature. But it is Allen's attitude toward Landau's actions in the last third of the movie that makes Crimes and Misdemeanors so profound. At the end of the film, we are not sure whether Landau has committed the former or the latter.

That story line is contrasted with a heartbreaking little love story between Allen and Mia Farrow, with Alan Alda as the pompous nemesis to our awkward hero. Allen's Cliff Stern is shy and boyish in a way that many of his other characters were not, a quality that allows us to care about him more than the more cynical people he has played in the past. This plot takes its own, more ordinary dark turn. When Allen and Landau finally come together at the end of the film, the spectrum of bad deeds, and the connections between them, is brought to our attention in a very insightful way. It is an exhilirating moment.

This is clearly one of Allen's most learned scripts, with religious, philosophical and literary allusions and themes permeating the dialogue. While also very entertaining, Allen has several deep points to make here. The film is an important document, near the top of the man's catalogue. My highest recommendation.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Adventures of Pluto Nash


Dir: Ron Underwood (City Slickers)

Dare I say it? Not as bad as I was lead to believe Eddie Murphy science fiction vehicle. Now, I'm not saying Pluto Nash is a good film, far from it. But I was expecting something to rival Battlefield: Earth in the badness category. The film's reputation comes from its box office (100 million to produce, 4.4 million US box office) and its infamous stint sitting on the studio shelf. But there are worse movies made very year in Hollywood, with just as many big time actors.

The faults do shine through, however. The script is obvious and leaden. The plot is pointless (I know, lets do a futuristic movie, but the plot will be the most formulaic mob story line we can think of). You could have done the same story in Tokyo or New York or Des Moines or Mars. And the twist at the end, incorporating cloning, is so laughably wrong on the science and behind the times on our understanding of that procedure that many people should have been fired for it. Pluto Nash actually goes to the old "which one is the good Eddie Murphy, I can't tell. Shoot him . . . No, shoot him!" well but without a trace of the irony that has made that device continually popular. This thing is hopeless as a story that it should by all rights have never been made.

And yet, Pluto Nash has redemptive elements. The set design reflects the budget, and it at least provides some interesting details and very slightly creative elements. I have always been a sucker for Murphy as an actor, and his screen presence is not objectionable. Rosario Dawson is actually not too bad (and beautiful). But Randy Quaid has a bad character and makes it worse, playing a robot like I did when I was six. And someone please stop giving Jay Mohr acting roles, please.

Actually, Pluto Nash fails on all accounts. It is a bad movie, but it is also not so bad that it is a fun movie. Its place in the honor roll of terrible films is underserved; that list should be for bad movies that are worth watching. This is just a regular bad movie, deserving a place with your average Cube Gooding Jr or Sharon Stone film.