Movie Diary 11/30/2009

Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949). A Sam Fuller script, given an architectural treatment by Sirk – it’s a real Jim Thompsonesque storyline, too, about a parole officer (Cornel Wilde) falling for his newest charge (Patricia Knight, actually Mrs. Wilde in real life at the time).

Serious Moonlight (Cheryl Hines, 2009). A script by the late Adrienne Shelley, but maybe, under ordinary circumstances, the kind of script that never gets past the writing stage. Still, a reminder that Tim Hutton is an actor. (full review 12/11)

The Strip (Jameel Khan, 2009). Guys at an electronics store; decent music score. (full review 12/4)

Brothers (Jim Sheridan, 2009). Remake of Suzanne Bier’s 2004 film, with some admirable moments in acting and a curious shift in emphasis in a couple of spots. (full review 12/4)

That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1940). Olivier and Leigh, in liaison and war, timed to reverberate with WWII. If you’re going to do historical romance, this is the way to do it.

1919 Ten Best Movies

D.W. Griffith rules the year with two of his finest films: both tender, but in different keys. Broken Blossoms is an acknowledged classic, a high-pitched drama about an abused girl (Lillian Gish in a performance for the ages) who finds kindness from a Chinese gentleman (Richard Barthelmess) in the slums. If you know that film, consider True Heart Susie, a lesser-known gem that puts Gish as the next-door neighbor to farmboy Robert Harron, in a sentimental story that also pokes gentle fun at its sentimental conventions.

The movie is also a textbook for film directing, a lesson in the geography of screen space (backyard, interior, human face) and how to arrange it to tell an emotional story. It’s a beaut. Those two pictures top the worldlier offerings of Erich von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch, and an uneven year for Charlie Chaplin. Ten best of 1919:

1. Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith)

2. True Heart Susie (D.W. Griffith)

3. Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)

4. Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille)

5. Madame Dubarry (aka Passion, Ernst Lubitsch)

6. Sunnyside (Charlie Chaplin)

7. The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch)

8. South (uncredited director; photographed by Frank Hurley)

9. Different from the Others (Richard Oswald)

10. The Hayseed (Roscoe Arbuckle)

A list going back this far is limited by availability of titles and the murkiness of pre-1920 silent inventory. But all of these are interesting: South is the account of the Shackleton expedition, and incredible for its very existence; Madame Dubarry is cheeky history that helped put Lubitsch on the world stage; The Hayseed is Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in a series of nice gags (Keaton was about to go solo). Sunnyside is a scattershot Chaplin two-reeler that goes up a few notches for the sequence in which the day laborer goes on a bucolic dance with wood nymphs, a truly Shakespearian interlude and a crazy autobiographical daydream on the part of the director/star. (Chaplin’s other 1919 release, A Day’s Pleasure, has some funny gags but is similarly random.)  Different from the Others is a fascinating (and no longer complete) plea for tolerance of homosexuality in an era when gayness was illegal in Germany, with a tortured performance by Conrad Veidt. Next he would star in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the course of film history would change.

Sunset Boulevard

It begins in the gutter…but of course. A street name, Sunset Blvd., painted on the curb above the sewer drain is a convenient way to present the film’s title, but it also tells us where we’re going: down. Even the abbreviation gives it a kind of slangy, tabloid grit. The title refers to one of the most famous arteries in Los Angeles, but it also evokes the heavy depression of the end of the day—and the movie is about the “sunset years,” and how they can be disastrously handled.

Meet Joe Gillis.

Sunset Boulevard is also about Hollywood, and its corrosive view of Tinseltown might best be summed up with one of its opening images. As we see a corpse floating face down in the swimming pool of a Hollywood mansion, the narrator savors the irony of the moment: “The poor dope. He always wanted a pool.” Hollywood is the place people go, dreaming of their own swimming pools. Little do they know they’ll end up drowned in them.

There’s another level of irony here. The corpse and the narrator are one in the same person. Sunset Boulevard is famously told from the perspective of a dead man, the late Joe Gillis (William Holden), journeyman screenwriter, cynical burnout, self-loathing gigolo. One of the most intriguing pieces of Sunset Boulevard lore is that director Billy Wilder shot an even more outrageous opening to the film: the picture fades in on the Los Angeles County Morgue, where Joe’s dead body, on a slab, begins to converse with the other stiffs, and then to narrate his story. Wilder loved the sequence, but preview audiences got the giggles at the sheer outrageousness of the thing—and it was cut before release.

Gillis begins his flashback with his struggles to make ends meet. He pitches lousy concepts to middle-management studio flunkies, and he can’t bum any more money off his indifferent agent. Spotted by a couple of repo men looking to seize his car, Joe drives into the secluded garage of a Sunset Boulevard mansion, where he is mistaken for someone else and invited in.

The two people in the house are expecting an undertaker for a dead chimpanzee. Perhaps this should have been Joe’s warning that all is not well in the old, decaying house—he also notes the melodramatic wind wheezing through the organ pipes, and the rats in the pool. Still: any port in a storm. The owner of the house is none other than Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent film star. “You used to be big,” Gillis says with typical gallantry. Norma, who—for a silent star—has quite a knack for memorable phrases, replies with a memorable piece of self-justification: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” When Norma finds out Gillis is a writer, she hires him to edit her sprawling screenplay, which will be the vehicle for her great comeback.

Thus begins Joe’s doomed run as Norma’s housemate, lover, and errand boy. A new pet monkey. In one especially mortifying moment, during one of Norma’s bridge games, she orders Joe to empty the ash tray—and he does. (The weirdness of the moment is enhanced by the other players, a group of silent stars whose past glories must have struck the 1950 audience as rather ghoulishly invoked: Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner, and the great Buster Keaton.) The entire film is infused with a sense of debasement and humiliation. Take, for instance, the casting of Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s butler, Max von Mayerling. Not only does Max attend to Norma’s daily needs, including the writing of bogus “fan mail” that Norma can reply to, he also happens to be her former husband and director.

The overlapping between art and life is all too unsavory here. Stroheim was indeed one of Hollywood’s most flamboyant directors in the 1920s, a career halted for a variety of reasons (including his own extravagance). He actually directed Gloria Swanson, in Queen Kelly, a film that is excerpted in Sunset Boulevard for the memorable scene of Joe and Norma watching her old movies at night. As magnetic a performer as Stroheim is, there is something uniquely uncomfortable about the similarity between actor and character.

Of course, this is magnified in the case of Swanson, who had been one of the biggest of silent movie queens—as well as the mistress of Joseph Kennedy. Continue reading

Fantastic Bad Old Ninja (Weekly Links)

Woo-whee: Red Cliff

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Fantastic Mr. Fox. “Very much a Wes Anderson movie.”

Red Cliff. “Savoring the military strategies involved.”

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. “To quote a different Cage performance, rockin’ good news.”

Ninja Assassin. “Nobody said being a ninja assassin would be easy.”

Old Dogs. “A food fight with a gorilla as a movie high point.”

The Messenger. “Completely believable as an Army lifer.”

The Yes Men Fix the World. “Never lose track of their serious point.”

Also, Indiewire has gathered a bunch of online critics, including me. It’s here.

Movie Diary 11/24/2009

Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2009). Hard to make all the machinations of the British royal family history undramatic, but this movie gives it a shot. Emily Blunt, able as always, stars. (full review 12/25)

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009). There’s a point in the third act of this movie where you think the Screenwriting 101 character arc is actually going to take over; thankfully, not exactly. Nice roles for Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick. (full review 12/4)

10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999). Had to watch this again. Thought it was bad, had wiped most of it away. Even for the good performers, the timing’s all off, the reactions are wrong. Only the location – crazy Stadium High School in Tacoma – is right.

Movie Diary 11/23/2009

Ain’t Love Cuckoo? (Jules White, 1946). Columbia two-reeler by the Three Stooges production unit. Stars are Richard Lane and Orson Welles regular Gus Schilling, but this movie is taken over for a couple of scenes by a vaudeville and radio comedienne named Terry Howard. (I guess she’s from vaudeville and radio; there’s almost no info on her online, except that she did a kid voice on “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” She does not seem to be related to Moe, Curly or Shemp.) Her offhand delivery and zany stunt dancing steer this already weird movie into the realm of the surreally hilarious. The short is included in the DVD set that also has these two with the great Jean Arthur:

If You Could Only Cook (William A. Seiter, 1935). Really charming movie with Arthur as a jobless gal landing a job as cook to a gangster (Leo Carrillo) because rich guy Herbert Marshall pretends to be as poor and unemployed as she is (he gets the butler job). Some great Jean Arthur line readings, but that’s taken for granted.

Too Many Husbands (Wesley Ruggles, 1940). Based on Somerset Maugham’s stage play: Arthur is married to Melvyn Douglas when lost-at-sea first husband Fred MacMurray re-appears. A pretty labored film. Oddball ending, at least.

Old Dogs (Walt Becker, 2009). Travolta and Williams, and the marking of time. Food fight with a gorilla. Facial paralysis and the ghost of Mr. Sardonicus. Broad. (full review 11/25)

The Maid (Sebastian Silva, 2009). Most surprising for not being a moody study of pathology, in which blood there shall be. (full review 12/4)

1950 Ten Best Movies

1950 offers a number of film classics in its ranks, so my #1 movie is not the Greatest film of the year, merely the best. What does that mean? Well, my #1 does not boast the long profile of, say, Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve, a couple of indisputable Hall-of-Famers. It’s more modest than that; Wagon Master rolls in quietly, does its thing, and then rolls out again.

Wagons west: Carey and Johnson

A story of two horse-traders who hitch on with a Mormon wagon train going West, Wagon Master would be a textbook exercise in film directing, but it has too much heart and humor to be a textbook. That director is John Ford, and his repetition of rivers, Monument Valley mesas, and communal dances becomes an index of progress and movement as the film goes on. The zen practice of whittling is not ignored, either. And the fact that Ford elevates members of his supporting company to the lead roles on this one – Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond – gives the picture a wonderfully laid-back quality, as though the grown-ups were on holiday and the kids were in charge (distinguishing themselves mightily in the process) and the movie thus not beholden to the heavy-duty melodrama of a star vehicle. It rolls in, and then it rolls out.

None of which should take anything away from the following films, all of which deserve their places in the ten best of 1950:

1. Wagon Master (John Ford)

2. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder)

3. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)

4. La Ronde (Max Ophuls)

5. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)

6. Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis)

7. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

8. Orpheus (Jean Cocteau)

9. Los Olvidados (Luis Bunuel)

10. Winchester 73 (Anthony Mann)

Ford’s Rio Grande just misses, and a clutch of excellent films noir are close at hand: Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, and Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends among them. (Starring in those first two, Richard Widmark is the actor of the year.) Italians too: Stromboli, the first one between Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, and Antonioni’s Chronicle of a Love Affair.

A lot of noir on the Ten already. Even Orpheus and Winchester 73 are kind of noirish. And next Saturday I will publish a long piece on Sunset Boulevard, that nauseated tribute to Tinseltown.

Sam’s Place

First published in the May-June 1996 issue of Film Comment, in time for the broadcast bow of Adam Simon’s The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera; offered now as a new Sam Fuller DVD box set hits the streets.–Robert Horton

“Who’s Griff?”

The question has to be asked. If the subject is Samuel Fuller, and the man himself is sitting right there, you’ve got a golden opportunity to find out why a character named “Griff” pops up in so many movies from the writer-producer-director’s filmography. One of the many things to like about a new hour-long documentary called The Typewriter, The Rifle and The Movie Camera is that director Adam Simon and executive producer Tim Robbins do ask the question.

Samuel Fuller

In picking up on Griff, Simon and Robbins cast themselves not as documentarians or reporters but as fans. Their partners in this unabashed love letter are Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, who offer appreciations, anecdotes, and gruff-voiced Fuller imitations.

The ungainly title of the documentary (co-produced by the BFI and the Independent Film Channel) captures the three phases of Fuller’s career: his beginnings as a copyboy and crime reporter for the great New York newspapers of the 1920s, from which world he bounced into novel and screenplay writing; his service in the First Infantry Division, The Big Red One, during World War II; and his life as a film director, which began with I Shot Jesse James in 1948. Fuller, who has lived in Paris since the early 1980s, is interviewed in a variety of settings by Tim Robbins, and displays all the finger-poking vigor and indefatigable logorrhea that have made him such a legendary storyteller, on and off the screen (some of his anecdotes are clearly streamlined by cutting, lest the program go on indefinitely).

The program is a treat, and crafted with love. We hear just enough from Fuller himself to give us the flavor of the different periods of his life, which he relates with the straightforward (if often excited) narration of a good reporter. His description of what war does to a soldier – a fist inside you that never unclenches – isn’t that of a wounded veteran, or a self-pitying neurotic. It’s more like a piece of reportage, a fact given a vivid description by a good journalist who has boiled something down to its colorful, true, unsentimental essence.

This is something Fuller brings to his movies. It’s true that, in Fuller’s films, you often feel you’re smack in the middle of the action – at times the camera itself is knocked around, by its own crazy momentum, or a fighting actor’s shoulder. But you are also detached, which is a quality that isn’t remarked on much when critics describe Fuller as a primitive or irrational director. Yes, he’ll cut between close-ups so intense you feel you’re standing in the middle of a two-person meltdown; the opening dust-up from The Naked Kiss can leave bruises (the camera whammys around so much that you can actually see Fuller himself in one shot, yanking off Constance Towers’ wig). But Fuller will also shoot the choreography of conflict from far away: the kitchen knockdown-dragout in Shock Corridor is covered in a calm longshot, and much of the intricate fighting in Fixed Bayonets is played out on the huge icy set that lets us see the broad, merciless pattern of men being fired upon. That’s a reporter’s view – watching the scene and getting it down right. Continue reading

Blind Side of the New Moon (Weekly Links)

New Moon: pale fire

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

The Twilight Saga: New Moon. “Bella sure can pick ’em.”

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. “As a filmmaker, Daniels comes on like a hard-hitting linebacker.”

Blind Side. “Manages to keep the schmaltz level down.”

Planet 51. The males of this planet wear no pants.”

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. “A family-made documentary can’t be considered the final word.”

And an interview, mostly on the Twilight phenomenon, with two low-billed cast members.

And two more oldies from Movietone News magazine, published in Parallax View: The Rose, and Richard Lester’s forgotten Cuba.

Movie Diary 11/19/2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Chris Weitz, 2009). Everybody’s shirtless, almost, in the sequel to the pretty good Twilight. Kristen Stewart is excellent, the CGI dogs are not, the Northwest locations are convincing, the final line is daft. (full review 11/20)

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2009). Nice idea about a kid (Zac Efron) signing on for a minor role in Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre. Some gracefully rendered insights and a real Wellesian energy from Christian McKay. (full review 12/11)

Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue, 2009). Haven’t seen this much bodily mortification since The Passion of the Christ. With the secret mountain lair and the many flying implements of death, this should be more fun. (full review 11/25)