Movie Diary 12/30/2009

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000). Thinking ahead to the next lecture, on the subject of literary works adapted in a particularly eccentric or radical way (see details here). So where better to go than the Coens’ version of Homer’s Odyssey? Since settling on this idea, more possibilities have presented themselves: Beau Travail, Shoot the Piano Player, The Long Goodbye, There Will Be Blood. By comparison, the Coens are looking almost faithful to their source material.

Movie Diary 12/29/2009

Holiday (George Cukor, 1938). Beautiful movie, good time of year to see it, one of the nicer films I know to re-visit from time to time. Hepburn is great, and Cary Grant is untouchable.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959). Jazzy noir with racial overtones, as bigot Robert Ryan gets thrown into a heist plot with gambler and vibes man Harry Belafonte. A pretty cool movie, even with a few overstated gestures.

Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola, 2009). Zombie Nazis rising from the frosty hills of Norway, searching for Hitler’s gold. Too dumb to be a z-classic, but entrails galore. Contains one of the more unpleasant outhouse-sex scenes in film history.

M’Liss (Marshall Neilan, 1918). Mary Pickford as a wild country gal, in a movie that makes quite a bit of fun with Western cliches, while giving Pickford a feisty role.

The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). It was on TNT, and I couldn’t turn it off. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this movie without commercials, but I’m not sure I could; the rhythm would seem off. It’s a movie by Hollywood’s collective genius, and therefore just that much more of a dream.

The Magnificent Ambersons

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Welles’ melancholic narration carries us through the opening minutes, an extraordinary sequence that dexterously introduces us to the story and characters (the word “exposition,” with its connotations of clunkiness, is inadequate here). The toy-box methods of Citizen Kane are still in use, as Welles dazzles us with his playful unspooling of the film’s key elements; his narration even breaks in to the dialogue of those bystanders who comment on the Ambersons. The suggestions of youth and vitality are strong, and not just around that brattiest of spoiled brats, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt); even Eugene Morgan’s crash through his bass violin is a comic moment, especially as Welles sets up the shot—Eugene (Joseph Cotten) scurrying up to the camera, the better to tumble loudly in the foreground—and as Welles misleads us with his narration, preparing us for “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” only to be followed by the crash. Yet this moment will irrevocably alter, in a tragic way, the lives of the characters. Those busybodies on the street are fruity and comic (Fanny Minafer, you may notice, is among them), but later in the film the gossips and their perceived impact will help kill the last hope of Eugene and Isabel (Dolores Costello).

The vitality of the Ambersons needs to be established, because much of the rest of the film—especially following the shimmering ball and sleighride scenes—charts the family’s decline, and the encroaching darkness that swallows the family whole. The ball sequence, “the last of the great long-remembered dances,” is magnificent, and all the more so because while it displays the beauty of genteel manners and morals, it also shows that the time for such things is slipping away.

The seeming suspension of time also looms in the returns of Eugene, who has been gone—eighteen years have passed, “or have they?”, as Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) asks. Welles’ technique itself conjures the passage of time; those long, sinuous shots that weave through corridors and up staircases and across rooms are the actual embodiment of time passing. Unlike the cut-cut-cut of most movie scenes, these long takes show us events in real time—actors are a little older when the shot is over. In keeping with this scheme, which is really a movement toward death (as we will see as the film progresses), darkness overtakes the house when the ball ends. The guests leave and the family prepares to retire, their figures passing through great pools of darkness—in Stanley Cortez’ exceptional photography, we see some of the most intense blacks ever captured on film. Inky suggestions of suspicion, uncertainty, and mortality swim in these pools, as well as the “ancient recollections” that have been stirred by Eugene’s return.

As George and Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) walk the darkened hall to her door, they hold the first of their extraordinary conversations. Fanny’s words are casual and defensive, as she explains that people should note the presence of an eligible bachelor “without having to make a to-do about it.” The phrase is casual, but her voice rises into a pinched hysteria, which George snottily imitates. But then she savagely mimics him—and we recognize that Fanny, who had just appeared furtive and puny in a hallway shot that Isabel dominated, is in fact a bitter force to be reckoned with. (For all the movie’s visual bravura, these precise vocal effects remind us of Welles’ extensive experiences in radio.) Continue reading

1942 Ten Best Movies

The best film of 1942 is The Magnificent Ambersons, the second feature directed by Orson Welles. It is probably the most famous of all wrecked films, having been cut from an original length of nearly two-and-a-half hours to 88 minutes, including the addition of new scenes shot without Welles’ participation or consent. That the movie is this wrecked but still great leads fans of the film to imagine what it might have been, but all we have is what it is now, and that’s enough. I will post something longer about the film tomorrow.

The failure of Ambersons spreads out in other interesting ways throughout the decade: Welles had to struggle to get his career going again (you want to play the “imagine” game, try imagining what Welles might have done in the Forties if he’d had a hit in 1942, instead of a snafu that ended his business with the studio that gave him free rein to make Citizen Kane). Ambersons also exerts a ghostly presence in the films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, whose low-budget horror unit utilized the elaborate set that Welles left behind.

And speaking of Lewton, his unit’s first offering came in 1942: Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cat People is one of my favorite films, and creates a spell like few others (except maybe Lewton pictures such as I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim). Its financial success probably justified the building of the Ambersons sets on the same studio lot, but that didn’t help Welles any.

The rest of the year is marked by war, including the sophistication and boldness of To Be or Not to Be and the glory of Casablanca (which was seen by limited audiences in ’42 but is often credited as a 1943 picture) – films distinguished by their timeliness. The Magnificent Ambersons, however, is timeless. The ten best movies of 1942:

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

2. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)

5. Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh)

6. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)

7. The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)

8. In Which We Serve (Noel Coward/David Lean) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Road to Morocco (David Butler)

I have a soft spot for the Hitchcock title; it’s not one of his top-tier films but it has some real doozies in it. Road to Morocco, the third of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedies, I argue for because it seems to help define a certain kind of escapist wartime movie – and I happen to like Hope and Crosby together, and this is probably my only chance to sneak a Road picture on to a Top Ten list. And if you’ve never seen Gentleman Jim, well, you have to seen Gentleman Jim, an Errol Flynn vehicle both boisterous and tender.

Just missing: Bambi, a circle-of-life Disney feature that trumps The Lion King; two George Stevens comedies, Woman of the Year and The Talk of the Town; and The Glass Key, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a tough pre-noir.

Nine Complicated Embraces (Weekly Links)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law ARE Holmes and Watson

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Sherlock Holmes. “Really kind of missing the point.”

Nine.

By Robert Horton

Looking at the newspaper ads for “Nine,” the splashy musical, I am missing something in the crowd of credits at the bottom. I see the names of the casting director and the music supervisor, but there’s no mention of Federico Fellini.

Fellini’s 1963 film “8 1/2” merely provided the premise and characters found in “Nine,” but never mind. Perhaps it’s kinder to leave the late Italian director out of this travesty.

“Nine” was made into a Broadway musical in 1982, a show that has been considerably worked-around for the screen. But its basic idea is still much as Fellini had it: a famous filmmaker, Guido Contini, is suffering a severe case of writer-director’s block over his next project. The sets are built, the money’s in place, and the actors are waiting—but there’s no script, and we watch as Guido stumbles dazedly through a few days of sex, cigarettes, and memories.

As “Nine” re-imagines it, Guido, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, “imagines” various musical numbers in a vast movie studio where his next film will supposedly be shot. I guess this is director Rob (“Chicago”) Marshall’s way of avoiding the phenomenon of characters breaking out into song in an otherwise realistic scene, which modern audiences supposedly can’t handle. His approach might have worked, if the numbers weren’t so garishly conceived.

In the film’s more everyday sections, Guido juggles his timidly suffering wife (Marion Cotillard from “La vie en rose”), his lavishly suffering mistress (Penelope Cruz), a hot-to-trot journalist (Kate Hudson), and, eventually, his star (Nicole Kidman).

Once in a while he also fantasizes scenes with his late mother (Italian legend Sophia Loren—who else?) and recalls a boyhood encounter with an earthy prostitute (Black Eyed Peas songstress Fergie, a credible piece of casting).

The re-creation of the 1962 milieu is sometimes pleasing (Guido’s car is nice, anyway), but much of the movie—especially the stuff representing his imagination—looks weirdly trashy. Almost every woman in the movie is dressed, at some point, like a stripper doing a pole dance.

For a while it’s kind of interesting to watch how Marshall and his lead actor are going to approach the material. Unfortunately, Daniel Day-Lewis, who can be electrifying when the role fits his chameleon-like approach, makes Guido seem more vacant than blocked.

A comparison between Day-Lewis and Marcello Mastroianni as the same character in “8 ½” gives a handy difference between an actor and a movie star: Day-Lewis’s incredible technique can’t fill in the personality of this passive character, while Mastroianni simply breathed it, flawlessly.

The presence of six Oscar winners (Judi Dench is in there too) isn’t enough to carry the day. And comparing this movie to Fellini isn’t even necessary: “Nine” is rickety enough to collapse all on its own.

It’s Complicated. “Well-designed interiors and well-designed comic situations.”

Broken Embraces.

By Robert Horton

With its opening scene, in which a blind writer seduces the hot young woman who has just helped him cross the street, “Broken Embraces” warns you to expect just about anything.

In a film by Pedro Almodovar, that’s the only course of action. The Spanish director, whose steady output has included “Volver” and “Talk to Her,” returns here with a typically stylish drama that folds neatly (maybe too neatly) into his previous work.

That blind writer is a former filmmaker now working (since the accident that blinded him) under the pseudonym Harry Caine; he’s played by Lluis Homar. Harry is haunted by the accident and its circumstances, which happened 14 years earlier. The arrival of an obnoxious young director, who calls himself Ray X, sends Harry into detailed flashbacks about the past. I mean it as a compliment when I say the actor who plays Ray X, Ruben Ochandiano, is perfectly horrid in the role.

Flashbacks, long ones, get us into Harry’s world as a successful film director, and his intense relationship with an actress, Lena (Penelope Cruz). They worked on a movie, “Girls and Suitcases,” the excerpts from which make it look more than a little like Pedro Almodovar’s breakthrough picture, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

Lena has her tangled story, too. For a variety of heart-tugging reasons, she had become the paid companion of an extremely wealthy man (Jose Luis Gomez). Other characters flit around the story, notably Harry’s longtime assistant (Blanca Portillo). We can tell she’s been serving at his beck and call all these years, and probably nurses a combination of loyalty and hostility that would come with sacrificing her own personality to the great genius.

Almodovar is always good with those kinds of peripheral characters, the precisely-drawn, neurotic types. And his customary design sense is here too, his great eye for colors and patterns that stop just short of being crazy.

He’s given another luscious role to Penelope Cruz, who starred for him in “Volver.” She really seems like a movie queen from the 1960s, which is probably how Almodovar wants her to come across.

For all that, “Broken Embraces” has an underwhelming quality that makes it seem like more of the same from this director. (I can never remember the plots of Almodovar’s films enough to tell one from another—and I like his movies.)

The story in this case might have come from a glossy melodrama of the Fifties, but diced up in a new way. Maybe I’ll remember it when his next movie comes out, maybe not, but it certainly is absorbing for two hours.

A Single Man. “How much it respects George’s devastation.”

The Young Victoria. “Frump time is over.”

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. “The world’s gone mad, I tell you.”

Movie Diary 12/22/2009

The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, 2009). Story of Tolstoy’s final weeks, with Helen Mirren as Mrs. T and Christopher Plummer full-bearded as the author; James McAvoy and Kerry Condon (whoa) hold down the younger business. (full review 2/?)

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). That Cary Grant, he’s very good. So is every bit player in Hawks’s careening, hard comedy, which is all angles and spikes and chevrons-in-dresses, a movie that puts puncture wounds in many of its characters.

Movie Diary 12/21/2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009). Missed this film the first time through, and kind of wish I’d seen it on a big screen. Some of the best things are the physical falls and collisions of the creatures, which are performed with a kind of abandon that seems in the spirit of what Jonze is going for here. Strange movie – it’s not the book, it’s a grown-up’s memory of the book, measured from a distance, and played like someone groggily recounting a dream just woken up from.

1930 Ten Best Movies

Movie year 1930 ought to belong to Josef von Sternberg, who made two of the top three pictures and was off and running on the string of fascinating films made with Marlene Dietrich. But I am compelled to go with something else at #1 this year, a movie that gets close to the essential joys of the cinema. (Sternberg got burned by the Crop Duster in 1934 and 1935, too, coming in at #2 both years. Sorry.)

The #1 is Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a movie that probably sounds like a film-school chore but actually is a beautiful film-for-film’s sake demonstration. It could sound deadly in synopsis: peasant humor, collectivist message meant to illustrate great glory of Soviet state, sequence hinging on the arrival of a tractor. But the movie is infused with human and bodily pleasures, leaving behind any narrowly ideological or propagandistic limits. And when a man dances alone on a road in the moonlight, you know why movies were invented.

Sternberg and Dietrich merely turned out The Blue Angel (in two versions, German and English) and their first Hollywood collaboration, Morocco. The director turned his actress into a figure of film style, draped his images in nets and laces and melancholy, and confronted audiences with a worldly attitude about the charged romances he was depicting. And then there’s the rest of the best films of 1930:

1. Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko)

2. Das Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)

3. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)

4. L’age d’or (Luis Bunuel)

5. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)

6. City Girl (F.W. Murnau)

7. The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)

8. Ladies of Leisure (Frank Capra)

9. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks)

10. The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)

The Capra title is a favorite, a strange, forceful low-budget title with a blazing performance by Barbara Stanwyck. The Big Trail is an early widescreen experiment that gave John Wayne an early lead role; if the movie hadn’t been a box-office disappointment, the Duke might’ve been an A-movie star much earlier than it turned out. But the movie is gorgeous.

Other nice things: The Bat Whispers, a delightful mystery-comedy directed by Roland West (and another widescreen experiment), Hitchcock’s Murder!, Rene Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris, and the neo-realist People on Sunday, a German “indie” made by a gang that would become a nucleus of Hollywood emigre talent in the decade to come: Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, Eugene Schufftan, Curt Siodmak. Also the Marx brothers had Animal Crackers, an urgent study of the hunting of African animals in pajamas.

Movie Diary 12/19/2009

The Night Strangler (Dan Curtis, 1973). Darren McGavin as the supernaturally-minded loudmouth reporter Kolchak, in a classic TV-movie about a long-lived killer in Seattle. Made a big TV-movie splash at the time, still holds up, even if the thing is padded out with too many scenes of people telling Kolchak to stop being so brash.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (Betty Thomas, 2009). Chipmunks at high school, in rock bands, chipmunks doing human behavior. These are strange things, yet everybody accepts them without question. It’s no Country Bears, however. (full review 12/23)

Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner, 1958). Vince Edwards as a killer for hire, taking his time with a job in L.A.; the movie is a truly offbeat independent production, philosophical and talkative. Hadn’t seen this in 25 years, and the new DVD version looks extremely good.

Did You Hear About Avatar (Weekly Links)

Thanks to everyone who participated in the fifth annual Critics Wrap at the Frye Art Museum last night. And for those who didn’t get in (the auditorium was jammed), the event will be shown multiple times beginning New Year’s Eve on the Seattle Channel; check the lists and the TV playdates here (and will be viewable via SC’s website).

The Young Victoria. Kidding - Avatar, duh.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Avatar. “Infectious glee.”

Did You Hear About the Morgans? “Nobody looks quite comfortable here.”

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. “Funny, quick, and playful.”

Flame and Citron. “Maintains a taut tension throughout.”

Collapse. “A fine line between ‘visionary’ and ‘fruitcake.'”

And: Indiewire’s year-end (and decade-end) poll is up and about; link to my responses here. You can click on any of the category titles to get the overall results of the voters. (Balloting is not quite final as I write this.)