Friday, April 29, 2011

#330: It's a Gift

Directed by: NORMAN Z. MCLEOD
1934, TSPDT Rank #442

W.C. Fields is at the top of his game in It's a Gift, combining sharp wit, excellent comedic skill, and visual creativity into one man comparable to all the Marx Brothers put together. It helps that the film is short, fast-paced, quick-witted, wise-cracking, and incurably funny for the duration. So while it may be thin on plot, Fields' winning blend of visual and verbal jokes carries the film right through to the end. Where there is quite a gift of a twist in store. That's all I'll say. The film can speak for itself. I recommend it highly, it's a joy. Not to mention an overall gift. The title doesn't lie, my friends.

(Rating: 9/10)

#329: Letter from an Unknown Woman

Directed by: MAX OPHULS
1948, TSPDT Rank #91

This is one of those rare romantic films that has a real mysterious allure and hidden substance to it. Its a story very unusual to film, but ultimately quite unexpectedly moving and resonating. The idea of loving someone your whole life, devoting your life to them, with them barely aware of your existence until after you've passed on is a very unique concept and one that deserves a lot of pondering. The actors fit the story like a glove; Joan Fontaine is obviously luminous. I've thought for some time that Fontaine was one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her time - she is simply ravishing. As a commentator elsewhere on the internet, said "you can't help but fall in love with her while watching this movie," and her character definitely deserved more than she got over the course of her lifetime (which the film portrays basically from beginning to end), for all of her beauty and undying devotion. Max Ophuls is also an almost forgotten director today; I guess film buffs like me (and you) need to continue seeking out his films and recommending them to others. Kubrick often cited Ophuls as his favorite director, and a great influence on his work - which isn't surprising, given the fluid, atmospheric cinematography and a neatly camouflaged and unconventional sense of rhythm and pacing. This is a very solid film, another case where I find it quite a shame that it is not readily available at all to those of the US. I recommend it, and hope to bring some more reports on Ophul's work in the not so distant future.

(Rating: 8/10)

#328: Safety Last

1923, TSPDT Rank #937

One of the new additions to the list, Safety Last has a welcome (and hopefully permanent) spot here, which is great, because before this film entered the list, Harold Lloyd (the least known of the so-called three kings of silent comedians - the title he shares with Chaplin and Keaton) was not represented at all on the list! Personally, I think this should be blamed on the fact that Lloyd's films just don't have much circulation at all these days. The DVD box sets of Lloyd's work have been out of print for years, and many of his famous films are not accessible to watch online either (again, unlike those of Chaplin and Keaton). In fact, I've been waiting to see this film ever since I started watching silent films - and just happened to catch it recently as it made a rare television appearance on TCM.

Looking online, I realized that, for how well known Safety Last seems to be, not many seem to have actually seen it. The image of Lloyd hanging on the arm of the clock is so iconic, that many who don't know Harold by name, or may never have even seen a silent film, recognize this image and at times even think they have seen it themselves. True, the plot isn't spectacular in itself compared to other silent comedies, but the way Lloyd arranges the entire film and plays out the various jokes and action sequences is nothing short of genius. But the whole first section of the movie all leads up to the final 30 minutes - which consists basically of Harold climbing a building. This is one of the most suspenseful and consistently thrilling sequences I've ever seen, in any genre. After watching the entire film, capped off by the grand finale sequence, anyone left unconvinced of Harold Lloyd's incredible, unique talent and feel for his material (and his work's ability to complete stand up to that of his more famous peers, if not better) is not likely to be convinced by anything, ever. Please get yourself a sense of humor and joy if you are that sorry shell of a human being. If you are not, watch this movie whenever possible. A great example of prime silent comedy from one of the underrated masters!

(Rating: 9/10)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

#327: The Hustler

Directed by: ROBERT ROSSEN
1961, TSPDT Rank #324

Much, much better than you or anybody else thought a pool movie could be. I guarantee it - even if you fancy yourself a pool hustler as well. This movie is riveting, spurred on by brilliant performances (especially that of Paul Newman as "Fast Eddy"), and perhaps the most crucial aspect: not much of it contains actual pool playing after the first half-hour. It is bookended by two high-tension, marathon matches against Jackie Gleason's powerful player, "Minnesota Fats". The first of these matches is fueled by Eddy's confidence and earnest will to win, and the second is fueled by a grim and vengeful desire to prove himself the best - and take the winning money. Figuring strongly in this transformation are George C. Scott's ruthless and dangerous gambler, and Piper Laurie as Eddy's girl. This movie proves a theory I have: that a movie about even the most mundane of subjects can be riveting and amazing, while many films, no matter how spectacular their premise, will crash and burn (a little pun there - it's a lot of action and/or disaster films of which I speak) terribly. For The Hustler is a great film, and far greater than a great number of films on far greater and/or exciting subjects. Highly recommended.

(Rating: 9/10)

Monday, April 18, 2011

#326: Salesman

1968, TSPDT Rank #578

From the masters and pioneers of cinema verite, the Maysles (and Zwerin), this is a depressing and funny documentary about men who sell bibles door-to-door. It's a profession that's faded, which is all the best, because what a pathetic life to lead. People talk about the women in Grey Gardens (another famous Maysles documentary) being mentally ill, but personally I think they are much healthier and better off than these men. They spend their lives going around and trying to beg people to buy books with clever sales tricks and at times use pity as a weapon. This film is hard to describe, but it's effect is one that really seeps through and gets under your skin as the film moves on. Which, in itself, is pretty remarkable - considering there's not a whole lot of variety in the events on hand, the Maysles just present the material in such a way that it really works. I'd recommend it, not quite as good as Gimme Shelter or Grey Gardens, but a standout in its own right.

(Rating: 7/10)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

#325: Berlin Alexanderplatz

1980, TSPDT Rank #240

Speaking of difficult films, this 15 1/2 hour mammoth work by RW Fassbinder is a bit of an undertaking. Watching in its entirety within a month or thereabouts and allowing it to sink in slowly is one of the most unique, valuable, and powerful experiences that one could have watching movies. This is a fairly normal crime story if looked at on a smaller scale, but blown up to this enormous scale, reaches dramatic highs and lows usually never witnessed. Some of the episodes might seem inconsequential individually, but I am convinced none of them are. It takes the usual plot layout we're used to seeing and stretches it out, making us less conscious of the method in which the plot is unfolding than we usually would be. It really wasn't until episode 5 (my favorite along with the cruel, wicked brilliance of the last few) that I was smacked in the face with the sublimity of Fassbinder's craft here. I have a feeling if I ever took the time to watch the entire epic tome again (a fair possibility) it would be near if not at the top of my all-time favorite films. About 8 times the normal length of a film, requires about 8 times the patience and 8 times the incubation time afterwards - and will greatly reward every ounce of it you give. If this film alone doesn't present Fassbinder as a cinematic master of rare talents, I don't know what possibly could.

(Rating: 10/10)

#324: Veronika Voss

1982, TSPDT Rank #923

Filmed last but sequenced second in RW Fassbinder's BRD trilogy, this very unique and brilliant film is my favorite normal-length Fassbinder film, from the ones I've seen. It's filmed in luminous black and white, and tells a somewhat fractured story of love, addiction, and lost stardom, which plays as a mix of Persona, Sunset Boulevard, and film noir mysteries. For any fan of film, that should be more than enough to say. In this time shortly before his death, it seems that Fassbinder was entering an artistic peak, and its too bad that this great source of talent was snuffed out by drug use, not unlike the untimely fate of burned out star Veronika Voss. Experimental, difficult, but quite highly recommended - best of the trilogy.

(Rating: 9/10)

#323: Moonfleet

Directed by: FRITZ LANG
1955, TSPDT Rank #760

A rare Fritz Lang film, which I suppose nobody ever formally released on DVD because those who want to see it enough (like myself) will find it, and it would probably be seen by most people as a throwaway effort compared to other Lang films. But it is very enjoyable, and very well made; with great cinematography, pacing, and writing. The thing about Moonfleet is that it completely makes a case for the theory the French Cinema du Cahiers critics had around this time: if genre films with more or less recycled stories are made by master craftsman with the right amount of precision, they might turn into both a work of some artistic quality, and a great piece of entertainment. Many films of the past have been remembered because they fit that theory so well, but Moonfleet has slipped through the cracks, but not very surprisingly - since Fritz Lang is best known as the director of revolutionary crime films and grand fantasy spectacles, which Moonfleet has nothing in common with. But's it good to know that, by being on this list, Moonfleet still receives some recognition and admirers. Worth a watch if you get the chance.

(Rating: 7/10)

Friday, April 8, 2011

#322: The Marriage of Maria Braun

1978, TSPDT Rank #543

The first in R.W. Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy, The Marriage of Maria Braun contains stylistic elements and amazing cinematography that hadn't been quite as present in Fassbinder's work from about five years prior. For me, the later films by Fassbinder are great to watch because they are more developed, original, and intricate - compared to his arguably more primitive earlier films. With Maria Braun, Fassbinder and gorgeous leading actress Hanna Schygulla created an amazing character with a unique approach to life. Maria is shown as very in control of her life, using her talents to rise her above almost everyone in her environment (which is partly the interesting setting of the German homefront during WWII) to become the best. It's all for her unfortunate husband, who is ultimately unsatisfied with her efforts - it seems he always feels she does too much or too little for him. So despite Maria's triumphs and failures, Fassbinder takes it and turns it to tragedy, which gives the film a unique twist and more layers of complexity. Overrated in comparison to Veronika Voss (BRD #2), but still generally a great film.

(Rating: 8/10)

#321: The Seventh Seal

1957, TSPDT Rank #53

This movie is frequently named one of the greatest ever made and that way of thinking is most definitely accurate. The Seventh Seal is an essential milestone in cinema history, completely changing how films were made and how people saw them. However, this film should be neither underestimated or feared. It is very accessible and enjoyable, surprisingly so, considering: 1) It takes place in medieval Sweden while the Black Death is sweeping the country, 2) Death is a major character in the story, 3) It is directed by Ingmar Bergman, known for solemn, austere films. And while The Seventh Seal has its solemn, austere moments, Bergman does an incredible job of keeping the balance between the horrific state of the world at the time, reflection on life, death, and the meaning of it all, along with earthy humor and vivid, real characters. Also, the cinematography brings us some of the most beautiful, haunting images seen to man. Quite simply stated, this is a very complex film underneath the surface, but even for casual viewers, it remains a supreme work of entertainment and art.

(Rating: 10/10)

#320: On the Waterfront

Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
1954, TSPDT Rank #90

Elia Kazan is primarily remembered as a director of actors, and many of his films, especially this one, helped to establish film acting as a serious art. Don't get me wrong, this is a very cinematic film, never theatrical feeling, and on many levels - cinematography, staging, editing, story - it is top-notch. But it's the brilliant acting (by the likes of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Steiger) that raises this movie up in the ranks of film history and makes it so compelling and worth watching today. Feels very fresh - never dated.

Now I go for the quite necessary and clever closing line: This film undoubtedly was, and is, a contender.

(Rating: 9/10)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

#319: The Producers

Directed by: MEL BROOKS

1968, TSPDT Rank #485

CAUTION: This film is insanely hilarious and may at times cause you to laugh uncontrollably, with hazard to breathing. If you do not laugh or can't tolerate it, you have an unhealthy sense of humor and need to get it checked.

Believe me, this is coming from someone who's not really a fan of Mel Brooks in general (as a friend pointed out to me so helpfully as I told him of my love for this film). If you've read my review of Young Frankenstein, you'll see that my reaction to that film was lukewarm, as was my reaction to Blazing Saddles. But this is most definitely Brooks' masterpiece, with his humor in peak form, before sinking into the overly silly and uneven (although usually fairly entertaining) genre parodies that were the trademark of most of his career. But The Producers at least is pure comedy - one of the true milestones of the genre. And it goes by so much faster than it has any right to - especially for a comedy of this time period! Almost makes up for the shocking number of horrible, tepid, plodding comedic attempts made around this time period.

Simply, a delight.

(Rating: 10/10)