Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#420: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Directed by: KAREL REISZ
1960, TSPDT Rank #409

One of the early films of the British New Wave, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning definitely stood out to me as a quintessential film of the movement. Albert Finney perfectly embodies the "angry young man" character that you will see featured in most British New Wave films, giving a fantastic performance that just radiates with discontent and rebellion without a cause. I call it a quintessential British New Wave film because it has all the elements you might find in any given film from the movement - deterioration of society, generation gap, cynicism, sexual promiscuity, rebelling against social mores, etc. It's an energetic, gripping, edgy film, and gives you a great taste of working-class British society in the early 1960s. I highly recommend it to any discerning film buff. But don't take my word for it - it has Robert Osborne's endorsement as being a "dandy film"!

(Rating: 9/10)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

#419: Fantasia

1940, TSPDT Rank #244

Fantasia is one of the few films for which it really cannot be said that one person directed it, although Ben Sharpsteen is widely known as the director (he was credited as "production supervisor" in the credits). So many peoples' ideas and talents went into this film that it has to instead be considered as the work of one incredible group. Sure, Fantasia isn't without its flaws, but to put things into perspective, one needs to remember that this film was made only a few years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first ever animated feature. The amount of innovation and vision that Fantasia brought to the table was monumental - not a perfect or absolute achievement, but a significant upping of the ante nonetheless. Its initial commercial failure is just further confirmation of how ahead of its time the film was. So overall, I can't critique much about this film, although I feel that the first half is definitely much stronger than the second half, with Bach, Tchaikovsky, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the film's climax halfway through with the astounding creation and dinosaurs sequence that is paired with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which obviously was a strong influence on the creation sequence in Terrence Malick's recent film, The Tree of Life). The second half is too whimsical and fluffy for my tastes, and although the Night on Bald Mountain sequence near the end is terrifying and brilliant, and the Ave Maria images that finish the film have a strong, ethereal quality, the film reaches what I feel to be its nadir with the ridiculous ballet mockery (Dance of the Hours). But in the end, this is merely personal preference, as each sequence brings something worthwhile to the table - and much of the film achieves a sublime synthesis of great classical music and masterful hand-drawn animation, which likely could not be equaled or even approached in today's computer-dominated animation climate. Walt Disney and company took a large risk at the time, and while it may have seemed to be a failure at the time of its original release, time has revealed it to be far the contrary. Fantasia is a landmark film for animation, as well as the general history of cinema - not to be missed.

(Rating: 9/10)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

#418: Anatahan

1953, TSPDT Rank #696

This is the sixth and final film of my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

The last film Josef von Sternberg completed, which he continued to work on re-editing after its release in 1953, eventually abandoning the project in 1958, is definitely a strange final entry in his filmography. After being released from his contract to Howard Hughes, Sternberg made this film, about Japanese soldiers holding the Pacific island of Anatahan for seven years after World War II had ended, in Japan, with a Japanese crew, and completely outside of the Hollywood studio system, which had found little use for him since Marlene Dietrich ceased to star in his films anymore. Instead of having the story told with Japanese dialogue and released with dialogue, the actors have only minimal amounts of dialogue, which is explained, along with the story, by Sternberg himself, who narrates in English for the entire duration of the film. Sternberg seems to use the framework the plot gives in order to reflect on the duality of human nature - civilization and savagery, friend and foe, heroism and denial, life and death - which is clearly evident in the film's lyrical and often symmetrical cinematography and thoughtful commentary on the action taking place. The film is sometimes marred by being repetitive, by the plentiful plot inconsistencies, or by the contradictory explanations given through the narration, but ultimately turns out being somewhat more than the sum of its parts, rather than an incoherent mess. Not the best of Josef von Sternberg's, but as a final statement, this existential war drama works quite well (especially considering the difficulties of making a film in a foreign land with a crew of foreign people), and is also interesting as a rare look at Japanese soldiers from an American's point of view.

(Rating: 7/10)

Friday, February 17, 2012

#417: The Shanghai Gesture

1941, TSPDT Rank #681

At long last, here is the fifth film of my Josef von Sternberg marathon, which has regrettably been drawn out to about a month due to time restraints.

Josef von Sternberg made this film while lying on a couch. This just goes to show how good a director he'd become, because in my opinion, it is legitimately a very great film, one of my favorites I've seen from him so far. At this point in his career he was somewhat down and out, being that him and the star who had made him famous had parted ways, and Hollywood didn't have that much use for him anymore. However, this low-profile gem of a film has been praised as everything from a masterpiece to incoherent trash by those who have seen it since Sternberg directed it from his couch. But it's nothing if not effective, not to mention that it lays out almost all of the classic film noir archetypes in its complex script. Many describe the plot as being incoherent and difficult to follow, but if this is the case, it's only because the film doesn't really have a plot, it's more of an ensemble film - with a large set of diverse, uniquely seedy characters, most of whom live their lives primarily in a Shanghai casino. The set design of the casino is probably what makes the film so effective, with its labyrinthine, subterranean construction, the constant sickening bright light that shines always so that the time of day is unknown, and the ceaselessly swarming hoards of people wasting their lives and money in the deep central vortex of the building. The setting has an atmosphere of dingy wickedness, which seems to have enveloped all of the characters in different ways. The ways that the characters interact with each other are very interesting, and the film is visually fantastic - with a wild, hallucinatory feel. Some may find The Shanghai Gesture too absurd, but I consider it an innovative film noir that is not like any other. Possibly one of Sternberg's most underrated, I highly recommend it.

(Rating: 9/10)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

#416: The Devil Is a Woman

1935, TSPDT Rank #575

The fourth film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

After the peak of enormous proportions that was The Scarlet Empress, it seemed quite inevitable that the next (and final) collaboration between Sternberg and Dietrich would be a fall from grace, and indeed, it is very much a minor film, especially by the standards of Sternberg's previous track record. In fact, I'm a bit confused by its inclusion on this list instead of some of the other Sternberg-Dietrich films that were left out. Maybe it's because some people prefer the relative simplicity of this film as an antidote to the complex, overpowering madness of The Scarlet Empress. Also, this film does contain some very visually pleasing cinematography, with many excellent frame compositions, but there's nothing that lights the screen ablaze quite like The Scarlet Empress did. And although Marlene Dietrich is still extremely alluring and luminous (it's impossible to take your eyes off of her) whenever she is on the screen, her performance is nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as her Catherine the Great. But even though the fantastic cinematography and smoldering presence of Dietrich are enough to at least make this worth a watch, the rest of actors are terrible, the script is second-rate at best, and the film often threatens to collapse under its own weak foundation, although it never does. The only other good point about this film is that it seems to be another one of Sternberg's contributions to the later film noir movement (the overall feel and look of his silent film, Underworld, laid much groundwork for both the gangster genre and film noir's style), in that Dietrich's character might as well be a template for the classic femme fatale character that appears in a grand majority of the films noir in cinematic history. Watch Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity from about 10 years later when the movement was really in full swing and you'll see what I mean. But for The Devil Is a Woman itself, the two things it should be known for are its status as the last of the great run of Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations, and its contributions to the great collective of classic films we enthusiasts label film noir. Without it we would still have The Scarlet Empress, but we might not have all of those beautiful and icy women to watch ruining mens' lives.

Next up I have Sternberg's first true contribution to the film noir movement proper. Coming soon.

(Rating: 6/10)

#415: The Scarlet Empress

1934, TSPDT Rank #299

The third film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

The Scarlet Empress is definitely the most bizarre, lavish, insane, beautiful, intense, ridiculous, and masterful period piece I have ever seen. I had heard all this and more about this penultimate collaboration between Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich many times over in the past, but I never believed it could be true until I actually witnessed it for myself. Actually, its glorious madness far exceeded what I had heard. I'm sure Ken Russell must have got quite a bit of his inspiration from this film, as I was reminded of his work in many of the sequences. I don't know a lot about what was going on in Sternberg's personal life at this point, but it seems like his collaboration with Dietrich had reached an overly decadent peak of greatness which could not possibly be topped, and which seems to signal a certain absence of sanity. But sometimes what is lacking in a great artist's sanity is balanced out by the greatness of their work - and that would definitely be the case with this film. Sternberg had obviously mastered the process of making sound pictures since his unsteady direction of The Blue Angel four years earlier, as evidenced by the perfect synthesis of blisteringly wild Russian music, blinding lighting, brilliant camerawork, grotesque and extravagant sets, and performances which are well at home with the lunacy that surrounds them. Marlene Dietrich's performance and overall presence is too sublime to accurately put into words. Her portrayal of Catherine the Great in her transformation from an innocent, naive German princess to the supremely powerful and sexually manipulative empress of Russia is most likely her best performance, and the way Sternberg presents her on the screen made me want nothing less but to worship her like a goddess. That is the power this film has, and I'm sure that I will see more and more in it the more I watch it. In the meantime, believe what has been said over the many years since The Scarlet Empress was released, and then watch it and feel your eyes all but fall out of their sockets when you give yourself over to this twisted masterpiece that somehow got released by the assembly line Hollywood system of the golden age era of the 1930s, right at the dawn of the Hays Code. "There is no emperor ... only an empress."

After this film, Sternberg and Dietrich had one more collaboration in them before they parted ways for good. I'll have that one up next just as soon as I get around to it.

(Rating: 10/10)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

#414: The Blue Angel

1930, TSPDT Rank #268

The second film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

By this point in Josef von Sternberg's career, his films could no longer be ignored by the wider general public - at least not as long as they featured overnight sex symbol sensation (and the object of Sternberg's obsession) Marlene Dietrich. And while The Blue Angel is by no means a masterpiece, it does have the distinction of being Germany's first sound picture, and Germany should be very proud to have a film as great as this as its first talkie. It's much better in almost all ways than any of the very early American talkies, but the whole production is still quite rough, in particular the sound editing (clearly evident when all existing sound disappears instantaneously with any door closing), and Sternberg seems quite obviously uncomfortable having to operate with this new format. He may have also just been too concerned with shooting Dietrich (which he could always be trusted to do a good job with) to worry about other, less significant details. Either way, despite its flaws, which are to be expected given the circumstances it was made under, it is still a great film, and Emil Jannings is amazing as the professor who unwisely falls under the spell of a blonde (easily besting his work in his earlier silent film with Sternberg, The Last Command, which he won a statue for at the very first Academy Awards ceremony, and which I mentioned in the Docks of New York post), which may very well be one of the most tragic character portrayals I've seen in my years of witnessing cinematic history so far. The climactic scene is absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking at the same time, and the entire tone of the film is very bleak, but you could never have expected things to turn out all right for the old professor in any case. Whichever way you look at it, though, this is a milestone in cinematic history, and all things considered, it is a pretty great film. Plus, the musical numbers give both the talkie format its standard demo platform, and also allow the spotlight to shine on the young, stunningly sexy Marlene. There was nothing like the good old pre-Code days of the early '30s.....

More on Sternberg and Dietrich coming soon of course, as the marathon carries on (hopefully as quickly as possible).

(Rating: 8/10)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

#413: The Docks of New York

1927, TSPDT Rank #784

This is the first film of the Josef von Sternberg marathon that I will be having, continuing throughout the next few days, in which I will be watching and commenting on the six Sternberg films I have yet to watch of the eight on the list (the two I've seen are Morocco and Shanghai Express).

The Docks of New York is a film from the end of the silent era, which unfortunately ended as silent films were reaching a new level of sophistication and beauty. This film feels somewhat like a lesser Sunrise (the F.W. Murnau masterpiece from the previous year), as it contains much of the same themes and visual feel of that film. However, while the foggy expressionist visual style is impressive and the theme of working-class people trying to form and subsequently mend a meaningful relationship is potent, I think that the strong emotional potential isn't tapped all that well until the last act of the film. The last act is great indeed, but what comes before felt too mediocre and not very meaningful to what comes later. It is still a very good film, just not as balanced or effective as it could have been. I had similar issues with Sternberg's previous film, The Last Command (not on the list), but not with his other 1927 film, Underworld (also not on the list), which I thought was a fantastic and groundbreaking early gangster film, and would give a very high recommendation. Luckily, the Criterion Collection has packaged all three of these silent films by Sternberg into a DVD box set, and they're all worth seeing despite what your personal preferences from film to film might be. Josef von Sternberg was definitely proving himself an important and interesting director, even in these years prior to the rather famous partnership he found himself in at the dawn of the sound era, which would permanently cement his name in cinematic history forever.

(Rating: 7/10)

Monday, January 23, 2012

#412: The Reckless Moment

Directed by: MAX OPHULS
1949, TSPDT Rank #800

The Reckless Moment is a very unique and fascinating film noir by the great Max Ophuls, with one of my favourite actors, James Mason, in a fantastic and extremely multi-faceted role. It's too bad that more people don't have access to Ophul's Hollywood films, which are actually much less circulated than his European films (which have mostly been released by Criterion). This is a real gem of a film, especially for the film noir fan - which I don't want to assume that everyone who reads this blog is, but given that I am, it should be taken into account that I'm biased. It's a cross between film noir and melodrama (Ophul's specialty), but in the case of this film, unlike his earlier film with Mason, Caught, the noir element is more pronounced than the melodrama. Nevertheless, the melodramatic aspect gives the familiar basic plot outline of the "accidental murder" and failure of the following cover-up a very different taste than you might be used to. And of course Ophuls mixes all of these elements up into a film which doesn't really resemble any other, except possibly some of his own - given the trademark ever-moving but graceful camera, and the cool, understated, yet visually rich way of handling the tension. Max Ophuls certainly was a master, with a unique and engrossing style which has been imitated often by some of the best both past and present (Kubrick and PT Anderson to name just two), but never quite matched. More on Ophuls will be on the way, as I have some of his biggest European films to get to yet in the near future. But for the time being, I highly recommend The Reckless Moment, and promise more on this great director soon to come.

(Rating: 9/10)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

#411: The Black Cat

Directed by: EDGAR G. ULMER
1934, TSPDT Rank #987

How I ever got so lucky to watch and review not one but TWO masterpieces in the same day is beyond me. I almost hope I get to review something I consider terrible in the near future so that any new readers don't think I write exclusively in hyperbole. However, you can trust that I am a discerning viewer (see reviews of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the archives), and that I really do mean it sincerely when I call a film a masterpiece. Anyhow, on with the review.

The Black Cat is by far my favorite of the '30s Universal horror films that I've seen so far. And what's more, it seems to be basically unknown to the majority of viewers, save the more serious film buffs (including myself, I suppose). It far surpasses the two most famous films of this group, Dracula and Frankenstein, but however, the respective stars of those films (Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) share the screen together here - and with very great success. The chemistry between all of the actors, especially the two leads, is nothing short of miraculous. Edgar G. Ulmer's direction of this brilliant, twisted material is just perfect - the pacing seamless, and all of the insane plot twists advanced with delicate subtlety - which makes the material all the more potent. Watching this today, and knowing it was made it the 1930s, would cause most to assume it was a pre-code film, but shockingly enough - it wasn't! Pay attention during the entire climax and final encounter between Karloff and Lugosi, and marvel at the fact that The Black Cat was passed with no argument by the ultra-conservative Hays Code. How that ever happened, I have no clue, but I guess it just adds another layer to the mystique this bizarre gem has already built up for itself. So if you happen to watch this film, consider yourself one of the lucky ones - you will have just watched one of the great early American horror films.

(Rating: 10/10)

#410: Shane

1953, TSPDT Rank #266

Shane is a masterpiece of its genre - and quite likely the quintessential American western. The classic and simple plot of homesteaders standing up against a ruthless cattle baron is elevated to a towering allegorical fight between the ultimate good and evil. Both groups have an equally effective representative - Alan Ladd's titular character radiates strength, courage, and all that would be considered good; while Jack Palance's Wilson should be on the short list of character portrayals that are closest to evil. Whenever he is on screen, the threat of pure evil just oozes off the screen. This might be the classic western by which to judge all others, because it fully embodies the myth of the American West from almost every aspect, from its characters, to its depiction of the old-fashioned black-and-white morals, to the striking, perfect gunfight that closes the film. The staggeringly stunning cinematography paints a gorgeous and definitive picture of how the old frontier was and still is thought of in our collective psyches - as a rich, beautiful land where freedom is for the taking and the possibilities are limitless. In other words -the Promised Land. So if you look to this film for character nuance and subtle grit, you will be missing the almost biblical proportions it takes the western to. It has many flaws when you get down to its finer points - but in all the ways that matter, this is a flawless western classic.

(Rating: 10/10)