Monday, July 01, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—Seeing the first two Universal Frankensteins virtually back to back has convinced me once and for all that the sequel is much the better picture, brimming with strange and wonderful ideas: Mary Shelley herself telling the tale to her husband Percy and Lord Byron in the setup frame, a zany new mad scientist who grows miniatures that he keeps in glass jars, the monster learning to speak and wanting a wife, Elsa Lanchester's face as framing device. It is at once scarier (though perhaps less shocking) and more fun and way more funny than the first. Stone classic.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)—Nice to see again after a long while, one of the first I stayed up to watch on late night TV. Some of the shock scenes and the especially the menacing soundtrack tended to bring me right back there. The Universal formula usually included a tortured Promethean aspect to its monsters, a cursed spawn of hell taint, and interior knowledge of their own hideousness and/or depravity, and here the highly intelligent fish-man, who appears to have breeding on his mind and his mind on breeding, eventually wiggles into the slotted tragic role more or less. Not altogether convincing and so something of a weak entry by and large, but a prize nostalgia item to revisit, at least this time.

Dracula (1931)—Happy to find that the Universal horror box has both the English and Spanish versions, which were shot on the same sets (even using the same marks!) but with different casts and crews. The English version, with Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning, is the one I know from TV late shows. The Spanish version, directed by George Melford, is nearly 30 minutes longer, though still well under two hours, and probably the better picture. But it does not have Lugosi. Both versions are rather soporific affairs, to be plain about it (I often fell asleep as a kid trying to stay up late for it). But they are also capable of amazing shots, memorable points, and terrific moments in the service of a really creepy story.
The Elephant Man (1980)
Frankenstein (1931)—So many curiosities to this: it's remarkably short, at 70 minutes, though often quite slow, and blatantly senseless on certain plot points. The only scary thing about it is the monster, with Boris Karloff playing it through a ton of makeup. Yet the monster is so iconic at this point, and his image still has such power to thrill, that all weaknesses are easily forgiven. Whale's sly humor is already evident I think in Colin Clive's performance as the mad scientist Frankenstein (first name changed from Victor in Mary Shelley's novel to Henry). Visually powerful, and with a few interesting notions as well. Nice to see again after a very long while.
Gates of Heaven (1978)—Profoundly flawed but so alive to its strengths, so confident that it has hold of something real (at the same time not knowing what to do with it), it's mesmerizing, weird, not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, but infinitely fascinating. Almost as if accidentally great.
The Godfather: Part II (1974)—No denying the strengths of this—it's dark, beautiful, sickening, and so well appointed. For a movie that lasts over 200 minutes it really flashes by. But a misunderstanding I noted at the Wonders in the Dark blog helped clarify my problems with it again. Someone said their favorite scene in the original Godfather was when Michael closes a door in Kay's face. Someone else gently reminded the first person that that scene occurs in Part II. The first person then gently pointed out to the second that he had actually been talking about the famous ending of the first. But a door in Kay's face does recur in Part II, and it's one of the most effective scenes in it.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—Good John Ford, a reasonably good adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, a modulated performance from Henry Fonda, outstanding photography by Gregg Toland, and altogether an interesting consideration of the American Dream, in progress—there's a lot of reasons to return to this periodically because there's a lot to get from it.
High Plains Drifter (1973)—This stands out to me still in Clint Eastwood's long career (as both performer and director) for being less a Western and more a horror movie, ghost story division, and reasonably effective at it. Actually one of my favorites directed by him.
Iron Man (2008)—First time seeing and I liked it quite a bit, which surprised me. Robert Downey is just aces, and for once a superhero movie solves the problem I usually have with them, namely the costumes, and solves it by making the costume such a critical part of everything. Iron Man never ranked high on my list of comic book favorites but this reinvention, with a post-9/11 origin story, scrambled that a lot. Might be my favorite superhero movie of all, though admittedly that's not saying much.
Joe Kidd (1972)—With a screenplay by Elmore Leonard, and with Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and John Saxon in the cast, there's plenty to enjoy here. I liked all the hard edges it has, admired Duvall's eat-everything-alive performance, and found John Saxon's Mexican revolutionary vaguely comical but ultimately convincing. Clint Eastwood does his usual thing. Worth a look.
The Leopard Man (1943)—Second time with this wonderful 66-minute Val Lewton production, directed by Jacques Tourneur. They seem to get better the more I see them, certainly this one did. Some great suspenseful and mysterious moments, and a nice treatment of Cornell Woolrich.
Looney Tunes roundup prompted by ponying up for the box set (on sale!) of the first six volumes of the Golden Collection, which is massive at over 300 cartoons, though still incomplete—"Ballot Box Bunny" (1951), "Baseball Bugs" (1946), "Big Top Bunny" (1951), "Boobs in the Woods" (1950), "Bug House Bunny" (1950), "Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears" (1944), "Bully for Bugs" (1953), "Deduce, You Say" (1956), "Dough for the Do-Do" (1949), "Drip-Along Daffy" (1951), "Duck Amuck" (1953, the Daffy Duck masterpiece), "Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century" (1953), "The Ducksters" (1950), "Elmer's Candid Camera" (1940, Elmer Fudd and a Bugs prototype in basically the right relationship, but otherwise way out of focus), "Fast and Furry-ous" (1949, I think when all is said and done that Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote may provide the best pure physical comedy from Warner Bros. cartoons, which is saying a lot; this is their first encounter), "Golden Yeggs" (1950), "High Diving Hare" (1949, with Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, the one that made me laugh the hardest of all these), "Long-Haired Hare" (1949, with exquisite poetic slapstick; Chuck Jones: "I think you must learn—if you're in any filmmaking—you must respect the single frame. And there are twenty-four of those per second. If you don't respect that single frame you're in the same boat with a musician who does not respect an eighth note or a sixteenth note or a thirty-second note or whatever. You have to find the smallest unit and you have to love it and believe that one will make a difference. One frame to me will make the difference between whether the thing's funny or not"), "My Bunny Lies Over the Sea" (1948), "Porky Chops" (1949), "Rabbit Fire" (1951, first of the so-called Hunting Trilogy, the rest unfortunately scattered across this set, not even in order), "Rabbit of Seville" (1950), "Rabbit Seasoning" (1952, second of the Hunting Trilogy, but the first encountered in the box), "Rabbit's Kin" (1951), "Scaredy Cat" (1948), "The Scarlet Pumpernickel" (1950), "Wabbit Twouble" (1941), "Water, Water Every Hare" (1952), "The Wearing of the Grin" (1951), "What's Up Doc?" (1950), "Yankee Doodle Daffy" (1943)
Man on Wire (2008)—Nice documentary of a great story and an amazing stunt: in 1974, tightrope walker Philippe Petit managed to stretch a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center twin towers and spend a morning walking it. One wishes for more and better photography of this event, but the people behind the deed were otherwise preoccupied that day and what's here is plenty good enough, if only by suggestion, and the film's knowing haunting by a pair of buildings.
Night Moves (1975)—Saw this when new but mostly lost on me then. I gather it is a little derided by some for having existential pretensions? But I didn't see it that way at all. I thought it was a nice riff on the Ross Macdonald style, the hard-boiled private eye lost in small tragedies of fractured families. Melanie Griffith and James Wood are impossibly young but very good. Gene Hackman is stellar, and Jennifer Warren is good too. The story ends with more of a bang than whimper, which is unfortunate because it seems to be more intent on setting up the whimper. But that's just a nit. This is definitely worth seeing and seeing again. In fact, I'm already looking forward to it.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—Jean Arthur: "I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me." See Rio Bravo below.
The Quiet Man (1952)—Maybe it's something about my mood the day I saw it, but this sure looked like one of Ford's best, up there (for me) with My Darling Clementine and The Grapes of Wrath. John Wayne is as likable as I've ever seen him, Maureen O'Hara is a pure pleasure, and it's a story with many nuances and curves, handled expertly. Too much occasion for too much Irish-laced malarkey, of course, but that can't be much of a surprise to anyone. It certainly wasn't to me.
Rio Bravo (1959)—Angie Dickinson: "I'm hard to get—you're going to have to say you want me." See Only Angels Have Wings above, and also recall Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not: "I'm hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask me." All Howard Hawks pictures with screenplays at least co-written by Jules Furthman.
Seinfeld (s8, 1996-1997)—Good stuff, always.
7 Women (1966)—I had to go to YouTube to see John Ford's last movie, which has many of his trademarks but in a kind of alternative universe of Depression-era China. Instead of cowboy galoots, it's Chinese bandits. There's a round of "Shall We Gather at the River," but it's sung by youngsters under the care of missionaries. There's smokin' and drinkin' and there'd be swearin' if it was 1968 instead of 1966, but all that is mostly done by Anne Bancroft, a flinty and practical nonbeliever physician with a heart of gold and no patience for fools. The picture is short but packs a surprise wallop at the end too. Worth tracking down. (See it here.)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)—This looks great, and obviously bears any number of John-Ford-related strengths, but it didn't actually seem to me to have that much going on.
Sleeper (1973)—I looked forward to seeing this Woody Allen comedy again—don't think I'd seen it more than once, and that was back when it was new—but it mostly struck me as clunky. The banana peel bit is great, and I remembered that I learned how to apply shaving lotion from this movie. But wow is that Woody Allen character smug and annoying. Disappointing.
Snow Angels (2007)—Downbeat story about tangled lives in a Pennsylvania town in the winter, directed by David Gordon Green. Sam Rockwell is remarkable, and in general everybody is keeping up. I loved all the exteriors with snow. Beautiful and dreary. Story not that interesting, however.
La Societe du Spectacle (1973)—Guy DeBord's Situationist documentary is dense with heavily signifying images lifted from everywhere (magazine spreads, TV news, pornography, Hollywood movies, etc.), which play against a droning narrative equally dense with ideas. An interesting enough historical document, and the ideas seem to be on the right track, even prescient, but you're going to need a cup of coffee to get through it and hope for anything out of it. I found it mostly annoying, sometimes maddening, but could well look again one day.
Still Life (2006)—Very nice low-key Chinese picture about the various dislocations of modern life, effectively using a giant civil engineering project (Three Gorges Dam) as context. It may not sound as interesting as it is, but the cryptic stories of spouses in search of partners from whom they've been separated carry the momentum well.
That's Entertainment! (1974)—Better than I expected—in fact, really good—probably because I have more appreciation for musical production numbers now, which had caused me to avoid this until now.
They Were Expendable (1945)—Overlong ho-hum John Ford World War II movie (Pacific theater division, PT boat section), which probably would have been better streamlined by a half hour or so. As it is, not bad. It's John Ford.
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)—Shirley MacLaine is very beautiful here, almost distractingly so, even as the screenplay is busy playing hide the salami with its various lame secrets. Still, I thought I detected real chemistry between Clint Eastwood and MacLaine, a natural assurance about telling the story (Don Siegel directed), and a steady succession of interesting scenes. Worth seeing for various reasons, but not exactly a strong candidate on its merits.
Wagon Master (1950)—Someone I read somewhere argued for this being underrated, which set the frame for me when I finally got a chance to look. There is something both decidedly minor and strangely aesthetic about it. It reverts easily to pro forma John Ford sequences (pilgrims singing hymns, yahoos rousting about, etc.). But the Mormon angle is interesting and there's the feel of a European art film to it. I already want to see it again.
Young Frankenstein (1974)—Had not seen this in a very long time. The parody now seems a bit thin, and it might be marred a little by some unnecessary crudities, but the black and white look of it and especially Gene Wilder's performance insulate it from all criticism. I think it's a great one, the best ever by Mel Brooks.

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