In 1961 a young Jewish kid from Minnesota burst onto the Greenwich Village music scene with lyrics put to music unlike any ever heard before. In the documentary No Direction Home, legendary director Martin Scorsese, who previously filmed him before with his band The Band in The Last Waltz, takes us through Bob Dylan's explosive creative stage from this point up until 1966 when he went electric. We briefly go through his childhood and young adult years where we see the eclectic music that inspired him. We then go on to see how Dylan dropped out of college, ventured to New York and developed songwriting and musical skills seemingly out of nowhere (we wonder when he jokes about selling his soul to the devil similar to the Robert Johnson stories). We see how he met his hero Woody Guthrie in the hospital, and contemporaries such as Joan Baez, Allen Ginsburg, and Pete Seeger as well as Dylan himself take us through this extremely infuential musical period, during which we are shown concert clips of a tumultuous 1966 electric concert in England. Scorsese utilizes mass amounts of stills and footage, and the result is a wonderful portrait of a complex songwriting legend.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Monday, May 30, 2011
A young projectionist sits in his booth reading a book detailing the craft of detective work, hoping to one day leave his current profession to become a private sleuth. After his shift, he buys some small gifts for his girlfriend. When he arrives at her house, he is soon framed by a rival suitor for stealing a necklace and is prohibited from seeing her again. Returning to his job dejected, he falls asleep during the feature and leaps onto the screen becoming the hero of the detective story in which his dream girl and his rival are players. Sherlock, Jr. showed the genius of the silent clown Buster Keaton where he jammed a narrative full of inspired comic gags into a 45 minute movie. His delightful gem of a movie inspired countless whimsical filmmakers, most clearly Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, and cemented Keaton's status as one of the most talented movie maker of the silent era, even if it is not fully realized today.
In 1984 Wes Craven started his Freddy Krueger franchise with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which spawned countless sequels and knockoffs and influenced a generation of horror filmmakers, mostly for the worst. Like many of its subsequent films which it influenced, it takes an interesting premise and totally squanders it through tacky effects and overuse of gore as well as unbelievable and uninspired follow through. The story opens with a teenage girl awakening from a nightmare in which the severely burned and knife clawed Freddy was chasing her. She soon realizes that all her friends are dreaming of the same person and before she can do anything about it, she is brutally murdered in her sleep, seemingly by no one. As other friends begin to be killed, young Nancy begins to unravel the sinister mystery behind Freddy Krueger and fight to stop him before its too late. As mentioned, Craven had a a good idea here for his movie, but the execution is lacking and often makes no sense. The dream rules established in the film are often broken and Freddy comes and goes at will. The film does do a good job setting mood but it often resorts to cheap gore and scare tactics instead of earning its boo moments, while employing cringe inducing dialogue. It is also the debut film of Johnny Depp who delivers a bland performance which serves as a sign of things to come and makes you wonder what anyone saw in this young thespian. Despite its immense success, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a misfire that has been mistaken for being inspired.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Buster Keaton was one of the great comics of the silent era of the cinema. Known for his stoneface, his deadpan delivery, and his daring stunts done without doubles (in the climax of this film, he performed a daring waterfall rescue which seems impossible and almost cost him his life). He was beloved by millions, and many current film aficianados claim his skills to be superior to Chaplin's. Yet, somehow he is largely unseen by today's viewers. His Our Hospitality tells of a young man in the early 1800s being informed that he has an inheritance and must travel to his father's southern home to claim it. During the tumultous train ride he falls for a young woman. Upon arriving he has dinner at the girl's home only to realize that he is in the house of a rival family who has engaged in a blood feud with his own family for generations (the family's are the Canfields and McKays like the Hatfields and McCoys). The girl's brothers now intend to kill him, but not while he is a guest in the house, according to their father's insistance on being hospitable. This is a set up for many a gag in which Keaton tries to quietly remove himself from the premisis without garnering attention. Our Hospitality is a delightful silent film depending on superb setup and timing. Film lovers would find it in their interest to check out this or any other Buster Keaton film at their dispense.
Monday, May 23, 2011
In 1969 John Wayne won his sole Acadamy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn, a slovenly one-eyed U.S. Marshall in the enormously sucessful True Grit which spawned a sequel featuring Katharine Hepburn as well as a largely successful recent retread by The Coen Brothers. I don't wish to compare both films here except for saying that although Jeff Bridges portrayal was wonderful and probably more precise as to what a slovenly U.S. Marshall should be, the role belongs to The Duke who originally established it with his massive presence and charsima. The story revolves around Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) whose father is murdered in cold blood. She hires Cogburn, a man she believes possesses grit, to track the killer across dangerous country where they are in turn joined by La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), a Texas Ranger seeking a bounty on the same man. True Grit was directed by Henry Hathaway and seems to be an inclusive adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. It is filmed in glorious technicolor, while containing hokey elements associated with like films of the time. Stars Darby and Campbell are both weak as actors but effectual in their roles. It is also interesting to see Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper in early roles. What makes the film special is the rousing final 30 minutes of the picture and Wayne's unforgettable commanding performance.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
5/22/10 review Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis was both a prime example of German Expressionism and the father of the science fiction film, particularly the futuristic Sci-Fi films. It is Lang's vast and imagined skylines which are the true stars of his silent masterpiece. Seen now, they seem inconceivable at the time, along with a lot of the other sets in the movie. The story is strange indeed as it tells the story of the son of an industrial magnate who falls in love with some kind of supernatural woman of the workers, and then leads a worker's revolt. This had long been an incomplete film as the original had been destroyed and the film had to be reconstructed. Recently, a full but damaged print was found and 25 minutes were added to the movie, making clear a few of the subplots. I'm not sure this has helped the film as it makes it a tad overlong, but it can be sure that Metropolis remains an intricate, intriguing, and beautiful film.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
A couple is out for dinner after the wife has had an argument with her boss. The next day, the police are serving a warrant and arresting her for murdering her employer. Her husband, a professor at a community college in Pittsburgh, labors tirelessly for 3 years to see to her release all the while raising their young son by himself. When all options appear exhausted, he begins to labor tirelessly at devising a plan to break her out. Then, she learns that all her appeals are exhausted and will be moved to a penitentiary from the local holding facility. This forces him to put his plan action immediately. The Next Three Days is an intense thriller from writer/director Paul Haggis which could serve as a how to escape prison video. When the professor makes his decision, the film becomes extremely intense and engaging and the escape itself bumps things up a couple notches. Russell Crowe does fine work again, Elizabeth Banks is adequate as his wife, and I really liked Liam Neeson who only appears for about five minutes as a professional prison escapist.
sidenote: I hate to give Pittsburgh credit for anything, but with The Dark Knight Rises filming there, it looks like a really cool city to film and I look forward to that one with even greater anticipation.
Two angels sit atop of Berlin, where they take in the thoughts of the many walking below. They also walk among them, offering reassurance or maybe some kind of intangible presence. One of the angels expresses a desire to feel human emotions or even experience the basic human senses. When he meets a young trapeze artist, he decides to trade in eternity in order to spend the rest of his life with her. Wim Wenders ethereal film is a magnetic film experience, really unlike any other I've ever had. This isn't really a plot driven film, we just intake what the angels do, as we hear the ramblings of the the citizens of Berlin. In addition to meeting the angels and the circus girl, we also meet Peteir Falk playing himself as he is filming a Holocaust movie and discusses how he himself used to be an angel and can sense the presence around him. The film is gloriously shot as well, both in class black and white and beautiful color. The great German actor Bruno Ganz is wonderful as the angel Damiel who trades in his wings and walks the streets in a pimp suit with not a nickel in his pocket and a huge smile across his face. Wings of Desire is a true original that defies standard cinema and provides a truly unique film going experience.
The infamous French gangster Jacques Mesrine's life can be summarized in the first scene of the film, which acts as a window into the complicated, violent, and principled man: Mesrine is serving for in the armed forces in Algeria in 1959. While interrogating a suspect, the man's sister is brought in and he still remains uncooperative. Mesrine is instructed by his senior officer to shoot the sister, but he instead turns the gun on the man being questioned. From then on Mesrine returns home to Paris to live with his loving parents. After working a while at a respectable job, he is introduced into a flashy life of crime by his friend and soon takes it up entirely, working for a mob boss and pulling burglaries and robberies. Soon, he is forced to leave the country and is picked up and sentenced to prison in Canada, where he is forced to follow through on his word that "no prison can hold Jacques Mesrine." Mesrine: Killer Instinct is a rollicking gangster picture and an acting showcase for Vincent Cassel. Mesrine's exploits are simultaneously exciting and off putting and is made all the more perplexing due to the fact that Mesrine himself actually wrote this less then flattering account. In addition to Cassel's stellar work there is also a fine performance by the great French actor Gerard Depardieu. Killer Instinct is a fine entry to the gangster genre, a genre which seems to have been lacking lately and I look forward to the second half of this story.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Sunday, May 8, 2011
When reviewing war films, Roger Ebert often likes to quote Francois Truffaut as a segue into his critique by saying, "it's not possible to make an anti-war film because all war movies end up making war seem like fun." I've never really understood this quote because all the war movies that I consider great, such as The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, and Apocalypse Now depict war as harrowing and nothing even close to resembling fun. However, after watching The Dirty Dozen I think I understand what kinds of films Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Ebert were referring to. This film is a hight concept film and essentially just a rollicking good time. Lee Marvin stars in a fine performance as a tough as nails (what else?) major with a spotty service record who is assigned to a top secret mission: take 12 soldiers from a U.S. army prison, all who have committed serious crimes, some who have death sentences, and break into a heavily guarded French chateau used by German officers as a respite spot, killing as many as possible. The men are all a ragtag group who aren't as bad as purported and eventually and expectedly start to work together and make a formidable force. For 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a pretty tough film that moves at a nice pace. The cast is a virtual who's who of tough guys including Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes (great as a psychopath in Academy Award nominated performance), George Kennedy, Donald Sutherland, and Ernest Borgnine. There is a plodding and unnecessary segment in the middle where the dozen plays war games against a rival officer's squad to show their worth that could have been left out, but the opening recruiting segment, the training sequence, and especially the daring raid at the end are spectacular. The Dirty Dozen is an exciting war film that provides evidence supporting Truffaut's assertion.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
"Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels."
For the movie going public during the years of The Great Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers must have been a breath of fresh air. Going to their movies, you would never know that hard times upon us. They're films were lighthearted fares bristling with charm and humor, great songs, and of course the dancing. When people argue over their greatest films, its usually a tossup between Top Hat and this film and Swing Time is a fine candidate. It opens with dancer and gambler John "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire) giving a knockout performance and skipping the curtain call to rush off to his wedding. Fearing his company will falter, Pop (Victor Moore) and the rest of the crew scheme to have Lucky miss his big date. When he finally arrives to the empty house for the ceremony, his soon to be father-in-law says that when he returns a success from New York with $25,000, he can have his daughters hand. Barely catching the train with Pop, he meets Penny (Rogers) who just so happens to be a dance instructor. The two don't exactly hit it off and he actually gets her and her coworker Mabel (Helen Broderick, a playmate for Pop) fired, but soon they find each other dancing the biggest nightclub and falling for each other, causing Lucky to reconsider his engagement. Swing Time was directed by George Stevens, considered and great director and known for more serious fare like Giant and A Place in the Sun. Maybe he gives the film the steady hand it needs although when you get down to it Swing Time is simply just a lot of fun. The music is catchy, Moore and Broderick are a hoot in the roles, and Rogers and Astaire are truly affable in the leads. What takes the cake though is the dancing, which seems to defy the laws of physics (I read that over 300 hours of dance practice went into making the film). Swing Time did not only act as an uplift to the struggling masses of the 30s. At least in my sake, it caused me to leave my worries at the door as I witnessed the magic of Fred and Ginger maneuvering about the dance floor.
Elia Kazan was a brilliant filmmaker who brought a sense of realism to the movies and had a strong emphasis on acting, so much so that he was one of the cofounders of The Actor's Studio in New York. However he was a rigid sort and with each success he acheived, he found himself more perturbed and uneasy. Then during the HUAC hearings in the early 50s, he was pressured into testifying against leftist colleagues, something he did which led to him becoming a social pariah and also the best, most personal work of his career. A Letter to Elia isn't so much a biography of Kazan as much as it is what the title says it is: a letter, that of appreciation. The epistle is from Martin Scorsese, another master filmmaker who wrote, directed, and narrates this film. Scorsese takes us through his own life as a child, growing up in a rough part of New York, and finding his only refuge at his neighborhood church and theater where he discovered the films of Kazan. He noticed that the people in his film's looked like people he knew, not glamorized Hollywood types. He also said that Kazan's films stirred feelings in him he didn't know he had or didn't understand. Ultimately, he states how the films of Kazan made him want to make films of his own. Scorsese takes us through both his and Kazan's life while also dissecting On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and Wild River, three films that influenced him immensely. It is such a pleasure to watch such a knowledgeable, gifted master of film pay tribute to another and Scorsese does so wonderfully and graciously, a fine tribute from one great to another.
This was a short that played after the film, and is a tribute by those who knew the legendary director well. The reflections are surprisingly candid, providing insight on the demanding and brilliant man while offering takes on his work, personal life, and controversies. Interviewees include Acting Studio members (Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, and Alec Baldwin), actors who worked with him (Robert De Niro (The Last Tycoon), Eli Wallach (Baby Doll), and Lois Smith (East of Eden)), an assistant director (Ulu Grosbard (Splendor in the Grass)), a journalist who had written on his life (Patricia Bosworth), and his wife (Frances Kazan).