As an internet-obsessed film fan, I oftentimes frequent a film forum called Reelviews. At the start of April, a boarder there started a thread for a monthly alphabetical challenge, where you have to watch a film you’ve never seen from every letter of the alphabet, as well as one that starts with a number. For someone like myself who is always looking for motivation to watch new films, this challenge represented a great opportunity. I devoted a good portion of this month-long challenge to previously-unseen Criterion releases, so the end result was one perhaps the best stretch of quality films I’ve ever seen. This encouraged me to try it again in May, which has so far yielded more great results, but for now I thought I’d give some small thoughts on all the films I watched in April. I’m splitting these write-ups in half, so Part 1 will consist of the films A-K, while Part 2, to be posted in the next couple of days, will consist of the films L-Z.
39 Steps, The: Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 thriller, simply put, is just terrific fun all around. Robert Donat is effortlessly charming and likeable as the “wrong man,” the average citizen who happens to find himself entangled in a web of intrigue and danger. Hitchcock’s style was still a little raw at the time the film was made, but there are still some standout moments (the cut from a woman about to scream to the whistle of a train is fantastic). The film essentially laid down the groundwork for every subsequent romantic thriller ever made, but very few films of its type have even come close to matching it.
Absence Of Malice: Sydney Pollack’s 1981 newspaper drama, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field. I wanted to like this one a lot more than I actually did. On the plus side, Newman is his usual reliable self, and Melinda Dillon is heartbreaking in a small supporting role. There’s also a nice exploration throughout about journalism responsibility and the ethical issues that arise when the press has direct influence over the lives of people. Unfortunately, Sally Field’s journalist character grows increasingly grating as the film progresses, as she makes one mistake and ill-conceived decision after another. She does gets her comeuppance eventually, which is admittedly satisfying. In the end though, the film is more John Grisham than All The President’s Men. Passable, but not up there among the best newspaper movies.
Bigger Than Life: Nicolas Ray’s satirical look at the dark underbelly of 1950s suburbia. The big reason to check this one out is James Mason, who delivers a fantastically chilling performance as the suburban father slowly unraveling under the influence of the evil drug CORTIZONE (mwa ha ha)! I imagine that this film was seen as fairly radical and subversive when it was first released; I was actually kind of taken aback at how dark the film gets at certain points, although it eventually pulls back at the end for something more artificially optimistic. One can’t help but wonder what Ray would have gone for had the film not been limited by the Production Code. Anyway, it might be one of the first films to pull away that “Leave It To Beaver” curtain and examine the darker aspects of the culture during that time. The impact of the film feels slightly muted in 2012, especially if you’ve already seen similar films like Blue Velvet and Pleasantville, but it’s still an interesting watch.
Blast Of Silence: This 1961 crime drama/noir clocks in at a very brisk 77 minutes. Fittingly, there isn’t a whole lot to say about it. The plot is fairly standard, although there’s some great hard-boiled narration that accompanies everything. The budget is clearly pretty low, although the filmmakers do manage to get appropriately gritty, atmospheric shots of New York City. But to be honest, only a couple weeks after seeing this, I’ve forgotten most of the details. It wasn’t the worst film I saw during the month, but it was perhaps the most unmemorable.
Big Deal On Madonna Street: Mario Monicelli’s 1958 comic take on the heist movie. This one is fantastically enjoyable. It’s basically a feature-length riff on Rififi, except all the thieves are clumsy and nothing ends up going according to plan. The best thing I can say about the film is that I had a big grin on my face from beginning to end. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, and the entire cast deliver the material with pitch-perfect timing (Marcello Mastroianni of 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita fame has a nice supporting role). It’s the kind of film that is almost impossible not to love.
Clean, Shaven: Lodge Kerrigan’s disquieting and disturbing examination of paranoid schizophrenia. Peter Greene, probably best known as Zed from Pulp Fiction, is intense and frightening as a man battling his inner demons while attempting to track down his estranged daughter. Despite being filmed for very little, the filmmakers employ some effectively chilling sound design to create an overpowering atmosphere of dread and despair. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, not because of any specific moments of violence or horror (other than one particular scene), but because the tone of it is so overwhelmingly oppressive. It’s certainly not a film that’s going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective and unnerving examination of mental illness.
Cabin In The Woods, The: Full review here: https://yesthesethingsmatter.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/review-the-cabin-in-the-woods/.
Design For Living: A light and enjoyable comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch. Gary Cooper and Fredric March play two struggling artists who both vie for the attention of the free-spirited Miriam Hopkins. Like many pre-Production Code Lubitsch comedies, the script is filled with great innuendos, some subtle and others not-so-subtle. It also ends in a way that is surprisingly bold and forward-thinking for the time period in which it was made. Overall, I think I prefer the Maurice Chevalier-led The Smiling Lieutenant the best out of Lubitsch’s works, but this one still has its fair share of pleasures.
Devil & Daniel Webster, The: I stumbled across this one in the local library due to the striking Criterion cover art, and I rented it because the synopsis on the back of the case reminded me of that classic Simpsons Halloween episode where Homer sells his soul to the Devil for a donut. After watching the film, it’s pretty obvious where the Simpsons writers got their inspiration. The film itself a fairly basic morality play, where a poor but noble farmer is tempted by the Devil (here played by a very memorable Walter Huston) to sell his soul for riches. The only catch is his contract expires after several years, at which point the Devil will come to collect him. It should come as no surprise that the farmer ends up being corrupted by his newfound wealth and power. When the time finally runs out for him, he enlists the help of a world-famous lawyer to represent him in a trial, in front of the Jury of the Damned. Even though the outlines of the plot are easy to predict, it’s all executed with a certain degree of style and wit. Apparently there was a remake back in 2004 with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, and Jennifer Love Hewitt as the Devil, which just sounds like an unnecessary disaster, especially since the original version still holds up reasonably well.
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask: An early comedy from Woody Allen. The title says it all, really. The film is separated into a series of vignettes, some of which are very funny, some of which miss the mark. For myself, I’m personally onboard with all the vignettes that feature Allen himself; the ones that don’t I find in general less successful. What makes the film interesting the whole way through is that each vignette is a sort of parody of a filmmaking style or genre. So you get a horror vignette where the countryside is terrorized by a giant breast, a period piece vignette where Allen plays a jester attempting to unlock a queen’s chastity belt, and an almost Bergman-esque vignette where Gene Wilder falls in love with a sheep. My favorites are the Fellini-esque vignette about public sex that’s spoken all in Italian, and the closing science-fiction vignette with Allen playing a reluctant sperm. The end result is uneven; there are some great moments, but also moments that are less successful. Seeking out the best bits on YouTube might be the best way to go for this one.
Frankenstein (1931): Not a whole lot to say about this one that hasn’t been said much better elsewhere. It’s obviously great, and for a film that is over 80 years old, it has aged well and still holds quite a bit of power. The opening scene in the graveyard, even though it’s very clearly a studio set, effectively sets the surreal, horrific tone that is present the rest of the film. I love the moment when Dr. Frankenstein, while digging into a grave, shovels dirt right into the face of a statue of the Grim Reaper. What makes it great is that there’s no attempt by the filmmakers to hammer home the metaphorical importance of that gesture. Instead, they let it pass by and trust that the audience caught it. Of course, I also have to mention the classic scene of the monster and girl down by the water. The conclusion of this scene and the subsequent scene where the father carries his dead daughter through the crowded town street are absolutely heartbreaking. Looking over all the Frankenstein films that I have seen, I think I slightly prefer the sequel Bride Of Frankenstein, but it’s almost impossible to find anything negative to say about the original.
Fires On The Plain: A harrowing WWII film from director Kon Ichikawa. Throughout the course of the film, the viewer follows a displaced Japanese soldier as he roams around the barren Philippine landscape. While wandering around, the soldier encounters various sorts of war-related horrors. By the end of the film, soldiers have turned to cannibalism in order to survive. The film is undeniably effective, and the cinematography is frequently breathtaking. It’s one of the prettiest “ugly” films I’ve ever seen. I’m starting to think though that I’ve gotten to the point where this kind of film doesn’t rattle me as much as it should anymore. It doesn’t help that the soldier the viewer follows throughout the film is kind of a dimwit. Whether this can be blamed on shell-shock or the fact that he’s suffering from tuberculosis or something else, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s not exactly the most compelling personality. I ended up admiring this one more than actually loving it, but it’s certainly worth seeing.
Generation, A: Andrzej Wajda’s 1955 debut film about Polish resistance fighters in WWII. Although at some point this may have been seen as a real triumph, looking at it all these years later reveals a somewhat dated production. For one, it’s clearly a propaganda piece, with our main characters constantly spouting off Communist manifestos and singing praises for Karl Marx. It also ends in a way that is fairly hokey and almost naively optimistic. There are individual moments that stand out, particularly a shootout on a spiral staircase, but overall the film is disappointingly forgettable. Apart from Blast Of Silence, this is the most unmemorable film I saw during the month.
Host, The: Joon-Ho Bong’s modern take on the classic monster movies. The film clearly draws inspiration from the classic Gojira, particularly when it comes to the overall environmental message. There’s a nice cameo at the start from Scott Wilson, as an American doctor who orders toxic chemicals to be emptied out into the drainage systems. This leads to the creation of a mutant creature that goes on to terrorize the community. Joon-Ho Bong is a very interesting filmmaker; he made the masterful Memories Of Murder before this one, and the terrific Mother after. This is the weakest film of his I’ve seen, but there’s still plenty of qualities to appreciate. Specifically, like his other films, the tone jumps wildly and frequently, blending in elements of action/adventure, paranoid thriller, tragedy, and even some low comedy for good measure. One of my favorite moments is when a scientist comes in to calm down frightened community members, and he randomly slips and falls down. These kinds of strange, even goofy moments seem to be common in more recent Korean productions, and they’re just a small part of why their films are so interesting and memorable. Like I said before, it’s not my favorite Joon-Ho Bong film; the creature never transcends its obvious CGI appearance, and the ending is surprisingly downbeat and, to be honest, not entirely successful. Nevertheless, it’s frequently arresting and always compelling, and I’m very much looking forward to Joon-Ho Bong’s next film (an English-language production called Snowpiercer, which stars Chris Evens, Jamie Bell, and John Hurt).
Ivan’s Childhood: Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature. Compared to the other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen (Solaris, Stalker, The Mirror), Ivan’s Childhood is a little more reliant on traditional narrative. The film follows a 12-year old boy as he works as a spy for the Russians during WWII, where he frequently goes behind enemy lines. While back in safer territory, he forms a bond with three Soviet officers, who do their best to keep him safe. The obvious thing to say about the film is that it’s gorgeous to look at. Even at the very beginning of his film career, Tarkovsky was far ahead of the pack when it came to crafting memorable, artful images. The narrative, however, lacks the, dare I say it, profound implications of his later works. It’s a fairly basic “horrors of war” film, and you can pretty much guess where the film is going right at the outset. This doesn’t mean that the film isn’t appropriately poignant and elegiac, but, similar to Fires On The Plain, it didn’t have as great an impact on me as it probably should have. Still, while it’s not quite on the same level as Tarkovsky’s later works, it probably is his most accessible and is well worth a watch.
In A Lonely Place: Another Nicolas Ray film, this one set in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart plays a hot-tempered and sometimes-violent screenwriter who is too lazy to read a novel for a potential script project, so he pays a young blonde to tell the story to him. The young blonde eventually turns up dead, but that doesn’t stop Bogie from starting up a romance with his neighbor, played by Gloria Grahame. Even though their relationship starts out strong, Grahame begins to suspect that Bogie, the main suspect in the murder case, is guilty of the crime. Thankfully, even though the film is set in Hollywood, the script keeps the jabs at the movie industry to a minimum, choosing instead to focus on an almost Suspicion-like story of doubt and fear coming between two people. Grahame is very good, but Bogart gives one of the best performances of his career as a man who, even if he didn’t commit the murder, is still very much capable of committing such an act. Overall, a really strong piece of work.
Jigoku: Tatsumi Kumashiro’s influential 1960 horror film, most notable and famous for its visual representation of hell. Ironically, this is the section of the film that I find the most problematic. The first two-thirds of the film, when the characters are in the world of the living, the film is watchable and at times compelling, in a David Lynch sort of way. However, when the characters eventually make their way down into hell, the film turns into a mess. It’s undeniable that there are some unforgettable and breathtaking images in this section. In fact, in general the visual representation of hell is unique and frequently astonishing. Unfortunately, all the visual flair doesn’t really add up to anything interesting. The majority of the final two-thirds consists of random images of violence and ridiculous overacting, and there are moments that actually cross the line into pure camp. As memorable as some of the images are, there is a level of unremarkability about the whole thing. It seems like there was the potential to make a truly great film here, but in the end it’s a missed opportunity.
Killing Zoe: Roger Avary’s 1993 heist film. The film has been compared to Tarantino, and it is true that there are some similarities here. Not much of a surprise really, considering Avary’s association with Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. Eric Stoltz had a small role in that more acclaimed film, and here he plays a character named Zed and basically acts like a red-headed version of Vincent Vega. There are also conversations about The Prisoner and other irreverent subjects. What separates this film from Tarantino’s works is the overall tone. This is a dark, almost nihilistic film; when people die, it’s quick, brutal, and unpleasant. The whole thing has an edge to it, from the gritty cinematography to the grungy music score. Stoltz does makes for an effective anti-hero, and Jean-Hugues Anglade is menacing and unpredictable as the film’s main villain. Julie Delpy is somewhat wasted, but she has a couple especially memorable scenes. Overall, I wouldn’t call this one a pleasant surprise, because in many ways it is a fairly tough watch, but I did think it was more interesting and worthwhile than the 33% Rotten Tomatoes rating suggests.
Films L-Z coming in the next couple of days.