Sunday, February 28, 2010

Film Review: I Live In Fear

"I Live In Fear" **** (out of ****)

Recently I've been going through a Jean-Pierre Melville/ Akira Kurosawa kick. And, as far as kicks go, few are better. My goal has been to see every Kurosawa film made from "Rashomon" (1950), his first international success, onwards. I am currently two films away from achieving that goal. Many of these films are lesser known titles such as this one. When we think of the great Japanese filmmaker our minds instantly recall "Rashomon", "Seven Samurai" (1954) and his countless other masterpieces from the 1950s. But these beginning films in Kurosawa's career are worth watching and no film lover should go without seeing them.

It sort of goes without saying, but, I'll say it anyway. First of all, I'm someone who believes in the "auteur theory", the idea that certain filmmakers have an immediate recognizable style which can be detected from their use of camera, lighting, or themes. As a result of this, I find the more films I see by a particular director, the more I understand their work. I believe if you watch most director's work, in chronological order, you will notice changes in their work. You will begin to notice a certain maturity and development of style. You will see them grow as artists. This has been my experience with filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Bela Tarr, two directors whose films I have seen all of. And now I'm starting to understand Kurosawa better.

For years I have known that Kurosawa was not as respected in Japan as he was in America. His films were considered "too Western" as oppose to the work of Yasujiro Ozu. But I couldn't figure out why. Now I understand. After watching "Stray Dog" (1949) and "Drunken Angel" (1948), two of his better known early films, it all makes sense. While both of those movies are good, they are really "good American" noir films. They are very stylish and clearly show talent on Kurosawa's part, but, I can see why Japanese audiences couldn't relate. The films do in a small way address topical problems, well, "Stray Dog" does anyway, but the look and feel of the films stem from a typical American product. I would be very surprised if Kurosawa was not influenced by American films when he made those two. And that is what makes "I Live in Fear" (1955) so special. Here we have a distinctly "Japanese" film yet its theme is universal.

The title of the film pretty much gives everything away. We follow Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), a man who is afraid to live in Japan due to the threat of atomic warfare. He wants to move his family to Brazil. His children think he is crazy and unstable. They refuse to leave and take him to a domestic court to have him declared unfit, as a result he would no longer be in charge of finances.

Given the year the film was made we should be able to see how a film such as this would be able to resonate with a 50s audience. Of course Japan was the victim of the atomic bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Combined, some reports have suggested, 140,000 deaths were the immediate results of the attack, not to mention deaths due to radiation, some reports suggest it is still in the air. And of course for an American audience the 50s represented the "Cold War" where the threat of war loomed daily. So the fears of the character were not unlike the fears of everyday people.

The movie has a message about society and man's inability to live in peace and desire to destroy. In some ways I thought of another master work by Kurosawa, "Dodes'ka-den" (1970), which I have also reviewed. Here though, Kurosawa, for what seems to be the first time, is making a "Japanese" film. He is addressing the concerns of the homeland.

What I also find interesting about the film is how a sort of generation gap is presented. The people representing the court are older men, and one in particular takes sympathy with Nakajima, a dentist, Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura). He can understand these fears but the younger people do not. We are all going to die anyway they say. Why move. They are beginning to settle. They are starting their careers. But many have left and headed to South America.

If a viewer finds they are unable to relate to the fears of the main character, I would suggest thinking back to September 11th. After the attack there was a fear that it would happen again. The big question was when. Keep that in mind when watching the film.

And I have to say sometime about Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's most frequent collaborator, in total they worked on 15 films together. He was such a versatile actor. He is perfectly able to flesh out this character. It doesn't feel cliche. It could have been. But both he and Kurosawa make this man a human being. And it is amazing how Mifune transforms himself.

The film was nominated for the palme d'or at Cannes and too bad it didn't win or receive more award nominations. I think this is one of Kurosawa's great films.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Film Review: Dodsworth

"Dodsworth" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

It's rare to see a Hollywood movie so knowing about human behavior, especially a film made in 1936. And that is why William Wyler's "Dodsworth" (1936) is such an endurable masterpiece and what gives it an edge over other films.

The film follows a middle aged couple; the Dodsworths. Sam (Walter Huston) has built his own auto company which has just been bought by a big Detroit auto company. His wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton) wants to travel to Europe and experience new things.

The couple's love is put to the test, in the most direct ways for a production code film. We know all we need to about this couple's marriage. Fran is worried about growing old. She is a heartless selfish whore. She constantly complains that she married too young, not to mention that Sam, we are lead to believe, is older than her. Fran wants to be seen as young and youthful. A woman men can lust after. She's not ready for that rocking chair just yet. And Europe is the place she feels will make her feel like a desirable woman again.

Sam on the other hand is learning to settle into old age. Now that he has retired he wants to learn to take pleasure in life and relaxation. Of the two characters Sam is the more sympathetic one. Now, that could be because I'm a man, and I have a male's perspective. It would be interesting if one of my female friends saw this movie and gave me their take. Regardless, I think Wyler is on Sam's side. He is not the one jeopordizing the marriage. Still, the film makes us understand Fran's point of view, even though we reject it and see her for what she is.

As soon as the couple head out on their cruise to London we can instantly see how this dyamic is going to play out. Fran is immediately taken by a young Englishmen, Capt. Lockert (a small role for a young David Niven). Sam clearly sees how the two flirt, but, lets Fran partake in her folly. Once they reach other destinations; France, Austria, the situations become worst.

"Dodsworth", which was based on Sinclair Lewis' novel, and adapted by Sidney Howard (who wrote "Gone with the Wind" (1939) seems to understand people so well. It is also able to show us the worst in people in realistic ways. Fran and Sam and even Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) a lonely American traveler living in Italy, all seem realistic. Never boring cliches. They respond almost the way we might in their situations. Needless to say, the acting in the movie is incredible.

I find it somewhat strange that William Wyler would direct such a movie. Wyler is a great director. He was nominated 12 times for the "Best Director" Oscar winning the award on three occassions; "Ben-Hur" (1959), "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), incidentally, all three also won the "Best Picture" Oscar as well. But the movie doesn't feel like one of his usual films. It isn't as romantic as "Wuthering Heights" (1939) or "Roman Holiday" (1953). It has a harder edge to it.

But that isn't a criticism. Wyler handles the material well. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one for "Best Art Direction". It had some tough competition that year with titles such as " San Francisco" (1936), "Libeled Lady" (1936), "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1936) and the eventual Oscar winner, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) all nominated that year.

As I said, few Hollywood movies come close to dealing with their material in this direct way for the time period. Perhaps only Ernst Lubitsch's under-rated "Angel" (1937) with Marlene Dietrich comes close. When you think what the production code stood for and what "Dodsworth" gets away with, it is incredible. That might make the movie sound tasteless, but, it isn't. Not at all. Still, bedrock American values are put to the test.

Besides a young David Niven look out for a young John Payne and catch Maria Ouspenskaya's Oscar nominated cameo as Baroness Obersdorf. Also the great Hungarian actor Paul Lukas plays Arnold Iselin.

Film Review: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" **** (out of ****)

Here we are my first movie review in months. What exactly should I have chosen as my first review? It was a tough call. What would have made a worthy comeback? Can any title live up to that task? Would any title seem "important" enough? I don't know but this classic film adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, is just as good as any film to start my reviews.
This version of Robert Louis Stevenson's extremely famous novel "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" probably comes in third in popularity of all the major film adaptations. I'd be willing to bet more people are familar with the 1931 film directed by Rouben Mamoulian starring Fredric March (he won an Oscar for his performance) and/or the 1941 version directed by Victor Fleming starring Spencer Tracy. According to the 1931 has the most votes, followed by the 1941 version leaving this 1920 film in third place. But, that shouldn't be seen as a reflection on the quality of the film. This version, starring John Barrymore in the title role, is simply put, a masterpiece. One of Barrymore's very best performances during the silent era.

I have mentioned Barrymore before on this blog. I've reviewed such titles as "Grand Hotel" (1932) the "Best Picture" Oscar winning masterpiece, the highly enjoyable Carol Lombard comedy "True Confession" (1937) and "Sherlock Holmes" (1922). Barrymore, I would argue was one of the great male stars of the silent era. Probably the best. Unfortunately all of his early films are considered lost. He acted in his first film in 1912 and his work until 1919 is gone. "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" is the earliest screen performance at our disposal. Watching it, should help many realize why Barrymore was such a great actor.

What I love most about Barrymore's performance is the fact he treats both characters, Jekyll and Hyde, as individual characters. Hyde does not become a mere caricature . Barrymore keeps it at a performance level. Each persona is distinct. Barrymore fleshes out each character. If that doesn't impress you, keep in mind another version of this film was also made in 1920. That version starred Sheldon Lewis in the title role and was directed by J. Charles Hayden. On the deluxe KINO DVD excerps are shown from that version. We can see a very clear distinction in each man's approach to the characters. Lewis treats the Hyde character as a campy villian. He doesn't make the character seem real instead sort of a cliche symbol of evil. Barrymore treats it as a soul-less man.

I also, for the first time, felt a great weight of religious undertones to the story. Something I never really came away with before. And finally I love the way John S. Robertson has paced the film. I think it very well may be the best thing Robertson ever directed. He too has been discussed on this blog. I reviewed his "The Single Standard" (1929) which starred another icon of silent films, Greta Garbo. Robertson also directed a Shirley Temple film, "Our Little Girl" (1935) which turned out to be his last film. But Robertson keeps this film moving along quite nicely. Every frame of the film feels necessary. In fact I sort of wish the film was longer. As it stands now it is roughly 77 minutes. The film could have dwelled more on Jekyll's inner conflict as the Hyde character begins to dominate his body.

The rest of the cast is pleasant to watch, consisting of Martha Mansfield as Millicent, Jekyll's true love. And that brings up another point. I wish there were more scenes between Jekyll and Millicent showing how much they loved each other. There is also Brandon Hurst as Sir George Carew (Millicent's father, and the man who tempts Jekyll into his experiment), Charles Lane as Dr. Layon (Jeykll's friend and fellow scientist), George Stevens (not to be confused with the great director, as Poole, Jekyll's butler) and Nita Naldi as Gina (the women who brings out the lust in Jekyll). While all are decent in their roles it is Barrymore who steals the show. He gives the most effective performance in the film.

Some readers my also be interested in knowing this was universally considered one of the first great American horror films. A genre some thought shouldn't be taken serious, too low brow. But, legend has it, Barrymore elevated the genre.

Also on the KINO DVD is a Stan Laurel two reeler comedy spoof, "Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pride" (1925). I am a great admirer of Laurel & Hardy and have seen quite a few of Stan Laurel's solo shorts. This is quite possibily among the best he did. It is a fast moving short with many sight gags and a few humorous title cards. In it, Laurel turns into a prankster instead of an evil villian. Great stuff for comedy fans.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Taste Is Better Than Yours

Or what makes a film snob and how did I become one?

Many months ago I was talking to someone about movies. Comedies actually (my favorite genre). The conversation turned to Laurel & Hardy (my favorite comedy team) to which the person in question said, they didn't like the team very much and hadn't seen all of there films. Without any confrontation or harsh words, I simply stopped talking to that person about films.

In general, I find, I don't like to talk about movies with people. I love movies. I like to think I love all kinds of movies. I watch all different genres; musicals, comedies, horror, drama, romance, foreign...ect. But to actually sit down and talk about movies, with some people, is not something I enjoy. The reason is because I am a "quiet film snob".

You are probably asking yourself what the heck is a quiet film snob? First, lets define snob. According to the 2010 Randon House Dictionary "snob" is defined as such - "A person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field". If you are a film snob, of course, you are of the opinion your taste in films is superior than those of others. In my defense however, I must also point out, everyone I have spoken to, believes they have the best taste. Not just about films but anything; food, clothes, music, books...ect. There's the old saying "everybody's a critic". Everyone has opinions and feels theirs are better than most. But, that still doesn't excuse me.

Yes my dear readers, I think I know more than you. Why? What gives me the right to feel I know more about movies than you? I feel I've seen more than you. Anytime I discuss movies with someone I feel I know more than them. Sometimes, I am willing to concede they might know more about a specific genre, but, overall, it is my opinion I know more about film than most.

But it isn't entirely my fault. When I was in college, I started out as a journalism major. As a result, I mostly associated with other journalism students, none of which shared my love of films. But, in some of my general education classes (math, science), I would meet film majors. At first I took great delight in this. I figured, now finally I'll meet people who share my passion. People who know what I know, or even more! Ladies and gentleman, after I talked with these students it was easily decided I knew more than them. To their astonishment, I wasn't a film major. I slowly began to realize it was pointless to discuss film with people who didn't share my taste. That takes care of the film snob part, but, what about the quiet part?

Most people who are arrogant or conscending might be very vocal about it. They will make sure you understand they are superior to you. I am not like that. In the back of my head I may think I know more than you but I would never say that to a person's face. I'm never confrontational about movies. Some people are. Lets say you are talking about a particular director and say "such and such film" is your favorite. Many people will tell you, you are wrong, that another film is so-and-so's best film. It is just there opinion but they present it as fact. And they mean it! I'm not like that. For example if you think "GoodFellas" (1990) is Martin Scorsese's best film, I don't mind. My personal favorite is "Taxi Driver" (1976) but I'm not going to "correct" you. You can think whatever you want. Just don't tell me I'm wrong to think what I think and I'll return the favor.

That's why I call myself a "quiet film snob". In some ways, people like me are worst. With a vocal snob, you know exactly what they are thinking. With me, you'll never know, because I'll never tell.

But what makes someone a film snob? I can't speak for everyone, but, for me it has to do with a lack of interest in others. When I hear people say "The Sixth Sense" (1999) is the greatest movie they've ever seen or Mike Myers is the funniest man alive, they simply turn me off. I lose respect for that person's opinion. If that is honestly what you think, I feel you simply don't know enough. And if you don't know enough, don't talk to me about movies. The worst offenders are young people. They have such a transparent lack of interest in the history of cinema. So many young people are merely content with only watching movies currently playing in theatres. They have no idea what they are missing. They set-up so many rules. They refuse to watch foreign films because "they don't like to read movies". They won't watch black & white movies simply because they are old. And forget about silent movies. They of course have no sound, and why on Earth would a young person want to watch a movie with no sound?!

Many times I'll hear people say "oh, I love movies". And they if you ask them what movies they like, they will many times only mention movies two or three years old. I don't believe you can call yourself a film lover or movie buff, or whatever, if you only watch comtemporary cinema. I don't care if you saw every movie released in theatres last year, if you don't have an avid interest in the movies of the past, I don't consider you a movie buff. You MUST watch the films of Ingmar Bergman, Rene Clair, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, Luchino Visconti, Claude Chabrol, Charlie Chaplin and many, many others. I don't care if you've seen every Coen Brothers' movie or all of Quentin Tarantino's films, that doesn't really impress me. But, if you've seen all of Marcel Carne's films or Istvan Szabo's, now, we are getting somewhere. That is the mark of someone who is serious about cinema.

But many times it is not a young person's fault. Many people within my age range (I'm 26) may want to watch classic films but don't know where to start. If you are reading this now, maybe you never heard of a single director I just mentioned, but, this doesn't mean you aren't willing to learn more about them. Good for you! But sadly you are in a minority. People today seem to have no time for the past. No one seems interested in classic cinema. I find this very sad. First of all, because, these movies deserve an audience and secondly because, people have no idea what they are missing. I use to go to out of my way to try and discuss every major filmmaker and movie star on this blog. I have written about Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Woody Allen, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Marcel Carne, Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, W.C. Fields and numerous others. If you don't know who these people are, I've just given you a to do list.

With my return to this blog these names will be mentioned again. I'm going to write about all the movies I love. Even though I openly call myself a film snob and despite everything I have said, don't be discourage. If you have a question for me, ask. Want me to tell you a good place to start with a director's work? Or what is the best movie for a particular actor, ask. I'll probably work on lists in the future dealing with these various topics. While I am going to write more about the films I love, I'm writing this blog in hopes of sharing my knowledge with others. I want others to open their minds to all that cinema has to offer and explore these various films. I want to share my passion with you and hope it rubs off and you'll begin to watch these movies and begin to understand that while contemporary cinema has its place nothing is better than watching a classic film. Right now that opinion may upset some young people. But, I hope one day they will agree with me.

I'm Baaaaaaccccckkkkk!

Seen any good movies lately?

As some readers (assuming I still have any left) know, I took a long break from writing film reviews and writing in general. The passion to write left me and the films of the past two years really bummed me out. I found the films of 2008 and 2009 so worthless and pathetic they sucked the joy of cinema right out of me. But I have gotten bit by the movie bug again by doing what I should have always done; just watch the classics. The movies that have inspired countless numbers of filmmakers. The movies that have stayed with us for decades and hopefully will stay with us for decades to come. Nothing can beat the great Hollywood films of the 1920s-40s. Definetely not anything being released today. And if you don't like that opinion, then I'm sorry to say, this blog isn't for you.

This blog cannot go back to the ways things were. Just as the song says "there'll be some changes made". And so there will. The old formate will be disbanded. No more "Masterpiece Film Series", which were roughly every tenth review. No more worries about trying to balance this blog with classic movies and current films. This is MY blog. I'm going to talk about what I want to talk about and the things I enjoy. With any luck, I will find readers who share my opinions and taste for films. Though, I also welcome the idea of people who aren't as familar with films as I am to use my blog to discover new titles. That would actually give me great joy. To know because of this blog I have introduced movies to people. Movies which you may not have otherwise seen, or in some cases, even heard of.

But more classic reviews won't be the only changes. I'm also going to focus more on essays and share more of my thoughts with you. Give you more of an insight into who I am and how I feel about the state of movies and movie fans in general. If I get a positive reaction, I'll keep it up. If I don't, then I'll simply stick to the reviews and keep "myself" out of it. I'll also try some "fun" things, like creating more lists.

This new attempt at the blog will become more personal. More personal in the writing and in the films reviewed. I fully understand as a result of that I may isolate some readers. Not everyone will share my opinions but in the end, I simply have to stay true to myself. This blog should be fun not a daily chore. It was becoming that before. It started to feel like a burden. That is why I needed a break. But now I'm ready to write again. I hope there are still people out there ready to read.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Girl on the Train Trailer

It came to my attention a month or so ago that the official trailer for Andre Techine's wonderful "The Girl on the Train" had been released. To my greatest surprise, I am quoted in the trailer. I have provided a link to the trailer. When I tried to post the trailer onto this blog, it didn't work. The trailer is in HD and only half of it appeared. Also, you can read my full review for the film on this blog.