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Lady Windermere's Fan (1925)
Nobody was as savvy about the intricacies of the human heart as Lubitsch, and of how virtue is never an absolute.
This warmly empathetic, highly sophisticated gem is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde, with virtually none of the play's dialog utilized, but as suggestive and outrageous as Wilde himself, conceived, framed and edited as pure cinema.
From the exact same period as Cecil B. DeMille's infinitely more crass sex comedies and Charles Chaplin's equally brilliant and morally ambiguous 'The Woman of Paris', but carried by an indistinguishably European sensibility. Irene Rich as the woman who sacrifices herself in secret is impossibly glamorous and subtle, May McAvoy is truly heartbreaking as the socialite suspicious of her husband's philandering, but Ronald Colman, alas, is left with nothing much to do except smolder sexily at the fringes with those impertinently raised eyebrows.
A highlight is the Ascot game, a marvel of choreography and mime, a delicious baiting of upper class hypocrisy.
I remember how this film feels - vividly. I watched it at age 14 or 15 and was completely overwhelmed by it. Slowmoving, yes, magisterial, but brimming with sensibility and content. After being condemned to the periphery of the film industry after the commercial failure of 'Giliap', director Andersson had a belated and very much deserved international comeback with 'Songs from the Second Floor' and 'You the Living'.
Since then 'Giliap' is among a handful of films that I have been clamoring for on DVD, alongside Resnais' 'Providence', Stroheim's 'Greed', the original 'Island of Lost Souls' etc. etc. And alongside the great masterworks of Swedish director Bo Widerberg. So far, no luck ... Please, give us 'Giliap' on DVD, it remains - I sincerely believe - among the most magical of European films.
Border Incident (1949)
At the outset here, I have to ask, Who cares if this is a film noir or not? If not, does it detract from it? If it is, does that enhance it as a work of art? Of course it doesn't, the debate is arbitrary and nonsensical. It makes no difference. Film noir was not a concept until the 1960's anyway, so the discussion is not only irrelevant, it is decidedly un-academic.
First and foremost, 'Border Incident' is a miraculously involving, dynamic piece of cinema. The voice-overs in the beginning and the one at the end have dated really badly with their flag-waving patriotism and faux-documentary style, but the 75 minutes in the middle are riveting.
Ricardo Montalban and George Murphy are detectives, respectively Mexican and American, with a mission to protect the Mexican braceros, farm workers, who are smuggled over the border and robbed, murdered and dropped in the quicksand, when they come back with money in their pockets. They infiltrate themselves into the the band of cutthroats to stop the trafficking.
The theme is contemporary to us, to say the least. And the way the story is told is relentless, stylish and urgent. It is brilliantly shot, wonderfully lit and edited like no-one's business. And it is tough as nails, there is a gruesome scene involving some farm machinery ... I will not go into details, but you might want to put your kids to bed in time.
A truly great movie, pure cinema. And call it what you want, for all I care. Noir, western-noir, whatever.
The Chase (1946)
A roller-coaster of a noir
Young shell-shocked war veteran (Robert Cummings) finds employment as a chauffeur for gangster kingpin (Steve Cochran) and falls for his mistreated wife (Michele Morgan) with whom he arranges to flee to Havana, Cuba. Once there, she is stabbed and killed, and the chauffeur is framed for the murder.
Don't worry, there are no spoilers in the above which only covers about half of the film! There is much, much more to come, and the surprises are really surprising. This may not be the most coherent of movies (but easily one of the least coherent), but in a feverish, shell-shocked kind of way it makes perfect, nightmarishly perfect, sense. The script, judged from scene to scene, is brilliant and challenging, the acting no less than superb, especially by the sinister couple, Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre. Cochran almost steals the picture as the sadistic gangster, almost a Byronic anti-hero with an immense sadness in him. And Lorre's performance as his jaded, cynical sidekick could not be bettered.
The movie changes pace so many times in its tightly-packed 86 minutes, and you often feel like you are on a roller-coaster. With the couple's flight to Havana the movie becomes heavy with longing, melancholy and heartache, and downright sexiness, and the soundtrack is burgeoning with lush romantic music, steeped in nostalgia. Then Michèle Morgan, shockingly, is killed, and we are led into the maze of a Havana working district where the Cubans actually speak Spanish and not American with a poor Latino accent. These sequences has a distinct authenticity.
One of the great, if also extremely idiosyncratic, noirs.
All Night (1918)
Gorgeous in his PJ's
The young Rudolph Valentino makes all the difference in this pleasant, if not overly inventive comedy of mistaken identities, a French bedroom farce by way of Hollywood 1918.
The story is preposterous, but the basic premise has Rudolph Valentino and the girl he adores, Carmel Myers, play spouses in order to guile their weekend guest, a brutish, rakish, completely insufferable millionaire into sponsoring their good friend's business venture.
There is so much sheer fun in the film that you forgive its shortcomings to a certain stage. I loved the scene in which the millionaire insists that the couple retire to their matrimonial bed, and escorts them to the master bedroom, hearts all a-flutter, cheeks ablaze. He goes so far as to undress Valentino and tuck him in, and you will note that Valentino looks gorgeous in his PJ's. At a point he realizes that no good will come of the venture, and that they will probably all end up with their heads banged in, and he proclaims that he will go upstairs to freshen himself up: "I want to look nice when the ambulance arrives ...". Hilarious.
The Prisoner of Zenda (1922)
"While you're unhung, Rentzau, hell lacks its master"
A retiring English country gentleman, Rassendyll, is mistaken for his distant cousin, King Rudolph of Ruritania. When the king is taken hostage by his jealous brother, Black Michael, Rassendyll agrees to act as the king in the coronation ceremony.
It takes a long time for this version of 'The Prisoner of Zenda' to get moving. The first hour or so is stodgy and less than riveting film-making, and then it gradually picks up momentum, and the last half hour packs a decent punch, especially action-wise. But all in all, a rather more lackluster, even crude entertainment than I had expected after the exhilarating 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse', also by Rex Ingram.
The script is largely at fault, with the scenes so disjointedly put together that it does not in long stretches make a lot of sense. It has the makings of some interesting psychological insights, but does not explore them. I would have made more - MUCH more - out of the fact that for a long while Black Michael seems a pretty decent fellow, genuinely in love with Antoinette and understandably preoccupied about leaving the fate of his country to his feeble-minded brother. But Ingram makes nothing of it and seems curiously uninspired.
The youngish Lewis Stone is an earnest Rassendyll/Rudolph, and sort of holds his own in the climactic sword-fight with, among others, Ramon Novarro. And now we are getting somewhere. This is Novarro's film. He was hardly a star when it was made, and his role does not take up a lot of screen time, but Novarro eats up the scenery with his monocled, slick diabolism. "While you're unhung, Rentzau, hell lacks its master!", Stone says, and right he is. Novarro is pure evil, and a delight to watch.
Wife vs. Secretary (1936)
"I'm the best, aren't I?"
This is a perfect little film, absolutely well-rounded and exquisite. Beautifully scripted, intelligently directed, ebulliently acted.
Clark Gable is the successful publisher, newly married to society lady Myrna Loy who, although very modern and not jealously disposed, begins to suspect that he is carrying on an affair with his bleach-blonde secretary, Jean Harlow. As Gable's mother states, laconically of her son, "You wouldn't blame a boy for stealing a piece of candy".
All fluff, right? Light as air, unsubstantial? Of course it is, it takes masters of their craft to make this plot stick, to make the movie plain unforgettable. Gable was never better, he seems to relish every second he is on screen, and there is none of the masculine stiffness about him that his worst performances have. He is a joy to watch with the always delightful Loy, their scenes together bristle and self-combust, and they are a really sweet, engaging couple. Loy has to be the most sophisticated creature ever to be filmed, she is SO cool and contemporary ("I'm the best, aren't I?", she says with just the slightest sardonic hint.) Harlow isn't given as much to work with, and she has to downplay her sassy sexiness in order not to tip the scales. But she is still almost all Harlow, and they go as far as they possibly could under the Production Code. The scene with Harlow and Gable in the Havana hotel room is all about sex, as we are left in no doubt.
So, watch it and love it. It is as perfect a piece of 30's film-making as you are likely to see.
What an absolutely devastating movie! I am still completely engrossed in it, and it has been a while since I took the DVD out of the player.
Was any science fiction movie ever more ambitious than this one? The staggering opening, tinted in reddish yellow and brilliantly composed in widescreen, looks like Tarkovsky and Lars von Trier, and has the same dry wasteland quality to it. Callous and unpublicized nuclear tests by both the Soviet Union and the US have upset the environment, causing record-breaking heat waves, floods, cyclones, eclipses, and what not, and we gradually find out that Earth has tilted and is hurtling towards the Sun where, in four months' time, the universe will savor "the delightful smell of charcoaled mankind", as put by a cynical newspaperman. The largest nuclear bomb ever made will now be detonated in Siberia, and no one knows what will happen now ... The environmentalist discourse seems extremely contemporary to us today.
Now, how to make intelligent, thoughtful entertainment out of that pulp?! Leave it to writer-director Val Guest who more than rose to the task. He put a heartbroken, newly divorced and slightly alcoholized reporter in the center, working for the London Daily News. He tries, with his science editor and surrogate father, to delve into what went wrong and who is responsible, and he falls in love with a switchboard girl with a cleavage. All this to keep the movie grounded, the drama realistic. All of this naturalistic drama is cross-edited with stock newsreel footage of natural disasters, and it works. It works supremely well, and you are sucked into the action, as the end of the world approaches.
All the actors are brilliant, not least Edward Judd as the main reporter, cynical, witty, vulnerable.
Dot the I (2003)
Meta ... indie ... muck ...
Young Brazilian guy in London falls in love with Spanish girl about to be married to a rich English man. Featuring heaps of video cameras ...
Preposterous and badly written, the visual style is jarring and too self-consciously cool for the story to make much sense. Films like this one are too easy to make. They are all about coming with with a new surprise twist every 15 minutes, and they don't even have to be good, so long as they keep us surprised they don't need to add up. And then, if you say that it is a meta-indie-flick, all opposition among cineasts must be stilled.
Or ...? Well, I don't buy into it. The recent 'Wicker Park' tried to do the same, boasting a non-linear plot line that covered the fact that there was no actual story to tell. 'Memento' had something it wanted to convey, but that was the exception. Too many movies nowadays ape this faux-documentary style because they hope the jarring aesthetics will keep us riveted, but without substance I dare say they will not.
The film's first-time director, who, alas, is also the writer (almost always a bad idea) insists on not giving away his secrets, knowing that his house of cards will tumble down first chance it gets.
The lead character Carmen is utterly unsympathetic, in the tradition we know from fatal French cinema, 'Betty Blue' and so on, her English boyfriend is a convenient caricature of the rich papa's boy slash cynical rich fart. The most startling thing about the film, in a good way, was James D'Arcy's suicide scene which was really well-played, and I must say that he was the only actor to actually get something out of this venture, although his part stinks.
Gael Garcia Bernal seriously needs a career counselor, he won't survive much more muck like this one
Golden Boy (1939)
Heavy-handed but charismatic
"They are good for only one thing now - slugging!", Joe Bonaparte says with self-disgust, looking down at his broken hands after a middleweight prize fight at Madison Sqare Garden.
Joe had the option to be a great classical violinist, but the girl he was in love with wet his appetite for the quick buck and the American dream. "It's a big city, little people don't stand a chance", says Lorna, egging him up, playing up to his male ego. "Money's the answer". And the poor Italian immigrant kid grabs the bait, hangs up the violin and sells out.
'Golden Boy' is a piece of vintage Americana that is a bit hard to take today. Clifford Odets' controversial play was openly socialist and crammed with sudden, badly integrated political insights about "competetive civilization" and "a man hits his wife, and it's the first step towards fascism". It is all about the flip side of the American dream and gets a bit heavy-handed at times.
Lee J. Cobb is almost unbearably schmaltzy as the all-embracing, tearful Italian Papa, whereas Adolphe Menjou balances his performance carefully as the basically benign boxing promoter whose mistress is Lorna, Joe's chosen one, "just a dame from Newark" as she presents herself.
Barbara Stanwyck is more or less going through the motions as the hard-as-nails Lorna, and the real star of the picture is 21 year old newcomer William Holden, impossibly handsome and hunky, starting out with perfectly tousled curly hair. His performance is as yet immature and unfinished, but he has his moments and makes up for a shaky ride with loads of charisma, and he more than holds his own in the climactic title fight at the Garden, playing against the Chocolate Drop, "the pride of Harlem" in this race-segregated boxing haven.
'Golden Boy' is not, though, one of director Mamoulian's happier efforts. It is far too maudlin to look like anything Mamoulian ever did, it is not like him to lay it on this thick. It has none of the quirks or edge from 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' among others, but it is lushly, richly orchestrated in the vein of 19th century European music.