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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
If there is a trace of Oscar Strauss in the music, it escapes me. This is a Maurice Chevalier vehicle at most and shows him at his most - not "best" or "worst". The sound-action-music combo is labored here with examples of people talking, visually, covered up with music, and other instances of singing where the camera is glued the the actors' mouths. The train-set "trains" are clumsy and transparently fake and the "rat-a-tat" leitmotif (for all the ooh-la-las) pushed well beyond the point. This is the Maurice Chevalier show starring Maurice Chevalier with an occasional bow from the great Lubitsch (no irony here) but that's all. It's an early talkie and we are constantly reminded that it is.
The Love Parade (1929)
Lubitsch Shines Through
This film did a number of things supremely well, given the limits at the time of the VERY early talkies and a rather bland musical score. First - and perhaps foremost - the songs were integrated into the action and the plot beautifully. Unlike so many other "talkathons" of the time in which the camera stares at the characters' mouths all the time, we follow the characters as they go about their lives normally - while singing at the same time! Lubitsch didn't miss a step here. And although the two quite different styles of singing were in deep contrast, so were the characters! Although the country was about to be invaded by a Puritanical "Code" a bit later - and Prohibition in full swing - the film is in no way whatsoever crude or lewd. Neither was its director who could show more action filming a closed door than most others could depict in an entire film. I enjoyed this romp very much.
Shall We Dance (2004)
old-fashioned warmth so missing lately
Yes, indeed, this movie didn't display much eroticism. It wasn't meant to be erotic. Yes, agreed, this movie doesn't cover any new ground or new techniques. It was quite appropriate to work with things that have been tried in the past - in different ways - once again, and yes, by all means, things worked out in the end the way they so seldom do in films of our time, much to my surprise. It was a happy ending to (basically) a happy movie and there's nothing whatsoever in the world wrong with that. Even more, it's handled well on all levels - acting, script, music, dancing, color, camera movement...It's a film that fulfilled a need that many of us feel when the world doesn't go where we want it to go. It simply moves the world!
Much More than Meets the Eye
Making a movie - particularly scripting one - about a great screenwriter must have been a daunting experience. The dialogue throughout is quite brilliant and should deserve serious consideration for an Academy Award by itself, but the acting should be up for grabs too. With a film like this, so well organized, there isn't really much space for camera antics which would only detract from the interior motion of the screenplay. It doesn't opt for this and we are left with some wonderful talents in an unadorned state addressing an issue which still bothers so many people so deeply for reasons as flimsy and undeserved as the ones shown in the film itself. Putting the real excerpt of Trumbo himself speaking of his travails in the end credits was pure genius.
Little Women (1933)
An Interesting Period Piece
This is Hepburn's film, no question about it. Her sisters are there merely for decoration or to play up her role. The novel itself is quite episodic which doesn't always make for an easy adaption to the screen, running from one plot element to the next without stopping for breath. When it does stop on occasion the sentimentality of the day (the early Thirties of the film) is often cloying for today's tastes so the rhythm is often out of step. And it was hard to distinguish the personalities of the other sisters and how they developed. Even their names were hard to catch.The fact that Selznick fought for its right to be made and seen speaks well for him and was instrumental for the movies of the period.
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
The "Horror" Of It All
I've seen dozens of horror films over the years ranging from the silents through the fifties and some phenomenal examples later on. This is a film that doesn't so much rely on suspense or build-up as it does just throwing in one "scary" thing after another. The sound track never stops and the entire experience is fatiguing. It feels like hearing someone say "boo" time and again for just over an hour and that wears quite thin. There isn't much plot - or need for one - and the actors go through their motions with a gory script that doesn't really go anywhere but does manage a fairly good rehash of William Castle's original (which seems pristine and underplayed next to this). Why was it made would be first question...
The Maze (1953)
Some Nice Pay-Offs
William Cameron Menzies directed an odd bag of films and designed some fabulous sets in his lifetime. As usual, he was working on an uncompromising budget and that, to some reviewers, seems to mean that his talent wasn't somehow up to the task. This is a sorry reward for such an intelligent designer. The script gets in the way at times, admitted, but the sets - and the fabulous musical score by Marlin Skyles - give us so much more than a few laughs from dated dialogue. It's all far-fetched with the explanations at the very end but it builds up nicely, the actors are all on cue, and the lighting alone make it worth the visit. In general, so many of the horror films of the 50s are fascinating to watch today.
L'univers de Jacques Demy (1995)
An Affectionate Valentine
This film is a marvelous tribute to an excellent director not well- enough known in the States. It is in French and the French moves very, very fast and the subtitles sometimes chop of some of the dialogue, be warned. It is a charming valentine from Agnes Varda to her late husband with many interviews of actors and actresses who worked with him. There is also, of course, the director discussing his own work and ideas. It's particularly interesting to hear what the director had in mind to film before each film starts and how he found it. This is NOT Nouvelle Vague material at all. First, it appeals to a large public and second, the characters don't all die at the end. It is not presented in chronological order, however...just reminiscences of a life well-spent in the company of many famous people who adored working for him and with him. What a rare pleasure!
The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
I saw this as a child and it scared the living daylights out of me. This is an excellent example where less is more. The less we see the more we are left to imagine. Much of this was budget-oriented, agreed, but the audience filling in the missing blanks ix excruciating. Donlevy is out of place here, unfortunately, but the "silent" character is absolutely phenomenal. The music works quite well for me and I'm a professional musician. The pacing is spot on. It's the first of the Val Guest movies for me and I'll keep my eyes peeled for others. What good horror movies they made in the fifties and early sixties! Curtis Stotlar
Isole nella laguna (1948)
short and (bitter)sweet
This is a short film, some thirteen or fourteen minutes only and appears to have won a documentary prize somewhere. "Isole nella laguna" refers to islands in the lagoon - in this case the islands around Venice. The copy I caught on YouTube was narrated in Italian only with no translation available but the Italian was slow, artistic and well-pronounced and shouldn't discourage those with somewhat of an acquaintance with the language. The images are phenomenal throughout with water and land constantly paired and compared and death not too far in the background. The musical score was composed by someone with a Slavic name and sounds distinctly non-Italian with a Germanic late-Romantic sadness. This is wonderful work and a quite untraditional tour of the backroads of a great city.